Review: Sam Mendes’ Spectre

spectre1The Aston Martin DB10 is a profoundly poetic machine, a sonnet on wheels and — because this is a James Bond motion picture — a sonnet that has several switches added on to it. One of these levers is labelled, minimally and with delicious promise, ‘Atmosphere,’ and the mind boggles at the possibilities. Is it a button that emits enough nerve-gas to choke a Nordic village? Is it a quick-change camouflage button? A button that rockets Bond and his wheels up, up and away? Or is it even more fantastically surreal? Is it something that plunges Bond himself into a better, more fun film, one of those classic Connery escapades where wit and muscle flowed frothily?

Director Sam Mendes needed one of those. He needed something to take his Bond film, Spectre, a grandly mounted and earnestly over-stuffed film, and give it some zip, some flair. He needed heady, champagne-flavoured magic. Instead, all the ‘Atmosphere’ button does here is turn on the stereo.

Thing is, well-dressed spies can’t quite cut it anymore. 2015 alone has given us two immaculately-clad secret agent comedies — Kingsman and The Man From UNCLE — both armed with the right accents and jawlines and cheekbones and gadgets, and both of which commit to gags with more loony glee than is possible for a Bond film. This is Daniel Craig’s fourth outing as 007, and while Sam Mendes tries to give him old-school punchlines laced with a few grams of innuendo, it jars coming from Craig’s hitherto tortured, brooding Bond. Rog Moore he (thankfully) ain’t, but it feels creepy to watch Craig pour a smile onto a feeble pun.

Spectre starts off almost too beautifully. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema — who shot the sublime Her and the gigantic Interstellar — kicks things off with a long, muscular tracking shot that takes us through Mexico’s dance of the dead, the dia de muertos. It’s mesmerising how well Hoytema manages to keep the main characters in focus by manipulating them seamlessly toward the middle of the frame, forcing us to look at them even as they wear masks just like the distracting crowd around them. Somewhere in the middle of this beautiful instrumental sequence, Bond shimmies up a staircase shaking his bottom with Beyonciffic grace, and later, even more gracefully, Sam Mendes lets him fall from perilously high onto a… couch. It’s a glorious sight gag and a gorgeous start (even though the background score is a tad on-the-nose) and the rest of the film, post sofa, can’t quite measure up.

This is more of a problem because there is a lot of film to go. At 148 minutes, I’m not certain Spectre is the longest Bond film of all time, but — and here’s the rub — it certainly feels like it, and it doesn’t help that Mendes exhausts his bag of tricks very early on. The pre-credits scene, the banter with M, the Aston sequence, the villain’s reveal, the Monica Bellucci cameo… all those marvellous switches are flicked on in rapid succession, leaving barely anything for the tedious last hour of the film.

spectre2“Cameo?”, you might here ask, outraged, and I must sadly confirm that there is hardly any Bellucci in this picture. She looks sensational, as always, but why cast Le Grande Bellezza and not spend more time on her? Why give Bond — and us — such a fleeting taste of the goddess, a taste made even more fleeting by Indian censors? Mr Mendes is the real monocled villain of this piece, perhaps, making sure both Bellucci and this picture’s other fine actress, Lea Seydoux, get silly, stereotypical lines — about where Papa kept his Beretta 9 millimeter, for instance — while Bond gets the zingers. Craig appears game for anything, ridiculous lines and all, but they don’t fit him or this dark and gritty Bond world. Ralph Fiennes is a fine, very likeable M, Naomie Harris is a sterling Moneypenny (sorry) but the great Christoph Waltz is wasted in the big villainous part. He acts well but is, again, given too little to do — a peculiar problem for a seemingly unending film.

