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Review: Joss Whedon’s The Avengers: Age Of Ultron

“So if I lift it, I then rule Asgard?” Tony Stark doesn’t even take his jacket off the first time he tries to lift Thor’s hammer, a laughable attempt to prove — in Thor’s baritone — “worthy.” The party scene in all the trailers shows Earth’s Mightiest Heroes ™ throw down over drinks as they play the weirdest party game of all: Who Dare Be God. And while this is classic caped camaraderie, the superhero backslappery that shone through director Joss Whedon’s first awesome Avengers film, the true punch lies in Stark’s second line, delivered solemnly by Robert Downey Jr: “I will be re-instituting Prima Nocta.”

It’s a throwaway gag, like all of Stark’s quip-a-minute lines. He tries, fails, and the line is forgotten. But the very idea of Prima Nocta — a mythic medieval rule about a king or high nobleman having the rights to sleep with a newlywed bride before the groom does — almost defines Tony Stark’s hubris, his absolute sense of entitlement, his testosterone-y bravado, his intensely desperate need to be racing ahead of those around him, to do more, to see more, to control more. It is also, surprise surprise, the last allusion you’d expect in a kid-friendly Disney film featuring a bunch of good-natured superheroes — one of whom even tut-tuts at the others for swearing.

And that, ladies and gents, is classic Whedon, mixing up genre, style and appropriateness to concoct something so delicious it’ll leave you giddy.

avengers3The film opens with a gobsmacking action sequence, one showing us every Avenger in action at the same time — stitched digitally together into a single-shot that instantly justifies the 3D glasses — and it never lets up. Unlike the first film which only really kicks into gear after the Beatles get together and start jamming, this sequel is the Magical Mystery Tour where the gang go from smash to smash, from one beautifully choreographed and clever set-piece to another. The action is constant — but that doesn’t, at all, mean you’re in for two and a half hours of things going CLANG! No sir, this is rock and roll revelry.

Because this is Whedon we’re talking about. Because in the middle of this mad comicbook epic, Iron Man and Captain America have a stare-down that is straight out of a Spaghetti Western, complete with the background score playfully riffing on Ennio Morricone. Because in a nightmarish sequence, a young Black Widow learns ballet and a tyrannical Julie Delpy, of all people, takes her apart. Because we see Banksy-like Iron Man graffiti all over a country that resents the Stark weaponry that tore it to pieces. Because Thor still corners the brilliant women-of-science demographic. And because — perhaps above all else, if you think about it — because it’s clear Tony Stark is getting older and a lot of his lines are now slightly pathetic bits of that’s-what-Stark-said innuendo.

It doesn’t show, mostly. It doesn’t show because of Robert Downey Jr and his majestically timed dry delivery and his ever-arched eyebrows — you can hear them bend even when he isn’t on screen and a couple of syllables hit us from afar, over the colossal noise of cities falling to the ground — and the wonderfully infectious glee with which he plays Tony as if his last name were Snark. But Iron Man knows the good times can’t last, and that he’s falling behind. There’s even a tiny pang of resentment in his voice when he says Captain America is the boss, the team-leader. Maybe that’s what leads him — and fellow scientist Bruce Banner — to create something that could save the world from the aliens, something that could think better than humans can. But you know as well as I do, fellow moviegoer, that stories about artificial intelligence don’t end well.

Thanks to Whedon, this one doesn’t even begin well. Ultron, a sentient intelligence voiced with sinister coolth by James Spader, starts off attacking the Avengers and continues to wreak havoc throughout the film: to save humanity you must first destroy humanity, and all that jazz. The Avengers disagree and there lies our film, a stunningly paced rollercoaster ride with such constant crescendo-ing — guitar solo after guitar solo, those lovely action scenes are — that it flies by quicker than we expect. It almost feels short, this huge hulk of a film. One badass moment shows up to trump another, and another. And so it soars, occasionally held aloft even by characters who are, improbably enough, just a day old.

avengers2Chris Evans — following the excellent Winter Soldier — now wields the Captain America shield with impressive nobility; Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is underused but charming, mildly oafish but in the most awe-inspiring way; Jeremy Renner gets a lot to do as Hawkeye, from self-deprecatory monologues to pep speeches; new kids Elizabeth Olson as Scarlet Witch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver are fun enough despite shaky Soviet-type accents, fittingly thunderstruck by the way the Avengers roll; and, finally, we have the film’s best performers, Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson, kicking ass in style, sure, but crucially making their characters work wonderfully together, two terrific actors playing off each other and even turning cliches — like an inappropriately timed bit of affection — into fantastic moments.

