Review: Vikas Bahl’s Queen

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This is a story of girl meets girl.

The girl, a pink-sweatered doll showered with sticky compliments by her mithaiwallah parents, is all set to be married. She wishes she could learn the dance steps from Cocktail her grandmothers are practicing, and that her best friend showed up in time for the best sangeet-selfies. She doesn’t get married. Instead, after a lifetime of making the most of what is dealt to her, she goes away and finds a version of herself she never knew existed.

This is a story of girl meets girl, and you should know upfront that this is not a love story.

Unless, of course, we refer to the relationship between the audience and the protagonist. Because I dare you to watch Queen and not fall in love with the character.

Vikas Bahl’s film starts off  looking like yet another entry to the increasingly cluttered Delhi-Shaadi subgenre, but it is clear soon enough that this is a film etched more acutely than most. A crying girl grabs a laddoo because it’s nearby, college girls wolf down golgappas on credit, and, after a fiancée gets dumped in a coffee shop, her former man dusts the table free of the mehndi flakes that fell there when her desperate hands chafed helplessly around her cellphone. Relationship detritus comes in the oddest of shapes.

What happens in this film isn’t as important as the way it does. The plot is a mishmash of Meg Ryan’s French Kiss and Sridevi’s English Vinglish, but Bahl’s treatment is fresher and more vibrant, and — incredible as this may sound — his leading lady is better.

Kangana Ranaut is gobstoppingly spectacular. The actress has always flirted with the unfamiliar but here — at her most real, at her most gorgeously guileless — she absolutely shines and the film stands back and lets her rule. There are many natural actresses in Hindi cinema today, but what Ranaut does here, the way she captures both the squeals and the silences of the character, is very special indeed. Her character is built to be endearing and Ranaut, while playing her Rani with wide-eyed candour, is ever sweet but never cloying. It’s a bold but immaculately measured performance, internalised and powerful while simultaneously as overt as it needs to be to moisten every eye in the house.

Having a name that literally means royalty, a name that feels more like a monarchist suffix than a name, can make for awkward conversation when one is forced to explain it to those from farflung shores, and Rani does better than I ever did, enchanting Frenchmen and Italians and Japanese with an irresistibly proud “Queen!” chirrup. The girl goes to Paris and Amsterdam and has many an adventure, and even as Rani steps out to discover her own character, Ranaut stays firmly and impressively in character. In a bar with a waitress ready to pour a spigot of booze down her throat, for example, Rani opens her mouth more out of an obedient instinct than a willingness to drink.

And so this girl from Delhi’s Rajouri Garden traipses around the world, Skyping with her family upto ten times a day, and yet finding liberation around every corner. The cast is mostly excellent — most notably Rani’s family, particularly her grandmother and kid brother/chaperone, and her best friend from college who laments her own shitty life — and Rajkummar Rao is perfectly cringeworthy as a wannabe who believes a London trip makes him better than those around him.

queen2This is a massively entertaining film, even though it does run too long, and Rani’s fun travails are bogged down by a sense of tokenism, by her friends being White, Black and Asian (and the Asian being one of the most annoying Japanese caricatures since Mr Yunioshi from Breakfast At Tiffany’s). The unbelievably hot Lisa Haydon — with Mick Jagger’s tongue tattooed on her thigh — drapes her legs around everything in a seemingly relentless quest for stripper-poles, and her accent is atrociously inconsistent, but ah well. This isn’t about her. Everyone in this film is playing a supporting role, even the director. When nothing else works in the shot, you can turn unfailingly to Rani, besotted, and smile at her with an affection you saved for your teenage crushes. She’s a wonder.

Kudos, then, to screenwriters Parveez Shaikh, Chaitally Parmar and Bahl, but those applauding the great writing shouldn’t forget Ranaut herself, credited for Additional Dialogue. She made Rani as much as Rani’s making her, and to that we must tip our hats.

Ranaut always seemed like a misfit in mainstream Hindi cinema, a stunning but strange creature who belonged to a different jigsaw, but now our movies are beginning to catch up with her. Queen is a good entertainer, sure, but, more critically, it is a showcase for an actress poised to reign. This is one of those monumental moments when you feel the movies shift, and nothing remains the same. I’ve seen the future, baby, and it’s Kangana.

Rating: Four stars

~

First published Rediff, March 7, 2014

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10 movies better than 12 Years A Slave

Screw the Oscars.

