ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is a beautiful lament teetering on masterpiece status

It’s fitting that the first Quentin Tarantino film I saw on the big screen, the first of his films I have seen with a crowd, was one about Tinseltown. The novelties in Tarantino’s ninth film extend to the makeup of the film, which, for the most part, swaps the swagger and gratifying pulp his fans savour with much more depth and introspection than expected.

‘Jackie Brown’, in all its restrained blaxploitation crime splendor, is singled out as Tarantino’s most mature film and for good reason. I would call ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ his most spiritual; a film that dithers between the ethereal and fantasy. ‘Hollywood’ is perfectly encapsulated as a Mecca for cinema, almost to an alienating effect with all its totems and iconography that remain a world and generation away.

Though mature, there is a temptation to think ‘Hollywood’ is also disciplined. It’s not. And it confirmed my guilty suspicion that Tarantino is a somewhat overrated screenwriter. A-class sizzling dialogue, he can deliver. Masterfully conceived vignettes and sequences are well within his wheelhouse. But threading them together with some rigor has been a shortcoming. It’s why ahead of the coda a lot of people have fretted about, we get this insanely drab voiceover that fills a time gap.

The first hour or so of ‘Hollywood’ was clunky and, even more worryingly, begun to give me ‘Hail Caesar’ vibes in that, it looked like there was never going to be a foothold to some investment in this lament about old Hollywood. The chance I would not connect with a Tarantino film was borderline terrifying. But on reflection, the alienating effect felt oddly apt for a film with humbling empathy for people on the fringes of the bright lights.

The story itself takes place mostly in February of 1969. Tarantino bagged himself an A-list tag team for the ages with his two lead characters, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stuntman/chauffeur/best bud Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick used to be the star of a hit Western TV show called “Bounty Law”. But after a failed incursion onto the big screen, Rick is now hustling for guest spots as villains on TV shows.

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A producer played by Al Pacino tries to kick Rick out of his hand-to-mouth existence by suggesting he cross the pond to Italy to revitalize his career with spaghetti westerns. The end is creeping up on Rick and he knows it. We get this moment of pontification from Pacino (who basically becomes a familiar avatar for Tarantino) where he explains to Rick the nuances behind being beaten up every week on TV by an up and coming star.

Cliff, on the other hand, lives life at his own pace – content with being Rick’s driver cum handyman as the stunt man market has become a barren wasteland for him. He lives in a modest trailer on the outskirts of town, has a loyal dog which he loves and there’s the small matter of how his marriage ended, which is a nebulous cloud that trails him for most of the film.

The bulk of Tarantino’s film revolves around these two fictional characters and their escapades in a changing industry landscape. But there are familiar real-life characters like Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), who Cliff fights in an amusing but totally needless sequence. Damian Lewis shows up as Steve McQueen who plays his part in the central theme of teetering on the edges. The big fish, however, live right next door to Rick; the director-actor couple: Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).

One of the downsides of seeing a film late is having to navigate the criticisms without context and entering a film with a mixed sense of wariness and judgment. I feel compelled to note that there’s nothing wrong with Moh’s portrayal of the Dragon himself though I understand the sentiments of his loved ones. The big one fracas centred on the portrayal of Tate, and how one witnesses Robbie’s stunningly disarming performance and comes out whining about line totals is beyond me.

Everything Tate in Tarantino’s screenplay oozes heart and perfection. And he is not infatuated with her like say a Jackie Brown. He canonises Tate; builds an altar to her and what she represented – the earnest promise of youth and an unrefined joy. Tarantino itches for the least excuse to centre her (and her feet sometimes). Consider the brash build-up to the scene where she’s dancing at Playboy mansion party and how it gives this Copa Cobana from Goodfellas vibe. There is also this surreal glee-filled car ride when Tate shows kindness to a hippie on the roadside.

The sledgehammer of emotions, where I melted like wax before Tarantino’s vision, comes when Tate talks her way into a cinema to watch herself in onscreen. It isn’t the biggest part but she bubbles with glee every time she appears for a gag or two to laughs from the audience. There is tenderness here that only a “failed” actor like Tarantino would understand, a longing for the days when it was all hopes and dreams.

In contrast, Rick seems to be withering away into in crisp of angst and woe. The closer to the edge he gets the more the world around him starts to remind him of his expiry; like the way he sees himself in the hero nearing his end in a book he reads on a set. That scene starts one of the best stretches of DiCaprio’s career. He’s uglied up (resembling a frazzled Jack Nicholson) as the villain on a TV show western, has a fantastic trailer meltdown because he fumbles his lines but still manages to ice the performance. This culminates in that meta moment from the ‘Hollywood’s’ trailer where Rick tears up after a child actor lauds his acting as the best she’s ever seen.

Tarantino greatly elevates the standard of the TV show westerns in his film to an engrossing piece of storytelling the Coen Brothers could possibly conceive. In real life, I imagine they were quite trashy but that doesn’t dim our director’s loving awe for them. It’s like the way some of us look back fondly on the experience of ‘Journey to the West’ a Chinese martial arts fantasy show centred on the fabled Monkey King. Two decades on some of us still swear by the show although revisiting it may be borderline torture.

It’s all a dream. It’s Tarantino’s dream and we are blessed to partake in and appreciate it, even if the unfamiliarity gets a little tedious. The master auteur is eager to take us around this meshing of reverie and memory which is why we just chill with a scene of Cliff driving Rick around the annoyingly vivid recreation of Los Angeles which is given such life by cinematographer Robert Richardson. The music prods at you, the murals are waving frantically and general production design screams “give me that Oscar!”

Pitt’s character ushers us towards the darkest parts of this dream. I was mulling over the best way to describe Cliff and for some reason, J.J. Rawlings, the effortlessly charismatic but flawed and quietly vicious dictator who ruled Ghana for 20 years, popped up. The charm and the terror go hand for him. There is another GOAT stretch, almost simultaneous with Leo’s, which starts with Cliff giving a lift to a hippie heading to Charles Manson’s infamous Spahn Ranch. The tension ramps up to 11 real quick as an intense palpable dread, which rivals the opening of ‘Inglorious Basterds’, takes hold.

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A more familiar version of Tarantino surfaces; the one that pats himself on the back and winks at his past work (that close-up of Maya Hawke). Like Schultz at the end of ‘Django Unchained’, he can’t resist – and I loved every bit of it. There is an eruption of ultra-violence that, owing to the radical shift in tone, comes off as the most shocking in a Tarantino movie. It’s like the film falls into drug trip, to put it slyly.

Everything comes to earth in haunting fashion as the film winds down. It’s the realisation from Tarantino that he’s about to wake up and my heart ached for him. The final shot sees us ascending away as the characters go about their lives below, evoking this dollhouse quality that runs through the film. It had me thinking that ‘Hollywood’ is as much a product of Tarantino’s childlike wonder as much as his mature sensibilities.

