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20 reasons Pulp Fiction is better than your favourite film

On 23 May 1994, a film called Pulp Fiction won the Palme D’or at the Cannes film festival. Twenty years on, Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece is hailed as an absolute classic, and is arguably the single most influential film made in the last fifty years. It defied screenwriting rules, courses with wit and originality and is the very opposite of square, daddy-o.

To commemorate twenty years of worship, here are twenty things about Pulp Fiction that make it better than your favourite film, no matter what it may be. The Godfather didn’t have a katana; 400 Blows didn’t discuss a Royale With Cheese; Breathless didn’t have Mrs Mia Wallace; Vertigo didn’t have The Wolf; and Casablanca is sorely lacking in shots of adrenaline.

In appropriately non-chronological order, then, here goes:

1. The scripture-quoting

Preachers do it, bad guys do it, zealots do it, teachers do it, even educated fleas do it — But nobody ever quoth The Bible like Jules Winnfield. Played by Samuel L Jackson, Winnfield chews the angry words with great deliberation before spitting them out with, as he says, furious anger. So memorably impassioned is Jackson’s Biblical spiel that his misquoted version of Ezekiel 25:17 has become bigger than the real thing.

2. The five-dollar milkshake

Five dollars was a lot to pay for a milkshake back in 1994, something even a well-tailored hitman like Vincent Vega (John Travolta) understood  while entertaining his boss’ wife, Mrs Mia Wallace, at her favourite 50s-themed restaurant, Jack Rabbit Slims. Vega acknowledges the milkshake is pretty good “though I don’t know if its worth five dollars” but when we see Mia, played by Uma Thurman, sip it while looking over at Vincent, we realise Tarantino could have chosen no better beverage to underscore comfortable silences.

3. The Wolf

Like a criminal concierge, The Wolf comes in and takes care of the situation, whatever (and however bloody) the situation may be. He’s in charge, curtand always fast because time, for him, is the most vital factor. Played by Harvey Keitel, he’s an invaluable character with one of the sharpest lines in all of Pulp: “Just because you are a character doesn’t mean that you have character.”

4. Personality

The two enforcers are at a diner. Vincent offers Jules some bacon. Jules passes on it, saying he doesn’t dig swine, because pigs are filthy animals. Vincent (justifiably) argues in favour of the merits of bacon and pork chops, but Jules isn’t dissuaded.

Jules: Pigs sleep and root in shit. That’s a filthy animal. I ain’t eat nothin’ that ain’t got sense enough to disregard its own feces.

Vincent: How about a dog? Dog eats its own feces.

Jules: I don’t eat dog either.

Vincent: Yeah, but do you consider a dog to be a filthy animal?

Jules: I wouldn’t go so far as to call a dog filthy, but they’re definitely dirty. But… a dog’s got personality. Personality goes a long way.

5. Misirlou

Pulp Fiction kicks off with an innocuous conversation that suddenly but assuredly leads to a hold-up. Just when the victims are screamed at, Tarantino cuts to his opening credits, kicking off an inspired musical choice, Dick Dale’s rendition of Misirlou, the ferevishly-plucked surf rock guitar-track setting the stage for the riot of colour and character and carnage Quentin would lay upon us. It was a choice of music so iconic that it resurrected Dale’s career, introducing the veteran to a new, hungrily appreciative audience.

6. The gold watch

Many a film involves a protagonist’s quest for a family heirloom, but things are wholly different with Butch Coolidge’s gold watch, passed on through the men in the family ever since World War I. The line from Coolidge man to Coolidge man is mostly unbroken save for the time Captain Koons, a friend of Butch’s father, stashed the watch up his rectum while the two were prisoners of war. The one and only Christopher Walken plays Koons and delivers the monologue so expertly that — for all its scatological hilarity — it remains touching.

