Sunday, February 14, 2010

My Name is Khan – A Movie Review

In a film industry that has gained worldwide renown for being all about the song and dance, it is but natural for material to be recycled. And unlike the west, which despite its many flaws has both an admirable respect for the concept of copyright and a conscience enough to credit a remake, over here, we just call it “inspiration”. After the shameless rip-off of ‘I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry’, ‘Dostana’ in 2008, which coincidentally was a huge commercial success, Karan Johar had a very good last year as producer rolling out two strikingly dissimilar but similarly fresh films in ‘Wake Up Sid’ and ‘Kurbaan’. He continues his roll this year, with his own directorial feature ‘My Name is Khan’, and ignoring his glaring shortcomings as a director, needs to be applauded for this effort to atleast find new settings and formats for the retelling of his trademark love stories.

My Name is Khan
Similar to the first person narrative feature of his directorial debut, ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’, MNIK is a story heard through the tongue of the Asperger’s afflicted Rizwan Khan, who journeys across half the world and then through the breadth of another continent, to say as we’ve all heard or read somewhere, “My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist”. After watching the uninspiring trailers, and the edited overly precious shots of Shahrukh playing Khan, I did not walk into the cinemas expecting much from this seemingly gimmicky film. I walked out surprised though, and pleasantly for the most part. In a polarized world, where the line of demarcation is clearly becoming religion even over race, the intent of MNIK is noble. To its credit, unlike the also well intentioned ‘Delhi 6’ last year, this film manages to build on its premise more effectively. In a nutshell, the story is in the form of a question: Are the world and its inhabitants so far gone that you are not allowed an individual persona that may be separate from your religious affiliations?
My Name is Khan has many stories, and many Khans, in spite of what the titular protagonist may have you believing. There is Raziya Khan, the mother who brought up her son believing in him with faith and pride, and ignored the rest of the world as she single handedly taught him all that is right and just, even till her death. There is Zakir Khan, the underappreciated but well loved younger brother, and Haseena Khan, his college professor wife, who are traditionalist Muslims but loyal family. There are Mandira and Sameer Khan, the mother and son who find place in their lives for another, who seek love and happiness and the feeling of home. And there are the thousands of unnamed people, who in brief moments of time, Johar introduces us too, if only to show us the impact this Khan has on them. Independently, most of these stories, and most of these people, are interesting, but together, in this ambitious screenplay written by Shibani Bathija, none of the stories develop to real fruition.
I like to start with attributes, and this film has those in abundance. Like I’ve said multiple times before, the biggest success of this film is its intention. It’s pure and it’s refreshing. The casting is unusual for a Johar film (aside from the lead pair of course), and most of the supporting cast does a fine job. Zarina Wahab, a departure from the Kirron Kher and Jaya Bachchan mould of Dharma Production mothers is very effective in her enthusiasm and both authentic and endearing in her manner. Jimmy Shergill is amongst the most underachieving of contemporary Indian actors (he was apparently a de facto choice after the actor originally cast for the film was denied a visa), and even though this isn’t his shining moment, he clearly needs to find a film where he can shine. Navneet Nishan is the cliché of the horny old woman/man Johar enjoys injecting into his film. The clear standout though, is Sonya Jehan. It took me a while to place her as the actress who started out her career as the lead in ‘Taj Mahal’, but she is stunning, and a very gifted actor. Even in the few scenes that she had in the film, she will hopefully catch the eye of someone with a good script and a good role, ‘cause she has the looks and the acting chops, and deserves a shot.
The music of the film is the better of the two albums Shankar Ehsaan Loy have scored this year so far, and the tracks Noor-e-Khuda and Sajda and even Tere Naina are fantastic. One huge plus for the film, and this in fact pushes the film up an entire letter grade in my book, is the fantastic cinematography. Ravi K Chandran is nothing short of brilliant as he captures a panoramic view of the United States, especially in the scene at the point of intermission in the Arizona desert, and even in more intimate moments, such as the scene in the song Tere Naina, whilst Kajol gives Khan a haircut, he uses natural light so effectively that it leaves you stunned. The look of the film also, is suitably opulent without being jarring, in typical style for a Dharma film, and Kajol looks her best in years.
Of the leads, Kajol is good. Scratch that, she’s awesome in the material she’s been given, and in my personal opinion, after the crazy awesome turn she did in ‘Dushman’, this is perhaps her most accomplished performance. BUT…more on that later. The film of course, unequivocally belongs to Khan. Shahrukh Khan has been called many things, but more often than not, a standout actor he is not. For so many years he has defined the term star, and despite his many popular awards for Best Actor, apart from ‘Chak de India’, there is hardly another movie you could cite in which he was more an actor than a star (‘Swades’ was an awful bore for me, sorry!). In this film though, which I suspect was written specifically for him, he has the time and the meat to bite whole heartedly into a game changing role, and for the most part, passes brilliantly. He has a naturally intelligent sense of humour that he lends to his character and despite some of the cheesy lines that may put you off in the previews this is an authentic, effective portrayal of a highly developed autist. Not even he can help pass this off as a masterpiece though.
The film has many flaws, and quite frankly, they overwhelm the film towards the climax. And that is very disheartening actually, because one hour, and an intermission later, I actually thought it was turning out to be just brilliant. Whilst walking out of the cinema, I tried to figure out what changed in the second half. Perhaps it is a problem only I face, but dialogue, IMHO, is the crux of any film. It is what layers an idea into a screenplay, and what distinguishes achievement from ambition. Like I’ve said before, this script has ambition aplenty, but somewhere along the way, and it is my belief that it happened whilst penning the dialogues, it veers away from living up to its potential. There are moments in the film where Johar and his collaborators could have perhaps opted for silence but instead choose to go for dramatic emphasis. It is the single threads of wool that make the quilt warm though, and in this particular case, just as you start to feel toasty, it shrinks to nothing. Also, unbelievably disappointing was the way they wrote bits of Kajol’s character and the initial interaction between her and Khan. Her opening scene and the terrible dialogue made you cringe at best, and then the constant fixture of Khan, a travelling salesman in her salon was inexplicable. There are two points on which I am going to elaborate here. A) The premise of Khan’s journey, whilst interesting, and some of his moments on the road, such as his meeting the motel owner played by Vinay Pathak, agreeably insightful, there is such a thing as too much. By the end of the film, the only good deed Khan had not done was blowing away Hurricane Katrina with the power of his breath, and honestly, I feel sure that Bathija at least considered giving him the Nobel Peace Prize. To go from entertaining to arduous in twenty minutes is a lesson to be learned from this screenplay. B) The crisis in the film, once again, seemed so juicy to Johar and his associates, that they gave it not just one harrowing scene but two. Whilst the first was passable, if only because of Kajol’s natural talent, the second was just overkill. It was loud, obnoxious, unreal and odious. What should have been a pivotal moment became a terribly overacted sham.
These may seem like a lot of shortcomings, but in truth and in all honesty, these are all of them. And since I’m being honest, they are far fewer than I thought they would be. And at the point of the interval, I couldn’t remove the plastered smile off my face, even if I tried. Whilst the second half may have been a tremendous letdown to the buildup of the first, it wasn’t all bad, and in a hackneyed sort of way, Johar does somehow get his message out. And it is a message that needs to be out. This may not be the best film Johar has made (‘KKHH’ will retain that for some time to come), but it is, at the very least far better than any other film to come out of his direction (and I’m counting the awful ‘Kal Ho Naa Ho’ in that mix). Watch it, if only once, if only for Shahrukh Khan and Kajol together on screen, if only for the beautiful landscape of the US through RKC’s lens, or if only because not every Khan is a terrorist.

