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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

~

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.

~

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

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Review: Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey

kaminey3

Once in a particularly blue moon, comes a film that makes you wolf-whistle. One that then ties you to the edge of your seat, forcibly pins you there and pounces on you, eventually leaving you sitting in the dark, drained and grinning and more satisfied than a film has any business leaving you. This, ladies and gentlemen, is that kind of ride.

And way more.

Vishal Bhardwaj reinvents the filmi rollercoaster with feverish glee as he takes a wonderfully twisty plot and paces it flawlessly around a bunch of madcap, irresistible characters. It takes nearly twenty minutes to get used to things, the characters, the words they speak, they way they speak them, and the tone of the film — heck, to get used to this film’s world. Then on, the film just freakin’ flies.

Yet before getting into the breakneck chaos, it is this unapologetic figure-it-out stance that we must initially applaud. Too often are our caper films and thrillers compromised by oversimplification and spoonfeeding, by filmmakers believing audiences need things spelt out and giving them bite-sized flashbacks to easily digest each twist. No more, says Bhardwaj, throwing us a delicious jigsaw and letting things fall into place in their own sweet time. The result is startlingly clever, an innovative film with genuine surprises. Kaminey is the kind of film whose success we ought all pray for, because it’ll prove smart cinema works.

kaminey1So delicious is the movie’s gradual unravelling that I refuse outright to let you in on the plot itself — an enthralling tale of drugs, deceit, dingbats and dead-ringers — because you need to discover this on your own. Go in as fresh as you can, you deserve to taste this one by yourself. Letting on what actually happens would make me one of the film’s titular knaves.

Suffice it to say that Tassaduq Hussain, who also shot Vishal’s brilliant Omkara, does it more than adequate visual justice, and the largely-handheld film emerges very stylistic indeed. It’s fast, funny and constantly rollicking, and the characters are spectacularly entertaining.

As is the cast. Shahid Kapoor plays Guddu the stutterer and Charlie with a lisp, saying f for every s, and does strongly enough to credibly seem like two different people; Priyanka Chopra’s delightfully high-strung Sweety pulls off hysterical Marathi with impressive fluency. Yet it is the ensemble of fantastic oddballs who truly make this film special: from Amole Gupte’s demented Santa Claus routine as Maharashtra-lovin’ gangster Bhope Bhau to Chandan Roy Sanyal’s lethally capricious coke-lover Mikhail, from Shiv Subrahmanyam’s helpless corrupt cop Lobo to Tenzing Nima’s ludicrously likable drug-smuggler Tashi — the film is full to the brim with splendidly unfamiliar faces, each of whom deserve a hand, not just the ones singled out here.

And Vishal generously gives each character their time in the spotlight. Guddu heartwrenchingly recounts his middle-school love, while Sweety captures beer-driven arousal with charming realism. Bhope bribes a big-eared nephew with chocolate, while Lobo coaxes the stutterer to give a police statement through song. The Bengali gangsters shoot bullets near each other for laughs, while the Marathi ones are transfixed by Guddu-Sweety screensavers on a laptop. Charlie unwraps a cellphone from plastic as he tries to placate gangsters, while — in an extraordinary moment — Mikhail sets the screen ablaze as he staggers in on the same gangsters, high on coke and unpredictable as a broken roulette wheel. There’s so much to marvel at in these characters that it isn’t funny. Oh wait, it is. Very.

What raises this rambunctious gangster movie head and shoulders above its genre is the writing. The wordplay is constant, subtle and absolutely exquisite — a tough ask when one hero trips over words and the other narrates — yes, narrates — with a lisp. And there’s a witty duality running through the film’s twin tales: a character barks into a phone, and this sound echoes later when someone pleads in front of Bhope, daring not to take his name but just calling him repeatedly big brother, “bhau-bhau”; Mikhail introduces himself to Bhope by calling himself Tope Bhau, and nearing the climax Bhope is told by another that they have ‘topein‘ (cannons) too; when Mikhail wins a race, arriving just in time, he breaks into the Spiderman theme — and Charlie responds with Fpiderman-Fpiderman. When a character wants to steal a king’s ransom in drugs to help a pregnant woman, another snarls back: ‘Toh kya meri coke ujaadega?’ Ha. It’s nuanced, lovely writing, the sort we never get to see in films nowadays.

