Moana – A Review

Image result for moana posterDisney’s latest princess tale brings in a world of change. Moana is Disney’s first Polynesian princess and more importantly she is about as real as they get in terms of appearances. Gone are the trademark tiny waists and big eyes. Also this daughter of the chief of Motunui is no damsel in distress.

 

Featuring the vocal talents of Auli’i Caravalho as Moana and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the  demi-god Maui the story is about Moana’s quest to return the heart of island goddess Te Fiti which Maui stole and as a result of which death and darkness is spreading to Motunui. What follows is a series of adventures as Moana first seeks Maui, trying to convince him return the heart of Te Fiti, then them jointly looking for his magical fishhook that allows him to shapeshift and then them returning to Te Fiti only to be confronted by Maui’s nemesis Te Ka the Lava monster.

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Moana is bursting with Polynesian influences, the music and the dance, the myths and the legends all lend to a beautifully layered and mostly unconventional story telling as far as Disney clichés go. Maui played by The Rock is a tattoo clad haka-tribesman character. The Animation in Moana is amped up a notch beyond just the main characters. The tattoos on Maui also tell a story, they come alive, its animation within animation! It’s Anim-ception. Also the animation during the song “you’re welcome” where the 3-d animated Maui and Moana run through 2-d hand drawn animation you get a strange but pleasant surprise where visually the animated characters look real. Also in some of the scenes shot on the ocean it almost feels like the animated characters are superimposed on actual panoramic live photography of the sea.

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The vocal talents of Auli’i and Johnson are fun and never once do they get annoying. The characters of HeiHei the stupid rooster and Pua the teacup pig are cute. Moana is bursting with colour and happiness. Like in any typical Disney movie you never once doubt that the heroine will complete the task at hand but the somewhat predictable ride is made fun by stunning visuals that are full of colour and textures. Featuring the musical talents of Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina and Lin Manuel Miranda – the superstar creator of the Broadway hit Hamilton, Moana has a very unique soundtrack that still has the familiar operatic notes of the Disney staple.

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I love animated films and the simple joys they offer. But Moana is extra special. It somehow feels a little grown up and the unbridled happiness and humour that it has to offer makes it one to be revisited many times. The only film I can compare this to visually was the stunning and colourful world of Nemo that Disney created nearly a decade ago. Go with kids if you have them or just go by yourself but don’t miss Moana.

Kahaani 2- A Review

Image result for kahaani 2 posterSujoy Ghosh and Vidya Balan team up for a follow up to 2012’s thriller Kahaani in Kahaani 2. Kahaani to me is a landmark movie and possibly the best thriller to come out of Bollywood in since forever. With the trailer whetting the appetite I was suitably excited despite the lackluster title name. Does the Balan Ghosh combo work again or will the curse of Arjun Rampal strike again?

The story starts sinisterly enough, we see a desperate Vidya Sinha looking for her paraplegic, wheelchair bound daughter who has gone missing. While running to find her daughter Vidya is hit by an oncoming car and slips into coma. Inspector Inderjeet played by Arjun Rampal with his wooden acting intact shares a secret he cannot let slip but which somehow plays his driving force through the entirety of the film. Vidya Balan plays Vidya Sinha, a single mother raising a paraplegic daughter but just like Kahaani here too there might be a case of mistaken identity or perhaps something more sinister going on. A majority of the story unfolds as Inderjeet reads through Vidya’s diary which he finds taped to the back of a drawer in her house. There are so many things wrong with how each puzzle piece connects that it is unbelievable that the same team was responsible for the watertight Kahaani. Everything just seems to be taking its inspiration from Rampal’s acting “Meh! Let’s just go with this”.

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My biggest problem is with how when Inderjeet reads the diary there is a voice over in Vidya’s voice and then we are taken into another storyline and even in that storyline everything that Vidya Balan is thinking is voiced out loud. It’s annoying and insulting at the same time when you expect so little from your audience. There are intriguing plot points which could have made for an explosive narrative but are dealt with in such a shambolic way that it all seems to be coming off at the seams. The second half of the film seems to drag on forever and the element of surprise is massively lacking. At this point it is essentially paint by numbers and the acting also fails to lift it beyond the mundane. I remember re-watching Kahaani a little while ago and noticing only for the first time when Vidya Balan is pushed in front of the train she reaches out for something in her hair and having seen the climax once before it all ties in so well. Here there is no such nuance. The central plot surrounding child abuse also seems to half baked, there is so much more that could be done with it and how it becomes the driving force for Vidya Balan. And while from Kahaani the character of Bob Biswas was endearing and terrorizing in equal measure here the main assassin is essentially someone doing a bad parody of a north-easterner with a weird affectation to their speech. Oh and a special mention to the actress who plays Arjun Rampal’s wife – what the actual f*#k! Why so much nagging and that voice! Uggh I would rather listen to nails on a chalkboard.

