Category Archives: Review

Review: Tim Miller’s Deadpool

deadpool1You’re wrong about Deadpool, you know.

Yes, you. I can see it as you start reading this review, smiling as you think you know what you’re in for. Think again. There are many kinds of films you may expect — as did I — but Deadpool, true to character, confounds. This is not an immature work consisting exclusively of pottymouthed juvenilia. This is not a work of subversion meant to restructure our concept of the superhero universe. Despite fanboy hyperbole, this is not the cleverest of superhero movies — and certainly not the most violent. Instead, in keeping with a pansexual protagonist and his frequent friskiness, it lands somewhere in the middle. Why choose a sphere when you can ream the damn venn diagram?

One thing I can say for sure is that you’ve never seen something like Deadpool.

This is weird. It feels as if the high-schooler from Superbad who was so good at drawing penises got a chance to make The Mask. The humour is feral and vicious and relentless, like an insecure stand-up comic desperately trying to be noticed at a roast. Everything gets filthy fast, and while the jokes might not all land, they come at you in ceaseless bursts of mostly juvenile shock humour: let’s call it a frat-a-tat-tat attack.

That works great because, if you’ve read the comics, you’ll know that Deadpool is annoying. Oh, I love him to bits, the pop-culture skewering freak, the perpetual smasher of the fourth wall, but to the larger Marvel Universe — to everyone around him — he’s a pest. There’s a reason nobody likes Deadpool (except Deadpool), and Ryan Reynolds nails the character’s self-made forcefield of farce. He jokes all the bloody time because, like a comedic shark (or, I daresay, Don Rickles in spandex), he can’t stop, he’s propelled by his own idiocy. Therefore, when the testicular jokes feel like they’re getting a bit much, well, they’re meant to. (Just like Wolverine, nudge nudge wink wink.)

That, however, is just part of it. Director Tim Miller and writers Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese take an unconventional hero and spin out a conventional superhero backstory — a doomed cancer-patient given a new, mutated lease of life — but the genius of Deadpool lies in the audacity of its storytelling. The film’s structure, which consists unprecedentedly of two primary scenes and a whole lot of flippantly-narrated flashback, is extraordinary. All genre rules are told to sod off. There is no world to be saved. The villain never seems like much of a threat. A hero who can’t be hurt — and who slices his own arm off while talking about 127 Hours. It’s pretty damned insane to consider this movie got made. (A verbose and narcissistic leading man whose story is told over two scenes? Are you kidding me, two scenes? What is this, the Marvel version of Steve Jobs?)

deadpool2Reynolds is smashing, visibly eager to keep things dirty, going on about Hugh Jackman’s cojones and Liam Neeson’s parenting skills, frequently looking at you and me to keep us up to speed: in a moment of brilliant self-awareness, he even breaks the sixteenth-wall. He’s matched by equally randy love interest Vanessa (Morena Baccarin of Firefly), a mindmeltingly foxy character who knows what she wants — especially on International Women’s Day — takes no nonsense, and is refreshingly far removed from a damsel in distress. Her final line, on discovering her beau’s grotesquely disfigured face, is a peach.

That’s it, tiger. I’d tell you more about the characters and quote my favourite lines, applaud the Monty Python references and all that jazz, but consider my lips stitched together. This is unmistakably a comic-book film, and some fun new X-Men show up, but you don’t need to know any more than the fact that this film really earns its exclamation marks. Discover all that rude cheek on your own and revel in the surprise. And, like dick-in-a-box, it’s all surprise. Wham!

Rating: 4 stars

PS: The Indian censors have cruelly sliced off many a swearword in this delightfully profane film and replaced shots of nudity they think Indian adults can’t handle. My suggestion to you, my rightfully outraged friend, is to look up the postal address for the Central Board Of Film Certification and mail them an envelope full of talcum-powder, marked ‘Anthrax?’ Don’t forget the question-mark, now, it’s what makes it ‘funny.’ Deadpool would agree.