We’ve seen who won and we know why, but 2013 was a year of much greater English-language cinema than the one that picked up the top prize.

The following ten films make for a very eclectic and unlikely list: there are two films starring Olivia Wilde; two films starring Adam Driver, two black-and-white films, and absolutely nothing in 3D.

The ones that almost made the list are gems in their own right — Enough Said, Short Term 12, The Place Beyond The Pines and Afternoon Delight — and I wish I’d watched Spring Breakers a few more times so I could finally decide whether it was great or godawful. It took much pedantic sorting and shuffling (and maybe a couple of tossed coins) to arrive at ten films, but what films they are.

So, I say again, screw the Oscars. Here are the real Best Pictures:

10. Drinking Buddies

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This. This is what all mumblecore should aspire to be. A less obvious but no less incisive look into a couple of relationships as they stumble along being all coupley, Joe Swanberg’s film consists of strikingly relatable dialogue mostly improvised by the great cast — Anna Kendrick, Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson and Ron Livingston star, and are all great — with the director cannily riffing on their naturally bright, young vibe by dousing the picture itself in melancholia. Slick, very slick, and disarmingly honest.

9. Before Midnight

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Director and writer Richard Linklater reunited with actor-writers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy for this unlikely, unflinching look at what may well be the definitive on-screen relationship for our generation. Before Sunrise sparkled in 1995 and Before Sunset dazzled us in 2004, but this third film brought up questions and ruminations of life and love in a way we never expected (or, indeed, wanted) Celine or Jesse to confront. It is a film that acts as balm, as mirror, as accusation. Heartbreaking, powerful and shouldered by masterfully long chunks of dialogue, it feels more confessional that cinema ought be. In a way, while reminding us that some things stay the same, this film changes everything.

8. The World’s End

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Beer never looked more like liquid gold than in the opening of Edgar Wright’s madcap genre-mashing finale to his Cornetto Trilogy, and that’s just the tip of the, well, the tipple. Simon Pegg — in his best written character to date — plays a swashbuckling saucer rousing his school gang from necktied-apathy to take them on a boozy bender they never finished in their heyday. Wright, shifting gear in loony but scrupulous fashion, throws us right into a whole other kind of film while never losing sight of his first one. The energy, the gags, the way the director and his actors full-throatedly embrace the ludicrousness of it all: The World’s End is a pint of perfection.

7. Inside Llewyn Davis

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Joel and Ethan Coen, those cinematic troubadours who croon captivating ballads about people we would normally just point and laugh at, are at it again with this gorgeous film about a folk musician fated to be but a footnote. It is a beautiful film about a depressing, mean man (played superbly by Oscar Isaacs) who naively believes his talent will see him through. It doesn’t, but it does allow him to bob afloat on the choppiest of waters populated by corks like him. And, in true Coen style, many a screwball. Stunningly shot by Bruno Delbonnel, the film wallows in Llewyn Davis’ misery, pausing only to let the brilliant music lift it to another level. Before hurtling it down again. The world, as Davis says, is divided into two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people…

<Read the review here.>

6. Blue Jasmine

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Woody Allen’s film might well be an update of Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire, but Blue Jasmine is a crueller, sharper and decidedly more devastating tale. Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine is a delusional neurotic, a woman well beyond the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her marriage, with a wheeler-dealer of possibly Belfort-ian proportions, has imploded after many years in denial, and now the Hermes-carrying Jasmine can’t afford cab-fare. Populated by fascinating characters armed with Allen’s typically quotable lines, this perfectly cast film throws up many a moment of absolute unforgettability. Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin and Bobby Cannavale all shine, but the film belongs to Blanchett’s Jasmine, for whom the meaning of life truly does involve the consideration of who one has to sleep with (around here) to get a (Stoli) martini (with a twist of lemon).

5. Rush

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The only big-screen spectacular to make it to my list this year, Rush is a rousingly dramatic film that sees director Ron Howard at his very best. The facts — about a mid-70s Formula One rivalry between two drivers that almost killed one of them — are incredible enough without embellishment, and screenwriter Peter Morgan takes what was known and doodles in the margins around it, amping up the off-track thrill. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl are terrific as British playboy James Hunt and Austrian genius Niki Lauda, and Howard swings his narrative from one to the other like a violently socked punching bag. Rush ends up riveting, surprising and compelling: one of the best sports films in modern times.