Bhardwaj has never been secretive about his Quentin Tarantino adoration, referencing the director memorably in Blue Umbrella, and doing it here again with high heels and an injection. While Tarantino exclusively uses music he already loves because he doesn’t trust anyone to create anything as good, Bhardwaj has always done it all himself, writing, directing and composing — not to mention singing, and its worth noting the slight s/f lisp he gives the film’s magnificent title track when it plays on screen. Yet here he takes a leaf from QT’s book and brings back the saucy RD Burman track ‘Duniya mein logon ko‘ (from 1972’s Apna Desh) and makes it his own, giving it sassy new context out of its dated backdrop — no more Rajesh Khanna in a red suit, this song is now all Shahid.

kaminey2So the film leaps through implied ultraviolence and dark humour and you hold on, exhilarated — just as you have through, say, Guy Ritchie’s Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels. And while that itself would be no mean feat, Bhardwaj ups the ante with an audacious climax, suddenly bringing emotions right to the fore.

And while films of this ilk are full of disposable-bodies and corpses-in-waiting, one discovers that Vishal has — sneakily, stealthily, surreptitiously — kept the sentiments so darned real that by the time the climax rolls around, you do actually give a damn about these characters.

Wow. Now if that isn’t kameenapan, I don’t know what is. Awefome.

Rating: 4.5 stars

~

First published Rediff, August 12, 2009

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Review: Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

gbh1Pastry is a beautiful thing. Layers of differing consistency, perfectly harnessed flavours inventively brought together to complement each other as well as to throw up the odd surprise, covered with icing and embellishment to make for a seductively attractive treat, one that beckons those within range — and tempts those watching from afar. Nobody does cinematic confectionary quite as painstakingly as the delightful Wes Anderson, a director who unabashedly tosses aside realism in favour of dreamy impressionism. Everything is lovely; everything is in its place; things, and, indeed, people, move with the precision of choreographed puppets… It is all mesmerising, a dollhouse world with oh so much to make jaws drop.

And it is within this immaculate world that Anderson throws in broken marionettes, exquisite but deeply flawed characters, their lives stretched to tether-defying limits by discord or adventure. Each is fascinating but faulty, as if their clockwork is — ever so slightly — off-kilter. Around these creatures of whimsy and the stunning, often-insular worlds they inhabit, there is much genuine magic, taking place so naturally and ineffably that even talking about it feels like precariously grazing a bubble with a tentative fingertip. It is genius, and, in his latest film, Wes Anderson uses his considerable imagination to brighten up what may well have been a dirge.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, despite its pink-as-icing facade and pop-up book visual style, is a romanticisation of the saddest of times, of a fictionalised Europe before the Nazi invasion, of a world that was never as ideal as in Wes’ vintage-Hollywood loving imagination. It is a carving-up of nostalgia, a satirical embellishment, an evoking of pure wistfulness — a spoonful of (castor) sugar to make the medicine go down.

Anderson explored this craving for what-ought-have-been instead of what-does marvellously in his last outing, Moonrise Kingdom, but this time his story — a story within a story within a story within a story — is nestled between many layers of memory, with perhaps each narrator reflexingly throwing in what they yearned for instead of what merely/banally/really was.

gbh2In the present day, a girl visits a writer’s grave and read’s his book; in 1985, the writer gives an interview about The Grand Budapest Hotel; in 1968, the writer visits the then-decaying hotel and runs into the hotel’s owner, Zero Moustafa, who tells him how he came to own the empty, fading establishment; and in 1932, young Zero walks around gobsmacked by the glory of the hotel even as his mentor, Gustave H, throws him into a swirl of adventure. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman shoots in striking 35mm, and brilliantly endows each narrative timeframe with a different aspect ratio, looking at it through different pairs of eyes, masterfully using the intensely squared 1.33:1 format for the longest sequence, the 1930s, giving it a now-uncommon vitality akin to that of classic comic panels.

In fact — with a plot involving death and secret wills and evil heirs and purloined paintings — it smells distinctly of Hergé. Yet, through the unique blocks of eye-tickling colour and Wes’ singular vision, the Tintinny fragrance is mostly overshadowed, and the new scent is more like that bottled up and dabbed on by the inimitable Gustave H: It is called L’Air D’Panache. And panache fuels this film more than anything.

