Category Archives: Review

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

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First published Rediff, March 7, 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

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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

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First published Rediff, February 28, 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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Review: Spike Jonze’s Her

I love Her.

Once in a while a film comes along that is so original, so inventive and so graceful, so clever and so immaculately built, that being smitten is obvious. But this is no trifling affection; as I basked in the sheer loveliness of Spike Jonze’s new film, it’s orangey-glow warming my face and innards, I was awed and overwhelmed and smiling that moronically wide smile we usually save for lovers. I watched it twice, and can’t wait to again. I love Her, and I’d like to buy Her a bunch of daisies and serenade Her with a boom-box under the window.

her1This is a film about a man who falls in love with an operating system.

Our hero Theodore Twombly is a loner with a Nabokovian name who provides romance to those too busy to conjure it up themselves, via a website called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters, which is a far sneakier version of our greeting card companies. He’s nearly-divorced, lives alone, likes to wear his pants right under his ribs and plays atmospheric video games that seem endless — not to be confused with pointless — and yet happens to be what may well be called a professional romantic. He loves the idea of love, even if it has already walloped him in the gut.

Theodore lives in the future, or something like it. It may merely be just a better-designed present, an iPresent. It’s a world where things are beautiful and functional and minimal, where Apple must have won and Jonathan Ive dominates all, where form is charming enough to give way to function while remaining gorgeous. It’s never specified, but it doesn’t seem a distant future. It’s relatable to possibly an alarming degree, what with random chatrooms and the ubiquity of people walking around talking into their earpieces. (Twombly’s earpiece looks like a tiny seashell, as if perpetually held up in the hope of hearing the sea.) As night fades into day, we glance screensaverishly over skyscrapers for miles and miles; for this future vision of large-tall Los Angeles, Jonze has shot larger-taller Shanghai, and that says much about where we might be headed.

One unremarkable afternoon, Twombly picks out a new operating system that promises to be more than the usual, a digital consciousness that is not just intuitive but actually possesses intuition. He turns it on at home that night, and the setup question ‘Would you like your OS to have a male or a female voice?’ is immediately followed by ‘How would you describe your relationship with your mother?’ Twombly is stumped but must have gotten something very right indeed, for the next “Hi” we hear is bursting with buoyancy, a girl’s voice brimming with eager, spunky energy. She picks out the name Samantha for herself and Twombly sniggers. ‘Was that funny?’, she asks. ‘Yeah,’ he says. She laughs. ‘Oh good, I’m funny.’ She sounds delighted.

And so Theodore falls in love with Samantha.

The point isn’t that Theodore falls for the central conceit; the point is that we do. He’s a loner who hasn’t “been social” in some time, but we fall for Samantha just as hard as he does, and the romance they share envelops us. We don’t feel — like, say, in the touching Lars And The Real Girl, where Ryan Gosling is smitten by a blow-up doll — that the protagonist is an outcast making do with something unreal; instead Jonze presents us with a relationship we invest in and root for. It is a world where dating one’s OS isn’t at all unheard of, or frowned upon. It is uncommon, but for the adventurous, like the early-adopters who’ll buy an iPad the earliest, people looked at with bemused admiration by the curious and the smart.

The detailing is exquisite. Ever since computers have tried to ‘talk,’ and here I’m thinking of early MacinTalk, the only voices that sounded realistic were the whispers and, well, the exaggeratedly robotic ones. Samantha’s voice is real as can be, naturally, but its dreamy breathiness is often a result of her being whispery. Samantha does his basic tasks but is offended when he accidentally gives her a command rather than a request. ‘Read email,’ he says, and there is the briefest and most crucial of pauses. ‘O-kay, I will read e-mail for The-o-dore Twom-bly,’ she says in her best Data-voice, underlining each syllable with robotic syncopation. He laughs and apologises immediately, as if asking his operating system to check his email is impolite. And you thought Siri could be demanding.

