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Review: Damien Chazelle’s La La Land

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Twenty Decembers ago, Woody Allen’s underrated Everyone Says I Love You had the director dance with the striking and cherubic Goldie Hawn on the banks of the Seine, by moonlight. As Allen clumsily kept pace, Hawn began suddenly to float — as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and her black dress just happened to be cut from magic carpet. In a film about divorce and infidelity and many layers of lies, this achingly poetic moment — where the ex-wife takes flight during a nostalgic dance and turns into a gliding goddess — is one of my absolute favourites from Allen’s oeuvre, for its unashamed romanticism and for the way it makes my heart soar, sing, yearn to dance.

Every single bit of La La Land feels as magical as that singular burst. It is a film that tapdances on air.

Damien Chazelle starts his exuberantly splashy musical with gridlock. An unbroken opening shot, choreographed with Broadway precision, shows us young men and women — young aspirants — cavort from traffic-jammed car roof to car roof as they sing of dreams and sun, wearing primary colours and priming us for the technicolor pop of the film. It is a gorgeous sequence, certainly, but what struck me most was the thoughtfulness of the visual decision: the reason this is a showily single-take opening shot is because traffic is impossible to fly or cut away from. But that doesn’t mean you can’t jump onto the roof of a car and warble.

Then, as the colourful stars-to-be leap back into their unmoving vehicles — the song providing no escape, merely respite — the sun-drenched world is identified as winter. This, we are told, is not merely a hot day in Los Angeles but, in fact, La La Land, and that is a place more unreal than you expect.

Mia is an actress. Which is to say she is a barista at a cinematically located cafe who goes to auditions and somehow — remarkably — never catches an important eye. In a city full of them, she is another girl behind the wheel of a Prius. Sebastian is a struggling pianist with the lofty dreams of resuscitating jazz itself by opening up his own club. He drives a defiantly vintage convertible, goes the wrong way, and honks like a foghorn operator. They are blue chalk and blue cheese, exotic and far from ordinary, archetypes but the kind you wouldn’t expect to go as well together.

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With all the charm of an old-world musical — Chazelle swigs from the same hipflask passed around in the day by Jacques Demy, Stanley Donen and Vincente Minnelli — La La Land is a film that could easily be described as a throwback or a homage, yet despite hat-tips and references, it is very truly — and very irresistibly — its own thing. This is a musical about loving musicals, just like it is a film about a boy who loves jazz and a girl he teaches to love jazz, rather than a film about jazz itself. In this, it is so deliriously stunning that most will fall for it regardless of tolerance for jazz or musicals. It’s a screen romance for the goddamned ages.

Part of the film’s virtuosity lies in the apparent lack of it. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are the film’s magnetic leads, and while they are both superb performers with rare and vintage chemistry, neither is a song-and-dance performer on the scale of the old musicals La La Land loves.

Gosling, in particular, is visibly laboured while dancing the first time, yet this amateurishness serves the character brilliantly, as we see him concentrate hard on his steps as he tries to impress this girl who casually, cruelly — and yet alluringly — just called him George Michael. The two have just strolled away from a party together and found themselves a bench with a knockout view, and the resulting song is enchanting. The standout bit is when Stone casually pulls out black-and-white tap shoes from her bag to match the ones Gosling wears, while he playfully kicks some dirt her way. These are characters who know they’re in a musical, and the giddiness this gives them is infectious.

That said, the film knows when to kill the music. The record playing in the background runs scratchily dry just when the conversation takes a turn for the brutal. There is an astonishingly irony-free scene where Sebastian talks over jazz music while talking about people who talk over jazz music, and this is almost immediately countered by a scene where background jazz takes over and talks over people. (Not just any people, mind you, but people sitting around a dinner table proclaiming a home theatre better than a real one.) Finally, in the film’s spellbinding climax, music takes over everything. Including our dreams.

Chazelle, who made the compelling and mercilessly paced Whiplash a couple of years ago, is the most worthy kind of nostalgist: an actual artist. La La Land is a dreamy rhapsody, a picture made with both affection and originality. The writing is note-perfect. Mia, who invokes Kenny G to needle her boy, finds herself in an experimental, improvisatory film — like jazz, really. Sebastian, a possible stand-in for the director, uses words like “shanghaied” to romanticise his own frequently hairy struggle, and wonders why we consider romantic a dirty word. Later, as a successful jazz band beckons, Sebastian is realistically asked how he intends to ‘save’ jazz by clinging to the past. He doesn’t know, though he might stubbornly say he does.

The way to save the musical, on the other hand, has to be a grand flourish. This, the best in decades, is just the ticket. Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren (of American Hustle and Promised Land) shoots the vivid and timeless sequences with smitten eagerness, as if constantly trying to take in something magical, swooping up to grab a palm tree one moment, sideways to sneak in a wry smile the next. The production design is coded in solid and primary colour, with the protagonists even wearing white shirts when happy and optimistic (though Seb’s stay beneath his slim-cut suits) and then, when things take a turn, one of them is seen in a lot more black. We even go from classic white piano keys to hard black ones on a keyboard that looks digitally sinister. Bright colour constantly and mesmerisingly surrounds these vital monochrome decisions, of course — including the fiery scarlet of a keytar wielded by a man who, instantly regretting it, refers to himself as a ‘serious musician.’

The music itself, by Chazelle’s friend and collaborator Justin Hurwitz, is swooning and melancholy and pretty, utterly perfect for the film and liable to be stuck in our freshly-shanghaied heads a fair while. Stone’s clear, insistent vocals have a bit of a Hepburn quality, while those by Gosling are approachable in their simple mumble, vocals we can attempt to imitate without feeling foolhardy. When they sing, the rest of the film fades away and both actors burn even brighter under that singular gaze.