And, as in the first Avengers film, this movie lies in those moments. I won’t give much away for there is lots to discover here, big dramatic revelations as well as small nuggets to keep both casual viewers and hardcore fans very happy indeed, but there is one specific bit of casting I feel the need to single out here and applaud: for a certain portion of the film the Avengers spend time with a pregnant woman, and Whedon — oh TV-faithful Firefly-maker Whedon — casts the lovely Linda Cardellini in this role, in the goofiest of nods: who better to be surrounded by all these freaks and geeks?

Is this Avengers sequel, you and I both wonder, better than the first film? It might be and it might not. I like it more, but it doesn’t seem as universally inclusive as the first film miraculously was, but, hey, that doesn’t matter — neither of them is the the best Marvel film anymore. The goalposts have moved in the last three years, and the spaced-out weirdness of Guardians Of The Galaxy and the old-school political intrigue of Captain America: Winter Soldier — not to mention the grown-up grit of the Daredevil TV series — are where the bar now lies. The Avengers may not still be the best, but they are what let Marvel create the best and most ambitious comic movies. Just like Stan “The Man” Lee didn’t create everything amazing at the House Of Ideas, Whedon isn’t spearheading all that is special at the House of Mouse. But it is the house Joss “The Boss” Whedon built.

I called that first Avengers hit a hero-sandwich, and this is certainly dessert. I, for one, still haven’t been able to wipe the pixie-dusted grin off my face. It does what the best summer blockbusters do, the larger-than-life megamovies that drop our jaws in theatres: it indulges our fantasies and makes kids out of us again, kids who want to play with our toys and who have fun watching the director play with his. (If in doubt, just leave a giant hammer outside the theatre exit and see who doesn’t try to pull at it.)

The Avengers: Age Of Ultron may well be a mainstream milkshake of a film, but it is one of those madly indulgent shakes — featuring Snickers bars and dark chocolate sauce and gourmet coffee and spiked with a few swallows of something decidedly adult. Something that’ll keep you giggling and energised and awake far longer than it should.

As Tony Stark would say about thousand-year-old whiskeys, drink up.

Rating: 4 stars

~

First published Rediff, April 23, 2015

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A toast to Terry Pratchett, who christened me a dragon

tp2

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

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

What he has left us with, however, is dizzyingly special: a whole new world, one that makes ours infinitely better.
~

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

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

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

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

Magic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

See? Magic.

~

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: 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

~

First published Rediff, January 30, 2015

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Review: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 5 stars

~

First published Rediff, November 14, 2014

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Review: Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider

Something is rotten in the state two countries call their own.

Not that we’ve really let that show on screen. Hindi cinema hasn’t looked into Kashmir, preferring to gaze at it instead. Haider changes all that, with filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj probing into the valley nimbly and incisively — we may, at this point, picture the director as a particularly poetic insurgent, wearing Shakespeare for a cloak.

This is not a simple adaptation, this takes not a simplistic stance; Haider is a remarkable achievement and one of the most powerful political films we’ve ever made, a bonafide masterpiece that throbs with intensity and purpose. It is a staggeringly clever take on Hamlet, one whose departures from the Bard’s original are as thrilling as its closely-hewn loyalty. The film is set in 1995, with Kashmir in the murkiest of limbos, at a time when it’s anybody’s guess whether any man wearing a long, all-shrouding phiran is hiding either a pot of hot coals or a hand-grenade. Haider — in case you haven’t guessed — is the kind of film that carries both.

haider1The Hamlet here is Haider, a poetry student returning to Kashmir, summoned by the destruction of the family house and the disappearance of his father. He finds his ‘half-widowed’ mother, Ghazala, laughing dazzlingly by the sunlight and his uncle, Khurram, dancing. He is disgusted, depressed, and desperate for an answer, for a way forward. And, on one not-so farfetched afternoon given the state he’s in, a mysterious man appears to replace his loathing with fury — to arm a clueless, restless young man with murderous intent. The allegories are elegantly drawn and exquisitely sharp, like bejewelled daggers. The film is written by Bhardwaj and acclaimed journalist (and former Rediff writer) Basharrat Peer, and it is bold for many reasons.

