Monday, March 28, 2016

Between the grooves

Early on in the pilot of Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter’s new series Vinyl, the camera pans up on Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), founder of American Century, a New York City record label in the late 1970s, and we hear his voice on the soundtrack. “I had a golden ear, a silver tongue and a pair of brass balls,” he boasts. How predictable, I thought. A voice-over out of Goodfellas/Casino/The Wolf Of Wall Street, imagined by the man who had made these films and scripted by someone who could spit out hard-boiled dialogue in his sleep. Vinyl, I decided, would be two masters on autopilot, and I wanted nothing of it.

That feeling passed—somewhat at least. After the 2-hour Scorsese-helmed pilot, I’ve watched episodes 2, 3 and 4 of Vinyl (created by Scorsese, Winter, Mick Jagger and writer Rich Cohen) and found myself drawn in by its messiness and its theatricality, its attention to detail and, above all, its willingness to cut, copy and print the legend. The pilot ends with a New York Dolls gig at the Mercer Arts Center in Manhattan that’s so wild, it literally brings the roof down. In reality, the Dolls did play at the Mercer, and the building did collapse, just not on the same day. Such details are brushed aside by the image of Richie, bloodied and dusty, walking unsteadily away from the rubble with Chuck Berry’s "Rock ‘N’ Roll Music" playing in his head.

Vinyl’s pilot—which seemed to me, on first viewing, like The Wolf Of Wall Street would have been if it had been set in the music business—sends a bunch of plot-lines scurrying in different directions. First, there are the repercussions of Richie’s decision not to sell his label, which is floundering financially, to the German company Polygram. There’s his relationship with his wife, Devon (Olivia Wilde), a former Andy Warhol muse, now a stifled housewife; with his employees, in particular his sad-sack head of promotions Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano); and with Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh), a blues singer he built up and then let down. There’s also the matter of his beating a DJ to death and disposing of the body. Following episodes have deepened some of these stories—especially Lester’s—but on the whole, there is little that isn’t reminiscent of half-a-dozen Scorsese movies or any number of prestige TV shows with anti-hero white male protagonists.

Vinyl may be derivative and predictable, but it’s also a trip. Everyone’s shouting and having sex and doing drugs, there’s always some great song or the other playing, and all the directors seem to be having a great time doing their best Scorsese imitation. Like Boardwalk Empire, Scorsese’s last collaboration with Winter, Vinyl is simultaneously expansive and meticulous in its recreation of a very particular world. Most of the action takes place in the late 1970s, a period of extraordinary flux for the music industry, with manicured pop, classic rock, funk and soul all fighting for radio time just as punk was rearing its head and the first experiments in hip hop were taking place. This is reflected in the show’s stunningly varied, virtually never-ending soundtrack, which comes at the viewer in three avatars: as background tracks commenting on the action, as songs performed by characters and in dream sequences that allow the show to pay tribute to everyone from Howlin’ Wolf to Jerry Lee Lewis.

Some of the references are only likely to make sense to music fans of a certain vintage. Will viewers recognize the blinding light the camera keeps staring into during a bar performance of Otis Redding’s "Mr Pitiful" as a tribute to D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Monterey Pop? How many are likely to care about the intricacies of payola, or the uneasy alliance that once existed between Jewish producers, Italian mobsters and black singers? It would seem that this number is not as much as HBO might have expected. The pilot logged a low 764,000 viewers—disappointing for a show with names such as Scorsese, Winter, Jagger, Cannavale, Romano, Wilde and Juno Temple. Despite the lack of chatter surrounding Vinyl, HBO has renewed the show for a second season. Yet, even as it moves into its fifth week, there are few signs that the public at large cares about Richie or Devon or Alice Cooper and his python. In India, where the best place to gauge whether a foreign show is making any impression is on Twitter, there has barely been a mention.

The series has a 10-episode first season, so we might only see a couple of plot threads resolved this year (hopefully, one of them will be the DJ murder, which felt like a misstep from the moment it happened). I hope the series finds its groove, and its audience; whatever its faults, it’s one of the most unabashedly entertaining drama series in a while. And when it digs deep, it finds a moment or two of magic. One of these arrives during a flashback, with Lester recording a doo-wop number as Little Jimmy Little. We start the scene at the engineers’ console, with both backing track and voice audible. But then we’re inside the studio, inside the singers’ headphones, and all we hear is the shoop-be-doops of the backing vocalists and Lester’s rich voice ringing out. It’s the sort of intimate, spine-tingling moment you would expect from a show called Vinyl.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921): Review

Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921) may be a family drama, but it’s paced like a thriller. The viewer is taken briskly from line to line, and scene to scene. Despite its 140-minute running time, the storytelling is surprisingly economical; while one could argue about certain plot strands being there at all, there’s hardly a scene that feels superfluous or unnecessary to the narrative as it exists.