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First published Rediff, February 12, 2016

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Review: Abhishek Kapoor’s Fitoor

fitoor1People age oddly in Fitoor.

A small Kashmiri boy with innocent eyes and a Saleem Sinai nose becomes a natural artist but, as if working with unreasonably heavy paintbrushes, emerges also a musclebound dimwit. A haughty young girl with a National Velvet self-confidence morphs into a red-haired waxwork unable to pronounce words that came so naturally in her youth. And an old opium addict, one of the most famous female parts in all Victorian literature, ages the most tragically: poor Tabu with abruptly heightening hysteria and increasingly weird eye-makeup, growing old like a Transylvanian raccoon.

Director Abhishek Kapoor might have had a fine idea on paper, given that Dickens’ Great Expectations is sufficiently Bollywood in its narrative — a vintage melodrama about star-crossed lovers, and romance impossible to snuff out — and he does well to make a visually lush film, with opulent production design and cinematographer Anay Goswami conjuring up some enchanting, fable-like visuals. There is red-tinted Gothic gorgeousness across old Kashmiri mansions, snow in the film falls with unreal grace, as if from inside a snowglobe, and some of the long-shots are spectacular. Alas, Kapoor casts two attractive people where he ought have chosen a couple of actual actors instead, and thus it becomes hard to care about the protagonists or their sundered hearts, and despite aesthetic appeal, what we end up with is — at best — a screensaver.

It starts off cutely enough, with young lad Noor entranced by imperious girl Firdaus, and the kids are likeable enough while Tabu puffs the magic dragon and (mostly) carries off dialogues out of an old-school Muslim Social. Thanks to Goswami’s rapturous painting-like frames, this section is almost watchable despite the hideously overwrought dialogue. Everything people say is embellished and clichéd, with cars being compared, peculiarly enough, to pythons (presumably because the writers liked the sound of the word ‘ajgar’) and Tabu telling the young strapling (who she’s literally just met) to stir her soul with a song, for she hasn’t cried in awhile. And this is just the bloody start.

The dialogue gets somewhat less insufferable as the action shifts from Kashmir to Delhi, but — catastrophically — the performances go in the opposite direction, and drastically so. The kids are gone. Katrina Kaif is Firdaus, red of hair, fair of skin and blank of expression. Aditya Roy Kapoor is Noor, a sulky, morose character completely lacking in spirit, more squeak than Pip.

He gazes at her vacuously, as if waiting to be whispered his lines, while she can’t effectively be outraged at his staring because she can’t say ‘Staring’: she manages a ghouurrna. Later in the film she even refers to him as Knorr, like he were instant soup. Ah, if only. Fitoor takes its own sweet time to unravel and the languor is unearned because the longing is unconvincing. Even when these two make love, they do so only for the cameras, putting their most photogenic feet forward. A Tale Of Two Pretties.

Still, there is a visual deftness, there is music, there is a dreaminess that Kapoor creates. Unfortunately, the narrative itself comes together sloppily and builds exhaustingly, tripping over its own feet constantly through the last forty minutes. Also, somewhere around two-thirds into Fitoor, everyone appears to have lost steam. Amit Trivedi’s music, hitherto evocative regardless of actors, is replaced for the most part by a background score designed to spell-things-out and underscore the overcooked dialogue. Even Goswamy, the most valuable player of the enterprise, goes through the motions for a few scenes, forcing predictable focus-shifts on Katrina and Tabu as they struggle with their lines. (Yes, even Tabu struggles. This material is atrocious.) Aditya Roy Kapoor doesn’t get worse per se, but his makeup is suddenly highly visible, and there is an alarming amount of it.

fitoor2The third act, where Great Expectations comes together to devastating ends, is the most excruciating part of the film. In an unforgettably weird scene, an old man shows up and offers Noor a drink — using lines that sound disturbingly and unambiguously like he’s propositioning the young artist — but ever-frowning Noor, inexplicably, hops aboard, despite not recognising him. From this point on, both film and protagonist are impossible to stomach, and since young Aditya has taken on a role this demanding, a role that needs an actor to shoulder it, he must face a large part of the flak. The character he creates is a drab, gloomy, stalker-y one, not the impassioned lover from the book. Lara Dutta, playing a savvy and exploitative art-dealer, brands his first showing smartly in order to cash in on Noor’s roots, calling it The Boy From Dal. If only he weren’t such a dull boy.

