Monday, 28 November 2016

Dobara Phir Se 2016

Pakistani Cinema is going through another revival. I say 'another' because every decade or so, new life is injected into the industry, which gives it a boost for a few years, before an unsteady political or social or judicial system puts an end to the progress.

This particular revival though, is different. This one seems to be coming from the direction of Pakistani television, which has, despite major ups and downs, always been a steady source of entertainment and culture for the nation. Producers, directors, writers and actors from the 'small screen' have crossed over fairly successfully to make quality films, to address topics and plotlines that can be better showcased in a concise two hours, rather than in tens of weeks. And more recently, the most commercially viable genre of rom-com-drama is making a classy comeback to Pakistani screens, reminiscent of the 'Designer Films' genre that India confirmed in 2001, which to date is its most stable staple.

Mehreen Jabbar's Dobara Phir Se is the latest instalment in this saga of cinema. It is the story of four friends (or is it five?), and their 'others', who weave in and out of each others' lives and who build and destroy each others' lives. It is a story of urban, upper class Pakistanis, living seamlessly between two cultures. It is a story of their dreams and desires.

Vasey and Hammad are close friends, living in New York and about to embark on a joint business venture. Vasey's girlfriend, Samar, introduces Hammad to Natasha at a house party, in the hopes of setting them up. But Hammad seems infatuated with Zainab, another guest at the party, who is already married and has a child. From this moment, their lives repeatedly collide with each other, as partnerships make and break, trust is found and lost. Not all ends well, but each character has an individual journey of complications, decisions and reflections.

Tooba Siddiqui plays a dignified Natasha; clear-minded and independent. She never lets her character become whiney or caricature-ish. Sanam Saeed as Samar was a bit of a revelation for me, as I have almost always seen her in either sulky or devious roles. Her sunny disposition here was a very welcome change. Ali Kazmi as Vasey made me sad that I have not seen enough of him onscreen over the years. He is a natural in front of the camera, and possibly the only actor in the cast who did not seem to be acting at all. A lot hinges on Hareem Farooq's Zainab and, for the most part, she has delivered a strong performance, but she is the most obvious actor here, who is clearly acting. Her expressions and diction are far too pronounced in places. But her character arc is most well-defined and she is able to convey it well. Adeel Husain's Hammad is the other anchor of the story and, like everything else I have seen him do before, he is effortless here. He doesn't seem to be at pains to play his character, and uses slight expressions to portray Hammad's fascination, disappointment, hopes, fears, anger and resignation. Other supporting actors including Atiqa Odho, Shaz Khan and Musa Khan were competent. Shaz Khan especially deserves a mention, as he never veered into cartoon-ish villainy, which is often the norm.

It's a Pakistani film, so no discussion can be complete without commentary on the 'look and style'. The art direction, costumes, make-up and overall production values are flawless throughout the film. The cinematography by Andreas Burgess made me sit up and take note. There is no dearth of unconventional shots here, and no single camera angle, how ever brilliant, gets repeated unnecessarily. If the film loses out anywhere, it is with its spine, its script. At times it feels like a 90-minute film stretched to 120 minutes. It could have done with more moments of levity that Mehreen Jabbar excels at capturing (Zainab's first meeting with Hammad's family was a perfect break from the standard drama), or with better complications (the second half over-stretched Zainab's and Hammad's single, simple dilemma), or with better editing (it's not a crime to make films shorter than two hours).

Having said that, Mehreen Jabbar has made a very strong contribution to the revival of Pakistani cinema. Dobara Phir Se has great characters and acting, strong dialogue, a brilliant look and is captured with perfection. And ever so subtly, it touches on mature themes, and subverts attitudes about divorce and other social stigmas, with no fuss. Definitely enjoyable.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice 2016

This is not a review. This is an irreverent stream of consciousness.

