The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The old & the beautiful

Pic Source: Wikipedia

There should be a separate genre of films called ‘heartwarming’, where we can put films like ‘We Bought a Zoo’, ‘50/50’ and ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’. These films do not brush aside life’s problems but treat them in a sensitive and uplifting manner… the stories are always simple, yet touch your heart and I am not at all embarrassed to say that they make me cry. These are not depressing films and the tears are more often related to joy and the eventual triumph of the human spirit. John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is one such film that is sweet, simple, heartwarming and entertaining.

The film follows seven British retirees who decide to spend their autumn years in exotic and affordable India. From a recently widowed housewife to a racist retired housekeeper; a former high court judge to a bitter couple and two old-birds in search of love and one-night stands; there are plenty of interesting characters in the film. After an eventful journey, they all land up at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in Jaipur, a crumbling property that is nothing like the photo-shopped images they saw online. The dilapidated hotel is run by an ambitious yet scatterbrained manager cum owner, Sonny (Dev Patel) who has this interesting business plan of outsourcing retirement.

Written by Ol Parker, the film has a stellar cast comprising of some of the finest British actors including Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup. Needless to say, they all are fabulous and each one has a touching story. However, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson and Maggie Smith steal the show. Dev Patel has the required energy but his accent distracts from his ‘Indian’ character. Tena Desae plays Sonny’s love interest, Sunaina, a confident girl who works in a call centre and Lillete Dubey plays his mother.

The film exaggerates and exploits all clichés about India but then you must remember that the film is from the point of view of British retirees. Riot of colours, beggars, rickety bus rides, Indians using incorrect English (and interestingly street urchins talking in British accent)… all this and more, the film packs a lot of real and imaginary India. Some of it may irritate you but if you look past all this, it is an interestingly presented film. Cinematography by Ben Davis is beautiful and he uses the typical exotic India imagery to the fullest. Music by Thomas Newman is also like those documentaries on India we get to see on Nat Geo and Discovery; but again it does create the desired effect.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a simple film with plenty of emotions and Rajasthan tourism brochure as the background. Watch it if you enjoy crying at the movies.

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Hugo

Movies, Magic & Dreams

Hugo; Source: Wikipedia

Movies – it’s like seeing your dreams in middle of the day. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is a love letter from the master filmmaker to cinema. The film reminded me of why I love the movies so much and even after the end credits rolled, the magic stayed with me. A few weeks ago, Jahan Bakshi wrote a beautiful post on ‘The Joy of Crying at the Movies’ and I could not agree more… this weekend when I watched Hugo, after almost giving up on the chance of it releasing in India, I re-discovered the joy of getting lost in someone else’s dream, someone else’s vision. That is what cinema is – magic!

Hugo is based on a historical fiction book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by American author, Brian Selznick (adapted for screen by John Logan). It follows the adventures of a young orphan boy, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) who lives between the walls of a railway station in Paris. Hugo likes to fix things and maintains the clocks in the station, something his alcoholic uncle is supposed to do. His purpose is to fix an automaton, a robot like mechanical man that can write, in the hope of finding a message from his father (Jude Law), a master clockmaker who died in a museum fire. He is joined in this adventure by a young girl, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) who is the goddaughter of Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), a toy shop owner at the station. While trying to retrieve a message from his father, Hugo finds another purpose – to fix a man who has lost his raison d’être in life. There are many other fascinating characters in Hugo’s world, including the station inspector, Gustave (Sacha Baron Cohen); the florist, Lisette (Emily Mortimer); the café owner, Madame Emile (Frances de la Tour); the bookshop owner, Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee); newsstand owner, Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths); Papa Georges’ wife, Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory); film historian and author, René Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Macmillan, the station inspector’s Doberman (Blackie).

Hugo is technically perfect and has the best 3D I have ever seen. Unlike other films where 3D is a gimmick to raise ticket prices, the technology is used well to aid the narrative in this film. Martin Scorsese takes you inside Hugo’s world and you can’t help but admire each frame. From the depths of the clock tower to the intricate clockwork of the automaton, to the soot from a burnt notebook, everything looks and feels spectacular in 3D. Cinematography by Robert Richardson is simply magical and takes you to the Paris of 1930s with music by Howard Shore and art direction by a team of master craftsmen.

Grand in scale and imagination, Hugo is a very personal film that showcases the passion of a filmmaker as well as the characters in his film. The film moves slowly and lets you soak into the ambience created. Despite its leisurely pace, I can assure you that you wouldn’t want the film to end and would catch yourself admiring the work on-screen with a smile plastered on your face.

Watch Hugo in 3D on the big screen, the way it is intended to be seen and you’ll experience the real magic of cinema.

