Monday, November 26, 2018

Thoughts on Crimes of Grindelwald

Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald

If anything was clear from the first movie, the Fantastic Beasts’ Series, unlike the book, wasn’t going to be limited to the exploration of Magical Creatures across the World, something for which the Newt Scamandar character is known for. Rowling, instead, seemed particularly keen on Grindelwald right from the first movie.

However, Rowling amps up the focus on Grindelwald with this sequel to the Fantastic Beast movie. The idea here is to introduce the World to the incredibly powerful dark wizard. Someone who isn’t just evil, but has the ability to sway wizards his way, through mere words. One could argue, he’s probably even more dangerous than Voldemort.

With the stage set for another thrilling series that takes cues from the Wizarding world’s history as mentioned in the original books, one would think there’s little that can go wrong here. Turns out quite a bit can!

Being a sequel to the original Fantastic Beasts, Crimes of Grindelwald, has a lot going on here. First, the movie needs to address the stories of the newly introduced characters of the previous films, then it needs to introduce Galert Grindelwald’s character and the nature and purpose of his evil. But Rowling as the writer, doesn’t just stop at these two essentials, as the action shifts to Europe, she goes on to introduce even more new characters and a bag of mysteries of their own to solve, but not only that, Rowling also finds a way of referencing old characters and instances from the Harry Potter books, trying to evoke a sense of nostalgia as well.

With so much going on, there’s hardly room for developing the characters. The most under served is that of Grindelwald, who seems to miss out on the screentime and ultimately we never fully understand how powerful and evil Grindelwald is.

To top that there are just so many mysteries thrown into the movie that it becomes quite a mouthful to take them all in once they start unravelling.

But what’s on screen isn’t all too bad. Crimes of Grindelwald is an engaging watch at the very least. Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamandar is just as good as the first outing, Jude Law as Dumbledore maintains a perfect balance of calm and clever, he’s a much better representation of Dumbledore’s character than in some of the Potter movies. It’s also fun to take another trip to the ever expanding magical universe of Harry Potter, it’s fascinating to see Rowling expand the universe to other countries instead of just keeping it to the United Kingdom. For the Potter fans, there’s a good mix of magical nostalgia and the fascinating new expansions.

With an intention of creating another engaging Harry Potter series, Rowling had a great mix of characters to start with. But with the spells flying in all directions, it seems Crimes of Grindelwald has missed the mark by quite a lot. Galert Grindelwald is possibly more dangerous, stronger and more relevant to our times than Voldemort, but he needs a better platform to show the mirror to the global political climate.

Rating: 2.5/5 (Engaging But Nothing Special)

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Movie Recommendation: Andhadhun

Vidit Bhargava

Sriram Raghavan’s thrillers are always a great watch. They move steadily, but surprise you when you least expect them to. Take Johnny Gaddar for example, a movie that simply works on the number of thrills that each of its dangling chain of events provides, all of them conveniently paced for maximum surprise. Andhadhun is a similarly executed neo-noir thriller, but with the unpredictability meter turned way up!

Revolving around the events in the life of a Blind Pianist, Andhadhun trods from one sub plot to another, Murder, Deceit, Extortion all conveniently added to the mix, as the story progresses. It delivers jolting twists swiftly and frequently, keeping you hooked throughout the end of the movie, always in anticipation of the next turn in the plot. It’s a story that predominantly invests in the “What Next”, the “Why” behind the actions is usually primal.

But when it’s not busy surprising you, it is Andhadhun’s dark humour that keeps you entertained. In one particular scene we see a body being hastily stuffed into a suitcase, chilly right? Except it’s shot in a Charlie Chaplin-esque silent sequence, with only the background music of the piano accompanying the shot, the effect will leave you chuckling!

