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Review: Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young

Ben Stiller will turn 50 this year. Stiller, the zipper-inefficient walk-off winning man of a thousand comedies, is grey at the edges already and getting older — just like us, every single bloody day. Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young is about the exhausting inevitability of getting old, sure, but at its profound core, it is also about the potential joy that lies in accepting it. (Charles Grodin, best known for being a VHS-conquering St Bernard lover for the ages, is, in this film, believably all-knowing and wielding tremendous gravitas. Things can indeed turn much better if you allow your prematurely-determined yardsticks to grey right along with you.)

wwy1On the surface, Baumbach’s film is a comedy. It is about a couple in their mid-forties discovering the thrills (and perils) of hanging out with a couple in their twenties, and thus many obvious resulting gags — about the nature of Cool and the evolving meaning of Irony — are promised and delivered, but this film, like some of its protagonists, is superbly deceptive. It is a film where power-giddy young executives eager to embrace Mad Men stylings drink from whiskey tumblers in the daytime — but where the glass is full of apple-juice.

Things begin on an entirely Woody Allenesque note, with fortysomethings Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) struggling with the idea of impulsiveness. We’re still young, Corneila insists, proclaiming that if they were to drop everything and going off to Paris or Rome tomorrow, they could. This “tomorrow” pricks at Josh, who wonders about last-minute flight prices and thinks they’d need at least a month in advance. A month still counts as impulsive, she says undeterred, mostly talking to herself. It is, as you can see, boilerplate Allen with a very Alexander Desplat-y score thrown in, but this may be to soothe us in before pulling the rug out from beneath our ol’ feet.

Josh is a documentary filmmaker, a fiercely committed artiste who has spent the decade milking a grant to create a film he believes in, a film which is, essentially, “about America.” One day, he bumps into a cool young fan. Jamie (Adam Driver) is an effortlessly stylish youngster with gimmicky ideas and that hipster-y fondness that often mistakes what is old for what is good, and Baumbach makes us wonder if his affection for Josh’s work is genuine, or the same as his love for Rocky III. Jamie and his artisanal ice-cream making wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) start hanging out with Josh and Cornelia and invite them to radically bohemian ceremonies — where people wear white, drink sludgy psychotropic drinks, and vomit to Vangelis — but no matter how much fun they’re having, Jamie and Darby never, ever reach for the check.

This film is thus as much about the inappropriate sense of entitlement of the young — the anything-goes culture, the breakdown of the conventions we older folk take for granted — as it is about the ennui exhibited at any age, really. Two couples sit at dinner and start looking up their smartphones; one of them talks about how it’s awful that one person whips a phone out and suddenly everyone has to look at theirs, but that while it was rude earlier, it’s accepted now. “Like showing your ankles in the 1800s,” he nods, to the loud sound of nobody disagreeing.

The film informatively explores the very idea of documentary filmmaking in an age where everyone is recording what’s around them, poking at the changing relevance of the form and the undeniable shift in the documentary ethic. It is at these points in our culture when meanings are changing that it is hardest to stand straight, and Josh flounders horribly: when two younger men talk about “life” and “other plans,” he reflexively throws out the correct John Lennon quote. But nobody, he sees, realises the importance of what was really said and who said it. It’s all out there, it belongs to everyone. And this scares Josh just like it does many of us, even though his hurried parroting of Lennon wasn’t entirely accurate either.

Stiller is stunning in the film, his brow furrowed with consternation, and mouth half-open in incredulous indignation. This is the man unable to swallow the fact that the joke is now on him, that by rigidly sticking to whatever he believes in he is losing relevance amid both the older-and-wiser and the younger-and-crueller. Stiller, exceptional in Baumbach’s Greenberg a few years ago, attacks this part with a sense of naive righteousness, his Josh believing intent and purity are the same things even as he falls for the bait and buys a hat to blend in. At some point he’s asked if he’s success oriented, and he says “no” while his wife says “totally”, at the exact same beat, with her obviously knowing better. For a moment there we can see heartbreak in his eyes before the grin of denial takes over.

