Saturday, April 25, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron: Review

How many Avengers is too many Avengers? In the first movie, at least one superhero seemed superfluous: Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, whose bows and arrows seemed silly when placed alongside the physicality of the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Captain America (Chris Evans), the superpowers of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man (Black Widow might have been superfluous too, only it's Scarlett Johansson). Hawkeye even became the subject of a Saturday Night Live sketch, and director Joss Whedon, ever attuned to the shifting winds of pop culture, has turned Hawkeye’s non-importance into a running gag in Avengers: Age Of Ultron, the sequel to 2012’s The Avengers.

He may be a joke, but Renner’s still very much there, putting in the hours, earning his pay cheque. So is everyone else. You have the six Avengers. You have a new villain, Ultron. There are the super-siblings, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizebeth Olsen), who seem to have wandered in from an X-Men movie. There are superheroes no one really cares about (War Machine, The Falcon). And there are the appearances—so dear to fanboys, so perplexing to regular viewers—by sundry characters from various corners of the Marvel Universe (Erik Selvig, Peggy Carter).

With so many characters to keep track of, the narrative could have become ridiculously convoluted, but Whedon avoids this by trimming his plot of any complexity. At a Hydra base the Avengers overrun in the fictional country of Sokovia, Iron Man comes across some advanced research on artificial intelligence. Informing Bruce Banner but not the rest of the team, he tries to harness this power to activate Ultron, a planned defence shield of sorts. As anyone who’s ever read a comic knows, when you mess with science, you get a supervillain. Sure enough, Ultron comes to life as a killer-bot, and in James Spader’s even tones, declares that his mission is to save humanity (by killing everyone).

Whedon does all he can to keep the various balls in the air. And, to an extent, he succeeds—but there’s something missing. The Avengers worked because Whedon brought something of his wisecracking screwball personality to the genre, which was then in its dour, Nolan-inspired phase. But the action sequences in Age Of Ultron are interminably long, and the banter has lost a lot of its bite; there’s something depressingly Ocean’s Twelve about watching Hulk, Iron Man et al try and lift Thor’s hammer at a party.

It’s disappointing to see a director as playful as Whedon—the creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly—resist the chance to mess with Hollywood formulae. Age Of Ultron unfolds like every other comic book sequel you’ve seen: an opening battle, victory, complacency, cracks within the team, a “back to the basics” speech, rebuilding, and a final battle that decides Earth’s fate.

There is some fun to be had. The odd verbal jab hits home (Captain America has loosened up), Spader’s voice work is terrific, and two Avengers are contemplating the most ill-advised workplace romance ever. But the best you can say about the film is that it’s efficient. It certainly isn’t inspired.

What next for Whedon and his all-stars? Guardians Of The Galaxy stole the wise-ass superhero template; Ant-Man is likely to push in the same direction. TV’s Daredevil is bringing Raid-like grittiness to the form. Will the Avengers movies to come be of anything more than academic interest—how many millions spent, how many made? And if they aren’t, will Whedon become a cautionary tale: the talented showrunner whom Hollywood threw money at and ruined?

This review appeared in Mint.

Court: Review

It’s unlikely anyone will be going in with measured expectations to see Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court. For months, there have been articles and op-eds praising the film’s originality, deconstructing its motives. There have been interviews with the director, producer, cinematographer, even distributors and sales agents. Looked at one way, it’s great that a film like this—an indie with a snowball’s chance in hell of a release—has any kind of hype surrounding it. Yet one has to wonder: Is the actual film likely to resemble the one viewers have built up inside their heads?

Don’t get me wrong. I think Court is absolutely worth raving about, and that it might be one of the most original films to come out of the country in a long time. But its insights are hard-won: You have to be willing to wait and watch until the point of each scene—and there is always a point—reveals itself. Most of the scenes look like someone just switched on a camera and recorded whatever quotidian scene was unfolding. Do not be fooled—even when you’re watching someone doze off or shop or sit in silence, there’s a reason.

