Sunday, January 30, 2011

127 HOURS (2010)

127 Hours is one of the best disguised coming-of-age movies I've seen. This disguise is important considering the genre is one of the most overdone in the Hollywood lexicon, and is next in line on the predictability meter to the rom-com.

Aron Ralston doesn't immediately strike you as someone needing to change. Sure he's brash, but
the 2 attractive hitch-hikers he comes across at the start of the movie seem to find that trait more charming than anything else - and once they plunge with him into an beautiful hot spring, infinitely exciting. This is a man who clearly knows how to live his life to the fullest, and particularly enjoys living it while exploring the canyons of Utah. Recklessness comes at a price though - and 15 minutes into the movie, Aron literally finds himself between a rock and a hard place a boulder traps his right arm while he navigates the depths of Blue John Canyon. He will spend 127 hours - and the movie's entire running time - pinned here.

Doesn't sound like the most enticing watch does it ?

What cinematic good could possibly come of this astonishingly limited setup ?

You'd be surprised.

Danny Boyle works with a true life account to craft a rousing story about the triumph of the human spirit, all within the confines of a crevice in a canyon. Ralston is aided by a resourceful demeanor, a video camera to keep him company, and in the movie's most brutal scene, a somewhat dull, low quality knife. I don't consider it much of a spoiler to inform you that his freedom, 127 hours later, comes from amputating his own arm : the real Ralston's story is famous enough, and it really isn't the point here.

No, where the movie soars is when it taps into Ralston's mind as he forces himself to keep it together against all odds; when he soaks in the 15 minutes of sunlight he receives each morning; when he takes comfort from the well-timed flight of a raven above him; when he starts making free-wheeling associations with his past based on his surroundings and drifts into reveries of what has been and what could have been.

Ralston's decided to come adventuring in the wilderness without informing anyone of his whereabouts, because of course, he can do everything himself - he doesn't need anyone looking out for him. As we jog through flashes of his memory, he looks back on a life of independence and letting go in pursuit of his idea of freedom. It comes down to an epiphany - it is his entire lifetime of reckless choices and unwarranted brash individuality that has brought him towards the boulder that pins him down so mercilessly. The boulder is a chance for him to finally become the kind of person that can let himself lean on someone.

The adventure within Ralston's mind is brought to life by an incredibly committed performance by James Franco. The camera focuses unwaveringly on him as he moves through cycles of anger, frustration, resignation, even manic humour, building up to the inevitable choice he must make. The extended sequence of him attacking his arm is the movie's great set piece, and one of the most visceral pieces of filmmaking you will see in a cinema hall for a long time. Its incredibly punishing to watch - but almost impossible to look away. Cutting off that arm is going to push Ralston towards requiring the kind of support he's always thought he can do without, and there's a powerful marriage of acting, visuals and unwavering direction that bring this journey to life.

"I need help !" he shouts at one point, with a tinge of surprise in his voice. Then, once again, loudly, more emphatically -
"I need help !"

Its a wonderfully joyous moment.

Monday, January 24, 2011

SEQUELS THAT OUGHT TO HAVE BEEN, BUT NEVER WERE (but may still be, given Hollywood’s penchant for sequels and undying greed)

After watching a great movie with fun characters, it is natural to want more. Hollywood knows this sentimental side to all of us: which is why it will keep cranking out shitty sequels made in under 5 days, and we keep buying tickets for them. Then again, on some rare occasions, the sequel nearly betters the original (Terminator, Toy Story, The Godfather, among others). Other movies have sequels so ludicrously bad, it nearly destroys the original for us (90% of the sequels out there). Of course, there are those other movies that should never have had sequels and fortunately, Hollywood was kind enough to spare us. Just because a movie was amazing doesn't mean it needs a sequel. Like The Matrix, for example. SO GLAD THEY DIDN’T MAKE BULLSHIT SEQUELS THAT COMPLETELY UNDERMINE THE RULES CREATED FOR ITS UNIVERSE, PHEW.

Basically, sequel-making is a tricky business. You have to have enough nods and winks to make it worthwhile for the audience, who just want to relive the first movie, really. But you can’t make the movie one BIG elbow nudge; it’s got to be original enough to stand on its own too.

After vast tracts of time spent on Wikipedia research, I have determined that the following (really great) movies might actually benefit from a sequel or two.

I'm not going to mention the Dark Knight sequel in this list, because The Dark Knight Rises is in the works, or Kill Bill, because Q.T. has confirmed a vol. 3 and vol. 4 to be released in 2013 and 2014ish (yay!).

1. Unbreakable (2000):

Ripe for a Sequel Because: These days, Manoj N. Shyamalan’s street cred is dirt. And yet, there was a time when he actually made great movies. One of his best movies (there are two) was Unbreakable. Bruce Willis gives a surprisingly subdued performance as a superhero who discovers his powers, and whose nemesis is the redoubtable Samuel L. Jackson, who believes that comic books are not just picture stories for children, but a treatise on society. Some scenes in the movie were simply stunning, especially because of that undercurrent of latent power that pervaded the movie.

