Monday, 28 November 2016

Dobara Phir Se 2016

Pakistani Cinema is going through another revival. I say 'another' because every decade or so, new life is injected into the industry, which gives it a boost for a few years, before an unsteady political or social or judicial system puts an end to the progress.

This particular revival though, is different. This one seems to be coming from the direction of Pakistani television, which has, despite major ups and downs, always been a steady source of entertainment and culture for the nation. Producers, directors, writers and actors from the 'small screen' have crossed over fairly successfully to make quality films, to address topics and plotlines that can be better showcased in a concise two hours, rather than in tens of weeks. And more recently, the most commercially viable genre of rom-com-drama is making a classy comeback to Pakistani screens, reminiscent of the 'Designer Films' genre that India confirmed in 2001, which to date is its most stable staple.

Mehreen Jabbar's Dobara Phir Se is the latest instalment in this saga of cinema. It is the story of four friends (or is it five?), and their 'others', who weave in and out of each others' lives and who build and destroy each others' lives. It is a story of urban, upper class Pakistanis, living seamlessly between two cultures. It is a story of their dreams and desires.

Vasey and Hammad are close friends, living in New York and about to embark on a joint business venture. Vasey's girlfriend, Samar, introduces Hammad to Natasha at a house party, in the hopes of setting them up. But Hammad seems infatuated with Zainab, another guest at the party, who is already married and has a child. From this moment, their lives repeatedly collide with each other, as partnerships make and break, trust is found and lost. Not all ends well, but each character has an individual journey of complications, decisions and reflections.

Tooba Siddiqui plays a dignified Natasha; clear-minded and independent. She never lets her character become whiney or caricature-ish. Sanam Saeed as Samar was a bit of a revelation for me, as I have almost always seen her in either sulky or devious roles. Her sunny disposition here was a very welcome change. Ali Kazmi as Vasey made me sad that I have not seen enough of him onscreen over the years. He is a natural in front of the camera, and possibly the only actor in the cast who did not seem to be acting at all. A lot hinges on Hareem Farooq's Zainab and, for the most part, she has delivered a strong performance, but she is the most obvious actor here, who is clearly acting. Her expressions and diction are far too pronounced in places. But her character arc is most well-defined and she is able to convey it well. Adeel Husain's Hammad is the other anchor of the story and, like everything else I have seen him do before, he is effortless here. He doesn't seem to be at pains to play his character, and uses slight expressions to portray Hammad's fascination, disappointment, hopes, fears, anger and resignation. Other supporting actors including Atiqa Odho, Shaz Khan and Musa Khan were competent. Shaz Khan especially deserves a mention, as he never veered into cartoon-ish villainy, which is often the norm.

It's a Pakistani film, so no discussion can be complete without commentary on the 'look and style'. The art direction, costumes, make-up and overall production values are flawless throughout the film. The cinematography by Andreas Burgess made me sit up and take note. There is no dearth of unconventional shots here, and no single camera angle, how ever brilliant, gets repeated unnecessarily. If the film loses out anywhere, it is with its spine, its script. At times it feels like a 90-minute film stretched to 120 minutes. It could have done with more moments of levity that Mehreen Jabbar excels at capturing (Zainab's first meeting with Hammad's family was a perfect break from the standard drama), or with better complications (the second half over-stretched Zainab's and Hammad's single, simple dilemma), or with better editing (it's not a crime to make films shorter than two hours).

Having said that, Mehreen Jabbar has made a very strong contribution to the revival of Pakistani cinema. Dobara Phir Se has great characters and acting, strong dialogue, a brilliant look and is captured with perfection. And ever so subtly, it touches on mature themes, and subverts attitudes about divorce and other social stigmas, with no fuss. Definitely enjoyable.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice 2016

This is not a review. This is an irreverent stream of consciousness.

Things I learnt and things I question about BvS:

  • Lois owns only one pair of heels.
  • Diana has the best wardrobe in town, shows up at all the high society dos, doesn't have a job, and travels with Turkish Airlines.
  • The Kent family is Scottish. Or Amish. Reference to the funeral scene.
  • Martha Kent doesn't own a comb.
  • Lex wishes he was Joker or maybe Riddler, but decided to base his entire mannerism on 3 Shah Rukh Khan films from 1993 when he was known for his hamming. SRK thankfully learnt how to act over the last two decades. Jesse Eisenberg didn't.
  • Superman is faster than a speeding bullet and has X-ray vision. Except when Batman is slowly loading his gun with kryptonite a SECOND time (after he's already recovered from the first fumes).
  • The massive Superman is light as a feather when Lois needs to pull him out of the water.
  • Diana has an unbearably cheesy guitar riff to accompany her Herbal Essence advert. Also, being almost destroyed by Doomsday does nothing to smudge her cheeky smile as she sexily gets up to fight again.
  • Sarah Paulson playing Harriet Hayes mimicking Holly Hunter (in Studio 60 on The Sunset Strip) is a far better Holly Hunter than the real one.
  • Hasn't Nolan already used an extreme close up shot to build suspense as the last shot of the film in his memorable Inception. Must every film he produces repeat that?
  • Do writers often go on strike in Hollywood and when they do, is the writing then outsourced to mediocre developers in Bangalore?
  • Also Ben Affleck is an excellent ageing Bruce Wayne. But he's a sulky, bulky Batman.
  • Jeremy Irons finally got a role that may revive his career.
  • Gal Gadot is HOT. Amy Adams really is not and looks like Cavill's mother.
  • Cavill is still painful.
  • Kevin Costner should stop being so desperate as to do pointless cameos. Diane Lane ...well at least someone wants to cast her, so it's cool.