Ayushman Khuranna, Tabu, Manav Vij, Radhika Apte and Anil Dhawan are the chief actors here, with Ashwini Kalsekar and Zakir Hussain in worthy cameos. Ayushman Khuranna & Tabu deftly play their neatly written characters. Manav Vij, who is fast becoming a character actor for the muscled cop, (Udta Punjab, Brij Mohan Amar Rahe and now Andhadhun) is expressive as always. Vij is given minimal dialogues, it’s his expressions that do the heavy lifting for him. Radhika Apte has little to do here, but nevertheless plays her part neatly. The actors are one of the major reasons that Andhadhun works, it’s their timing and expressions that make the movie as lively as it is.

Amit Trivedi’s music and Daniel B George’s Background score is refreshing. It’s a pleasant departure from the rap-remixed 90s music that we see all too often these days. Moreover the music complements the narrative, which makes the movie all the more interesting. I particularly liked the piano piece that the Ayushmann Khuranna’s character was working in the start of the movie. The flow of that piece is reflective of Andhadhun’s twisted narrative.

Like Johnny Gaddar, Andhadhun is also heavy on its homage to various artistic works. (All in a good sense and well credited, not in the plagiarative manner in which mainstream Hindi Movies usually do). There’s a bit of Beethovan’s Symphony mixed with Daniel B George’s background score. One of the key scenes in the movie is inspired by Oliver Ternier’s French short film L’Accordeur, aka The Piano Tuner (Do not watch that terrific short film before you watch Andhadhun, or it’ll spoil the latter for you!), There’s also a small La La Land reference towards the end of the movie.

But Andhadhun isn’t perfect. The screenplay meanders way too much at one point in the second half. For most part, Andhadhun’s sub-plots are enjoyable and relevant to the larger story at play. But at one point the movie does take a longish detour, making it go pretty far off its course, only to be jolted back by some more twists. It’s a 5-10 minute slump in an otherwise rollicking narrative, but it’s all the more noticeable because the rest of the movie is so good.

Andhadhun is a thoroughly enjoyable neo-noir thriller, that keeps you on the edge of your seats till the end credits roll. Its also one of the rare movies where nothing happens the way you guess it does. It’s one of the best movies written this year, and one that’ll still have a re-watch value years later.

Rating: **** (Don't Miss this one)

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Robotic Food Delivery: My Experience with Kiwi Bot

Kiwi is a Berkeley based “food delivery” startup that offers delivery op- tions from the popular nearby restaurants, and then delivers them to user through an automated vehicle, which can be unlocked by the user to collect the food items. In just about a year, Kiwi seems to have made a decent amount of tie-ups with the local restaurants, and seems to gathering steam in the Berkeley area quickly.

There’s no doubt though, that the real crowd puller for kiwi is the Bot that’s currently trotting the sidewalks of Berkeley. A bright blue flag hangs on the petit bot to make the vehicle noticeable to the people walking on the street. The bot moves cautiously, looking twice before crossing a street. It’s a pleasant looking design which seems as though it was internally designed, as opposed to getting an off-the shelf vehicle.

For some reason, Bay Area’s budding entrepreneurs in the food sector seem to be obsessed with removing human interaction between the restaurant and its customer. Last year it was food being put in lockers for customers to collect, by Eatsa , this year it’s Kiwibot which aims to replace delivery boys with delivery bots. Dominos has had something similar in the US for a few months now, but this is the first time that I witnessed it, and it definite- ly caught my attention. So I decided to give the app and the experience a try.

The onboarding process for Kiwi; Do we really need these screens at this point in the user flow? I think some of the permis- sions could be asked for at a later time.

Straight up, the onboarding experience isn’t very appealing. It’s just a bunch of screenshots that inform the users about the permissions they must give in order to use the app effectively. Personally I found that the app didn’t really need those permissions on first launch, you can ask me to give a permission for notifications when I place the order, my location information can be asked for when I’m looking for restaurants. The images on display weren’t optimised for iPhone X either, I could see text being cut off by the margins, but that seems like a problem which can be fixed with a minor update. The bigger problem is the fact that, the first launch screen exists in the first place, I’d personally do away with it, or talk about the product on that screen instead of prematurely asking permissions.

