Monday, 24 December 2018

Mary Poppins Returns 2018

It is sacrilege to publicly admit this, but Mary Poppins (1964) was never a film I enjoyed. I'm not completely heartless, and other beloved musicals of the time like My Fair Lady (1964) and Sound of Music (1965) absolutely delight me. I just never really liked the songs or the story of Mary Poppins. So much so, that the first time I ever really connected with it is when Emma Thompson played PL Travers in Saving Mr Banks (2013) and the film revealed how much the author detested the treatment given to her books and characters by Walt Disney and his studio. I empathised with her (even though I've never actually read the books)!

So a sequel is not what I would normally have cared for. Except, in this case, they cast Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins - and she's an actress that I do care for. From her very early days' My Summer of Love (2004) to her husband's labour of love A Quiet Place (2018), she has proven herself over and over again to be an actress who does not need to be in every frame of a film to make an impact. And films made in the noughties are meant to be slightly more sophisticated than films made in the '60s. So I gave Mary Poppins Returns a go.

The story revolves around the Banks children: the ones from the first film who are now grown up and yet still in need of some love and guidance; and their next generation, very much in need of some nurturing. There is a crisis, there is a deadline, there are some evil characters in the financial services world, and some very sweet cockney-speaking poor characters on the streets that clash - and of course, the shiny happy people win that battle. In between, there are some ok-ish songs, some average choreography, some crazy 'impossible' adventures, and in an homage to the original, there is some 2D cartooning.

There are big names as part of the ensemble - Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Colin Firth, with cameos by Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury. And yet, this little magical film held no magic for me. I was not only not entertained, but was thoroughly bored. I found myself hoping that the story would pick up, that the actors would stop overacting, that the dialogue would become engaging, that the songs would become memorable - but none of that happened. This film, as it turns out, is just as boring as the original (and seems to be garnering just as much love from fans and newbies alike).

For me, it was the under-10-minutes of Meryl Streep's screen time that saved the film for just the shortest duration. SHE is about as phenomenal as she was in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) and well, almost every film she ever stars in!

Otherwise, as far as my opinion goes, this film is best avoided.

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Teefa in Trouble 2018

Ali Zafar's entry into Pakistani cinema is also Pakistan's re-entry into a world where cinema is not an extension of television, but a very different entity altogether. With Teefa, not only has he secured himself a seat at the big boys' table, but also ensured that the standards by which we judge Lollywood (sometimes very low standards, and sometimes high but simply not appropriate for this medium) are changed for ever.

Teefa (Ali himself) is a small-time thug, who serves at the command of Butt saab (Mehmood Aslam), and does all his crooked work for him. Butt's son, Billu (Ahmad Bilal) has his heart set on marrying his father's best friend's daughter, Anya (Maya Ali). So when the settled-in-Poland-best-friend, Bonzo, aka Basheera (Jawaid Sheikh), breaks the decades old promise to marry off his daughter to Billu, Butt saab turns to his trusted hood-for-hire, Teefa, to kidnap Anya in Warsaw, and bring her to Lahore. This little 'adventure' is the tale that is told over 154 minutes, with a fair share of action, comedy, romance, music and fun thrown into the mix.

While the story is simple, and as old as time, the treatment is fresh, and very entertaining. And for the sake of giving credit where it's due, I will break each 'fresh' aspect down separately.

The film, in its entirety, is extremely slick. The attention to detail paid to art direction, costumes, props, and stylisation is commendable to say the least. Money has been spent on the making of this film, and while that is obvious in every frame, it is also not in-your-face and out of place. As a comparative, this could be a Farhan Akhtar film, not a Karan Johar film (that is, it looks real; not like an unrealistic figment of the maker's OTT ad film imagination). And the producers, for those who may not know, are Ali Zafar and Ayesha Fazli, his wife. Obviously Ali knows what he is doing, and has wisely invested in himself. First impressions are lasting, and he has spared no expense to launch himself in a way that will stay in the minds of the audience for a long, long time.