MNS had originally planned the movie as a trilogy—every comic book has three parts, and Unbreakable was merely the origin story. Both, Bruce and Samuel were keen on the sequels, but, the flighty hand of box office records ruled that the movie wasn’t profitable enough to merit sequels.

Perhaps it is for the best?: In a recent interview, MNS said he was revisiting the possibility of a sequel, except, he would write himself in as the arch nemesis. Yeah.

It’s almost like MNS was secretly murdered and his identity stolen by his evil twin, who is now intent on making sure every single movie of his is an outstanding failure. Now that’s a great story, Manoj— go make that into a movie. And make sure that you’re the top-billed star, the scriptwriter, director, producer, gaffer, greensman and best boy. Oh wait, you've already done that in your last few movies.

2. The Incredibles:

Ripe for a Sequel Because: Like most Pixar offerings, this one was hilarious, touching and visually stunning. Oh, and Superhero Fashion 101 taught by Edna Mode. Some Pixar movies just can’t have sequels (Ratatouille, Up, Wall-E), but this isn’t one of them. We want more adventures with the Incredibles! More cape-less costumes and sass from Edna! And definitely more moronic supervillians who insist on monologuing! But so far, no greenlight from the studio.

Perhaps it is for the best?: Disney bought Pixar with the specific intention of making truckloads of money with sequels to the movies they’d already made, apart from the new movies they were to create. So I really doubt that the idea of making a sequel hasn’t already been thoroughly explored. In an interview, Brad Bird has said that they have been toying with the idea of a sequel and they have a few plots in mind, but they wouldn't make a movie till the find a plot that can better the original movie. And Pixar—that’s the attitude I wish the rest of Hollywood would emulate.

3. Eastern Promises (2007):

Ripe for a Sequel Because: Viggo Mortensen plays a chauffeur/ 'laundryman' for a Russian mob boss in London, who is all affable grandpa on the outside, and coldblooded child rapist-murderer on the inside and his slimey, spineless son. The mob isn’t the team of slick, well-dressed chaps nattering endlessly about guns and cannoli that we know so well from the movies, but are a ragtag group of badly dressed, morally bankrupt men, for whom the cost of a human life is a pittance.

This was a haunting movie, where even the violent, blood drenched sequences were somehow lyrical. It ended with Viggo Mortensen inducted into the vory v zakone and poised to take over the London mob. I for one, would love to see how Viggo attempts to strengthen his position in the mob, while retaining his humanity.

Perhaps it is for the best?: Apparently David Cronenberg, Vincent Cassel and Viggo Mortensen are all eager to make the sequel—so this just might be one of those sequels that were!

Don’t you dare sell out, Cronenberg, and make the sequel an action movie or a Russian mafia documentary. Or a goddamn romance movie. Keep it taut, like the first one, and that moody, gritty feel.

4. A History of Violence (2005):

Ripe for a Sequel Because: The Cronenberg-Mortensen team get two mentions on this list, but this one isn’t for a sequel, but a prequel.

In A History of Violence, Mortensen plays a diner owner, married with two kids, living the simple life till his past comes back to haunt him-- turns out that he was an assassin for the Irish mob in Philadelphia and is on the lam. He then goes back to Philadelphia and murders everybody like a vengeful god and manages to get back home in time for dinner. Like Eastern Promises, this movie’s brilliance lies in its examination of relationships and people in the face of violence. Also, very hot staircase sex.

A prequel would be great because we'd all love to know how Viggo was before he had the cares and joys of a family, when he was an assassin trying to make his way in the mafia world, and why chose to leave it all behind to woo his future wife and become a diner owner who has to attend PTA meetings and the like. So much potential, but no word from Cronenberg on this.

Perhaps it is for the best?: Like I said before, studios pay people to find ways to milk every movie to the last drop. I don't doubt a prequel idea was considered, but it takes a good director to put his foot down and refuse to have his name tacked on to a two-bit movie riding on the success of the first movie. I'd MUCH rather not have a sequel than have a shitty sequel.

5. Van Helsing (2004):

Ripe for a Sequel Because: No, I haven’t taken leave of my senses, and yes, I distinctly remember the movie. I thoroughly enjoyed and I wont apologise, so there!

Van Helsing was no Oscar winner or even a very good action/ horror movie and really, Hollywood should stop trying to make traditionally boring institutions secretly cool. But, the movie had its moments and was eminently watchable.

The movie ended on this major cliffhanger about Van Helsing’s true identity—now, you don’t reveal something like that and then leave your audience high and dry. Besides, they can learn from the mistakes of the last movie and make a GREAT sequel.

