Monday, October 22, 2012

English Vinglish

Movie Review : English Vinglish
Director : Gauri Shinde
Genre : Family Drama
Starring : Sridevi, Adil Hussain, Sulabha Deshpande, Priya Anand
Released : October 2012
My Rating : 7 out of 10

I rarely write reviews of Indian movies. Firstly, I am not a professional reviewer. Mostly, I just want to note my reactions. Secondly I write a review, when I want to talk about a good movie that deserves to be watched and people around me seem to have missed it. For an Indian movie, everyone has seen it before me, because I don't go to theaters as often, and I refuse to watch pirated DVDs. So there is not much point writing the review - notable exceptions being Dharm and Khamosh Pani.

I watched "English Vinglish" becuase it seemed a rare family friendly Bollywood movie, and it is. It is a comeback movie for actress Sridevi, who ruled the Indian box office in her prime. That was a less of a reason for me, as I was one of those odd people who was totally apathetic to her star powers. I could never tolerate her dialogue delivery, and this movie reminded me that strongly. She did have the charisma and acting skills to carry an entire movie on her shoulders, and she does that with spades here.

Sridevi plays the central character of Shashi Godbole, a middle-aged housewife, with a good family - a successful and faithful husband, a typical teenaged daughter, an adorable son, and for a change, a supportive mother-in-law. Shashi is a great cook, and in spite of the daily struggles, manages to run a small operation of selling homemade sweets. It's a simple life. Simple, however does not mean, without sorrows. In spite of being totally devoted to her family, she is under-appreciated, and often a subject of mockery and put-downs. The reason - her lack of ability to fluently speak English. She has to travel to New York to help with her niece's wedding. While there, she enrolls herself in a crash course to learn English. This experience turns out to be a course in self-discovery as well.

The simplicity of this story is the strength, because it's told sincerely. This sincerity ensures that it doesn't become unrealistic. When Shashi completes her course, her English still sounds rough. She doesn't defeat anyone in the knowledge of the language - she just learns enough to get by.That same sincerity is also highlighted by a near lack of extremes. Shashi's family comes across not as some exceptional case, but one that we all can relate to. Their interactions are not contrived, but are those we all have experienced and/or seen in our lives. She is not being treated terribly by her family. She is not just being treated respectfully.

That's an important point the movie succeeds in making. As Shashi says in a scene, she doesn't need love, she has it, what she needs is respect. Hence there was never a scope for an affair or a love triangle. It's a movie whose characters are mature and composed in their behavior.

It's not a perfect movie. There were places where I cringed. The biggest problem is the constitution of the group of students. A Mexican nanny, a Pakistani cab driver in New York, a French cook, a South-Indian Software Engineer with problems with his English accent, an Asian lady who works in a hair salon ! If that's not stereotyping on steroids, then I don't know what is. Of course, the teacher is gay - filling the obligatory role of the nice person belonging to a minority group, which happens to be gays these days. Such formulaic treatment unnecessarily reduces the impact of the theme.

Fortunately, the director avoids other clich├ęs. The difficulties faced by a visitor in a foreign land are kept realistic, and not used to create unnaturally uncomfortable scenes. And thankfully, there is no preaching. No over-the-top emotional reunions at the end. The movie makes effort at every juncture to avoid being overly sentimental. It still is predictable. In a movie like this, that's what we want. Predictable happy ending.

Sridevi is being praised for her effort here, and it's well deserved. What should also be mentioned is, acting is really good across the board. Although her character is feeling neglected in the story, the movie revolves around Sridevi and kind of neglects almost everyone else. Not a huge minus, because whatever we need to learn about other characters, the director manages to convey that in brief scenes.

I have to tip my hat to director Gauri Shinde. It's a great debut. The first couple of opening minutes were my favorite. In just a few frames, without showing anyone's face, she built the foundation of the story - in Shashi's family everyone else's needs come before hers. Brilliantly done. This is as much Gauri Shinde's movie as it is Sridevi's.

I recommend this movie to even those who haven’t watched many Bollywood movies. It's slow. It's not great but it's very good, and quite safe for kids of these days.

(Trivia: The movie being shown in the flight that Sridevi's character watches is "Sourcecode").

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Source Code

Movie Review : Source Code
Director : Duncan Jones
Genre : SciFi / Action
Starring : Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga
Released : 2011
My Rating : 8 out of 10

About 20 years ago, "Groundhog Day" successfully used the idea of someone stuck in a time loop, to create a memorable movie.  As you watch "Source Code", it is impossible to not be reminded of it. The 1993 Bill Murray movie was firmly in the "Romantic Comedy" genre, and did not offer any explanations as to why the time loop happened. On the other hand, "Source Code" is an action thriller, and does offer some explanation as to why this time loop is happening.

Near Chicago, a train is making its routine journey. On board, Sean (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes from his nap. He is sitting in front of a young woman who is acting as if she is his girlfriend. Sean doesn't recognize her. In fact he doesn't even think he is Sean. He thinks he is a soldier (Colter) and should have been in Afghanistan. As he is trying to make sense of all this, suddenly there is an explosion and Sean finds himself trapped in what seems like a remote isolated spaceship. Here on a screen a woman appears, indeed refers to him as Colter, provides little explanation and sends him back to the same point in time where he wakes up from the nap.

These first opening minutes are brilliantly done. Our curiosity is perked, we are confused a bit and desperately want to know what's going on. Next few iterations in the time loop reveal more and more details. As we get more clarity about what's going on, we start wondering why and how it's happening. That's when the movie starts feeling a bit lost in the maze.

Giving more details would reduce the impact of the style of the narrative – a style often labeled as "mind bending". We are told that past cannot be changed and the aim of the time travel is to only understand it more. That's a very reasonable premise. In any movie like this, you have to allow for certain technological feats. Sending someone's mind back in the past and superimposing it on another person's brain is the core idea here. Take it or leave it.

Since the character goes back in time to the same spot, there is a lot of repetition in subsequent events. Both director Duncan Jones and writer Ben Ripley are successful in overcoming this big challenge. Whether you like the movie or not, you will not be bored. The story moves faster than the speed of the train on which it happens. It also helps that, at just about 90 minutes, it is not over-extended. The problem is elsewhere - incomplete explanations.

Jake Gyllenhaal is the centerpiece of the movie. His personality is simple and likeable, and his acting skills are more than adequate for this role. He starts out as much confused as us, pieces together the puzzle for and with us. As both Sean and Colter, he shows the progression of his realizations as the movie goes on.

As you can imagine, there are two things we are trying to solve here as viewers. Who is the bad guy that's causing the explosion, why is he doing that and how will he be stopped. Secondly, why is Colter being forced to undergo this traumatic time travel and how will it be resolved. The first works as the action movie, second works as the SciFi movie. The action movie is very flat. The whole "save the next terrorist attack" is not gripping at all. But it's realistic - because the "Source Code" technology only allows you to go back 8 minutes or so. Why 8 minutes, who knows ! Given that constraint, our hero can do only so much.

The SciFi part is the most interesting. From "Matrix" to "Inception", a common theme is to present the mind as something far more potent than the physical existence in which it is realized. Sometimes it's done via virtual reality, sometimes via mind manipulation. Here it's slightly different. The pseudo-philosophical discussions generated by such movies irritate me. But it's also true that a lot about mind and universe is still a mystery to us. Spoiler alert : If the movie makes you want to know more about what it says in the end, you can read Hidden Reality - but after watching the movie.

I recommend this movie as a solid science fiction movie. Know in advance that some of your questions will remain unanswered.

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