Movie Review: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas is an ambitious, grand feature that more than anything, proves that an unfilmable book can indeed be filmed in the hands of some very capable people. The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer deserve an award or two for the same.

There’s no point in explaining the plot, because that would suck away all the fun from the movie. Cloud Atlas is based on the epic book of the same name by David Mitchell and sort of follows the novel beat by beat. Those familiar with the book are bound to find the film a fascinating watch just for fact that the source material seemed impossible to put together on screen. Those not familiar with the book are in for two hours twenty minutes of mind bending, genre bending, pure and intelligent entertainment. It’s one of those rare Hollywood entertainers that frequently challenges the viewers’ concentration and attention levels, and delivers on the humongous expectations. Even better, it guarantees a post film dissection with your fellow film nuts.

There’s a vast array of actors here, including Tom Hanks, Hugo Weaving, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent and Jim Sturgess who have multiple roles each, spanning through various timezones and intricate vignettes. There’s a slave in the 19thcentury, a music composer in the 1930’s, an investigative reporter in the 1970’s, a publisher in the 21st century, a woman from the future and a post apocalyptic man. The antagonist in each vignette is played by the amazing Hugo Weaving, and although not too dense in its treatment, the film superbly balances popcorn fun and philosophical allegories.

Apart from the big action and chase scenes there’s the incredible visual design (John Toll) and music (Reinhold Heil) that just blows you away. There’s not a second of space to breathe here - the editing is the brutal as the Could Atlas burns through the six interconnected stories. The Wachowskis and Tykwer leave subtle clues peppered through the movie and it’s great fun to spot them. The only large flaw is perhaps the tame, slightly sappy ending that ends on a quieter note instead of a big, thumping crescendo. Regardless, it makes for a deadly and explosive watch, the best movie out in theaters this week and one of the best things to have arrived this year. 

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: Paranormal Activity 4

When the hundredth sequence of eerily-quiet-furniture-room arrives, you know you’re watching a tired and slipshod milking of a large horror movie franchise. That is precisely what happens in Paranormal Activity 4 – a fourth entry that clumsily overstays its welcome.

The first Paranormal Activity had its own problems but it was a fresh and innovative (and genuinely creepy) version of found footage horror. Naturally greedy hands who saw the Saw franchise and the hundred-plus million box office returns decided to churn out factory-like sequels. The second and third films worked to an extent as they tried to expand on the story, Paranormal Activity 4 tries to go further and tie up some of the loose ends but mostly fails. The lack of story would’ve been ok had the scares at least been decent, sadly they are as tacky as they come.

Roving fans of the first three movies expecting a fun or grand mythology in the paranormal universe will be disappointed. Not only is there no explanation of why the spooky stuff went on in the first three films, but there is also a lame plot device of a back story that has been done in countless other horror films.

The film is set in Nevada and chronicles a new family this time, but we get more of the same – a silent house at night seen through various cameras, computer webcams, Skype windows, phone camcorders etc. There are other kids, and a template teenager, but the same old bump in the dark noises that occur over and over again. One would imagine that all the cloying repetition would lead to a satisfying explanation, but directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman merely pull the rug under your feet before the end credits roll. Not to mention the presence of two of the dumbest characters to be seen on screens this year – the protagonist’s parents, who pay absolutely no attention to ghostly activity going on around them, even if they experience it themselves. 

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: Ted

Family Guy’s Seth McFarlane writers, directs, stars and potty mouths as the most profane and disgusting teddy bear of all time in Ted. And if you’re familiar with the much loved cartoon series of his, you should expect a heck of a lot of laughs.

Unlike Family Guy, Ted is given an adults only rating and it almost seems like McFarlane let fly at the opportunity and decided to dole up the most objectionable and vulgar jokes that he could muster. He does it, but fortunately he does it classily. It’s quite an achievement when a poop joke doesn’t make you roll your eyes, or a volley of F-bombs from a stuffed bear are placed for comedy sake instead of inane profanity. Though not as side splittingly hilarious as this year’s The Dictator, satirical and political wisecracks are bound to cause a cramp or two in your stomach out of all the giggling.