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, February 12, 2015

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Review: Milap Zaveri’s Mastizaade

Why is Mastizaade not in 3D?

I’m stunned that the producers of this insanely exploitative flick missed out on a cheap trick that obvious. For this is a pointedly stupid film, a sloppily written paean to horndogs, a work of juvenile perversion. A hundred-minute excuse to stare at a woman while constantly eating bananas, Mastizaade is a confused, unfunny, and ultimately impotent disaster. 

But let us first get things straight. When I call it exploitative, I don’t mean the film’s makers take advantage of leading lady Sunny Leone — to the contrary, this is an absolute star turn from her and she is always, unmistakably, holding the reins. But more on that in a bit. What Mastizaade does is shamelessly and pathetically prey on a certain repressed section of the audience, by serving up an unforgivably braindead offering designed to appeal to their basest instincts. Naturally the makers will take the age-old Pablo Escobar excuse — that the very demand for a product justifies its manufacture and sale — but we should all know better than drug-traffickers, one hopes. 

Look, there’s nothing wrong with stupid films. Or, heaven forbid, with sexy films. Or films that delight in being a cross between the two. Yet if such objects to arouse pre-pubescent sweat must be made, why can’t they be funny? Why can’t there be one decently crafted joke? Why can’t there be real characters or a real story? Surely even cleavage-obsessed filmmakers ought to, at first, be filmmakers, yes? So, dear randy directors-to-be, why can’t you loyally remake Porky’s or the Carry On movies or simply, in a take on American Pie, let some kid diddle a dhokla?

One of the fundamental problems with Hindi sex-comedies (or porn-coms or whatever they are calling themselves now) is that nobody really has sex, they merely nudge and wink enough times to give Eric Idle a hiccuping fit. Milap Zaveri’s Mastizaade kicks off with two willing young girls leaping onto ‘heroes’ Tushhar Kapoor and Vir Dass, but there is no kissing or fondling — instead of making out, both sets of couples accost each other like epileptic mimes. This flaccid amateurishness runs through the whole film — it isn’t ballsy enough to get dirty but it wants to use a few dirty-sounding words.

The film is about two boys who — in a blatant bit of product placement with tragic implications for the brand involved — wear Lawman Jeans to prey on women in rehab by getting them drunk. Dass gamely goes through the motions even while visibly trying to distance himself from it all, impressively managing to look detached even when sucking on a lollipop. There is no such restraint on the other end. Kapoor, an old-hand at the innuendo-filled genre, is painfully desperate to plunge into the madness, and we should all read something into the fact that his character is, oddly enough, named Sunny.

 
Sunny herself, who plays oh-so-creatively named twins Laila and Lily Lele, is an absolute star. Mastizaade doesn’t feel like a real film till she shows up, all glamorous and grinning and completely in-on-the-joke, more even than the director. Her mock-horrified expressions are priceless, and even when dancing along to a song that tastelessly appears to abuse her by co-opting the Punjabi word for ‘more,’ she’s the one taking control by joyously leading the jig. Leone commits to the parts and campily plays up to the camera, and — while this may appear exaggerated considering the rest of this film’s cast — her screen presence proves to be striking and, more importantly, bright. Here is a girl acting sincerely in an utterly idiotic movie, sure, but it’s great to see such a self-aware turn — she even mocks the infantilization of the male gaze by cocking a snook at her own hit Baby Doll — and to watch Leone visibly, and infectiously, having fun. Properly directed, here’s an actress waiting to impress.