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Watts, coming off a marvellous performance in Birdman, is one of those actresses who wears the suit of age with such weary believability that it almost masks her beauty — like Claire in Modern Family. And again, because of the cinematic baggage she carries, we begin to buy into Baumbach’s concept of aging: that after more than a dozen years even one who so gloriously pleasured herself in Mulholland Drive is now relieved to be asked to the party.

Driver is a compelling actor, a distinctively quirky looking chameleon who plays his part in a defiantly unreal way, which makes him great casting for this role where his young auteur doesn’t mind not really being an auteur at all. And Charles Grodin, as mentioned at the head of this review, wears omniscience so, so delightfully, just like he does in TV’s Louie.

It isn’t surprising how funny this film is, or how cleverly it’s written. We’ve come to expect great things from Baumbach who wrote The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and who made the beautiful Frances HaWhile We’re Young is special not for its subversions of mainstream comedic genre — the end features a race against the clock only to realise the whole thing is also just that — but for its almost casual profundity, for the wisdom it carries and, miraculously enough, does so without an air of preachiness. It’s wise enough to know it isn’t wise enough.

This is the first truly great film of 2015. It is a film worth watching and recommending and loving, like a novel you can’t wait to lend to friends you care about. And as the end-credits rolled with Golden Years playing, I realised even David Bowie’s older now. And that doesn’t seem so bad. Just look at Woody Allen.

Rating: 5 stars

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First published Rediff, May 1, 2015

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A toast to Terry Pratchett, who christened me a dragon

tp2

Terry Pratchett once named a dragon after me. But that’s not important. (I mean it is, of course. It’s massively cool and thrilling — THRILLING, even — and something I’ll brag about forever. But that’s not what’s important right this second.)

Right now we have to deal with heartbreak, as Sir Terry Pratchett has left us. It is, all things considered, a fortunate thing, for he wanted very much to pop off before that pesky Alzheimer’s got too devastating, and it’s only fair that he left while still working instead of after, say, pottering into silence. There is also the comforting fact that he rather liked Death — his Discworld novels featured Death as a quietly charismatic cat-loving hero with a capital-letter baritone — and the two are probably getting on famously right now.
Yet to us it hurts. It hurts rather like being hit with a piano flung by a hairy librarian, in fact, just to come to grips with the fact that we will have no new Pratchett books every year. Speaking with the gluttonous selfishness of a reader, this feels like a devastating, soul-crushing blow.

What he has left us with, however, is dizzyingly special: a whole new world, one that makes ours infinitely better.
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A flat planet held by four elephants perched atop of a giant turtle, his Discworld is fantastical, surely, filled with magic and politics and warriors and witches and policemen, but like the world we live in, there is so much more to it than meets the eye. Pratchett’s universe is deliciously imperfect, with crowded cities and racism and bureaucracy and outdated social hierarchy, his novels led by the unlikeliest heroes and heroines. Pratchett takes turns zooming in on some under-explored corner of his very round (but decidedly unflat) disc, and reveals an entire worldview, shrewdly sprinkling just enough magic to make his satire gleam blindingly bright. There have been many fictional universes of note across fantasy literature but — despite Pratchett being labelled a ‘comic fantasist,’ inexplicably considered a lesser thing — nothing comes close to the richness and real-world relevance of Discworld.

Not JRR Tolkien, not George RR Martin, not Douglas Adams, not CS Lewis, not JK Rowling, not Frank Baum, and not even the great HP Lovecraft. Each achieved mastery over a particular fantasy genre, but Pratchett’s work mocked the very idea of literary limitations, going from police procedural in one book to Christmas adventure in the next, from vampires to football, from the birth of motion pictures to the examining of religion itself. The 40 novels that make up the Discworld — the 41st is scheduled for this September — are books that irresistibly transcend any genre convention, with appeal for all. Pratchett’s work belongs, then, closer to the Wodehouse shelf than to the one creaking beneath the Tolkien tomes; these are cunningly clever books everyone can be enchanted by — which makes him, in many ways, the best fantasy writer of them all.

