Saturday, November 28, 2015

Creed: Review

In Rocky and Rocky II, Sylvester Stallone’s perennial underdog was pitted against Apollo Creed, heavyweight champion of the world. He lost to him in the first film, and beat him the second time around. In Rocky III, Creed took over as Rocky’s trainer after the death of his friend and coach Mickey. And in Rocky IV, Creed died after a brutal pummelling by a Russian fighter, leaving Rocky—who was in his corner—to agonize over whether he could have saved his life by throwing in the towel earlier.

When we first encounter Adonis Johnson, he’s a suit-and-tie-wearing executive moonlighting as a boxer at an underground ring in Tijuana, Mexico. He wins his 15th straight fight, quits his job, and suddenly we’re in a flashback, with a young Adonis, fatherless and disturbed, in a correctional facility. A woman seeks him out there; she reveals that she’s his father’s wife and wants him to live with her. What was his name, he asks? Instead of her answer, the film’s title appears emblazoned across the screen: Creed.

Now, this is undoubtedly mainstream corn. But it’s done with such economy and feeling that you not only accept the emotional blast but are grateful for it. The heartfelt franchise film has become a rarity nowadays—and it makes sense that a spin-off of Rocky, the very model of a heart-on-sleeve sports movie, would be the one to fill the breach. But Creed is also fleet-footed and taut, rather like the aptly named Adonis, who seeks out Rocky Balboa and asks him to be his trainer. Rocky’s not interested initially—he’s still feeling guilty over Apollo—but Adonis wears him down. They start training and, in the spirit of the series, Adonis finds himself up against the heavyweight champion of the world, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew).

Creed is directed by Ryan Coogler, whose first feature was the well-received 2013 indie Fruitvale Station (Michael B. Jordan, who starred in that film, plays Adonis). It’s a surprisingly smooth shift to the mainstream for Coogler. Creed hasn’t an ounce of fat of it, burning through its pleasingly predictable plot with good humour and tremendous energy. Nothing impedes the film’s onward drive: not Adonis’ daddy issues, or his taking a liking to a singer called Bianca (Tessa Thompson), or the revelation that Rocky has cancer.

With its tearful mothers and musical interludes and unfettered emotions, Creed comes close to the spirit of films made in India. What could not have been achieved here is the kind of immediacy to the fighters it allows. Coogler keeps the fights free of distracting camera effects, and the results are as close to the real thing as possible. You can feel the weight of the punches as they land, hear the whistle of the rope as Adonis skips during training.

And then there’s Stallone, 69 years old, the stallion put out to pasture. You can sense the film’s affection for him in the way it allows him to ramble on, to say old-man things in that familiar semi-indecipherable gurgle of his. Stallone may not have become a great actor, but he’s found a way to be an affecting presence. For the first time in a long while, it’s a pleasure to be in his corner.

This review appeared in Mint.

Tamasha: Review

By now, it’s pretty much accepted that Imtiaz Ali is Indian cinema’s last great romantic. While it’s true that his films are all founded on love—invariably lost, sometimes found—there’s another theme that runs through them: the search for the self. Ali’s characters are often found adopting new identities (Rockstar), being challenged to reevaluate existing ones (Jab We Met), rejecting ones mandated by society (Highway). Tamasha, his sixth film as writer-director, is his most explicit examination of these issues.

Two Indians meet on the island of Corsica. She’s about to reveal her name when he stops her. Let’s not tell each other anything, he says, or it’ll be the same old story. He tells her his name is Don; she plays along, calls herself Mona Darling. Other rules are set: no staying in touch afterwards, and no sex. Neither of which makes much sense—it seems like the ideal scenario for a torrid, commitment-free affair—but if characters were making sound emotional decisions, this wouldn’t be an Imtiaz Ali film. The two of them spend a blissful couple of days together, share one kiss, and then she leaves.

Four years pass. The girl (Deepika Padukone) hasn’t been able to forget the brazen, charming guy (Ranbir Kapoor) she met. She haunts a bar she has reason to believe he’ll be at. Incredibly, she finds him there. In a beautifully awkward scene, they introduce themselves as Ved and Tara. He hasn’t gotten over her either, and asks her out on a date. It’s obvious that something’s wrong, but they persist. It’s only when he asks her to marry him that she refuses. She was expecting the rake she met in Corsica, but Ved is just a tie-wearing, corporate lingo-spouting Everyman.

