Hitch (PG-13) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
Will Smith has proven to be such an immensely charismatic, easily likable, and effortlessly charming star in a variety of media, I always wondered why no one ever thought to cast him as a romantic lead. Now, after finally seeing him extend these qualities and his impeccable timing in the vastly enjoyable Hitch, it's downright unfathomable that it took so long for someone to use him in such a capacity, as he is as much a natural handling romantic comedy as he is saving the world on Fourth of July weekend.
Smith also serves as one of the film's producers, and it's quite easy to see why he shepherded the project through his own company. The character of Big Apple "date doctor" Alex "Hitch" Hitchens seems just about tailor-made for him, playing off of his well-established, smooth screen persona while comfortably allowing him to stretch into new territory. But far beyond its leading man, Hitch distinguishes itself from its ilk by being remarkably well-cast down the line, and in refreshing and unexpected ways. While it's no surprise that Kevin James, in his big screen debut as Albert Brennaman, one of the common man clients who enlists Hitch's expertise to woo the woman of his dreams; is effective as a slapsticky schlub with a way with a one-liner; but he also makes for a highly endearing romantic figure. Similarly, Amber Valletta obviously looks the part for Albert's wealthy, high-society object of affection Allegra Cole, but she also projects a surprising warmth under her model exterior, lending authenticity to Albert's contention that he can see and feel more to her beyond the image. As Sara Melas, the gossip columnist who comes to bewitch Hitch, Eva Mendes mixes the grit and spunk that she lent to her long line of law enforcement roles with her Stuck on You comic spirit, making for a rom-com leading lady of atypical edge.
At initial glance, first-time screenwriter Kevin Bisch's script does appear to be typical, as the scenario isn't particularly innovative by basic design. Slick guy who supposedly knows all the right moves falls for the one woman with whom everything goes wrong. Said woman is out to expose the mysterious "date doctor," not knowing that her new suitor is her target. The main subplot centers on an average joe pursuing a seemingly unattainable beauty. There are even trailer-ready set pieces such as the über-cool Hitch teaching hapless Albert how to dance and Hitch suffering a rather cartoonish, face-swelling allergic reaction.
It's a shame (though not exactly surprising) that Sony's marketing campaign emphasizes such broad bits of business as those, as these scenes are not a terribly accurate reflection of what is a far more witty and urbane whole. Bisch and Tennant seem less concerned with the by-the-numbers plotting than the personality of the piece, and the attention to character and performance make the plot machinations easier to swallow. The unlikely pair of Albert and Allegra proves to be anything but, as James and Valletta's gentle chemistry sells them as a viable couple regardless of Hitch's helpful hints. On the flip side, Hitch's dates with Sara predictably go wrong, but in more unexpectedly complex (and, hence, funnier) ways that stem from his character's penchant for overplanning and overthinking. From that, one can see how Sara would be more amused than annoyed when things go awry; naturally her cynicism about all things romantic would fuel snarky bemusement, but his genuine sincerity behind the missteps and unforeseen mishaps believably keep her if not exactly interested, then intrigued. Sara's mission to uncover the date doctor's true identity is the least interesting thread in Bisch's script, but when the situation inevitably comes to a confrontation, he has the smarts to let the characters retain theirs, figuring out the situation without blatantly underscoring with on-the-nose dialogue.
The smartest thing about Hitch, however, is its revelatory use of its headlining star Smith. Opening the film with Hitch directly addressing the camera could have been a harbinger of precious, obnoxiously strained would-be hipness, but the ever-affable Smith is able to sell the gimmick and everything else thrown his way. Raucously roughhousing with James? Exuding effortless cool? Sporting silly facial prosthetics? Verbally sparring with and earnestly wooing Mendes? Smith pulls off all of the tasks required of him while giving them his own unmistakable flair. To play off of the Heavy D/Aaron Hall classic that closes Hitch, now that Smith has found a love story, what is Hollywood gonna do with him? I look forward to finding out.
Raincoat BUY on Amazon:Poster!