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Thursday, February 4, 2010

List: My Favourite Movies this Year

With the Academy announcing nominations for this year’s awards, I thought it was high time I put this list up, that I’d compiled more than a while ago. Since, I’ve watched a few more movies, which might have changed the list a little, but I’ve decided I’m going to consider those to be 2010, and go ahead with my original list.
This year, there were some great movies, some stinkers and a gigantic bunch of films that ended up middling at best. There were some cinematic moments that you couldn’t help cheer for (Shoshana’s revenge), there were times you couldn’t contain a gasp (being introduced to Pandora or Paradise Falls) and then there were moments you were forced to cringe (sitting through Sonia and Pepperidge hamming their way through Clouseau’s feeble attempts at making funny). At the end of all that good, bad and sometimes very very ugly, we’ve come to the close of yet another year. And amongst a veritable collection of best-of-lists, here’s mine. There were many movies that almost made it to my favorites, but somehow couldn’t move me enough. So I’m starting with the movies that I also enjoyed, to the movies on the bubble, which on another day could substitute the movies that finally made the list, and finally entering the movies that this year made it worth my while to spend all those hours with all those characters.

Also enjoyed:
1.       Goodbye Solo – Ram Bahirini
2.       Un Prophete – Jacques Audiard
3.       (500) Days of Summer – Marc Webb
4.       District 9 – Neill Blomkamp
5.       Adventureland – Greg Mottola
6.       Away We Go – Sam Mendes
7.       Invictus – Clint Eastwood
8.       3 Idiots – Rajkumar Hirani
9.       Coraline – Henry Selick
10.   The Young Victoria – Jean-Marc Vallée
On the Bubble (in alphabetic order):
1.       The Brothers Bloom – Rian Johnson
Thoroughly entertaining, and wonderfully well acted, beautifully shot and cleverly written, ‘The Brothers Bloom’ just missed the cut for me. A lot of people felt the transition from frothy and light to Shakespearean tragedy was uneven but I, for one, found it intriguing. The only fault I found in the film was some patchy editing and uncertain repeat value. Still, it was a commendable follow up to ‘Brick’, another film I thoroughly enjoyed, and I can’t wait to watch the next film Rian Johnson churns out.

2.       In The Loop – Armando Ianucci
This film bounced in and out of my top 10 as I began to make this list. Always at the back of my mind for being amongst the first times I actually enjoyed British humour, there is a crassness that made the stereotypical Indian prude inside me cringe. And yet, there is no doubt in the fact that if you want funny, you got it. If you found the summer sleeper ‘The Hangover’ hilarious, you WILL pee your pants in this one.

3.       Kurbaan – Rensil DeSilva
Indian cinema has seen some remarkable thrillers, and yet, it would be a stretch to expect anyone to be able to name three memorable thrillers from the 2000s. In Kurbaan, which is a hard to classify movie, we finally have that. It isn’t a perfect movie, and tries hard to find its footing towards the end, eventually hobbling to a by-and-large dissatisfying climax, but is still not without mention. In fact, tautly written for most of the screentime, it ably avoids many of the pitfalls the similarly themed (and unfortunately better received) New York succumbed to. Special mention must be given to the surprisingly consistent acting of all the players, especially Kirron Kher and (incredibly shockingly) Kareena Kapoor. Kurbaan may not be amongst the best films this year, but it definitely better than over 95% of the colder than tepid fare launched out of Bombay Talkies this year.

4.       Sunshine Cleaning
A cute little Indie that slipped in and out of people’s mind this summer, I was conflicted on whether I wanted this film to have this spot or ‘Adventureland’. I finally decided to go with this one after watching ‘The Young Victoria’. I think it is high time Emily Blunt got her due, and whilst her performance in Victoria is deservingly garnering her accolades, this film comes together much more cohesively. If Viola Davis could get an Oscar nomination for one scene in Doubt, Blunt should’ve wished this film could have come out later in the year, ‘cause even though Amy Adams, Steve Zahn and Alan Arkin are no pushovers, she really gave her all and made this one of the most engaging character studies in a long time. This film isn’t art, but it is entertaining, and at least for me, has been memorable.

5.       Taken – Pierre Morel
A lot of people have probably forgotten ‘Taken’ already, but this is the one movie I’ve watched the maximum number of times this year, and is also definitely the reason I look forward to watching Pierre Morel and Liam Neeson in their next forays out in 2010. (I will have a list out on that as well). Definitely the action entertainer of the year, Liam Neeson put himself on the map in Hollywood with this flick in a bigger way than before and banked over $200 million worldwide on a budget of $25 million.


10.    Where the Wild Things Are – Spike Jonze
So many people wrote this film off as a misfire, but I still can’t get over how beautiful and simple and profound I felt it was. The last Spike Jonze movie I watched was the incredible ‘Being John Malkovich’, and this isn’t perhaps as revolutionary, but it has so much more heart. It is often difficult to adapt short literary works into feature length cinema, and some might even claim this to be better suited to a short film, but Jonze does a really good job of bringing life to the world created by Maurice Sendak. The music of the film is also fantastic and more than anything, Max Records does an incredible job of playing Max, the misunderstood, imaginative, and painfully lonely child who goes to the land of the wild things. Definitely not a movie for children, with its constant melancholic tone, but a fantastic film nonetheless.

9.       Star Trek  - J J Abrams
For a first time Star Trek watcher, I found the first fifteen minutes of this film unexciting, but as it catches on, and starts to take shape, I have to say I found the reason why so many millions of people do not shy away from making a fool of themselves by being labeled “Trekkies”. J J Abrams does an awesome job of contemporizing the story and leaving enough geek in it to satisfy the loyal fans. Zachary Quinto moves on from being Sylar in the now-decaying Heroes, and owns the role of Spock, even when faced by the original Nemoy.  _\\// (That’s a Vulcan salute for the uninitiated).

