Monday, March 21, 2011

Whip It ! (2009)

There's a great moment when the safety catches of your life start to come off. Its an identifiable point, its the bit where the sky isn't the limit anymore simply because the sky was really a fake ceiling and there's a big huge world out there. We have those moments of shifting paradigms at different stop-gaps of time, but that first time is the one you hold the dearest.

Whip It ! captures that moment for a small town girl in Texas, in the guise of a conventional underdogs-for-the-win story.

Here you have Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page - though I can't seem to actually call her anything but Juno) in the small, small town of Bodeen, Texas. She's been groomed to participate in an endless line of pageants since a young age, her mother firmly pushing her towards yet another tired "inspiration" speech as the movie begins. Her days otherwise go by with her friend Pash (Alia Shakawat - though again, she can be nothing but Arrested Development's Maebe for me), waitressing at a wonderfully ridiculous looking restaurant with a giant pig's head adorning it. Life is just that daily drill - and then, she picks up a flyer for the Austin Roller Derby, saunters in to check out what the sport's about, and has the boundaries of her life fall away. Turns out, she's not half bad at this thing, and in no time is recruited by the Hurl Scouts for the championship game.

As is evident from this synopsis, this is the sports movie-meets-chick flick, which means it has to mine the bucketload of stereotypes from both those genres. What is admirable about Whip It ! then, is just how incredibly fresh it seems. The key to any sports movie, particularly when its something as niche as roller derby, is making sure you care about the characters, and you incorporate their physicality into the actual sequences, so you're not just watching colourful whizzing bodies move around you. Both these things, Whip It ! accomplishes excellently.

This is a movie in love with ALL its characters : no one is a broad strokes villian here, and when the lovable protagonist has her stumbling moments of self-pity, she is refreshingly called out for those as well. The roller derby sequences are captured with a kinetic vibe intact - I found myself cheering particularly hard whenever the titular "whip it" move was carried out in the rink, and again groaning with the crowd whenever a particularly hard fall is taken.

A lot of credit here to Drew Barrymore : this is her directorial debut, and amongst many many admirable directorial choices, let me say the first is to let her own character in the movie remain firmly in the sideline, letting the main story and characters breath without any unnecessary shoehorning. This avoidance of directorial hubris works well, and is coupled with a great ironic eye, which manages to steer the generally heartwarming proceedings from devolving into saccharine.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


I’m taking a short break from revolution movies to express outrage at Hollywood’s affinity for senseless alien invasion flicks.

For a ridiculously young civilization that, till a few centuries ago thought that constellations were centaurs frolicking in the heavens, and that you would topple off the edge of the world if you sailed in a straight line, we’re awfully full of ourselves. An alien army just travelled untold distances, has perfected water fuel-based technology, entered our atmosphere completely undetected and targeted and levelled most of our major cities, and we still have the audacity to say, “Let’s show those alien scumbags not to mess with us!

Fortunately for our hubris, Hollywood aliens don’t believe in bulletproof vests or doing any reconnaissance before attacking.

World Invasion: Battle Los Angeles was predictably, a rehash of what ID4 already did, and did so much better. What really surprises me is that, despite a few thousand websites dedicated to pointing out exactly what is wrong with the traditional planet-being-invaded-by-weird-bio-armour-wearing-aliens-with-tentacles-and-they-don’t-want-to-negotiate-okay-enough-talking-let’s-open-up-a-can-of-whoop-ass plot line and a number of small ways movie makers could actually create a credible alien invasion story, the makers of this movie chose to ignore this body of literature entirely, and went with the favourite excuse of, “Hey, this is an action movie! We don’t need to have a sensible plot or even obey the rules we just created. Just watch the guns and explosions and be happy!” No, Hollywood. No.

The movie opens with the clichéd TV news story about suspicious meteor showers across the globe, where these meteors seem to be falling into oceans near large cities (Boo-YAH, Mumbai. How do you feel about your great sea breeze now?). We learn that the meteors contain aliens who are in no mood for conversation and want to quickly start destroying our cities and people. These aliens have entirely water-based technology and since 70% of our planet’s surface is covered in water, they want our planet and want us dead. A brave band of US Marines (oo-rah!) must venture into the battle zone to go and rescue some civilians (1 pretty woman, 1 precocious boy, 2 screaming children) before the area gets carpet bombed by our side and in the process, they learn valuable lessons about love, friendship, patriotism, etc.