While Aishwarya Rai is busy announcing herself in the West as a movie star to be reckoned with in Bride & Prejudice, back home in India, she continues to prove her true acting mettle by gamely taking on challenging roles in sometimes uncommercial projects. Raincoat marks her biggest departure to date, and the indifferent reaction at both the Indian and overseas box office reflect that; in fact, the film's theatrical distributor for the Non-Resident Indian market in North America basically gave the film an unusually tiny release, dumping it only on a pair of screens in San Jose, California and New Jersey this past Christmas Eve. While this somber, nuanced, talky, song-and-dance-free drama is just about the across-the-board antithesis of Indian popular filmmaking, it's everything a serious, art-minded cinephile would savor: a moody, expertly-acted and -directed meditation on the realities of love, loneliness, and life.
The man at the helm of Raincoat is writer-director Rituparno Ghosh, who previously directed Rai in the 2003 film festival favorite, the Bengali-language A Passion Play: Chokher Bali. As in that film, the de-glammed Rai in Raincoat is a far cry from the one we're used to seeing in Bollywood musical extravaganzas, but here even more startlingly so. Stripped along with her makeup is any trace of her famous glow, whether through hope, general contentment, or any other source. From the lips of Rai's housewife Neeru spin ornately woven tales of lavish luxury, but her sullen eyes and voice tell another, less fairy tale-ready story. As the truth behind "the game of words" (as the tagline goes) slowly, subtly, reluctantly reveals itself as the film progresses, Rai's beautifully shaded emotional transformation is heartbreaking. Neeru's fellow player in this game is long-lost love Manoj (Ajay Devgan), who shows up on her doorstep one rainy afternoon some six years after their last meeting, which occurred just prior to her wedding. As with Neeru, the intervening years have taken their brutal toll on Manoj, and as the two catch up on each other's lives, the false armor of inviting words both conceal and ultimately confirm the greatest truth shared between them.
And that truth, of course, is love. Through brief but carefully placed flashbacks, we witness those years-ago final moments between Manoj and Neeru, and while one could understandably say that these scenes and, hence, the pair's past relationship are underwritten, Ghosh understands that nothing can speak more about the relationship than what the actors bring to it. This marks the fourth time Devgan and Rai have shared the screen, and here they display the same poignantly understated rapport they lent their first and most celebrated collaboration, 1999's Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. It's not a playful chemistry nor a classically smoldering one, but something more of a consistently-felt, low-key burn that then flares up for some piercing moments. Who knew a line as seemingly innocuous as "I've applied for a car loan" could carry with it all the innocent hope and resigned disappointment of love and life itself?
Devgan's quietly wrenching performance can be described in the same way. While the presence of Rai certainly commands more attention to this small, delicate project than it otherwise would--and she more than justifies it with her performance--Devgan is onscreen from beginning to end, and he doesn't squander the showcase. Emotional desperation is paired with the brooding intensity Devgan has finely honed in his long line of tough guy roles, clearly delineating that this is a man who is not so much a passive victim of life, but one actively defeated by it. This one encounter with Neeru is but another noble, possibly futile attempt to fight against circumstance, however hopeless the chances of true redemption.
As powerful as his leads and the few supporting players are, the one who ends up dominating Raincoat is Ghosh, who is in full command of his filmmaking gifts from the opening title sequence. Expertly cut to a haunting love song, beautifully composed by Debajyoti Mishra, movingly performed by Shubha Mudgal, and featuring poetic lyrics by Ghosh himself, the sequence not only traces Manoj's journey from his small village home to the big city of Calcutta but sums up the entire emotional journey of the film. Such attention to detail is reflected in every aspect of the production, from the moody photography to the graceful editing to, most impressively, the production design. Most of the film is devoted to long conversations between Manoj and Neeru in the living room of her house, which is an enigmatic triumph; cluttered with furniture, often lit only by candlelight, it can alternately be read as romantic, run-down, spacious (Ghosh and cinematography get a bit of mileage out of the many angles the space offers them), and suffocating.