Alas, to nobody’s surprise, nothing else works. Zaveri, who casts himself as a Pattaya pervert, appears to be flaunting his methods when he autobiographically shows his leading men make trashy, tawdry advertisements — ads that sell substandard products by thrusting sex and double-meaning in our faces — but there is little to buy into here. 

One of the songs in the film is phrased oddly enough for me to respond to it personally. “Dekhega raja trailer ki picture dikha doon?” translates to “Will Raja watch the trailer or should I show him the whole film?” and I don’t quite know why this is made to sound like a threat — but it is a realistic one, as evidenced by my throbbing temples, and I gladly say Uncle. Next time let the trailer be all I see. Please.

What people who make movies like Mastizaade need to realise is that the word Adult means more than a movie rating. Even the absolute daftest of sex comedies have room for something sharp and clever and cheeky. Because Austin Powers minus the groovy is just pervy, baby, pervy.

Rating: No stars

First published Rediff, January 29, 2015

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Review: Raja Krishna Menon’s Airlift

Films about genuinely unsung heroes are a fine thing, and Raja Krishna Menon’s Airlift is a sincere effort to celebrate an insanely daunting task. In 1990, during the Persian Gulf War, over 170,000 Indians were stranded in Kuwait when it was attacked by Iraq, and a few local businessmen and Indian diplomats took on the valiant, significantly uphill task of bringing those people home. The number itself is staggering — necessitating nearly 500 aeroplanes full of people — and Airlift, for the most part, delivers this action with efficiency and a relative lack of exaggerated drama.

The situation itself is patently absurd, with armoured tanks rolling onto city streets in Kuwait one loud night, and Menon does well to keep things reined in more than most Bollywood filmmakers would. Akshay Kumar plays a profit-hungry businessman, a man who disapproves of Hindi film music and would rather listen to Arabic tunes, but the nightmare of living in a war-torn foreign city awakens his patriotic and humane side, which leads to what remains the largest civil evacuation of all-time.

The film is well shot, with cinematographer Priya Seth achieving the right mix of impressive aerial shots and cramped handheld bits, and reasonably well-textured with credible Middle Eastern detailing. There are hiccups — like Kumar singing a Hindi song moments after refusing to listen to Hindi songs — and the songs do indeed get in the way every single time they come on, but things are smoothened over by the solid character artists populating this film, from the surprisingly effective Purab Kohli to the ever-excellent Kumud Mishra to the businessmen who play Kumar’s buddies to the fascinatingly helpless Feryna Wazheir, who plays a Kuwaiti woman hoping to make her escape with the Indians.

It isn’t all on the up and up, though: Prakash Belawadi, who seems to be in every film now post his star turn in Talvar, plays an infuriatingly pigheaded and badly written character. Meanwhile Nimrat Kaur, who plays Kumar’s wife, seems challenged by the brief of speaking softly with a strain of Punjabi, like a woman from a Pakistani play, while constantly wearing make-up regardless of how harrowed her character is, like a woman from an Indian television show. This marriage of cross-border soap opera convention doesn’t help Kaur, who appears mostly silly, and during her one big moment, a scathing speech, her accent sadly falls away.