Excellent actors, they are in crackerjack form even when merely toying with the acoustic oddness of the word ‘Boise’, saying the name of the place over and over just to play with the sound, grinning moonily at each other while we gaze up at them. He, who can do anything, is amazing as he makes ferret-like faces for a photographer. She, holding oceans of vulnerability in her mammoth manga eyes, imbues each word and glance with meaning. These are actors we are fortunate to see peak before our eyes.

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In one unforgettable scene, the two are at the Griffith Park Observatory, its attractions apparent from a shot that swirls up its roof in kaleidoscopic fashion. She impishly plays with a bright red switch, he hurriedly polishes its handle with the handkerchief he obviously carries, and then the kerchief floats upwards. This is an echo of so many musicals — specifically Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen in The Belle Of New York — but the real prestidigitation lies in the quick moment when Stone, before taking off against a backdrop of simulated space and thunderstruck by the unreality it all, looks directly and knowingly at the camera, as if to share her whoa with us.

It may be this confident awareness that makes La La Land a cinematic triumph. It cycles through seasons knowing they look all the same, and — when it signals Winter a second time — the reason the sky appears too good to be true is because it is. As is the finale, which pulls the rug out from under our feet in a fantastical way few films ever dare, distilling the film’s essence while, again, letting the music do all the talking.

This is a sublime cinematic experience, a rare joy that — to quote a song I always hear in Sinatra’s voice — left me Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered. It is a film so special I had to watch it twice before writing about it, and you know what, La La Land? Everyone says I love you.

Rating: 5 stars

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First published Rediff, December 16, 2016

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Review: The Russo Brothers’ Captain America: Civil War

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“War, what is it good for?”

Despite the existential disgust expressed by Edwin Starr in that song all those years ago, there exist far too many affirmative answers to that question: it’s good for gunrunners, media outlets, separatists, posturing Presidential candidates and, clearly, for Marvel Studios — whose superheroes have never, ever looked better.

Why, though,  are earth’s mightiest heroes fighting each other in the first place?

The idea of critiquing collateral damage from battles in superhero movies, considering all the computer-rendered rubble and skylines toppling in 3D, is almost as old as the genre itself, with examples on every level of the quality spectrum — from The Incredibles to Batman V Superman — and the new Captain America film deals with the politics of this crisis. A Superhero Registration Act is proposed, with a United Nations squad to control if and when to deploy super-powered heroes. Considering that the Avengers can’t get through breakfast without an argument — or without some philistine pouring coffee grounds in the garbage disposal — it isn’t surprising that this leads to debate, but nobody quite anticipates an impasse this formidable.

Ding! In the red tights stands Tony Stark, Iron Man, the billionaire egomaniac who, after his own significant fumbles in the face of adversity, seems all too keen to relinquish responsibility and make superheroes answerable to a neutral body who, he trusts, should know better than, say, Earth’s Most Impulsive Heroes. In the star-spangled corner stands Steve Rogers, Captain America, a soldier who once socked Hitler and who feels that heroes should take responsibility for their own actions and, given governments and their contrary agendas, “obeying orders” may not always be the best course of action.

Heavy stuff to chew on, and while naturally avoiding the obsessive level of discourse favoured by the comics in Marvel’s Civil War series ten years ago — an eleven-issue series called Frontline, for example, featured two journalists locked in deep conversations about ethics, responsible reportage and the greater good — this film, after a fantastic opening action scene, does indeed feature a lot of serious talk.

Yet, preposterous as it may seem, this approach works wonderfully, thanks to the eight years and twelve films Marvel has released before this. Over the course of the last few years, characters — like Cap himself — have grown from stereotypes to heroes with fully-fleshed personalities with well-defined conflicts, paranoia and neuroses. Marvel’s men and women have always had issues, and we’ve seen their powers and weaknesses gradually come to light as they’ve struggled with inner demons and vanquished old fears — sometimes to replace them with new ones. We’ve met (most of) the gang, and this is the film where all those years of setup really pay off.

Here’s the deal: All the old Marvel films — Even the ones you’ve loved. Even the great superhero sandwich Joss Whedon made us. All the films before Captain America: Civil War are prologue.

We’ve seen earlier Marvel productions nail some or the other aspects of superhero movies, but this new film, by Joe and Anthony Russo, ticks all the boxes in astonishingly fine fashion. Every character’s presence is justified, every comic-trope used is deployed perfectly, and there is so much goddamned personality to the choices this film makes. Rarely do all the stars align this masterfully in a franchise, and, as a lifelong Marvel fanatic, I finally feel the way I imagine Star Wars fans would have done the first time they watched The Empire Strikes Back.

The film opens with a clothesline in Lagos, delivered by a metal wing. The badassery continues as Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow kicks serious butt, with the cinematographers keeping us perched close to the action. We’re following along because we can’t look away, and the action setpieces in this film are remarkably clear and, mostly set in broad daylight, free of shadowy ambiguity. The coherence is jawdropping, a result of the Russos calling in directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch — helmers of the kinetically ingenious, near-lyrical ultraviolence in John Wick — to help them shoot the fight scenes. It shows. Each sequence contains not merely a couple of gasp-worthy moments but also moments that define each individual superhero’s strengths and chinks. It’s all striking, a joy in IMAX 3D, and the big airport scene it all builds up to is a giddy masterpiece.

