Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Movie Review Round Up - June 2012

Having enough time on my hands to catch a lot of big screen action, but strangely not enough to write a full length review, here's a short burst of opinions on what I've  seen this month. The lengthier reviews will be back soon. No, really.


Begins spectacularly. Looks stunning. Pulls you in, hook, line and sinker into an ambitious plot that's heavy with existential dread.

Then, at about the 1 hour mark, it starts to fall apart.

The very reason that Prometheus came into existence is also the albatross around its fascinating neck. This was a movie designed as, if not a direct prequel to Ridley Scott's Alien, then at least a close cousin of the movie, sharing, as Scott put it, the "DNA" of the cult film. In this attempt to link it to Alien, Scott manages to squander a fascinating premise. "Where do we come from?" is the question the movie asks as it begins, and "Why were we made?". But as it reaches its conclusion, the metaphysics is replaced with one big question: "What does the black goo do?". Prometheus doesn't actually devolve into a terrible film, just one that leaves aside the soaring heights of its initial premise to try and give us more convention sci-fi thrills.

Still, the hypnotic first hour, the beautiful visuals, and a reliably excellent performance from Michael Fassbender make this an important summer watch.

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted

I've seen the first two Madagascar movies, and been faintly amused - and that's it. Passable, lightweight entertainment. To my delight , this third outing decides to leave behind all moorings in reality - or sanity - and delivers one of the more satisfyingly entertaining experiences I've had at the movies in a while. The plot is besides the point, the movie exists in a series of staggeringly fun set pieces. My favourite of these is probably the one where King Julian the flamboyant lemur falls for Sonja, the tricycle riding bear. Then they go to the Vatican and get married. Then they go on a honeymoon where her tricycle breaks. So of course King Julian buys her a motorbike, which she rides on the streets of Rome with wild abandon, her husband secure on her shoulders.

What, you need more reasons to watch this?


Having eagerly tracked Dibakar Bannerjee's cinematice oeuvre, one has come to expect genre-redefining acts from him at abandon. The charming family reverse-con in Khosla Ka Ghosla, the other side of the conman in Oye Lucky,  and of course the audacious, chilling  Love, Sex aur Dhokha.  If Shanghai fails at any point, its that it betrays that red hot streak of boundary pushing. Its an excellently made political thriller, with great all-round performances (with the exception of a somewhat grating Kalki) and a crackerjack script. The plot zips along and the pace rarely slackens from its gripping tautness. But its Dibakar Bannerjee and unfair as it is, he's led you to expect something more,  another layer perhaps, or  a moment of stunning revelation, or even unexpectedly fierce poignance. It doesn't come. Shanghai remains a fine film, one of the better Bollywood productions we'll see this year.

What it fails at is transcendence - a forgivable enough flaw.

Rock of Ages

Rock of Ages has a bit of a problem. Its a 2 hour-odd film, with about an hour and ten minutes of song. The songs represent some of the 80s biggest rock hits, and are mostly sung well, if not always staged perfectly. The problem is that the other fifty minutes comprise incredibly shoddy dialogue and alarmingly hammy acting. And those imperfect staging choices? Yeah so one of them involves splicing random shots of Mary J. Blige's extremely  peripheral matter into a series of musical numbers that have no business involving her. Also, her hair goes from resembling a dying hedgehog to a glossy lion mane. 

If anything else stands out in this strange production, its the one terrific performance of the lot: Tom Cruise as rocker-of-ages Stacee Jaxx. Cruise takes the slightest of material and crafts a memorable character, one haunted by the excesses of fame. Also, he can sing. Really sing. Particularly memorable is his rendition of Bon Jovi's Wanted Dead or Alive, a performance he seems to be pouring every fibre of his being into. 

If only the rest of the movie displayed the same kind of delirious commitment. 

Friday, June 1, 2012


About six hours after watching this movie, I had a flight to catch at 6 am.  My sleepy, bleary-eyed cousin kept vigil with me while waiting for the taxi when he said, "I've been thinking about it. You know that scene when J and K .... <spoilers>?"

Right there. That's the sign of a time travel film worth its salt: one that keeps you looking for inconsistencies, for how-did-they-do-thats and makes you constantly revisit the film. But at the other end of the spectrum you have those films that use time travel as a plot devise and then lazily ignore it once it has done its job (I'm looking at you, Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban).   Time travel may not have been the centrepiece of MIB III, but I'm so glad they spent enough time on a decent screenwriter to cover (most of) the plot holes.  Of course there were inconsistencies. Even my favourite time travel film is riddled with those, but in a well-made film those are less of an annoyance because there is so much more to these movies.  With humour, a fantastically gross villain and surprisingly good 3D effects, MIB III succeeded in doing just that.

Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones don their black suits and sunglasses and take on alien criminals and scumbags for the third time.  Time travel plot line aside, was MIB III worth the decade-long wait? Did I want to be neuralysed after watching the film?  Do I want to go back in time and stop the sequel from being made?  As you can see, this post would have been far more fun to write if I hated the movie but no such luck.  It was a funny, well-made film with super action scenes, 3D that wasn't just an excuse to plunder my wallet and a fabulous revelation known as Josh Brolin.

