Thursday, January 31, 2013

Bullets Over Broadway: DVD Review

Chatting with Alec Baldwin on his radio show Here’s the Thing, Chris Rock weighed in on why Woody Allen is beyond compare. “Put it this way,” he said. “The average great filmmaker has about four good movies, right? Woody has about 12. Like great, and then he probably has about 10 more really good ones.” Lightly sidestepping the argument over whether Allen actually has a dozen great movies, we can say with some certainty that 1994’s Bullets over Broadway is one of those really good ones. Though it’s funny and well-acted, and has great affection for the Broadway of yore, it stops short of greatness because it isn’t that much of a stretch to imagine someone else directing the film. On the other hand, you can see the initials “WA” on every frame of Manhattan, Love and Death, Annie Hall and Midnight in Paris.

In Bullets Over Broadway, Allen returns, as he does ever so often, to the 1920s. David (John Cusack) is a playwright desperate for a hit and, at the same time, determined not to sell out. His resolve is tested when his producer tells him that a mob boss has agreed to finance his production, provided he find a part for his moll Olive (Jennifer Tilley). David succumbs, but his problems are compounded when his lead actor develops an eating problem, and he falls in love with the play’s headliner, a prima donna named Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest). Worst of all, the mob has sent a minder, Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), who has strong opinions on the play’s structure.

That Cheech turns out to be more of a natural talent than David is the movie’s best joke. Leave that aside, and you have a film that’s madcap, but predictable. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences went overboard and nominated it for a staggering seven Oscars. It ended up winning only Best Supporting Actress – Dianne Wiest doing a comic version of Gloria Swanson from Billy Wilder’s classic Sunset Blvd.

The Limits of Control: DVD Review

A lone assassin in sharp suits goes from one Spanish town to another. In each, he meets a person who gives him a matchbox containing a chit of paper, the contents of which he memorises. He then swallows the paper, washing it down with a shot of espresso. “You don’t speak Spanish, do you?” he’s asked repeatedly. He doesn’t. In fact, he barely speaks at all. He doesn’t sleep either. He smiles once.

Such is the plot of The Limits of Control, and if you think we’re being oblique, wait until you see the film. Less abstract than downright inscrutable, this 2010 movie with faint echoes of Le Samouraï and Point Blank never amounts to anything more than the sum of its parts. But lord, what parts they are. French-Ivorian actor Isaach De Bankolé plays the wanderer. There’s Bill Murray and Gael García Bernal and Tilda Swinton in a white wig. The voluptuous Paz de la Huerta appears briefly as a character called The Nude, which is no metaphor. Japanese ambient metal band Boris contributes a dissonant soundtrack. And the beautifully composed images come courtesy Christopher Doyle, cinematographer on most of Wong Kar-Wai’s films.

The man responsible for bringing these eclectic talents together is Jim Jarmusch, one of the patron saints of modern American indie cinema. With this film, he’s constructed a stately riddle, but is there a point to the film’s recurring motifs or its digressions on art, music and cinema? One could be cynical and say that vague statements about Sufism and Finnish films are an easy way to shift the burden onto the audience. One should also keep in mind that Jarmusch has never been an expository filmmaker, and that even his best films – Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law, Night on Earth – have an abiding weirdness to them. But those films also made you feel something, which is something The Limits of Control never really does. No special features. 

Total Recall: DVD Review

As Total Recall unfolds, you may be reminded of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, the Wachowskis’ The Matrix, The Bourne Identity and Eccentrica Gallumbits, the triplebreasted whore of Eroticon Six from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. You may also remember a better film with the same name from 1990. But the story really begins with a 1966 sci-fi short story by Phillip K Dick. It was called “We can remember it for you wholesale” and was about a clerk called Dennis Quail who finds out – after visiting a company 
called REKAL that implants artificial memories – that he used to be an assassin for the government.