Needless to say, our brave band has all the favourite trope characters: Young Inexperienced Lieutenant, Tough War-Weary Staff Sergeant and a motley crew of Big Talker, Strong Silent Martyr, Male Chauvinist, Sexy Gun-Toting Female, Bro from Da Hood and Young Innocent Boy. True, there was surprisingly little “America Rulez!” and our badass marines looked less likeFull Metal Jacket and more like a pleasant university brochure with a healthy representation by ethnic communities and one Canadian. But before you get the wrong idea, let’s be clear about this: no amount of political correctness could save this rubbish movie.

The most obvious questions one must ask these aliens are:

(a) Really, aliens? Is water so rare in the universe that you must expend (what is probably) the last of your fuel on a wild expedition to an inhabited planet, where the natives have nuclear technology, AGAINST WHICH YOU HAVE NO DEFENCE? Why couldn’t you just go to one of the moons of Jupiter, dig out the ice and leisurely take it back home?

(b) Even assuming that you had absolutely made up your mind to come to Earth and take our water, how about some research? You were aware that we weren’t those bullshit Pandoran natives with bows and arrows, right? You were aware that we had grenades and bazookas, right? It wasn’t like we were trying to keep it a secret or anything. We’ve been blaring TV signals into space for decades now. If I were you, I’d have become somewhat concerned after watchingTony Montana’s cocaine fueled rampage with his “little friend”.

(c) If you knew we had guns, why did you decide to walk in wearing armour that only protects you from feathers and bunnies? On that note, since your Achilles heel is the right side of your chest, why not have some extra armour there?

(d) You have ONE freaking “command centre” which is the brain of your entire operation for an area and you choose to stick it in a highly conspicuous place and you couldn’t even be bothered to slap on a half-decent force field? You deserve to lose.

(e) How exactly were you planning to carry all the water back to your home planet? Or was this the most ill-advised illegal immigration plan in history?

(f) Have you not heard of the prevalent theory that it is logical that any alien species that makes contact with humans will be benevolent? For a species to have mastered space travel and travel across unimaginable distances is no mean feat. It would suggest that the species is far, far, far older than us and is so technologically superior to us, that fighting them would be like a child threatening a mail-clad knight with a bow of string and green willow. They could gain nothing from humankind, and therefore begs the question: aliens, why so hostile?

However, since these are bullshit aliens that are a cheap ripoff of ID4 aliens, none of these questions can or will be answered. If you thought these supernova sized plot holes might give you a headache, I assure you that your head will be pounding long before. I don’t know who was responsible for it, but shaky cam is Officially A Thing. Even when the plot doesn’t require it to be an amateur video (like The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield). Nobody in this movie was filming a documentary, and yet they had to insist on using it.

The one solace was that this wasn’t another movie set in Manhattan, and we didn’t have to sit through the Statue of Liberty being destroyed again. Could this mean that Hollywood has finally woken up to how silly this sequence is, and how only one movie ever managed to pull it off?

Needless to say, once all the token characters are killed off, Marine-banter (oo-rah!) is exchanged and the alien Macguffin has been smashed, the earthlings live on happily ever after… wait a second, how do we know this was their entire force? What if this was only their vanguard, which managed to destroy all our major cities (and based on the Los Angeles battle experience, most of the air force too)? So, is the sequel going to be titled, “World Invasion 2: Building a Pipeline Across the Galaxy for Our Alien Overlords”?

(As featured on Critical Twenties)

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Of late, rebellions and uprisings have been on my mind a lot; on everybody’s minds I daresay, what with the ongoing flower revolutions in the Middle-East. These sort of things tend to make one look very closely at one’s own state of affairs.

The Took in me wants to grab the nearest pitchfork(?)/ Molotov cocktail, march on the streets and sing stirring songs about freedom and death to the oppressors. The Baggins half of me is quite comfortable in my armchair, thank you very much.

But burning tyres, retaliatory action by cruel dictator and iconic photo moment aside, there is at least one perk to being a revolutionary. They’re absolutely irresistible to the opposite sex.

Let’s face it: there’s something inherently spine-strengthening about revolutions.

In keeping with that spirit, over the coming week(s) I will do a series of posts on great movies about rebellions, till I get bored with the subject. They aren’t in any particular order of greatness and some which are only set against the backdrop of a revolutionary movement make it to the list because they are that good. But, be warned: this list won’t have movies about specific revolutionaries (like Che) or documentaries (like Star Wars).