Perhaps it is for the best?: The first movie was pretty sucktastic and no amount of Hugh Jackman-related badassery could change that. Also, Dracula dies at the end of the movie, and since the hot guy who playes Dracula was pretty much the whole reason I liked that movie… perhaps this movie shouldn't even be on this list?

6. Master and Commander: Far Side of the World (2003):

Ripe for a Sequel Because: The 19th century naval equivalent of Kirk and Spock, a crafty foe, wry naval humour, stunning battle sequences and the high seas—how could this possible go wrong?

It didn’t. Based on the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian (which, any nautical nut will tell you, are among the finest naval adventure books ever written), this movie was superb. Everybody loved it: the critics, the book fans, new audience, the Academy. This movie was just crying to be made into a sequel. Hell, they even left a sort-of cliffhanger in the end anticipating dozens of sequels. Plus, there was more than enough source material to draw from.

But eight years down the line, and the sequel is still a pipe dream. Apparently the entire cast and crew want a sequel; Peter Weir regularly had fans coming up to him, falling on their knees and pleading for the sequel, but the studios felt that the movie just wasn’t enough of a hit to warrant one. Recently, Russell Crowe has started petitioning for the sequel too!

Perhaps it is for the best?: Okay fine, at the end of the day, the sequel can only rehash the old storylines and sure, the naval battles would’ve been great but we’ve already seen some great scenes in the first movie. And really, naval banter is a bit overrated… you know what, no. This sequel (or prequel) would be PERFECT. These characters are RIPE for further development, and the whole American Independence wars background would been riveting. As for maritime humour? "Do you not know that in the service, one must always choose the lesser of the two weevils." Comic. GOLD.

Make this happen, Hollywood.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


I wanted to like The King's Speech more than I eventually did.

It's that instinctive goodwill that comes from viewing an obviously critically lauded/award season frontrunner/boasting-of-great-pedigree movie. So I wanted to come out of the experience gushing about it. Instead, I came out merely pleased, somewhat content, which would make most movies a towering achievement honestly, but well, that's great expectations for you.

So here we have Colin Firth (absolutely, and expectedly, astonishing) playing the-then Duke of York, who in the opening sequence in 1925 sets out to address a crowd at Wembley. A tap of the microphone, a sharp intake of breath, he mutters the first few words, and then ... nothing. His mouth seizes up, the words are lost somewhere in his throat. The crowd looks on derisively, almost piteously, as the son of the king is unable to even make a salutary speech in public.

The Duke has by his side a wonderfully supportive wife - Helena Bonham Carter in a remarkably uncharacteristic role plays the eventual Queen Mother - who leads him to a succession of speech therapists, all of whom are unable to help.

And then the couple comes across Lionel Logue. As essayed by Geoffrey Rush, and impressively rounding out a great trio of central performances, Logue is brash, unconventional, and quite possibly the Duke's only hope. The stakes are raised when it looks like the Duke might just become the next King of England, and in the process be required to make some particularly impassioned speeches, even while down south in Germany, a short man with a toothbrush mustache is giving some very powerful speeches indeed. And so the stage is set for an inspirational, typically rousing, period drama,

Which honestly, is the only issue The King's Speech has - that it's predictable, that there's a paint-by-numbers feel threatening to come out of the woodwork, that it's got all the expected elements so firmly in place. If this sounds like nitpicking, well, I suppose it very much is - and yet I have to point this out to you to explain why I fell short of unabashedly loving this seemingly perfect piece of film-making.

Because, yes, its almost, just about perfect otherwise. The cinematography is casually stunning - 1930's London plays hide-and-seek with the mist,whil long tracking shots waltz with the King; the screenplay is often hilarious and alternately touching; the performances I will say nothing more about, but that 3 academy award nominations are a lock.

In the end, then, the speech that King George delivered was one of biding the country, the empire, towards hope in the darkest of times. That it is as much about his own personal triumph in being able to make that speech at all is the real power of the story.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Dhobi Ghat/ Mumbai Diaries (2011)

There’s a startlingly beautiful scene midway through “Dhobi Ghat” (I think its international release title of “Mumbai Diaries” is more appropriate though); a budding home documentary maker, unaware of her grace with the camera, finds a subject for it during the mundane moment of haggling for bangle prices. A painter watches this home video, gleaning inspiration from it to make a sketch of the outstretched hand with the bangles. And a few buildings away, a woman fuels her art and desire by capturing the painter on camera.

They’re all artists or aspirants here. There is, at one level of the movie, a narrative simply exploring the happenstance of 4 intersecting lives in the city of Mumbai – and that’s a nice enough subject making for a well observed drama at just that level. Where “Dhobi Ghat” occasionally touches moments of transcendence is when it lets itself become a meditation on the relationship of artists with their subjects and the city around them.

