REVIEW: “Hotel Mumbai”


In November of 2008 ten Pakistani terrorists unleashed a series of attacks across Mumbai, the most populous city in India. Among their targets was a historical train station, a popular cafe, a Jewish community center, and two of the city’s signature hotels. 166 people were killed in the attacks and over 300 were injured.

“Hotel Mumbai” is the feature film debut for its director Anthony Maras. It’s a fictionalized account based on a 2009 documentary short “Surviving Mumbai” and specifically the attack on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. The timing of the film’s release is unfortunate considering the still raw and painful emotions following the recent mosque mass shootings in New Zealand. This is certain to effect some perspectives.


Dev Patel serves as our entry point into a story filled with a wide assortment of characters. He plays Arjun, a waiter at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel with a wife at home expecting their second child. So instantly we have our first of several rooting interests.

Arjun arrives to work late for his shift which annoys his hard-nosed but respectable boss, the hotel’s head chef Hermant Oberoi (Anupam Kher). Meanwhile newlyweds David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) check in with their newborn baby and young nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey). We also meet Jason Isaacs playing a jerky Russian businessman and a hard nut to crack.

Most surprising is the depth Maras gives to the young Pakistani terrorists. We first see them as they arrive by small boat and quickly disperse across the city to their assigned targets. The movie hints at things such as socioeconomic conditions that could have pushed them to such violence but it never goes as far as to make them overtly sympathetic. Just the opposite. They kill without the slightest tinge of conscience. Their demeanors are cold and calloused, their faces blank and emotionless. No theatrics, just a businesslike approach to slaughter. It’s unsettling and chilling to watch.


Maras does challenge the audience to look into the face of radicalization. He shows us twenty-somethings from impoverished backgrounds driven by extremism to hate non-Muslim cultures and any semblance of wealth. They are instructed by the disturbing voice in their earbuds coming from a puppet-master known only as “The Bull”. He fuels their hate and wants “the screams of the victims to be heard by the world”. These young men are fanatics who have been weaponized by their handlers to coldly carry out their well-planned atrocities. And they follow with little to no resistance.

Of course most of this is brought to light within the enormous Taj Hotel where terrified staff and guests scramble for safety among the chaos and carnage. Hope is hard to come by especially when we learn how ill-equipped the city was to respond (Mumbai had no tactical units to counter such an attack). But Maras shows amazing acts of kindness and bravery born from the human spirit in the face of such disturbing inhumanity. There is no single hero and thankfully no puffy-chested machismo. Just true-to-life characters with personal stakes trying to survive. We occasionally lose track of some of them, but ultimately Maras does a good job putting us in their shoes.

Hotel Mumbai

There are many instances where “Hotel Mumbai” subverts your expectations whether it’s the disciplined use of the score or its ability to stay true to the horrific violence without always showing the bloodiest results. But there are a couple of times where you can almost see the Hollywood influence creep its way in. The worst is a cringe-inducing scene meant to speak to racial profiling but that comes across as ridiculously scripted and completely false. It literally yanked me out of the otherwise relentless white-knuckle tension.

Predictably some have been quick to dismiss “Hotel Mumbai” as ill-advised and exploitative. I didn’t see it that way. Unflinching and uncomfortably relevant, perhaps. Ill-advised and exploitative, no. Maras and co-writer John Collee did hours of interviews with survivors and witnesses. Much of that is what shaped their story and characters. This is no sanitized account. It’s gritty and admittedly tough to watch. But it could also be one of the more authentic portrayals of its kind. It certainly left me rattled.



REVIEW: “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”

UNCLE poster

“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” debuted on NBC during the Fall of 1964. The campy and stylish spy-fi television series ran for only three and a half seasons but it has left a surprisingly lasting impression. That’s funny because during its short run the show struggled with its identity. It was at its peak of popularity when it was trying to be serious, but once the show started incorporating more humor the ratings dropped substantially.

So here we are, 47 years since the original show’s cancellation, and we have a big screen adaptation. The film embraces both the serious and the silliness that marked “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and its interesting television run. Guy Ritchie helms this wacky mélange of action, comedy, spy thriller, and a retro GQ photo shoot. On paper the movie calls for skepticism as it has all the ingredients to be a disaster. Thankfully it’s far from it. Instead Richie gives us a fun and zesty affair that quite exceeds the expectations I had.


One of my causes for caution was rooted in the film’s two leads. Henry Cavill plays Napoleon Solo – a name so blatantly absurd yet tonally spot-on. He’s an accomplished thief turned reluctant CIA top agent. He’s quite confident and has a penchant for good fashion and even better hair. Then there is Armie Hammer playing KGB agent Illya Kuryakin. He’s a bit of a brute who is a by-the-book operative with a propensity towards fits of anger. Can you see where this is going? Two lone wolves forced to work together and all that stuff? Surprisingly the movie plays with that conceit without going too far.

Brimming with post-World War II and Cold War politics and atmosphere, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” is set in 1963 where our two good-looking stars meet while trying to nab at target for their respective countries. That target is Gaby Teller (played with sauce and spunk by Alicia Vikander). She’s the daughter of a nuclear scientist believed to be working on a nuclear bomb for a wealthy couple who also happen to be Nazi sympathizers. Solo and Kuryakin are ordered to join forces along with Gaby to foil the nefarious plot despite their differences.

There are several things the film could have done to derail itself. First there is the humor. “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” doesn’t make the critical mistake of taking itself too seriously. At the same time it doesn’t bombard the audience with dopey, annoying gags and slapstick. Instead the movie relies on a very calculated dry wit. In many ways the characters are the gags with their ultra-serious personalities and corny bravado. We really see this in the film’s bromance innuendo that Solo and Kuryakin are completely impervious to.

