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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: Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book

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This isn’t your daddy’s Jungle Book.

That applies whether I’m your daddy’s age and grew up on an oft-looped VHS tape of Disney’s 1967 animated classic, or if you’re my dad’s age and cherished the leatherbound Rudyard Kipling book which promised darker truths – though I choose to believe that Bare Necessities may well be as deep as life gets.

No, Jon Favreau’s new film is – ideal for these times low on imaginative fuel – a hybrid. Here’s a reboot that runs refreshingly on the spirit of both Disney’s film and Kipling’s classic, making for a rollicking and dramatic ride. There are no harrumphing Hathis, no brown smurfette who proves climactically irresistible – a moment that always hurt me bad. There is, instead, a stunning new world, a phenomenal young Mowgli, and a narrative that sucks you in, hard. And yeah, it uses Bare Necessities to perfection.

Visually, it’s hard to find a parallel to what Favreau has accomplished with The Jungle Book, but here, I’ll take a shot: think back to Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller’s 1995 film, Babe. That had a photorealistically rendered talking pig, and now – more than two decades later – we have the resources and the budgets to summon a world of woodland creatures who smirk and wink, a jungleful of relentlessly industrious gibbons and snarky squirrels. So yes, a George Miller film on steroids: now that’s saying something – and boy, does Favreau deliver.

The scale and the detailing is astonishing to behold, so closely feeling like childhood dreams of talking tigers that they promise to turn you, o jaded member of the audience, into a half-panted pre-pubescent with an awestruck, floorbound jaw. Therefore, with you as a breathless part of the narrative instead of a distanced bystander, the thrills that approach are made more urgent, more elemental. Just like the sound of a child on all fours, face to the clouds, howling like a topper in a classroom of wolves.

Which, of course, he is.

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This child, Neel Sethi, is an exceptional find, a scrappy and adorable one who gets the messy and marvellous Mowgli vibe just right. Favreau’s film gives Mowgli a less assured but more charismatic personality than in the old cartoon – to me it felt like the ethos had moved from that old Disney cartoon to a 90s cartoon like Disney’s Aladdin, the new Mowgli being a lot more “riff-raff, street rat” – and he’s terrific. The all-star cast voicing the animals in this film is a mouthwatering one, and the thought of this talented runt matching them — while acting almost entirely in green-screen, mind you — is an incredible one. This may be the finest performance by an Indian actor in a recent foreign film.

That cast, though. My God. Stripped of his characteristic self-aware irony, Bill Murray is superbly affecting and emotive as Baloo the bear, rejuvenating a character all kids deserve to have around. Christopher Walken’s King Louie – here a gigantopithecus instead of an orangutan – is absolute Walken, demanding fire one minute and, another minute, looking askance at the use of stolen words. (Baloo, on the other hand, has no trouble calling the monkeys ‘Bandarlog,’ or, in the film’s finest line, referring to something Mowgli considers sacred as something, well, not. Wait for it.) Lupita Nyong’o, as wolfmother Raksha, conjures up tremendous intensity, particularly when telling Mowgli that he’s hers (“You’re mine to me,” she commands), while Scarlett Johansson’s Kaa has but one crucial moment and, man oh man, when it comes to hisses, nobody does it better.

As all these films now do, The Jungle Book is filled with amusing vocal cameos, but few feel as perfect as the late Garry Shandling, that bristliest of comedians, showing up as an annoyed porcupine.

It is, however, the king of the jungle who leads the pack. I fall deeper in love with Idris Elba’s voice with each syllable, and his Shere Khan is a creature of magnificence. With all the swagger of the villain in a Western, this commanding Bengal Tiger arrests our attention in the strongest fashion, with Elba snarling out each carefully-chosen word in a ready-to-pounce way that makes it feel it may be the listener’s last. What immortal hand or eye, indeed.

The story is familiar – the tale of a reluctant man-cub being escorted to a village – but thanks to the overwhelming visuals and the compelling narrative, I found myself trying to will the next scene on, wanting hungrily to know what happens next. There is much magic to be found in this film, from the moment we see a giant snakeskin discarded imperiously over a swathe of forest, to one where a little boy with cherry-red pyjamas reaches out to prod a panther’s gums.

Yet it remains the stuff of childhood lore. Favreau has borrowed enough from the animated film to make his story sprint strongly through his fantastically-foliaged new world, but us old fans will always want more. I, for instance, could really have done with four Liverpudlian vultures nudging each other and wondering what they’d like to be doing, but ah – the films of Favreau are all about keeping hope alive, and there is much room for such plans to come together in the sequel.

Take the kids you know (and the kid within you) and go watch The Jungle Book. Trust in me.

Rating: 4 stars

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First published Rediff, April 8, 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.