We start with a one night stand ending in bitterness, as Arun, the painter (a remarkably restrained Aamir Khan) all-but-physically kicks out the smitten Shai from his apartment. Shai goes on to build a friendship with her dhobi, Zohaib or Munna as he is better known (Prateik Babbar is quite a revelation here), even as Arun unearths a set of tapes in his apartment. Munna gets Shai to make a portfolio of pictures to fuel his Bollywood aspirations, even as he unwittingly leads her back to Arun (but of course, they have the same dhobi, see). Arun’s tapes reveal the story of Yasmin, a charming young Muslim housewife, substituting the tape for letters to send to her brother back home.

There’s a sense of quiet desperation that seeps through the movie; the dhobi who is deeply in love with the “rich Amreeka return” woman, but cannot, and will not, communicate it to her; Shai, who is unhealthily obsessed with the dismissive Arun even as he fires her creative urges; and most movingly, Yasmin, through her video recordings. In the guise of these tapes is composed not just a love letter to Mumbai, but the gradual chronicle of a hopeful spirit breaking down into despair. As essayed by Kriti Malhotra, Yasmin is a wonderfully empathetic character, and the video passages of her merely narrating the onscreen happenings are amongst the most memorable sequences of the movie.

Mumbai itself punctuates these stories; following every set of new conversations/developments, “Dhobi Ghat” takes a breather to soak in the city, sometimes glistening in afternoon rain, sometimes bathed in neon light, aided by the restrained lull of a great background score courtesy Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla. Few descriptions of Mumbai abound without the usage of the words “hurried”, “bustling” or “crowded” – so it’s strange that a movie that completely defies any of those adjectives – meditative is the word that comes to mind – should be able to capture it so perfectly.

As posted on Critical Twenties.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


(Danish and I plan to write occasionally for, which is a fantastic site for articles by a bunch of smart 20-somethings, on a variety of topics including politics, sports, philosophy, law etc. This review was featured on C20. To read it there, follow this link.)

Many years ago, I read a biography of the prima ballerina, Anna Pavlova and I was enchanted. I decided that my life’s ambition was to become a danseuse and I surreptitiously practiced (what I assumed were) plies and demi-plies using my bed’s headboard as a bar in the hope that I would soon be invited to train at the Juilliard School. I remember this because no book or movie since has made me yearn to learn an art as much, till Black Swan. Ever since I watched this movie, I have been playing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake on repeat and doing the “ballet” (if you ask me about this, I will stoutly deny it).

Like a ballet production, this movie has poise, drama, style, emotion and a thundering climax. It has been described as a psychological thriller, but it is so much more. Do you remember the final scene in Billy Elliot? Billy Elliot has grown up and is about to make his entrance as the lead in a ballet. We know he’s talented, but what will he be like as a mature dancer? The moment of suspense is almost unbearable, the crescendo is rising, and then, he soars and he is glorious. That scene still makes my heart stop every single time I watch it. Now, stretch that one scene into 108 breathtaking minutes, and you have Black Swan.

In Black Swan, Nina Sayers is a quiet, timid, young ballet soloist who lives with her overbearing mother, practices every day and does what she’s told. The director of the ballet announces that the coveted role of the Swan Queen in the famous ballet, “Swan Lake” is up for grabs. But the dancer who claims this role must not only be able to play the role of the beautiful, chaste, and frail ‘White Swan’, but must also be able to play the role of the darker, seductive and sexual ‘Black Swan’. Nina gets the role, but everybody knows that while she’s a perfect White Swan, she’s just too virginal to play the Black Swan. And thus, Nina descends into the darkness of her own psyche, to find the Black Swan in her.

Perfection of technique in an art can only take you so far. Take a look at this video (it is less than 2 minutes long). It is of Anna Pavlova performing her masterpiece: The Dying Swan. Then take a quick look at some of the other artists performing the same role. Don’t they seem practiced and self-conscious? With Pavlova on the other hand, I feel the dying throes of the swan. Death has never been more heart-rending and at the same time, beautiful. They say that she was never very good at the ‘gymnastics’ bit of ballet, and yet she remains the most famous ballerinas of all time because of her power to emote. I confidently comment on her performance, despite being barely able to spell ‘ballet’ let alone claim awareness of its intricacies, because Pavlova felt that her art was not to be restricted to the lorgnette/monocle crowd, but must transcend education, class, nationality and language. She enthralled audiences from the hallowed halls of the Mariinsky Theatre to little towns in South America. Art must communicate and not be mired down by rules, she believed. And like Pavlova, Nina too struggles to throw off the shackles of training and morality, and find the essence of the Swan Queen in her.

Many have compared this movie to Rosemary’s Baby. It’s a fair comparison (and a compliment) because one slowly loses one’s sanity as the film unravels. But in Rosemary’s Baby, we are a part of Mia Farrow’s madness and despair, because we don’t quite know what to believe either (till the makers copped out in the end and smashed subtlety with a sledgehammer). In Black Swan, though, we are kept at arm’s length; front row spectators to her existential crisis. It is kind of fitting in a movie about a performance art, and certainly not unintentional.

