Tuesday, July 29, 2014

REVIEW 281: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

Release date (India):
July 25, 2014
Director:
Wes Anderson
Cast:



Language:
Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson and an army of other stars
English




Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is a quaint, quirky, wacky, whimsical little film that disguises its depth and beauty in seeming simplicity. In one sentence, this is the story of an old man relating to a young writer the events that led to him becoming the owner of a premier hotel perched on a mountaintop in the historic city of Budapest. In 99 minutes what we get is a poignant lament – couched in farce – for times gone by, steeped in humour, historical references, social commentary, suspense and intrigue.

Using a flashback-within-a-flashback-within-a-flashback format (quite remarkably without getting confusing at any point), the film first shows us a girl marching up to a monument to a writer in a cemetery. She then starts reading from a book, and what we get is an old man known only as Author (Tom Wilkinson) narrating from his desk in 1985 the tale of a trip he made to the once-lavish, now-declining Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968 where he (his younger self played by Jude Law) met its elderly owner Zero Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who goes further back in time to reveal how he came to be in possession of this property.

The film’s primary plot is set in early 1930s Europe, in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka where the decadent rich while away their time, seemingly oblivious to the extreme poverty and Hitler’s forces, both of which are just around the corner. The Grand Budapest is run by the fastidious Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge whose impeccable services include bedding many among the wealthy old women who frequent his establishment. An immigrant of indeterminate nationality, the young Zero (Tony Revolori) is at that point being trained as a lobby boy by Gustave.

Gruesome murders, greedy children, a stolen painting, a ridiculously improbable prison escape, a cold-blooded assassin, thrilling chases down snowy mountain slopes and through hotel corridors, pretty pastries, a shootout, an unlikely friendship and true love are all served up on this delicious platter by Anderson. 

The director’s visual signature is all over this film with its painterly settings deliberately designed to resemble picture postcard images – somewhat removed from reality even while capturing it. Interestingly enough, despite using live actors, Anderson manages to create a look reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s 3D motion capture film The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011) and Herge’s comic books. It seems to be intentional. The hotel’s facade, for one, is a curiously fascinating celluloid confection, something like Hansel and Gretel’s fairytale candy house with pink frosting.

Each frame is mounted on an exaggerated scale, with every scene seeming to both mock and mourn auld lang syne. The eccentric acting and action sequences along with the unrelenting background score cheekily reference old-world detective capers and the cinematic style of an era where over-playing was the norm. Some of the more suspenseful scenes look like they could have fitted just as well into the Pink Panther series. You can almost see how Da tan da tan da tan da tan da tan da tan da tan would suit this goofy film.     

The charismatic Fiennes here seems to be revelling in the opportunity to set aside his usual naturalistic approach to acting for this oddball project. Newcomer Revolori is a revelation. As delightful as their performances is the joy of spotting an army of major stars appearing throughout the film in small roles, some of which are significant and some not: a virtually unrecognisable Tilda Swinton looking like what Marge Simpson might be at the age of 200, Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson. Goldblum as a weird lawyer and Dafoe as a brutal hitman are particularly memorable.

I won’t list the entire cast here (yes, there’s more!) because playing spot-the-star is a game many in the audience could enjoy. Anderson himself is evidently having fun not just with the overall job at hand but with the casting too.

The director of The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom has credited the works of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig as his inspiration for The Grand Budapest Hotel. Knowing that adds a touch of melancholy to most possible interpretations of this film since the character known as Author appears to be modelled on Zweig himself. The rise of the Nazis prompted the real Zweig – who was a Jew – to flee his motherland. He reportedly committed suicide many years later along with his wife, apparently in despair at being a man without a country.

The film won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival where it was the opening film. It has made its way to India about five months after hitting theatres in the West. For Indians who couldn’t bring themselves to wait for the official release and found a way of watching it anyway, here’s a tip: some films are born to be seen on the big screen.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is such a nuanced affair, that after watching it in its entirety, it’s still hard to decide whether to consider it a comedy or a tragedy. Is it just a light-hearted frothy entertainer referencing a bygone cinematic world? Or is it – as Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful managed so effectively to be – a stinging criticism of war and violence despite its deceptive veneer of playfulness and fun? Perhaps it is both, perhaps it is neither. What it is for sure is an experience.