8.       Up In The Air – Jason Reitman
I enjoy Jason Reitman’s oeuvre more than any other contemporary filmmaker. I don’t think that means he’s the best filmmaker out there but I think it does mean that he makes amongst the most cleverly entertaining topical films. This is the second time he’s garnered award buzz is just three outings in feature length film-making, and under his own writing, I think he stands as good a chance at winning as the best of them. The film was hard to classify but impossible to not enjoy and he created some memorable characters for all the actors, specifically Clooney, who fit Ryan Bingham to a T.

7.       Wake Up Sid – Ayaan Mukherjee
Fun from beginning to end, if Wake Up Sid is amongst my favourite films this year, it’s probably the same reason I enjoyed Juno a couple’a years back. This film is unashamedly formulaic, and you could predict the ending thirty seconds into the film. Getting there is what makes this film worth watching. Ayaan Mukherjee puts together a bunch of endearing characters and milks the hell out of every cliché you could find in a feel-good film, and does a brilliant job of it. When you get out of your seat in the cinema, you’re bound to feel good, and for a long time after.

6.       Up – Pete Doctor and Bob Peterson
To start, I have yet to watch ‘The Fantastic Mr. Fox’ and have been told that I might revise my opinion as to my favorite animation film this year, but for now, I have to say that ‘Up’ was awesome. Amongst my favorite films to come out of Pixar studios, a studio already renowned for its habit of winning big at the Academy Awards, Up is in equal parts inspiring and equal parts entertaining. Carl Freidricksen and Russel took us on a journey of a lifetime, and we can never thank them enough.

5.       The Blind Side – John Lee Hancock
Sandra Bullock! What a year it’s been for her. She played the typical rom-com heroine in the summer hit ‘The Proposal’ and then had a humiliating disaster with the over-rated Bradley Cooper in ‘All About Steve’. One might think that’d be enough, but she just bounced right back, and bounced oh-so-high. Some stellar performances, an all-American sport, a feel good story and an author backed role for Bullock in this film make it amongst the best we’ve had in this genre. Surprising everyone and no one and getting Bullock nominations galore, this film is already amongst the ten highest grossing domestic releases this year, and released on par with New Moon, this film has shown staying par with its collections amongst the slowest dipping in percentages. And yet, those aren’t why I find this amongst my favourite five films this year. It’s here because IMHO, only a stone could not leave the cinema with a big smile after this one.

4.       The Hurt Locker – Kathryn Bigelow
Not many people are aware that Kathryn Bigelow was one amongst James Cameron’s many wives. I’m not sure if there is a point to that, so we’ll call it interesting trivia. Either ways, this will go down as a genre defining movie, with a never before experienced closed-up examination of conflict zones, in a completely non-judgmental way. Jeremy Renner’s stunning turn as the conflicted squadron leader who only finds purpose in the combat zone is also worth all the hype. Oh, I remembered my point: With both Bigelow and Cameron churning out fantastic films this year, wonder who rubbed off on who!

3.       Kaminey – Vishal Bhardwaj
My initial plan was to separate this list into the ten Indian (Hindi) films I enjoyed watching the most, and the ten International films I enjoyed the most. That was before I actually began making my list, and stopped at four, and that too after forcing the last one in. Nevertheless, Kaminey would definitely be amongst my most enjoyable times spent at a cinema. Wildly entertaining, uninhibited in its stylization and treatment, with a mind-numbing music score, this film was unequivocally the best film to come out of a stalemate Indian film industry in this last year. It will hopefully inspire original writing and awesome acting in the future, or at least serve as a reference point for those trying to identify it.

2.       Inglourious Basterds – Quentin Tarantino
One great genius, one troubled time, and one incredible experience. Tarantino is clearly with this film, the master of entertainment. In your face, with traditional plot devices like revenge, authentic use of language and fantastic casting, this is the film that could have been my favourite of the year, had it not been for the next title. No mention of this film can be complete without also mentioning Christoph Waltz. Even if I never see him in another Hollywood movie again, he, much like Heath Ledger last year, has fulfilled his cinematic purpose, and will always be remembered as Colonel Hans Landa, and rightly so.

1.     Avatar – James Cameron
Now that’s cinema. James Cameron, twenty years of planning, three hundred thousand speculations in the press, billions of post-Titanic expectations, 350 million dollars, and an entirely new planet make this amongst the best experiences in a movie theatre of my life. If Steven Spielberg took us back in time with Jurassic Park, Cameron took us forward, with a fantastic film, simplistic in story and perfect in execution. Avatar should become the biggest success of all time, only to vindicate this man who took on the world, and turned it on its axis.

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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Movie review: Ishqiya

The tragedy of contemporary Indian cinema is that, much like everything else that’s contemporary in India, it’s just not Indian. In a country with a rural population far exceeding the urban elite, a fact clearly evidenced in political elections, it’s somehow inexplicable that film characters and plots very rarely are written in a non urban-centric environment. In fact, more often than not, we find ourselves with foreign locales conveniently dressed up with all-Indian casts, right from the British (Indian) butler, to the Bahamian (Indian) chief of police. In such a scenario, it’s more than anything else, a sight for sore eyes, to see a raw, rustic story being told through the tongue of an everyman.

