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Posts Tagged ‘Irrfan Khan’

Here’s a (probably borderline) interesting thing: both the movies of The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons came out on basically the same weekend in the middle of May (albeit three years apart), an extremely reliable release date for something aspiring to be a solid summer blockbuster. You can’t argue with success, one way or another, and so here we are with another film from the same people – Inferno, directed by Ron Howard, starring Tom Hanks, yadda yadda yadda. And yet, as a glance out of your window may already have revealed, we are in the middle of October, much more nebulous territory for films looking to make pots of money, and in some ways the preserve of those actually aspiring to receive a little critical acclaim and recognition. Has a multi-hundred-million dollar take gone to everyone’s heads? Or is this genuinely a more sophisticated and classy film than its antecedents?

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Um, no it’s not. But it does have a go at being a rattling good yarn (I believe this is the term). One of the good things about these films is that you get the benefits of Dan Brown’s command of story structure without needing to be exposed to his prose style, and – following some prefatory material about someone falling off a tower in Florence while being chased by mysterious agent-types – we get a properly barnstorming opening, as maverick symbologist (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: hmmm) Robert Langdon (Hanks) wakes up in hospital with Movie Amnesia, having had a bang on the head. Rather to his surprise Hanks finds he is in Florence.

Events proceed apace as a slightly psychotic policewoman turns up and starts shooting at Hanks, leading him to take cover with the fortuitously English and pulchritudinous ER doctor, played by Felicity Jones. Sure enough, it seems that Langdon has got himself tangled up in another of those shadowy conspiracies he is so prone to encountering.

Basically, visionary cleverclogs Bert Zobrist (Ben Foster – he’s had a busy year) has come to the conclusion that the planet is hopelessly overpopulated and made what looks rather like a TED Talk to share his thoughts. Unlike most people who make TED Talks, however, Zobrist has also cooked up a lethal virus which will resolve the situation by killing off half the world’s population. (He really should have checked with Professor Hans Rosling first.)

However, Zobrist’s ability to carry out his cruel-to-be-kind scheme is limited as he fell off a tall building at the start of the film, and no-one knows where the virus has been hidden. Except, of course, that before his death, Zobrist created a trail of terribly erudite and subtle clues, all referencing the works of Dante, which will ultimately lead to the location of the virus. (As you would.) So the authorities have got Langdon in to find this very valuable, not to mention spectacularly dangerous, commodity. But is there something else going on? Did Zobrist have a back-up plan which is even now unfolding? Could be…

Well, Awix’s handy guide to the Robert Langdon films runs as follows: Da Vinci Code – a bit weird but actually quite thought-provoking and certainly original, in its own way. Angels and Demons – utterly ridiculous but secretly quite fun. Inferno may not feature skydiving pontiffs or photon torpedoes under the Vatican, but it definitely inclines more towards the preposterously daft end of the Dan Brown spectrum.

Things adhere very much to the style of the previous films, with a lot of breathless jogging from one art treasure to another while Hanks holds forth on the history of whatever it is they’re going to see – I’ve made the mistake of over-doing my schedule on a holiday and ended up having a similar experience, come to think of it – and then some pointing. One sequence sees Hanks and Jones fleeing a team of heavily armed men while Hanks tries to complete an anagram; this is kind of the level of the whole thing.

While it is, as I believe I mentioned, almost absurdly over-plotted and with a few truly outrageous twists along the way (the main one of which I must confess to having figured out well in advance of its appearance), on the whole this remains a pacy, slick and good-looking film – very much a potential apocalypse sponsored by the Italian and Turkish tourist boards. It may be nonsense, but it’s such busy and engaging nonsense that you never completely focus on this, though it’s a near thing.