“The plot thickens, as they say,” mutters Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes in a performance so exuberant and articulate it may well be his best. This he mutters while breaking out of jail, but despite the urgency of the situation — like the film and Wes himself — he immediately and helplessly digresses, wondering about the turn of phrase. “Why, by the way? Is it a soup metaphor?” Fiennes’ Gustave is a charismatic tornado, a concierge so wonderfully equipped to every situation that the almighty Jeeves might have felt threatened, offering his guests every assistance including — for the rich and blonde — more than he absolutely should. Let’s just call it a too-thorough turndown service. Ahem.

gbh3Fiennes is spectacular, but the entire ensemble has a freakishly fun time. And what actors! A withered Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum as an elaborately-whiskered attorney, Willem Dafoe as a menacing enforcer, Adrien Brody as a black-clad scoundrel, Edward Norton as a ZZ officer (this film’s equivalent of an SS officer), Saoirse Ronan as the “always and exceedingly lovely” girl who works in the bakery, F Murray Abraham as the dignified old Zero, and Tony Revolori — a bright and gifted youngster, his eyes widened by naivete and impossible devotion — as young Zero, the film’s hero. And the only actor we don’t already know and love. There is also, in one standout scene featuring concierges across the Continent, a slew of Anderson regulars making fleeting but flawless cameos, even as round irises frame them further inside the tight 30’s square.

So it is an adventure, surely, a gloriosky tale of wonder, but it is also a tale we are told long after it ceases to matter, after the dreamscape has been stomped on with hobnailed boots and after Alexander Desplat’s enchanting, rainbow-coloured background score — as much of a leading man as Fiennes, truly — has faded away into bleak blizzard sounds. Everything is over, then, and yet we’re left enchanted, soothed, nearly hypnotised by the candied loveliness washing over us. Wes rarely sermonises, but what he gifts us with The Grand Budapest Hotel is quite the balm: it is a realisation that if we close our eyes (or, indeed, open them wider), history is just as we choose to remember it. And nobody makes denial look this fabulous.

 

Rating: Five stars

~

First published Rediff, July 25, 2014

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20 reasons Pulp Fiction is better than your favourite film

On 23 May 1994, a film called Pulp Fiction won the Palme D’or at the Cannes film festival. Twenty years on, Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece is hailed as an absolute classic, and is arguably the single most influential film made in the last fifty years. It defied screenwriting rules, courses with wit and originality and is the very opposite of square, daddy-o.

To commemorate twenty years of worship, here are twenty things about Pulp Fiction that make it better than your favourite film, no matter what it may be. The Godfather didn’t have a katana; 400 Blows didn’t discuss a Royale With Cheese; Breathless didn’t have Mrs Mia Wallace; Vertigo didn’t have The Wolf; and Casablanca is sorely lacking in shots of adrenaline.

In appropriately non-chronological order, then, here goes:

1. The scripture-quoting

Preachers do it, bad guys do it, zealots do it, teachers do it, even educated fleas do it — But nobody ever quoth The Bible like Jules Winnfield. Played by Samuel L Jackson, Winnfield chews the angry words with great deliberation before spitting them out with, as he says, furious anger. So memorably impassioned is Jackson’s Biblical spiel that his misquoted version of Ezekiel 25:17 has become bigger than the real thing.

2. The five-dollar milkshake

Five dollars was a lot to pay for a milkshake back in 1994, something even a well-tailored hitman like Vincent Vega (John Travolta) understood  while entertaining his boss’ wife, Mrs Mia Wallace, at her favourite 50s-themed restaurant, Jack Rabbit Slims. Vega acknowledges the milkshake is pretty good “though I don’t know if its worth five dollars” but when we see Mia, played by Uma Thurman, sip it while looking over at Vincent, we realise Tarantino could have chosen no better beverage to underscore comfortable silences.

3. The Wolf

Like a criminal concierge, The Wolf comes in and takes care of the situation, whatever (and however bloody) the situation may be. He’s in charge, curtand always fast because time, for him, is the most vital factor. Played by Harvey Keitel, he’s an invaluable character with one of the sharpest lines in all of Pulp: “Just because you are a character doesn’t mean that you have character.”

4. Personality

The two enforcers are at a diner. Vincent offers Jules some bacon. Jules passes on it, saying he doesn’t dig swine, because pigs are filthy animals. Vincent (justifiably) argues in favour of the merits of bacon and pork chops, but Jules isn’t dissuaded.

Jules: Pigs sleep and root in shit. That’s a filthy animal. I ain’t eat nothin’ that ain’t got sense enough to disregard its own feces.

Vincent: How about a dog? Dog eats its own feces.