Things I learnt and things I question about BvS:

  • Lois owns only one pair of heels.
  • Diana has the best wardrobe in town, shows up at all the high society dos, doesn't have a job, and travels with Turkish Airlines.
  • The Kent family is Scottish. Or Amish. Reference to the funeral scene.
  • Martha Kent doesn't own a comb.
  • Lex wishes he was Joker or maybe Riddler, but decided to base his entire mannerism on 3 Shah Rukh Khan films from 1993 when he was known for his hamming. SRK thankfully learnt how to act over the last two decades. Jesse Eisenberg didn't.
  • Superman is faster than a speeding bullet and has X-ray vision. Except when Batman is slowly loading his gun with kryptonite a SECOND time (after he's already recovered from the first fumes).
  • The massive Superman is light as a feather when Lois needs to pull him out of the water.
  • Diana has an unbearably cheesy guitar riff to accompany her Herbal Essence advert. Also, being almost destroyed by Doomsday does nothing to smudge her cheeky smile as she sexily gets up to fight again.
  • Sarah Paulson playing Harriet Hayes mimicking Holly Hunter (in Studio 60 on The Sunset Strip) is a far better Holly Hunter than the real one.
  • Hasn't Nolan already used an extreme close up shot to build suspense as the last shot of the film in his memorable Inception. Must every film he produces repeat that?
  • Do writers often go on strike in Hollywood and when they do, is the writing then outsourced to mediocre developers in Bangalore?
  • Also Ben Affleck is an excellent ageing Bruce Wayne. But he's a sulky, bulky Batman.
  • Jeremy Irons finally got a role that may revive his career.
  • Gal Gadot is HOT. Amy Adams really is not and looks like Cavill's mother.
  • Cavill is still painful.
  • Kevin Costner should stop being so desperate as to do pointless cameos. Diane Lane ...well at least someone wants to cast her, so it's cool.

Overall...I hated it. It jumped all over the place and regardless of how they've treated the comics, they've made a botched up, annoying, uninteresting film. The visuals had so much potential in some scenes but even that's not consistent (unlike 300, which worked because of the visuals). The dialogue is utter S*** and lazy.

And ONE good action sequence...Batman fighting Superman. Which ends on "oh no...Martha?...I must forget all my angst...coz my mummy had the same name as your mummy".

Doctor Strange 2016

This has been a 'strange' year for superhero films.

I'd personally not enjoyed any of them so far, whether it was Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice ('Martha?' 'Martha!') or Captain America: Civil War (really was Avengers Part 3, and was much worse than its Part 2) or X-Men: Apocalypse (best scene? Wolverine's 30-second cameo. Seiously!). I refused to watch TMNT (just not my thing) or Suicide Squad (come on! When everyone says that BvS was a masterpiece compared to it, you try to salvage your sanity and run in the opposite direction). This leaves only Deadpool as the saving grace this year, but that came out so long ago, and was such an atypical Marvel film (both in character and style) that I am not counting it in my list of 'superhero' films.

And then comes along Doctor Strange. There has been very little marketing for this film, at least in the UK, so it felt like it came out of nowhere. And due to my meagre knowledge of comics, I had not heard of this character before. So, without watching a trailer, and with a heavy heart from a year of disappointments, I went to see this film.

I don't know if it was the very low expectations, or if the film is actually well put together, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The premise, very simply, is that a genius, materialistic and arrogant surgeon, Dr Stephen Strange, meets with an accident (it's Marvel, of course there was an accident) that changes the direction of his life and leaves him with a maniacal desperation to get out of his hell-like situation. Enter the mysterious wisdoms of the Orient, or some other far away land called Kamar-Taj, that transform not only his physical abilities, but his way of thinking and his understanding of the world. Trained by Karl Mordo, a fellow student, and the Ancient One herself, Strange is armed with new skills and knowledge and finds himself embroiled in a battle against evil, namely Kaecilius, who was a former student but has now obviously lost his way. A requisite end-of-the-world battle, the revelation of the fifth Infinity Stone, and many wonderful special effects later, our unlikely hero accepts his lot in life and is all set for the next mission.