Hanks is his usual personable self and a steady presence at the centre of the film; I don’t think he quite gets the material he deserves, though. As befits a film on this kind of scale, a top-rate cast has been assembled to try and keep a straight face around him – as well as Foster (who’s in the film an impressive amount considering he dies in the first five minutes), there’s Omar Sy, but my award for Best Thing in a Dodgy Movie goes to Irffan Khan, who delivers a bizarrely deadpan comic performance as the leader of a fairly improbable secret organisation. Howard’s direction is as competent as ever, and he stages some interestingly nightmarish hallucinations at the start of the film – these sort of fade away as it continues, which I thought was a bit of a shame, as if nothing else they gave the film more of an identity of its own.

I’m not sure what else to say about Inferno: the actual content of the story may be implausible cobblers, but the narrative structure itself is utterly sound, and there’s enough talent involved for the film to pass the time rather agreeably, provided you disconnect your critical faculties. (I’m still not sure if there’s some significance to a film about overpopulation ending with someone having a baby.) I will be utterly staggered if Inferno has any presence in the major categories of next year’s awards season, but it should probably make a tidy sum. A solid piece of rather hokey mainstream entertainment.

 

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Advance publicity and good word-of-mouth are very important these days, and bearing that in mind it has been interesting to follow the pre-release fortunes of Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World. The multiplexes and merchandising companies are clearly anticipating a big payday from this one, perhaps fondly recalling the squijillion dollars made by the original Jurassic Park in 1993, and have even done things like print up novelty 3D-glasses-covers and fake ‘Day Passes’. Expectations from other sectors has been rather different: the production has been soundly condemned for not making its dinosaurs as scientifically-accurate as possible, while even the esteemed Joss Whedon took to the internet to criticise one previewed scene for its old-fashioned gender politics (ironically, this was before Whedon was driven from Twitter for the heinous crime of making Age of Ultron a competent superhero movie rather than some kind of feminist tract).

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Well, hey ho, here we are, and very shortly the box office will speak for itself. Steven Spielberg has some sort of behind-the-scenes role this time around, with the co-writing and directing duties going to Trevorrow, whose only previous film was Safety Not Guaranteed – a little indie borderline-SF film with only about 0.5% of the budget of this one. (That’s a movie which everyone seems to like but me.) At times Jurassic World does feel like the work of a someone grabbing his shot at the big time with both hands, not that this is always necessarily a good thing.

The film opens with (in defiance of all sanity) Jurassic World in full operation, based on the same island as the original park. Business is, as they say, booming, but a steady stream of new attractions is required and the pursuit of novelty has led to the company cooking up their own bespoke new dinosaurs in the lab. This is fine as far as overachieving exec Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is concerned, for she is primarily interested in the bottom line, but animal expert and raptor trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) is deeply alarmed by the psychopathic genetically-engineered monster that the park is preparing to unveil to the public. Sure enough, the (named by a focus group) ‘indominus rex’ busts out in short order and sets out on a gory reign of terror. It is just the baddest of bad luck that all this happens while Claire’s young nephews (Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson) are spending the weekend in the park…

So, needless to say, we’re dealing with a real brute of a hybrid here, utterly relentless in trying to get what it wants – and the GM dino in the film is pretty nasty too. Apparently one of the reasons for the long interval since the release of Jurassic Park 3 in 2001 was the perceived need to find some new ideas to freshen up the franchise. Well, there are certainly some new ideas here, but whether they should all be in the same film is another matter.

One of the possible consequences of the long gap between sequels is that Jurassic World feels the need to make explicit call-outs to the first film: quite apart from snatches of John Williams’ wonderful music, there’s a statue of Richard Attenborough’s character, and some locations are revisited. There’s even a reasonably significant role for B.D. Wong, who played one of Attenborough’s boffins back in 1993 – Wong gets the plum assignment of having to explain just why, in defiance of all scientific understanding, Jurassic World’s theropod dinosaurs are plumage-free.

