Sunday, February 27, 2011


I should really fix on one font, shouldn't I?

The Town: DVD Review

Ben Affleck’s acting chops have come in for a fair amount of ridicule over the years, a tough break for someone who’s always been open to offbeat ventures (Chasing Amy, Dogma) and risky turns (an unexpected but scene-stealing cameo in Shakespeare in Love). As far as his directorial career’s concerned though, he is – in the lingo of a sport he follows religiously – batting two for two. Critics raved over his debut, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, a gritty thriller set in his hometown of Boston. The Town, adapted from Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince of Thieves, doesn’t quite achieve the trash-talking heights of his debut, but is still a good showcase for Affleck’s fascination with working-class lives in Boston, as well as his growing confidence as a director (he directs himself for the first time).

As the veteran leader of a gang that robs banks in nun’s robes, you’d expect Doug McRay (Affleck) to be a bit more selective in his romantic pursuits than to fall for a former hostage (Rebecca Hall). Still, great action movies have subsisted on plots a lot flimsier than this, and we’re soon introduced to the competing interests of a sadistic mob boss (Pete Postlethwaite), an FBI agent (Mad Men's Jon Hamm) and Doug’s ex-lover (Blake Lively). Add to that a loose cannon of a partner (Jeremy Renner) who’s sulking because of Doug’s decision to go straight after one last job, and you have a situation set to boil over. And it does, in an extended heist sequence at a baseball park reminiscent of Michael Mann’s Heat.

Affleck and Hall’s improbable romance never really takes off, and the film is hijacked by several impressive supporting turns. Rheumy-eyed Jeremy Renner is one Red Bull short of insane (his performance received an Oscar nod for Supporting Actor). Blake Lively, star of TV’s Gossip Girl, is excellent as an old flame desperate for Doug’s attention; the bar scene between her and Hamm is one of the best in the movie. The Town isn’t flawless – the plotting is frequently weak and milder souls may tire of all that cussing. It is, however, an above-average cops and robbers flick by a director to watch out for. The DVD comes with two very brief extras – a look at some of the real-life characters the movie took inspiration from, and a featurette on Affleck as director.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

And the Oscar should go to...

Last year, I decided, for the first time, to do some Oscar predicting on the old blog, instead of dragging unsuspecting friends into unwanted conversations. The response was so underwhelming that I decided to do the same this year. Here, a day before James Franco and Anne Hathaway (that’s inspired casting right there) kick things off, here’s my list of who will win, and who should.

Actor in a Leading Role

Who will win: Colin Firth is the front runner, and I think he does enough to see him through. Plus, never underestimate the hold of posh Brit accents on Academy voters. Plus, they owe him for A Single Man.

Who should win: Jesse Eisenberg is damaged and damaging, and he does it all with a face that never changes expression.

Actor in a Supporting Role

Who will win: Christian Bale throws the thespian kitchen sink at the audience in this role.

Who should win: Bale does too much. Hawkes and Ruffalo do too little. Renner is too much fun. Rush gets it just right.

Actress in a Leading Role

Who will win: Portman’s first truly great performance will not go unrewarded.

Who should win: Portman. Though I haven’t seen Williams in Blue Valentine. And Lawrence is scintillating in Winter’s Bone.

Actress in a Supporting Role

Who will win: Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit. Why she’s in the supporting category I don’t know. But she will win.

Who should win: Hailee Steinfeld.

Art Direction

Who will win: The King’s Speech.

Who should win: Inception.


Who will win: Roger Deakins.

Who should win: Did you notice the light behind Rooster Cogburn while he was deposing in court? God let it be Deakins.


Who will win: A good fight this year. I’d say The Social Network, and they’ll take Best Picture away for that.

Who should win: The Social Network.

Film Editing

Who will win: The Social Network.

Who should win: The Fighter.

Music (Original Score)

Who will win: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for The Social Network.

Who should win: I hope Rahman does, but Reznor and Ross wouldn’t be unjust.

Best Picture

Who will win: The King’s Speech seems to have the momentum. Damned if I know why.

Who should win: The Social Network, which will be remembered years from now, and long after the period politeness of The King’s Speech is a distant memory. Bad luck for True Grit, it ought to have been the runner-up.