Edgar Degas famously said, “Art is a vice. One does not take it in lawful wedlock, one rapes it.”
I have always wondered what it must be like, to have such an all-consuming passion for an art, that one needs no other sustenance; to burn from within. How wonderful it must be to love something so deeply, that everything in life, including death, must seem trivial. That’s what being the Swan Queen meant for Nina. The same burning passion we saw in Billy Elliot, in Edith Piaf (La Vie en Rose), Van Gogh (Lust for Life) and so many others. I now understand the meaning of the agony and the ecstasy, and I envy them for it.

(The closest thing I have to a passion is StumbleUpon, and I am pretty sure I wouldn’t want to die while Stumbling. It would be so horrendously embarrassing to be found dead with a LOLCat on your computer screen).

That Natalie Portman is going to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress is a given. The question is, will she win? Her serious competition for this year (barring any obvious Oscar fodder that releases this month) will probably be from Annette Bening and Julianne Moore in The Kids Are All Right, Nicole Kidman for Rabbit Hole and Hilary Swank in Conviction. Hilary’s got two and Nicole’s got one already, so they won’t be winning in a year when two actors are due overlong for an Oscar. Julianne Moore has been passed up four times, and Annette Bening thrice. Add to that the fact that being gay in a movie is the fastest route to a tearful, “spontaneous” speech at the Kodak Theatre. Which is why this is almost certainly Annette or Julianne’s year. I’d go with Annette because her character was way more compelling.

So what are Natalie’s chances? The Academy does go nuts over pretty movies about elegant things (like the ballet), so that’s in her favour. And the one thing that the Academy loves almost as much as a gay character is a crazy/having-psychiatric-disorders character. And Natalie’s so pretty and put in so much effort. But she’s young, so they’ll probably hand her a Golden Globe for her troubles, a pat on the back and give the Oscar to Annette. Which is an awful pity, because, if these things were objective, Natalie would win this hands down.

Go on, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, prove me wrong.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


(Drumrolls for our guest reviewer, Alok Prasanna who will be writing here whenever the fancy takes him, but you can catch him at: where he posts and vociferously comments regularly).

For a movie that claims to be about “power”, the “middle class” and Delhi, No One Killed Jessica is remarkably dishonest about all three.

Everyone knows the story, and for those of you who want the more specific details, you may want to read this, this, this and this. You can read them without fear of spoilers because this is one of those stories whose endings we already know but the path the story takes is just as interesting. Many movies do this, and do it well, and none better in recent times, I think, than The Social Network. In this regard, NOKJ makes an adequately gripping start.

The first half of NOKJ would be standard fare for any gritty thriller; a woman in a failing fight for justice as she struggles to deal with a profoundly corrupt and morally bankrupt criminal justice system. The corrupt cops, the terrified/slimy/self-absorbed-socialite witnesses, all tick the appropriate boxes and after a few gratuitous swings at the police and lawyers in India, the movie progresses to the trial itself. So far, so good.

The second half of the movie triggered off my gag reflex so many times that I feared I would twist a sphincter somewhere trying not to projectile vomit into the people in the row in front of me. To mention the most cringe-worthy moments:

  1. The Rang De Basanti inspired consequence-and-effort-free candlelight-march activism that this movie is convinced brought “justice” to Jessica.

  2. The little speech on “ethics” that Rani Mukherjee (a thinly disguised Barkha Dutt) delivers which would be screamingly hilarious if it weren’t for the Radia tapes being public knowledge. (I wonder if any modern personality has been so obviously and not so obviously represented in movies as much as Barkha Dutt. Think Lakshya and Peepli Live apart from this monstrosity. If a Barkha Dutt biopic was to be made, of the three actresses who’ve played her, I would only choose Malaika Shenoy of Peepli Live)

  3. The obvious look-alikes of Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and APJ Abdul Kalam dishing out pithy homilies about Jessica being murdered; saying just enough to keep the baying middle classes away and trying to get us to believe that they speak for a political class that cares.

I could go on, but my point, as I said earlier, is that this movie is remarkably dishonest about power, the middle class and Delhi and this is why.

Power: As far as the movie is concerned, political power=bad and media power=good, not for a moment reflecting on how both are just tools capable of being used for one’s ends or others. The movie would have you believe that “good” countervailing power of the media can help you overcome the “bad” political power of the Venod Sharmas of the world. Provided of course you are suitably middle class, attractive and female (like Ruchika Girhotra). Never mind that the media’s power itself is used by those in power to lie, betray and cheat the rest of us with the active collusion of the media as we all learned in excruciating detail from the Radia tapes and the paid news scandals.