Starring a deliberately awkward Mark Wahleberg as John Benett, a man-child attached to his childhood pal – a talking teddy bear, Ted is awash with the typical McFarlane dosage of pop-culture references, non-sequitur cutaway gags and unabashed celebrity bashing. We have a cute little teddy bear who smokes pot, picks up hookers, swears at anything that moves, and loves his best friend John. Trouble begins when the fiancĂ© (Mila Kunis) gets tired of Ted constantly hanging around them and ruining John’s career. What follows is a fun parable of whether bros before hoes is indeed the right thing to do, especially when you’re dating someone who looks like Mila Kunis. Surprisingly, Ted takes a sweet and sentimental turn in the final third which may frustrate viewers looking for a big, brash showdown of a finale. Not so surprising, however, is the obvious nod to Family Guy, because Ted and John may well be the grown up versions of Stewie and his beloved bear.

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: Premium Rush

Qualifying as the most surprising movie of the year (in a good way), Premium Rush is a peppy, super fast paced happy meal of a thriller. The film also does what last week's Looper did - permanently cements Joseph Gordon Levitt as the most versatile and likable actor of his generation.

Writer-director David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Mission Impossible, Spider-Man) is the fifth most successful Hollywood writer of all time and his experience shows. Premium Rush literally has no room to breathe or veer into unnecessary subplots, Koepp just blazes through the hyperkinetic plot for 90 minutes. Set in NYC and filmed with a snazzy nomadic camera, the film flits around a bike messenger (JGL) who is handed a mysterious parcel to deliver and is chased around town by a dirty cop (a badass Michael Shannon) who desperately wants to grab the packet. The paper thin premise is just about enough for Koepp to hurl his camera around town, capture the adrenaline pumped life of bike messengers and offer you a very entertaining theme park ride of a movie. And miraculously, Koepp does it without the easy means of a shaky cam.

The chase scenes are just insane. JGL (or his stunt double) dodges bullets and weaves through murderous crowds at 40mph, Koepp incorporates an interesting Google Maps style HUD for the bikers’ navigation, and even slow mo and freeze frame shots for alternate routes that a biker might take. The concept or plot may remind one of Tony Scott’s Enemy of the state, but there’s a minty fresh style here that one has never seen in chase scenes - one tends to actually cringe for every near miss. To give you an idea of the film’s ridiculous pace, the protagonist rides a bike called a ‘fixie’ that has no brakes. There are a couple of hokey melodramatic points in the back story but it’s easy to forgive them for all the goodies the film offers. Take your family, take your friends, have a blast.

(First published in Mid Day)

Movie Review: Argo

Ten years ago when his Paycheck bombed, it seemed like another big star had crashed at burned in Hollywood. Ben Affleck reinvented himself with his directorial debut Gone Baby Gone, proved the first wasn’t a fluke with the stunning The Town, and with Argo, he effortlessly places himself in the pantheon of the best filmmakers. 

Based on a true story, Argo introduces us to real life CIA honcho Tony Mendez (Affleck) who was slapped with a mission to rescue six Americans from their captors during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. It wasn’t a cakewalk, and Mendez and his team were briefed to pose as Canadian movie producers of a science fiction movie titled ‘Argo’, and fly out the hostages as his crew members. It was, as they say, ‘the best bad plan we've got’. Not surprisingly, we get the best damn movie Hollywood’s got.

Despite the heavy duty espionage thrills, Affleck doesn’t shy away from Hollywood satire. One character asks ‘Can you teach someone to be a director in a day?’, to which another replies ‘You could teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day’. How much of the film resembles the real incident is moot but the plan involves hiring a real producer, a fake script and even actors. Tabloids even carry reports of a Star Wars clone being made. Despite knowing fully well how the film ends, one can’t help but be thrilled by the cast in Argo. Not only does writer Chris Terrio churn out some of the best and wittiest dialogue of the year, but Affleck exacts the best performances of the year from Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman and even himself. Affleck tightens the plot to unbearable levels, and the final fifteen minutes that lead to events at an airport are nerve-wracking as hell. The America-Middle East nexus and hypocrisy is not so subtly realized, however there is just too much fun to be had in the film to go over its shortcomings. 

Argo is a saucy, taut and gripping watch, and is probably the funniest political satire since In The Loop. Watch it, read about the real incident and watch it again.

