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10 movies better than 12 Years A Slave

Screw the Oscars.

We’ve seen who won and we know why, but 2013 was a year of much greater English-language cinema than the one that picked up the top prize.

The following ten films make for a very eclectic and unlikely list: there are two films starring Olivia Wilde; two films starring Adam Driver, two black-and-white films, and absolutely nothing in 3D.

The ones that almost made the list are gems in their own right — Enough Said, Short Term 12, The Place Beyond The Pines and Afternoon Delight — and I wish I’d watched Spring Breakers a few more times so I could finally decide whether it was great or godawful. It took much pedantic sorting and shuffling (and maybe a couple of tossed coins) to arrive at ten films, but what films they are.

So, I say again, screw the Oscars. Here are the real Best Pictures:

10. Drinking Buddies

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This. This is what all mumblecore should aspire to be. A less obvious but no less incisive look into a couple of relationships as they stumble along being all coupley, Joe Swanberg’s film consists of strikingly relatable dialogue mostly improvised by the great cast — Anna Kendrick, Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson and Ron Livingston star, and are all great — with the director cannily riffing on their naturally bright, young vibe by dousing the picture itself in melancholia. Slick, very slick, and disarmingly honest.

9. Before Midnight

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Director and writer Richard Linklater reunited with actor-writers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy for this unlikely, unflinching look at what may well be the definitive on-screen relationship for our generation. Before Sunrise sparkled in 1995 and Before Sunset dazzled us in 2004, but this third film brought up questions and ruminations of life and love in a way we never expected (or, indeed, wanted) Celine or Jesse to confront. It is a film that acts as balm, as mirror, as accusation. Heartbreaking, powerful and shouldered by masterfully long chunks of dialogue, it feels more confessional that cinema ought be. In a way, while reminding us that some things stay the same, this film changes everything.

8. The World’s End

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Beer never looked more like liquid gold than in the opening of Edgar Wright’s madcap genre-mashing finale to his Cornetto Trilogy, and that’s just the tip of the, well, the tipple. Simon Pegg — in his best written character to date — plays a swashbuckling saucer rousing his school gang from necktied-apathy to take them on a boozy bender they never finished in their heyday. Wright, shifting gear in loony but scrupulous fashion, throws us right into a whole other kind of film while never losing sight of his first one. The energy, the gags, the way the director and his actors full-throatedly embrace the ludicrousness of it all: The World’s End is a pint of perfection.

7. Inside Llewyn Davis

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Joel and Ethan Coen, those cinematic troubadours who croon captivating ballads about people we would normally just point and laugh at, are at it again with this gorgeous film about a folk musician fated to be but a footnote. It is a beautiful film about a depressing, mean man (played superbly by Oscar Isaacs) who naively believes his talent will see him through. It doesn’t, but it does allow him to bob afloat on the choppiest of waters populated by corks like him. And, in true Coen style, many a screwball. Stunningly shot by Bruno Delbonnel, the film wallows in Llewyn Davis’ misery, pausing only to let the brilliant music lift it to another level. Before hurtling it down again. The world, as Davis says, is divided into two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people…

<Read the review here.>

6. Blue Jasmine

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Woody Allen’s film might well be an update of Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire, but Blue Jasmine is a crueller, sharper and decidedly more devastating tale. Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine is a delusional neurotic, a woman well beyond the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her marriage, with a wheeler-dealer of possibly Belfort-ian proportions, has imploded after many years in denial, and now the Hermes-carrying Jasmine can’t afford cab-fare. Populated by fascinating characters armed with Allen’s typically quotable lines, this perfectly cast film throws up many a moment of absolute unforgettability. Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin and Bobby Cannavale all shine, but the film belongs to Blanchett’s Jasmine, for whom the meaning of life truly does involve the consideration of who one has to sleep with (around here) to get a (Stoli) martini (with a twist of lemon).