Jules: I don’t eat dog either.

Vincent: Yeah, but do you consider a dog to be a filthy animal?

Jules: I wouldn’t go so far as to call a dog filthy, but they’re definitely dirty. But… a dog’s got personality. Personality goes a long way.

5. Misirlou

Pulp Fiction kicks off with an innocuous conversation that suddenly but assuredly leads to a hold-up. Just when the victims are screamed at, Tarantino cuts to his opening credits, kicking off an inspired musical choice, Dick Dale’s rendition of Misirlou, the ferevishly-plucked surf rock guitar-track setting the stage for the riot of colour and character and carnage Quentin would lay upon us. It was a choice of music so iconic that it resurrected Dale’s career, introducing the veteran to a new, hungrily appreciative audience.

6. The gold watch

Many a film involves a protagonist’s quest for a family heirloom, but things are wholly different with Butch Coolidge’s gold watch, passed on through the men in the family ever since World War I. The line from Coolidge man to Coolidge man is mostly unbroken save for the time Captain Koons, a friend of Butch’s father, stashed the watch up his rectum while the two were prisoners of war. The one and only Christopher Walken plays Koons and delivers the monologue so expertly that — for all its scatological hilarity — it remains touching.

7. The adrenaline

Mrs Mia Wallace, the white-shirted fox eager to powder her nose, mistakes a baggie of heroin she finds in Vincent Vega’s pocket for poorly ground cocaine and gives it a quick snort. Soon, she’s convulsing and Vega’s panicking. He takes her to his dealer, Lance, who — frightened and clueless — reads from a little medical book, following which, in a harrowing (and perfectly shot) moment, Vince and Lance stab her in the chest with an adrenaline shot — a scene filmed in reverse so as not to break Uma Thurman’s breastplate — and she sits up.

8. The Urge Overkill

As audiences, however, the very act of meeting Mrs Mia Wallace might be the most thrilling of all, thanks to the way the foot-fetishising filmmaker shoots her in pieces — back of head, feet, tiptoeing feet, waltzing feet — after her slender hand hits play on a hi-fi and Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” comes through the speakers, ours and hers. Except it’s not Diamond’s version but a cover by Urge Overkill, a cover that arguably betters the original.

9. Gourmet coffee and corpses

Our two favourite hitmen are being hosted by the director himself playing Jules’s buddy, Jimmie, who is giving them some gourmet coffee while they figure out what to do with a corpse in a car they’ve driven to Jimmie’s place. Quentin, ever-comfortable mouthing angry profanity, is at his best, furious at the men for bringing a dead man to his house — largely because he needs it up and cleaned before his wife, a nurse called Bonnie, comes back home.

10. The twist and the trophy

On his date with Mrs Mia Wallace, Vincent isn’t keen to dance. As he’d told Jules earlier, he planned to “sit across from her, chew my mouth with my mouth closed, laugh at her f***ing jokes, and that’s it.” Except the boss’s wife isn’t used to hearing a no, and thus do Uma Thurman and John Travolta memorably burn up the dance-floor. And memorable as their twisting to Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell is, it’s not enough to win “the world famous Jack Rabbit Slims Twist Contest,” so while we see them giggling and running into the house, trophy in hand, it’s actually a trophy they’ve stolen from the place — as the radio informs us.

11. Mongoloid

Played by Bruce Willis, Butch Coolidge is a fading boxer who — after having taken money from mob boss Marsellus Wallace to throw a fight — accidentally kills his opponent in the ring. He comes home, shaken, to his lovely girlfriend Fabienne, played by Maria de Medeiros. Their pillow-talk is wonderfully disjointed, during which she says she’d love to have a pot-belly and he casually calls her mongoloid, then compensating by calling her a beautiful tulip. “Ah, I like that,” says Fabienne softly. “I like tulip. Tulip is much better than mongoloid.”

12. Marvin

In the funniest — and most horrifying — scene of the film, Jules and Vincent are driving along with a hostage, a young boy called Marvin, in the back seat. Vincent’s waving his gun around as he talks, and very suddenly his gun goes off and Marvin’s head splatters all over the car. It’s the most bizarre of accidents, one that leads to a side-splitting conversation between the hitmen arguing about the mess. It’s a singularly disturbing scene, one where Tarantino shows us a truly gruesome moment but masterfully makes sure we laugh instead of care. Scarily good manipulation, that.

