The Lovebirds (2020) — Review

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The Lovebirds is a run-all-night crime caper romantic comedy that may not quite have the lungs to run a marathon, but it is really effective in short sprints. Having two likable leads, a few tricks up its sleeve and a runtime of under 90 minutes do help.

Leilani (Issa Rae) and Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) play a couple who find themselves at each other’s throat after having fallen in love in the span of a short but sweet montage and then been abruptly yanked to the present in a matter of a scene transition that (in caps) says FOUR YEARS LATER. If that happened to me, I wouldn’t be muttering sweet nothings into my partner’s ears either. Jokes apart, I am sure you must have seen similar openings in rom-coms, and you know how the rest of the story goes — a couple on the verge of a break-up is caught in an adventure or misadventure, during the course of which they relearn to trust and appreciate each other. This basic structure has been and is common to most stories, irrespective of the genre, where two protagonists with a largely common goal are involved. Stories with the ability to make the audience care about the characters and the outcome of their undertaking or suck the audience into the adventure are able to distinguish themselves. The Lovebirds has most of that going for it, for the most part. However, at times it becomes too obvious that the movie is trying hard to get things right, the way it shows in a performance when you can see the preparation distractingly visible on the face of the performer. 

When Leilani and Jibran accidentally get mixed up in a murder, they decide to take it upon themselves to prove their innocence because being people of color, they conclude they wouldn’t have much luck with taking the matter up with the police. As they solve one puzzle after another, they find themselves falling out of the frying pan and into the fire, with each situation being more or less funny than the previous one.

This inconsistency in delivering funny scenes is one of the main problems of the movie. Some of the scenes are genuinely funny, while some seem a bit forced (thankfully, the latter kind are few). The effectiveness of humor aside, the jokes, from dorky to droll to dark, at times feel a bit random but not entirely inconsistent, with dark and dorky mostly confined to situations involving threats and other characters and the droll humor largely making up the arguments between Leilani and Jibran. While on the topic of humor, I must say that one of the major winners in the movie is its “woke jokes”. Consider this example: a young couple mistake Leilani and Jibran for murderers and call 911; the girl almost apologetically tells the operator that the suspects also happen to be “colored” individuals.

Every time the humor seems to start to lose its bite, the screenwriter and the director turn in a sweet moment between the two characters. That is another positive about the movie. These moments are staged and acted with sincerity, and I found them more believable than anything else happening in the movie. Even if the movie didn’t suck me completely into the adventure like Game Night (2018) did (I could not help the comparison), these tender moments told me more about the characters than the hasty, tactless exposition and foreshadowing could.

Even though subtlety isn’t a strong suit of the script, I would like to commend the screenwriters for not being too overt with the self-awareness the movie undeniably has. It helped the movie focus more on the relationship of the characters (Issa and Kumail do a really good job, and they share great chemistry) as they come to terms with their insecurities, overcome miscommunication and understand each other a little more — it is called The Lovebirds, after all. To sum it up, the movie is inconsistently funny, thoroughly sweet, a little short of delightful but definitely worth a watch. In fact, I think I might like it more on the second viewing.   

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Time to Hunt (2020) — Review

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A small-time hustler gets out of prison after serving a three-year sentence for robbery and he has a new plan to make a ton of money and leave South Korea for the sunny beaches of Taiwan. He ropes in two of his friends and another who owes him money to rob a local gambling house. Not everything goes as planned.

That is the basic outline of Time to Hunt. If one were to judge movies by their story outlines, one would never want to watch another after watching maybe the first two or three of its kind. But thankfully, there are elements to story such as characters, motivations, situations, themes and storytelling that make them different. The above outline could be fleshed out into anything from a crime drama, a dark comedy, a horror movie to a wall-to-wall action flick. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.

So, what kind of movie is Time to Hunt? Well, the title does not leave a lot of room for guesswork — it is a crime thriller. And does it work? Yes, it does. A lot of credit for that goes to the movie’s ability to shift gears and morph into a different beast altogether almost seamlessly.