Rating (out of five): ***1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
A
Running time:
MPAA Rating (US):
99 minutes 
R (for language, some sexual content and violence)
Release date in the US:
March 7, 2014


Friday, July 25, 2014

REVIEW 280: KICK

Release date:
July 25, 2014
Director:
Sajid Nadiadwala
Cast:




Language:
Salman Khan, Randeep Hooda, Jacqueline Fernandez, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Mithun Chakraborty, Vipin Sharma, Archana Puran Singh, Saurabh Shukla
Hindi


A man and woman on a train journey are exchanging notes about that one grand obsession in their lives. She is Shaina Mehra (Jacqueline Fernandez), daughter of the Indian ambassador to Poland. He is Himanshu Tyagi (Randeep Hooda), a top Indian policeman. Shaina tells him about her ex-boyfriend Devi Lal Singh back in Delhi, an altruistic fellow who was forever placing himself in precarious situations to get an adrenaline rush (he calls it “kick”, hence the film’s title). Since he was unable to stick to any job, her father assumed that he would gladly be a ghar jamaai. Whaaaaatttttt?!!!! I tell ya, the audacity of the man! Since there can be no greater affront to a Bollywood hero’s ego – as we all know – this GJ business ultimately tears the couple apart.

Himanshu in turn tells Shaina about the one criminal he has failed to nab so far – a gravity-defying, logic-busting, masked thief whose face no one has ever seen. He calls himself Devil. Of course they’re both talking about the same man, played by Salman Khan. Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler: they don’t know, but we the viewers are in on the secret from the start.

Producer Sajid Nadiadwala’s debut film as director, Kick is devoted to dual threads: the crests and troughs of Devi’s romance with Shaina, and Himanshu’s cross-continental chase of Devil. That the two stories will intersect at some point is evident from the word go.

Kick is a glossy, overtly expensive film shot in India and abroad with sumptuous sets and expansive cinematography. Although Ahmed Khan’s choreography for the women (Jacqueline and cameo girl Nargis Fakhri) is graceless, he has given Salman some interesting moves. The intermittent humour in the screenplay steers clear of farts, poop and pee, which is more than can be said of most big Bollywood comedies these days. Besides, although it has been designed as an ode to its leading man replete with references to his hits, it is less irritatingly in-your-face with the Salman worship than many of the star’s recent films.

Big mistake though: Sajid surrounds his hero with supporting actors so vastly superior to him in various ways, that they show him up for what he is: a cute guy with a charming screen presence who milks the cuteness and charm to camouflage his limited acting.

Mistake #1: casting Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Devil’s bête noir. The eccentric Shiv Gajra in Kick is the least nuanced character this marvelous actor has played so far. Yet, Nawaz shows flashes of brilliance even here. The merit in his performance becomes glaring when Devil/Salman mimics Shiv’s quirks, and falls flat in the attempt.

Mistake #2: casting Randeep Hooda as Himanshu. Randeep is an underrated actor who is his usual, quietly effective self in Kick, but that’s not the point here. His presence in this film serves to highlight the fact that Salman is no longer the lithe action hero he once was. This Khan has always had the body and distinctive walk of a body-builder – I get that. But from Ek Tha Tiger onwards, he has been looking increasingly tubby and sluggish. Watching one particular low-angle shot of him negotiate the edge of a wall of a high-rise building is a sad reminder of this. So too is the sight of him next to Randeep’s slim yet muscular frame sans the endearing Salman-deprecating humour of Dabangg’s screenplay that revelled in the physical differences between Chulbul Pandey (Salman) and Chhedi Singh (played by the towering Sonu Sood). It doesn’t help that a light-footed Hrithik Roshan as another masked hero is still so fresh in our memories.

Mistake #3: Vipin Sharma playing India’s Home Minister and Sanjay Mishra as the low-ranking policeman Ramaavtar Rathi pull off comedy with greater panache in their brief appearances in Kick, than Salman manages with the zillion lines he gets in the entire film.

The film’s gender politics is steeped in hypocrisy. In one scene, Devi bashes up a bunch of guys who were harassing women at a restaurant and lectures the indifferent onlookers. This comes just seconds after he was himself harassing Shaina in that very restaurant despite her professed disinterest. Then in that thoroughly enjoyable song Jumme ki raat hai (the stand-out number in an otherwise lacklustre soundtrack), Devi lifts an unsuspecting Shaina’s skirt by his teeth and follows her, surrounded by a troupe of male dancers. In the same song, she takes off her overcoat and gyrates every single part of her body in a tiny tight dress, while he watches in open-mouthed wonderment. In the very next shot he protectively covers up her body with her coat. Guess he just remembered those audience members who were moved by his earlier ma-behen speech?