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Stay at home and rewatch Kahaani instead and don’t waste your time and energy on this underdeveloped, poorly acted and a story that lacks any thrill or common sense. It is a complete contrast to what made Kahaani so special. Vidya Balan’s acting is sub-par, the supporting characters are used as mere props, the cinematography which gloriously captured the crumbling Kolkotta is underwhelming here.

Dear Zindagi – A Review

Image result for Dear Zindagi posterGauri Shinde directs Alia Bhatt and Shah Rukh Khan in Dear Zindagi, her sophomoric film after the incredible English Vinglish. In the days of big budget star vehicles aimed at the hundreds of crore at box office filmmakers like Gauri are a welcome relief when they make what are essentially indie movies with a heart.

 

We are introduced to Kaira, played by the ever charming Alia who is an up and coming cinematographer who is brought in to do patch work on an assignment because the main cinematographer has fallen ill. We see her impatience and almost combative nature when it comes to looking for a big break to shoot her own movie. To put her visual stamp on something of her own. There are hints of a budding romance in the awkward conversations she shares with Raghuvendra played by the handsome Kunal Kapoor. Alia breaks up with her current boyfriend Sid a restaurateur played by Angad Bedi after confessing to have slept with Raghuvendra. Through her maid we are led to believe that there is an ongoing parade of handsome men who go in and out of her life, spending a brief moment being tacked on a pin-board. The first quarter of the movie is spent setting up the millennial context of independent living and being free of conventional moral guilt. Kaira is surrounded by a pack of very interesting characters, there is Fatima the stylist, Jackie the rich bohemian kid, A troubled teen coming to grips with his sexuality and the token Fat nerdy friend. Yashaswini Dayama who plays Jackie is absolutely precious as the counterpoint to Kaira and Ira Dubey as Fatima is wonderful as well. Kaira is kicked out of her rented apartment because the society has decided not to rent flats to bachelors, another millennial struggle. Reluctantly she moves back to Goa to stay with her family and this is where things come to a boil. Rohit Saraf who plays Kiddo, Alia’s brother is hugely effective in a tiny role.

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Through curious coincidences she ends up listening in on Dr. Jehangir Khan talking about Mental Health. Being unable to sleep Kaira books an appointment with Dr. Khan. Dr Khan, aka Jug played by Shah Rukh Khan is surprisingly Vegan – devoid of all Ham and Cheese that is trademark SRK. In a very restrained and refined performance Jug unpicks the complicated cross-wires of Kaira’s life. This is where Gauri Shinde’s subtle direction really shines. For viewers who are familiar with western dramas it might come across as a bit clichéd but in the Indian context there is a sense of novelty. There is commitment phobia, familial conflicts, sibling jealousy, dreams of falling off buildings. Every single situation feels organic and not forced. There is no mocking, no sermonising, even the one situation where there is a gay character is handled surprisingly sensitively.

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To me English Vinglish was one of the best debut movies and even the best movie of 2012. There was absolutely nothing that I could find fault with. With Dear Zindagi there are a few things that left me wanting more. While the songs of English Vinglish were lyrically contextual they were still incredibly memorable and hummable, not so with Dear Zindagi. Only “Love you Zindagi” has any appeal. For a movie whose main character is supposed to be a talented cinematographer the cinematography in the first quarter of the movie is surprisingly subpar. But these two minor misgivings are quickly forgotten when Alia is onscreen. It is hard to believe that Alia is only 7 movies old. She is immensely watchable and extremely relatable. The range she has exhibited from Student of the Year to Udta Punjab is incredible. She has mastered the art of emotional outburst, first seen with that pivotal scene in Highway and now with this scene around the dinner guests.