(First published in MiD Day)

Interview with Karan Johar

Last week I had a chat with Karan Johar. I had wondered if his latest movie ‘Student of the Year’ and its cast would entertain audiences, so I decided to ask him the same. Karan was very charming and articulate for every question. If you’re wondering why Karan cast 25-year-olds as teenagers in the film, and are wondering if he would only make commercial romcoms, read on for a pleasant surprise:

MF: So this is your first film without Shahrukh Khan or any mega star for that matter. What is it like to work for the first time with first timers?

KJo: You Know I think I was more stressed out than them, because you have to deconstruct your own ways of directing. You kind of get into a pattern with movie stars specially with Shahrukh, and I think I got into a pattern as a director directing him and other movie stars, so I had to kind of deconstruct my own thought process. I found myself giving them really archaic instructions – telling them things like the way Shahrukh may have done it, overinstructing them, giving them stardom instructions and bringing them into your movie frame. Sometimes you need to let people be, which what I was not doing in my first 20 days of work. I was behaving like a really prehistoric, dated and been there done that kind of filmmaker (chuckles). Then I realized that if I am launching new talent I have to leverage from their roughness, their rawness and I shouldn’t overinstruct them. Eventually it became fun because I kind of began feeding off their energy. I realized I became a more subtle filmmaker in the process (I have always been slightly over the top, I have been a filmi child, grown up watching larger than life hindi films, and that has always been the way I operate in my head). In that way I was more scared than them, it was more nerve wracking for me.

It’s an entertaining fun film, it’s not like I am making path breaking cinema and moving filmi mountains. It’s a fun, happy film; song, dance and happiness.  I was at no point sure as to what I was doing, I was always walking on eggshells, and the kids had more clarity than I did. I was also afraid of sounding outdated, especially with the current generation and how they speak. Colloquial banter of the twenty somethings is now is very different from who I am today, and I was brought up in a different 20’s and even that time I was kind of lagging behind the scenes. 

MF: Alright. What was your thought process after ‘My Name is Khan’? Did you always want to make a smaller film after that? 

KJo: I wanted to make a happy film. I don’t think I am capable of making any small movie.
MF: Ok ‘relatively’ smaller film, then    
KJo: Yeah, I wanted to make a small film in terms of not having a big star or big star cast, I definitely felt that I should launch new talent. It actually started off as a smaller film but it turned out to be a big budget one eventually, but yeah the idea was to be on a zone where there’s a happy zone, a happy vacation, I’m very filmi that way, I love the quintessential shaadi song and dance and unapologetically love love songs. It might seem like I’ve not moved in my fifteen year career, but it doesn’t matter.

MF: Was SOTY the only project in your mind at that time or did you have other films in mind?

KJo: I had this idea of a fictitious school and this competition in my head for a while, and there’s no such institution that exists in this world, and it’s a figment of my imagination. And I’m not athletic or sporty as you can see, so I put in all the sport dreams in this film and all the fun and games that I love about Hindi films is really in this. I even ended up doing a few remixes of some of my favourite yesteryear songs.

MF: We’ve had a number of ‘Youth Oriented’ films over the past few years, like the Y Films for instance. So apart from the better cast, the better production values and of course the better director, how different do you think SOTY is from those films.

KJo: It’s its own duniya ki pichchar, What are the other Youth Films that you’re talking about here?

MF: Mujhse Fraandship Karoge, Luv ka The End and so on and so forth

KJo: (Smiles) You can slot it in the same category of course, they’re aspirational young high schoolish kind of films. I don’t think content wise there’s anything different, barring the scale and money there’s probably nothing different about it. It’s a simple narrative and it definitely has something to say in the end. It may look slightly more larger than life right now but it actually has its own layer of subtlety. Nothing is over the top in the film, barring the songs.       
MF: You mentioned that you’ve auditioned a lot of people for the lead roles in SOTY, so is it a coincidence that a star son and a star daughter happened to be cast in the movie?

KJo: Actually Varun (Dhawan) was an AD on MNIK, subconsciously maybe because he is David Dhawan’s son, it may have played a part. I can’t say that nepotism did not play a part there, it may have, subconsciously. 