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The movie opens with a shot of two friends — Jang-ho (Ahn Jae-hong) and Ki-hoon (Choi-Woo-shik) bickering over clothes — branded or designer — in a grocery store. The banter continues even as the transaction ends and they step out of the store. The camera follows them and reveals a dystopian South Korean city. What was just a normal conversation between two friends a moment ago gets a different context with smog in the air and the homeless on the street. This opening shot establishes at the outset that these young boys, no matter how street-smart, aren’t really prepared for the world out there. When their friend Jun-seok (Lee Je-hoon), somewhat hardened by three years of jail time, joins them, we get to know that the present condition of the country and its people is not so because of any war or outbreak of disease, it was caused by economic meltdown. As the movie gradually starts painting the picture of a failed economy and the impact it has had on the people, especially the young, for whom escaping this bleak reality is the only way to move forward, even if it means taking great risks.

While the socio-political angst still simmers underneath, the movie continues to explore the three characters, their fears and their dreams and what they would not do to preserve the sanctity of the bond they share. And before you even get to say, “Hmm. A coming-of-age crime drama! I like where it is going,” it becomes a game of cat and mouse with a hint of a slasher.

The performances are on point, with the three leads bringing the just about the right mix of innocence, anxiety and boyish charm and ably complemented by the sinister, although underdeveloped, villain (they did try to flesh him out through his actions, which lead to some really tense moments). Although the movie begins to become predictable as it moves closer to the climax, director Yoon Sung-Hyun’s ability to create tense scences, which are ample in the movie, keeps the eyes glued to the screen. Even when you know how a scene will play out, you want to watch it for the sheer craft on display, supported by really good cinematography and sharp editing, which help bring out the director’s vision of this bleak world the protagonists must escape for a better future. This little crime thriller scores big over Netflix’s bigger release Extraction.

Extraction (2020) — Review

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This is a spoiler-free review.

The second action set piece in the movie is a nearly 12-minute long chase-fight sequence made to look like a single unbroken shot. Director Sam Hargrave seems to have either pitched his vision for the movie based on this 12-minute scene or decided to direct the whole movie because he wanted to shoot the particular scene. And boy does it deliver! It is clearly the movie’s highest point, after which it is mostly downhill, although it is not altogether unimpressive.

Extraction is based on a graphic novel named Ciudad by Ande Parks, although a lot of it has been altered in the screenplay by Joe Russo, including the setting from Ciudad del Este (Paraguay) to Dakha (Bangladesh) and the gender of one of the protagonists. The plot is pretty basic — a druglord in Dhaka gets his Mumbai-based rival druglord’s son kidnapped and a battle-hardened, grieving mercenary is hired to rescue and extract the boy. However, props to Joe Russo for trying to inject a bit of thematic heft into the story by introducing the theme of parenthood, which in ways becomes both an albatross around the neck and a welcome relief for the movie.

Chris Hemsworth plays Tyler Rake, the mercenary hired for the job. It is pleasant to watch Hemsworth, who has grown into such a big movie star over the years, show so much sincerity and bring believability to a character type that every action hero in Hollywood must have played at least once. In case you are wondering what that is, it is this: a white male looking for some sort of redemption takes on a dangerous mission in a foreign land (which is mostly exoticized the heck out) and ultimately finds it. This is fairly common in western literature and movies, portrayed with varying levels of artistry and success. Getting back to Hemsworth’s performance, the fight scenes sure looked excruciating. Even with a body double and a ton of amazing stunt performers there to make him look believable, Hemsworth had to perform a lot of choreography himself. And that is impressive, especially because the on-screen commitment is much more demanding here than anything he has done before, including the superhero stuff.

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The other thing the movie does right is introducing a South Asian character that stands as an antithesis to Tyler Rake’s westerner in the East. Played by Randeep Hooda, the character Saju is surprisingly organic to the plot and the theme and is definitely not there just to attract the Indian audience, unlike the barely-there cameo of Pankaj Tripathi. Unsurprisingly, Hooda holds his own alongside Chris Hemsworth.