Hats off Monsieur Scorsese!

The Avengers

Superheroes unite to do what they do best…

Save Manhattan… sorry Earth!

Pic: Marvel; Source: Wikipedia

The world is under threat (again!) and a bunch of superheroes get together to save it. Like all superhero movies, this is the plot of Marvel’s much awaited summer blockbuster, The Avengers, directed by Joss Whedon (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame). You know what happens in the end as well! So, why watch The Avengers? Here are my top reasons:

A Great Ensemble: It’s good to see so many superheroes in one frame… so many superpowers and so many egos! What happens when a god, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and a megalomaniac superhero, Iron Man start fighting? Or when the Hulk gets pissed off with Black Widow! There are too many interesting characters and they all add to the action sequences with their different powers.

The Show Stealers: Tony Stark / Iron Man, played by Robert Downey Jr. and Dr. Bruce Banner / Hulk, played by Mark Ruffalo rule the film. Stark as usual (like in Iron Man and Iron Man 2), has some very smart lines and he gets to do some pretty cool action stuff in the film. Ruffalo on the other hand is playing Hulk for the first time but makes you forget other actors who played the character in earlier films (Eric Bana, Edward Norton). He carries the load of Dr. Banner’s pained existence well and brings out the Hulk’s madness in a fantastic manner. Going by the cheers and the applause amongst the audience, especially kids, Hulk emerges as the show stealer in the film.

Scarlett, Cobie or Gwyneth: Yes, the ladies… though the superheroes leave limited space for them in the film, they are all fabulous. Scarlett Johansson as Agent Natasha Romanov / Black Widow is brilliant in her fight and interrogation sequences. She does not have any superpowers but is someone with whom nobody would like to mess with. Cobie Smulders (Robin of How I Met Your Mother) has a small role as an agent (Maria Hill) with S.H.I.E.L.D – an espionage & law enforcement organization, led by Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) that brings together the Avengers. She has a limited role but fans of Robin will be happy to see her away from Ted and Barney for a change. Gwyneth Paltrow makes a cameo appearance as Pepper Potts, Tony Stark’s girlfriend… she’s hardly there but I am biased when it comes to Ms. Paltrow!

A fantabulous second half: The action sequences are fabulously shot and there is not a dull moment when the Avengers face Loki’s (Thor’s adopted brother and arch rival; played by Tom Hiddleston) army from another world. The island of Manhattan is under attack (of course, where else will the aliens decide to appear) and our superheroes put up a great fight. Captain America (Chris Evans) leads the team and the evacuation plan; Iron Man ensures the fight doesn’t go beyond a certain radius; hammer-wielding god, Thor brings down the lightening while Black Widow kicks some alien ass; Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) shoots his arrows like an assassin on fast-forward mode while Hulk does what he does the best – SMASH! The grand finale of the film is complete paisa-vasool.

Despite all these great things, The Avengers falls short of being a perfect superhero entertainer. The film drags in the first half and I almost fell asleep with too much talk on-screen and hardly any action. The first part focuses more on the Avengers coming together but lacks the excitement we saw in a similar situation in last year’s X-Men First Class. Jeremy Renner, who is such a fine actor (The Hurt Locker, The Town) is wasted here, just like in Mission Impossible 4. Then there is Hollywood’s silly interpretation of India! In one sequence a little girl runs through a crowded market place to find Dr. Bruce Banner. She speaks in heavily accented Hindi and talks about her dying father. Calcutta is presented as a mega-slum, afflicted by all sorts of deadly diseases; and of course the shooting happened in a studio set in New Mexico! Is that revenge for Karan Johar creating Georgia floods in Filmcity for My Name is Khan?

Anyway, do not miss The Avengers on the big screen…

PS: The new promos of The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spiderman are not linked to the prints in India. These will be shown when The Avengers releases in the US on May 4.

 

My Week With Marilyn

She’s Marilyn… She’s Michelle

My Week With Marilyn; Source: Wikipedia

Marilyn Monroe lives through her image… the iconic photographs, the stories around her enigmatic life and death, and of course, her films that released over half a century ago. She is more of a cinematic icon than a person in the minds of the viewers today… However, Simon Curtis’ (director) film ‘My Week with Marilyn’ brings Marilyn the star, Marilyn the manipulator, Marilyn the victim and Marilyn the insecure girl back to life again.  The real credit goes to the actress, who it seems was born to play this role – Michelle Williams.

