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The Spy review: Serious Sacha Baron Cohen saves new Netflix series from being a joke

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The Spy
Director – Gideon Raff
Cast – Sacha Baron Cohen, Noah Emmerich, Hadar Ratzon-Rotem, Alexander Siddig, Waleed Zuaiter 

Gideon Raff gives himself at least six credits in each episode of his new Netflix miniseries, The Spy. He doesn’t combine them for the sake of brevity (or humility), but instead, in highly irregular form, doubles down on them, giving himself a proud pat on the back before each episode has begun, and again, after it has ended.

As annoying as it is to see his name again and again and again, this knowledge comes in handy when you’re looking for someone to assign blame upon for the show’s many missteps, but also when you’re looking for someone to praise when it occasionally succeeds. Because by hogging the limelight, creator, executive producer, writer and director, Gideon Raff has also painted a target on his back. The Spy, for better or for worse, is a Raff enterprise. It lives and it dies on the back of its creator’s sensibilities.

Watch The Spy trailer here 

The six-part miniseries arrives less than two months after his highly problematic Netflix film, The Red Sea Diving Resort. The Spy is an infinitely better experience, but one thing is abundantly clear now: Raff is a much better fit for television than feature films. Long-form storytelling irons out some of his more controversial tendencies, which were there for everyone to see in The Red Sea Diving Resort, a film that had the unique ability to offend different audiences depending on which corner of the world they came from. So while I found its divisive politics rather troubling, others thought it celebrated the White Saviour trope.

And either by complete coincidence or by design, the lead character’s skin colour plays an important role in The Spy, as well. Eli Cohen’s Arab appearance was one of the key reasons he was handpicked by the Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad, to undertake a highly dangerous mission in the 1960s. He would be their man in Damascus, Syria, at a tumultuous time between the nations. He would establish himself as a patriotic Syrian businessman, host lavish parties for statesmen and military officials, and relay whatever he learns to his handlers back home.

Sacha Baron Cohen in a still from The Spy.

It took me a full episode to accept Sacha Baron Cohen as Eli, which is a shame, because once the initial shock of seeing him, a comic legend, deliver a dramatic performance wears off, he is revealed to be quite excellent in the role. The accent that initially seemed like it belonged to one of his Who is America? characters becomes less distracting as the actor sneaks under Eli’s skin. As broad as some of his choices may be, Sacha Baron Cohen can be disarmingly subtle, as well.

While Eli is shown to be a regular family man who adores his wife, his Syrian secret identity, Kamel, needs to wield an uncommon confidence as he develops relationships with important Syrian figures; he must be charming and sociable, authoritative but never arrogant.

The actor’s performance goes a long way in toning down some of Raff’s more eccentric directorial flourishes, none of which is weirder than his decision, in one dramatic sequence, to intercut between a military coup and an orgy.

The writing is also rather plain. As expensive as The Spy looks and feels (save for one glaring moment where modern cars can be seen on the streets of 60s Damascus), it is decidedly lowbrow in its treatment. It is the sort of show where fireplaces tend to make themselves available when letters are in need of burning; the sort of show where, if wives are being missed, a lookalike appears out of thin air to be followed on the streets; where secret conversations are conducted within earshot of exactly those people who shouldn’t be hearing them.

It sort of makes sense that the show is a smoother ride when it is focused on the character of Eli, and not when it slips into that uncomfortable political zone that Raff routinely finds himself veering into. You see, most of what has been documented about Eli’s life is from an Israeli perspective. To them, he is a national hero; a man who played a key role in his country’s victory in the Six-Day War. And it is with similar reverence that Gideon Raff tells his story.

Sacha Baron Cohen in a still from Netflix’s The Spy.

I’ve always thought of Israelis as a paranoid people. As a child, minding my own business outside the French cultural centre in New Delhi, I was approached by a man in dark glasses and a suit – he looked like a secret agent! He asked me what I was doing, and vaguely dissatisfied with my answer, he noted down my name and address in a pocketbook. As he walked back across the street, I learned that he worked the security at the neighbouring Israeli embassy. I was later told that the Israelis across the street kept a better record of the goings on at the French cultural centre than the French themselves. To be clear, this was in New Delhi, perhaps in the mid-2000s.