What fills up Spectre, then? References to old Bond movies, mostly, checked-off as if this was Mendes’ version of Die Another Day, a joyless, doggedly determined hat-tip to vintage pleasures. Mendes cannot ever be as artless as that clunker, of course, and there is both sophistication and elegance to be found in Spectre — whenever Hoytema gets to shoot exotic, tangerine-tinged top-shots of exotic cities like Tangiers, for example, or one great hand-to-hand fight on a train — but these moments are few, far between and not fanciful enough. Even the Sam Smith song, Writing’s On The Wall, is a caterwauling falsetto more suited to this adorably geeky new Q than to 007 himself.

If only that car-switch worked. (“How was it, M?” “Long, James. Long.”)

Rating: 2.5 stars


First published Rediff, November 20, 2015

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Tribute: Raising a bowler hat to Saeed Jaffrey

saeed3The first time I saw Saeed Jaffrey I refused to believe he was an actor.

Shekhar Kapoor’s Masoom released when I was two years old, and soon became one of the few Hindi film VHS tapes in our house, one often played to placate children because of the Lakdi Ki Kaathi song. In the film Jaffrey played Suri Saab — a gregarious gent, a proud Punjabi papa — with such complete credibility that I always felt someone had sucked one of my father’s easily-sloshed friends into the TV set. Growing up in Delhi, I was sure this man was obviously someone just like one of those many men who patted me on the head and found my retelling of the same joke hilarious every single time.

It was a classic film and his performance endured, but many years later I saw him again in — of all places — Subhash Ghai’s Ram Lakhan, tweaking Anil Kapoor’s ear and patting Jackie Shroff on the back. Here he was again, a distinguished foreign-type with well-sandpapered Rs and twinkling eyes, in a place of paternal authority. But then, as more movies were allowed into my life, the Britishness of Jaffrey began to wear off: first with his turn as Sardar Patel in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, and then all preconceptions about his image — from accent to upper-crust — were spat out after watching his magnificent local paanwallah Lallan Mia in Sai Paranjpye’s Chashme Buddoor.


All that remained across those superbly varied performances were those eyes, ever sharp and ever twinkling. Cunning. As cunning as a fox who has just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University, in the words of Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder.

Which reminds me… One of Atkinson’s early bits of comic gold was a routine called Indian Waiter, where he played the long-suffering waiter in an Indian restaurant, forced to patiently stand by while lager-laden hooligans made jokes about pappadum and “Paperback Raita.” While the great comedian and satirist made the point about increasingly dignified Indians in the UK, Jaffrey was the one who indeed ran with it and broke ground, creating an on-screen Indian of refinement and extreme sophistication. His characters rattled off the Queen’s English with Wodehousean aplomb while he dashed about looking, well, dashing. This was the achieving Indian, the prosperous Indian, the entrepreneur and the upstart who ran restaurants and laundrettes and was as easily at home in England as the aforementioned Queen.

The range was superlative. He did films with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant before making his Hindi film debut with Satyajit Ray’s masterful Shatranj Ke Khiladi. He appeared in movies as diverse as Hero Hiralal, Ram Teri Ganga Maili and My Beautiful Laundrette. Hindi cinema, attracted to his obvious strengths, often cast him as an officer of some sort —some uniformed man with a clipped accent — or a posh father-figure. And, more often than not, Jaffrey played all his roles with a characteristic elan and amiability: he looked like a clever, all-knowing, winking Super Mario, gloriously grey around the edges. Irresistible, really.

Rarely did he get the opportunity to completely disappear into his characters, though when he did — like in the Ray film or Chashme Buddoor or in Masoom, as the unforgettable Suri Sa’ab who bought his crockery from Harrods’ — he was sensational. His character in Shatranj Ke Khiladi, in fact, provides a good parallel for Jaffrey’s onscreen persona: Mir Roshan Ali was a man so obsessed with a game of chess that he cared little for the ongoing British invasion of his country. Jaffrey, as we knew him on screen, always seemed to know better, always seemed to know what mattered more than the obvious. And those twinkling eyes invited us along for the ride.

So long, Suri Saab. We raise our bowler hats to you.