<Read the review here.>

4. Nebraska

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“You need to water these plants,” a girl tells her boyfriend just moments before breaking up with him. “These are plants,” she explains wearily, as if he — a fellow who sells hi-fidelity audio equipment while conceding its all the same nowadays — won’t be able to tell the difference. Meanwhile, the boy’s father, a silently grizzled old loon, is convinced he’s won the sweepstakes. Things are never what they initially seem to be in an Alexander Payne film, and this gorgeous black and white meditation on a father-and-son story tells an alarmingly universal tale of age and utility, of finding something to live for, and of the importance of a mirage. It is a lovely, languorous film, assuredly slow but enlivened by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s frames and by the dialogues, lines that cut instantly, memorably deep. Bruce Dern gives the performance of his career as the befuddled but bold father, while Will Forte does valiantly well as the son. Nebraska is a tale of men, who, like classic cars, are built to run forever — until they stop running, that is.

<Read the review here.>

3. The Wolf Of Wall Street

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“Golden words he will pour in your ear, but his lies can’t disguise what you fear,” boomed Shirley Bassey in the title track for Goldfinger, perhaps the greatest James Bond film of them all. A helluva track, for sure, noisily sensual and positively dripping with menace and power — but not quite the track you want played at your wedding. Unless, of course, you want to be the devil.

Leonardo DiCaprio forks his tongue to play Jordan Belfort in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street, and the entire film throbs with a seductive, scary energy. This is an amoral tale about men who can’t spell the word ‘scruples,’ and Scorsese and his fellas dive into it good, getting their hands and souls dirty. It’s a horror story told as a farce — the most effective way to deal with a monster may be to mock him — and while it’s an intoxicatingly stylish movie, one reference to the 1932 horror classic The Freaks is enough to tell us what Marty thinks of these brokers. Even as Leo throws himself into the part with feverish glee, we see him constantly on the edge of implosion.

As we watch this heady timebomb tick, Scorsese and Leo scare us straight. Unlike his character, who’d rather die soon than die sober.

2. Frances Ha

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Can you live inside a movie? If so, can I have a one-way ticket to inhabit Noah Baumbach’s marvellous black-and-white Frances Ha, an instant classic if ever there was one? Baumbach’s film — and his actors Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver and Michael Zegen — so consummately capture the zeitgeist of a time and place and generation that were we wiped out as a race tomorrow, I’d want this film to be our tremendous-albeit-twee epitaph.

Gerwig plays the “undateable” lead character with a magical openness, as if she were a jam-jar missing a lid, eager to soak up everything from bagels to boys. She careens through New York with klutzy earnestness — or, rather, earnest klutziness — a cross between a Truffaut character and a bull in a china shop. Watching this precocious, cunning, irresistible film is like stumbling upon a burst of glorious jazz with a glass of something imaginatively-coloured in hand. Frances Ha is bottled lightning; glug from it till giddy.

1. Her

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“Choke me with that dead cat.”

It is a rare film that reduces a critic to a sap, and Her turned me into the lead loser in a Cameron Crowe movie. But ‘reduces’ is the wrong word; how about ‘lifts,’ or, better yet considering the film at hand, ‘upgrades’?

My review was admittedly more of a love-letter, but that is, perhaps, apropos for a film about a man who writes other people’s letters. It is a film of savage sincerity and incredible ingenuity, a film that stands above all others by dint of both heart and originality. Spike Jonze’s film is immaculately crafted, flawlessly acted, and looks and sounds beautiful: but those are just, I daresay, its technical specifications.

The magic lies in how Her makes us feel, how it strings us up and strums us into a minor key, how it makes us believe in socially acceptable insanity, how it haunts, and how — during its most enchanting moments — we feel we’re lying on the moon, on a perfect afternoon.

<Read the review here.>

~

First published Rediff, March 7, 2014

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Everything about The Oscars, 2014

oscar1In which I collate everything I’ve written about this year’s Academy Awards, and then present you with a singularly weird column.

But we’ll get to that. First, the links:

Previews: Can American Hustle really win Best Picture? | Martin Scorsese and the men who shouldn’t beat him for Best Director. | Will Leonardo DiCaprio break his Oscar jinx for Best Actor? | Will controversy cost Cate Blanchett her Best Actress award? | Will Bradley Cooper score a Best Supporting Actor upset over Jared Leto? | Can even Jennifer Lawrence dethrone Lupito Nyong’o to take Best Supporting Actress?

