Thursday, October 6, 2011

New Post on The NRI: "Heroine"

Women of substance or damsels in distress? Click over to my post on The NRI for a discussion of the state of the Bollywood heroine.

New Post on The NRI: "Kalki Baat"

My interview with That Girl in Yellow Boots--Kalki Koechlin on her past, future, and latest release! Head on over to read it on the NRI website!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Independence Day Post on The NRI

I'm back--to tell you, once again, to head on over to The NRI website for my latest post: in honor of India's independence day, a rundown of the Top 10 Patriotic Bollywood Films! Enjoy and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Guest Post on The NRI

Hi guys,

Just popping in to say check out my post over at The NRI website for a discussion of South Asian Americans in the media and our long-raging battle with stereotypes.



Friday, July 22, 2011

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara

Under a sky the hue of a robin’s egg, a luxury car of the same shade cruises along coiling, mountainous paths. Below, crested waves lap gently against a golden shoreline on which whitewashed houses are scattered in all their Catalan splendor. In a few moments, we’ll reach our destination: a sprawling condominium, with full glass doors spilling onto a breathtaking panorama of the Mediterranean.

A promotional video for Spanish tourism? Maybe. But Zoya Akhtar’s calling it Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, her second directorial venture after a successful Luck By Chance in 2009, and a tale of three childhood friends on the holiday of a lifetime.

Some might peg it as just another coming of age film, though upon a closer look, that label may not quite fit. The three main characters are already established adults in their own right--Imran (Farhan Akhtar), a whacky but witty advertising copywriter; Kabir (Abhay Deol), a recently-engaged architect; and Arjun (Hrithik Roshan), a workaholic stockbroker constantly fixated on the net worth of everything and everyone around him. Upon proposing to Natasha (Kalki Koechlin), the interior-designing daughter of an affluent family friend, Kabir and his buddies embark upon a trip that combines the typical antics of a bachelor party with the realization of a shared boyhood dream where, in three different cities within Spain, each friend chooses one extreme adventure sport for them all to attempt.

Sure, cinematographer Carlos Catalan’s vision captures vistas that make you want to book the next flight to the Costa Brava.* However, rather than just an exotic locale that hasn’t already been beaten to a pulp by Bollywood’s location scouts, the much-hyped backdrop of ZNMD actually plays a part--whether it’s reveling in young love during La Tomatina or partaking in death-defying adventure sports, the distance that Spain offers from the characters’ respective realities allows them a shot at escaping the burden of past grudges, the monotony of their lives back home, or even just themselves.

The setting also offers sound inspiration (pun totally intended) for background score. While melodic, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s soundtrack mostly serves to create ambience, with the exception of the delightful Senorita number which makes up for its slightly awkward placement with an irresistible foot-tapping beat and the pure entertainment of watching Hrithik Roshan and Abhay Deol dance--one, a modern-day Gene Kelly, the other…well, Abhay Deol.**

There will be inevitable parallels drawn between this movie and 2001’s Dil Chahta Hai--and at first glance, the setup of this one does bear resemblance to Farhan Akhtar’s directorial debut, now a full decade old. But whereas DCH was about moving past the childish games of one’s youth and finding one’s place in the world, ZNMD's focus lies on where one goes once they’ve done the growing up and have been hardened by the real world, strained by responsibilities and weighed down by emotional baggage. It’s almost as though the film encourages us to take a step back and think like a kid again, where friends trump work, happiness trumps wealth, and living life to the fullest comes before fulfilling unwanted obligations. The moral may be a little unorthodox for the traditional Indian palette, but it’s sure to instantly resonate with younger viewers, who already seem to embrace it as their motto. It might also be better digested thanks to being delivered in large part by the pretty little parcel that is Laila (Katrina Kaif), a spunky deep-sea diving instructor with an infectious zest for life. Kaif is unexpectedly striking in a role that both highlights her unique background and underplays her looks to equally successful effect.