Cinematography & Visuals
Speaking of the way it looks, the cinematography is, quite simply, excellent. Zain Haleem's camerawork is exciting, it's fresh, it's energetic. Every scene has multiple camera angles, some of which are genius, none of which appear to be unnecessary, and all of which add to the pace of the narrative. The action sequences have been shot (and edited) with a standard I have never seen in Pakistani cinema before, and very rarely seen in Indian cinema. It doesn't end here though - the VFX that allowed for a trail of blood to appear in the water, as a character falls to the depths of the river, (amongst various other details throughout the film) is worth commending too. The film has a certain sun-kissed tone to it, with lots of blues and rusts (especially amplified for the scenes in Lahore), which has of course been achieved in post-. It all looks beautiful, almost perfect, always interesting. I have never known Zain Haleem to be associated with anything but ad films before, but now I will be looking out for his name. 

Direction & Editing
Ahsan Rahim, another name from the ad film and music video world, is the first-time director here. His music videos always seemed ahead of their time (maybe not so much in retrospect) - and he made quite a few of those with Ali Zafar in the past. But nothing would have prepared me for the standard of work he's done for Teefa. He's managed to extract some very sharp performances from his actors and his crew - and pushed out a tight, gripping, entertaining action-comedy-thriller, the likes of which Pakistan has never produced and India only sometimes produces. Ahsan has not only made a great Pakistani film, he's made a really good (desi) film. The continuity and attention to detail is remarkable. The editing, done by Ahsan and Taha Ali, is also mostly on point. There are some scenes that could have been shorter, or some rare cuts that could have been sharper. The duration of the film could be about 15 minutes less, which could be achieved by sacrificing a little extra weight (I mean come shouldn't take that many minutes for the train to leave that platform!). This is possibly one of the rare flaws of the film.

Much of the credit for the 'tight, gripping, entertaining' bits mentioned above, goes to the screenplay. Unsurprisingly this, along with the story, was penned by Ahsan Rahim, Ali Zafar, and his brother, Danyal Zafar. Yes, it's a family affair! While the story is terribly simple, the storytelling is really not. It captures, enthrals and keeps you hooked. Events are not always presented in a linear fashion, but often criss-cross into each other comically. In fact, events often happen off-screen and the audience is expected to have the intelligence to understand (e.g. Dream Dealers). The characters are pretty much all multi-dimensional. All the 'good' characters have shades of grey, as do all the 'bad' characters (nobody is really evil, with the exception of the main villain, but even he has a comic thread). While it's definitely a male-dominated cast, the women are what make the men, every one of them. And the lead lady is as headstrong, as wild, as devious as the male lead. She is not delicate, and is not in need of rescuing (even though that's what the men think they are doing). In fact she is the one who ends up rescuing the 'hero' multiple times and even gets to be the driver of the most prominent car chase scene. She rides bikes, gets herself out of tricky situations, chooses the man she wants to be with, and will not be controlled by any of the men in her life. The narrative and character arcs aren't original, but they are most definitely uncommon.

This is the piece de resistance. The dialogue is rammed with puns (ban-behn, mocha-mauqa, maa ki, iron man, teefay-feetay), subtle jokes, referential humour, and sharp wit. One would think it was written by an experienced comedy writer - but it is Ali Zafar (AGAIN), who wrote the dialogue. A discerning Pakistani audience would recognise the style to be of the ilk that was on television in the 1990s, when a number of NCA alumni had launched multiple music and comedy shows on television. One of the faces of that movement was Faisal Qureshi (who is Teefa's sidekick in this film and gets to deliver many of the hilarious one-liners, which is his signature style anyway). As it happens, Ali Zafar is also an NCA graduate, and the humorous writing is obviously very much in his blood. Because of the continuous stream of jokes, some so subtle that you actually miss them the first time round, the film remains fresh on repeat viewings. But humour isn't the only winner here - Ali has written with equal confidence for the more sentimental moments, none of which induce boredom or eye-rolling (which is what I usually end up doing). The writing is intentionally corny yes, but not sickly cheesy. Nor is it sickly sweet or obviously romantic (even the final confession of love comes as a question and is responded to with a list of culinary conditions!). And more importantly, especially in light of recent Pakistani comedies like Jawani Phir Nahin Ani (2015) and Punjab Nahin Jaungi (2017), this film is bereft of vulgarity in its comedy. Aside from one reference to 'andey', there is literally nothing in this entire film that is even slightly 'dirty' or inappropriate for family viewing. This is practically a miracle in this day and age, so deserves a special mention.

