Sunday, April 26, 2020

Netflix: Review of EXTRACTION: Hemsworth Hardy and Hectic

April 26, 2020

Ovi Mahajan Jr. (Rudhraksh Jaiswal), the son of India's biggest drug lord Ovi Mahajan Sr., was abducted and held for a substantial ransom by Bangladesh's biggest drug lord, Amir Asif (Rudhraksh Jaiswal). A black market mercenary group led by Nik Khan (Golshifteh Farahani) and her tenacious recruit Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) embarked to rescue Ovi Jr. Meanwhile, fearing for his family's safety, the senior Ovi's right-hand man Saju (Randeep Hooda) launched his own mission to bring his master's son back.

This was a much-awaited Netflix original movie because it reunited "Avengers" directors the Russo brothers and their star Chris Hemsworth. However, in this project, just like how it was with "21 Bridges" with "Black Panther" Chadwick Boseman, the Russo brothers were the producers (along with Hemsworth), and not the directors. However, unlike "Bridges," the story of "Extraction" was credited to the Russos, with the screenplay credited solely on Joe Russo, who was also one of the co-authors of graphic novel "Ciudad," from which the script was adapted. 

Chris Hemsworth was such a cool guy as the god Thor, and here, as a very mortal Tyler Rake, he still brought that same level of fearlessness in the face of certain death. To be honest, Tyler's stamina and skills can come across as unreal and superhuman, but being Hemsworth, he exuded that believable aura of invincibility. Tyler was also given a tender backstory to somehow ground the hero with some vulnerability, and Hemsworth showed off the heart behind his gruff bravado as only he could deliver.

Among all the action scenes in the film, the most harrowing and exciting was that seemingly seamless 10-minute frenetic car chase scene with police through narrow alleys and on foot through a residential apartment building. This would later segue into a prolonged hand-to-hand fight scene with Hooda, which ended on the busy market below. That whole painfully brutal sequence was exhilarating to watch as it must have been exhausting for cast and crew to execute and shoot. There were also some graphically violent scenes involving teenage boys which were difficult to watch. 

"Extraction" will find it difficult to escape comments that it perpetuates the "white savior" trope. For some reason, there just had to be this Caucasian character in order for Ovi Jr. to have been rescued. However, going beyond that, "Extraction" had all the thrills and spills adrenaline-junkies crave for in an action film. Having rather one-dimensional characters, it hovered precariously near B-flick territory, only taken up a notch by Chris Hemsworth's star power and stunt-coordinator Sam Hargrave's instinctive direction for action. 6/10.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Netflix: 3 Mini-Reviews: PK, DANGAL, SECRET SUPERSTAR: Aamir's Aces Pt. 2

April 24, 2020

I just watched three classic Aamir Khan films from the first decade of the new millennium, and I wrote about them in my last article (LINK). After enjoying this Bollywood experience, I looked up the updated list of the biggest box-office hits among Hindi films to see what I should see next. I was amazed to see that three of the Top 5, all within this current decade) were actually all on Netflix, and all also starred Aamir Khan. Therefore, it was logical that these were the three films I had chosen to watch and write about for this article. 

PK (2014)

Directed by Rajkumar Hirani
Written by Rajkumar Hirani, Abhijat Joshi

In a remote arid area in India, there was a human-like alien who set down by his spaceship. Unfortunately, his remote communication device was stolen by the first human he encountered.  Since then, the alien (who had since earned the name of PK, or "Tipsy," because of his strange drunken behavior) went into a long arduous search for this precious item, all the way to New Delhi. A female TV journalist named Jaggu saw him on the train distributing leaflets looking for "God" When she heard his story, she thought his unusual alien logic would be a big hit on TV news. 

With a worldwide gross of $140M, this is now the 4th biggest grossing Hindi film of all time. It was the first Hindi film which broke the $100M ceiling back in 2014. When I first read the synopsis that it was about an alien and saw Aamir Khan's Mr. Bean-like facial expression, wide-open eyes, raised eyebrows and all, I thought that this was going to be a wacky comedy. Well, there were a lot of comic moments, some even raunchy gags (like the "dancing cars" and the brothel). However, I was really surprised at how deeply philosophical the central topic of religion had been dissected by the script. That incredible montage of PK joining ritual practices of various religions was one simply epic sequence of images. Talking about religion is tricky business and potentially offensive, but the popularity of this film proved that the filmmakers' bold risks paid off. As the naively confused yet sensitively perceptive alien PK, Aamir Khan gave what could be the most powerful performance I've seen him in. The side story about Jaggu (the elegant Anushka Sharma) and her Pakistani boyfriend Sharifar (a charming Sushant Singh Rajput) was such a touching romantic aspect. 9/10. 

DANGAL (2016)

Directed by Nitesh Tiwari
Written by Nitesh Tiwari, Piyush Gupta, Shreyas Jain, Nikhil Meharotra

Mahavir Singh Phogat, was a national level wrestler who was forced by his father to give up the sport in order to work in an office. Since then, he wished for a son to pursue his dream of winning India a gold medal in an international competition. He gave up his dream when he and his wife only had daughters. One day, his older daughters Geeta and Babita beat up two boy bullies, which made Mahavir then realized that his dream may not dead at all. Despite all the taunting they received in their neighborhood, he began to train his two girls to become wrestlers.

