Tuesday, January 31, 2012


2011 will forever be known as the Year When Pixar Misread Its Audience With Disastrous Effect. Fortunately for DreamWorks Animation, some executive put down his foot and refused to greenlight Grandpa Shrek Once Again.  The response to Shrek Forever After made it very clear that all the goodwill earned by Shrek and its smart sequels had been definitively squandered, which is why a spin-off film was a terribly risky venture. But DreamWorks cleverly chose to make your film about the one thing the internet is incapable of dinging: THE CUTEST WIDDLE KITTY CATS IN THE WORLD OHMYGOD SO FUZZY I WANT TO SNUGGLE WITH THEM.  And also stars the suavest cat since Macavity.

I have a sneaking suspicion that this image is the reason why this film received such overwhelmingly positive reviews.

Voiced by Antonio Banderas, Puss in Boots (who, *snigger* is known as Cat in Boots in some countries for "cultural" reasons) is a hard-bitten outlaw on the run, drinks shots of milk through gritted teeth and woos the ladies with his sweet flamenco moves.  He is approached by the morally flexible Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) with an offer Puss cant resist: a dangerous quest for magic beans! And as if Puss needed any more convincing, Humpty's partner-in-crime, Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) charms her way into Puss's heart.

While it did drag in some parts, overall, the script was very funny and the plot held its ground. The film was far less formulaic than its predecessors and it worked well as a spin-off.  It must've taken monumental willpower on their part to not shoehorn in Shrek characters. Yes, they did the usual Shrek thing of fairy-tale-characters-with-a-twist, but none of that over the top, caricature-ish Rumpelstiltskin stuff. Jack and Jill are murderous outlaws with marital problems; Humpty Dumpty is... well, Zach Galifianakis shaped like an egg, and they pulled it off.

There were plenty of cheeky references to the actors' filmography like Desperado and The Mask of Zorro which was a cute touch without getting obnoxious. Most critics complain about the ubiquity of pop culture references in a film for children, but I guess you've got to throw a bone to the baby-sitting adults/ Peter Pans in the audience.

While the verdict is "wit, visual sparkle and effervescent charm", will this film win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature?  Technical brilliance is always appreciated, but this prize does not reward the technology as much as the the creative use of technology. Which is exactly what Shrek, Spirited Away, Wall-E, Wallace & Gromit, Ratatouille and Happy Feet had in common-- they were wonderful, touching stories which were made remarkable with the use of animation. Similarly, despite having brilliant effects and the best use of 3D in recent times, How to Train Your Dragon with its cliched plot was beaten by the heartrending story in Toy Story 3. Puss in Boots has not managed to set itself apart from the fun but somewhat predictable heap of animated films and no heart strings whatsoever were pulled (except when Puss does his Big Kitty Eyes thing).  So I'm leaning towards a 'no'.

Who's a bad kitty? YES YOU ARE!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Descendants (2011)

There's an utterly schmaltzy, tear infested trainwreck of a movie lying in wait under the cover of Alexander Payne's new drama. Just look at what we have here: Comatose, dying, wife and mother - check. Infidelity and its effect on a family - check. Man dealing with how to reconnect with, and raise his daughters - check. A family property dispute - check.   See what I mean? 

Miraculously, Payne uses those elements to craft a move that doesn't have a single moment that feels manipulative, or any emotion that rings untrue. Maybe it's the Hawaiian setting, though George Clooney's Matt King would likely disagree with me on that count. In his opening monologue (Payne sure uses a lot of voiceovers doesn't he? I seem to remember the climax of Election featuring 15 minutes of interwoven voiceover) Matt vents his frustration at people who  think his Hawaiian life is every bit of the paradise the postcards make it out to be. As the movie starts, his life is far far away from reflecting any kind of idyllic bliss: he's drifted away from his family only to find himself pulled back with his wife's accident leaving her comatose. As he struggles to figure out how to deal with his girls, he's hit with the news that his wife isn't going to wake up - and that she was cheating on him with a man she was in love with. Meanwhile, he is the sole decision maker in a family property dispute that is closely being followed by what seems to be the entire state of Hawaii: the family wants commercial development, the denizens want it to be left alone. 