In this deeply dissatisfying scenario, Vishal Bhardwaj has time and again brought us entertainment that is rooted in the ethos of Indian-ness. Whether it was Makdee or Maqbool, Omkara or Kaminey, Bhardwaj went from Uttar Pradesh to Bihar to Maharashtra to West Bengal and fleshed out characters that are real, relatable, and more than anything else, incredibly entertaining. Perhaps that is why, from being an underfinanced independent filmmaker, he now stands in a position to have his own production company, supporting fledgling newcomers like Abhishek Chaubey make cinema of the newest brand, which for a better term, I’m going to call Bhardwaj-esque.
Ishqiya is a prime example of cinema that brings back the feeling of the cinema of Shyam Benegal or Gulzar, but is emphatic in its purpose being, like all other movies under the Bhardwaj banner, unadulterated entertainment. Headlined by Vidya Balan, Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi, it takes us on a ride from Bhopal to Gorakhpur to Faizabad and back, and introduces us to characters as nutty as Iftiqar(Shah)and Babban(Warsi) and as layered as Krishna(Balan).
The story of Ishqiya is simple enough, albeit a little indulgent to plot points. Babban and Iftiqar are on the run from a goon named Mushtaq and they run into the widow of Vidyadhar Verma, Krishna. What happens next is a delicious continuum of twists and turns, some that make you sit up and some that make you dizzy. The movie has everything that a caper film in the ilk of Kaminey needs, but instead treads a delicate balance between an unconventional romance and a tribute to noir. The duo solicit the help of Krishna and construct a plan to get out of a potentially life threatening debt and at the same time, earn enough to retire to a life of luxury. Are there mixed motives though? Or do, per usual, the best laid plan of mice and men, go askew? This is what follows in the meandering journey these three unlikely accomplices take.
The treatment is what makes this film special. Like all films before this, Bhardwaj pays incredible attention to detail in his dialogues, and they’re appropriately crass, whilst remaining effectively authentic. He gets the dainty Balan to mouth words you’d think she didn’t know the meaning of with such consummate ease that you get effortlessly sucked into the world where gang wars are treated like real wars and children of different castes are initialized into weaponry at (Bhardwaj uses colorful language to describe this) the age of potty training. There is more than a touch of humor in the movie, and most of it is induced by the dialogue and its delivery, both of which are impeccable. I’ve read that the film was shot on set in suburban Bombay, and in that case, the set decorator and the DOP deserve special plaudits for very efficiently creating the required ambience to take us back to the days of ‘Ankur’ and ‘Mrityudand’.
As he has grown with his direction, so Bhardwaj has improved his musical scoring. Amongst the only composers left to rely solely on traditional Indian melody, he creates a score that is rich, textured, perfectly fitting and that creates a mood that elevates this already very good film quite a few notches. The positioning of each song also is done immaculately, and Chaubey does a particularly fantastic job of interweaving the music with the flow of the story, and also for directing the song sequences themselves, so that at no point do they take away from the movie.
The trump card of Ishqiya however, is its characters. A special shout out must go to the casting director who does a spectacular job of casting each and every role, such that the parts seem like they were written for the actors playing them, even though you’ve never seen any of them do anything remotely similar. Shah is potent as usual, and shows innocence, despondence, vulnerability and charm as well as he ever has. Warsi finds a role for the first time since the memorable Circuit in the Munnabhai franchise that suits him to a T, and he grabs on to it with both hands. He treads the path of too much in a few scenes, but is just about perfect for the role, and does complete justice. Amongst the supporting cast, the child actor playing Nandu has only a couple of scenes, but is precocious without being annoying and is the standout in the supporting cast. The film however unequivocally belongs to Vidya Balan.
Krishna is at times a victimized widow and at times a wily nymphet, and Balan transforms with just the tiniest shift in expression, or the most insignificant gesture, from one to another that her performance in this film could actually be studied in film school. She is clearly out of her regular style of work (as evidenced by her previous films) but carves out a character that is so real and oozes with sensuality that she ends up being irresistible. This film was probably shot before Paa, and Balan still carries some of the weight she had lost for Paa, but in the saris she wears, she has never looked as hot as she does in this film. Even though they look nothing alike, she manages in this film to bring back the memories of the raw sensuality of Smita Patil, and she clearly has the acting prowess to match as well. Undeniably the most powerful female character in cinema since Shabana Azmi in Godmother, this is (IMHO) the best performance by an actress in years, and if Balan does not get her due for this film, she probably never will, because this is one hard act to follow. She is the heart and soul of this film, and rightly so.
All Bhardwaj films have genius titles, and this film isn’t any different, and what is more, it is very fitting. The film is all about Ishqiya, and as corny as it sounds, it won’t be odd if many of you feel the ishq or crush long after you’ve left the cinema.

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MOVIE REVIEW: The Invention of Lying

Imagine a world where no one can tell a lie. Ricky Gervais creates such a utopia and then makes himself the only exception, the special one. He then proceeds to repeatedly have everyone call him a loser, until they realize that he’s the real winner, and everyone lives happily ever after, (or at least, Mark Bellison does). That is essentially the sum and substance of the picture. Much like Edison and Einstein, Bellison (a play on Edison and Bell?) chances upon his discovery quite by accident. In his case, the stimulus was desperation. Faced with eviction and unemployment and insolvency, Bellison does something involuntary, and finds something wonderful happening.

Gervais needs to be commended for his inventiveness. Taking the basest of human instinct and creating an alternate reality around it, Gervais weaves a story that is unmistakably original and potentially brilliant. Especially in such story though, how you execute each scene increases exponentially in importance. Somehow, Gervais misses the play there, and what results is a long experience of tedium. It isn’t that he doesn’t try, in all earnestness, to form a complete story, it’s just that he doesn’t have that much of a plot, and his meandering through the mess of Bellison’s life to find one is an arduous watch.
In this world of Gervais’ creation, of course, there can be no Church, no concept of science, because everything just is. There isn’t even a word for truth or lies, because there isn’t a distinction. Everything you say, is, or, like Bellison says, his power is to “say something that wasn’t.” Instead of examining the implications of the lack of such fundamental institutions as religion and reasoning, Gervais chooses to go the rom-com route and study the ramifications of the lack of free will. This he translates to a lack of feeling and automated reasoned decision making, and a painfully oft-repeated “search for a genetic match.”
Jennifer Garner is brazen and brave for trying to flesh out a character, but with a paper thin character sketch, does nothing significant. Gervais has a fantastic role to play with, but really, and maybe it’s just me, he’s so inherently unlikable that it is difficult for anyone to root for him. There are a bunch of interesting cameos thrown in there as well, from the likes of Jason Bateman and Tina Fey, but none really hit home. There is a lack of sincerity, or perhaps of identification, and instead of being honest, they come across as mean and unlikable.
Also, I think, perhaps for comic effect, Gervais not only makes it impossible for anyone to lie, but also to contain thoughts, and everyone is sharing what they’re doing, or thinking, and whilst highly comical in theory, for the duration of the 100 odd minutes this picture lasts, can become quite an ordeal. In essence, I would say, that whilst this is just me and my sheer inability to enjoy the humour of Gervais (I’m amongst the very few who enjoy the American adaptation of The Office infinitely more than the British one), The Invention of Lying just wasn’t smart enough to not need it to be hilarious. Not every comedy gives you a stitch in your side, but it’s rare that you find yourself cringing more often than smiling, and when that happens, you know you’re watching the wrong movie.

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Wake Up Sid – A Movie Review

Coming of age is a unique genre in cinema, in that, even though from movie to movie, the story remains mostly the same, depending on the treatment, you may make either a forgettable disaster, or the next ‘Garden State’. No film better exemplifies this in recent memory than ‘Wake Up Sid’. Telling the oft-told story of a boy finding his way into manhood, the movie has all the regular devices one would expect in such a film (punch-lines, driven female stimulus, familial disagreement etc.), but finds a way to rise above the mediocre because of an infusion of soul and life into every single character.

