Friday, July 27, 2012

Movin' On

Thanks to the fine work of the  multi-talented Awesome Kim , my primary blog has a fresh new look. She did such a good a job, I decided to merge the two blogs. So from now on, my fiftyfiftyme posts past, present and future can be found here:

My fiftyfiftyme posts

Monday, July 23, 2012

Movie 18/50 Love Breakups Zindagi

Love Breakups Zindagi      fiftyfiftyme category: Major

My last post for the fiftyfiftyme challenge was a defence of  Agent Vinod, a movie widely panned as a feeble ripoff of Western action films. This post is about another film that gets trashed, mostly because of deeply held antipathy toward its leads. Defending two such films in a row makes me wonder whether I should rename my blog The Hunting of the Snark.

In her blog Shahrukh Is Love (if you’re not reading it, you really, really should be) my vastly more knowledgeable filmi fellow Kiwi used the phrase “marvellously mediocre” to sum up a film she watched recently. The phrase fits Love Breakups Zindagi so well I just had to steal it, thank you Vanessa!

This film is widely dismissed as awful, largely because of starring Zayed Khan, and those who don’t condemn the film for his presence write it off for having Diya Mirza in it. I don’t have the sort of visceral hatred of Zayed that seems to be almost universal among the filmi bloggers I follow, so I started watching Love Breakups Zindagi without any expectations, negative or positive. In the end, I was happy to have watched it.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this film for me was that it seems to suffer from the curse of the first half. Many Bollywood films start off strong, then disintegrate into amorphous messes after the interval. With this film, I felt that it only found its structure and purpose in the second half. The first half of the film seemed to have consisted of approximately ten minutes of dialogue scattered between more songs than I could be bothered to count. 

The film starts brightly, introducing the two main couples quite cleverly, during an opening song. Once the little mini twist in the opening setup is revealed, it becomes instantly clear who ends up with whom, the only question is how they get there. I struggled with the first half because it seemed that it was usings songs as exposition, and none were particularly memorable, but the 2nd half developed very nicely, and transformed my overall opinion of the film. I was impressed with the way they resolved the love triangle by humanising the loser, not demonising him.He bowed out in a low-key version of the classic filmi sacrifice that was still in keeping with his character and thus believable.

Zayed and Diya have setup a production company together, and perhaps it’s that familiarity that allows them to come across as likeable and believable couple on screen.  I certainly don’t get the amount of antipathy directed toward them as people, especially Zayed. 

Even though Zayed and Mirza were the lead “couple” in the film, the real strength of the film, and the element that raised it above merely mainstream mediocrity was the Govind and Sheila storyline. It was very refreshing to see a cookie-cutter Bollywood film include a mature romantic relationship between a twice-divorced man and an older woman, and I was impressed by both Cyrus and Tisca in their performances. I am very much looking forward to watching Firaaq again to see more of Tisca. 

The movie also had lyrics by Javed Akhtar, as in this song, my wife's favourite from the film

and a delightful cameo by his wife – my shocked amusement  at seeing Shabana-ji in such an ephemeral  film was profound. In fact, the cameos were a real highlight of the film. Boman Irani was excellent as the gun-toting Dad, Shah Rukh was entertaining as himself and the unfailingly excellent Farida Jalal endeared herself to me even more by speaking Panjabi in a manner that was (in my experience)  inauthentically slow and well-enunciated, enabling me to follow every word of it!

Every filmi fan develops their own idiosyncratic likes and dislikes, my own  rants against Black, Baghban, Devdas and KANK  are good examples of this. That's why an outside perspective can be useful at times. My  sapnon ki rani doesn't watch many Indian films with me, but when she does, she often says things that make me smile. Like me, she found Love Breakups Zindagi a pleasant enough timepass, but it was her reaction to seeing Zayed that was most refreshing. She said, "Wasn't he in Main Hoon Na?? I like him."  That made me smile, reflecting on how very seldom anyone ever says that about him.

In summary, I would say that Love Breakups Zindagi really is marvellously mediocre. None of the performances are terrible, and none are histrionic genius. It is a good-natured film, one that seems grounded both in its depiction of the world in which it set and in its own perception of itself. Unless predisposed by personal antipathy toward the leads, there is nothing here to generate active dislike, and the film's makers deserve credit for the Govind and Sheila storyline in particular.The film knew it was filmi but it still felt quietly real. In an industry that cranks out hundreds of films a year, some films will be outstandingly good and some will be staggeringly bad. Many will be  mediocre, some marvellously so, and describing Love Breakups Zindagi as one of them is not a criticism. It would be very easy to do a lot worse, as I found out with the next film I watched. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Movie 17/50 Agent Vinod

Agent Vinod        fiftyfiftyme category: Major

I was reminded of an important lesson by this film: In the end, the only person who knows what you'll enjoy is you.

