Tag Archives: 2009

Movie Review: The Forest (2009)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

My favorite sub-genre of film is the killer animal movie. While a movie like Jaws rises to levels of brilliance, most are the formulaic gross-out fodder typically found on the Syfy channel on a Saturday night: stuff like Dinoshark or Mega Piranha. I enjoy them all.

The Forest falls somewhere in between brilliant and formulaic in terms of quality. The story is entertaining, the plot well-organized, and the scenery is gorgeous. But uneven acting and a bizarre end sequence keep The Forest from reaching its full potential.

Writer-director Ashvin Kumar creates a story born from concern about the health of Indian forests. Humans seeking land encroach upon forested areas, creating avenues by which poachers can more easily murder vulnerable animals. A result of the clash of two worlds is that 150 people are killed by tigers and leopards in India annually, according to a note at the start of the film.

The human interlopers in The Forest are a married couple: Radha (Nandana Sen) and Pritam (Ankur Vikal). Their relationship is troubled because of both his infidelity and their inability to have children. Pritam takes his wife to a wildlife reserve in the hopes that they’ll be able to work things out in a more peaceful setting.

City dwellers Pritam and Radha are clearly out of their element in the forest, emphasized by the fact that they speak English and the locals do not (at least not to each other). Most of the film’s dialog is in English, because either Pritam or Radha is in almost every scene.

In the preserve, veteran game warden Bhola Ram (Tarun Shukla) explains to Pritam that the overnight lodge is closed because of a man-eating leopard in the area. Abhishek (Javed Jaffrey) — a local cop who happens to be Radha’s ex-boyfriend — agrees to escort the couple to the lodge, along with his preteen son, Arjun (Salim Ali Zaidi). So much for the privacy Pritam was hoping for.

As the truth of the couple’s problems and Abhishek’s desire to reunite with Radha are revealed, the man-eating leopard makes its presence known.

In a scenario made for tension, the acting feels subdued. Abhishek isn’t quite menacing enough to seem like a mortal threat to Pritam, his rival. And Sen and Vikal deliver their dialog flatly until a scene in which Radha and Pritam explode in anger. There needs to be more buildup to the dynamic scenes when characters are in danger.

As I mentioned earlier, the scenery is breathtaking. The ruins of an old temple show us that man has no place here. Camera shots of wildlife are beautiful, and even the man-eating leopard is well-handled, apart from a couple of awkward CGI shots.

The results of the leopard’s attacks are pretty gnarly, but in a good way. There’s the right amount of gore to indicate that the creature is a killer, even if it’s not the biggest animal in the forest.

In fact, it is a leopard-inflicted injury that sets up a bizarre series of events that taint the movie’s conclusion. One character is wounded and bleeding profusely, yet none of the other characters attempt even the most rudimentary first aid. He bleeds out over the course of a half hour, and everyone seems to forget about him entirely whenever they leave his room. Ultimately, a voiceover attempts to explain the wounded man’s fate.

With a runtime of less than ninety minutes, there is enough time for Kumar to have provided a more satisfying conclusion and answer a few other nagging questions (big and small) the movie raises. For one: if the lodge was closed, why was some man giving Pritam a massage after he and Radha arrived there?

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Movie Review: Rascals (2011)

Zero Stars (out of 4)

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Director David Dhawan is responsible for my worst Bollywood movie of 2009: Do Knot Disturb. Dhawan looks on track to reclaim the title this year with Rascals, a movie that exemplifies filmmaking at its laziest.

Let me start with a small example of the laziness that permeates Rascals. Early in the film, a tough guy named Anthony (Arjun Rampal) walks into a bar to watch a soccer game, and he places a bet on Brazil. Cut to the TV for a shot of the game, and it’s a game between Germany and Argentina.

A mistake like that wouldn’t have been a big deal if the movie was otherwise competently made. But here’s what it tells me about Dhawan’s level of respect for the audience: he has none. He thinks that moviegoers will be happy to spend two hours watching Ajay Devgn and Sanjay Dutt slap each other while Kangana Ranaut struts around in a bikini.