The film is based on British writer and documentary filmmaker, Colin Clark’s account of his time spent with Marilyn on and off the sets of another film, The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) for which she shot in London with actor/filmmaker, Laurence Olivier. Clark worked with Olivier as the third assistant director and forged an unlikely friendship with the world’s biggest star, albeit for a week. His two books, ‘The Prince, The Showgirl and Me’ and ‘My Week with Marilyn’ were adapted beautifully for screen by Adrian Hodges.

In the new film, Laurence Olivier (played by Kenneth Branagh) admires Marilyn’s screen persona and tells his young colleague, Colin (Eddie Redmayne) that he finds himself dull when she’s on-screen with him. That statement holds true of Michelle Williams’ performance in My Week with Marilyn. When she is on screen, you see nobody else and she lives Marilyn Monroe; she flirts, she winks, she laughs and says wicked things… she also appears nervous, vulnerable and someone you’d like to help, despite knowing that she can’t be helped. That’s the situation, Colin finds himself in as he thinks he can protect Marilyn, but from whom, herself?

The film also stars Judi Dench as Sybil Thorndike; Julia Ormond as Vivien Leigh; Emma Watson as Lucy, a wardrobe assistant; Zoë Wanamaker as Paula Strasberg, Marilyn’s acting coach; Dominic Cooper as Milton Greene, her business partner, amongst others. A stellar cast like this and you only remember Michelle after the film ends! Of course, the role she plays ensured she gets the most attention, but it was a big responsibility and the final outcome rested on her performance.

Williams has given some fine performances earlier also that earned her Oscar nominations (Supporting Actress for Brokeback Mountain and Leading Actress for Blue Valentine); but this time she shone like never before earning her third Academy Award nomination (Best Actress). Do watch My Week with Marilyn for her. It is a fine film with an interesting story, good cinematography, art direction, great supporting cast, etc, etc. But at the end it is Michelle as Marilyn who is the soul of the film.

– Shrey Khetarpal

Carnage

Appallingly Good

Carnage; Pic Source: Wikipedia

Following a verbal dispute in Brooklyn Bridge Park, 11-year-old Zachary Cowan armed with carrying a stick strikes another 11-year-old boy, Ethan Longstreet in the face*. As responsible and involved parents who see the larger picture, the Longstreets invite the Cowans to their apartment to discuss the fight between the boys. Both sets of parents try to discuss the issue in a civilised manner for the benefit of their children. The Cowans get to the door and thank their hosts who invite them back again for coffee. You know they shouldn’t go back but they do… These are the first five minutes of Roman Polanski’s brilliant black comedy, Carnage, based on a play, God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza.

Carnage is nothing but pure display of acting, writing and directorial prowess. Adapted for screen by Reza and Polanski, the film peels away the layers of civility and etiquette that the four characters display in the first five minutes. Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael Longstreet (John C. Reilly) appear happy and perfectly average couple who love each other and take extra interest in their children’s education. Michael has a hardware business and Penelope is a writer who is working a book on Darfur. On the other hand, the CowansNancy (Kate Winslet), a real estate agent and Alan (Cristoph Waltz), a lawyer seem financially more successful but with a strained relationship. Over the next 74-minutes the polite conversation turns venomous and they all display some shocking behaviour.

The four leading actors deliver stellar performance that is expected of artistes of their calibre. Cristoph Waltz however shines as a workaholic and rude man, whose phone keeps buzzing, annoying not only the other three on-screen but the audience that’s watching as well. Kate Winslet brings out maniacal energy on screen and shocks the most with her actions. The other characters who only appear as phone voices also add a lot of flavour, including Michael’s ailing mother and Alan’s work associate, Walter. Then there is a bottle of whisky, a bunch of yellow tulips, some art books, an apple & pear cobbler, a hamster and a hair dryer.

Carnage is an excellent film that shows how superficial and fake people tend to become with not only strangers but also their loved ones. As the film’s tagline says, it is ‘a comedy of no manners’ that spells utter mayhem, chaos and massacre in a brilliant cinematic way.

Do not miss it.

– Shrey Khetarpal

*The first line in this post is almost similar to the film’s opening lines.

 

The Descendants

Tragic & Heartwarming

Pic: Fox Searchlight; Source: Wikipedia

A teenage girl sunbathes on the beach, her kid sister playing in the sea; their father sits a few meters away, wearing a printed Hawaiian shirt. They are on what you can call a holiday but they are not happy.

The same teenage girl sits on the edge of the pool in her big beautiful house. She’s on phone when her father comes in and wants to talk to her about something serious. She tells him the pool is dirty.

This is Alexander Payne’s masterpiece, The Descendants, based on a novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Set in the rain drenched and sun kissed islands of Hawaii, Payne’s film overflows with the beauty of its setting. This beauty is in contrast with the tragic situation the film’s key characters find themselves in. The director involves viewers as spectators as the King family drama unfolds in a bitter-sweet manner.

