Saturday, December 20, 2014

PK: Review

It begins as all good movies do, with a spaceship hovering over a desert and a naked man clutching a transistor radio. The man, or rather, the alien, will go on to assume the name PK; he's played by Aamir Khan, whose protruding, otherworldly ears must regard this as destiny fulfilled. By the time TV news reporter Jaggu (Anushka Sharma) comes across him, he's acquired clothing and a Bhojpuri accent. He tells her his story, and she shelves her skepticism about his interplanetary origins quicker than one might have thought possible. From then on, it's a search for the locket that'll allow him to contact his home planet. Oh, and along the way, Rajkumar Hirani solves religion.

In his last film, 3 Idiots, Hirani used Aamir Khan's character Rancho to point out the soullessness of our education system. PK is more of the same: Rancho has been replaced by another outsider, and education by organised faith. Hirani and his co-writer Abhijat Joshi would have you know that religion, especially in its enterprise form, is based on fear, that it's exploitative and drives a wedge between regular people (presumably the film's audience). Few sane minds will argue with this, and that's the problem: the film's main thrust really isn't news. But it's breaking news in the movie, which just makes its makers look naïve.

Unfortunately (for me, not for Hirani), this seemed to be a minority view. The audience I saw the film with chuckled when PK attached stickers of gods to his cheeks to avoid getting slapped. They roared when he told godman Tapasvi Maharaj (Saurabh Shukla) that his messages weren't getting through to God because he has a "wrong number". And they looked visibly moved when he staggered around an idol shop, praying to be sent home. After a while, I began to feel like I, not PK, was the alien — removed from the populace, observing them, taking notes.

Hirani is one of the smartest filmmakers in the country, and it's killing his films. No director has a better grip on the viewer's jugular, or a better sense of when to go for the kill. A flagrant example is the scene where he stages one of the most unnecessary bomb blasts in recent Hindi film. Nine out of 10 directors would have milked the shock by adding voices on the soundtrack. Hirani, instead, opts for a Mukesh number, and it's mesmeric. In its programmatic brilliance, the scene reminded me of the suicide in 3 Idiots — so manipulative, yet so well-executed.

Hirani's eye for colour and eccentricity is intact. There are sequences that work precisely because they're so strange, like the one where PK accosts a terrified blue-skinned Shiva in a public toilet. But Hirani's tendency to explain things that really don't require explication is a drag; only his first film, the blithe Munna Bhai M.B.B.S, was free from this. It's a high-wire act — his films, with all their debunking, make the audience feel smart, but he's really treating them like children, telling them how they ought to feel. The soundtrack does much the same, pouring syrup over anything faintly emotional.

It's staggering how well this film fits into the ongoing reality show that is Aamir Khan. When he's on Jaggu's show, tears streaming down his face, he might as well be hosting his own Satyamev Jayate. He's beyond acting now, he's into righting wrongs (as, quite sadly, is Hirani). His performance here is something for sure — but is it something worth commending? With his shuffling walk, flailing limbs and perpetual bug-eyed expression, he offers up a tour de force of mugging for the camera. There was an audible sigh from my friend when Khan said "Sarat manjur hai"; he'd uttered the same words all those years ago in Lagaan. The Aamir of today may as well be an alien for all the resemblance he bears to the Aamir of Lagaan.

Manipulation of an audience's emotions is an integral part of cinema. The trick is to somehow keep them from seeing the wheels turn. If you can figure out how the magician achieved the illusion, it isn't magic at all. PK professes to expose manipulators, but its own visible efforts at manipulation undercut its authority.

This review appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

2014: Year of the Woman

Did this year-end wrap-up column for GQ's December issue. 

“Don’t worry, tum mere saath safe hai.” This is a line from Omung Kumar’s Mary Kom, spoken when a bike carrying a guy and a girl breaks down on a deserted road at night. The speaker, surprisingly, is the girl. Only, by the time the film released, in early September, it wasn’t so surprising. 2014 was an anomaly of a year, one in which Bollywood offered up film after film that questioned prevalent gender attitudes and placed the heroine front and centre, rather than off to the side and in a frilly dress. The titles should have tipped everyone off: Gulaab Gang, Queen, Revolver Rani, Mary Kom, Finding Fanny

It began with Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya. The balance in that sly film shifted on the word ‘lihaf’, a nod to a controversial 1942 short story by Ismat Chughtai. This hint towards possible Sapphic longings in the Madhuri Dixit-Huma Qureshi relationship is underlined by an ingenious bit of shadow play; yet even before this revelation lands with a thud, Arshad Warsi and Naseeruddin Shah must have felt the film slipping away from them. Faced with the prospect that the heroine might not require a hero at the end, all the boys can do is play with their guns, while the girls make off with the money and each other.

In hidebound Bollywood, you can break new ground simply by allowing your female protagonist the choice to be single at the end. In Vikas Bahl’s Queen, Rani, played by Kangana Ranaut, makes choices that wouldn’t – or couldn’t – be made by past Hindi film heroines: to go on her European honeymoon alone after her fiancé dumps her; to room with three boys in an Amsterdam hostel; to develop a crush on (but not an attachment to) an Italian chef. Her final act of self-validation occurs at the end, when she returns her now-contrite fiancé’s ring. What was doubly touching about Queen was the way Ranaut too seemed to be rediscovering herself. In a remarkably candid TV interview around the time of the film’s release, the actress recalled without bitterness how her accent used to made fun of, and how she could never get critics to take her seriously. When host Anupama Chopra asked her what spurred her on, she replied, “Strong criticism. About everything.”

Ranaut wasn’t the only star who chose to address her own public image with humour and self-awareness. Alia Bhatt turned the ridicule her faux pas on Koffee with Karan (‘Prithviraj Chauhan’, in reply to ‘Who’s the president of India?’) had generated on its head by appearing in a YouTube video with the AIB comedy collective. The short showed Bhatt attending a general knowledge boot camp after the fallout of the Karan Johar episode. A few weeks after that, Deepika Padukone fired off an exasperated salvo in response to an ogling Times of India photograph of her, tweeting “Supposedly India’s ‘LEADING’ newspaper and this is ‘NEWS’!!??”

Most of the year’s better films turned and twisted on the choices made by female characters. Hasee Toh Phasee takes a hairpin turn every time Parineeti Chopra is struck by a new bad idea. Highway begins with man metaphorically on top as Randeep Hooda kidnaps Alia Bhatt, but as soon as she decides to make the best of a bad situation – much like Rani in Queen – she becomes the film’s motive force. Like Rani, Bhatt’s Veera refuses to agree to an unexciting arranged marriage, and ends the film on her own, and happy. Deepika Padukone instigates both the road trip and the first, second and third move on Arjun Kapoor in Finding Fanny. And Tabu’s Ghazala is the wilful, bruised heart of Haider.

There were also several films that tweaked gender roles in fascinating ways. Normally, heroines in films like Mardaani or Bobby Jasoos would have to spend half the running time explaining why they’re encroaching upon male territory. But Rani Mukerji’s police inspector and Vidya Balan’s private eye seem so at ease in their own skin that no one bothers to point out that they’re doing a ‘man’s job’. (Contrast this with No One Killed Jessica three years ago, in which Mukerji’s character was a walking, cussing lesson in gender equality.) Female characters fought and won big battles this year – for instance, Mary Kom arguing that career ambitions should never end with motherhood – but maybe the smaller victories will prove just as significant in years to come. I’d be perfectly happy if 2014 was remembered as the year when female characters worked out onscreen while the men pottered around and made tea, something that happens in both Mary Kom and Mardaani.