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Hopefully thanks to Alia the taboo subject of mental illness will become more of an open discussion in India. Gauri Shinde’s nuanced direction and sensitive portrayal does more than just pay lip-service to the subject. With this movie Shah Rukh Khan understands that this is where his talents are more suited to. The definition of entertaining is different for different people. I found it massively entertaining seeing actors and the director at the top of their craft. Even if this is not entertaining in the conventional sense this is in my opinion an important movie, a movie that pushes forth an agenda rarely touched upon openly and does so in a way that is palatable and relatable and frankly beautiful to look at. This is the therapy we all need.  This the grown up letter to life that has evolved from the pages of a teeny angst-filled diary.

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – A Review

Image result for fantastic beasts and where to find them movie posterDavid Yates directs Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol and Colin Farrell in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. In an original story by J K Rowling taking us back to world of witchcraft and wizardry that she created when she introduced us to the boy who lived. The story of Newt Scamander was a mere footnote in the story of Harry Potter and his 7 years of education at Hogwarts. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was the title of one of the textbooks Harry, Ron and Hermione studied. With this movie Rowling takes the world of wizardry outside of the confines of Hogwarts, there have been tantalising glimpses in the 7 novels but with Pottermore and now this 5 movie franchise the possibilities are potentially endless. Was that a book called “Casandra and her Cat Gustavo” that Kowalski was reading? Wasn’t Casandra the name of the Divination teacher Trelawney’s great-great-grandmother? Surely nothing in Ms Rowling’s world is coincidence.

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The story starts with our hero Newt landing in New York in the 1920s with a suitcase full of magical creatures. The creatures are let lose in the city and with the help of No-Maj (muggle to us potterheads) baker Kowalski, ex-aurorer Tina and her leglimense sister Queenie, Newt tries to capture them before they get in harm’s way.  There are mentions of dark wizard Grindlewald terrorising Europe, growing tensions between the magical and non-magical folks of America and a mysterious dark force causing mayhem on the streets of New York. As with all her stories Rowling skilfully creates entire worlds in the most unusual of ways. There is a veritable forest filled with magical creatures inside Newt’s suitcase, a ministry of magic with a very Gatsby-esque aesthetic, every character is intricately layered.

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Eddie Redmayne is quite the chameleon actor; he is shy and retiring like Einar from The Danish Girl when talking to his fellow humans and comes alive and is intelligent and compassionate in equal measure like Stephen Hawking from Theory of Everything when it comes to talking to his Beasts. Katherine Waterston is her father’s daughter and brings a Sam Waterston familiarity to her character she is earnest and likeable yet a bit skittish and jumpy. Alison Sudol brings the 1920s-glamorous oomph. Dan Fogler is fantastic as the No-Maj wannabe baker who ends up in the enchanting magical world and instead of being freaked out like most adults would do, he is wide eyed and precocious like a child. Ezra Miller brings back the creepy, devil child freakishness that he first burst onto the screens with, in We need to talk about Kevin. Samantha Morton plays Mary Lou a Umbridge like character who hates magic and Witches and Wizards and recruits the orphans in her care to keep an eye out on the suspicious magical activities in New York. Collin Farrell is fantastic, however  I think he  is potentially miscast as Director of Magical Security. I don’t want to reveal more secrets but I wish Farrell was cast in the Big Reveal character instead given that the subsequent films are going to feature that character prominently and an actor of Farrell’s age, and physical disposition is more suited to that character than the direction Yates went in.

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Rowling and Yates use Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them to setup the magical universe and in the process, take their time setting up things like giggle water, the blind pig speakeasy and the obscurius but by no means is the story any less impressive as a result. Like the very first time we hear Hagrid say “You’re a wizard Harry” the viewer, a Harry Potter devout (yours truly) or a newbie Redmayne enthusiast (the wife) walks away sufficiently mesmerized and entertained excited about the possibilities with the stories to be told. This however is not a children’s movie; this is decidedly dark and future stories will tell tales of malice the likes of which Dumbledore has locked away in his pensieve.

The camera work by Philippe Rousselot is lush with sepia toned Newyork of the 1920s. Coleen Atwood’s costumes and the Production design and Sets are rich and layered and the next best thing to actually reading Ms Rowling’s writing. James Newton Howard provides an excellent accompanying soundtrack but I find the lack of a distinctive signature sound, like he did with Harry Potter which sounded like the wings of the snitch unfolding, a bit of a bummer.

