Friday, September 30, 2011

SPEEDY SINGHS (2011)


Poor Anupam Kher. Despite having a career's worth of iconic roles, he gets type-casted as the Punjabi Father Who Hates Sports. This is his third time around, after all. At least no one can accuse him of meting out differential treatment to his screen sons and daughters. In Speedy Singhs, Vinay Virmani plays his son, a Indian-Canadian boy, who is a (cocky) ice hockey aficionado and has lost touch with his Sikh roots. His father wants him to become a truck driver and take over his uncle's business, while he wants to become a sportsman. After some half-hearted racism incident, he convinces his friends to form an all-Sikh ice hockey team for some bush league tournament and gets Rob Lowe to coach them.

Spoiler alert: they win and he gets the girl.

The underdog team sports movie, especially the ethnic community underdog team sports movie has been done only a few million times before and Speedy Singhs does not even come close to exploring new territory. Seriously, if you have watched Bend it Like Beckham, just imagine Parminder Nagra without the bosom and a hockey stick instead of a football and you're golden. You will predict the entire plot of movie within 5 minutes, including (and especially) the climax. It's not exactly a suspenseful film. Having said that, I enjoyed it immensely. You shouldn't watch it for the paint-by-numbers plot, but for the funny, witty dialogue and surprisingly excellent performances by the supporting cast. The Speedy Singhs shared a believable camaraderie and their scenes had excellent comic timing without ever being heavy-handed or maudlin. In fact, the supporting cast (especially that sheepish goalkeeper) were so funny, that I wish they had got more screen time.

And the music? AWESOME.

My biggest problem with this movie was the extremely underdeveloped plot. It didn't have to be such a big pile of clich├ęs. A lot of interesting story arcs were mentioned and then promptly abandoned. Racism was used every now and then to move the plot along. Okay, tell us about racism in Canada. Don't throw one cardboard cut-out racist hockey team and otherwise nice, happy Canadian people at us and expect it to create an undercurrent of racist tension (and therefore, motivation for the protagonist). Sure, they wanted a cute, funny movie and not a deep, insightful film about racism. But whoever said the two were mutually exclusive?

Also, why did Rob Lowe agree to coach the team, and that too, with nothing to gain? What's his motivation? He could've been an interesting character, if he hadn't been rendered into a cheap supporting role. I was also thoroughly unconvinced by Vinay Virmani's passion for the sport. Did he ever try out for any of the teams and get rejected for being an ethnic minority? Playing with your neighbourhood buddies on weekends and then ambushing a team's practise session to beg for a try-out was unprofessional and seems to suggest a lackadaisical attitude towards the sport. Not exactly the kind of traits that make you want to root for the protagonist. Fortunately, Virmani is handsome and therefore got my vote (just about).

Usually, underdog movies have montages of the motley team sucking at the sport and slowly improving. Hell, montages make up 1/3 of the running time of any self-respecting sports movie. But here, there was very little of the sport itself and all that improvement stuff happens off screen and Rob Lowe simply says "oh okay you guys are much better now yay for us." This was presumably a pragmatic decision, because their target audience are Indians, who don't know a thing about ice hockey. Nevertheless, a sport movie without well-executed, heart-stopping climaxes is just odd.

I'm sure you're wondering if Russell Peters was superfluous. Yes and no. He isn't strictly necessary and his character is meant to be the obnoxious jerk who gets his comeuppance by the end of the film, but he does it so well that it is impossible to hate him. He got the funniest lines and his banter with Vinay Virmani make for the some of the best scenes of the film. Come on, I chuckle every time I watch the "Somebody gonna get a hurt real bad" sketch. He's okay in my book. Akshay Kumar's cameo on the other hand, was totally superfluous. But then, one could say that about every single one of his roles.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea


We suspend disbelief when we enter the cinemas – at least, it usually helps if we do. With a Hayao Miyazaki film, we’re also required to suspend expectations of narrative coherency and the conventional logic of linear storytelling. “Dream Logic” is a term frequently ascribed to Miyazaki’s work, and even in this, one of his most simplistic tales, the moniker is apt.


