Friday, January 30, 2015

Movie Review: Hawaizaada

Hawaizaada claims to be the story of Shivkar Talpade, a Maharasthrian scientist in the 1890’s who supposedly built the world’s first unmanned aircraft, almost a decade before the Wright brothers. 

Hawaizaada should have been called ‘Hawe me zyada’, because it takes a ton of creative liberties to dole out a completely fictional story using a real person. That is still permissible, because most historical movies seldom follow facts. What isn’t acceptable is that Hawaizaada is the most excruciatingly boring movie in recent times.

Directed by Vibhu Puri and starring Ayushman Khurana as Talpade, Hawaizaada is well intentioned for sure – it’s just a simple crowd pleasing love story set to the backdrop of a historical invention. Boy meets girl, girl loves and leaves guy, guy invents the airplane – no foreseeable harm, except for one thing: the treatment. Sample these:

A clerk with the intention to help build the plane musters up all his dramatic range and bellows ‘Ye Britishers hamare pair baandh ke rakhenge, humein rokenge nahi udne se’.

Khurana’s Talpade madly bellows ‘Mi khooni ahe’ (I’m a killer) over and over again in a bout of guilt.

A plane, that looks like a prop from early 90’s Indian TV takes off to the roaring (and by that I mean eardrum shatteringly loud) rendition of Vande Mataram as onlookers wipe tears in awe.

The plane itself is constructed on a gigantic ship on a Mumbai shoreline. And there are British officers yelling ‘Bloody Indians’ every few minutes.

Hawaizaada is so over the top and operatic it makes Sanjay Leela Bhansali seem like Kiarostami. Everyone, literally everyone, overacts. Khurana, generally a likable actor, flails his arms, wildly mouthing hammy dialogue that is too serious for his own good. He also makes strange comical faces for the ‘lighthearted’ scenes. Pallavi Sharda does a cartoonish rendition of Meena Kumari, spectacularly stumbling at every attempt of a serious dialogue. Mithun Chakraborty wears a wig that is only less hilariously terrible than his mugging performance as a ‘quirky’ scientist. The cop in the film speaks in a weird anglo Indian accent. The rest talk and behave in an exaggerated manner, as if they’re in a bad children’s film. Even the horses in the film make extra grunts.

And yet, despite having a tone so loud and overwrought the film doesn’t move a single muscle in your body. No matter how hard director Puri tries to make the film scream at you, he somehow only manages to bore you to near death.

Apart from the tonal and performance issues, the film also suffers from one other tiny little problem – it doesn’t make any freaking sense.

a) The protagonist’s mentor builds a plane on a ship instead of on the ground. No explanation why. Then when the plane is fully built on the ship, it automatically finds itself on the ground, far away from the ship to be tested for takeoff.

b) Khurana’s Talpade is supposed to be an adult sized manly man who’s flunked so many times he’s still in 6th standard. Yet he somehow gains the smarts in a matter of a month to build the world’s first airplane.

c) Then when the plane is finally being built over a period of two years, the kid (Naman Jain) who helps out Talpade stays the same height and build.

d) Plus we get a Muslim extremist/freedom fighter saluting Talpade with a Vande Mataram.  

e) Talpade’s mentor (played by Chakraborty) designs a Batsuit. No really – the suit that Batman wears in The Dark Knight. In 1895. And we see Khurana flying around the ocean wearing the Batsuit in eye-rollingly tacky CGI.

f) Not to mention the blatant attempts at emotional manipulation, and the asinine attempts of legitimizing Hindu mythology with a fictional story, in megadicebel loud jingoistic tones, complete with patriotic songs as BGM. This is a fictionalized story of a man who attempted to make the first plane, why is it shoving nationalist pride down our throats? How can you feel proud as Indians, if the film in question is centered on a fictional Indian man? Are we supposed to believe that a Marathi mulga flew around in a Batsuit in Mumbai and no one filed for patent? Doesn’t matter, the filmmakers say, just drop your intelligence, pick up your tutaris and wave the national flag around. 