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Ms Rowling is often credited with reviving the publishing industry when she brought the world of Hogwarts and Harry Potter to pages. With Fantastic Beasts, she may very well be responsible for saving Warner Bros studios that has gone in a terrible direction with Justice League with Snyder at the helm of that franchise. With her west-end play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and now with this spin-off, she proves that there is a lot more magic still left in her to share with the world. She is the queen of storytelling and long may she reign!

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Whether a Potterhead or not this is a fantastic movie only a precursor of things to come. There is loads to like here and with his present lucky streak Eddie Redmayne can do no wrong. Do not miss Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil – A Review

Image result for ae dil hai mushkilKaran Johar directs Ranbir Kapoor, Anushka Sharma and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. The story of unrequited love is said to be almost autobiographical with Ranbir playing the dramatized version of Karan Johar.

 

Ranbir Kapoor plays Ayan Sanger – rich brat pursuing MBA in London while nursing a dream of being a singer. Ayan is also the narrator of the story and the entire movie is told in a flashback while Ayan is being interviewed following his success as a singer. When asked why his songs sound of unrequited love Ayan takes us back to where it all began.

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The chance meeting with Alizeh Khan played by Anushka Sharma, the blossoming friendship, the homage to many milestone movies of Bollywood including Ranbir’s tribute to his own father’s iconic Chandani. Delving any further into the story would be a disservice to the nuance that Johar has crafted into the complex relationship dynamics between Ayan and Alizeh. The first half starts off stutteringly where the intensity of Ranbir and the levity of Anushka seem to be a little bit like oil and water. Despite their best effort it isn’t easy to identify nor feel for the characters. Only once the unnecessary shenanigans of Ranbir’s girlfriend and Anushka’s fiancé are done with does the movie really pick up. The scene leading up to the intermission is gut-wrenching in its rawness. This is the Ranbir we know and love. He can play the heartbroken hero a hundred times over but he manages to imbue a sense of novelty, be it his driven Janardhan aka Jordan in Rockstar or the vagabond Bunny in Yeh Jawani hai Deewani, and be it him as the bottled up millennial Ved in Tamasha or coming of age Sid in Wake up Sid. You laugh with his antics and you feel the pain in the pit of your stomach as you see him repeatedly bang a flowerpot on his chest. It is a shame that an actor’s worth today is equated with the box office collection – ADHM may not do the hundreds of crores in business but make no mistake – Ranbir has no peers.

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Anushka Sharma is fantastic as Alizeh, a complex character who even in her hysterical scenes seems so genuine. Anushka does a lot of the heavy lifting as the central figure of the story. It would have been better had the writer and the director given a little more thought to her story graph. The back story is dispensed with rather quickly. The reconciliation and the breakup of her relationship with Fawad is done in such a haste that it leaves you a little bewildered.

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Thankfully no such complaints with the role crafted for Aishwarya Rai as poetess Saba Naqavi who nurses Ranbir’s broken heart with a tempestuous relationship. Saba has a purpose to the story; a perfect introduction, a fantastic middle and a visceral end. Much has been said about Aishwarya’s beauty and all of it is true but here she has taken her beauty to lethal levels. As the seductive and shayarana Saba she catches you mid-breath and makes you gasp. Even an actor of the calibre of Ranbir diminishes to the background when Aishwarya is on screen. Giving Aishwarya lines which Ranbir describes as “chalti firti Ghalib” is rife with potential for disaster as she often tends to overdo the breathy sensuality but her she is wonderfully restraint and lets those gorgeous blue green eyes do all the work.

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Alia Bhatt is Johar’s new lucky mascot and makes a blink and you’ll miss it appearance. Fawad Khan is pleasing to the eye but not much more. Lisa Haydon plays the bimbo to perfection and is genuinely funny. Shah Rukh Khan is a pale shadow of his former romantic self and is difficult to look at and even more difficult to listen to.

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The absolute stand out for me has been its music. The title track has all the seriousness that you would expect from a movie about such a combustive relationships. The breakup song and Cutiepie the hallmark Johar dance numbers that are immensely hummable. Bulleya has all the intensity of unrequited love. But the absolute tearjerker is Channa mereya – the lyrics, the expression the context are phenomenal. Anil Mehta’s camera work is gorgeous, but I am sure it must not have been difficult to shoot such a beautiful cast in such spectacular locations. I honestly wish a little more time was spent grounding Alizeh and Ayan’s characters with a little bit of their history and a gradual build up to their friendship. I could easily have done away with the bit with Lisa Haydon entirely regardless of how hilarious she actually was. The dialogues in comparison to the lyrics of the song seem very second rate and do nothing to amp up the emotions. The pre-climax Friends throwback “did she get off the plane” is sublime.