In fact, Saju is the only character that I felt like rooting for in the movie. Both Tyler and Saju have the same objective but are pitted against each other because of their different motivations. And here it got really interesting for me — while Tyler is on the mission because of the money and redemption and because he wants to, for Saju, it is about survival (I won’t disclose more to avoid spoilers). It is like accepting that the first-world countries have the luxury to dream of and fight for the future (the boy represents future/hope), while for a third-world country, surviving in the present is more than enough. Perhaps I am reading more into it than I should, but it seems the script is aware that without such an antithesis, it would just be another white savior narrative, which it largely becomes, especially because of its representation of Dhaka, which I am sure the people of Dhaka will not be too excited about.

With two good performances, excellent stunt work, great production design (the movie was not shot in Dhaka, except for a few establishing shots), inventive cinematography (especially in the second set-piece — it is brilliant) and fairly fast pace, you would think this is the action blockbuster you have been waiting for, but it has its fair share of problems, including the few mentioned above. One of the major problems with the movie is that it is pretty weak in the emotional scenes. There were instances where a more nuanced approach could have done wonders. Clearly, Hargrave’s directing ability is not as honed as his skills as a stunt coordinator and his efforts fail to evoke the struggles of parenthood and its coexistence with violence in this bleak world. Moreover, Rudraksh Jaiswal’s (who plays the kidnapped boy) underwhelming performance does not help. The script too loses its steam as the movie progresses, giving way to cliches and contrivances far too common in action movies. Although cliche-ridden, the final shootout is great.

To sum it up, if you can get past the white savior complex (saved partly by Saju), cliches, uneven direction, weak emotional core, and one particularly ordinary performance, it can be worth a watch. Just focus on the three Hs — Hemsworth, Hooda, and high-octane action, and who knows you may end up enjoying the movie more than you thought.

 

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Revenger (2018) – Review

Park Hee-soon (left) and Bruce Khan (right)

With the South Korean martial arts movie Revenger, Netflix adds to its growing catalog of hyper-violent action movies. But, is it able to match the standards (for better or worse) set by the other acclaimed movies – the two Raid films, the other two Iko Uwais starrer Headshot and The Night Comes For Us, and Keanu Reeves’ neon-drenched ballistic ballet John Wick – available on Netflix?

Bruce Khan, who plays the protagonist, doubles up as the screenwriter for the movie, which is directed by Lee Seung-wan III in his debut. As you may have guessed by the title, the movie tells the story of a man seeking revenge on a ruthless criminal who murdered his family. That’s right, the staple of the revenge genre (my condolences, there, to the fictional families who have died so that we could enjoy the sweet nectar of revenge exacted by punching the wrongdoer to a pulp).

So, what’s new? This time the “revenger” must infiltrate a prison island, fight off hordes of criminals, make a bunch of allies, dispatch a few more along the way, and then punch the villain to a pulp. So, yeah, it’s a generic revenge movie caged in a poor man’s Hunger Games, which itself is a poor man’s Battle Royale.

But I am sure the people (including me) who would watch this movie wouldn’t want the movie to be burdened needlessly with a plot for the sake of it. Too many plot lines, characters, and convoluted storytelling seem forced and take away the impact of the action. The good news is there is none of that to worry about, and the movie delivers on the action promised in the trailers. The bad news is, apart from the action, there is nothing to worry about. None of the characters are fleshed out and the plot only exists as a breather in between the seemingly relentless fight scenes.

Bruce Khan, who has worked in the South Korean movie industry as a stunt performer, brings all the years’ experience to the screen. And the result is some really great hand to hand combat sequences. In fact, the action is the only redeeming factor about the movie, and Bruce Khan the only custodian of the winning combination of punches and kicks, for the script allows no one else to shine like Bruce does, which is easy to see why when the credits roll.

I would definitely like to watch Bruce Khan in the future, but only if he lets someone else write the screenplay.