Dystopian dynamo


QUICK TAKE It takes the universe of the original and fills it with exquisite flair – both visual and thematic.

For its entire running time of 160 odd minutes, Blade Runner 2049 never hurries. Much like its Ridley Scott directed predecessor from 35 years ago, it is a slow burn story set in a near future dystopia that lets the audience absorb its settings and its set ups. Denis Vilenueve clearly meant you to ponder while watching – whether it is about our nature of humanity or about the thinly veiled ideas of class and race struggles the replicants stand in for or about our own relationship with technology and the impact of that on our ideas about humanity. Three decades on from when in a futuristic Los Angeles, Harrison Ford’s Rick Dekard was a Blade Runner hunting down rogue replicants (humanoid robot slaves, for those who have come late to this party) manufactured by the Tyrell corporation, all the three entities have all but disappeared. Dekard has disappeared, replicants have been banned and the remnants of Tyrell Corp (which went bankrupt after the ban) have been absorbed into Wallace Industries, run by the enigmatic Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). But on a routine extermination run, new age Blade Runner, Officer ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling) literally unearths some disturbing evidence that if true could upend the existing societal order. He takes it to his superior, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) but by the team they get down to figuring out what’s going on, someone mysterious steals the evidence. And soon, K himself becomes a target. The most intriguing bit of the set up is that K himself is a replicant, which deepens the mystery of whether Deckard was a replicant in the original. At K’s apartment we meet his electronic simulation of a girlfriend, Joi (the fantastic Ana De Armas) whose role becomes the reference point for how the film examines human relationships with technology and their evolution. But Villenueve’s style, just like in Arrival, Sicario and Prisoners is to make to absorb the moment, a lot of which he achieves with some masterful color palette setting of his frames. 

And those frames are sensationally put together by the inimitable Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, Skyfall, A Beautiful Mind) taking the universe of the 1982 original deeper into dystopian territory creating a visua experience that’s incredibly mesmerizing. Every thematic salvo that Blade Runner 2049 fires doesn’t necessarily land perfectly but in terms of portrayal of emotion and conflict as a sci-fi film it is a work of genius and damn near perfect. With a splendid supporting cast where even the tiniest roles are accorded the respect and screen time they richly deserve, it sears itself into your consciousness not with the white hot intensity of a branding rod, but with a much more slow burn approach whose eventual effect is much deeper and permanent. Blade Runner 2049 is boldness on a blockbuster scale, not afraid to take both visual and story telling risks and pulls them both off in the form of a spectacular finished product. 


Schengen shenanigans 

RATING 5.5/10

QUICK TAKE Looks breezy and fun but eventually is neither 

The fact that Jab Harry Met Sejal’s plot stands on flimsy grounds that never really solidifies becomes evident as the film goes on. But it is not because of something the lead characters do or has anything to do with their presence. It has to do with the absence of secondary and support characters who could introduce more tension, drama and motivation into a story that woefully lacks them. The precious few support characters that exist have a good moment or two but appear only when they need to serve the leads’ point of view. 

The result is that we neither see the intensity or the level of sharpness between two circumstantial companions like we did in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, nor do we have the bristling chemistry that Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan share in the film this one steals its title from. Imtiaz Ali can handle both those things as he demonstrated with Jab We Met and with Love Aaj Kal, but here casting Shah Rukh Khan as the Punjabi Munda who is now a tour guide in the Netherlands is his first mistake. SRK tries his best charms and almost makes it bearable for you to sit through the simplistic film which is so lacking in dramatic depth that if it had all been revealed as Sejal’s dream by the end, it would have made better sense. Anushka Sharma as the vivacious Gujarati girl Sejal struggles with her put on accent and her character motivations (a great disservice is done to her parents and fiancé because we never even get an inkling about their side of the story) but gamely powers on, laying the charm on just like her co Star. 

What’s the story you ask? It’s mostly about them seeking a macguffin Sejal’s lost engagement ring across Europe (The Schengen visa is the real star here!) while in the process discovering something about themselves (or something like that I think). There are many occasions where there is some enjoyable banter between the two and those brief interludes make the rest of the picturesque journey worthwhile but bereft as it is of any real dramatic tension, the whole idea never really takes off. For some reason, Imtiaz Ali decides to go so squeaky clean with the relationship that it would probably make Disney blush. 

A cross continental romp that had more comedy and spunk might just have saved the day but what we are ultimately left with is a glorified music video or an underwhelming musical – you take your pick. 