Yet, as you may imagine, it isn’t all fun and quips and mid-air backflips. Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier of the previous films, continues to be haunted by his past, something Tony Stark sums up immaculately well by calling him the Manchurian Candidate. Ah, see? The seams are showing but in less obvious ways. Stark’s references are now dated, his ego bruised after the failure of Ultron, his lady Pepper has left him, at least for a while, and there is a desperation to his actions — even in the way he hits on Peter Parker’s “unusually attractive aunt.”

Robert Downey Jr has brought a lot to the Iron Man role, but while most films have stressed on his insouciance, this one shows us how bruised the wisecracker really is. It is a compelling, highly flawed character and this is the kind of performance that allows RDJ to dig deep and show off his solid acting chops. It is, thus, weird — and wonderful — to see him take a break from the action by sharing a couch with Marisa Tomei, who he once starred with in a lovely little film called Only You. He marvels at how good she looks, she — sexy as ever — tells us aunts “come in all shapes and sizes”, and Peter Parker gulps awkwardly, wondering what the heck is going on.

Oh yeah. That kid. You know Spider-Man is in this film, right? Well, he is and he’s phenomenal. Played by 19-year-old Tom Holland, this new fresh-faced Spidey is the whippersnapper we’ve always wanted and never quite gotten, and I refuse to spoil any of his moments. Suffice it to say that when this globetrotting film, which writes names of locations in boastfully large white type — in Futura, as if paying tribute to Wes Anderson, of all people — well, when the word “Queens” shows up across the screen, buckle up, because you’re in for something, well, Amazing.

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Like the directors, leading man Chris Evans, seemed bland during the first Captain America movie and winningly earnest in the second, but by this time, it feels impossible not to admire this version of the character. He is a big blue boyscout, sure — and there is a highly Superman moment involving his bicep and a chopper — but Cap is old-school in the best way. You might not care as much for his best buddy Bucky — I know I don’t — but Evans makes it clear that he cares, and that it’s personal to him. And willingly we believe. Similarly old-school is a new addition to the squad, Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther, a character so irresistibly magnetic he’ll immediately soar to the top of your list. Seriously, I can’t wait for his film to come out.

That’s what Captain America: Civil War does, using characters old and new with tremendous flair. Fan-favourite Avengers Thor and Hulk don’t show up, but I daresay they aren’t missed. (A hero I personally would have liked to add to the roster would be a composer as rollicking as this film is, one who would make use of the film’s many storytelling beats and the crescendo it builds up to. A certain Elf Man, if I may.) Johannson is, as always, a superlative Black Widow, here torn between Team Cap and Team Tony, but I’m particularly impressed by how well the Russos have used traditionally less-cool characters: Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye finally feels life fun, while Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man has a delightful part, a guy utterly star-struck by Captain America only to later make everyone else gape at what he can do. Together, these two losers have my top comic-book moment of them all as Ant-Man, perched on the tip of Hawkeye’s arrowhead, slips through Iron Man’s fingers.

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Films about characters with rich and textured histories have a tough call in terms of clueing in new viewers and catering to True Believers, but the Russos manage this with an admirable lightness of touch that makes it clear the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in the right hands. These guys get it, the characters and the spirit of the comics. Captain America: Civil War is a great ride even if you don’t read the comics or haven’t seen any of the older films.

Let’s lay it down in terms Captain America would approve of: You can applaud a home run even if you don’t watch baseball. If you do, you know how special it really is.

Rating: 5 stars

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First published Rediff, May 6, 2016

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Review: George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road

Some kids are just better at playing with action figures.

You may have the exact same toys, and all kids construct action setpieces while dhishooming at the mouth, but there are some who bring actual artistry to the table as they mesh their Transformers together to form monstrous new ones or catapult their GI Joes alongside speeding plastic trains. Even their sound effects are more elaborate, more of a performance, more thought-through, more impressive. You try to up your game and, to an extent, do, but in the end it’s best to sit back and marvel at something special, at a dramatically daring imagination.

Nobody — but nobody — plays with action figures better than George Miller.

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Before Mad Max: Fury Road, for instance, nobody ever thought of rampaging inbred cultists swooping down on escaping heroes from giant bendy stilts, swinging in like furious upside-down pendulums, or pogo-sticks that, robbed of their bounce, now resemble grasshopper antennae. Now, after the already immortal imprint in our heads of the masterful madness Miller unleashed, it feels like the simplest, most obvious idea in the world: rubber-band your Iron Man to a drinking straw, kids, because what fun can a chase be without a Polecat or two?

Cinema exists to evoke. That is its primary purpose, and Mad Max: Fury Road breathlessly, relentlessly, gloriously takes over our brains as we watch, its blistering narrative so propulsive, so revolutionary, so damned smart that it could rip our eyelids off. It is an audacious concept, a two-hour chase scene, cinema as climax instead of building up to one, and Miller — through fiery visuals, progressive thought, compelling if barely defined characters, exquisitely elaborate choreography, and lean, brave screenwriting — evokes a feature-length feeling so few films are able to sustain for more than a few minutes: urgency.

This is owed, most greatly, to the film’s absolute and inspirational level of clarity. Unlike in most cinema that relies too heavily on computer generated effects, Miller’s new film decides to use mostly practical stunt-work, and, this combined with the intricacy of the action setpieces, makes the audience constantly aware of the sprawling epic unfolding on screen. It brings us into the action instead of whizzing past us, and the jaw drops — both involuntarily and often. It is also a film where exposition and backstory are all but expunged, and this audacious form of storytelling, where filigree-nosed bastards appear and die with nary an explanation of their origins, feels not just refreshing but also, I daresay, realistic. In a situation as frenetic and dire as Mad Max: Fury Road keeps us strapped in, perpetually on the run, verbal introductions and liner notes seem most extraneous: all we need to know is that his limousine is bad news.

