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).