Yet hers is only the tip of an iceberg of pleasantly surprising performances. Kalki Koechlin plays Kabir’s fiancée with confidence, and just the right touch of neurosis. And then, of course, there are The Men. As I tweeted immediately after the movie, I’m convinced that Farhan Akhtar is the free-spirited friend everybody wishes they had. With boyish charm, a wicked sense of humor, and effortlessly natural delivery of comedy as well as emotion, Akhtar--who had always appeared more admirable as a director than an actor--strikes a perfect balance between Imran’s shallowness as he pursues a potential Spanish flame, and sensitivity as he contemplates contacting the biological father he’s never met. As Arjun, Hrithik Roshan probably undergoes the most drastic transition, from an arrogant and money-minded stick-in-the-mud to a lovestruck optimist with a newfound appreciation for life. The evolution risked coming off as horribly strained; yet, to the credit of both the script and the unusual subtlety of Hrithik’s portrayal, it transpires with believable fluidity. Even Abhay Deol, whose stock fell considerably after the disaster of a career move known as Aisha, redeemed himself as the level-headed anchor of the trio, caught in his own internal battle between being committed to others and true to himself.

The on-screen camaraderie between the three male leads appears anything but contrived--engineering juvenile pranks, reminiscing about insufferable school teachers of the past, or drunkenly crooning a hilariously off-key rendition of old-school Doordarshan’s theme music, the illusion of their long-standing bromance is complete. Furthermore, there is no single star of the show here. Throughout the film, their growth as individuals as well as together convince us to root for all three of them: unusual for an ensemble cast, where oftentimes only one character captures the majority of the audiences’ loyalties. Complete with lyrical snippets of poetry by the incomparable Javed Akhtar, the final result is a sharp and clever, yet sincere story that draws us in with its honesty.

Yes, there will be moments during the whopping 155 minutes where seemingly-basic logic is questionable. How, for instance, can Laila afford trips to Morocco and Seville when she teaches all of one measly diving lesson in the entire film? Or how, during one of the many song-n-drives throughout the Spanish countryside, do four computer generated horses just happen to be running alongside the car? I don’t have an explanation for such mysteries. But as an answer, I’ll leave you with a phrase that, uttered by the characters before plunging into the sea; plummeting from an airplane; and fleeing for their lives from a pack of crazed bulls, eventually becomes ZNMD’s resounding message: Just let it go.

*All right, so I fell for the blatant advertising of Spain. You watch the movie and just try not to . I dare ya.

**You have to love him for trying. After all, dancing next to Hrithik is basically suicide for anyone’s self confidence.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Tree of Life

It was already one of the most highly-awaited movies of the year among film buffs, and upon receiving the mother of all cinematic honors, anticipation really skyrocketed. But if you want my opinion,* Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life would have worked infinitely better as an impressionistic painting, or perhaps a modern interpretive dance, considering I usually walk away from those feeling the same jumble of awe, confusion, frustration, and intellectual inadequacy that I experienced upon watching this film.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the very beginning--which, as it turns out, Tree takes both seriously and extremely literally, devoting almost the entire first hour to chronicling the earth’s evolution, complete with asteroid attacks, spewing volcanoes, amoebic clusters and the occasional stingray. The images are absolutely breathtaking--but really, if I wanted spectacular visuals of our planet’s natural phenomena, I would have stayed at home and watched a National Geographic special. To put the absolute kiss of death on it (pun intended), the entire sequence is devoid of dialogue save for an initial, whispered voiceover of an excerpt from the Book of Job, in which God responds to Job’s grievances of suffering by asking, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” It is immediately obvious, then, that there is a solid spiritual undertone to the film, but unless you’re familiar with Biblical passages**, it is difficult to feel anything but exasperation at failing to grasp its value, or its relation to the story that follows.

Only after this prolonged, thoroughly perplexing display of our planet’s ecological development and its accompanying existential questions does the actual dramatic portion of the program begin--and even then, it is interspersed with sporadic throwbacks to the whole evolution thing, not to mention more disembodied, whispered philosophical queries. Abruptly, we are transported a few centuries forward, where the parents of the O’Brien family learn of the untimely death of one of their three sons--though we never find out how, where, or why--and spend a few minutes mourning their loss. Barely is there a moment to digest that before we are propelled even further into the future, where, all grown up and working as an architect in an unnamed city, oldest son Jack (Sean Penn, in a cameo-style role I am still scratching my head as to why he accepted) remains troubled--yet it is unclear, due to lack of any expository dialogue or other form of elucidation, whether this is because he is plagued by his problematic childhood, his brother’s untimely demise, or some other unexplained dilemma. Penn barely gets fifteen full minutes of screen time, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that fourteen of them are spent in what appears to be a constant state of grave solemnity or distress as he rides up and down the elevator of an airy skyscraper.