Survive and advance

RATING 10/10

QUICK TAKE Near perfect cinematic spectacle that is made riveting the only way Christopher Nolan can 

For Dunkirk, Chris Nolan, dials down on the gimmickry and complexity that have defined his last two outings (Inception & Interstellar) and lays the canvas out wide – 70mm in IMAX wide to be precise – and goes on to construct a cinematic masterpiece. And I do not use the term masterpiece lightly or with any hint of hyperbole. 

Watching it on the biggest IMAX screen in Britain may have coloured my judgment a bit but this is truly a immersive cinematic experience and ideally needs to be enjoyed as such. Dunkirk is Nolan’s The Last Supper or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, in that you have to watch it the way it is meant to be seen to realise the true grandeur of its achievement, much like Da Vinci’s fresco or Michaelangelo’s genius work. Dunkirk as a film (and as a real event) is antithetical to the typical war trope of valour and victory. The story of the 1940 rag tag evacuation of almost half a million British (and French) soldiers from the beaches of the French town (after which the film is named) by civilian boats is simply about survival and our instinct for it. 

What makes it immensely special is not the dialogue; there is barely any. The performances aren’t its piece de resistance either; although some solid actors (Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, James D’Arcy and Kenneth Branagh) put in some good shifts and Harry Styles as a young soldier (who is as disoriented by it all as we initially are) is a revealation. Dunkirk’s je ne sais quoi is that typical Chris Nolan ability to manipulate your senses using two things – the background score (Hans Zimmer rise and take a bow, sir!) and the timeline. Here, we follow three points of view – the soldiers stuck on the beach fearing an enemy raid any minute as a week’s worth of tense time ticks by, the advancing civilian boats who take a good part of one day to cross the English Channel to the Dunkirk beach and the RAF planes whose action we see unfolding over an hour on the day of the evacuation. The three timelines criss cross ratcheting the tension up as Zimmer’s score literally ticks by soon syncing your fast beating heart’s rhythm to it. 

All of the sensory elements – the magnificent widescreen visuals of the beach and the sky and the rousing score – come together so well that you barely pay any notice to the fact that there is hardly much to tell in terms of a story. Dunkirk is no Schindler’s List but in terms of pushing the boundaries of how the cinematic medium is supposed to move us, they each achieve their unique aims with some sort of wizardry from the tools available at their disposal. And, that eventually, is the point of art. 

Dunkirk’s near operatic opulence sets a benchmark for cinematic magnificence for the Twenty First Century. The good news is that there are still 83 years remaining for someone to come and top that. 

(Wonder) Girl Meets World


QUICK TAKE A Superheroine for our times, not just to break through the superhero clutter, but also in terms of message

“I am the man to do it!” Says Diana Prince at one point. And she certainly is that, and more!

Imagine, if you will, Imagine, as conceived and composed by a heavy metal band. Patty Jenkins’ surefooted Wonder Woman (not just because its IDF trained lead, Gal Gadot, can stick a solid landing) is that in cinema form, banging the war drums at full tilt and yet neatly delivering a message of peace, brotherhood and the choice between good and evil. 

There has been intense scrutiny of the director, the lead and pretty much everything about this film that was the first female led superhero movie from a major studio in this golden age of superhero movies, a matter that has been exacerbated by the fact that DC’s other tent poles have fallen quite flat. For it to deliver without falling into the brooding trap that Batman v Superman did or to show that superheroines kick as much ass and are as cool if not cooler as their male counterparts was satisfying to watch. 

But even devoid of all this contrived and constricting context Wonder Woman is a fun superhero movie, one that doesn’t sweat too heavily on plot and does its characters great justice in setting up their arcs and destinies. It doesn’t feel a perennial set up for the next installment like some of the other franchise films do (there is significant closure for the most part). And, yes, it is utterly gorgeous. From the island of Themyscira to the battle sequences there are virtuoso turns of dazzling brilliance (in both normal speed and slo mo) that would make co-writer Zack Snyder blush with equal parts envy and pride. 

And all of this is illuminated by Gal Gadot, who seems born to play the titular role, bringing grace and panache in equal measure making it very believable to follow a thus far sheltered Diana Prince(ss of Themyscira, daughter of Hippolyta) thrown into the ‘world of men’ as the Great War rages. Her empathy is portrayed superbly and not as a cliched weakness but as someone who genuinely wields that feeling to question and upend the order of the world around her. The superpowers, the jaw dropping action and the brilliant stunts are just the right icing on this empathy cake. 

Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a US pilot turned British spy, on the run from the Germans, crashes into Themyscira where he is rescued by Amazon princess Diana who then finds herself drawn into his war because of its possible connection to her own past. What follows is a standard war film with a twist – the presence of a peacemaker in the form of Wonder Woman aka Diana Prince. Snyder’s co written story doesn’t make it too complicated letting the transformation and understanding that Diana goes through, in coming to terms with a world besides her own, take center stage. Gadot handles that expertly well supported by the rest of the cast. 