The layout for selecting the restaurant is pretty simple. There’s just a list of avail- able restaurants and pressing one of them leads you to another simple list of menu items, you can customise them if that’s possible for the particular item (for example you’ll need to customise a burrito from Chipotle). The flow works fine if you’re not customising your order. If you are customising the order it gets con- fusing very quickly, moving back from the customisation screen actually cancels your order, and you need to start again, however if on the customisation screen, you tap the add button, it actually takes you back to the order screen but this time with the order quantity selection element on the screen, after which you can confirm and setup the payment and address information. It’s also surprising that the app doesn’t use a lot of system elements. For example there’s no auto fill for credit card information, so you need to input the card details manually.

Once the order is placed the app should show you a map with the position of the bot (which didn’t work for me during this particular order but I suppose it was a one off bug); The screen also features an unlock button which gets activated once the bot reaches the location.

While the ordering experience wasn’t great, I managed to place the order without much of a hitch. The receiving part was also pretty much seamless. I just had to press the unlock button in the app and the bot opened to show the food item neatly placed in the buggy that also serves as a hot-box. It seems as though Kiwi has spent quite a bit of time perfecting the delivery vehicle.

And the app’s improving quickly. In the month since I’ve used Kiwi there seem to be minor improvements already. It’s good to know that the creators are tak- ing feedback seriously.

But is it really better than having your food delivered by a human being? I don’t think so. Once the novelty of a cute robot delivering your food dies off, the only scenario where this may be feasible is is when its hard to find people to de- liver food items, or there’s an economic benefit for the restaurant to have your food delivered by a bot. While it was fun to see my order delivered by a robot, I wonder if it’s something that popularises any time soon.

The user flow for ordering a customised meal with Kiwi. While it’s better to have a bare-bones approach to the process than to offer fancy animations for no reason, sometimes even the simplest of interactions can become confusing.

In this case it was the app going ‘back’ to the previous screen after pressing “add” that lead me to believe that if I were to do the same, it’ll still retain my order information. It didn’t and I had to start over.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Thoughts on Bhavesh Joshi

Making a movie like Bhavesh Joshi in India is extremely tricky. The movie is almost certainly doomed to fail, if it’s anything but awesome. The few people who’re interested in “Super Hero Movies”, have probably seen the extremely well made Marvel and (some) DC Movies, so they go in with a huge experience of watching these movies and are likely to be disappointed by a familiar storyline or character arc. They want new ideas and innovative execution. Those who couldn’t care less about Super Heros aren’t likely to be excited about a movie which is just that. They probably need a star to pull them to the theatres. Bhavesh Joshi had a tough task at its hands, it had to be both extremely entertaining and offer an innovative storyline for a genre which has had a humongous influx of movies in the last decade.

Bhavesh Joshi

The predictable happened. I went to watch the first show of the movie on the day it released, only to head back home because the show had been cancelled. The next show I went to, literally had 4 people in the theatre. And in the week that followed, I’ve heard stories on twitter which mention about even more shows being cancelled. The movie did fail, and pretty badly. But was it any good at all?

The movie starts of briskly with Two Mumbai urbaners and their reporter friend who go around the city painted in the “Anti-Corruption” movement of 2011. The two eventually end up starting a YouTube channel where they dress up as masked vigilantes to take on the petty crimes in the city. It’s fun to watch that. It’s a section of the movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously and provides a bunch of laughs, it also sets up the movie for a much bigger conflict, which would require better skills from the two. While it goes on at its own leisurely pace, Priyanshu Painyuli is able to do much of the heavy lifting and is pleasing to watch.

