2015 / Kabir Khan > As the second-highest grossing film in Indian history, you have to give this Salman Khan-vehicle credit for sending a strong social message to viewers: It doesn’t matter what religion, nationality or caste you are, just treat people like people and everything will fall into place. It’s unfortunate that many of the factors that probably led to its box office success—the unnecessary slow-motion shots, the heroic action sequences bordering on the fantastic, the suspension of disbelief needed for the central plot device to exist—also kept Bajrangi Bhaijaan from being exceedingly satisfying. But that may be a small price to pay for a story of Indian-Pakistani cooperation that may inspire a new generation to rethink its approach towards blind hatred.
2014 / Joe & Anthony Russo > You’ve done it, Marvel: You’ve finally taken your audience for granted. In the post-The Dark Knight world of comic superhero films, we, as an audience, have become increasingly forgiving in the hopes that the major studios will continue to follow through in their promise to actually build plausible storylines, that we won’t be insulted by constant deus ex machina plot progressions and 180° character transformations. While The Avengers did quite a bit to strengthen our hope, Captain America: The Winter Soldier has ripped the concrete off that foundation.
At this point in time, Marvel has the global audience by its neck. It cannot fail because we’ve been brainwashed to believe they can do no wrong. The positivity surrounding this film is shocking as it’s a veiled attempt at capitalizing on a generic storyline utilizing tropes that would shame Steve Rogers. After nine films, the formula is not only getting stale but regressing. The thought of the The Winter Soldier’s plot co-existing with The Avengers feels absolutely ridiculous. And the pattern has become obvious: Hero finds devious plan much bigger than previous film and succeeds in taking care of the issue—but with one lingering problem that leads to the subsequent sequel. So, knowing that the third Captain America film is due in two years, couldn’t we get more of an emotional bridge? All we got were bread crumbs and no finalities. In this universe, everything seems to have a way of resurrecting—and while this may be a common theme in comics, it becomes a rather lame exercise at the cinema.
2013 / Brian Helgeland > There’s nothing worse in sports than mismanaging a prized asset. You can’t force positions on a player he’s physically not fit for, though some managers and coaches will outsmart themselves into thinking so. Once in a while, it may end up working, but statistically, success is an uncommon outcome. Therefore prized assets, especially those with significant potential, should be handled with care by the gentlest and more sophisticated of persons.
Jackie Robinson was a prized asset, a great ballplayer and an equally great man who struck one of the strongest chords in the fight for racial equality in American history. To think that he entered the big leagues over 15 years before Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech is to gain perspective on the importance of Robinson’s act. As such, his story, to be told for a wide audience, should have been handed to someone more capable than a director whose best effort was a Mel Gibson revenge flick.1 It’s painful to witness a story of such gravity butchered with generic characterization and amateur manipulation tactics. Too many by-the-line good vs. bad guy scenes undermine Robinson’s actual achievements for a feel good time, one that can be had only if you can force yourself to turn a blind eye to such shenanigans. In an era of heightened racism due to anti-Obama rhetoric and the wide net cast by social media, it’s important to remain objective about race relations rather than pigeonhole them into buckets to serve superficial purposes. Sadly, 42 sends Robinson back to the minors and loses out on an opportunity to educate contemporary youth about race history.
Helgeland won an Oscar for writing L.A. Confidential, but surely Curtis Hanson’s tight directing is what ultimately kept it together. ↩
1985 / Martin Scorsese > Dated and often purposefully silly, After Hours is effectively Scorsese’s love letter to 1980s New York, or as the film’s working title would aptly have declared it, A Night in SoHo. For those, like myself, who missed the grungy glamour that made the area south of Houston Street such a haven to artists, this is a way to travel back in time. It’s incredible to compare the grimy, scuzzy streets of yesteryear to the buzzing, higher-end commercial district it is now. But aside from that, it’s a bit ho-hum. Centered around a typical office worker’s overnight misadventures, the film has its fair share of characters, of which all but one work on the periphery. This is not the type of extraordinary journey we expect out of Scorsese, but rather a small detour where he’s able to create a work of art that’s filled with some small joys even if they’re short of a full circle in the end.