Music (and lyrics)
Shocking as this may sound (!!!), the music is composed by Ali and Danyal Zafar (and Naqash Haider), the songs are sung by Ali, and even the lyrics are written by Ali. And this is some of his best work in a while. Butt Saab has a completely different sound to typical Pakistani music, and is the perfect start to the film. Item Number is catchy, funny, and is choreographed superbly. Chan Ve and Sajna Door have a sweet and melancholic sound respectively. But it is Ishq Nachaunda with its slight sufi feel that completely captured my mind, both with its words and its sound. While we are speaking of music, the tipping of the hat to the 90s anthem Main Kya Karun and the humming of Rockstar, were both noticed and appreciated. The background score by Shani Arshad is consistently appropriate and really very good in most parts.

Now the final, and most important, part of the film that keeps this going. The entire cast from the sets of parents, to the henchmen, to the groups of friends, everyone has committed to their characters and delivered (Tom Coulston was slightly annoying though). 

Maya Ali was a bit of a surprise for me, as I have never liked her acting on television - it's always a bit too fake and unnaturally bubbly or unnaturally docile. As Anya, she has finally become a real person. Her acting is entirely natural, she's charming, fun, clever, beautiful and has screen presence. I have a few issues with her make-up in some scenes, but her wardrobe is perfect. She carries her Western and Eastern outfits with equal aplomb, and that is not always the case with Pakistani actresses. I definitely want to see more of this Maya Ali in the future.

And now for Teefa himself - I have to make a confession. I have for years not particularly liked Ali Zafar, when the rest of the country and its neighbour was loving him. I resented Channo (for its likeness to Dhanno) and his voice (for its mimicry of Kishore Kumar) and his acting in Indian films (for its obvious out-of-place-ness with his Lahori accent and delivery). Over the years, his voice has come into its own (and then some), and his acting has excelled to the point where he was my favourite character to watch in Kill Dil. Regardless of that, I watched this film on Netflix with little expectation. And after I finished, I immediately restarted it, because he is that compelling on screen that he had to be watched again. And again. His acting is natural, his timing perfect (comic or otherwise), he looks good, he dances well, he fights very well. I think Pakistan has just found itself its own Farhan Akhtar and Ranveer Singh, rolled into one. 

I have watched Teefa in Trouble roughly eight times over the last week, sometimes in an attempt to show this to other people, sometimes in an attempt to understand analytically why this film works, and sometimes simply for entertainment. And I am making no promises to never watch it again. If there are other people like me out there, then this will trend on Netflix for a while longer! 

Most modern and stylish Pakistani films over the last five years are labelled as the 'revival' of Pakistani cinema. In some cases, they have only been an extension of Pakistani television - Bin Roye (2015), Ho Mann Jahaan (2015), Janaan (2016), Dobara Phir Se (2016), which really cannot be a true revival of cinema. 2017 onwards, the films that have done well are definitely more cinematic, but I am not sure if the others have been of this quality. This is really the true arrival of Pakistani cinema. Teefa in Trouble may change the cinematic landscape - but even if it doesn't, I have faith in whatever project Ali Zafar invests in next.

Need I mention this? Teefa in Trouble is available on Netflix - and it deserves a watch (or many).

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

The Greatest Showman 2017

Unlike Indian cinema, Hollywood does not make a habit of producing films with completely original songs because, well, 'musicals' are an optional genre and not a necessary ingredient in the west. So, every time a major musical film comes out, and becomes a success, it is a really big deal.

Personally, I have not been too impressed by the grand Hollywood musicals that have caught the audience's imagination in recent years. I still stand by my disdain for Les Misérables and my indifference to La La Land. But in The Greatest Showman I finally find salvation.

The story revolves around an actual person, Phineas Taylor Barnum, a 19th century American showman, well-known for promoting 'human curiosities', and notorious for passing off hoaxes as the real deal. There is a fair amount of controversy around him today, about how he exploited the people who worked for him in his circus, and how he would do anything to make a quick buck. In the 21st century some things have changed for the better, and I assume someone like him would be much maligned today. But things were different 150 years ago and The Greatest Showman does away with any ethical commentary on this subject, being a happy musical and all.