If Ghosh's direction places Raincoat under the skin, then his writing makes it linger there. The film is remarkably dialogue-heavy, but the words feel and flow naturally and beautifully illuminate the layers of the characters. And while a raincoat--which Manoj borrows from his best friend's wife--literally plays a prominent role in the film, the title has more powerful thematic significance. By film's end, one can conclude that in the monsoon storms of life and love, a flimsy raincoat is perhaps all anyone can realistically hope for, but it is also the most beautiful and valuable gift anyone can give to another. (Special thanks to Baba Digital)
Pooh's Heffalump Movie (G) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
Like the previous two films--The Tigger Movie and Piglet's Big Movie--in this recent wave of animated features set in A.A. Milne's Hundred Acre Wood, everyone's favorite "hunny"-loving bear Winnie the Pooh takes a back seat to one of his supporting cast: this time out, sweet l'il Roo, who apparently doesn't have enough marquee value to be named in the title. When giant footprints belonging to the dreaded Heffalump (read: British-accented, purple elephant) turn up in the Hundred Acre Wood, Pooh and all of his pals venture into the nearby forest to capture the creature--that is, with the exception of the deemed-too-young Roo, who goes on his own solo mission to do the same, and ends up running into Lumpy, a friendly heffa' who's definitely big but hardly menacing. And so Pooh and the gang learn a lesson about tolerance while Roo learns to enjoy his youth. As fare for families with young children, this is a completely pleasant and harmless time-pass, but other viewers should simply pass.
Kisna: The Warrior Poet BUY on Amazon:Poster!
Watching Subhash Ghai's lavish period adventure/romance/musical, I could not help but think of Mike Myers's old Saturday Night Live character of Linda Richman, who would have ample Coffee Talk fodder with the topic "Kisna is neither a warrior nor a poet." Over the course of the film's lumbering three hours, there is little to support either distinction--or that the poor Indian villager is even the main character. That distinction goes to British noblewoman Katherine, who in her present day old age flashes back, Titanic style, to her youth in India during the turbulent final days of colonialism, where she (played in this time frame by newcomer Antonia Bernath) fell for the titular Kisna (Vivek Oberoi, unusually inert), son of one of her family servants and her childhood best friend.
After a tragedy, Kisna--betrothed to another childhood friend, Lakshmi (Isha Sharvani)--also becomes Katherine's sworn protector, transporting her through anti-imperialist lands on the journey from their small village to the British consulate in Delhi. But, of course, Kisna soon breaks that third rule we learned from one-sheets for The Bodyguard--"Never fall in love." So far, so average, though Oberoi's beard and shag mullet extensions do make him look like the lost Hindustani member of ABBA, particularly during the musical numbers--which nonetheless are a bright spot thanks to the score by B'wood music maestros A.R. Rahman (Lagaan) and Ismail Darbar (Devdas), as well as the acrobatic moves of the remarkably limber Sharvani.
The intermission break often signals a change in tone for Bollywood pictures, and in the case of Kisna it's where the film goes from watchably mediocre to downright nutty, as all sense of logic, let alone character and story, goes out the window. Kisna disguises himself from a wealthy, mascara-wearing, moustache-twirling villain with designs on Katherine by... only donning sunglasses. After learning of Kisna and Katherine's love, a distraught Lakshmi... launches into another musical number showing off Sharvani's Cirque du Soleil-ready flexibility. Sensitive music composer (not poet) Kisna is forced to duel attacking nationalists, and the slow, sloppily staged swordplay is hardly befitting a "warrior"; there are odd pauses in the action where Oberoi appears to be waiting for the next, slow-arriving opponent to hit their mark. Characters repeatedly ask Kisna his name at various points for no other reason than to satisfy Ghai's strange fetish for hearing Oberoi utter the line "I am Kisna."
But there is nothing more slap-your-head stultifying than the film's centerpiece love anthem number, Katherine's "My Wish Comes True." Composed by Rahman and featuring entirely English language lyrics, by itself the tune effectively hits the proper notes of full-tilt romantic bombast; think "My Heart Will Go On" meets an American Idol coronation single, with a dash of Rahman's Indo-folk flavor. However, the lyric "words have no meaning" is made painfully applicable with a deadly one-two punch: the dearth of romantic heat between Oberoi and Bernath (their chaste chemistry only registers on that "best friend" level, if that), and--above all--Ghai's laughably tacky song picturization, which has Bernath robotically lipsynching amid a gaggle of gold-lamé-clad dancers engaging in some truly bizarre spasms deemed "choreography." Ghai has always prided himself on being a showman, but the Vegas way of showmanship for showmanship's sake is not the way to go on what is supposed to be the emotional high point of a supposedly epic love story.
