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Review: Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino’s latest film is his most unpleasant.

eight2The Hateful Eight contains everything we expect from the auteur — ultraviolence and memorable characters and shocks and profanity and long stretches of dialogue — and yet, while as indulgently Tarantinoey as it can be, this is a rough watch, a film meant to cause discomfort, to repel, even to disgust. It is the director trying to make us squirm and succeeding, one way or another. Some will be put off by the politics, some by the projectile vomiting, some by the scenes that run on far too long. Yet this is one of Tarantino’s most deliberately put-together pictures, every decision meant to get under the viewer’s skin and irritate, because — while in cowboy hats and furs — he is bringing up things we don’t talk about.

There is, of course, a much simpler reason why this is a polarising film, why I’ve had to watch it three times before writing this review, and why this Tarantino film is so damned bothersome.

It is because it contains no heroes.

This is rarer than you might think. We find ourselves frequently rooting for anti-heroes, or even charismatic, well-cut villains. Even films soaked in amorality have principal protagonists we follow and support, protagonists we are meant to relate with or look up to. The bitterly dramatic world of the Western often skims past moral ambiguity via casting: we champion Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, for example, merely because he is Clint Eastwood. But watching movies without a moral compass —  watching a bloody cowboy movie without any moral compass, for god’s sake — is thirsty work, intended to leave the audiences parched of easy answers.

Nobody is, thus, beyond reproach in The Hateful Eight. Not the characters, not the politics, and certainly not the director himself, who has fashioned his thriller by building upon layers of constant subterfuge: the eight characters in the title never really add up to eight, the Haberdashery isn’t really a haberdashery, there is a much heralded letter of dubious origin, there are hangmen who aren’t hangmen (and men who become hangmen), we never learn how to pronounce the principal female character’s name, and we’re watching a film that resembles one of Agatha Christie’s drawing room murder mystery while turning out to be no grand mystery at all.

eight1Here’s what goes on, above the surface: It is a few years after the American Civil War. A bounty hunter called John Ruth is handcuffed to a much-wanted murderess called Daisy Domergue. Another bounty hunter, a retired Major, is an imposing black man with a bounty of corpses. They’re both snowed in, along with an unsavoury bunch of people, in an inn during a tremendous blizzard. There is suspicion everywhere: from John Ruth toward the inhabitants of the cabin, some of whom, he is certain, intend to free Daisy or steal his bounty; and toward the Major from the white men, several (if not all) of whom are blatantly racist.

This is all shot rather gorgeously on 65mm film by Robert Richardson, the cinematography almost as exquisite as it is indulgent. Tarantino shuffles his characters around the closed space meticulously, like chess pieces, and Richardson’s giant frames, foregrounding and backgrounding various awful people, do certainly give us a wonderful sense of where everybody stands — except when somebody’s missing. The close-ups are superb, bringing you in tight enough to count Kurt Russell’s magnificent whiskers or to spot a beautifully carved pistol hidden under a table, but it is in the few stray scenes that the film is outdoors that Richardson shows us how majestically lavish the possibilities are. Despite the cleverness, the ultra-widescreen Panavision lenses (the same ones used to film Ben Hur, for the record) have almost always been put to better use — even in Tarantino’s favourite comedy It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. The Hateful Eight looks striking, without a doubt, but doesn’t make the format count.

While the vintage lens might not do the trick, the vintage composer certainly does. Ennio Morricone, the legend long-worshipped by the director, comes aboard to make his first Western score in decades and, right from the first note of a mesmerising overture — which is, naturally, made up of eight hateful notes — it is clear the grand ol’ gunslinger has no rustiness. It is Morricone’s glorious score that shoulders Tarantino’s narrative, lending it both urgency and (much needed) grace, and if even this hero-free film has a man worth celebrating, it is Ennio.

The performances are uniformly flamboyant and enjoyably showy, but, gradually, become a lot more affecting as the film runs on. Russell’s John Ruth is a Tarantino character for the ages, a tough man following a self-written code but a thundering bully and a woman-beater, and Russell is mighty fine when he stands tall but even finer when he looks utterly heartbroken. Jennifer Jason-Leigh, as the woman he repeatedly assaults, creates a superbly sly character, smiling through her multiple bruises and black-eyes as if she has a secret. (As Tarantino literally tells us, she does.) Bruce Dern is magnificent as a withering old Confederate General hunting for his son and holding on to his prejudices. Samuel L Jackson, the closest thing this film has to a leading man, gets the meatiest part and is the most used to reciting Tarantino’s words, and the combination is, rather predictably, dynamite. Tim Roth, playing a foppish British gentleman, is the one underscoring the point of film and reminding everyone else — or, indeed, laying down for us all — the meaning of justice.