This PT Barnum (Hugh Jackman) is simply a dreamer, an inventor, a creator and an entertainer. He's had a difficult life, but has made some money through hard work and is rewarded with marriage to Charity, his upper class childhood sweetheart (Michelle Williams), and two beautiful daughters. Still his heart wants more, and his ambition knows no bounds. He establishes a 'circus', gathering people with unique abilities and appearances (trapeze artists, a bearded lady, a dwarf, a man with full body tattoos, etc) and creates shows the likes of which New York has never seen before. Despite the success and stardom and controversy that he enjoys very much, he is still not accepted by the society he craves to be a part of. So, he brings in a partner (Zac Efron) from the higher echelons, gets invited to Queen Victoria's court at Buckingham Palace and associates himself with a famed opera singer, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), just so he would be accepted by the very elite who laugh at his upstart background. And in the process, he loses everything that had brought him real love and laughter. So will the wayward find their way back? Will our great romantic hero correct the wrongs he has done and will he find happiness again? The suspense, I'm sure, will kill you.

The storyline is razor thin, and extremely predictable, and moves through the expected twists and turns at breakneck speed. Plus every cliché under the sun is employed on the way. I mean there is an actual visual reference to the witch who offered Snow White a poisoned apple (but here she is a kind, misunderstood soul, much like Quasimodo). Sidenote: Hugh Jackman's younger self in these musicals really needs to learn to steal bread, without getting caught instantly!

But while the story may be simple, the presentation is exquisite. As in the case of La La Land the songs are all original and have been written for the film, but their staging is far more spectacular, almost as if the creators are waiting to be invited to re-write this for Broadway or West End. There is a blue-print in the choreography of some songs that simply needs to be applied to stage (watch 'A Million Dreams', 'This Is Me', 'Rewrite The Stars', etc and you will see what I mean). Every number is larger than life, thoroughly entertaining, and has the thump-thump that stays with you for days after you've heard it. Think of the melodies in the by-now-so-annoying Frozen, and now imagine them better. The singing too is pretty extraordinary. Everything I hated about Hugh Jackman's renditions in Les Misérables is gone, and every time he sings here, it is a joy to hear. One of my favourite songs (and it really is hard to choose) is 'The Other Side', which is a brilliant and very funny back and forth between Jackman and Efron, who by the way, shines as an actor, singer and dancer here. Zendaya plays Zac Efron's love interest in the film, and is also a great performer in every regard. Keala Settle's powerful voice really makes the backbone of all the songs she is part of. So, in some ways, Michelle Williams is the weakest singer here, and even she is very good. Or maybe it is Rebecca Ferguson who's the weakest singer, in the sense that she didn't sing her songs at all (playback by Loren Allred), which is a shame, because her performance is really very good. In fact everyone is great, even the two girls who play Barnum's daughters, or the two kids who play the young Barnum and the young Charity.

If you can't tell from my incessant gushing, I thoroughly enjoyed this film, and the story has little to do with it (I would rather not think about the fact that some credibility has been given to the man, who probably exploited humans and animals alike for his personal gains). It is all because of the outstanding music and choreography that literally brought me joy for two full hours. This is truly the greatest show of the year.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049 - 2017

So, this film seems to have been deemed a flop - and half the online writers have written the 5 reasons, 7 reasons and 10 reasons it didn't work. They feel compelled to come up with reasons, because the critics, and much of the audience that did watch it, think it's an excellent film.

I watched Blade Runner 2049 a few hours after re-watching the original Blade Runner (1982) - and my expectations were much lowered because of that. I hadn't liked the Ridley Scott cult favourite when I first saw it in the 1990s, I hated it when I saw it again in the 2000s and I still couldn't hack it in 2017. I understand how my personal aversion to most sci-fi films is attributed to my disdain for, say, the Star Wars franchise, for example (I've also been told that I pretend to hate them only because I like to be 'contrary'), but I maintain that a well-written, well-made film, regardless of genre, will always win my genuine appreciation. Blade Runner does not fit that requirement. I find it too slow and interminable, with a series of long, moody, atmospheric scenes that stop being relevant once the 'mood' has been established; and the mood is unfortunately established multiple times. I understand that this 'original' stylisation spawned many future characters and set-pieces, and for that we will be eternally grateful (I can see how Joss Whedon was inspired by it, when I watch Firefly, his awesome 2003 sci-fi series). I also understand that it broached certain philosophical and existential questions, which I think are still unanswered, about consciousness and what difference having a soul, if there is such a thing, makes. But I still cannot understand why everyone thinks it's a great film, because it bored/bores me.