And by the film's end, all one is left with is cold, hollow, indulgent, pretentious theatrics. That the film's final shot is of Ghai himself, half-silhouetted, striking the pose of a "serious" artist looking and pointing into the distance while standing on a mountain top (I'm not making this up) pretty much sums up all that goes wrong with Kisna. (Special thanks to Naz 8 Cinemas)
Boogeyman (PG-13) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
Barry Watson is haunted by the boogeyman. It's no exaggeration to say that's the entire gist of Stephen Kay's film, as it is a virtually plot-free, threadbare horror porn exercise such as The Grudge. The big difference between this film and that one, however, is that Takashi Shimizu's film at least offered up a series of stylish set pieces, however devoid of connective narrative tissue; Kay and the film's three credited writers cannot even muster that up. Instead, there's a lot of would-be tension-building wheel-spinning à la White Noise, with Watson moping around with an eyes- and mouth-agape look, trying to shake the ever-present thought and threat of the shadowy childhood menace that claimed his father some years ago. Given that the Watson character's fear stems largely from closets, there's a subversive subtext ripe for the mining, but Kay isn't nearly so clever nor ambitious. Instead, he simply sets out to go for the scare, which is far easier said than done, as his attempts at building atmosphere consist of transparent jump scares, stinger chords, quick cuts, and close-ups of everyday objects going about their functions in extreme slow motion (e.g., keys turning in locks; door hinges opening, causing paint to crack and peel). None of these not exactly chilling tactics can effective disguise that there is nothing going on during these 86 minutes except a studio gunning for quick kill at the opening weekend box office.
Rory O'Shea Was Here (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
In a home for the disabled, a well-meaning young man named Michael Connolly (Steven Robertson) stricken with cerebral palsy forges an unlikely bond with Rory O'Shea (James McAvoy), a loudmouthed smartass with Duchenne muscular dystrophy--and the only person who could understand Michael's severely impaired speech. Together the two set out to carve out independent lives for themselves, and if this sounds like a sentimental and predictable mismatched-misfits-against-the-world tale, that would be correct. However, however familiar and formulaic the turns Jeffrey Caine's screenplay (from a story by Christian O'Reilly) take, director Damien O'Donnell and his terrific cast (which also includes Ramola Garai as the pair's caretaker, for whom--in another easily foreseen turn--Michael develops romantic feelings) lend the film authenticity by quickly retreating whenever the proceedings threaten to get too cloying or sappy. The one exception, perhaps, is the finale, but by that point Robertson (who delivers a tremendous performance) and McAvoy (blessed with a showier part but no less impressive) have long won us over that their tears are also ours.
Swimming Upstream (PG-13) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
It would be extremely easy, if not completely expected, to criticize Russell Mulcahy's adaptation of Australian swimmer Anthony Fingleton's memoir with a spin on its title, but the reality is that Mulcahy had so much foolproof material to work with that it should have been a smooth swim: an underdog sports hook; father-son melodrama--all based on a true story, with no less than acting heavyweights Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis listed above the title. But leave it to Mulcahy--not exactly one known for his skill at handling intimate human drama--to screw everything up with an overwrought, MTV-ready visual style that obscures any dramatic heft to the story of young swimmer Tony's (vapid pretty boy Jesse Spencer) ongoing struggles to win his alcoholic father Harold's (Rush) love and acceptance. During one charged confrontation, Mulcahy theoretically ups the tension... by inexplicably whipping out Robert Zemeckis's camera-falls-below-the-kitchen-floor trick in What Lies Beneath; during a moment of quiet escape, young Tony literally starts floating into the air. But Mulcahy even botches those moments that would call for some flashy flair; his split-screen, techno-scored manner of presenting Tony's swim races could be effective--that is, if he didn't use the style in the exact same way every single time; something's wrong when these would-be exciting sequences are predictable right down to the rhythms of the edits and image wipes. But to be fair, blame must also be shouldered on Fingleton himself, who also wrote the screenplay; given that he lived the film's events, a little first-person slant would be expected, but his failure to even make the slightest attempt to shed any possible insight as to why Harold hates him so much is not only bad writing, but boring and tiresome viewing. As good as Rush is at drunkenly bellowing at the top of his lungs, hateful hysterics without any believable dramatic context nor impetus grow old quickly; Davis fares better, if only because the role of Harold's long-suffering wife/Tony's mom doesn't require her to hit a single note ad nauseum.