It’s the second half the riddled with mediocre acting and a messy execution. It’s also when the all too familiar heroes journey kicks in. Written by three people, the movie is gets confused between showing the origins of a home grown superhero, a realistic setup and environment and following the super-hero’s journey. It’s best seen in a scene where Bhavesh Joshi confronts one of the baddies but is barely able to land a kick, fairly realistic for a software engineer turned vigilante. You can’t just start kicking around people by wearing a mask. It’s also the typical superhero confrontation, which is innovatively shot, but when it all comes together on the screen, it’s laughably bad! I’m not sure if I supposed to laugh at it, but the entire setup from Joshi entering the house to him barely making it out of there, was a bit off to start with, and turned into slapstick comedy by the end.

And given how much of the second half follows the hero’s journey, It’s predictable and boring. Some of the sequences just feel like a drag. You know how the sequence is going to end but the directors decide to spend time on it anyway. There’s an extended bike sequence which again is unintentionally hilarious in parts, boring in others. It’s also surprising how little the movie spends time on the villain, we know very little about him and there’s literally no exploration of the reasons as to why he does what he does.

If you’re not asleep by the end of the movie, it’s because of a great performance by Priyanshu Painyuli and Ashish Verma, Painyuli lifts the first half with his timing and Verma saves the day in the later half of the movie, and Vikramaditya Motwane does show some exceptional direction skills in some of the shots. I just wish he got a better script to work with. As for Harshvardhan Kapoor, while its only his second film, the actor really needs to work on his acting a lot, he can certainly look the part of a Mumbai resident in a Computer firm, but needs a lot of work on delivering his dialogues.

The movie isn’t a complete disaster to watch either. There are a lot of interesting ideas floating around here. For example, I really liked the origins of Bhavesh Joshi. It’s approachable, and breaks the norm of having some sort of a divine super power, to be a vigilante. It’s also interesting how the problem that the movie focuses is on, doesn’t involve an apocalyptic scenario or a super-villain. It’s just a corrupt and powerful individual who needs to be tackled and even then he’s someone who merely pulls the strings, and leaves the dirty work to his subordinates. There’s also an interesting track about how media headlines and news shape people’s perception. These are all innovative threads hanging from a story that never quite manages to tie them into a cohesive and engaging movie.

All said though, I’d love to see a sequel to Bhavesh Joshi. Why? Even though this movie was mediocre at best, the entire movie serves as the origin of a much more interesting superhero character, even if the creation process is messy, a second movie would do wonders to further such a character. It is also one of those movies which “need” a sequel. If the movie was supposed to be a one of story, the writers blew it. Without a sequel, it’s just a hero’s journey that takes way too long to kick in. They could have spent so much more time showing the superhero in action as opposed to spending the time on showing how he goes on from being a total dud to being a half decent vigilante. I’d even be happy with a Netflix / Prime spin-off which gives us a mini season for it. But alas, sequels generally only exist for economic successes.

Rating: ** ½ (Watch at Home, if you must)

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Breathe: Deus Ex Machina Overload

Vidit Bhargava

Breathe, the second Amazon Prime Original out of the 18 that were commissioned back in 2016, was a mixed bag.

It's a show that's full of “deus ex machina” moments conveniently placed to move the story forward. Every time the writers complicate things for themselves the lead characters have these flashes of genius that puts them back on track, and these aren't minor subplots, they're critical points in the story, like Amit Sadh’s character getting on to Madhavan trail. Sadh’s subordinate gets the idea of donating organs and wouldn’t stop badgering Sadh about it, which is when Sadh realises that two random accidents are actually murders targeted towards organ donors. It’s like the (metaphorical) hand of god strikes Sadh and Madhavan at just the right time and is taken away at the right time too, so that both can commit stupid mistakes as well.

Despite being poorly written, Breathe is saved by its cast. Of them, Amit Sadh and Hrishikesh Joshi (plays Sadh’s subordinate) are impressive. Madhavan does a fair job of being the amateur serial killer, but overdoes his part of being the doting father of a seven year old. But nevertheless, it’s a fair ensemble of actors who spew life into underdeveloped characters, and make the show watchable.

Breathe focuses on style over substance with all the back and forth in timelines and slightly pretentious art-references. But what makes Breathe watchable for the duration of it’s 8 episodes is it’s ensemble cast and the fact that there’s seldom a dull moment in this bizarre story.