The first screen adaptation, directed by Paul Verhoven and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, changed Quail’s name to Quaid and expanded on the original plot. It was, like most ventures Verhoven, borderline-kitsch and enjoyable. Now it’s been remade and, like the Planet of the Apes reboot last year, they’ve taken the fun out of the original. Director Len Wiseman (Underworld) tries to give the film a reason for existing by working in an easy-tospot political subtext. Quaid (Colin Farrell) finds out that his former handlers are about to invade another country with the pretext of rooting out a terrorist, but with the actual intention of exploiting its land resources. Obama’s into his second term, but Hollywood’s still finding inspiration in the Bush era.

So you’re either with Wiseman & Co, or you’re against them. It’s easier to be against. Total Recall is slick but joyless: the production design has an airless, computer graphic quality, the action sequences, for all their trouble, seem like something out of a video game. The only bright spot is an unhinged Kate Beckinsale (star of Wiseman’s Underworld and Underworld: Evolution and also his wife) as a government agent who spends the first half hour pretending to be Quaid’s wife and the rest of the movie trying to kill him. Don’t be swayed by the perfunctory special features: there’s a session with theoretical physicist Michio Kaku which explores the movie’s science; a short look at the designing of “The Fall”, an elevator down the earth’s centre; and a gag reel, which, unlike the film – in which he’s a villain with a bad haircut – allows the talented Bryan Cranston a chance to display his range.  

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola: Review

Once upon a time in Harayana, Harry Mandola (Pankaj Kapur) gets drunk and inadvertently launches a farmer uprising against himself. Before that, the villagers had almost agreed to hand over the land he’d loaned out to them. Now, fired up by an unseen agitator who calls himself Mao, they want their fair share, and won’t sign. Luckily, Mandola’s daughter Bijlee (Anushka Sharma) is set to marry the local MP’s son (Arya Babbar). And since the MP, Chaudhari Devi (Shabana Azmi), is an old flame, Mandola’s dream of building high-rises and the like on his land seems on firm ground.

This could very easily have been that kind of film. You know, the one about drunk landowners and hapless villagers, scheming politicians and Naxalite agitations. But it isn’t. This is the sort of film where people have visions of pink buffaloes, where a man piloting a burning jet finds time to light his cigar with the flaming propeller. And it’s all the better for it.

This isn’t to say that Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola doesn’t talk about “real issues”. Along the way, the film addresses the Indian economy’s shift from agriculture to industry to services, touches on the builder-politician nexus, bungs the 3G scam into a song, and even says the words “honour killing”. But the medicine is sweetened by the drunk hi-jinks of Mandola and his drinking buddy/minder Matru (Imran Khan, very much at ease), a JNU-educated village boy who loves Bijlee. More than anything else, Vishal Bhardwaj’s film follows the example of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, which also mixed its social criticism with scenes of inspired lunacy. Yaaro fans will find a lot here that’s familiar: Babbar’s buffoonery brings to mind the hyperactive Ravi Baswani, and there’s a scene with a screen door that’s reminiscent of the phone call gag from the earlier film.

Another thing the two films have in common is Kapur, who played the bespectacled villain Tarneja in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. Here, his Mandola is both good and bad, but mostly just drunk, slurring his words, swearing, dancing. It’s a boisterous lead turn by someone who’s become Bollywood’s most reliable supporting actor, and fans of Kapur the comic performer – something seen all too little on the big screen – can eat their hearts out. Fans of Bhardwaj, meanwhile, will be happy he’s back filling the screen with life and colour after the strangely acrid 7 Khoon Maaf last year. There are some rough edges – as with 2009’s Kaminey, Bhardwaj seems to generate more story strands than he knows what to do with – but even the detours here are fun.

Working with cinematographer Kartik Vijay and co-writer Abhishek Chaubey, Bhardwaj creates a host of outlandish moments: a shot that’s almost the POV of a bull, a blind boy describing a UFO landing, an insane night-time pesticide attack foiled by catapulted cow dung. In all the madness, we nearly missed the sign that said “Kusturica Brass Band”. The reference is to Emir Kusturica, in whose tragicomic films brass bands always seem to be playing. Bollywood’s younger directors like to wear their cinephilia on their sleeves, but Bhardwaj – who knows his Karz from his Kieslowski – knows that the best tributes are those which don’t call attention to themselves.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

AkaashVani: Review

Not every 150-minute movie can be easily divided into three parts. But AkaashVani, written and directed by Luv Ranjan, lends itself extraordinarily well to this conceit. Each third, it turns out, is devoted to one specific idea. And in each case, only when the film is convinced that the point’s been safely driven home does it move on.