The two stunning Shakespeare adaptations Bhardwaj made before this stayed close to the structure of the originals: Maqbool whimsically played fast-and-loose with characterisations but managed to wrap a crime-boss film neatly around the Scottish play; Omkara stayed so ingenuously loyal to Othello that it even translated lines of dialogue and had pacing similar to the play, but left out the monologues. Haider, while leaving in the crucial monologues, makes audacious changes to the film — for example, the play’s plot only kicks in when the ghost (or the man with the ghost IDs, more accurately) appears, around the midway mark — and several key moments deviate dramatically from the original. These are not subtle changes but these shifts are what make Haider a truly ambitious film. It bludgeons away from the original because, just like the world it is set in, harsh changes are called for. A young man finds himself fatherless — de-fathered by the machinery of the state, in fact — and tormented by local demons, terrorists and politicians. In Kashmir, this saga of disappearance and drama, of uncertainty and unrest, cannot be the tale of one prince or one exalted family; in Kashmir, where mothers know the name ‘Kalashnikov’ all too well, there are too many Hamlets.

haider2The detailing is a marvel. Characters speak with, as Robert Plant would say “tongues of lilting grace,” in that delightful, characteristically Kashmiri way of hardboiled consonants and fluid vowels. A doctor’s coat is chequered, just like the local phirans and jackets, chairs and beds are ornately whittled into works of art we can sit on, and the bedsheets are beautiful, chain-stitched wonders. The authenticity is constant, and cinematographer Pankaj Kumar captures detail without lingering gratuitously on it, preferring instead to shoot from the characters’ un-touristy eyes or — better still — to eavesdrop close to them, hovering too-close with brilliant, hand-held unpredictability. We see the distractingly attractive world around them, sure, but the narrative stays grim and, thus hand-in-hand, Kumar’s composition centres on things so close you can touch — the smoke rising from a cup of kahwa in the cold, an accusingly large dot of mehndi on the back of a hand, letters handed out by the postman in plastic packets as if he were delivering cold cuts. This is a film you could watch with the sound muted.

But you shouldn’t. Oh no. The music is gorgeous, underscoring the narrative perfectly. (The gravedigger song is my favourite.) Yet while we’re used to Bhardwaj the director making way for Bhardwaj the composer (and, when we’re luckiest, Bhardwaj the singer), the Haider soundtrack knows its place and is allowed no room to showboat. The grim narrative carries strong political heft, and so assured is Bhardwaj of what he’s saying and the way it needs to be said that he doesn’t seem to feel the temptation to sugarcoat, to entertain with either song or wink. The film stays intense throughout, almost breathlessly so. Like a chokehold from someone you love.

The performances are uniformly stunning. Shahid Kapoor, dealing with one of Shakespeare’s most challenging heroes, does so with impressive sincerity. He manages the many shifts of mood skilfully but always appears like an actor performing a role gamely instead of an actor who has become the character: he’s very good, just not as unaffected as the actors around him. An actor called Narendra Jha who plays a doctor is an absolute find, Lalit Parimoo is excellent, Shraddha Kapoor is very believable in the Ophelia part, two Salman Khan fans (Sumit Kaul and Rajat Bhagat) are a lot of fun, and it’s good to see Kulbhushan Kharbanda get well-forged lines of dialogue.

haider3At the heart of the film stands Tabu. Her Ghazala is a heartbreaking character, all passion and preening and perpetually inappropriate relationships. She looks luminous the first time we see her, but the great actress can amazingly adjust that candle-wick lighting up her face, so not just does she shine and simmer, but she can flicker. The way she looks into the mirror while her son kisses her… It’s haunting. Old Bhardwaj alumnus and former Macbeth Irrfan Khan, meanwhile, is striking in a very clever role that both shows off his screen-presence and kicks the film into a different gear.

The best performance comes from Kay Kay Menon in the Claudius role. His Khurram is a slimeball aching to be accepted as a success, an unctuous man and yet one who likes to strut, who likes to revel in his victories — but who, at the singular point of triumph — can only find a fellow conspirator to embrace. This is a traditionally meaty part, immortalised by Derek Jacobi in the 1996 Hamlet, but Kay Kay gives the character his own terrific edge, twitchy and tentative and surprisingly warm.

One particularly unforgettable moment in the film features Peer himself in a cameo as a man afraid to cross the threshold into his own house. That particular scene, and its subsequent, immediate resolution, comes from a short-story by Kashmiri writer Akhtar Mohiuddin. It is a great story of such frightening clarity that most filmmakers would have milked it into a longer scene, if not a short-film. Bhardwaj, now more than ever, seems assured of the power of his content, and knows when to pull his punches and doesn’t fall for obvious temptations. The result is a knockout, a film that makes you smell corpses, that makes you shudder with melancholia, and a film that points accusing fingers. A film that doesn’t flinch.

Is Haider Vishal Bhardwaj’s best film? That is the question. (The answer, naturally, lies behind the fact that we can even ask.)