The Descendants works perfectly because it gets one central idea right - empathy. This is a warm movie, one that deeply cares about its various characters, that refuses to paint them into stereotyped corners based on the archetypes they represent. Matt genuinely wants to do good by his family, but is clearly at a loss, and stoops to asking his older daughter's friend for advice on how to deal with them. Those daughters of his recognize the effort he's making and stand up for him when the time comes. His bitter father-in-law is allowed a moment of catharsis; the wife's lover is allowed to have his say; and we even get to meet his wife, to complete (and complicate) our picture of the tangled situation. 

George Clooney gets to continue his remarkable streak with this performance, which allows him to crumble and strengthen before our eyes, a remarkably vulnerable performance from a man whose screen persona is often the epitome of suave and self-assured otherwise. Shailene Woodley as his older daughter is an absolute revelation, lighting up her scenes with assured grace. The Descendants comes into the Oscar season with 5 nominations, including picture-director-actor combo, fresh with a Golden Globe win for Best Drama. I don't know if it'll take the prize - it doesn't feel showy enough for the big win - but it represents a fine addition in the race. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

J. Edgar (2011)

Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer as J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson

The first rule of Hollywood Biopic-Making is, dig deep into the life of any protagonist and you will either find mommy issues (serial killers) or a momma's boy (troubled hero).  Never fails to add a touch of drama on the Character Development front.  If you're gunning for Oscar gold, you could throw in a nice, gritty descent into drug addiction hell.  But be warned: this wont work if your film is set in the 20s because you cant waste classy pinstriped suits and vintage atmosphere on the cesspit of drug abuse. It simply wont fit into the gangster-flapper-fedora aesthetic.  But never fear, there's always the option of portraying obsessiveness bordering on mental illness with bonus points for homosexuality.

Besides, embroidering the truth for the sake of a good story has been a long-standing tradition among minstrels, raconteurs and now, film-makers. Which is why I've never really understood why people criticize a biopic for inaccuracies.  The aim of a biopic cannot be to merely narrate the events in a person's life because two hours could never do justice to a life's worth of experience.  A biopic is as much about the storyteller as it is about the subject, and the truth is at best, a minor selling point and at worst, irrelevant.

J. Edgar Hoover was the founder and director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He is credited for recognizing the importance of a centralised criminal investigation agency, the value of forensic evidence and for placing 'G-Men' in the cool corner of the pop-culture map, thereby becoming single-handedly responsible for an entire genre of TV shows.  This film tell Hoover's story from his POV; a conceited braggart who convinced himself that he saved America from the Bolsheviks and numerous untold threats.  But as shaky as his memories are,  is his conclusion so very wrong, the movie asks us.  He may not have personally arrested John Dillinger as he would have us believe, but does that make him any less influential?  He may have exaggerated his involvement in high profile incidents, but the fact remains that he was director of the FBI for 48 years and could not be budged by six Presidents.  When you've done stuff like that, what's a white lie here or a tall tale there?

The film succeeded as a compelling story by defining Hoover by the Lindbergh baby case. Not only did the case help the then-fledgling FBI amass enormous powers, but is also a perfect analogy for Hoover's life.  Just as the evidence against Hauptmann (which, at the time, was termed "overwhelming") has been re-examined and many troubling questions have been raised, so too has Hoover's legacy.  Was he a forward thinking genius or a paranoid loony trying to justify his Bureau's existence by spotting villains in every shadow? Did he innovate investigation or did he crucify  privacy at the altar of national security? As this film tells it, a little bit of both.