Akaash (Kartik Tiwari) and Vani (Nushrat Bharucha) meet on the first day of college and become friends. He slings out one-liners that wouldn’t fly with an Ajit impersonator, she finds them outrageous and, despite her best efforts, can’t help smiling. Cut to Akaash smiling at Vani smiling. Repeat 50 times. And just like that, college is over, they’re in love and it’s time to tell her parents. 

However, within minutes of Vani reaching home, news arrives that her till-now absent sister has eloped, just prior to her marriage. Her parents overreact spectacularly by getting Vani married her off to Ravi (Sunny Singh Nijjar), a nice, clean-cut boy with a good job. There’s the little matter of marital rape (shown three times, just in case we weren’t sure) and constant mental abuse, but why would that bother ostensibly concerned parents? As for Akaash, he’s largely absent, having been dumped over the phone. 

Having established that falling in love is magical, and that one should never throw away a love that’s special, the movie tries out a third novel concept: it’s never too late for love. Akaash returns; he’s miffed at first, but soon there are tears and a return to slo-mo smiles. There’s more to come, but by this point you might be past caring whether the two run away together or kill each other, like the lovers in Ishaqzaade

The ending, when it finally arrives, is straight out of a TV serial, though Bharucha salvages enough from it to mark her as someone worth keeping an eye on. Her characters haven’t had the greatest luck: she and her boyfriend were butchered to death in Love Sex aur Dhoka, and she was off-screen and at the receiving end of a mean, funny rant by Tiwari that was the highlight of Ranjan’s first film Pyaar Ka Punchnama. Here, she’s a silent sufferer in need of rescuing. So is the audience.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Kal, Pankaj aur Kal

Pankaj Kapur, who completed three decades in film last year, could lay claim to being the finest character actor working in Hindi cinema today. It’s unlikely he’d ever do that though. Only an actor with scant ego could have graduated from the National School of Drama, worked with directors like Tapan Sinha and Mrinal Sen, won two National Awards – and also done TV shows like Phillips Top 10. The trick is to accept film Kapur and TV Kapur as the same person, to appreciate that the humour he brings to stalking a goat in the 1997 film Rui Ka Bojh isn’t that far removed from his tirades as the teacher in the sitcom Zabaan Sambhaal Ke. If Kapur’s long stint in TV – which has run parallel to his movie career since he started playing detective Karamchand in 1985 – has proved anything, it’s that the actor has a gift for comedy that’s rarely been exploited on the big screen. It’s possible that Vishal Bharadwaj, who gave him two of his finest roles in Maqbool and The Blue Umbrella, might have tapped that vein in Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola. The film stars Imran Khan and Anushka Sharma, and reunites Kapur with Shabana Azmi. To mark its release this fortnight, we look back at our five favourite Pankaj Kapur performances.

It isn’t so far-fetched to suggest that Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro might have come apart at the seams if Tarneja hadn’t been a convincing villain. Certainly, Kapur is the only cast member who suppresses the temptation to go over the top (save for his explosive entry in the Mahabharata scene – no actor could have resisted that). His corrupt builder is neat, logical, even-voiced; and in a film as all -out crazy as this one, he sticks out. His villainy is vulpine – he has the same smile as the wolf in the old Warner Bros cartoons. You might not think of him first or second or even fifth when recalling the movie, but try imagining it without him. 

