Tag Archives: 2008

Movie Review: A Wednesday (2008)

A_Wednesday_Poster2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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A Wednesday has been recommended to me many times since its release in 2008. After enjoying writer-director Neeraj Pandey’s sophomore effort, Special 26, this seemed like the right time to finally check out his debut film.

I can see why A Wednesday — a story about a common man trying to correct the inadequacies of India’s sprawling bureaucracy — still resonates with people. It has great populist appeal. I think I would’ve enjoyed it more had I seen it before Special 26, which is more polished than A Wednesday. Nevertheless, A Wednesday is enjoyable and full of the dramatic tension that Pandey is so good at creating.

The film begins with Police Commissioner Prakash Rathod (Anupam Kher) reflecting on the most challenging case of his career, on the day before his retirement. I’m not sure why Pandey has Rathod specify that this is his last day on the job. It’s not important to the plot, and it draws an unwelcome parallel to Robert Duvall’s character in the 1993 common-man’s-revenge film Falling Down.

The case Rathod is referring to involves the harrowing events of a Wednesday afternoon at some point in the not-to-distant past. An anonymous caller claims to have placed bombs throughout Mumbai that will explode in about four hours unless Rathod releases four terrorists from prison. Rathod assumes that the caller — an unnamed man played brilliantly by Naseeruddin Shah — is another terrorist, but the truth is more complicated than that.

While trying to find the man behind the calls, Rathod dispatches two officers to carry out the bomber’s orders: straight-laced Jai (Aamir Bashir) and loose cannon Arif (Jimmy Shergill). Shah’s character enlists an ambitious news reporter, Naina (Deepal Shaw), to serve as his eyes on the ground. Naina feels conflicted about aiding a possible terrorist, but breaking this story will get her off the dreary local news beat.

The story is tense, as Rathod tries to connect the dots while helplessly giving in to the caller’s demands. There’s great dynamism in Pandey’s shots. Though many of the scenes take place inside the police control room, there’s a lot of movement. Rathod stalks the hallways; officers spring to life when the latest call comes in; Arif chases down a suspect who might have the final clue to the caller’s identity.

As well-paced as the story is, there are a lot of rookie directorial mistakes that detract from the film’s overall effectiveness. Fight scenes seem shoehorned into the script, and the sound effects that accompany them are cheesy. Unable to trace the phone calls, one of the police officers makes the corny declaration: “We need a hacker!” When Shah’s character finally reveals his motives, he does so in a well-delivered but long speech that stops the film’s momentum. The ending was a bit of a cop-out.

Perhaps the most distracting mistakes Pandey makes are in the inclusion of a number of ineffective red herrings that remain loose threads at the end of the film. It’s implied that Jai and Arif have a preexisting beef, but this is never explored. Jai gets several phone calls from his wife, who’s traveling with their son on a train. Though she could be in danger, Jai never warns her to stay off the train, though he does worry that she’ll be concerned for his own safety if she sees him on the news coverage of the crisis.

During his confessional speech, Shah’s character reveals a personal motivation for his actions. It seemed as though this disclosure would explain why he chose Naina to cover the story, but there’s ultimately no connection. Her selection is completely arbitrary.

While I enjoyed A Wednesday overall, these mistakes stood out because of their absence in Special 26. That’s actually a compliment, as it means that Pandey has honed his storytelling to augment his flair for narrative tension. Seeing Pandey’s professional growth between his first and second films leaves me very excited to see his third film, whenever that day comes.

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Movie Review: The Attacks of 26/11 (2013)

TheAttacksof_26111.5 Stars (out of 4)

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A case can be made that it’s too soon to make a feature film about the Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 26, 2008. The problem with The Attacks of 26/11 isn’t one of timing, but of tone. Director Ram Gopal Varma’s thriller-meets-dramatic-reenactment is exploitative and lacks a compelling narrative.

Obviously, the circumstances of the brazen nighttime attack on landmarks throughout Mumbai are compelling in themselves, but we already know the details from news reports. Ten terrorists from Pakistan came ashore in Mumbai and proceeded to detonate explosives and shoot people at sites around the city, including the train station, a popular cafe, and a luxury hotel. Over a hundred people were killed and hundreds more injured. The only terrorist to survive was himself executed on November 21, 2012.

The first half of The Attacks of 26/11 focuses on the early hours of the days-long massacre. Terrorists are shown navigating the city to their target locations before murdering civilians en masse. Deaths are shown in gory, revolting detail. A girl with a bullet wound to the arm waits for rescue in the train station. A hotel manager’s brain explodes out the side of his head when shot.