12 years have passed since Agent J (Will Smith) joined the Men in Black. He is now a Class 1 Senior Agent, but it still rankles that Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) isn't forthcoming and honest with him. And then they find out that the crazy powerful alien Boris the Animal has escaped from prison and is determined to never be caught again, even in the past.  He goes back in time to prevent K from ever capturing him and it is up to J to go back in time as well to prevent this from happening.... and yeah yeah, enough of this.  Let's talk about Josh Brolin.

JOSH BROLIN! He plays a young Agent K and what a fantastic job he does.  Not only does he manage to get Tommy Lee Jones' mannerisms down to a pat, but he also interprets the character as he may he been in his youth before he forgot to stop and just look at the stars, a time when a romance didn't seem altogether unrealistic. The imitation was flawless and totally believable, but without caricaturing Tommy Lee Jones and that, I think was the challenge.  The comparison to dour, old, present-day K may be funny but one can't forget how critical J is to that comparison. J is a man who never lost his sense of humour or wide-eyed idealism even 12 years after hunting down alien smugglers and slimebeasts, unlike K who built a fortress of cold rationality around him.  This gave the scenes with Josh Brolin and Will Smith a lot more depth and their camaraderie was fantastic.

The great cast was supported by a really, really funny script that took plenty of digs at '60s racist America and hippies and reminded us why we fell in love with the MIB series in the first place. Oh I know I'm in a minority but I thoroughly enjoyed MIB II (even though the de-neuralyser machine seemed like a bit of a cop-out). I was also pleased to note that there were few references to the old films and almost zero rehashed jokes. Just for not making me sit through scenes with that irritating talking dog, this film gets my vote.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012)

There is a degree of stereotyping that comes with foreign films about India. Just as Parisians must accept accordion music and sweeping shots of the Eiffel Tower with a c’est la vie attitude, I too have come to accept the trite call-centre/elephant/bazaar scenes as unavoidable.  Without these cliches, no doubt foreign audiences would rise up in protest at having been cheated out of their money’s worth of camels and havelis.  Which is why, my only yardstick for judging the merit of a film set in India is whether nor not the film  manages to disentangle itself from the colour and the confusion of India that film-makers are so enamoured by, and whether they allow their characters to be more than National Geographic narrators.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel tells the story of seven British senior citizens who find themselves on a one-way journey to Jaipur for a variety of reasons.  Some are lonely, some still crave adventure, some need surgery, some have no money to live in England and others are on a personal quest.  They find themselves in a ramshackle hotel run by Dev Patel, who is also on a quest of his own: proving his worth to his family.  The seven seniors are played by a stellar cast:  Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Ronald Pickup, Celia Imrie and Penelope Wilton. Yes, that’s pretty much 80% of the Britain’s Greatest Actors List.  And by God, they have proved why they’re so deserving of their numerous awards and orders of chivalry  (fun fact: there are 2 DBEs, 1 CBE and 1 OBE among them).  While it takes a director with great restraint to stop himself from making a self-indulgent film filled with long shots of palaces and elephants, scenes of characters oohing and aahing palaces and poverty and spouting patronizing dialogue about India’s rich and poor divide, it also takes strong actors to take command of their characters and really internalize their histories.
But why oh why would they ruin this movie by putting Dev Patel in it?  Every single scene with him was irritating and completely unnecessary.  His scenes with Lillette Dubey tested my patience to the utmost. I was willing to forgive this film for all its cliches, except for the big fat cliche that is Dev Patel’s story arc:  he proves himself at his job and marries the girl of his dreams. His mommy doesn’t approve.  No, really. That’s all there is.
On the other hand, Tom Wilkinson got to be a retired High Court judge who goes to India to look for his gay lover from his youth.  Maggie Smith was brilliant as a retired housekeeper battling with feeling irrelevant and her friendship with the servant at the hotel was such a natural progression.  Or Penelope Wilton, who just plain hates India: she is a perfect foil for all the tourists who are so amazed by the dust and colours while she only has eyes for the dirt and squalor. Despite playing such a disagreeable character, she manged to bring empathy and realism to her role.   And Bill Nighy!  Full disclosure: I am a little bit in love with him but that doesn’t mean that his idealism and humour wasn’t wonderful to behold. His ability to take so much pleasure in being able to fix a faucet or being able to bargain for a scarf or visiting an ancient temple may have been a bit too Incredible India! for some, but I thought his character worked perfectly in the ensemble.  The others had such sadness, longing and even bitterness in them that one needs  a Bill Nighy to remind us that one’s daughter may lose all your life savings in an ill-advised internet project but hope springs eternal.  Of course, one also needs a Ronald Pickup to remind us that there are those who are 70 years old and don’t need Viagra.
But Dev Patel.  Dev Goddamned Patel.  Every time I think of the movie and some nice line that Judi Dench spouted (as the resident narrator),  I think of Dev Patel’s smirk and his accent and am filled with blood lust.   The fact that the climax of the film was centred around him, his insipid girlfriend and annoying mother came very close to ruining the film for me.  And why did his girlfriend have to work in a call centre? She could’ve been an accountant, a salesgirl or a hedge fund managed but no, they HAD to make her a goddamn call centre employee who conveniently enough, needed to be taught about Britain by Judi Dench.  But then, Penelope Wilton snapping at Bill Nighy and telling him, “When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you!” was priceless and saved the film.  Perhaps the ending was a little too neatly tied up, but who doesn’t love a happy ending?  All in all, A for effort.