Thursday, June 14, 2018

Lust Stories: Review

Parsing Lust Stories for literal meaning isn’t quite as fun as speculating on the various subtexts—real or imagined—of this anthology. Is Zoya Akhtar’s short an artistic bridge from the upper-crust universe of her last two features to the more down-to-earth setting of her forthcoming film on Mumbai rappers? Are Radhika Apte’s manic, distracted speech patterns a tribute to her director, Anurag Kashyap? Where has Dibakar Banerjee been? Just how edgy does Karan Johar think he needs to be to fit in with this group?

Lust Stories, which is streaming on Netflix from 15 June, is a follow-up of sorts to Bombay Talkies. Like that 2013 anthology film, this too has a short each from Kashyap, Banerjee, Akhtar and Johar, all of which explore a common theme. Bombay Talkies revolved around our relationship to cinema; of the four, only Banerjee, adapting a Satyajit Ray story, aced his contribution. This time, with lust as the theme, the results are far more satisfying.

Either by design or accident, each of the films in Lust Stories is emotionally centered on a female protagonist. In Kashyap’s short, Kalindi (Radhika Apte) is a college professor who sleeps with a student while in a long-distance marriage. In Akhtar’s, house help Sudha (Bhumi Pednekar) has to go from starting the day in bed with her employer to waiting on his parents and the family of a prospective match. Reena (Manisha Koirala) is having an affair with her husband’s friend in Banerjee’s film; in Johar’s, a young schoolteacher with a desultory sex life seizes on a vibrant alternative.

Women’s bodies and their agency over them has become one of the biggest flashpoints in recent Hindi cinema. Angry Indian Goddesses and Lipstick Under My Burkha were held up by the censors for their frank—though hardly explicit—depictions of female desire, while a scene involving masturbation in the recent Veere Di Wedding has attracted all manner of (mostly male) indignation. The most forthright exploration of female sexuality in Lust Stories comes from Johar, whose film has Megha (Kiara Advani) writhing under the effects of a vibrator in front of her husband, Paras (Vicky Kaushal), his mother and sister-in-law. It’s an amusing, rather cartoonish film, more admirable for its championing of female pleasure than it is convincing. But it is disappointing to see Johar mock his own brand of cinema, with the theme song of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham serving as a wicked punchline; even if he has no need for it now, his long-time audience likely still holds it dear.

Taking ownership of one’s actions, no matter how embarrassing, is at the heart of both Johar’s film and an atypically playful Kashyap short. In the latter, Kalindi frequently addresses the camera, offering a variety of justifications for her affair with Tejas (Akash Thosar) and her mounting jealousy when he appears to show interest in one of his classmates. Kalindi is so excited to share her scattered thoughts that she mangles phrases and breaks off in mid-flow to pursue other lines of reasoning. Apte plays her like an open book, albeit one that’s filled with confused scribbles. It’s a stunning performance, as sharp and funny as the one Laetitia Dosch gave in last year’s Montparnasse Bienvenue.

Sandwiched between the outgoing films of Kashyap and Johar are two inward-looking ones. Akhtar directs hers with a muted economy that’s light-years from the bold colours and grand gestures of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Dil Dhadakne Do. Unlike the three other segments, which pack a lot of plot and thought into a small run-time, this feels like a bona fide short—starting in the middle of something instead of at the beginning, ending without resolution, and going on just long enough to give us a glimpse of a life. Pednekar’s look as she waits for the elevator at the end of the day, exchanging a few words with another house help (who’s been given a dress by her employer, and doesn’t care that it’s slightly torn), clutching her own “gift” of congratulatory sweets, is impossible to read. A full-length feature about an employer having sex with the help would have to address issues of class and agency, but Akhtar can afford to not impose anything on the viewer here.

