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Review: Pete Docter’s Inside Out

InsideOut1‘What is your favourite colour?’ I always found that a dashed impossible question. Purple leaps to mind because of how cool and wizardly it is; I’m partial to pretty girls in Yellow; Blue is the colour of ink and jazz and skies; and, like Ferraris, I look best in Scarlet — but then Holly Golightly made us realise how mean Red can be. There truly can be no one favourite colour, merely one best-suited for a moment. It’s as pointless as using one singular feeling to label a moment, a memory, a thought. At every given time, we’re a jumbled up mess, our feelings and emotions questioning and contradicting and second-guessing each other as they jostle for attention — and with Inside Out, Pixar’s latest and arguably finest film, we get a glimpse into what goes on behind the scenes.

The film takes place inside the head of a little girl, Riley, an ice-hockey-loving 11-year-old moving with her parents from Minnesota to San Francisco. But woe is she, for San Francisco puts broccoli on their pizza. Disgust, a green glitter-haired sprite inside Riley’s head is appalled. Alongside her, astride a control bridge, are the red and inflammable Anger, the nerdy purple Fear, the despondent blue Sadness and — leading the pack — the giddily ebullient Joy, bright yellow and impossibly determined to keep Riley happy as can be.

This is a startlingly new landscape, even for the imagineers over at Pixar, and there is tremendous fun in watching these five emotions take turns at making Riley live and feel and react. Joy — voiced by the irrepressibly buoyant Amy Poehler — is an obvious favourite, not least because she looks a bit like Tinkerbell and because her motive is wanting Riley to be happy. So happy, in fact, that Joy chalks out a little circle and asks Sadness to stay within the lines. If you’re astonished by such an elegantly simple metaphor about Repression in an animated film, buckle up: this film goes deep. Significantly, psychologically, educatively deep.

Director Pete Docter has done something absolutely stunning here. Inside Out is certainly a candied Pixar adventure-comedy, wickedly witty and polished till it shines, and yet there is tremendous insight as the film intuitively and evocatingly zigzags through a brain. There are, for example, racks upon racks of bright coloured memories — like a giant gallery of M&Ms — of which some are fading and being forgotten, because of misuse and because they aren’t accessed often enough, but where some peculiar ones — a theme-tune to a gum commercial seen in childhood, say — are frequently tossed into the foreground of the brain, just for the heck of it, where it will persistently rattle around all day. There is Abstract Thought, which dices our characters into Picasso edges, and there is The Subconscious, “where they take all the troublemakers.”

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Inside Riley’s mother’s brain.

Choo-chooing somewhere in the distance is a locomotive, a literal Train Of Thought, and seemingly holding the structure together, formed out of Riley’s core memories, are her Islands Of Personality, themeparks inside her head for the things most important to her: Family, Hockey, Friendship, Honesty and Goofball — the last working well when Riley needs to make monkey-sounds with her parents. Things, naturally, go wrong somewhere near the control panel, and while much can be said about the grand adventure taking place inside Riley’s head — but why give it away? — the most glorious thing about Inside Out is that it meanders away from obvious storytelling and gives us room to think about ourselves. I, for example, caught myself wondering what islands I’d have inside my head. (Despite making a film that necessitates repeat viewings to capture all the multitiered genius of its confections, Docter makes it a point to make us wonder thus, nudging us briefly toward other brains, dog-brains and cat-brains and father-brains and, best of all, a Cool Girl brain, where the emotions eventually confess that “Being cool is so exhausting.”)

Riley, voiced by Kaitlyn Dias, is a perfectly nice girl, but the fun characters all lie within her. Joy is almost unbearably bouncy, and Poehler — with her Leslie Knope infallibility in place — nails the crucial balance; Mindy Kaling is sneeringly spot-on as Disgust; Richard Kind is wonderful as Bing Bong, an imaginary friend who cries candy and can “blow a mean nose”; and the film’s most nuanced performance comes from Phyllis Smith, making Sadness so darned irresistible. Inside Out’s crowning achievement may be the parity it achieves, the way it illustrates how one emotion isn’t better than another, that each is important and makes a difference. Why, sometimes you need to heat Anger up just to use it as a weapon. Thus it’s unfair to aim exclusively for happiness. (Could it be the yellow M&Ms don’t taste better than the others after all?)

insideout3A staggeringly original film, Inside Out is a cinematic miracle. There has quite frankly never been anything like it before, and it is an essential film for lovers of the movies, children, parents and inner-children everywhere. It is insightful, intoxicating and incredible, and when I was done with it, scrubbed and sobbed and sated, I felt I’d been scribbled on by Pixar crayons. The detailing is exquisite — Joy, using a french fry to do a pole-vault pauses to lick her salty fingers right after — Michael Giacchino’s music is fantastic, and there is something in the film to speak to each of us. I, for one, was particularly captivated by the sound-stage on which dreams were being produced, like a live television show with scripts and actors and directors… And what critic dare rebuke a film he’d pick over a dream?

Rating: 5 stars

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First published Rediff, June 26, 2015

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Column: Why we must start a culture of spoiler-shaming

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Like in Game Of Thrones, nobody’s innocent.