There were many,  many negative reviews of this film, and most of them cited valid problems with it. The Vigil Idiot did his usual devastatingly funny shredding of its storyline, lakhs of people dissed both the "techno mujra" and Kareena's performance in it, and krores of people commented on Saif's shiny plastic mask of a face. They were all right, but I was wrong to let them put me off watching it. I'm going to respond to those three areas of complaint separately.

First, the storyline: Yes, it was inane, stretched credibility way past breaking point and had plenty of WTF moments. But so does every action movie, even the good ones. I watched Mission Impossible 4 the other night and loved it, despite being a religiously devoted Tom Cruise anti-fan. It was full of silly stunts and impossible developments, and  that's exactly what an action movie is supposed to be about. The moment I saw a Russian hitwoman kill someone in a snowstorm while wearing an insanely short skirt and high heels, I knew Agent Vinod was my kind of action film - a kid's comic book brought to life. What The Vigil Idiot did to Agent Vinod could be done to the Bourne movies and even to the revered and somewhat self-important Dark Knight series. This was a popcorn (or bhujia/katha meetha) entertainer, not above intellectual criticism, simply outside the parameters of such a critique.

Next, this:

Of course, I din't have to include  Dil Mera Muft Ka in order to discuss, but it is a highlight of the movie for me. The song itself has been savaged as a hideous and inept mishmash of musical styles, and Bebo's received the usual criticism of her less than naturally fluid dancing style. I am not a big fan of the song per se but I love it in the film, flaws and all. Why? Because Bebo looks good! It seems that Kareena has given up on acting in roles of substance like Chameli or Dolly in Omkara, and has decided to settle for being decorative. While that is disappointing, at least she's very good at it. This is a no-brainer film, and she delivers a  solid performance as the intriguing sidekick. In fact my only real gripe with the film was the unnecessary climax to her character's participation in the storyline. I had been hoping for a Mr & Mrs Smith  franchise, with Bollywood's own Brangelina.

Finallyy, the issue of Saif's age and appearance. Yes, his face is billiard ball smooth, and yes I wondered whether it  was truth serum or botox that Bebo's character was injecting him with in one scene, but I did not find it distracting in this film. In the trailers and promotional stills for Cocktail   he makes my skin crawl (something his can't do, of course) looking like an aged lecher flirting with pedophilia next to the two female leads, but because this one was not a romcom, it didn't bother me nearly as much. Returning to MI:4, Cruise is significantly older than Saif, so arguments that Saif is too old to play an action hero are much less plausible than arguments that he's too old to be romancing actresses in their 20s.

Recently some bloggers were participating in a "shameful pleasures" week, and maybe I should have included this in that category. Except that I'm not ashamed to have enjoyed it, only ashamed that I let the opinions of others put me off it for so long. Masterpiece cinema it ain't, and I may never watch it again, but it was a fun watch that delivered exactly what it promised, and that's all that can be asked of any film.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Movie 16/50 Habemus Papam

Habemus Papam    Nanni Moretti        fiftyfiftyme category: Other

Mi piace moltissimo la lingua Italiana - la più bellissima lingua del tutto mondo. It wasn't the first non-native language I learned, and  I haven't used it in nearly ten years, but it remains my first love. Craving the sound of Italian, I tried to watch Ladri Di Biciclette last week, but not even the allure of the language could get me through that relentlessly heartbreaking film. Feeling like I owed my beloved Italian an apology for such faithlessness, I turned to a movie about faithlessness, in a way.

I went into Habemus Papam looking for  comedy, and found it, but I got so much more than just that. The movie had plenty of genuinely amusing scenes, and several that induced outright laughter, but it was no easy comic romp. I normally ignore the "reviews" snippets used in posters and promotional work, but one for this movie was right on the money: "Tender, Funny and Timely". Habemus Papam really is all those things.

It's tender in its examination of a personal crisis. I was expecting it to be a satirical and amusingly cynical skewering of the politics and machinations that must be integral to the selection of a Pope. Instead, the film took a surprisingly gentle and understanding tone, highlighting the alienness of the world in which the Cardinals live. Elderly men, isolated from the world, and  from those they lead, this film did a great job of being sympathetic, and showing them as human, focusing on their likeable sides.