First published Rediff, November 17, 2015

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Review: Kanu Behl’s Titli

There’s a world of difference between red and maroon.

You might not expect him to know that distinction, but Vikram does. A security guard at a mall who moonlights as a carjacker, Vikram is furious at that very fact: that you think he doesn’t know better. In one of the finest performances I’ve seen this year, Ranvir Shorey is spectacular as the elder brother in Kanu Behl’s Titli, the story of a dysfunctional family of bottom-dwellers. It is a performance of rage and nuance, of unexpected tenderness and misplaced nobility, and bloodthirsty cynicism. Shorey nails it, and it’s hard to take your eyes off Vikram.

Behl’s film, however, is not about Vikram. It is about the youngest of three brothers, Titli, a kid scrounging up to buy a parking-space in a shopping mall, looking to some kind of future away from the hellhole where he lives. As setups go, it’s super, and Behl — shooting on 16mm film — gives us a sparsely coloured, visually impoverished movie.

titli1Behl has the look right and his ensemble is impressive, but the film itself suffers from too much navel-gazing. Too much time is devoted to purposely phlegmatic meditations and too little on fleshing out actual characters, showing us how they tick. We are pointed to characters and their contradictions but — save for Shorey’s Vikram and Shivani Raghuvanshi’s fabulously acted Neelu — they are not explored beyond their helplessness. There is no acuteness; all we really know about them is that they are all miserable. And the narrative, almost sadistically, impels us to suffer along with them.

For a film that takes pains to looks realistic, it hinges on too feeble a plot, a raise-money-in-limited-time wheeze that could have been done in many ways, like in Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels fashion or, given producer Dibakar Banerjee’s work, like in his resoundingly magical Khosla Ka Ghosla. Titli does very boldly to eschew both comedy and style for a more arid approach, but the narrative rationale is flimsy: What, for instance, is happening to the money from all the carjacked cars?

Shashank Arora, who plays Titli, does so with the right kind of world-weariness and has enough hunger and desperation in his eyes — and, it must be said, on his frame — but his Titliness isn’t given enough rein. He goes through the film wearing the same expression of bewildered blankness, and while that inert nothingness is becoming fashionably confused with top-notch acting in Hindi cinema these days, it doesn’t help flesh out the character. He does erupt for one moment of white-hot rage later in the film but it, appearing so abruptly, serves more to derail the film than anything else.

Arora isn’t a bad actor and wears his inscrutability consistently, but a film like this needs a preternatural talent tugging it along, someone meteoric and jawdropping, like a Gael Garcia Bernal maybe. Or, in the absence of that, Shorey in the lead role. Now that would have been a helluva movie.

It’s a pity because this is a fine, thoughtfully crafted film. Siddharth Dewan’s cinematography is voyeuristically intrusive, with some strikingly poignant compositions highlighting the film’s authentic art-direction. There is a moment, for example, when Titli is on a horse, being led to his marriage. The horse looks as unwilling as Titli, as the green frame shows us the horse, Titli and the disinterested child made to sit in front of him on the saddle, passing in front of a storefront sign for Seth Medicos. In this world even a baaraat is not allowed the grandeur of escape.

Yet despite these deft visual nuances — the dotted bandaid-knockoff on Vikram’s hand, the bypass-surgery scar on Titli’s father’s chest, the way said father (Lalit Behl, the director’s own father) scoops his sabzi into the roti — the film begins to feel indulgent as it keeps showing them off. Pauses between conversation seem reasonable in isolation, and are well-written, but when stacked one atop another as they are in this film, they begin to feel tediously long.

Nihilism and bleakness lend themselves well to cinema, but there needs to be something compelling for the audience: Titli errs on the side of the comatose. In its admirable refusal to steer clear of style — or, indeed, obvious entertainment tropes — it is often too bland and, by the end, too long. Fleabitten characters aren’t the problem at all; just last year, Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly was made up of even more unsavoury characters, but it was impossible to look away from the screen. Titli offers up dry nakedness as if that is enough to impress. In many a scene it is — and, don’t get me wrong, this is a stirringly solid directorial debut — but in many a scene it feels too intentionally underdone.