As Ved disintegrates, so does the film. Considering it teases the idea that all stories are essentially the same—a generalization I have trouble getting on board with—there seemed a very real possibility that Tamasha would turn into Ali’s 2011 film Rockstar, the longest sustained hissy fit in Indian cinema after Devdas hit the bottle. Luckily, it doesn’t go that far: Ved is too meek to be truly self-destructive. Returning to his childhood home, he visits an old man who used to tell him folk tales, and demands to hear his own story’s ending. When he’s thrown out, the message is clear: write your own destiny.

While no one could accuse it of being subtle, Tamasha is affecting in parts, thanks in large measure to its lead players. Kapoor, with his gift for light comedy and mimicry, outpaces Padukone in the Corsica leg, but when they return to India and things become complicated, her pain is as palpable as his (this in spite of Tara being an underwritten character). Ali’s direction has also acquired a lightness of touch; when we first see Ved as a child, the legend reads “Shimla, flashback”, a little joke but also perhaps a reference to how memories are edited into home movies in our imagination. What he might need, though, is a writing partner, someone who can supply him stories and characters that aren’t composites of what he’s written earlier.

This review appeared in Mint.

X: Past is Present: Review

X: Past Is Present has the right number of directors to make up a cricket team. Perhaps they needed a coach as well, someone to look at the bigger picture, as it were, and tell them whether they were on track. X has been promoted as a work of great ambition and daring: one man’s story, a kind of portrait of an artist as a young and middle-aged douchebag, told by 11 film-makers. What it ends up as is a hydra-headed misfire.

X begins with a jaded-looking middle-aged film-maker, K (Rajat Kapoor), striking up a conversation with an unnamed young woman (Aditi Chengappa) at a party. Their talk—awkwardly scripted and delivered, like much of the film, in English—stretches into the night, and is the film’s framing device. K tells his companion about his past loves, whom we see in 10 separate flashbacks, each handled by a different director. Neither Kapoor nor Anshuman Jha (who plays the younger K) is fully glimpsed in any of these flashbacks; it’s as if the remembrances were one long lucid dream, or a movie K is directing in his head. We only see the women, the exes of the title.

As might be expected when 11 directors—(deep breath) Abhinav Shiv Tiwari, Anu Menon, Hemant Gaba, Nalan Kumarasamy, Pratim D. Gupta, Q, Rajshree Ojha, Sandeep Mohan, Sudhish Kamath, Suparn Verma and Raja Sen—tackle different portions of the same film, the result is a grab-bag of styles, tones, attitudes and rhythms. The diversity itself isn’t a problem—one could overlook tonal inconsistencies if the constituent parts packed their own, specialized punches. But there’s hardly a segment which doesn’t fall apart due to indifferent acting, scripting, directing, or a hellish combination of the three.

There are episodes which implode spectacularly, like the one in which a young K, pitching a film to a potential investor, is schooled by his trophy wife (Gabriella Schmidt) in the consumption of oysters (“As if you were eating pussy,” she says— like the audience hadn’t already guessed where the scene was going). Others defy logic, like the one in which K is condescending towards a fan (Richa Shukla) at a film festival, then propositions her, gets rejected, then slapped, and is ultimately invited home by her. Then there are the head-scratchers: like the final flashback, which seems to suggest that K’s deep-seated commitment issues stem from an early traumatic incident; or the episode directed by Q and featuring three Riis, which would require a much braver critic than this one to try and interpret.

The segment which worked best was the variation on the Italo Calvino story, The Adventure Of A Married Couple, which also formed the basis for Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s Labour Of Love. Like that film, this segment is also set in Kolkata. It’s a wisp of an idea: K and a girl (Parno Mittra) are boarders in the same house; they stick to their rooms, read poetry, play guitars, and never meet. When he leaves, she’s heartbroken. That’s about it—no pop psychology, no look-ma-no-hands camera movements. It’s the slightest of the stories, but I’ll take it over the Dutch angled technique ex-wife episode, or the 'meta' pretensions and deliberately sloppy camerawork of Q’s segment.

The performances are as widely varying as everything else in X. Swara Bhaskar is both funny and knowingly seductive, while Huma Qureshi lends intensity to an otherwise perplexing segment built around a mock interview. Kapoor plays his caricature of a self-absorbed director straight and ends up less magnetic than the film might have wanted; his scenes with the flat-toned Chengappa fall particularly flat. Most of the time, though, the actors are defeated by the writing, which ranges from stuff no one would ever say (“Why are you with this beast?”) to things you wish they wouldn’t (“[Movies are] your ticket to escape from the misery of life”).