7. The adrenaline

Mrs Mia Wallace, the white-shirted fox eager to powder her nose, mistakes a baggie of heroin she finds in Vincent Vega’s pocket for poorly ground cocaine and gives it a quick snort. Soon, she’s convulsing and Vega’s panicking. He takes her to his dealer, Lance, who — frightened and clueless — reads from a little medical book, following which, in a harrowing (and perfectly shot) moment, Vince and Lance stab her in the chest with an adrenaline shot — a scene filmed in reverse so as not to break Uma Thurman’s breastplate — and she sits up.

8. The Urge Overkill

As audiences, however, the very act of meeting Mrs Mia Wallace might be the most thrilling of all, thanks to the way the foot-fetishising filmmaker shoots her in pieces — back of head, feet, tiptoeing feet, waltzing feet — after her slender hand hits play on a hi-fi and Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” comes through the speakers, ours and hers. Except it’s not Diamond’s version but a cover by Urge Overkill, a cover that arguably betters the original.

9. Gourmet coffee and corpses

Our two favourite hitmen are being hosted by the director himself playing Jules’s buddy, Jimmie, who is giving them some gourmet coffee while they figure out what to do with a corpse in a car they’ve driven to Jimmie’s place. Quentin, ever-comfortable mouthing angry profanity, is at his best, furious at the men for bringing a dead man to his house — largely because he needs it up and cleaned before his wife, a nurse called Bonnie, comes back home.

10. The twist and the trophy

On his date with Mrs Mia Wallace, Vincent isn’t keen to dance. As he’d told Jules earlier, he planned to “sit across from her, chew my mouth with my mouth closed, laugh at her f***ing jokes, and that’s it.” Except the boss’s wife isn’t used to hearing a no, and thus do Uma Thurman and John Travolta memorably burn up the dance-floor. And memorable as their twisting to Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell is, it’s not enough to win “the world famous Jack Rabbit Slims Twist Contest,” so while we see them giggling and running into the house, trophy in hand, it’s actually a trophy they’ve stolen from the place — as the radio informs us.

11. Mongoloid

Played by Bruce Willis, Butch Coolidge is a fading boxer who — after having taken money from mob boss Marsellus Wallace to throw a fight — accidentally kills his opponent in the ring. He comes home, shaken, to his lovely girlfriend Fabienne, played by Maria de Medeiros. Their pillow-talk is wonderfully disjointed, during which she says she’d love to have a pot-belly and he casually calls her mongoloid, then compensating by calling her a beautiful tulip. “Ah, I like that,” says Fabienne softly. “I like tulip. Tulip is much better than mongoloid.”

12. Marvin

In the funniest — and most horrifying — scene of the film, Jules and Vincent are driving along with a hostage, a young boy called Marvin, in the back seat. Vincent’s waving his gun around as he talks, and very suddenly his gun goes off and Marvin’s head splatters all over the car. It’s the most bizarre of accidents, one that leads to a side-splitting conversation between the hitmen arguing about the mess. It’s a singularly disturbing scene, one where Tarantino shows us a truly gruesome moment but masterfully makes sure we laugh instead of care. Scarily good manipulation, that.

13. Pumpkin and Honey Bunny

Sitting in the same diner Pulp Fiction starts and ends with, “Pumpkin” (Tim Roth) and “Honey Bunny” (Amanda Plummer) are a couple conversing casually about how liquor stores shouldn’t be robbed anymore. They’re weaselly, fascinating from the minute we first see them, and more than a bit stupid — Pumpkin even calls the waitress “Garçon,” meaning boy in French. And boy, do they pick the wrong day for a robbery.

14. Amsterdam

Vincent has just gotten back from Amsterdam, a country of hash-bars and legal marijuana, and Jules is utterly fascinated by this odd legality and by Europe as a whole — especially when he hears about being served beer in a McDonalds, a quarter-pounder with cheese called a “royale with cheese” in France, and the fact that in Holland they drown french fries in mayonnaise instead of ketchup.

15. “Ketchup.”