THE KITCHEN – This listless crime drama refuses to get its hands dirty

Allow me second to wipe this clown makeup off. Your boy thought ‘The Kitchen’ was going to be 2019’s Widows. Why the high expectations? Maybe its because it was adapted from a DC Vertigo comic. Or maybe it was just the cast which included three exciting actresses; Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss and Melissa McCarthy, who I expected to bring varying degrees of excellence to the table. ‘The Kitchen’ is also a 1970s New York crime flick so what could go wrong? Everything, apparently.

The basic plot of ‘The Kitchen’ sees the wives of street-level gangsters take over from their jailed better halves to support themselves. The incarcerations birth different sentiments from the wives. For Moss’ Claire, a victim of harrowing domestic abuse, she gets a taste of freedom for the first time in a decade. Haddish’s Ruby eyes the prospect of some upward mobility given her standing as a black woman in a racist Irish-American commune. For McCarthy’s Kathy, whose desperation spark the plot into motion, it’s primarily about survival after the mob gives her peanuts to live on.

As different as their motivations are initially, they all converge on the street called power. The metatext is interesting in that these leads have been given the keys to a gangster film in a male-dominated genre and industry. And our girls are game for the challenges the writer/director Andrea Berloff throws their way, never cheating the audiences desire for energy, charisma and pathos. The only problem is ‘The Kitchen’s’ feel for storytelling and sense of character are as intricate as ludo dice; grossly underserving the acting talent.

The women’s route to power lacks some of that process and minutia I love in crime cinema. They worm their way around the sexist gatekeepers of this world to offer better protection deals to neighborhood businesses as a start. This graduates to influence in major contractor projects and before we know it, the women, growing in their power, are confidently negotiating turf with the mafia in Brooklyn. Alongside the surface gangster politicking, which is sprinkled with some tension, a lot of bodies are dropped with the help of Domhnall Gleeson’s Gabriel, a psychotic Vietnam War vet who happens to be Claire’s prince charming.

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The women stared into the abyss and the abyss stared back. The central question becomes how much they start to resemble the men whose shadows blinded their existence. There are some interesting ideas at play here with how the wives almost become mutated (of sorts) versions of their husbands. Ruby toes the line of her man’s duplicitous nature, the violently abused Claire develops a taste for blood and Kathy, who was a dutiful wife, is hailed for her devotion to the community and her family no matter the cost.

Berloff has a read on what’s interesting about these women. She even exhibits some curiosity about their transformational ascent in the criminal world. She, however, pays little heed to the moral dilemma and toll of violence these women should perhaps be wrestling with. We are supposed to root for them and jump on the empowerment bandwagon as irony manifests in them taking over Hell’s Kitchen.

Though the film compensates for a lack of nuance with truly dumb twists in a film that favours shocking plot points over character dissection, I will admit there was one moment I found compelling, where Ruby, at her most vulnerable, seeks refuge at her mother’s place. Ruby’s ma reminds her daughter about how she beat out the softness and innocence from her as she receives some fruits from the crime world. This textured moment made showed ‘The Kitchen’ was capable of some much more than the unbearable stasis and perfunctory salutes to genre conventions on display.

It doesn’t help that the film lacks any visual flair or distinct style, save for the numerous scenes on sidewalks. The dialogue is exposition-heavy and two-dimensional motivations morph actors’ earnestness into an unfunny and forgettable comedy routine. But hey, there is perhaps the best use of a rat in here since ‘The Departed‘ so I guess that’s something.

I AM MOTHER presents clever musings on nature, nurture and humanity

It’s always a great sign when piece of sci-fi cinema leaves you with chill-inducing ideas to mull over. Netflix’s ‘I am Mother’, the largely contained feature debut from filmmaker Grant Sputore, gets a load of credit on this front. On the flip side, ‘I Am Mother’ also leaves you with fists clenched because of the frustrating lack of restraint keeping it from rising to something resembling exceptional.

As hinted at by the title, the idea of motherhood and how it shapes one’s sense of self is the most coherent idea posited by this lean apocalyptic thriller. The first maternal figure is the robot known as Mother (Rose Byrne), who is activated when the doomsday clock runs out.

Operating from a bunker, which is a contingency put in place to repopulate the earth, Mother gets to work extracting one of the hundreds of frozen embryos that she nurtures into Daughter (Clara Rugaard). Mother, who had me thinking of those killer robots from ‘Space truckers’, initially defies decades worth of warnings from sci-fi cinema to evoke a genuine maternal presence as we see a babe respond with affection to her as it would to flesh and blood.

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But the isolation and strict curriculum (that notably includes some Trolley Test-style problems) doesn’t strip Daughter of the rebellious teenage tendencies that put a strain on her bond with Mother. She has questions about the outside world as Mother comes off as more controlling than either of them would like to admit. Daughter’s questions are answered when a woman with a gunshot wound (Hilary Swank) arrives ominously at the doorstep of the facility.

Swank’s character, credited as Woman, sparks the story to life after a little narrative stasis. She arrives with an infectious bout of the darkest human sensibilities as Daughter comes face to face with human nature for the very first time.

There are a few fascinating ways to read ‘I am Mother’. I love to fan the tiniest spark of biblical allusion into a rich bonfire and it’s hard not to think of man’s fall in Genesis when thinking of the way Woman’s intrusion triggers an erosion of the central relationship that was for all intents and purposes a marker of perfection.

Daughter’s thirst for more of the world around her opened her up to much more than the truth. She gets a taste of pain, fear, grief and, most heartbreakingly, violence. There isn’t a hint of ill intent in Woman’s motives though her desperation is palpable. Given the state the world is in, Woman’s default mode of self-preservation is no surprise. And she is almost an audience avatar in that she is terrified by what Mother and her single eerie eye could represent.

But is Woman entirely trustworthy? Some of the scripts finest moments come when the tensions rise above mere apprehension to place daughter at the centre of two imperfect maternal figures. She will have to choose; ostensibly between nature and nurture.

Mother exists in service of creating the perfect human existence; intellectually, morally and even artistically. But like ‘The Matrix’ touches on, Mother’s goal appears to be a mere march towards dissonance as evidenced by how easily Daughter’s head is swayed from the safety of her bunker to the unknown that birthed a bloodied woman.

Then there’s the Turing test of it all. Given that this is reaching for the psychological heights of ‘Ex Machina’, it’s easy to take for granted that Mother sometimes comes off as more than a network of 1s and 0s? It’s to do with the small moments that mirror real parenthood, like how she appears to break protocol to allow a baby Daughter to sleep in her room.

It’s the traces of jealousy that come to the fore in Mother’s programming that I found most compelling. When Woman enters the fray, the definition of duty, per Mother’s motives is blurred. Is there genuine fear in Mother’s hardware that Woman will snatch away her babe or are her coldly calculated moves in service of her mandate to repopulate the earth?

