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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

~

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 reads 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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