TiG Reviews: Inferno

Dan Brown strikes me as a particularly efficient traveller.

I can imagine the author of pulpy bestsellers such as The Da Vinci Code on a trip to Florence, Istanbul and other such places, visiting ancient monuments with a notebook and pen, jotting down details furiously while tourists around him click photos. He may be the only one listening intently to what guides really have to say, which explains why in most of his novels there is at least one moment where the lead characters have to consult a tour guide for help.

In Inferno, the latest Renaissance-themed crime thriller by the author that has been adapted to the big screen, his regular protagonist Robert Langdon returns to solve a crime that has world-altering potential (again). As in the previous two movies (The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons), Langdon is played by Tom Hanks. The professor of religious symbology (which is not a real thing, by the way) at Harvard University finds himself in a hospital bed in Florence, bleeding from the head and suffering from short-term memory loss. Luckily for him, he has company of the attractive and female kind in the form of Dr Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones). She’s the doctor at the hospital who speaks with a British accent, aside from speaking flawless Italian and French, and is quick to shield him from a murderous, uniformed policewoman channeling Famke Janssen from GoldenEye (1995).

Truth be told, I get the appeal of Brown’s stories, even though his writing is atrocious. They’re an intriguing blend of history, art, science, and alarmist prophecies with enough twists and turns to keep a viewer sufficiently engaged. With a director like Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon, Rush) on board, one would expect a polished and highly entertaining thriller. However, the problem with Inferno is that it doesn’t seem as though there has been much thought given to making a good film out of it. David Koepp’s screenplay is a by-the-numbers adaptation with clunky dialogue and paper-thin characterisation — the kind you’d expect from a pulpy Bollywood thriller, only with much higher production values.

The film opens with a bearded billionaire named Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), who is delivering some sort of TED Talk about the perils of overpopulation. Why anyone would go for this beats me, because all he does is parrot out the most obvious facts about population growth before leaving the stage — his speech has all the heft of a Facebook status. Soon, we see, he is being chased by a group of men in black overcoats, one of whom happens to be played by Omar Sy. This doesn’t end well; Zobrist throws himself off a tower to avoid getting caught.

However, we’re soon told that he had a secret plan that someone else can execute in the event of his death. In keeping with Dan Brown tradition, this isn’t a set of instructions that has been given to said person orally, in writing or via an encrypted device; it’s a series of elaborate clues that requires a Harvard professor’s expertise and active participation without letting him know what the endgame is.

Things get messy soon after, with multiple plot strands creating knots everywhere. Hanks delivers one of his most listless performance in years, opting to play Langdon as a man with an expression on his face that suggests chronic ulcerative colitis. Jones’ talents are wasted in a one-note role. On the other hand, Sy and Sidse Babett Knudsen, as WHO officer Dr Elizabeth Sinskey, are competent enough.

Meanwhile, the movie’s big draw for viewers in India, Irrfan Khan, does not disappoint as Harry ‘Provost’ Sims, the mysterious, enigmatic head of a covert security agency. It’s a weird part to be given — why an Indian man is called Harry Sims is never explained, and the dry, clipped humour suggests a character written for someone like a Jude Law or a Tom Hiddleston. But Khan, despite occasionally losing control of his diction, manages to hold his own and delivers the movie’s funniest and most honest scene, in which he murders a character and deadpans, “Sorry for the messy job.”

He may as well have been apologising for the movie, which goes further south in its third act. As if annoyingly expository dialogue and unbelievable plot twists weren’t bad enough, the movie caps it all by staging a preposterous climax in Istanbul’s Basilica Cistern. All of this is exacerbated by Hans Zimmer’s unremarkable and highly unimaginative background score — definitive proof that the composer is well past his prime and should perhaps call it a day. As should Robert Langdon.

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TiG Review : Ae Dil…

Note : This review contains spoilers. If you haven’t watched the film and are here, I suggest you don’t watch the film. 

If only real life were like Karan Johar’s movies.

I too want to live a carefree life in London (err, okay, perhaps a city with better weather) where I can be a student but have access to a private jet, hop across to other parts of Europe at will, and go to posh clubs and restaurants. Sure, there are people who have this in reality, but in Johar’s films, people are given professions for cosmetic reasons, the way dressing is added to salads. Everyday realities aren’t always taken into account.

