Review: Gary Oldman leads Darkest Hour to glory

It’s May 1940.

Led by Adolf Hitler, the Nazi invasion is in full steam and Western Europe is on the brink of collapse. The political scene in Britain could not have picked a worse time to be in shambles.

Shortly after Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is forced to step down, nothing short of a miracle is expected from the man to replace him.

And a miracle is exactly what he delivers.

Winston Churchill is accorded wholehearted reverence and solo credit for his leadership in effecting Operation Dynamo during World War II in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. And the statesmen Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), Earl of Halifax (Stephane Dillane) who disapprove of the newly appointed prime minister’s belligerence are treated like villains of the piece.

To be depicted this unflatteringly for sharing an opposed point of view especially when Hitler’s the real devil, purely to eulogise Churchill’s ballsy strategies, renders the narrative a deceit Darkest Hour never fully recovers from.

Worse it concocts soppy, fictional instances of Churchill’s connection to the hoi polloi when he takes the tube to convey a belated coming-of-age post his privileged ‘I’ve never travelled by a bus, queued for bread’ admissions.

It’s one thing to celebrate an icon and another to completely exempt him from scrutiny or objectivity. Yet Wright’s propensity to humour Churchill’s bullish behaviour as though he’s not much different from a smart, snotty child craftily skirts the negativity surrounding his persona.

‘His record is a litany of catastrophe,’ grieves King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) citing the Battle of Gallipoli, the Bengal Famine, the Russian civil war, and King Edward VIII’s abdication confirming why he’s least likely to top the favourite charts of most Indians.

Fluke or farsightedness, his stance in the matter of Hitler excuses everything.

The politics of it may be wishy-washy and the saviour at Darkest Hour‘s centre may well be a racist, an imperialist, and an alcoholic, but in Gary Oldman’s nimble skin, smacked in layers and layers of prosthetics to resemble the heavily-jowled, cigar-smoking, portly penguin-like demeanour of the British Bulldog, it pretty much screams, ‘And the Oscar goes to…’

The veteran chameleon is not new to the prosthetics game. His creepy transformation into the immortal Dracula sporting more hair, more wrinkles, in Francis Ford Coppola’s showy adaptation of Bram Stoker’s book is still the most enduring memory of the uneven masterpiece.

Richard Burton, one of Churchill’s most vocal critics who played him in a television movie called The Gathering Storm, found him to be no different from an actor with a wider audience.

Oldman picks this element of theatrics and incorporates it cunningly to dispense playing-to-the-gallery speeches (‘We shall fight on the beaches’) livening up a predominantly indoor atmosphere.

That is some contrast to the breathless fight for survival in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which depicts the practical side of the same situation.

Portions of Wright’s Atonement featured it too, but Darkest Hour limits its biopic-like portrait of the British Bulldog to a turbulent test of power, skills and quirks.

If Oldman’s relish in quipping zingers like ‘Halifax would never turn it down. He’s the fourth son of an Earl. Fourth sons turn nothing down’ transcend through the makeup, so does the dilemma and desperation of running a nation not always as confident as his ferocious disposition would suggest.

The women — the wife (Kristin Scott Thomas), the secretary (Lily James) — occasionally show up to soothe his ruffled feathers and throw in the obligatory pep talk.

Darkest Hour doesn’t even pretend to make it about anything else besides Oldman as he gloriously alternates between a exuberant bear, shrewd fox and vociferous lion.

Though his animal instincts hit their peak, the script itself begins to lose its edge-of-the-seat momentum and disintegrates to revel in hollow glory and glib eloquence.

Having said that, it’s sure indicative of the brand of leadership we’d be surrounded by eight decades later.

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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Review: Saif is a hoot in Kaalakaandi!

‘I am a good person you know,’ laments Saif Ali Khan’s character on learning he’s dying from stomach cancer as if his propriety was supposed to be some kind of coverage from life-threatening conditions.

The only silver lining to it is that he’s now free to do as he wills.

With prescription drugs of no use anymore, he promptly proceeds to pop a hallucinogenic pill, one that looks more like a star-shaped cupcake candy, to behold a hawaldar in Asha Parekh’s most iconic costume and slip into a faux fur bolero sporting Gwen Stefani’s ‘hair turds.’