While films with straight actors portraying gay characters are labelled 'Oscar bait', I am mindful of the fact that no discussion of Hoover is complete without mention of his relationship with Clyde Tolson.  Unfortunately,  too little is known about Hoover, who was so scrupulous about his keeping his desk and personal life squeaky clean.  Unsubstantiated gossip from the Walter Winchell ilk have sufficiently muddied the waters to make it impossible to ever have a clear picture.  What little we know is coloured by our perceptions of that bygone era.  The film-makers thus had a daunting task in interpreting their relationship: they couldn't ignore the rumours nor have made him an effeminate cross-dresser who attended wild gay orgies.  No doubt the 20s were the decadent years and the orgies must've been buckets of fun, but I find it hard to believe that a man who understood the value of even one little slip-up in the blackmail market and a man whose position in D.C. was nowhere close to untouchable, would put on his pink tutu and head out to the nearest party.  Of course, one could name a number of present day public figures who were caught with their (literal and figurative) pants down and who should've all known better.  But there is simply no satisfying end to this discussion and the only fair way to judge this film would be on its ability to tell a convincing story, rather than its ability to tell the true story.  There were rumours that the film would be substantially de-gayed, but the end result was a touching and convincing portrayal of Tolson and Hoover's relationship.  They beautifully reconciled Hoover's seemingly contradictory sides: his conservative views and his obvious affection for Tolson.

Coming to the actors,  old person make-up is always a gamble and the payoff is rarely worth the risk. That said, Dicaprio pulled it off with panache.  After the shock of the first few minutes, I stopped seeing the makeup and only saw J. Edgar.  Poor Armie had a much harder time getting away with it.  Cosmetic troubles notwithstanding, Leo and Armie were both superb in their roles and they shared a wonderful camaraderie. Despite playing a reticent sidekick, Armie managed to not get overshadowed by Leo's forceful performance.

Armie, getting the short end of the foundation stick.

A few hours ago, the Oscar nominees for 2012 were unveiled and J. Edgar has been properly screwed over, despite dangling Academy baits like Dame Judy and Clint Eastwood.  Could it be that the Academy can see the hook on which the bait is presented? Or could it be that the film pissed off the Democrats by showing Hoover in a sympathetic light and the Republicans by making Hoover gay?  Or because the whole film was not greater than the sum of its parts?  Personally, I think the G-men were involved.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


There. Now we can all claw our eyes out together.

What excuse do fictional people have for being annoying, boring and painful to watch, without any redeeming or even cool/ interesting evil qualities?  None, I learnt after watching Heartbreaker. Life may often imitate art, but art must never, ever imitate an MTV reality show.

In Heartbreaker, Romain Duris and his comic relief sidekicks run an agency which breaks up couples where the woman is unhappy and doesn't know it, because everybody knows that only women are capable of being unhappy and not knowing it. Probably caused by the same gene that has to do with not being able to drive and knowing how to make sandwiches. The agency accomplishes this by getting oily haired, toothy and generally dickish Romain to seduce them, thereby helping them realise that they aren't happy at all with faceless boyfriend/husband and that they deserve someone far better because they're all precious and fey snowflakes. There's also some sort of creditor-seeking-repayment-threatening-violence plot line to create tension/make us give a shit about Romain (we don't).

Maybe it's a cultural thing, but I found the very premise of the film most perturbing.  I can't count the number of times I've seen a friend with a truly atrocious man and wondered what drug he's feeding her to keep her so blissfully ignorant (to any friends reading this: I totally like your boyfriends/husbands, but in a sisterly way). Then, instead of getting some highly suspect characters to invade her privacy and masturbate to her taking a shower, I've tried the revolutionary approach of sitting down and having a talk with her. If that doesn't work, I give her fellow the benefit of doubt and wish her the very best. From what I understand, this is what most reasonable people do. But in France, apparently it is de rigueur to dismiss your loved ones' intelligence and inflict Big Tooth upon them.

As you may have guessed, Romain falls in love with Vanessa Paradis (aptly called "poor man's Madonna" by a friendly neighbourhood wiseacre) whose engagement he has to break up. After many plot twists and much heartache, they end up together.  But herein lies the film-makers' quandary: they cant have a totally evil or utterly boring man as her fiancé, because that would confirm the audience's suspicion that Vanessa is an idiot with bad taste. But he can't be too interesting and an all-round excellent human being either, because she would then have no reason to be unhappy. They solve this problem by not giving her fiancé, Andrew Lincoln too much screen time and by making him REALLY SWEET AND NICE (a method known in the movie circles as Sweet Home Alabama-ing). Oh, and he has snooty, old-money type parents. Surely that's a fatal flaw deserving of a first-class dumping right at the altar without even a hint of remorse?