Of course, it takes just one ridiculous action movie or a shocker like Raanjhanaa to remind us that this is Bollywood (and India). It’s also worth noting that for all the progressiveness displayed by female characters in 2014, only a small handful of the films were by women directors. It was, however, a productive year for women documentary filmmakers: Nishtha Jain’s Gulabi Gang, Nisha Pahuja’s The World Before Her and Deepti Kakkar’s Katiyabaaz (co-directed with Fahad Mustafa) all managed theatrical releases. Geetu Mohandas, meanwhile, made it to Sundance with Liar’s Dice; her film was also selected as India’s entry for the Oscars. It might all come crashing down next year, but if some of the gains of 2014 are built on, we might have taken a couple of significant steps towards a more equal cinema.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Ida: A Jewish nun and a Stalinist judge walk into a bar…

The Kinoteka Polish Film Festival, organised by the Polish Institute at India Habitat Centre in New Delhi, will feature such heavy-hitters as Andrzej Jakimowski's Imagine and the first four episodes of Krzysztof Kieślowski's The Decalogue. Still, the attention of the city's cinephiles will most likely be focussed on Paweł Pawlikowski's Ida. The film, shot in wintry black-and-white, tells the story of Ida, a nun who learns she's actually Jewish from her aunt, Wanda, a former hanging judge fallen on bad days. The two women set off on a road trip to recover fragments of their family's past. The film made a substantial splash on the arthouse circuit this year, landing a spot on Sight & Sound's "Best Films of 2014" list and becoming Poland's official entry to the Oscars [Note: It went on to win].

This is the first time you've made a film in Poland. Was this something you wanted to do for a while?
The time was right to go back to Poland — to make a film there. It's something to do with where you are in life; right now, I'm looking back in time, and looking at essential things — life and death and roots and faith. I don't think I was ready to make that film earlier. When you look at films I've made, they tend to be about whatever's on my mind at that time, so it's not that I have a career plan that I'm going to shoot a film in Poland or go shoot a film in Hollywood, God forbid.

You've written about how you tend to prefer an outline to a detailed screenplay.
Yes, but also, I just don’t think screenplays are any good. I read screenplays, I write them, and I always have the feeling that this isn’t cinema, that this is just a rough roadmap, and a lot of scenes are just there to explain stuff and get me from A to B. I’m the opposite of Hitchcock in that way. It’s not that some magic happens on set. You have to prepare the film really, really well, and for years. And you have to write some kind of screenplay. The more you write, the deeper you get into things, the more you eliminate weak things – literary things – the better.

I find the groundwork is key, not just the screenplay but immersing yourself in that world. Researching, spending time gives you a sense of depth and roots in your subject — living with the thing for years, that's important. So when the filming starts, you're armed, with some stuff that's on the page, and some stuff that's in your subconscious. Everything should feel organic, and the only way you can get that is when you don't feel the manipulation, no matter how manipulated the whole thing is. And the only way to achieve that is if you have the freedom and talent for shaping things: not panicking and not shooting something just because it's in the script — just having the attitude of a sculptor who keeps sculpting away till the thing is finished.

Was it an aesthetic decision to shoot in black-and-white? 
The decision now seems straightforward but at the time there were many reasons for it. It just felt right to do a film that was set in the early '60s in black-and-white and in the 4:3 format, because that's how I remember films from that time — and how I remember the world even, because I only remember the world from films. But also, our family albums of that time were also black-and-white, so my idea of that time was certainly black-and-white, and framed strangely. But when I was doing it, I realised that it was also something to do with the desire to make that world a little more removed from reality, make it a little more abstract. I wanted the viewer to experience the film as a kind of meditation, and the less stimuli you have — colour, movement — the more it becomes a meditation.

The film touches on the persecution of the Polish Jews during the Second World War, but there are no explicit history lessons. Do you prefer to suggest rather than underline themes?
That's absolutely crucial. For me, all good art is about creating characters and landscapes rich in themes, but which don't just stand for any one theme. And I like dialogues from life — people don't always say what they mean, they don't always explain stuff, just for the sake of some dumb audience; they talk the way they talk, full of ambiguity and paradoxes and incoherence. And if you can find poetry in that, great, because it will resonate much more, whereas films where the very shape of the story tells you what to think, where people's dialogues are explaining what they feel, where the music tells you what they feel — that's the majority of cinema, let's face it, but for me, that's not interesting. I watch it, and it washes over me. I watch it with pleasure sometimes, but I won't remember it half an hour later. The film that gets under my skin has to be a little bit more indirect and make me imagine things and experience the world in all its complication and reality.

You employed the 4:3 "Academy ratio". As a result, there's an unusual amount of space above the characters' heads...
It started quite innocently. I realised in rehearsals that this square format is really good for faces and portraits, but it's not great for landscapes. So then, for argument's sake, I just tilted the camera up to see what would happen if we didn't frame it a normal way. And it works, it felt intuitively right. Later, I realised it felt right because there's a vertical dimension to this film — and since then, a lot of critics have written about the presence of God or the absence of God or the absence of millions of people who disappeared in the war. Critics do what they do, but it started with: "How can we make this shot more interesting?"

You worked with a new cinematographer, Lukasz Zal, on this instead of your regular DoP, Ryszard Lynzewski.
[Lynzewski] didn't agree with where this film was going. He dropped out very early on, so I had to shoot with a camera operator who'd never shot a film in his life. Lukasz started as the operator, and after practically the first day, he became the DoP. Of course, the framing and everything is very much my conception, but he got it, and he liked the risk involved — he had no reputation to lose, and he went as far as we wanted, so it was a pleasure working with him.

It's remarkable, especially in the context of today's cinema, to note the stillness of so many of the scenes in Ida. And yet, there's a tension within this stillness...
There's a lot of tension anyway in the film, so you can afford to be understated and still. I hope that there was tension and mystery and some kind of beauty — that it wasn't like watching paint dry. In a way, the film was kind of dictating what was right. If the framing is wrong, if the lighting is over-elaborate, if the sound is too much, the film will reject it. All you have to do is listen to your own film.

It is also, given the subject matter, a strangely funny film.
Poland is a strangely funny country. People are quite acerbic and witty in Poland. Also, the very situation is kind of bonkers, a nun and a Stalinist judge going on the road together is really quite funny. So yes, there's a sense of the absurd. And Wanda has a sharp tongue — her sense of humour is inherited from my father. Some of the lines I gave her are directly from my father.

Jazz was crucial to several Polish "youth films" in the '60s. Did that guide your use of it here?
All the music in the film is music I love, so it wasn't an intellectual choice, really. There's a mixture of lively music — some of it was the pop music of the early '60s, hillbilly rock and Italian-style kitsch music, which Poland was full of then. That was the music you'd hear on the radio then.

The jazz was more ambitious music — it started in the mid-to-late '50s. Poland became the capital of jazz in Europe. Jazz was banned in other countries, but in Poland it was allowed. Komeda, Namyslowski, Przybielski, Stańko — a lot of really, really great musicians came through. Coltrane was a huge influence, and "Naima" is one of my favourites, and in the scene [with Ida and a saxophone player who fancies her] it's a way of making her fall in love with him, not as an individual but as a cloud of associations.

