Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Unkindest cuts: Amour and Django Unchained


Django Unchained and Amour are strange bedfellows, but they are bedfellows nonetheless. For even though the former is about slavery in the American South and the other about an old woman dying before her husband’s eyes, they share one essential trait: cruelty towards the viewer. Quentin Tarantino and Michael Haneke both extend the same challenge – can you take what I’m throwing at you? (And if you can’t, maybe it’s because you aren’t tough enough to face up to the horrors of slavery/slow death.)

Neither film offers a reason why we should be seeing any of this. Amour serves creeping decay and death up as if its audience has never heard of it before, or needed reminding that it existed. Haneke is an artiste, an auteur, so his prolonged torture of the beautiful Emanuelle Riva is supposed to be art, life, or some admirable compromise between the two. The appalling violence in Tarantino’s film is an easier target, and many critics have (rightly) taken him to task for it. Me, I dislike slow, painful deaths as much as quick, bloody ones. And I find it as unappealing to watch one human body (even one belonging to a dirty rotten slave trader) being used as a shield as I do another wasting away before my eyes.

Both of these directors have had a long history of being cruel to their characters. The couple systematically tortured in Funny Games scarcely had it worse than The Bride in Kill Bill, who is beaten, raped and buried alive. Even as a fan, it’s pretty clear that since Jackie Brown, Tarantino has become a cartoon filmmaker, a homagemeister. But where Kill Bill had a visual flair that was often breathtaking and Inglourious Basterds’ had at least three superbly constructed set pieces, Django Unchained – the Klan scene and Christoph Waltz’s character notwithstanding – is an empty provocation, a chance to say ‘nigger’ a hundred odd times and show people’s heads being blown off while hiding behind the umbrella of ‘exploitation’.
At least Django Unchained – alternately lurid, poetic, brutal, fetid – feels rudely alive. Amour is death-affirming. I was shocked to read several critics say it was one of Haneke’s warmest films. Where was the warmth that I missed? In the cruel flashback/ forward structure? In the film judging Isabelle Huppert as she asks sensible questions? In the dream of an elderly man in which he’s being robbed? Amour is a film without subtext, without mercy, and without hope. If that’s what passes for great cinema nowadays, I’ll take Lincoln and its small manipulations. I’ll take Beasts of the Southern Wild and its wild risks. I’ll take No, Magic Mike, Moonrise Kingdom: films that give a damn.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Oscar Speeches: The Good, the Bad and the Political

When the Academy Awards first started out, speeches were short and shorn of melodrama. Over time, as Bob Dylan muttered in his Oscar-winning song from Wonder Boys, things have changed. Accepting a golden statuette is no longer a simple task. You have to be funny. Or take a stand. Or mention your co-stars, mentors, competitors, parents, pets, God. It’s no wonder Maureen Stapleton took the easy way out when she won Best Supporting Actress for Reds and thanked “everybody I ever met in my entire life”.

The Good
There are many ways to make a memorable Oscar speech. You can acknowledge your husband, whose name you missed out in your previous Best Actress speech (a grateful Hillary Swank). You can thank your parents without saying ‘I would like to thank my parents’, as Robin Williams did (“Most of all, I want to thank my father, up there, the man who when I said I wanted to be an actor, he said, ‘Wonderful. Just have a back-up profession like welding’”). You can show the world exactly how excited and happy you are, like Cuba Gooding Jr’s re-enactment from Jerry Maguire. Former winners have been inventive (Louise Fletcher signing her speech for her deaf parents), generous (director Billy Wilder pointing to Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine’s contribution to The Apartment) and concise (Joe Pesci stating simply, “It’s my privilege. Thank you”). There are many ways to not mess it up.

The Bad
There are an equal number of ways you could get it wrong. And get it wrong, they do. Like Laurence Olivier, whose 1979 Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech was a baffling thicket of wordiness (“the prodigal, pure, human kindness of it…must be seen as a beautiful star in that firmament which shines upon me at this moment, dazzling me a little, but filling me with warmth of the extraordinary elation”). Or James Cameron, a cautionary tale for directors inclined to quote from their own film, crowing “I’m the king of the world.” Or Julia Roberts, who, in the middle of an indulgent gush, called veteran Academy conductor Bill Conti ‘stick-man’.

These stick-men have actually helped tackle Oscar ramblers. The longest speech ever – five and a half minutes – was delivered by Greer Garson in 1943. Tellingly, she began with “I’m entirely unprepared…” Recently, the Academy has hit back with aggressive use of orchestra. Big talkers have found their final words drowned out in a wash of sound. Not surprisingly, there have been counter-attacks. In a daring moment during his hosting of the 2008 ceremony, Jon Stewart called back to stage Markéta Irglová, the Russian half of the Best Song-winning duo from the movie Once, after the music had cut her off. She went on to make a simple, moving speech, exactly the kind you don’t want cut off.

