Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Bobby Jasoos

“Female-centric films” are Bollywood buzzwords these days, and July 3rd saw the release of the latest of the ever-growing bunch, as the Vidya Balan-starring/Dia Mirza-produced Bobby Jasoos hit theaters.

Here, Vidya is Bilquis “Bobby” Ahmed—a jovial if not somewhat bumbling small-town girl with an ardent hunger to be the best crime-busting, crook-catching, puzzle-solving private eye around. Sure, she has no degree and zero field experience (unless catching a couple mid-make-out session in a secluded alleyway counts), but what she lacks in credentials she makes up for in spades with ambition.

Indeed, Bobby’s espionage dreams are much larger than the parameters that her traditional family or conservative Moghalpura society will allow for; her father, ashamed at his daughter’s impending spiral into spinsterhood, refuses to speak to her.  And while she’s got a steady stream of locals requesting her services for petty assignments in exchange for equally petty cash, Bobby isn't satisfied with digging up community gossip. So when the mysterious Anees Khan (Kiran Kumar) offers her lofty compensation to find a string of young women, Bobby will stop at nothing—not even silent treatment from dad—to emerge as Hyderabad’s #1 hardboiled detective. But the more lucrative her cases get, the more ambiguous their morality becomes, until Bobby fears that taking them on may have been a huge mistake.

The film starts off promisingly enough, with plenty of laugh-out-loud opportunities. Without a legitimate background in detective work, Bobby uses unconventional yet effective tactics to carry out her investigations: a collection of low-budget disguises, from a bearded and turbaned beggar to a buck-toothed palm reader, and a motley crew of bungling assistants providing some giggle-worthy exchanges, including her melodramatic gay sidekick Shetty and pal-cum-potential-love-interest Tussavur (Ali Fazal). A gaggle of supporting actresses, headed by Tanvi Azmi as Bobby’s aunt, provide an additional boost of both heart and humor. The first half also establishes some genuinely compelling set-ups for suspense, as Khan’s character and motives get increasingly murky.

That initial potential endures until the intermission, after which director Samar Shaikh appears to gradually lose grasp of the many lines he has cast as subplots. At some moments a love story, at some a thriller, at others a family drama, and at still others a comedy, the various genres being juggled simultaneously never find a way to coexist, rendering the film to become a whole lot of nothing much.  

There is an excess of irritating and illogical plot points that make Bobby Jasoos’s otherwise amusing script seem careless: for instance, despite being an aspiring detective, Bobby fails to inquire why, in the first place, she is being asked to find the girls Aneez Khan is looking for. We have no idea in which direction Bobby’s life is headed upon the film’s last frame. The climax is feeble; the denouement feels forced.

Vidya Balan can’t save the story’s seams from unraveling, but she is its saving grace as the equally headstrong and vulnerable Bobby. The film is a chance for her to boast her impeccable comic timing and prove that it takes not just talent, but an actress for whom vanity is a distant afterthought, to pull off the crazy costumes and expressions that she does with confidence.

Best of all, Balan is truly the film’s hero, taking on the actions and the personality traits that most Bollywood actors would: she’s swathed in salwar kameez, but strides the streets in orange sneakers. She hurtles through chase sequences, seeks out heated confrontations, dishes out verbal dhamkis, and teaches the meek Tassuvar to act more like a “tiger;” in fact, Fazal’s character is largely useless without Bobby around. While their chemistry isn’t quite convincing—the romantic subplot seems generally displaced and superfluous given there’s plenty else going on—the dynamic between Fazal and Balan when they banter is hilarious, making Bobby Jasoos one of those rare films necessitating the actress to boost the substance of her male counterparts.

Alas, not even Balan’s badassery can rescue the film from slipping through the narrative cracks. Well-intentioned but with way too many loose knots left at the end, Bobby Jasoos is a mystery all right--just not in the sense that the filmmakers probably intended. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Begin Again

“Music can turn banalities into beautiful, effervescent pearls,” Mark Ruffalo’s character tells Keira Knightley’s as they perch on a park bench midway through Begin Again. An emotional choice of words, perhaps, but an accurate representation of the sentiment that permeates every scene in the film, given that its original title was Can a Song Change Your Life? I wouldn’t say Begin Again’s tunes are quite that powerful (I’m actually having trouble recalling their melodies now); however they do have a transporting effect within the story’s context, making it a lot easier to like the film while watching it than when you’re thinking about it later.  