5. Rush

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The only big-screen spectacular to make it to my list this year, Rush is a rousingly dramatic film that sees director Ron Howard at his very best. The facts — about a mid-70s Formula One rivalry between two drivers that almost killed one of them — are incredible enough without embellishment, and screenwriter Peter Morgan takes what was known and doodles in the margins around it, amping up the off-track thrill. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl are terrific as British playboy James Hunt and Austrian genius Niki Lauda, and Howard swings his narrative from one to the other like a violently socked punching bag. Rush ends up riveting, surprising and compelling: one of the best sports films in modern times.

<Read the review here.>

4. Nebraska

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“You need to water these plants,” a girl tells her boyfriend just moments before breaking up with him. “These are plants,” she explains wearily, as if he — a fellow who sells hi-fidelity audio equipment while conceding its all the same nowadays — won’t be able to tell the difference. Meanwhile, the boy’s father, a silently grizzled old loon, is convinced he’s won the sweepstakes. Things are never what they initially seem to be in an Alexander Payne film, and this gorgeous black and white meditation on a father-and-son story tells an alarmingly universal tale of age and utility, of finding something to live for, and of the importance of a mirage. It is a lovely, languorous film, assuredly slow but enlivened by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s frames and by the dialogues, lines that cut instantly, memorably deep. Bruce Dern gives the performance of his career as the befuddled but bold father, while Will Forte does valiantly well as the son. Nebraska is a tale of men, who, like classic cars, are built to run forever — until they stop running, that is.

<Read the review here.>

3. The Wolf Of Wall Street

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“Golden words he will pour in your ear, but his lies can’t disguise what you fear,” boomed Shirley Bassey in the title track for Goldfinger, perhaps the greatest James Bond film of them all. A helluva track, for sure, noisily sensual and positively dripping with menace and power — but not quite the track you want played at your wedding. Unless, of course, you want to be the devil.

Leonardo DiCaprio forks his tongue to play Jordan Belfort in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street, and the entire film throbs with a seductive, scary energy. This is an amoral tale about men who can’t spell the word ‘scruples,’ and Scorsese and his fellas dive into it good, getting their hands and souls dirty. It’s a horror story told as a farce — the most effective way to deal with a monster may be to mock him — and while it’s an intoxicatingly stylish movie, one reference to the 1932 horror classic The Freaks is enough to tell us what Marty thinks of these brokers. Even as Leo throws himself into the part with feverish glee, we see him constantly on the edge of implosion.

As we watch this heady timebomb tick, Scorsese and Leo scare us straight. Unlike his character, who’d rather die soon than die sober.

2. Frances Ha

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Can you live inside a movie? If so, can I have a one-way ticket to inhabit Noah Baumbach’s marvellous black-and-white Frances Ha, an instant classic if ever there was one? Baumbach’s film — and his actors Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver and Michael Zegen — so consummately capture the zeitgeist of a time and place and generation that were we wiped out as a race tomorrow, I’d want this film to be our tremendous-albeit-twee epitaph.

Gerwig plays the “undateable” lead character with a magical openness, as if she were a jam-jar missing a lid, eager to soak up everything from bagels to boys. She careens through New York with klutzy earnestness — or, rather, earnest klutziness — a cross between a Truffaut character and a bull in a china shop. Watching this precocious, cunning, irresistible film is like stumbling upon a burst of glorious jazz with a glass of something imaginatively-coloured in hand. Frances Ha is bottled lightning; glug from it till giddy.

1. Her

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“Choke me with that dead cat.”

It is a rare film that reduces a critic to a sap, and Her turned me into the lead loser in a Cameron Crowe movie. But ‘reduces’ is the wrong word; how about ‘lifts,’ or, better yet considering the film at hand, ‘upgrades’?

My review was admittedly more of a love-letter, but that is, perhaps, apropos for a film about a man who writes other people’s letters. It is a film of savage sincerity and incredible ingenuity, a film that stands above all others by dint of both heart and originality. Spike Jonze’s film is immaculately crafted, flawlessly acted, and looks and sounds beautiful: but those are just, I daresay, its technical specifications.