Pratchett is also a dashed clever novelist, filling his books to the brim with stunning insight. Verbal, philosophical and observational gems are scattered about generously, willy-nilly. Picking up any volume at random (and feel free to take up the challenge and make your day instantly sunnier) allows a reader to metamorphose into a delirious treasure-seeker panning for gold.

I have in my lap Unseen Academicals, for example, his hilarious take on football, and every other line is a work of gorgeousness. “Juliet didn’t exactly wash dishes, she gave them a light baptism.” “She read the way a cat eats; furtively, daring anyone to notice.” “Ponder Stibbons had once got one hundred percent in a Prescience Exam by getting there the previous day.” “She had some sort of …relationship with Vetinari. Everyone knew it, and that was all everyone knew. A dot dot dot relationship. One of those. And nobody had been able to join the dots.” “If you flash spells around like there’s no tomorrow, there’s a good chance that there won’t be.” It’s all magnificence and wizardry, and in a Pratchett book it is everywhere you look. Heck, he even turned the caps-lock key into an overwhelming special effect.

Magic.

~
tp1When I met Terry a dozen years ago at the University of Warwick in 2003, he had just given a terrific talk about creating universes. I hadn’t read any of his work at the time, but he wore a most excellent hat in the picture accompanying his author bio, plus I’d heard many a rave, and, inspired thus by topic and speaker, I went along and proceeded to spend the lecture scribbling and giggling.

Here, from an old blogpost, is what happened next:

Terry Pratchett was a fascinating speaker — warm, funny, self-deprecatory and most insightful — and after the talk, I went up to him, he made a pleasant blue-hair jibe [I had blue hair at the time] (which I won’t repeat, don’t bother asking) and I asked if I could buy him a beer and chat a bit. He was most amiable, so we trotted off to the Graduate bar and talked about writing and fantasy.

It was a fun chat, highlighted, I feel in hindsight, by his recommending Good Omens as a good starting point for his work “because I’m sure at least Neil Gaiman’s bits won’t be completely dreadful.” For the record, he also called the first half-dozen Discworld books absolute rubbish — but that could have been because he was, at the time, telling me to go ahead and write a few bad books to find my stride as a writer.

“Write, write, write,” I remember Pratchett saying. “You can always disown the truly dreadful stuff later.” It was a pleasant and greatly inspiring evening, following which I swallowed down his books by the dozen and kicked myself in the shins for getting to the party that late. That, I assumed, was that.

It was much later that a pretty, raven-eyed Pratchett-fanatic gaspingly pointed me to Thud! — his 2005 volume — which happened to feature several dragons but only one, “a young dragon with floppy ears and an expression of mildly concussed good humour”, to be precise, is referred to by name, and his name is Raja.

See? Magic.

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There is, as a matter of fact, such a preponderance of magical goodness in Pratchett’s work that perhaps Death — which has, I wager, led to him trading tales with Jerome K Jerome up there, or something similarly spectacular — is merely Terry’s way of telling us to halt. To refrain from serially inhaling the magic without pause, but instead to appreciate the world — both the Disc one and this one — and to stop and smell the sublime. With no more new Terry Pratchett books to catch up with, he’s left us a wonderland we can slowly sift through, learn from and be awed by.

What greater legacy could there be?

Oh, and there’s the moral to the story. The moral in the story about my becoming a dragon — and I’m certain this is the reason I found immortal mention — is that one should always buy a writer a beer.

So long, Terry Pratchett, sultan of the streams of story. Cheers, and do PLEASE keep watching over us.

~

First published Rediff, March 13, 2015

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Why the 2015 Oscars are worth celebrating

The good guys won.

Actually, it was bigger than that. I’ve annually whinged about and berated the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences shortsightedness and predictability in columns like these for far too many years now, and this is the first time I sat back through the Oscars — occasionally tense with fingers crossed as often as befits the occasion, naturally — but with a smile on my face. It was very clear that despite the eight nominated films, there were only three frontrunners this year, and each was majestic.