As if the gory scenes weren’t off-putting enough, Varma employs typical thriller and horror techniques to add dramatic tension. Violins trill as a receptionist creeps toward a crying infant in a hotel lobby. The visuals shift into slow motion as the receptionist is shot repeatedly in the chest. Offscreen, a gun fires and the baby stops crying.

In a horror movie, it’s fun when the violins trill as the co-ed cautiously walks to the door we know she shouldn’t open. Here, the effect is sickening because the deaths of real people are being treated for cheap thrills. These are people who died just five years ago, not in some war that took place long before the advent of social media and cable news.

The attacks shouldn’t be off-limits for filmmakers, but any film made about them needs to inform, enlighten, or otherwise add to the conversation about them. Varma had the opportunity to do so, had he properly utilized Nana Patekar’s character, the Joint Police Commissioner. This film should’ve been told from his perspective with him as the main character, providing the audience with a guide through such emotionally overwhelming material.

More often than not, Varma shows the Commissioner (his character only has a title, not a name) sitting before a government panel telling them what happened rather than showing the events from his perspective as they happened. When the character participates actively, he does so in redundant flashbacks. For example, the Commissioner tells the panel that he was in the shower when he got the first call from the police control room. Then the camera shows him in the shower, and his wife tells him that the control room just called.

This redundancy and the formality of the government panel setting keep the audience at arm’s length. The panel would’ve been fine as a framing device, but not as the source of the running narrative. Patekar’s best scenes are those when he’s active, fielding calls in the control room or interrogating the only terrorist captured alive, Kasab (Sanjeev Jaiswal).

We see some of the Commissioner’s panic as he tries to orchestrate a response to the attacks, but we are spared the emotional torment he surely experienced afterward. The Commissioner tells the panel that some of the police officers who died were his friends. Since a note at the beginning of the movie explains that some details were altered for the sake of the narrative, why not include a scene in which the Commissioner wishes his friends good luck on what would be their final mission?

Had the audience been encouraged to make a personal connection with the characters, The Attacks of 26/11 could have been emotionally effective beyond the natural human empathy one feels for the victims. Varma’s focus on the spectacle makes the film feel tawdry.

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Movie Review: Prince (2010)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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2008’s Drona aspired to be an original, inspirational Indian superhero movie, but failed to reach its potential. Prince, while derivative of Western superhero movies, succeeds as a fun action flick sure to spawn a sequel.

Prince (Vivek Oberoi) is an anti-hero who makes James Bond look like a slacker. Prince is the world’s greatest thief, capable of pulling off outrageous international heists while avoiding capture. He has an arsenal of high-tech gadgets. He’s unbeatable in a fight. Women love him. And, to top it all off, he can dance.

The morning after a job, Prince wakes up to find a butler he doesn’t recognize tending to a mysterious bullet wound on his arm. He can’t remember anything about his life, not even his own name.

Prince is kidnapped by a secret Indian government agency operating covertly in South Africa. The agency leader, Colonel Khanna (Dalip Tahil), explains that Prince lost his memory while stealing a valuable antique coin. Of course, Prince doesn’t remember where he hid the coin.

His girlfriend and criminal partner, Maya, offers to help him. Prince doesn’t recognize Maya but accepts her help. Things get confusing when two other women show up, also claiming to be Maya.

Everyone Prince meets gives him conflicting information about why the missing coin is so special. Is it a tool to entrap a master criminal named Sarang? A magical artifact? A nano-weapon? The only way for Prince to learn the truth and recover his memory is to find the coin.

Prince works because it is self-aware. Hanging inside Prince’s “batcave” of gadgets and costumes are posters of Batman, Spider-man and Iron Man, American superheroes whose movies obviously inspired Prince.

The film is an improvement on one of producer Kumar Taurani’s previous efforts, Race. While Taurani hasn’t lost his love of preposterous explosions that make vehicles flip in midair, Prince‘s lead characters are more appealing that the jerks in Race.

When writing the inevitable sequels to Prince, there are a few flaws from the original that the filmmakers would be wise not to repeat. First are the disappointingly slow chase scenes. If terrain is too bumpy for jeeps and mopeds to operate at high speeds, shoot the scene in a different location.

Second is the woeful misuse of a shark tank. There is but one use for sharks in movies: eating people. That no one falls in the shark tank during a late scene is unforgivable.

