HOTEL MUMBAI (2019)

March 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. A group of quiet and focused young men with backpacks arrive by boat and then split into taxis. We hear the calm voice being fed into their ear buds. The voice assures them that “God is with you” and “Paradise awaits.” Of course, since this is based on true events from 2008, we know the horror that is about to be unleashed by these terrorists (more than 170 killed).

This is the first feature film from writer-director Anthony Maras, and with his co-writer John Collee (MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD, 2003), we are taken to CST, the train station which is one of the 12 terrorist targets. Actual footage is mixed in, leaving no doubt as to the panic and violence that unfolded. As the individuals in the group divide into their well-orchestrated terrorist teams, we flash to the morning routine at a nearby home. Arjun (Dev Patel) is frantically getting prepared for work before heading to his pregnant wife’s place of work. He is dropping off their young child since the sitter was a no-show.

Arjun is part of the staff at the prestigious Taj Mahal Hotel Palace, affectionately referred to as “The Taj”. The service is impeccable … to the point of checking the temperature of bath water for one of the guests. Those who stay here are accustomed to and demanding of the very finest. However, on this stay, they will experience the sharp contrast of ultimate luxury and raw terror. As viewers, our guts sense the feeling of dread, even as the hotel managers and staff are welcoming arriving guests such as a retired Russian Special Forces officer turned wealthy playboy (Jason Isaacs) and newlyweds David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi, “Homeland”), along with their newborn baby and nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey).

As the cold-blooded attack is carried out by the terrorists at The Taj, we witness so many innocent people mowed down with precision – some execution style. Many hotel guests find hiding spots, including an exclusive club in the heart of the hotel. The staff, including Arjun and renowned Chef Hermant Oberoi (Anupam Kher), courageously try to survive while also protecting the guests. David and Zahra get separated from each other and from their baby, leaving the nanny desperately trying to keep the oft-crying infant from being heard.

We also witness the local police – undermanned, under-armed, under-trained – try their best to defuse the situation, knowing that Special Forces are “hours away”. Courage is on display throughout the film, but this is no Jason Bourne or John McClane scenario. These are cooks and waiters and hotel guests caught in one of the most frightening situations imaginable.

For cinematic effect, the attack seems to take place over the course of a single night, whereas the actual events were over 3 days, resulting in 31 deaths at The Taj. The level of tension is maintained throughout … it’s a well-made thriller centered on actual events and real people. The filmmakers seem to go out of their way to avoid any political, social or religious commentary or insight. We only know the terrorists are told to take American prisoners and “Go and do Jihad”. It’s described as “indiscriminate terror” and that they are reclaiming what has been taken from them over the years. It is a difficult film to watch, though we understand there will always be bad people doing bad things for what they believe are the right reasons. Fortunately, there will also always be courageous and good people. More than once we hear the staff mention “Guest is God” … but not all of these guests were welcome.

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THE WEDDING GUEST (2019)

February 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. I pity the poor soul who, based on the film’s title, buys a ticket assuming it must be a light-hearted romantic-comedy starring Katherine Heigl. While we do watch a slow-building romance, this is much more of a road trip through parts of the world we don’t usually see on screen. Writer-Director Michael Winterbottom (A MIGHTY HEART, THE KILLER INSIDE ME, THE TRIP) has had a solid career with movies that tend to be quite watchable, though not particularly memorable. Chalk up another.

The film opens in a subdued manner with a man (Dev Patel) meticulously packing a suitcase, boarding a plane, landing in Pakistan and renting a car. These are all things any of us might do if headed to a wedding. Only this mysterious man of few words also buys 2 guns, plastic ties and duct tape. Either this is going to be a honeymoon unlike any other, or he’s on a different mission altogether. We don’t have to wait long, as the night before the wedding, Patel sneaks past the armed security guard and into the family compound so that he can kidnap Samira (Radhika Apte), the bride-to-be.

Mr. Patel plays a British Muslim man with various names and identities, and a supply of passports. He was hired by a shifty rich guy (Jim Sarbh) who loves Samira to prevent her from going through with the arranged marriage. The meet up gets delayed as the kidnapping and fallout make national news. The story evolves into a predictable and familiar road trip, but with a delightfully different setting and backdrop than what we are accustomed to. A train to Delhi plays a role with Samira and her kidnapper on the lam – working to remain anonymous.

The film does offer up some twists and turns for us, but after an intriguing first 15 minutes, we pretty much know where things are headed. Fortunately the camera work of Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (HELL OR HIGH WATER) keeps our attention, as does the back and forth between Dev Patel and Radhika Apte, two excellent performers. So yes, the film is one we can enjoy watching, though it will likely never come up in conversation.