I loved ‘em, I loved ‘em to bits, these brave and visionary and beautiful films: Birdman, which I reviewed breathlessly, Boyhood, which I reviewed with moist eyes and lumpen throat, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, which I reviewed with jaunty fingers and a candied grin.

And this was their year.

inarritu1Just let that sink in for a moment. That the three films tipped to win, the three films that held the most nominations and got the most awards, the three directors singled out for career-revolutionising triumph… were all masterworks. They were all brilliant and incredible, films any cinephile around the world should be proud of. The fact that it was these three films who led the pack and battled for the spotlight — instead of some dastardly Academy-friendly choice that upset a great yacht —  made this year’s Oscars a spotlight worth sailing through.

There was no King’s Speech to mug The Social Network, no English Patient to shoot Fargo in the foot, no Crash to rob Brokeback Mountain, no Forrest Gump to hold up, unforgivably, both Shawshank Redemption and the revolutionary Pulp Fiction. No, this year, instead of the big, the gun-toting, the maudlin, the British — and, most criminally, the obvious — films, the cool kids this year, the ones tipped to win were a Boy, a Bird and Budapest. How can you not love this year?

Sure, signs pointed to a Birdman/Boyhood split, with Alejandro González Iñárritu possibly taking Best Director for Birdman and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood taking Best Picture, or vice versa, a peace treaty that would leave the filmloving world in peace, but that wasn’t, alas, to be. As Iñárritu said while picking up the Best Director trophy, moments before he picked up Best Picture, “We’re talking about that little prick called ego. Ego loves competition, right, because for someone to win, someone has to lose.”

And that’s possibly why it hurts us, the film fans. Because we don’t want to see Linklater win over Iñárritu, or Budapest director Wes Anderson leave the other directors in the dust, or even young Damien Chazelle, helmer of the electrifying Whiplash, be left behind or spoil anyone’s party. We aren’t used to seeing these underdogs competing at the top of the heap; we just want ‘em all to enjoy playing together and all go home happy.

To a large extent, they did: Boyhood won for Patricia Arquette, Whiplash for JK Simmons, The Grand Budapest Hotel for everything to do with how beautiful films look. All while grumpy veteran Clint Eastwood sat grouchily, his American Sniper not showing up to ruin our film-lovin’ fun, while Oscar host Neil Patrick Harris wagered he’d do a Kanye West and disrupt the proceedings.

As for Neil Patrick Harris, alas, he didn’t sparkle. He started with a terrific musical number about the love we have for ‘Moving Pictures’ — as I’ve written elsewhere, rhyming “Brando” with Sharon Stone going “commando” is a moment of genius that will linger forever — but the rest of the evening he was flat and unfunny and just not very good.

But — and here’s the thing — are we expecting the wrong thing from an Oscar host? Earlier the Oscars were the only show we’d all watch, and we’d eat it up because it was the only choice. So we’d love Steve Martin and tolerate David Letterman. Now, not only do we have far more wicked and irreverent, alcohol-aided shows to watch, from the Globes to the Independent Spirit Awards (which, seriously, is must-see), but we’re all tweeting and pronouncing judgement immediately, rating a joke on a sliding scale before we even get through with the show.

Last week I assembled a list of the best ever Oscar hosts, an amusing (albeit cumbersome) process that made me realise something. In this age of sharp, biting jabs — started by Globe host Ricky Gervais and surpassed by Amy Poehler and Tina Fey — we’re too quick to dismiss anyone who doesn’t immediately match up. That Frank Sinatra opening monologue from 1963, for example, one of my very favourites, would be ripped apart mercilessly on Twitter.

The Oscars are in a quandary: they’re classy, they’re big, they’re universal and they need to be family-friendly — otherwise morons like Seth MacFarlane sing about breasts. It’s clear they can’t be like other wilder award shows. Perhaps they just need to concentrate on the class and the charm and leave out the comedy, except in little unscripted bits and occasional dance numbers. No matter what people say about too many dances, this year’s top moments had to include the touching Glory performance and Lady Gaga’s Sound Of Music tribute. Pomp, done well, shines bright at the Oscars. Leave the jokes to the other shows who can perch out farther on the limb. Let the grandeur do the talking instead of the gags.

wes1Overall, as I said, it was a show to celebrate. Because with every gunfighter on our side, we’re all winners.