The film-makers also seem to be labouring under the misapprehension that the ability to get management degrees, converse in Portuguese and Italian and buy nice dresses are all biblical virtues possessed by the speciallest snowflake of them all: Vanessa. What they did not realise is that audience would be able to spot her for the spoilt, entitled and selfish creature she is, in under 5 minutes. What they also did not count on, was Andrew Lincoln coming across as the only bearable character in the film. Hell, her father (who hires Romain) admits that he doesn't have any problem with Andrew, except for the fact that he's too nice, kind and intelligent and somehow that is going to bore the hell out of his daughter. In fact, nobody in the film is ever quite sure as to why Vanessa and her fiancé HAD to be separated. But she is kind of a prick and so is Romain, so I guess her father really did know what was best for her...  and that makes it a happy-ish ending? Don't ask me. I was hungry and had stopped caring by then.

But worst of all, this execrable movie then had the immense gall to classify that '80s classic film, Dirty Dancing as a secret guilty pleasure and then shamelessly tried to cash in on the nostalgia element by shoehorning a thousand references to it. While there's no reason to be secretly guilty about being madly in love with Patrick Swayze's sweet, sweet moves on the dance floor, I would personally keep my Romain Duris posters and Vanessa Paradis CDs hidden in my secret drawer.

The only compliment(?) I can give this film is that it is ripe for "borrowing" by David Dhawan. It will star Ranbir Kapoor and Anoushka Sharma in the lead, with Paresh Rawal and Reema Lagoo as the comic relief.  It will have one catchy number (ft. Token Hip-Hop Artist) that will be played ad nauseam at The Capitol and will recoup all production costs with a tidy profit even, assuming it isn't released on the same weekend as a Shahrukh Khan movie.  But then, who does that any more?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Best Television of 2011

Okay I'm going to cheat here and give you a list of the best television episodes of 2011 - it's a much simpler list to make, and it allows me to include shows that would have otherwise not approached a top ten list with a ten foot pole (I'm looking at you, Glee). It's well established that we're in the golden age of television, and even with my relaxed criteria, it became hard to narrow the list down to ten. Here we go -

10. Silly Love Songs, Glee: Ah, how the mighty have fallen. There was a time, not too long ago, when this musical comedy was at the top of the pop culture echelon, a critical and ratings smash. Then, before you could shout "Regionals!" we found ourselves stuck with too much grating Sue Sylvester, too little sensible Will Schuester, and gaping continuity issues. Still, the reason I continue to watch Glee is for its ability to occasionally pull out episodes like its Valentine's Day confection: this was a delightful little ode to teenage love, and it gave us the show at its best. Puck gyrates to Fat Bottomed Girl, Kurt pines over Blaine, and Rachel gets to be a Firework. The episode caps off with a lovely acappella rendition of the song that it gets its title from, with Kurt heart-gesturing to his two faithful fag hags. Heartwarming, really.

Tied with: Rumours, Glee:  A lot of the theme episodes on the show haven't really worked (ugh Britney, and UGH Gaga), but with this Fleetwood Mac tribute, the show fired on all cylinders. It was touching, it had some great performances, and it actually managed to integrate the songs - and the theme of the album itself - in manner that was organic and NOT outside the established story canon of the show. Now how hard can that be Ryan Murphy?

9. Spooky Endings, Happy Endings: The first Friends knock-off that is a genuinely good show in its own right, Happy Endings supplies the highest rate of laughs-per-minute for this particular viewer. This episode is one of its most hilarious, and bizarre, with a mother-and-child costume that features the baby's head peeking out kangaroo style and a move-to-suburbs-plot that goes for some great sight gags. There's also a drag competition. With a Marilyn Monroe dance. Please watch.

8. White Wedding, Grey's Anatomy: The long running medical drama enjoyed a creative resurgence in its seventh season, with a cathartic storyline as the surgeons moved past the trauma of the hospital shootings. The best moments of the season featured people pushing forward to make decisions that featured just how much their characters had matured post the crisis. The perfect showcase was this double wedding episode that featured strikingly lovely interweaving between a perfectly legal straight marriage, and a purely ceremonial lesbian one. Just another sweet payoff for those of us who've stuck with this show through its now eight year run.