2011 / Zack Snyder > Never in my life have I so strongly felt the need for a film to be a video game—and just that. Snyder’s first attempt at original material shows his lack of storytelling prowess, as Sucker Punch somehow turns glorious visuals and sexy schoolgirls with cleavage into something that’s only a notch better than a mindnumbing bore.
Maybe I’m extra underwhelmed because the initial teaser was one of the best I’d ever seen. Expertly composed, it promised a fantastic adventure into the mind of a young girl in her fight for survival. A combination of dragons, samurai and zombie Nazis on a foundation of steampunk whetted our appetites for an exciting genre-bender. But Sucker Punch ends up failing for the same reason Snyder should be given some credit: He made it into a personal film instead of one that audiences would enjoy. One could argue that his intention was to combine his trademark visuals with the philosophic backbone of Bergman, but he simply didn’t have the vision and/or chops to execute that effectively. Instead, it’s predictable until it becomes silly. Emily Browning, who was excellent in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, is very much out of her depth here. Jamie Chung is wooden. Vanessa Hudgens has no lines worth repeating. Scott Glenn is a joke (though possibly on purpose). Abbie Cornish and Jena Malone are too good for the script. And as one of the most well-known contemporary, mainstream auteurs, Snyder has to take the blame for this mess. Still, if there’s something of value here, it’s that he was able to get a big budget film onto screens with his vision mostly intact, even if it depended on some of our basest fetishes for its appeal.
2010 / Derrick Borte > Conceptually, The Joneses is a brilliant satire with considerable contemporary relevance. However, its execution is surprisingly mundane and predictable to the point where it turns into a formulaic romantic dramedy. Worse yet may be its inherent hypocrisy of pitching products in the guise of being anti-consumerist, though that’s a sin that could have been excused if the lessons of excess the film was trying to impart were doled out efficiently. But instead, the manner is so hackneyed that it ends up being a somewhat uninspiring mess.
2010 / Phillip Noyce > Angelina Jolie may be today’s best female action star, but even her awesome screen prowess can’t save a middling script with predictable twists. Kudos to the non-CGI action sequences reminiscent of classy Jackie Chan stunts, but even they’re not enough after the story starts blowing up halfway. Spy business used to be cool and can be cool again, but Salt will not be the film to bring the Cold War back into vogue. And can we please get Chiwetel Ejiofor a leading role?
2010 / Matthew Vaughn > The bad: Awful editing, weak directing and mediocre writing. Scenes didn’t flow into the next, the musical choices were also suspect. The good: The whole mythology of the everyday man being told through Kick-Ass was nice, but Hit Girl stole the show over and over again. What an amazing screen presence Chloe Moretz has. She’s going to be a star (and has single-handedly given me hope that she’ll do justice to Lina Leandersson’s role in the remake of Let the Right One In). Takeaway? Vaughn may have peaked with Layer Cake.
2010 / Michael Spierig & Peter Spierig > Daybreakers starts out strong with a focus on creating atmosphere, context and a scientific approach to how vampires come to rule Earth, and then quickly teeters into a banal action clone that misses out on a chance to be a science fiction classic because of its shortsightedness.
2009 / Adrian Biniez > Garnering quite a bit of love at the Berlinale this year, Biniez’s debut is definitely one of the more light-hearted approaches to the loner’s guide to stalking and potentially getting the girl. Thematically, you expect dark twists in these films, because, let’s face it, that’s what we’re used to, and sometimes that’s the kind of tragedy that satiates our yearning for heartache. But while the approach here is definitely fresher, I can’t help justify it as a feature-length film. It didn’t click for me as I would have expected, even though I liked most of the ideas present. The problem may be that I didn’t need sixty minutes of character development because you could tell in the first ten minutes what kind of a guy we were dealing with. This is also, in many ways, the absolute antithesis to Observe and Report, and while it had potential, it lacked any sort of real hook for further appreciation.