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First published Rediff, February 24, 2015

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Review: Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job,” says Terrence Fletcher, the black-clad perfectionist conductor driving his orchestra insane with his demands. Fletcher wants more, always. Emotion, excuses, bloodied hands, commitment: none of it impresses him unless accompanied by actual greatness. And it never is. “Good job,” words many an American parent uses to condition a child, a verbal pat on the back for tying shoelaces or finishing a plate of spaghetti, thus, is naturally something that isn’t quite Fletcher’s tempo.

But then what does measure up? Fletcher demands the best, and his students bend over backwards trying earnestly, dutifully, vainly, suicidally to give it to him while he bites their heads off like an easily irked dragon. JK Simmons plays Fletcher with firebreathing abandon, using awful verbal guillotines every bit as lethal as the cymbal that almost decapitated Charlie Parker and spurred him to become the legend known simply as Bird. Near-death, Fletcher seems to feel, gave Parker his wings.

IMG_5430An unforgiving silhouette teaching at New York’s famed Shaffer Conservatory of Music, Fletcher’s longstanding dream of finding a Bird and letting him loose seems all but impossible till he runs into Andrew (Miles Teller), a young man craving to be pushed to perfection, one who fanatically sees himself as one of the greats, one who deserts romance because it may possibly distract him from the drums some day. After all, as the Buddy Rich quote on his wall screams at him, “If you don’t have ability, you wind up playing in a rock band.”

Director Damien Chazelle’s stunning and absorbing Whiplash takes these two freaks – this old man with a tongue made of daggers and this youngster with alarming amounts of focus – and pits them against each other in a delicious, deadly battle of jazz. They glide toward unscaleable peaks forsaking their lives, their careers, their families, their sanity… and all for what?

Whiplash is a sexy, sexy film, strikingly shot and beautifully paced, a film that captivates right from the start and reels in the viewer in that seductive way only the finest jazz can. The music is jawdropping and works its magic regardless of how unschooled the viewer may be, perhaps because of how Fletcher makes them play the same sections over and over again, especially the Hank Levy piece, ‘Whiplash,’ that lends its name to the film’s title.

Teller, playing the surly, self-absorbed Andrew, does spectacularly well as a character impossible to like, not to mention a phenomenal banger of the drums, a man savaging drumheads as if he were doing kung fu with chopsticks. Simmons, playing the maniac, is even better, all quips and one-handed quietening and the single-minded focus of a fascist who truly believes in himself. Scary good.

Chazelle’s film starts brilliantly and soon turns brutal, and it can be construed by some as a romanticisation of tyranny, a film that gives far too much importance to unrealistic standards and puts striving for them on a pedestal, but my reading is that Whiplash doesn’t idealize either of its two leads – though it is at times a tad sympathetic toward them – but rather shines a glaring, (mostly) unforgiving spotlight on both sets of unreasonable expectations, a spotlight that is best witnessed flashing across Simmons’ eyes at the very end of Whiplash.

We dream different dreams, and if two men tear their own lives apart in pursuit of something they treasure above all else, then who are we to dictate the price they ought pay? As a certain Mr Inarritu will attest, there’s something to be said about embarking on an impossible hunt for a Bird.

Rating: 4 stars

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First published Rediff, February 20, 2015

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Review: Birdman, by Alejandro G Iñárritu

What do we talk about when we talk about Birdman?