The cherry on top, however, is the fact that despite the painful two and a half hours runtime of a film about the world’s first plane, we’re never shown the plane actually being built. It’s bad enough that everyone in the film is either singing or dancing or romancing or hamming instead of making the damned plane, but it’s infuriating that they don’t even show the plane being made. One moment Khurana is sharpening his pencil passionately, or taking a gander at his ruler, the next moment hey presto – the plane is ready. This happens over and over again – no mention of how the plane was built, because clearly the filmmakers didn’t know either. And that’s only because 99% of the story is fictionalized.

The awkward tone of the movie makes you wonder whom it was made for. There’s too much romance, too little adventure for children, and it’s too foolish for adults. Puri attempts to make the film with a sense of wonder - childlike, regrettably he manages to render a film that is childish.

(First published in Firstpost)

Movie Review: Birdman


It’s me. Birdman.

How did you end up here.

This place is horrible. Smells like malls.

The cheap, pseudo sanitized, plasticky nature of the thrills. The crummy, emotionless texture of the narrative. The dead eyed one-note characters. The over the top acting and visuals.

This is not entertainment. This is robbery. And snuff. And you pay for it every single week, week after week. You champion commercial blockbuster cinema. You’re the problem.

Fuelling a kind of cinema that caters to the lowest common denominator. You should be ashamed of yourself.

Lying on your sofa-facing TV, with a tub of poisonous snacks, feeding your ugly shapeless potbellied body more calories than the budget of these films. Feeding your vacant mind with flashy images of robots fighting each other or Adam Sandler cracking dick jokes with his friends.

You’re pathetic.

Every two months a great indie or an arthouse movie shows up, and you get a chance to redeem yourself. But you never do. You don’t even know what indie means. You wouldn’t know arthouse if it squeezed you by the unmentionables and screamed its name to your face.

You don’t watch a movie unless it’s got a big star or a popular auto tuned item song with a skimpily clothed actress gyrating lasciviously for you. You don’t watch a movie unless it harks back to the 80’s, where women are treated like objects and the men dance like unwashed coked up monkeys. You don’t watch a movie unless it’s got a superhero in a drag costume blowing up buildings in a suburb after spending two hours whining about his daddy issues. The louder the explosion, the bigger the girth of your crotch. The younger the heroine, the bigger the Michael Bay box office.

You’re an embarrassment to humanity. You’re a scourge to cinema. 

Face it. You don’t watch challenging films because you’re afraid. You’re scared to death that your tiny little brain, already fried by the years of blockbuster meals, won’t process anything that’s not made for toddlers. You’re as stupid as the movies you watch. The movies are as stupid as you. You and movies are the couple from Gone Girl. You deserve each other. Even bums know the difference between caviar and a happy meal, but you wouldn’t. Your taste buds reject anything that isn’t made of cheese.

You know I’m right.

You only love blood. Or action. Not talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.

And your sheer lack of effort to challenge yourself as a person kills the real talent.

Listen to me. You were once not stupid.

You did watch that Kieslowski movie on TV during that afternoon and you kind of liked it. You dug the offbeat style of the narrative. You relished the character in that film. When was the last time you saw a movie for the characters. You only watch movies because they’re just extended versions of trailers on YouTube. The three minute trailers that give away every damn thing in the movie except for the end credits. 

You’ve got a chance to do something right. You’ve got to take it. You can go back one more time and show me what you’re capable of.

Birdman is in theaters this Friday. It’s got Michael Keaton in one of the most memorable cinematic performances of all time. It’s got Edward Norton playing himself. It’s got Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s signature balance of powerhouse performances and tremendous narrative. It’s got Emmanuel Lubezki’s mind-boggling visuals. It’s got a drummer signifying the world between reel and real. It’s got a pretentious newspaper critic who gets his posterior slammed. And the whole film looks like one spectacular long take.

It’s a movie about you and me. It’s a movie about how you’ve disappointed me, and about how you’ve failed cinema and cinema failed you. It’s also about choosing the easy allure of expensive comfort and settling for mediocrity, versus having the balls to step away from your comfort zone and gaining some self respect. And it’s all rendered as a brutally black comedy.

So get your lazy buttocks off your couch. Shave off that pathetic goatee. Get some vitamins. Drive to the cinema. If you find a movie better than this I’ll clip off my wings, bathe in batter and offer myself on the platter at the nearest KFC. You can then eat me.

But if you choose to not take the effort, I will fucking eat you. And then defecate you on the poster of the next Rohit Shetty movie.