Perhaps there’ll be those who’ll find something resonant in X, who might be moved to try and figure out the time-travel business teased towards the end. Personally, I doubt I would have thought less or more of the film if K and his friend had come across the DeLorean, travelled back to the start of the film and begun their conversation again. I wouldn’t stick around for the rerun, though. If past is present, my time is all the more precious.

This review appeared in Mint.

Spectre: Review

The Daniel Craig cycle of Bond films has produced a gritty, much-needed reboot (Casino Royale), an uncharacteristically sober-sided follow-up (Quantum of Solace), and a gorgeous techno-thriller in Skyfall. One of the more daring innovations of the first two films was their determination to give Bond a measure of melancholy and personal pain to underpin his implacable exterior. Even Skyfall, which returned Bond to his wisecracking ways, found time to explore his relationship with the one female constant in his life, M.

Spectre—the 24th film in the series—tries to tie Bond’s losses in a neat little bow by attributing them to a single enemy. But this time, the emotionalism doesn’t feel organic. Spectre has the same director (Sam Mendes) and writers (Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan) as Skyfall, but there isn’t a single idea in this film that can match the simple yet oddly moving decision that closes out that film, of sending Bond back to his childhood home. Instead, old hits are rehashed: the international crime ring, a surveillance state gone militant, the Bond-has-gone-rogue routine.

We begin in Mexico City, where the film’s one memorable action sequence unfolds against the backdrop of the Day of the Dead carnival. A long, unbroken take takes Bond, in a skull mask and with a pretty woman on his arm, from the teeming streets, up an elevator and into a hotel room. Pleasure will have to wait, though, while Bond foils a stadium bombing, blows up a building himself, and grapples with an assassin called Sciarra in a helicopter. Sciarra’s octopus-emblazoned ring then leads him to Rome, to a meeting of an international crime syndicate called SPECTRE, which, we’re later informed, included Le Chiffre, Dominic Greene and Raoul Silva—the villains of the previous three films.

No effort is made to substantiate this bizarre twist—nor is the impact what the makers might have hoped for. We’re not even sure why SPECTRE does what it does, except that its head, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), holds an ancient grudge against Bond. Cut off by M, who’s embroiled in a paper-thin parallel plot involving a new intelligence service and the scrapping of the 00 programme, Bond spends the rest of the film hunting down Oberhauser, picking up a fellow-traveller along the way: Dr Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), the daughter of a former adversary, whom he swears to protect.

Madeleine’s reasons for being in the film aren’t particularly convincing, but in this instance it’s easy to forgive the writers, for it allows us to spend some time in the company of Seydoux, who has a whale of a time. Her line readings are a touch over the top—deliberately so, I think—which is how Bond ought to be treated, with a wink. Watching her go to sleep drunkenly muttering, “To liars and killers everywhere,” one realizes how badly the rest of the film could have done with this sort of pulp lyricism.

Apart from Seydoux, Ben Whishaw as Q, and the ever-watchful, watchable Craig, nothing works as it should. Ralph Fiennes, taking over from Judi Dench, is a nervy M, while Christoph Waltz’s mincing villain isn’t a patch on the adversaries essayed by Javier Bardem and Mads Mikkelsen in previous films. The action sequences are splashy, but—Mexico City apart—uninventive and visually drab. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema can’t provide anything near the visual excitement Roger Deakins brought to Skyfall. Most crippling, though, is the lack of wit. There was a time when a Bond screenplay would consist solely of wisecracks. Now, you get twist upon unconvincing twist when all you want is a good joke.

Casino Royale and Skyfall suggested there were still ways left to tell a Bond story that weren’t archaic or rehashed. Spectre is a reminder of how straight-jacketed most Bond films usually are. Studio logic might dictate that it’s time for another reboot. But how many times can something be rebooted before the batteries give up the ghost?

Taxi: Review

One of the ironies of the Iranian government’s 2010 decision to ban Jafar Panahi from directing films for 20 years is that this seems to have spurred him on creatively and furthered his influence. Had he stopped working after the ban, he would still have had a place in Iranian cinema history, having made films like The Circle, Crimson Gold and the remarkable Offside. But he didn't, choosing instead to subvert the diktat with a run of films that is as strong a statement of artistic freedom as anything in the recent arts.

His first project after the ban, 2011’s This Is Not A Film, appeared to be a little home movie about Panahi coming to terms with the ban. It’s actually a high-wire act. Panahi can’t seem like he’s directing, yet he can’t stop directing either—it’s his natural state. The film was smuggled out of the country on a flash drive hidden in a birthday cake, and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Panahi’s next film, Closed Curtain (2013)—about an artist who’s afraid he’s being watched, as Panahi most certainly was—was a more cerebral piece, and closer to an actual “filmed” film.