FRD-27348.TIFMad Max himself, meanwhile, isn’t talking too much. Far removed from the loonier, more unpredictable — more mad, without a doubt — Max of the original 70s films played by Mel Gibson, the new Max Rockatansky is a surlier, silenter leading man. But is he at all a leading man? Played by the chameleonic Tom Hardy, this ‘hero’ spends a large part of this film with his mouth muzzled and stuck in front of a chasing vehicle, like a filthy, oversized hood-ornament. He does what needs to be done, and knows when it’s best to leave the last bullet in the hands of someone with better aim. It is Charlize Theron’s armless (but not, I assure you, harmless) Imperator Furiosa who takes charge of this film, and — in a moment that says it all — tells Max not to breathe so she can use him for a cushion.

Furiosa works (at least initially) for the dictator Immortan Joe, a Hell’s Angel who looks like the burly love-child of Betaal and Ghost Rider, who keeps his masses parched of water, which is called Aqua Cola in this dystopic desert world. The world-building is breathtaking, a result of John Seale’s masterful cinematography that shows off insane levels of art-directed detail while never compromising on the nightmarish scale of the badlands, and Margaret Sixel’s beautiful, berserk editing that, when we least expect, cuts to close-ups of shiny chrome gear-knobs, and away from wide-shots of spiky cars about to explode in a cloud of scarlet and sweat. This is a fever dream of a film, and o, how it throbs with life. (Thanks, in no small measure, to Junkie XL’s teeth-gnashingly metal-and-mayhem score.)

There is so much detail to gape at, and so lovingly does Miller show it all off, the film oozing originality at every pore. This is a sequel of Miller’s own Mad Max films, sure, but you don’t need to have seen the old ones (dated but still enjoyable because, mostly, of Gibson) to enjoy this film because it doesn’t rely on any baggage. Like Max, this film travels light.

AP FILM REVIEW-MAD MAX: FURY ROAD A ENTFuriosa, on the other hand, doesn’t. Her big war rig is packed with five of Joe’s ‘wives,’ lissome and heavenly creatures who, despite their Pirelli calendar worthiness, are a ballsy lot on the run because they don’t want to be used. These ladies bring courage and vulnerability and unborn children to the narrative, and the images of these girls ready for revolution are what stick in the mind even more than claw trucks and altars made of steering wheels. This is a film about survivors and enablers, and by the time we get to the famed green place supposed to make it all better, the narrative is overrun by old biker women with wrinkled faces and sniper-eyesight. Max might make a suggestion or two, as might Nicholas Hoult as a chrome-loving cultie worshipping V8 engines, but in this film at least, this film where mother’s milk is the ultimate power-drug, Miller’s world belongs to the women.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a monumental achievement, a triumph of one man’s singular and staggering imagination. If ever there was a film that begged to be celebrated on the big-screen — heck, that begged viewing with 3D glasses — it is this one, a sensational ride that throws you, the viewer, into the deep-end and drags you along for a chained and scorched and unbelievable ride. For my money, Mad Max: Fury Road is the greatest action movie of all time. Not least because Miller lets his titular hero slink away into the crowd at the end. Kept alive at first merely because of utility — he is a ‘bloodbag’ marked a universal donor — Max has already moved on. As has Miller, the 70-year-old visionary poised to make at least two more movies in the same insane vein. Giving is in their blood.

Rating: 5 stars

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Also read: Why we should be glad Mad Max: Fury Road didn’t win Best Picture

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First published Rediff, March 11, 2016

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Oscar column: Why we should be glad Mad Max didn’t win Best Picture

What is better than winning Best Picture?

It sounds bonkers, I grant you, yet hear me out: At the Oscars, being on the inside of the Best Picture envelope isn’t as golden as it gets. The ultimate prize, the real ultimate prize, is being the film everyone roots for to be inside said envelope — and then not showing up. Not breasting the tape. Not being Best Picture, but instead losing in a way that inspires public outcry and cinephile heartbreak around the world.

Think about it. The King’s Speech will forever be remembered for being a middling film that got in The Social Network’s way. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with Forrest Gump — a schmaltzy but ingeniously-crafted and well-acted film, with a genuine touch of cheek — yet how many of us can forgive it for toppling the one and only Pulp Fiction? The English Patient robbed Fargo. And, in the most quoted Oscar flub in recent history, Crash beat Brokeback Mountain. Sure, Crash picked up the gold — after presenter Nicholson chose not to disguise his surprise — but who won? Who goes down in history?

The better loser, that’s who.

It’s a lesson we learnt most memorably with a young Italian boxer. That big lug Rocky Balboa lost the fight at the end of Rocky, but he won over hearts, both of the audience and The Academy, bizarrely beating all-time masterworks like Network, All The President’s Men and Taxi Driver at the 1977 Oscars. At the 88th Annual Academy Awards this week, no loss rang out as devastatingly as that of 69-year-old Sylvester Stallone. Sitting with crossed fingers in the front row, he was hoping for a Best Supporting Actor trophy in order to complete a remarkable full circle —  a true ‘American dream’ story from poverty-struck porn-performer to Oscar-winner — but alas, despite the Academy’s much-feted love for a redemptive narrative arc, such picket-fenced perfection was not to be.