(First published in Firstpost)

Friday, January 23, 2015

Movie Review: Baby

Neeraj Pandey’s films are a mixture of old school Bollywood formula, slickly modern execution and occasionally intense suspense that doesn't skimp on social commentary and bombastic tones. His films don’t have clueless idiots with walkie talkies pretending to be commandoes. They have reasonably realistic depiction of police work and ludicrous ‘holy cow that was awesome’ thrills.

His latest venture Baby is another perfectly outlandish and white knuckled action thriller - a seemingly intelligent but cleverly mindless piece of well-oiled escapism that delivers several crowd-pleasing moments of action mayhem. And Pandey does it in such style and a breakneck pace that one can't help but enjoy the ride. Sure, most of the plot points in Baby come dangerously close to the utter stupidity found in films like Holiday, and various action beats will get your eyeballs rolling, but it’s very entertaining. It’s also a rare piece of event cinema - because how many Akshay Kumar movies turn out to be anything besides awful?

Baby is supposedly based on real life missions and characters, but the disclaimer before the movie mentions that all characters and events in the film are fictitious. It’s probably Pandey pulling the prank that the Coens did in Fargo, but more on that later.

We’re introduced to the grave and grim voiceover of Danny as Feroze Khan, the chief of a super-secret-undercover-counter intelligence-rapid action-surveillance savvy-first encounter-assault recon-I spy-antiterrorist unit named Baby. Feroze tells us that Baby has been the most successful force against Pakistan based terrorism, and since 2008 it has dismantled several terrorist attacks in the country. The film chronicles Baby’s final mission, starring Akshay Kumar as Ajay chasing Kay Kay’s Kasab-like escaped terrorist Bilal Khan. Ajay’s hunt for Bilal takes him (and us) through seedy streets in Bombay, the bylanes of Turkey, the mountains of Nepal, and the desert sand of the Saudi Arabia. Also in the mix is a nutty, India bashing, hate spewing Mullah Maulana Mohammad (played by Pakistani actor Rasheed Naz), a not so subtle derivation of LeT’s Zaki ur Rehman Lakhwi.

If you thought Special 26 seemed threadbare, Baby ups the body count and delivers the goods when it comes to gritty action, non-stop thrills, mood and style. What mainly works here is the sense of urgency and Pandey’s ballsy choice of weeding out the unnecessary bullshit. Our hero sticks to the mission instead of veering out for a few item numbers, and even though he’s larger than life he remains in a fairly realistic mode, doing fairly believable (for Bollywood standards) things. This is a mainstream film but there is no slo mo bullet time rubbish. There’s some interesting hand-to-hand combat, and Pandey somehow manages to still make all the grittiness and realism work on the commercial level. It’s quite refreshing to see a film that caters to its target audience and at least tries to not insult it.

There’s not a dull moment here, save for one hopelessly horrible song in an equally awful love track (Pandey did the same in Special 26 as well). The love track is thankfully short and we’re thrown right back into a cocktail of bombastic chase scenes and espionage stuff. To fill the rather large 140 minute runtime there are enough catchy sequences, and also the unintentional hilarity of head-scratchingly stupid moments that stretch the material beyond the realm of plausibility:

Bilal makes a daring escape from the police van in broad daylight, in the middle of a completely deserted Marine Drive, after leisurely shooting three cops and walking away. Anyone who’s been to Bombay knows that the only time you’d find a deserted main road is during the Rapture.

There’s also a scene where Feroze explains to the CM how Pakistani terror organisations are breeding home grown terrorists in India, much to the CM’s shock. One would imagine the CM would be well aware of the most basic security threat to the country. I presume Pandey actually uses that scene to render the message to the Akshay’s usual audience.

Speaking of which, Akshay deserves credit for choosing such a project and making it work. He’s got his usual cocksure swagger, his impressive athletic prowess and he manages to restrain himself pretty well during the dramatic beats. He even hurls a few one-liners in hilariously passive ways. If only he’d stopped himself from giving into his desire to display his jumping abilities.

Adding some much-welcome layer to a very standard character, Taapsee Pannu is rather fun as Ajay’s team member who kicks a lot of ass during her mission. Her violent encounter with Sushant Singh’s shady businessman makes, very crowd pleasingly, the first case of women empowerment of 2015. Kudos also to Pandey for delivering action scenes that are visually slick, cohesive and also narratively consistent. Most desi films lazily do quick cuts to cheat their way through so it’s nice to sit back and watch the onscreen tension unfold.