There is a scene, for example, where an arm is broken. It is a strongly scripted moment but, while intending to shock us, the film looks away too easily. It starts off with searing intensity, hits peak when there is an alarmingly casual plea to stop the breaking, and then peters off into not merely a tame hammer-wound but, alas, a scene that loses its momentum. The actors work the scene sincerely but it could have been so much more. Instead, Behl chooses not to look away when a character throws up in a sickeningly long scene, so long it feels gratuitous.

Because there’s a difference between showing the retching and the wretched.

Rating: 3 stars


First published Rediff, October 30, 2015


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Review: Prawaal Raman’s Main Aur Charles

main-aur-charles1The first word used to describe Charles Sobhraj in Prawaal Raman’s Main Aur Charles is ‘hypnotic.’

This would be fine — even obvious — were Raman to kick things off with a pair of bikini-clad girls gushing about him, victims-to-be for the famed serial killer, but that is the keyword used at a police briefing targeting Charles. The aim is not to flatter but to concede: few remained unsusceptible to Sobhraj’s mesmeric charm.

Raman certainly isn’t, and his film fawns unashamedly over the notorious murderer, revelling in the glorification of a self-glorifying conman. This approach ushers in unpredictability right from the start. The obvious approach would have been a film about the cat-and-mouse game between Sobhraj and policeman Amod Kant who brought him to justice; unencumbered by any need for balance, however, Raman’s film focusses instead on the cat licking leftover cream from his whiskers. We end up with a film that tells its tale with calculated intent — coolly, cleverly, taking its time — mirroring the dry panache of its self-assured protagonist.

The film begins with bikini-clad corpses being fished out of a Thailand beach, a pair of brown oxfords relaxedly tapping against themselves as a man floats casually down a waterway. It is 1968 and Raman’s film is all about the vibe, which he lathers on with Soderbergh-like style, intentionally keeping things loosely disjointed and flowy: this is a film that wears its shirt collars gigantic and leaves a couple of buttons open. The pacing, in fact, is a marvel, as the script — very atypically by Hindi mainstream standards — cuts its characters slack and moves with organic, unhurried rhythm.

Randeep Hooda, in the performance of his career, plays Charles with immense flair, hoovering up women and stunning men with his French-ish accent and overwhelming self-belief. He waxes on about predeterminism in the courtroom and Paris in the bedroom, and Hooda hits the mark with unshowy, applause-worthy ease. The film reveres him a la James Bond but the performance shines because Hooda never appears to be trying too hard. Even when the accent slips occasionally into Clouseau territory, say, it looks as if Charles is turning the wick up too hard for his Indian audiences, not Hooda. The magnetism of the character allows the actor to breathe.

Adil Hassan is reliably excellent in the part of Amod Kant, the cop relentlessly tailing Charles. It is a thoughtful, measured role, but even here Raman equips him with plenty of coolth: in his walk, in the cut of his three-piece suits, in the pipe he smokes as he concentrates. (And, to some extent, in giving us a lecture on morality and reason by a cop named Kant.) Richa Chaddha is a fine actress on solid ground here as a feisty lawyer in love with Charles, and while she’s occasionally handicapped by too-smitten dialogue, she carries it off and is great when giggling at policemen as they reveal her man’s exploits.

Main-Aur-Charles2Let us not delve into what happens in the film — because Raman springs many a pleasurable surprise — but concentrate instead on the devilishly fine details. The way Charles, unable to just “make sex” without falling for his prey, christens himself a monk. The way a warden automatically, and helplessly, refers to Charles as Sir. The way police constables break into irrepressible smiles when they see videos of Charles and his women. The way Anuj Rakesh Dhawan’s camera tries to peer through a crowd outside a courtroom. Applause, also, for the film’s immaculate sound design: sharp, sharp stuff.