To be fair, it’s a pretty clever explanation and adds to a sense of self-referentiality that Trevorrow occasionally deploys during the long build-up to all the running and screaming and chomping. Everyone is always looking for the next big spectacle, we are told, regardless of logic or good sense, and plain old dinosaurs just don’t have the gosh-wow effect they had back in 1993. (Which is true: Jurassic Park’s special effects have stood up well, but viewing it now, it has nothing like the same gobsmack factor it had on its first release.) Inevitably, though, the film can’t venture too far down this particular avenue, for fear of seeming too knowing or even hypocritical. The soulless corporate types in the movie have cooked up the new GM monster in a cynical attempt to attract people to their big cash cow, but Jurassic World can’t be too satirical about this, for that pretty much describes the thinking behind the making of the movie itself.

There’s not a great deal of this material in the film, as I say, but it has a level of intelligence and wit that is noticeably lacking from other sections of the movie (though, to be fair, the film’s jokes have a pretty good hit rate). Once the beast gets loose, we are pretty much in business-as-usual territory for your typical blockbuster. However, it feels like there’s some genuine uncertainty as to what kind of film this is meant to be – is it a ‘running away from the dinosaurs’ film like the first three, or a more traditional monster movie? A bonkers subplot involving a scheme to sell weaponised raptors to the US Army suggests the latter. Jurassic World can’t seem to decide which one it is, resulting in a slightly iffy dramatic structure and some real tonal oddities at various points: lots of different ideas are thrown at the screen, perhaps too many, and I must say in terms of sheer enjoyment I didn’t have as good a time as I did watching the much simpler and less-inventive Jurassic Park 3.

This lack of focus might be less noticeable if the two teenage boys were engaging characters (they’re not) while the female lead is actively annoying. The central relationship between Howard and Pratt is, quite simply, utterly unconvincing. One thing I will say is that this film should confirm Chris Pratt as a bona fide star, as he remains completely watchable even when delivering some fairly dubious material. (Sadly, it should come as no surprise whatsoever that great actors like Irrfan Khan and Omar Sy are sadly underused, further down the cast list.)

Hope is the thing with feathers, according to Emily Dickinson, which should therefore mean that Jurassic World, with its non-plumed dinos, is a pretty hopeless case. Despite everything that I’ve said, I still don’t think that’s entirely true: it has a good leading man, it’s visually lavish, and Trevorrow manages to seed it with little moments of wit and visual invention. But overall, you can’t escape the impression that wider corporate concerns were keeping the director from making the darker, smarter, funnier, more focused film he probably wanted to. The weird thing about Jurassic World is that this is a movie which goes out of its way to explain to you exactly why it was made and what the resulting problems are. Ten out of ten for honesty, but minus fifty for self-awareness, guys.

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Long term readers may recall my general antipathy towards the traditional cutesy and predictable rom-com formula, mainly on the grounds that it has none of the connection to reality that it affects to, and doesn’t work hard enough to earn its big moments of emotional release. Long term readers may also recall my general policy of ‘stroke a bandicoot’ when it comes to non-Anglophone cinema. So things were finely poised when it came to Ritesh Batra’s Hindi-language rom-com The Lunchbox. As it transpires, however, I currently seem to be stuck in the habit of going to the cinema at least twice a week, so it’s almost difficult not to see films at the moment.

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Central to the plot of Batra’s film are the famed dabbawallahs of Mumbai, who deliver hundreds of thousands of packed lunches to the workers of the city from their nearest and dearest, with a staggeringly tiny error rate of only one misdirected lunch in every seven million. As the plot of The Lunchbox is predicated on a lunch going astray on a regular basis, you might expect the dabbawallahs themselves to be getting justifiably cross about this misrepresentation. For all I know, they are, but disgruntled lunch delivery technicians in Mumbai don’t usually make the news in the UK.

Anyway, the lunch in question is prepared by Ila (Nimrat Kaur), an unhappy young housewife attempting to rekindle her husband’s affection for her. But due to the statistically improbable slip-up mentioned above, the delicious meals she so painstakingly prepares end up on the desk of curmudgeonly widower Saajan (Irrfan Khan). Saajan is on the verge of retirement, and, although this is voluntary, still doesn’t seem delighted at the prospect. Possibly it’s just the prospect of training his overly-perky replacement Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) which is bringing him down.