The problems stem from the crap story at the heart of Rascals. The plot is essentially a dumbed-down version of Bluffmaster!, but without a moral compass. Devgan and Dutt play Bhagat and Chetan (respectively), a pair of thieves who each independently steal from Anthony on the same day. Both flee to Bangkok, where they become rivals for the affections of Khushi (Ranaut).

Bhagat and Chetan spend the bulk of the film trying to thwart each other’s advances on clueless Khushi. Anthony doesn’t reenter the story until the last twenty minutes or so.

Rascals feels much longer than its two-hour runtime. Scenes are introduced without any set-up, and frequently without narrative purpose. Despite having two action stars as its leads, there are few action scenes, but lots of boring conversations between characters. Ranaut’s shrill delivery makes these scenes almost unbearable.

It’s not entirely Ranaut’s fault that her character so irritating. Khushi isn’t written to have any sort of depth or personality: she’s a dumb sex object, as is the only other major female character in Rascals, an escort named Dolly (Lisa Haydon).

A reliance upon stereotypes is another example of creative laziness in Rascals. Women are stupid and only good for sex; white women are particularly slutty (as evidence by the suspiciously high number of scantily clad, blonde backup dancers in Thailand); men are sex-crazed.

Not wanting to let an opportunity for casual racism slip by, Dhawan includes a scene in which Bhagat and Chetan are caught up in a bank robbery. The robbers are all black Africans. In Thailand.

I won’t go so far as to say that Dhawan is racist or sexist (though I can’t figure out why he thought it was cool to have Anthony vent his anger toward Bhagat and Chetan by slapping his innocent sister in the face). I just think he’s careless. Careless about the messages his movies send, not to mention careless about details.

Details like having the characters in Rascals celebrate Christmas just days after they celebrated Valentine’s Day.

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DVD Review: 3 Idiots

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After taking Bollywood by storm in the waning days of 2009, the superb Hindi comedy 3 Idiots was finally released on DVD last week. Given the quality of the DVD, I think it was worth the wait.

I was so fond of 3 Idiots when I saw it in the theater that I named it my Best Bollywood Movie of 2009. It’s in many ways a movie from another time, a throwback to the days when a comedy featuring adult characters could be family-friendly and didn’t rely entirely on crude scatological or sexual humor.

25 years or so ago, studios could count on moviegoers to turn out for light comic fare starring adult characters. In 1984, Police Academy, Romancing the Stone and Splash were among the top ten highest-grossing films of the year in the U.S. All three of those comedies featured adult protagonists. Films with older teen protagonists like Gremlins, The Karate Kid and Footloose also made the Top Ten that year.

1984 wasn’t an aberration. 1985’s Top Ten included Cocoon, Jewel of the Nile and Spies Like Us, while 1986’s had Crocodile Dundee, Back to School and Ruthless People.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and you’ll see a box office dominated by big-budget action films and animated kids’ movies. Top-ten performances by grown-up comedies are rare: Meet the Fockers in 2004, Wedding Crashers in 2005, The Hangover in 2009. As a result, this type of movie is no longer a high priority for Hollywood studios.

That’s why 3 Idiots was so refreshing when it came out. The road trip comedy about two pals searching for their long-lost college chum is universal in its appeal. It’s funny and sweet, something that you can turn on any time you need a little pick-me-up.

20th Century Fox produced the DVD and made it especially accessible for American viewers who don’t understand Hindi. Dialog is subtitled in English automatically without having to change any menu settings. Within the setup menu, subtitle options include Spanish and French, as well as English for the deaf and hard of hearing — which adds descriptions of other audible noises (yawns, coughs, chuckles, etc.).

Sadly, the bonus features are inconsistently subtitled. Since they were shot on location and impromptu, the audio isn’t always clear. Though the actors and crew often speak in English, the poor sound quality makes it hard to understand.