Theodore takes Samantha out with him, fitting a safety-pin to the base of his shirt-pocket so that his ‘phone’-camera peeps out of his pocket, so she can look out and see what he sees. And the width of the device and the safety-pin are so similar that the pin looks like its base, making his pocket appear bottomless. Function over form, yes, but what marvellous form. This is a beautiful film thoroughly besotted with its own elegance — its fragility underscored by Arcade Fire’s tinkly-twinkly background score — as it deserves to be.

her2Joaquin Phoenix dons a moustache to play Twombly, and shows us that he too, the master of tortured characters, can grin like an aforementioned loon as he falls head over heels in love. It’s a wistful performance, and Phoenix is stirringly great as he makes Twombly vulnerable and flawed and oh so much like you and me. Scarlett Johansson shines as Samantha, enthusiastic and sincere, sensual and dominating, increasingly intelligent and thus increasingly exasperated. “I’ve seen you feel joy,” she says to Theodore, “I’ve seen you marvel at things,” her voice coming from a place so pure it seems unreal. She’s rousingly good, inspiringly good. We never see her on screen, but this is Johannson at her finest. We sense her growth as she starts off asking questions about everything and is soon “proud of feeling” her own feelings, and we are both amused and afraid of her at different points in the film.

It is rare to watch a film and feel your jaw drop as you, well, “marvel at things.” Her could easily and cleverly have been a satire, but Jonze’s film — which, contrary to what this review might have led you to believe, does contain other people, co-workers and friends and beautiful ex-wives and real women to touch and kiss and feel —  is more affectionate than it is cold, more full-blooded than it is brutal. Her is, by far, the best picture of the year, and miles ahead of the other Oscar nominated films, but those comparisons don’t seem at all relevant when I sit back and smile (stupidly wide) at the impressions the film has left. This review, believe me, could be six times its size.

For all its conceptual highs, Her is not a film about technology, though it is partly a cautionary fable. This is a film about love. A film to love.

Rating: 5 stars

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First published Rediff, 14 February 2014

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Review: Saving Mr Banks

savingmrbanks1Before this film came along, the only Mrs Travers I knew was Bertram Wooster’s Aunt Dahlia,  a wildly impractical and deliriously stubborn woman with loony ideas and a masterful chef. The only aunt Bertie liked, in short, and a character Wodehouse described, with atypical generosity, as “built rather on the lines of Mae West.”

The writer PL Travers, on the other hand — played by the doughty Emma Thompson in Saving Mr Banks — is far more tightly wound and prim-lipped, as if yet to Dahlia-tise. Writer of a beloved series of children’s books, she’s being hounded by a big commercial studio to let them adapt her work into a movie, a movie she fears will end up too garish, and miss the whole point of the book.

It’s a solid getting-along setup, and sounds like a hoot — even without America’s most cherished actor playing the one and only Walt Disney.

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Promise, then, is writ large across this peculiar film — part self-congratulatory corporate pat, part ode to selling-out, part the idea that The Mouse knows best — and it might have delivered better on this were it not mostly inaccurate. Mrs Travers herself, most notably, while indeed notoriously particular about the adaptive process, was a relatively bohemian free spirit, not the closed-off schoolmarm we laugh at in the film before coming along to her side after seeing her conveniently mawkish childhood.

But come come, is this truly a surprise? That the House of Mouse has finally allowed a story about its mythologised creator, and that they felt the need to tailor the facts around for the sake of a sweeter parable? That the studio that changed everything it touched — giving Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli a girlfriend at the climax of The Jungle Book, for example —  would take a perfectly intriguing character and turn her into a caricature?

In fact, considering the fact that this film about the making of Mary Poppins coming just as 50th anniversary editions of Mary Poppins are itself stocking shelves anew, Saving Mr Banks could well be considered the Disney-est film of all, a full-length advertisement for the classic, a film simplified and candied and self-aggrandising in the most blatant way.

But hark, it works. Despite — or because of — this very syrupiness, and because of its extraordinary cast, the film works even as it falls short. What’s that they said about a spoonful of something?

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Emma Thompson soars above the material as if clutching an enchanted umbrella that refuses to stay grounded in mediocrity. She’s an overcorrecting ogre, one who chews up her American driver so much that he, confused, begins addressing her simply as “Mrs.” She can’t abide made-up words or moustaches where there were none, and in one astonishing moment she makes Walt Disney promise not to use the colour red in “her film.” And yet she thaws… to a tune buoyant enough to forsake an inch of grammar, to the fact that a film is not a book, to Walt and — in a delightful wordless moment — to Mickey Mouse.

savingmrbanks2Tom Hanks as Uncle Walt is spot-on, a character drenched in magical sunniness but with an off-screen cough. He’s flummoxed by Mrs Travers’ reluctance, but doggedly makes it his mission to win her over, saying whatever it takes to get the job done, but only carrying out said manipulations because he promised his daughters there’d be a Mary Poppins film. This take-no-prisoners affability is both overwhelming and awe-inspiring, and it’s a shame that this first flawless glimpse we get of Hanks as Disney is in a supporting role. Walt is a legend among legends, a true visionary who lived quite the life — I first came across the word “impresario” when I, knee-high and Goofy-lovin’ and fascinated, read about Walt — and Tom-Disney could actually make for a sensational franchise. (Then again, perhaps this was a trial run and great Disney-extolling plans are already afoot.)