Well, anyway, Saajan proves much more appreciative of Ila’s cookery than her husband has ever been, and the two begin exchanging notes via the rather laborious mechanism of the lunchbox itself. Slowly their relationship develops, and causes both of them to reconsider their attitude to life, and their hopes for the future.

You are probably already imagining what The Lunchbox is like, but I have to say the version you have running through your head is considerably cuter, less thoughtful, and more annoyingly obvious than the one that Ritesh Batra has actually made. This is almost certainly a wholly good thing. In fact, for much of its running time The Lunchbox doesn’t look much like a rom-com at all. I’m not even sure I would actually call this film a comedy. There are certainly many lighter moments, mostly courtesy of Shaikh and Ila’s unseen upstairs neighbour (voiced by Bharati Achrekar), but much of the film has a poignant, almost melancholic quality, as the characters consider the harsher realities of their lives. This is unmistakably an Indian movie, and the premise of the plot is a uniquely Indian institution, but the wider themes of the piece are universal ones – fear of ageing, loneliness, loss, acceptance, and so on. The movie isn’t afraid to venture, briefly, into some quite dark places.

As a result the relationship between Saajan and Ila, as it slowly and quite credibly develops, really feels as though it means something and could make a difference to both of them. In short, the film works hard to earn an emotional response from the audience, rather just resorting to cheap tricks and gimmickry. It’s an ironic thing, but it seems to me that films which do this are also the ones most likely to avoid giving the audience the big moment of emotional release which they have worked so hard to justify. Does The Lunchbox fall into this category? It would be remiss of me to give away the end of the film, but it was certainly unexpected when it came. This was the kind of movie where many members of the audience stayed in their seats long into the credits, almost as if they were hoping to learn a little more about what would happen to the characters.

The film’s depiction of Mumbai life is convincingly vivid, and for me brought back many memories of living in south Asia. The three main performances are uniformly strong, benefiting from a subtle and layered script. Irrfan Khan shows the star quality which has started to make him a fixture in major Hollywood movies: this isn’t the showiest of parts, but Khan portrays a man coming to a new understanding of himself with meticulous skill and nuance – this is as good a performance as I’ve seen this year.

As you can tell, I liked this film a lot, mainly because it sticks a lot less closely to the rom-com playbook than I feared it might. It’s one of those films which sets out to warm your heart and for the most part actually succeeds. I’m not saying it made me want to set out in search of new romance in my life, but it certainly made me fancy a curry, and this is amongst the least of its achievements.

 

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I have an open offer of a bet that anyone who knows me can take up. The terms are as follows: together we will walk down the high street of any small town in England and visit every charity shop we pass along the way. For every such shop which contains a copy of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi amongst its second hand stock, you give me £5. For every shop from which Life of Pi is completely absent, I will give you £15. I am confident I will make money on this, for Martel’s book does seem to be one of those which was avidly purchased but not much retained (or, one suspects, finished). Nevertheless its combination of popular and critical success means that a film version has appeared, directed by Ang Lee.

Now, this movie has been released in glowing colour and stereo sound, with 3D also being available should that really be your cup of tea. I have to take all the foregoing for granted, as, in an attempt to foster the success of small independent cinemas across the UK, I went to see it at the Island in St Annes. I saw The Hobbit again there in their main screen and found it perfectly acceptable, but in screen 3 for Life of Pi all was not well: there was some kind of issue with the aspect ratio, the colour was washed out, the sound was a bit iffy and the auditorium too bright. All of this made long sections of the film look and sound about 35 years old (which is sort of ironic as this is when it’s set). I’m all for helping the little guy out, and admittedly it was only £3 a ticket (special New Year offer) – but come on, Island St Annes. You have to do better than this.