This currently holds the record for the biggest ever box-office earnings for a Hindi-language film with a massive $311M take worldwide (more than $210M from China alone). This is also said to be the highest-grossing sports film in the world, which is another amazing statistic. The story was based on real-life female Indian wrestling champions from this decade. Like all sports film, it followed the usual formula of the protagonists' experience of how they triumph despite severe adversity. However, the familial and cultural aspects in this story gave it an extra sting. Aside from his usual intense acting performance, Aamir Khan really bulked up to have a paunchy "dad-bod" to play Mahavir. Geeta was played by then 14-year old Zaira Wasim in her debut film as a young girl, and Fatima Sana Shaikh as a young lady. The execution of all the wrestling action was incredibly real yet dramatically powerful, especially from these two young actresses. 8/10. 


Directed by Advait Chandan

Written by Advait Chandan

Insia Malik, a 15 year-old Gujarati Muslim girl, who dreamed of becoming a famous singer, a dream which her selfless mother Najma (Mejer Vij) fully supported. However, her abusive father (Raj Arjun) only wanted her to concentrate on her studies, and was very much against her music. Insia posted a video on YouTube of her playing the guitar and singing her own composition, while wearing a niqab to hide her identity. Her music videos soon became viral, eventually catching the attention of a notorious big-time celebrity music producer based in Mumbai, Shakti Kuman, who soon offered her a recording deal. 

This is currently ranked #3 in the list of all-time biggest box-office hits among Hindi films. If Aamin Khan's character in "PK" seemed to be inspired by Mr. Bean, his character here was an exaggerated Simon Cowell. He was brazenly cocky and outrageously loud (in behavior and costume) as pompous music producer Shakti. However the main protagonist here was Insia, played by Zaira Wasim. If Wasim's wrestling skills were very realistic in "Dangal," so were her guitar and singing skills here as "Secret Superstar." (Those crystalline vocals were actually rendered by Meghna Mishra.)  If there was one familiar sub-theme I had observed in many of these Bollywood films I had seen recently, there was always an abusive father as an antagonist, and the same is true here. The focus of the film was unexpectedly turned to another character at the 11th hour, which gave the film a richer emotional impact towards the end. 7/10. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Netflix: 3 Mini-Reviews: LAGAAN, RANG DE BASANTI, TAARE ZAMEEN PAR: Aamir's Aces Pt. 1

April 20, 2020

Before there was Netflix, the only Bollywood film I had watched was "3 Idiots" (2009), starring Indian superstar Aamir Khan. That was a wacky comedy about three engineering students as well as a satire about the Indian educational system, . Now that there is Netflix, we now have access to a lot more Bollywood films than ever before, something I did not realize right away until this quarantine period. The first films I had chosen to watch were three famous films were submitted as India's entry to the Oscars Foreign Language Film category in their respective years (but only "Lagaan" made it to the final nomination list). All three films also starred Aamir Khan. 

LAGAAN (2001)

Directed by Ashutosh Gowariker
Produced by Aamir Khan
Written by K. P. Saxena, Ashutosh Gowariker

It was 1893. The farmers in the village of Champaner could not grow crops because of a long dry spell. When the farmers went to protest their double taxation, they saw the British officers playing a game of cricket. A spirited young farmer named Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) joked that cricket was just child's play for him. Incensed, British commanding office Capt. Russell challenged Bhuvan to cricket match, a victory of which will free their village from tax for three years. However, if they lost, they were going to be levied triple their present tax. 

When I first saw that the running time of this film was a formidable 224 minutes, I admit to have been intimidated. I would soon realize that the running time would be so long because of multiple musical numbers which were interspersed throughout the film. I knew nothing about cricket, so I cannot really follow the games being played and the rules being imposed, but those scenes were quite entertaining. Aside from the sports aspect, there was patriotism (national unity), acceptance (caste system) and romance (inter-racial attraction) in the mix. As the bold and noble Bhuvan, Aamir Khan was ever the charmer as he was torn between two lovely ladies -- his neighbor Gauri (Grace Singh) and Capt. Russell's sister Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley). This was the maiden venture of Khan as a producer. At that time, its budget of $5M was unprecedented for a Hindi film. 7/10.


Directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra
Written by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Kamlesh Pandey, Rensil D'Silva

James McKinley was a British prison guard during the 1931 hanging of Indian revolutionary Bhagat Singh and his friends. In the present time, his grand-daughter Sue (Alice Patten) went to New Delhi to film a documentary about these revolutionaries with details based on her grandfather's diary. When she met her friend Sofia's (Soha Ali Khan) rowdy group of friends -- Daljit "DJ" Singh (Aamir Khan), Karan Singhania, Aslam Khan and Sukhi Ram (Sharman Joshi) -- she decided that she had found her perfect cast of actors for her film. 