Israel of the 1960s was a very different place; it was when the seeds of the nation’s current belligerent attitude were first sown. And Raff, to his credit, offers a sort of explanation for his country’s psychology back them. Because barely two decades before Eli was sent into Syria — his patriotism exploited for the greater good of his nation — the Israelis felt that they had been let down by the world, and made to believe that if they didn’t take care of their own people, no one would.

The Spy isn’t perfect, but at least it has the humanism of Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi and Yoon Jong- bin’s The Spy Gone North — both recent benchmarks for the genre.

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Angrezi Medium Review: Irrfan makes perfect comeback in light-hearted family comedy drama

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Film: Angrezi Medium

Director: Homi Adajania

Cast: Irrfan, Deepak Dobriyal, Radhika Madan, Kareena Kapoor Khan

Angrezi Medium is a slow-moving tale about a father-daughter relationship essayed by Irrfan and Radhika Madan in perfect capacities. The lack of the mother figure is substituted by a brother, Deepak Dobriyal, who despite a legal dispute with Irrfan loves him dearly. An ensemble supporting cast including Pankaj Tripathi, Dimple Kapadia, Ranvir Shorey and Kiku Sharda lend their own flavours to this widely cultural text. To see an A-lister like Kareena Kapoor Khan play a supporting role is also game-changing in its own way.

Homi Adajania’s directorial has a slack pace throughout which is especially felt in the first half of the film. Despite it being culturally deeply rooted in the Udaipur landscape, with a backdrop of a family feud on the name of ‘Ghasiteram’, the overall narrative of the film is basic and in fact depends quite a lot on the nuances that the actors’ bring with their characters to the screen.

Radhika Madan and Irrfan ace their role, and it is refreshing to see a shy and yet bold, not so outspoken and fiery daughter figure in Angrezi Medium. A change in the arch of liberal womanhood per se. And, despite the presence of a domineering supporting cast, the film focuses on the struggles of Irrfan as a coming-of-age father when his relationship with his freedom-seeking daughter evolves during the course of the film. Yet, Deepak Dobriyal’s performance deserves a special mention and he stands out in parts individually, sometimes even stealing the show with his performance.

There are interesting cultural motifs inserted here and there in the film, though Irrfan largely remains the same rich doting father from Hindi Medium who would go to all extremes to get his daughter’s dreams fulfilled.Apart from the strength of its actors’ performances, perhaps, the screenplay could have been more worked upon. The filmmaker can be found enjoying himself a little too much with the film. The design suited the text as did the dialogues. Other little discrepancies were largely overshadowed by the filmmaker’s attempt to put to use whatever he could to make his film a complete entertainer.

The music of Angrezi Medium borrows from its source film some of the tracks, while putting in iconic Bollywood numbers during the sad alcohol parties organized by Deepak, Irrfan and Kiku to share who is the unhappiest of all. The background score suits the genre of the film.

Angrezi Medium marks Irrfan’s return to the acting table after a year. A much-awaited film in that regard, Irrfan’s performance is likely to gather much applause as the film hits theatres this Friday.

The film is a light-hearted family comedy drama that has a message to give, like Hindi Medium, though not punched into the audience’s face and repeated dismally. A kind of a comedy that comes in once in a while with refreshing dialogues, new situational comedy elements and is just plain fun.

Rating: 2.5

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The Body movie review: Rishi Kapoor-Emraan Hashmi’s film lacks depth

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The Body
Cast: Rishi Kapoor, Emraan Hashmi, Sobhita Dhulipala, Vedhika Kumar
Director: Jeetu Joseph

It takes a deft hand to make a murder mystery that keeps you engaged and offers a zinger as the climax. Alas, Rishi Kapoor and Emraan Hashmi-starrer The Body is not that film.