But definitely Mahesh Bhatt’s daughter (Alia) played no part because I heard of her only from the outside. We had a series of 400 auditions because I wanted to cast the right girl, then my friend Niranjan told me that Mahesh Bhatt has a daughter and is dying to be in a movie. So I said ok call her in, and she came and she was fifteen kilos heavier and did the audition. I didn’t even know that she made it to the short list, Nandini my casting director said ‘I have to tell you this girl is definitely in the short list’. She said she is fat but she had something about her. I saw her audition tape, and she was PLUMP, like a plump Pooja Bhatt (Pooja was also heavier in her earlier days), then she did this Hindi film song and it reminded me of the quintessential Hindi film heroine but with a different kind of look. So I asked her to lose her weight and come back. I showed everybody the audition tape in the office.

MF: A common criticism of Hollywood high school films is that lot of 25 year old or 30 year olds play high school kids. In your film Alia looks like a teenager, but Varun and Siddharth are I think both 25, are you afraid that the audience is going to react negatively for the same reason here?

KJo: I don’t think so because the film is actually a flashback film – they’re all 30 in the movie. I haven’t revealed this yet.

MF: Ohh.. I won’t mention it in the article

KJo: No it’s ok you can mention it. In any case I didn’t want to keep saying it because I feel like I am justifying everything, I generally never say too much about everything, it’s for you to discover. Even in ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’ Shahrukh was 30 when he played a kid. 

MF: But even in the flashback they’d still be 25 year olds right?

KJo: Of course even in flashback it’s a stretch to pull it off. What was actually tough for us was to make Alia look 30. It was the other way round which was difficult and we not have achieved it to the optimum because she is just 19. You don’t change much between 20 and 30, there’s a certain facial construct that changes that no CG in the world can do. 

MF: True

KJo: I couldn’t give her a wrinkle because she is 30, we were really distraught. If you see Varun and Siddharth in person, you will see that they are meant to be 30 years old. With boys, you just have to make them a little older, invariable the first thing you do is the stubble so there’s no rocket science there. On the flipside if I had cast all three 19 year olds, you have to understand that there is a ‘Movie Star Connect’ with an older face. When there’s a kiddish man, you don’t find a pan audience going to watch the movie, they’d say bachchon ki film hai, Nickleodeon should have it. With girls you still get away with it, but not with the boys. It was a commercial decision. 

MF: Coming to your other releases of this year, ‘Agneepath’ was a big, big success for you. But it was a very violent film. Despite all the violence and the profanity it still got a U/A rating from the censors. So my question is, would you take your 10-year-old son or daughter to watch Agneepath, for the kind of content it has.

KJo: (Pause) It was a U/A film and it was cleared by censors, and to me the news on TV is far more violent than that film. That way I won’t take my 10-year-old child anywhere these days, so if you go by that barometer, my kid will be sitting with my dog in my house. Have you seen some of the reality TV that kids watch? I think they’re more offensive. In fact I’m scared my child would become more regressive watching some of the TV since there is both sexual content and violence on it. So to answer your question I don’t think Agneepath was no more or less than what is being exposed to kids on a daily basis. It was killing evil, yes it was violent, we had to actually tone down the violence from the finished film. Yes I would take my 10-year-old if he wants to see Vijay Deenatah and Kancha fighting each other. Every cartoon is also so violent today, every superhero is so black and dark, I mean where is the Mickey Mouse generation? My child will probably slap me if I show him Disney cartoons, that’s why I don’t want to have a child so I don’t have to face this dilemma (chuckles).

MF: Do we get to watch the uncut uncensored version of Agneepath sometime?

KJo: The director is doing a Director’s Cut DVD release, it has around 40 more minutes of material which went into the psyche of Kancha to explain why he was like that. 

MF: That could be interesting

KJo: Yeah, we had to chop off a lot of the film for the length, in fact the first half of the film is a film in itself.        
MF: Are you a fan of indie cinema?

KJo: Yup

MF: Which is the recent favourite indie film you’ve seen?