Sound Mixing

Who will win: The King’s Speech. For it’s title.

Who should win: The Social Network, for that nightclub scene with Timberlake shouting over the din.

Visual Effects

Who will win: Inception.

Who should win: Inception.

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Who will win: Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), for proving screwball isn’t dead.

Who should win: Sorkin, though, for the second time, I must say bad luck to True Grit.

Writing (Original Screenplay)

Who will win: David Seidler for The King’s Speech.

Who should win: I still cannot believe Leslie Manville didn’t get a Best Actress nod for Another Year, let alone nominations for the excellent supporting players. Give Mike Leigh the damn Original Screenplay Oscar already.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sung this way

Along with the rest of the world, I've been hearing a lot of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way". Lyrically, it's an "I Will Survive" for the singer's LGBTI fans, but what makes it thrilling and unique is the vocal, particularly the way Lady G repeatedly shifts between the lower and upper registers. The other great song that used this kind of vocal mannerism as a hook was Johnny Cash's "I Walk The Line", and there the shift to upper was every second paragraph (here it's every other line).

Saturday, February 19, 2011

7 Khoon Maaf: Review

Did Vishal Bharadwaj momentarily lose it?
7 Khoon Maaf is a distressing exercise in making the viewer squirm. When details of the plot – a woman called Susanna killing seven unsuitable suitors – first started trickling out, it sounded something like a Coen Brothers-style black comedy. But are we really expected to laugh at all this? In the course of a hundred and twenty minutes, Susanna (Priyanka Chopra) is beaten, raped, mentally abused, cheated on and blackmailed. Her debasement is so realistic that her retribution seems justified. This was probably the director’s intention, but how can you cheer on multiple murders when all you feel is sickened? By half-time I was hoping that Susanna would kill herself and save everyone concerned a lot of pain.
Isn’t it surprising that the scriptwriters never thought of making at least one of the husbands a character worthy of the audience’s respect? It seems like an elementary choice for a film with this plot – to question whether Susanna is so far gone that she can no longer tell the difference between a predator and a paramour. Fair enough, that’s a choice made. But couldn’t the killings have been wittier? The film might have been more palatable if it had devoted more screen time to the setting up of the murders instead of the circumstances that necessitated them.
None of the performers bring their A-game. Priyanka Chopra goes through so much, it wouldn’t be fair to judge this as a performance; let’s just say she weathers the ordeal. Naseeruddin Shah’s Bengali accent keeps slipping like a sock. Annu Kapoor plays a simpering letch of an inspector, so much under Susanna’s thumb it's surprising that she feels she needs to sleep with him to shut him up. John Abraham is embarrassing. Only Vivaan Shah as Arun and Aleksandr Dyachenko as Nikolai Vronsky find an appropriately ironic métier.
Bharadwaj is a singular talent in an industry prone to exaggerating directorial gifts. His three previous films – if one leaves out the kids’ films Makdee and Blue Umbrella, both superior to 7KM – were Maqbool, Omkara and Kaminey, as strong a trio as any in Indian cinema. 7 Khoon Maaf is most likely a miscalculation, an aberration. Even Godard, after viewing his Breathless, said that he thought he was making Scarface but had ended up doing Alice in Wonderland. Bharadwaj has made great films in the past, and there’s no reason to suspect he doesn’t have a few more in him. All things considered, it would be churlish not to say – ek film maaf.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Right Stuff: Special Edition DVD review

Back in 1972, Rolling Stone sent Tom Wolfe, originator of the New Journalism, to cover the Apollo 17 space mission. While researching “Post-Orbital Remorse”, a series about the post-journey depression some of the astronauts were undergoing, Wolfe grew fascinated with the astronauts and their lives. Out of this grew The Right Stuff, his 1979 novel about the famous “Mercury 7” – the first US astronauts in space – as well as one Chuck Yeager, passed over by the Mercury Programme, but regarded by those in the know as the finest pilot of the lot.