The Middle Class: The makers of NOKJ want you to believe that the middle class will rise as one to redress injustice, but don’t realize that Jessica’s case itself shows that the middle class will do no such thing when such activism actually involves consequences for the “activists”. It’s all very well to circulate SMSes and turn up with candles and banners, but this is just grandstanding trying to cover up for cowardice. Cowardice that is gloriously on display in not just the character based on the feckless Shayan Munshi (“Vikram Jai Singh”), but also the three hundred people at the party who claimed they saw nothing, and don’t testify at the trial when their testimony could have had Manu Sharma convicted in the first place.

If this was the only way in which NOKJ was being dishonest about the middle class, it would be forgivable since it at least put Shayan Munshi and the 300 “non-witnesses” out there for us to ponder. No, NOJK’s worst sin is to peddle the glorious lie that the middle class cares for such values as justice and equality. It doesn’t and this is where it is most dishonest about Delhi.

The biggest lie that NOKJ peddles is that there is such a thing as a Dilli-wala. There isn’t. There hasn’t been for 153 years since the British de-populated this city. Sure, people live, work and die here, but they generally don’t belong here. No one does really. Its residents have nothing but geography in common. To see the makers of NOKJ try to convince us that some shared values or virtues brought the denizens of Delhi together for Jessica’s death made me gag harder than anything else this movie threw at me.

Delhi’s middle class cares nothing for its urban poor and migrant labour. So many examples illustrate this, but none better than the fact that the treatment of workers in the CWG gets not a hundredth of the coverage that the figures and amounts involved in the CWG gets. So also the way the Aarushi Talwar case has been covered in the media. Never mind that it was a double murder, and never mind that one of the victims was assumed accused until he unfortunately turned up dead. As far as the media and Delhi’s middle class are concerned, Aarushi’s case is terrible because it could be one of them, but people like Hemraj die every day, so it doesn’t bother them.

NOKJ wants us to believe the horseshit that the campaign to get “justice for Jessica” was some sort of transformative moment in the history of India. It wasn’t. And you can, if you live in Delhi, see it around you.

Dozens die every winter in the cold in Delhi for lack of proper shelter and it merits a few inches in the newspaper every winter. A pretty girl gets shot in the face and the nation’s appalled.

I think I’m going to be sick.

Friday, January 7, 2011

TANGLED (2010)

Oh, Disney! Go ahead and take over the world. You deserve to keep us under your beautiful, talented, magical thumb. How is it possible that the same corporation that is responsible for Miley Cyrus can come out with such a wonderful film? How can a company that encourages young girls to emulate a spoiled brat with serious entitlement issues dream up a movie that is so deeply empathetic of the fear and excitement of entering adulthood, and that complex battlefield of a relationship between parents and teenagers?

With The Princess and the Frog (2009) and now Tangled, fairy tales are no longer just idylls that happened "once upon a time" in a "far, far away land". Fairy tales were once cautionary tales for children. But kids today are such demanding snot rags that morals like "always be polite" and "kiss animals, because you never know" just don't cut it anymore. Tangled has all the magic and fantasy of traditional fairy tales, but is also relevant and accessible. Where Shrek (2001) was a tongue-in-cheek satire of fairy stories, Tangled is the re-invention. You actually relate to the characters.

A baby with golden hair is born to the king and queen of a kingdom, but the baby is stolen by a witch who knows that the child has magic hair which has the power to bestow eternal youth. She keeps the young princess, Rapunzel in a tower and brings her up as her own daughter. She constantly reminds Rapunzel that she is to always be in the tower because the world outside is a horrible and dangerous place. But after 18 years of being in the tower, Rapunzel's life is turned upside down when a roguish young thief accidentally tumbles into her tower.

Like all Disney offerings, it goes without saying that this movie was a visual treat (so don't miss the 3D version). I loved the effortless combination of adolescent angst into the original story. Yes, there is a hero. But he's a teenage boy. And like all teenage boys, he is completely convinced of his godlike visage, dreams only of pots of gold and blonde babes, is completely insensitive to emotional crises faced by teenage girls and is obviously utterly irresistible to those teenage girls. Another interesting take was the relationship between the witch and Rapunzel-- Rapunzel is not the traditional prisoner in this movie. She's a daughter. And like most teenage daughters, she loves and detests her mother. Like many mothers, the witch can be self-absorbed, cant resist from "jokingly" criticizing her daughter and knows very well that guilt is a stronger prison than iron bars.

Tangled brought back this wave of memories from my adolescence. Do you remember what it was like to sneakily disobey your parents for the first time? Oh, the weight of the guilt! But the temptation! Oh, but they would be so disappointed if they found out! Ah, but they don't need to find out! Argh, what do I DO! I went through that the first time I got drunk, first time I had a boyfriend and so many other first times. Even now, the indoctrination from my childhood masquerades as a conscience and prickles uncomfortably on certain occasions. I've just become adept at ignoring it and pouring myself another drink.