KJo: In the last three of four months I haven’t but whenever I go out of the country I watch a lot of world cinema. I’m a huge fan of Pedro Almodovar. I watched my first Almodovar film back in 1995 and I went completely cuckoo over him. I know nothing of my cinema reflects my love for him, but from his projections of sex to his sense of humor about food to his sense of humor about women, men, I find him absolutely brilliant. 
Even the new Woody Allen is very fascinating. A lot of his earlier movies had this whackiness but recently I think he’s gone into new  groove, post his New York fixation, I think he’s gone into a really interesting headspace altogether. I love this film ‘Warrior’ that I saw, I know it’s not independent but it wasn’t celebrated as much as I thought it should have been.
Independent, I watched ‘500 days of summer’ and liked it a lot, but I remember when I saw it for the first time, I was a little thrown off by it, till I saw it again. The first time I thought ‘have I got this cinema’? I hadn’t. For the first time I went in to watch this love story, and the characters threw me off.

MF: I think the opening line itself is ‘this is not a love story’. This is a story of boy meets girl, but you should know upfront, this is NOT a love story

KJo: Yeah, in fact someone came to me with an idea that I should adapt it, but I said we’ll never get it right, we’ll muck it up. Our version of an independent love story was what Shakun (Batra) made for us with EMAET, which had its own unusual kind of synergy about it. I would actually like to produce that kind of movie, no one comes to me with those kind of scripts. I’ve produced a small 4 crore film on the coming of age of a 14 year old girl, and I wish many more people would come to me with scripts that are different and interesting. People come to me with so much crap, in fact the word ‘rom com’ gives me a disease now, I go into hives when I read them. But I think that’s the reputation of the company, that we produce only safe entertaining rom coms. Some of the deviations that we tried didn’t work, like ‘Kurbaan’ didn’t work, but I want to put it out there that I’m interested in making all kinds of cinema. I may not have that range within me, but I would like to work with those that do.   

I wish I had produced ‘Udaan’ – I loved the movie, I saw it and it just made me feel happy. It was oozing cinema even though it was such a simple narrative. I hope that people pitch slightly unusual films to us as well because I believe every film has a market if you position it right.    
MF: Speaking of indie cinema, there’s this whole gang of ‘indie enthusiasts’ out there, who constantly complain about how our film industry only makes commercial masala. They even blame filmmakers for only wanting to make commercial masala. Is their anger justified?

KJo: Funny story, there’s this place in Bandra and Milind Deora had a conference there, and it was full of these intellectual, great, path breaking content makers. I was the odd one out there. Anurag Kashyap and I had a strange war of words earlier. Later I walk in and I see these fifty heads turn to see this commercial (pardon my French) chut aka me walk in, a guy who has no idea of great cinema, I could feel the vibe coming and hitting me. And Anurag, who is the doyen of this whole community says to me ‘do you think we should talk’, and I said ‘No in a situation like this we should just hug’, and we hugged and he said it’s all good, forget it. The very next week Rensil wanted to fine tune the dialogue for Kurbaan and recommended Anurag, but he asked me if I had a problem. I said not at all, he might not like my films but that doesn’t mean I don’t like his. I think Anurag has made some great films, I LOVED ‘Black Friday’, he’s a really bright mind. So he came in and we had this really wonderful chat and he says ‘you are nothing like I thought you were’, I said ‘I don’t know what you thought who I was, but it doesn’t matter because you are really good at what you do, and you don’t have to like my movies’.

I do get the angst of independent filmmakers because it is tough to walk in and penetrate through the larger studios and you get a little bit of runaround, but that’s also as such a very big and large part. I wish they had access to us, cos there are some scripts that are waiting to be told and I don’t get to read them. I want to read them. I personally read a script a night. But just because you’re different doesn’t mean you’re good, it has to be different in a way that actually works as a screenplay. So if there is a way, through your blog, or maybe you know these people, do say that we are more than happy to read them.        
MF: Alright, thanks a lot!

Kjo: Cheers

After I turned the recorder off we bitched about a couple of people and rounded off a fun discussion. SOTY opens this Friday.

Movie Review: Looper

Let me get straight to the point: Looper is one of, if not the smartest films of the year. It makes you want to go back in time and watch it again, and again and again, on loop. It’s not an action film, but the best time travel movie since 2004’s Primer.

Director Rian Johnson, who made a big splash in 2005 with the neo noir Brick is back with Joseph Gordon Levitt, and the two make sparks fly. A top notch cast with Bruce Willis and Jeff Daniels, saucy camerawork, loads of intrigue and a time travel backdrop – what more could you possibly want from a movie? And it’s not just the production values, Looper entertains because it is about something more than just its time travel plot. The time travel gimmick is just the backdrop for a different, more fascinating bit of mystery. And it’s got great characters to go along with the plot, which makes it all the more interesting and involving.