Stung by husband’s neglect, Reena began an affair with Sudhir (Jaideep Ahlawat) three years ago. They aren’t in love; she’s married to his best friend, he’s a commitment-phobic divorcee. Banerjee’s short explores a common enough scenario—a meeting between adulterers and the cheated party—but gives it a feminist spin by revealing both men as feckless and indecisive and placing the woman (who, after some initial panic, treats her husband’s arrival at her lover’s house with a matter-of-factness that suggests she expected this day would come) in charge of offering a solution. The casting is unusual and wonderful: Sanjay Kapoor as the childish spouse who’s all bluster; Ahlawat, possessor of the best poker-face in Hindi cinema today; and the lightly frowning Koirala, shot without sentiment but with great tenderness as she considers how best to resolve a no-win situation. It’s a beautiful idea, having Koirala—who’ll be seen later this month in Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanju as Nargis—in a role that ends up being about picking yourself up and starting over. Few Hindi film actors are more deserving of a substantial second innings.

This review was published in Mint.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The beautiful frame


My favourite film scene involving football lasts all of 40 seconds. A group of men jostle and kick a ball in a narrow lane. They’re dressed in white shirts and dark slacks, the one red vest standing out. The afternoon sun paints the cobbled road a deep amber. Lens flares invade the frame. One of them grabs hold of the ball, a minor altercation follows. We watch him walk away into the light. Was it a dream?

The world’s most widely played sport has inspired commercial cinema of every stripe, from the corny thrills of the Goal films to the superior craftsmanship of The Damned United (2009) and the lunacy of Shaolin Soccer (2001). There’s much pleasure to be derived from middling-to-good films about football, but if snap zooms excite you as much as spot kicks, head further afield, where scenes like the one described above—from Hong Kong film-maker Wong Kar-wai’s mesmeric Happy Together (1997)—can be found, as a more questing form of cinema is applied to the beautiful game.

Germany has a proud footballing history and a long tradition of cinematic innovation. Ever so often, the two have overlapped, as they did in The Goalie’s Anxiety At The Penalty Kick (1972), an early film by Wim Wenders. This anti-procedural begins with a goalkeeper conceding a goal and getting sent off. He wanders around, and, almost offhandedly, commits a terrible crime, after which, instead of running or surrendering to the police, he heads to the country and waits. In a film that isn’t even about football, the figure of the goalie becomes a metaphor for a kind of stasis—at once part of the action and removed from it—and for the second-guessing that takes place between cop and criminal, keeper and striker.

England is as football-crazy a nation as Germany, and the sport has been making its way into their films from early on (a football-themed thriller, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, was made in 1939). In 1969, Ken Loach adapted Barry Hines’ novel A Kestrel For A Knave into one of the greatest British films of all time. Even today, Kes feels wild and fiercely beautiful, like the falcon that Billy, a young boy from a drab mining town, trains. Though it’s a bleak and often desperately sad film, the one sequence many remember is a largely comic one: a game of football in which Billy and his mates are joined on the field by an overenthusiastic physical education teacher. Anyone who has played a sport will recognize this earnestly ridiculous type, living out a fantasy of being a famous athlete in the most mundane of settings.

A year earlier, in a docudrama he directed for the BBC, Loach allowed a similarly deluded fan a wish-fulfilling ending. The Golden Vision (1968) appears to be a documentary at first glance, though it’s actually a clever blending of real footage and scripted scenes performed by actors playing fans of English football club Everton. Loach examines, with typical directness, the selfishness of fandom—supporters who miss births and flee from weddings in order to be at matches. Yet, his sympathy for the working class is palpable: You can draw a line from a factory worker saying, “It gets a bit tough pushing them tyres around...but then I haven’t got any qualifications,” to the hard knocks his characters take in the 2016 Palme d’Or winner, I, Daniel Blake.

This March in Tehran, 35 women were detained for trying to attend a game between two local football teams. The following month, photographs of five girls at a football game disguised as boys went viral. Since the 1979 revolution, it has been almost impossible for Iranian women to attend male sporting events, which makes Jafar Panahi’s Offside as relevant today as it was when it released in 2006. It tells the story of a handful of young women who unsuccessfully try and break into a World Cup qualifying match in disguise. They are detained by police officers and held just outside the stadium—tantalizingly close to the action. Shot in trademark semi-documentary Iranian style, the film is a lively and often poignant examination of how denying true fans their fandom is every bit as soul-crushing as the withholding of ostensibly bigger freedoms. The moment when the detainees dance in an ecstatic huddle when the home team scores a goal, a sliver of the action visible through the bars of a locked gate, is one of the most moving scenes in modern Iranian cinema.