I welcomed the opportunity to speculate and overthink things. The problem here is that we get answers to key questions quenching the fun. I dare say all the answers we get punch holes in the plot because of muddied execution in the final act. There’s a quick jolt of excitement when piecing the puzzle together only to realise there were some misprinted pieces, leaving you some bitter sprinkled on your sweet.

The script is quite clever and offers twists that subvert the certain genre workings we are used to. For one, there is this air of domesticity that makes this a legitimate story about family bonds and not destroying Skynet to preserve humanity. But the script still trips over itself and undercuts this point in favor of misplaced closure.

The direction is functional enough striking the right tone for large chunks and Sputore likes to keep things moving even if the story feels like its warming up for far too long in the first act. But there is much to savour in some of Sputore’s simple choices. The shots of Mother cradling a baby are transfixing enough as incongruities in cinema. There is an innate paradox in the levels of comfort Daughter derives from Mother which speaks to our dependence on technology today and how it is the latest altar of perfection. You don’t even notice when you are being swept away by that quiet but overwhelming moment Daughter rests her head on Mother’s angular shoulder.

There are garnishes of sci-fi horror that give life to the film’s finale. Sputore gets to filter a homage to the likes of Ellen Ripley and Sarah Conor through Daughter in a strong performance by Rugaard that effectively conveys the toll the central conflict. Swank is great too and half of the film’s intensity seems to flow from her eyes alone. Bryne (with the motion work from an actor) lends an auditory performance that keeps you guessing simply because of her affectation, which never strays from its warm beginnings despite increasing angst.

‘I Am Mother’ asks the age-old question about what it means to be human in interesting ways. I doubt I’ll watch a more interesting sci-fi film this year. It’s a debate between nurture and nature and Sputore seems to pick his winner with the final shot of the film; a close-up of Daughter’s face which left me cold –  as it was meant to be.

FINYE – Oppression lies behind every corner in Souleymane Cissé’s jagged allegory

Souleymane Cissé never strays far from the essence of African cinema in his 1982 film ‘Finye’. A spirit of rebellion is the connective tissue that holds the various layers of the portrait of urban Mali he constructed in his third feature. That spine of resistance is all we have to hold ‘Finye’s’ clunky narrative together.

‘Finye’ wants for some narrative focus. The simplicity that runs through Cissé’s 1987 masterpiece ‘Yeelen’ is sorely missed; where the tragedy of a father and son’s foretold battle is the spry launching pad for his rich cinematic artistry.

In ‘Finye’, our entry is the teenage love affair between two students which traverses class, gender, modernity and even religion. The girl, Batrou, is the daughter of a military officer turned governor of their province whilst the boy, Bah, is an orphan with his roots in the poorest parts of town.

Bah’s main headache is leaping over the hurdle of his final exams; one of the most primal fears that accompany secondary education. Pills are popped for an edge and the paper is sat with confidence. But the school assembly to announce the names of students who passed ends in disappointment for Bah.

Bah’s academic struggles are not black and white. Obviously, opting for a chemical quickening ahead of a major exam isn’t the wisest life choice. But to swim in poverty like Bah does means to swim against the tide of all social structures, education especially. Not many overcome this tide as many in the Third World are aware. The social realism takes a more dramatic turn when the other forces keeping Bah in the fringes come to the fore.

Contrast is a key building block of Cissé’s narrative. The dialectics stem from Bah and Batrou’s relationship which cares little for the levity of young love. The tensions of a nation seem to converge their heads as Batrou’s father’s opposition to Bah becomes an avatar for the state’s intrinsic disdain for the marginalised.

Batrou’s father, Sangare (Balla Keita) is an almost a timeless placeholder for the African politician. He is eager to remove his daughter from the local school and send her to France; a country described as his second home. He bathes in relative luxury in a province dominated by poverty and is considering a fourth wife; a marker of his excesses that brought to mind ‘Xala’. And it will surprise few to know the third act of the film narrows in on Sangare’s abuse of power.

Though integral to the plot, Cissé doesn’t rub the class divide in our face. The inequality is the fabric on which the design of the plot manifests. It’s to do with, among other things, the unfussy way he shows sprinklers giving life to a vibrant garden in the backdrop of scene at Batrou’s home before a cut to Bah’s home and his grandmother breaking her back over a well.

Batrou’s privilege doesn’t translate to polemics. Cissé holds back here because this double as a coming of age film, where our heroine slowly grows into a feisty mouthpiece for the oppressed. We get snippets of student movements and public agitation as the film commits fully to allegory territory towards the final act as it becomes clear Cissé is attacking the ills of military regimes.

Cissé makes a deliberate decision to angle resistance as the salvation of society, much like Ousmane Sembene did time and time again with his art. He also pivots off similar beats like religion, ideas of modernity and tradition as he critiques society. Our director wields this holy nihilism that rips through everything he considers anathema to a functional state. Consider the arc of Bah’s Grandfather, a powerful traditionalist in tune with the spirits, who has a come to Jesus moment and swaps his charms and amulets for a fist in the air when state corruption becomes impossible to ignore.

However, his approach is as clumsy as it is noble. Cissé is falling over himself to show why people power trumps every facet of society but never really meshes message with coherence. The allegory is meaningful but not palatable in the way it ties more narrative strings that it needs together. He operates with thr misplaced urgency of a filmmaker fearing this would be his last ever manifesto.

It’s a worthwhile exercise to ponder over what resistance means within the context of African cinema and how it’s been interpreted by various filmmakers over the years. I lean towards the bleaker viewpoints; like the futility that shroud’s Mory and Anta’s ploys to game the system in ‘Touki Bouki’ right down to Rungano Nyoni’s harrowing portrait of the patriarchy in ‘I am Not a Witch’.

Over here, there is something to be said for the significance of the title “Finye” which translates to the wind. A deeper dive has me wondering if the spirit of rebellion is just that; an actual spirit that permeates through society omnipresent and without form demanding a following with the jealousy of Jehovah himself.

I’m overthinking things, aren’t I? Cissé certainly was, which was why he ignores or is unaware of how effective the domesticity he jettisons in favor of grander ideas are. Consider the dynamic in Batrou’s home where the first whiff of rebellion takes shape in Sangare’s third wife, Agna (Omou Diarra); a young obstinate vivacious woman who I first mistook to be Batrou’s sister.

By far ‘Finye’s’ most layered character, Agna never falls in line, unlike the two seemingly unformed senior wives (resembling prisoners) who call her a slut. More allegorical elements are at play as she makes her own stand against the patriarchy and military regimen with her wit and agency to mixed results that demand audience empathy regardless. It’s almost a coin toss as to whether she’ll have the abusive Sangare eating out of her palm or chasing after her with a gun.