In 1969, Marlon Brando rejected the role of the eponymous Sundance in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in order to star a low-budget film that became a commercial flop. He laterclaimed that this was one of his best roles. While his firebrand Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront is far more iconic, and Vito Corleone in The Godfather more mature, Burn! is a must-see for Brando fans.

He plays William Walker, a British agent, who is sent to the fictional island of Queimada to topple the existing Portuguese regime and install a puppet government loyal to Britain, because Queimada is a major producer of sugarcane. The moment is ripe for conquest: the island is like a powder keg, with a brutal political establishment and a growing discontent black slave population. All it needs is a spark and Walker finds the right candidate for the job: a slave, José Dolores and influences him subtly to become the leader of the rebellion.

The rich merchants on the island realize that the rebel army bandwagon is the place to be, and in a move not unlike that of Philippe Égalité during the French Revolution, they step up and take control of the rebellion. The Portuguese government is overthrown and a puppet government set up. Except, now that Dolores and his rebel army have done their job, it would be nice if they would put down their rifles and went back to being exploited. But there’s the rub: Dolores learnt his lessons too well and now has the temerity to want to be president. If only these charismatic leaders of rebellions knew their limits and didn’t get too ambitious!

Ten years later, Walker comes back to the island to get rid of the very man he inspired to take on an oppressive government, and put him down for doing exactly that. Very obviously based on the history of Guadeloupe in the 18th century, the movie is somewhat prophetic of more recent events in Afghanistan. I guess this sort of thing regularly happens in the revolt business?

What you really want to watch out for in the movie, is José Dolores played by Evaristo Márquez (who was a Colombian herdsman before being discovered by the director, Gillo Pontecorvo). He is so pivotal to the story that the very mood and pace of the film change with every twinkle of his eye or furrowing of brow. And it contrasts beautifully with Brando’s character, who remains detached while ordering villages burnt or governments overthrown. All in a day’s work for him. And that’s exactly what makes his dialogues bite. What drives this man? It’s not money, it’s not principles, and it’s definitely not patriotism. It’s simply a desire to do a job and do it well. There is no bigger picture for him.

A couple of things about the movie did not sit very well, I thought: Marlon Brando’s “British” accent slipped on some occasions and there was some really lazy plot exposition by an Animal Planet-esque narrator.

The first time I watched this movie, I thought it was a terribly cynical movie—are all revolutions engineered because somebody thought it was an easier way to rule a country than standing for presidential elections? Does it make those freedoms and liberties a farce? Are our sweet Che Guevara t-shirts not as sexy as we think they are? But on re-watching it, I find that it is, in fact, the exact opposite. The right idea may often be born for all the wrong reasons, but when a man like José Dolores adopts it as his own, it becomes something truly worthy. It took a José Dolores to make an amoral man like William Walker take a good, hard look at his own life choices; even crave his approval. Which is a very encouraging thought.

(As featured on Critical Twenties)

VOLVER (2006)

First thing you gotta know about Pedro Almodovar : the man loves breasts.

Okay, not necessarily the first thing, but it does help to know. While this isn't all that unusual a fascination when it comes to gay men (as some of my indignant female friends have discovered over the years), Almodovar simply loves exploiting Penelope Cruz's impossibly perfect curves to great effect. Startling contrasts are made with other images in the same frame, : a technique which works as a great complement to a movie that revels in contrasts itself.

Volver you see, is a piece of cinema washed in warmth and colour. Which would be unremarkable, save for the fact that the central plot point features a murder, a death, and a visitation from the grave. Infact, it explodes in such a profusion of this warmth from the get go, that its a bit of a shock when the colour red, otherwise bringing attention to Cruz's firebrand lips, suddenly fills the frame in a burst of blood. What’s even more surprising, then, is how the movie maintains that initial buoyant mood right through the course of a plot that would’ve belonged to a grisly disturbing thriller.

This strangely cheerful tone about death kickstarts the movie with a kinetic tracking shot potraying a busy day at the graveyard for the women of La Mancha. Penelope Cruz as Raimunda is married to a recently unemployed labourer, soon to be murdered by their teenage daughter as he attempts to make advances on her. The murder haunts the mother-daughter duo, even as Raimunda's sister Sole is herself haunted by their dead mother. Of course, everything is not as it seems, and before you know it, skeletons come tumbling out of long buried closets.