Court revolves around the trial of one Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), a man of few words and a singer of transformational power. The case against him, as his lawyer, Vinay (Vivek Gomber, also the film’s producer), finds out, is that he abetted, through one of his performances in a Mumbai slum, the suicide of a local sewer worker. The public prosecutor, Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni), points to evidence of suicide, but also to Kamble’s earlier hearings for sedition and suggests links to anti-national groups.

The film draws on the real-life experiences of singer-activists like Sambhaji Bhagat, whose musical numbers are featured in Court, and cultural groups like the Kabir Kala Manch, whose members were charged under The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. One realizes after a while that Kamble isn’t guilty, that the worker died because it is terribly dangerous work carried out with minimal safety precautions. And that’s when the film becomes less about the case than the court and the people who populate it.

By following the main players—the two lawyers and the judge (Pradeep Joshi)—home from work, as it were, Tamhane reminds us that concepts like “justice” and “equality” derive from the people that work within the system, and that these people have prejudices and blind spots just like the rest of us. Vinay, a well-to-do bachelor, is visibly passionate about the law, speaking at seminars and going out of his way to help the taciturn Kamble. He can afford to be idealistic in a way that the more middle-class Nutan can’t. When she goes home, she has to cook, run a household and study her casebooks; Vinay can have a drink and fall asleep in front of the TV. One particular contrast is devastating. At one point, Nutan and her husband and children watch a xenophobic stage comedy (and enjoy it). Later in the film, Vinay finds himself a victim of similar small-mindedness, manifested as a kind of street theatre.

Court observes its characters minutely but never judges them, and Tamhane finds a filmic grammar that matches this attitude. Most of the scenes are shot with a static camera. Cinematographer Mrinal Desai, who uses his background in documentary film-making to give the film a very convincing naturalism, sticks mainly to medium and long shots. In this age of fast cutting and hyperactive camerawork, stillness of this kind is almost jarring. Though many of the scenes are as formally brilliant—and difficult to execute—as a flashy Steadicam shot, the audience’s willingness to embrace the lack of movement may determine how long the film can extend its theatrical run. Court has already had a great run on the festival circuit. It would be very exciting if regular film-goers took to it as well.

This review appeared in Mint. An earlier piece I'd written on the film's global journey.

Dharam Sankat Mein: Review

Fuwad Khan’s Dharam Sankat Mein starts brightly, hits some beautiful high notes towards the middle, and then proceeds to let itself down. At half-time, I was half-expecting this to be the next Tere Bin Laden, a film that’s satirical and perceptive, but doesn’t take itself too seriously. At an hour and 45 minutes, I revised my expectations down to Vicky Donor levels: great premise, strange ending. By the time the film crossed the 2-hour mark, I would have settled for anything better than the aman ki asha climax of PK.

PK and Dharam Sankat Mein have a lot more in common than an inability to close well. Both are satires about religion as practised in modern India, but from differing perspectives. The central conceit of PK was that only an alien could show us how silly and corrupt organized religion really is. Aamir Khan’s alien was the ultimate outsider, whereas Paresh Rawal’s Dharam Pal is a reluctant insider. The 50-year-old head of a catering business in Ahmedabad, Dharam is a Brahmin who enjoys the occasional drink, wears a sacred thread but pokes fun at his son for becoming overly devout in order to impress his potential father-in-law. It’s a canny portrait of a certain type of middle-class Indian: religious on the surface, but actually just trying not to make waves.

What makes Dharam representative of a certain kind of Indian thinking is that he—while basically uninterested in religion—is also casually communal, evident in his conversations with his wife and, more explicitly, in an argument with his neighbour, the lawyer Nawab Mehmood Shah (Annu Kapoor), when he suggests that the man move into a Muslim neighbourhood if he doesn’t like the one he’s currently in. The film flips this instinctive but unthinking attitude on its head when Dharam finds out, some 20 minutes in, that he was adopted as a boy, and that his biological father is Muslim. He also discovers that his father is alive and living in a home for the aged. When Dharam goes to meet him, the imam who runs the establishment (the menacing, soft-spoken Murali Sharma) tells him he must become more visibly Muslim before he meets the old man. He turns to Shah, who agrees to coach him. And thus the movie’s brightest stretch begins.