Everyone in the film is top-notch, even those in bit-roles. Paul Giamatti plays the aforementioned limo driver and delivers lines so cheery they’d have fallen flat when mouthed by lesser actors; Jason Schwarzman and BJ Novak strike up the musical cavalry as the composing Sherman brothers; Bradley Whitford is suitably hapless as Don DaGradi, the Mary Poppins screenwriter (Mrs Travers immediately reminds us he’s a “co-”screenwriter); Annie Rose Buckley, as the young Pamela Travers, is insanely adorable and bright eyed; and Colin Farrell turns in a soft but exceptional performance as her father, a man both beautiful and damned.

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It is, in the end, as you would expect it to be. Which doesn’t mean its any less joyous. We can argue about its truth — and its darker, commercial truths — for hours, but sometimes the truth could really use the sugar. If Disney’s ways did lead to a film that generations upon generations of children remain besotted by, then he may well have been in the right. This film, by admiring that instead of questioning it, loses its sharpness: but candyfloss could do without an edge.

Saving Mr Banks is too long, too sentimental, too hacky in bits, but, ultimately, it’s truly chipper in a way most films have forgotten how to be. It might not be supercalafragilisticexpialidocious, sure, but at least it points us in that direction.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, February 7, 2014

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Review: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave

12-years-a-slaveStrange Fruit will never quite sound the same again.

The old poem — immortalised in song first by Billie Holiday, though Jeff Buckley’s live cover remains a haunting personal favourite — tells us of lynching, of how Southern trees bear morbidly strange fruit. “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

Steve McQueen’s relentless motion picture captures it all, from the bodies to the trees, from the pastoral scenes to the twisted mouths. 12 Years A Slave is an admittedly rough watch, but it is a conventional one, an old-fashioned swallow of bitter cinematic tonic for audiences too used to their spoonfuls of silver-screen sugar.

American cinema hasn’t focussed much on the most sordid chapter in their history, but we have encountered all of this  — the cotton plantations, the blood, the evil slavers and the put-upon hero full to the brim with honest-to-Gawd nobility — very recently indeed with Quentin Tarantino’s last film, one that took that alarming backdrop and turned it, preposterously enough, into something resembling a Spaghetti Western. McQueen, a British filmmaker often as audacious with his own methods, chooses here to approach Solomon Northup’s eponymous memoir with theatrical classicism.

The result, then, is Django Unchained by way of Shyam Benegal. It doesn’t flinch, it doesn’t let up, and — perhaps disappointingly, for those expecting the McQueen flavour — it doesn’t surprise.

What works in favour of the film are the performances. Chiwetel Ejiofor is extraordinary as Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped into slavery, confounded and determined and frequently driven to despair by his impossible yet tragically common situation. Paul Giamatti makes hackles rise as he sells off human livestock with uncaring professionalism, and Benedict Cumberbatch does well as a slaver with half a conscience. The performance pitted directly opposite Ejiofor is that of McQueen regular Michael Fassbender, playing a demented white maniac slaver with as much glee as Leonardo DiCaprio in Quentin’s film; except he plays it with more realistic menace. He’s scarily good.

Lupita Nyong’o shines as Patsey, a frequently abused labourer desperate for a bar of soap, and Alfre Woodard — as a former slave now married to a plantation owner — provides the film’s most intriguing character. Patsey might not have herself a bar of soap, but when she’s sitting at Mistress Shaw’s ornate table, she’s allowed a macaroon.

And while it is a fine ensemble, it is surprising to see this much reliance on the familiar. Besides the names already mentioned, there’s Paul Dano as an evil overseer, Beasts Of The Southern Wild stars Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry in small roles, and — in the film’s most fatal misstep — producer Brad Pitt playing the one upstanding white man who does the right thing.

12 Years A Slave is gorgeously shot by McQueen’s lensman Sean Bobbitt, with visuals that will remain etched in our imaginations. It’s also a wonderfully paced film, brisk despite its uncompromising brutality, a film that doesn’t feel a dozen years long. Perhaps this is not as it should be. Either way, I do wish McQueen hadn’t gotten Hans Zimmer to do the music score; it makes the film feel all Amistad-y.

