Moonlight – A Review

Image result for moonlightBarry Jenkins directs Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, and Naomi Harris in Moonlight, an autobiographical story based on a short play by Tarell Alvin McCarney. Moonlight has been garnering impressive Oscar buzz with a golden globes win already for Mahershala Ali as best supporting actor.

 

The story is told in three parts, based on the different stages in the life of Chiron, a young black boy growing up in the crime ridden neighbourhood of Miami. The juxtaposing of the hyper-masculine black subculture with that of a fatherless young boy coming to grips with his own sexuality offers a fertile ground for compelling story telling. This coming of age story certainly has a lot going for it, an absentee father, a drug-addict mother, a kind drug dealer, a physically weak youngster, school bullies. But the same tropes that would have made for an engaging narrative are used in the most clichéd of ways rendering the end result absolutely boring.

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The first chapter titled Little focuses on the little boy Chiron as he escapes his tormentors into an abandoned house and locks himself him, only to then be discovered by Juan played by Mahershala Ali. Ali is a phenomenal actor capable of conveying a lot without too many lines as evidenced in House of Cards. Here too he certainly has a presence but the child actor playing ‘Little’ Chiron is so awkward an underprepared that it becomes nearly impossible to take this movie seriously. There is one scene of particular note when Little asks Juan and Teresa played by the lovely Janelle Monáe “what does a F**got mean” the response by Juan and the tenderness with which the entire scene is crafted is perhaps the films finest moment. We are also introduced to Little’s best friend Kevin who is kind and caring with him.

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Chapter 2 is titled Chiron as the little boy becomes a teenager and begins being sexually awakened. Whether it is in class where he is unable to focus or it is in his sleep. We also see his relationship with his mother deteriorate as she falls deeper and deeper into her addiction. Juan is gone and Chiron only has Teresa to rush to when things get a little too desperate at home. We see Chiron and Kevin’s relationship evolve, this aspect is deftly handled without overt assertions but then again the scenes cut quickly and too abruptly for them to make any lasting impact.

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Chiron is all grown up and comfortable with his sexuality in the third chapter Black. He is physically imposing – no longer the lanky teenager, he has left his poverty ridden days behind. He gets a call out of nowhere from his childhood friend Kevin and it stirs uncomfortable memories of his childhood in him. This perhaps is the most annoying part of the movie for me. It seems to be trying too hard to establish a sexual tension between Kevin and Black where honestly none exists.

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Contrived neon-lit scenes, the overdone operatic music and a complete lack of empathy-inducing screenplay makes this almost unwatchable for me. Of the actors, Janelle Monáe is effective in the little time she spends on screen. Naomi Harris is a revelation as the drug addled mother. Mahershala Ali in my opinion does not deserve the supporting acting nomination not only because of the length of time he spends on screen but also because how ineffective that time spent is. Alex Hibbert as Little is under-prepared and unimpressive.

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I really wanted to be blown away by Moonlight, especially after reading the effusive reviews almost everywhere – but sadly I was bored stiff. Moonlight falls in the category of overrated Oscar baits for me.

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.

Mardaani – A Review

Pradeep Sarkar directs Rani Mukherjee in Mardaani where she plays a crime branch inspector shivani shivaji roy for whom the issue of human trafficking becomes personal when a girl from a shelter who she treats as her own daughter gets kidnapped and gets sold into sex trade.

I am pleasantly surprised to say that on a day when I saw two movies about femme fatales Rani Mukherjee tops Scarlet Johansson.

Sarkar known more for his period romance Parineeta than action capers also pleasantly surprises in this edge of seat cat and mouse chase which feels fresh and devoid of clichés. Sarkar chooses his antagonist perfectly as a smooth talking, Breaking Bad loving , tech savvy, fresh faced yet ruthless “Under-19 team ka 12th player” aka Kid ( as helpfully supplied by the subtitles) played marvelously by Tahir Raj Bhasin.

Without delving too deeply into the story of one-upmanship that ensues between Shivani and the Kid it is suffice to say that not for a minute will you be bored in this brilliantly crafted gem.

