28 October 2011

Cinemascope: Super 8; Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge

My Sunday Guardian column for 23rd Oct.

Immaculately done, super-enjoyable ride

Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso


JJ Abrams' sci-fi blockbuster is, as a lot of reviewers have pointed out, a no-holds-barred homage to the early films of Steven Spielberg (who is, somewhat oddly, also the movie's producer). Many of these reviewers – presumably themselves fans of Spielberg and '70s sci-fi – have found the film deeply disappointing, disparaging its 'retromania' and finding its homages overdone, obvious and manipulative. And it is true that the film does seem to reference practically every major Spielberg film in a similar genre, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), ET (1982), The Goonies (1985) and even Jurassic Park (1995). But as someone who has had very little to do with sci-fi – though I cannot discount the possibility that my un-jaded eye may have worked in the film's favour – I enjoyed it thoroughly.

The group of kids who stumble onto a mystery and solve it while the adults are pretty much in the dark may be a reference to The Goonies, but for the non-sci-fi viewer it can feel just as much like an enjoyable throwback to an Enid Blyton world of secret maps and midnight assignations. The kids in a Spielberg homage, naturally, are way cooler than any Enid Blyton kids could ever be, with their sophisticated nerdy interests battling for priority against the heartstopping joys of first love (a la The Wonder Years, but charmingly unsoppy). The 12-year-old Joe Lamb (the wonderful Joel Courtney) makes near-perfect model trains and specialises in zombie make-up, a skill which is put to good use in his best friend Charles' (Riley Griffith) current pet project: filming a delightfully over-the-top zombie movie which provides Super 8 with some of its most endearing moments, including a lovely 14-year-old heroine (Elle Fanning) who is inserted into the film because people must care about characters, even when they're zombies. (The zombie film is, happily, shown all the way through during the end credits).

It's during a secret film shoot at the local railroad station that the gang witnesses (and captures on Super 8 film) a devastating movie-worthy derailment, ostensibly caused by a pick-up truck colliding with a train. After the accident, the weirdest things start to happen: microwaves and car engines vanish overnight, the town's dogs go missing, people start to disappear in horrific crashes and the power goes off in long stretches without explanation. "This feels like a Russian invasion," says an outraged citizen at a town meeting presided over by a hassled Deputy Sheriff, who happens to be Joe's dad. As the town is – without explanation – taken over by the US Air Force, the '70s suburban paradise of the film's first half dissolves, by the time the climax comes round, into an Apocalyptic war zone of tanks and explosive fires. As the kids are driven through this unreal terrain by a doped-out photo store worker, intensity of experience triumphs joyously over hackneyed plot. Even if you find yourself grinning in disbelief at the finally revealed 'secret', there is more than enough pleasure to be derived from the ride.

College romance gets right coolness factor

Director: Nupur Asthana
Starring: Saqib Saleem, Saba Azad, Nishant Dahiya, Tara D’Souza

After the jamalgota-and-itching-powder-laden juvenilia of Luv ka the End and Always Kabhi Kabhi, finally a film which doesn't think catering to India's 'urban youth' must necessarily involve acts of jawdropping stupidity carried out by irritating cardboard cutouts that send you into fits of despair. The young people in Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge are rather endearing. They live in a bubble and they can be silly sometimes, but they can also be clever and funny, arrogant and devious, vulnerable and misguided. They're upper middle class, big city teenagers leading the mixed-up, self-absorbed, high drama lives that teenagers so often lead.

Only these ones, like a lot of real-life kids, happen to be leading it in a world where identity is defined as much by your Facebook profile as anything you actually do in real life. So the plot is a classic mistaken-identity romance, taken online. Debutante director Nupur Asthana keeps the action taut and fun, while Anvita Dutt Guptan's superb ear for the ironic ways of cosmopolitan youthspeak makes for good dialogue ("Sau-boyfriend-vati bhava, putri") and spot-on lyrics ("Five star coffee bar, chal na yaar Shanivaar, liking the late night outings; (That's right), Very far to the bar, ek baar in the car, we will do cootchie coo make-outings"), set to music by the Bangalore-based Raghu Dixit. Add to that the stellar young cast (Saba Azad and Saqib Saleem as the squabbling Preity and Vishaal, as well as Prabal Panjabi, brilliant as Hacky), and it's clear that Y Films (Yash Raj's youth wing, previously responsible for Luv ka the End) have got a bunch of things right with this film. It effortlessly captures much that's de rigueur in college corridors: the brutal public leg-pulling, which if challenged is always met by a quizzical why-so-serious, the ceaseless tests of coolness, the obsession with hotness – until people gradually begin to figure out that there are more complicated ways to fall in love. It's not particularly profound, but it's kind of fun.

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