Another underused prop is the villain Sarang’s bionic hand. While it looks like something out of Terminator, is doesn’t do anything apart from giving Sarang’s punches a little extra oomph. He could’ve at least, you know, crushed a guy’s throat with it or something.

Apart from a few missed opportunities for grisly deaths, Prince is a fun action movie that, while not mentally taxing, at least makes sense within the rules it sets for itself. In order to enjoy a 2 hour 15 minute Bollywood action movie, that’s often all that I require.

Opening September 25: What’s Your Raashee?

Ashutosh Gowarikar’s latest film, What’s Your Raashee? (“What’s Your Sign?”) opens in theaters this weekend. It may hold special interest for Chicagoans, since parts of the film were shot in the Windy City, earlier this year.

In What’s Your Raashee?, Harman Baweja plays a guy looking for love among twelve different girls, all played by Priyanka Chopra. (In your face, Eddie Murphy!) Baweja and Chopra previously starred together in the embarrassing Love Story 2050. The runtime for their latest film is listed as 3 hrs. 12 min.

What’s Your Raashee? opens on Friday, September 25 in the Chicago area at the Big Cinemas Golf Glen 5 in Niles, AMC South Barrington 30 in South Barrington and AMC Cantera 30 in Warrenville.

Of last weekend’s two new Hindi films, Dil Bole Hadippa! bested Wanted in U.S. earnings: $351,457 to $217,432. Both films return for a second week at the Golf Glen 5 and South Barrington 30. The Cantera 30 is only bringing back Dil Bole Hadippa!.

India Out of Oscar Race

Taare Zameen Par, India’s official entry into the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film category, wasn’t chosen as one of the final five nominees. I’m not surprised. By selecting Aamir Khan’s domestically popular film about dyslexia, India’s selection board passed on two other films that would’ve had a better chance at being nominated by the overwhelmingly American Academy.

The problem with Taare Zameen Par is that it’s not as socially or emotionally relevant to audiences in the United States as it is to audiences in India. While the film may have drawn much needed attention to the disservice still being done to students with learning disabilities in the Indian educational system, public schools in the U.S. have been offering customized learning opportunities for special needs students for decades.

As a product of the U.S. public school system, I recognized little Ishaan’s reading disability within the first thirty minutes of the movie. I then had to wait another hour before any of the characters in the movie did. I imagine many of the Academy voters watching Taare Zameen Par were as frustrated by the slow pace as I was.

Considering the cultural background of the Academy Award voters who nominate movies in the Best Foreign Language Film category, here are my suggestions for two films that would’ve had a better chance of earning a nomination:

Jodhaa Akbar — A beautiful epic with gorgeous music, this seemed like the most obvious choice to represent India, especially since director Ashutosh Gowariker’s equally accessible Lagaan was nominated in 2002.

Black & White — This might’ve been the boldest movie to come out of India in 2008. Its sensitive handling of the issue of Islamic terrorism would’ve given Academy members an opportunity to show that Americans have a more nuanced understanding of terrorism than the “destroy the evildoers” mentality that our government has exhibited for most of this decade.

Here are links to my reviews of Taare Zameen Par, Jodhaa Akbar and Black & White.

Best Bollywood Movies of 2008

In 2008, the Indian film industry proved that it’s still the most reliable source for romantic comedies. International settings made Dostana and Kismat Konnection stand out from the crowd, while Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi closed the year on a high note.

Taking a slightly more serious tone, U Me Aur Hum effectively combined comedic and dramatic elements in a touching story about love and responsibility.

Beyond the romantic comedy genre, historical epic Jodhaa Akbar featured gorgeous cinematography. Rock On!! took the movie musical format in an exciting new direction. And Black & White thoughtfully addressed the subject of terrorism. I only wish it had been India’s official entry into the Oscar competition for Best Foreign Film, instead of Taare Zameen Par.

But the most accomplished, satisfying and entertaining Hindi-language movie of 2008 was another romantic comedy: Bachna Ae Haseeno. The high quality of the acting, cinematography and story-telling gave the film universal appeal. Actor Ranbir Kapoor redeemed himself after an awkward debut in Saawariya, and Deepika Padukone’s charming performance demonstrated that she might be Bollywood’s best young actress.

Worst Bollywood Movies of 2008

There were plenty of movies in contention for the title of “Worst Bollywood Film of 2008.” Recent lousy offerings like Ghajini, Karzzzz, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Yuvvraaj threatened to overshadow crummy films from earlier in the year like Krazzy 4, Roadside Romeo and Summer 2007.