What led to you to cast Agata Trzebuchowska, who'd never shot a film before, as Ida?
I am usually very open-minded about casting anyway. In My Summer of Love, I cast two young girls, Emily Blunt and Natalie Press, and Emily went on to be a well-known actress. [Agata] was just a girl, you know, she just felt right for the part. It wasn't like a big design, it's just that I couldn't find a good Ida for a long time among professional actors, so I ended up using a girl who we found at a café, who didn't want to act and still doesn't want to act, and whose refusal to act was just perfect. She doesn't believe in God at all, but in her atheism she's so coherent and calm and principled that it just felt like she's much closer to somebody who's deeply religious than girls who were telling me, "Ah, we always wanted to play nuns all our life."

This piece appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Sulemani Keeda: Review

Amit Masurkar's Sulemani Keeda, a film about two fledgling screenwriters schlepping their script across Mumbai, was good enough to get me thinking about what it was not. It's a decade and a half too late to be Hyderabad Blues. It isn't insightful enough about Bollywood to be Luck By Chance. It's got the dirty mouth of Delhi Belly, but lacks its relentless forward momentum. What we're left with, then, is something that's part buddy movie, part romantic comedy, part indie satire. It doesn't exactly add up, but it's smart — and small — enough to make its audience feel superior to the objects of its derision.

Dulal (Naveen Kasturia) and Mainak (Mayank Tewari) are trying to get their screenplay, tentatively titled "Sulemani Keeda", to the upper echelons of Bollywood. We watch them pitch to Mahesh Bhatt ("It's a mix of LSD and Hukumat, with shades of Dev. D And the costumes will be like Gadar") and Anil Sharma, and try and land meetings with Farah Khan and Karan Johar. No details about the film they're writing are divulged, but we instinctively know that it's unlikely to be very good — neither sad-sack Dulal nor his unchained id of a writing partner seem especially bright. They look down on their TV serial-writing brethren, but the one line they quote from their script — "Gaanja maangoge Coke denge, rishwat maangoge thok denge" — suggests that there's a reason they're strugglers. They may think they're Salim-Javed, but they're actually Farhad-Sajid.

The in-joke at the heart of Sulemani Keeda is that the producer, Tulsea Pictures, is a firm which hooks young writers up with film projects. One wishes, though, that the satire had a little more bite — that it hewed closer to the struggles of Tulsea's actual clientele. Instead, we get a series of pro-forma jabs at Bollywood, and a couple at the pretensions of indie cinema. Most of these are supplied by Gonzo (Karan Mirchandani), the delusional coke-snorting son of a famous producer, who hires the duo to write his "launch film". Mainak the hustler goes along with his ridiculous demands ("I want lustless orgies"), while Dulal just keeps getting more and more depressed. It's not that the scenes with Gonzo aren't funny, just that this sort of loony indie director character seems somewhat old hat. And his turnaround is one the film's more predictable jokes: the same Gonzo who starts off wanting to make a film with no story and no hero has given up his dreams of Tarkovsky and is starring in a Shetty-esque (now that's an unfortunate adjective) action comedy.

The film finds its rhythm — and its heart — in the scenes with Ruma, a girl Dulal meets at a party. Ruma is played by Aditi Vasudev, Rishi Kapoor's willful daughter in Do Dooni Chaar. She's just as self-possessed here, cutting through Mainak's constant stream of bullshit and recognising something like potential in mopey Dulal. The scenes where they're getting to know each other are beautifully written and played; the Sewri sequence, especially, is as effortless an example of young people walking the line between talking and flirting as any in recent Hindi cinema. You can see why Dulal is attracted to Ruma — she's everything he and his cartoonish, skirt-chasing partner are not: witty, driven and in total control. "I never thought you could speak so much," she tells Dulal, just when he begins to open up to her at the party. Followed by: "I like men who are not that good-looking." In boxing, it's called a one-two punch.

Sulemani Keeda is visibly indie, both in terms of its spartan style (shot on digital, using actual locations) and its ethos (building scenes around long, rambling conversations). The film is generating a reasonable amount of advance buzz, and hopefully it'll attract a large enough audience to encourage others to take up small, specific projects instead of large, predictable ones. This is a very likeable film: the writing (by Masurkar) is unstrained, the performances by and large amusing. If I expected a little more from it, the fault might lie more in me than in the film.

This review appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Why Craig Ferguson will be missed

I remember the exact moment I became a Craig Ferguson nut. It was an episode from February 2007, in which the host of the Late Late Show said at the top of his monologue: "I'm going to do something a little bit different tonight." In the language of late night, this sort of statement is often just a set-up for a joke, and when Craig mentions Britney Spears — who'd recently been in the news for shaving her head — you can hear the audience titter in anticipation. What follows is extraordinary. Craig proceeds to recount, over the course of nine minutes, his own protracted troubles with alcohol. The best line is when he's explaining how he came close to committing suicide, but was saved when someone offered him a glass of sherry. "One thing led to another, and I forgot to kill myself that day," he says ruefully.

Before this episode, I knew Craig as the creepy English boss from The Drew Carey Show and from his stand-up. He must have seemed an unlikely choice for an American late night show host when he started in 2005 — a Scotsman with a pronounced accent, and very far from a household name. And some of those early shows (which can be seen on YouTube) do look stiff and rehearsed, with Craig seemingly trying to fit some popular idea of what a talk show host should be like. I suspect that something clicked inside him in 2008, when he started to tear up, in full view of the camera, the question cards that his staff would leave for him. This freedom to go off-script loosened him up, and he began to introduce a series of outlandish tropes — offering his guests the choice between a big cash prize and an awkward pause — many of which would become part of the show's DNA.

The Late Late Show, which airs at 11.35 p.m. and 12.35 a.m. on the two American coasts, is the hip, broke younger brother of the shows in earlier time slots, the ones with Leno, Letterman, Conan. This has its obvious drawbacks — there's no announcer, no band, less money for fancy gags, and a lower profile of guests. Craig's masterstroke lay in calling attention to these limitations and turning them into a series of good-hearted jabs. Once, when scheduled guest Sean William Scott got stuck in traffic, he interviewed the coordinator in charge of that segment. There's little that's gone wrong on the show that Craig hasn't called attention to — a leak in the roof, non-functioning lights. Many of the barbs are aimed at the long-suffering producer, Michael Naidus, whose beatific resignation just makes Craig's fake indignation funnier.

In 2010, after five years without a sidekick that CBS couldn't afford, Craig introduced Geoff Peterson, a "gay robot skeleton". Geoff (voiced by Josh Robert Thompson) bantered with Craig like Andy Richter with Conan or Paul Shaffer with Letterman, but more importantly, he gave Craig a chance to poke fun at one of the most sacred of late night gimmicks — that of the straight man. That he began to be treated, over time, as a regular sidekick, was an intriguing commentary on talk show formulae and the audience's need for familiar tropes. (The layers of meta-narrative increased when Larry King voiced Geoff in one episode and told Craig, "You didn't want a robot who thinks, you didn't want someone who creates of his own mind...")

The best episodes were the ones where things seemed to spin rapidly out of control. Few TV hosts laugh as much as Ferguson does onscreen, or with such abandon. Anything can trigger off these episodes — a particularly dirty wisecrack by Geoff, or a bad piece of writing by his own staff (Johnny Carson would also riff on jokes that flopped, but his would invariably be a reaction to the audience reacting). And when Craig really starts to laugh, he can't stop. In one episode, Geoff reveals that he has homes in New Orleans, Edinburgh and New Hampshire, and invites Craig to come over and "throw beads". It's hardly a joke at all, but something about a blue-eyed robot saying all this tickles Craig. Soon, he's doubled over, clutching his face and thumping the desk.