This commitment to pace is evident from the start. The film begins with Amarjeet Kapoor having a heart attack in his Coonoor home as his son, Harsh (Rajat Kapoor), and daughter-in-law, Sunita (Ratna Pathak Shah), argue in the other room. Ten minutes later, his grandsons, Arjun (Sidharth Malhotra) and Rahul (Fawad Khan), are shown to have flown in from New Jersey and London. Almost immediately, the family starts to bicker and small and big secrets start tumbling out. Harsh and Sunita—both of whom seem difficult to get along with—are having trouble keeping their marriage afloat. Arjun, who has been bouncing between careers, feels belittled by his parents and envies his older brother, a published novelist. Rahul, meanwhile, is feeling the pressure of being the perpetual peacemaker in the family.

Into this stormy mix, the film throws two sunny, uncomplicated personalities. The first is Amarjeet, played by Rishi Kapoor, who is made up to look like he’s 90. Dadu, as he’s called by everyone, only wants to smoke a little weed, watch a little porn and get a nice family portrait clicked (as with Amitabh Bachchan in Piku, this film manages to smuggle in progressive attitudes towards sex and drugs through the ramblings of a cantankerous old man). There’s also Tia (Alia Bhatt), another visitor with roots in Coonoor, whom Arjun meets at a party and immediately likes. She, however, is attracted to Rahul, unaware that he’s Arjun’s brother.

In most films, this triangle would have taken centre stage, but Shakun Batra, the director, is more interested in how the Kapoor family is cracking wide open. And boy, does it crack. Smaller arguments keep flaring up until finally, the sheer weight of grievances and resentments accumulated comes crashing down on the Kapoors. Even as the characters lose control, the film never relinquishes it. Editor Shivkumar Panicker’s cross-cutting is often effective, especially when it’s working in tandem with the fleet, cutting script, by Batra and Ayesha DeVitre. Unlike with other recent dysfunctional family films such as Finding Fanny and Dil Dhadakne Do, I didn’t care for just some of the characters, I felt for all of them. They are monumentally messed up, but it’s the messiness of real life, with a little Dharma gloss (and an irritating score) on top.

Even as it gently teases Khan’s ever-increasing hold over female fans in this country, the film also gives him his first good role in Hindi movies. His low-key charisma works for his character and makes a nice contrast with the more method-y approach of Malhotra, who, after Brothers, is playing the unappreciated son for the second time in 12 months. Pathak Shah and Rajat perform like the old pros they are. Rishi’s face doesn’t move under all that make-up, but his voice is alive with mischief. Yet, what Bhatt does with a role that could have been boilerplate Manic Pixie was, for me, the most pleasurable part of the film. Of all the stars in Bollywood today, she has the lightest touch. The way she holds certain words, repeats others, converts half-frowns into half-smiles—these are clues to her character that she’s casually tossing out like breadcrumbs. This trail was the most interesting thing in lesser films such as 2 States and Shaandaar; in Kapoor & Sons, it’s a brilliant grace note.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Jai Gangaajal: Review

Viewed from afar, Prakash Jha’s Jai Gangaajal is yet another entry in the morally-upright-Bihar-cop-against-the-system subgenre. Abha Mathur (Priyanka Chopra) is appointed SP of Bankipur, a district in Bihar. Her mission is to keep a lid on the law and order situation there, which puts her on a collision course with crooked local MLA Bablu Pandey (Manav Kaul), who has the local police under his thumb and big business in his pocket. So far, so Shool (or Gangaajal, to which this is a sequel in spirit), but Jai Gangaajal—when it can tear itself away from crowd-pleasing theatrics—tells its story with a welcome amount of detail.

This is hardly surprising. Jha has been making movies about Bihar for decades and he can shade in his small-town environments and characters in a way that most Bollywood directors aren’t able to. Amid all the kidnappings, murders and land grabs that one expects from a Bihar crime film, there are intriguing little touches that stand out, like the way people say “suicide” when they mean death by hanging (this might be the first film which has someone talk about “murder by suicide”).

Jha sets his film (which he’s also written) in an environment that’s overwhelmingly male. Mathur is repeatedly called “Madam Sir”, or sometimes just “Sir”, by her juniors. One’s masculinity coming under question is treated as the worst thing that could befall someone. When Mathur beats up her first criminal in public, an officer tells her, “Aaj aap humein mard bana diye hain.” Mathur resorts to a similar jibe, telling Pandey that a “namard” like him cannot stain the uniform. Several times, the word “napunsak” (impotent) is uttered. Even the (apparently) trans henchman, played by Murli Sharma, is named Munna Mardaani.