Ketchup, in turn, happens to be the one-word punchline for the kindergarden-sized joke Mrs Mia Wallace tells Vincent Vega at the end of their eventful night together. It’s a joke from a failed TV pilot she acted in called Fox Force Five. She’s embarrassed to tell it, and they both know it isn’t funny, but in the telling — and coming right after her almost having died — it is a remarkably tender moment, almost achingly romantic.

16. The foot-massage debate.

Just how inappropriate is it to give your boss’s wife a foot massage? A conversation as long and intricate as the unbroken tracking shot following the two men having it, this is a Pulp Fiction centrepiece. Jules and Vincent, on their way to a potentially lethal shootout, discuss the magnitude of the sin, disproportionately violent reactions, technique, foot-massage mastery, until — finally — Vincent says he’s getting tired and could use a massage himself, much to Jules’ ire.

17. The katana

Chased by Marsellus Wallace, Butch lands in a pawnshop where the owner and his friend — a chopper-motorcycle owner named Zed — capture them at gunpoint and decide to make their own, well, entertainment in the basement. A leather-covered ‘gimp’ is released, and Marsellus (played by Ving Rhames) is debased and sodomised. Butch, having freed himself by knocking out the gimp, goes up to the shop and — weighing the considerable options available — picks out a big katana to go save Wallace.

18. The Big Kahuna Burger

All that talk about quarter-pounders is clearly weighing on Jules’ mind when he walks into a room and towers over three young boys, one of whom is eating a burger. It’s from a new Hawaiian burger joint Jules hasn’t tried yet, and — gun in intimidating hand — he asks the “kid,” Brett, if he can try his burger. Jules thoroughly endorses this Big Kahuna burger, lamenting his girlfriend’s vegetarianism — “which pretty much makes me a vegetarian” — with his every casual word scarier and scarier, especially the noisy slurp as he tries Brett’s Sprite, while Samuel L Jackson builds to an unpredictable, brutal crescendo.

19. The briefcase

What is in Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase, the case Jules and Vincent went to pick up from Brett? The case that made Vincent whistle, casting a glow on his face?  The combination is 666, the number of the beast. Add that to the fact that Marsellus has a band-aid at the back of his skull, leading many obsessive viewers to think Wallace’s soul is in the case. Tarantino’s answer was always that the case was a mere Macguffin, a box with an orange light-bulb in it during filming — but then he’s always been one for hidden meanings.

pulp-quote20. The definition.

The movie opens with a dictionary definition of the word Pulp, printed in white text on a black background, with Tarantino offering a self-referential hint of the events to follow.

~

First published Rediff, May 23, 2014

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Your favourite PSH film?

Philip Seymour Hoffman has left us. But his films will endure.

Which is your favourite PSH performance?

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Review: Ron Howard’s Rush

Formula One has the habit of making other sports look absurdly insignificant.

What, you run real quick? What, you flog a bit of leather? What, you hit another bloke in the face?

Well, I battle gravity and push physics to the limit by hurling myself at the apex of a curve, calculating and strategising about the car behind me, braking crucially late while knowing full well that I could careen into a rival inches ahead of me, and shatter a chassis or two or a neck or two.

rush-movie-1Comparisons will forever appear laughable, but not quite as much as when Formula One was bloodsport, days when — as Niki Lauda says in Rush — two out of 25 drivers died every year. Those insane statistics nutshell the relentlessly, giddily gladiatorial sport F1 had become in its quest to straddle speed and danger, and even by that unacceptable norm, 1976 was a particularly dramatic year.

So dramatic, to be precise, that one would be forgiven for thinking Ron Howard’s film, set around that year’s Formula One World Championship season, is fictional. But sport is where fact often leapfrogs the imagination, when true human conflict supersedes acceptable writing. Where we only suspend our disbelief because we’re told all that’s happening on screen, no matter how preposterous, has its roots in reality.

You couldn’t find more diametrically opposed racing drivers than the technically proficient Austrian great Niki Lauda, and swinging, Union Jacking superstar James Hunt. Lauda was one of the first drivers who understood the importance of aerodynamics, and revered for his excellent understanding of a car’s limits. Hunt was the definitive F1 playboy, a man with the badge “Sex: Breakfast Of Champions” sewn onto his overalls, a lad who’d gargle champagne before winning races. In 1976, these rivals put daggers between teeth, stared death in the face and lived to finish the tale.

