singin’ in the sun

Fair warning – i am going to use the word ‘magic’ a lot in this post. Not going to apologise for it.

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Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016) is such a bundle of joy, glamour and heartbreak, that you can’t help but soak in every moment of the sheer magic that is transpiring on the big screen. There are fireworks, there is tap dancing, a riveting jazz score, a Technicolor palette that brightens up every frame, the sparkling chemistry between its gorgeous leads, and their tussle with their hopes and ambitions. Heck, at one point, the two leads are gliding and dancing in the air, dancing perfectly like two figurines in those old music boxes. Only in the movies, huh?

The first half is all about the heady charm of falling in Love (not just ‘love’, mind you.). Mia, a struggling actress, bumps into Seb, a struggling jazz pianist, and they live the romance that Hollywood has sold us in the movies of Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart. So much of the film is left to the mellow music by Justin Hurwitz and the painted sunsets of LA, that not much dialogue is needed. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling sing and dance in various pretty spots around Los Angeles, and you sit there, with a goofy smile on your face, and you feel like singing and dancing along with them.

But as their love collides with their dreams, reality kicks in. Seb, a pianist whose music is firmly rooted in the past, struggles with his successful new band, whose music he doesn’t identify with. Mia is trying to still hit her big break. The two must confront the possibility that their relationship may not be able to coexist with their personal ambitions. Success comes at a price – and that price is not spending the rest of their lives together. The montage at the end of the film, with the alternate ending to Seb and Mia’s story, is rendered in a gorgeous montage, that is a treat to the eyes and ears.

Visually, the film is a stunning achievement. Chazelle goes all out to depict the magic of the movies, and you stare in wide-eyed wonder, because it has been a very long time since you saw something like this. The limelight falls on the lead when he or she is singing, while the lights dim in the rest of the room, because in that moment, it is only that lead who exists, pouring his or her heart out in song. The dances are choreographed beautifully, not a step out of line. You step out of the hall, gliding, like Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, a big smile on your face. The music is soothing, a great relief from the repetitive hooks in today’s pop music. All you want to do when you get home, is put on Sidney Bechet, and melt your Sunday blues away.

My only gripe with the film, was the abrupt difference in the mood between the first half and the second half. At some points, you do feel that the dialogue walks a predictable path, and you wish that the writing could have offered something newer. The story of two beautiful people falling in love and fighting with their true desires, is not exactly a new story.

Again, that may be because, La La Land is supposed to be seen as a homage to the great old musicals and love stories of yesterday. In a cold, cynical present, we look to the past for comfort, for in our memories, the past is always tinged with a little sunshine, a little more colour, a little more sparkle. La La Land is escapism at its best, and that is what makes it a film that should not be missed.

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careless diss-per

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At this point, it is safe to say that movie-going audience is done with superhero franchise movies. You know the drill – a regular everyman / handsome billionaire  is offered the chance to save the world, he does so prove himself to the love of his life / redeem himself / resolve his daddy issues, is helped along the way by an old wise mentor (preferably black / European / Asian, who dies tragically, but not before giving a rousing speech on duty and honour). Our superhero must not only overcome physical obstacles, but win the tussle within, and find out who he is, while smashing a city to smithereens. The same story is told over and over, by different superheroes, boots and reboots, prequels and sequels and alternate universes. It’s the decade of the comic-book nerd, and mainstream audiences were loving it, until it all reached a saturation point. Or has it?

The superhero movie of yore made its protagonist infallible and invincible. Then Batman Begins (2005) came along, and the flawless hero was humanised, and audiences discovered The Story; the ugly flashback which explained to us how troubled our hero really was, and how he decided to rise above his limitations.  Then Marvel started making the Iron Man (2008 – ?) movies – fun, witty action-fueled romps, without the intense gravitas of Nolan’s trilogy in the DC Comics universe. Story again gave way to stunning stunts and action sequences. Production houses joined the mad race to create the next biggest summer blockbuster, which would smash all previous records.