A rewatchable thriller can spark conversations about how unexpected some scenes were, but most of the conversations following Baby will consist of how true the film actually was. On one hand we’re expected to simply take everything at face value, assume the anti terrorist unit and the mission in the film are real, and on the other hand we're also made to digest the vast amount of very obvious creative liberty. It’s the self-contradictory narrative that also plagued D Day and Madras Café. So no matter whether you like the film or not, it’s hard to deem Pandey a thought provoking filmmaker because Baby seems a lot sillier a few hours after you see it. It’s right to deem Pandey as a smart commercial filmmaker then, because Baby is a film that exists for the singular purpose of rendering two and a half hours of slickly crafted and frequently outlandish thrills. And just like Ajay Singh himself, the movie doesn't stop until its mission is complete. Just plug some cotton in your ears though, the music is loud enough to wake up the dead.

(First published in Firstpost)

Movie Review: Dolly Ki Doli

Some will call Dolly ki Doli the best Sonam Kapoor movie as of now. But what those people are saying is that Dolly ki Doli is better than I Hate Luv Stories, Mausam, Players and Bewakoofiyan. It doesn’t add up to much of a compliment, even if Kapoor is such a beautiful person.

In Abhishek Dogra’s debut film Dolly (as played by Kapoor) is part of a con gang that finds suitably stupid eligible bachelors, gets them married to Dolly, who mixes sleep medicine in the suhaag raat doodh and makes off after robbing them dry. One of her gang members (Mohd Zeeshan Ayyub) who generally plays the brother is miffed because he digs her. One of her victims (Rajkummar Rao) is miffed because he still wants her. One of the police officers on the case (Pulkit Samrat) is miffed because he wants revenge against her.

If this all sounds a bit vague and meandering, that's because Dolly Ki Doli is precisely that. The thing is, wherever the meandering narrative turns towards, there’s something interesting to look at. Rao is this hardcore Jatt softened into a weepie after nursing his broken heart. Rao is such a natural he can make you like anything he appears in, even if the material is way below his talent level. One of the victims’ mother is Archana Puran Singh, who brings the house down as the hilariously witchy, crass and self centered Punjabun mother. Singh’s boisterous bitching makes it really hard to suppress your giggles. Also bringing on the guffaws is Varun Sharma as the quintessential Delhi buffoon desperate to please a pretty girl. The funniest moment in the film is when he’s getting beaten with a shoe by a fellow Dolly victim.

Plus there’s the always likable Manoj Joshi, Rajesh Sharma and Brijendra Kala in tiny supporting roles, lending their bits of assured niceness that they generally do.

The problem is all the disparate goodies rise and eventually crumble because of the weak foundation of their root - the central character of Dolly who is not only terribly written but also severely underperformed by Sonam Kapoor. Whether Dolly is happy, or sad, or scared, or upset, or frustrated, or angry, or tipsy, there is literally no change in Sonam’s personality. It’s only the volume of her voice that changes. Her presence is simply too insubstantial to support an entire story.

It doesn’t help that her character has no backstory whatsoever – we never get to know why she’s into the con game, where she’s originally from or why she has no interest in a real relationship. One presumes that such things have to be excised to keep the runtime short, but it takes away a large slice of the film’s quality. Moreover, when the best thing you can say about a movie is that its runtime is just 110 minutes, you're not exactly talking about a great piece of filmmaking.

There are also a ton of truly astronomical plotholes in the movie. Dolly’s gang manages to dupe more than a dozen grooms and their respective families in the film, yet there is not a single picture of the gang in the wedding photos to show to the police. The film often tries to make us forget such logical leaps of faith by asking us to simply go with the flow of the series of the small, light hearted comedic moments. But then it also renders three completely out of place songs, one truly nonsensical celebrity cameo, and a couple of seriously ham handed attempts at ‘emancipation’. A few characters bicker, and they suddenly forgive each other. The cons are so contrived and the ending so predictable you’ll wonder why the characters didn’t go ahead with their actions an hour earlier.  Come to think to it, none of it makes any sense whatsoever. Including the thakela nature of Malaika Arora’s item number. 