As a testament to how loaded this film is, I can’t overlook the fact it’s also an earnest love story filled with truly beautiful moments of intimacy between Bah and Batrou that defy the turmoil of their existence. The first time we see the two together is a day before the exam and Bah is staggering about all sweaty and high from his ill-advised booster, oblivious to Batrou’s prompts. It sets the tone for their relationship which will offer more lows than highs for the two.

Fittingly, a later drug high plunges us into the surreal where Bah receives visions of tranquil perfection: he and Batrou draped in white with only still waters threatening to disturb the purity of their love. Later in the film, they share a bath, making themselves vulnerable to each other probably for the first time under the watchful eye of Cissé’s camera which evokes a coy tenderness that drips with faux innocence.

The real threat to the love is the director I must say. The lack of a proper resolution for the central relationship has you questioning the point of the carefully crafted moments that centre our young lovers in powerful ways seldom seen on the continent with the magnetic closeups and all.

‘Finye’ let me down somewhat. I had high expectations having seen ‘Yeelen’. Cissé’s single-minded ambition is ultimately an albatross that sinks this screenplay. Deny us coherence, he did. But he remains a stellar presence behind the camera, effortlessly crafting some excellent sequences. My favorite scene sees Bah go into drug trip with some friends after the news of his exam failure. Scored to Bunny Mack’s ‘My Sweetie’, it’s a scene sodden with sensual longing, tearful truths, bliss and the only real piece of freedom we see in the story.

Deny us coherence, he did. But he remains a stellar presence behind the camera, effortlessly crafting some excellent sequences. My favorite scene sees Bah go into drug trip with some friends after the news of his exam failure. Scored to Bunny Mack’s ‘My Sweetie’, it’s a scene sodden with sensual longing, tearful truths, bliss and the only real piece of freedom we see in the story.

Like the languid aura of the drug-fueled commune, ‘Finye’ never feels angry. But we never mistake this for a lack of urgency. At every turn lies a vivid reminder of oppression; students against teachers; wives against abusive husbands, a community against a corrupt state. Yes, this could be a tighter story but it achieves a universality and a resonance with its timeless call to action.

ANNA – Besson’s nadir will be remembered as a soulless anachronistic mess

My first impulse after ‘Anna’ was to dismiss it as entirely trash. Then I calmed down, slept on it for a day and decided most of it was merely bland leaving the screenplay as the sole disastrous component. Even though I had set my bar right in the core of the earth’s crust, somehow this aggressive troll job of a film found a way to be clotheslined into my 2019 pit of shame; where ‘Glass’ longed for some company.

‘Anna’ is sadly directed by Luc Besson, whose last inroad into ambitious Hollywood fare, ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’, was met with limited glee from film fans and their pockets. So seeing him retreat into more Euro-pulp action territory was a welcome step – until some 15 minutes in, when I realised I may have been witnessing the nadir of Luc Besson’s filmmaking career, complete with the amplification of his worst tendencies.

This anachronistic mess of a film starts in (well not actually) 1990’s Moscow where Anna (Sasha Luss) is plucked by a French modeling agency from a market where she sells Matryoshka nesting dolls. She is flown to Paris where she is thrust right into the thick of the modeling industry. When does the spy-y stuff begin, I kept asking myself?

Anna was clearly an agent in deep cover, and she appeared damn good at her job. But the film tiptoed around her identity so gingerly making you wonder fit it was also trying fool audiences; like a toddler terrible at hide and seek. I stared hard for the wink that would signal the respect Besson had for audiences, but it never came. Instead the plot progresses to where she gets cozy with a fellow Russian who is partner in the modeling agency by day and an arms dealer by night. Finally, Besson jumps out of his terrible hiding place when he has Anna put a bullet in the arms dealer’s head.

Time for character stuff, Besson must have thought to himself at this point so we jump back in time three years to where Anna’ bread and butter appeared to be musty sex and weed; both at the behest of her abusive boyfriend. After sending in an application to join the Navy, a KGB agent named Alex (Luke Evans) visits her and offers her job in a special unit under the no-nonsense Olga (Helen Mirren). Anna is notably promised she will be free to go after five years of service.

As the film makes a ludicrous number of jumps backward and forward in time, it becomes clear the promise of retirement after five years was mere lip service. Apparently, Olga’s girls really don’t live up to the time frame so the KGB has never been faced with breaking or fulfilling that promise. Therein lies the central tension of the film, where Anna longs for some form of agency and freedom from the oppressive KGB. Unfortunately, it is made clear to her that will be over her own dead body.

Back in 1990, where Anna is building her cover as a model, a few variables are thrown into the equation; notably a CIA agent, Lenny Miller (Cillian Murphy). He gets wind of her after the murder of the arms dealer and we wait for the predictable plot point that opens the door for Anna to maybe turn her back on the KGB and gain her freedom.

No matter the garnishes, ‘Anna’ is still as perfunctory as they come, lacking any wit or verve; the kind seen in some of Besson’s best and most ambitious work. Our director probably opts for the nonlinear structure to hide how listless the narrative is. The formula for the time jumps basically involves a major “reveal” (heaviest of air quotes) being followed by a trip back in time to explain what just unfolded to excruciating effect.

By ignoring the possible depth a film set in the exploitative modeling industry could have offered, It feels like Besson just wanted skimpily clad girls on set for most of the shoot to satisfy the male gaze. He even throws in an inconsequential lesbian romance for good measure.

The year 1990 is notably the year Besson’s iconic action thriller ‘Nikita’ was released and the only plausible reason for ‘Anna’ to exist is as some form of sick joke ahead of the film’s 30th anniversary. Glancing at Besson’s filmography, there are films that may have been difficult to defend but none that were difficult to embrace or just plain misfires like ‘Anna’.

Sometimes it was the visual idiosyncrasies, like in ‘Valerian’, or the humor a film like ‘The Family’ offered that made it a worthwhile experience, despite seeming warts. But there really isn’t any positive hold on to here. The only idiosyncrasies here are the bizarre depictions of technology, which are at least 15 years ahead of its time.

I guess the action sequences were passable considering I was being mesmerized by John Wick about a month ago.  Our first bout of real action, in which Anna’s first official gig in the KGB sees her dispatch of over a dozen attackers with guns, plates, cutlery and other lethal improvisations impresses in parts. There’s this other hilarious montage of a series of hits that serves to highlight just how much killing has become her way of life. She racks up quite the headshot count and it’s in moments like these that ‘Anna’ develops a faint pulse. But just when you think of taking it off life support, it jumps back in time to do some labored explaining.

Our quite impressive cast of actors are swimming against the tide here with little or no spark in the performances. Sasha Luss will cut a magnetic screen presence in better hands but is mishandled by Besson here; Luke Evans and Cillian Murphy would be right at home in a ‘Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ remake and Hellen Mirren looks like she’s having fun as the ruthless handler. But ultimately, the performance we see mirror the effort Besson put into his script.