At the end of the film — spoiler alert to all those who don’t know what the film is called, I guess — and before the credits, white text on a dark background spells out what happened to Northup after his twelve years. About his life, his appeals to the judiciary, his book and the way he supported the underground resistance as a free man. He might well have found his spirit in the dozen years he — and McQueen — have told us about, but I can’t help shake the feeling McQueen picked the wrong end of the story to film.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, January 31, 2014

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Review: Sohail Khan’s Jai Ho

jaiho2Like with Alok Nath jokes, it all began with Maine Pyar Kiya. That Sooraj Barjatya hit had characters (with “friend” written on their baseball caps) moronically state that friends don’t thank each other or apologise, a preposterous declaration which must have led the next generations into an era of boorish dickishness in the name of dosti.

Not much has changed 25 years later as Salman Khan, in his latest film — an uncredited and inexplicably violent take on Pay It Forward — starts telling people not to say thanks, but instead help three people in need, and tell them to help three other people, and so on. (In the film this leads to Salman passionately drawing stick figures while people stand around him, cheering as they help him multiply numbers by 3. Um, yeah.)

Sohail Khan, Bhai’s bhai and the director of Jai Ho, obviously likes the idea and extends this welfare policy charitably towards familiar but out-of-work actors, thus negating the need for extra. Everyone from the rickshaw-wallah (Mahesh Manjrekar) to Nameless Corrupt Cop No 2 (Sharad Kapoor) is a recognizable face; even the neighbourhood drunk is “Khopdi” from Nukkad.

In the middle of this world stands Salman Khan, playing himself. Khan, Bollywood’s real-life answer to Derek Zoolander, does his thing like only he can. And the crowd responds. Sitting in a single-screen theatre, the air was filled with shrill, thrilled whistles as soon as the censor certificate hit the screen. The first glimpse of Khan — via braceleted wrist — had the crowd in paroxysms. Imagine a movie theatre full of 14-year-old girls getting their first glimpse of Michael Jackson (Or McCartney. Or Bieber. Pick a generation) except with grown men shrieking instead of preteen girls. (During the climactic fight sequence, these men raucously yelled “kapda utaar”, breathlessly exhorting their bhai to peel off his shirt and make their day. It’s more blatantly than any of our leading ladies get objectified, that’s for sure.)

jaiho1People get attacked; Salman helps. People need stenographers; Salman helps. A little girl needs to go to the restroom; Salman helps. Someone grabs his sister’s collar, Salman snarls. You get where this film is going, yes? In his own lunkheaded manner, perhaps this very choice of film is Salman being sensitive. Perhaps he feels that people watching his film will go out and help other people… But to what end? Despite the hamfisted direction (at one point Suniel Shetty shows up on a highway and starts shooting people with a goddamned tank) the film’s main problem is that Jai Ho isn’t about being a samaritan or paying it forward; it’s about a man who can smash the system all by himself. Not entirely relatable, nope.

Meanwhile, amid the sea of familiar faces peeks the new girl, Daisy Shah. She makes her way onto the screen doing pseudo-Indian classical dance steps while wearing cowboy boots. She’s trying really hard to be MTV but is only applauded, rather disturbingly, by middle-aged folks while the kids watching don’t seem to care. After some silly bickering — and a ghastly recurring joke about her innerwear — Salman falls for her, but it isn’t as if she matters. There are too many characters, you see, to create and set-up and conveniently resolve, and mercifully a lot more screentime is given to the lady who plays Salman’s sister. Tabu’s still got it, and as evidenced by the seetis from my neighbours when she did a brief jig, she can still rock it hard.

The one thing that left me truly touched, however? The fact that Sohail Khan took forward that lament from Austin Powers, that “people never think how things affect the family of a henchman” and showed a goon who had been beaten up watching TV with his family and lamenting his actions. Its… It’s hard to make up, really.

As for Khan, there’s nothing new to see here. But that’s probably the point. For a man who’s pushing 50, he’s looking spry and seems to be having fun playing to type, though the absurd amounts of money his movies rake in obviously help. Having said that, my one and only laugh in Jai Ho came when Khan punched a car window and — in a film where he throws people through all manner of doors and walls and vehicles — explained himself saying he didn’t know it had been rolled up. Does he really want to be in on the joke now? Or maybe he already is.