In a film like this, plot itself comes second to events and epiphanies, most of which may be based in fact. Fact itself is a slippery beast in a life like that of Sobhraj, with blanks mostly filled by the man himself, based on how he wanted his notoriety to spread. Most of what we know about him is apocryphal, but the choice of legend says a lot; you can tell volumes about a man by the way he tailors his myth. Now 71 and in jail, Sobhraj — who once charged journalists for interviews, by the hour — is still litigious enough to make sure Raman’s film doesn’t use his last-name.

Not that we need it. Charles is the only ladykiller we know, and we remain fascinated. And despite the character having Mein Kampf on his shelf and showing fellow prisoners Fritz Lang’s Metropolis — “Hitler’s favourite film” — it should be remembered that the ‘Charles’ in his name came from a Chaplin impression he used to do back in the day. (Or, at least, that’s how the story goes.)

Rating: 4 stars


First published Rediff, October 30, 2015

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Review: Vikas Bahl’s Shaandaar

shaandaar1There is such a thing as too much sugar.

The very idea of cinema as confection is a fine one, for we could all occasionally use a soothing lozenge as an opiate, and some films are meant to shine with candied gloss and a whole lot of far-too-bright frosting. Shaandaar is director Vikas Bahl’s attempt at harmless, meaningless, utterly frothy cinema, more toffee-making than filmmaking, and he gets a great cast in place and polishes them up with rags made of thousand-rupee notes. This is a movie about bling more than it is a movie about characters or story, and while glamour in itself is a perfectly pleasurable ideal, there isn’t much here besides the shine. It’s an old-school Disney-esque film but sadly without the wit and — as is more critical when it comes to candy manufacture — the consistency.

The result is bubblegum-Barjatya.

Shaandaar begins with some decent animation telling us the tale of an adorable insomniac orphan who fantasises about ways to kill off an evil grandmother, and so far so fun. There’s something quite quirky about a princess waiting for a prince who can put her to sleep — even without the obvious menace that line implies. This, as said, isn’t a film with darkness. Unfortunately, Bahl, while dispensing with all things shadowy, also ends up leaving out storytelling basics, like conflict and drama. The film aims for a cartoonish pitch right from the get-go — with characters covered in animated feathers — but applies it rather ineffectually: at one point the film’s hero conjures up imaginary volume bars and turns down the noise, yet Bahl’s film is so determinedly loud that even this equaliser can’t mute it.

The film is about a wedding somewhere exotic, where the Arora family lives in a castle with lavender-liveried gatekeepers who wear top hats. They are joined soon by the groom’s family, the Fundwani clan, wreathed in gold and accents. The two once-wealthy families are meeting in a marriage of financial convenience — lets call it Deal Dhadakne Do — and while neither groom or bride like each other, objections are muted in the interest of money and in fear of the heads of both families, the lovely Sushma Seth in an old-Cruella role as the Arora matriarch and Sanjay Kapoor as the shiny Fundwani whose Sindhi accent fluctuates between clichéd Mamma-Mia Italian and Sheikh-speak.

shaandaar2The leading man is a wedding planner, and looks appropriately fine in well-cut clothes. Shahid Kapoor plays Jagjinder Joginder with casual, relaxed flair while Alia Bhatt plays Little Orphan Alia and makes her quite likeable even though the film’s script doesn’t allow her much sanity. The actors, as mentioned, are all well chosen. Pankaj Kapur can sleepwalk through a role like this but his moments with Shahid — enjoyed by both actors with that trademark Philips Top Ten drawl and many duelling ‘oye’s — are good fun, and Shahid’s sister Sanah does rather well as the plump and plucky bride to be. It could all have been fun and games, at least for the pre-teen female audience this film is made for, if not for that consistency curse. Alia, spewing trivia relentlessly as if trying to make up for her Koffee fiasco years ago, knows about everything except what magic mushrooms look like; Shahid is smooth as silk, immaculately groomed and unflappably aware of everything in seemingly every language yet he, a man who has tremendous trouble falling asleep, doesn’t know the word ‘insomniac.’