Still, Airlift is compelling, thanks largely to a sterling performance from Kumar — who is both suitably weary and suitably level-headed for the part — enough to anchor the proceedings. The actor is always fine when reined in, and Menon plays to his strengths and Kumar only snaps once, almost reflexively, into Bollywood hero mode, but he is mostly calm and grown-up and holding on. The problem with Airlift, however, cinematically speaking, is that its protagonist, while messianic, might be reined in too far: there is not much Kumar has to do besides have faith and talk to people; there is no audacious plan, there is no stroke of genius — it’s all just hope and humanity.
That sounds noble enough, but it makes things less interesting cinematically — compared, say, to the madly elaborate schemes carried out in Ben Affleck’s Argo, a masterful evacuation film Airlift will invariably (and unfortunately) be compared with. Menon’s is a sweet film, but tame enough to be nicknamed ‘Argo Hug Yourself.’ 
I, for one, can’t help wishing the character created for Kumar had more up his sleeves. The actor positively shines during a moment where he, interrupted mid-tandoori chicken, shows off his poker face and bluffs strikingly well, and the way he coaxes his beaten adversary to eat another bite is priceless. Yet that’s the only part where he’s being clever. Everything else is sincerity and fortitude, and while well-meaning, sticking merely to that is what keeps this film from being genuinely memorable. 

This, you might think, is a reckless demand: why would I ask for drama to be conjured up when this clearly stands as an inspirational story of hope? Well, because it’s not as if the film is against taking cinematic liberties, and the one it confesses to is quite tell-tale: Airlift ends by informing us that there were two admirable Indian expatriates — a Mr Matthews and a Mr Vedi — who masterminded the dramatic rescue operation, and that both of them were amalgamated into Kumar’s character. Even when toasting a true story, say our movies, a superstar is worth more than a real hero.

Rating: 3 stars

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First published Rediff, January 22, 2015

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Review: Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino’s latest film is his most unpleasant.

eight2The Hateful Eight contains everything we expect from the auteur — ultraviolence and memorable characters and shocks and profanity and long stretches of dialogue — and yet, while as indulgently Tarantinoey as it can be, this is a rough watch, a film meant to cause discomfort, to repel, even to disgust. It is the director trying to make us squirm and succeeding, one way or another. Some will be put off by the politics, some by the projectile vomiting, some by the scenes that run on far too long. Yet this is one of Tarantino’s most deliberately put-together pictures, every decision meant to get under the viewer’s skin and irritate, because — while in cowboy hats and furs — he is bringing up things we don’t talk about.

There is, of course, a much simpler reason why this is a polarising film, why I’ve had to watch it three times before writing this review, and why this Tarantino film is so damned bothersome.

It is because it contains no heroes.

This is rarer than you might think. We find ourselves frequently rooting for anti-heroes, or even charismatic, well-cut villains. Even films soaked in amorality have principal protagonists we follow and support, protagonists we are meant to relate with or look up to. The bitterly dramatic world of the Western often skims past moral ambiguity via casting: we champion Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, for example, merely because he is Clint Eastwood. But watching movies without a moral compass —  watching a bloody cowboy movie without any moral compass, for god’s sake — is thirsty work, intended to leave the audiences parched of easy answers.

Nobody is, thus, beyond reproach in The Hateful Eight. Not the characters, not the politics, and certainly not the director himself, who has fashioned his thriller by building upon layers of constant subterfuge: the eight characters in the title never really add up to eight, the Haberdashery isn’t really a haberdashery, there is a much heralded letter of dubious origin, there are hangmen who aren’t hangmen (and men who become hangmen), we never learn how to pronounce the principal female character’s name, and we’re watching a film that resembles one of Agatha Christie’s drawing room murder mystery while turning out to be no grand mystery at all.

eight1Here’s what goes on, above the surface: It is a few years after the American Civil War. A bounty hunter called John Ruth is handcuffed to a much-wanted murderess called Daisy Domergue. Another bounty hunter, a retired Major, is an imposing black man with a bounty of corpses. They’re both snowed in, along with an unsavoury bunch of people, in an inn during a tremendous blizzard. There is suspicion everywhere: from John Ruth toward the inhabitants of the cabin, some of whom, he is certain, intend to free Daisy or steal his bounty; and toward the Major from the white men, several (if not all) of whom are blatantly racist.