The magic lies in how Her makes us feel, how it strings us up and strums us into a minor key, how it makes us believe in socially acceptable insanity, how it haunts, and how — during its most enchanting moments — we feel we’re lying on the moon, on a perfect afternoon.

<Read the review here.>

~

First published Rediff, March 7, 2014

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Everything about The Oscars, 2014

oscar1In which I collate everything I’ve written about this year’s Academy Awards, and then present you with a singularly weird column.

But we’ll get to that. First, the links:

Previews: Can American Hustle really win Best Picture? | Martin Scorsese and the men who shouldn’t beat him for Best Director. | Will Leonardo DiCaprio break his Oscar jinx for Best Actor? | Will controversy cost Cate Blanchett her Best Actress award? | Will Bradley Cooper score a Best Supporting Actor upset over Jared Leto? | Can even Jennifer Lawrence dethrone Lupito Nyong’o to take Best Supporting Actress?

Oscar omissions 2014: Franco, Rush, and a man named Oscar

My Oscar ballot. (I scored 18/24, better than most years, but clearly I still can’t think like an Academy Member, which, I guess, is reassuring?)

My dream Oscar ballot. Who I thought should win, but some of these people didn’t have a chance in hell. (That said, 12/24, which means it really wasn’t a bad year.)

In memoriam: Peter O’Toole | Philip Seymour Hoffman | Harold Ramis | Roger Ebert

And the Best Acceptance Speech goes to… 

Following this, in a feature wherein I detailed the ten most noteworthy moments from the Academy Awards, I ended up saying most of the things I’d normally say in my annual Oscar column, leaving me with a conundrum. Which is when I decided to look at the Oscars as they stood — the winners, the losers, the ceremony — through the eyes of the nine Best Picture nominees. Here goes:

Oscars 2014: If movies could talk

Here, in nine sections, are nine stories depicting the Awards this year, but each written in the style of the nine Best Picture nominees. (Follow the links in case you aren’t sure which nominated film is being referenced.) Because what better way to celebrate the Oscars than looking through the very eyes of the movies we’ve lauded this year?

One.

He should never have upgraded the teleprompter. Sure, it could now do a lot more, including write jokes itself, albeit a little stilted. It was too easily amused, too eager to laugh at its own feeble gags. But still, the fact that it — she — could now think on its own? Wow. That said, the teleprompter was getting too clever; he suspected she had learned to drink and now, during the Oscar telecast, was a dangerously sloshed scoreboard. She wickedly kept blinking, making almost every single presenter fumble and mix up words, and what she did to that poor boy from Grease was far too mean.

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The old man shuffled toward the auditorium, steady yet half-limping. His lovely daughter told him it was all a scam, that the Academy would never let him win, but the old man pointed to his Cannes trophy for Best Actor and asked her to believe. Damned Academy sweepstakes, she grumbled, deciding to humor her dad one more time — so he could comment on how unfinished the montages looked and sit there while some former-comedian made faces at him.

Three.

Angelina missed her child. She rattled on and on to the nice but uncaring journalist in earshot and he gradually felt her pain as she gazed wistfully at Lupita Nyong’o. She’ll never be able to deal with adopting a kid that good-looking, felt the journalist, but still, look at the old heroine wear the smile. It’s kinda brave. He found himself warming to her, and the two became friends — but hark, there is pleasant news at the end of the night for Angelina after all! Her husband just brought home a bright, golden son.

Four.

Harrison Ford heard the music — the theme music from those movies where he had the whip and the fedora, or was it the movie with the guy in the black mask? — and walked towards the centre of the stage. But just as he started to talk, he lost contact and could feel himself float away. Maybe it was the acid Jim Carrey had slipped him, maybe it was the really, really loud background score; but here he was floating away like Major Tom. Even the girl that hosted the awards was beginning to look like Barbarella to the spaced-out Ford; he decided to quickly read all he could see on the weird, too-fast teleprompter and make a run for it.