Overall...I hated it. It jumped all over the place and regardless of how they've treated the comics, they've made a botched up, annoying, uninteresting film. The visuals had so much potential in some scenes but even that's not consistent (unlike 300, which worked because of the visuals). The dialogue is utter S*** and lazy.

And ONE good action sequence...Batman fighting Superman. Which ends on "oh no...Martha?...I must forget all my angst...coz my mummy had the same name as your mummy".

Doctor Strange 2016

This has been a 'strange' year for superhero films.

I'd personally not enjoyed any of them so far, whether it was Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice ('Martha?' 'Martha!') or Captain America: Civil War (really was Avengers Part 3, and was much worse than its Part 2) or X-Men: Apocalypse (best scene? Wolverine's 30-second cameo. Seiously!). I refused to watch TMNT (just not my thing) or Suicide Squad (come on! When everyone says that BvS was a masterpiece compared to it, you try to salvage your sanity and run in the opposite direction). This leaves only Deadpool as the saving grace this year, but that came out so long ago, and was such an atypical Marvel film (both in character and style) that I am not counting it in my list of 'superhero' films.

And then comes along Doctor Strange. There has been very little marketing for this film, at least in the UK, so it felt like it came out of nowhere. And due to my meagre knowledge of comics, I had not heard of this character before. So, without watching a trailer, and with a heavy heart from a year of disappointments, I went to see this film.

I don't know if it was the very low expectations, or if the film is actually well put together, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The premise, very simply, is that a genius, materialistic and arrogant surgeon, Dr Stephen Strange, meets with an accident (it's Marvel, of course there was an accident) that changes the direction of his life and leaves him with a maniacal desperation to get out of his hell-like situation. Enter the mysterious wisdoms of the Orient, or some other far away land called Kamar-Taj, that transform not only his physical abilities, but his way of thinking and his understanding of the world. Trained by Karl Mordo, a fellow student, and the Ancient One herself, Strange is armed with new skills and knowledge and finds himself embroiled in a battle against evil, namely Kaecilius, who was a former student but has now obviously lost his way. A requisite end-of-the-world battle, the revelation of the fifth Infinity Stone, and many wonderful special effects later, our unlikely hero accepts his lot in life and is all set for the next mission.

The visuals here remind me of Inception (2010), not so much for Wally Pfister's cinematography, but more for the special effects. Doctor Strange is filmed by Ben Davis, whose previous credits include a number of big budget Marvel films, and his work here is definitely worth mentioning. But it's the special effects that stand out as exceptional. The dialogue is mostly sharp and well-written. Without knowledge of the comic book character, the Doctor Strange on film reminded me repeatedly of Iron Man: the same arrogance, the same ascerbic wit, albeit with less of the continuous barrage. The screenplay and editing could have been improved ever so slightly, with maybe a shorter introduction to the character, and a longer period of transformation?

In terms of casting and performances, there are some amazing decisions here, but one very sore mistake. First, to cast Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One is nothing short of a stroke of genius - I can not imagine anyone doing that role better, and the director's reasoning to change this from a Tibetan male to a White female, to avoid all possible stereotypes, holds water. Benedict Wong as Wong and Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius, are both more than adequate in their performances. But it is Chiwetel Ejiofor who, once again, disappoints me beyond belief. I keep hoping that he will change his patented acting style, deliver lines or expressions with a slightly different nuance, but he is consistently a one-trick pony. As Mordo, there are moments where he shines, because those moments fall in line with his limited style. But his overly earnest delivery exhausted me by the end and I hoped so hard that he will not return in future instalments (no spoilers here, but I think I will not be granted my wish).

Anyhow, Benedict Cumberbatch more than makes up for any mistakes this film has. He is insanely watchable, commands every scene, even when his character is not in control of every situation, and he manages to bring a sweetness to the arrogance, as he has done many times before, with so many other characters. It helps that we have seen him play a genius many, many times in the past - and maybe he is being typecast - but in this case, I am glad of that as he brings a gravitas to the character and makes it thoroughly enjoyable.

But above all, it is the brilliant Cloak (yes with a capital C) that brings the audience most joy. It is the best thing about this film!

To surmise, this is very likely the only good superhero film of the year, so definitely worth watching to get rid of the awful taste of disappointment in your mouth.