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, January 24, 2014 

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Review: David O Russell’s American Hustle

I feel like writing this review in slow-mo. In emphatically big hammer-thuds of the keyboard, shot beautifully and kinetically, while lurid but lovely songs play, on the nose with every changing paragraph and leaving nothing to subtlety. Ta-da ta-Da-da ta-da-da-DUM.

Christian Bale;Amy Adams;Bradley CooperIt’s a party, this film. David O Russell has thrown together the familiar with tremendous flair, making for a loud, brassy blast of a movie. A movie where the killer ensemble cast unmistakably looks to be having a better time than the audience. Their buoyant energy — and the look-at-me style the movie is soaked in — comes at us hard and fast and it’s best to grin through it. It’s Scorsese with clown-shoes, Soderbergh slowed down and stretched out. (It’s a heh-heh Goodfellas, Ocean’s Twelve on a scratchy turntable.)

It all begins with a combover.

Irving, a velvet-suited slimeball, slack of jaw and chunky of gut, starts off American Hustle wordlessly as he — lovingly, and with masterful precision — positions and parts and pastes his hair into a very specific shape. His partner, and former mistress, Sydney — an eternally glamorous woman with a neckline that skims her navel — knows this, and says Irving “has a process,” which may well be the reason she’s not his mistress anymore. Earlier, when she’d first met and fallen for her paunchy man, she admired the self-assurance with which he let it all hang out. Now it’s hard not to look at everyone as a con; including Irving refusing to leave his wife.

Irving’s wife, now, is a real piece of work. Rosalyn, a highly unstable woman and a tremendously unfit mother, gives the film its weirdest and most wonderful scene where she sings and headbangs violently along to a recording of Live And Let Die while her kid watches, bewildered. And then there’s Richie, a self-serving FBI agent who catches Irving and Sydney in the act and, like a rookie gambler who’s just inhaled his first roulette scraps, wants to hold out for more and more. His plan? To use the con-artists to entrap politicians and mobsters. No matter what his hapless boss says.

In the middle of all these insane characters lies a nugget of truth. Fool’s gold, really. In the 1970s, there was the Abscam scandal where an FBI agent trapped politicians using con-artists. Russell borrows merely that concept — and the use of a sheikh who isn’t a sheikh — and concocts the rest of his wild world without restraint or apology. His film tells us upfront, with disarming honesty, that only “some of this actually happened”, and later keeps repeating that we believe only what we choose to.

americanhustle2The result is silly and very overdone but undeniably exciting, like a cocktail made by an undergrad to slug a girl. The actors drink liberally from the vial of excessiveness, never holding back and frequently exaggerating their parts not just to great comic effect but to, oddly enough, shove us some genuine poignance when we least expect it. Christian Bale leads the pack and is fluctuatingly electric as Irving, a character who won me over more wholly (and more unlikely) than any in Bale’s very varied gallery. Amy Adams, as his mistress Sydney, turns on the sexual heat and doesn’t un-purr until her intentionally bad English accent stops. Jennifer Lawrence plays the loony wife with absolutely immaculate comic timing, and lovely expressions. And Bradley Cooper –mad, mad Bradley Cooper — takes the weaselly FBI agent and imbues him with so much blasted enthusiasm that it’s hard not to hate him. Even when he’s wearing curlers. Louis CK shows up as the least intimidating boss in the world, and is more than contrasted by Robert De Niro turning on menace like only a Corleone could.

Russell, of course, is the real huckster here: selling us a con movie where the plot takes a backseat to the characters, where restraint is chucked away and acting often forsaken for massively entertaining grandstanding, all ham and cheese. It’s almost as over the top as Russell himself with his dynamically striking style. His camera moves in flamboyant swooshes, entering a roomful of characters as if it were an uppercut aimed at their chins. His characters have elaborately absurd hair and dress up like, well, like they’re all playing dress-up. And they are. But it’s because they’re such damned good actors that this sloppy hot dog of a film comes together. It’s not gourmet, but there’s enough goddamned relish for you not to care.

I only wish he’d finished the ice-fishing story.