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Moving on from the latest instalment of New Cinema Review: in Lee’s film Rafe Spall plays a fictionalised version of Martel himself, a blocked writer who has been directed to talk to middle-aged Asian academic Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan), as Pi apparently has the world’s most extraordinary story to tell him. What follows at first is a series of charming, fabulist anecdotes about someone collecting swimming pools, Pi quite wisely choosing to shed his birth name of Piscine Molitor Patel and doing so by a wholly remarkable method, his adoption of three different religions at the same time, and so on.

Then Pi’s father, a fiercely rationalist zookeeper, decides to relocate the family to Canada, taking all the zoo animals with them to sell. En route the ship encounters a savage storm and is lost. Pi, aged 16 (and played by Suraj Sharma), is the only survivor, finding himself adrift in a lifeboat with only a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan and a Bengal tiger for company, and most of the rest of the film concerns his various battles with nature and despair, with little hope of returning to dry land and an unpleasant death in the offing from any number of directions. (I had a similar experience on the boating lake at Butlin’s Filey in 1983, although come to think of it there wasn’t a tiger involved that time.)

Life of Pi‘s combination of narrative quirkiness and peculiar formal challenge instantly made me think that this was the kind of film entirely up Danny Boyle’s street – perhaps this would have been a little too obvious a choice for him, given he’s already done the remarkable life story of an Indian youth, as well as a struggle for survival with only one real character and a single location involved. Anyway, he spent most of last year either pepping up Baron Frankenstein or wondering at aisles, and so the job went to Ang Lee. The golden thread running with utter consistency through Lee’s filmography is that his films have virtually nothing in common with each other – this is the guy who’s done the costume drama literary adaptation, the martial arts arthouse favourite, the one about the gay shepherds, and the first version of Hulk, and so one shouldn’t be surprised by anything he chooses to do.

Personally I find I can take or leave Ang Lee’s movies – they all look good and are clearly the work of someone thoughtful, but quite often I find I can’t really engage with the story for whatever reason. I thought Life of Pi was one of Lee’s better films, although as a technical achievement more than anything else. You would think that an hour-plus of someone stuck on a raft or in a lifeboat with a hungry tiger would quickly get monotonous, if not actually boring – but the film remains engaging and nuanced throughout, with a distinct sense of a developing narrative (though I did wonder why the lifeboat never filled up with tiger dung). Sometimes it is tense, sometimes moving, sometimes funny: and this is largely down to Lee’s direction and a very assured performance from Suraj Sharma – given the prologue and epilogue sections of the film are very voiceover-heavy, Lee employs this device surprisingly sparingly for the main part of it. Richard Parker the tiger appears to be a fully CGI-ed creation, and an impressive one – presumably the original footage features a lot of Andy Serkis in a striped onesie.

The main section is also surprisingly light on obvious symbolism or Big Questions, especially given that the lengthy prologue seems to be going out of its way to raise serious issues concerning faith and religion, and our relationship with the natural world. The fact that the animals in the lifeboat are not remotely narrative-friendly or anthropomorphised in the slightest is a crucial one and seems to me to be central to the film. At one point this seemed to me to be becoming a deeply and openly allegorical story, with all sorts of parallels to different religious stories – but also one about what it means to be a human being trying to make sense of a complex and chaotic world. The film doesn’t really make much sense as anything else, so it’s just as well that it’s quite effective in those terms (although there’s a sequence where Pi encounters a very odd island inhabitated solely by meerkats that I’m not sure completely works – thankfully none of the meerkats try to sell him insurance, though).

This is a well-made and striking film about what it is that distinguishes us from the other animals of the world: and seemed to me to be suggesting that it’s our capacity for faith that makes the crucial difference. I’m not sure I agree with that myself, but Life of Pi is interesting and enjoyable enough whether you agree with its central thesis or not (or even with my idea of what its central thesis actually is). Probably not quite strong enough to pick up the big awards in the looming gong season (with the possible exception of Suraj Sharma’s performance), but a classy and serious film, worth seeing in a decent theatre.

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