Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries)


Movies about Mumbai are many. Mumbai Diaries (Dhobi Ghat), joins their ranks, not as a pretender but as a rightful contender in the list of intelligent and appealing movies from and about Mumbai. The movie follows four of Mumbai's citizens, each very different from the other, but all inevitably entwined together. The stories are heartfelt and human, thought provoking without being pedantic and in their own way eye-opening without being shocking.

Shai (Monica Dogra) is an investment banker, currently on sabbatical from work and has a penchant for photography. Arun (Aamir Khan) is a modern painter, successful, loner and possessive of his independence. Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra) is a new bride in the city, having accompanied her husband from the north of the country. She is making a video of herself and the city for her brother, who has never been to Mumbai. Finally there is Munna (Prateik Babbar), a hardworking "dhobi" from the infamous city slums, who dreams the quintessential dream, to one day become an actor in Bollywood.

The movie is a tale of relationships between the different characters. The most complicated is between Shai and Munna. Munna, a hardworking young man, is used to his place in the stratified socio-economic class system of modern Mumbai. Shai, with a predominantly western attitude towards social interactions, treats him very differently - first as a fellow human being, then as a true friend. This leaves a very confused Munna, seeking something more than friendship. Unbeknownst to him, his understanding of the nature of their relationship also holds the key to his personal redemption.

The relationship between Arun and Shai is, in a certain way, more typical yet just as intriguing. Born of a late night filled with too much alcohol, it waxes and wanes, drifting between rejection and obsession. In a certain way their dance reminds one the relationship between the western world and India - pointedly indifferent and sometimes fascinated.

Finally there is the particularly heart-wrenching journey of Yasmin, as seen by Arun through the un-mailed tapes he finds in his new apartment. The tapes start off with the happiness of a new bride in Mumbai, with its alluring lights and fascinating sights. And then as life settles in, and the realities start to take hold, the excitable child must grow up - no matter how big the cost.

Dhobi Ghat reaches no conclusions. It is a brief window into the workings of a modern Indian city, sometimes confused, sometimes unfair but mostly business as usual.

June 19, 2011

Restraint

Restraint is a slow, low-budget, psychological thriller that punches way above it's weight class without seeming out of place. The setup was pretty good if not entirely plausible, and the ending was the weakest part of the movie. Yet, with a strong cast, the story keeps the audience well and truly involved right up until the end.

Ron (Travis Fimmel) and Dale (Teresa Palmer) are running from a double murder spree. In search of a hiding place, they stumble upon a mansion in the middle of nowhere, which is inhabited by an agoraphobic man Andrew (Stephen Moyer). What starts off as a house invasion and hostage scenario quickly turns interesting when Andrew offers Ron and Dale forty thousand dollars to leave him alive. The catch is that Dale has to impersonate Andrew's fiancee to withdraw the money from a bank.

At the risk of infuriating Ron, Andrew begins trying to turn Dale against her boyfriend. Slowly the allure of life in the well off society begins to contrast with that of a renegade accomplice, as Dale begins to question her life with Ron. As the high-stakes battle of power between Andrew and Ron comes to a head, Dale becomes the decisive factor.

Fimmel is brilliant as the unstable and reckless Ron. There is a sense of scary naivete about the character that is terrifying. Moyer is equally, if not more, brilliant as Ron's exact opposite. Outside of his fear of open spaces, Andrew is the cultured yet scheming man. In places he is decidedly creepier than Ron. In comparison Dale is the flaky one. Young, directionless, she seems to float towards strength - an idea reinforced by her transformation from brunette into blonde in the movie.

The remaining characters in the movie are just the backdrop for the unfolding story, and never really interfere with the narrative. In that sense the movie has a feeling of isolation. Even though there are some scenes shot outside of the huge mansion, it feels like the mansion was the only location in the movie. While it suffers from less expensive production values, Restraint is a cast-driven movie that is worth watching if you are into psychological thrillers.

June 18, 2011

Insomnia

"The end justifies the means, right?"

Insomnia feels like a movie you have seen before. Yet there is something compelling about this murder mystery set in the never ending Alaskan summer days, layered with naivety, dishonesty, and malice.