The film begins with Yeager attempting to break the sound barrier. His success triggers a race in the pilot fraternity to become the fastest man alive. It’s an early sign of the competitiveness they’ll take forward into their space training. Meanwhile, NASA is looking for pilots who can to woo the public in addition to doing their jobs. The reticent Yeager, despite possessing the “the right stuff” for the job, isn’t seen as charming enough to be an American hero. He recedes into the background, and the film shifts its focus onto the Mercury 7. It’s a risky move, taking your central character out after an hour and bringing him in an hour later, but it suits this film, which is anything but a straight-ahead biopic, as well as its director, the playful Phillip Kaufman.

As in Kaufman’s 1988 adaptation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being – a novel deemed “unfilmable” until he turned it into a funny, sexy piece of cinema – there’s a streak of absurdist humour that runs through The Right Stuff. These off-kilter moments – a monkey being put through the same tests as the pilots to judge who’d do better in space, Jeff Goldblum bursting into meetings with bad news that already everyone seems to know – counterbalance the more conventional ones where the legend of the programme’s success is built. By showing the doubts and fears of the astronauts, as well as their grudging admittance that Yeager may have been the best man amongst them, Kaufman creates a vivid, intimate history, untainted by chest-thumping, of a key moment in the space race.

The cinematography by Caleb Deschanel is as handsome as Bill Conti’s score is stirring. Ed Harris displays prodigious amounts of charm as astronaut John Glenn; also watch out for playwright and sometimes actor Sam Shepard as the soft-spoken Yeager, Dennis Quaid as the grinning, competitive Gordon Cooper, Jeff Goldblum as a Mercury recruiter and Levon Helm, drummer for The Band, as narrator and in a bit part as Yeager’s buddy. Tying together these talents is the often underrated Kaufman, whose film, while eschewing conventional patterns of build-up and dénouement, seldom has a dull moment in its three hours of running time. There’s more stuff that’s right by us on the second disc – deleted scenes, three documentaries on the film and one on Glenn, and commentary by the director and cast members.

Gordon Cooper, played by Dennis Quaid, post-takeoff and seconds before uttering one of my favourite lines in all of moviedom: "The sun has come up through the window now. Oh lord, what a heavenly light."

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Al Pacino Box Set: DVD Review

Between 1972 and 1979, Al Pacino appeared in The Godfather I, its sequel, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and …And Justice for All: a golden run, to least the least. Critical acclaim in the following decades was more sporadic, with his critics claiming a hardening of style, the method disintegrating into monotony, if not madness. Anyone keen to verify the veracity of this charge (or have evidence on hand to dispute it) should fund this box set – with Scarface and Sea of Love from the ‘80s, Scent of a Woman and Carlito’s Way from the early ’90s – a good starting point.

Sea of Love, directed by Harold Becker, is the only one in the set that never mistakes itself for a great film. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a good film though. Pacino plays a cop trying to track down a killer who favours singles ads in the newspaper. Welcome amounts of humour are derived from an unremarkable plot – especially Pacino’s interaction with his taller, fatter partner, played by John Goodman, and his needling of a cop who’s married his ex-wife. Ellen Barkin, her mouth a mischievous upward curl, plays both love interest and possible suspect, and is almost too much for Pacino to handle. The film builds to an unsatisfying ending, but the journey is fun.

There’s nothing much one can say about Scarface or Scent of a Woman that will change the way most people already feel about them. The former, directed by Brian De Palma, is hypercharged, florid, crude – a classic of excess. Based loosely on the 1932 Howard Hawks film of the same name, it stars Pacino as one Tony Montana, a Cuban refugee who works his way up the criminal ladder and ends up a swearing, cocaine-snorting king. Pacino’s Montana is almost cartoonish in his over-the-top unpredictability and lack of restraint. The performance stays with you, like a blow from a sledgehammer. The same could also be said for his turn – more nuanced, yet still very loud and difficult to like – as a blind colonel in Scent of a Woman. It’s the kind of ornery-yet-life-affirming performance the Oscars tend to notice, and duly earned Pacino his second golden statuette.