It’s hard to know where to begin, for this is a film that makes us gasp, a breathless, rapturous, stream-of-consciousness fever dream, a film which unfolds dizzyingly and dramatically and takes us on a journey that, while a deeply personal journey for a character, holds so much for each of us to take back and so much to seduce us, to suck us in, the narrative visuals tugging us along as if we’re reading a novel that doesn’t allow pause – a novel disgusted by the idea of pause, even, a book that makes sure we can’t look away – and yet a book that makes us wonder about ego and life and self-importance, and perhaps fixating on the film’s novel-ty is just what director Alejandro González Iñárritu intended, with this singular comedic masterpiece surpassing all his previous, occasionally overwrought works, in fact surpassing most modern movies with a freaky flourish and with such gorgeous, gorgeous audacity… Allow me here to suggest that you think of these ellipses here in this piece not as breaks in flow but as drum solos, as wondrous bursts of force like the ones punctuating the film courtesy of stunning drummer Antonio Sanchez and his terrific score which lets us glory in all the magnificent detail Birdman offers, for example, Riggan Thomson is told he has a baby on the way, but that doesn’t seem to matter to him as much, which is somewhat understandable considering the fact that he, an actor best known for a superhero franchise he left behind two decades ago but can never quite shake off, not in any coherent way at least, is sticking his wrinkly neck out and putting it on the line by creating a Broadway showcase for himself, adapting a Raymond Carver short story, no less, in a bid to earn himself legitimacy as an actor and finally exorcise his superhero demons, but then is his spandexed alter-ego a hindrance or something he needs, a ridiculous but essential raison d’etre, one that defines him and holds him together even as he aims to spread his wings into the unfamiliar in order to more keenly etch out his own celebrity status, trying to make sure he leaves behind a legacy – a quest, it seems, that matters more to him than his pregnant girlfriend or his surly ex-junkie daughter, a bright girl burying her exceptional eyes under gothic layers of kohl and one who seems catastrophically attracted to Mike Shiner, a Broadway superstar who is literally potent only when on stage, stage, his arena of invincibility, but despite being a quotable, sharp, spectacularly talented actor who always thinks he knows best, Shiner is actually perhaps even more oblivious about his sense of self, but he is Iñárritu’s entertainer, his jack-in-the-box, the man we enjoy following around the most, at least when Birdman begins and we’re gathering up our fallen jaws at the way the director and master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki make the whole film look like one shot, with clever, canny editing making long takes merge into one-another with magically few seams showing, a modern day take on Hitchcock’s Rope but on digital steroids, the kind of miraculous gimmick that could have been tiresome in the wrong hands but here the flight is a marvelous one, the film going from night to day without looking away – one shot with Shiner and Thomson’s daughter Sam on the roof of a theatre, the theatre most of the film takes place in, has the two talking and then the camera cants upward to the sky, following a swirl of cigarette smoke and then, after staying there for just a moment, the night melts into day and the camera swooshes down onto the bustling midday street, and this shot, with its poetry and its radical beauty, melted my mind and just typing about it is making my keyboard-drumming fingers tremble – and this is what Birdman does painstakingly but seemingly casually, using the tools at hand today to craft something previously impossible and present us with a film worth watching twice because the first time viewer is liable to just ogle this work of staggering genius; I, for one, watched it thrice in a week the first time I got the chance to watch it, and remain bowled over, besotted, enchanted, and who wouldn’t be, with the kind of actors on display here, Michael Keaton and Edward Norton and Emma Stone – who each come with superhero-movie baggage of their own, sure, but happen also to be people who have been replaced or killed off in superhero movies, movies notorious for nobody really dying or staying dead – and they each dole out virtuoso acts, with Norton showing off obvious mastery (while playing an obvious master), Stone gliding on the edge of ineffability with a crucial role and perhaps the film’s most important lines, and Keaton himself playing it close to the bone, playing his near-mythological hero with vulnerability and style while also putting on the bird-suit and rocking it good, but then, but then, everyone is so good in this film, from each of the screenwriters to Andrea Riseborough to the man playing a disgruntled Indian cabbie, everyone is at the very top of their game, everyone is poised to strike and to surprise, and by the time the film ends with a moment of heartbreaking perfection, the eyes have it – as do the ayes, for what good is a critic who remains closed off from the unobvious conjuror, a critic who can’t delight in this magical a wingspan, this film neatly putting us all in our place – and I don’t just mean us professional nitpickers and recommenders of movies – but each and every one of us with opinions that could be wiped out in an instant, for, as a sign in Thomson’s dressing room says so astutely, ‘A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.’