Hot on the heels of unexpected hit Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), the movie which launched Parks and Recreation’s Chris Pratt into one of the biggest Hollywood stars today, Marvel took a chance on Tim Miller’s Deadpool (2016), with Ryan Reynolds playing the Merc with a Mouth, who wields his katanas and cusses with equal aplomb. Like its (anti)hero, Deadpool is a movie that shouldn’t have been. Constantly spoofing the traps and tropes of its genre, the opening credits eschew the actors’ names completely, and set the tone for the rest of the film. Loaded with gags and jokes at the X-Men universe and how it might never get a sequel, Deadpool is irreverent, uncouth, crass, and oh so much fun. You will raise your eyebrows and laugh despite yourself at all the dick jokes, notwithstanding the Indian Censor Board’s best efforts to ruin enjoyment for adults.

Deadpool has many faults – Homeland‘s Morena Baccarin’s character is not given any depth, the criterion for casting Ed Skrein as the villain appears to be just a British accent, the climax isn’t particularly remarkable, the storyline leaves much to be desired, and the film seems to be playing into all the clichés it has been so gleefully mocking. But go watch it as a purely spoof movie, and you will get your price of admission’s worth. It’s a giant fuck-you to superhero movie clichés, probably in hopes that directors and writers will buckle up and write fresh storylines for the next hot ticket at the box office. To borrow a line from a rival – maybe Deadpool is the antihero we need and deserve right now?

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This is not a date movie.

Gillian Flynn’s bestselling page-turner Gone Girl, adapted by Flynn herself and directed by auteur David Fincher, is sensational, thought-provoking, and above all a damn good thriller. It is to the film’s credit that the 150 minutes-long running time flies by, as you slowly grow more and more convinced never to get married ever.

Rosamund Pike, in a star-making turn features as the eponymous Mrs Amy Elliott Dunne, wife to once-handsome-still-slimy Ben Affleck as Mr Nick Dunne. Despite her British parentage, Pike fits snugly as the NYC born-and-bred, scarily intelligent, beautiful woman who will be her husband’s reckoning. She is at once Hitchcock’s icy blonde who you know is bad news for every man who meets her, and an Agatha Christie-like villain in her precise premeditation. In a phenomenal performance, she goes from sugar-kissed charming heroine to a killer Tarantino would be proud of, what with all that blood spillage. (Whoopsie.) Ben Affleck despite being really good (his snarky smile comes of really good use here) is overshadowed by Pike, as is Neil Patrick Harris. (My favourite moment with Pike and Affleck was when Amy asks Nick to kiss her in front of the cameras, and he knowingly smiles, leans in, and puckers to the air.) And i do hope i see more of Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens who are the other strong female characters populating Nick Dunne’s life.

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Starting out as a tale of a suburban conjugal paradise lost, Mr and Mrs Dunne’s story spirals into a web of mutual lies, deceit and mistrust. Nick and Amy Dunne as a married couple have come to know each other well, too well, and so they play egotistical mind-games to prove their superiority. Barring Amy Dunne’s scheming, murderous, psychopathic inclinations, the film and the book are laden with generous doses of chilling commentary on feminism, courtship and relationships in this decade. Flynn makes brutally honest observations on how men and women approach dating and relationships – in the book’s aftermath, the discussed-to-death phenomenon of Cool Girl. Flynn makes this point, and i agree with her; in the race to be unique, different and individualistic, we’re becoming more generic, more indistinguishable from the next person. “Be who you want to be” they say, but all they mean is “Go become another man’s soulmate.” The Ideal Woman therefore, is beautiful, successful, witty and modern while also a dutiful homemaker and nurturing mother. Does this mean that women’s gender roles have not changed at all? No matter how successful they may be at the workplace, is their ultimate destiny to remain the model housewife Good Housekeeping intended? And all this for an unappreciative husband and the screwed-up institution that is marriage; a scheme that is destined to fail.