The sports documentary is as trope-bound as any fiction film genre, but some directors have turned it into abstract art. Olympia (1938), Leni Riefenstahl’s film on the 1936 Berlin Olympics, is at its most astonishing when it gets up close to the athletes, capturing every grunt and twitch. This intense focus on a player is taken to extremes in Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006). Directors Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno used 17 synchronized cameras to track every move that Real Madrid striker Zinedine Zidane made during a 2005 La Liga match. We’re shown only those parts of the game in which Zidane is involved. The rest of the time we see him do the lonely work of an athlete, exerting effort without any immediate reward. It’s not an easy watch, but you won’t find a more intimate look at football in motion.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Bhavesh Joshi Superhero: Review

There’s a sequence in Bhavesh Joshi Superhero that seemed almost unbearably stupid at the time I was watching it, but later struck me as the kind of crazy risk this film could have done with more of. It unfolds in a dance bar in Mumbai, where Sikandar (Harshvardhan Kapoor), wearing a partially bald wig, is spying on a group of corrupt officials. As if to distract from the awfulness of the hairpiece, the song that’s blaring has a chorus which goes “Tere chumme mein Chavanprash hai”—a contender for the un-sexiest thought ever voiced in a Hindi film. To top it all, when Sikandar and his quarry come face-to-face on the dance floor, there’s no confrontation. Instead, like Pran and Kishore Kumar in Half Ticket, hunter and hunted end up dancing together.

Between “muscle waala majnu, Kolhapuri Schwarzenegger” and Sikandar’s decision to almost get himself killed waiting for a green light before breaking every conceivable traffic rule over the next five minutes, this sequence represents a film, and a director, ready to go out on a limb. At no other point does Bhavesh Joshi risk looking this silly—and at no other point does it feel like its own film. Instead, Vikramaditya Motwane’s film is depressingly templated, hitting all the expected vigilante-hero beats but bringing little that’s original to the table.

The film begins in 2011, with Sikandar and his friends Rajat (Ashish Verma) and Bhavesh (Priyanshu Painyuli) fired up by the ongoing anti-corruption movement. They start a rebellion of their own, putting paper bags over their heads, accosting low-key law-breakers and posting the videos on their “Insaaf” website. The stakes are fairly low, and Sikandar eventually tires and takes up an office job as a coder. Bhavesh continues, investigating a case of a colony suffering from chronic water shortages. The film turns into Chinatown for a spell, complete with water-siphoning scam, corrupt cops, city officials and politicians, and bandaged broken nose.

I won’t reveal what happens next—though a hop and skip of logic should get you there long before the narrative catches up—but Sikandar returns to fight the good fight, assuming his friend’s full name, Bhavesh Joshi, as his superhero moniker. He trains in karate and parkour and stick-wielding—the same hero-prepares montage that’s there in every vigilante movie ever made. There’s a girl he likes—a character so perfunctorily written and incidental to the story that I was surprised the film checked in with her in the second half—but nothing else to tie him down emotionally or distract from the urgent business of crime-fighting. It’s a good setup for a home-grown no-strings lone wolf hero. There’s only one problem.

Harshvardhan Kapoor has none of what they call game face. He has precisely one face—pleasant, unperturbed—that he wears to every occasion, whether he’s looking at a corpse or eating dinner or awaiting almost certain death. It’s a bold move, to cast an actor this mild as a superhero and hope he’ll fill the screen. It never happens; even when Sikandar speaks to criminals from behind his nifty-looking mask, the voice that emerges is measured, inquisitive. You don’t need every masked hero to cough up gravel like Christian Bale, but who expects a reasonable-sounding vigilante?

After Udaan, Lootera and Trapped, it’s hard to begrudge Motwane a misstep. One of his strengths as a director is his economy, the ability to convey in a few scenes what other directors would take a dozen to explain (the burgeoning romance in Lootera, for instance, or the build-up to the lock-in in Trapped). But Bhavesh Joshi is 155 minutes long, and you feel it, especially in the farcical first half. The writing, by Motwane, Anurag Kashyap and Abhay Koranne, can’t quite find the hard-boiled tone it‘s attempting. Neither Sikandar nor his friends are compelling characters, their activism progressing unconvincingly from vague discontentment to investigative journalism to vigilantism. The antagonists are only handed crimes, not personalities, though Nishikant Kamat, playing a corrupt MLA, chews and spits out his lines with relish.