As the introductions to the plot points and the characters whizz past, the anchor of Cruz's volatile performance brings the unlikely tale to life. Rarely do I pay attention to the enunciations of dialogue in a foreign language movie where I have to depend on subtitles, and yet so magnetic is Cruz here that you can't help but linger on every lilt in her tongue. She's complemented perfectly by the quietly empathetic forms of Sole and the ghostly mother.

Unusually , instead of building up to a climax, Volver elects to do away with most of its major high stakes drama within the first hour, then choosing to slowly ebb into a gentle rhythm. The lack of urgency works well; once you've been properly introduced to these characters, it's hugely rewarding simply to observe them in their most minute affairs. This, Almodovar does with a masterly flair, further evoking a great sense of time and place through moments such as at a funeral, when the camera strategically pans down from the ceiling to show Sole nestled in a tangle of commiserating hugs.

A hint of a romance remains unconsummated, hidden from the audience – but gives the reassurance that Raimunda’s got her admirers, and she’s not going to simply cast them away. I'm glad that we have that sidebar of a reassurance atleast. These characters are constructed with such tenderness, that I couldn't help but hope for the best for them myself.

Even when they occasionally have to resort to abetting murder.

Monday, March 7, 2011


Finally! We can now watch movies without worrying about whether the cinematography was good enough for Oscar gold or if the lead actress was better or worse than one Ms. Portman.

Rabbit Hole turned out to be a hugely underrated movie despite powerful performances by the cast and a deeply sensitive portrayal of grief. Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart play parents who are trying to come to terms with the loss of their 4 year old son who dies in a tragic car accident. Not only must they deal with the sadness of the loss of their son, but also with the hoards of friends and family who want to make their show of support.

It may have ostensibly been about the two parents, but the real story is about society's reaction to grief. Some expect the grieving people keep it together, others find public displays of grief embarrassing and still others worry about what sort of conversation to have with them. And that's a much tougher story to tell, because this movie could have easily lapsed into a soppy tear jerker about what a darling little boy the child, Danny was and have us all weep to home video clips of him riding a tricycle (set to a touching piano ballad of course). Instead, we never meet Danny; we only see his father's face as he watches said home videos on his phone, late in the night. We only see his mother resolutely stuffing his clothes into a Goodwill dropbox, because she desperately wants to stop being sad, wants to stop being reminded of his death every single waking moment.

The director toed that line between keeping us invested in the couple and showing all their faults in glaring detail. We just ended up loving them for it more. At no point did I think, "Hmm, they just aren't sad enough," or "Wow, okay, that's a bit too much grief, get your act together, people." Not only are they terribly sad, but they're both secretly blaming themselves for his death. If only I'd locked the gate, if only I didn't step inside to take the phone call, if only I'd tied up the dog... it's a miserable exercise with zero benefit, and yet, we all do it.

And then there are the family and friends who want to help, who want to make sure they've done everything required by protocol for people who suffered a tragedy. You have the "we will only speak to you in a bedside voice and look at you with pity" people, the "we will hang around always in the hope that we may become the shoulder you want to cry on" type, the "we just don't know how to deal with someone's grief so we will avoid you in the hope that it will go away" type and of course, the "we will talk about a loved one we lost, apparently to help you deal with your grief" type. Dianne West is superb as Kidman's slightly drunk, mostly absent mother who lost her son many years ago to drug abuse. The arguments between her and Kidman are one of the highlights of the movie.

Yes, there are the mandatory potshots taken against support groups and the apparently irrational god-needed-my-child explanations, but it wasn't mean spirited at all. It's just that saying, "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away" just isn't enough anymore. And yes, there was the predictable structuring of the movie into the 5 stages of grief, but at no point did it feel like the plot had been forced into that structure; it flowed very naturally.

When is it okay for a parent to forget their child? When is it okay for them to be "normal" again? To actually be interested in the mundane doings of their neighbours' children? All irritatingly unanswerable questions, but in the meanwhile, while some may find comfort in the idea that God wanted their child, others find it comforting to know that it is very possible that in a parallel universe their child never died and they never had to experience the ultimate sorrow of losing him. Whatever works, you know?