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First published Rediff, February 29, 2016

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Review: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant

Blood stands for beauty in The Revenant.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s brave — and bravura — new film is a frostbitten epic. It is a film that mesmerises with its brutality and its breadth, its ragged relentlessness and its barely masked masochism, and, perhaps above all, a film that must be experienced in a theatre — ideally with a sweater at hand.

So brilliantly do Iñárritu and his master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki evoke the sense of freezing cold that it’s hard not to shiver, and the colour white, in all its pristine glory, emerges the most forbidding, most biting of the lot: the picture-perfect frames are composed around temperature rather than merely colour, with the white of the snow and the white of rapids more frightening and endless than any angry animal. Icicles crust around big beards making whiskers look like they could be snapped off like twigs, steam from mouths fogs up even the lens of the majestic camera, and, once in a too-blue moon, we find respite in the form of a warmer temperature: in firelight and in blood.

Blood, in all its forms. Blood as it runs down a broken nose or a recently-stabbed leg, blood as it drips out from a furry carcass or from a still-throbbing liver, blood as it colours and cakes the snow to break a parent’s heart, blood as it fills vengeful eyes. Iñárritu is clearly consumed by a self-imposed quest for blood and beauty, but — the question must be asked — how much must beauty bleed?

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Also, how deep is the wound, truly? Iñárritu ramps up the suffering more and more, loading up the misfortune to the point where one begins to brace oneself for what fresh, frigid hell he will conjure up next for his protagonist Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio doesn’t come close to hitting a false note but Iñárritu, tragically, does: as an edge-of-the-seat revenge drama, the film is right up there, but the filmmaker overreaches for grander themes, making do with some hokum expressed by philosophically shallow visions and obvious spirituality. There is even some heavy-handed exoticising of Native Americans. Even these significant missteps, however, look sensational.

There might not be much profoundness in the imagery, but, my God, what images The Revenant holds. From a haunting close-up of a horse’s eye to the thrilling, surreal vision of a spotted horse being ridden across dalmatian terrain, this film is a spectacular showcase for Lubezki, and the ace — on a hot streak after Gravity and Birdman — flexes his muscles so hard that the film belongs to him. There are moments his mighty Steadicam swivels around in a giddy sweep, like an eager child trying to drink it all in, trying to contain the spellbinding beauty of the impossible settings without blinking — a smashing early shot follows attackers and fleers during an ambush in stunningly visceral style, riding with them and falling with them — and others where his camera seems to gazes at the proceedings helplessly — like when a bear takes charge.

Iñárritu uses these visuals almost boastfully, constantly making us aware of his film’s greatness, marking it (rightfully) as a historic epic in the vein of movies like Lawrence Of Arabia. Just when things get murky to the point of malevolence — and this, they often do — the film cuts abruptly to beauty, to endless shots of treetops dappled with sunlight from cloudless skies. It is as if he self-consciously wants to emphasise what is what, from “look, how savage” to “look, how stunning.” The pacing, however, is so breathless that the overall effect evoked is one of heady awe. This is most definitely a gigantic experience.

The Revenant is the story of a real-life hunter nobody knows much about, which gives the filmmakers free rein to embellish, and yet Iñárritu treats it almost as a fable, making a film as fantastical as it is utterly, exhaustingly predictable. Hugh Glass is wronged and abandoned for dead, and he returns to exact his revenge. That is all there is, and with it Iñárritu’s fine actors do their very best. DiCaprio gamely throws himself into all manner of torture and delivers a memorable performance, but one with too much grimace and too little grace. Every now and then he conjures up a special moment — like when cauterising a neck-wound with gunpowder, or when wheezing like Brando, and when he stares icily into the distance and declares he isn’t afraid to die anymore. It is impressive, without question, though those expecting Leo to dig deep into his miraculous bag of tricks may be left wanting.

THE REVENANTThe rawest, best performance comes from the ferocious — and genuinely frightening — Tom Hardy as the backstabbing bastard of the piece, and a bit where he talks about choking on his own blood might be, in a film littered with horrors, the most genuinely affecting of the lot.

There is much in this film that haunts me, and I’m left with the thought that Iñárritu, with someone like Lubezki at his side, can do anything. This is evidenced by the way a relatively minor character in the film, Powaqa, played by first-timer Melaw Nakehk’o, is bestowed with the screen presence of an absolute goddess in the penultimate scene of the film. Suddenly there she is, the most captivating thing in the movie, taking our goddamned breath away merely because Iñárritu wants to heighten the drama of the moment. What mastery.