Rating: 5 stars

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First published Rediff, October 1, 2014

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Hrishikesh Mukherjee: Art For Heart’s Sake

Sunday morning, I changed the caller tune on my phone. Moved from an English oldie to Har seedhe raste ki ek, the fabulous title song from Golmaal. About eight hours later, a colleague messaged me the news, minutes before it took over the television channels. A lump hit my throat and I instantly flashbacked to last year, when I had called up Hrishida.

chupkechupke1Working on a feature on India’s best films, I couldn’t look past Hrishikesh Mukherjee, the name tempting me from the film directory. Could I get an opinion from the man who made Anand? I called, and he picked up, huskily assuring me that it was he. I stammered out a nervous introduction and, making sure not to cut me off mid-sentence, the filmmaker finally stopped me. “I cannot help you, I’m sorry,” he wheezed into the phone. “I am very ill.” I hastily muttered an apologetic, awkward goodbye as the line went dead.

I was shattered and, I soon realised, heartbroken. Yes, filmmakers get old and their films live on. Yes, life goes on. But that this would happen to Hrishikesh Mukherjee somehow just hit harder. I felt helpless and greatly dismayed, and was resultantly puzzled. Not just had I never met the man, I also hadn’t ever really read up or researched his background and technique. Yet, I felt inexplicably attached to him. All I had done, of course, was fall in love with the films he made. And that’s all it takes.

There are filmmakers with a great cinematographic eye, those with powerful use of light and shadow, those who throw their actors over the edge to achieve mammoth performances and those who overwhelm you with sound and fury. In terms of emotion, Hindi cinema is packed with directors conversant with maudlin melancholy and rolling-in-the-aisles humour.

Mukherjee’s cinema stands beyond directorial technique, or mere storytelling. His are films with depth and one-liners, films with pathos and slapstick, films with farce and grand tragedy – above all, however, they are films bred in familiarity. Absolute familiarity. Wonderfully etched characters are drawn with such tender nuance that not only do we relate to them, they echo people plucked uncannily from our lives. From jobhunters in short kurtas to lanky alcoholics with telescopes, Hrishida‘s folk have been disarmingly real, even despite great caricature. You can’t help loving them.

And it was not as if he drew his actors from the haughty sidelights of parallel cinema. These were superstars, not art-house critical favourites looking scornfully at the mainstream. He gave Amitabh Bachchan visibility in Anand, and subsequently balanced out his angry-young-man credentials with roles of acting significance. In 1973, Hrishida‘s Abhimaan rose alongside Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer; 1975 was the mammoth year of Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay and Yash Chopra’s Deewar, but Hrishida did his luminous bit with Mili and Chupke Chupke. His films might not have been Amitabh’s blockbusters, but they do give us the megastar’s most substantial performances.

The stories are literature by themselves. From immense marital discord to the inevitability of death, from delicate Wodehousean farce to war of the classes, he tackled it all but laced his movies magically with an earnest realism that touched us to the core. Special cinema of course, but crucially special sans fanfare. A Hrishikesh Mukherjee film didn’t come with any massive pretentions of grandeur, any conceit of inaccessibility. This was dal-bhaat filmmaking, supremely fresh everyday slices of life, served up unfailingly warm and tender. The films he made discriminated not between frontbenchers and critics, cineastes and collegekids, critics and our mothers.

golmaal1And how they endure. From Rajesh Khanna’s babumoshaai to Utpal Dutt’s eeesh, not to mention lyrical dialogues impossible to forget, the words penetrated the nation’s collective lexicon. Even today, cable operators are well aware that their best chance of getting people to watch a poor-quality channel on a Saturday afternoon is to show one of Hrishida‘s Amol Palekar comedies. And the dramas are infinitely compelling, peopled by characters he turned into our extended family. The stories are ever poignant and never overdone, and we’re repeatedly forced back into choking back a sob. Or stifling louder-than-acceptable guffaws with our hands. The magic lies, of course, in the fact that we are often torn by both emotions simultaneously.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee was truly the heart of Hindi cinema. His films have transcended libraries and genre, and simply become a part of who we are. I grew a moustache recently and, despite the Mangal Pandey jibes, my predominant encouragement is drawn from Utpal Dutt’s inimitable Golmaal lines on the importance of a man’s mouch. I am not a man for funerals, but there are some cases where one just has to pay last respects.

The caller tune on my phone, needless to say, now stays, a tribute to the great humanist filmmaker. It is the kind of song that inevitably makes you break into a grin, but like Hrishida‘s cinema, the lump in the throat stays alongside the smile.

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First published Rediff August 30, 2006, after HrishiDa’s passing. Here is the piece from his funeral.

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