The Political
The third option – exercised less frequently – is to use the stage to air views that have little to do with thanks. Marlon Brando’s Oscar refusal in 1972 is legendary – he sent a Native American called Sacheen Littlefeather (actually an actress called Maria Cruz) in his place to read a letter protesting the mistreatment of her people. Others prefer to show up and give voice to whatever’s gnawing away at them. In 1975, Bert Schneider, producer of the anti-Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds, read out a message from the Viet Cong, which prompted Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope to hurriedly write out a counter-statement. The pro-Palestine Vanessa Redgrave took the stage in 1977 and railed against ‘Zionist hoodlums’. And Michael Moore contributed the most unpolished put-down ever, with his ‘shame on you George Bush’ tirade in 2003.

As political as Moore’s, but less churlish, was Sean Penn’s 2004 speech, which began: “If there’s one thing that actors know, other than that there weren’t any WMDs, it’s that there is no such thing as best in acting.” In 2009, after winning again for Milk, Penn slyly acknowledged the recent left-liberal domination of Hollywood by thanking the Academy, those “commie, homo-loving songs of guns”. Tom Hanks had also raised the issue of gay rights when he won for his role in Philadelphia, citing the influence of his old drama teacher, who happened to be gay. (This scenario was to become the basis of the Kevin Kline comedy In and Out, making this the first Oscar speech to inspire a movie.) And 34 years before Denzel Washington followed Halle Berry to the podium and wryly remarked “Two birds in one night, huh”, Rod Steiger struck a small blow for civil rights when he credited his friend and co-star Sidney Poitier with enhancing his performance, and ended by stating “we shall overcome”.

This piece appeared in Man's World in time for the Oscars. 

Tough love

Last year, film critics in this country railed against two instances of backward thinking. They castigated Ishaqzaade for Parineeti Chopra's quasi-rape, and Cocktail for its retrograde view of Deepika Padukone’s ‘westernised’ character. Yet, in the almost universally praised English Vinglish, hardly anyone pointed out that a film built around a mother who follows her desires ultimately ends with the same character sacrificing it all for her family. In other words, two easy targets hit, one moving target missed.

In this country, there are several writers who can turn a mean phrase, or craft an acid takedown of Salman’s latest. But how many are truly provocative? To truly provoke is to make a reader question his or her beliefs. Sixty years ago, a diminutive 34-year-old called Pauline Kael was published for the first time in City Lights. She reviewed Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight; unimpressed by the film’s pieties, she titled the piece ‘Slimelight’. It was an auspicious beginning. Kael would go on to become one of the most influential, opinion-dividing critics ever. But she wasn’t the first to elicit strong reactions, and she wouldn’t be the last. Here are four great provocateurs of film criticism.

Manny Farber
Critics writing for mainstream publications have always been under pressure to make their views more accessible. But Manny Farber, who wrote about cinema from the 1940s to the 1970s, was notoriously difficult to pin down. His compliments were warped, backhanded; like this description of John Wayne: “As he moves along at the pace of a tapeworm, Wayne leaves only a path that is bits of shrewd intramural acting.” His description of Jean Luc-Godard’s Weekend was even more puzzling – “a film which loves its body odour”. Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote after his death, “You can’t always be sure whether he’s praising or ridiculing the subject before him. Maybe he’s doing both.” Besides steering criticism away from a thumbs up/down mentality, Farber had a huge influence on the grammar of film writing, coining terms like ‘underground films’, ‘hard sell cinema’ and ‘termite art’.

Pauline Kael
Kael was an admirer of Manny Farber, but her own approach was anything but non-committal. A couple of lines into any review, you’ll know exactly how she feels about the movie. No other writer was as caustic (“Costner has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head” was her reaction to Da nces with Wolves) or as personal. Cinema for her was an obsession, a come-on, and her book titles – I Lost It at the Movies, When the Lights Go Down – reflected this.

Kael wasn’t the first critic to champion lively B-movies over arty ‘prestige’ films – but she was the most emphatic. “Trash,” she once wrote, “has given up an appetite for art.” Her reviews, most of which appeared in The New Yorker between 1967 and 1991, were instrumental in helping directors like Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma grow an audience. Though she died in 2001, her shadow still looms large over film criticism today. Ten years after her death, her biography was published – something no other major critic can boast of.

David Thomson
A Biographical Dictionary of Film has this to say about John Ford, possibly the most famous director of Westerns ever: “The Ford philosophy is a rambling apologia for unthinking violence later disguised by the sham legends of old men fuddled by drink and glory.” The same book claims that Charlie Chaplain lacks “artistic intelligence, real human sympathy, and even humour”. With provocations like this on every page, it seems unlikely that David Thomson’s 1975 book, which has entries on hundreds of actors, directors and writers, would still be in print. Yet, it’s now in its fifth edition, and was voted the best ever book on cinema by Sight & Sound magazine in 2010. Thomson’s arguments may infuriate, but they aren’t easy to poke holes in, informed as they are by an immense knowledge of and affection for cinema. Now in his 70s, he continues to write busily. Look up his columns for The New Republic: you’ll find something to get you riled up – and a whole lot to think about.

Armond White
Type the words ‘troll’ and ‘film critic’ on Google, and the first six entries are all Armond White. White’s gained a reputation as a contrarian, someone who shoots down movies that have amassed a critical or popular consensus, just because he can. His blunt pans have earned him enemies across the board, as have his numerous spats – with the New York Film Critics Circle (of which he was chairman), with directors Michael Moore and Noah Baumbach, and with fellow-scribes Roger Ebert and J Hoberman (he accused the former of destroying film criticism and the latter of racism). 