Sarkar tackles the demon of Children being abducted and sold into Sex-trade and tackles it with such deft and finesse that he achieves the impossible – getting the message across without grossing out the audience or holding up cue cards to navigate them to the moral dilemma or the much-favored hammering the point home so hard that by the end the audience doesn’t give a damn. I was physically shaken and left trembling by the final minutes as the climax unravels and to me that is a clear sign of the movie being impactful.

Rani Mukherjee delivers what I believe is her careers best performance. She is subtle and sharp witted at the same time. Her performance is nuanced to the point where she doesn’t need to mouth a single word or need to bawl to express her anguish, a single tear as she comes face to face with her brother/husband ( I am confused as to who he was supposed to be) who is made a pawn in this game against a criminal mastermind.

The ability to infuse the sense of urgency and the clear and present danger in the first few minutes as bodies begin dropping without the slightest of bangs is near perfection. Sarkar manages to create an atmosphere of intrigue with ease. Also the first phone conversation Shivani has with the Kid as she is unpacking dinner is sheer delight as Rani unperturbed continues as if catching up with an old mate rather the man responsible for having kidnapped her daughter.

I could continue heaping platitudes on the virtues of this movie and it wouldn’t do justice to just how wonderfully surprised I was to come across this days after being subjected to the torture that was Singham Returns. It is movies like these that keep the hope alive that Bollywood still can produce meaningful cinema. If ever there was a need for a sequel this is the franchise. What Sarkar and Rani have created will continue to bear fruits for year to come as long as Sarkar continues to treat each of the forthcoming (hopefully) outings with the same intelligence and freshness as this one.

Do yourself and India as a whole a favor and go watch this movie not only because it is brilliantly directed, acted and crafted, but also because this is a subject matter that has been debated to death but cinema one of the most impactful mediums was doing nothing to spread the awareness and it has finally picked up the gauntlet and with such panache.  

The Wolf of Wall Street – A Review

Martin Scorsese directs Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall street a story about the penny stock broker from New York who was dubbed the moniker that lends itself to the title of the file by the Forbes magazine after he got rich quick and was a subject of the FBI investigation.
The movie while winning rave reviews for Di Caprio’s brave performance of Jordan Belfort it is also generating a lot of discussion about and dividing the critics on either side of the debate whether Scorsese glorifies the debauchery and the excess and the life that Belfort led. While the argument does merit a discussion but anyone who looks at Di Caprio’s depiction of Belfort and thinks to himself I want a life like that is wrong in the head from the get go.


The story kicks off with a midget-throwing competition in the offices of Jordan Belfort and it cuts back to his origins where we are introduced to Hannah played by McConaughey who takes Jordan under his wings and shares the secrets of how to make money on the Wall Street and introduces the then greenhorn Belfort to the world of cocaine and circle jerks.
What follows from there on is the rags to riches story that seems pretty incredible and therein lies the attraction to the aspirational attributes of Belfort’s life. A penthouse suite at the trump towers, a huge yacht with its own helicopter, a white Ferrari like that from Miami Vice and the other pleasures that riches bring. Belfort is not shy to flaunt his excesses either and that is where it crosses the line over to the morally corrupt, vapid, believing his own bullshit territory.

Belfort delivers many a motivational speeches to his army of stock brokers and you see the madness to make more money than he can spend in his eyes and DiCaprio is brilliant when delivering those speeches, making you really question his sanity but while still admiring his ability to inspire those around him.


DiCaprio is assisted by Jonah Hill who plays Donnie Azoff a guy who walks up to Belfort in a diner and says show me your paycheck and I will quit my job and come work for you. It goes from there to drug addled insanity after insanity which gets Belfort tied up on an airplane to rendering him nearly dead after he over doses and wrecks his car while driving back home. His blonde trophy wife is played by Margot Robbie who is just as vapid if not more but still manages to evoke some sympathies because Belfort manages to be a bigger Ass. Kyle Chandler plays the FBI agent out to get Belfort and I wish he had been given more material to sink his teeth into.