Now back in mid-1950s Texas, we witness the O’Brien parents’ drastically divergent yet equally problematic relationships with their children, most notably the complex effects of the patriarch’s (Brad Pitt) disciplinarian attitude on a young Jack (Hunter McCracken in a rather emotionless performance). In a stab at reconciliation (or perhaps a final discouraging blow to our attempts at comprehension), the concluding moments*** depict an afterlife of sorts in which adult-Jack, his brothers, parents, and a slew of others who made fleeting appearances throughout the movie gather at a beach (or is it a desert?). From the abundant smiling and hugging-in-slow-motion going on in this celestial scene, we can presume that everyone actually loves each other and all is well with the world.

If that summary seems like a chaotic ramble, the reason is that the film itself is equally inarticulate. Abstract storytelling, nonlinear chronology, and otherworldly aesthetics can be intriguing, exciting, and refreshing. However, Malick seems so absorbed with pursuing a personal sense of truth-seeking or creative fulfillment that he doesn’t bother to bring the disjointed elements of his elaborate opus into a remotely cohesive final product for his audience; we are left unable to reciprocate even with respectful appreciation, if not absolute adoration. While ambiguity is an effective device if used cleverly, Tree leaves so much to interpretation, urges so much fruitless contemplation, and includes so many ethereal shots of trees and skies and planets that could signify anything until ultimately, ironically, they signify nothing. It’s excessive, and simultaneously, insufficient. What may have been an earnest attempt at transcendental meditation eventually takes on an air of superiority and patronization, and most unfortunately, results in meaninglessness. At the end, even if the family drama resonates with us on some level, it loses impact due to the film’s failure to offer an affecting connection between its narrative and artistic dimensions.

That said, Tree is not completely uninspiring. One would be hard-pressed to identify another film quite like this, so as baffling as it is, it merits points for originality. And Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, from the cosmic explosions to the dreamlike ending, really is stunning. Brad Pitt is brilliant as the hardened, war vet father employing the tough-love approach to parenting and symbolizing the unforgiving temperament of “nature” in opposition to on-screen wife Jessica Chastain’s gentler, angelic, almost naive embodiment of “grace”--two concepts raised by the whispered monologue at the onset of the movie. However, it is difficult to get past the fact that this film is slow. As in, really slow. As in, painfully, squirming-in-your-seat, start-thinking-about-when-to-schedule-your-next-dentist-appointment slow.****

Malick’s intricate, enigmatic films of the past (The Thin Red Line, Badlands) have typically split audience and critic opinions, but this latest offering may create the biggest rift yet. For some patient, open-minded individuals, it will be a sublime work of poetry. But for what I fear will be the majority of the general audience, Tree is a pretentious load of garbage, an overly self-indulgent work that takes the liberties of profundity a few frames too far, producing a beautiful but epic disappointment.

*which I'm assuming you do, otherwise you wouldn't be here.

**which I am not in the least. That little tidbit, I admit, was researched post-movie. But I had you fooled for a second, didn't I?

***Don't worry, this is not a spoiler--that would imply that there was actually something worthy of spoiling.

****Or, as my handsome date demonstrated, shamelessly-seize-the-opportunity-for-a-catnap slow.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Midnight in Paris

I may be jumping the gun here, seeing as how we haven’t even gotten around to June yet, but I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway: Midnight in Paris makes my top five list for the year. Admittedly romanticized, yet brimming with irresistible charm, Woody Allen’s quirky love letter to the city is at once a delightful celebration as well as a cautionary tale of nostalgia—an emotion that the eccentric auteur knows all too well and that, indeed, has informed many of his cinematic creations over the years.