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I had a more complex plot going on in my head and in comparison the story is pretty straightforward and conventional. One-night stands and friends with benefits aren’t ground breaking territories anymore and Karan Johar really needs to continue to push the boundaries even more.

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Minor complaints aside this is a fantastic movie for so many reasons. Ranbir is transcendental. Anushka relatable and Aishwarya ethereal. Karan Johar surely knows how to tell a love story and I’d rather watch him direct aspirational escapist love story than the ones he ends up producing. Watch it for Ranbir. I’ll re-watch for Aishwarya!

Mirzya – A Review

Image result for mirzya posterRakeysh Omprakash Mehra directs debutantes Harshvardhan Kapoor and Saiyami Kher in Mirzya. Mirzya is the story of the famed folk tale of Mirza Sahiba the star crossed lovers who meet a tragic end.

 

Monish and Suchitra are childhood friends who go to school together. When Suchitra covers for Monish when he hasn’t done his homework she is punished. Monish enraged by such cruel treatment of her beloved takes drastic action and is sent to the correction home for young criminals. Suchitra moves away distraught. Years later Suchitra is engaged to the prince of Jaisalmer Rajasthan and Monish having escaped the remand home and changed his name works as the horse groomer for the prince fully aware of Suchitra. What follows from here on is the tale on the lines of the Mirza-Sahiba.

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Rakeysh Mehra used the dual timeline to tell the story in the landmark Rang De Basanti tries it once again with Mirzya. There is Mirzya the warrior who bids for the princess’s hand and then elopes with her on her wedding night only to be pursued by the princess’ clan and her fiancé and there is Monish and Suchitra the modern day Mirzya and Sahiba. Where Mehra succeeded in Rang De Basanti was the relentless pacing of the movie that kept the audience engrossed and the two timelines never repeated what was happening by merely changing the props. With Mirzya the story is literally scene for scene retelling of the same snippets of the stories in the two timelines. It isn’t entirely unpleasant simply because of the jaw dropping scenery involved. The ancient tale is set on the virgin landscapes of Leh and Ladakh and the contemporary is set amidst the golden sands of Rajasthan, arguably two of the most beautiful places not only in India but the world over.

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Polish cinematographer Pawel Dyllus frames each scene as if a couplet of poetry. Every tragic scene is captured so beautifully that all you can do is sigh contentedly. The music by Shankar Ehsaan Loy coupled with the Gulzar’s heartrending  lyrics is the absolute stand out of the movie, a little restraint perhaps would have proved to be more effective the “nadiyaa” song seems a throw away but the Hichchaki and the title track are goose-bump inducing. The frenzied dancing of the blacksmith is the meeting of the two flowers of yesteryear and I for once commend the director for making that visual choice instead of the writhing bodies of the hero and heroine. The imagery on the walls of the village is also a nice touch.

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Harshvardhan Kapoor seems to have inherited his father’s ruffian charm. As a debutante he is composed and charming and entirely believable as the Rajasthani horse groomer. I cannot wait to see what he does next. Saiyami Kher is a stunning beauty with flyaway curls a plenty and bambi like eyes that hold your attention. She however lacks the gravitas to pull off the role of the tragic heroine Sahiba and her performance seems a little superfluous. In the final scenes though she does full justice to Sabyasachi wedding lehenga running across the unending dessert as if from the pages of some editorial. A few diction lessons and practising a resting face will do her good in the long run. Anjali Patil as Zeenat in a minuscule role leaves a lasting impression and Anuj Pandey as Prince Karan is mostly believable.

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Go for the visuals, stay for the soulful lyrics and leave with the spine tingling music still buzzing in your head. Every frame is a moving painting, every word a story of heartbreak in itself and every note a life affirming experience. Go watch Mirzya!

M.S. Dhoni – an untold Story : A Review

Image result for ms dhoni the untold story posterNeeraj Pandey directs Sushant Singh Rajput and Anupam Kher in M.S.Dhoni the biopic on India’s most successful cricket captain. A man of few words, Mahendra Singh Dhoni has lived an incredible life, it is the classic underdog story where the underdog is an outright over achiever only limited by his circumstances.