RAAKH (1989)
Aditya Bhattacharya’s film won Kapur his first National Award, for Best Supporting Actor. If Aamir Khan was an exposed nerve as a young man driven half-crazy by his desire to avenge his girlfriend’s molestation (it must have been especially startling for audiences who’d just seen him in the sunny Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak), Kapur was the film’s dark heart. (He plays a police officer who coaches Khan in the ways of vigilante justice.) There are two remarkable moments involving his character. The first is when Khan realises that Kapur was an eye-witness to the assault and confronts him. The shorter Kapur physically dominates the younger actor, repeatedly entering his space and yanking him around. The second is a long monologue Kapur delivers as he confronts the perpetrators of the crime, his voice shaking with suppressed rage and self-disgust.

Ek Doctor Ki Maut is often pointed to as the Pankaj Kapur performance to see. Kapur plays a doctor whose obsession with finding a cure for leprosy causes him to neglect everything else in his life, including his long-suffering wife, played by Shabana Azmi. Kapur – perhaps realising the possibilities inherent in the role – responded with one of his most explosive performances. His character is always erupting – with joy, scorn, anger, disbelief. He’s not a likeable man, and to his credit, Kapur never attempts a last-innings bid for redemption. But redemption arrives nevertheless, in a quietly distressing scene by the ocean, with Azmi consoling her sick, dejected partner.

MAQBOOL (2003)
Even if the day came when we couldn’t remember a single thing about Vishal Bharadwaj’s masterly adaptation of Macbeth, we still wouldn’t be able to get Abba Ji’s voice out of our heads. Every bit as memorable as Anthony Hopkins’ hiss in The Silence of the Lambs or Amitabh Bachchan’s growl inAgneepath, Kapur’s throat-grazing monotone is perfect for Abba Ji, an underworld don with otherworldly menace. Kapur plays Duncan to Irrfan Khan’s Macbeth and Tabu’s Lady Macbeth, and though everyone’s in top form, it’s impossible to take your eyes off Kapur when he’s part of the scene. Apart from garnering him a second Supporting Actor National Award, Maqbool was responsible for introducing Kapur to a generation who hadn’t seen him in his ’80s parallel cinema heydey.

DHARM (2007)
Kapur’s portrayal of Pandit Chaturvedi in Bhavna Talwar’s Dharm is a masterpiece of minimalist acting. Dead eyes, expressionless voice, face like a mask: Kapur suggests a man so fixed in his ways he might as well have left the realm of the living. Which makes it all the more astonishing when the spell lifts. A young boy orphaned at the pandit’s doorstep is taken in by his wife. The holy man, dismissive at first, gradually warms to the child. When we finally see him smile, it’s a revelation; when he laughs, it’s nothing short of a miracle.  

This piece appeared in Time Out Delhi. The hideous pun in the title is just for the blog. 

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Notes on Irma Vep

An ageing French filmmaker decides to re-make Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires with Hong Kong’s Maggie Cheung in the lead role. Maggie, playing herself, becomes an object of desire (a discreet one at that) for the director as well as her costumer Zoe. But Cheung is lonely and bored, and starts looking for ways to make her trip more fun. You’d never guess what she gets up to (or doesn’t – this is a very puzzling film). This light-footed, difficult-to-categorise film appeared in 1996 and was directed by Olivier Assayas.

- I may be wrong, but there seem to be a series of nods to Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating, another entertainingly elusive look at role-playing and the overlapping of life and cinema. There’s the way Zoe keeps saying a high-pitched “Woo” when she’s trying to catch Maggie’s attention, just like Dominique Labourier, who played Julie in Rivette’s film. Bulle Ogier, who played one of the vampiric residents of the ‘movie house’, as also cast as a villain in a minor key. Also, both the titles are a play on words: ‘irma vep’ is an anagram for ‘vampire’, and ‘aller en bateau’ (the original title was Céline et Julie vont en bateau) is the French equivalent of ‘shaggy dog story’, which the film certainly is.

Rivette’s film also has a Feuillade connection. It's alternate title is ‘Phantom ladies over Paris’, and there's a scene where Celine and Julie are seen roller-skating dressed like Musidora.