Nanni Moretti not only did a fine job directing the film, but his performance as  "the best" psychoanalyst who finds himself suddenly held hostage after taking on the ultimate prestige client, was pitch perfect. A non-believer who was neither cowed by the Church, nor aggressive toward its representatives, he delivered a very nuanced performance. Perhaps one of the highlights for me, apart from the wonderful volleyball match, was his use of the Bible to argue for the validity of his profession and purpose. It was respectful of his audience and their beliefs, while still being  an uncompromising defence of his own values.

When I read the synopsis for this film, I couldn't help thinking of Albino Luciano, who became John Paul I. In the photos of him, and in the glowing descriptions of him in David Yallop's In God's Name, I get a sense of the same sort of slightly lost, bewildered gentleness that Michel Piccoli does such a great job of displaying as Melville. To see him as an old man in street clothes, wandering through Rome looking for himself was a powerful reminder that, whatever one's views of the Church, in the end its rulers are neither angels nor demons, just men.

The real stunning highlight of the film for me was the end. I did not see that coming. Too many years of Hollywood's addiction to neat tidy climaxes perhaps, this film's ending was a stunner. It was also absolutely perfect. More than just the action of the climax, the reactions to it were authentic and moving, and again portrayed the Cardinals in a very sympathetic way. It was an apt summary of the film as whole that neither savagely derided the Church nor fawningly idolised it, but did resolutely focus on the good in its characters.

I can't think of a single thing I didn't enjoy about this film. I was even stunned and delighted to realise that I could follow it OK without subtitles, a huge shock after so long. It has filled me with anticipation for seeing more of Moretti's work, and made me realise that I have to somehow find the time to revive my Italian. If you haven't seen it yet, all I can say is, perché no?

Friday, July 6, 2012

Book 12/50 The Fifth Elephant

The Fifth Elephant    Terry Pratchett      fiftyfiftyme category: Major

The fifth in the City Watch series, The Fifth Elephant was a welcome return to Pratchett at his best for me. Witty, amusing and wryly observant, it was a great fun read.

In keeping with the old adage about a diplomat being an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country, the story revolves around Commander Sam Vines of the City Watch being sent as ambassador to Uberwald to attend the coronation of the new dwarf  Low King. What follows is a story of political intrigue and family politics that I found very hard to put down.

Because his girlfriend, Sergeant Angua, is from Uberwald and has left to go back there suddenly, Captain Carrot resigns from the City Watch and follows her. This sets up an amusing subplot about what happens to the Watch with both Vimes and Carrot away.

As with all the best of his work, The Fifth Elephant takes shots at many different elements of society. Primarily politics and diplomacy, but also the nature of an aristocracy and the significance of tradition and ritual. It does all this while still being very funny, and weaving in a relatively complex detective story for Vimes to figure out. It was also the first Discworld novel of the twenty-four I've read that featured a truly evil character, the genuinely psychopathic Wolfgang, Angua's brother. Pratchett wrote this character very well, as truly a bad seed, and his unrelenting malice added tension to the storyline.

Ultimately, though, I read Pratchett for amusement, and  The Fifth Elephant  provided that aplenty. Thanks to the irrepressible Gaspode, I now have another phrase to remember for describing hopeless situations: all the survival chances of a chocolate kettle on a very hot stove.  After the stodgy dreariness of Carpe Jugulum, Pratchett certainly melted away my disappointment with The Fifth Elephant, earning my enthusiastic recommendation. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Book 11/50 Carpe Jugulum

Carpe Jugulum   Terry Pratchett        fiftyfiftyme category: Major

I hate vampire fiction. The last vampire story I enjoyed was Lost Boys  in the late eighties, which enjoyment I'm sure had a lot more to do with Echo and the Bunnymen and Jamie Gertz than it did with vampires. The persistent obsession with necrophilia in books, TV series and movies over the last decade or more leaves me utterly cold. Because of my thorough contempt for the genre, when I learned that Carpe Jugulum,Terry Pratchett's twentythird Discworld novel and sixth in the witches series, was parodying vampire fiction, I was very much looking forward to reading it. Sadly, it disappointed me.