Five.

Harvey Weinstein wanted the Oscars, but this didn’t look like his year. The Academy didn’t approve of Harv and his methods to disguise Philomena’s nominations and make them look like wins, but Harvey — who dropped a fair bit of weight to fit into his Oscar suit — wasn’t ready to go out without a fight. He decided no Academy analyst could tell him how low his odds were, and decided to slip $200 into Ellen DeGeneres’ hat. (He also gave her a painting of some flowers, painted by Matthew McConaughey’s mother.)

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Captain DeGeneres, who hosted shows for a living, thought the Oscars would be just another quick, easy trip. But then she was taken hostage and the instructions appeared clear: no sudden laughs, no good gags, nothing at all that anyone might consider clever. She sighed and awkwardly tried to laugh at Barkhad Abdi and Jennifer Lawrence, both of whom — aware of the hostage situation — flashed back rictus grins. Finally, Captain DeGeneres hit upon a plan: she bought everyone a round of pizza.

Seven.

Everyone thought he was Jennifer Lawrence’s boyfriend or brother. They’d have been more inquisitive about the young man the 23-year-old Oscar-winner came to the ceremony with if she hadn’t done such a masterful job of misdirection. According to his dossier, he was Shia LeBeouf, wearing a new face, and trying to expose the hypocrisy of the Academy. (Honestly, though, he just really wanted to be invited into the selfie.)

oscarwolfEight.

It’s all about the chest-thump, he explained to Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio went on a charm offensive, trying to be the nicest, smiliest guy, in his quest to finally win what would be a very well-deserved award. The chest-thumper, on the other hand, kept thumping his chest and banging for more — more, with Mud, more with Dallas Buyers Club, more with The Wolf Of Wall Street and more still with True Detective. The voters didn’t have an option but to be impressed. Always keep chasing, he said when he won, thumping his chest once as DiCaprio watched from the front row.

Nine.

The voter wanted to make a difference. He wanted to reward the smartest, the cleverest, the most original new cinema. But the Academy had tightened its iron-vice around his opinion; they thought a certain way, he was but a cog. He had to conform. He had to give in and applaud movies that are laughed at for being obvious Oscar-bait; he had to stand and play the fiddle while Inside Llewyn Davis, Short Term 12 and Frances Ha were brutally shunted out. He had no choice but to look at Brad Pitt as if he were the messiah. But all he really wanted was a bar of hope.

~

First published Rediff, March 4, 2014

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Review: Alexander Payne’s Nebraska

Uncle Albert likes to watch the road. He takes a weatherbeaten deckchair and kicks back after meals, sitting by the side of the road to watch cars go by. It doesn’t seem that absurd a pastime for a man so grey and wrinkled he predates the television set, and one whose brothers bicker endlessly about whether one of them owned an Impala or a Buick forty years ago. While on that, is ‘bickering’ even the appropriate word for conversation so comfortably wound down, so slow, conversation made for the sake of hearing one’s own voice, talk that staves off atrophy?

The problem with Uncle Albert’s plan is more immediate than existential: there are no cars on the road he’s watching.

Alexander Payne’s new film, Nebraska, is a stunning meditation on the ghostliness of America, on how farflung towns that churn out the country’s cars and crops have dried into pensioner-populated nothingness. Their children have abandoned them for jobs and prospects, and for cities that look better in colour; here in Hawthorne, even the bartenders are wrinkled. It’s like a lawful Old West, where a man without bifocals assumes charge and pronounces himself sheriff. The town is fictional but Payne’s vision achingly universal; we all know people who live in ghost-towns, even if they literally live next door.