13. Pumpkin and Honey Bunny

Sitting in the same diner Pulp Fiction starts and ends with, “Pumpkin” (Tim Roth) and “Honey Bunny” (Amanda Plummer) are a couple conversing casually about how liquor stores shouldn’t be robbed anymore. They’re weaselly, fascinating from the minute we first see them, and more than a bit stupid — Pumpkin even calls the waitress “Garçon,” meaning boy in French. And boy, do they pick the wrong day for a robbery.

14. Amsterdam

Vincent has just gotten back from Amsterdam, a country of hash-bars and legal marijuana, and Jules is utterly fascinated by this odd legality and by Europe as a whole — especially when he hears about being served beer in a McDonalds, a quarter-pounder with cheese called a “royale with cheese” in France, and the fact that in Holland they drown french fries in mayonnaise instead of ketchup.

15. “Ketchup.”

Ketchup, in turn, happens to be the one-word punchline for the kindergarden-sized joke Mrs Mia Wallace tells Vincent Vega at the end of their eventful night together. It’s a joke from a failed TV pilot she acted in called Fox Force Five. She’s embarrassed to tell it, and they both know it isn’t funny, but in the telling — and coming right after her almost having died — it is a remarkably tender moment, almost achingly romantic.

16. The foot-massage debate.

Just how inappropriate is it to give your boss’s wife a foot massage? A conversation as long and intricate as the unbroken tracking shot following the two men having it, this is a Pulp Fiction centrepiece. Jules and Vincent, on their way to a potentially lethal shootout, discuss the magnitude of the sin, disproportionately violent reactions, technique, foot-massage mastery, until — finally — Vincent says he’s getting tired and could use a massage himself, much to Jules’ ire.

17. The katana

Chased by Marsellus Wallace, Butch lands in a pawnshop where the owner and his friend — a chopper-motorcycle owner named Zed — capture them at gunpoint and decide to make their own, well, entertainment in the basement. A leather-covered ‘gimp’ is released, and Marsellus (played by Ving Rhames) is debased and sodomised. Butch, having freed himself by knocking out the gimp, goes up to the shop and — weighing the considerable options available — picks out a big katana to go save Wallace.

18. The Big Kahuna Burger

All that talk about quarter-pounders is clearly weighing on Jules’ mind when he walks into a room and towers over three young boys, one of whom is eating a burger. It’s from a new Hawaiian burger joint Jules hasn’t tried yet, and — gun in intimidating hand — he asks the “kid,” Brett, if he can try his burger. Jules thoroughly endorses this Big Kahuna burger, lamenting his girlfriend’s vegetarianism — “which pretty much makes me a vegetarian” — with his every casual word scarier and scarier, especially the noisy slurp as he tries Brett’s Sprite, while Samuel L Jackson builds to an unpredictable, brutal crescendo.

19. The briefcase

What is in Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase, the case Jules and Vincent went to pick up from Brett? The case that made Vincent whistle, casting a glow on his face?  The combination is 666, the number of the beast. Add that to the fact that Marsellus has a band-aid at the back of his skull, leading many obsessive viewers to think Wallace’s soul is in the case. Tarantino’s answer was always that the case was a mere Macguffin, a box with an orange light-bulb in it during filming — but then he’s always been one for hidden meanings.

pulp-quote20. The definition.

The movie opens with a dictionary definition of the word Pulp, printed in white text on a black background, with Tarantino offering a self-referential hint of the events to follow.

~

First published Rediff, May 23, 2014

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My first review ever: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2

The thing about spiders is: We don’t like them. Either creepily hairy or disconcertingly spindly, they refuse us even the common decency of being stealthy, commonly wallowing in out discomfort as they slothfully crawl in and out of sight. Their web spinning abilities, while nothing short of awesomely miraculous, strike us, at best, as icky. A testament to their unpopularity can be seen even the popularist Disney universe — where unsavory creatures are given the chance to blossom into heroes, arachnids are singled out as mustachioed villains. The magnificent, unparalleled symmetry of the web is unfairly, undeniably, shadowed by the perception of the spider as icky.