The high point of absurdist comedy on the show is almost certainly the Icarus episode. It all began when Josh, who was indulging in a spot of self-promotion, was tweeted at with the words, "Careful, Icarus". Craig and Geoff spend the entire show riffing on Icarus (who flew too close to the sun), his father Daedalus and a hapless audience member who happened to have a chin beard ("I love that upside-down head look"). Off-kilter material like this, which suits Craig so well, would likely have defeated most other late night hosts. Letterman would have given a dry chuckle and returned to his regular monologue. Leno would probably have made fun of the sender for referencing Greek legends and trying to be superior. Fallon, Kimmel, Myers — they'd just reject it out of hand.

Perhaps because Craig is such a high-energy host, the episodes in which he dials it down are especially memorable. His 2009 interview of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu won him a Peabody and, by his own admission, "freed him up" as a host. There were long, moving epitaphs for his father and his mother. And there was the "no audience" episode in which he and Stephen Fry sat in an empty studio and talked about Fry's bipolar disorder and the history of late night. To steal a phrase Kenneth Tynan used in his terrific 1978 New Yorker profile of Johnny Carson, this was Craig doing the "salto mortale" — acrobat-speak for a somersault performed on a tightrope.

Craig, like all his contemporaries, regards Carson as something of a god. In a way, his own career has been built on huffing and puffing at the house that Johnny built. Yet, his deconstruction of the genre is never without affection; unlike Jack Paar, he tempers his edginess with self-deprecation. It would be nice to say that his daring and boundless invention was appreciated, that it changed late night TV in some visible way, but the sad truth is that the scene is still hide-bound and formulaic; the domain of middle-aged white men, as Ferguson often reminded his audience. If a Scotsman with a talking robot and a fake horse called Secretariat couldn't shake things up, it might be time for a more symbolic gesture, like having a woman or an African-American host one of the late night shows. (Executives would do well to remember that until three years ago, daytime talk TV was ruled by an African-American woman.) But in the meanwhile, tune in on 19 December for one last jig with Secretariat and one final awkward pause with Craig Ferguson.

This piece appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Boyhood: Review

Getting an actor to age convincingly on film is a tricky business. Something always gets in the way – imperfect makeup, or a too-perfect performance. Some directors have tried to tackle the problem by revisiting the same characters over the course of several films — Francois Truffaut in his Antoine Doinel series, or Michael Apted's "Up" documentaries. But as far as showing the passage of time over the course of a single film is concerned, there's never been anything like Richard Linklater's Boyhood.

You have to wonder what kind of crystal-ball-gazing Linklater was doing in the summer of 2002. He was still a year away from the box-office smash of School of Rock, and two years from the first time-jump sequel to Before Sunrise. His last three releases were The Newton Boys, Waking Life and Tape — films that many Linklater fans haven't seen. Yet, somehow he had the vision (and the nerve) to pitch a project to IFC: a film that would be shot over 12 years with the same actors. Amazingly, they agreed, and gave him an annual budget of $200,000. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke were cast as the boy's parents, and Ellar Coltrane as the protagonist, Mason Evans.

We first see Mason as a six-year-old, lying on the grass and looking up at the blue sky. His reverie is interrupted by his mother, but it's an early clue as to the dreamy, detached attitude he'll carry into his teens. It's through his largely passive eyes that we see his parent's separation (which takes place before the movie begins), his mother's relationships with — as he later puts it — a "parade of drunken assholes", and multiple changes of homestead and hometown. We see him bicker with his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter). We watch them fight with their mother, lose their puppy fat, grow their hair short and long. More imperceptibly, we watch as they develop personalities. They're different every time we see them, yet they're the same people. It's like watching a family album come to life.

With this film and 2013's Before Midnight, it feels like Linklater's gravitating towards a kind of spiky naturalism (as opposed to the more easygoing naturalism of his earlier films). Yet, Boyhood also serves as a summation of the director's stellar career. You have the continuing preoccupation with time and memory that's at the heart of most of his films, but especially the Before trilogy and Waking Life; and the long conversation scenes that have been such an integral of his directorial style since his 1991 debut Slackers. A decade after School of Rock, it's a reminder of how comfortable this director is working with kids. But the film Boyhood most fondly (though obliquely) references is his 1993 breakthrough feature Dazed and Confused, also about schoolkids in Texas. Both films feature a cameo by David Blackwell as a kindly convenience store clerk, and both have scenes in which the protagonist's mother asks him if he's been drinking.

There's very little I can tell you about the plot of Boyhood that'll convince you to see this film. In fact, for the first 45 minutes or so, you might wonder why a film this normal need have been made at all. But the thing to remember is that these are young kids: giving them sparkling, snappy lines would be a betrayal of what Linklater has set out to achieve. As they inch their way towards a rough eloquence, so does the film. I don't know if you'll be as moved as I was by the faintest hint of the six-year-old Mason's face in that of the young man going off to college. But even if you aren't, I hope we can agree that this — and not some Dylan Thomas-quoting space opera — is what true cinematic ambition looks like.

This review appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Rang Rasiya: Review

When it works at all, the Indian Censor Board works in mysterious ways. Just last week, I was left gritting my teeth when two absolutely crucial scenes in Gone Girl were altered beyond recognition because they contained a little nudity. Then, just to mess with everyone's minds, they let a nude scene slip through — in a Hindi film! It's alarming that this is something that merits reporting, let alone celebration. After all, it's barely five seconds of skin (presented quite matter-of-factly) in a two-hour film. But just like Omakara and Ishqiya pushed the door open for swearing in commercial Hindi cinema, maybe Rang Rasiya will usher in other censorship policies that belong to this century.

There's another reason why I started this review by talking of this briefest of nude scenes. It is, sadly, the most interesting thing about Ketan Mehta's film. Not the scene itself, mind you, but the fact that the censors let it go through after five years. Rang Rasiya, about the great 19th century painter Raja Ravi Varma, was actually made in 2008, but was stayed by the censors. Over the years, it acquired a reputation as a suppressed masterpiece. I'm glad it's finally in theatres, untarnished. Rang Rasiya deserves to be rejected on its own terms.

The movie is constructed as a series of nested flashbacks — which sounds more interesting than it actually is. We start off in the present, with a violent mob protesting an auction of Varma's paintings, several featuring Hindu mythological figures in various stages of undress. We're then taken back in time and shown Varma's journey, from a precocious child in 1850s Kerala to the brash young genius who fused Indian and European art traditions. Later, at a temple in Bombay, he meets the woman who'll become his muse. Her name is Sugandha, and even though the film treats it like a big reveal, it's no surprise when she turns out be a prostitute (the irony of devotional portraits being modelled on a veshya is too much for even an old hand like Mehta to turn down).

Varma had a singularly interesting life: he travelled the country in an age when few Indians did that, started a printing press, and was awarded the Kaisar-i-Hind medal by Lord Curzon. The film does try to include a lot of these little details; I was reminded, for instance, that Dadasaheb Phalke worked with Varma in his press before embarking on his pioneering career in cinema. But unlike Harishchandrachi Factory, the 2009 film on Phalke's life, this one never establishes its period setting satisfactorily. Most of the dialogue sounds like it's out of a Bollywood film — did girls in the 1870s really threaten to hit strangers with their chappals?