 

Neeraj Pandey directed one of the finest movies to have come out in the last decade A Wednesday. Ever since he has been one of the most anticipated film makers, Special 26 while adored by many was a disappointment for me as were his other collaborations as a producer. I was left shocked when the credits rolled that this was directed by Neeraj Pandey. Where A Wednesday was a fast scoring high adrenaline T-20 match between India and Pakistan this was a laborious 5 day test match on a flat pitch.

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The story starts with Dhoni’s childhood a football goalkeeper Dhoni reluctantly agrees to keep wickets for the school team. There is a charming moment when a precocious Dhoni responds to his teacher stating very firmly that his reluctance to play cricket has nothing to do with the fear of the hard ball. There seem to be hints of his reluctance towards the game and his father’s job as the pump operator for the local cricket ground, but it is left unexplored. It moves to a teenaged Dhoni played by a poorly CGI-ed Sushant Singh Rajput made to look unnaturally young. Through the many ups and downs we journey with Dhoni to when he is selected to play for the east zone team but cannot make it for the flight on time and misses out on his big break. The movie seems keener on ticking off the milestone moments on Dhoni’s journey to the India team than focusing on a coherent story. And when it comes to milestones it misses out on the defining ones like when he is selected to lead the T-20 team, when he takes on the ODI captainship, his vice-captainship before that.

 

Sushant Singh Rajput does a fine job portraying the very essence of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Mahi to his millions of adoring fans. Mahi is a man of few words and his actions speak for him, Rajput does that job brilliantly, underplaying the character with subtle nods to Mahi’s mannerisms. Disha Patni as Dhoni’s doomed lover Priyanka is spectacular in a brief time she spends on screen. I just wish the director hadn’t over done the whole “we have enough time right?” bit. Once was enough to allude to the upcoming tragic end. The introduction to Kiara Advani as Sakshi is about as cute as it gets. Anupam Kher transforms before our eyes without the need for CGI. The actor who plays Mahi’s mother and Rajesh Sharma who plays Dhoni’s coach Deval Sahay deserve special mention for the realism they brought to the roles they played.

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For a story as spectacular as Dhoni’s journey, this biopic seems like a disservice. Abysmal camera work where you get dizzy every time the camera zooms in or pans out too quickly. I also seriously question the editorial choices that were made. One look at the imdb page and you see names like Ram Charan and Fawad Khan being credited for playing Suresh Raina and Virat Kohli respectively and they are nowhere to be seen in the movie at the same time an insane amount of time is spent in tenis tournaments, the Railways cricket audition and tennis ball tournament. Also as a director Neeraj Pandey missed a massive opportunity to use real footage of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, rather than try and digitally try and fit Sushant Singh Rajput into those frames. Look at Narcos, or biopics like Frost Vs Nixon and you can see the gravitas the actual footages lend to the overall story.

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The final scene however does bring back happy memories! That six to clinch the 2011 world cup the eruption of the wankhede stadium that was echoed across India by its billion strong cricket lovers and the architect of it all – Mahendra Singh Dhoni. I just wish the film was half as unconventional as its subject matter then maybe it could have done justice to this fantastic character of game who changed the face of the gentleman’s game.

Kubo and the two strings – A Review

Image result for kubo and the two strings posterFirst time director Travis Knight directs the vocal talents of Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey and Art Parkinson in the animated feature film Kubo and the two strings. A young boys adventure to find the mythical armour that would protect him from his grandfather the moon king who killed the boy’s father and left his mother a mere shadow of her former self.

 

This is an animated movie but by no means a children’s tale. The opening line “Blink now if you must” gives us a precursor of the dark things to come. We are introduced to Kubo a precocious little boy who takes care of his mother who suffers from memory lapse ever since she smashed her head while trying to escape her sisters and her father the moon king. During the day he goes into the market of a village near by and earns a living by telling fantastical tales of a legendary warrior Hanzo. The tales he tells come alive with the origami creatures he creates and the music of his Shamisen. But Kubo must return to his mother in the cave they live in before sundown, one day Kubo stays out beyond his curfew and that’s when all hell breaks loose. His evil twin aunts voiced by Rooney Mara attack Kubo and his mother comes to his rescue and tell him to go find the mythical magical armour to protect him from his aunts and his grandfather.  On this quest Kubo is joined by a Monkey voiced by Charlize Theron and a Samurai Warrior trapped in the body of a beetle voiced by Matthew McConaughey. What follows is a journey interspersed with action and humour.