- As director Assayas acknowledged later, Irma Vep is influenced by two films about filmmaking. The first in Truffaut’s Day for Night, from which the film borrows the idea of a film set being one of high energy and confusion. The second is Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore, from which it takes the idea that a film set is full of stasis, compromise, boredom. Film as life, film as death: Irma Vep manages to incorporate both these world views into its own. Of course, a more obvious nod is Assayas’ casting of Jean-Pierre Leaud and Lou Castel, the central actors in Truffaut’s and Fassbinder’s films respectively.

- Three pieces of music, all used beautifully. Ali Farka Toure and Ry Cooder warm “Soukora” accompanies Zoe and Maggie on their bike ride, teasing us with the thought that maybe the two are going to fall for each other. Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot’s “Bonnie and Clyde” is perfect for the bohemian chic atmosphere of the dinner scene. And “Tunic” by Sonic Youth is an out of left field choice for the theft/dream sequence, but is nevertheless an appropriate accompaniment – musically and lyrically (“Dreaming, dreaming of a girl like me”) – for Maggie’s strange transformation.

- Were the French really that despondent about the state of their cinema in 1996? Nearly everyone but the directors seem disillusioned, cynical.

- Zoe and Rene are responsible for dressing Maggie up in a latex body suit from an S&M shop. Yet, she doesn’t find this fetishist costume constricting – unlike Nathalie Boutefeu, she has no problem breathing with it on. Also, it helps her literally ‘become’ Irma Vep, to disappear into her role.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Kadal: Mostly Timeless

I haven’t written about music for a while now, and it isn’t surprising that the album that’s prompting me to do so is a Rahman soundtrack. Mani Ratnam's Kadal is his eleventh collaboration with the composer, and after the uneven Raavan, this is a return to form for the partnership that’s yielded Roja, Bombay and Dil Se. As far as Rahman is concerned, this is his best soundtrack since Delhi-6 back in 2009. For me personally, Kadal could not have come at a better time. It’s comforting to know that even though Sachin’s half-retired from cricket, Rahman continues to make fantastic music. Don’t ask me how the two are connected, but they are.

The music, then – and it’ll have to be just the music, because I speak no Tamil. Kadak opens with "Chithirai Nela", a bold choice, in that it’s a ballad and not very dramatic. It does have some nice singing by Vijay Yesudas, and Ranjit Barot’s percussion opens up the song a little in the latter half. If the opener’s a bit sedate, then track two, “Adiye”, is unlike anything I’ve heard by Rahman. With its rolling piano and churchy background vocals, it’s situated squarely in the gospel tradition, which has always been a part of Rahman’s music (remember  “Mustafa Mustafa”?), but never front and centre. Sid Sriram’s vocal is powerful as hell, and thankfully free of melismas.
After “Moongil Thottam”, which has some nice harmonies, “Elay Keechan” announces itself with a shout, a simple, sunny guitar figure and two-part humming (why don’t songs have humming any more?). 'Kadal' means ‘sea’ in Tamil, and “Elay Keechan”, sung by Rahman himself, is apparently a variation on traditional fishing songs from the region. Even if it isn't, it hardly matters, because the song is really about freedom, the way that similarly unfettered Rahman songs like “Awara Bhawrein” and “Choti Si Asha” are about freedom. If there’s a classic on the album, it’s probably this.
“Nenjukkule”, more than any of the other tracks, made me wish I understood the lyrics. The words sound loving, but not untouched by humour – but perhaps I’m just describing the music (strumming, a tasteful string arrangement) and the unaffected singing of Shakthisree Gopalan. "Anbin Vaasale" is next, a stirring piece of chorus singing, rather like “Bharat Hum Ko Jaan Se Pyaara Hai” without the gloom (amusingly, the short lead vocal is by Haricharan, whom Wikipedia lists as ‘not to be confused with Hariharan’). The closer, “Magudi Magudi”, is the only song on the album that couldn’t have been made more than a few years back, with its EDM-y foundation and percussive rapping by Sri Lanka’s Aaryan Dinesh Kanagaratnam. (MIA should be stealing it sometime soon.) The rest of Kadal is mostly timeless – a quality that’s unfair to expect regularly from anybody but AR Rahman.