Headlining the proceedings is Siddharth Mehra, a twenty something almost graduate who goes from Mr. Popular to the “one who flunked out” in a commerce college in Bombay. As is typical with such stories, Sid, the titular protagonist is affluent, spoiled and sleepwalking through life hanging on to the coat-tails of his father’s wealth. Again, typically, he may be flawed, embarrassed at associating himself with “flower showers”, his father’s legacy that he so easily uses for his material needs, but at the core, has a good heart. He is detached and unwilling to commit though, either to relationships (as is evident in both his dealings with his parents and his advice to his about-to-propose friend) or to work, and, in his own words, “just want(s) to have fun”.
wake up sid
In stark contrast to Sid is the pivotal character of Aisha. She’s the “new girl in the city”, she’s driven, already lined up a job interview, and bold and brazen enough to go on a late night walk in a strange city with a guy she just met at a party. She is traditional though, and immediately clarifies that she “doesn’t want to sleep with (Sid)”. This highlights the relationship between the two throughout the film, with Aisha motivating Sid to be all he can, without ever telling him he must.
The beauty of Wake Up Sid truly comes from the well crafted characters and the natural, fluid dialogue between them. They say that life is made up of millions of small moments. The same is true of cinema, and every film comes together as a series of interchanges between characters. Unfortunately, most films seem to miss this point, and get lost in translation. Ayan Mukherjee and Niranjan Iyengar do a surprisingly good job of writing the screenplay and especially dialogues, especially a standout angry exchange between Ranbir Kapoor, Anupam Kher and Supriya Pathak. Every teenager who at some time found themselves drifting and couldn’t bring themselves to care will relate with Sid, his frustration, his unspeakable regret and his wrathful outburst.
In terms of performances, everyone is at the top of their games, with Konkona Sen being an obvious best. Supriya Pathak and Anupam Kher are also brilliant, in roles so well played out, that you often forget that it’s a scripted drama. The music by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, and more specifically the background score and the track Iktara, both composed by Amit Trivedi, are enjoyable and help greatly with the flow of the film.
The movie is not without faults of course. Ranbir Kapoor, in perhaps the most well suited role of his career, for the most part, does a fantastic job of being the very likable vagabond. In some scenes however, especially of a more serious tone, he does tend to be a little too earnest. In addition, Mukherjee tends to resort to plot clichés to further the story more often than necessary. Finally, the biggest letdown came in the form of the only article written by Aisha that we get to hear. Not only is it impertinent to her column name, but following the build up, it is very disheartening to be given only a crushing RJ’s sermon when we expect a writer’s epiphany. If God is in the details, Mukherjee loses several opportunities to make the movie a beacon, satisfied instead with standard cinematic cop-outs.
In a climate of unoriginal plots and recycled characters however, Wake Up Sid is worth watching, maybe even renting for a second viewing. Full of hope, optimism, and a sheer feel good feeling, it makes you want to be young again. It makes you want to walk in the rain, click photographs in Chor Bazaar, trade your mundane job for a day at Mumbai Beat, but most importantly, it makes you want to, especially for Bombay natives, find a moment to enjoy just being.

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Friday, January 29, 2010

Australian Open: Final Weekend Predictions

I didn’t have great luck with my predictions on Day 1 but in my defense, it had been long since we had them play a Grand Slam (especially given the hectic tennis calendar). Nonetheless, I’ve had better luck since and am here with my predictions for the final weekend.
The matches we have, and my predictions for the winners are:

Mixed Doubles Final:
Ekaterina Makarova and Jaroslav Levinsky v/s Cara Black and Leander Paes
The unseeded Europeans come up against the top seeded pair in this final. Black and Paes had a tough semi final and at many times looked like they could be out of it, but came through after two tough tie breaks and a super tie break. In sharp contrast, Makarova and Levinsky cruised through the first set without dropping a game, lost the second set and came back strong to win the super tie break 10-8. It’s a tough call between the two, but I think the pair from India/Zimbabwe will pull through, if only on experience.
Prediction: Black and Paes in the super tie break.
Men’s Doubles Final:                                               
Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan v/s Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic
Both the ladies and the men’s doubles finals have the World Number 1 and 2 teams facing off. In the ladies side, it was the number 2 pair of the Williamses winning it, but it may be a different story here. The Bryan brothers are high on confidence, it is their first Grand Slam tournament since they got back their number 1 ranking, and they’re hungry to hold on to it. Both teams had tough quarter finals, making it through on tie breaks, but the Bryans did it a little bit better. They should be adequately rested for this final though, having relatively simple semi finals. It’ll be interesting to see who takes the first set, as it may set the tone of the match.
Prediction: Bryan and Bryan in the three tough fought sets.
Ladies Singles Final:
Serena Williams v/s Justine Henin
The wildcard Justine Henin has shown the true spirit of the game. Coming back after her 20 month self imposed exile, Henin in already in her second consecutive championship match. On the way to the Aussie Open Final this year, she has claimed the scalps of Jie Zheng, Elena Dementieva (in the second round, no less), Yanina Wickmayer and Nadia Petrova (who took out reigning US Open queen, Kim Clijsters). She’s toiled through some of them, used tact through others, but in her semi final match against Zheng, she used sheer class and brilliance and walked all over her opponent 6-1, 6-0, not dropping a single game after the opener.
Serena Williams however, is quite another story. She’s a genius player, she’s a fighter, and she’s a winner. Defending champion here, she recently became world number 1 and is the top seed also. She just defended her doubles crown with sister Venus. And she is looking for her fifth Australian Open Championship. She had a tough match with Na Li in the semi final, but came through after two tie breaks. She knows the ropes, she has the experience, and she has the desire.
It’s as tough a call as any between these two with Serena leading the head to head 7-6. It is interesting to note though, that in the last five times these two have played each other, as well as the last five Grand Slam meetings they’ve had, Henin leads 3-2. This is the first time they play each other in the Australian Open, but as Henin said, if she wants to become a Grand Slam champion again, it is only fitting that she beat the best in the world to do it.
Prediction: Henin in three sets.
Men’s Singles Final:
Roger Federer v/s Andy Murray
The match that everyone wanted at last year’s Wimbledon will finally be played out on Sunday at the Rod Laver Arena. Andy Murray, the longest time contender has to prove he isn’t in fact just another pretender. Federer has a chance to make it 16.
Andy Murray has made it quietly through his draw. Without much fuss, without much expectation, the Scottish lab, who had a relatively flip floppy last year, rising as high as number 2 and subsequently falling to 5, has made it through to the final, pretty much unscathed. The one big hurdle in his way, defending champion Rafael Nadal, succumbed to a knee injury in their quarter final, and Murray must’ve heaved a sigh of relief. Marin Cilic, who had to go through Juan Martin Del Potro and Roddick, not to mention a brilliant Bernard Tomic, could not match the Scot in their semi final, and despite his early lead, and perhaps due to fatigue from his many five set matches, fell to Murray in four sets. For the second time in his career, Andy Murray is at the brink of tasting Grand Slam success.
Roger Federer has had the toughest draw amongst the top seeds, starting off with Igor Andreev. He dropped a set to Andreev, but shook off the early nerves, and marched on 6-0 in the fourth set to wrap up the match. He had an easy couple of matches against Victor Hanescu and Albert Montanes before he reached the round of 16. Federer was placed against former world number 1 and 22nd seed Lleyton Hewitt. The difference in their rankings wasn’t key though, as everyone knows a Grand Slam Champion on a good day is as good as any other player in the world. Federer played unbelievable tennis though, and walked out of that match in straight sets as well. Federer’s biggest challenge also came in the quarter finals. Playing the always dangerous Nikolay Davydenko, who beat him in their last two meetings, Federer himself admitted he was worried his streak of 22 consecutive Grand Slam Singles Semi Finals might be broken. The match started off on a misstep though, and the harsh sunlight and a slew of unforced errors, meant the World No. 1 was down two breaks on his way to losing the first set. The second set seemed to follow suit, until at 2-3, and down a break, something happened. Federer went on to win the next 11 games on his way to leading 2-6 6-3 6-0 1-0. The fourth set was tough though, as Davydenko fought back, and the two traded breaks until Federer finally found a way to wrap things up at 7-5. The semi final was as easy as it could get as Federer routinely broke the Tsonga serve, without offering a single break chance on his own service. In straight sets, and perhaps his best form of the tournament so far, Federer won 6-2 6-3 6-2 in less than 90 minutes.
Murray leads the head to head, 6-4 but in their only other Grand Slam meeting at the 2008 US Open Final, Federer won in a relatively simple straight sets. Federer also recently broke the Murray four match winning streak against him with back to back wins in Cincinati and London. With their current tournament form, and Federer’s ruthless annihilation of the otherwise brilliant Tsonga, it’d be hard to place a bet against him.
Prediction: Federer in three or four sets.