Ron Howard’s film is written by the infallible Peter Morgan, the playwright and screenwriter who fashions known historical facts into riveting narratives so laden with plot they’d make George RR Martin jealous. The two had worked before on the astonishing Frost/Nixon, but armed with this much deliriously cinematic meat, they go one better. This is a Scorsese-worthy story, and Howard rises to the moment and does it justice. Rush is not just the best film of Ron Howard’s career — a rip-roaring smash about a great human story, and two damn fascinating men — but among the finest sports films in modern cinema.

The casting is spot-on, with Chris ‘Thor’ Hemsworth playing the frequently unzipped Hunt and Daniel Bruhl of Inglourious Basterds as the nearly-Vulcan Lauda. Both actors are in exceptionally fine form. Hemsworth gets the swagger right, Bruhl masters that accent, and together they bring to life an intensely passionate rivalry. (To be fair, it is a bit exaggerated. The two fought on the track but never loathed each other like the film showed; by all accounts, their’s was a relationship of competitive respect. But then again, Hunt did always say Lauda looked like a rat.)

The racing action is brilliant, with inventive cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle fitting cameras into peculiar crevasses in the vintage chassis. The viewer is forced closer to the action — and much, much closer to that Sherman Tank of an engine — than television can allow, and the results are dizzying. You do not have to be a fan to love this film, though a fan would derive much pleasure by seeing the doppelgangers cast in important smaller roles, like that of Enzo Ferrari or Clay Regazzoni. (The finest supporting actor here is Christian McKay as the memorable Alexander Hesketh, a whimsical team-owner who introduced the F1 pitlane to oysters and caviar, and a man worth a movie all his own.) The acting is top-notch all around, and the women — Alexandra Maria Lara, Natalie Dormer and Olivia Wilde — up the film’s stakes considerably.

rush-movie-2For there is so much more to this film than racing. There is a whole lot of sex: on the most important day of his career Hunt is shown waking from a Japanese hotel bed with two pairs of feet flanking his own. And then there’s even more insight: Hunt prepares for a Formula One race by lying down with his eyes closed, visualising the Monte Carlo grand prix circuit in pre-simulator times; Lauda learns that no woman can rev up an Italian man’s motor quite like a Ferrari driver can. There are even exquisite details for fans of motorsport history, including quotes that have since become legendary, and women even more so. Also, Hunt’s beloved budgerigars make an appearance.

Don’t look up 1976, don’t look up file footage, just go watch this rousing film. And then get a hold of the BBC documentary, F1’s Greatest Rivals: Hunt vs Lauda so you can watch the real men and marvel at how perfectly Morgan and Howard took the story and ran with it. Many years ago, John Frankenheimer’s 1966 stunner Grand Prix cemented my then-fledgling love for motorsport, and now Howard has, at long last, created another film evocative enough to ignite pitlane-passion in hearts that haven’t yet thumped for Formula One.

Rush is a film about a racing season — and two seasoned racers — so damned thrilling that it would compel the most stubborn Formula One hater, those people who insist mastering technology isn’t a sporting enough achievement and forget every other part of the invariably human equation. For the Formula One fan, this is a film worthy of a magnum of Mumm’s finest champagne — if only for the chance to hear those massive V12 engines explode across the big screen. VrrrRRRRRRooom.

Rating: 4.5 stars

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First published Rediff, September 20, 2013

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Trailer: Go Goa Gone

Go Goa Gone:

In which Raj and DK direct.

In which Saif brings the cool.

In which I write his lines.

 

(Oh, and did I mention zombies?)

~

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The Best Hindi Films of 2012

It isn’t often that I get to make a top ten list of good films. Most years, there are four or five good Hindi films. Sometimes I add a few more on, with a caveat. 2012, on the other hand, has offered up several shards of cinematic joy, and it is a year that may well prove to be a milestone in modern Hindi cinema. Or so one hopes.