So, in his latest film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Ayan Sanger (Ranbir Kapoor) is purportedly studying for an MBA degree, but secretly harbours dreams of being a singer. Yet, once this is established, it never really comes in the way when Ayan embarks upon impulsive European sojourns with Alizeh (Anushka Sharma), a girl he meets at a club. What does Alizeh do, you ask? There’s some line about working at yoga studios, but mostly she’s a full-time, Bollywood-loving sass (who can be a trifle annoying, truth be told). They meet-cute like Kapoor and Deepika Padukone’s characters in Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha, a film that Ae Dil… has much in common with. There’s plenty of, ahem, classy self-referencing — Johar harks back to lines or moments from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kal Ho Naa Ho multiple times, with no attempt at subtlety. There’s enough self-awareness as well — when two characters speak in chaste Urdu, the script has the good sense to make someone ask, “Have you guys rehearsed this?”

The most controversial film of the year, one that has fought tooth and nail to get to theatres, is perhaps also its most generic. Aside from Tamasha, there’s more than a whiff of Rockstar in here, a pinch of Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, and — this may be a bit of a spoiler but unfortunately it merits a mention here — a dash of Katti Batti. Once again, Kapoor plays an immature, entitled, and tortured lover who learns that heartbreak and suffering will benefit his art. Once again, Sharma plays a fast-talking, fully filmi patakha who becomes the object of the leading man’s affection. And once again, the phrase ’till death do us part’ acquires too literal a meaning.

As is the case with all of Johar’s movies, the usage of background music torpedoes the film quite a bit. Pritam’s score sounds like a brief has been followed to the T, with peppy Cuban playing music during allegedly funny scenes (a double-date sequence that attempts to find humour in slut-shaming), and heavy duty strings during emotional ones. Every ebb and flow of emotion is underlined, which ironically ends up diluting the actual impact of the scene instead.

Perhaps the only surprising thing about Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, aside from three starry cameos (one offensively bad, the second satisfactory, and the third absolute disastrous), is Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. She plays Saba, a poet from Vienna, whom Ayan meets on a flight but waits three months to call back; perhaps it’s because she’s annoyingly fluent in shaayari and he isn’t? Anyway, the point being that Bachchan, after a long time, is poised and completely reined in — this may be her best performance in years. Ayan seems completely taken in by her and moves to Vienna to live with her, whilst occasionally dabbling in music so that Pritam’s catchy, hit songs can get great — albeit somewhat unrealistic — picturisations.

I know what you’re thinking: why on earth would anyone look for realism in a Karan Johar movie, right? But it isn’t as much about realism as it is about world-building and honesty. For instance, I have no complaints with choreographed numbers, like ‘Cutiepie’ and ‘The Breakup Song’, because if done well, it’s a form of its own that fits the situations well (one is in a wedding; the other in a nightclub) and don’t really require justification.

But when you deliberately skimp on characterisation in order to simplify your script (i.e. not work harder at it), it shows. For instance, Ae Dil… wants us to think of Alizeh as a free spirit, so it goes out of its way to never really introduce us to, say, her parents or any other friends. Later in the film — don’t say I didn’t warn you about spoilers earlier — when she falls terminally ill with final-stage cancer, she continues to be inexplicably alone, so as to make it easier for Ayan to re-enter her life when the right time comes.

Speaking of the big C, that is the point at which Ae Dil… nosedives. We’re treated to visuals of Kapoor and Sharma wearing fake-looking prosthetic scalps (he ‘shaves’ his head out of solidarity), looking like a cross between Ouro from Paa and the characters from the TV show Alien Nation. A scene in an ambulance makes a valiant attempt at redemption, but for me, the damage done was irreversible. Not only do they look ridiculous — why couldn’t they have actually shaved their heads? — but also because it makes the entire story take a painfully sentimental and predictable turn.

Up until then, it’s generic but mostly harmless fun, with some watchable chemistry between Kapoor and Sharma, and later him with Bachchan. A scene where a drunk Ayan peers into a mirror and fantasises about marrying Alizeh is one of the best scenes, and Kapoor, who is now a bona-fide expert at portraying the emotionally fragile millennial, absolutely nails this part of his performance. Fawad Khan (in a seven-minute role) plays the rakish Ali, a scruffily handsome professional DJ whom Alizeh ends up marrying, is effortlessly charismatic. What a pity we may not get to see him on screen again for a while.

TiG Review : SULTAN

Fear not, Bhaisexuals — all is well with the Salman Khan Image Makeover Machine.

His latest, Ali Abbas Zafar’s Sultan, is as much evidence as is needed. This year’s solo Eid release — a Khan staple — is an unabashedly gung-ho sports melodrama about a Haryanvi wrestler named Sultan Ali Khan. In this film, Bhai is often shirtless and beating up people. He’s also a simpleton who manages to get the girl of his dreams. In a bizarre party sequence, women in cocktail dresses ask him in accented Hindi to leave his wife and go for one of them instead, but Bhai smiles shyly and instead croons a romantic song dedicated to his significant other.