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LION (2016)

January 12, 2017

lion Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes the real life story is enough. The story of Saroo Brierley is proof. A 5 year old boy from rural India gets stranded at a train station and inadvertently takes a train trip that strands him in Calcutta, thousands of miles from home. He is adopted by a Tasmanian couple and later uses Google Earth to systematically track down his village, family, and ultimately his self.

Saroo’s story would be interesting enough had a writer fabricated it; but in fact, Luke Davies adapted the screenplay directly from Mr. Brierley’s book “A Long Way Home”. Director Garth Davis and an exceptional cast bring this incredible and inspirational and touching story to the big screen in a wonderfully entertaining manner.

The first part of the film introduces us to 5 year old Saroo (a bright-eyed and energetic Sunny Pawar) and his beloved and protective older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). The two boys are nearly inseparable and seem oblivious to the hard life provided by the small village they live in – where their mother literally carries rocks all day. A fluke of circumstance causes the train station separation for the brothers, and young Saroo finds himself on a train ride that will forever change his life.

Very little dialogue is found in this first part, but we immediately connect with the young boy, and we feel his frantic desire to return home as a tightness in our chest as he falls into the quagmire of homeless kids in Calcutta. When Saroo first meets Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman, David Wenham), he isn’t sure how to react. His assimilation into this unrecognizable new world might just as well have been on another planet as a home in Tasmania.

Once the film jumps ahead, Dev Patel takes over as Saroo and the film turns into a journey for the universal need to understand our identity … where we come from, and who we really are. Rooney Mara has a small but important role as Saroo’s girlfriend Lucy (a composite character), as does Divian Ladwa as Mantosh, another boy adopted by the Brierleys. It’s here where Google Earth enjoys its biggest plug as the tool Saroo utilizes to solve the mystery of his origin.

The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Greig Fraser, and he perfectly captures the harshness of young Saroo’s home village, the frenzied pace of Calcutta and the beauty of Tasmania … all without losing the emotions of any given moment. To cap it off and to prove the filmmakers never stooped to any ‘trickery’, the film ends with actual footage of Saroo reuniting with his mother, and then the magical moment when his two mothers embrace. Good luck maintaining composure during this part!

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THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY (2016)

April 30, 2016

USA Film Festival 2016

man who knew infinity Greetings again from the darkness. When one imagines the most exciting topics for movies, mathematics tends to fall pretty far down the list. Heck, most students only take math classes because they have no choice, so why should anyone be interested in the story of a young Indian man who revolutionized the mathematics world at Trinity College in Cambridge in the early 20th century?  The reason is that Srinivasa Ramanujan’s personal story is about more than numbers … it’s about faith and passion and overcoming life’s obstacles.

The story also has an intriguing by-product of demonstrating the difference between intelligence and genius. Trinity College at Cambridge was staffed by some of the smartest, best-educated professors on the planet when this self-taught odd young man appeared with ideas and notebooks filled with equations and concepts that most couldn’t even fathom, much less accept.

Dev Patel plays Ramanujan, the spirited man from Madras India who accepted his remarkable talent as a gift from God. His initially difficult relationship with Trinity Professor GH Hardy (Jeremy Irons) was a clash of two men whose passion for math far eclipsed their comfort in the real world. Hardy was a bit of an outcast at the university, while Ramanujan struggled to provide for his new wife, and had little patience for those who doubted his work.

Writer/director Matt Brown doesn’t seem to believe that the relationship between these two gentlemen is strong enough to hold a mainstream audience, so he commits what comes across as an excessive amount of time to the long-distance battles of the wife and mother of this genius. On the math side, Mr. Brown doesn’t allow us to get lost in minutiae of math equations, but also misses the mark on just how groundbreaking and extraordinary Ramanujan’s work was. There is little doubt that the story of genius, when combined with the abrasive mentorship, racism, elitism and health challenges provides more than enough material to keep us glued to the screen. The rest is merely distracting.

Strong support work is provided by Toby Jones (as Littlewood), Stephen Fry, and Jeremy Northam (as Bertrand Russell), but it’s Patel and Irons who carry the weight here. It’s especially rewarding to see Irons as a co-lead again. There have been other popular math movies like A Beautiful Mind, Good Will Hunting, and Proof, but it’s The Theory of Everything that seems to have the most in common with the story of Ramanujan and Hardy. So give it a shot … and remember to show your work!

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THE SECOND BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL (2015)

March 5, 2015

second best exotic Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been about 4 years since the delightful first film, based on Deborah Moggach’s novel, was a box office hit. My review of that film was the first time I used the phrase “gray cinema” – describing a growing genre specifically targeting the aging population. Neither director John Madden nor writer Ol Parker have had much going on since, and they re-team for this sequel that should satisfy most of the sure-to-return core audience.