Though Dolly Ki Doli doesn't qualify as an awful movie – it’s not tacky looking, and the lingo is fairly funny - it does, regrettably, end up as forgettable fluff and a hugely wasted opportunity.

(First published in Firstpost)

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Movie Review: Alone

When people generalize horror movies and ridicule the genre, Alone is precisely the sort of movie they're talking about. When there’s a query about films that are neither good nor unintentionally funny, Alone is the kind of movie that pops into people’s heads.

It's actually not very surprising that Alone is a breathtakingly terrible film. If you’ve been exposed to the works of director Bhushan Patel – 1940 Evil Returns and Ragini MMS 2 – you’d be the one to blame if you expect anything remotely watchable. And on that front the film meets your expectations:

a) It looks more like a Gladrags cover shoot featuring scantily clad Bipasha and Karan Singh Grover than a movie with a story.

b) The acting from both the stalwarts ranges from hilariously inept to humiliatingly abysmal.

c) The ‘horror’ jump scares are cringe inducingly unoriginal, and also so lame they make Stuart Little seem more frightening.

Although the credits mention the names of a large bunch of people who certainly worked hard on the project, the film feels like it was put together by a couple of kids throwing horror clichés and the wall and cheering at whatever sticks. Here we have a suburban couple Anjana (Bips) and Kabir (Grover) moving to the former’s Kerala home after her mother (Neena Gupta) is hospitalized. The house turns out to be, gasp, haunted by Sanjana, the formerly conjoined and now deceased twin sister of Anjana.

The film doesn’t waste any time in hurling a barrage of banal and stupid things that generally happen in horror films – the clichéd shot of shutting a mirror and discovering someone standing behind you, the clichéd shot of shutting a fridge and discovering someone standing behind it, the clichéd shot of a dog barking at someone who seems possessed, the clichéd shot of vedic tantric aghori mumbo jumbo exorcism, the clichéd shot of a swing creaking with no one on it, the clichéd shot of a child giggling in the dark.

The filmmakers also go the extra mile by lifting scares from famous short films – like Lights Out, where a ghost is seen every time a light switch is turned on and off. Even The Conjuring is given its Bollywood treatment, complete with a bedsheet over the head of the possessed lady tied to the bed.

The only unique thing about the movie is the ghost’s strange agenda – of getting into Kabir’s pants. That’s sort of the draw of the film – being a Sex + Horror = Horrex movie. The camera lingers a few times on Bipasha’s bare legs and Grover’s torso that seems to hide an automobile beneath the skin. Unfortunately tax forms are sexier than whatever you see in Alone.

When there’s no smoochie boochie or another romantic number shot in exotic locales, you get scene after scene of idiotic, unnecessary and cheap ‘walking in the dark’ sequences and household help speaking in the most ridiculous and over the top South Indian accents. In the midst of all this tomfoolery the film also proceeds to actually attempt a serious performance from Zakir Hussain as a psychologist filming an exorcism. A while after you fall asleep, the movie ends, and you then awaken in the theater to realize why the film is called Alone.

(First published in Hindustan Times)   

Movie Review: The Imitation Game

So along comes The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the scientist who helped break secret Nazi codes in World War 2 and helped Britain and America give Germany a good buggering. Turing was also responsible for creating the backbone for personal digital computing and artificial intelligence, and was also castrated by the British government for being a homosexual. Turns out, The Imitation Game has been aptly named - it perfectly emulates every historical World War 2 drama about a legendary man who changed the war and the course of history. 

We’re introduced to a very handsome Cumberbatch as the young and mildly cocky Turing who enlists in the MI6 as a code breaker. He has no experience in warfare nor in the art of interviewing. But he gets the job because he knows stuff that the general public doesn’t – that the Nazis use a special code called Enigma to coordinate naval attacks. Turing knows that the British army needs him, and that he can do great things with his already well established research on AI. He also knows that there is no human on the planet smart enough to crack the unbreakable Enigma code – so he comes up with the idea to design a code breaking machine to break the Nazi code machine.

Now a film about an incredibly smart man designing a machine that changed the course of history is hard to dislike. There are a few things that The Imitation Game does right, like Cumberbatch’s winning and sensitive performance, and the production design that renders the chilly atmosphere of England in WW2. Plus it’s a great story to tell. Unfortunately Hollywood, as expected manages to commit the same mistake that most biopics do: being too simplistic. It’s curious that three Hollywood films releasing this week have the same common strand of drawbacks – they’re all biopics and are all scrubbed clean to make their protagonists more sympathetic.