Matt King (George Clooney) is a lawyer who is also a descendant of the Hawaiian royal family. He is the sole trustee of the King family trust that controls 25,000 acres of land on the island of Kauai. The trust will dissolve in seven years due to a rule against perpetuities and the extended family decides to sell the land and share the proceeds. While Matt is involved in making the major decision to sell his ancestral land, his wife meets with a boating accident and slips into a coma. Matt suddenly finds himself dealing with the tragedy and also his two daughters, a ten-year-old (Amara Miller as Scottie King) who doesn’t understand the extent of her mother’s illness and a seventeen-year-old (Shailene Woodley as Alex King) who is bitter and has drug/alcohol issues.

The Descendants is brilliantly adapted for screen by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash; it moves at a slow pace letting you absorb the setting and giving you time to feel the protagonist’s pain and dilemma. At the same time, the use of subtle humour and Hawaiian music does not let the film slip into the depressing drama territory.

Watch The Descendants for a beautifully crafted and presented story; watch it for its emotions and the themes it touches – love, loyalty, responsibility and family. Do not watch it for a suave Clooney as he’s anything but that in the film; but watch it for his fine performance of a man who is re-discovering his relationship with his daughters and his land.

Watch it if you love cinema.

PS: I have not rated this film as I find the star system flawed. However, please share your views if you think it should be there. I’ll follow what you decide going forward.

Contagion

Don’t talk to anyone… don’t touch anyone…

Contagion; Pic: Warner Bros.

How many times you touch your face in a day? Three to five times every waking minute says Dr. Erin Mears, an epidemic investigating officer in the film, Contagion; which means about 4,800 times in a day.  What surfaces you touch that can give you a deadly virus… peanuts in a pub, door knobs, handshake with a colleague, your own desk at work… there is no way you can avoid touching things or people… what happens when a deadly virus spreads around the world through surface contact (fomite transmission, explained in the film)? Contagion, a riveting new thriller by Steven Soderbergh presents a similar scenario tracing the lives of the affected families, doctors, scientists and investigators as a global pandemic explodes.

The film begins with a dark screen where you hear a woman coughing. You see a business traveller, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) at an airport bar sniffling and fighting a bad case of flu. ‘Day 2’ flashes on the screen and the camera focuses on the bowl of peanuts lying in front of her. You know it’s not good. Day 3 and she is dead along with the others in London, Japan and Hong Kong. The reason is unknown and the toll rising very fast. Professionals at the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) are already having emergency meetings. The film begins at a tense note and stays like that throughout; though serious and scary, the director maintains restraint and avoids sensationalizing the subject. The screenplay moves at a breakneck pace except a few parts in the second half. Contagion scares but presents a very realistic picture of what may happen in a crisis situation of a global pandemic.

The film boasts of an enviable ensemble cast of Academy Award® and Emmy® winners and nominees, but the director ensures that none get precedence over the film’s lead, the deadly virus. Matt Damon plays Mitch Emhoff, a grieving husband who is concerned about his daughter’s safety; Kate Winslet plays Dr. Erin Mears, a scientist for whom duty comes first; Marion Cotillard is WHO’s Dr. Leonora Orantes who is on the job to trace the virus’ origin; Jude Law, a conspiracy theorist and blogger; Laurence Fishburne, Dr. Ellis Cheever, head of CDC who finds himself in moral dilemma; and Jennifer Ehle is Dr. Ally Hextall who is working round the clock to develop a vaccine to fight the virus. There are many plots in this global drama that Soderbergh brings together perfectly without giving too much importance to a particular star or character. Look out for the scene where two scientists in isolation suits discuss their weekend while investigating a deadly virus strain. Also, the scene where Mitch checks his wife’s pictures of her fateful trip to Hong Kong, months after her death.

Contagion’s success lies in creating fear in the minds of the audience without making it appear over the top like other disaster flicks. Scott Z Burns’ screenplay is taut and editing superb (Stephen Mirrione), which along with the gripping background score (Cliff Martinez) makes it a must watch thriller.

My rating: *** ½ Three and a half on five

It’s Complicated

 

It’s enjoyable…

Pic: It's Complicated; Source: Wikipedia

It is always a joy to watch Meryl Streep on screen; she defines what we call ‘screen presence’. An otherwise average film, It’s Complicated depends heavily on this talented actor to make it good. Written and directed by Nancy Meyers, it is a romantic comedy that tackles subjects like marriage and divorce in a light hearted yet sensitive manner.

