Sunday, December 30, 2012

Dabangg 2 aka Dawhimper [dir. Arbaaz Khan]

Dabangg 2 is a textbook example of how you can drag the horse to water and push its ruddy face in up to its neck, but still can't make it drink. Here's a movie “inspired” by the its predecessor to a degree so discomfiting it seems to use pretty much the same screenplay, several returning characters, and near identical locations, only with the fun bits snipped out. Of course, there are a huge bunch of fools that equate every “masala” movie released as the same, and thus the so-called sequel is also a box-office superhit. But if anything it totally misses the point on what made Dabangg such a great entertainer.
While Salman Khan had already gotten into playing the exaggerated hero in films like Wanted, Dabangg's Chulbul Pandey was the ultimate crystallization of that character, a fantastic refinement of the populist arsehole spirit Khan embodied in his films and to another effect in real life. What made Dabangg stand out from other maar-dhaad naach-gaana stereotypes was the sharply tuned script that showed an understanding of the best traditions of Bollywood entertainers. The film had a strong dramatic bedrock in the conflict between father-son and the step-brothers, an evenly matched villain, memorable supporting characters, and in the midst of all the exaggeration, a freshness and consistency of tone that propelled the story all the while having fun with the tropes of masala cinema. In short, Dabangg wasn't just a random assembly of fights and songs.
Which brings us to the exact problem that Dabangg 2 has. For one, there is no dramatic conflict at all. The significant time devoted to Chulbul Pandey's interaction with his family consists entirely of some of the poorest jokes imposed upon an audience. He does not come up against the main villain (Prakash Raaj, playing the same character he did in Wanted, Bbuddah Hoga Tera Baap, Singham and a million other movies) until about halfway in the film, and even then their confrontations are very lame compared to the spicy trading of one-liners in Dabangg. Everything between the action scenes is dull and annoying filler material; it was like my experience of watching The Expendables. Because of the near identical sequence of scenes in the first and second film there is no novelty at all, which lowers the fun factor for everything, including the fight scenes (choreographed by an Anal Arasu, a name that makes me laugh a good deal more than most of the jokes in this film). The slut item song is one of the most disgusting experiences I've had in a theater, it makes the corresponding song in the previous film look like the apogee of classiness. The film is supposed to have shifted to a bigger canvas in its move from Lalgunj to Kanpur, but the climax feels ultra-cheap in comparison. While Dabangg had an all-out police assault with a lot of vehicles and guns, the supposedly bigger villain of the sequel seems to have only a half-dozen men guarding that are easily taken out by a single-handed Chulbul Pandey. Like a friend of mine said, the cheapness makes it feel “like watching a Ram Gopal Varma movie”.
So in short, apart from the odd stray wisecrack or action shot, the sequel is a soggy non-entertaining affair, a huge comedown from the snappy badasserie that was Dabangg; this is Dawhimper.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Movie franchises

In response to a question I was asked on the forums...

Q. How do you feel about other franchises such as the Star Wars saga, Harry Potter, Star Trek 2009, Dark Knight Trilogy, Indiana Jones, etc?


Star Wars - the first 3 movies (now titled 4-6 ) are decent fun. There's lots of bad dialog (apparently Alec Guiness who played Obi-Wan asked to be killed so he wouldn't have to come back for a sequel and more bad dialog, but this could well be made up), but the film is more comfortable with its serial adventure roots, the proportion of action to exposition is pretty good on the whole, the sense of scale is amazing, I love the special effects and there's a sense of fun and adventure. Seeing it first when I was a kid also makes an impact (needless to say I wanted hugely to be a Jedi then). I may also add here that I don't have any issues with the George Lucas revisions, other than the stupid modification to the Han Solo / Greedo standoff.

Harry Potter - I have seen only some 2-3 movies in this series, not interesting to me as a franchise. Lead character is a twat.

Star Trek 2009 - Oh I enjoyed this tremendously, fast fun and great interplay between the characters. The guy who played Kirk especially nailed it with a performance that pays tribute to William Shatner without aping his style. Also realized here Karl Urban can actually act. Diehard ST fans may complain about how the film was all action and no science, but the fact is a fair amount of the original series was campy action. I'll definitely be catching the next film although I do hope they can bring in some fresh elements. The teaser trailer they had looked like it could be composed of alternate takes from the 2009 film.