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One of these folks is Woody Grant, an old drunk with an astonishing gloriole of hair. It’s as if Doc from Back To The Future picked gin over science and stuck his finger into too many light sockets. Shot as the film is in gorgeous black-and-white, the tufts frame his head like scraps of a candyfloss cloud. When we first meet him, Grant is walking — shakily but steadily, lost yet determined — on the highway, from his Montana home towards Nebraska, convinced he’s won the sweepstakes. It’s one of those magazine subscription scams, as his son exclaims, but Woody has bought into the declaration that he’s won a million dollars. And so he walks.

Woody is hard-pressed for any support, from facts or family, but that son, David — living a despondent life selling stereo equipment he admits is all the same nowadays — decides to indulge the fading father’s whim and drive him to Nebraska, give him a last gasp at hope. Woody’s wife and other, more successful son disapprove of this impracticality, but David sets off with his mulish dad, desperate, at the very least, for any enervation.

Played by Bruce Dern, Woody is both inscrutable and irresistible. He teeters occasionally on the edge of dementia, but shines enough sudden lucidity to make ours a highly unpredictable ride. Is he ill-tempered or is he a man who belongs so wholly to another time that he can’t help but alienate himself from the people around him? Dern is magnificent, with a performance so disarmingly free of artifice that it becomes hard to remember he’s acting. His motivations are too simple for us to comprehend, so we’re better off marvelling at their basic nature, and the veteran actor milks the pauses masterfully. His lines are delivered in a gruff, no-nonsense way but the sense of timing behind them is immaculate. Payne’s film demands the viewer wait and wait and, after some paint has prettily dried, throw out a perfectly sharpened line, and Dern — who is given the bluntest, least syllabic of these lines — handles them so well it’s poetic.

June Squibb plays his wife, Kate, a hard and haranguing woman who constantly decries him. It is a brutal role with the toughest of lines, and Squibb makes it work with both vitality and credibility. As David, Will Forte is so, so good with his soulful, tender portrayal of a son desperate to break through his father’s war-hardened shell. Forte looks at Dern with heartbreaking anguish, ever ready, ever hopeful, ever frightened. In cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s strikingly lit black and white frames, the young Saturday Night Live comic looks to have the grace of a vintage leading man, with a certified movie-star face.

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Papamichael’s frames are things of beauty, and Payne broods dramatically on them. The roads look large, endless and mostly deserted, unclogged arteries of an underpopulated nation. Mount Rushmore looks as unfinished as Woody dismisses it to be, and the light outside the Blinker tavern is the most beguiling beacon of hope you’ll see on screen in a while. And all the faces drip with character.

This is a very special film, possibly the least contrived among this year’s Oscar nominees. Like the conversation between Uncle Albert’s brothers, Payne’s direction is so spectacularly unhurried, he eases us — nay, lulls us — into the moment before springing up the punchlines. For this is indeed a very funny film. As Steve Allen said, Tragedy is Comedy plus Time. Payne, by giving us so much breathing room, makes the comedy feel more profound than it is. In the end, it doesn’t feel like an epiphany; it feels like life. You know what’s coming, but you aspire for more — and, if you’re lucky, find it in the unlikeliest places.

The hint lies in the choice of colour. Nebraska is not merely a black comedy, but one laced with light, with hope, with brightness. Black and White, then. Sometimes they do make ‘em like they used to.

Rating: 4.5 stars

~

First published Rediff, February 28, 2014

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Review: Dallas Buyers Club

Somewhere around the middle of Dallas Buyers Club, the protagonist slips on a clerical collar, his moustache gravely weighed down to cover what may unmistakably be declared a sinner’s grin. A man caught smuggling medicines into America, he solemnly gives his word that they are all for his personal consumption. He swears with the kind of loud sincerity only the charlatan can muster, and — just as soon as he’s out of earshot — is selling unapproved drugs.