Rating : ** ½

— P.S. Online streaming isn’t Indian Television where the bar of quality content is so low that you get away with lazy writing. I think Vikramaditya Motwane (the co-director of Netflix’s upcoming show Sacred Games) summed it up pretty well a few months ago, “It’s a space where you’re competing for attention with the likes of House of Cards and Stranger Things and so the quality of content has to be that good”, what Prime is is providing right now is barely watchable content which users would watch just out of the shear excitement of something new, and not because it’s genuinely good quality entertainment.

Moreover with the snail like speed with which these shows are developing, you can barely hope for this being a renaissance for Indian Periodicals, it’s at best a fun exercise for diversifiying the catalog of streaming services.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Movie Recommendation: Mukkabaaz

Anurag Kashyap’s movies have a lot to say in general, and there’s a peculiar way in which he puts them together in a gruesome and dark experience. Mukkabaaz is no different. It’s a story on oppression and caste privilege, diguised as a sports films, disguised as a mainstream romantic drama.

Mukkabaaz’s Multi-layered story, it’s earnest cast and a stellar background score from Rachita Arora are the movie’s biggest assets. It’s when these three come together, that you get the movie’s finest moments. Vineet Kumar Singh’s preparation really pays off here. The fact that he spent months, training as a professional boxer shows in the sport scenes. His speed, agility and physique lend credibility to the character. However it’s Zoya Hussain’s acting that really leaves a mark. The subtlety with which she’s portraiyed the character of a mute woman is commendable. Never once would you notice that her disability is an impediment to her communication, something that’s truly remarkable. Her character also benefits from some good writing. It rises above focusing on the character’s disability.

Amongst the rest of cast, Ravi Kishan does a fine job as Kumar’s coach. He’s calm and delivers a measured performance. However, Jimmy Shergill’s delivers a strictly one dimiensional performance as the movie’s “Villain”, and that’s primarily because his character lacks depth. It’s a character that’s just touched upon instead of being explored. In Shergill’s character, Kashyap fills all the wrong doing you that’s shown in the movie. He is casteist, he’s corrupt, he hinders the growth of younger boxers, he’s got no shame in harming those whom he considers beneath him. But why? Why does he do that? What’s with his red-eye look? These are questions that the movie never bothers to go into. The result is a character whom you’d hate, but also one that’s perplexing.

The movie also benefits from a fine soundtrack. Most of the songs are well placed, and are well written, to match the story’s narrative. But too many songs, hamper the screenplay. It’s especially in the romantic sub plot that the movie falls prey to the cliche of filling it with songs. At one point, we get a “pre-wedding song” (It’s almost insanely uncharacteristic of an Anurag Kashyap movie), I wondered as to whether it was just an invitation to a non-existent mass crowd? Seriously, I’m not sure who that particular song was for. The audience seemed eager to get over with it rather than indulge in the nitty-gritties of a pre-wedding event. It’s this song and a couple of other clich├ęs that are some of the weaker points of the movie.

Minor blemishes aside, Mukkabaaz is still a powerful story. It’s great in areas that matter the most. Kashyap juggles through the three major themes carefully. Seldom does the plot goes astray. Moreover, I’m happy that we’ve finally got a Hindi movie that manages a complex script without the entire screenplay falling to pieces.

Unlike most of the other sports films, Mukkabaaz is not a rags to riches story, it’s not even a story of hope! It’s a cold portrayal of the pettiness that plagues Indian sports, it’s one where caste and politics are as deeply intertwined with sports, as skill itself. Anurag Kashyap has a lot to say here, and all of it is worth paying attention too.

Rating: *** ½ (Worth watching)

— P.S. Oh! and don’t miss the Nawazuddin special appearance in the movie. He seems to be having a lot of fun in the couple of minutes of visibility he gets. And it’ll also remind you of one of his other special appearances, from an older Anurag Kashyap movie.