As Varma, Randeep Hooda is an intriguing mix of stubbornness and charm, ambition and naiveté. Often, he seems to be fighting against the film's silliness, lending it a dignity it desperately needs. The women he's paired with, though, are uniformly awkward — Tripta Parashar as Varma's wife, Feryna Wazheir as a Parsi woman who helps him out in Bombay, and Nandana Sen as Sugandha. Sen is onscreen the most after Hooda, and though she's obviously trying hard, her Tweety Bird voice and perpetual wide-eyed expression make her difficult to take seriously. Only Gaurav Dwivedi, in his scenes as Varma's harried younger brother, suggests a character intriguing enough to merit his own sub-plot.

Is Mehta turning into another Dev Anand — unable to distinguish between a halfway decent lyric and "Tere tan mandir mein mera man khoya"? He's no stranger to bad moviemaking — try as I might, I can't un-watch Maya Memsaab or Oh Darling! Yeh Hai India! Yet, this is also the person who made Bhavni Bhavai and Mirch Masala, films in which he displayed, at the very least, a unique visual sensibility. Perhaps his next, Manjhi: The Mountain Man, with Nawazuddin Siddiqui, will be a return to form. In Rang Rasiya's case, however, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

This review appeared in the Sunday Guardian.

Gone Girl: Review

I'd hate to be inside David Fincher's mind. I picture a waiting room done in blacks and greys, surfaces gleaming. Piped music that sounds like cats being electrocuted. A couple of books stacked in a corner: Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, Observations on Bloodletting, A Clockwork Orange. "L'enfer, c'est les autres", the sign over the door reads. "Hell is other people."

Has there ever been a director who has subjected his characters and audience to as much misery as Fincher has? Gwyneth Paltrow's head was handed to Brad Pitt in Se7en, Edward Norton beat himself to a pulp in Fight Club and Rooney Mara had a miserable time as the heroine of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. And that's just a top tier of malcontents and misanthropes who've wandered through his films. So it's hardly surprising that his latest, Gone Girl, adapted by Gillian Flynn from her 2012 novel, has these words right at the start: "When I think of my wife, I picture cracking her lovely skull, unspooling her brains."

The skull in question belongs to Amy — Amazing Amy to fans of her parents' children's books. Her husband, Nick, is also a writer, rendered jobless by the recession. It's their fifth wedding anniversary, but Nick's hiding out in a bar. When he does reach home, he finds a broken table and no sign of his wife. Decades of TV procedurals have taught us what happens next: traces of blood, search parties, vigils, press conferences. Then, with no answers forthcoming, people start to wonder why Nick is acting so normal.

At first, there seems to be some justice in Nick finding himself the object of suspicion for his wife's murder. We learn, through flashbacks narrated by Amy, how he became distant and unloving; how he pushed her violently; how he had an affair with a student. Yet, the more we learn about Amy, the more we're reminded that in Fincher's world nobody's nice, everyone's out to get theirs and the sun never shines. Characters are introduced — a pair of stolid detectives, a couple of old boyfriends, one with a history of mental instability — but the focus remains on Nick and his girl, now presumed gone from this world.

It's only when it switches from a straight-ahead mystery to an indictment of 21st century media culture that Gone Girl becomes truly riveting — and surprisingly funny. Once Nick realises that his stoicism is hurting his chances, he begins to perform for the cameras. "First they like me, then they dislike me, then they hate me, and now they love me," he says, half-unbelieving, to his twin sister, the only person who still believes he might be innocent.

Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike may not have been obvious choices for the leads, but the more the film progresses, the better Fincher's instincts seem. Affleck has always held back as an actor, a tendency that makes Nick seem all the more guilty. Pike, on the other hand, alternates between bottling up her resentment and letting it explode, her deep black eyes burning holes in the scenery. Carrie Coon is terrific as Nick's straight-talking sister, though Neil Patrick Harris as Amy's psycho ex feels a little like stunt casting. The score, like the previous two Fincher films, is by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor. It might be their best yet: romantic and warped, chilly and enveloping.

And, of course, there's the man pulling the strings. It's been 22 years since Alien 3, and you have to give the man credit for not softening his worldview after all this time. Like a more commercial Michael Haneke, Fincher uses his formidable skills to turn sadism into art. And in Flynn, he seems to have found his misanthropic ideal: the novelist is set to write a season of the upcoming HBO show Utopia, which he'll direct. "All  we did was resent each other, try to control each other. We caused each other pain," Nick says at one point. "That's marriage," Amy replies. That's Fincher.

This review appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The New Pornographers: Brill Bruisers

The New Pornographers are often referred to as a supergroup, but that’s pretty generous. Sure, Neko Case has a tidy solo career going, and Dan Bejar is very important in Pitchfork-verse. But who outside of Canada has heard of Zumpano, Limblifter or Maow, some of the bands the Pornographers were in previously? And how many have heard of Carl Newman and Kurt Dahle, or John Collins or Blaine Thurier?

There’s little that’s path-breaking about the Pornographers’ sound. Unlike, say, Arcade Fire, they’re perfectly happy to craft their perfect pop songs, album after album. I use the term “pop” not as a description of their sound – they’re unequivocally a rock ‘n roll band – but because the best Pornographers tracks convey the same sense of joy and wit that early Beatles and Motown singles did.   

The title of their sixth studio album, Brill Bruisers, is a reference to the New York building where songwriters like Goffin-King and Liber-Stoller wrote hits in the early ‘60s. It’s a fitting analogy: the New Pornographers construct their music as intricately any of those early pop hits. Lyrically, Brill Bruisers may be more upbeat than their last, 2012’s Together, but it wouldn’t be fair to say it represents any major change of approach. Put another way, if you already like their sound – bright, driving, crunchy pop-rock, like a wilder Fleetwood Mac – this is more of the same.

Fans of harmony – a particular strength of the Pornographers – will have much to delight in here. Many of the songs employ two-part leads and three- or four-part backing harmonies: “Hi-Rise” is built out of interlocking vocals, while “Champions of Red Wine” has overlapping voices of the kind that R.E.M used to use. With Newman singing in a falsetto a lot of the time, it’s fun to try and figure out whether it’s him, Case or Calder adding “la-la-las” in the background. Dan Bejar takes the lead on “War on the East Coast” and “Spidyr”, and his low-key vocals and the nervy lyrics are a welcome change from the day-glo propulsion of the rest of the album.

Newman is the closest thing this group has to a guiding vision – he’s written 10 of the 13 songs on Brill Bruisers, and sung a majority of them too. Newman is just fine, but I could’ve done with a little more of Neko Case in full cry, one of the signal pleasures of modern rock. Still, this album is a strong addition to the Pornographers’ remarkable consistent discography. “You tell me where to be, I'll be there,” they all chorus on the closing track, “You tell me”. It’s this willingness to please, while sticking to their unique sound, that’s endeared this band to so many.

A truncated version of this piece was carried in The Sunday Guardian.  

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Lo and Behold: New and old Basement Tapes

There was no organisation/ I wanted to join/ So I stayed by myself/ and took out a coin/ There I sat with my eyes in my hand/ contemplated killing a man

Bob Dylan wrote these lines in 1967. At the time, he was holed up with The Band in their house near Woodstock, recording the tracks that would turn up on the most famous bootleg in the history of popular music, The Basement Tapes. Nothing To It, the source of the above lines, was one of the many songs Dylan wrote during this fertile period that never made it to tape. Till now, that is. Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, an album of lost Dylan lyrics interpreted by contemporary recording artists, is set to release on 4 November.