As the film progresses, it comes alive visually, with Motwane and cinematographer Siddharth Diwan pulling velvety images out of the black of night. There’s more space to play with than there was in their last outing, Trapped, but this is Mumbai after all, where even the outdoors can be cramped. Perhaps to counter this, frequent (and excellent) use is made of the overhead shot, the god’s-eye view appropriate for the genre, even if superhero Bhavesh is still getting his wings (while being told the story of Icarus, whose wax feathers melted when he flew too close to the sun).

Bhavesh Joshi is caught in a peculiar bind: it’s a bit too competent to be dismissed, but not original or striking enough to dispel the feeling that it’s all been done before. It isn’t aimed at the kids who watched Ra.One or Krrish; it’s too violent and self-aware. If I was reminded of Daredevil and The Dark Knight, Kick-Ass and Street Hawk, chances are its intended audience will be as well. And if it can’t do anything new with the genre, how far will being India’s first un-embarrassing superhero film carry it? Motwane does his best to set up a franchise, keeping several character fates hanging in the balance and even throwing in post-credits scenes. To borrow a phrase, he’s playing in a corner of a foreign field.

This review appeared in Mint.

Solo: A Star Wars Story: Review

The production of Solo: A Star Wars Story involved one of the strangest baton-passes in recent memory. The second spin-off in the Star Wars universe was originally entrusted to Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, makers of febrile, self-aware pipe bombs like 21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie and their sequels – seemingly distracted films for a genuinely distracted generation. The idea of directors as irreverent as Lord and Miller let loose on material that’s usually treated (by fans at least) as some sort of Dead Sea scroll was exciting – and not to be, with the directors replaced, after shooting was almost complete, by Ron Howard.

It’s a fascinating switch, for Howard is the cinematic opposite of Lord-Miller. He’s a modern-day Michael Curtiz: a hired hand in the best sense, moving between comedy (Splash), manic action (Rush), dramas both prestige (A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13) and chamber (Frost/Nixon), and half a dozen other subgenres. There’s no discernable personal style, but apart from the leaden Robert Langdon films, his work usually ranges from eminently watchable and commercial corn of the highest order. One can imagine Lucasfilm sending this oldest of pros a distress hologram, telling him the kids weren’t all right.

Even more surprising than the switch is the fact that it works, sort of. Solo doesn’t set out to be more than a respectable tenth entry in a franchise that’s recently alienated a section of its fans by trying to be narratively bolder (though only by Star Wars standards) and more diverse. Howard isn’t the sort to ruffle feathers, yet he manages to capture some of the joyous, wide-eyed spirit of the 1977 film. It’s the least angsty Star Wars film in ages, and the better for it: the romantic tracks sing, the action sequences are coherent and exciting, there’s fog when it’s appropriate and wind whipping people’s hair when it should be.

Before he joined up with Luke and Leia, Han (Alden Ehrenreich) – the ‘Solo’ will duly arrive – is a small-time thief on the planet Corellia with dreams of being a pilot and roaming the galaxy with his partner, Q’ira (Emilia Clarke). Their escape doesn’t go as planned; Han ends up joining the Imperial army and, later, teaming up career criminals Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton). One thing leads to another and soon they’re all running a complicated heist for crime lord Dryden Voss (Paul Bettany), who has in his employ – in all the cantinas in all the galaxies, etc – Q’ira. This misshapen posse is joined by Han’s other great love, Chewbacca, and by Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), who puts the out (if droid-love counts) in outlaw.

In the months leading up to the release of the first Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One (2016), there was a good deal of excitement regarding its diverse cast. Yet, those performances turned out to be dour, stilted – like the film itself. Reports from the sets of Solo suggested that Lord and Miller weren’t exactly actors’ directors either. But Howard, whatever his limitations as a film-maker, has a rare facility with performers (he’s directed eight Oscar-nominated turns). It’s difficult not to see his steadying hand in the measured, appealing turns by Clarke and Harrelson, and in Bettany’s excellent hissing villain. Ehrenreich channels the twinkly eyed Harrison Ford of American Graffiti and the 1977 Star Wars instead of the grumpy Ford of legend, and gets by fine. Then there’s Glover, who slips in as much sex appeal and eccentricity as anyone’s ever managed in the Lucasverse.