And it’s frustrating that the film is directed by Morten Tyldum, who so audaciously transcended the elements of formula in his native Norwegian film Headhunters. While that movie had characters without clear segments of antagonism or protagonism, The Imitation Game paints its characters in very broad strokes. We’re repeatedly told Turing is a great man, and the Brits were utterly rubbish towards him, and the Nazis are horrible as well. And yet, none of those three things are explored in depth. We’re shown Turing’s machine that beat the Enigma – but no detail on how he went around building it. What does the machine exactly do? What is it made of? How long did it take to build? How exactly does it break the Enigma code? We’re told nothing – in one scene Turing is struggling to fight bureaucrats who don’t believe in him, in the next they’re rejoicing over the machine being built and working.

Since that is an unconvincing plot point, the gaps are filled with other unconvincing plot points, like Turing’s homosexuality. It’s rendered in a ham handed way, with flashback scenes that keep appearing in dramatic plot points just before they culminate. So even when Cumberbatch is doing his best to move you, the sensitivity just doesn’t come across, because by then you already know the film is trying too hard in some places to gain sympathy from you, and not trying enough in other places to genuinely move you.

There is a whole subplot featuring Kiera Knightley as Turing’s student who eventually is about to marry him, and the dynamics and complications of a woman marrying a gay man are never explored. And when the gay angle is brought in, the film is too scared to give you the full details of Turing’s life. The most important chunk of Turing’s life when he was living in with a homeless man is excised completely. Nor are there any concrete details on his life after the war, when he was lonely and depressed, and forced to chemically castrate himself. Even his death is portrayed by white text rather than by visuals, so it becomes hard to pinpoint what exactly the film was trying to portray, when everything it attempts waltzes by like a checklist of episodes. There’s also a bunch of people in the secondary cast, like Matthew Goode and Mark Strong, who enter and exit the frame without much to do.

The Imitation Game is not a terrible film, it’s just mediocre. If only the writer Graham Moore spent some more time fleshing out Turing’s life in a less Hollywoody, less Oscar baitey and a more nuanced manner.

(First published in Mid Day)

Movie Review: American Sniper

A few years ago we saw a movie where an American soldier stationed in Iraq during the invasion goes through a severe psychological changeover. He’s so into the war and he’s so good at warfare he finds it difficult to go back to his life back home in the peace. Social life makes him awkward. Shopping seems like a mundane activity to him. And the only thing that makes him smile during the whole day is when he speaks to his mates at the warfront. That movie was called The Hurt Locker.

This movie is called American Sniper, and it’s a very similar film, only much less interesting.

Eight years after Letters to Iwo Jima Clint Eastwood goes back to the warzone with American Sniper, a biography of Chris Kyle, the most successful sniper rifle specialist stationed in Iraq. Bradley Cooper is pretty good as Kyle, bulked and bearded, with a very heavy Southern accent. Kyle’s journey in Iraq is very much like the protagonist of The Hurt Locker. He’s sent there as a prodigy, excels in his work by killing the locals and saving American lives, and slowly undergoes PTSD and eventually struggles to like peace and quiet when there’s gunplay for work. 

Now it’s fine to tell a story that’s already been done before, but it’s not ok to tell it in a soulless manner, let alone a story that’s been done before. The lack of soul makes American Sniper the weakest of the three Oscar bait biographies releasing this week.

The thing with American Sniper is that is goes through the motions like a standard Hollywood bottom feeding machine. There are certain plot points one expects from a standard issue war action drama – like the themes of brotherhood and jingoism, the scene where a friend is shot, the ambush, the sticky situation where negotiations have to be made, and the ultimate antagonist who has the same set of skills as the protagonist but is of course dealt with by the hero in the end. American Sniper follows all of those points to the hilt, and still has the stench of pretentious self-important direction where it wants you to believe it’s showing you something new. It neither says or does anything new, and nor does it transcend the clichés.