Taxi returns Panahi to the documentary style of This Is Not A Film, but the ruefulness has been replaced by a wry humour and a surprising ebullience. The film takes place almost entirely inside a taxi, with the director as driver, carrying forward the conceit of Panahi not officially “directing” the action. There’s a camera in front that the passengers acknowledge, but it’s obviously not the only one being used. It’s all an elaborate joke, one that most of the “passengers” are in on. “Mr Panahi, that man and woman... they were actors, right?”, a seller of pirated DVDs asks about the previous fares. Panahi just smiles.

Taxi is funny and revealing enough to be enjoyed without any knowledge of its subtext. The passengers include a street tough who argues for capital punishment, two pushy old ladies with a goldfish, an injured man and his frantic wife (whose story reaches a deliciously dry conclusion off-screen). There’s Panahi’s schoolgoing niece, whose movie project for class allows the film to send up the Iranian censors: One of the rules is that she avoid “sordid realism’”, another stipulates that the good guys have beards. And there’s Panahi’s friend, a lawyer, who, in a heart-warming moment, offers a rose to the audience, the “people of cinema”, who “can be relied upon”.

This isn’t the first time an Iranian director has done the whole drive-around-Tehran-in-a-car thing. Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten, for instance, was modelled along similar lines. But Taxi is hardly a retread: the two films are very different in tone, treatment and subject matter. Kiarostami’s film, less playful than Panahi’s, was mainly about the position of women in modern Iranian society. Taxi, on the other hand, revolves around broader themes of freedom, censorship and subversion. Both were widely acclaimed: Ten was included in film journal Cahiers du Cinéma’s “Best Films of the 2000s” list, while Taxi won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale earlier this year. Both are films for the ages.

This review appeared in Mint.

Main Aur Charles: Review

Heard of this chap called Sobhraj? Great guy. Well-read. Well-dressed too. Good cook. And quite the ladies’ man—every time you see him, he’s with a new girl. What’s that? He killed 12 people in cold blood? I heard something like that. But if you get to know him, you’ll see he’s a really nice person.

Such is Main Aur Charles’ position on Mr Charles Sobhraj, serial killer, escape artist and celebrity. Movies have been glamorizing criminals from the days of hand-cranked cameras, but half an hour in, Prawaal Raman’s film is in danger of massively overselling its protagonist. The film’s hardly started when Sobhraj (Randeep Hooda) is described as “intelligent, hypnotic, ruthless and brutal” (he’s called “hypnotic” again later). At one point, he’s compared to Robin Hood. “Whenever I see you, I want to have sex with you,” says Mira (Richa Chadha), one of his many, many girlfriends. The film seems to have the hots for him too.

The problem is, for the first half, we’re shown no evidence of anything that marks Sobhraj out as special, apart from his ability to bed a prodigious number of women. The film opens with one of his victims washing up on a beach in Thailand (we’re shown no murders—that would be so inelegant). The scene shifts to Delhi, a couple of years down the line, where Sobhraj is serving a jail sentence. He breaks out of prison and heads to Mumbai, then Goa, changing women along the way like so many peaked caps. After around 45 minutes of very little happening, he’s caught again. So much for the master criminal spiel.

The structural issue with Main Aur Charles is that there is actually a reason for Sobhraj’s apparent unimpressiveness in the first hour, but by the time this is revealed, the film has already lost much of its grip on the audience. It’s not that Main Aur Charles is difficult to sit through even when it’s meandering: There is a fair amount of pulpy pleasure to be had in Hooda’s preening and commitment to a French accent (not much worse than Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s in The Walk), Anuj Rakesh Dhawan’s flashy cinematography, and the consistently overripe dialogue. Still, there’s little doubt that the last 45 minutes or so, when inspector Amod Kanth (Adil Hussain) gets Sobhraj back to Delhi and tries to build a case against him but is frustrated by everyone’s infatuation with the killer, is the strongest part.

It’s difficult to know what to make of a film that casts Chadha as a wide-eyed ingénue (surely there’s no shortage of those in Bollywood?) or suggests that Sobhraj is more victim than aggressor, something Mira tries to explain to Kanth without a trace of irony. Are we meant to take this at face value? Or is it just Raman’s way of showing how completely Sobhraj’s accomplices come under his spell? I wish the film hadn’t left it so late before it showed its central character doing something truly clever. Up till then, Hussain’s by-the-book but dogged 'Main' is a lot more intriguing than Charles.