Jane (Meryl Streep) is a divorcée who runs a successful bakery and has finally come to terms with her divorce with Jake (Alec Baldwin), a lawyer. She stays alone happily with her grown-up children away, and bitches about her ex-husband’s much younger wife, Agnes (Lake Bell) with her bunch of girl-friends. Everything is fine till she goes to New York to attend her son’s graduation. She ends up getting into an affair with Jake and secretly enjoys being the other-woman.  To add to the complication, there is another divorcée, Adam (Steve Martin), Jane’s architect who also likes her.

The film has some genuinely funny sequences including one where Jane goes to a plastic surgeon and smokes a joint before attending a party thrown by her children. Though funny, Alec Baldwin’s stripping scenes are not a pleasant sight. Performance wise, Meryl does not disappoint; she is charming, believable and genuinely funny. Steve Martin in a somber character is very good; you empathise with him and want him to get the girl. Somehow, I am unable to digest Alec Baldwin opposite Meryl Streep; while he suits the character well, he is just not charismatic enough to match up to her.

It’s Complicated is smartly written and beautifully shot (Cinematography: John Toll). Special mention for the production designer and the stylists who make the film look great. Overall, it is quite enjoyable and if you like Meryl Streep, you won’t be disappointed…

My Rating: * * * ½ Three and a half stars on five

Shrey Khetarpal

 

The Blind Side

 

All heart…

Pic: The Blind Side; Source: Wikipedia

This is one of those rare films that win your heart with so much warmth and goodness. The Blind Side is a beautiful film about love, family and compassion. Director, John Lee Hancock’s film is based on a true story about a homeless African-American teenager who is supported by a well-to-do white family.

Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) is a 17-year old boy with a troubled past. He is helped by Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) and her family to become a successful football player. The film is about Michael’s extraordinary journey where he discovers the real meaning of having a family and experiences unconditional love.

In her career best performance, Sandra Bullock is extremely convincing as a rich interior designer who is passionate about football since her cheer-leading days in college. She is strong, confident and runs her family her own way. Her bond with Michael is extremely special as she becomes more of a mother to him than her real children. Quinton Aaron is also brilliant as Michael and you are able to empathise with him, the moment he comes on screen.

Sandra Bullock has already won the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globe awards amongst others for this film and is a favourite to bag an Oscar too. This is the first time I would be happy if Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia) does not win at the awards.

Do yourself a favour, watch The Blind Side and leave all your cynicism outside the theatre.

My Rating: * * * * Four stars on five

Shrey Khetarpal

Avatar

 

James Cameron does it again, but…

Pic: 20th Century Fox

James Cameron’sAvatar’ was probably the most awaited film of 2009 with all those special effects to bring alive the master director’s vision. A lot has been said about the 300-500 million dollars spent, the new language developed and the special stereoscopic cameras used to film it. The same hype probably works against the film and you feel a little disappointed while the end-credits roll. I am not saying that it is a bad film; Avatar is a good film and is a visual treat; it’s just that the expectations were beyond imagination.

Avatar is a simple film, mounted on a huge canvas to tell the age old story of good versus bad. While the theme is old, it is very relevant to us today as we face the global warming crisis that threatens our very existence. The film is set sometime in the future when there is nothing green left on our ‘dying’ planet. However, the human greed has extended to a moon called Pandora, 4.3 light years from Earth. The aliens (humans in this case) are after a precious mineral called Unobtainium and want the indigenous population of blue coloured species called Na’vi to co-operate, by hook or by crook (read forcibly). The story is about the clash between the Na’vis who worship nature and the aliens who after destroying their own planet, are after theirs.

Cameron successfully manages to create a bond between his audience and the Na’vis who are referred to as the ‘hostiles’ or ‘blue monkeys’ by the invading aliens. He encourages you to look and feel, the life at Pandora through the eyes of the Na’vis and you take in the awesome flora and fauna that seem to be inspired by the legendary Garden of Eden. This is where the director wins; all the technology and the imagination create a new world and experience to remember.

The film essentially belongs to the technicians and the director; kudos to the actors who deliver extremely believable performances. What does not work well in Avatar’s favour is the predictability of the story and its length (162 minutes). Also, the special effects may seem quite regular if seen in 2D (a plus on Jurassic Park maybe) and there are not enough 3D cinemas around the world. I am not too sure if people will go back to the theatre again and again like they did for James Cameron’s last outing, Titanic. Avatar is no Titanic, and may not achieve that success but it is a film that deserves to be watched.

Go watch it, but only in 3D.

My Rating: * * * * Four stars on five (Three for the film and one extra for the special effects)

Shrey Khetarpal