The project was born in the autumn of 2013, when producer T Bone Burnett received a message from Dylan's publisher, asking if he'd like to do something with a box of lyrics the songwriter had penned in 1967. After confirming that he had Dylan's go-ahead, Burnett, as he later stated in The Guardian, "set out to come up with something that would do justice to Dylan and be true to the spirit in which the lyrics were originally written". He assembled a group of musicians who were, in his words, "music archaeologists": Elvis Costello, Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons), Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops) and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes). The sessions resulted in more than 40 recordings, 20 of which are on the Lost on the River album.

The project was born in the autumn of 2013, when producer T Bone Burnett received a message from Dylan’s publisher, asking if he’d like to do something with a box of lyrics the songwriter had penned in 1967. Many of these musicians have had brushes with Dylan or his music in the past. A legendary songwriter in his own right, Costello has shared a stage with Dylan on several occasions. Burnett and Mumford collaborated on the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack, an evocation of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the days before Dylan arrived and took over. (Burnett was also a guitarist in Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue back in 1975.) James sang Going to Acapulco, a Basement Tapes number, on the I'm Not There soundtrack, and both he and Goldsmith toured with Dylan in 2013 along with their bands. Even session drummer Jay Bellerose, a longtime Burnett collaborator, has a Dylan connection — he worked with Bob's son Jakob on the album Women + Country.

Four animated videos of Lost on the River numbers have been released, each featuring the original handwritten lyrics. When I Get My Hands On You, sung fetchingly by Mumford, is a straightforward love lyric, the kind that the Dylan of 1966 would've sneered at, but the Dylan of Nashville Skyline would probably have recorded. Married to My Hack opens like something off Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones, with tremolo guitar, rumbling drums and Costello singing "Five in the morning, she'd fix my lunch/ put it in a paper sack". James takes the lead on Nothing To It, while Giddens gives an intriguing R&B edge to the Celtic-flavoured Spanish Mary.

Lost on the River will inevitably be compared to the original Basement Tapes, a daunting proposition for Burnett & Co. There's little that needs to be reiterated about Bob Dylan circa 1966, except that with Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, he was on a hot streak the likes of which had never been seen in rock 'n' roll before (or since). And then there was The Band; man for man, the most versatile bunch of rock musicians ever assembled. Levon Helm, the drummer, also played the mandolin; Garth Hudson, a strong contender for the best organist ever, could write horn charts and tinker with and play a bewildering array of instruments. Rick Danko played bass as well as the fiddle; Richard Manuel was on piano but also doubled up on drums. Robbie Robertson played lead guitar and wrote most of the songs. Manuel, Danko and Helm all sang lead. And this tells you nothing about the sympathy with which they played; the way instruments and voices intertwined and melded until it was difficult to separate organ from piano, and Danko's cries from Manuel's.

The music on the Basement Tapes was different from the "wild mercury" sound of Dylan's three pioneering electric albums. After nearly losing his life in a 1966 motorcycle accident, he repaired to West Saugerties, where his former backing group, The Hawks (soon to be known as The Band), had set up shop. When they'd backed Dylan in '65 and '66, their live sound was majestic and very, very loud. By contrast, the songs recorded in their basement in '67 were largely acoustic, relaxed and playful. They drew upon folk, bluegrass, country, blues and Appalachian ballad traditions — the real American songbook.

A collection of tracks circulated as an acetate among musicians in 1969; and several featured on the "Great White Wonder" bootleg. Finally, an official album was released by Columbia in 1975. By then, songs like Tears of Rage, Million Dollar Bash and You Ain't Goin' Nowhere had been covered by artists ranging from The Byrds to Fairport Convention.

The original Basement Tapes album only had 24 tracks, out of the 100-plus songs recorded. But now, if you're the sort who obsesses over such things, you'll have the opportunity of listening to a close-to-complete version of the sessions. Along with Lost on The River, November will see the release of The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete, a 138-track compilation with completed tracks, alternate takes and demos. It makes you wonder what else is still hidden in that basement. At the end of his 1997 book Invisible Republic, Greil Marcus writes of the elusive, history-evoking songs on the Basement Tapes: "Each performance makes part of a map, which like so many of the songs, and the territory they describe, remain unfinished." So let's celebrate the Basement Tapes, but also remain open to the possibility of new territories being mapped.

This piece appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

The Judge: Review

There was a time, back when "The Avengers" meant the old TV series, when Robert Downey Jr was good. Not just a star, you understand, but an actor. The freewheeling unpredictability of his acting in those early days was something to behold; stealing scenes in Short Cuts and Natural Born Killers, waltzing through the demanding physical comedy of Chaplin. Then came the drugs, the arrests, the bottoming out. Rehab followed: Wonder Boys, A Scanner Darkly, Zodiac. Finally, in 2008 came Iron Man, and Downey Jr. was a star again. Real acting would have to wait.

It's been a lucrative six years. Downey Jr's now at the heart of three gigantic franchises — he's done three Iron Man films, two as Sherlock Holmes, and one with the Avengers gang (the sequel's in pre-production). Still, one wonders whether Downey Jr sometimes feels the urge to something other than trade wisecracks and wear funny suits onscreen. The Judge suggests that he does.

It's a tale as old as Hollywood. Big-town lawyer, shark-like in courtrooms but unhappy in his moneyed, embittered soul, is called back to his hometown. He's initially disdainful of the people there, but they eventually teach him the true meaning of the law and the value of family and friendship, and so on. In its first 30 minutes, David Dobkin's film determinedly ticks off every lawyer/homecoming film cliché in the book. Distant, dismissive dad? Yes. Washout brother who never managed to leave town? Sure. Old girlfriend with a sharp tongue who still carries a torch for our hero? You know it.

Since this is that kind of film, it also stands to reason that although Hank (Downey Jr) returns to the homestead in Indiana as a result of his mother's passing, it'll take something more dramatic to make him stay. That circumstance duly arrives when his father, Judge Palmer (Robert Duvall), is involved in a road accident and accused of murder. Eventually, and very reluctantly, the judge allows his son to take on his case. As if that's not enough melodrama, the judge confides in Hank that he has cancer.

They say that if you're a doctor, you shouldn't operate on a family member. After watching this film, I'm convinced they should have a similar rule for lawyers. Hank and his dad turn the trial into one big Dr-Phil-family-therapy session. I kept hoping for something like the wit and sleight-of-hand plotting of My Cousin Vinny, but The Judge has bigger emotional fish to fry. We learn why Hank and his father haven't met in 20 years, and why his brother Glen is stuck with running a tyre store. It's not much of a revelation, but the film milks it for all it's worth, with Downey Jr and Duvall yelling at each other while a hurricane rages outside.

All this sounds terrible on paper, and it doesn't work on screen for the most part. But it does work just a little. Much of this is down to Downey Jr, who throws himself into the role as if he were acting in a much better film. His scenes with the 83-year-old Duvall, who's been playing crusty old codgers for 30 years now, have a Hollywood crackle to them — the sort of playacting that's easy to spot and difficult to resist. And they have strong support: Vincent D'Onofrio as Glen, Billy Bob Thornton as a smooth prosecuting lawyer, and the always-welcome sight of Vera Farmiga as Hank's old flame. As the film progresses and you realise it isn't going to become much starter, it's easier to sit back and enjoy the emotional manipulation and scenery-chewing. Predictable, hokey and melodramatic — but not a total loss.