Dark Knight - Saw the first 2 films. I personally find this hugely overrated and boring pop-psychology. Like I earlier linked, I agree with what the filthy critic said about this rubbish trend of taking comic book heroes and making mopey overly pompous "epics" out of them (pretty much everything seems headed up trilogy and epic territory these days, a trend I find wholly deplorable). Batman Begins at the cinema was a torturous experience for me. Perhaps it's a result of how much I loathed BB, but I liked the second film a lot more - it had significantly better pacing, excellent action sequences, Batman does more detective work. The main hitch for me was Heath Ledger's horrible performance. I never felt any menace in his mannerisms, only irritation. It was no better IMO than anything Shakti Kapoor has done and nobody ever talks of giving that bloke an Oscar. Going by this movie, I was ready to dismiss Ledger as an overrated ham that only got fame on account of his having died, but then I saw movies like Brokeback Mountain and Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus where I realized that he was a fine actor, but his Joker was a total turd.
I loved the 2 Batman films made by Tim Burton - they had the perfect blend of comic book sensibilities and a more adult outlook. The animated TV series was damn cool too. On the subject let me also express my opinion of Christopher Nolan - apart from that backwards movie with Guy Pearce I find everything I've seen by him (Insomnia, the Batman movies and Inception) OVERRATED AND BORING.

Indiana Jones - I must say here that I don't recall too much of the Indy movies since I only saw them on VHS as a kid. But the general memory is of them being good time-pass. I had issues with Temple of Doom, but I suspect that was just a "How can they show Indians eating insects and monkey brains?" knee-jerk response. I didn't see the recent film because I find it hard to get excited about the character now given that Harrison Ford is grandfather age.

Haha, you must think me a humorless bastard, but seriously, I'd rather see a bunch of different stories than the same rinsed and repeated with bigger budgets for box office returns. Here are some franchises I liked:

- I'm a Superman junkie and my fav childhood memories are of watching the Superman films at Eros cinema in Mumbai. I still love the first 2 Chris Reeve films and find the third one quite passable. Superman Returns had some interesting ideas but rehashed too much of the plot of the first film, had disastrously bad Superman-Lois chemistry and some plot points that shot the franchise in the foot. I think the upcoming film will be another terribly whiny boring movie, no thanks to Mr. "let's make this dark and gritty and epic" Nolan. Somebody shoot these geeks who're raping my childhood memories under the pretense of making "mature" superhero movies.

Alien - Mainly the first 2 movies, they are very different in tone - First one is horror and second is action - and both of them have good personality. Alien3 has some good moments in the extended cut but it doesn't all hold well, and beyond a point the "run through the corridors with the beastie after you" routine becomes monotonous.

Evil Dead - one of my fav franchises, I love the first 2 films (Dead by Dawn especially is pure manic genius from start to end, a perfect blend of the macabre and the hilarious) and Army of Darkness is good popcorn fun. Bruce Campbell, Again I'm not likely to see the new film unless I hear good word from trusted quarters.

Terminator - The first one was pure awesomeness, the second had spectacular CG and a great villain, and the third one is a wonderful tribute/spoof on the franchise with a genuinely surprising coda (I prefer T3 to T2 as a film). Salvation had some decent ideas in the Sam Worthington segment but Christian "growling is acting" Bale totally killed the movie for me, to the extent that even the prospect of owning a 2-disc "everything and the kitchen sink" BD set for less than 10$ does nothing to tempt me into buying this film.

Toy Story - Truth be told the plots are interchangeable, but I find all the movies fun and they're at least short and pacy and great eye candy. But yes, no more please.

James Bond - love the first 3 Sean Connery films, then Live & Let Die and Spy Who Loved me from Roger Moore (absurd but fun) and Casino Royale with Daniel Craig. I can live without revisiting the other films in this series. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Lata Mangeshkar Sings Ghalib

Imagine a Lata Mangeshkar towards the end of the sixties, her voice slightly thicker than from the previous two decades, but still pleasingly fluid and her singing now enriched by a greater command of Hindi and Urdu diction. Add in Hridayanath Mangeshkar, a fantastic musician in his own right, and her brother, probably one of the few people that isn't in complete awe of her stardom. Now add in the words of Ghalib, many of whose poems I find difficult to understand, but I gather the bloke's pretty famous. What you get in Lata Mangeshkar Sings Ghalib is the combination of all these elements and the end result as may be expected is simply incredible.
No thanks to the efforts of Jagjit Singh (the song that makes me want to murder people) and his ilk, ghazal singing to most people has become synonymous with a low-pitched somnolent drone that can unobtrusively play in the background while they go about getting drunk or doing their social "thang". Hariharan is one of the few people I have heard who on a consistent basis tried to put some flamboyance and virtuoso element into the composition and singing style in at least a couple of songs in each his ghazal albums (sad to say the last 4-5 albums have been bereft of this, and even he is pandering to the lounge crowd). But this album is a great example of how a ghazal album can have energetic and technically demanding musical compositions and reward people for actually "listening" to it. Those that have only heard Lata as the aged crone she has been from the 90's onwards will be floored at her fluid vibrato (here not the effect of her voice quavering) and masterful navigation of the hairpin turns of the tunes. And Hridayanath seems to have intended his compositions as a stringent test of her abilities - You can almost hear him gleefully rubbing his hands saying, "So you got through that one, eh? Let's see you handle THIS" as he throws the next treacherous musical curveball at her.
Most songs are in the 4-5 min range and they are all remarkable in how much ground they cover in that while. On the other hand the brevity means that the poetry is slightly short-changed, given less importance than the music. Still I would rather have this than long stretches of lazy self-important noodling. Also, Hridayanath certainly likes to reprise his own tunes: a short verse "Naqsh Fariyadi Hai Kis Ki Shoki E Tahreer Ka" is a precursor of the heart-aching "Mere Sarhane Jalao Sapne" from Maya Memsaab and "Rone Se Aur Ishq Mein" is, words apart, an alternate take for "Sunio Ji Araj Mhari" from Lekin.
So yes, if you have any interest in ghazal music that's not the sonic equivalent of wallpaper, you need to get this album. If you can get hold of some super-duper vinyl edition, great. Otherwise you can get this one at Flipkart on CD or, where I first chanced upon it, in Flipkart's mp3 download store.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Life of Pi [dir. Ang Lee]