Despite having a readymade story, director Jeetu Joseph fails to deliver or keep you interested throughout the length of the film. Given the plot and characters, it could have been quite a thrilling watch but poor treatment and a dry narrative leaves no scope for the actors – Rishi Kapoor, Emraan Hashmi, Sobhita Dhulipala – to perform beyond a point. A remake of a 2012 Spanish film by the same name, The Body is slow, scattered and a half-baked attempt at making a murder mystery.

Watch the trailer for The Body here:

The film begins with the body of a millionaire businesswoman, Maya (Dhulipala), going missing from a morgue. SP Jairaj Rawal (Kapoor) who is investigating the case believes the dead woman’s husband, Ajay (Hashmi) killed his wife by inducing a heart attack and then stole her body from the morgue to escape an autopsy.

As the events unfold over a span of one night – 8 hours to be precise – Hashmi gets plenty of hints that Maya is alive. Or is it her ghost? Meanwhile, his girlfriend Ritu (Kumar) is there to offer constant support to him to deal with the crisis. Will the cops find the body? Or will Ajay’s fears turn into reality?

Hindustantimes

The Body has many questions and what-will-happen-next moments but without the thrill you would expect in a murder mystery. Joseph plays it safe, and doesn’t play around much with his characters. and doesn’t play around much with his characters.

Kapoor is in his elements as he returns to the screen after almost a year. He owns his part as the cranky police officer who has his own baggage – he lost his wife in a car crash, which he refuses to believe was an accident. He’s a tough nut to crack but holds your attention when he’s there.

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Hashmi, on the other hand, is shown as a diffident college professor who hits the jackpot when he marries Maya. He’s charming in parts but given that throughout the film he’s confined to the four walls of a morgue, he seems to be struggling to put pieces together and be seen.

While Sobhita as the svelte, rich and gorgeous entrepreneur born with a silver spoon is convincing, Vedhika is a bit of a misfit and doesn’t have a strong screen presence. She is mostly reduced to sobbing while telling Ajay, ‘tum wahan se bhaag jao’.

Hindustantimes

As the series of events unfold, you’re shown flashbacks which are, each time, topped with a romantic song. Even though they’re shot at the most picturesque locales and look pretty, they totally take you away from the story.

By the time you reach climax, you have made your own deductions and the twist makes you go ‘wow’ and ‘blah’ at the same time. The Body is mediocre at best, watch it if you truly like thrillers but don’t expect it to make it to your top 5 list.

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Frozen 2 movie review: Elsa and Anna make a case for reparations in more beautiful but needless sequel

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Frozen 2
Director: Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck
Cast: Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff

One of the easiest tests for assessing a sequel’s quality is comparing its cast and crew to the original. Are the leads back? Is someone else making it? Did the director have to be thrown out and another brought in their place to fill the hole? Frozen II passes this test with flying colours. Everyone from the original is back, including all the voice actors (Oscar-winners and otherwise) and also the directors. Which means, those who read the script were confident about it and so maybe, you should be, too. However, the test is often deemed unreliable for one factor–the sweet, clinking sound of coins dropping in their purses.

Frozen is still the most successful animated film ever made with a box office haul of $1.27 billion. And this isn’t even a fraction of the money it made for Disney with its Elsa tiffin boxes, Anna backpacks and Olaf toilet plungers. Of course, a sequel is too glossy an idea to not entertain. Another movie means four more Elsa costumes and four more Elsa dolls for your child’s collection. I’ll pray to my god that you find the four-in-one version, for the sake of your wallet and your sanity. That’s the least I can do after writing a review that tells you why you should bring your kids for Frozen II anyway.

Watch Frozen 2 trailer here:

In its second part, the story of ice queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) and her sister Anna (Kristen Bell) takes a more colourful albeit less enchanting turn. Set in the season of autumn, the screen aflush with stunning hues; the fiery red maple leaves, the soft auburns of hidden forests, the icy blues of Elsa’s snow outfits and the royal aubergines of Anna’s cloak. It’s an aesthetic fit for an Instagram trend. #VSCOgirls are shook.