This man, Ron Woodroof, is a decidedly unlikely hero, a man who stumbles upon his nobility via efficiency and denial, a man who refuses to accept the fate handed to him, and, most importantly, a man willing to learn and to share. He drinks hard, screws hard and harbours rodeo dreams till he learns he’s running out of time, fast. Director Jean-Marc Vallee’s film is the inspiring true story of Woodroof and his quest to bring the right healthcare to AIDS patients at a time when America’s Food and Drug Administration seemed unwilling to do the same.

And while he was indeed a pioneer, the true strength of Vallee’s film is the way it doesn’t shy away from showing Woodroof’s less likeable side. And there’s a lot to flinch at, from his brutal homophobia to his rattlesnake lifestyle and his (initially) obnoxious cockiness. The year is 1986, Americans are just beginning to come to terms with the fact that Rock Hudson has died of AIDS, but Woodroof mourns the number of women Hudson could have conquered if straight. And then he — an electrician with a fondness for shortcuts — is told he has AIDS and has 30 days to live.

Vallee’s film gives us the character, warts and all, but even more importantly keeps the focus on his decisions. A scavenger, his first reaction (after yelling at doctors defiantly) is to read up on AIDS and HIV, after which he starts learning about medication. He realises that the medication approved by the FDA isn’t what he needs, and, hearing about clubs where patients can subscribe to medicines, starts one of his own.

Woodroof is indeed doing something huge, but the film scores by refusing to sentimentalise his actions; he starts off doing what’s best for himself, and then finds an opportunity. Nobility or altruism isn’t a part of his plan, but he clings to the idea of helping people because — like the rest of his decisions — isn’t that the only way forward? This is a stirring, touching film but — unlike say its fellow Oscar nominee, the well-crafted 12 Years A Slave — it stays impressively away from overt manipulation. Dallas Buyers Club is a film about smarts.

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It’s also a film about swagger. Matthew McConaughey drains himself out to play Woodroof, losing a couple of dozen kilos of weight, but despite his impoverished form, wears his hat high and keeps his hubris impossibly alive. He’s gaunt as a grasshopper, and yet plays the character as if his name were Eastwoodroof, with a world-beating swagger and a stetson. It’s a striking performance, a character confident and unpredictable and clever and so goddamned charming. Charming enough to take a painting of flowers along for a date when he doesn’t have time to stop for a bouquet.

Woodroof finds a partner in Rayon — a punk-rock transsexual played with both Eltonian flamboyance and wonderful fragility by Jared Leto — and the two change the world around them even as their words affectionately head for each other’s throats. Jennifer Garner plays a doctor who eventually swings over to their side, and despite an underwritten character with a weak, almost-romantic subplot, the actress is suitably helpless enough for the audience to empathise with.

Like McConaughey in the film, the real Ron Woodroof outlasted his death sentence by a fair bit, going on to live for 7 years instead of the month the doctors allotted. In that bit he helped many a sufferer, but his motivations were as fundamental as can be: he wanted to survive, to defy death. Saving lives along the way felt like an inevitability. Now that’s the film’s knockout punch.

Rating: 4 stars

~

First published Rediff, February 28, 2014

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Harold Ramis: So long, beloved Ghostbuster

ramisThere is a cycle, and the sight of a man falling from it is often hilarious. Writing about it, on the other hand, is less so. Explaining a joke — especially a bit of timeless slapstick, as with the bicycle — immediately renders it less funny; imagine the difference between reading a comedian’s monologue and actually experiencing him hurl out the syllables at you, standing-up for his punchlines. Given this ephemeral nature of comedy, which relies on so much from timing to delivery to context to flair, it is thus even harder to try and bottle down the impact and influence of a sparkling comic writer on generations that have grown up snickering at his words and his films. It’s hard to explain how much Harold Ramis mattered to us, and to the men who make us laugh.