Local colour will only get you so far, and Jha is canny enough to know that the audience is there to see Chopra hand out beatings and sermons, sometimes all at once. Most of Jai GangaaJal’s 150-minute running time is taken up by hissing villains and virtuous poor folk and a morally upright protagonist whose private (or inner) life we’re rarely privy to. This kind of film-making seems more and more outdated in an era when few venerate the police and even mainstream cinema allows for some amount of moral ambiguity. Though Jha tries to address this by casting himself as a corrupt circle officer, he nevertheless gives himself a long redemption arc that's considerably more interesting than Chopra's by-the-book heroism. Yet, by the end, nearly all the cops are good, and all the politicians bad.

Chopra plays the tough but sensible Mathur with adequate determination, but the film presents her more as an ideal than a living, breathing character (contrast this to how Shool used its protagonist’s personal life to illuminate his behaviour). This inability to introduce nuance into the storytelling is the film’s undoing. This is a film that’s nominally against mob justice, but nevertheless includes a scene in which a small child is allowed to commit a dragged-out murder while a crowd of people cheer him on. Jha’s cinema has always been about broad strokes for simple folk, and Jai Gangaajal is no exception.

This review appeared in Mint.

Zubaan: Review

If there’s one scene that best captures the mix of hipster pretension and soap-opera melodrama that is Zubaan, it’s probably the musical number that arrives three-quarters of the way in. "Kori Pukaar" is sung by Amira (Sarah-Jane Dias) from a stage that has—as we’ve been warned earlier—“a whole Japanese minimalist thing happening”. It’s a power ballad, without a hint of a beat, yet the French dance duo Les Twins are there alongside her, writhing and swivelling like the number is more MC Hammer than Maria Callas. Drama enough, one would think, but towards the end, a battered, bandaged Dilsher (Vicky Kaushal) emerges to sing the last stanza. The scene ends with them kissing as fake snow falls and onlookers applaud.

Up till this point, Zubaan has concerned itself with a young Sikh boy from Gurdaspur with a beautiful singing voice who grows up to be the stuttering, ambitious Dilsher. There’s a fleeting moment early on, when a helmeted Dilsher is destroying a rival’s knee in a gym, when I felt the cold, confident spirit of Tom Ripley descend on the film. Like the protagonist of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, not only does Dilsher want to live a rich man’s life so badly that he’ll commit crimes for it, he changes his identity in order to infiltrate a wealthy household. But Zubaan isn’t willing to follow these dark urges to their logical conclusion, and it’s just a matter of time before Dilsher does what every Hindi film hero who loses his way is made to: return to his roots.

The household that Dilsher attaches himself to is headed by Gurcharan Sikand (Manish Chaudhari), a business tycoon originally from Gurdaspur, which is where Dilsher had met him years ago. We’re shown, via flashback, how he watched Dilsher get picked on by a bunch of boys and didn’t intervene, later telling him that the incident would teach him to rely only on himself. For some reason, it becomes Dilsher’s great ambition to find Sikand in Delhi, work with him and emulate him in every way he can. He does this with some degree of success, gaining Sikand’s trust, taking over responsibilities formerly entrusted to his sulky son, Surya (Raaghav Chanana), even moving into the magnate’s house.

As Surya’s jealousy mounts, Dilsher finds himself drawn to Amira, a vaguely defined singer-dancer-free-spirit. Her purpose in the film seems to be to remind Dilsher of his true calling—music, for he doesn’t stammer when he sings—as well as to supply intermittent blasts of hipster chic, whether it be a rave party in what looks like a lit-up baoli or a white-desert wake with bhaang and sky lanterns held in the memory of her dead brother. Their scenes together have all the heat of a flickering scented candle; there’s more passion, if not much more sense, to be found in the Punjabi-inflected exchanges between Sikand his wife (a nicely campy Meghna Malik) and Dilsher.

Zubaan is the first film by Mozez Singh; it opened the Busan International Film Festival last year and won the Rising Director Asia Star award there. The trailer bills it as “The musical journey of the year”, and though Ashutosh Phatak’s grab-bag soundtrack of Punjabi folk, dance-pop and rock has its moments, it’s hardly path-breaking. The only thing the film cannot dim is the promise shown by Vicky Kaushal. Even in this, his first film (he shot for it before Masaan), he’s a likeable, transparent performer, his face consistently betraying whatever emotions his character is experiencing. I’m sure the audience would have willingly followed him into darker territory. But the film doesn’t seem to believe that and is left, like its protagonist, fumbling for eloquence.