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Meryl Streep – a delectable Shiraz?

If there are two actors who’ve had a great year this year, they’ve been Meryl Streep and Sandra Bullock. While Sandra Bullock made the world stand up and take notice of her ample talent as an actress in ‘The Blind Side’, it was her incredible star power that made ‘The Proposal’ her highest grossing movie (till then, ‘The Blind Side’ has since gone past it.) Meryl Streep on the other hand, had a year that only Meryl Streep can have. In movies with stellar casts (she had Amy Adams and Stanley Tucci in ‘Julie and Julia’ and Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin in ‘It’s Complicated’), she still made the respective films, unequivocally Meryl Streep vehicles. Whether it was her coquettish charm in ‘It’s Complicated’ or her ebullience in ‘Julie and Julia’, she became the women she portrayed, and made us fall in love with them, and her, in the process. Yet who has really loved Meryl Streep?

It's Complicated - Meryl Streep and John Krasinski
Now don’t get me wrong. I do not judge women by their appearance alone. And yet there is a part of me, like there is of most any man, which wants the package to be pretty. For years though, she was all that as an actress, she was ‘Julia’ and ‘Sophie’ and ‘Joanna Kramer’, and we all loved these women. For their strength, for their resolve, but did we really fancy the woman who played them? Maybe some of you did, but a stern looking serious Yale alum isn’t my idea of an ideal prom date. Meryl could be an Oscar staple, but pardon my saying this: she really wasn’t a tabloid-worthy knockout.
Something happened though, somewhere along the way. From being the long suffering wife, the mother with a choice and the victim of unrequited love, Streep began treading the steps of comedy and irony and sardonicism, without leaving the comforts of her inherent ability to morph into another character and make it her own. Some say it was the time her career had its “slump”, but really, Streep was doing something no actress had done before, she was redefining the limitations of an actress of progressing age.
When most of her colleagues, including such names as Jessica Lange, Glenn Close and Diane Keaton were waiting for movie scripts to find a way to them, Streep was trying roles that no other could do. She could be a Suzanne Vale in Mike Nichols ‘Postcard from the Edge’ with the same consummate ease that she had in being Lee in ‘Marvin’s Room’. Never one to shy away from playing significant parts with smaller screen time, she blew the room away with such films as ‘Adaptation’ and ‘The Hours’.
In the midst of all this, when everyone else her age was busy getting botox shots and facelifts, Streep had God to thank for her being busy, because as a result, she forgot to get the “makeover”, that almost always leaves a woman more ghastly than she could ever have been. Perhaps it was her pride in being able to emote, and her reluctance to part with her real expressive face, or perhaps her strong family life, and stable living situation. Whatever it was, Meryl Streep was doing what no actress had done before, and no actress seems to be willing to do again; she was aging gracefully.
Then there came ‘The Devil Wears Prada’. The actress best known to bedeck her mantelpiece with reminders of holocaust tragedy and broken homes chose to be Miranda Preistly. She wore the couture dresses and called Anne Hathaway fat. She infused into her character an authenticity that one wonders if even the legendary she-devil Anne Wintour could muster. Soft spoken as they come, she laced her every word with such quiet ferocity that you could feel the hairs on the back of your neck on edge every time she walked on to the screen. And an amazing thing happened then: she STILL got an Oscar nomination. And even more amazing than that was: suddenly, Meryl Streep, an almost sexagenarian, became inexplicably hot.
She was Meryl Streep yet, and she followed up the comedic punch of ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ with some fantastic dramatic performances in films like ‘Rendition’ and ‘Lions for Lambs’. Yet she knew she wasn’t done. She had given spark to the candle of unassuming sex appeal that only a powerful woman can exude, and she knew she had to let it burn. Once having quipped that she would “rip out (Madonna’s) throat” for getting the role of Eva Peron in ‘Evita’ over her, Meryl made ‘Mamma Mia!’ her first musical. Shot in the lovely islands of Greece, and receiving lukewarm critical response, Streep still demonstrated that she had found the nerve of her audience. At the ripe old age of 59, she got the biggest box office success of her life, and the highest grossing British film of all time, with over $650 million globally.
After years of speculation of succession, the heir to Betty Davis’ throne had made it plenty clear that she was not ready to give it up to a pretty young thing yet. She went back to her theatre roots with John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his own play ‘Doubt’, and with a formidable cast (almost all nominated for acting awards for the film), Meryl Streep came back to her winning ways, notching up records for nominations in both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes.
Her cutest moment was yet to come. And then it finally did. Not in ‘Julie and Julia’ for which she will no doubt land an Oscar nomination, and potentially even scrape up her third win, but in Nancy Meyer’s ‘It’s Complicated’. A tradition of Meyer’s casting Keaton in her films was broken when she chose Streep for this material. And boy, did she play her cards right. Whether it was running out of a plastic surgeon’s offices or proclaiming in the most adorable manner, “I’m a bit of a slut, aren’t I?” Streep did it all. She even braved some rather risqué jokes for a lady of her age and stature. And therein lays the true beauty of this landmark movie star: she knows her way around the block. Not once did she seem vulgar or inappropriate, not once did she cross the line into Anne Bancroft land. She looked and acted better than she ever had before, and showed unarguably why she has the longevity she has had.
And today, though I wouldn’t have said it before, I’m unashamed in saying that even though I know it is inappropriate, given our age differences, I have the biggest crush on Meryl Streep. Sure she’s Sister Aloysius Beauvier and Karen Silkwood, but she’s also Jane Adler and Donna Sheridian, and boy, are they cute? Accepting her award for ‘Julie and Julia’ she said, “I’ve played so many extraordinary women over the years, that sometimes I get mistaken for one.” I can’t help but think she’s crossed over, and like the finest Shiraz, she just keeps getting better.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Movies I’m Most Anticipating in 2010