The visuals here remind me of Inception (2010), not so much for Wally Pfister's cinematography, but more for the special effects. Doctor Strange is filmed by Ben Davis, whose previous credits include a number of big budget Marvel films, and his work here is definitely worth mentioning. But it's the special effects that stand out as exceptional. The dialogue is mostly sharp and well-written. Without knowledge of the comic book character, the Doctor Strange on film reminded me repeatedly of Iron Man: the same arrogance, the same ascerbic wit, albeit with less of the continuous barrage. The screenplay and editing could have been improved ever so slightly, with maybe a shorter introduction to the character, and a longer period of transformation?

In terms of casting and performances, there are some amazing decisions here, but one very sore mistake. First, to cast Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One is nothing short of a stroke of genius - I can not imagine anyone doing that role better, and the director's reasoning to change this from a Tibetan male to a White female, to avoid all possible stereotypes, holds water. Benedict Wong as Wong and Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius, are both more than adequate in their performances. But it is Chiwetel Ejiofor who, once again, disappoints me beyond belief. I keep hoping that he will change his patented acting style, deliver lines or expressions with a slightly different nuance, but he is consistently a one-trick pony. As Mordo, there are moments where he shines, because those moments fall in line with his limited style. But his overly earnest delivery exhausted me by the end and I hoped so hard that he will not return in future instalments (no spoilers here, but I think I will not be granted my wish).

Anyhow, Benedict Cumberbatch more than makes up for any mistakes this film has. He is insanely watchable, commands every scene, even when his character is not in control of every situation, and he manages to bring a sweetness to the arrogance, as he has done many times before, with so many other characters. It helps that we have seen him play a genius many, many times in the past - and maybe he is being typecast - but in this case, I am glad of that as he brings a gravitas to the character and makes it thoroughly enjoyable.

But above all, it is the brilliant Cloak (yes with a capital C) that brings the audience most joy. It is the best thing about this film!

To surmise, this is very likely the only good superhero film of the year, so definitely worth watching to get rid of the awful taste of disappointment in your mouth.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Whiplash 2014

This film is purely actor-led. The scope of the story is limited and it lasts for less than 90 minutes. But the performances will blow your mind.

Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a student jazz drummer, who has been accepted at a prestigious music school, where he joins the studio band, led by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). What initially looks like a tough gig, turns out to be a complete nightmare for Neiman. Fletcher is not a hard task-master; he is a complete tyrant who continually abuses his students in a bid to get them to reach perfection. But in Neiman, he unleashes a rare quality: extreme perseverance to excel no matter what.

While Miles Teller is brilliant, this film belongs to J.K. Simmons. He is nothing short of genius and within minutes of him appearing on screen, you completely forget all the comic roles he has played in the past. He owns the character of Terence Fletcher and is a scary, horrible man, with no limits to his tyranny.

Whiplash is an excellent film, with brevity and supreme editing on its side, and performances that have been nominated for various awards. Very highly recommended.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Foxcatcher 2014

Bennett Miller isn't a name I'd instantly recognise; but name the films he has directed (Capote, Moneyball) and I'd sit up and listen. Even so, nothing could have prepared me for the excellence of Foxcatcher.

Based on a true story, the film revolves around John E. du Pont, the millionaire wrestling enthusiast, who, in 1986, recruited two wrestling champion brothers, Mark and Dave Schultz, to train for and coach a wrestling team for the National, World and Olympic championships. During the course of the story, we watch the megalomaniac du Pont manipulate everyone he comes across, seemingly in a bid to win his mother's respect (which he never receives), and build and destroy the brothers Schultz.

Foxcatcher is being described as a crime drama, because of how this story ends, both in real life and in the film, but I see it as a psycho-drama that is completely unrelenting in its delivery, with not a moment of comfort or calm. It is a straight line of stress from the moment it starts, to the moment it ends. And in that, I think it's a masterpiece, much like Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master (2012).