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Embodying justice himself, in a manner of speaking, is Walton Goggins, in the film’s most challenging part. Claiming to be a soon to be sworn in Sherriff, Chris Mannix is a renegade redneck who hails proudly from a family of marauders — a family that has gleefully hunted and killed black men — and while a degenerate, he is an articulate one. It is a particularly ugly, unsavoury role, and the actor expertly makes him compelling without ever, ever rendering him charismatic. Remarkable.

Despite overreaching political ambition, which I shall explore at length in a spoiler-stuffed essay next week, this is far from a perfect film. This is the first Tarantino film where I’ve ever felt the director needed to be reined in, but the absence of his longtime editor — the late great Sally Menke — can be felt now more than in Django Unchained, his first film after her. Here far too many points are lingered on, too many scenes feel longer than they need be, and some precise slicing could have diced this film into something more even potent. I believe Inglourious Basterds has been Tarantino’s creative and artistic peak over the last decade, and nothing in this film matches the finesse of that one. But then it isn’t even trying.

As it stands, The rHateful Eight is an unflinching, brave film that never looks away. It doesn’t look away from the racism dripping from its characters, it doesn’t look away when they are bristling with alarming levels of misogyny, it doesn’t look away when they’re lying right through their grotesque teeth. There are times when I almost wished it would look away, when the splatters got too messy and the violence bordered on sadism, but this is a film meant to confront instead of comfort. This is a film aimed at making us look away because it won’t. It’s time we faced the hate.

Rating: 4 stars

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First published Rediff, January 15, 2015

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Review: JJ Abrams’ Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

If you placed a lightsaber in the hands of director JJ Abrams, it would glow blue.

His new Star Wars film is a fine spacecraft, a blockbuster that knows its place. The hunt in this Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens might ostensibly be for the vanished Luke Skywalker, but — be not fooled —  the flight plans for this gigantic motion picture only ever point to one destination: nostalgia. This is the grandest and most unashamed throwback of them all, a Star Wars film that triggers love for the original Star Wars trilogy by, well, belting out a cover version of the George Lucas classic. The band fronted by Abrams is, thankfully, a talented cover band and they do an entertaining enough job hitting familiar notes in order to take the song to new generations — but the song remains the same.

So much the same, in fact that one of this film’s most unlikely — if questionable — assets is its utter predictability. I’m not a Star Wars person, and saw the original 1977 film four days ago after at least two decades, and it was fun, certainly, but because Star Wars is itself such a pastiche of influences and, more importantly, has itself been so influential, the plot machinations constantly appeared obvious and cliched. Watching the new film which essentially recycles the trilogy’s greatest hits, I was alarmed by how accurately I could tell each twist coming, even the big whoa moment we mustn’t talk about. This is disappointing because, while a rollicking ride, I’m not thunderstruck by Episode VII as much as I am comforted. It is blatantly transparent filmmaking, and can be likened, in essence, to a new Salman Khan actioner where the core audience goes in with a checklist knowing they’ll get some cheeky dialogue, some trite punchlines, an item song and one eventually shirtless fight scene. This is a film made to pleasure the fans and give them everything they wanted from the franchise. And it works. There is such universal love for the new Star Wars because it is, in too many ways, the old Star Wars.

sw2Thus we have again a little android with a map everyone wants, a villain in a menacing mask and a baritone, a young protagonist (of curious parentage) who will be this generation’s greatest Jedi, people squashed in a trash compactor, ships stolen, gigantic father-son issues and, of course, people having “a bad feeling” about what is to come. Even the headquarters of all evil is, simply, a super-sized DeathStar.

This constant celebration and regurgitation would wear itself thin were Abrams not also a highly efficient filmmaker who put together a great cast: there’s something rather special about watching this, the biggest of movies, kick off with a slugfest between Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver, two smashing talents last seen together singing a song (funnily enough, about “Outer… Space”) in the best of movies, Inside Llewyn Davis. And, it must be confessed, it’s even cooler to watch 73-year-old Harrison Ford, silver-haired but with smirk intact, playing the roguish Han Solo as swashbucklingly as ever. Abrams, in putting together characters new and old, gets the balance of his remix just right — and that’s harder than it sounds. (Just ask Bryan Singer, who tried to do a Richard Donner with his Superman Returns.)

sw1He also very successfully folds in some diversity. We have Finn, a young black stormtrooper who doesn’t like stormtrooping, played by the very likeable John Boyega, but — most notably — this generation’s Luke Skywalker is a girl. Daisy Ridley, a striking English actress who looks like Keira Knightley and speaks like Pierce Brosnan used to back when he was a television detective, is refreshingly unfamiliar and the film is poised on solid shoulders, even though this chosen-one character, Rey, appears a bit one-dimensional and depressingly free of flaws. Still, this is the first blockbuster series to give a female character the reins, and for that — in this lopsided world full of cinematic universes — we should be glad. (The bestselling action figure, however, will undoubtedly be that of the doubly spherical new droid, the insanely cute BB8, and my favourite visual from this film will always be BB8 tentatively but determinedly negotiating a flight of stairs.)