One would expect a movie named American Sniper to showcase something interesting about the way a Sniper works and how he is different from the other machine gun trotting foot soldiers in the army. No such luck, because Kyle could be carrying a pistol or even a knife and you wouldn’t know the difference because he’s the same mega patriotic nice guy you’ve seen a billion times in cinema. And it doesn’t matter if he’s played by Bradley Cooper, the character is so clichéd you could replace him with Jack Nicholson and it wouldn’t matter.

The most disappointing thing about the film is that it doesn’t even make up for the lack of originality with exciting action sequences. The aesthetics and style of shootouts are painfully derivative. You have to hand it to Spielberg and Ridley Scott for creating a whole genre of cinema with Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down – every single war movie since then has borrowed from these two films. Every bullet fired in American Sniper just reminds you how great the other films were, and how dull this movie is.

And when the film tries to get away from the action part to focus on the drama it stumbles even harder, because the drama is anchored by the frightfully charmless Sienna Miller as Kyle’s wife. There is no chemistry between Cooper and Miller, and their romance is snooze inducing at best.  The only thing American Sniper has going for it is the cinematography by Tom Stern who continues his good work with Eastwood. The latter, although impressive that he’s making half decent films at his age needs to pick scripts that would do justice to his efforts.  

Seemingly the film gives up trying altogether in the end, when a shocking detail is presented in words rather than as an actual visual plot point. It makes one wonder where the director of Mystic River has disappeared. This film is neither awards worthy nor a crowd-pleasing piece of escapist entertainment – it’s an awkward combination of the worst side of both those aspects. One thing is clear though - even if Clint Eastwood makes a video of a plain white doorknob he’ll still score nominations for best picture and director.

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: The Theory of Everything

Stephen Hawking’s is one of the greatest minds to have existed on this planet. A large part of his output is basic syllabus in your physics and mathematics textbooks. His brain is capable of curating more original thought than most other human beings in history. So it’s very disappointing that the movie based on such a razor sharp personality, a true genius in every sense, is so dull and pedestrian. 

A lot of upsetting things are brought to light in The Theory of Everything. Firstly, the film is directed by James Marsh, who has earlier made the tremendous docus Man on Wire and Project Nim, and the excellent British thriller Shadow Dancer. All of those films had depth, nuance and sense of belonging in their respective genres. This movie, however is unsure of what it is supposed to be – it tries to be an epic, sweeping biopic of Stephen Hawking, yet it restricts itself to the bittersweet love story between Hawking and his wife Jane. It’s neither a full fledged biopic nor a romantic dramedy. It does not belong to any particular genre, and whatever it attempts to be, it doesn’t succeed in making any lasting impression. And when you’re watching a forgettable movie about someone so unforgettable, you know something is deeply wrong. The only thing you'll remember is that this movie was made for the Academy voters, who generally fall for manipulative, uninspiring love stories featuring extraordinary characters in extraordinary circumstances.

The film charts Hawking’s life between his university years in the 60’s when he was a young and awkward campus whizkid all the way towards the late 90’s through two different marriages. Now here’s the thing:

a) It does not say anything about where Stephen Hawking was from, who his parents were and how he shaped up into the prodigal child genius.

b) It does not cover any interesting details on how he came across his numerous discoveries and theories about space and time. This guy single handedly changed the way we look at the inner workings of the universe and the movie completely glosses over how he got to his findings.

c) The least interesting aspect of any genius is his love life. And this film is only about the marriage and eventual divorce of Mr and Mrs Hawking. That would still have been interesting had the film portrayed the bitter truth about the fractured and obviously difficult relationship between the two – instead the film sugarcoats everything and presents the couple as something out of a Nicholas Sparks novel.

d) Since there is such little detailing about Hawking’s background, the filmmakers expect you to already know everything about the man. And this is a conundrum, because if the audience already knows about Hawking and his achievements then they need to watch something they don’t already know to be interested. Yet the film lazily offers the already well-known and also most uninteresting slice of Hawking’s life.

Now Eddie Redmayne, the bloke who plays Hawking is truly amazing in his role. I doubt any other actor would have come so astonishingly close to Hawking’s persona and parlance. Every single detail, right down to the tilted neck and the glint eyed broken grin is present. His performance is powerful enough to permeate the screen - you’ll wriggle your toes in discomfort when Hawking struggles with his paralyzed feet. In fact one feels for Redmaybe because he’s the most hardworking person in the movie.