This film will also be for ever known for its career-defining performances, by Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum. Each one of them has gone out of his way to deliver outstanding work. Carell, who is almost always the lovable character in his films, is utterly deplorable and hateful as du Pont, while Ruffalo and Tatum have given their all in every scene, and acted with their faces and bodies, as much as with the words they deliver. It is truly an exemplary set of performances.

A brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, very-difficult-to-watch-but-must-see film.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Birdman 2014

I find Alejandro González Iñárritu, the very famous Mexican film maker, a bit hit-and-miss. Over the years I have found each one of his new films a bit less impressive than his previous film. So Biutiful was a little less than Babel, which was a little less than 21 Grams, which was a little less than the brilliant Amores Perros.

But his latest, weirdly titled, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence), is pretty impressive. Starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone (along with Zach Galifianakis and Naomi Watts), the film follows a washed up Hollywood actor, once famous for a superhero character called Birdman, who is now trying to revive his career by directing and acting in a Broadway play. While the story is a character study of the three main players, it's actually the acting and the very imaginative single-shot style of filming that makes this film worth watching.

Emma Stone is excellent, Edward Norton is mesmerising and Michael Keaton is, well, just very, very surprisingly brilliant. The single-shot style is cleverly written and beautifully executed. I'm a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948), but technological and editing advancements of the last seven decades mean that this film stands head and shoulders above Hitchcock's, in this aspect.

Birdman is interesting, entertaining, and very well-made. It deserves to be seen.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Locke 2013

The night before foreman Ivan Locke is meant to supervise the largest concrete pour in Europe, he gets a piece of news that can wreck his home and alter his entire life. The film takes place entirely inside the car, as Locke drives from Birmingham to London to take responsibility for his mistakes, while potentially ending his career and his marriage. The entire story unfolds as he speaks to his boss and colleagues, his wife, his sons, and other characters on a series of phone calls. Through these conversations, we learn practically everything we need to know about Locke, his life, his personality, his demons and his desires.

Though we hear the highly emotive voices of Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott and various others on these phone calls, it is Tom Hardy, as the sole actor on camera, who blows your mind. Sporting a beard and a soft Welsh accent, Hardy acts entirely through his face and his voice, with not much room for body movement as he sits behind the wheel for 85 minutes. His performance is flawless, absolutely perfect and he wins his audience from the very first phone conversation. 

The film is written and directed by Steven Knight, and in my opinion, this may be his best work so far. It's difficult to say if this is Tom Hardy's best performance because most of his performances have been exceptional so far!

This film is worth watching for its unique storytelling technique, for its performances and for the punch it packs with brevity.

Monday, 24 November 2014

The Imitation Game 2014

Wow.

Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a pitch-perfect performance.
Good, tight script (admittedly with some convenient twists, that are not entirely factual).
Excellent direction and editing.

The story of a genius man, set against his most spectacular achievements, and ending on the injustices of society.

Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, the father of computer science, and the man responsible for breaking German ciphers that eventually led to the Allies winning WW2. The same man was persecuted for being gay and was eventually offered the 'solution' of chemical castration to avoid jail time. The greatest tragedy is actually that he received a 'royal pardon' for his illegal sexual preferences as late as 2013, 59 years after his suicide. How could it take the government this long to recognise Turing's work? And even worse, isn't a pardon more of an insult to his memory, rather than an acknowledgement of the atrocities committed against him in the 1950s?

Still, as a film, The Imitation Game is strong, interesting and very well-made with brilliant performances by all the actors. A must-watch!

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Interstellar 2014

What an utter load of B***OCKS!

There are few films I hate with this much passion...Prometheus (2012) was one and now Interstellar joins the ranks.