Ramis was a killer writer, a sharp and incisive satirist with a goofy good-naturedness amusingly at odds with his fanged barbs. The balance made for movies that were almost entirely quotable and yet heartwarming, sometimes even inspiring. The pithy rarely found such empathy, especially in Hollywood. And so he wrote movies that shaped different comedic fashions of their time, like The National Lampoon Show, Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes right up to Analyze This which, despite its dated schtick, has fantastically funny bits. These weren’t just hit movies, or movies that turned actors into stars — Bill Murray, for one, owes a lot to Ramis — but they were movies that inspired comedians to go out further on a limb, try harder, be more accessible, make their jokes land better. The ripple effect — through comedic directors like Judd Apatow, Jake Kasdan and many others who openly call themselves disciple of Ramis — has been coming to us ever since the late 70s. Like seismic giggles.

Asked about the way he captured the sensibility of the periods he wrote in, Ramis said in an interview, “I don’t know. I just did what I wanted to do and what interested me. As I tell writing students, the only thing you have that is unique is yourself. You can write a movie that’s like some other movies, and that’s what you’ll have: something that’s completely derivative. But the only thing that’s totally unique is you. There’s no one like you. No one else has had your experience. No one has been in your body or had your parents. Yes, we’ve all had the same cultural influences. We’ve all lived at the same time, watched the same shows, gone to the same movies, listened to the same music. But it’s all filtered through our unique personalities. And I honor the things that have influenced me. I’m grateful for whatever it is that became the particular lens that’s allowed me to put out what I have.”

In 1984, Ramis co-wrote and starred in Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters, a film where — as parapsychologist Egon Spengler — he won us over as the truly cool Ghostbuster. For those of us who, in Goldilocks vein felt that Dan Ackroyd’s Stantz was too silly, Ernie Hudson’s Winston too overt and Bill Murray’s Venkman too dry, it was Spengler who made it all matter: he was the George Harrison of the quartet. While Ramis appeared in other films, it is his wonderful character in the two Ghostbusters movies that endures. We were all charmed by Venkman, but Spengler’s the one who made the Ghostbusters feel like a real team.

And then there’s Groundhog Day, a Harold Ramis film about an infinite loop — a lifetime of days that begin with Sonny and Cher on the radio and plod through the very same paces, over and over — that will surely be remembered as the filmmaker’s masterpiece. The 1993 film is an absolute gem, with Bill Murray at his best and the film managing to keep rerunning around in circles and yet staying fresh — yes, keeping repetitiveness fresh — thanks to Ramis’ deft, light touch. It is the sort of film that priests and philosophers embraced, talking about its beautiful universality of theme, about life being a series of endless variations on the same, but it is also a truly funny film. Something tells me that’s the bit Ramis, who we lost at 69, would treasure more. Just like he might appreciate a eulogy that begins where it ends, or something like it, anyway. So long, beloved Ghostbuster. Ashes to ashes, gags to gags. There is a cycle.

~

Also: I pick ten great bits of Harold Ramis dialogue

~

First published Rediff, February 25, 2014

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Review: Spike Jonze’s Her

I love Her.

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

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

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

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

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

And so Theodore falls in love with Samantha.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 5 stars

~

First published Rediff, 14 February 2014

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Review: Saving Mr Banks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, February 7, 2014

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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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Philip Seymour Hoffman: Goodbye, Master

That fat guy.

The first time I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman was in Scent Of A Woman, playing an uppity prep-school bully. I vividly remember that floppy hair falling onto his round face, scrunched up all the time, as if the sun was glaring right into his eyes even in the shade. That fat guy who made the sickeningly sweet hero appear noble, that fat guy with the smirk of superiority spread across his mug.