Then there is the action. We certainly get a handful of snazzy action set pieces, but those expecting to see normal action-packed summer movie fare may leave disappointed. Ritchie doesn’t drown his movie in endless shootouts, fistfights, or car chases. He uses action but even it is presented with pinches of style and humor. There are a couple of action twists that feel a bit out of place but ultimately it is done well and in the right amounts.

But the film’s strongest point may be the fabulous recapturing of its 196os setting. Guy Ritchie, cinematographer John Mathieson, costume designer Joanna Johnston, and composer Daniel Pemberton all contribute to the film’s stylish and energetic sense of time. Everything including the fashion, the decor, the technology. The period flavored music which hearkens back to so many different 60’s era sounds. The film is very aware of its style and it could be said that Ritchie wallows in it, but certainly not to the point of making it any less impressive.


Back to Cavill and Hammer. Some have criticized their performances and the lack of chemistry between the two stars. I actually enjoyed them particularly Cavill and his suave, cheesy overconfidence that is clearly spoofing early Bond. There are moments where Cavill seems to be posing more than acting and Hammer feels as stiff as a board on occasions. But as for their chemistry, it’s a bit hard to judge since they are playing two characters who actually have no chemistry. That’s kind of the point. Overall I think they pull it off. And then you have Vikander who is a lot of fun playing the roles the men visualize for her while being smarter than any off them think. I also really liked Elizabeth Debicki giving a playfully exaggerated performance as one of the film’s villains.

So what to make of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.? There is a smugness to the whole proceeding that sometimes shows itself in the self-indulgent style and in Ritchie’s infatuation with how good his actors look. But there is also an undeniable allure. I loved the realization of the setting, the controlled but effective humor, and the well utilized smattering of action. Most importantly I had a lot of fun, something we don’t always get to say with these types of projects. Sadly the film’s unique flair hasn’t drawn big crowds at theaters, but I found it to be a welcome retreat that may not be flawless but is certainly entertaining.


4 Stars

REVIEW: “The Lone Ranger”

Lone Ranger poster

“Pirates of the Caribbean” set in the old west. It’s an unavoidable comparison. It’s also a very accurate description of Gore Verbinski and Jerry Bruckheimer’s “The Lone Ranger”. Johnny Depp again takes center stage and is the ringleader of this wacky and sometimes absurd action adventure. The ingredients are all here. A charismatic and eccentric lead, a fun and action-packed story model, and a filmmaking team who has experienced success before. Maybe that’s why the end result is so disappointing.

As a kid I loved the old television reruns of The Lone Ranger starring Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels. Well let me say that it didn’t take long for me to see the mammoth sized differences between this film and the great original material. I mean to call this film a reimagining would be a gross understatement. There is almost no similarity between these film and the classic story other than the name and some of the basic cosmetics. There is the white hat and white horse. There are silver bullets and the black masks. There are also a few familiar names and familiar plot points. But you’ll be hard pressed to find many other resemblances. Who knows, maybe that’s where the first of the film’s many missteps begins.

Lone Ranger 2

Now I wasn’t expecting this to be an ultra-serious tribute to this classic character. Again this is from the makers of “Pirates of the Caribbean”. But I also didn’t expect it to be so drastically different and so blasted silly. It starts with the Lone Ranger character himself. Armie Hammer seems completely lost at times playing a character who is a bumbling oaf from the first time we see him until the final credits. The character has good intentions but he’s a far cry from the heroic masked administrator of justice I was hoping for. Hammer’s performance doesn’t help. He struggles through a ridiculous and sometimes numbingly lame script that drags him through a plethora of slapstick and oddball humor that admittedly works on occasions. But more often than not it lands with a thud and Hammer just can’t sell it.

The nuttiness isn’t just confined to Hammer and the lead character. Johnny Depp’s Tonto is in many ways a Native American Jack Sparrow. He channels his famed pirate character in a variety of different ways and I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions. But he also has his share of ludicrous, over-the-top moments. And that can be said for the entire film. It has several eye-rolling moments that are so insanely absurd that they’re impossible to digest. But it also sharply turns in other directions. “The Lone Ranger” has some jarring tonal issues. One minute horses are standing up in trees wearing cowboy hats and the next has a character cutting out and eating a human heart. The movie is literally all over the map.

But perhaps it’s biggest sin is that it’s just so boring in the middle. It starts with a some promise and there are hints of a good story throughout the picture. But soon the film bogs down in a mire of drab and pointless plot. There’s an underwritten and poorly serviced romance. There are throwaway characters such as Helena Bonham Carter’s ivory-legged brothel head whose story would better serve on the cutting room floor. Then there is the film’s general snail paced way of telling the main story. It takes way too long and it becomes a test of endurance just to make it through the arduous 2 hours and 30 minute running time.

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But I have to say that the big finale saves the film from being a total disaster. The huge set piece is quite the spectacle and I remember perking up the moment that the William Tell Overture suddenly kicked in. The ending almost feels like its own little short film. It doesn’t feel anything like a Lone Ranger sequence and there isn’t a semblance of realism to be found. But it is insanely entertaining if you can accept its cartoonish and exaggerated approach and go with it. For me it was easily the best part of the film even with its absurdities.

There are some beautiful locations and some of the action is really good. There are moments where the wacky humor works very well. I also enjoyed seeing an assortment of my favorite supporting actors (William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, Barry Pepper, and James Badge Dale) even if their roles aren’t particularly well written. But in the end “The Lone Ranger” loses itself in its overbearing insanity and bloated, uneven plot. It never feels like a western and it never knows when to end. What really stinks is that this could’ve been a really good summer movie. Instead it’s $250 million dollars worth of mediocrity and a waste of some really good talent. I may be wrong but I would think Disney would want more from such an investment.