Besson is the subject of some controversy now ( he has been accused of inappropriate behavior by at least nine women) and if ‘Anna’ had done well, there may well have been torches and pitchforks coming his way to violently burst his bubble. There was probably no winning for him or indeed anyone, save those who went and saw ‘Aladdin’ instead, or just sat at home and banged their heads on a table for the two-hour running time.

THE DELIVERY BOY sports a flawed emotional core too embroiled in the trauma Olympics

A sense of self-preservation unites the central characters in Adekunle Nodash Adejuyigbe’s thriller ‘The Delivery Boy.’ A Muslim extremist youth with a burning blood lust is being hounded by a mob. Nearby, a sex worker emerges triumphant after a scuffle over her pay. But she soon takes flight, moving as fast as her pumps will allow. Our protagonists eventually meet, finding refuge in a tricycle. The excellent production design gifts us this striking crimson hue as they cower behind a blood-red covering. Scored to their heavy breathing, the crimson also sets the tone for the duo’s relationship, which will be marked by urgency, cynicism and violence.

This isn’t our first meeting the two. The film opens in a musty apartment a day before the muslim youth, Amir (Jammal Ibrahim), is to embark on a suicide mission for his terror cell. But he has other plans; plans which remain as difficult to read as Amir’s face for much of the first act. Did he get cold feet, or did he develop a conscience? The latter is much closer to the truth as it becomes apparent in Amir’s sudden turn from loyal soldier to rogue operative is steeped in an innocence long lost.

The ‘Delivery Boy’ is in part about coming to terms with the scars of childhood trauma. Some scars fester beneath the surface till they manifest in a renewed sense of purpose, as is the case with Amir. For others like Nkem (Jemima Osunde), the sex worker Amir eventually partners with, the results of the trauma are a visible marker. The right side of her face bears an ugly burn scar, a searing gift from her uncle who used to rape her, virtually as payment for taking care of her younger and much brighter brother.

But their tortured pasts really don’t serve as a cheap unifying force. Adejuyigbe pivots off their stark differences for some semblance of a compelling dynamic. There is a subtle critique of religious condescension in the way Amir is quick to demean Nkem as just an ‘ashawo’ from his high horse of Islam. This is against the backdrop of the terrorism and false indoctrination tainting the faith, and the even more disturbing forms of exploitation; of which Amir was well acquainted with.

Amir and Nkem’s relationship quickly becomes one the latter is used too; where Amir, still on a warpath unclear to audiences, offers money for a service. The only difference is probably for the first time, Nkem will be getting good pay for her trouble. Much like the way our director’s camera first captures Nkem; gazing at her slender legs and fixating on her curves whilst withholding her jarring blemish. By the time we get that obligatory scene when a john winces in disappointment upon seeing her scar, we kind of know what it feels like.

Sympathy for Nkem comes easy, not only because she’s the ugly duckling on the street corner but because the money she makes goes towards her brother’s welfare. All this is on the blindside of Amir, who marches on with single-minded resolve. That is of course till the moment of shared empathy where Amir and Nkem find out life has been extremely unkind to them in quite equal measure.

That said, there is the sense that ‘The Delivery Boy’ turns into the trauma Olympics (Consider Hawk Eye and Black Widow’s moment in ‘Endgame’). In trying to find the humanity in all the anguish, the biggest cracks in the script appear as we question what the film is trying to say about the central character’s torment. There are perfunctory moments of vulnerability accompanied by exposition and flashbacks that fill in the gaps. But there really isn’t any genuine warmth and Adejuyigbe’s idea of redemption is stained by traces of nihilism and misguided sacrifice.

Some of my gripes could be attributed to generally lightweight performances. Adejuyigbe doesn’t get enough from Ibrahim and Osunde, who really need to do some heavy lifting for the emotional core of the film to really take hold. Ibrahim comes off as too wooden and isn’t helped by the subpar dialogue. Osunde was slightly better, projecting some grace and poise in a much more measured showing. Not enough to totally convince though.

Adejuyigbe’s direction is decent with moments of craft that indicate promise. Restraint in execution would have served him better here. His fight sequences went on 30 seconds longer than they had to and his camera was too fixated with faces when searching for the quiet character ticks could have elevated the story. There are some excellent shots on display and the cinematography, which favors a warm saturated look, gives ‘The Delivery Boy’ an appealing aesthetic generally alien to Nollywood.

Shortcomings notwithstanding, Adejuyigbe deserves at least a pat on the back for telling a different story and thinking about Nigeria in a different way. He says more about religion than I think he’s aware of and he may have a more interesting story to tell about that sphere of life later on than the one he crafts from the mould of an exploitation thriller.

Theological inspiration and Kaiju pulp wrestle flat human drama in GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

Of my many cinematic regrets, not seeing Garth Edwards’ ‘Godzilla’ on the big screen towers over my other qualms. Procrastination, always a thief of time, can also be a thief of joy. Edwards’ 2014 film angles the titan as an awe-inspiring deity impossible to comprehend but deserving of our worship. Edwards did not think us worthy enough of the full splendor of Godzilla, feeding him to us in bits with an infectious sense of sweeping wonder heightened by Alexandre Desplat’s majestic score.

Fast forward to 2019 and director Michael Dougherty has taken the reigns of the Toho studios centerpiece, with ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’, in a Marvel-ised cinema space. This means cinematic universes, Easter Eggs, team-ups, post credit scenes and lots of epic action. And I must say this film succeeds where it kind of matters most; delivering on truly stunning monster-disaster movie that even takes time to awe us with artfully composed frames that somehow defy the earth bending carnage surrounding it.

We have a rich mythology of gods and titans to do all the heavy lifting narratively and boy does the screenplay milk them for increasingly rich ideas. But for some reason, ‘King of the Monsters’ still trips itself up by also leaning heavily on woefully underwhelming mortals.

Granted, audience avatars are necessary to spark the plot to life so it would be, for the most part, unreasonable to suggest a monster movie without people (but really though?). In ‘Godzilla’, the human characters always felt like they were on the periphery and never really had a firm grip on the new reality being crafted by monsters. In contrast, there is too much string-pulling in ‘King of the Monsters’ by humans, opening the door to chaff and contrivances that marred the monster fest audiences turned up for.

All the humans have some ties to the top-secret Monarch Initiative. Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins return from the previous film but they are supporting a new top bill. Flying the flag of the humans are a broken family consisting of two Monarch scientists, Mark Russel and Emma Russell (Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga) and their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). Grief weighs heavy on the fissures because they lost the fourth member of their family, Madison’s older brother, during Godzilla’s epic battle with the MUTOs in 2014.