Amidst all this, White continues to sling out criticism that’s opinionated and uncompromising. He’ll defend anything he thinks is being unfairly criticised, from Jack and Jill to Taken 2. And he has no problem taking on the fanboys (as he did with The Dark Knight), the general public (his frequent Pixar pans) or the highbrows. Let’s face it – you have to be pretty ballsy to elevate Paul WS Anderson’s Resident Evil: Retribution over PT Anderson’s The Master, both of which released on the same day last year. It would be interesting to see him review something like Bol Bachchan; instead of slamming it, he might turn around and point out the genius of Rohit Shetty.

This piece appeared in GQ's March issue.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns: Review

Aditya Pratap Singh, ruler of a princely state in UP, ended Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster pretty much in the dumps. By the time this sequel begins though, he’s bounced back admirably. He’s still wheelchair-ridden – the outcome of a shootout with his wife’s lover – but he’s tipped to start walking within a year. He’s back to pulling political strings, even as Madhavi (Mahie Gill), his wife, turns into an absentee MLA and raging alcoholic. Saheb also has plans to get himself a second wife, someone who’s less likely to seduce the driver and plot his murder, as Madhavi did in part one.

If you’re worried that director Tigmanshu Dhulia might have exhausted the possibilities of royal family subterfuge in the first film, have no fear. Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns has plot enough for three films. First off, there’s the new Gangster, Indrajit Singh (Irrfan), a small-time operator and thug. Indrajit is in love with Ranjana (Soha Ali Khan), the same person Saheb has managed to get himself engaged to. Ranjana’s father, smarting from being made to allow his daughter to go live with an already-married man, asks Indrajit (his employee) to ruin Saheb. Madhavi too wants her husband weakened, but not killed; she turns to Indrajit for help. Indrajit has his own complex revenge agenda; but in the meantime, he might be falling for Madhavi, even as he risks life and limb to meet Ranjana in the haveli. You should spend the interval making a flowchart.

Yet, if you like being hurtled from twist to twist, Dhulia’s film is a fun ride. The writing is sharper than the earlier film, and there are frequent flashes of humour, such as Saheb telling Ranjana’s father that he, a royal, “can afford an extra wife”, or a drunk Madhavi tossing her husband’s new fiancée around on the dance floor. Like in Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar, it feels like the ends of certain scenes have been lopped off, which gives the film a blistering pace and the viewer little time to think. This works in the film’s favour, though, because when you actually start to examine character traits and actions, they don’t always match up.

Shergill, very assured in part one, is even better here. What he really needed was a worthy rival. Indrajit, despite Irrfan’s best efforts, isn’t in the same league. After the brute force of Randeep Hooda as the earlier Gangster, it might have been to this film’s advantage to have someone who’s more of a strategist, able to out-think Saheb. But Gangster can’t even outwit Biwi, who ends up providing the film’s motive force. This means an inebriated Mahie Gill gets a third of the screen time, which is a pity. We love an angry Mahie, but a drunk, pathetic one just makes us sad. More effectively conveying the film’s themes of decay and nostalgia is the sepia-toned cinematography by Yogesh Jani.

I, Me Aur Main: Review

We’re all for character arcs. Casablanca wouldn’t be the same without them, neither would Shri 420. But it stands to reason that if your film centres on one person’s eventual self-discovery, your audience better be willing to journey along with the character. If said character is unappealing or just plain dull, it hardly matters whether they follow an arc or move in a straight line or remain still. That’s the biggest problem debutant director Kapil Sharma’s I, Me Aur Main faces.

Ishan (John Abraham) is a self-centred reprobate, the kind our films like to encourage and then put down in the last act. Shallow and emotionally stunted, he chases skirts, cheats on his girlfriend Anushka (Chitrangada Singh), and deals in the sort of smarmy forthrightness that you’re supposed to be able to get away with if you’re good-looking. The long-suffering Anushka finally dumps him, only to find out that she’s pregnant with his child. While that bomb ticks away, ready to explode at a time convenient to his emotional development, Ishan finds himself another girl to treat badly. Her name is Gauri (Prachi Desai), and the film goes to great lengths to stress how much like regular folk she is, and how good she’d be for this misguided, flip-flop wearing music producer.

It’s a little scary to spend any film entirely in John Abraham’s company. This one is a trial, especially when he stops looking at his reflection and flails around for empathy in the last ten minutes. An early dialogue exchange – Anushka saying “I love you”, Ishan replying “I love me too” – tells you all you need to know about the character’s inflated sense of self, and the film’s indulgence of such obnoxiousness. As if to drive home the point that a female-dominated cast doesn’t necessarily mean there’ll be any worthwhile roles, there’s Zarina Wahab as a mom who can’t tell her no-good son off, and Raima Sen as a corporate honcho so noxious, she makes Ishan look nice. Still, Singh’s composure serves her well, and Desai makes something of a very badly written part.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.