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This is a terrific picture from Stallone’s first Oscars, the one where Rocky triumphed, where the actor, losing out on Best Actor, holds dead air while the film’s producers clutch their Oscars. This year was supposed to see him finally nabbing one he earned at the end of a long career. At long, long last.

And yet Sly lost, despite having performed admirably well in Creed, and while my first reaction (as a fan with Gotta Fly Now coming out of my ears, now, even as I type these words) was that he run up the stairs (of course) to the Oscar stage and check the envelope in case bumbling presenter Patricia Arquette had done a Steve Harvey, the truth is that it adds up. Mark Rylance was great in Bridge Of Spies. Not as good as, say, Christian Bale was in The Big Short, but Rylance delivered a finely-tuned and nuanced performance, and was the best thing in that film. The loss makes sense. Stallone — and Balboa in the first film, and Apollo Creed’s son Adonis in the latest — lost the fight when the votes were counted, but boy, did they go the distance. How they made us cheer.

There is, every year, at least one field where we individually pray against all realistic odds. This year, I personally rooted — unrealistically and in vain — for an upset in the Best Cinematography field, for the invincible Emmanual Lubezki to be upstaged despite his spectacular, masterful vistas in the boastfully shot The Revenant. Instead, I longed for a reward for the thoughtful, sumptuous visual mastery shown by Ed Lachman in Carol. Shooting on 16mm film, Lachman is consistently poetic and evocative, telling a story while simultaneously mirroring the style of iconic 50s photographers like Saul Leiter.

lachman(It is a magnificently shot film, and I have a feeling Lubezki agrees. On the three-time winner’s sensational Instagram feed yesterday, three days after his win, standing next to the three consecutive Oscars, is featured Lachman, his face obscured by a camera that is shooting Lubezki. Bravo.)

The world cheered loudly for Leonardo DiCaprio who — 22 years after the first of his 6 nominations — picked up an acting Oscar for The Revenant, though this wait had been mythologised well out of proportion. Sure, he should have won for The Wolf Of Wall Street, but the Oscars rarely reward performances that effervescent, that electrifying. Also, the man is merely 41, and has several movies — several Scorsese movies, even — yet to tackle. This wasn’t the film he should have won for, and certainly not the film he deserved a standing ovation for. He strolled into the Oscars an odds-on favourite, yet the moment was made to feel like a struggle.

Meanwhile, after 500 films, Ennio Morricone, one of the greatest composers in the history of the medium, came forth and won his first competitive Oscar for The Hateful Eight. This, in the oddest and loveliest of ironies, came nine years after he’d won an Honorary Oscar for his contribution to the arts. Who says masters lose their touch?

Not George Miller, certainly. The world was firmly in Miller’s corner on Oscar night, hoping that the visionary 70-year-old would be heralded for one of the finest action movies of all time. Mad Max: Fury Road is a work of enormous vision, rule-defying bravado and striking originality which flattens audiences with ingenuity, clarity and adrenaline. It is a progressive, modern, thematically strong, diverse, feminist statement wrapped up, quite miraculously, into a thrilling package. However, it isn’t as if a bad film won. A victory for The Revenant, jawdropping but hollow, would have felt catastrophic. Spotlight winning, on the other hand, seems right. It is a restrained, relevant, highly impactful film made with a crackerjack ensemble cast, based on a story that needs telling. (The Big Short, my personal pick of the Oscar bunch, was clearly too edgy and audacious and irreverent and, quite frankly, too clever to win a big Oscar — rather like the work of Charlie Kaufman. Way too cool for school.)

Speaking of which… Think, if you will, of The Doof Warrior.

Riding atop a truckful of gigantic speakers and standing on a massive amplifier, The Doof Warrior in Mad Max: Fury Road is a rocker in a scarlet onesie: a blind man wearing his mother’s face for a mask, playing a double-necked guitar made out of a bedpan that also doubles up as a flamethrower. Playing ragged riffs to appease the gods of war and increase fighter morale, he is, without any doubt, as insanely metal as a character can conceivably be. It’s gloriously nuts. Now, realistically speaking, does such a creature have any business belonging in a Best Picture winner?

Or ought he belong, instead, to a movie that — like a Lamborghini Countach pinup stumbled upon giddily in pre-adolescence — deserves to have its poster stuck up inside our brains forever? It’s our film to celebrate, and, hey: as worshippers of V8 engines would agree, chrome is way, way cooler than gold.

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First published Rediff, March 4, 2016

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My 2016 Oscar-themed pieces on the race for Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Picture. Plus, my top ten moments from this year’s ceremony.

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Oscars 2016: The most unforgettable moments

oscars1chrisI once had the remarkable good fortune to be sitting unexpectedly in the Comedy Cellar in New York when a surprise guest was thrust upon us. The audience couldn’t believe it, and out strolled Chris Rock — an incendiary performer and giant comic superstar — who slayed. He was great and we were enraptured, and, this morning, Rock knocked the wind outta me from many timezones away, by the way he opened the 88th Annual Academy Awards. Featuring that monologue and nine other moments I won’t soon forget, here are my highlights from the 2016 Oscars:

1. That opening monologue:

Rock has always been a fearless, envelope-pushing comic, and everyone expected him to be provocative at the Oscars — infamous this year for their all-white acting candidates, hashtagged #OscarsSoWhite across the media. What we might not have counted on, however, was the way he would make the most preposterously ballsy jokes as he completely embraced the topic. Making the white audience uncomfortable with the kinda comic swagger that would make 80s red-leather-suit-wearin’ Eddie Murphy proud as hell, Chris Rock spoke about how the Oscars always had a white-only problem, like “in the sixties, one of those years Sidney [Poitier] didn’t put out a movie” and how it was just harder to care about these problems back when black people faced “real” problems. “When your grandmother’s swinging from a tree,” he grinned to a mostly mortified audience, “it’s hard to care about Best Documentary Short.”