This review appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

To Thine Own Self Be True: Basharat Peer on Haider

Midway through  Curfewed Night, his non-fiction book about growing up in Kashmir in the 1990s, Basharat Peer describes an incident that took place in the aftermath of the infamous Gowkadal massacre. On 21 January 1990, a group of Kashmiri protestors on the Gowkadal Bridge in Srinagar was fired upon by CRPF jawans. In the book, Peer draws upon the memories of one Farooq Wani, an eyewitness who survived by pretending to be dead and being carted off with the dead bodies. At the hospital, Wani remembers a teenager leaping from the pile of bodies, soaked in blood, shouting "I got no bullets. I got no bullets. I am alive." It's a moment worthy of a movie. What remains to be seen is whether Vishal Bhardwaj's Hamlet adaptation, Haider, which Peer has written the screenplay for, is a movie worthy of these moments.

Bollywood, so partial to pre-conflict-era Kashmir, has never been comfortable with addressing the militancy years in the valley. Only a handful of films — Roja, Mission Kashmir, Yahaan — have tried to tackle the issues that have plagued this region: terrorism, local unrest, army occupation. Few have been successful; of the Kashmir-set Hindi films I've seen, only the Srinagar segment of Onir's I Am manages to convey what it must be like to live in a militarised state. Haider, therefore, has a lot riding on it. In the first place, it will be compared to Bhardwaj's earlier Shakespeare films, Maqbool and Omkara, landmarks of modern Hindi cinema. It may also have to shoulder the burden of being a one-size-fits-all representation of the Kashmir issue — not least because its screenwriter is a journalist who's written passionately about the valley and its problems.

When I met Peer at a café in Nizamuddin East, he brushed off concerns about the added scrutiny the film might have to undergo. "You can't get the entire story of Kashmir in one film," he said. "It's not reportage, but it's informed by reality. We're trying to be true to Shakespeare, and we're trying to be true to Kashmir." His involvement with the project happened by chance, when Bhardwaj read a copy of Curfewed Night and decided to set his third Shakespeare film in Kashmir. He called Peer up and asked him if Hamlet or King Lear made more sense as a Kashmir story. Peer immediately suggested Hamlet; as he told me later, "Kashmir is a place where ghosts speak." Bhardwaj asked him to try his hand at a treatment, and upon hearing the results, hired him as screenwriter. Peer flew to Bombay, and in just 10 days, they'd worked out a broad structure for the film.

Peer had written as a journalist for publications ranging from Granta to the New Yorker, but he'd never attempted a screenplay before. In the beginning, the dialogue he wrote was long, descriptive. But as he progressed, he realised that "the visuals convey so much that you have to be very precise in your choice of words". He worked closely with Bhardwaj on the screenplay, writing drafts which the director would then revise. Sometimes, Peer would have to rein in Bhardwaj, whose Urdu writing style (Maqbool,  Dedh Ishqiya) tends towards the ornate. "I'd have to tell him 'He's a Kashmiri lawyer, he can't sound like Vishal Bhardwaj. You're a poetic man, you're friends with Gulzar...'"

Part of the fun of Bhardwaj's Shakespeare films is spotting the references to the original texts; in Maqbool, for instance, the witches of Macbeth turn up as sycophantic policemen. There are several ingenious parallels to Hamlet in Haider, some too pivotal to reveal, others already in the public eye — like the musical number "Bismil", a Bollywood version of "Mousetrap", the play-within-within-a-play that Hamlet stages. In the film, Haider is a student at Aligarh Muslim University (Peer studied there as well) who returns to his home in Kashmir to find his father dead and his mother, Ghazala (Tabu), married to his uncle, Khurram (Kay Kay Menon), a lawyer who's also involved with a brutal counter-insurgency militia. Shraddha Kapoor plays Arshia, a combination of Ophelia and Horatio — which will hopefully play out better onscreen than it does on paper — while Irrfan Khan is the Ghost, or, at least, a ghost.

Though it's been adapted on film more often than any other Shakespeare play,  Hamlet has rarely been given political overtones on the big screen. (The windswept 1964 version by Russian director Grigori Kozintsev is, to some extent, an exception.) Haider should correct, possibly even overcorrect, this. While writing the screenplay, Peer, a film buff, re-watched certain films with a sharp political core, like Michael Winterbottom's Welcome to Sarajevo  and Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers. The latter in particular reminded him of growing up in a militarised state. "The first 10 minutes of Battle of Algiers, the surrounding of the Casbah, similar things used to happen in Kashmir," he said. He was clear from the start that Haider, even with mainstream trappings, would remain a political film. "I'm a political writer. I can't think about Kashmir in any other way. I think Vishal knew that. Bollywood is not the most liberal forum for politics, but what we tried to do was push the limits."

This piece appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Deliver Us From Evil: Review

In 2005, Scott Derrickson directed The Exorcism of Emily Rose. This genuinely scary film with a surprisingly strong cast seemed to mark the director out as someone who could inject fresh energy into a genre in perpetual need of revitalisation — the horror film. But Derrickson's subsequent career hasn't been as promising. He directed the unnecessary remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still and the grisly Ethan Hawke horror flick Sinister. Now, with Deliver Us from Evil, he returns to exorcisms, with diminishing returns.

The film opens in Iraq, where we see a group of U.S. soldiers in a gun battle, and follow two of them into a cave. Five minutes later, after it's been vaguely established that there was something horrible hiding in the darkness, we've yanked over to a rainy, dismal NYC straight out of David Fincher's Se7en. Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana), a cop with an intuition, or "radar", for criminal activity, answers a domestic violence call with his partner and ends up chasing a deranged ex-armyman. Soon after, they're called over to investigate an incident at the zoo where a woman, after throwing her boy into the pit surrounding the lion enclosure, behaves like she's possessed. In the enclosure is a man with a scarred face. Is this person linked in some way to the wife-beater? Could they be the soldiers from the opening scene? It's almost too easy...

As Sarchie tries to make sense of the increasingly otherworldy events that keep occurring around him, we're introduced to the other film's other lead. We first see him in a leather jacket, jogging, then ducking into a bar, having a drink and being hit on. When it turns out that he's a Jesuit priest, the movie's evangelical agenda becomes clear. When you have Edgar Ramírez, an actor striking enough to be transfixed by his own naked body in Carlos, playing a man of the cloth, what chance does Satan really have?

Anyway, Sarchie and Mendoza team up, like big city cops and exorcists often do. By this time, the detective has begun to lose the plot — much like the film itself. Bizarre narrative red herrings are thrown at the audience, the most prominent being the references to the music of The Doors. Their lyrics appear at crime scenes and Sarchie keeps hearing snatches of their songs, but we're never told why. I kept hoping the film would find a way to blame the Satanism on Jim Morrison, but Derrickson takes his exorcisms and possessions very seriously.

Deliver Us from Evil is, for a while, and in the most unsubtle way possible, quite scary. Imagine someone jumping out of the dark at you every five minutes for two hours, and you have some idea of Derrickson's idea of suspense-building. Time after time in the film, the lights flickered, the violins on the soundtrack started screeching and I steeled myself for the sudden appearance of a blood-streaked face or a contorted body (or, on one memorable occasion, a gutted cut arranged like Christ on the cross). As one can imagine, this became more wearying than scary after a while.

Incompetence envelops this film like a fog. The writing is TV drama cliché: how's anyone allowed to say "There's a darkness growing inside of me"? The action scenes are poorly lit and chaotic; the soundtrack — when it isn't The Doors — is jaw-clenchingly obvious. McHale overdoes the comic sidekick shtick, Bana is scarcely believable as a New York City cop, and Ramírez just about manages not to look silly shouting Latin phrases in a Spanish accent.

Derrickson ends his film by inviting a foolhardy comparison ­— he references The Godfather's baptism scene. I'd advise a rewatch of that film over Deliver Us from Evil — there's more authentic horror in Michael's false assurance to Kay than in the entirety of Derrickson's film. Then again, I'd recommend Dude, Where's My Car? over Deliver Us from Evil.