The paraphernalia of religions—the rituals and tics that mark one out as a believer, and separate from believers of another feather—was the object of affectionate ribbing in PK as well, but Dharam Sankat Mein works better because the emotional stakes are higher. This is all credit to Kapoor and Rawal, who take an essentially slapstick scenario and add shades of deep hurt and confusion to it. Kapoor has a whale of a time with his character’s grandiose way of expressing himself: He speaks like a lawyer in an Urdu courtroom drama. But he also conveys, without explicitly saying so, the toll it must take if you’re the only Muslim in a Hindu neighbourhood in post-2002 Ahmedabad.

Rawal does something almost as interesting with a less virtuous character. Dharam gets over his religious mental blocks, but he’s no more interested in being a good Muslim than he was in being a devout Hindu. To him, adopting “Muslim mannerisms” is simply like putting on a disguise, a way to reach his father before he dies (much is made of the significance of holy caps in the film).

Dharam Sankat Mein would have been a lot easier to digest if the ultimate message had been in sync with Dharam’s character: the idea that many Indians today use religion as a means to an end, a way to fit in. But the film ends up siding with dharam, not Dharam’s sankat (which is to meet his dying father), and sacrifices its emotional raison d’être. By the end, it disintegrates into bland liberal pieties, unconvincing depictions of communal tension, and the unrewarding slapstick of the subplot involving Dharam’s son and the godman Neelanand Baba (Naseeruddin Shah, parodying MSG, perhaps a touch too much). It’s a pity, because when Rawal and Kapoor are on song, you want it to go on forever.

This review appeared in Mint.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Barefoot To Goa: Review

That Praveen Morchhale’s Barefoot To Goa finally has a theatrical release almost two years after it was shown at the Mumbai Film Festival, is both good and bad news. Good, because every film deserves to be seen by a wider audience. Bad, because a paying public deserves well-made films, and Barefoot To Goa is very far from one.

From the very first scene, it’s clear that Barefoot To Goa will be the kind of film that will demand your tears, instead of working to earn them. The film is about a brother and sister who travel from Mumbai to Goa (not barefoot, for the most part) to visit their grandmother, who has been abandoned by her uncaring son and daughter-in-law, and who is—drum roll—dying of cancer. The children, who must be somewhere between the ages of 6-10, make the trip with the minimum of fuss: hitching rides, finding shelter with kindly rural folk and not being kidnapped or sold into slavery in any way.

I take no pleasure in running down a film that’s obviously been strung together on a minuscule budget, but couldn’t everything have been thought through a bit more? The screenplay trades in the worst kind of virtuous-villager/seeing-the-face-of-God-in-a-child clichés. The camerawork is all over the place, favouring close-ups when none are required and occasionally shifting to shaky, hand-held shots, with disastrous results. The colour scheme is too dark, though even when you peer through, there’s nothing of interest to see. The actors playing the children are neither good nor embarrassingly bad, something that cannot be said for the parents. Only Farrukh Jaffar, who’d played Amma in Peepli (Live), manages to transcend the material in a near-silent performance as the grandmother.

This review appeared in Mint.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Made in India, courted abroad

When Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in September, few could have predicted the kind of dream run this quietly devastating Indian art film and its director would have. Yet, over the past six months, the film has won a series of awards at international festivals, including two FIPRESCI (International Federation of Critics) awards and two trophies at Venice. Recently, it won the National Film Awards for Best Feature, the highest cinematic honour in India.

It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when it seemed like Court might go the way of most regional films in India: a couple of festival screenings, maybe a small theatrical release, a DVD, and oblivion. Yet, at crucial moments, the film has found influential supporters willing to gamble on it—angels, as Tamhane calls them. That the majority of these angels were from outside India has lent a decidedly international flavour to Court’s success. The film may be intensely, specifically Indian, but it was recognized, encouraged and promoted abroad.