Ponyo is the journey of the eponymous character, who starts out as a five-year-old mermaid, daughter to an initially sinister-looking underwater dwelling man and the Goddess of Mercy, who makes her way to the shore. Once there, she comes in contact with the similarly aged Sasuke, and the two form an instant bond. A barrier comes in the way, however, when Ponyo’s father comes to reclaim her and drag her back into the ocean. She’s having none of this though – it’s being human that she desires and soon enough, she’s reunited with Sasuke, now with arms and feet to boot. The transformation comes at a cost: Ponyo’s upset the balance of nature by crossing the divide and causes a tsunami to engulf the seaside village – though everyone remains miraculously unhurt. It is also important that Sasuke manage to prove his faithfulness to her – if he does, she stays human, if he doesn’t, she turns into the sea froth.


Ponyo Poster



If you notice any similarities to the plot of The Little Mermaid, rest assured that this movie is regardless a dazzlingly original work. The whimsicality of Miyazaki’s imagination is evident in almost every frame – be it the lush underwater opening sequence or the image of prehistoric fish swimming over a seaside road that’s been submerged under water. The characters react in wonderfully matter-of-fact ways to the bizarre happenings of the story, making the turn of events all the more fantastical. This is a world in which magic and mysticism exist nonchalantly along with the mundane. So Sasuke’s mother’s only reaction to Ponyo’s proclamation that she’s from the sea is to offer her soup; while the discovery of the town’s flooding is met by simple musings about how it will now be navigated.


There’s an environmental agenda that trickles through most of the Japanese animators’ works, and here it is first witnessed when Ponyo is dragged through a filthy sea-bed near the start of the movie, and later on when her father elegaically chastises humans for upsetting the balance of nature. Never does the preachiness get heavy-handed however; this is a movie that prefers to show rather than tell.


Miyazaki’s ultimate achievement may be the fact that aside from the regular basket of wonders he unveils with every successive work, it’s the humanity of his characters that remains particularly indelible. Sasuke is an incredibly empathetic character here, and the dynamic of two children simply playing is captured quite perfectly. His mother Risa is another well-developed character: occasionally moody, mildly neurotic, but also heroic in her own manner. Her struggles involve dealing with the fact that her husband patrols the ocean waters and thus lives away from home. This then leads to Sasuke and Risa sharing the most quietly beautiful scene in the movie as they communicate with his father (in a patrol ship in the ocean) with a series of signalled light flashes.


“I LOVE YOU”, signals the father.


Risa is a bit annoyed with him, though, and the lights signal back to him: “STUPID, STUPID, STUPID”.


The father’s response to that is something that wouldn’t look out of place in a typical Hollywood romantic comedy. But since this movie isn’t “typical” in any sense of the word, I’ll leave you to savour that moment.


(as published on mylaw.net)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

How Grey's Anatomy just became relevant again


Eight seasons is a hell of a long run for most network television shows today, and to maintain a semblance of quality that late in the offing, a pretty hard task. Grey’s Anatomy started off quietly, morphed into a sensation propelled by a mix of romance-and-thrills best exemplified by that spectacular bomb in the body episode. From peaks like that, the only way to really go is down, and sure enough, the hospital drama sank to a soggy melodramatic mess somewhere over the course of its third season. There was a bit of a resurgence in the fourth season, and steadily the show recovered to find its bearings, with all the elements coming together for thesixth season finale – easily one of the most thrilling/ gut wrenching pieces of television to air in the history of the medium. There was no way to really top the nerve wracking tension of that episode – and Grey’s, to its credit, didn’t try. Instead, it went into the seventh season exploring the fallout of the incidents of the finale on each character, taking them on a journey of recovery, leading to a wonderfully introspective series of episodes that dealt with people in pain pushing each other forward.

The show had re-found its groove and stuck with it, and as we left it at the end of the seventh season, the brilliant (and often brilliantly cold) surgeon Cristina Yang was struggling with the news that she was pregnant. Her surgeon husband Owen wants the kid. She doesn’t. Her resolute refusal to listen to him leads him to walk away from her at the season’s end, and we’re left with uncertainty regarding their – and the kid’s – future.

Snap back to the season eight premiere and Yang still hasn’t got the abortion. My first reaction was to groan: were we going to have to deal with yet another instance of a woman discovering that true, lasting happiness can only be determined by having a child? Is this, the most ruthless, motivated, and talented surgeon in the galaxy of Seattle Grace-Mercy West hospital going to decide that her career can take a mild detour while she savours the delights of motherhood?