The cracks also extend to how the two parents respond to the new reality with monsters. Emma channels an eternal human hubris with her belief that the likes of Godzilla can be controlled and she develops a special sonar device that can communicate and manipulate the monsters. Mark, on the other hand, wants all monsters destroyed.

And yeah, more monsters have shown up, emerging in response to man’s ravaging of the environment to restore balance. But nature’s ways are not quick enough for some. Enter Charles Dance’s Colonel Alan Jonah, a former British Special Forces veteran turned “eco-terrorist” who seeks to tilt the scales in the monsters’ favour and spark a mass cull of humanity as punishment for how we have treated the environment. In simple terms, he is a Thanos stan.

The key to Jonah’s plan is the awakening of the three-headed dragon Ghidorah, sizzling with elemental fury and ready to challenge Godzilla as earth’s alpha predator. The monsters are clearly the conduit of this film’s core delights; both visually and intellectually.

Christian themes weigh heavy in the conception of Godzilla’s clash with Ghidorah. The fine details have you wondering if the three-headed beast is the returning messiah to judge the race that actively worked against the standards of Eden. Overthink things (like I did) and its clear Godzilla is flying the banner of mother earth in that way Darron Aronofsky assigns some agency to nature in ‘mother!’. In the other corner is Ghidora, who stands in as the next incarnation of the humanity-ending floods.

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Crazy? Probably, but hear me out. Consider the significance of Ghidora’s three heads, part of the same body but still distinct, and how they clearly channel the trinity; particularly in when one head is chomped off but regenerates like a certain someone we know. Then there’s the point about Ghidora being otherworldly; haven fallen from the skies. The monster has been treated with a terrifying reverence reserved the most fearsome of entities whose name is not to be spoken in vain. Throw in the breathtaking shot the ravaging Ghidora perched on an erupting volcano with a cross in the foreground and the sermon is complete.

Alas, we are to root for Godzilla; the custodian of mother earth and restorer of balance as Ken Wantanabe reminds us time and time again. The only alter worth bowing to is the one that furthers nature’s agenda. This is a point drummed home again and again as if fearing audiences scampered into ‘King of the Monsters’ with the dogma of nuclear angst. There is a sequence where Farmiga’s character gives us a ridiculous bout of exposition on man’s environmental sins and Dance drones on about humanity being a virus but there is little tact to the message, no matter how important.

But it isn’t the soapbox moments that make the humans an actual virus eating away at attempts at competent storytelling. It’s that they are just so drab and forgettable when they aren’t annoying us with exposition necessitated by needless plot points. The core cast comprising Chandler, Farmiga and Brown acquit themselves well enough and there is the vague sense Mark is spiritually tethered to Godzilla, who is a spectre of grief that seems to haunt him. Their family dynamic, however, ticks the mere melodrama box and never really overcomes a certain crippling plot twist sure to make the film much worse on a second viewing.

I really don’t want to dwell on the negatives and how they cramp the style of what should have been a riveting monster fest. Supporting Godzilla and Ghidora are close to a dozen other monsters including the fiery pterodactyl inspired Rodan and almost angelic Mothra which awes with its luminous intensity in some of the films most lavish visual moments.

Dougherty isn’t operating in the echelons of Gareth Edwards here. The inch-perfect restraint that made ‘Godzilla’ a quietly outstanding spectacle that channeled silent cinema is missing in ‘King of the Monster.’ That doesn’t keep it from standing out as a dazzling display of craft with jaw-dropping scale, especially in the moments when some of the monsters, Rodan in particular, become the embodiment of ravaging natural disasters that evoke moments of large scale sweeping terror.

I’ll still look back fondly on the theological beats of ‘King of Monsters’; where sacrifice once again gives humanity a chance at a reboot only we aren’t meant to be fishers of men but sowers of more trees I guess. Lacking subtlety, yes, but ‘King of the Monsters’ will never be mistaken for lacking earnestness. It demonstrates some thoughtfulness about its themes but not enough give real heft to the story and elevate proceedings from what is ultimately Kaiju pulp.

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM is an elegant homage to everything we love about action cinema

There is a poetic coda to ‘John Wick Chapter 2’; which sets the thrilling agenda for the third entry in what must be, pound for pound, the pinnacle of action cinema. Our hero, the perpetually zen merchant of death John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has just been made aware he has an hour until an open contract is put on his head and all the worlds assassins are on his trail. His response: “tell them, tell them all. Whoever comes, whoever it is, I’ll kill them. I’ll kill them all”. This feels like a line from the most violent children’s book ever written. But it’s an iambic declaration of violence from a man set to make his last stand.

The cliff hanger heading into ‘John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum’ isn’t just an invitation for an insane body count; it furthers the series’ discourse on the blurred lines between savagery and civility; order and chaos. Buried beneath the balletic action and visual wit from director Chad Stahelski is a story about an assassin underworld that prides itself on rules that keep us from the threshold of barbarity – something Ian McShane’s debonair Winston reminds us of time and time again. The rules do work but not well enough to overcome the basic primal human traits.

The first John Wick introduces us to the rules that prop up the apparent illusion of order Stahelski and his writers seek to tear down. Wick hints at his barreling towards the primal in a sequence that has him retort “do I look civilized to you” to what is essentially a plea for cool heads to prevail. It’s understandable. He is mourning his wife and the death of the puppy she left him. ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ is the fulfillment of the eternal adage: rules are meant to be broken. Wick takes a life on hallowed ground; the New York-based Continental Hotel, and now finds himself excommunicated from the apparent assassins’ creed he so devoutly followed.

Make no mistake, the assassin underworld that is enveloped by the thrilling action that has defined the next era action filmmaking is a religion and one which is yet to witness the sacrifice that ushers in an era of grace. It’s old testament. To err means payment in blood. It stands to reason Wick knows this world is a toxic gyre of violence which is why he fought so hard to get out. But he never lost his faith given the number of bodies he dropped over a puppy.

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Ironically, the only reason we have a film is that Winston, a devout custodian of the faith breaks the rules with the one-hour head start before the $14 million bounty is put on Wick’s head. The holy text demanded Wick be killed the moment he shed blood on the Continental Hotel grounds.

There are times we need reminding that ‘John Wick’ and ‘Parabellum’ are about a week apart. Wick is broken and battered races against time to get his affairs and body in order before fingers are on triggers and blades unsheathed. Not a soul in the underworld is to give aid to Wick once the contract is in effect lest they incur the wrath of the governing High Table. But our man has a plan, once again reaching into his past for two totems that will win him favour with his childhood guardian (Anjelica Huston) and old friend Sofia (Halle Berry), who now runs the Morocco branch of the Continental. The long and short of the plot is Wick plans to find the head of the High Table to plead his case and ask for a chance to make amends for his sins.