Of the four bonus features, “Idiots in Ladakh” is the best, because it’s the most visual. The short film chronicles weather problems that beset the crew as they filmed in Ladakh, a picturesque mountain town in northern India near the Tibetan border. The brutal conditions nearly left some crew members stranded in a blizzard and delayed the film schedule for a year.

The other three bonus features are amusing, but not required viewing. “Making of Miss Idiot” shows the costume selection process for Kareena Kapoor’s nerdy character, which mostly boiled down to convincing glamorous Kareena to wear glasses. “Aal Izz Well” looks at the making of the dance number that accompanies the song of the same title, and “100% Idiots” reveals that the actors weren’t faking it during the movie’s drunk scene.

3 Idiots is one of the rare films that I feel confident in recommending to anyone, so go check it out.

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Retro Review: Harishchandrachi Factory (2009)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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I normally review only Hindi movies, but I made an exception for Harishchandrachi Factory. The Marathi movie was India’s official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 2010 Academy Awards. Ultimately, it wasn’t one of the five nominees, but it is worth watching.

The film is about the creation of the first full-length Indian motion picture in 1913: Raja Harishchandra, a depiction of the life of an ancient king renowned for always keeping his promises and telling the truth, no matter the consequences for him and his family.

(I didn’t think the moral of the story of Harishchandra was explained clearly via the movie’s subtitles. I had to look up the story later to appreciate some of the references.)

Dhundiraj Govind Phalke was the man responsible for Raja Harishchandra, in addition to dozens of other movies over the span of 19 years. He’s credited for founding the Indian film industry, back when cinema was dominated by the British.

Harishchandrachi Factory begins in 1911, when Phalke (Nandu Madhav) sees his first motion pictures: a documentary on bullfighting and a depiction of the life of Jesus Christ. He’s instantly seized with the notion of making an Indian film for an Indian audience.

Phalke, having recently sold his stake in a printing company, convinces his wife, Saraswati (Vibhawari Deshpande), and several investors that movie making is just another kind of printing, winning their support. He spends two months in England learning the trade and returns with the necessary camera equipment.

Phalke’s path is remarkably free of obstacles. Saraswati takes her husband’s career change in stride, never complaining as he sells most of their furniture to finance his London trip, which he schedules when she’s supposed to give birth to their third child. And Phalke has little trouble getting money from investors, who are impressed by his hard work ethic and the potential of the new storytelling medium.

The only hiccups occur when Phalke actually starts making his movie. Motion pictures are held in such low regard that even prostitutes refuse to join Phalke’s production, for fear of ruining their reputations. The men he hires to play the female roles are reluctant to shave their mustaches.

The lack of conflict, despite conventional wisdom, actually makes Harishchandrachi Factory more enjoyable. There is enough inherent risk in being a pioneer. Manufactured arguments between, say, Phalke and Saraswati would’ve been depressing, rather than dramatic. Happy onscreen relationships are rare enough as it is.

Harishchandrachi Factory is impressive, given that it was made for less than $500,000. But the meagreness of the budget is evident in some aspects of the movie. The costumes, particularly those of the British characters, look cheap and made from modern synthetic fabrics.

Despite the fact that they’ve little to do, the Anglo actors are distractingly bad. Most of the extras look like they were kidnapped from a British university field trip. Still, Harishchandrachi Factory is a fun and educational experience, if not a completely immersive one.

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Retro Review: Jail (2009)

1 Star (out of 4)

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It’s natural to have sympathy for a person unjustly accused of a crime. Jail assumes that sympathy is all an audience requires in order to identify with the movie’s hero. That’s not the case.

Jail‘s protagonist is Parag (Neil Nitin Mukesh). Soon after celebrating a promotion with his flight attendant girlfriend, Mansi (Mugdha Godse), Parag is pulled over by the cops while driving with his roommate. The roommate pulls a gun on the cops and is shot while fleeing the scene. His backpack contains two kilos of cocaine.