Oscar omissions 2014: Franco, Rush, and a man named Oscar

My Oscar ballot. (I scored 18/24, better than most years, but clearly I still can’t think like an Academy Member, which, I guess, is reassuring?)

My dream Oscar ballot. Who I thought should win, but some of these people didn’t have a chance in hell. (That said, 12/24, which means it really wasn’t a bad year.)

In memoriam: Peter O’Toole | Philip Seymour Hoffman | Harold Ramis | Roger Ebert

And the Best Acceptance Speech goes to… 

Following this, in a feature wherein I detailed the ten most noteworthy moments from the Academy Awards, I ended up saying most of the things I’d normally say in my annual Oscar column, leaving me with a conundrum. Which is when I decided to look at the Oscars as they stood — the winners, the losers, the ceremony — through the eyes of the nine Best Picture nominees. Here goes:

Oscars 2014: If movies could talk

Here, in nine sections, are nine stories depicting the Awards this year, but each written in the style of the nine Best Picture nominees. (Follow the links in case you aren’t sure which nominated film is being referenced.) Because what better way to celebrate the Oscars than looking through the very eyes of the movies we’ve lauded this year?

One.

He should never have upgraded the teleprompter. Sure, it could now do a lot more, including write jokes itself, albeit a little stilted. It was too easily amused, too eager to laugh at its own feeble gags. But still, the fact that it — she — could now think on its own? Wow. That said, the teleprompter was getting too clever; he suspected she had learned to drink and now, during the Oscar telecast, was a dangerously sloshed scoreboard. She wickedly kept blinking, making almost every single presenter fumble and mix up words, and what she did to that poor boy from Grease was far too mean.

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The old man shuffled toward the auditorium, steady yet half-limping. His lovely daughter told him it was all a scam, that the Academy would never let him win, but the old man pointed to his Cannes trophy for Best Actor and asked her to believe. Damned Academy sweepstakes, she grumbled, deciding to humor her dad one more time — so he could comment on how unfinished the montages looked and sit there while some former-comedian made faces at him.

Three.

Angelina missed her child. She rattled on and on to the nice but uncaring journalist in earshot and he gradually felt her pain as she gazed wistfully at Lupita Nyong’o. She’ll never be able to deal with adopting a kid that good-looking, felt the journalist, but still, look at the old heroine wear the smile. It’s kinda brave. He found himself warming to her, and the two became friends — but hark, there is pleasant news at the end of the night for Angelina after all! Her husband just brought home a bright, golden son.

Four.

Harrison Ford heard the music — the theme music from those movies where he had the whip and the fedora, or was it the movie with the guy in the black mask? — and walked towards the centre of the stage. But just as he started to talk, he lost contact and could feel himself float away. Maybe it was the acid Jim Carrey had slipped him, maybe it was the really, really loud background score; but here he was floating away like Major Tom. Even the girl that hosted the awards was beginning to look like Barbarella to the spaced-out Ford; he decided to quickly read all he could see on the weird, too-fast teleprompter and make a run for it.

Five.

Harvey Weinstein wanted the Oscars, but this didn’t look like his year. The Academy didn’t approve of Harv and his methods to disguise Philomena’s nominations and make them look like wins, but Harvey — who dropped a fair bit of weight to fit into his Oscar suit — wasn’t ready to go out without a fight. He decided no Academy analyst could tell him how low his odds were, and decided to slip $200 into Ellen DeGeneres’ hat. (He also gave her a painting of some flowers, painted by Matthew McConaughey’s mother.)

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Captain DeGeneres, who hosted shows for a living, thought the Oscars would be just another quick, easy trip. But then she was taken hostage and the instructions appeared clear: no sudden laughs, no good gags, nothing at all that anyone might consider clever. She sighed and awkwardly tried to laugh at Barkhad Abdi and Jennifer Lawrence, both of whom — aware of the hostage situation — flashed back rictus grins. Finally, Captain DeGeneres hit upon a plan: she bought everyone a round of pizza.

Seven.

Everyone thought he was Jennifer Lawrence’s boyfriend or brother. They’d have been more inquisitive about the young man the 23-year-old Oscar-winner came to the ceremony with if she hadn’t done such a masterful job of misdirection. According to his dossier, he was Shia LeBeouf, wearing a new face, and trying to expose the hypocrisy of the Academy. (Honestly, though, he just really wanted to be invited into the selfie.)

oscarwolfEight.