Things escalate predictably and the shenanigans are piled on joyfully yet pointlessly. The actors carry us through certain moments — like when Karan Johar arrives to play Mehndi With Karan for the crazily-affluent wedding party, or when a big family laughs at a corpse instead of guiltily hiding their joy — but when the latter scene leads us into some feeble Weekend At Bernie’s gags, the film is truly dead. The actors gamely try to breathe life into it, but the script gets worse with each act. It’s truly tragic, for example, to see that Vikas Bahl, director of the groundbreaking Queen, feels that his two feisty heroines, troubled by obnoxious opponents at a qawwali, need their men to rescue them instead of flinging it back themselves.

It looks spiffy and there’s some gloss to like, but overall Shaandaar is pretty much — as Alia calls the fourth finger of the right hand — useless. By the end of the ordeal, even the finely-outfitted gatekeepers we saw early on have been replaced by ornamental life-size statues of Royal Guards. Bahl may have tried to go Disney, but this sure isn’t the real thing.

Rating: 1.5 stars


First published Rediff, October 22, 2015

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Ten most excellent movies about time travel

back-to-future-ii-marty-mcfly-hat-2Which is the greatest movie about time travel? That may be one of the most rhetorical questions in cinema, as it causes the brain to flood instantly with images — of lightning bolts and Chuck Berry guitar riffs, hover-boards and clock towers, fishy-themed school dances and bullies covered in manure. Written and directed by Robert Zemeckis, the Back To The Future trilogy stands tall across the cinematic
space-time continuum, a brilliantly conceived and loopy trilogy that gets dark when you least expect it and features the best, most cheerleader-worthy heroes of all. Great Scott!

Now, on October 21, 2015, the day “in the future” Marty McFly and Doc Brown travelled to in Back To The Future II — a day naturally christened Back To The Future Day — I tip my psychedelic baseball cap to that all-time classic and type at 88 miles an hour to list my ten other favorite movies about time travel.

Watch them if you haven’t already, rewatch the ones you have. I promise you they’re all pretty neat. (Just don’t buy any sports almanacs along the way.) In no particular order, here they are.

12 Monkeys

Few visionaries play as fast and loose as Terry Gilliam, and the former Python shows off some of his most lucid, mind-bending genius in this film set in a frightening 2035 version of Philadelphia. Earth is contaminated with a virus and Bruce Willis must travel to the 90s to try and stop it. A chaotic and twisty affair, Gilliam’s film is a terrific trip made essential by committedly loony performances from Willis and a young Brad Pitt.


Nacho Vigalondo’s festival-conquering Spanish indie may be the lowest budgeted film on this non-linear list, but it doesn’t skimp on the smarts. There are a fair bit of paradoxes and contradictions flaunted in the actual mechanics of the narrative, but this film – about many versions of a man who has/hasn’t killed his wife – is tremendously compelling and hits dramatic notes very cleverly and effectively.

Time After Time

None of the movies based directly on HG Wells’ stunning, dystopic classic The Time Machine are actually worthy enough, but Nicholas Meyer’s 1979 take on Wells himself is hugely entertaining. Malcolm McDowell plays Wells, who invents the time machine before writing about it, but it is hijacked by his friend, a certain Jack The Ripper. The result is a romp set in 1979 – the time of the film’s release and one that confounded both Wells and The Ripper but not the audiences – and while it may fall a fair few notches short of brilliant, it certainly is the kind of time travel movie I’d wanna make.


Shane Carruth’s devastatingly dense and elegantly constructed film takes on a simple time travel idea – two engineers who find a way and decide to make some money – and then Shallow Grave-s that idea all the way to scarytown. The film intentionally piles on the confusion like a grand act of misdirection, Carruth showing us a film that looks too soundly logical to be, actually, not. It isn’t as smart as it sounds but it pulls the wool over our eyes so beautifully that it emerges, in fact, smarter still.


