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MOVIE REVIEW: O21 in the House

Published in Daily Times (Entertainment section) / 15 Oct 2014

O21 takes a shot at cerebral cinema and sets out to explore the only genre left standing - espionage. It goes on to pair American / Afghan, Pakistani CIA assets embroiled in a game of global deception with corporate interests that govern the region. There will be sky high stakes that go so well with super spy tropes. And a ticking clock to send viewers into paroxysms.

The events take place in a span of 21 hours hopping from Washington (shabby looking CIA offices), Afghanistan (dreary cafes) to Pakistan (darkened halls & melancholy train tracks). The darkness is literal and metaphorical. It is conceptually strong, and viscerally claustrophobic. A moving soundtrack (Alfonso Gonzalez Aguilar) echoes in the background. The grandiose vision beckons from a distance.

Despite these intriguing parameters - it is not an edge of the seat drama. The build up is excruciatingly slow. The urgency is MIA. Then again, it is about good old fashioned tradecraft that is monotonous and deadly, set in a hostile part of the world seen in the throes of a silent revolution. As ‘O21’ sallies forth into the unknown, fancy technology (Dolby Atmos) in tow, a micro-chip that should not fall into the wrong hands comes in play almost immediately. The hook is also the McGuffin. A mineral reserve that puts Afghanistan on the corporate radar and the potential blowback on Pakistan becomes the lynchpin.

It should have worked. That NATO truck sequence ripped from headlines – the spy-craft – Shaan. With rogue operatives running to and fro, there are moral quandaries aplenty – a viper’s nest where loyalties are divided, and people flawed. A wonderful curve ball arrives in the finale but fails to make much impact - let down by the pacing, and script. The only resemblance it has with the ‘Syriana’ which it admires, is the amoral universe embedded with those nicely blurred lines. But it will not trigger the debate it probably hoped for. ‘O21’ has a sketch albeit a damning one, that merely skims the surface of the Af-Pak-NATO equation.

Jami & Summer Nicks man the director’s chair, flanked by a team of producers (Zeba Bakhtiar and Azaan Sami Khan). The ensemble cast includes Ayub Khoso who shines as the Afghan warlord. Shaan with his world weary view has been pegged as the lead, but feels like an afterthought. One of the more enigmatic characters – the female Afghan journalist remains on the periphery. And Sun Tzu is unrecognizable after his ‘enemy of my enemy… friend’, decree gets a sappy makeover. Hameed Sheikh however, dons the persona of the conflicted Dost with ease while a handful of American actors pop in and out of the frame.

Since its opening it has received mixed reviews. The premier show attendees issued a verdict - ‘dark, brooding, and intense’ and appeared reluctant to add more. IMDB had 4 user reviews in the first week – all glowing - a few from abroad which is odd. Capri and Bambino (Karachi) reportedly removed shows after a rowdy crowd reacted violently; Nueplex added more. The print media cheered (mostly) while the social media took a hatchet. Opinion was divided, but the filmmaker’s should be lauded for their passion - for daring to dream, and for taking that leap of faith. ‘O21’ is poised to be a game changer that challenges the palate and forges its own identity from a fragmented landscape. It’s a start.

PR: Phegency
Refreshments: Espresso


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