7.  Queen of Jordan, 30 Rock: It might be an ageing comedy, but 30 Rock is still capable of delivering some of the best - and strangest - laughs on television. This inspired take on reality television was the best kind of spoof - one that actively pushed the story forward, while simultaneously going to some particularly strange places. Of course, it doesn't quite compare to the other show that does a similar thing with many episodes (and features prominently near the top of the list).

6.  Lonesome Sundown, Cougar Town: This show has long transcended its banal title to become one of television's most underrated treasures - episodes spent in the company of the wine-guzzling gang evoke the familiarity of just sitting and having fun with your closest friends. This particular one features the inanity of a punishment council when the gang takes each other for granted, coupled with a moving plot where Courtney Cox's Jules takes an important step forward in learning to let go of her teenage son.


5. Pilot, Revenge: Delicious, delicious fun. This is the soapiest show currently running on television, and man does it take its duties seriously. Spinning a story of how one wronged woman plots a web of revenge around the people who destroyed her father's life, the pilot episode gives us a big dose of what will go on to be one of the show's most reliable pleasures: the always on the edge of hostile standoffs between Madeline Stowe, chief betrayer and high society extraordinaire, and Emily Vancamps' Amanda (well, Emily actually. uh, it gets confusing) as the wronged woman with a vendetta. Like I said, delicious. The best way to watch this show, internet consensus has it, is to end every episode with your fist pointed to the sky and yell "REVENGEEEEE".

   Do it. 

4. Pilot, Homeland: A U.S. Marine-turned-Prisoner of War is rescued 10 years after being captured. He's a war hero - but Claire Danes' CIA Agent has her doubts. She suspects he might have "turned" and is plotting an attack on the country, and will breach every ethical principle to get to the bottom of the mystery. Also, she's mildly unhinged. The show takes this fantastic premise, and gallops with it, giving us one of the most cinematic episodes of television it a while with its compelling opener. Without hitting us over the head with the point, the show talks about  how the casualties in war extend beyond mere body counts, as we watch our marine struggle to interact with his family, and our agent struggle with her grip on reality.

Tied with: Executive Order 13224, The Good Wife: An exceptionally smart show, The Good Wife combines a mix of great ripped-from-the-headlines plots with an enthralling mix of workplace and family drama. Ever so often, it also teaches you a thing or two about the legal system, and in this, its best episode in a very good year, it centers on the controversial eponymous post 9/11 order. Questions of state security are weaved into a narrative where Alicia Florrick finds her personal interests might just be at odds with that of her firm. Cue an absolutely stellar performance from recurring lawyer Elsbeth Tasconi, and a tense cat-and -mouse game with the government.

3.  Paradigms of Human Memory,  Community: . You know that tired old thing where a show does an old clips episode, where the characters ruminate on past events? Cue audible groans from the bored audience. Well, Community tried a clip show too: except that it featured new clips, from memories that we'd never seen before. As if that wasn't good enough, the memories that we see allow the creators to go flat out surreal -  Community does Glee! Community goes to a ghost town! Community goes to an asylum! - and in the process, even more hilarious.

2. A Fistfull of Paintballs, Community:  Yes, Community deserves two slots on this list, it's that good. The strength of this hugely ambitious show lies in its ability to take on pop culture tropes and fashion storylines around them. This was the most wildly entertaning version of the idea, with the show taking on the Western genre with dazzling style, an abundance of wit, and actually propelling the emotional arc for its characters foward.

1. Andy and April's Fancy Party, Parks and Recreation: The show with the most heart on television is also one of the medium's funniest. This episode focuses on one of the things Parks and Rec does best: its focus on the woozy romances between its utterly lovable characters. A housewarming party thrown by new couple Andy and April turns out to be a surprise wedding. In one step, the show strode past the engagement and wedding jitters tropes so characteristic of this genre and gave us this marvellously heartwarming piece of showcraft. This show frequently knocks it out of the park (ha! pun) in so many ways, and here's the best example.