The trailer wasn't half convincing, but Matthew McConnaughey (lately) and Christopher Nolan (for ever) don't make mistakes. So, I thought, at the very least this will be an entertaining film. WRONG!

The first hour is interesting, well-scripted, with good character build-up. It's the future and a former NASA pilot agrees to lead a mission to find a habitable planet, now that life on the "post-blight" Earth is less and less sustainable.

The second hour is infuriating, clichéd and full of terrible sermons about love. Basically Michael Caine's and Anne Hathaway's characters appear and spout the most inane lines for the next hour. Characters marked 'X' die, characters marked 'Y' turn out to be evil.

The third hour, besides being an hour too many, pretends that scientific theory can save the film by confusing the audience. All it does is get awfully boring and dull. By this time the audience is past caring and no number of beautifully crafted planets can save the contorted plot and the useless script. As the film nears completion, logic is flung out the window and ridiculous becomes insane.

Bad, bad, bad film!

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Nightcrawler 2014

Penned and directed by Dan Gilroy, who wrote The Bourne Legacy (2012) before this, Nightcrawler stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed. It's a story about a man down on his luck, who discovers an unusual way to make money through LA's crime journalism network. The entire film rests on Gyllenhaal's shoulders and this is one of his better performances. From his eagerness, to his obsession, from his need to please, to his need to control, he stays unpredictable and interesting through the film's twists and turns.

Despite the strong acting, and the engaging subject matter, Nightcrawler lacks something. As it draws to a close, you realise that the best part of it was the build-up and the film peaked too soon. After that, it has less and less to offer, even as it tries hard to expose us to the amoral society we are a part of.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Serena 2014

Susanne Bier directs this very tedious film starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. Based on a novel of the same name about a North Carolina timber businessman in the Depression era and his very ambitious wife, the film follows the growth and death of their relationship, and the effects of euphoria and despair on two people.

The problem here is that in some ways we see shades of There Will Be Blood (2007), but very quickly they disappear leaving behind an empty carcass of a film, devoid of depth. The main characters never once become likeable or even identifiable and never once are they compelling. Their motivations and reactions just don't make any sense. The film feels like a dead weight, which you can't wait to get out of - except it drags on for ever. A surprisingly bad offering from some stellar names.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

This Is Where I Leave you 2014

Dysfunctional families, cheating partners, desperate circumstances and a plethora of topics better left unsaid as they are part of the journey that is this sweet film - This Is Where I Leave You stars Jason Bateman and Tina Fey (both brilliant), Jane Fonda (unbelievably good), Rose Byrne, Adam Driver, Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Connie Britton (all very compelling) and many more.

There is no end to the different storylines and plot twists this film has, but at the end of the day, all it leaves you with is the warmth and comfort that family and friends, how ever dysfunctional, bring you. In that, and in the many other lessons learnt through the course of the film, it delivers its message well, and is at times almost profound. Nothing spectacular, but it allows for enough laughs, cringes and tears, for it to be a very successful specimen of its genre. Definitely worth the watch.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Pride 2014

The year is 1984. The place is Thatcher's Britain. While the lesbian and gay community campaigns for its rights in London, a whole other community of Welsh miners is on strike to demand its rights. Pride is based on the true incidents over a 12-month period where the LGBT community took to campaigning for the Welsh miners, who for the longest time did not embrace this support, and were ever so slowly, and only partially, won over. It is a story of strength and courage, of faith and friendship.

This is one of the sweetest films I have seen in a long time. While it takes turns to poke fun at the 'gays', the Welsh, the miners, the elderly, and everyone else, it manages to get the audience to laugh 'with them and not at them'. And without ever getting overly soppy, it tells a touching, emotional story. Masses of credit goes to the director, Matthew Warchus, and writer Stephen Beresford, for putting together a perfect package.

And every performance is excellent, whether it is by the comparatively lesser known Ben Schnetzer, Freddie Fox, Joseph Gilgun, George Mackay, Andrew Scott or the more famous Dominic West, Paddy Considine, Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton.