It’s all about the chest-thump, he explained to Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio went on a charm offensive, trying to be the nicest, smiliest guy, in his quest to finally win what would be a very well-deserved award. The chest-thumper, on the other hand, kept thumping his chest and banging for more — more, with Mud, more with Dallas Buyers Club, more with The Wolf Of Wall Street and more still with True Detective. The voters didn’t have an option but to be impressed. Always keep chasing, he said when he won, thumping his chest once as DiCaprio watched from the front row.

Nine.

The voter wanted to make a difference. He wanted to reward the smartest, the cleverest, the most original new cinema. But the Academy had tightened its iron-vice around his opinion; they thought a certain way, he was but a cog. He had to conform. He had to give in and applaud movies that are laughed at for being obvious Oscar-bait; he had to stand and play the fiddle while Inside Llewyn Davis, Short Term 12 and Frances Ha were brutally shunted out. He had no choice but to look at Brad Pitt as if he were the messiah. But all he really wanted was a bar of hope.

~

First published Rediff, March 4, 2014

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Review: Alexander Payne’s Nebraska

Uncle Albert likes to watch the road. He takes a weatherbeaten deckchair and kicks back after meals, sitting by the side of the road to watch cars go by. It doesn’t seem that absurd a pastime for a man so grey and wrinkled he predates the television set, and one whose brothers bicker endlessly about whether one of them owned an Impala or a Buick forty years ago. While on that, is ‘bickering’ even the appropriate word for conversation so comfortably wound down, so slow, conversation made for the sake of hearing one’s own voice, talk that staves off atrophy?

The problem with Uncle Albert’s plan is more immediate than existential: there are no cars on the road he’s watching.

Alexander Payne’s new film, Nebraska, is a stunning meditation on the ghostliness of America, on how farflung towns that churn out the country’s cars and crops have dried into pensioner-populated nothingness. Their children have abandoned them for jobs and prospects, and for cities that look better in colour; here in Hawthorne, even the bartenders are wrinkled. It’s like a lawful Old West, where a man without bifocals assumes charge and pronounces himself sheriff. The town is fictional but Payne’s vision achingly universal; we all know people who live in ghost-towns, even if they literally live next door.

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One of these folks is Woody Grant, an old drunk with an astonishing gloriole of hair. It’s as if Doc from Back To The Future picked gin over science and stuck his finger into too many light sockets. Shot as the film is in gorgeous black-and-white, the tufts frame his head like scraps of a candyfloss cloud. When we first meet him, Grant is walking — shakily but steadily, lost yet determined — on the highway, from his Montana home towards Nebraska, convinced he’s won the sweepstakes. It’s one of those magazine subscription scams, as his son exclaims, but Woody has bought into the declaration that he’s won a million dollars. And so he walks.

Woody is hard-pressed for any support, from facts or family, but that son, David — living a despondent life selling stereo equipment he admits is all the same nowadays — decides to indulge the fading father’s whim and drive him to Nebraska, give him a last gasp at hope. Woody’s wife and other, more successful son disapprove of this impracticality, but David sets off with his mulish dad, desperate, at the very least, for any enervation.

Played by Bruce Dern, Woody is both inscrutable and irresistible. He teeters occasionally on the edge of dementia, but shines enough sudden lucidity to make ours a highly unpredictable ride. Is he ill-tempered or is he a man who belongs so wholly to another time that he can’t help but alienate himself from the people around him? Dern is magnificent, with a performance so disarmingly free of artifice that it becomes hard to remember he’s acting. His motivations are too simple for us to comprehend, so we’re better off marvelling at their basic nature, and the veteran actor milks the pauses masterfully. His lines are delivered in a gruff, no-nonsense way but the sense of timing behind them is immaculate. Payne’s film demands the viewer wait and wait and, after some paint has prettily dried, throw out a perfectly sharpened line, and Dern — who is given the bluntest, least syllabic of these lines — handles them so well it’s poetic.

June Squibb plays his wife, Kate, a hard and haranguing woman who constantly decries him. It is a brutal role with the toughest of lines, and Squibb makes it work with both vitality and credibility. As David, Will Forte is so, so good with his soulful, tender portrayal of a son desperate to break through his father’s war-hardened shell. Forte looks at Dern with heartbreaking anguish, ever ready, ever hopeful, ever frightened. In cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s strikingly lit black and white frames, the young Saturday Night Live comic looks to have the grace of a vintage leading man, with a certified movie-star face.