Standing in as Allen’s wistful avatar here is Owen Wilson in the role of Gil, a disillusioned Hollywood writer and aspiring novelist whose dreamy enchantment with his Parisian surroundings is both scoffed at and carelessly dismissed by his callous fiancé, Inez (Rachel McAdams). Their strained relationship is only exacerbated by Inez’s disapproving, anti-French yet ironically bourgeois parents with whom they share their vacation, along with a number of encounters with her insufferably intellectual friend Paul (Michael Sheen) and his wife, who join Inez in pooh-pooh-ing Gil’s reminiscent reveries as “denial of a painful present.” Desperate to cut loose from the pretentious likes of his party, Gil escapes late one evening for a stroll through the city, losing himself in its labyrinth-like streets until the stroke of midnight, when a vintage automobile filled with drunken merrymakers pulls up in front of him. Slightly inebriated himself at this point, Gil is easily convinced to join them and, upon jumping onboard, is casually chauffeured back to 1920s Paris.

Herein begins the real adventure, where Gil stumbles upon a veritable Who’s Who of literary, artistic, and cultural giants of the period. From partying with the Fitzgeralds and Cole Porter to drinking with Ernest Hemingway and receiving writing advice from Gertrude Stein (convincingly portrayed by Kathy Bates), he finds himself living out a Jazz Age version of “Alice in Wonderland”; there’s even a Mad Hatter of sorts in Adrian Brody, who decidedly steals the show with his hilarious rendition of Salvador Dali.* While daybreak lands Gil right back in the miserable company of his reality, he begins to repeat his nighttime walks—much to the bewilderment of Inez—to revisit Stein, who has graciously agreed to read the manuscript of his novel. However, what truly keeps Gil coming back night after night is his enamorement with Adriana (the always-lovely Marion Cotillard), the supposed lover of Picasso (among others) who seems to have taken a liking to him in return. It is Adriana, with whom he shares an innocent yet life-changing liaison, whose own desire to live in a previous time eventually teaches him a thing or two about the futility of idealizing a bygone era, as one's rose-tinted past will always be another’s insipid present.

Though unconventional for a Woody Allen film, the central casting is what stands out as especially noteworthy in this movie. McAdams’ sharp departure from her usually saccharine on and off-screen persona is striking, if not consistently convincing. Bates and Cotillard can always be counted upon to pull off just about anything, but here they take their characters of Stein and Adriana to another level of flair and poise, respectively. Yet, the real surprise is Owen Wilson. For those of us (me included) who have until now doubted his ability to deliver a less-than-totally-obnoxious performance, we can stand happily corrected here. Gil is to Wilson what the glass slipper was to Cinderella; he fits and performs the slightly bumbling, slightly naïve, and totally romantic character to perfection. Particularly endearing is the childlike awe and genuine excitement with which he greets each of his historic heroes, lending an engaging sensitivity to the usual neurosis of Allen’s onscreen representations.

What I really love about this film is that when it comes to technicality, Allen doesn’t bother with excess; rather, he lets the charm of the city speak for itself, as seen in the simply arranged opening montage of Parisian sights in all their enchanting splendor. It’s a time-travel fantasy that doesn’t rely on special effects to draw one in or a fussy scientific explanation for the mechanism by which the transportation is achieved**, proving that it is in fact still possible to enjoy a film without all the frills of CGI, pyrotechnics, or that dreaded 3-D phenomenon that lately seems to be creeping up everywhere.***

I’ve already witnessed some resentment towards the elite, “tourist” view of Paris that MIP presents, but honestly, should one really expect any different from a movie about a starry-eyed, well-off American’s love affair with it? The glorified fancy is actually necessary here in order for the film’s message to succeed, and when it is portrayed so exquisitely by Darius Khondji’s cinematography—from the bright and airy visuals of modern-day Paris to the mesmerizing luminosity of the city in its Golden Age—I hardly think that locals, or anyone else, should begrudge it. Instead, enjoy Midnight in Paris for what it is: a beguiling tale of love, longing, and playful whimsy. A delectable and intoxicating apéritif for the summer movie season.

*Never before has the word “rhinocerous” been so amusing.
**This is by no means an insult to the ever-awesome flux capacitor.
***For instance, someone please explain to me why the Justin Bieber movie necessitated this technology??