The idea is pure genius. Rian Johnson’s film has a time-travelling hitman take on his own younger self, and even as the thrills pile on, Johnson astonishingly enough manages to make every choice appear rational and relatable. Looper isn’t as much about the ‘how’ of time travel as it is about the ‘what then?’, making for a truly slick and riveting film, bolstered by top-performances by Joseph-Gordon Levitt and Bruce Willis playing, well, the same guy.

TimeBandits1_468x307Time Bandits

Ah, joy. Another Terry Gilliam film but far from dystopic, Time Bandits is an adventure doused liberally in wish-fulfillment and hope. (What else can you say for a film where John Cleese shows up playing Robin Hood?) The all-star cast — in their all-star historic roles – is great but even greater is Gilliam’s boundless imagination as he looks at time-travel through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy and giddily infuses the genre with magic.

Safety Not Guaranteed

To be fair, there isn’t much time travel to see here. Colin Trevorrow’s nearly-mumblecore film focuses instead on the complete and committed belief in the idea of time travel. There is skepticism, there is doubt, there is a hint of romance and more than a hint of lunacy, but then the idea of buying into lunacy is so much more appealing than real-life. It’s almost as if we, along with Trevorrow, make the impossible happen by sheer force of will.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

The first of the tubular Bill & Ted films, this Stephen Herek cult classic stars Keanu Reeves as Ted, Alex Winter as Bill and all of space and time as the supporting cast. In a phone booth that takes them through history’s greatest hits, our two intrepid and slackjawed heroes try to save all of mankind while also ensuring that they do not themselves flunk a history paper. Punctuated by many a stunning air-guitar riff, this ride is as rad as they come.

Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel

An underrated but beautiful film about a girl with a time machine inside of her, this hilarious British comedy is set at a pub and, quite appropriately, best watched with buddies and beer. Gareth Carrivick’s film has a significant Edgar Wright hangover and he doesn’t have the panache, but his cast – headlined by Chris O’Dowd and Anna Faris – is lovely and the film bubbles along very nicely indeed.

Midnight In Paris

Paris is the time machine in this Woody Allen film about Golden Age thinking – the idea that a romanticized past is better than an apparently greyer present – which, basically, is a way for Allen to rebuff those stuck in the past, and who demand more la-dee-da classics instead of something different. Yet, ironically enough, with its crackling screenplay and rich literary texture, this strikingly cool film is, in every way, deserving of being ranked among Allen’s “older, funnier” films.


First published Rediff, October 21, 2015


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Review: Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak

crimsonpeak1Guillermo Del Toro would make a spectacular mortician.

There is so much the Mexican master does with the dead — and not just dead people, but dead feelings, dead times, dead writers, dead styles… It is all dead until Del Toro wants to bring it back to life. He dresses them up for his resurrection, breathing life into them in utterly unexpected and gorgeous ways, making the macabre marvellous and keeping the danse devastating.

More than blood or dread, Del Toro’s films flaunt the filmmaker’s fascination for detail, for shadowy off-centre nuance and well-buried corpses that may be prised from between the lines. There is a kind of reader who — in a narrative of mystery — can never resist reading odd words back-to-front to see if they make some sense, to find a clue. I’m forever guilty of that, and that is the kind of spectator Del Toro rewards, slipping little treats into ramshackle corners of story.

With Crimson Peak he goes grand guignol — and he does so with such memorable richness that we might as well call it Grand Guillermo. Where else may the opening of a castle door feel like the exploding of a snowglobe? It is a moment so beautiful I could yelp.

Crimson Peak is a Gothic romance set around the turn of the 19th century, though even such a setting may not be enough to prepare you for Del Toro’s high-strung operatic treatment of the material. This is a world where a young blonde writer wanting to publish ghost stories types out her words so as to mask her feminine hand, and where a visiting Baronet with exquisite scale-models of clay-mining equipment declares himself out of water since he cannot “speak a word of American.”