Akshat Verma’s A-rated directorial debut is a strange romp that treads the space between crisis and chaos with a humour that feels natural even in its most outlandish impulses.

Devoid of structure and sense, Kaalakaandi is much too fragmented and facile to provide the gratification of a conventional feature film. It’s often the point behind its deliberate irregularity.

Driven by aberration and not coherence, Kaalakaandi, which loosely translates to a big mess, peeks into three set of lives linked by recklessness and the varying degree of price they pay for it.

As is often the trouble with multiple storylines, the shift is uneven and disorienting.

Unravelling through the course of a rainy Mumbai night, the non-Saif narratives — a couple (Kunaal Roy Kapur, Shobita Dhulipala) caught in the middle of a drug raid and hit-and-run and two underworld small-timers (Vijay Raaz, Deepak Dobriyal) bouncing off various schemes to swindle their boss — lack the hysteria and cheek.

The conscience in the first and the deceit in the second story awkwardly lumber next to Saif’s psychedelic shenanigans and surprising sensitivity around a transgender prostitute (a terrific Naari Singh).

There’s a sliver of a subplot in the form of his brother (Akshay Oberoi), who between getting hitched and a haircut, finds time to keep a rendezvous with an ex-girlfriend.

Raaz and Dobriyal are a dream pairing, but their expletive-packed exchange never quite conveys the bite of deceit or elevates a trite plot point into something special.

The viewer is privy to their conversations, but never grasps their duplicity.

As the most dispensable property of this arc is Neil Bhoopalam’s daft gunslinger who looks even more pointless immediately after a shot of Feroz Khan doing his cowboy shtick in Kala Sona.

Verma may play against the grain, but his knowledge of mainstream Bollywood is craftily applied to generate droll humour. Who knew Amitabh Bachchan on a T-shirt could mean so much mischief.

Of course, the real scene-stealer is someone else, Saif is an absolute hoot in his unbridled delivery of a man with nothing to lose, unbothered by conventions of a formal society, openly flouting them to engage in brazen mockery and lustful inquiries on ‘Aapka Australia. Aapka Southern Hemisphere Aapka Cape of Good Hope.’

Although his character, whose name we almost don’t discover till the very end (and probably a hat tip to Akshat’s brother?) is overwhelmingly explicit, Saif ensures he doesn’t seem like a gimmick.

There’s a suppressed philosophy in his feverish outbursts that suggest a curiosity, sadness and an unfulfilled life in desperate need of a high.

Kaalakaandi doesn’t always provide it, but there’s enough intrigue to play along.

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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My Favourite films of 2017

When one is constantly writing about films, there’s a danger of slipping into tedium.

And so it’s reassuring how every year, regardless of buzz or box office, some measure of brilliance makes the grade and renews one’s faith in the agency of cinema.

Businesswise, it wasn’t a profitable year for Hindi movies, but to say it was devoid of creativity would be undermining the efforts of those astute film-makers whose artistry inspired with its spirit and idealism, beat the living daylights out of convention, dug deep into the far-off corners of the soul and offered a refreshing, relevant perspective on social taboos.

Here they are then, 10 of my favourite Hindi films of 2017.

1. Mukti BhawanEvery once in a while comes a film that speaks to the depths and doubts of your mind and shares insights that’s tangible, tender and comforting.

Mukti Bhawan may be about mortality, but feels as real, as vivid and as mysterious as life itself.

Hands down, my pick of 2017.

My Review: Shubhashish Bhutiani’s serene yet stirring Mukti Bhawan views the world with sagacious eyes and attends to one of its most inconvenient truths with a pinch of humour and pile of wisdom. What comes forth is craftsmanship of staggering depth and sublime vision.

2. NewtonAmit V Masurkar’s spectacular study of contrasts, quandaries, disconnect and practical versus theory unfolds in an election official’s unwavering idealism and a CRPF officer’s burned out vigour.

Alternating between the challenges of conducting a peaceful poll in the troubled jungles of Chhattisgarh and glimpses of politics and neglect render Newton a conscience that is impossible to turn away from.