Court, which releases on 17 April across Maharashtra and in select metros, is a rigorous, formally inventive film. It chronicles, with exemplary patience and attention to detail, the court trial of a singer-activist accused of abetting the suicide of a sewer worker. Much has been written about the film’s making: how Tamhane spent close to two years on scripting, casting and pre-production; how he auditioned around 1,800 people; how his friend, actor Vivek Gomber (he plays the defence lawyer), put his own money into the film when they couldn’t find any financiers. They had approached the National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC) for funding in late 2012 but were rejected. “We also went to the (NFDC) Film Bazaar (November 2012), but no producers came on board, seeing our young faces and no other film to show,” said Tamhane, over Skype from New York. “So it was all Vivek—there was no other funding.”

One bit of financial assistance Court did receive was through the Hubert Bals Fund, given out by the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Tamhane found out about the fund when he took his short film, Six Strands, to the festival in 2011. He applied in 2012 and was selected, receiving €10,000 (around Rs.6.7 lakh now) for script and project development. “It helped us, because even though it’s not a lot of money, it’s a prestigious fund,” Gomber says (Court’s budget was Rs.3.5 crore). But the film’s global journey started in earnest when Paolo Bertolin, a programmer at the Venice International Film Festival, heard about it at the 2012 Film Bazaar. As he later told the NFDC, “Right from the start, I thought this is a very interesting project, I should follow up on it.” Luckily for Tamhane and Gomber, follow up is what he did. Bertolin became an early, enthusiastic champion of the film, pushing for its selection at Venice.

Venice’s Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica, in existence since 1932, is the oldest film festival in the world and, along with Cannes, Berlin and Toronto, one of the most prestigious. Tamhane and Gomber had been applying to festivals since March 2014. They were rejected by seven of them—including Cannes, Locarno and San Sebastian—before being accepted by Venice. Getting a debut film screened there would have been achievement enough, but on 6 September, in Tamhane’s words, “the whole equation changed”. Court beat films by arthouse favourites like Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Hong Sang-soo and won the Orizzonti award, given to the best film in the “Horizons” section. It also won the Luigi De Laurentiis award for best first feature.

It was as if some celestial scorekeeper had decided that the uncertainty of the past few years needed to be redressed. In October, Court played at the 16th Mumbai Film Festival. It ended up winning Best Film and Best Director, plus a special jury mention for the cast. At the Viennale the following month, it was awarded a FIPRESCI award. The same month, it picked up awards at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival and the 21st Minsk Film Festival “Listapad”. In December, it won the Grand Prix and a second Fipresci prize at the Auteur Film Festival in Belgrade, Serbia, and Best Film and Best Director at the Singapore International Film Festival. It was also selected for the prestigious New Directors/New Films festival in New York. The day before Tamhane and Gomber left for the US, the announcement came that they had won Best Feature Film at India’s National Film Awards, making it the third time in four years that a debut full-length feature had won the top prize.

Another crucial piece fell into place around the time of the Venice film festival. Right up to the time of the festival, Court had no sales agent. Gomber recalled writing to all the big names, and getting rejection after rejection. “They all had automated replies,” he chuckled, “saying, ‘Oh, we’re in Europe, we’re on holiday’.” But then they had another slice of luck. Deepti Da Cunha, who does the programming for the Rome International Film Festival, introduced Tamhane to Alexa Rivero, a producer and production manager. Rivero saw Court, was impressed, and recommended it to her former employers, the French agency Memento Films International, which in the past has acquired films by directors such as Olivier Assayas and Jia Zhangke. At Memento’s Artscope label, it was seen by Sata Cissokho, who had recently joined as festivals manager. “To me what’s really special about it is the rhythm that grows in the course of the trials and stays with you like you were actually witnessing it,” Cissokho wrote over email. “I was still thinking about it days after having seen it.” Court became her first acquisition at Artscope.