Cinema was far from its best in 2009. With the exception of at most a meager two dozen or so, there were mostly disappointments pouring out of all the film studios. Will 2010 follow suit, or can we expect a year of luminous filmmaking? Many big guns are entering the field with their products in 2010 and you can look forward to the likes of Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher etc. when you talk about cinema in the first year of the next decade. Here are the 20 films I’m booking my tickets for.

1.    Inception – Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan. The man could direct a mint commercial and I would anticipate its release. But what can you say when he goes back to cerebral films after the cult classic Memento? And then when he casts Leonardo Dicaprio, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon Levitt and Ken Watanabe, can you even speak through the saliva accumulating in your mouth? For those that want more, “your mind is the scene of the crime”.

2.    Robin Hood – Ridley Scott
Ridley Scott and Russel Crowe in a period epic the world loves; takers anyone? Will the Gladiator duo be able to recreate the magic of that now legendary film? After a fantastic first trailer, you can bet I’m dying to find out.

3.    Clash of the Titans – Louis Leterrier
Liam Neeson has a busy and big year. After this film, he has The A Team to look forward to. Playing Zeus here with the Avatar wonderboy Sam Worthington as Perseus, this has gore, Gods and entertainment galore, and is definitely a film to watch out for.

4.    The Expendables – Sylvester Stallone
2010 has a slew of super-violent films coming out, all with promise. Who knows more about violent films than Sly Stallone? Leading a band of mercenaries including the wrestler himself, Micky Rourke, Stallone has written and directed The Expendables, and could well be on his way to another Rambo like experience. I’m in for the ride.

5.    Iron Man 2 – John Favreau
Nobody expected much from Iron Man until the stir at Comic Con. Everybody wrote off wild child Robert Downey Jr. until he redefined cool. Now with Iron Man 2, this is the franchise that the world is most excited to watch, especially since the Batman series remains dead until further notice. With Scarlett Johannson stepping into a role originally envisioned for Emily Blunt and Don Cheadle and Mickey Rourke adding thrills, this may be the blockbuster of the coming year.

6.    Shutter Island – Martin Scorsese
This film has confused many. Originally thought of as a chance at the 2010 Oscars, its release was pushed back until March, making many speculate that it isn’t much more than popcorn cinema. Yet, with another brilliant director actor duo in Dicaprio and Sorsese, and an all star cast joining in, there is bound to be curiosity about the first film Scorsese is headlining since his Oscar with The Departed. I, and scores of other fans, will definitely be lining up at the box office to follow Ruffalo and Dicaprio through their adventures on Shutter Island.

7.    Buried – Rodrigo Cortés
Premiering at Sundance this year, Buried could be anything from a fantastic character study to a breakthrough for the clearly talented but under achieving Ryan Reynolds to possible a cold turkey. However, there is no questioning the fact that the story of an Iraq veteran finding himself buried alive in a coffin is intriguing to say the least. For the sake of experimental cinema, one can only hope that this film is a taut thriller and a breakout for the indie circuit in the coming year.

8.    Toy Story 3 – Lee Unkrich
Who amongst us can say Pixar and not think Toy Story. In a year when Shrek comes back with the closing chapter, the story of the toys and their future in a college headed kids life is still the most exciting animated feature of 2010. Revolutionizing animated filmmaking and placing Pixar on the map, it will be interesting to see how this follow up feature can stack up to the expectations.

9.    Black Swan – Darren Aronofsky
Aronofsky is amongst the most inventive of contemporary filmmakers. Whether it be the obsession of Pi, the decadence of Requiem for a Dream, the complexity of The Fountain, or the intensity of The Wrestler, he’s proven to be more than up to the task in all his previous features. Now working with the enchanting Natalie Portman and smokin’ Mila Kunis in a complicated story of ballerinas and jealousy, Black Swan, sight unseen, is already thought to be exciting enough to add credence to his auteur status.

10.    Green Zone – Paul Greengrass
This list is littered with films of repeat director actor combos. The last time Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon worked together in a film, it was the incredible 2008 thriller The Bourne Ultimatum. Even though the fate of that franchise is hanging in the balance, these two have re-united to tell the tale of an Iraq veteran who takes on the world to prove his point and stay alive. Heck, if they did it with the Bourne films, they could do it again.

11.    Date Night – Shawn Levy
Tina Fey, Steve Carrel, Mila Kunis, James Franco, Marc Wahlberg all star in this caper film that may be cheesy and campy but for sure will be funny. Even in the worst case scenario, we’re looking at the sheer genius of physical comedy that Fey and Carrel are, and that should be enough to sit through the film. I’ve read an early draft of this film’s screenplay, and whilst not particularly genius, it is nonetheless not without potential, and with rewrites and improvisation, could make for a great comedy in the ilk of The Pineapple Express.

12.    From Paris With Love – Pierre Morel
I know nothing of this film’s story, except that it stars Jonathan Rhys Myers and Colin Farrell. Neither of them are the reason I’m excited to watch this film though. After THOROUGHLY enjoying Morel’s last feature Taken with Liam Neeson, I cannot wait to see what he churns out this time around.