I’ll admit up-front that I haven’t seen director John Carney’s debut film Once*, which apparently deals with similar subject matter. The comparisons ricocheting around critics’ circles lamenting Begin Again’s less innocent, more manufactured nature are therefore lost on me; for better or worse, I watched this one with eyes un-tinted by the rosy shadow of its predecessor.

Begin Again opens with Dan (a pitch-perfect Ruffalo), a once-flourishing audio label executive turned borderline alcoholic, deadbeat dad kicked out of the house by his wife (Catherine Keener), and general sad case. Sick of sifting through starry-eyed pop princesses and lame rock wannabes—“monosyllabic teenagers” as he refers to them—he hasn’t signed anyone new in seven years, leading to his ousting from the very indie record company he helped found.

Half a drink away from a total meltdown and slumped at a local bar, he's suddenly roused from his bourbon-induced haze by the acoustic strums of a guitar and a voice with the heart he's been searching for.

It’s the voice of Gretta (Knightley), a British singer-songwriter who’s in her own doldrums after Dave (a surprisingly sensitive Adam Levine), the boyfriend she followed to New York when he got a record deal, not only cheats on her, but—maybe an even greater offense—mangles the wistful ballad she wrote into a pop-ified remix for his own album.

As Dan and Gretta bond over their downtrodden states and their shared chagrin at the decline of originality in music, Dan convinces Gretta to take him up as her producer in what evolves into a platonic-with-room-for-interpretation relationship. When they can’t book a venue to record a demo, they take matters into their own hands, using the five boroughs as their studio in an ode to New York City as well as an unequivocal refusal to serve as another cog in the industry machine.

Thus, Begin Again embarks on a journey to celebrate the cathartic capabilities of songs unprocessed by commercial interests. From the local artists and neighborhood kids recruited as accompanists to the subway platform soundstages and the iPhone duct-taped to a tripod as a makeshift microphone, it's the music version of the organic movement. Doing all of her own singing, Knightley’s voice has an unexpectedly unique timbre that’s sweet and simple; honest even as the lyrics she’s singing try a bit too hard to hit that indie eccentricity.

At times during its resolute mission to adhere to the authenticity theme, Begin Again ironically gets in its own way. Dan bemoans the wittingly constructed persona of Bob Dylan while Gretta's sitting next to him in her own prototypical “starving artist” getup of grubby-chic cropped pants, an oversized linen sweater and a scruffy ponytail. Despite their reputations as indie scene darlings, names as prominent as Ruffalo and Keener somewhat deflate the film’s touting of an art-house spirit. And what more apt—or overwrought—setting for a movie about indie musicians than New York, one of the world's capitals when it comes to street performers and bar crooners with nothing but pockets full of dreams intertwined in their guitar strings? It’s an all-too familiar tune.

And yet, you can’t help but want to hum along to this tribute to the city, whether it’s Gretta singing her own material on a skyscraper's rooftop, Sinatra belting out “Luck Be a Lady” as Gretta and Dan traipse through Times Square, or Dooley Wilson’s rendition of "As Time Goes By” played against that glittering, inimitable Manhattan skyline.** Corny as the scene is, it’s easy to get swept up in the songs that frame it, lending truth to Dan’s notion that the right music can indeed brighten, transform, and imbue meaning into mundane moments. 

 Begin Again’s intentions are earnest: a call to put meaning back into music that seems to recently have strayed into superficial stadium pop, and a reminder of how songs that avoid that fate can make us feel. It’s a noble undertaking, not without a few beats that fall flat here and there. But set aside your jaded filters for less than two hours; you’ll see that the film does, more often than not, hit the sweet spot between naive mawkishness and cynical realism to achieve a lightly fairy-dusted, uplifting narrative. Begin Again may not serenade you into submission, but it’s an easy listen nonetheless.

*I know, I know. I'll get to it.

**which really isn't helpful for someone like me, for whom getting New York out of her system is a daily struggle.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Indie Movie Preview: July 2014

The meaning of what constitutes an “indie film” is hotly contested among the film community (although I think we can all agree that Transformers doesn’t qualify). I don’t claim to be an authority on the term, but as an avid moviegoer I do find myself often seeking out the smaller, lower-scale productions that haven’t spent 80% of their budgets on marketing. Amidst the commercial cash cows, yuppie romcoms, and superhero franchises that regularly hog the theaters, I urge you to consider the bounty of relatively below-the-radar films slipping onto screens in between their behemoth counterparts.  

Read on for my picks of must-see indie releases this July!