Wow. W-o-w.

2. David O Russell justifying his seat in the front:

oscarsdavidOscars are as much about reactions as they are about winners, and many a moment has been immortalised in the past by Jack Nicholson’s cheshire chuckles and Meryl Streep’s gracefully overt enthusiasm. This year’s audience award ought to go to director David O Russell, one of the few people to openly bust a gut laughing at Rock’s politically skewed monologue. Russell had a fine ol’ time with Rock and then, with much grace and solidarity, stood up to applaud director Adam McKay as he (with co-writer Charles Randolph) strode past to pick up his award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Big Short. If that all filmmakers were this warm, or this genuine.

3. Whoopi Goldberg and SNL comics skewer the Oscar-nominated films:

oscartraceyThe Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences played the self-deprecatory game quite hard this year by constantly going with the #OscarsSoWhite theme, in effect laughing at themselves as loud as possible. This approach was often heavy-handed, like when presenters were often transparently paired up as white-celeb-alongside-celeb-of-colour, but when it worked, like in Rock’s monologue and this section inserting talented black comedians into this year’s nominated films, it worked fantastically well. Leslie Jones was the angry bear mauling Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, Tracy Morgan wore a dress and ate danishes in The Danish Girl, and the great Whoopi Goldberg reigned supreme as she scolded Jennifer Lawrence in Joy: “I’m not mad ‘cause I know how to play the game, Joy.”

4. Patricia Arquette doing a Travolta: 

Patricia Arquette, winner of Best Supporting Actress for Boyhood last year, made for an embarrassingly bad presenter this year as she fumbled through her time giving away the Best Supporting Actor trophy. First of all, like the infamous John Travolta gaffe, she appeared to have mixed “Rocky Balboa” with something that started off sounding suspiciously like “Draco Malfoy”, and then — after reading out Mark Rylance’s name to a chorus of anguish heard around the world as Stallone hadn’t won — ended things sloppily as well.

For a while there, many (read: me) wished that these fumbles signalled her having SteveHarvey’d it and called out the wrong name, but spirits were lifted by Rylance’s lovely acceptance speech. “I’ve always just adored stories: hearing them, seeing them, being in them,” Rylance said, saluting director Steven Spielberg before going deftly political. “Unlike some of the leaders we’re being presented with these days, he leads with such love that he’s surrounded by masters in every craft.”

5. Louis CK, on the importance of documentary:

oscarslouisMaster comedian Louis CK came out to present the award for Best Documentary, Short Subject and handled the occasion with scene-stealing aplomb as he spoke of his pride to present what he called his favourite award, “because this is the one Academy Award that has the opportunity to change a life.” Eloquently going on to describe the hardships faced by documentary filmmakers in what is often a thankless pursuit for the truth, he said — with a characteristically brilliant turn of phrase —  that while “the rest of the Oscars are going home to mansions and to the homes of people with good unions and who will always work. This is Documentary Short Subject…. You cannot make a dime on this.” The kicker: “This Oscar is going home in a Honda Civic.” Bravo.

6. Joe Biden and Lady Gaga speak out for sexual assault survivors:

oscarsgagaIn the most touching moment of the night, Vice President of the United States Joe Biden and Lady Gaga formed a unique but ideal team as they sought an end to rape culture.  “We must, and we can, change the culture so that no abused woman or man has to ask ‘what did I do?’”, emphasised Biden. “They did nothing wrong.” This was followed by a profoundly emotive performance from Lady Gaga as abuse survivors took the stage, hand in hand. It was an affecting and genuinely stirring moment in a night that frequently felt insubstantial.

7. Ennio Morricone thanking his rival and then his director:

87-year-old legend Ennio Morricone — nine years after having been given an Honorary Oscar in 2007 “for his magnificent and multifaceted contributions to the art of film music” — finally won his first Oscar for Best Original Score for The Hateful Eight, and the moment was a highly emotional one. Morricone came to the stage and spoke simply in Italian, first doffing his hat to the also-nominated five-time winner John Williams before thanking his director. And just hearing his heavily accented pronunciation of the name Quentin Tarantino was enough to spark off a Spaghetti Western dream.

8. The Best Director was the most unpopular man of the night:

How things can change in a year. Last year Alejandro González Iñárritu swept the Oscars with grand fanfare with the superlative Birdman but this year his film The Revenant, while impressive, had more detractors than lovers and most of the viewing audience seemed to be rooting against the film. Things weren’t helped by a gif of Iñárritu not even trying to appear like a good sport when Jenny Beavan won Best Costume Design for Mad Max Fury Road; as Beavan walked right by him, Iñárritu crossed his arms and chose not to applaud. Perhaps he just doesn’t approve of leather jackets, but the two-time Best Director winner could have played this better.

9. Leo not taking anything, even the Oscar, for granted:

oscarsleoMeanwhile, despite the many, many editorials claiming that “A win for DiCaprio would be a disservice to actors” and saying that Most Acting doesn’t equate to Best Acting, the star himself (finally) picked up the big prize in style. I wasn’t pro-Leo this year — rooting for Michael Fassbender’s astonishing work in and as Steve Jobs instead — but DiCaprio’s sixth nomination proved lucky and his speech was perfection. He started by thanking the crew of The Revenant but quickly moved on to speak passionately about the threat of climate change. “Climate change is real,” Leonardo emphasised. “Let us not take this planet for granted. I do not take tonight for granted.”