He began popping up in notable movies, movies like Patch Adams and When A Man Loves A Woman which got a lot of television-time, and genuinely great movies where he played weirdos, like Boogie Nights and Magnolia and The Big Lebowski. Here was a young and seemingly fearless guy, a guy deftly turning into one of those character actors New York Times reviewers call “reliably excellent.”

lester

Then, in a landmark Cameron Crowe movie called Almost Famous, he played legendary rock critic Lester Bangs and guided many of my generation about journalism. Too cool to act cool, he acerbically gave us the straight dope: about life and faith and conviction and rock, and when I turned film critic a few years later, I picked his words as my survival mantra:

“You cannot make friends with the rock stars. That’s what’s important. If you’re a rock journalist – first, you will never get paid much. But you’ll get free records from the record company. And they’ll buy you drinks, you’ll meet girls, they’ll try to fly you places for free, offer you drugs… I know. It sounds great. But they are not your friends. These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of the rock stars, and they will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it.”

(Thank you, PSH. Truly.)

It takes a lot to sell words that fiendishly simple, and Hoffman did it with such authority that while he might not have been the film’s leading man, he emerged its brightest light. Its golden god, as it were.

And it was in him we found a man willing to debase himself, to play the fool, to go out on whatever limb was furthest, all for the glory of the movie. The length of the role never mattered, and — unlike in A Late Quartet, which contained one of his finest performances — Hoffman had no trouble playing second violin.

Soon it became clear that he was one of those special actors who made an impression no matter what cinematic world he inhabited. In 2004, he appeared in a hideous film called Along Came Polly, a Ben Stiller vehicle where Hoffman’s Sandy Lyle spoke candidly about “sharting”, a grotesque scatological gag about how he defecated while breaking wind, and did it so often he’d had to coin a word for it. It was an… unfortunate film, and I wondered whether he was to be mired forever in material so clearly beneath him.

One year later, he won the Best Actor Oscar for Capote: a performance where this grizzly giant turned small and fey purely by mannerism; a performance that, through its cold mercilessness, remains a scalding critique of writer Truman Capote. Suddenly it became clear that this man could do anything at all. He could be funny, vicious, profane, cunning, brilliant, slackjawed, omniscient, obsequious, perverse, perfect — and he shone each time, often more dazzling than the films he was in. A lumbering large man who — when need be — could swiftly twist and burst into song, nimbly tangoing with a roomful of naked women.

latequartetThat fat guy. Even that girth seemed to affect different approaches in service to the material: he could be genially plump, imposingly Falstaffian, a bloated artist, a chubby romantic, a stout sibling, a flabby film-writer.. And all while staying the same size. To paraphrase something an iconic actor once told another icon who shared Philip Seymour’s last name: other performers starved for parts or stuffed themselves with protein, but Hoffman acted.

His filmography boasts of some of the finest directors of all time: Sidney Lumet, The Coen Brothers, David Mamet, Mike Nichols, Cameron Crowe. And his most significant collaboration was fittingly with a filmmaker regarded the most talented of his generation. Paul Thomas Anderson cast Hoffman whenever he could, and the duo grew together — from Hard Eight to Boogie Nights to Magnolia to Punch-Drunk Love to The Master — bold and defiant and majestic, rising dizzyingly past any expectations.

The last few years showed his willingness to hurtle past any boundary, to endow simple parts with bittersweet nuance, and to dare writers to come up with a performance that would be a challenge. Charlie Kaufman scooped up the gauntlet and wrote the impossible Synecdoche, New York — about an artist who creates a New York within New York, one that mirrors his shambolic life through a warped lens — and Hoffman trounced the writing, rising above the meta-trickery and giving us a bravura performance that might well be his legacy. A blowhard and a nitpicker, a failure and a bastard, a genius and a true visionary. It’s all there, and thanks to his propensity to stun us, that might not even be part of your top three Philip Seymour Hoffman films.

That, in fact, might have been his greatest feat. To surprise us every single time, come what may. To show us a simple enough boxed-up character and then spring out in a way we could never anticipate. He’d roll up his sleeves, make us understand and believe and wait, and then — with a flourish, while his patter enchanted us — the stubbly master would yank a rabbit out of his baseball cap. Always without warning. Always off-guard.

And now he’s dead. Before the devil could know it.

~

First published Rediff, February 4, 2014

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Review: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, January 31, 2014

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