Grey’s answered: an emphatic No. In a set of ravishingly powerful monologues, Cristina expresses her regret at her inability to even want a child, but emphasizes that that’s exactly the case – she just does not want to have and raise a child. “I don’t want to make jam. I don’t want to carpool. I really, really, really don’t wanna be a mother. I want to be a surgeon, and please—get it.”

I got it, and so does Meredith, who serves up an ever more powerful speech to Owen: “Do you know what it’s like to be raised by someone who didn’t want you? I do. To know you stood in the way of your mother’s career? I do. I was raised by a Cristina. My mother was a Cristina, and as the child she didn’t want, I’m telling you: Don’t do this to her because she’s kind and she cares and she won’t make it. The guilt of resenting her own kid will eat her alive.”

This is enough for Owen, who finally comes around, and tells Cristina he’ll accompany her for the procedure. And then, in a beautifully directed final scene, with a typically lush piece of indie music in the background, she lies on the table, heartbreakingly fragile, holds Owen’s hand, allows the inevitable grief of the process to catch up with her, and goes ahead with the abortion.

And with that moment, Grey’s Anatomy became essential, groundbreaking television once again.

Sure, we’ve witnessed abortions on prime-time television before. But look at the caveats – they’ve involved teenage pregnancies, or those that were conceived in affairs and need to be hidden, or some other convenient plot device. The overwhelming majority involves instances where characters come to miraculously realize how having a kid will transform their lives for the better, and enter into the halo of motherhood.

You know what? Bullshit. Every one of these shows has contributed in laying out a route for the woman that still needs to end in contracting into a painstakingly constructed idea of womanhood. The only juncture at which it is appropriate to not have a child is when circumstances simply force you not to. That doesn’t sound like a pro-choice argument to me. What Grey’s did so powerfully last night was allow a happily married, successful woman, whocould have afforded to have a kid and still continued to be happy and successful, choose not to. No preaching, no moralizing, no judgments.

Power to you Grey’s. At a moment where most shows would be wheezing out their final, clunky denouements, you’re powering on to pop-cultural significance.

Monday, September 12, 2011

CONTAGION (2011)

I shun sick people. My heart really goes out to the conjunctivitis/common cold/flu sufferers, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to let them enter my room and touch my stuff. If I didn’t have terribly derisive friends with crippling Facebook addictions, I’d stock food tins and weapons under my bed. Oh, you’re probably thinking I’m one of those paranoid crazies that overreacted during the H1N1 scare by wearing surgical masks and carrying crucifixes. All I have to say is that the buckets of Purell and sharp comments from my “friends” were a small price to pay for a clean bill of health. But I did feel vindicated when Lawrence Fishburne’s character in Contagion says that it is better to be remembered as the health department that overreacted, rather than the health department that sat by and let a disease destroy society.

The first 10 minutes of Contagion are by far the most powerful: a simple montage of people in elevators, eating at restaurants, in conference rooms, in airports and restrooms. The result is that sick feeling in the gut: What did the refreshment stand guy touch before he handed me popcorn? Did the person behind me just cough? Did I just touch my face after that? It’s a dreadful reminder of how vulnerable our cities and lifestyles are to epidemics.

The plot itself is not unlike that of Outbreak (1995) or even 28 Days Later (2002). Everybody knows that etiquette and moral principles are just a veneer: at the first sign of trouble, society will crumble and go Lord of the Flies on each other. While this is a common theme in films, Contagion really stands out in that, it goes to the source of the panic and fear. We may think that inept scientists are only found in Hollywood films, but every now and then you have scientists pulling stunts like this. After all, every one of us is on our own when a crisis occurs but the effects of our actions are manifold. Think of all those irresponsible Facebook and Twitter updates in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, spreading the germs of panic. Similarly, this film does not spare individuals from the terrible consequences of their actions: A blogger talking about a miracle homoeopathy drug results in citywide riots and looting, a housewife telling her friend that she’s buying extra batteries and bottled water results in panic buying, food shortage and closed borders.

Contagion was also extremely plausible because there was no Evil Villain at the root of it all. No pharmaceutical corporation playing God or the CIA trying to bring down an African nation with biological warfare. But that doesn’t mean it was completely lacking in political intrigue. There may have been no cardboard cut-outs, but the hearsay and distrust that governs every relation during times of despair was the real villain, be it developing countries’ certainty that the developed countries were holding back drugs from them, or the finger pointing over the source of origin of the disease, or conspiracy theories about the League of Shadows doing their thing. It’s all a matter of perspective, at the end of the day.