Under investigation by Internal Affairs, embattled cop Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) have been sent to a small town in Alaska, to investigate the horrible death of a teenage girl. Situated by the Arctic Circle Nightmute Alaska is a place where the sun never sets during summer. In pursuit of the killer, Dormer accidentally shoots his partner, but due to a series of circumstances goes with the story that it was killer who shot Eckhart.

Dormer is then contacted by Walter Finch (Robin Williams), who not only confesses to the murder of the girl, but blackmails Dormer about knowing that he shot his partner. As Dormer struggles with lack of sleep, he finds himself being pulled deeper into a series of lies, deception and working with the killer to frame an innocent boy for the girl's murder. His only saving grace may be the young officer Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), who is investigating the death of Eckhart and may hold the moral compass Dormer so desperately needs.

The story is interesting, but fairly commonplace. What makes the difference is the casting of Al Pacino and Robin Williams. With his stone faced expression, Pacino has the unusual knack of demonstrating a wide range of emotions - guilt, frustration, anger and compassion - all the while looking like he just woke up. Robin Williams is brilliant. There is an underlying steel to the local crime thriller writer that makes him way more creepier than one-hour photo ever did with the glasses and ginger hair. Swank is perfect as the starry eyed detective, that struggles with the idea that her idol may have been the guy that killed his own partner.

Christopher Nolan's screenplay is in no hurry. The camera switches between modes of intense character scrutiny, and wide, lazy panoramic shots that make you nostalgic about a place you have never been to. If Fargo was the initial purveyor of the snow covered desolate countryside, Insomnia took it up a notch by adding in the eternal sun. Through out the movie there is a distinct cloud cover, that adds a melancholy undertone, capturing the mood of the narrative.

Netflix had this in my suggested movies list for the longest time, and for some reason I never added this to the queue. I have been a tad skeptical of star-powered movies. But now that I have seen it, I am glad I did. Now I can sleep in peace.

June 10, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau


The Adjustment Bureau is not the story of the Adjustment Bureau. It is not an allegory that tells you something you do not already know about free will. What it is, is a well-crafted tale that exalts free will, at the same time subtly disparaging it's impetuous nature. It is a character driven science fiction movie, whose approach to story telling is diametrically opposite to that of Inception.

David Norris (Matt Damon) is a successful, brash politician who seems to be on the brink of winning a seat in the US Senate. On the day that he unexpectedly loses the election, he meets a beautiful contemporary ballet dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt). The two hit it off, like a match made in heaven. Unfortunately, as David begins to fall for Elise, he comes face to face with a set of people who seem to hold the invisible strings of fate in their hands. Known as the Adjustment Bureau, they possess singular powers, are able to manipulate luck and are always in the background gently guiding the world according to what is known as "the plan". Because the plan prohibits David and Elise getting together, David finds himself facing insurmountable opposition to his being with her. Eventually David must decide if he can afford to defy those who hold the strings of fate, for what feels like the love of his life.

The bureau itself is both the star and the background of the movie. Represented by the field workers who are responsible for executing mundane tasks called for by the plan, the bureau feels like a vast, bumbling, benevolent bureaucracy. Of all the evil empires in the history of cinema, this is probably the closest that Hollywood got to a real evil empire. Where a single infraction does not get the protagonist an audience with the head of the organization and the clueless minions are the only real face of the villain.

As could be expected, the story also deals with the nature of free will and it's expression. The good thing is that it never gets too preachy. There are no sermons, just personal epiphanies. But what is really telling is when David realizes that his attraction for Elise may just be because an earlier version of the plan called for it. By choosing to ignore this, David shows free will as an expression of the now, unencumbered by its pedigree.

Emily Blunt is the most vibrant part of the movie, the rest of the characters are either politicians or men in black. Screenplay is quick and pacey. The effects are well done, but generally keep out of the way.

The Adjustment Bureau does not have much of a shelf life, I wouldn't watch it a second time. But for the time I did invest in it, it was a thoughtfully made movie that respected my time. And I had more than enough invested in the characters and their love story to stay interested throughout the movie. Don't worry about this being called a science fiction movie. It could be just as easily be labelled romance, without upsetting a lot of people. After all, it is your free will to do that.

June 07, 2011

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