To be fair, there are several scenes in which the humour hits home and the action is cool (one involves Devil on a bike with a speeding train approaching him). For the most part though, Kick feels stale. In places, the writing is so sub-standard that it’s a wonder such lines were released for public consumption. Topping the list is the repeated, tacky use of the word “kick” in dialogues to justify the contrived title. The characterisation of Devi’s mother (over-acted by Archana Puran Singh) is unimaginative and unoriginal. How many times will we be served loud, crude melodramatic North Indian moms before the cliché is laid to rest? As Devi’s dad, Mithun Chakraborty delivers an OTT performance of an unfunny, OTT character.

Kick is a remake of a Telugu film of the same name, with a screenplay adapted for Bollywood by Nadiadwala, Rajat Aroraa and bestselling author Chetan Bhagat. The result of Bhagat’s earlier screenplay collaboration was Kai Po Che, a film that is head and shoulders, eyebrows and forehead above this one in terms of finesse and novelty. This is not to say that Kick can be completely written off. It’s way better than the recent Salman-starrer Jai Ho. But considering the dullness of Jai Ho and how repetitive Salman has been since the highly entertaining Dabangg in 2010, that still just makes Kick an average film with sporadic humour and little that’s new.

Rating (out of five stars): **

Footnote: Believe it or not, Salman plays a 40-year-old in Kick. Devi laughingly claims that he is 10 since his birthday comes once every four years (he was born on February 29 in a leap year). As every Bollywood buff knows, for a 48-year-old male star to play a 40-year-old character, and not a 20-/30-something, is unusual and progressive. Next step hopefully: 48-year-old men who do not insist on starring opposite girls two decades their junior?

CBFC Rating (India):

U
Running time:
157 minutes

Photograph courtesy: Everymedia PR 


Thursday, July 24, 2014

THE PURPOSE OF FILM REVIEWS / COLUMN PUBLISHED IN THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS

(This column by Anna M.M. Vetticad first appeared in The New Indian Express on July 31, 2011)


Headline: CRITIQUING THE CRITICS

What purpose do reviews serve? This eternal question comes loudest from
the makers of Bollywood’s hard-core masala films. Coming up: Singham
Returns (above); and (below) Kick

I spent much of last night locked in a debate with one of Bollywood’s most successful directors. It was a personal chat so I will not name him in this column. Let’s just call him X. As it happens, X has helmed one of 2011’s biggest Hindi film hits so far and we were discussing the largely negative reviews his film received.
“Who are these critics anyway?” he said.
Now X is one of the most down-to-earth directors I’ve encountered in Bollywood, so I hate to be blunt, but the truth is that film-folk question the credibility and relevance of film critics only when they receive poor reviews. But give them a positive review and they’ll unabashedly quote you in their post-release promotional material.
Still, it’s important to address one question raised by X since I’ve heard it from several film personalities over the years.
The filmmaker’s eternal question: What purpose do reviews serve?
Answer: If you don’t know, then why do you bother to preview your film for the press? Frankly, no one is holding a gun to any producer’s head and forcing him/her to hold a press preview. Yash Raj Films, for instance, has consistently desisted from previews and I don’t see any critic particularly ripping apart their films as an act of revenge.
But during my time as a critic for a national news channel and now as an independent blogger, I’ve realised that press previews are a matter of convenience for critics (not a bid to save money, as some filmmakers snidely insist). Watching a film early gives me time to chew on it, instead of rushing through a bunch of films on Friday and then hurriedly punching out my thoughts on my laptop.
From the filmmakers’ point of view… well, in their more honest moments, most producers acknowledge that good reviews contribute to the buzz surrounding a film. Personally, I believe reviews also add to the debate surrounding a film in a country where we seem to feel more strongly about cinema and cricket than even about religion and politics.
Many readers have also pointed out to me that since a trip to the movies has become an expensive proposition these days, some perspective from a good critic always helps. I guess then, the sensible thing for any viewer to do is to track a bunch of critics over a period of time and finally zero in on one whose tastes more or less match theirs. After all, for the most part there is no such thing as a right or a wrong review, just reviews we agree or disagree with. Right, Mr X?
(Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. Twitter: @annavetticad)
Photographs courtesy:
Note: These photographs were not used in The New Indian Express (link to original article http://www.newindianexpress.com/entertainment/television/article426289.ece)