The Wedding Date (PG-13) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
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If there's anything truly scary about this time of year, it's the typical appearance of the ghastly beast known as the Sitcom Star Feature Hiatus Project. Last year gave us the atrocious Ray Romano vehicle Welcome to Mooseport, and in that not-so-illustrious tradition we have this big screen starring bid for Will & Grace Emmy winner Debra Messing. As likable as Messing is as sullen single Kat, there's only so much she can do with this charmless attempt to evoke the bawdy Brit wit of Four Weddings and a Funeral and, most of all, the "hire a hooker, fall in love" conceit of Pretty Woman. This time out it's Handsome Man, as Kat's hiring of male escort Nick (a characteristically blah Dermot Mulroney, somehow snagging yet another high-profile leading man gig) to accompany her to her half-sister's (Amy Adams) England-set nuptials turns out to be the first big step to finding true love. There's one huge miscalculation at the core of the film, and I'm not referring to the nonexistent chemistry between Messing and Mulroney, nor the forced and unfunny gags. In Pretty Woman, one could see how Julia Roberts would fall for Richard Gere, as his character treated her with a respect to which she was not accustomed, not to mention he introduced her to an entirely new world for her. Here, one never gets a sense that this is anything but a routine (if not sub-routine) assignment for this top-dollar, high-class escort, never mind that Nick says he's never done a wedding job before. So one is left utterly baffled as to why Kat would be the one to make Nick truly fall and reconsider his occupation--that is, aside from the facts that she's played by the star of a top-rated television show, and director Clare Kilner and scripter Dana Fox require him to do so.
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Taal (Rhythm) Movie: BUY on Amazon:Poster!
Director Subhash Ghai is known in Bollywood as "the showman," and if his current Kisna is an example of the worst side of that reputation, then his 1999 critical and popular success Taal shows what entertaining heights he can achieve when his flamboyant instincts are on the ball. The basic story is neither original nor surprising. Rich boy (Akshaye Khanna) falls for poor girl (Aishwarya Rai), the daughter of a small village musician, and vice versa. Family drama and misunderstandings ensue, tearing the lovers apart. Girl then becomes an overnight pop music sensation under a charismatic svengali producer (Anil Kapoor)--who, of course, wants girl for himself. Just your typical, everyday story...
Okay, so it's a typical, everyday story in the Bollywood sense. But what gives the thin and predictable plot life is, indeed, the slick showmanship. The casting is spot-on, with Khanna's subtlety used in nice counterpoint to the lively, movie-stealing Kapoor; and while Rai's part here isn't as demanding as that in her other key 1999 release, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (widely considered her dramatic breakthrough), she adds more dimension and believable conflict to what could've otherwise been a cookie-cutter "girl" role. Naturally, she fills the beauty requirement of the character very well, and whether in modest villager garb or all glammed up MTV fashionista style, Rai is never less than ravishing, thanks in no small part to Kabir Lal's overall stunning cinematography. The final sparkling touch is A.R. Rahman's music, and this has proven to be one of his most enduring scores. A couple of standout tunes, the haunting ballads "Ishq Bina" ("Without Love") and "Nahin Samne" ("Your Absence") were later adapted for the stage musical Bombay Dreams (as "Love's Never Easy" and "Closer Than Ever"/"Hero," respectively), but they are but two of a long line of memorable songs--and unlike in Kisna, Ghai gives them extravagant but appropriately elegant picturizations; the beautifully shot title track and the sultry, seductively choreographed "Ramta Jogi" ("Wandering Yogi") are commonly excerpted in U.S. TV news stories on Rai, and with good reason. Taal may be an exercise in cinema as sheer sensory spectacle, but what a savory feast it is.
Specifications: 2.50:1 anamorphic widescreen; Hindi 5.1 Digital; English subtitles. (Eros Entertainment)