Anyhow, with low expectations and little faith, I went to see the sequel, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

This is another neo-noir, a mystery that unveils truths of the last 30 years (since the previous film's ending). There is a new philosophical conundrum, an extension of what we saw in the last instalment of the story. There are new replicants, more advanced but more compliant. There are new humans, seemingly more 'soulless' and less conscionable than the androids. In the midst of all this, is K (Ryan Gosling), our new protagonist, with a clear purpose and a remoteness of character. It seems that K's biggest flaw, throughout the film, is that in spite of his lack of humanness, he finds in himself, that most human of all aspects: he finds Hope. And in its pursuit he finally finds Deckard (Harrison Ford) almost 120 minutes into the film, and ties up many loose ends. But the questions about humanity, love, compassion, sacrifice, and hope being the birthright of humans, being the very factors that make humans superior to machines, being the result of a soul - these questions remain asked and unanswered. As they should.

I was unaware when I went to see it that the film was not directed by Ridley Scott, but by Denis Villeneuve. It was only afterwards that I realised this is the work of the same man who directed the excellent Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015) and Arrival (2016). Like those films, this is beautifully crafted and delivered. The cinematography is flawless; whether it is the extreme close-ups, or the large landscape shots, the colours, the movements, the compositions, they are all perfect. Editing is appropriate and nothing feels too drawn out - even the slow, long scenes remain interesting and relevant. And the acting - wow! Most of the film hinges on Ryan Gosling's performance, and like his character in Drive (2011), he has very few lines to communicate what he's feeling. But Gosling's greatest ability is in what he can communicate with his face, and his eyes. And he does not fail his audience here. Not once.

Even as a self-confessed sci-fi-phobe, I highly recommend this film. It requires patience, but it fully rewards the patient viewer. Much, much better than the original.

Monday, 9 October 2017

mother! 2017

Darren Aronofsky has done it again. He's delivered a perfectly crafted, difficult to endure, conversation-piece of a film.

After 2010's Black Swan, his best film in my opinion, he directed Noah (2014), his worst in my opinion. So, I desperately needed his next film to remind me of what he is capable of. And mother! is everything an Aronofsky fan could want, and more. Does that mean I loved it? No. Far from it. But there's very little I can fault in it.

First the easy bits - technically, the film is very powerful. The hand-held cameras follow and capture every nuance of the main protagonist's expressions. The cinematography is grainy, and the sound mixing is sharp and accurate. Together, the visuals and sounds, create a constant sense of uncertainty, a fear of the unknown and of impending doom. The editing, for the most part, is excellent (there's room for improvement in the final act). And the direction, the performances (especially Jennifer Lawrence's), the delivery - they're all perfect.

The issue, if there is one, is entirely with the content.

What feels like a psychological thriller (much like Black Swan) slowly reveals itself to be more of a philosophical (like 2006's The Fountain) and theological (like Noah) conundrum. It takes a while to understand what the protagonists stand for, what their story is about, and what Aronofsky wants to tell us. And while that is quite clever, it was for me, quite disappointing. I guess I expected more, and once I realised where I was being led, I just needed it to reveal and end quickly. Hence the very violent, very graphic, very out of control second half felt badly edited; almost unnecessarily long. That may have been intentional too, but it made me dislike the film intensely.

The story revolves around a set of unnamed characters: a young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) obsessively fixing and renovating and recreating a childhood home for her husband who she dotes on; her husband, an older man (Javier Bardem), who once wrote a perfect novel, for which he is known, but now struggles to write anything of that stature; a male guest (Ed Harris) who shows up out of nowhere one night, and despite the wife's hesitation, is invited by the husband to stay overnight and seems to provide him with a new-found inspiration; the guest's wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) who shows up unexpectedly the next day, whose existence till that moment was not known, who also ends up staying over just as the hostess's hesitation is turning into a slightly frenzied discomfort (this female guest interferes into the hosts' lives to the point that she meddles with a precious stone the host is especially sensitive about and ends up breaking it, after which she proceeds to have sex with her husband with the door left open); two sons of the guests who show up out of nowhere, have a huge physical fight, and one brother ends up killing the other with a heavy object. As the wake is also held in the same house, new people show up one after another, seemingly taking over the house, breaking things, making the hostess feel unwelcome in her own home, while her husband, who is being fawned over seems oblivious to the damage being done and enjoys the attention and the company with no cares for his wife or his home.