10. A beautiful ‘In Memoriam’ section:

And finally, those who aren’t with us anymore were remembered in lovely fashion this year. Dave Grohl plucked a guitar to a tender version of The Beatles’ Blackbird as faces of those who have left us — from Alan Rickman to Douglas Slocombe to Omar Sharif to our own Saeed Jaffrey  — flitted before us.

service.gifThe montage nearly climaxed with a clip, amazingly enough, from Zoolander featuring the late great David Bowie offering himself up, saying “I believe I might be of service.” (Always, David.)

Yet, in a surprisingly powerful touch, the segment closed with a shot of Leonard Nimoy — and ah, how poetic it felt to say goodbye by ending with a man who repeatedly told us to live long.

~

First published Rediff, February 29, 2016

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Review: Tim Miller’s Deadpool

deadpool1You’re wrong about Deadpool, you know.

Yes, you. I can see it as you start reading this review, smiling as you think you know what you’re in for. Think again. There are many kinds of films you may expect — as did I — but Deadpool, true to character, confounds. This is not an immature work consisting exclusively of pottymouthed juvenilia. This is not a work of subversion meant to restructure our concept of the superhero universe. Despite fanboy hyperbole, this is not the cleverest of superhero movies — and certainly not the most violent. Instead, in keeping with a pansexual protagonist and his frequent friskiness, it lands somewhere in the middle. Why choose a sphere when you can ream the damn venn diagram?

One thing I can say for sure is that you’ve never seen something like Deadpool.

This is weird. It feels as if the high-schooler from Superbad who was so good at drawing penises got a chance to make The Mask. The humour is feral and vicious and relentless, like an insecure stand-up comic desperately trying to be noticed at a roast. Everything gets filthy fast, and while the jokes might not all land, they come at you in ceaseless bursts of mostly juvenile shock humour: let’s call it a frat-a-tat-tat attack.

That works great because, if you’ve read the comics, you’ll know that Deadpool is annoying. Oh, I love him to bits, the pop-culture skewering freak, the perpetual smasher of the fourth wall, but to the larger Marvel Universe — to everyone around him — he’s a pest. There’s a reason nobody likes Deadpool (except Deadpool), and Ryan Reynolds nails the character’s self-made forcefield of farce. He jokes all the bloody time because, like a comedic shark (or, I daresay, Don Rickles in spandex), he can’t stop, he’s propelled by his own idiocy. Therefore, when the testicular jokes feel like they’re getting a bit much, well, they’re meant to. (Just like Wolverine, nudge nudge wink wink.)

That, however, is just part of it. Director Tim Miller and writers Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese take an unconventional hero and spin out a conventional superhero backstory — a doomed cancer-patient given a new, mutated lease of life — but the genius of Deadpool lies in the audacity of its storytelling. The film’s structure, which consists unprecedentedly of two primary scenes and a whole lot of flippantly-narrated flashback, is extraordinary. All genre rules are told to sod off. There is no world to be saved. The villain never seems like much of a threat. A hero who can’t be hurt — and who slices his own arm off while talking about 127 Hours. It’s pretty damned insane to consider this movie got made. (A verbose and narcissistic leading man whose story is told over two scenes? Are you kidding me, two scenes? What is this, the Marvel version of Steve Jobs?)

deadpool2Reynolds is smashing, visibly eager to keep things dirty, going on about Hugh Jackman’s cojones and Liam Neeson’s parenting skills, frequently looking at you and me to keep us up to speed: in a moment of brilliant self-awareness, he even breaks the sixteenth-wall. He’s matched by equally randy love interest Vanessa (Morena Baccarin of Firefly), a mindmeltingly foxy character who knows what she wants — especially on International Women’s Day — takes no nonsense, and is refreshingly far removed from a damsel in distress. Her final line, on discovering her beau’s grotesquely disfigured face, is a peach.

That’s it, tiger. I’d tell you more about the characters and quote my favourite lines, applaud the Monty Python references and all that jazz, but consider my lips stitched together. This is unmistakably a comic-book film, and some fun new X-Men show up, but you don’t need to know any more than the fact that this film really earns its exclamation marks. Discover all that rude cheek on your own and revel in the surprise. And, like dick-in-a-box, it’s all surprise. Wham!

Rating: 4 stars

PS: The Indian censors have cruelly sliced off many a swearword in this delightfully profane film and replaced shots of nudity they think Indian adults can’t handle. My suggestion to you, my rightfully outraged friend, is to look up the postal address for the Central Board Of Film Certification and mail them an envelope full of talcum-powder, marked ‘Anthrax?’ Don’t forget the question-mark, now, it’s what makes it ‘funny.’ Deadpool would agree.

~

First published Rediff, February 12, 2016

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Review: Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino’s latest film is his most unpleasant.

eight2The Hateful Eight contains everything we expect from the auteur — ultraviolence and memorable characters and shocks and profanity and long stretches of dialogue — and yet, while as indulgently Tarantinoey as it can be, this is a rough watch, a film meant to cause discomfort, to repel, even to disgust. It is the director trying to make us squirm and succeeding, one way or another. Some will be put off by the politics, some by the projectile vomiting, some by the scenes that run on far too long. Yet this is one of Tarantino’s most deliberately put-together pictures, every decision meant to get under the viewer’s skin and irritate, because — while in cowboy hats and furs — he is bringing up things we don’t talk about.