Rating: Four stars

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First published Rediff, January 17, 2014

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Review: The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis

1961. The sixties but not quite The Sixties just yet. America had picked up a revolutionary new guitar but was only beginning to learn how to strum, plucking at it tentatively as genres and heroes and venues were birthed and discarded in blinks of sleepless eyes. Within the outstretched canvas of limitless hope there lies many a dead-end of bleak disillusionment.

llewyn1It is here that we meet our dour leading man, Llewyn Davis, without a home or a winter coat or any genuine prospects. He gets by with a little help from… one would say friends, but he doesn’t have any. The only one, his musical collaborator, Mike, has thrown himself (non-traditionally) off the George Washington Bridge. Llewyn might not have triggered the suicide, we never get details, but from what we see of his disposition — and his ability to turn everything to shit, “like King Midas’ idiot brother” — he isn’t likely to have helped matters much.

And so we smile drily as canny storytellers Joel and Ethan Coen give us a stumbling, unheroic protagonist and rigorously zoom in on every wart. Everything about Davis is almost cartoonishly miserable except when, eternally against the odds, he picks up his six-string and sings. The film and its viewers, the leading man and his listeners, are immediately changed by what is simple and sublime, graceful but grounded. For all his scratched and blemished life, Davis happens to be a flawless musician, a troubadour who deserves ears and cheers.

Yet, as we see at the beginning and the end of the film, as Llewyn Davis winds up a stunning set and a 20-year-old Robert Zimmerman sits down to begin his passage toward immortality, even this irascible, ever-dismissive protagonist feels his jaw drop and realise that — while standing so close to the real thing, on a night that could have changed everything — he is but a talented doodle in the margins, not fit even to be a footnote.

Instead, he gets socked in a back-alley.

Davis is played with remarkable ease by Oscar Isaac, an actor who marvellously blurs the line between performance and documentary-like realism. He’s tired and disgruntled and so jaded his stoniness seems obvious. He needs a night’s sleep, but — nomadically going from couch to couch in an era before websites and hipsters made it cool — that is easier said than found. A professor and his wife do indeed welcome him unconditionally and with open arms, but he snaps at them and loses their cat. (The cat, by the way, is called Ulysses, like the book based on The Odyssey, a book Joel and Ethan once turned into the magnificent O Brother, Where Art Thou? This new film, in case you’re wondering, has a soundtrack even richer than that great musical.)

The Coen landscape is characteristically populated by oddballs, and all of them in this one are tied to volume. Davis’s ineffective manager, Mel, lives in a dimly lit office, likes attending funerals and gets into loud exchanges with his ancient secretary. “You got Cincinatti?”, he yells. “You want it?”, she barks back. “Could I have it?”, “Should I bring it?” and so continues the hard-of-hearing tango. A young soldier denounces comfort and eats cereal loudly, and proves — despite his Llewyn-frustrating squarishness — to be a better-liked musician than our befuddled beardo. A big-time producer squelches as he walks into a music hall past upturned chairs.  A beat poet called Johnny 5 lies about his cigarettes and sits in near-defiant silence, while his companion, a jowly jazz musician named Roland Turner, is introduced to us by the sounds he makes when he wakes up with literal squeaks and gasps.

Turner, played by Coen favourite John Goodman, is an uproarious character, a cane-wielding weirdo who cuts off his own stories to start new ones, always obnoxious and quite regal in his pushiness. He’s worth a movie all his own, and — like the music — single-handedly makes Llewyn’s life (and ours) infinitely more interesting. But Davis doesn’t care, and in this destructive, all-encompassing derision lies the Coen’s masterstroke: his antipathy toward the world makes him loathsome but fascinating. Joel and Ethan and Llewyn never let up, and we watch and smirk and commiserate and feel the despondent stupor descend upon us, sliced occasionally by the music, shining in like sun streaming into a dank attic.

llewyn2Davis doesn’t even sing to reach his audience. To a Chicago music producer, he sings an English ballad, The Death Of Queen Jane, about one of King Henry VIIIs doomed wives. In a line hilariously echoed by the Merchant Marines when he goes to sign up, he’s rightly told he’s not current. It’s a catastrophically bad decision to pick a miserable lament while pitching to a man used to selling out venues, but on some level Davis believes — and this may well be all that Llewyn believes — in the purity of the song. And how it can transcend everything.

He isn’t wrong. When we sit alongside the producer, played by the wonderful F Murray Abraham, the song transports us to a different plane. As does this fantastic film. It might just be A Mighty Wind in extreme close-up, or the Coens filling in another blankly open-ended tale as brilliantly as only they can, but the thing to remember about Inside Llewyn Davis is that while it might not be new, it never gets old.

Rating:  Four and a half stars

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First published Rediff, January 10, 2014

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