Herein lies Peter Parker’s essential dilemma. Straddling dual lives, each of which is a full, hectic battle in itself: the conflicting, constant, workaday life of the average superhero; and the more demanding, exhausting life of a young student working to put himself through college while trying to deal with love. The latter is a life we’ve all been familiar with, and the former is essentially what we go through in terms of mental battles, nightmares and trauma poured into lycra and sporting ridiculous monikers. As he swings from the Empire State Building and scoops up almost-alight kiddies to safety, the public still isn’t sure whether to actually like him: he’s a spider, darn it.

spidey2Spiderman Two opens with possibly the most brilliant recap of events in recent popcorn history: Danni Elfman’s striking score, cobwebs set against blood red, framing stunning Alex Ross illustrations of events gone by in the first film. By the time the credits end, we are reacquainted with a story we have not forgotten, and thirsty to see more. And Sam Raimi delivers. From the first shot, the film lays on Peter’s life being an actual embodiment of Murphy’s Law: Everything that can go wrong does go wrong.

After a breathtaking opening with Spiderman flying across madly to deliver Pizza in time, swinging in surreal CGI arcs with fabulous élan, there is a shot of Peter Parker struggling to exit the broom closet — brooms falling sequentially like persistent dominoes as he merely, clutzily attempts to just push them together long enough to squeeze himself out of there. This shot, of a superhero fast enough to dodge bullets and fists with unreal panache, being just a geeky little nervous kid, is worthy of standing applause and sets the tone for the film. Despite genetically arachnid superpowers and a rocking costume, Spiderman is well and truly human.

Cinematically, this is truly a commendable effort. New York is highly stylized, very affectionately — a visual ode to a beautiful city, loyal enough to evoke memories of the great Allen himself. Often, celluloid hats are tipped to masters of cinema obviously inspirational to Raimi, an eclectic selection of influences from the aforementioned Woody (I swear I could see a couple of Manhattan-style framings in there) to Martin Scorsese (as Spidey swings over the Goodfellas boroughs). The screenplay, contributed to by novelist and comic-book lover Michael Chabon, with dialogues crafted superbly by the award-winning Alvin Sargent, is outstanding, and forms a terrific core for Raimi to work around, but that shouldn’t take anything at all away from the director — this is totally Sam’s film.

When Peter Parker manages to get to the theatre on time, despite all odds, he is foiled by a snooty usher, played to utter, frustrating perfection by Bruce Campbell, reprising his cameo status in the franchise [he played the cocky wrestling announcer in the first part, plucking ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ name out of thin air and throwing it around Pete’s neck] — a time when Raimi fans will nudge each other excitedly and yelp, ‘The Chin! The Chin!,’ referring to the nickname for the actor from the cult Evil Dead series. Sam Raimi, one of those Tarantinoesque movie geeks with a love for self-indulgent referencing, gives movie buffs enough to obsess about for months: a particularly obvious place to start would be to be the operating room scene with the dismembered arm and the chainsaw, a direct doff to Evil Dead II.

Tobey Maguire has done for superheroes what Tom Cruise did for fighter airplanes a couple of decades ago: given them life. A wonderfully talented young actor, Tobey breathes – awkwardness, humour, charisma – lovingly into Peter Parker, making him as real a protagonist as any. A couple of years ago, there were doubts as to whether his shoulders were strong enough to carry the Spiderman legacy — now he has made the role his own. There was injury-led speculation that he might not have done the sequel, but he did, and we are blessed. Kudos, Mr. Maguire, thanks for coming back.

The cast is deliciously accurate: JK Simmons brings J Jonah Jameson right out of the pages of the comic, and steals the show whenever he appears with consummate ease and great one-liners; the fantastic Alfred Molina makes a splendid Doc Ock, balancing unerringly the diverse requirements of focused professor, warm mentor, and mad scientist; James Franco, while not in a stellar role as Harry Osborne, does what is needed for his character to come away more positively this time around; and Rosemary Harris tackles the role of Aunt May so well that the only trite bits of speech in the script, destined to otherwise appear jaded, take on the mantle of sincerity, and she wields a feisty umbrella.

Spiderman Two is a really good movie. Not just a good superhero movie, for it is the best by far in the genre, but simply a wonderful bit of Hollywood summer cinema, a classically entertaining film setting Raimi on par with the Messiahs of Mainstream, Spielberg and Lucas — storytellers pouring forth action/emotion on the screen, using CGI demons as metaphor and giving us glorious moments of celluloid joy. The synthesis between the animated Spiderman and Tobey is indeed excellent, but the highlights are Doc Ock’s arms, which slither into a menacing life of their own.