This review appeared in Mint.

Maestro vs maestro

When was the last time you were able to sing a film’s score out loud? Not just recognize a piece of music, but actually go “Da dum da dum da da” from memory? The most recent one I could manage was Pirates Of The Caribbean. I can recognize the themes from Christopher Nolan’s Batman films and Inception, but I can’t really sing them. As for some of the more complex, path-breaking scores in recent times—Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ work with David Fincher, Jonny Greenwood’s There Will Be Blood—forget about it.

It’s difficult to find a John Williams score that doesn’t lend itself to humming, singing or air-conducting. Take the opening fanfare from Star Wars, very likely the most famous piece of film music of all time. Or the martial theme from Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Or the ominous two-note sting from Jaws, a close second to Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho shower music in the scary film music canon. Or the gently sweeping orchestral movements in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Jurassic Park. There’s something about a Williams score that lifts the heart, quickens the pulse, makes one feel weightless and wonderstruck.

Later this month, Williams is one of the contenders for the Academy Award for Best Original Score for his work on J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s his 50th nomination—he’s second only to Walt Disney as far as Oscar nods are concerned. His near-omniscience at the Academy Awards underscores the extent to which Williams is, for people all over the world, the sound of Hollywood. It helps that his music is so uncomplicated. More often than not, his compositions use simple brass or string arrangements, with a little timpani sprinkled over. It also helps that he’s composed most of his music for the films of Steven Spielberg, another accessible yet supremely masterful artist.

In a video essay titled The Spielberg Face, Kevin B. Lee points to the director’s repeated use of actors standing “eyes open, staring in wordless wonder”. It’s in these moments of wordless wonder that Williams takes over from Spielberg. Their partnership, which began in 1974 with The Sugarland Express, is now 26 films old—27 with the forthcoming BFG. It is difficult to imagine one’s work without that of the other—the flight to Neverland in Hook minus that theme that soars along with it; the child-like refrain of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind without those stunned, upturned faces. Williams has done great work with other directors—seven Star Wars films, the first three Harry Potters—but he’s tied to, and matched perfectly with, Spielberg.

If there’s anyone who might challenge Williams for the title of greatest living film composer, it’s the other octogenarian nominated for an Oscar this year. Ennio Morricone has been composing for the cinema since the turn of the 1960s. He began, like Williams, as an arranger, eventually graduating to composition and film scores. The breakthrough came when he teamed up with his fellow Italian Sergio Leone on A Fistful Of Dollars (1964). This was the first Spaghetti Western (essentially, Westerns made in Italy with Hollywood stars), and Morricone’s wild sound became synonymous with the genre. By the time The Good, The Bad And The Ugly arrived in 1966, Morricone’s cavernous soundtracks, filled out with echoey guitars, chanting and animal shrieks, were being recognized and imitated the world over.

Morricone’s scores for Westerns are so unique that he’s been primarily associated with the genre over the years. This must be a source of considerable irritation to him, for Westerns only comprise around a tenth of his output. In his 50-year-plus career, he has lent his compositional talents to everything from giallos to arthouse cinema. People who speak of that fabled “Leone sound” are usually referring to his Westerns, for what manner of sound could possibly encompass the soundtracks of The Battle Of Algiers; Salò, Or The 120 Days Of Sodom; Cinema Paradiso; and Duck, You Sucker? While Williams spent his life largely wedded to one film-maker, Morricone worked with everyone from Tinto Brass to Terrence Malick, resulting in a much wider-ranging soundscape than many give him credit for.

Morricone has been nominated this year for his work on Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Though Tarantino had used his pieces in earlier films, the two had never collaborated on an entire soundtrack before. After 2012’s Django Unchained, Morricone said he wouldn’t want to work with Tarantino as he “places music in his films without coherence” (he later said that he had only been partially quoted). In any event, Tarantino, a massive fan of both Leone and Morricone, managed to convince the 86-year-old to score his film. It was Morricone’s first Western since Buddy Goes West, in 1981, and it won him his third Golden Globe (after The Legend Of 1900 and The Mission) last month.