What do we talk about when we talk about Birdman? Everything.

Rating: 5 stars

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First published Rediff, January 30, 2015

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Oscar Review: The Imitation Game

Remember the first time you heard the last Pink Floyd album? No, not that recent bit of noodley-guitar nonsense, but The Division Bell, twenty years ago? I was thirteen and instantly heartbroken, because, despite most of the same band placing most of the same old sounds in the same old places, they didn’t have anything to sing about. No soul. There was craft, certainly, and David Gilmour can wring poetry out of a fretboard like the best of ‘em, but this was not the Floyd of Barrett or even the Floyd of Waters, this was just a talented set of architects trying very hard to sound like Pink Floyd — without ever feeling like them. In other words, an imitation game.

THE IMITATION GAMEIt’s much the same in Morten Tyldum’s new film about British genius Alan Turing. There is wonderful biopic-meat to be found in the story of a mathematician who succeeded at war against the Nazis, pioneered computers and was eventually — and tragically — done in for happening to be a homosexual. There are some fine actors preening under their respective spotlights, most of all Benedict Cumberbatch who wields that lead guitar like an acoustic boss. And yet this is a bland, flavourless film, a film that runs smoothly but too predictably, a film that cries its heart out (with much sincerity) but one that never, ever sings.

Which means, naturally, that some people will love The Imitation Game. It is an unsubtle film that delivers exactly what you expect in the most predictable way, and one which repeats its mantras over and over; one line,  “it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine” is repeated at least four times, clearly marking it as this movie’s great power and great responsibility. For the undemanding viewer who doesn’t mind spoonfeeding — in a stiff English accent, no less, with two actors from Downton Abbey just for good measure — this is a perfectly watchable film, even though every scene predictably ends with Cumberbatch’s Turing getting the last word or having the last laugh. Fans of The Division Bell, those blokes who sit in bars with frozen playlists and raise their whiskey-sodas to Pinkish Floyd and celebrate a lyric like “the grass is greener” only because they remember the words, may just have a field day.

Despite the wasted potential, The Imitation Game is a competently made film, telling the story of a British hero who envisioned computers many years before anyone else, a man who developed codebreaking machines to interpret Nazi codes during the second World War, and a man convicted of being gay. Cumberbatch is excellent in the part, though his part is ridiculously straitjacketed by antisocial stereotypes: he comes off like a fey, attractive-version of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, a dreamy blue-eyed man who can break the enigma machine but who can’t decipher an invitation to lunch.

imitation2It is also exasperating, in a film that pivots around the persecution of a man for his sexuality, to watch Cumberbatch play Turing with such utter asexuality. We know, from Sherlock, that Benedict can do aloof better than most loofs, and he brings a poetic vulnerability to the role, but the film doesn’t explore his heart, his instincts, his cravings — it just lets him use the word “logic” a lot, to the point where we start examining his ears for Vulcan sharpness.

Kiera Knightley does a fine job as Joan Clarke, his female foil — and the woman who can solve cryptic crosswords even faster than Turing — and it’s always good to see Mark Strong in anything, but this is a structurally spineless endeavour, with actors like Charles Dance made to play Charles Dance without really letting them get into nuance.

Historical experts are up in arms about many inaccuracies in the film’s narrative, but there is one particular inconsistency that is quite befuddling: for drama’s sake, the screenwriters let Turing cross paths with a Soviet spy (one he never met, according to history) and the spy, in order to keep Turing from exposing him, threatens to reveal Turing’s homosexual secret to the army. Turing capitulates, and in that moment is bewilderingly enough shown as a traitor to the English cause.

If you do end up watching The Imitation Game and rightfully applauding its performances, do so with gusto but do also look up the facts of Turing’s life. As for this critic who expected more from yet another obvious biopic-shaped piece of Oscar-bait, well, as that feeble Floyd album sang, High Hopes.