This is all shot rather gorgeously on 65mm film by Robert Richardson, the cinematography almost as exquisite as it is indulgent. Tarantino shuffles his characters around the closed space meticulously, like chess pieces, and Richardson’s giant frames, foregrounding and backgrounding various awful people, do certainly give us a wonderful sense of where everybody stands — except when somebody’s missing. The close-ups are superb, bringing you in tight enough to count Kurt Russell’s magnificent whiskers or to spot a beautifully carved pistol hidden under a table, but it is in the few stray scenes that the film is outdoors that Richardson shows us how majestically lavish the possibilities are. Despite the cleverness, the ultra-widescreen Panavision lenses (the same ones used to film Ben Hur, for the record) have almost always been put to better use — even in Tarantino’s favourite comedy It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. The Hateful Eight looks striking, without a doubt, but doesn’t make the format count.

While the vintage lens might not do the trick, the vintage composer certainly does. Ennio Morricone, the legend long-worshipped by the director, comes aboard to make his first Western score in decades and, right from the first note of a mesmerising overture — which is, naturally, made up of eight hateful notes — it is clear the grand ol’ gunslinger has no rustiness. It is Morricone’s glorious score that shoulders Tarantino’s narrative, lending it both urgency and (much needed) grace, and if even this hero-free film has a man worth celebrating, it is Ennio.

The performances are uniformly flamboyant and enjoyably showy, but, gradually, become a lot more affecting as the film runs on. Russell’s John Ruth is a Tarantino character for the ages, a tough man following a self-written code but a thundering bully and a woman-beater, and Russell is mighty fine when he stands tall but even finer when he looks utterly heartbroken. Jennifer Jason-Leigh, as the woman he repeatedly assaults, creates a superbly sly character, smiling through her multiple bruises and black-eyes as if she has a secret. (As Tarantino literally tells us, she does.) Bruce Dern is magnificent as a withering old Confederate General hunting for his son and holding on to his prejudices. Samuel L Jackson, the closest thing this film has to a leading man, gets the meatiest part and is the most used to reciting Tarantino’s words, and the combination is, rather predictably, dynamite. Tim Roth, playing a foppish British gentleman, is the one underscoring the point of film and reminding everyone else — or, indeed, laying down for us all — the meaning of justice.

eight3

Embodying justice himself, in a manner of speaking, is Walton Goggins, in the film’s most challenging part. Claiming to be a soon to be sworn in Sherriff, Chris Mannix is a renegade redneck who hails proudly from a family of marauders — a family that has gleefully hunted and killed black men — and while a degenerate, he is an articulate one. It is a particularly ugly, unsavoury role, and the actor expertly makes him compelling without ever, ever rendering him charismatic. Remarkable.

Despite overreaching political ambition, which I shall explore at length in a spoiler-stuffed essay next week, this is far from a perfect film. This is the first Tarantino film where I’ve ever felt the director needed to be reined in, but the absence of his longtime editor — the late great Sally Menke — can be felt now more than in Django Unchained, his first film after her. Here far too many points are lingered on, too many scenes feel longer than they need be, and some precise slicing could have diced this film into something more even potent. I believe Inglourious Basterds has been Tarantino’s creative and artistic peak over the last decade, and nothing in this film matches the finesse of that one. But then it isn’t even trying.

As it stands, The rHateful Eight is an unflinching, brave film that never looks away. It doesn’t look away from the racism dripping from its characters, it doesn’t look away when they are bristling with alarming levels of misogyny, it doesn’t look away when they’re lying right through their grotesque teeth. There are times when I almost wished it would look away, when the splatters got too messy and the violence bordered on sadism, but this is a film meant to confront instead of comfort. This is a film aimed at making us look away because it won’t. It’s time we faced the hate.

Rating: 4 stars

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First published Rediff, January 15, 2015

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Review: Bejoy Nambiar’s Wazir

Watching truly skilled chess players going at each other is an experience both lyrical and violent, as they bleed and behead across the sixty-four squares like duelling ninjas in slow-motion. Watching a game between people who only believe they’re good at chess, however, is plain infuriating.