As the ensuing madness reaches boiling point, this chapter ends, to reveal a calmer second chapter, where the guests have been thrown out, the hosts are finally alone again, the house is perfect again, and they are expecting a baby. The husband has finally finished his book, it's been published and has been well received, and they are sitting down to enjoy each other's company, when a fan arrives. And then another. And another. And very quickly, their newly renovated world goes through another cycle of madness, another round of unruly guests who take over the place, steal from it, ravage it, pillage it - all the while ignoring the mother(-to-be). Her husband, once again, is oblivious to the damage, as he is too wrapped up in the fervour around him. She repeatedly asks him to stop them, and he doesn't. A montage of ills befalls her house, and finally as she delivers her baby boy, her husband takes it away and gives it to the fans, who tear it apart within seconds and distribute its flesh and eat it. As she screams in agony at the death of her son, her husband appeases her and asks her to forgive the people. In her rage, she burns the house down - with herself in it, and when she has nothing left to give, her husband takes her beating heart, her precious stone and the cycle starts all over again.

Does any of this sound familiar?

If only Aronofsky had not told the story of a God, weakened by his adoring people, a pillaged Mother Nature and a tortured Mother Mary, and a disgusting  mob of the human race, to create this shabby analogy, I'd have enjoyed the suspense and the creepiness of the film. But the moment, I made the connections, I switched off. And every further reveal just annoyed me. And I can't decide whether I am more angry because this is a preachy parable, based on the Bible or because this is an atheist's angry tirade against a God he doesn't believe in. Are we to learn a lesson about respecting Mother Nature before our world implodes yet again as has been told over and over again in holy books, or are we to hate the very concept of this narcissistic God who in his obsession to be adored has actually turned away from his creation and has give us too much freedom to destroy what we have. Whichever way I look at this, I find myself revolting against the contradictions in the philosophical angles.


Whatever it may be, one thing is for sure. Darren Aronofsky has made yet another film that will be discussed and analysed for a long time to come.

I can't recommend it, but it is an interesting film. Watch it if you are a fan of Lars Von Trier's Antichrist or films of that ilk.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Live By Night 2016

Sometimes I really regret my unwavering decision to never read reviews before watching a film. I could have been saved so much misery if I had read the reviews for Live By Night. Universally panned, this film adds nothing to the 'gangster' genre or the Prohibition-era dramas.

Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is a small-time crook, dating a notorious Irish gangster's moll (Sienna Miller). He gets punished for this indiscretion with a beating that leaves him inches from his death, while his beloved girl is reportedly drowned for her folly. After recovering from his wounds, and serving a sentence of just a few years for robbery, Joe joins a rival Italian gang, moves to the south and starts working with Cubans to expand the alcohol trade, while steering clear of drug money. He is instructed to set up a legalised gambling business, which he fails at, because the recovering drug addict daughter (Elle Fanning) of the Sheriff (Chris Cooper) is able to whip the church goers into a frenzy about the evils of gambling - which prevents this from becoming a legal trade. Eventually the enraged Italian mobster makes a deal with the Irish gangster we met at the start, they both come down south to kill Coughlin and to hand the business over to the Italian gangster's son. Of course, Coughlin kills everyone, finds out that Sienna Miller is still alive, has a pointless chat with her and goes back to his Cuban wife (Zoe Saldana), who produces a son, and promptly gets killed in a drive by shooting. The film ends on some half-hearted message about karma.

The film potters clumsily from one scenario to the next, with cringe-worthy dialogue, terrible acting and interminable scenes. There are possibly two or three rare moments of clever writing, which are instantly followed by the characters explaining the joke or the trick in detail (for anyone who has seen the film, think of the 'marked bottles' trick, or the 'Digger' joke, both of which were killed by the moment after you finished smiling).

This film exploits the mediocrity of 'talents' Ben Affleck possesses. Awful writer, check. Terrible director and producer, check (honestly, no one has ever been able to get Chris Cooper to act so badly. EVER). Charmless actor, check (he has a smirk and a frown - that's the sum total of expressions on his wooden face - and he's no Bruce Willis so he can't even make those expressions work to his benefit). Whatever respect he garnered with Argo (2012), he has lost again. Maybe, it was Jennifer GARNER who had turned his life around - and with his baby gone, he's a loser again. Bad joke? Sure. It's a terrible joke. But it's better than any line from the film. So there!

The year is barely 2 weeks old - and this is probably the worst film I'll see all year. AVOID at all costs.