While Wonder Woman may not shift any paradigms in your standard superhero(ine) origin story, it certainly does show there is enough and more room for diversity and female empowerment. And for those who were incensed at the ‘women only’ showings of the movie, this is a rad comic book film by itself that will probably find women among its loudest cheerleaders. And that’s just fine. As Diana says at one point – to let the light within us shine or let the darkness take over is a choice. And if you, like her, are about empathy, you will make the right one. 

Screenshot Sachin

RATING 7.5/10

QUICK TAKE For fan and non-fan (if any exist) alike, the first step towards a definitive Tendulkar narrative

First things first. I am huge Sachin Tendulkar fan. Having watched him literally from the first day of his career till his last, I was obviously going to enjoy a nostaligic look back into his life and career, even if James Erskine had put all this together as an iMovie project. I would gladly have walked into the next screen if that was showing *another* Sachin docu after Sachin: A Billion Dreams finished. And to cut a long story short, enjoy this documentary feature I did, as it at least offered us a humanising look at a cricketer so deified that one would have thought it weren’t possible to present him even remotely that way. Having said that, though, it did feel excessively cloying at places and while A R Rahman’s background score is splendid, it sometimes, like an over eager Sachin fan, jumped out of its seat too early in its crescendos. 

We all know the story. Boy genius is hooked on to the game after watching India win the World Cup in 1983, dreams of winning it himself, upends the world of cricket with unheard of levels of talent, unwittingly becomes the carrier of a billion hopes, has his cherished dream set back many times, before redemption in the city he was born. James Erskine, who made England’s Italia ’90 World Cup exploits (they finished third losing to West Germany in a penalty shootout in the semi) look heroic in One Night In Turin, would have found it easy to work with so much material to mine in the Sachin narrative. There were enough triumphs to tribulations to triumphs cycles for about 5 such movies. 

For the most part he lets the straightforward chronology, Tendulkar’s sensational shot making and Harsha Bhogle and Tony Greig’s iconic commentary do the work. But where the film truly comes alive and tugs at your heart strings is watching the people behind the man – Sachin’s family, his mother recalling his childhood antics and pranks with a twinkle in her eye, his sister recalling giving him his first cricket bat, or his brother on how he took him to his first coaching classes and above all, the biggest influence in his life, his dad, who we see through some brief yet beautiful family camcorder footage. Anjali Tendulkar, his wife, is another marvellous revelation in a documentary where everyone else is speaking as a pundit (the Bhogles, the Boira Majumdars and the Gideon Haighs). She speaks as a genuine part of Sachin’s life giving us a true behind the scenes glimpse into a mind which we have only seen through a zen lens that came on whenever Sachin, the cricketer took the field. 

To see Sachin as a dad, a husband and a family man is to somehow see his whole career in new light and realising the enormity of the trade offs that have defined him over more than quarter of a century. The film is unquestionably a flattering portrait; it sidesteps or only mentions in passing some of the more controversial phases of his career – the botched captaincy stints, the Azhar equation, the fixing saga – which seems in contrast to how, say, French footballers do not hold back in discussing some of the most controversial aspects their football team ever faced in the documentary Les Bleus. But that is likely a deliberate choice framing this as a Sachin tribute poster you’d have on your bedroom wall rather than a chaotic smorgasbord of opinions on Sachin. 

He is a complicated figure to unpack because he has held so many things close to his chest during his playing days and beyond. And that is where even the briefest of fresh breeze of insight rustling through those old videos or a recollection of a family member or a teammate is so refreshing and makes the film completely worth your while. Sachin’s story is in some ways India’s post liberalisation story and somehow we feel entitled to answers on everything from him because it is often that we project ourselves on to his persona. But that is perhaps too much to expect. At one point a fan says in the movie that Sachin’s batting was the only form of entertainment available to him. Subconsciously it has been like that for many of us who grew up with Sachin’s rise and rise. And we just want the whole story put into context. So, for now, we have to make do with this and as a fan yearning for nostalgia there isn’t much to fault here. 

The (probably) messier side of the Sachin story? Maybe that is left for another time and another place. 