Bejoy Nambiar’s Wazir — based on a script by producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra — stacks the pieces interestingly, to begin with. There is a brooding rook, flawed but furious. There is a desperate pawn with nothing to lose. There are dead princesses to make up for the lack of a queen, and there is, finally, a bishop, a wazir, lethal enough to have the film named after him. It appears to be the ideal mix for a taut thriller and, weighing in commendably enough at just over a hundred minutes, this is certainly crisp.

wazir1Wazir’s problem, then, lies not in the fact that it does what is expected from a thriller; the problem is that it does everything expected — which makes it a film that surprises little and adds up to nothing of consequence. The film is about a tough, reckless cop and a grizzled chess instructor bound together by tragedy, and as they become friends, they resolve to brave the storm clouds together. This world of the film is intriguing enough as it stands and Nambiar, to his credit, plays things efficiently enough at the start — till the plot-twists kick in and the pieces fall off the board. The twists are entirely transparent, the film so committed to idiotproofing the narrative that we see everything coming, particularly the one big twist.

Yet, even when visible well in advance, a cleverly executed twist-and-reveal is a thing of beauty. Wazir’s twist, alas, doesn’t make any sense — or feel, in any way, monumental, thanks to how matter of factly it is revealed and consumed — and neither does much else in this moody revenge drama. I can’t go into detail for fear of spoiling an elaborate (if contrived) plot, but suffice it to say that none of the character motives in this film actually add up. Plus there’s some unnecessary hokum about Kashmir that just muddies things further.

Farhan Akhtar, crossing his arms and glaring at children who beat him at chess, is pretty good as Daanish early on in the film, but his performance starts to unravel once the film hits hysterical gear and he is required to do more than frown. To be fair, this is less the actor’s fault and more that of the imbecilic character, a very dim policeman indeed. Amitabh Bachchan is Panditji, the maestro teaching Daanish about life and love and, rather reprehensibly, how you can hit ‘undo’ and cancel a chess move after having moved the pieces. Bachchan, of course, is great at spouting simple homilies and make them appear spontaneous. Some of these dialogues are well thought-out and add to the sense of mood, while cinematographer Sanu Verghese keeps the lighting shadowy, hiding character’s eyes and keeping things raccoon-y — pausing only to let Aditi Rao Hydari glow, sad but striking.

And then Neil Nitin Mukesh shows up as a maniac, hamming it up as if squeezing six seasons of Game Of Thrones into one mad moment, eyes gleaming and dagger afire. The film can’t survive this onslaught, and the third act — clearly not strong enough to begin with — collapses into itself as things struggle to wrap up. This is a film where a dancer’s daughter dances and a chess-teacher’s daughter teaches chess, a film where a suspended cop wields great power without presumably being able to spell ‘responsibility,’ and a film where an actor in a cameo gets to basically play Rambo.

Somewhere in the shadows lurks Manav Kaul, cool and inscrutable and making this film look good. He, it appears, is more committed to this end than Nambiar himself who, dispiritingly enough, forgoes his usual distinctive visual gimmickry almost completely in this film. I would never recommend that all films feature some KhoyaKhoyaChand-ugiri, but this one cries out for visual zip, for some seriously slick style. Thus this thriller isn’t merely predictable but depressingly drab. It has competent moments, but is too generic to be memorable, and that’s a shame for it could so easily have been a winner. As it stands, Wazir is the one thing a chess player can never afford to be: obvious.

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, January 8, 2015

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Review: JJ Abrams’ Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

If you placed a lightsaber in the hands of director JJ Abrams, it would glow blue.

His new Star Wars film is a fine spacecraft, a blockbuster that knows its place. The hunt in this Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens might ostensibly be for the vanished Luke Skywalker, but — be not fooled —  the flight plans for this gigantic motion picture only ever point to one destination: nostalgia. This is the grandest and most unashamed throwback of them all, a Star Wars film that triggers love for the original Star Wars trilogy by, well, belting out a cover version of the George Lucas classic. The band fronted by Abrams is, thankfully, a talented cover band and they do an entertaining enough job hitting familiar notes in order to take the song to new generations — but the song remains the same.