Comic-book lovers will freak over this movie, for it is the parting of the red sea and the dawn of hope —  A delectable smorgasbord of references, allusions, and the finest written dialogue ever in the genre, hosting hundreds of tiny in-jokes fans will spend ages dissecting gleefully. But even for one who has never read a comic book, this is a truly enjoyable experience, a tremendous popcorn flick with heaps of humour, action, romance, SFX and eye-candy, and the one thing that sets a good film apart, leotards or not: a story that is really good. I simply feel sorry for those who do not like this film, for they have become too cynical to appreciate a story with heart.

There are parts in this film where Sam Raimi outdoes himself so completely we are awed into disbelief. There is a sublime, delightfully mature shot where Peter is offered romance, cloaked in chocolate cake and milk, and a moment where he almost says yes to the pretty, nervous landlord’s daughter, Ursula Ditkovich [a not-so subtle salute to Spidey co-creator Steve Ditko]. There is a touching, excellent montage where ‘Raindrops are falling on my head’ is re-contextualised with unbelievable panache, appropriately on the freshest-faced young talent since Butch Cassidy himself. There is more, but one could go on forever. Watch it.

But the true applause — one would say standing ovation but Mr. Raimi has ensured knees buckling — must be saved for the surprises. Weaned on massive hype, teasers, trailers, and reports of varying accuracy, I was confident this film had nothing that would shock me. I have never been so wrong, and fell conveniently for Raimi’s ingenious red herrings. After momentarily reeling with massive plot twist after other, I began to glimpse into the larger picture. Like the Wilde play Mary Jane acts in, The Importance Of Being Earnest, Raimi too is scripting a story in three acts — the groundbreaking revelations and the shattering veneer at the end of Act Two [while bringing up questions galore for Three], therefore, integral to the scheme of things. Can’t believe we have to wait three years.

spidey2bThe best part about having a director with a sense of humour is letting his audience get sucked into traps. During a fight between Spidey and Doc Ock, Aunt May is tossed up the side of a building, and she sticks her brolly out and hooks a ledge. This is such a painful cliché that we groan and are almost annoyed at how obvious this is, and just when we begin to get jaded with the predictability of the movie, Aunt May slips off.

And lands on a ledge, one foot below her, safe as ever. The umbrella tenterhook turns out to be suspense that never was, the theatre of the anticlimactic. Brilliant.

The build-up of the film, like the thundering claw-beats of Doctor Octopus, thuds into the heart harder and incessantly faster throughout the two hours. I have never been entirely supportive of Kirsten Dunst as Ms Watson, always advocating a vivacious, drop-dead gorgeous, Heather Graham-type instead, but she carries off her glorified damsel-in-distress role well in this film, and screams magnificently, justifying Raimi’s love for her. And, when at the end of the movie, she says the words — and these are words my Spidey-worshipping heart is mouthing incredulously, lines before she actually says them — “Go get ‘em, Tiger!”, my brain has an orgasm, the theatre explodes with ecstasy, and Spiderman Two climaxes into greatness.

~

 

First published Rediff, July 27, 2004

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Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Marvel Comics is known as The House Of Ideas. Many a memorable character lives at Marvel, and scores of writers and artists — of unquestioned eagerness but varying degrees of talent — are given cracks at bat with the company’s caped mascots, taking their stories further and carving new thrills while not ruffling the status quo too much. Naturally, this results in a wonderful unpredictability, with sub-par superheroes often lucking out and finding truly ingenious writers, and massively iconic heroes skulking around in poorly written and drawn panels. (For example, while there isn’t a single solid current comic featuring fan-favourite Wolverine, the adventures of the least interesting Avenger Hawkeye are top drawer right now.)

asm2And thus, for over 50 years of issues, we true Spider-Man believers have ridden the roulette wheel, knowing that for every fine writer and great story arc we’re also going to get some hacks who throw up clones and Faustian deals and the occasional illegitimate lovechild. We’re used to it, and like Peter Parker, that greatest of comic-book heroes, we take the rough with the smooth. And right this minute, while the Spidey comics are enjoying a significantly smashing streak, it is clear the Spider-Man movies have fallen into the wrong hands.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a drag. It pains me to say this, but Marc Webb’s film is a total downer, a film lacking in smarts, ambition or spirit. I began my career as a film critic ten years ago with this review of Spider-Man 2 — Sam Raimi’s excellent film that remains the gold standard for the superhero genre — and it hurts to cap a decade with a complaint about a sub-par reboot instead of a celebration of the spider.