Others are guilty of major transgressions too; Winston for one. Then there’s also the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), who helped Wick eliminate a member of the High Table in ‘Chapter 2’. A reckoning is coming their way, in the person of a High Table attaché known as The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon). She ropes in Zero (Mark Dacascos) and his team of deadly ninja assassins to do her dirty work. In service of order, chaos and blood will reign supreme on the streets of New York.

As expected, Stahelski ups the ante with the action granting Wick the opportunity to execute kills with an array of weapons from knives to axes to swords and of course “guns, lots of guns”. But the guns, I feel are on the back burner in terms of pure enjoyment, even considering the exhilarating sequence in Morocco where Berry and her vicious hounds steal the show in insanely conceived sequences. The gunplay even gets a little laboured, as evidenced by a small video-gamey twist in the penultimate action sequence.

Action-wise, it’s the added layer of awareness with the handling of the martial arts that really had me giddy. The martial arts quietly becomes a clash of styles as we headed towards the showdown between Zero, his acolytes and Wick. Dacascos cuts the more appealing action star with his more kinetic style marked acrobatic hand and leg combos. Wick, on the other hand, has always been close quarters grappler with his sambo-judo style and Stahleski gives his fight sequences so much room to breathe; with the wide slow-paced action sequence enforcing a deliberately tedious feel.

Stahleski is constructing a problem for himself here and it pays off in a brilliant and surprisingly warm fight between Wick and two eye-catching guests from ‘The Raid’ franchise (Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian), which ultimately serves to transcend the film. I will spare the details but this sequence felt to me like a tribute to Jackie Chan in the way it employed humor, had a hero ready for self-deprecating action beats, turns is star into a magnet for punishment and shies away from the ultra-violence that the franchise has otherwise walked hand in hand with. An all-timer for me.

Beyond the action, the screenplay infuses an array of wonderful elements given life by the pristine production design and cinematography. The world building is still fed to us in sumptuous bits (building anticipation for The Continental series). The time spent with Anjelica Huston’s character in her (wink wink) ballet school is the most rewarding and borderline mind-blowing with the layers it adds to one of the most iconic action cinema characters.

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After what I felt was a superior filmmaking feat in ‘Chapter 2’, of which he sets the tone with that beautiful nod to stunts in silent cinema, Stahelski seems to double down on the exploitation elements revving up that European B movie aesthetic that still manages to carefully cradle the inspired iconography and a stylishly executed action romp driven forward by a lean smart narrative.

Keanu Reeves is stoic and as poetically terse as ever though he lets loose his visibly overgrown hair in a performance that isn’t pushing for the levels of catharsis seen previously. Wick lacks a sustained emotional spark here, which could count as a negative but makes sense given he is fully in survival mode. The compelling moments of emotion belong to Berry, who is the latest marker for the painful price one pays for belonging to this creed.

‘Chapter 2’ may be the best of the three films, the Bruce Lee of the franchise, but ‘Parabellum’ is undoubtedly my favorite; much like the way, Jackie Chan is a more endearing screen presence than Bruce Lee. ‘Parabellum’ goes somewhat meta in what was actually the logical next step if the franchise wanted to offer something new to audiences. It’s an assault on every cinematic nerve ending and outright porn for action heads whilst also demonstrating clever touches reminds us why we’ve always loved action cinema.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME is the alpha and the omega of blockbuster cinema

‘Avengers: Endgame’ says thank you to comic book movie fans for over a decade of support by milking more bundles of cash from them. I’m sorry but I had to give my inner Grinch some air. The essence of ‘Endgame’ is something I tend to reject; the idea of cinema becoming product and placing fan service over art.

Blockbuster cinema has been trying to balance these two poles for decades and some films have done so successfully. But what do you do when a film serves as the culmination of over 20 films that understand how to leave fans drooling for more with as little as an Easter egg? You just strap on for the ride.

It is at this point that I shall shed the cloak of denial and say Hi my name is Delali and I’m an MCU addict. If I didn’t know this on the multiple rewatches of ‘Infinity War’ (a film I am tempted to start calling a masterpiece) I knew for sure when I found myself rewatching ‘Age of Ultron’, ‘Civil War’ and ‘Spiderman: Homecoming’ after seeing this film. It’s no surprise that Marvel has started marketing an Infinity Saga box set. There are peeps foaming at mouth and burying the nails into steel in wait for more MCU fixes.

I call myself an addict because I can’t say the MCU has rewarded me as a film fan. From a score of films, probably just five moved me. Yet, I find myself wanting more, as I look away from my shriveled essence in the mirror to peers who are given a quickening by MCU films. It was only somewhere in the third act of ‘Endgame’, just before the spectacle turns up to 11, that I felt the renewing power of the MCU. Tears of excitement streamed down and clenched fists vibrated in ecstasy as I felt like a moment had been crafted with just me in mind. The moment passed and the mother of all spectacle commenced a mind-boggling assault on the senses.

Make no mistake, ‘Endgame’ is the Alpha and the Omega of spectacle and blockbuster filmmaking, with the Russo brothers at the head of this orchestra. Like Mjolnir, it will remain an immovable force for mere mortal studios until the MCU decides two decades from now, when God willing the X-Men, Fantastic Four and the like gear up to face the next universe-ending threat. I can’t say I had tremendous affection for ‘Endgame’, but I was awed by the sheer ambition. To tap into another totem of popular culture, I had bent the knee without even knowing it.

I lean towards feelings in this post because traversing the actual plot is to enter the spoiler minefield. ‘Endgame’ skews more complex than ‘Infinity War’ in parts, as far as structure goes. But that was to be expected. The first act sees the Russos harness tone with a certain deftness never before seen in the MCU. The sense of grief and loss weigh heavy in the moments most tethered to ‘Infinity War’. ICYMI, Thanos (Josh Brolin) finally got all six Infinity Stones, then using them to wipe out half of existence. Fan favorites like Black Panther and Spider-Man did not survive his “snap” leaving us with mostly the old guard of the MCU. Thanos himself retreated to the solitude of his farm, overcome by the peace that accompanies fulfilled purpose.

‘Endgame’ picks up a few weeks after Thanos’ victory. Captain America, Black Widow, Hulk, and Thor stew in the sense of defeat whiles searching for Thanos’ whereabouts in hope of reversing the decimation the Infinity Stones wrought. Thanos remains centered and his presence felt, though offscreen. But his compelling aura diminishes as the film progresses. It’s by design as writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely begin the tribute for the MCU most people came for.

It’s a fun tribute to be fair; a joyous nostalgia trip that defies logic and embraces what it means to be a comic book movie. After tons of Easter eggs over the last decade that had many theorising, key plot beats here had us looking back on the foundation of this film. For the first time, an MCU film wasn’t chipping away at another building block. The edifice was complete and the Russos made us feel like we were the chief architects of the structure, holding our hands as we visit room after room.