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Papamichael’s frames are things of beauty, and Payne broods dramatically on them. The roads look large, endless and mostly deserted, unclogged arteries of an underpopulated nation. Mount Rushmore looks as unfinished as Woody dismisses it to be, and the light outside the Blinker tavern is the most beguiling beacon of hope you’ll see on screen in a while. And all the faces drip with character.

This is a very special film, possibly the least contrived among this year’s Oscar nominees. Like the conversation between Uncle Albert’s brothers, Payne’s direction is so spectacularly unhurried, he eases us — nay, lulls us — into the moment before springing up the punchlines. For this is indeed a very funny film. As Steve Allen said, Tragedy is Comedy plus Time. Payne, by giving us so much breathing room, makes the comedy feel more profound than it is. In the end, it doesn’t feel like an epiphany; it feels like life. You know what’s coming, but you aspire for more — and, if you’re lucky, find it in the unlikeliest places.

The hint lies in the choice of colour. Nebraska is not merely a black comedy, but one laced with light, with hope, with brightness. Black and White, then. Sometimes they do make ‘em like they used to.

Rating: 4.5 stars

~

First published Rediff, February 28, 2014

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Review: Dallas Buyers Club

Somewhere around the middle of Dallas Buyers Club, the protagonist slips on a clerical collar, his moustache gravely weighed down to cover what may unmistakably be declared a sinner’s grin. A man caught smuggling medicines into America, he solemnly gives his word that they are all for his personal consumption. He swears with the kind of loud sincerity only the charlatan can muster, and — just as soon as he’s out of earshot — is selling unapproved drugs.

This man, Ron Woodroof, is a decidedly unlikely hero, a man who stumbles upon his nobility via efficiency and denial, a man who refuses to accept the fate handed to him, and, most importantly, a man willing to learn and to share. He drinks hard, screws hard and harbours rodeo dreams till he learns he’s running out of time, fast. Director Jean-Marc Vallee’s film is the inspiring true story of Woodroof and his quest to bring the right healthcare to AIDS patients at a time when America’s Food and Drug Administration seemed unwilling to do the same.

And while he was indeed a pioneer, the true strength of Vallee’s film is the way it doesn’t shy away from showing Woodroof’s less likeable side. And there’s a lot to flinch at, from his brutal homophobia to his rattlesnake lifestyle and his (initially) obnoxious cockiness. The year is 1986, Americans are just beginning to come to terms with the fact that Rock Hudson has died of AIDS, but Woodroof mourns the number of women Hudson could have conquered if straight. And then he — an electrician with a fondness for shortcuts — is told he has AIDS and has 30 days to live.

Vallee’s film gives us the character, warts and all, but even more importantly keeps the focus on his decisions. A scavenger, his first reaction (after yelling at doctors defiantly) is to read up on AIDS and HIV, after which he starts learning about medication. He realises that the medication approved by the FDA isn’t what he needs, and, hearing about clubs where patients can subscribe to medicines, starts one of his own.

Woodroof is indeed doing something huge, but the film scores by refusing to sentimentalise his actions; he starts off doing what’s best for himself, and then finds an opportunity. Nobility or altruism isn’t a part of his plan, but he clings to the idea of helping people because — like the rest of his decisions — isn’t that the only way forward? This is a stirring, touching film but — unlike say its fellow Oscar nominee, the well-crafted 12 Years A Slave — it stays impressively away from overt manipulation. Dallas Buyers Club is a film about smarts.

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It’s also a film about swagger. Matthew McConaughey drains himself out to play Woodroof, losing a couple of dozen kilos of weight, but despite his impoverished form, wears his hat high and keeps his hubris impossibly alive. He’s gaunt as a grasshopper, and yet plays the character as if his name were Eastwoodroof, with a world-beating swagger and a stetson. It’s a striking performance, a character confident and unpredictable and clever and so goddamned charming. Charming enough to take a painting of flowers along for a date when he doesn’t have time to stop for a bouquet.

Woodroof finds a partner in Rayon — a punk-rock transsexual played with both Eltonian flamboyance and wonderful fragility by Jared Leto — and the two change the world around them even as their words affectionately head for each other’s throats. Jennifer Garner plays a doctor who eventually swings over to their side, and despite an underwritten character with a weak, almost-romantic subplot, the actress is suitably helpless enough for the audience to empathise with.