Del Toro’s film ravishes the eyes, while his cast is cherry-picked to immaculate effect. The breathtakingly malleable Mia Wasikowska plays the Mary Shelley admiring writer, and her Only Lovers Left Alive alumnus Tom Hiddleston shows up, top hat and all, as the Baronet with a voice made of velvet and feet fleeting enough to teach Americans how to waltz, European style. This he does while his sister, played by the imperious Jessica Chastain — clad in a fierce oxblood dress with a reptilian back, as if a silken pterodactyl were about to sprout wings — thumps the piano murderously to make it coax out some Chopin.

The names are as exaggerated as the woodwork. Wasikowska’s wide-eyed, bespectacled ingenue is named Edith Cushing — in tribute to Hammer Horror legend Peter Cushing, naturally — while the Baronet and his sister are called Lord Thomas and Lady Lucille Sharpe — in tribute, perhaps, to their sheer prickliness. In this film — about a forlorn heroine stuck in a lonely (but spellbindingly beautiful) life — there is a trunk with the name of a character, Enola, not an accident as us backwards-readers would immediately spot.

There are ghosts and there are murders, but Del Toro treats them poetically, skating on the thin ice of revulsion but never quite falling through, never pandering, never going all Dario Argento on us even though such situations and opportunities frequently present themselves. The mood may be overwrought, but both composer Fernando Velasquez and cinematographer Dan Laustsen surrender to decorum as costume designer Kate Hawley gets right of way.  Above all else, this is a remarkably well-dressed film — the Victorian outfits are worth their weight in essays — and Del Toro, having thus dressed for dinner, is suitably respectful of his old-school subjects, indulging in it all with a sumptuousness rarely found in the genre. He’s like a Willy Wonka of gore, well demonstrated when a character tries to delve into a pool of red clay thickly resting in a vat, its marbled texture making it appear almost good enough to eat.

The red clay is why Cumberland, home of the Sharpes, is called Crimson Peak, and why a snowed-down courtyard looks like an Army Of The Dead just marched through it. There, in a dishevelled castle with no roof and innumerable bedrooms, Edith must make her home and fend off both demons she may have imagined and scrambled eggs her sister-in-law may have spiked. Wasikowska is here Alice again, having fallen into a much scarier rabbit-hole, but she commits to the part beautifully even as Hiddleston and Chastain get the plummier, more peculiar roles. Hiddleston, as polished as James Mason, shines as a character who often looks, sounds and feels too good to be true. Chastain, on the other hand, is two parts Hitchcock crone (think Rebecca) and two parts Disney witch (think Snow White), a woman so fearsome that, had we encountered her in an old novel, might keep us waiting for her to draw herself to her full height.

crimsonpeak2The devil — or director, if you will — lies in the details. In the use of the utterly antiquated iris-wipe to separate chapters of narrative, telescoping into either hint or herring and leaving us with something to mull before the next chapter emerges from behind the black curtain. In the way we see Wasikowska — her sleeves made of fabric like butterfly-wings, candelabra in hand, her blonde hair like a waterfall made of judges’ wigs — framed between two doors, doomed and panicking. All while the light flickers, the narrative makes way, and the emotions burst nakedly, even rudely, to the surface. It is as timeless as it can be, and yet so astonishingly original.

Crimson Peak is not for everyone, but the mood is set very early on. Give in to Del Toro’s libretto of lunacy and you will revel in something quite astounding. It is the kind of film that several Indian filmmakers, forever mired by convention, should be made to watch in order to understand how the truly gifted can celebrate classicism instead of being trapped by it. I, for one, can pledge that if a knife were ever lodged deep through my cheekbone, I’d want Guillermo Del Toro to yank it out — regardless of consequence, he’d make it worth looking at.

Rating: 4 stars


First published Rediff, October 16, 2015

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