Even to a non Star Wars devotee, however, I must confess the film hits hard. Those scrolling opening credits, set to that John Williams score, does strike right between the ribcage of all us once-children, and it’s great to see Williams still masterfully making the film soar. Even if all we’re watching is A New New Hope, the franchise indeed awakens. Even if it weighs in a half hour too long.

One only hopes that now, with old tropes having been applauded and new characters coming into play, the unending Star Wars films of the future will do their own thing instead of trying to sound like Uncle George, who has — thanks to Disney — no say in any of it. It’s a bunch of brave new whippersnappers at the helm now who need to subvert convention, defy expectation and, like Han Solo, may cockiness be with them. For while Episode VII is definitely a step toward the right side, it sure does feel… forced.

Rating: 3 stars

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First published Rediff, December 25, 2015

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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

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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.

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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.

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First published Rediff, November 17, 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.

Timecrimes

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.

Primer

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.

Looper

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.

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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

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First published Rediff, October 16, 2015

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Review: Ridley Scott’s The Martian

How long can a modern-day space romp go without breaking out the Bowie?

In keeping with pop-scored movies like Guardians Of The Galaxy, it has now become merely a matter of time before movies that have any connection to space start flaunting their Ziggy Stardust credentials, and give us a taste of the sardonic Englishman with the sneery vocals. In Ridley Scott’s new film, the song that plays is Starman, though — given the fact that the film is called The Martian — I’d say Scott missed a trick and should indeed have played Life On Mars.

martian1Because it — Scott’s film, not Bowie’s song, heaven forbid — is, indeed, “a godawful small affair.” And this is surprising. Based on a novel by Andy Weir, The Martian tells the story of an astronaut marooned on the red planet, a man who fights all the odds to stave off madness, to grow food and to stay alive while stuck on a planet unlikely to host visitors for another four years. With Matt Damon in the lead, it all sounds dashed exciting and quite a thrill, and the trailer indeed held much breathless promise, but with no conflict or surprise whatsoever, this remarkably light film plays more like The Swiss Family Robinson with a webcam.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course. Damon is a genuinely charming actor who often finds himself stuck in films that arm characters around him with better lines and more smoothness, and it is a pleasure to see him almost single-handedly man this film, with an unlikely botanist braggadocio and his hatred for disco music. He refuses to turn the beat around, and for good reason. Aforementioned groovy tunes come from his Mission Commander, the flawless Jessica Chastain, in place of actually giving her a character. Scott’s film occasionally details out quirks, but the entire well-picked cast is entirely shrouded in soul-sucking vanilla: Kate Mara has nothing to say, Jeff Daniels plays the head of NASA as he would an 80s President, Mackenzie Davis and Donald Glover are around to lend some geek TV cred, Kirsten Wiig has never been more flavourless, and Sean Bean stays — shocker of shockers — alive. What’s the point of that?

Add to this Chiwetel Ejiofor playing the half-Baptist half-Hindu engineer Vincent Kapoor. (I’m assuming Irrfan Khan’s phone was switched off.) Ejiofor, always thoughtful, is nevertheless impressive even in a part that requires him to sigh very awkwardly while texting a man many moons away.

The Martian, as you may have gathered, doesn’t therefore possess much in the way of personality, as movies go. The soundtrack tries its best to be Zimmer-y and bronnng-ing in that Interstellar fashion every so often, a film that furnishes a large part of Scott’s cast. Even the pop-culture figures referenced by Damon are caricatures of machismo: Iron Man and The Fonz.

martian2Yet The Martian proves to be a light, pleasant watch. Scott’s last few films have been ambitious but daft and it’s refreshing to see him efficiently on autopilot here. No new ground (or sonic barrier) is broken conceptually, and while debris looks sexier with each passing 3D film, this one looks muddy and far from spectacular. There is, however, something peaceful about watching Damon indulge himself this hard, and while he stays mostly bland — save for growing fuzz for a few scenes and dubbing himself Captain Blondbeard — he shows how you can go a helluva long way with defiance and duct-tape.

Maybe it is high time Mars-movies became more modest affairs. Anyway the red planet seems less scary now that we know it’s wet.

Rating: 3 stars

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First published Rediff, October 2, 2015

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