Like McConaughey in the film, the real Ron Woodroof outlasted his death sentence by a fair bit, going on to live for 7 years instead of the month the doctors allotted. In that bit he helped many a sufferer, but his motivations were as fundamental as can be: he wanted to survive, to defy death. Saving lives along the way felt like an inevitability. Now that’s the film’s knockout punch.

Rating: 4 stars

~

First published Rediff, February 28, 2014

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Harold Ramis: So long, beloved Ghostbuster

ramisThere is a cycle, and the sight of a man falling from it is often hilarious. Writing about it, on the other hand, is less so. Explaining a joke — especially a bit of timeless slapstick, as with the bicycle — immediately renders it less funny; imagine the difference between reading a comedian’s monologue and actually experiencing him hurl out the syllables at you, standing-up for his punchlines. Given this ephemeral nature of comedy, which relies on so much from timing to delivery to context to flair, it is thus even harder to try and bottle down the impact and influence of a sparkling comic writer on generations that have grown up snickering at his words and his films. It’s hard to explain how much Harold Ramis mattered to us, and to the men who make us laugh.

Ramis was a killer writer, a sharp and incisive satirist with a goofy good-naturedness amusingly at odds with his fanged barbs. The balance made for movies that were almost entirely quotable and yet heartwarming, sometimes even inspiring. The pithy rarely found such empathy, especially in Hollywood. And so he wrote movies that shaped different comedic fashions of their time, like The National Lampoon Show, Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes right up to Analyze This which, despite its dated schtick, has fantastically funny bits. These weren’t just hit movies, or movies that turned actors into stars — Bill Murray, for one, owes a lot to Ramis — but they were movies that inspired comedians to go out further on a limb, try harder, be more accessible, make their jokes land better. The ripple effect — through comedic directors like Judd Apatow, Jake Kasdan and many others who openly call themselves disciple of Ramis — has been coming to us ever since the late 70s. Like seismic giggles.

Asked about the way he captured the sensibility of the periods he wrote in, Ramis said in an interview, “I don’t know. I just did what I wanted to do and what interested me. As I tell writing students, the only thing you have that is unique is yourself. You can write a movie that’s like some other movies, and that’s what you’ll have: something that’s completely derivative. But the only thing that’s totally unique is you. There’s no one like you. No one else has had your experience. No one has been in your body or had your parents. Yes, we’ve all had the same cultural influences. We’ve all lived at the same time, watched the same shows, gone to the same movies, listened to the same music. But it’s all filtered through our unique personalities. And I honor the things that have influenced me. I’m grateful for whatever it is that became the particular lens that’s allowed me to put out what I have.”

In 1984, Ramis co-wrote and starred in Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters, a film where — as parapsychologist Egon Spengler — he won us over as the truly cool Ghostbuster. For those of us who, in Goldilocks vein felt that Dan Ackroyd’s Stantz was too silly, Ernie Hudson’s Winston too overt and Bill Murray’s Venkman too dry, it was Spengler who made it all matter: he was the George Harrison of the quartet. While Ramis appeared in other films, it is his wonderful character in the two Ghostbusters movies that endures. We were all charmed by Venkman, but Spengler’s the one who made the Ghostbusters feel like a real team.

And then there’s Groundhog Day, a Harold Ramis film about an infinite loop — a lifetime of days that begin with Sonny and Cher on the radio and plod through the very same paces, over and over — that will surely be remembered as the filmmaker’s masterpiece. The 1993 film is an absolute gem, with Bill Murray at his best and the film managing to keep rerunning around in circles and yet staying fresh — yes, keeping repetitiveness fresh — thanks to Ramis’ deft, light touch. It is the sort of film that priests and philosophers embraced, talking about its beautiful universality of theme, about life being a series of endless variations on the same, but it is also a truly funny film. Something tells me that’s the bit Ramis, who we lost at 69, would treasure more. Just like he might appreciate a eulogy that begins where it ends, or something like it, anyway. So long, beloved Ghostbuster. Ashes to ashes, gags to gags. There is a cycle.

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Also: I pick ten great bits of Harold Ramis dialogue

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First published Rediff, February 25, 2014

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Review: Ali Abbas Zafar’s Gunday

gunday1Gunday is the sort of film some people may mistakenly call a bromance. There is, however, nothing bro-tastic at all about this loud and slow-motion actioner, a film that tries hard to be old-school but proves only that its makers need to be schooled. This is, as a matter of fact, a more blatantly homoerotic film than any in our history. If you’ve played a little nudgenudgewinkwink at Sholay subtexts, your mind will explode when the Gunday leads — with coaldust blown into their faces by a guy about to kill them — look at each other and… well, pucker.