All the Discworld novels are intended to hold a mirror up to some elements of this world's society and poke fun at  them. The problem with Carpe Jugulum is that there wasn't that much fun. For this, I don't entirely blame the vampires. The bits where he pokes fun at all things vampiric are fun, by and large. The problem lies, not so much with the vampires (sorry, vampyres) but with the witches.  Pratchett's witches are some of his most complex and interesting characters, but that very complexity can mean that their storylines are short on humour. This is because Pratchett uses them to examine thought-provoking issues and abstract ideas, which are not always easy to make light fun of. This is especially true of Granny Weatherwax. She is by far the deepest of the witches, and her character is the one that examines the challenging questions. As a result, any time a witches story revolves mostly around her there's a noticeable reduction in easy humour. That was definitely true in this story, a great deal of which was Granny wrestling with issues that were not remotely amusing.

One of the major themes in this book is an examination of the role, purpose and validity of faith. It's something that Pratchett touches on a lot of his books, and is at the very core of Small Gods, which is still my favourite of the 23 books I've read so far. His handling of the subject in this book seemed confused and disordered. It may have been by design, as an attempt to highlight some of the confusions and contradictions that can exist in the life of a religious person, but to me it just read as awkward and vague. I wasn't sure whether the intent was to mock religion and faith, or to find a rationalisation for its existence, a way to excuse those people for whom faith is an important part of their life. That uncertainty and lack of clarity and direction made lots of this book quite dull to read. Small Gods challenged faith and mocked the structures of organised religion with single-minded purpose and great humour, and I found it hard to put down, laughing my way through the whole book in a very short time. In contrast, it took me nearly 2 weeks to finish Carpe Jugulum, because so many passages seemed stodgy and confused, and the book failed to grip me.

Even a substandard Pratchett book is still not a bad read. His gift for insight, and the ability to express that insight in amusingly concise ways still peeks through every now and again. I was happy that the last quarter of the book was largely a return to  form, and there were plenty of opportunities to laugh out loud during the climactic final pages. Even Granny Weatherwax, after providing much angst and metaphysical debate for most of the book, ended up generating a lot of laughs. The other highlight of the book for me was the introduction of the Nac Mac Feegle, which left me eagerly anticipating Wee Free Men, the book in which they are the central characters.

I'm pleased I read this book, and there are a few passages from it that resonated deeply with me. Overall though, it's not one of my favourites, and I hope that the next Discworld book I read returns to the seamless blend of observational parody and analysis that marks Pratchett at his best.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Movie 15/50 Satte Pe Satta

Satte Pe Satta      fiftyfiftyme category: Major
      I can't remember who recommended this film to me, or in what context. I know it that it was an Internet friend, and to whomever it was, thank you!
      A great fun comic adaptation of  Seven Brides for Seven Brothers this film struck me with its innocence. There is a jaded, and guarded, self-awareness of most mainstream Hindi films these days that can be refreshingly honest, but at times it's just tiresome, labouring under the same misapprehension as the creative (and I use that word very loosely) team behind Family Guy, that endless unoriginal pastiches and parodies can be mistaken for genuine wit and humour. Few films today are made with the sort of naive (and I use that word in its most complimentary sense) simplicity that shone from Satte Pe Satta.
      As the picture above shows, Amitabh in a double role, as the hero Ravi and "Satan in human form" Babu, was the headliner for the film. For me, though, Hema was the star.  When Indu quit her job as a nurse to be wife to Ravi and de facto mother to his 6 brothers, I was a bit disappointed, but the trademark spunk and vivacity I associate with Hema still shone through. Her great chemistry with Amitabh and comic timing made her role a delight to watch, as she domesticated the family she'd inherited and trained them in the ways of the world, as in this song:

      The songs in this film wsere more proof of its innocent charm. The noxious Western stereotype of Bollywood as being all about song and dance would mock the way songs are jammed into this film, but they all felt right to me. No showy sets with whory goris or emaciated NRI models, the songs in this film belonged to the story. They were devoid of any of the snide "we're doing this ironically, of course" attitude that taints many modern songs, which often seem to be there simply because somebody said there must be songs. The other thing I enjoyed about the songs were the multiple singers used. Listening to Pyaar Hume Kis Mod Pe Le Aaya the different singers made it easier to believe that all 7 brothers were singing, and I love the song for its affectionate display of the bond between the brothers.
      It's easy to imagine that everyone who went to see this at their local cinema in 1982 did so knowing what they were going to get in terms of the plot development. While such predictability can be boring, being able to work out in advance what happens and how can free up the viewers to sit back and let themselves be entertained. For me and mere sapnon ki rani, Satte Pe Saat was just that, a relaxing, entertaining trip back to a simpler time in Hindi cinema. Did I mention that Hema totally rocks and that poor Gabbar Singh continues his unlucky relationship with other people's feet?