Where Toy Story 3 was about the pain and sadness of leaving childhood behind, Tangled is about that horrible fear and doubt of growing up. We cant wait to be all grown up and do the grown up things, but when it actually happens, you realize that adulthood is really just a series of nausea attacks.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


For many different reasons I've been thinking about mortality more than usual these past few weeks. Part of this arose from the unexpected recent death of a senior from law school. Part of this is from certain completely divergent career choices I stand to make which will take my life in terrifyingly different directions, the kind that prompt me to wonder if I'm living my life to the so called "fullest extent". Part of this, again, is because I occasionally feel the sense of purpose in my writing fading away, something that I am desperately trying to recapture.

At any rate, I saw this movie with my friend Tejaswi on a laptop with shared earphones in the Nalsar internet centre. As we reached its absolutely unflinching ending, we sat in silence, earphones pulled out, watching the end credits roll, not quite articulating our thoughts - not quite being able to, for a bit atleast. This here is Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut. There was a lot I expected from the man behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but absolutely nothing could have prepared me for Synecdoche, New York.

This is an astonishing movie.

If I were to attempt to convey a sense of the plot to you - well, it involves a theatre director/script-writer, Caden (a typically great Philip Seymour-Hoffman performance) setting out to make the production of his lifetime in a massive warehouse that will soon come to house increasingly elaborate stages, buildings, and fascinatingly enough, a zeppelin. The play is going to be about nothing less than life itself - Caden's life.

But wait - this is a Charlie Kaufman movie remember - so all this setup is only a stage for grander ruminations on love, loss, regret, and, yes, life. It starts off as simply a particularly clever piece of cinema, playing with your ideas of how characters like these would be expected to behave. Strange things happen, signs and portents of death begin to appear before Caden, a house remains partly on fire for 40 years, a wiry old man peeks at the camera in almost every other scene, the massive production remains audienceless. Art takes over life, life becomes art, even as our perception of reality begins to falter.

Sound pretentious, bloated, artsy, inaccessible ? Well, it could've been. But this is what the movie made me do - in the course of its 2 hour running time, it made me cycle repeatedly over the different choices I'd made in my life - the good ones, the bad ones, the ones that looked promising only to end in bitter regret - even as I went along with the exhilarating ride of trying to piece together what the different levels of meaning each scene held for Caden himself.

But finally, importantly, essentially - it made me revisit those questions about mortality. I reached no answers, of course - and how could I - but I have a deeper understanding of the questions themselves, about where they're coming from, and finally, why it is important that I constantly keep asking them. Caden himself lives a life of constant regret, of monumental sadness, driven by his art, and forgetting the very life that drives him towards this art.

Art might be immortal - we are anything but.

This movie made me yearn to live.

I can give it no higher praise.


The first time I read about Bettie Page, I immediately did a Google Image search for her (safe search off). And I remember thinking, "That's it? THIS is what the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency got its collective panties in a bunch over? Bo-ring." Yes, I know it isn't fair to see 1950s pin-ups with the unfazed, cynical eyes of one who has spent even 10 minutes on the internet and learnt about Rule 34 firsthand. But for better or worse, nothing is shocking anymore. Even the mainstream magazines have racy BDSM photoshoots with famous actors and their wives (NSFW).

But you'd think that a movie about the Pin-Up Queen of the Universe, the quintessential dominatrix with her iconic bangs, who (probably) was the reason for the Kefauver Hearings and who later became an evangelist would just write itself to Oscar glory. Or, at the very least, to cult film glory. Instead, The Notorious Bettie Page turned out to be an insipid, surprisingly boring movie that no amount of whips and handcuffs could change. I felt like I was watching a Discovery channel episode. All that was missing was the narrator and the token expert opinion.

Nobody watches a biopic for its historical accuracy or to learn random irrelevant details about a famous person. I'd go read Wikipedia for all that. When I watch a biopic, I don't want a faithful chronicle of that person's life-- by all means, skip the boring bits and the inconsequential people. I want that person to come alive for me.They invented the term "artistic license" for a reason, you know. After all, there is a world of difference between a documentary and a feature film. At the end of the day, I want a goddamn entertaining movie.

People who watched The Social Network (2010) and then criticized it for its inaccuracies are missing the point. Romanticizing and villainizing people is all a part of the art of film-making. One of my favourite biopics is Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994). Edward D. Wood Jr. was by all accounts one of the worst film-makers ever, and yet, I have never seen a more touching tribute to anybody. Amadeus (1984) is wildly inaccurate about Salieri and the clownish Mozart. But tell me you didn't identify with Salieri and didn't understand his torment (I won't believe you). Even the American Film Institute thinks it's a pretty good movie (yes yes, some of you think that the AFI is composed of a bunch of prissy stuffed shirts who wouldn't know good cinema if it smacked them in the face. We've all read the Wikipedia entry, thank you very much).