That’s right, these two are always on the verge of jumping each other’s bones. Chests shaven, oiled and heaving — in sickeningly slow-motion — Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor consistently look at each other with maddeningly lusty eyes. Theirs is a physically demonstrative friendship, to the extent that whenever Ranveer hugs Arjun he sinks his face into the nape of Arjun’s neck, and when they are both aroused by the sight of Priyanka Chopra inserting herself into a classic song, the sexiest in Hindi film history, they feel the need to immediately hold each other’s hands. It coulda been a progressive film if it wasn’t constantly trying to call itself macho.

They could have called it Gun-Gay but that’d mislead us into believing this could be a quieter film.

Not so, ladies and gents, not so. Director Ali Abbas Zafar has directed a monstrous film, one with a repellent 70s-set storyline that makes no sense whatsoever, and a cast who should all hang their heads and offer up a minute’s silence for assaulting their respective filmographies. This is garbage.

Now, some of the films of the 70s and 80s — those loud and over-the-top actioners with wicked zamindars and wronged fathers and disabled mothers and avenging heroes — were trashy as hell, but they added up. They had solid, meaty plots and, more importantly, they had really good actors as villains being defeated by the likes of Amitabh Bachchan and Sunny Deol and Sunny Deol’s dad. These were men with great presence facing off against solid actors who made careers out of being evil, and the meaty plot — the twists and turns of which would always take more than a few lines to summarise — only made them more fun.

This has none of that, with a plot thinner than sliced cheese, hacky characters and actors who don’t know what to do with themselves. Ranveer and Arjun essentially play a couple of gangsters — and very repressed men in love with each other who get off seeing each other do Baywatch runs — who find everything going for a toss when a heroine walks in on them with their dhutis up. Neither is in love with the girl, but both overcompensate, playing a game of chicken as they clinch each other tighter. That, in a nutshell, is all there is to it.

Meanwhile Irrfan Khan, who apparently gets paid pretty good money for films these days, does his bit and says a few lines and makes them count. He isn’t around much, but if bilge like this helps actors like him make a buck, long may he spend counting out his money.

gunday2Naturally, the two idiots fight over the girl. And it is in the film’s asinine second half, where they stop embracing and start yelling at each other, that it becomes clear these aren’t heroes at all. They might be the best looters of coal this side of Dhanbad, and may have amassed a fortune — wealthy enough to buy anything but shirt-buttons, clearly — but these are two villains in the lead roles, two villains lacking the charisma to be the main baddies. Basically, we’re seeing a three hour film featuring the kinda guys who’d take orders from Sadashiv Amrapurkar or Amrish Puri to go get biffed by Sunny paaji.

Somewhere in this mess is Priyanka Chopra, looking like a bobble-head and making about as much sense. Her commitment to the part is in the way she sashays, and while she delivers most dialogues better than the boys, she’s given a maddeningly inconsistent character. At one point when pushed onto a pile of coal, she falls down straight but in the next shot is lying on her side with her butt stuck out, possibly in the hope that she can Rihanna her way out of a graceless film. (Spoiler: She can’t.)

The film starts off weak, with accidentally fun moments every now and then — the only one that stayed with me involves Pankaj Tripathi stretching out his arms in a Shah Rukh Khan pose after being shot — and we begin with a couple of annoying kids who refuse to grow up. That Bachchan-defining shot, of a child running and kid-legs turning into Amitabh-legs as the camera pulls out, finds many echoes here, but despite many slow-motion opportunities, the running kids exasperatingly enough stay running kids. That’s about the only suspense in this film until the two leads finally appear, Ranveer’s nipple bouncing alarmingly, as if it’s been paid extra.

Everything goes further downhill from there. These are protagonists who wear white pants with red hearts on the bottom, and yet this film doesn’t pick up on opportunities for irony or kitsch. Calling it a throwback seems insulting enough; imagine the Once Upon A Time In Mumbai films without Ajay Devgan, Emraan Hashmi and Akshay Kumar. That’s what Gunday is. And Ali Abbas Zafar should have his directorial license revoked for daring to end this godawful film with a Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid finish.

Rating: Half a star

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First published Rediff, February 14 , 2014

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