I decided to select the absolute worst movie of the year from films that I awarded zero stars when I reviewed them. Abhishek Bachchan starred in two of those movies: Sarkar Raj and Drona. I was tempted to give the dubious honor to Love Story 2050, if only because it suggested that we’ll all still be playing the Xbox 360 forty years from now.

But the worst movie of the year had to be the one that was most painful to watch, the one that wasn’t bad in a funny way (like Sarkar Raj, Drona and Love Story 2050), but was just bad. Based on those criteria, the Worst Bollywood Film of 2008 is Golmaal Returns. No other movie approached its level of immaturity and ineptitude. Everything about it was annoying, and if I hadn’t been reviewing it, I would’ve walked out of the theater after thirty minutes.

Congratulations, Golmaal Returns. May you never return again.

Movie Review: Ghajini (2008)

1 Star (out of 4)

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Ghajini, director A. R. Murugadoss’s Hindi version of the Hollywood thriller, Memento, might’ve been more successful had it borrowed even more heavily from the original film that it already does.

Ghajini‘s premise is so similar to Memento‘s that Murugadoss included a note at the opening of the film: “We acknowledge other stories that have dealt with this issue.” They needed to; the premise is almost identical. The film’s protagonist, Sanjay (Aamir Khan), lost his ability to form new short-term memories after a fight with some goons who killed his fiancee, Kalpana. Now he wants to avenge her death.

Murugadoss didn’t just appropriate the plot. He also copied Memento‘s signature gimmicks, including the protagonist’s use of Post-It Notes, Polaroid photos and tattoos to act as his memory, as he learns more about Kalpana’s murderer.

Unlike Memento, where neither the protagonist nor the audience learns the identity of the murderer until the end of the movie, the identity of Kalpana’s killer is revealed in the first twenty minutes. He’s the film’s title character, Ghajini. So there’s no mystery about who killed Kalpana. The only questions are why he killed her (turns out it’s over something stupid and unrelated to the main plot) and how will Sanjay inevitably kill him.

Fortunately for Sanjay, the loss of his short-term memory apparently imbued him with superhuman strength. Khan spends most of the present-day sequences staring wide-eyed at the camera, before roaring and stomping about, Incredible Hulk style. Though he was a career businessman before his head trauma, he now can pummel henchman by the dozen. At one point, Sanjay punches a villain so hard that the guy’s head turns completely backwards on his body.

Perhaps the most awkward aspect of Ghajini is its flashbacks to the early days of Sanjay’s romance with Kalpana. The longest flashback sequence makes up the middle hour of the film and is, on its own, a typical yet entertaining Bollywood romantic comedy about mistaken identities. Asin Thottumkal is engaging as Kalpana, a role she originated in the 2005 Tamil language version of Ghajini. But the light-hearted flashback scenes feel totally inappropriate sandwiched between the humorless, ultra-violent action sequences of the present-day storyline.

There are actually some things that Ghajini does well. The chemistry between the lead couple during the flashbacks is terrific. The cinematography and fight choreography are excellent, and the film features some beautiful songs by A. R. Rahman. But the choppy story structure makes the film’s three-hour run time feel even longer, and it’s riddled with logical errors that Murugadoss should’ve corrected when making Ghajini for the second time. A film as good as Memento deserves a better remake than this.

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Opening December 24: Ghajini

Aamir Khan’s latest film opens in U.S. theaters on Wednesday, December 24. Ghajini is a Hindi-language remake of Christopher Nolan’s Memento, a film I enjoyed. Given how dark the original movie is, I’m a little skeptical of a version that includes dance numbers. But I’m willing to give Khan and composer A. R. Rahman a chance to win me over.

In the Chicago area, Ghajini is showing at the AMC Loews Pipers Alley 4 in Chicago, the AMC Cantera 30 in Warrenville and the AMC South Barrington 30 in South Barrington.

Movie Review: Dostana (2008)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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A hunky photographer (John Abraham) and a male nurse (Abhishek Bachchan) pretend to be a gay couple in order to share a Miami apartment with a beautiful girl (Priyanka Chopra) they’re both in love with. This comedy of errors isn’t trying to make a political statement, nor does it rely solely on cheap gay jokes to generate laughs. Dostana is a genuinely funny and romantic story about friendship, enhanced by captivating performances from some of Bollywood’s top young actors.

No Rating (language); 145 minutes

This review originally appeared in The Naperville Sun on November 21, 2008