So much the same, in fact that one of this film’s most unlikely — if questionable — assets is its utter predictability. I’m not a Star Wars person, and saw the original 1977 film four days ago after at least two decades, and it was fun, certainly, but because Star Wars is itself such a pastiche of influences and, more importantly, has itself been so influential, the plot machinations constantly appeared obvious and cliched. Watching the new film which essentially recycles the trilogy’s greatest hits, I was alarmed by how accurately I could tell each twist coming, even the big whoa moment we mustn’t talk about. This is disappointing because, while a rollicking ride, I’m not thunderstruck by Episode VII as much as I am comforted. It is blatantly transparent filmmaking, and can be likened, in essence, to a new Salman Khan actioner where the core audience goes in with a checklist knowing they’ll get some cheeky dialogue, some trite punchlines, an item song and one eventually shirtless fight scene. This is a film made to pleasure the fans and give them everything they wanted from the franchise. And it works. There is such universal love for the new Star Wars because it is, in too many ways, the old Star Wars.

sw2Thus we have again a little android with a map everyone wants, a villain in a menacing mask and a baritone, a young protagonist (of curious parentage) who will be this generation’s greatest Jedi, people squashed in a trash compactor, ships stolen, gigantic father-son issues and, of course, people having “a bad feeling” about what is to come. Even the headquarters of all evil is, simply, a super-sized DeathStar.

This constant celebration and regurgitation would wear itself thin were Abrams not also a highly efficient filmmaker who put together a great cast: there’s something rather special about watching this, the biggest of movies, kick off with a slugfest between Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver, two smashing talents last seen together singing a song (funnily enough, about “Outer… Space”) in the best of movies, Inside Llewyn Davis. And, it must be confessed, it’s even cooler to watch 73-year-old Harrison Ford, silver-haired but with smirk intact, playing the roguish Han Solo as swashbucklingly as ever. Abrams, in putting together characters new and old, gets the balance of his remix just right — and that’s harder than it sounds. (Just ask Bryan Singer, who tried to do a Richard Donner with his Superman Returns.)

sw1He also very successfully folds in some diversity. We have Finn, a young black stormtrooper who doesn’t like stormtrooping, played by the very likeable John Boyega, but — most notably — this generation’s Luke Skywalker is a girl. Daisy Ridley, a striking English actress who looks like Keira Knightley and speaks like Pierce Brosnan used to back when he was a television detective, is refreshingly unfamiliar and the film is poised on solid shoulders, even though this chosen-one character, Rey, appears a bit one-dimensional and depressingly free of flaws. Still, this is the first blockbuster series to give a female character the reins, and for that — in this lopsided world full of cinematic universes — we should be glad. (The bestselling action figure, however, will undoubtedly be that of the doubly spherical new droid, the insanely cute BB8, and my favourite visual from this film will always be BB8 tentatively but determinedly negotiating a flight of stairs.)

Even to a non Star Wars devotee, however, I must confess the film hits hard. Those scrolling opening credits, set to that John Williams score, does strike right between the ribcage of all us once-children, and it’s great to see Williams still masterfully making the film soar. Even if all we’re watching is A New New Hope, the franchise indeed awakens. Even if it weighs in a half hour too long.

One only hopes that now, with old tropes having been applauded and new characters coming into play, the unending Star Wars films of the future will do their own thing instead of trying to sound like Uncle George, who has — thanks to Disney — no say in any of it. It’s a bunch of brave new whippersnappers at the helm now who need to subvert convention, defy expectation and, like Han Solo, may cockiness be with them. For while Episode VII is definitely a step toward the right side, it sure does feel… forced.

Rating: 3 stars

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First published Rediff, December 25, 2015

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