Rating: 2.5 stars

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First published Rediff, January 16, 2015

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Review: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

Remember how it felt, as a kid, when cousins visited in the summer?

When an aunt’s children show up for a few vacation weeks and you hang with them and let them into your life and your room, when you’re briefly privy to more than your playground’s share of secrets, when you get to play with their toys and their ideas. And then they leave, only to show up again next year or the summer after that, when they’re different — taller and smarter and with extremely new kinds of problems, like acne, girls, board exams — and you get to catch up and fill each other in and, while doing so, realise how well/weakly you yourself are doing.

boyhood1Richard Linklater’s magnificent Boyhood — filmed across 12 years — gives us characters we see in fragmented scraps of time every year, but, arranged next to each other with linear grace, the experience is a spectacularly intimate one. Like flipping through several photo-albums at once. We see a young boy grow into a young man, and this journey — which is never ever just one person’s journey — is shown to us in minute detail, detail we can both relate to and learn from, documentary-level detail that remains incredibly fascinating.

It is a ridiculously ambitious setup: shooting for a few days a year, making us live with the actors as we see young Ellar Coltrane, 7, who plays the film’s leading lad, Mason Junior, make his way to young Ellar Coltrane, 18. We don’t so much witness his journey as spy on him, and see how he — and his family — changes over the years: his face turning angular, his mother shedding her defiance, his father wisening up. These alterations are far more than skin deep (though watching physical changes play out in a tender, thoughtful film like this feels miraculous in itself) and Linklater makes sure the characters grow as much as the actors.

There has never been a film like this. This is cinema as epic-timelapse, and with it Linklater changes the very idea of time in storytelling.

Life is Boyhood’s plot. We watch Mason Jr and his sister Sam (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) deal with long car-rides, divorced parents, adolescence, and variously fogged levels of clarity. Their father, Mason Senior (Ethan Hawke) goes from fun to undependable, idealistic to comfortable. Their mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), tragically and heroically, copes, doing whatever she can to make things fall into place. Our job as viewers is so easy we ought to feel blessed, but so poetically and evocatively does Linklater turn his film into a time-capsule that it’s hard not to feel personally thrust into the narrative from time to time, to drift away into our own boyhoods and girlhoods and early neighbourhoods that looked remarkably different just because we were then knee-high.

Boyhood2The writing is, unsurprisingly for a Linklater film, extraordinary. Mason Jr, who collects arrowheads, tries sharpening rocks in his teacher’s pencil sharpener; his sister does an insufferable Britney Spears impression (which probably means it’s spot-on); they line up to buy the new Harry Potter; Mason Sr is swashbucklingly pro-Obama (till he’s older). The performances are magical, but largely because of the format. Coltrane is a lovely boy, who grows serendipitously into a Hawke-ian collegeboy, but it is the parents who really make this film feel more than fiction. Hawke — who is heartbreakingly sincere, especially when trying to pass on his love for each Beatle to his boy — brilliantly conveys the helplessness of a faraway father, and Arquette (who I had thought will forever remain mad, hot Alabama from True Romance) delivers a devastatingly touching performance, one that may well define her cinematic legacy.

As I said, there hasn’t ever been a film like Boyhood. It is a director’s ultimate what-if thought come true, the most monumental way to get past finding lookalike actors and getting periodically authentic detailing right. It is painfully real to be around, watching, as a boy’s voice cracks. As he takes his first steps towards being his own man, a free Mason, as it were, he feels like someone we have known for far longer than Linklater’s long running-time. The closing credits are depressing merely because they exist, and we want to know what happens to Mason next. Unless, as the director jokingly (?) said, he boarded a train in Europe and ran into a nice girl…

Go, get to know Boyhood. Soak it in and let it enrich you, amuse you, hold you close. Let it open your mind a little bit more toward the possibilities great cinema holds. Live it. Let this film be your jam. To paraphrase John Lennon, life is what happens when you’re busy watching other films.

Rating: 5 stars

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First published Rediff, November 14, 2014

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