Hooda’s Sobhraj is a cipher, a beautiful surface with no indication of the emotions—if any—that are raging underneath. Towards the end, there’s a scene with Kanth and Sobhraj talking in the inspector’s office, the criminal telling the cop about the pleasures of doing wrong. The words themselves are banal, but the look on Hooda’s face in that instant is transporting. It was the only moment when I felt like subscribing to the cult of Sobhraj.

This review appeared in Mint.

Titli: Review

Hope is in short supply in Titli. So are the other comforts we’re conditioned to expect in our movies: things like beauty, warmth, humanity. This is hardly an indictment of Kanu Behl’s film, which screened at Cannes in 2014 and is now getting a theatrical release here under the unlikely banner of Yash Raj Films. It is simply to say that the universe Titli inhabits is noxious and violent, and it never flinches or softens in its running time of nearly 2 hours. In a press conference last month, Behl warned that this would not be a “cathartic film”. He wasn’t kidding.

In the Shel Silverstein comedy number "A Boy Named Sue", a father tells his son that he gave him a girl’s name because he figured that would force him to “get tough or die”. Perhaps this was the intention behind the naming of Titli, the third of three sons (the explanation in the film is that his mother had wanted a girl, but had to make do with a girl’s name). If so, it seems to have had the opposite effect. As played by Shashank Arora, Titli is soft-voiced and slight of figure, at odds with the garishness and brutality of his surroundings. It’s clear he doesn’t belong, and the stylish upward curl of his hair is a small suggestion of the social climbing he would like to do if his dream of owning a parking space in the mall came true.

But, as Behl seems to suggest, east Delhi is where dreams go to die, and Titli’s plans are rudely squashed when his elder brothers, Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) and Bawla (Amit Sial), discover that he has stolen Rs 3 lakh from them to pay the builder (the money ends up with the police). The calmer Bawla convinces his father (Lalit Behl, the director’s father) and Vikram—who has already displayed his hair-trigger temper in a superbly orchestrated scene earlier—that what they need to do is get Titli married. He won’t run anywhere after that, he reasons. And a girl could also be useful for their business.

That the family business is carjacking is a joke so grim that it’s hardly a joke. There was certainly no laughter—or audible intake of air—when Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi), a day into her arranged and reluctant marriage, sees Vikram take a hammer to a poor car salesman’s face. If it wasn’t clear earlier that Titli’s brothers were capable of murder, we know now. It kicks the film into high gear. Neelu tells Titli she wants a divorce, and that she has a secret (married) lover. Titli, still nursing dreams of escape and mall parking ownership, tells her he’ll take her to see him—for a fee.

All this unsavoury business takes place in an environment that seems to inspire such behaviour. To call Titli a kitchen-sink drama would be a disservice to kitchen sinks. Behl designs his east Delhi environs with the same detail that producer Dibakar Banerjee did his west Delhi ones in Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! Every tacky poster on the wall, every mention of sattu chicken, is a clue to the very specific world. The sound design by Pritam Das is even more remarkable —an infernal background score of hacks, coughs, gargles and radio jingles that’s as distasteful as some of the violence on display.

The emotional and physical violence in Titli is wince-inducing, but even more oppressive is the atmosphere of mistrust and desperation that Behl and his co-writer Sharat Katariya build up. The actors appear to breathe in this fetid air and spit it out at the audience. Shorey’s performance in particular is remarkable, both in its brutality and its unpredictability. In the scene where he finds out about the stolen money, he starts beating his brother, then breaks down when Titli calls the house a living hell: He genuinely cannot understand why someone would want to leave their family. He’s the most magnetic thing in the movie, though Raghuvanshi is a blast as Neelu, the pawn who refuses to be played like one.

Titli has the energy and daring of a first film, and a couple of the blind spots of one. Some of the plot turns seem more motivated by screenwriter cleverness than by strict character logic. The visual solutions are also a little trite at times—spiders spinning webs, Titli staring wistfully at a bird in the sky. But Behl shows great maturity in other places. Nine out of 10 directors would have made a big deal of Bawla’s sexuality, but Behl just drops it in matter-of-factly, another unaddressed source of tension in an impossibly compromised family. And there are little touches that add colour to a very grey narrative: a fixed deposit offered as dowry; Neelu saying “marketing” instead of “shopping”.

Unrelentingly grim, morally unmoored, Titli festers like a sore on your consciousness. Yet, from time to time, it’s important that a film like this get under our skin and remind us why we value catharsis so much.

This review appeared in Mint.