Begin Again
Release Date: July 4
Starring: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, James Cordon, Hailee Steinfeld, Catherine Keener, Adam Levine, Mos Def

What’s the story? When singer-songwriter Gretta—newly dumped by the boyfriend she moved to New York with—sparks the interest of downtrodden record label executive Dan, the two decide to merge talents in a new partnership, setting the stage for unique and life-changing experiences.

My take:  It’s not just the impressive names on its marquee—including Mark Ruffalo in that signature “pitiful screw-up” role that only he can pull off endearingly—that make this film an appealing choice at the cinema this weekend. With an addictive (in a guilty-pleasure kind of way) soundtrack on which Keira Knightley croons some of the tunes herself, plus some quintessential Manhattan backdrops that just scream “summer,” there’s an irresistible feel-good aura to Begin Again.  I’ve already purchased my ticket.

Release Date: July 11
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette

What’s the story? Director Richard Linklater (of Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight fame) clouds the lines between fiction and reality in this story documenting moments of a young boy’s life as he goes from 5 to 18 years old over the course of the film, thus literally coming of age both on and off-screen.

My take: It may not have been on my radar for the whopping 12 years it took to make, but I’ve long anticipated Boyhood nonetheless. Linklater’s gift for organic storytelling, and extracting humor as well as wisdom from the mundane is bound to reach new heights as he follows his subject navigating the pains and pleasures of growing up. From the few clips I was shown during a live Q&A event with Linklater himself a few weeks ago, Boyhood promises to be an unprecedented portrait of childhood. I’m trying not to read the rave reviews already pouring in from those lucky pre-screeners; to say I’m looking forward to this would be such a gross understatement, it would border on dishonesty.

Life Itself
Release Date: July 11
Starring: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel

What’s the story? While it’s not technically an indie, my list would be incomplete without mention of this nonfiction documentary of one of the most iconic modern-day enthusiasts, authorities, and educators on film.

My take: I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I want to be like Roger Ebert when I grow up. Say what you will about movie critics or the inevitable bias of documentaries, there’s no denying that Ebert was, for many, the definitive voice of film journalism. As someone who grew up on and was greatly influenced by the approachable nature of his reviews, yet has little insight into his own story, it’s a particularly personal connection that draws me to this deeper look behind the man who made film criticism accessible while keeping it an art.

Wish I Was Here
Release Date: July 18
Starring: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin

What’s the story? When a struggling actor, flailing family man, and all-around aimless human is forced to home school his children, he finds his life thrown under a revelatory magnifying glass and learns some of his own lessons along the way.

My take: Just when I had concluded that Zach Braff peaked when he wore a garbage bag and screamed from the top of a tractor in 2004, his newest writing/directing venture, in which he’s all grown up as a 35-year old father of two, gives me a glimmer of hope not to dismiss him as a has-been just yet. The film’s lighthearted yet poignant and reflective approach to life’s crossroads shows lingering strains from Garden State, but I’m curious for Braff’s perspective now that he’s a decade older and (presumably) wiser.

A Most Wanted Man
Release Date: July 25
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Willem Dafoe, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright

What’s the story? The film adaptation of spy novelist John Le Carre’s story about the murky identity and loyalties of a Russian/Chechen immigrant in Hamburg.

My take: On a regular basis, spy thrillers aren’t my cup of chai. But the intriguing combination of actors here, coupled with the fact that John Le Carre is known to write a pretty captivating page-turner, and most importantly, the sad truth that there are few more opportunities to watch Philip Seymour Hoffman work his magic on the big screen after this…it would simply feel wrong to pass A Most Wanted Man up. If there’s anyone who can make this genre palatable even to me, it’s Hoffman. I must pay my respects.

Magic in the Moonlight
Release Date: July 25
Starring: Emma Stone, Colin Firth

What’s the story? When a questionable clairvoyant has a family of socialites under her spell, an English magician is enlisted to investigate whether she’s bogus or bona fide.

My take: Another film that perches precariously on the periphery of the indie category, but since you can’t exactly call Woody Allen mainstream either, I’m leaving him here as the final release of the month. That also works out well because I can then say that I saved the absolute best for last. Whimsical, nostalgic, positively brimming with Cote d’Azur charm…Magic in the Moonlight has in spades all the ingredients that worked so well in favor for Allen’s other films in recent years. Whether those elements can once again create a magical story or not remains to be seen, but I’m pretty sure that with Emma Stone and Colin Firth sharing a frame, we’re already guaranteed an enchanting experience.