The film had such a star-studded cast, that Steven Soderbergh spent them lavishly (and with good effect). It really speaks for the talent of the actors that despite most of them not getting more than 15 minutes of screen time, they managed to rise above cameo status and brought substance to the film. Of them, Jude Law’s manic intensity as a conspiracy blogger and Marion Cotillard’s reserved performance as a World Health Organisation doctor really took the prize.

You would think that the film ends with the discovery of the miraculous vaccine/cure and (presumably) humanity is saved. But that’s how dime-a-dozen summer blockbusters roll, not Contagion. The vaccine is just the start of another crisis: problems with mass production, distribution and fighting rumours perpetuated by the Jenny McCarthy clan plague the world. None of these are startling revelations: we’ve seen them all happen over the decades, for different diseases, but to see them all unfold in one film reminds us as to how much is at stake over your neighbours’ ablutionary habits.

Easily one of the scariest films of the year, Contagion warns us that today it might be a namby-pamby H1N1 virus, but tomorrow, it could very well be the Rage virus. Just do humanity a favour and stay away from sniffling and coughing people, okay?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

That Girl in Yellow Boots (2011)



There's something intensely compelling about the seemingly banal opening scenes of That Girl in Yellow Boots; we follow Kalki Koechlin's Ruth going through the motions at the Foreigner's Registration Office, trying out her workmanlike Hindi in an effort to impress stodgy bureaucrats, walking down a crowded street to the massage parlour she casually asks her already satisfied customer for a handshake (1000 Rupees okay?) and walks back home to a dilapidated apartment. There is a junkie boyfriend, there are acquaintances at the parlour, there is a mother back in Brighton. The reason behind her increasingly numbing existence is her father: having left home when she was five, following the suicide of her fifteen-year-old sister, he’s been out of her life… till a letter injected with fatherly longing makes it way to her. Her search for him brings her to the bylanes of Mumbai, and it is in the middle of this untiring quest that we find her.


Anurag Kashyap is one of the few – and amongst the finest – auteurs in the Indian film industry. Some of his works have achieved universal acclaim – Dev D comes to mind instantly; others have received much more polarised reactions, finally resulting in acquiring a cult status – No Smoking is the obvious example here. There’s a degree of unpredictability that comes with every new Kashyap release. On the one hand, there’s an ease with which he transcends genres; on the other, he can sometimes let his directorial flourishes get out of hand (again, the last fifteen minutes of Dev Dcome to mind, possibly the only misguided step in the entire movie).


That Girl in Yellow Boots is a triumph of directorial control. Starting from the way every single frame is composed, down to the soundtrack, and of course the performances themselves, this is a movie that successfully establishes its seedy universe and runs with it. The supporting players are wonderfully realised – Ruth’s boss at the parlour gives us some of the movie’s most refreshingly hilarious moments in her matter-of-fact phone conversations with a lover, while Chittiapa, the Diga gangster, delivers a scene that bristles with comic energy that’s quickly side-lined by something more sinister. The Bangalore audience I was watching the movie with may have gotten a little more from his defining scene, however – every rendering of his dialogues in Kannada was met with knowing peals of laughter from the crowd.


But it’s that Girl herself who really makes the movie, and indeed, it’s hard to imagine any other contemporary actress managing this role. Kalki Koechlin mixes intense vulnerability (remember rooting for her over Paro in Dev D?) with a tough-as-nails vibe that’s the perfect mix for the character we’re exposed to in the movie. There’s an exquisitely deadened look in her eyes as she negotiates yet another handjob; there’s a touching charm to her attempts at reaching for a bag of money being stolen from her. The devil is in the details: her English accent is consciously modulated to make the bureaucrats feel at home, and then gets its Brighton twang when she’s conversing with a P.I. She’s required to emote multiple emotional outbursts, and the movie negotiates these without entering maudlin territory.


The movie closes with an equally compelling wordless sequence that deals with the immediate aftermath of our discovery regarding Ruth’s father. It’s the final masterstroke in a movie that acquires power as it goes along, and the final shot that lingers on her face is yet another testament to the cinematic alchemy that happens when director, actor, and screenplay come together in perfect harmony.


(as published on mylaw.net)