The police assume that Parag is a part of the drug dealing operation and throw him in jail. A judge convicts Parag based on circumstantial evidence. When the comatose roommate dies, so do Parag’s hopes of having his name cleared.

Most people, if falsely accused of a serious crime, would protest their innocence vigorously. Not Parag. He sits at the police station stunned, occasionally stuttering about his confusion. He remains similarly silent throughout his imprisonment. Fellow inmates have one-sided conversations with him. Even a visit from his mother elicits only a mumbled, “Ma.”

Despite his silence, Parag’s fellow inmates sense that he’s a good guy who doesn’t belong in prison. How they can tell from his mute indifference, I’m not sure. Someone must have told them that they were in a movie and that he was the protagonist. Parag himself doesn’t do anything to encourage their friendship or respect.

On one of the rare occasions when Parag actually does something, there’s nothing heroic about his actions. A jerk named Joe buys his early release and brags about it on his way out of prison. Parag attacks him, not because Joe’s being cruel to the other inmates, but because Parag thinks he should be the one getting out instead of Joe.

At the end of the movie, the producers include a note about the thousands of people imprisoned without charges in Indian jails. Reflective of that stance, the prisoners in the movie are nicer than the guards, who are themselves admit to being hampered by bureaucracy. The blame for the system’s injustice is laid on zealous police investigators, lazy judges and greedy defense attorneys.

The conditions of the jail, if realistic, are disturbingly primitive. Dozens of prisoners share one large cell, sleeping on blankets on a dirt floor. There are semi-private toilets and a water trough for bathing and washing clothes. Critics who find American prisons too luxurious would be impressed. The stark setting illustrates how easily it would be to lose a share of one’s humanity in such a place.

But the movie’s success rests ultimately on Mukesh’s performance as Parag, who doesn’t grow throughout the film. It’s hard to get to know a character who’s so unresponsive. Apart from a few breakdowns, he never seems in danger of losing his humanity, in part because his fellow inmates won’t let him. Why they are so concerned with saving him, I’m not sure.

Retro Review: Omkara (2006)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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There’s something compelling about director Vishal Bhardwaj’s movies: the dark atmosphere, the impending sense of doom, the heroes who are just barely heroic. I just wish I understood Hindi well enough to fully appreciate them.

More accurately, I’d need to understand Hindi and a handful of colloquialisms from Uttar Pradesh, where Bhardwaj grew up. A knowledge of U.P. politics and the associated gangster culture would also be useful. My cultural and linguistic deficiencies hampered my enjoyment of the first Bhardwaj film I watched, 2009’s Kaminey.

Cultural differences troubled me less in Bhardwaj’s 2006 movie Omkara, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. Prior familiarity with the story certainly helped, as did an English-language book that was written about the movie’s development.

The book — Stephen Alter’s Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief — is essential for appreciating the film’s dialogue. English subtitles are often translated in a way that compromises the subtleties of the original words. Alter, who speaks Hindi, explains the true meaning of the words and gives context for the dialogue, making sense of the movie’s otherwise confusing opening scene.

According to the scene’s subtitles, Langda (Iago in Shakespeare’s play) discusses with Rajju (Roderigo) the difference between a “fool” and a “moron.” The two words are used somewhat interchangeably in American English, so the conversation seems odd and not very insightful.

Alter explains that the Hindi words translate more accurately to “fool” and “fucking idiot.” The scene — and the message Langda is conveying to Rajju — makes more sense with the uncensored translation; it ends with Landga explaining that, while they were talking, Rajju’s fiancee, Dolly (Desdemona), ran off with Omkara (Othello). Rajju realizes too late that he’s not a mere fool, but a fucking idiot.

The rest of the story follows the original, even though the setting has changed. Instead of a soldier in the Venetian army, Omkara is a gangster working in the service of a U.P. politician. The action takes place in the modern-day, as evidenced by the fact that the gangsters carry cell phones. Yet the town at the center of events is small and rural, evoking the story’s timeless quality.