This is an unforgivably boring film, and while it may not seem as instantly objectionable as Sam Raimi’s monstrous Spider-Man 3, it must be marked that at least the older film failed because of ambition, because of trying to do too much. Webb’s new film, on the other hand, is inexplicably slow and torpid, a haphazard and amateurish affair where the seams show all too glaringly. Save for a couple of relatively funny lines — and the devastating climax — there is nothing worth remembering in this painfully generic film.

I didn’t expect to be saying this, but a big part of the problem is Andrew Garfield. He’s a bright, gifted actor who certainly possesses a distinctive edgy charm, but for some reason he continues to play Peter Parker as elusive and sullen. There’s an angsty cockiness to him better suited to a tween vampire film, and while Garfield is disarmingly natural, he falls a far way from actually being likeable. It’s hard to relate to — not to mention root for — a Peter Parker so brusque, so easily irked by those he loves, and harder still not to yearn for his predecessor Tobey Maguire, who made Peter’s all-important earnestness come alive. Spidey’s a quip-flinging whippersnapper, sure, but that’s because Peter’s a good kid who pulls on an overcompensatory flamboyant persona along with that mask. In the (much better) first Garfield film, a lot could be chalked to the character’s confusion, but here Peter seems like a jerk all his own.

Things are worsened by the filmmaker’s constant indecision. Aided by a bombastic soundtrack — 80s TV cop-show style blare for the opening chase with Rhino, synth-heavy chanting for Electro later on — the film looks to be put together by a committee, eager to throw in something for every focus group. This means lots of heavy-handed flashbacks, constantly unclear motivations for the characters, action sequences that refuse to do anything cool, ghosts from the old films (literal spectres appearing now to confuse Parker, as well as feeble echoes of action setpieces from Raimi’s Spider-films) and an awful lot of melodramatic hokum.

Much time is spent, for example, on the villain’s origins, but they are handled so unimaginatively that we’d be (much) better off with a voiceover saying “Oh, that guy’s Electro. He can control electricity.” What we’re given are backstories from the mid-90s, say Batman Forever style… and if we’re invoking Joel Schumacher to describe a Spider-Man film — at a time when even Captain America can have a seriously good movie — then it’s clear that both power and responsibility have begun to grate.

asm2gWhat does work is the girl. Emma Stone is sensational as Gwen Stacy, seemingly as baffled as we are re: the ill-humoured Mr Parker. She’s smart, snappy,  knocks every line straight out of the park, and conjures up quite the chemistry, enough even to make up for her too-slack hero. In a deft touch, she invariably seems to sense Peter’s presence nearby — her own SpiderSense, if you will — and we can’t blame Parker for asking her to keep that irresistible laugh “off the table.”

Readers of the comic are well aware that this film features a crucial scene with Gwen, and while Stone makes it pop, Webb and gang stretch it out way too much, and then proceeding to chicken out and completely reduce the stakes. Sheesh. (Not to spoil anything here, but if you’d really like to get a feel of Gwen and Peter, I suggest hunting up Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s lovely “Spider-Man: Blue” and imagining what Stone could have done with that as a script.) Aargh. The scene itself might be half-decent in isolation, and its chilling to see Stone mirror precisely what Stacy wore in the books, but a film this mediocre simply doesn’t earn such a landmark moment from the Spidey mythos. (It seems to know it, too, which is why it tries to move past it very clumsily.)

This is malarkey, malarkey that bores for eighty minutes before coming to life somewhat during the last hour. There’s some very conveniently resolved nuttiness regarding Parker’s parents, Dane DeHaan — a dead ringer for a slimy Gilbert Grape — showboats hammily as Harry Osborn, and there are more than a few unsubtle teases regarding upcoming villains. (Meeting a woman called Felicia or seeing schematics of The Vulture’s wings leading up to the next installment would normally be a mouthwatering prospect, but right now they seem threats filled with more exhausting backstory.)

One kid holds out hope, though.

One adorable little runt with thin-framed glasses and a science project looks at Spider-Man as his hero and doesn’t care what people say about him; he knows he’ll be back and he knows he’ll be better than ever. And therein lies the lesson for us as summer cinegoers: it’s okay to prefer Tony Stark or Black Widow right now — till Spidey falls into the right hands, that is. For now we can go home, turn up the real Spider-Man 2 and watch Peter Parker try to deliver pizza.

Rating: 2 stars

~

First published Rediff, May 1, 2014

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