Spirited and energetic hotelier Sonny (Dev Patel) is back and has his sights set on expansion to a nearby second property. Most of the original residents are also back: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, and Diana Hardcastle. Lilette Dubey returns as Sonny’s mother, Tina Desai is now his fiancé, and Penelope Wilton resurfaces after dumping Bill Nighy in the first movie. New faces to the scene include Richard Gere, Tamsin Greig and David Strathairn, along with a few other lesser, but effective supporting roles.

A similar extended pre-opening credit sequence is again utilized to catch us up on the status of the regulars. Maggie Smith is now co-managing the hotel. Judi Dench is a buyer of local fabrics. Bill Nighy is a willing, but inept tour guide. Celie Imrie is juggling two wealthy suitors. Ronald Pickup and Diana Hardcastle are working – at jobs and at a relationship. Mr Patel and Ms Smith take a business meeting to the U.S. to meet with Mr. Strathairn with a design on financing the second property. Mostly the trip is an excuse for Dame Maggie to crack wise about us uncultured Americans, and few can deliver a one-liner like this lady.

It’s also on this trip, where Patel’s character begins a change in tone. In the first movie, his character was eager, naïve, pleasant and charming. This time, his ambitious nature is over-the-top and actually quite annoying (by design yes, but still annoying). This single feature affects the pleasant nature and unnecessarily puts us on edge and prevents us from connecting with a key character.

What’s very clear is that this film misses the structure of Ms. Moggach’s novel, and the numerous sub-stories come at us so quickly that every character is mostly surface level with no real depth allowed. The best exchanges are between Ms Dench and Ms Smith (one being 19 days older than the other), while poor Mr Nighy is treated like a wounded puppy for much of the story. Also lacking is the cultural clash so prevalent in the first, and instead we witness a group that has acclimated to the surroundings preventing any real interesting conflict – though the colorful sights of town are still amazing to see. The “high-speed” tuk-tuk chase adds an element of humor, and of course we get the Bollywood-style dance number at the end of Sonny’s wedding to Sunaina (Tina Desai).

Despite the flaws, there are still plenty of laughs and loads of charm, and it’s certainly a pleasure to see a welcome response to the question “Is age a barrier to happiness?”. The actors and the setting make this an enjoyable two hours, though some may question the attempt at a deeper philosophical approach at the end.

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THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL (2012)

May 6, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The closest I can come to saying anything negative about the film is that it is a bit predictable, and I wish we had time to get to better explore these characters. That said, it is quite an entertaining ride to take with some of Britain’s finest actors. Filled with both comedy and insight, the Ol Parker script of the Deborah Moggach novel (“These Foolish Things”) may be the jump start to a new film genre … gray cinema.

In the pre-opening credit sequence, we get introductions to seven Brits who are all at a crossroads in life … each past the career stage (either voluntarily or otherwise) but not ready to disappear into a meaningless existence waiting to die. They each respond to an advertisement for a hotel in Jaipur, India which caters to the “elderly and beautiful”. Its biggest selling point is probably the low cost of retirement. Still, it’s an adventure of the scale most of our heroes have never taken.

We meet Evelyn (Judi Dench) as the recent widow who discovers her beloved husband left her a mountain of debt; Douglas and Jean (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) a hapless married couple who have invested their savings into their daughter’s internet company; Muriel (Maggie Smith) is a racist and longtime housekeeper for the rich who has been put out to pasture while in need of a new hip; Graham (Tom Wilkinson) is a high court judge who is fed up with responsibility and seeking to reconnect with a long ago lover; Madge (Celia Imrie) and Norman (Ronald Pickup) are the lonely hearts looking for love, or in his case, loving.

 They arrive at the Indian resort to be met by its proprietor Sonny, a wildly exuberant and overly optimistic Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire). Sonny has inherited the rundown property from his father and has huge dreams of turning it into a showplace for retirees from abroad … he literally wants to outsource old age for all the countries who have no use for the elderly. A sad truth for both the English and Americans.

The joy of the story comes from the transformation of each of the characters as they slowly discover more about the country and, in turn, more about themselves. Graham’s discovery is especially touching, while Jean’s takes a proverbial slap in the face from her long-suffering, quasi-henpecked husband Douglas. Even young Sonny learns about life decisions thanks to his guests and the actions of his mother and girlfriend.

With the general population aging, expect to see more films in this vein … aimed at the age group who is approaching the crossroads, but not yet ready to give up living. Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) has delivered a charming seriocomedy, but I expect others will take a more in-depth and analytical view at some point.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are after an entertaining story about some very interesting characters

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for an in-depth study of the crossroads senior citizens face as their careers come to an end and a path must be chosen.

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