As far as the characters go, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) begins the film languishing in space, with Nebula (Karen Gillian) at his side, looking very much like a homage to the gaunt alcoholic sometimes seen in the comics. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) gets to a point where he is leading a support group to help others deal with the loss. It’s a group Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) would have done well to join as he numbs the loss of his family with quite the Frank Castle impression.

It’s no exaggeration to say everyone you can think off is in this film so I can’t run through the whole battalion. But special mentions go to Mark Ruffalo as hippie Hulk who surprises with how pleasant a screen presence he becomes, and Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) who the film has no idea how to handle and just sends her off into space to operate offscreen till the CGI stuff begins.

The witty character beats remain as essential as ever to this finely tuned machine that really picks up a head of steam in the second act and never looks back. It gets very clunky along the way and turns characters into tour guides or plot devices that keep the story moving with a single-minded focus that is as impressive as it is flawed.

Rather oddly, the stakes seemed to diminish as we charged towards the coda; a coda that had been probably decided on a conference call. It’s not effective and incisive storytelling but it is incredibly thoughtful; of fans who have supported the franchise and the actors who basically put years of their lives on hold to make comic book movies the new frontier of cinema.

For all the spectacle and CGI cacophony, this is a film bookended by quiet moments of heart-melting beauty. ‘Endgame’ has no qualms in playing favorites. Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr have been the heart and soul of the MCU and amid all the talk of fan service, buried right below is a desire of the filmmakers to immortalise Captain America and Iron Man with character service, if you may. Incredibly forced and telegraphed, yes. But these characters’ arcs gave me a warm fuzzy feeling that filled me with grace.

HOTEL MUMBAI – Unflinching terror attack thriller soured by upsetting levity

If I had bet the house on the most upsetting thing in a film about the Mumbai terror attack in India being the atrocities depicted, I would be homeless. ‘Hotel Mumbai’ packs a harrowing punch, strong enough to engage emotions in the manner Paul Greengrass does as he recounts the mass murder committed by Anders Behring Breivik in ‘22 July’. But distasteful garnishes of levity sour a reflection on a bleak moment in recent history.

I was prepared to bathe myself in grief and reel in the horrors of what a terror attack in third world country would look like. My homeland Ghana is yet to experience such tragedy, thank God, but immense distress lay in small details director Anthony Maras’ highlights, like the security inefficiencies which saw special forces arrive some 12 hours after the first shot was fired. The attacks themselves lasted for three days and prayers are all some of the victims had. And prayers were not enough for the over 160 people who lost their lives.

A little more detail: On November 26 2008, 10 members of an Islamist militant group launched a series of attacks on Mumbai. Maras centres the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in his film for obvious reasons but attacks took place at about 11 other locations. The story revs to life as we track the terrorists’ arrival by the peaceful sea on an inflatable boat, from where they split up towards their targets to spark bloody bedlam. Well trained, well-coordinated and heavily armed, they still receive counsel from a handler who is based in Pakistan.

Chaos first ensues at a train station. The camera watches concerned as two of the guys unload assault rifles from their backpacks in a public toilet. In one of Maras’ more subtle touches, the camera remains in the toilet as they leave. For a few seconds, the only thing of interest is the passive toilet attendant counting his coins until gunfire and shrill screams rip through the air.

About an hour of chaos in Mumbai culminates in frightened residents seeking shelter in the Taj Mahal. In the moment of terror, the hotel’s doors open to all, despite initial apprehension. The cinema was inundated with gasps as we realised six of the terrorists had slipped in. Before long we are in the thick of Maras’ unflinching recount of the slaughter of hotel guests and staff.

Our first experience within the Taj Mahala isn’t of gunfire and blood. We get to marvel at the innards of this totem of luxury that serves as the melting pot of different cultures. We meet David (Armie Hammer) an American architect who comes to stay, with his wife, Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi), their baby, and their nanny. Most of the marketing I encountered had Dev Patel front and centre. He plays a Sikh waiter at the hotel named Arjun, who’s has a daughter and is expecting another with his wife.

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Nazanin Boniadi as “Zahra”, Dev Patel as “Arjun” and Armie Hammer as “David in ‘Hotel Mumbai’

The scales are balanced class wise as life with Arjun in the musty slums is juxtaposed with the overbearing plushness of the Taj Mahal. Arjun is worried about his missing shoes and picking up extra shifts ahead of the arrival of the baby. David and Zahra watch on as the petal adorned bath being run for their baby is checked with a thermometer to make sure it’s not a tenth of a Degree Celsius off optimum temperature.

But there’s nothing like the threat of death to remind us we all came from dust. The terrorist, for the most part, don’t discriminate, until they realise Caucasian or “important looking” guests at the hotel could make for valuable hostages.

Though this fabric has “true story” stitched onto it, a significant amount of threading is altered for dramatic effect. Some of the characters amalgamations of some the real people caught up in the attack, according to Maras. Arjun, for one, is the merger of two people; a waiter in one of the Taj Mahal’s restaurants and a security guard. Zahra and David are also a collection of traits from multiple persons caught in the web of fear and desperation as the terrorists prowl around the hotel.

Some of the actors play real people, like Anupam Kher, who embodies what I liked the most about ‘Hotel Mumbai’. Kher plays the hotel’s head chef, who shows courage and exudes a contagious calm that stands as the film’s only version of heroism. Much like Peter Berg’s ‘Patriots Day’ is about a city refusing to be cowed by terrorists, the Taj Mahal rallies by holding fast to its values of impeccable customers service as the staff turn up the dial marked selflessness. The customer remains god, and panicked guests losing their minds are still treated with levels of patience and decorum that seem superhuman in such trying times.

Not so welcome were the moments of levity that feel unrestrained and misjudged. I can’t say if upsetting beats of humor, mostly revolving around the attackers, were meant accentuate their callousness or just undercut the tension. But I really hated the invitations to bellow out in laughter. The excitement from most of the audience when one of the terrorists pulls a pork prank on his mate made me cringe. Then there’s the gag about reaching into woman’s bra adding to the haram humor. Some considered the laughs a surprising bonus but it had me thinking of the “nobody” gag on Twitter.

As I write this, I admit my admiration for how well the film was staged has grown, though not enough drown out howls of laughter as scoring the moment a bloodied old woman seeks shelter in a toilet. If you are going to exploit a terror attack for cinematic gain, it helps when the craft is on point. There is a subdued saturation to the aesthetic that eases us into Maras’ well-photographed staging of the terror. He has a great sense of time and place enforcing a the confinement despite the vast expanse of the Taj Mahal.

A tremendous amount of rigor went into the script by Maras and co-writer John Collee and they may well learn from their mistakes here to deliver more gripping films. Even though they shy away from unrelenting bleakness with the absurd moments, their efforts, whilst thrilling, are reverential and just respectful enough to the grace and bravery that met the tragedy head-on.

delalibessa@yahoo.com

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