Therein lies the problem with the movie – the pacing is a bit off – there are scenes that don’t feel honest –like the conversation Jordan has with his father after a blow out over the expenses. It feels forced and just something that the script writer Terrence Winter put in because it was there in the book written by Jordan Belfort. Some scenes feel over long and not entirely necessary – like the board meeting that Jordan is having with his friends over the choice of midgets – it goes on and on and on and serves no real purpose – we have by then already established they are all horrible human beings. There are also scenes that you wish had more time given to them like the one where Denim the FBI agent played by Chandler goes to meet Jordan on his boat.

Also another problem with the script is the lack of any explanation of what exactly was Jordan Belfort accused of. Peddling penny stock is hardly a crime, insider trading is a crime and the shenanigans that Belfort pulls on the Steve Madden deal are worthy of a SEC investigation but where he gets all the cash from is not clear. There is no explanation provided for the cash that Belfort has lying around and that he wishes to put away in the Swiss bank.

When Martin Scorsese and DiCaprio collaborate it is cinematic gold – The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island. The Wolf of Wall Street is not in the same league though. While Scorsese tries to stay as close to the story as possible the fact that Belfort is such a despicable human being who rapes and slaps his own wife is not a character you can connect with on any real level. Despite this the movie is immensely entertaining. The one reason why a lot of people are so divided over the movie could be because Belfort does not get justifiably punished for all his crimes and ends up with a resort like jail sentence and a post-jail career in motivational speaking.

This is not a perfect movie in any regards technically or story telling wise but it is finds its wings when Leonardo DiCaprio is in his element, that one scene where he is caught in a dilemma about whether or not to accept the FBI deal is a brilliant piece of acting . Watch it for Martin Scorsese tries something different yet again and does not seem to be bound any particular genre. Watch it because Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the – if not THE best actors working today.

Go Goa Gone – A Review

Saif Ali Khan produces and stars in what is perhaps India’s first ever mainstream Zombie Movie Go Goa Gone  directed by duo Krishna D K & Raj Nidimoru. The film stars Saif Ali Khan in a special but pivotal role that of Boris ( pronounced Baris) the Russian Mafia who organizes a rave party in Goa. It also stars Kunal Khemu as Hardik, Vir Das as Luv and Anand Tiwari as Bunny a Trio of friends who end up in the middle of the undead Goa. Puja Gupta makes an impressive debut as Luna the love interest.

The movie starts off with cringe inducing stoner behavior that was clearly inspired by Pineapple Express. Through uninspiring circumstances the three friends end up in Goa to make a presentation, mend a broken heart, and continue to be super sleazy. The dialogue witty and realistic in terms of how friends would speak to each other begs the question as to how it passed the notorious censor board of India.

The movie really comes alive when the undead arrive. The dialogue which seemed like a crutch becomes unnecessary as all that is required is screams and pantings. The one on one facetime with supposedly clever one liners is replaced with chaotic and manic running away from foreign bhoot. The action is relentless and high adrenaline with many moments that will make you jump out of your skin.

Off the three actors Kunal Khemu is clearly in top form with spot on comedic timing and an impish approach to playing the Casanova.  Vir Das and Anand Tiwari are competent and have their moments as well. Puja Gupta is a sight for the sore eyes as she provides the eye candy without any real missteps.  Saif Ali Khan is a delight for the most parts and his put-on –russian accent is a genius touch.  A special mention to jigar and sachin for delivering a fresh soundtrack which kicks Monday-blues’ Ass!

Directing duo Krishna D. K. and Raj Nidimoru do a wonderful job following up their successful Shor in the City last year with interesting characters, beautifully shot visuals and a simple story executed well. They would do well to pay attention to the non-zombie bits of the movie because they were seriously lacking there. Also the whole bit about “drugs are bad for you” while I appreciate the sentiment , the directors conveniently side stepped that “drugs can save you” (I do not endorse drug use in the slightest)

Walking into the movie I was all bravado and bluster as the one who can sit through a “horror” movie even dissuading friends as it might be too much for them – turns out I am a chicken! But a I still enjoyed myself getting grossed out with every passing scene and would recommend that you watch this movie on an empty stomach and take a long hot shower afterwards because you’ll need it.