All ten films listed here may not necessarily be perfect (though the ones at the top come dashed close) but each of them gets certain things very right indeed. And are well worth smiling at.

10. Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu

It’s easy to call Shakun Batra’s directorial debut derivative, and indeed the film does owe quite a debt to Hollywood romantic comedies and the work of Cameron Crowe, but it does show off enough charm to earn its own applause. Imran Khan is better than ever, Kareena Kapoor is effortlessly vivacious, while Ratna Pathak Shah and Ram Kapoor appear to be having quite a blast. It’s snappy, fun and — thanks largely to the sudden way it wraps things up, almost as if the screenwriter were afraid to write the final act — mercifully brief.

luvshuv19. Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana

There is quite the surfeit of flavour in Sameer Sharma’s directorial debut, a film that spends a bit too much time on its characters and their earthiness before getting to the actual plot. And yet, despite the lazy indulgence, there is much to warm up to and appreciate here, with a smashing ensemble enjoying feasting on the quirks the screenplay provides. In this film about a forgotten recipe for a famed chicken dish, there’s a wicked twist in terms of the ingredient, and one hopes people experiment with it off-screen as well.

8. Paan Singh Tomar

It’s taken a while to finally reach us, but by golly, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s film about the truly unique life and times of the steeplechase runner provided one of the year’s most enthralling stories. Most of us knew precious little about the titular Tomar when the film began, and the incredulity of the story proved impossible to resist. Irrfan Khan, showing up with one of the year’s finest and fiercest performances, makes sure we’re glued throughout.

7. Gangs Of Wasseypur 2

People who liked the first Wasseypur didn’t care as much for the second, and vice versa. What we could all agree upon, though, was that if these two epics were melded into one and edited as brutally as the characters within slaughtered each other, we’d truly have a masterpiece on our hands. That said, , the very fact that a filmmaker like Anurag Kashyap could realise his massively ambitious dream, is a great sign. I liked Part 2 more than Part 1 simply because, knowing what to expect, I could enjoy Kashyap’s dark lunacy without worrying about how it all added up. A heady film with many a magnificent performance.

6. Barfi

Yes, I’ve seen the Youtube clips. Yes, there’s far too much in this film that comes from other films, and I agree it can’t just be explained away as a tribute. That said, Anurag Basu’s Barfi is a film with genuine heart, and even if Basu borrows sentences from other stories to tell his own tale, it nevertheless remains a tale worth telling. Ranbir Kapoor is extraordinary in the title role, Priyanka Chopra tries hard, and in the winsome Ileana D’Cruz we find a debutant who appears more than a pretty face. And the film, while a bit long and, in my view, fundamentally flawed (Barfi’s relationship with the autistic Jhilmil is one of sympathy and should not be mistaken for one of love) does still transport one to a different world. The magic can’t be denied.

omg15. OMG Oh My God

Based on the Australian film The Man Who Sued God, OMG is a dashed clever project to adapt to an Indian setting, what with our multiple gods and godmen just ripe for a big, no-holds-barred sendup. It’s not the best produced of films, but the points it makes — about false idols, promises to gods, donations, etc — are as effective as they are unsubtle. Paresh Rawal grounds the film with a fine everyman performance, but it is producer Akshay Kumar (in a winning turn as Krishna) and Mithun Chakraborty (clearly lampooning a certain limp-wristed religious icon) who steal the show.

4. Vicky Donor

There’s a little something for everyone in Vicky Donor, a romantic comedy that bucks convention and embraces it at the same time. Shoojit Sircar takes a rather brilliant idea, that of the hero as a prolific sperm-machine, and uses it with warm familiarity, making a perhaps-taboo subject instantly and eagerly accepted by a massive chunk of the nation. The film plays through standard Bollywood ideas — like the cross-cultural wedding cliches, for example — with inspired ease, and a routinely good cast (including the two debutants in the lead roles) makes it a film worthy of repeat viewing.