Despite these musings, i urge that Amy Dunne is not a heroine. She is not the suffering woman’s saviour. Her vendetta is driven not by a desire to avenge women in general; she is a psychopath, with a history of causing real hurt and damage. The entirety of Gone Girl in no case should be seen as a true portrayal of marriage; i daresay not all marriages end in a faked pregnancy and a murder. Obviously, wronged women cannot fix society with murderous vengeance. That is not justice. That is not feminism, as some readers of the book may come to believe. I agree that the book tends to take a more-than-spiteful and cynical look at how men take their wives for granted, and stereotypes them as constantly on the lookout for their next big f***. But Flynn deserves due credit for sparking debate on the twisted gender roles through the suburban purgatory that Amy creates for her cheating husband. In my humble, uninformed and inconsequential opinion, the fault here, lies with both men and women, for their unrealistic projections of love and marriage. We must live and expect of others as real people, not pop-culture’s ugly mannequins.

P.S. The title of the post is a reference to drama pop queen Taylor Swift’s chart-topping song, which i think is secretly Amy Dunne’s anthem. Every damn lyric fits.

no heaven on earth

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The third and final instalment in Vishal Bharadwaj’s Shakespearean trilogy (after Maqbool, 2004, and Omkara, 2006) is finally here after a long wait and a brilliant trailer, and is the real bang-bang you should be watching this long weekend. (See what i did there?)

Haider, 2014, starring always-dependable character actors Tabu, Kay Kay Menon, Irrfan Khan, and Bharadwaj’s new favourite, Shahid Kapoor, devolves into a spiral of madness, possible incest, gunshots and bloodbath, over two hours. Adapting the Bard’s works into a watchable two-hour motion picture is no easy task, but Bharadwaj does a decent job of it once more, this time with help from the Kashmiri journalist Basharat Peer on his first film project. Aided by his stellar cast, Bharadwaj once again proves why he is one of the most sought-after directors in India.

Far from Denmark, Haider is set instead in 1995 Kashmir, torn apart by civil war, crackdowns in the wee twilight hours, the air rent with gunshots, people living in constant terror. This Kashmir is nothing like the one on your travel and lifestyle channels and magazines. Instead, this is seedy, shady, scary, and far from pristine. The towering snow-capped mountains remain in the background; at the forefront is blood, betrayal, and a pervading sense of unrest and unease. Much is made of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and the flagrant human rights violations in Kashmir, and the film does seem to be a mouthpiece for the cause sometimes.This bleak mood serves the film’s purposes very well.

Shahid Kapoor is inspired here, as he transforms from a love-sick, innocent poet to a deranged near-militant, blinded by hatred and his vow to avenge his father’s death. Observe the glint in his eyes, him trying to restrain his madness and get a grip on the situation, as he is rendered helpless in his quest for justice. Bharadwaj extracts a terrific performance from him. With barely any make-up on, Tabu has commanding screen presence. Torn between love and power, her real motivations remain unknown and her intentions misunderstood. Her scenes with Shahid Kapoor explore the play’s Oedipal complex, which is somewhat bold for conservative mass Indian audiences. Kay Kay Menon remains the power-hungry, despicable uncle and homewrecker. Irrfan Khan, doing classic Irrfan Khan, is given quite an entry. Shraddha Kapoor is just about adequate as Haider’s lover Ophelia, but really needs to work on her dialogue delivery. Two actors, subbing for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as Salman and Salman (the Salman Khan fandom really is omnipresent), provide some comic relief in this otherwise moody, bleak movie.

While the first half is devoted to the civil unrest in Kashmir, the second half stays fairly close to the source play. Basharat Peer’s single biggest achievement is weaving the Kashmir conflict with the family tragedy of Hamlet. The first half is thus a searing view of the violence in the Valley, spattered with the blood of the innocent, and the second half is where the film really comes into its own. The trio of Kapoor, Tabu and Menon, give it their all, as the film reaches its explosive climax. Stray observation: in the beginning of the film, Tabu’s character speaking to her schoolchildren about what makes a home, referring subtly to the film’s theme of broken homes. But for all its merits, Haider falters with its meandering pace, the distinct restlessness felt by viewers (in a way, the film takes an hour to reach the first scene of the play), the disjointed screenplay, and the obligatory love-song right when things are about to get interesting. Vishal Dadlani’s brilliant version of ‘Aao Na’ is also unfortunately featured only in the trailer, not the film.

But these are minor complaints, when you’re witnessing a master like Bharadwaj in action. So if you want to be rewarded with a fine moviegoing experience, Haider is a compelling watch that must not be missed!

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