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The action is dark and violent and probably not suitable for the little ones and the humour is crisp, dry and perfectly timed and again more suited for a more mature audience. There was a particular joke which after it landed took me a second to get it and had be laughing for a solid few minutes after it. The writing is seriously brilliant. The myths and legends of Japanese folklore are woven into the narrative seamlessly. The animation is spectacular especially the origami bits. The evil twins are truly terrifying with their porcelain masks. The one aspect where the movie suffers is the pacing. In parts the story seems to drag slowly and in others it seems to be in a rush to conclusion. For instance the scene with the giant skeleton seems overlong and the final scene seems rushed to conveniently conclude the story. But it is offset by the brilliant reveal of the true identities of the monkey and the beetle and how wonderfully that plot point is handled.

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This year hasn’t necessarily been the most spectacular for animated features. With the exception of Pixar’s Finding Dory the genre has been mostly lacking. Dreamworks is developing silly Trolls script to fuel a toy franchise. Laika studios has thankfully stepped up to the plate and delivered a compelling and adult focused animated feature length film. If for nothing else watch it for the spectacular origami magic sequences and stay for Regina Spektor’s rendition of Beatle’s  classic “While my guitar gently weeps” as the end credits roll.

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Rustom – A Review

Dharmesh Suresh Desai directs Akshay Kumar, Ileana D’Cruz and Esha Gupta in the court procedural, thriller drama Rustom. The story inspired by the infamous Nanavati case that saw the end of the jury system in India.

 

The story starts with Indian Naval Commander Rustom Pavri who returns home 2 weeks earlier than expected, only to find his wife not home and letters from her lover in their cupboard. The following day when she returns he leaves and confronts notorious playboy Vikram Makhija and kills him with 3 bullet wounds. Rustom surrenders to police and the story takes off. Pitting the two prominent communities of Bombay, the Sindhis and the Parsis against one another. A tabloid gets the scoop on the case and starts to influence the national opinion in favour of Rustom – the decorated officer and a soldier who did the right thing but the wrong way. We are reminded of this once again when a screeching housemaid of Rustom asks the judge what he would do if he found his wife was sleeping with the prosecuting lawyer. The movie set in the 50s seems to have been made with the same ethos, the court room drama is nothing more than a farce with the Judge played by Anang Desai – Babuji of the popular sitcom Khichdi, more in character as the kudkud kumar. Sachin Khedekar an accomplished Marathi actor playing the prosecuting lawyer Khangani is more slapstick than slick prosecutor. Pavan Malhotra who plays investigating officer Vincent Lobo has two very peculiar ticks, he taps his pens 3-4 times each time he wants to write and his ears fan out like Dumbo each time he expresses surprise.

Ileana D’cruz is beautiful but has very little to do in the movie other than shed massive tears from those beautiful doe-y eyes. She plays the simpering fragile wife with aplomb but her lack of conflict does question the basic premise of the movie. Arjan Bajwa playing Vikram Makhija is the bond-esque villain albeit in a 60s Prem Chopra avatar.  Esha Gupta was the clear standout for me. Not for her acting abilities – I seriously doubt she has any, but for her styling and make up. She brings the glamour to the 50s era Vamp that Nadira would be proud of. The final twist where a phone recording is introduced her perfectly detached reactions and eye rolls are the highlights of the file for me so silent-movie vamp like that I was enthralled. Akshay Kumar brings a stoic presence to the film that is perfectly attuned to his upright naval officer character. The only one who doesn’t go the slapstick way with the court proceedings, underplaying each line he is given and thus achieving the desired result.

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Why is it that every time a period movie is made in India they rely on oversaturated and unnatural colors of the sky. The green screen/CGI work to recreate the Bombay of a bygone era is partly successful and fails miserably in places. The music is a hindrance and gets in the way of storytelling with three songs that have no rhyme nor reason for their stake at the screen time. I can understand wanting songs to build a buzz pre-release but release them as music videos rather than forcing them into the narrative where they do not belong and you are left with an otherwise believable Akshay Kumar looking like the 90s fool that he was when he romanced the likes of Shilpa Shetty and Raveena Tandon.  The story is intriguing and the final twist, a work of fiction (as opposed to the inspiration from the Nanavati case) is interesting enough.