The prospect of Morricone head-to-head with Williams on Oscar night is a delicious one, not just because the two hold so much of film history between them, but also because they represent two very different approaches to scoring for movies. One is the Hollywood composer par excellence, while the other has hewed his own stubborn path over the years. Williams is velvet, Morricone sandpaper. Coincidentally, both their nominated scores look back at older films. Morricone had as a starting point unused bits he had composed for John Carpenter’s 1982 Antarctic horror film The Thing, a possible clue to why The Hateful Eight sounds so brooding and demonic. As for Williams, who has a lifetime’s experience of working on sequels, his Force Awakens score blends the instantly recognizable musical themes from the earlier Star Wars films seamlessly with newly composed ones.

Of course, there’s a possibility neither of them will win. I wouldn’t expect Jóhann Jóhannsson’s effective but squally score for Sicario or Thomas Newman’s (who was probably praying Spielberg wouldn’t start making frantic calls to John Williams) work on Bridge Of Spies to deny the two veterans, but Carter Burwell’s bittersweet score for Carol is certainly Oscar-worthy. So if you ignore the popular 'narrative' that’s been building around this particular category, maybe it’s a three-way fight. But as far as modern film composition—in particular the kind you can sing aloud—is concerned, it’s Williams versus Morricone all the way.

This piece appeared in Mint in the run-up to the Oscars. Morricone won, and mentioned Williams in his speech.

Carol: Review

It’s no accident that the first scene in Carol is a conversation between two lovers that’s broken in on by a garrulous interrupter. For someone like Todd Haynes, who takes seriously his film history, this amounts to a statement of intent. If you’re making a film about a curtailed love affair, it takes some courage to begin with a steal from Brief Encounter. Many have tried to replicate, with limited success, the sad sweetness of the 1945 David Lean film about two strangers (one of whom is married) who fall in love. But Haynes has earned the right to appropriate it, for Carol is an excellent companion piece to Lean’s film, and a stellar entry in the limited canon of cinematic sighs.

The film is based on the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, which told the story—very controversial in 1952—of two lesbians, a glamorous socialite named Carol (Cate Blanchett), and Therese (Rooney Mara), a timid shopgirl. They meet on a snowy winter evening in the gifts section of a Manhattan department store. Therese advises Carol on an appropriate Christmas gift for her daughter; Carol tells her in passing she likes the Santa cap she’s wearing. It’s a charming, if mundane, first meeting, made significant only by the fact that Carol leaves her gloves behind.

Even as Therese wastes little time in mailing the gloves back to Carol and striking up a friendship with her, we’re given glimpses of their respective, unhappy lives. Carol’s marriage is in its death throes; the first clue that this might be due to her sexual orientation is provided by her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), who bitterly remarks about her spending time with someone named Abby, who we later discover was her lover. Therese, too, is in a fracturing relationship; her fiancée, Richard (Jake Lacy), is headed to France, but she’s as uninterested in joining him there as she is in the advances of his friend, Dannie (John Magaro).

It’s a considerable feat to make a film about two women falling for each other without once mentioning the word “lesbian”. The closest we get to anything explicit being stated is when Harge attaches a “morality clause” to their divorce proceedings, or when Richard accuses Therese of having a crush on Carol. This restraint emphasizes further the desperate, self-censoring nature of gay life in 1950s America; in very literal terms, the love that dare not speak its name. If Edward Lachman’s camera—peering around corners, or through a succession of windows—makes it seem like we’re spying on these characters, that’s because some were being spied on, by their spouses, even by the government.

The film’s debt to Brief Encounter and the swooning 1950s films of Douglas Sirk notwithstanding, Carol reminded me even more of Wong Kar-Wai, especially the sumptuous melancholia of his 2000 film In the Mood for Love. Like Wong, Haynes piles up minute details to create an atmosphere of erotic intimacy: a hand carelessly resting on a shoulder, strands of Carol’s blonde hair seen in close-up, the dabbing of perfume. Lachman’s cinematography is key, but so is the production and art design, the costuming, and Carter Burwell’s elegant, wistful score; all of which amplify, rather than smother, the indelible lead performances. Mara, shaking off her shyness by degrees, is heartbreaking, though it’s Blanchett’s Carol—as knowing as Norma Desmond (Sunset Blvd. plays on TV briefly), as brittle and perfectly composed as fine china—who struck me as a singular creation. Few actors since Gena Rowlands can play an exposed nerve as well as Blanchett, and it’s something to see her start out the film coolly seductive and then begin to fray as the prospect of losing her daughter becomes very real.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that Carol isn’t in the running for a Best Picture Oscar. The soul of the film is in the little details—the side glances and nervously tapped cigarettes and jazz records playing in the background—rather than the broader, more easily understood movements of plot and character. If you’re watching Carol, watch it closely. Not a lot happens, but an entire world is revealed.

This review appeared in Mint.