3. Kahaani

A grown-up thriller with many a pleasure secreted between the lines, Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani is the kind of film Hindi cinema hasn’t seen for a very, very long time. Lovingly showcasing Calcutta both at its most sublime as well as its most slimy, this often-illogical but beautifully crafted thriller features one of the best female protagonists in recent cinema and characters that remain very hard to forget. Vidya Balan, Parambrata Chatterjee, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sashwata Chatterjee all do splendidly well, and Ghosh has promised a sequel. For a change, it’s a sequel we’d actually like to see.

2. English Vinglish

Girl power hit a new high with Gauri Shinde’s directorial debut. The trailers promised us hardly anything save for a Mind Your Language takeoff, but boy, were we surprised. A simple film about a laddoo-making entrepreneur forced to double up as a housewife, this happens also to be a sharp commentary on the way we talk down to those unskilled in English. All Shashi (played fantastically by Sridevi) does through the film is take an English-language course, but Shinde makes sure every little triumph counts like a major one, and the film — sensitively and smartly — emerges immaculately balanced. A perfect film, and possibly the definitive what-to-watch-with-Ma movie for our generation.

1. Shanghai

Bharat Mati Ki… Bharat Mata Ki… 

shanghai1It’s hard not to say Jai to Dibakar Banerjee’s bleak and gruesome take on India’s developmental delusion. Banerjee takes Vassilis Vassilikos’ classic Z, about a very specific real-life Greek assassination, and turns it into an unrooted allegory for our times: the city is not quite Bombay, the politician is not quite Mayawati, and the IAS officer is not quite sure where he stands. At a time when our films are content merely flexing cinematic muscle and showing off what they know, Shanghai is a film that probes, that questions, that unsettles, as important cinema must.

Banerjee is a master filmmaker, one of the most fascinating megaphone-wielders in the country, and each of his four features thus far — Khosla Ka Ghosla, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, Love Sex Aur Dhokha and now Shanghai — have reached out and connected on a different level. Shanghai is a film with a dismal, nearly fatalistic worldview, and yet a film that highlights just how vital every last glimmer of hope is, and how much of a difference it makes.

Emraan Hashmi delivers a standout performance, Bengali film icon Prasenjit is perfectly cast, Pitobash Tripathy and Farooque Shaikh are sneakily excellent, Abhay Deol stays impressively in semi-smarmy character and Kalki Koechlin makes the most of one glorious, tempestuous scene. Mikey McCleary makes for a darkly dazzling score, and the murky but brilliant cinematography by Nikos Andritsakis is quite something. The script by Urmi Juvekar and Banerjee himself is a strong one, one that builds up the tension, and Banerjee takes all his flashes of individual brilliance and crams them tightly, claustrophobically together: as if packing TNT into a scary scarlet stick.

Boom.

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First published Rediff, January 4, 2013

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Sentury: The Top Hundred Hindi Films

After 99 Mirror columns, Raja Sen marks his ton by listing the hundred greatest films in the hundred years of Hindi cinema.

 

Click on the image to view the list full-size.

Please debate and disagree with inclusions and omissions in the comments section, but for every film you want to add, do suggest which one to toss out.

~

First published Mumbai Mirror, June 20, 2012

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What I love about Mumbai…

The meritocracy. The mania. The home-delivered alcohol. The hours. The fact that we call it Bombay, come what may. The delusion. The complete lack of perspective. The palpable fanaticism about film. The seaface. The honest auto-rickshaws. The dives. The impossibility. The DVD bootleggers. The fanboys. The fact that nobody really cares unless you beseech them to. The self-love. The brick-red powder that accompanies vada pao. The fact that the city moves as if cut to a soundtrack. WTF, Versova. The freaks. The frankies. The dreamers. The old and gorgeous South Bombay buildings. The new friends. The fact that the city sinks fangs into you and tries to make you its own. The sleeplessness.

But, if I were to pick one: the Bombay girl. Epic.

~

Originally published in MumbaiBoss, January 2, 2012

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