I personally find comfort in the idea that in a parallel universe, George Clooney and I are married and he's a woodcutter with a penchant for flannel shirts.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

7 Reasons to avoid 7 KHOON MAAF (2011)

Scorned in love, a woman takes it upon herself to avenge her crushed expectations by taking the lives of her husbands …. all seven (arguable) of them. The trailers were promising. Darrrling was a sensation. The premise sounded like an outrageous cocktail of blood-drenched feminist porn. And putting it all together was Vishal Bharadwaj, who’d previously given us those memorable lyrically violent takes on Othello and Macbeth, a haunted fairy tale in Makdee and a haunting little fable in The Blue Umbrella, then topped it all off with the Tarantino-Bollywood burlesque of Kaminey. This was a man who could do no wrong, and this was a movie that simply couldn’t fail.

Which is why it was so heartbreaking to watch this trainwreck slowly unravelling the course of a painful two hours fifteen minutes. There’s underwhelming, and then there’s plain painful. Anyway, with apologies for the delayed review, or rather, rant, here are 7 reasons to avoid 7 Khoon Maaf :

1) The entire John Abraham storyline - the one where his “Jimmy da rocker!!!” wears blond wigs, scottish kilts, and plays horrifying games of chor-police with dimwitted tramps - is simply one of the more painful cinematic sequences to torture a paying audience in recent memory.

No Mama …. No.

2) Priyanka Chopra does the Khwaja-mere-Khwaja dance around the good lord Jesus. Who then promptly joins her. It goes on for about as long as it did in Jodha-Akbar.

3) Neil Nitin Mukesh is mauled to death by a tiger from the animated jungle book. I don’t care about animal rights defenders, it violates my human rights to have to keep a straight face through a sequence where a murderous glowing purple tiger leaps towards amputee-Neil.

4) Vishal Bharadwaj has forged a solid reputation for being a true auteur. He’s known for constructing his movies from the bottom up, part of which involves creating some truly sparkling dialogues. This was the man who gave us the 2 hour running linguistic joke that was Kaminey, not to mention the frothily filthy lingo that gave Omkara so much of its raw power. None of that screenplay writing talent is visible here. 7 Khoon Maaf instead chooses to revel in cringe inducing cliches : I almost choked when “Keemat lal” returns Priyanka Chopra’s “keemti cheez” to her. The joke’s clearly on us for having to sit through that.

5) That whole auteur thing ? Also missing in the basic direction of the movie. The ploddingly linear narrative required some bit of Bharadwaj’s maverick direction to make the wheels of the plot spin, to make it flow, to have some sense of forward momentum. Instead, what we have here is a lazily edited, statically directed mess. Evoking a great sense of atmosphere does not a watchable movie make.

6) Because, well, Susanna, the heart and soul of the movie, simply isn’t a very well thought out character. When you’re going to make her murderous spree the very core of the movie, you jolly well give us more insight than a pithy monologue by the faithful butler informing us about her shooting a mad dog that got in her way. Okay, so the men are equivalent to mad dogs then ?

Thanks Susanna, thanks.

I could’ve watched a movie about a pathological killer who revels in the joy of murder, which is obviously what Susanna probably was. OR, I could’ve possibly endured the story of a woman fundamentally wronged in love, who, as a Professor put it, suffers from a victimhood complex that subconsiously causes her to seek out men who will wrong her. Even that would’ve worked.

The fact that I have alternate takes on where this movie could have gone when I should have been busy paying attention to the murderous happenings onscreen is not just a testament to creative failure on Bharadwaj’s part, it also painfully illuminates that just a little more thought could have made this into the cinematic spectacle it deserved to be.

7) Well, okay, I don’t have a clear seventh reason, but if the movie can cheat about the seventh husband, so can I.

Echoing a now popular joke on this movie, the seventh murder was obviously that of the audience’s time.

Now that I’ve said all that though, here’s the other side of this take : the movie that we were hoping for, the unabashed masterpiece that should have been, very occasionally peeks out from under the debris of what Bharadwaj has assembled. It comes out in the hilariously dark camera cut from a wedding in a church to a funeral in the same place, in the intense atmosphere of dread that is conjured in scenes like the one where the brutal amputee strokes his wife’s face with his stump of a leg, or in the visceral, almost-exploitative-but-still-shocking sequences with Irrfan Khan’s sadomasochistic poet.

In those isolated bits, you recall a director that was capable of handling a story of this calibre, a man of vision and ambition, who was, and who will continue to remain one of our most exciting directors, regardless of this clunker.

Fine, Bharawaj. This one maaf. Don’t mess up again, though.