Imagine The Tree of Life meets Monty Python via Manoj Night Shyamalan. Sounds unlikely, distressing even? This is pretty much what went through my head while watching Lulz of Pi...oops, Life of Pi. I understand that a goodly proportion of people consider this an “important” faith-affirming movie, with a “meaningful” use of 3D to push its message in your face. I will refer to them as the Readers' Digest (RD) crowd. I suspect that (unlike me) they have read several times over the novel, which has received what is called a Man Booker prize (Booker for manly novels? I think not). I give them the benefit of doubt and accommodate their point of view. On the other hand unfeeling uncultured sods like yours truly find this film a barrel of hilarious incredulity.
Life of... begins with Pi recounting the origin of his name, one of the few intentional, thereby wholly unfunny, jokes in the film. Pi then goes on to a rough sketch of his upbringing (as a child the git practices multiple religions, like in Amitabh Bachchan's John Jaani Janardhan act, but with none of the fun) in a family that owned a circus (One of those “life is a circus” cosmic analogies, perhaps?) and the circumstances that lead to his being stranded on a lifeboat for months with a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker (the recounting of how the tiger came to be such named brought to my mind the joke about the Sardar who named his three dogs Satnam Singh, Gurnam Singh and Harnam Singh, and was himself called Tommy). Irrfan Khan as the adult Pi sports a bewildering mongrel accent, but then diction seems a problem with the film in general. Tabu in a blink-and-you-miss part mouths Tamil in a manner that screams phony phonetics, while the speaking style of Pi's uncle appears to have been modeled on Apu from The Simpsons. Suraj Sharma, who plays Pi in the bulk of the narrative, speaks English with a South Indian accent, acceptable given his maternal side origins.
The bulk of the film is about Pi surviving on the boat and forming a coexistence of sorts with the tiger. Apparently the events of the voyage and the formation of this coexistence are meant to nurture in us a belief of an omniscient God. Regardless of your personal beliefs there are major problems with this agenda, the foremost being Pi himself. Simply put the character is soft-headed and delusional, the sort that would regard the delivery of the morning newspaper as evidence of divine intervention. His act of blubbering repentance when a fish he kills for food loses its color on death only convinces me that this character was a God-obsessed nutcase long before he got on any boat.
Thanks to the film's need to keep from shocking its RD crowd, it's not even particularly gripping as a survival story. Any deaths or acts of violence take place off-screen. Despite the boat being the site of killing of a hyena, an orangutan and a zebra, there's no sense of tragedy because of this sort of pussy-footing. What we get instead are reams (and reams and reams) of mawkish Hallmark Channel monologue. The plot point involving the mysterious island with meerkats is far more apt for a schlocky Roger Corman movie. Without going into spoiler territory, there's a twist at the end which suggests that Pi is just telling a made-up story that he can substitute at a moment's notice with another (similarly improbable as the first one, but more Takesh Kitano than Takashi Miike). So what's the point here? Why does anyone take this woolly-headed cauliflower seriously? How come Pi isn't in a straitjacket inside a cell with padded walls? What this film feels most like is a spoof on the existential / magic realism genre, like a slightly more intellectual entry in the Scary Movie / Date Movie series. I can well imagine Ang Lee bursting into giggles at the end of every scene over what a huge con he is pulling over the audience.
Visually the film is often spectacular. Like my good friend Prachit said, “It's one of the best-looking worst movies”. Anyone who claims that this movie should be seen in 2D instead of 3D has either seen a bad 3D screening or is being a prig. It is very evident from early on that 3D is inherent to the director's intent. There are many frames with multiple layers that take full advantage of the added dimensionality. The only sequence that suffered a bit was the storm sequence where the low light levels and general murkiness of the scene causes a drop in the visible detail, but that's amply compensated over by several scenes where the 3D really shines. Most of Mychael Danna's score is rubbish new-age hooey.
A few words about the tiger...technically it's a marvel. From what I understand it was done using visual trickery instead of an actual animal (as I suspect, were most of the other animals shown in this film), and the illusion is mostly complete – my only gripe is that the sound design doesn't quite reflect the weight of the movement of a 500-pound animal.