It is an odd coincidence that this film, released on Christmas Day in the US last year, did so alongside Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, another film about cruelty in the cold, also set in the 1800s. There were times when Glass, digging his way out of a grave, made me feel like I was watching a joyless take on Tarantino’s visionary revenge saga Kill Bill — and, in case you’re wondering, of course Uma Thurman in those movies was better than Leo here, and more challenged. Iñárritu embraces revenge in The Revenant, serving it up very cold indeed, but the film’s heart doesn’t throb as messily, as humanly as — I suspect — the director would have liked it to. (Perhaps DiCaprio ate it.) Either way, The Revenant is a devastating, visually jawdropping film that, for all its sins of tedium, makes up with scale what it lacks in artfulness. It certainly does the frontier justice.

Rating: 4 stars

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First published Rediff, February 26, 2016

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Review: Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight

Journalism rarely looks as good as it does in American movies.

This, I assure you, is not because journalism isn’t essential or noble or brave. It is every bit those things and more. Yet the finest, truest bits of journalism — the bits that topple governments, the bits that win Pulitzers, the bits that inspire generations — are decidedly unglamorous. They are moments of sweat and inspiration and assiduous fact-checking and beachcombing and persistence and doggedness, and it is this good old fashioned grind that keeps the presses rolling, that keeps the idealism alive. The truth may eventually be sexy, but getting to it is frequently a slog.

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It is this slog that Tom McCarthy captures so exquisitely in his taut, ice-cold Spotlight, a film about a group of real-life crusaders taking on a seriously sinister can of worms. The film is named after one of those journalism ideas that sounds, like so many of them do today, too good to be true: a department made up of particularly intrepid reporters at The Boston Globe — an all-star lineup of mavericks and lone-wolfs, banded together. The film tells us how, in 2001, these fine men and women, with some prodding, uncovered an child abuse scandal endemic to the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and McCarthy cuts out all embellishment and makes us face the horror of the facts.

This approach makes for powerful viewing, with a terrific ensemble cast rolling up their sleeves and approaching a lead in that commonsensical way whence all great news stories are born. McCarthy stays restrained and keeps a sharp focus — and, impressively, never slides into flashback, or leans on manipulative visuals of creepy predators lurking around chapel shadows — and his team appears to have done the real Spotlight journalists proud.

Boston is, as the film stresses, a singularly Catholic city, which is perhaps why the Spotlight team had to be pushed into action by an outsider. The new Globe editor, Martin Baron, a Jew from Miami, is objective enough not to be awed by the Church or by Boston convention, and decides to “sue the Church” to lift the seal on some documents, shocking the Spotlight squad before they, finally getting the scent, run with the challenging, daunting story.

The cast is superb, led by Michael Keaton as Spotlight chief Robby Robinson and Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron. Keaton mines the experience and weariness in his face to create a shaky but compelling character who inspires belief and immediate respect, while Schreiber plays his part with marvellously little show, moving his bear-like eyebrows ever so slightly to convey desire or disinclination. Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo each demonstrate highly believable — and dramatically different — approaches to journalistic urgency, and, together with John Slattery and Brian d’Arcy James, these fine actors make a team well worth rooting for.

spotlight2Perhaps the most integral performance in the film, however, comes from the attorney for the victims, Mitchell Garabedian, played by the redoubtable Stanley Tucci. Shoving a salad into his mouth as he talks — too busy to take a lunch break, or to get married — Tucci personifies a man so single-mindedly obsessed with helping people he doesn’t even bask in the triumph of the eventually printed page. Life goes on, and his victims need help. (One of the most haunting moments in the narrative comes when an abused victim, a gay man, speaks of how he felt it was okay to be abused by a priest because he thought it meant the Church approved of his being gay.)

Nothing in this film leaps out at the viewer — not the cinematography, not the editing, not even the lines, save for a few that resonate disturbingly in the head long after the end credits and a devastating post-script about the scandals uncovered eventually by the breaking of this one. This is a film about beliefs shaken and stirred, and features one of the most memorable uses of a Christmas carol, one I find hard to stop thinking about. Silent Night may never sound the same again.

It surprised me how McCarthy employs such a meticulously undemonstrative approach with Spotlight — there is enough attention to detail for this to be labelled a documentarian recreation — and yet consistently shadows the narrative beats of Alan J Pakula’s 1976 classic All The President’s Men so faithfully. In paying homage to that masterwork, Spotlight gains narrative heft but falls back on familiar footholds. It is a film destined to be this generation’s All The President’s Men instead of setting a Spotlight for other films to aspire toward.

Yet this film shines for its determined eagerness to not shine. In another parallel to the Watergate film, Spotlight has John Slattery playing Ben Bradlee Jr — son of the editor Ben Bradlee who pushed President’s Men leads Woodward and Bernstein harder and harder till their story was unimpeachable — but the Watergate connection is never once mentioned. It is, like so much in the film, rightly deemed extraneous. Quite simply, it’s not what needs to be pointed at.

Rating: 4.5 stars

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First published Rediff, February 19, 2016

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