Getting into plot details would ruin most of the fun, the trailers gave too much away already. Looper is set in 2044 US, where telekinesis has become something of a phenomenon and time travel is on the verge of invention. Johnson introduces us to a fun dilemma – if you were a contract killer, and your next target were a future you, would you complete your assignment? As expected, the killer JGL fails to shoot the future version of his own self and gets into a boatload of trouble, inadvertently setting into motion a whole alternate timeline for the future. Incidentally Shane Carruth, the genius behind Primer worked with Johnson for this film, his exact contribution remains a mystery but the final product is gold class. Moreover, Looper was made for a tenth of the budget of most Hollywood sci fi spectacles yet Johnson manages to make it look much more handsome and classy than every one of those films. Johnson’s futuristic world isn’t a glossy Hollywood bore, it’s a slick and bleak visionary bit of imagination. Aesthetics were a big part of both Brick and The Brothers Bloom, and Johnson continues to get better and better at it.

The only big criticism of Looper is that it changes its tone far too often – one moment it’s a violent science fiction action thriller, the next is suddenly a creepy kid horror movie for teens. The tonal inconsistency is however made up by a bunch of scenes that would go down as classics in the years to come. A snazzy graphic novel style flash forward sequence that involves Bruce Willis’ inception leaves you drooling for more. Not to mention the insane amount of detailing Johnson and JGL put into the film. JGL convincingly stares, walks and raspily talks like Bruce Willis, and the prosthetics on his face actually make him look like Willis. The man is being considered as the greatest actor of this generation and deservedly so. Willis on the other hand is his usual awesome gun trotting self, and he makes one want to pull out the DVD of 12 Monkeys for a time travel double bill with Looper. Towards halfway one tends to scratch one’s head to wonder if the film would lead to a logical ending, but Johnson wraps it up nice and clean and a quietly stunning climax. Looper cost just $30 million to make, in a perfect world inhabited by clones of my own self, the film would gross a billion dollars.

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: Taken 2

It’s tough to describe a film that is so blatantly silly at every second of its runtime yet takes itself completely seriously. Not only is Taken 2 a rindonkulous cash grab but also a mild embarrassment to the great Liam Neeson – although one wonders if he would have time to feel embarrassed on his way to the bank.

To be fair even the original Taken was ludicrous, but it was a moderately fresh setup and it was fun to see Neeson using his ‘set of skills’ to knock baddies on their buttocks. The setup for the sequel remains the same – the story picks up where the first film left off – Neeson the ex-CIA badass is on a mission to reconcile with his wife (Famke Janssen) after rescuing his daughter (Maggie Grace) from human traffickers. His daughter’s trip to China gets canceled and daddy invites them both to Istanbul for a bit of family time. However the ruffian Murad (Rade Serbedzija) is pissed that Neeson killed his son in Taken and he kidnaps the hell out of Neeson and his wifey. This time, it’s the daughter who must use the genetically passed set of skills to find her parents before time runs out. Of course there is no explanation as to why Murad doesn’t kill Neeson straightaway instead of leaving him in a place that just gives him time and chances to escape. It feels like Murad’s reasoning was ‘Boy I’m gonna kidnap you so hard that it’s gonna hurt’.

Director Oliver Megaton has previously made Transporter 3 and Columbiana, and it shows. There are more asinine sequences in Taken 2 than in a Priyadarshan filmed action thriller. Grenades are tossed by the dozen but there is no sign of the cops. A freaking taxi is driven through a high security government building but the security personnel simply stop shooting and stare at the car zooming past. And of course said car is put to use based on the convenient plot point that the driver must pass her driving test. Silliness doesn’t matter if the mayhem is good, but there is little fun to be had in the action scenes, seeing as the stuntwork, kicks, shots and punches are obscured by rapid fire cuts and a constantly shivering camera. On the whole, Taken 2 is more of a lame remake of the first film, rather than a sequel, if you’re down with that, do watch it.