3. Shubh Mangal Saavdhan
It’s very rare that I like a remake better than the original but that’s exactly what happened in the case of director R Prasanna’s winsome reworking of Kalyana Samyal Sadham.

Shubh Mangal Saavdhan‘s humorous approach to a sensitive sexual issue combined with the idiosyncrasies of a North Indian wedding turn the spotlight on writer Hitesh Kawalya’s free flowing wit played out by a cast of brilliant actors.

My Review: With its fine zingers and feisty acknowledgement, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan does more for sex, both noun and verb, than any Hindi film can claim to in a long, long time.

4. TrappedTrapped is a consuming experience.

It sucks you inside its world and makes you feel everything its protagonist is going though.

I felt I was Rajkummar Rao all through Trapped. I felt his panic, his claustrophobia, his desperation, his rage, his resolve, his exhaustion and, finally, his release.

What. A. Film.

My Review: Vikramaditya Motwane feeds off the negativity of disastrous coincidences to explore a human being’s most profound fears as well as marvel at his dormant instincts. He documents Shaurya’s metamorphosis in a manner that’s almost Kafkaesque in its contemplations but aspiring for a King Bruce and the Spider like allegory in its perseverance, while reminiscent of Cast Away in its depiction of despair. Under just 103 minutes, Trapped treads more complexities than a straightforward survival story can possibly offer.

5. Death In The Gunj Everything is deceptively serene in Death in the Gunj‘s ambient, intriguing scheme.

Except Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut closely examines the workings of the unknowable human mind, where insecurity masquerades as rebellion, bullying is overlooked as banter, shame confuses itself for fear and keeping appearances is the only way to conceal the familial imbalance.

6. Anaarkali Of Aarah
There’s one scene in Anaarkali of Aarah where a bawdy dancer, played by Swara Bhaskar, is reacting to her much public molestation.

She says she’s no ‘sati savitri‘, but that doesn’t entitle anyone to behave indecently.

Bhaskar’s undaunted performance and the film’s spunky cry for consent drive this point home in the most unforgiving, unforgettable manner.

7. Jagga JasoosBlending music, mystery and madness at free will, Anurag Basu’s Jagga Jasoos is pretty much bopping with activity.

The reckless degree of bounce and breathlessness accompanying its singsong adventures, from anywhere to everywhere, work as pure adrenaline for the whimsy-starved viewer.

My Review: Verse and action spurt out by the second in the wildly alive and mobile phones-free universe of Anurag Basu’s Jagga Jasoos.

Dispensing with the notions of realism, Basu sets up a frothy space around his adventure fantasy that revels in its lavish imagination, meddlesome inquiries and delicious Bongness, never once pausing to catch a breath or make sense.

8. Tumhari SuluA character you root for, a film you wish to hug.

Tumhari Sulu‘s sweet triumphs and feel-good fervour come alive in Vidya Balan’s infectious zeal and taste for winning as a woman adamant on pursuing her own identity whilst coping with the constant guilt tossed in her path for being who she is.

My Review: There’s an effortless familiarity to the close-knit world Tumhari Sulu weaves in its 140 minutes running time. Its inhabitants are simply human in all their flawed, fallible existence, taking comfort in monotony, finding purpose amidst conventionality yet dedicatedly endeavouring to move up in the world.

9. Secret Superstar
Though it unravels quite a bit like a fairy tale and centres on a teenager, Secret Superstar is impressive in its depiction of troubled low-income households and small town aspirations.

There’s something to be said about the spirit of its leading lady’s ambitions as she goes about seeking empowerment for herself, her mother and inspiring a little breakthrough for her benefactor along the way.

My Review: Secret Superstar‘s cheerful, feel-good imagery of a rotten reality reflects a young adult’s hopeful perspective yet to be crushed by the weight of cynicism.

10. Jolly LLB 2
Jolly LLB 2 is the perfect blend of persuasive star power, crisp creativity and comical eloquence.

And the sheer pleasure of watching Saurabh Shukla, Annu Kapoor and Akshay Kumar spar and size each other up is alone worth revisiting its unabashedly crowd-pleasing antics again and again.

My Review: Jolly LLB 2 scorns at the intense rot eating up a noble profession without compromising on the rascality of its titular character.

This list was first published on rediff.com.

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