There was one more serendipitous surprise in store. On the jury for the Luigi De Laurentiis Award at Venice was Ron Mann, a Canadian documentary film-maker. After seeing the film through to the award (“The deliberation took 6 seconds for a unanimous decision,” he told me), his label FilmsWeLike acquired the Canadian distribution rights for Court. He also made a crucial recommendation. Nancy Gerstman, co-founder of New York-based distribution company Zeitgeist Films, told me how they first learnt about Court through Mann, who kept telling them about this wonderful little Indian film he had seen at Venice.

Zeitgeist—where Cissokho used to work before Memento—is one of the most highly regarded film distribution labels in the world. Started in 1988 by Gerstman and Emily Russo, it’s known for its focus on auteur-driven cinema, distributing films by directors as varied as Abbas Kiarostami and Jan Švankmajer. More than just displaying the kind of taste that earned them a MoMA retrospective of their own, they are tastemakers themselves, consistently backing emerging talent and fresh voices in world cinema. Court wasn’t on their radar, though, until Mann and Memento alerted them to it. “It took a little while for us to get around to seeing it, and seeing the wonderfulness of it,” Gerstman said over Skype.

Court’s American premiere was at New Directors/New Films on 26 March, part of a line-up that included The Tribe and White God. Zeitgeist plans to release the film theatrically at New York’s Film Forum on 15 July (it releases in Canada on the same day). Memento has already sold the film in West Asia, Hong Kong and Greece; when I spoke to Tamhane and Gomber, they said that a distribution deal for France was close to being signed.

Over the last five years or so, there have been an increasing number of Indian films finding their way into the line-up of major international festivals. Some have even managed to find sales and distribution partners outside India. Film sales company Fortissimo Films acquired the world sales rights to Anand Gandhi’s Ship Of Theseus in 2011—the company has also acquired other Indian films: Dev Benegal’s Road, Movie (2009), Ribhu Dasgupta’s Michael (2011) and Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely (2012). Last year, Zeitgeist picked up Richie Mehta’s Siddharth for distribution. Sony Pictures Classics put its muscle behind Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, which paid off handsomely: At one point, the film was the highest-grossing foreign film of the year in the US, collecting over $4 million (around Rs.24.8 crore) at the box office. More recently, arthouse sales agent Match Factory partnered with Anup Singh’s Qissa, while French sales firm Wide Management acquired the rights to Shonali Bose’s Margarita, With A Straw.

This may look like a gathering storm, but Tamhane and Gomber’s experience suggests that you need to be both lucky and dogged to nab international representation. I asked Bose whether the financial success of The Lunchbox had altered the way global distributors viewed Indian independent films. “I don’t know,” she wrote back. “But I do know that it certainly hasn’t strengthened US distributors! After our world premiere at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, we were very surprised not to get picked up by one of the majors for a theatrical in North America” (the film will be released in the US by an arthouse distributor).

It stands to reason that a challenging, complex film like Tamhane’s will take whatever angels it can find, wherever it can find them. But independent cinema in the country would be much better served if we could discover and nurture the next Court ourselves.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night: Review

 A young man on his bike adopts a James Dean pose. A woman undulates to music, applies make-up, puts on a hijab. A balloon seller does a complicated dance with her wares. A junkie tries going cold turkey alone in his room. A skeleton and her friend buy ecstasy from Dracula at a party. A vampire skateboards down a deserted road at night.

Such is the strange, seductive world of Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. The film attracted a lot of attention when it played at Sundance last year. It was billed as the “first Iranian vampire Western”, which it both is, and isn’t. Though the film does concern a vampire (identified only as “The Girl”), played by Sheila Vand, who falls for a young man named Arash, it is Iranian only in that the characters seem like they’re from there; they wear hijabs, speak Farsi, mix tea with sugar stirrers. Yet, the setting is very obviously not Iran: the town looks like some dump in the American Midwest. Amirpour herself is Iranian-American; she grew up in Florida and California, making short films and finally this, her first full-length feature.