With uneven acting and cringe worthy courtroom scenes this is by no means a perfect movie. But with Akshay Kumar’s understated acting, an interesting story based on true events and overall production value where special care is given to recreating the era with Ileana’s Parsi embroidery sari and Esha Gupta’s gloriously vampy styling this movie entertains more than it irritates.

Udta Punjab – A Review

Abhishek Chaubey directs Shahid Kapur, Alia Bhatt, Kareena Kapoor Khan and Diljit Dosanjh in Udta Punjab a story set in Punjab and the crippling effects of drugs and the complicated narco-politics. Udta Punjab hogged the headlines for a better part of the two weeks leading up to its release with its run-ins with the chief of the Censor board in India.

Udta Punjab is a story of two halves, the privileged – a Rockstar and a doctor and the under privileged a migrant labourer and cop trying to find his conscience. A half that is putting up a valiant fight in the war on drugs and the other that is responsible for perpetuating the drug menace.

Shahid Kapur plays Tommy a Rockstar whose songs promote drug abuse and the only way he can seem to perform is by getting high. Daljit plays Sartaj a Cop who turns a blind eye to the drug trafficking and accepting bribes. Kareena plays doctor Preet who runs a rehab project and treats patients of overdose. Preet is also a campaigner for the war on drugs. Alia plays an unnamed Bihari migrant worker who falls victim to drug addiction when she is kidnapped and kept locked up as a sex slave. She fights the addiction and tries to find ways to escape her predicament.

Udta Punjab is a story of halves, in that the first half tries to establish the backstory for each of its four protagonists and the second halve sees their story to its conclusion. The second half is gritty and grim with a couple of elements of slapstick which bring a welcome relief to the tragic drama unfolding. The first half suffers in comparison with the over the top antics of Tommy which add nothing to the movie. Also because the epiphany that he feels in the second half cannot somehow be reconciled with how his character has grown. The first half grates and the second half has pacing issues. Also Kareena is less Doctor and more investigative journalist. It honestly would have worked better had she played a journalist who is the sister of a doctor who runs the rehab clinic – the story would have seemed more plausible.

The actors all put in strong performances ranking them in ascending order of merit we start with Kareena who puts in a restrained performance that is a rarity from her. Diljit shuffles between a bumbling do-gooder cop and a hot headed corrupt cop but with the amount of time he gets on screen he is immensely watchable and a welcome authentic regional casting choice as a Punjabi cop. Shahid Kapur is fantastic the opening Chitta ve number is reminiscent of Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey’s Dhan Te Nan vibe. He gives himself completely to the role and the only reason why he is the top performer in this movie is because his character is not fully developed. They try to make him into a good guy towards the end and the transition is sudden, abrupt and a bit disingenuous. The best of the lot is Alia Bhatt. She as the unnamed Bihari migrant farm worker who ends up suffering the most is the only character that you are invested in from the beginning. Her vulnerability and inner resolve make you root for her from the very get go. Alia has mastered emotional outburst – she showed glimpses of brilliance in Highway but here she goes ballistic when she recounts her tale and the misery she has gone through in the second half. When Shahid suggest suicide to end this misery, she throws a shoe at him for putting such thoughts in her head. You know her strength. You know she won’t give up. Alia is a beautiful privileged star child who was launched into Bollywood with a dream launch but the path she has carved out for herself with the acting choices is worthy of appreciation. She is the stand out star of this movie despite a role that isn’t that big.

The music isn’t that great. The story telling is chaotic. The dialogues are either too run of the mill or make no sense. Especially the Jameen Banjar Aulad Kanjar makes no sense because Punjab’s land is one of the most fertile and its sons form a majority of the forces protecting our borders. Abhishek Chaubey’s direction isn’t distinctive enough but Rajeev Ravi’s work behind the camera is stunning.

The controversy that preceded the movie and the PR by its makers would lead one to believe that this was a movie that would make ground shattering statement that would hold up a mirror to the society. This movie does that in parts but it essentially bungles up a fantastic opportunity. It is neither Requiem for a Dream which shows the devastating effects of drugs nor is it Sicario which focuses on the war on drugs. But thanks to Alia Bhatt’s riveting performance this rises above the mundane.