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: Killing Them Softly

Last year we got a new genre of filmmaking called Menthol Noir in the form of Drive. This year, it is Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly. If you’re in for a crackerjack violent bit of filmmaking with some of the best dialogue of the year, it’s time for you to head over to the multiplex.

An adaptation of George Higgins' 1974 book Cogan's Trade, Killing Them Softly is a raw, brutal crime dramedy set in a post Obama financially challenged Boston. Brad Pitt (who actually arrives much later in the film) stars as Cogan, a slick freelance hitman, draped in oily black, and is as nihilistic as he is professional. Cogan is summoned by a shady mobster (Richard Jenkins) to ‘take care’ of two small time crooks who dared to upset the criminal syndicate of the town by robbing a mafia poker game at gunpoint. The plot is simple but Dominik packs in a shotgun blast of detailing, with a series of truly amazing spitfire set pieces. 

Killing them Softly is not exactly subtle. Nearly every single character oozes sarcasm and nonchalant disdain for the Obama administration. The opening shot has audio recordings of the 2009 financial crisis, juxtaposed with stark, destitute, unforgiving urban locales. In fact the film itself is quite misanthropic and to an extent hates the paying audiences as well, but does it with a hell of a lot of sardonic suaveness. This is not Casino or Sopranos, this is a world where hitmen have to kill people for reduced fees because of the economic downturn. One character viciously mouths ‘America is not a country, it’s a business, so pay me my fucking money’.

The film is extremely dialogue heavy but it’s not all preachy, and Dominik settles for a decidedly tongue in cheek tone for the most part. The best scene involves two people trying to set a car on fire which ends in a hilarious mess. The top notch cast of Pitt, Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ben Mendelsohn, Sam Shepherd are only matched by the stunning visual and aural aesthetics. Scott McNairy (from the indie hit Monsters) is perfectly emancipated, an embodiment of the small time crook who knows he screwed up and is running out of time and chances. Ray Liotta is excellent in the polar opposite of his role in Goodfellas. Pitt’s character is classic, and one hopes he gets to do more films with Dominik in the future. It’s also ballsy of Pitt to take on this sort of role in a small film, instead of just doing a commercial romcom or a Michael Bay movie and count his Dineros.

Greg Fraser’s camerawork is mindblowing to say the least – one slow motion car shootout plays out like a murderous ballet and it’s hard to keep one’s lower jaw affixed to its upper counterpart. Another standout sequence features a POV shot of a character coming in and out of a drug induced haze. It’s not an action film, but the little bits of violence are stunning enough to make you squirm in your seat. And it’s nasty as hell, but with a certain freewheeling charm.

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: The Possession

The Possession is the one hundred thousandth possession horror film of the year, and much like the ones that preceded it, is hysterically bad. But don’t let that disappoint you because the film has enough unintentional hilarity to derive some guilty pleasure out of it.

The first thing you’ll notice about The Possession is how director Ole Bornedal comes across like a crazy 12 year old fanboy of The Exorcist with a handheld camera who wants to remake the iconic film with his friends in his home’s backyard. The second thing you’ll notice is how the story was written after the film was shot.

From the hacks who wrote Boogeyman and the Nicholas Cage masterpiece Knowing comes a tale of young girl who is possessed by a demon who makes her hurl expletives and contort her body in weird ways. If that sounds like The Exorcist, you’ll be surprised to know that The Possession is completely different – instead of Catholic Churches, this time the ghosties come from a Hebrew box named dybbuk. The girl buys the dybbuk box at a yard sale, much to the demon’s delight and the ignominy of her dad (Jeffery Dean Morgan). As scary as a yard sale sounds, the film then proceeds to borrow elements from not only the Bill Friedkin movie but also from Drag me to hell, The seventh sign and The unborn.

If there’s one thing that The Possession can be credited for is that it is constantly idiotic. You are provided with a lot of laughs by the time our heroic dad provides the biggest facepalm in a scene containing some orthodox Jews. Hilariously, none of the characters seem to care when they notice some paranormal activity around them – the dad is stabbed by his daughter with a fork, but he just shrugs it off; when a bunch of doctors see an MRI scan of the girl that shows a weird freaking living being inside her body, they shrug it off. The film opens with a ‘Based on a true story’ title card, perhaps director Bornedal’s idea was to tell us how indifferent modern American dads and doctors are.   

(First published in MiD Day)