There is, of course, a much simpler reason why this is a polarising film, why I’ve had to watch it three times before writing this review, and why this Tarantino film is so damned bothersome.

It is because it contains no heroes.

This is rarer than you might think. We find ourselves frequently rooting for anti-heroes, or even charismatic, well-cut villains. Even films soaked in amorality have principal protagonists we follow and support, protagonists we are meant to relate with or look up to. The bitterly dramatic world of the Western often skims past moral ambiguity via casting: we champion Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, for example, merely because he is Clint Eastwood. But watching movies without a moral compass —  watching a bloody cowboy movie without any moral compass, for god’s sake — is thirsty work, intended to leave the audiences parched of easy answers.

Nobody is, thus, beyond reproach in The Hateful Eight. Not the characters, not the politics, and certainly not the director himself, who has fashioned his thriller by building upon layers of constant subterfuge: the eight characters in the title never really add up to eight, the Haberdashery isn’t really a haberdashery, there is a much heralded letter of dubious origin, there are hangmen who aren’t hangmen (and men who become hangmen), we never learn how to pronounce the principal female character’s name, and we’re watching a film that resembles one of Agatha Christie’s drawing room murder mystery while turning out to be no grand mystery at all.

eight1Here’s what goes on, above the surface: It is a few years after the American Civil War. A bounty hunter called John Ruth is handcuffed to a much-wanted murderess called Daisy Domergue. Another bounty hunter, a retired Major, is an imposing black man with a bounty of corpses. They’re both snowed in, along with an unsavoury bunch of people, in an inn during a tremendous blizzard. There is suspicion everywhere: from John Ruth toward the inhabitants of the cabin, some of whom, he is certain, intend to free Daisy or steal his bounty; and toward the Major from the white men, several (if not all) of whom are blatantly racist.

This is all shot rather gorgeously on 65mm film by Robert Richardson, the cinematography almost as exquisite as it is indulgent. Tarantino shuffles his characters around the closed space meticulously, like chess pieces, and Richardson’s giant frames, foregrounding and backgrounding various awful people, do certainly give us a wonderful sense of where everybody stands — except when somebody’s missing. The close-ups are superb, bringing you in tight enough to count Kurt Russell’s magnificent whiskers or to spot a beautifully carved pistol hidden under a table, but it is in the few stray scenes that the film is outdoors that Richardson shows us how majestically lavish the possibilities are. Despite the cleverness, the ultra-widescreen Panavision lenses (the same ones used to film Ben Hur, for the record) have almost always been put to better use — even in Tarantino’s favourite comedy It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. The Hateful Eight looks striking, without a doubt, but doesn’t make the format count.

While the vintage lens might not do the trick, the vintage composer certainly does. Ennio Morricone, the legend long-worshipped by the director, comes aboard to make his first Western score in decades and, right from the first note of a mesmerising overture — which is, naturally, made up of eight hateful notes — it is clear the grand ol’ gunslinger has no rustiness. It is Morricone’s glorious score that shoulders Tarantino’s narrative, lending it both urgency and (much needed) grace, and if even this hero-free film has a man worth celebrating, it is Ennio.

The performances are uniformly flamboyant and enjoyably showy, but, gradually, become a lot more affecting as the film runs on. Russell’s John Ruth is a Tarantino character for the ages, a tough man following a self-written code but a thundering bully and a woman-beater, and Russell is mighty fine when he stands tall but even finer when he looks utterly heartbroken. Jennifer Jason-Leigh, as the woman he repeatedly assaults, creates a superbly sly character, smiling through her multiple bruises and black-eyes as if she has a secret. (As Tarantino literally tells us, she does.) Bruce Dern is magnificent as a withering old Confederate General hunting for his son and holding on to his prejudices. Samuel L Jackson, the closest thing this film has to a leading man, gets the meatiest part and is the most used to reciting Tarantino’s words, and the combination is, rather predictably, dynamite. Tim Roth, playing a foppish British gentleman, is the one underscoring the point of film and reminding everyone else — or, indeed, laying down for us all — the meaning of justice.

eight3

Embodying justice himself, in a manner of speaking, is Walton Goggins, in the film’s most challenging part. Claiming to be a soon to be sworn in Sherriff, Chris Mannix is a renegade redneck who hails proudly from a family of marauders — a family that has gleefully hunted and killed black men — and while a degenerate, he is an articulate one. It is a particularly ugly, unsavoury role, and the actor expertly makes him compelling without ever, ever rendering him charismatic. Remarkable.

Despite overreaching political ambition, which I shall explore at length in a spoiler-stuffed essay next week, this is far from a perfect film. This is the first Tarantino film where I’ve ever felt the director needed to be reined in, but the absence of his longtime editor — the late great Sally Menke — can be felt now more than in Django Unchained, his first film after her. Here far too many points are lingered on, too many scenes feel longer than they need be, and some precise slicing could have diced this film into something more even potent. I believe Inglourious Basterds has been Tarantino’s creative and artistic peak over the last decade, and nothing in this film matches the finesse of that one. But then it isn’t even trying.

As it stands, The rHateful Eight is an unflinching, brave film that never looks away. It doesn’t look away from the racism dripping from its characters, it doesn’t look away when they are bristling with alarming levels of misogyny, it doesn’t look away when they’re lying right through their grotesque teeth. There are times when I almost wished it would look away, when the splatters got too messy and the violence bordered on sadism, but this is a film meant to confront instead of comfort. This is a film aimed at making us look away because it won’t. It’s time we faced the hate.

Rating: 4 stars

~

First published Rediff, January 15, 2015

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