13.    The Tree of Life – Terrence Malick
Another film I know little about, I’m trying to stay ignorant of the film’s plot, and waiting to experience it when I finally get to watch it. Earlier anticipating a 2009 release, this film should see the light of day sometime next year, and with the potent combination of Terrence Malick, Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, it should definitely make the conversation when it comes to award season. Until then, it finds a place on my list of most anticipated films next year.

14.    The Fighter – David O Russell
Christian Bale is an incredibly physical actor, dedicated to his craft, to say the least. Mark Wahlberg has potential, and has paid his dues. Together in a film about a boxer and his brother and coach, these two have the acting chops to make this film an enjoyable experience. Do they have a script to back them up? Difficult to tell, but should be interesting to find out.

15.    The Social Network – David Fincher
In my opinion, the worst film made by David Fincher is the multiple Academy award nominated The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. That’s how much I enjoy his films. When working off a script written by one of my favourite screenwriters Aaron Sorkin, involving courtroom drama and college life, with a promising performer in Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network is one to watch out for. It will definitely be a rabble rouser, given the incredible popularity of its source matter, the networking site Facebook, and the script by Sorkin has landed the second place on the famous Black List of scripts to watch out for.

16.    Hesher – Spencer Susser
Another Sundance entrant, Hesher stars Joseph Gordon Levitt in the title role, of a loner weirdo. Natalie Portman co-stars and that’s about all I need to know to look forward to the time this film lands. It looks relatively dark, and that doesn’t bode well in terms of finding distribution, but if Precious could find its way to cinemas, who’s to say this film won’t? It should be interesting to find out whether it is any good though, and Portman, doubling up as producer as well, should be hoping for good notices at Sundance to further this film.

17.    The Town – Ben Affleck
Ben Affleck had a fantastic first outing as a director with the (IMHO) brilliant Gone Baby Gone. It was intense, engaging, well written, directed and acted. In his sophomore effort behind the camera, Affleck is back in Boston with a bank robbery tale. With Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm and Affleck himself starring, this could be a lighter film than Gone Baby Gone, but not necessarily less appealing.

18.    Arrested Development – Mitchell Hurwitz
This has been an anticipated movie for years now, and may not even find a release in 2010. And yet, as a loyal fan (one amongst many vocal millions), I steadfastly hold this in my most anticipated films, until it finally sees the light of day. It doesn’t matter what the story is, as long as the film comes out, with the original cast of the TV series, and Mitchell Hurwitz steering the ship.

19.    Rajneeti – Prakash Jha
The only Hindi film I’m looking forward to in the coming year, Rajneeti is very exciting for Indian cinema. Being helmed by Prakash Jha, the maker of the thoroughly entertaining, yet topical and socially relevant Apaharan and Gangajal, this film once again unites Ajay Devgan with the director, along with the fresh faced Ranbir Kapoor and Katrina Kaif. Both Ranbir and Katrina are coming off hot streaks at the box office, and it’ll be interesting to see if they can get the cash registers ringing on this film as well.

20.    Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 – David Yates
There is no reason for this film to be here, not because it doesn’t deserve it, but because its existence precludes its anticipation. The sixth film of the franchise grossed over $900 million and we’re all waiting to see if the final movie (or even just the first part of the final movie), much like the final book, can exceed all expectations. My bet is on yes, because even though the movie franchise cannot match the books, David Yates did a fine job in the Half Blood Prince, making it the most tolerable of the Potter films, thus far. Entrusted with the final film, he knows that the world’s eyes are on him, at least until the final Twilight film, that is.
Are yours the same? Do you think I’m putting too much stock in any film? Sound off below.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Australian Open 2009: Predictions for Day 1

Tennis Tidings

It’s Grand Slam season again. The Australian Open, Grand Slam tournament of the Asia Pacific kicks off proceeding with action including Clijsters, Henin, Sharapova, Nadal, Roddick, Murray, Cilic and Del Potro. Federer will headline play on Tuesday, but for now, these are my predictions for Monday, Day 1.

The Rod Laver Arena this year is getting its first hit from 2008 Ladies’ Champion Maria Sharapova. Back after a long injury break, Sharapova has not lost a match here since lifting the trophy. It’s interesting to note that Clijsters hadn’t lost a match at the US Open before her comeback, and she’s defending champion now, so Sharapova would be hoping for the same kind of fortitude as she heads into the tournament. She faces Maria Kirilenko in Round 1. Having played her three times before, Sharapova’s emerged victorious twice, retiring whilst trailing 1-2 in the second set of the semi finals in Beijing in 2005. The two haven’t met since 2006 and Kirilenko has plummeted to 58 in the world rankings. And yet, all the matches between these two have been hard fought, and so, I think, will this one.
Prediction: Sharapova victor in two tough sets; one of them going to the tie break.
Other matches on Rod Laver Arena:
Easy wins for Clijsters, Nadal, Murray and a tough fought three set win for home favourite underdog Jelena Dokic.
Other ladies’ matches to watch out for:
Justine Henin on her comeback trail should wipe the court of Hisense Arena with her compatriot Kristen Flipkens.

Anna Chakvedatse should upset number 12 seed Flavia Pennetta is she were to play with any of the class that had her in the top 5 of women’s tennis. Not likely though given her recent showing.

COURT 6 – 1100
Stepanek is on great form, ending runner up to Roddick at the Brisbane International. The big serving Croat Karlovic is a danger to anyone receiving who isn’t named Federer. Stepanek has not yet lost a match to Karlovic, and probably won’t if he plays anywhere near his best, but you can expect this to be a long match, with plenty of easy service holds, especially for Karlovic. The two had an incredible Davis Cup match last year, going to 16-14 in the final set, all the others having been decided on tie-breaks. Stepanek can run down almost anything, and is a veteran of the long drawn match whilst Karlovic has, well, probably ace number 40 for the match, all set up.
Prediction: Very tough to call, despite Stepanek’s class on paper. I’m picking Stepanek for the win, in 4 sets, with three going to the wire.
Other men’s matches to watch out for:
Marin Cilic playing veteran Fabrice Santoro who is “not playing a comeback” match. Expect Cilic to win easily, on the back of his Chennai defense.
Not much excitement on the first day of the men’s event, with probably easy wins for Roddick, Del Potro and Monfils.
There should be plenty of excitement for the local crowd to watch Bernard Tomic play. Last year he was the youngest man to make the second round. He shouldn’t do much better this time, but you can bet he’ll command a crowd nonetheless when he takes Margaret Court Arena after the Wickameyer match.
The only possible upset could be James Blake. Playing former runner up Arnaud Clement, Blake could fall, but likely will prevail as well.

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