Omkara (Ajay Devgan) and Dolly (Kareena Kapoor) are happy together, even though she’s defied her father to be with the illegitimate son of a village leader and his servant. During the course of their wedding planning, Omkara is promoted to a political position. When picking his successor as gang leader, he defies expectations and chooses Kesu (Vivek Oberoi) — a college-educated city kid — over his childhood friend, Langda (Saif Ali Khan).

Langda commences an attack on Kesu’s character, subtly trying to convince Omkara that Kesu is having an affair with Dolly. He’s aided by Dolly’s spurned suitor, Rajju (Deepak Dobriyal). Langda’s wife, Indu (Konkona Sen Sharma), inadvertently gives him the piece of physical evidence to validate his lie, and the tragedy unfolds.

The acting in Omkara is as nuanced as Langda’s machinations. Dolly and Kesu are youthful, charming, and utterly bewildered by Omkara’s suspicion. Rajju is twitchy and eager to reclaim his stolen bride. Omkara’s authoritative facade only breaks in front of Dolly, who coaxes smiles out of him with a glance.

Saif Ali Khan’s Langda walks a thin line. He’s vengeful, but not without cause; devious, but not totally malicious. His only interest is ousting Kesu from the position he wants. However, he fails to consider the toll this will take on Dolly and, by extension, Omkara, his benefactor.

Konkona Sen Sharma’s Indu is the film’s most relatable character. She’s caring, funny and smart enough to figure out that something is wrong. She probably could’ve solved the problems between Dolly, Kesu and Omkara, if only her husband weren’t secretly working against her.

Another highlight of Omkara is the music, especially the sexy dance tune “Beedi.” Bhardwaj got his start in Bollywood as a composer, and the music he’s written for Omkara sets the mood perfectly.

It’s hard to recommend a movie that requires further reading to really understand, but Omkara is worth it. The acting, atmosphere and music are of such high quality that American film fans should just enjoy the ride, knowing that Stephen Alter’s book will clear up some of the confusion. Vishal Bhardwaj is a director of such talent that it would be a shame to overlook his work because of a few cultural differences.

Opening February 12: My Name Is Khan

The first major Bollywood release of 2010 is upon us. My Name Is Khan features Shahrukh Khan as Rizvan Khan, an Indian immigrant with Asperger syndrome living in San Fransisco. Kajol plays Rizvan’s love interest, Mandira. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 jeopardize their happiness, and Rizvan undertakes a cross-country journey to prove his love for Mandira.

I’m always interested in perspectives on 9/11 from filmmakers outside of the U.S., as in the 2009 Hindi films New York and Kurbaan. I’m a bit concerned about MNIK‘s surface similarities to Forrest Gump (a guy with social problems on a cross-country journey), a movie I wasn’t crazy about. But I have faith in SRK and Kajol to give spectacular performances that will win me over.

My Name Is Khan opens in the Chicago area on Friday, February 12 at the AMC Loews Pipers Alley 4 in Chicago, Big Cinemas Golf Glen 5 in Niles, AMC South Barrington 30 in South Barrington and AMC Cantera 30 in Warrenville. MNIK has a listed runtime of 2 hrs. 25 min. Based on the amount of time the AMC theaters are allowing between showings (usually a reliable indicator), I suspect the movie’s actual runtime is longer than that.

The only other Hindi movie showing in the Chicago area this weekend is 3 Idiots, which continues for its eighth week at the South Barrington 30. The movie has earned $6,463,622 in U.S. theaters thus far.

Striker departs theaters after one week. I don’t have figures on how much it earned in U.S. theaters, but American YouTube viewers have rented the movie just 1,283 times since its worldwide release last Friday. I hope Striker gets more attention when it releases on DVD, because it’s terrific.

Other Indian films playing in the Chicago area this weekend include Body Guard (Malayalam), Kedi (Telugu) and Thamizh Padam (Tamil) at the Golf Glen 5. Kedi is also showing at Sathyam Cinemas in Downers Grove.