Carlito’s Way, Pacino’s second collaboration with De Palma, has a tendency to get overshadowed by the bombast of Scarface. Seen today, it is in many ways the superior of the first film. Pacino gives one of his most restrained, beautifully-judged performances as Carlito Brigante, a former drug lord who’s sprung from jail by his lawyer (Sean Penn) and wows to go straight. De Palma envisioned the film as a neo-noir, which comes through in Brigante’s voiceover and the overarching sense of fatalism. The more Carlito tries to stay out the trouble, the more it seems to seek him out. The suspense is accentuated through long, sweeping takes, culminating in a bravura sequence at a railway station. Fantastic support is extended by Luis Guzmán, John Leguizamo and Viggo Mortensen. All four DVDs are sans special features and shorn of scenes with even the slightest hint of skin (Scarface’s 226 f-bombs are left intact).

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Sons of Babur: Review

Though the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah II is usually referred to by his chosen moniker “Zafar”, or victory, the circumstances of his life do not to bear it out. Shah inherited a crumbling empire that was rapidly slipping into British hands and did little to reverse that trend until, at the age of 82, he found himself appointed nominal leader of the Revolt of 1857. The revolt, however, was soon stamped out, and Shah was exiled to Rangoon. He died there four years later. It is this final image of Shah that Sons of Babur chooses to use as guide to three centuries of Mughal history.

The pretext for this history lesson is the modern-day college student Rudra Sen Gupta, who’s having trouble finding takers for his play on the emperor. Ridiculed by his friends and professor, he wanders into the time-warp section of the stage and finds a crotchety old man who turns out to be Shah. There’s tension to begin with, with the young student disbelieving and Bahadur Shah dismissive, but the play soon finds its format. Shah hosts what might be described as a Mughal history highlights show – Babur sacrificing himself for Humayun, Akbar founding Din-i-Ilahi – commenting from the sidelines as the action is played out centre stage.

Sons of Babur tries to coax laughs out of an exasperated Shah bemoaning Rudra’s inability to speak without using English phrases, but it’s low comedy at best. Rudra is given a Bengali accent so thick that one sympathises with the old man – even his Hindi sounded like a foreign language. His friends come off no better, though it’s difficult to decide whether the doubter who says “Dastango… Go where, Rudra?” is more insulting to the audience’s intelligence than the believer with a British accent (whose “How interesting this Mughal history is!” could qualify as the play’s leitmotif).

Sons of Babur was originally penned in 2008 by Salman Khurshid in English and translated into Urdu by Athar Farooqui. The translation to stage is by M Sayeed Alam, who knows a thing or two about playing around with this period (his Ghalib in New Delhi has a similar farcical approach), as well as directing plays in Urdu. But unlike his melancholic 1947 earlier this year, it all comes undone in Sons of Babur. The contrast between the forced hipness of the students and the melodrama of the courtiers is too difficult to reconcile, and the undoubted good intentions of the playwright feel more like revision than revisionism. Attempts are made to draw connections between the policies of the Mughals and present-day events, but nothing concrete emerges.

In the role of the last Mughal, Tom Alter is headliner, crowd-puller and ultimately, the best thing the play has going for it; the lines roll off his tongue with an ease that befits an emperor known more for his poetry than his politics. Shah’s warming up to his young fan as the play progresses might have been more touching if Rudra (Ram Naresh Diwakar) wasn’t such a caricature. Various actors double and triple up to portray the other assorted Mughals, with an impressive Ekant Kaul as Babur/Akbar/ Mahabbat Khan.

Bubbling under the surface, and hinted at by the title (an inflammatory term aimed at latter-day Muslims), is the much-debated issue of whether the Mughals were Indian or not. Alter’s pained groan when Rudra asks him this makes clear the author’s thoughts on the matter. Yet this is a question rich – and relevant – enough to be explored in a play with similar ambition, though with more thought put into its mechanics. Sons of Babur ends up midway between Ghalib and Ghlalib in New Delhi. Both are plays directed by Alam, the first serious and biographical, the second broad and funny. He tries to have it all here, and ends up, like his titular character, with nothing.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


It's a tad self-indulgent to blog about your own header, but I've been trying to find this picture online for some time now. Photographer Stephen Goldblatt apparently asked the Beatles to mingle with onlookers at St Pancras Church in London. It's my favourite Beatles photo by some margin, and an indication that their old habit of playing the fool had remained intact even in their final, turbulent days.