*Ka-ching!*

It won’t matter to the box-office or to legions of Khan’s fans that Sultan is, at best, a somewhat-above-average star vehicle that uses well-worn commercial cinema tropes along with a few engaging wrestling/mixed martial arts sequences to cast its spell. The result is a familiar-ish, crowd-pleasing spectacle that occasionally skimps on basics like good writing and solid characterisation. While it is far ahead of last year’s abysmal MMA drama Brothers (2015), with which it has much in common, it still sacrifices authenticity here and there for the benefit of rousing ‘filmi’ moments.

When we first meet Sultan, he is a 30-year-old beefcake with a fledgling dish antenna business in his hometown (Rewari, Haryana) and the proud possessor of 1 nos. heart of gold. He doesn’t wrestle, however; all those bulging muscles (including the ones in his head) are the result of his ability to successfully chase kites better than kids, some of whom are half his age. On one such run, he chances upon Aarfa (Anushka Sharma), who is also a wrestler — a state champion at that — despite the fact that she possesses literally zero muscles and somehow always finds the time to get her make-up just right. Perhaps Meera from NH10 (2015) grew fond of rural Haryana and decided to stay back.

 In what has become a bit of a trend in Salman movies of late, the best actor in the film is the guy who plays the star’s best friend: Anant Sharma, who plays sidekick Govind with plenty of enthusiasm and the film’s most believable Haryanvi accent. As Sultan falls head over heels in love, with song situations for numbers like ‘Baby Ko Bass Pasand Hai’ and ‘440 Volt’ being spelt out as clearly as possible, Govind is with him every step of the way.
Zafar — who is also credited with story, screenplay, and dialogues — makes it very clear that he isn’t interested in subtleties. His film, while peppered with several watchable moments, is unabashedly male, with some mild feministic posturing that eventually rings hollow. For instance, Aarfa, who is shown to be wildly independent and focused on her dream (winning an Olympic gold medal), resists Sultan’s amorous advances at first. Taking this as a challenge, Sultan approaches her father Barkat Hussain (a typically genial Kumud Mishra), who runs a local akhaada, and asks to be trained for the state championship. A couple of Benny-Hill- and Rocky-inspired montages later, Sultan has become so good that he’s vanquished someone twice his weight. Suddenly, Aarfa has fallen in love with him. Later, she even gives up on her own dreams so that he can chase them. (Spoiler alert: he does, and succeeds! So much for years of training and discipline.). The only real reason given for this change of heart is that she’s in love and wants him to be happy, and this seems out of character.

Meanwhile, many years later, a sports entrepreneur named Aakash Oberoi (Amit Sadh), who is one of the people behind a failing franchise called Pro Takedown, attempts to bring Sultan into an MMA league (featuring actual Ultimate Fighting Championship fighters such as Tyron Woodley), eight years after a tragedy came between Aarfa and him (this, again, is literally fed to the audience) and led to him quitting wrestling forever. The second half, as one would imagine, is all about his return to the ring in a quest to win her back.
Khan, who has been playing the brawny simpleton for a while now, coasts through on his looks and the practiced ease with which he can disguise arrogance with almost child-like innocence (note: I’m only talking about his acting here). Despite often looking too old for the role, he somehow makes it work, and even displays surprising agility in some of the fighting scenes as well as one signature break-dance move in the song ‘Jag Ghoomeya’ (I was actually shocked by how well he did it).

Aesthetically, the film has all the hallmarks one would expect from a commercial entertainer: ever-present background music (Julius Packiam), sweeping shots and predictable usage of slow-motion, thunderous sound design… you know, the works. Towards the latter half, Randeep Hooda makes an enjoyable, Burgess-Meredith-like appearance as Fateh Singh, a man who runs an underground fighting club in old Delhi, and takes a gone-to-seed Sultan under his wing. “Saala saand,” he mutters delightedly, as he watches Sultan win a fight on TV — one of the film’s more pleasurable moments. Other moments, which attempt to hammer in cheesy, ‘It’s about fighting what’s within you’-like life lessons, didn’t work as well for me, admittedly.

But my biggest problem with Sultan is that it just doesn’t try hard enough to escape its own limitations, something Kabir Khan managed well with last year’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015). In a year in which movies like Airlift, Neerja, Kapoor & Sons: Since 1921, and Udta Punjab — to say nothing of the Marathi blockbuster Sairat — have changed the idiom of commercial cinema, Sultan is happy to stick to a more dated form and indulge in fan service.

At the end of the day, Zafar’s film is likely to have mass appeal and even win appreciation. But the yardstick being used is Salman’s filmography itself, and I reject the notion that the star is his own genre because it’s a convenient excuse to make mediocre films that will be over-praised merely if one gets a few of the basics right.