We’ve all casually — or intentionally — let out details about what someone else may not have seen or read. Sometimes it’s purely inadvertent, like when an intern once called me up, found out I was watching Top Gun and asked “ooh, is Goose dead yet?,” understandable given I was watching an all-time blockbuster decades after it had come out — but a memory that stings, to this day. Sometimes it’s vindictive, like the popcorn-seller a friend’s father dismissed while watching Jewel Thief back in the 70s, only to have him snarl “Ashok Kumar villain hai” during the interval and ruin said gent’s evening. Sometimes it’s friendly, the desperate urge to high-five over a shocking twist. Sometimes, in the zeal to describe or recommend a film, we reviewers go too far and tell more than we ought — this is a tricky line, indeed — and I remember a daft film where, since nothing made sense at all, I took matters into my own hands and started the review off by revealing the preposterous climax in the hope that readers could perhaps watch the film with the end in mind and, as I explain here, find their own puzzle-solving entertainment.

The fact is that spoilers happen and that we’ve all been guilty — to varying degree — of spilling what we shouldn’t. Or, at the very least, what we ought to be more careful with.

Our behavorial approach to spoilers is outdated. It’s convenient to endorse a caveat emptor method — Let The One Who Watches Later Beware — to say it’s your fault you didn’t watch the baskeball game live and now you’ve exiled yourself to a day without newspapers and sports channels with your fingers crossed, but the fact is that in these over-communicated times, the Sensory Deprivator 5000 just doesn’t cut it anymore.

It’s time we started being more considerate.

Exactly one week ago, on the Game Of Thrones season finale, shocking things happened and people died. That could well be a summary for every episode of the show based on George RR Martin’s sprawling fantasy series where leading characters routinely get poleaxed, but this time — more than any other television event I remember — the Internet went freakin’ nuts. This whole week, there have been spoilers everywhere. Twitter, Facebook statuses, even bloody newspaper headlines, all going out of their way to give away huge revelations. Everyone appeared out out to punish the viewer who has a day-job and thus didn’t watch the episode at the crack of dawn Monday morning (the first telecast in India happens simultaneous with HBO in the US, at 6:30 AM our time) and all those who thought they could savour a finale on their own time.

No way. Current social networking behaviour seems to be “You didn’t watch it? Boo hoo, now let me rub these GIFs into your face.” But must we all be such Ramsay Boltons? Is that who we’ve become?

There is something deeply obnoxious about the need to crow about being the first person to have watched a show, seen a film, read a bestseller. We all have the Internet, we all watch stuff, and seeing it first does not equip us with any greater understanding; the head-start isn’t a real head-start. This, by itself, isn’t as problematic, despite the hollow bragging: the main issue lies with the sadistic way we flaunt our latest discoveries instead of letting people discover them on their own.

A television drama is not a sports broadcast and the plot of a movie isn’t a news story; there is just no need to fire up our keyboards to report on fiction as if it’s freshly emerging fact. 

There is a lot to be learnt from readers of George RR Martin’s novel, who experienced the death we are now gasping about in the books four years ago, and yet they have been considerate enough to not rain on our parade but instead let us stagger for ourselves, when our time came.

Do I want to write about the finale, throw in my theories, discuss it with my geekdom? Sure. But I need to write it somewhere two-clicks away where you can come choose to read me — after a clickbaity “You Won’t Believe Which Character Didn’t Really Die” headline, if need be — and I cannot, should not, must not thrust a spoiler in your face, without warning, like an unsolicited dick pic.

And yes, that dick pic — the worst kind of online trollery and harassment — is what I compare the thoughtless spoiler to. As a critic who has routinely been threatened and abused and harassed online for eleven years — before Facebook opened its doors and well before Twitter existed — I know what I’m talking about here. Blankly and ignorantly hurled abuse can hurt, can disconcert, can depress — but it can (and must) also be shrugged off. The worst thing about spoilers is that they come from within the little social substreams we’ve curated for ourselves, they come from ‘our people,’ and — really — do we want to believe that even the little corners of the Internet we make our own are just as obnoxious as say, the commentators on YouTube videos?

There are no rules about this sort of thing. I can file a complaint about a nameless troll harassing me on Twitter, but I can’t call the cops on a smartass making a weak pun about a character’s death and ruining the fact that I was saving up a half-dozen episodes to bingewatch over a weekend. It’s not a crime to give away a spoiler, but it is a rotten thing to do, and I feel we need to police ourselves. Let’s not just groan and move on to the next book or show, in the hopes that this time we’ll watch and read faster. We shouldn’t have to.

Why can’t we all realise that while we really want to discuss something really cool/shocking/unbelievable with someone, there are other people in the room? This is the Internet. There are always other people in the room. Share what you want to on a forum, behind spoiler-warnings, with those who choose to read it and react and have awesome conversations with you about it. Don’t screw up someone else’s day just because you can.

This, then, is a clarion call to start a culture of spoiler-shaming.

We can start by identifying the jerks who are flippantly giving things away, calling them out in public, telling them they’re being jerks — honestly, most of them (us) don’t even know. Often it’s just eagerness to share, to make a worthy GIF, to take our thoughts to the world, to be witty about something that matters to many of us.

But this is when the rest of us need to tap a person — or, indeed, a publication — on the shoulder, and tell them they need to take a post down or delete a tweet or change a headline. We need to inform them that they need to, at the very least, word their thoughts differently because it stings to have something you enjoy ruined for you, and social media does so en masse. A headline or a tweet or a status update should not, in a civil world, be allowed to contain a spoiler. It’s plain rude.

Therefore, I apologise for any such indiscretions on my part in the past, and promise to be far more careful in the future. Like I said, this sickening boorishness might not be intentional, but that is no reason to let it continue unchecked. The rulebook is in our hands, and I say we start by calling out the offenders — and letting them know how offensive they are.

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First published Rediff, June 22, 2015

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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, Cornelia 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

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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.

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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.

~

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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