Lawrence Kasdan has shaped the Star Wars story over four films, and it seems callous to suggest that he give way to a younger voice. But the writing on Solo (with his son, Jonathan Kasdan), while serviceable, seems mired in the past. I saw “On these mean streets…” in the opening titles and wondered, are we finally getting a Star Wars noir? (We weren’t.) Later, someone signs off with “It’s been a ride, babe, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” as if we’re in a ‘40s movie, an impression strengthened by the number of times various characters are addressed as “kid” (come to think of it, Han Solo isn’t far from an intergalactic Rick, unwilling to stick his neck out during a world war).

Far from being the disaster many had predicted, Solo is the best-acted (I haven’t even gotten to Phoebe Waller-Bridge), most enjoyable Star Wars film since the original trilogy. It’s also the most conservative, making fewer missteps than its immediate predecessors only because it takes fewer risks. This isn’t the Han Solo movie you need – it’s unlikely such a thing will ever be. But it’s a perfectly good Han Solo movie to want.

This review appeared in Mint.

Deadpool 2: Review

Franchise films today tend to keep viewers moving quickly from one emotion to another, the constant variation giving the impression of a balanced meal, but without the actual nutrition of a well-digested moment. Studios have become so adept at this sort of juggling that a film like Logan is immediately recognisable as an outlier, simply because it picks a mood and stays with it (that the mood was deep despair was the real envelope-pushing on the film’s part, not its R-rated leanings). For most studio films, though, the tendency now is to open and close emotional valves quickly.

An extreme example of emotional flightiness occurs in the first 15 minutes of Deadpool 2. A prominent character is killed off; a bold move for a franchise built on near-constant irreverence. But barely have we processed the death, and we’re watching opening credits which replace the names of cast and crew members with smart-aleck references to the demise. In the screening I was at, the audience’s shock was immediately replaced by knowing laughter.

If a film can’t take a character’s death seriously, should the viewer? Every scattered emotional beat after this rang false—just because the film couldn’t hold off for some time before winking at the audience. In doing so, Deadpool 2 revealed itself to be, underneath all the cussing and violence, as careful and compromised a studio offering as any other.

Since the events of the first film, Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), he of the scarred face, smart mouth and extraordinary strength, has become a globe-trotting superhero. A series of setbacks places him in the path of Russell (Julian Dennison), a troubled young mutant with fiery hands, whom he undertakes to protect from time-travelling soldier Cable (Josh Brolin). He also gains an ally in Domino (Atlanta’s Zazie Beetz), whose superpower is that she’s incredibly lucky. Deadpool piecing together a makeshift family—mutant Colossus (Stefan Kapičić), cabbie Dopinder (Karan Soni) and trash-talking buddy Weasel (TJ Miller) are back as well—is the clearly spelt-out subtext of David Leitch’s sequel. It’s an amusing conceit (especially when an early attempt comes violently undone), though one that’s been explored multiple times within the X-Men universe (which Deadpool is a part of), and, outside it, in the Guardians of the Galaxy films.

There’s no denying that Deadpool 2 is rippingly, exhaustingly funny: there isn’t a line uttered by someone other than Wade that isn’t topped with a follow-up wisecrack. With a barrage like this, not every joke has to land—Reynolds, with his trickster voice and comic timing, can sell almost anything—but Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s patter is as wide-ranging and acerbic as it was in 2016’s Deadpool. There isn’t a corner of the cultural landscape that’s safe: Marvel, DC, Air Supply, Say Anything, dubstep, the Terminator, Josh Brolin (called “Thanos” by Wade). The one thing that escapes parody, surprisingly, is Norwegian band A-ha, whose 1984 hit "Take On Me" is given an ethereal reworking. It’s used close to the end, and shows how it doesn’t take much more than a well-chosen song and two capable performers to graft emotion onto a scene.

This review appeared in Mint.