I’m sure there will be critics who’ll see this as a parable for women’s rights in Iran or some other social criticism. It’s not like this could not have been Amirpour’s intention—The Girl is like an avenging Santa, biting the necks of the naughty, sparing the nice—just that there are ways to enjoy this most beautiful and bizarre of films that don’t involve “reality” or even “Iran”. For a first-time director, Amirpour has exceptional control; there’s something Jim Jarmusch-like in the fever dream quality of her visuals and the eerie poetry she brings to the simplest of scenes. She’s helped immeasurably in this by Lyle Vincent’s black and white cinematography, the eclectic soundtrack that ranges from Farsi pop to imitation Ennio Morricone, and the performances of Arash Marandi as Arash and Vand as The Girl.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is as exciting a debut as any in the past few years. Amirpour’s next feature has been announced: a post-apocalyptic cannibal romance with Keanu Reeves and Jim Carrey. Keep an eye out for this one.

This review appeared in Mint.

Hunterrr: Review

Mandar Ponkshe (Gulshan Devaiah) is a hunter. He’s a ladies’ man, a player, tharki, vasu and some other words, the censors don’t want your baby ears to hear (they're there in the trailer). He’s isn’t very smart and he definitely isn’t smooth. He isn’t rich; it’s not clear if he works at all. What makes him such a successful Lothario? For one, he’s always available. And he isn’t picky. All comers are welcome: young and middle-aged, dark and fair, naïve and experienced.

There’s a less flattering term than player, and that’s sex addict. This is what Mandar really is. Over the course of the film, he has affairs with at least two married women, hits on a guest of the family, and has sex with an old flame even after he’s gotten engaged. His friends have moved on, started families, have children. He has continued to hunt, offering drinks to young girls in bars and getting beaten up for his trouble. For a while, it’s not clear why we’re watching a film about such an uninspiring character.

Luckily (and unusually for a Hindi film), Hunterrr finds some footing in the second half. First off, there’s a lot more screen time for Radhika Apte, who can lift the spirits of just about anything she’s in. Here, she plays Trupti,one of the girls Mandar’s meeting for a possible arranged marriage. Mandar, who had tried to tell some of the women he met earlier about his womanizing ways, decides to keep silent this time. She, however, has a past of her own, and (again, unusually for a Hindi film) isn’t shy about discussing it. A couple of tears, drinks and lying flashbacks later, we’re left with a strange question: Would you knowingly marry a sex addict?

Hunterrr does try something that hasn’t been attempted before in Hindi movies: Charting the development of the Indian male child as a journey of perpetual horniness. The film skips back and forth between three main time frames. We see Mandar as a child, at a time when he’s discovering masturbation and learning how to talk to girls; then as a callow college kid on the make; and in the present day, being forced by his family to consider marriage. All this unfolds very leisurely; Hunterrr has the right comic material but lacks the timing that would make the movie sing.

Hunterrr is the directorial debut of Harshavardhan Kulkarni, who had previously written the screenplay for Hasee Toh Phasee (2014), another mainstream comedy partly subverted by the oddness of its outlier lead character. It is fitfully interesting: The flashback with the children has shades of Amarcord, and the discussions Mandar and Trupti have in the latter stages are funny and provocative. That said, there are also a lot of moments that will make women—and some men—in the audience wince: the line the schoolboys form outside the girls’ school, forcing them to exit via a narrow, leering passage; the hoary old idea that an exposed bra strap is titillating.

For a very male-focused film, there’s a measure of equality in the fact that many of the women in Mandar’s life know exactly what they want, even if it’s just no-strings-attached fun. Mandar, on the other hand, is clueless at the start, and just a little wiser at the end (the usually arresting Devaiah embraces his character’s confusion and mumbly sleaziness, but still ends up bland). He may be a slave to his impulses, but any hunter will tell you that it gets lonely out there in the jungle. It’s the same old cliché you get in every movie about a womanizer, from Shame (2011) to Don Jon (2013)—deep down, even sex addicts need love.