Coming back to this yawn-worthy film. As you may have cleverly deduced, it is biopic of Bettie Page. Fortunately, that they don't waste too much time on the origin story and move straight to the hot photoshoots. Bettie is a spunky young woman who was (probably) abused by her dad, gang raped, divorced her husband and then heads to New York City to seek her fortune. Being a knockout with zero inhibitions, she becomes a famous bondage model, among other things. Anyway, blah-bondage-OMG-shocking-nudity-pornography-senate-hearing-outrage-blah happens and then, anti-climax, she becomes a bible thumper BUT she doesn't regret her sexy modelling past. The end.

Oh, whoops. SPOILER ALERT.

The entire cast and crew sleepwalked through the film like it was the most stultifying experience of their lives. Many scenes were irrelevant and the movie just didn't cohere. The filming in black and white came off as a desperate attempt to be edgy, and there was this smugness about how casual they were being about the "graphic" sex scenes. It all came off as very contrived.

The one oasis in this desert of a movie was Gretchen Mol, who was perfect as Bettie Page. She had that natural exuberance and irreverence that the real Bettie was famous for. But of course, thanks to the weak script, she was utterly wasted in this movie.

Those fetish vignettes and burlesque films starring Bettie are all probably better biopics than this apathetic movie.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

RED (2010)

So apparently there are only three types of action movies these days:
- sequels
- Michael Bay movies
- nostalgia movies/ vehicles for aging actors eager to revive careers

I am looking forward to the MI sequel as much as the next person, but what happened to the trail-blazing, balls out flicks that blew your mind? Action movies just seem so self-conscious these days, like suddenly they're embarrassed about being all brawn. Man up, Hollywood. Everybody can see that you suddenly realized that if you made fun of the way you regularly take the whole suspension of disbelief thing and shoot it in the head repeatedly, nobody else can laugh at the absurd logic employed in your movies. Ha ha, yes let's have over-the-top explosions and fight scenes worthy of Rajnikanth so everybody knows that we're in the joke too.


Did John McClane feel silly when he blew up a plane? Did John Rambo blush his way through a game of buzkashi? Did Arnold say "Get to the choppa" with even the slightest hint of irony? HELL NO!

So, Red, as you may have guessed, wanted to be badass but was scared that people may laugh so they threw in a bunch of absurd scenes and over-the-top-obviously-satirical explosions to convince us all that they were in on the joke too. Bruce Willis is an ex-Black Ops agent living his life quietly in a suburb, phone-flirting with a call centre employee when the CIA, led by young gun Karl Urban decides to eliminate him because he was a yada-yada in some Operation Blah-didn't-pay-attention-blah. He joins forces with the old brigade: Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Brian Cox and Helen Mirren to show the CIA how they roll. Because McClan.. sorry, Bruce Willis can still bring it, and how.

While there are plenty of cheesy, cringeworthy scenes (which the producers will tell you was TOTALLY INTENDED GUYS), I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. What fun it was to watch Morgan Freeman take Bruce Willis to school! And Helen Mirren has never looked classier than behind a sniper rifle. And the whole "We may be geriatric, but we still got it, sonny jim" plot line? Never grows old.

Yes, the plot was thoroughly irrelevant and incomprehensible but you know what, sometimes you need to have a plot just to throw it away with reckless abandon. Yes, this was a vehicle for aging actors to revive their action star careers, and yes, they do play up the nostalgia stuff, but it turns out us audience absolutely love it. Sufficiently badass enough to catch it on HBO whenever it plays.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


The romantic comedy, more than any other popular genre, is one that tends to stick to narrative conventions - formula, I believe is the word - more than most other genres. You have the obligatory meet-cute, the montage set to a Billboard smash/ quirky indie number, the small misunderstanding, the makeup, the big-huge misunderstanding, and of course the chase-scene climax.

This is all fine, really. The familiarity of the structure also serves to make movies that tend to be easily watchable, pleasant diversions. Often, they're mediocre fluff, with precious little to say, and even lesser inventiveness in how its said (note for instance, any of the recent Katherine Heigl/ Jennifer Aniston stabs at the genre).

Imagine, then, my absolute joy in finding a romantic comedy that actually doesn't dissolve from memory even before the end credits start rolling, and actually has something to say. Going the Distance manages by not just being a story about 2 attractive people falling in love, getting into messy situations, and remaining in love anyway - what it has going for it is that it's as much about the relationship that these characters build. The idea of the story is simple - long distance relationships aren't easy - and it delivers that with a great script that refuses to let its characters be stereotypes, or succumb to stupid plot contrivances. If the relationship has issues, its because of the time and place in their lives that these nice people have met, its because of their stakes in their careers - it is thankfully not about their messed up psychological issues, or even worse, because one of them was hiding some crucial piece of information from the other.

What helps - Justin Long and Drew Barrymore share great, effortless chemistry and are aided by an effortlessly hilarious cast, my favourite being Christina Applegate as Barrymore's protective sister. The script is also unusually raunchy - always a good thing.

A great watch this one, and reaffirms my faith in the genre. Now to the next dozen mediocre titles !