This review appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Puns, trains and automobiles

In September 2013, Bombay Bassment's drummer Levin Mendes and ex-Aftertaste vocalist Keegan Pereira teamed up to work on a couple of tracks. They ended up forming Laxmi Bomb along with bassist Ruell Barretto and keyboardist Joaquim Fernandes. The band released its first EP, H, in March this year. That five-song collection — a tribute of sorts to the city of Mumbai — had nods to modern electronic music, disco and '90s Bollywood pop (mercifully, it was sample-free). Now, with the release of their second EP Mah'Bharat, Laxmi Bomb is gently expanding its horizons.

The band started live-testing the tracks that comprise this EP around five months ago. Their modus operandi, according to Mendes, is to work out a track's kinks during their performances and only then record it. "The way we work is, we compose a track, play it live so we can get an idea of how it's perceived," he said. "After about three or four months, when we're completely set with the track, we go to the studio and cut it."

Mah'Bharat's opening track, Love Day Loot, opens with a plinky synth figure that'll warm the hearts of anyone who loves Gupt-era Viju Shah. Apart from this, however, the Bollywood influence is more muted on this EP as compared to the first. Instead, the group manages to show off an impressive amount of stylistic variation while remaining within the ambit of their gently rocking electro pop sound. Keralight alternates between a sarangi and wash of keyboards and an ominous section that recalls the group's first single Major Major. Andaman Eve, a video of which has recently been released, has close harmonies and a sepia tone somewhat reminiscent of Beirut's Scenic World. 

As can be inferred from the song titles, the EP is informed by the band's visits to various parts of the country: Kerala, Shillong, the Andamans. "We started travelling to different places for gigs and personal vacations, and that ended up inspiring some of these tracks," Mendes said. Another difference between the two EPs is that while H was primarily conceived by Keegan and Mendes — the two other members arrived when the album was "70-80% sorted", Mendes said — Mah'Bharat has contributions from all four members. Most tracks come together with Pereira taking responsibility for the words and Mendes working out a basic melody before throwing it over to the band. "Because we're a four-piece act, I restrict myself from completing tracks," Mendes said. 

You can hear the fruits of this approach in Mah'Bharat. The songs sound more like there's a band playing, rather than something electronically pieced together. Barretto's bass now features more prominently; it combines especially well with Mendes' drumming on "Shillong Train Running" (the reference is to the Doobie Brothers' "Long Train Running"). The only drawback — a minor one — is the triteness of some of the lyrics: "Born steel with the thoughts of a man's appeal/ born steel with a hunky-dory back deal" walks the thin line between nonsense verse and plain nonsense.

Having debuted Mah'Bharat at Blue Frog in Mumbai last week, the band will continue to work on new tracks, which will probably turn up on another EP. (Mendes and Barretto will be especially busy in the coming months – their other band, hip-hop/rock/reggae outfit Bombay Bassment, is set to release its long-awaited debut album.) They also plan to record the debut Laxmi Bomb album and release it by the end of 2015. It should be worth the wait. Like its album art, which shows a modern-day cheerharan, Mah'Bharat approaches the past with humour and a refreshing lack of reverence.

This piece appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Five films that share DNA with Snowpiercer

Bong Joon-ho got the inspiration for Snowpiercer from a French graphic novel called Le Transperceneige. This three-part series by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette is set on a train with a perpetual motion engine in a post-apocalyptic world. Bong and screenwriter Kelly Masterson took the basic idea of an ice age caused by an experiment gone wrong and a train housing the remnants of humanity, and expanded on it, adding layers of satire and philosophical ruminations over the nature of class struggle. In the film, the elite occupy the luxury carriages at the front of the Snowpiercer train, while the underclass suffers in the 'tail section'. Under the reluctant leadership of Curtis (Chris Evans), the oppressed storm the prison section and free Namgoong (Song Kang-ho), the man who designed the train's security system. But that's only the start of their troubles...

Though Snowpiercer is mostly in English and has an American actor in the lead, it released first in South Korea, Bong's native country, in August last year. Despite its strong showing at the Asian box-office and the critical hosannas it received at various festival screenings, an Indian theatrical release does not appear to be on the horizon. This is a pity: Snowpiercer is a singular, striking film which deserves to be seen on the largest screen possible. Like Bong's other experiments with genre (Memories of Murder, The Host), it is both unique and indebted to other, similar films. Here are five close and distant cousins of Snowpiercer. 

Metropolis (1927)

Every sci-fi film made after 1927 owes at least something to Fritz Lang's silent classic. But Snowpiercer is especially reminiscent of Metropolis; both films ground their sci-fi stylings in tales of class conflict, crudely outlining the disparity between the vulgar rich and desperate poor (bizarrely, both films also feature the sacrifice of a hand). Hoo's film is also shot through with a very Langian pessimism; in Metropolis, the workers are relegated to "their proper place, the depths", while the evil bureaucrat Mason (an almost unrecognisable Tilda Swinton) in Snowpiercer tells an angry throng, "We must occupy our preordained position. I belong to the front, you belong to the tail." 

Children of Men (2006) 

In its first half, Snowpiercer recalls the grungy, gritty vision of the future that Alfonso Cuaron put forward so convincingly in Children of Men. The colour palate — all greys and dirty browns — is the same, as is the idea of the government as a violent Big Brother and society as a police state. The threat of extinction provides the motive force in both films — a permanent ice age in Snowpiercer, world-wide infertility in Children of Men. They're also linked by the kinetic energy of their action sequences, even though Bong prefers stylised fights with a lot of cuts, while Cuaron opts for long-take, documentary-style realism (it's one of few films I've seen that allows blood to spatter on the camera lens — and stay there).

The Truman Show (1998)

Like the artificial reality-show universe in The Truman Show, Snowpiercer uses its enclosed setting as a microcosm — and satire — of the world at large. Bong deploys Alison Pill's batty schoolteacher in much the same way as Peter Weir did Laura Linney in The Truman Show: a parody of all-American wholesomeness that twists unexpectedly in another direction. The two films are also linked by the presence of Ed Harris, whose turn as a soft-spoken but ruthless visionary in Snowpiercer is a variation on Christof, the character he played in The Truman Show.

Soylent Green (1973)

In the sci-fi film pantheon, Soylent Green occupies a comfortable middle rung. Solid but hardly dazzling, it owes its fame to a remarkably disturbing ending in which Charlton Heston's detective discovers the dark secret behind the food substitute called Soylent Green. Whether intentional or not, there's a moment in Snowpiercer involving a substance called Protein Block that could easily qualify as a tribute to that scene. There's an even darker moment of revelation towards the end of the film, one that brings into sharp relief a phrase that's repeated several times during the film — "Know your place".

The Raid: Redemption (2011)

The only real connection between Gareth Evans' supremely violent martial arts cop flick and Snowpiercer is their shared membership of an unlikely action movie genre — the "people travelling the length of an enclosed space and killing everything along the way" film. While The Raid and Pete Travis' 2012 Dredd had the good guys slaughtering their way up high-rises, Snowpiercer takes Curtis and his cohorts from the back of the train to the engine room (the film's tagline is "Fight your way to the front"). On the way, they encounter sharpshooters, armed militia and masked men with axes and night-vision goggles, an opportunity for Bong to unleash several scenes of stylised hyperviolence.

This piece appeared in Sunday Guardian.  Snowpiercer is out on DVD in India.