Felicity Jones, in her Oscar nominated role is also lovely, but you don’t feel anything for her because you know everything between the couple has been Hollywoodized and sanitized for Oscar bait purposes. Jones managed to extract tears from your eyes in Like Crazy because her character was so stunningly real and relatable, here she’s a product being paraded around to impress Academy voters.

But what really depresses in The Theory of Everything is that it feels way longer than it actually is. It’s because there is nothing interesting going on in the film. You sit down to watch a film about the greatest living genius on Earth and all you get is sentimental tripe. A well made film about a man who achieves the impossible in his darkest, lowest part of life will move you, but The Theory of Everything tries to manipulate you. It could have been great joy to watch Hawking defy every expectation, both scientific and personal, sadly the film does not defy even the most basic adversary of cinema – schmaltz. It feels like the poor man’s A Beautiful Mind.

If Hawking’s theories actually pan out, and reversal in the space time continuum is indeed developed sometime in the future, one hopes someone would travel back in time to fix this movie and make something that Hawking does deserve.

(First published in Mid Day)

Movie Review: Taken 3

In the first Taken, his daughter was taken.

In the second Taken, his wife was taken.

In the third Taken, your money will be taken.

Welcome to yet another Liam Neeson cash grab, featuring a bunch of people who first piss Liam Neeson off, then frame him for something he didn’t do, then get punched in the face repeatedly.

We’ve seen this plot unfold already in two Taken films and in Non Stop (which was basically Taken in a plane). Megaton and his writers make zero effort to bring anything new to the table – they know that the formula worked in the second movie and would still generate a lot of cash even the third time. Everything remains the same, the stakes are not three times higher, or the action isn’t three times more powerful. There is only one major increment – the stupidity is three times stupider.

The film opens with the same cringe inducing establishing shots of Bryan Mills (Neeson) being the best dad in the world, craving for love from his daughter (Maggie Grace) and still having a ton of affection for his ex wife (Famke Janssen). Then we get cringe inducing establishing shots of Mills being set up by an unknown entity whom Mills will naturally find. This is followed by the usual run and gun style action told through cringe inducing establishing shots of the city scape – the services of which are rendered this time by Los Angeles. One presumes LA was used because this time the filmmakers didn’t even want to bother going to a European country.

Also from LA are the set of baddies – which includes Sam Spurell as Malankov, the stock shady Russian goon with tattoos. The central villain in the film is hidden for a laughably long period of time, and the twist is presented to us in a manner which only expects the audience members to stay below the age of five and express shock.

When you’re sitting in the theater noticing the way the film’s technicalities, it only means neither the story is interesting nor the filmmaking, and Taken 3 is pretty awful on both counts. What worked in the first Taken was the lean and mean, stripped down attitude and execution of the film. There were no bombastic chase sequences, and the stunts were quick and fast, staying within the dark, which gave Mills’ character a suave Batman like vibe. Things sort of fell apart in the second film when Mills began throwing bombs all over the city. This time the action is painfully generic, loud, overblown and ultimately underwhelming. Even the fight sequences are shot with a drunk camera that stays just enough still to make you realize Neeson is just acting as an action hero, rather than being one.

No one holds back – it’s like everyone decided to turn Mills into a lovechild of Bourne and John McClane. Mills does everything from outrunning cops, outgunning villains, and driving a porche into a plane to stop it from taking off. If that’s your idea of entertainment well and good, but there’s not a lick of humor in the film – at least the intentional kind. Plus if you’re going to show us an action hero repeatedly pummeling people and escaping a spray of bullets from Russian automatic machine guns, there has to be a sense of danger and adventure to it. Yet, every stunt in Taken 3 seems sterile, as if Mills is just going through the motions, as are the audience, knowing that even if he gets hit, Mills is going to get up, escape and kick the goon’s heinie.

It does not help that there’s Forest Whitaker playing the most over the top cop to have graced cinema screens lately. He carries a chess board Knight, and solves the central case in the movie by smelling a packet of bagels. It doesn’t really get stupider than that. Oh but it does, in the form of Dougray Scott who spends the majority of the movie doing an embarrassingly terrible Russian-Irish-American accent, and mugging for his paycheck, clearly still upset about not taking on the offer of playing Wolverine fifteen years ago. 

(First published in Mid Day)