Taking care of business


QUICK TAKE Thoroughly entertaining with the masala done just about right 

Easy Rider: Raees is a fun ride because it never lets excessiveness take over – a remarkable feat for an out and out masala entertainer

When I go to watch a movie riding on its superstar, larger than life lead, I have a simple test to try and keep my fanboy tendencies in check. I scan the movie for scenes or situations which were sincelerly applause worthy by the fans and not just for the sake of cult-ish hyperbole. In Raees (spoiler alert: I am an SRK fan too!) I used the same yardstick as we saw Shah Rukh Khan enter the frame as the titular character, a hustler who builds his own illicit liquor smuggling empire. There are obviously a few indulgences and some excesses (an extended parkour like fight against a sniper that seemed to only serve the purpose of inserting some egregious action) but for the large part, Raees does well to keep its kitschy tendencies in check, even though it is telling a classically kitschy Gangster-with-a-heart-of-gold story. It may not showcase the deep moral dilemmas that lets the story exist, but it definitely acknowledges them rather than indulging in outright glorification. 

While it echoes many of the benchmark setting films in this genre, from Scarface to American Gangster (and closer home, from Deewar to Company), Raees doesn’t muddle its mandate to entertain and jettisons the more complex and nuanced points that an American Gangster or a Deewar tried to drive home. Shah Rukh Khan strikes a smart balance between histrionics and understatedness and uses it to good effect to portray the transformation of a small time bootlegger to someone with Pablo Escobar-esque ambition in terms of changing the state of the society he grew up in. And while we run through a set of dispensable villains, primarily set up through pulling different strands of real events together (the bomb blasts and the riots are all referenced here, in very off handed and behind the scenes ways), the able foil and the real intrigue in Raees comes from Nawazuddin Siddique’s cop, Majmudar. Siddique is every frame Khan’s equal and is brilliant at deadpanning which provides some of the most humorous scenes in the entire set up. 

The supporting cast (including the excellent Zeeshan Ayub of Ranjhanaa fame and a very Bhoomika Chawla looking Mahira Khan) do a competent job but the film does lack a compelling character beyond Khan and Siddique’s. There are audience pleasing and audience appeasing-bordering-on-pandering lines thrown in for good measure but somehow nothing feels excessive or overbearing. The result is a perfect pot boiler that does its job of delivering entertainment despite some hiccups (a stretch immediately after the intermission drags needlessly, for example) and missteps, Raees has the swag and bravado (much like the character himself) to land a good punch. It might as well have a Gladiatorial SRK at the end screaming at us ‘Are You Not Entertained?’ and the answer would be a thumbs up. 

Zappy meal


QUICK TAKE Stylized and simplistic spiel, but highly enjoyable spiel at that

Trouble among pioneers and founders in the early days of growth of an iconic business make for great drama – just ask the guys behind The Social Network or Steve Jobs. The Founder, which recounts the story of how Ray Croc revolutionized the fast food industry by making McDonald’s a household name while in the process taking a lot away from the original founders of the chain and the idea, the McDonald brothers – Richard (Nick Offerman breaks his usual mound and offers us a man you empathize with) and Mac, also has a rich slate of information to mine drama from but it decides to take a slightly more formulaic route. 

Not unlike the standardized menu and meals of the corporation whose story it tells through the lens of Michael Keaton’s Croc, The Founder eventually turns out to be a film that seems to have a faux seriousness about itself. Much the same way McDonald’s sometimes tries to sound earnest about ‘nutrition’. The story is simplified and stylized relying on many easy business biopic tropes to introduce us to the idea and the characters but Keaton’s performance and his easy charm in capturing Croc’s drive and ambition is what gives it the gravitas that makes it so enjoyable. John Lee Hancock’s direction gives it a feel somewhere between a documentary and a TV movie but a bit like what Moneyball did for baseball statistics, The Founder makes the mundane business of fast food production and selling look and sound interesting and for brief periods even exciting. 

The Founder as a film doesn’t seem deeply interested in exploring the dilemmas and the questions that are logically raised when Croc’s ruthless vision of profit at all costs capitalism meets the McDonald brothers’ customer and family come first version of the system. But while that remains a deficiency, it does not take away from an enjoyable couple of hours of viewing and some fascinating insights into the early days of a global behemoth which now feeds 1% of the world’s population every day. One thing it does well though is to sprinkle some very idiosyncratic ‘funny-with-the-benefit-of-hindsight’ humor (at one point one of the McDonald brothers goes “This is McDonald’s. I will not have any kind of crass commercialism here.”) as well as little witticisms throughout that cut through the repetitiveness and familiarity of some of the scenes and settings. But then again, McDonalds is about repetitiveness and familiarity. 

The Founder is, like a Happy Meal, is a perfect little treat to indulge yourself in and in the process be at least intrigued* by the brand McDonlads. 

[*In case you are really curious, Behind The Arches and Fast Food Nation are good reads to delve deeper.]