In a year of some excellent British films, this is my absolute favourite. Very highly recommended.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Begin Again 2013

This is a rare moment for me - I've thoroughly enjoyed a Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo film, with newcomer Adam Levine. Begin Again is the story of singer-songwriter Gretta, who catches the attention of down-on-his-luck music executive Dan, when she performs in a heart-broken state in a local bar. And as he pursues her to work on an album, they become unlikely friends, learning about each other's lives, their loves and losses, while singing and recording all over New York City. 

There is nothing 'big' about this film. It's a simple story, with simple moments, but it grips and entertains all the way through, with some fun moments and an excellent soundtrack.

The supporting cast (Adam Levine, Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld, James Corden, Mos Def, CeeLo Green), and the characters they portray, are highly enjoyable. Mark Ruffalo as the drunk music producer is not doing anything new, but is quite endearing in any case. But it is Keira Knightley who is the biggest surprise in this film. Not only has she delivered a strong, natural performance, without overacting and over-effecting (as she usually does), she has sung most of the songs on the soundtrack - and has done a stellar job. This is my favourite soundtrack album of this year, with every song by Knightley and Levine an absolute delight.

This film is definitely worth a watch on a lazy weekend.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

12 Years a Slave 2013

I'm not known to mince words or withhold my opinions, especially when it comes to film. I don't believe in following the crowd and agreeing with the majority, only to avoid standing out. And yet, I have been guilty of doing exactly that when it comes to this film. My review of 12 Years a Slave, written last month, was a bit of a crowd pleaser. I pretty much wrote what was expected of me, rather than what I actually felt about it.

This is what I wrote:
Steve McQueen is an exceptionally talented man. This is the third feature film that he has directed and like the other two (Hunger 2008, Shame 2011), this one too is unrelenting and fearless in its content and focus. Based on the true story of Solomon Northup, who was a musician and a free man till he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, the film charts the horrors that he witnessed and cruelty he experienced. There are scenes in the film which are almost unbearable to watch, but the camera never shies away and therefore the audience almost can not look away. Brilliantly directed, brilliantly acted (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt) and well-written - my only question was the importance of this story and why this was special. Northup almost never shows a sign of bravery - and in the end he does to another what was done to him. I understand that times were hard and heroes did not survive - but in that case why is Northup's story worth telling over so many others? Still, as a film, it's perfect!

It took an email from my esteemed friend PB that made me realise that I have, in fact, suppressed quite a few reactions to this film. So, while I still maintain that Nyong'o's and Fassbender's characters and performances were phenomenal, Ejiofor's character and performance had invoked a lot less emotion in me. I had found it difficult to stomach that Northup was living such a comfortable life pre-slavery that it could have been comparable to the lives of upper-class white folk. There were a lot of other details about the slaves and their very effected portrayals that had left me a bit cold. But Brad Pitt's almost holy character had annoyed me the most.

PB questions the historical accuracy of the piece - and classes it as Abolitionist Propaganda. This is not to deny at all the abhorrent inhumanity that was/is slavery. This is only to say that to illustrate a fair point, some truths may have been stretched beyond reality.

My personal tussle is more with the lack of interest I had in Northup's story. I fail to see why this film is important today. I fail to see why I should care about a man who really did not fight the system. He became somewhat part of the evil, to survive. And only after he was safe, did he raise his voice. However brutal and effective the torture scenes were, I still did not connect with the protagonist and I do not understand the relevance of his story today.

So, in fact I did not like 12 Years a Slave. And the main reason I felt compelled to say otherwise, was because it felt wrong to say that a film about slavery wasn't really all that important. I have the highest respect for Steve McQueen and this story was obviously closer to his heart than his previous films - but in choosing Northup's book, I think he has missed a trick. I wish he had chosen a more compelling story to offer his audience an insight into slavery and its ugliness.