But beautiful visuals were not all that was promised. Six years ago, Frozen gave Disney one of the most refreshing stories about princesses and magic. It wasn’t just a musical delight — although repeated listenings did …uh… made one particular song hard to ‘let go’ from your head. Frozen subverted long-held ideas about the meaning of true love and why one must always find it in a suitor. With a lot of pomp and pageantry, it sang about a woman’s need to break free from isolation and embrace her powers; and finally, learning to trust the ones closest to her. It was a story about how people can help others heal and grow stronger. Things change for Elsa as she breaks away from her sallow, lonely origins and embraces a happier side with her sister.

This image released by Disney shows Elsa, voiced by Idina Menzel, in a scene from "Frozen 2." (Disney via AP)

With Frozen II, there is no relationship to resolve or personality issues to address. Therefore, the story, the tension and the central conflict feels forced from the very beginning to the absolute end. This time when we meet the two sisters of Arendelle, an undisclosed amount of time has passed since the original. Everything seems happy and joyous in her kingdom but Elsa has been hearing eerie voices call out to her. In the spirit of every kids movie ever, she decides to chase after it and once again brings peril to her kingdom with her ever-growing icy powers that are beyond her control.

To bring things back in order, she goes searching for answers in an enchanted forest and Anna is bent on staying by her side. Last time’s events should have been enough to remind Elsa that Anna can hold her own and even save her in times of need. But the days of not trusting her sister and infantilizing her are still not behind her. The entire party, including the sisters, Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven and snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) get divided into different groups when Elsa ditches them to save Arendelle and to find her true self. Cue a song sequence in which Elsa sings at night in a kingdom of isolation with not a footstep to be seen. Welcome back to Frozen (2013).

Elsa, voiced by Idina Menzel, from left, Anna, voiced by Kristen Bell, Kristoff, voiced by Jonathan Groff and Sven in a scene from Frozen 2.

In between a few death hoaxes and one stunning song (Into The Unknown) and one that will make 1991 Bryan Adams proud (Lost In The Woods), the film also makes a case for reparations…? The wronged people of the forest should be given their due for all that they suffered for decades and it falls on Elsa and Anna to make a tough decision for the good of their kingdom. What could have been a powerful opportunity to draw parallels with contemporary realities and teach a lesson or two in sacrifice and acceptance, was too quickly resolved with not much of a sacrifice. Of course, the real world doesn’t have ice queens to help them out.

The film, even without a strong, beating, motivated heart at its core is still not dull enough to be unwatchable. Josh Gad’s Olaf is once again one of the best things about the film. He still gets the most hilarious lines; his laugh is just as infectious as we remember it; his stupidity is the kind that make you burst into giggles rather than roll your eyes in frustration. In a standout scene, he gives a hilarious recap of the events of the original and it’s the most exciting and impressive piece of writing in the whole film. As a sad cherry on the cake, Olaf looks forward to adulthood and how he will be wiser when he grows up — a sly dig at all the grown-ups in theatre, realising how wrong he is about it all. It’ll stab at your heart when he realises none of it was true and frankly, he has one of the best character arcs in the film. Can’t believe I just said that about an anthropomorphic pile of snow.

Anna, voiced by Kristen Bell, and Olaf, voiced by Josh Gad, in a scene from Frozen 2.

Frozen II, however, falls short on the musical front, something that made the original Disney so memorable. Each song was catchy, crisp and brilliant in the first film. However, with the sequel, dig my brain as hard as I might, I can’t remember a single line of lyrics from more than one song. Idina Menzel knocks it out of the park once again with the powerful Into The Unknown, and the haunting chorus is still ringing in my ear, hours later. And karaoke lovers beware, this one will be tougher than its predecessor to sing.

But one catchy song is too less, one great snowman too little a reward for those who have waited six years for this. Maybe now that we have realised it was not really worth it, can we finally let it go?

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