Monday, 16 January 2017

La La Land 2016

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Dancing. And singing. In an old-school musical, set in the present day. What could go wrong? Lots apparently; not that the Golden Globes have noticed.

Sebastian (Gosling) and Mia (Stone) are both hopefuls living in LA. One wants to be a great jazz musician, with his own club that will revive the tradition of jazz, while he plays Christmas jingles at run-down restaurants. The other wants to be a great actress, known for her talent, while she serves coffee in the local cafe. They meet, they fall in love, good things happen, bad things happen, life happens. All with a song and dance to keep you entertained. The end.

Now we don't expect a musical to have a ground-breaking story. I mean there is a pattern to the genre, and to give the film its due, the pattern is followed well here. But what you expect from a musical is flawless dancing...set pieces that make you gush...songs that are not only well-composed and memorable, but are sung beautifully. Just a few years ago, we forgave Pierce Brosnan (or did we) and Meryl Streep for trashing Abba's repertoire - and we did that because the songs were well-known, we have all sung them badly, and the actors seemed to be having a great time on a Greek island; so we all felt like we were on a holiday with them.

But La La Land, in some way, seems to be pretending to be better than that. In its heart it seems to believe that it is to the Musical, what The Artist (2011) was to the Silent film. It thinks it's a revival. isn't. The dances aren't flawless, the choreography isn't breathtaking, the tunes aren't that memorable, the singing is REALLY nowhere close to good. And honestly, Bollywood produces about 200 films every year that do a better job at creating set pieces worth watching.

If it wasn't for Emma Stone's unbelievably emotive eyes, and Ryan Gosling's heart-melting expressions, I would wonder why this film got any attention at all. Dancers they may not be, singers they are not, but actors they definitely are the best of. And they deliver an entertaining film, with their combined effort...and effortless, natural chemistry. Their dancing appears cute, their singing sounds sweet, and you want to give them points for trying. Plus, the last 15 minutes of the film are more poignant and beautiful than the entire rest of the film.

Worth watching, because it does make you smile. But lower those expectations that the record 7 Golden Globe wins may have raised - because the film isn't all that good.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Assassin's Creed 2016

I once used to boast that I 'found' Michael Fassbender first...such was my devotion to his acting and persona that I felt the need to claim him. This was, of course, before he acted in a long list of films that disappointed me to the core. To be fair to him, even in the unbearable Macbeth (2015), he was the sole bearable component. Barely, but bearable nonetheless...

But now he's really done it. He's ended my blind fandom. I went to see Assassin's Creed for him. I thought, "He's a wonderful, brooding actor. He'll do a great job with this multi-dimensional (literally) character". But I should have broken my own rule, and read a review or two before watching this film. If nothing else, I would have learnt that the film not only stars Marion Cotillard, a consistently disappointing actress whenever she performs in the English language, but also that this scifi-fantasy-thriller-drama was directed by the same criminal (Justin Kurzel #neverforget), who slaughtered my favourite Shakespeare play just the year before...with the same two actors in the lead.

The film is inspired by the video game franchise, but features an 'original' story that goes thus: a bunch of convicts have been rounded up by the distinctly French Sophia (Cotillard) and her distinctly English father Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), as they are the direct descendants of the Assassins, who were protecting a prince in Granada in 1492. Star convict Callum (Fassbender) is a direct descendant of star Assassin Aguilar (also Fassbender), who seems to have hid an Apple (yes, an apple) that was central to Adam and Eve being cast out of heaven (and yet the apple remains whole...where's the bite???), which was being sought by the Templars back in the day, as it holds the genetic code for free will (oh dear God, my head will explode). So Callum is strapped to a machine and he enters the 'Animus', meaning he gets to relive Aguilar's memories. Yada yada yada, cut to the chase, Sophia is doing all this in the name of science, while her daddy is the modern day Templar, whose sole purpose was to get at the Apple. The film is called Assassin's Creed and the main Assassin is played by Michael you really think the Templars will win this?

The dialogues, the acting, the direction, EVEN the action is all so bad that each minute feels interminable. A lacklustre project that somehow pretends to have depth by throwing in some scenes in Spanish, some mindless religious mumbo-jumbo that makes no sense at all, and some heavy, brooding moments...except it all comes across as super lame, thanks to the terrible writing.

Please, please, please don't watch it. Don't encourage them to make another one. Please.

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. Seriously!). 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.