Even if I was not aware of this episod of Indian history, the way this film was presented had been very engaging as it shifted from present (in full color) to past (in sepia tones) events as a film within a film. As they were in the process of filming about revolutionary heroes, the four young friends underwent a gradual passage from foolish mischief to selfless maturity. Aamir Khan may be playing the bad boy leader of the gang DJ, but I was more drawn to the portrayals of the other guys, especially Siddharth Narayan as the jaded rich boy Karan, Kunal Kapoor as the friendly Moslem Aslam, and especially Atul Kulkami as Laxman Pandey, a conservative activist at odds with the Westernized lifestyle of DJ's gang. This film boldly delivered a very strong statement about corruption in the Indian government. The musical interludes by A.R. Rahman add to this film's cultural statements and value. 8/10.


Directed by Aamir Khan
Produced by Aamir Khan

Written by Amole Gupte

Ishaan Awasthi was a 8 year-old boy who hated school because he could never read, write or do math the way his teachers liked. Midterm, he was transferred by his strict father (Vipin Sharma) to a boarding school hoping it could whip Ishaan into shape. However, the strict policies in the new school were even more unbearable for the poor boy. One day, a non-conformist substitute teacher Ram Shankar Nikumbh (Aamir Khan) took over their art class. He eventually recognized that Ishaan had a learning disorder which was causing the child's worsening depression, which in turn was suppressing his talent for painting. 

The first hour of this film was very difficult to watch because of its relentless negativity. Ishaan was already having obvious problems in school, but his teachers and father had been harsh and even physical when they dealt with Ishaan's failures. By the time teacher Ram came into the scene, then the whole tone of the movie turned lighter and positive. This was the film debut of child actor Darsheel Safary and it was a stunningly realistic performance of autistic behavior (which won him a number of Best Actor awards). This film was Aamir Khan's directorial debut. He wisely took the back seat to his child main actor, but his portrayal of an inspirational teacher with innovative teaching and guidance methods provided touching heart-warming moments. 7/10

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Netflix: 3 Mini-Reviews: LOST GIRLS, THE LAST THING HE WANTED, HORSE GIRL: Focus on Flawed Females

April 11, 2020


Director: Liz Garbus
Writers: Michael Werwie, based on the book by Robert Kolker 

Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan) was expecting her daughter Shannan to join her for dinner, but she never showed up. It turned out that Shannan was out working as a prostitute that night in a gated community in Long Island, and never came home. Police Commissioner Richard Dormer (Gabriel Bryne) did not seem to be working hard enough on Shannan's disappearance.  Because of Mari's dogged persistence, the police found the abandoned bodies of over a dozen other murdered sex workers in the same general vicinity.

This was really Amy Ryan's show all the way. Ryan was all-grit as she portrayed low-brow single mother Mari Gilbert, who was unrelentless in her search for her missing daughter. She was coarse or ruthless, she did not care. She just wanted to get to the bottom of things as she still had to deal with her other two daughters, the neglected Sherre (Thomasin McKenzie, who was Elsa in "Jojo Rabbit") and the schizophrenic Sarra (Oona Lawrence). The investigation of the Long Beach serial killer murder-mystery was maddening and disgusting, but remained fascinating to follow to its uncertain ending. 7/10. 


Director: Dee Rees
Writers: Marco Villalobos and Dee Rees, based on the book by Joan Didion

Elena McMahon (Anne Hathaway) was a veteran D.C. journalist who passionately covered violent events in Central America, even when the US government wanted to keep these things under wraps. When she was assigned by her newspaper to cover the 1984 US elections,  she reconnected with her estranged father Richard (Willem Dafoe) who dealt in smuggling illegal arms. To bring herself back in the thick of the action she craved, Elena agreed to fly to El Salvador for her ailing father to complete a covert arms deal for him. 

This looked like a very serious political movie at first, with Anne Hathaway giving a dead-serious portrayal Elena McMahon -- dedicated journalist, absent mother, guilty daughter, breast cancer survivor, newbie gun-runner. However, the plot began to get unhinged as it thickened into an incomprehensible mess. Rosie Perez was effective as Elena's gritty work partner Alma. Willem Dafoe gave an amazingly realistic performance as Elena's father Richard who was beginning to lose grip on reality. Ben Affleck's government agent Treat Morrison was a dull emotionless question mark from his first scene to his last. 4/10.


Director: Jeff Baena
Writers: Jeff Baena and Alison Brie

Sarah (Alison Brie) was a shy, introverted young woman who worked in an arts supply store. After work, she visited Willow, the horse she used to ride as a child. She had just been set up with a guy named Darren (John Reynolds) who seemed to share her quirks. She was a devoted fan of a sci-fi television series called Purgatory which she watched on repeat. Later on, she began to have strange dreams which began to convince her that "Purgatory"'s plot about aliens and cloning was actually happening in her real life. 

Director Jeff Baena took pains to build up the character of Sarah to mundane details in order to deeply immerse the audience in her world. When the story later turned to the psychotic, knowing Sarah so well made sure we would still be along for the weird ride. With her wide-eyed innocent face, Alison Brie had an affecting and totally transformed portrayal of Sarah. She was going in and out of sanity so effectively, we cannot tell which things were real or not. This is not an easy film to get through because of its strange twists and turns, but Brie held us in all the way to that bizarre ending. 6/10.