Badlapur: 15 years and a hammer

Badlapur

Score: 8.5/10

“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Mahatma Gandhi said that. And there isn’t a more perfect example than Badlapur. Sriram Raghavan’s back in form, ladies and gentlemen!

One of my favourite revenge sagas of all time is Park Chan-wook’s seminal, brutal Oldboy (and the other two films in that trilogy). You might think the title of my review is a one-line description of Oldboy – it is also a one-line description of Badlapur.

Anyway, back to Oldboy. In 2006, Sanjay Gupta attempted to remake the Korean masterpiece as Zinda. In my opinion, that was a washed-up version, an INSULT to the original. An Indian director shouldn’t even attempt to remake a tale of revenge that explores hitherto unknown base human instincts. Oldboy is a one-of-its-kind tale that cuts through the skin and goes straight for the heart. Zinda was nowhere close to that kind of storytelling.

But now we come to Badlapur. While not as brutal as Oldboy, it is certainly hard-hitting. The references to Oldboy and other Korean revenge movies are present, but what sets Badlapur apart is the minimal use of background score and blood – yes, there’s only a little of it. Oldboy had a beautiful background score and gratuitous use of violence. But not Badlapur. You’ll even find a generous sprinkling of humour throughout the film.

That’s what makes it so compelling to watch – no background score means uncomfortable passages of silence, heightening the tension. And when there IS blood, you feel a little uneasy, as you should.

The Performances

Varun Dhawan gives a virtuoso performance as Raghu, showing all of us that he CAN act, given a decent script and good director. After his antics in Main Tera Hero and Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya, this is a welcome change that shows us his range. He does come across as a sad, mourning husband at first, but his transformation to a revenge-seeking beast is very, very good. The boy has talent.

Then you have the Sriram Raghavan regulars – Ashwini Kalsekar, Vinay Pathak, Pratima Kazmi – who are very good in their respective roles. They keep the narrative together and in a sense, are the glue sticks that bind the plot together.

The leading ladies are great too – Huma Qureshi plays Jhimli, a prostitute, with aplomb, Yami Gautam looks lovely as Raghu’s wife Misha, Radhika Apte is quite brilliant as the sweet-talking, hysterical wife of Harman (Vinay Pathak) and Divya Dutta plays the criminal rehabilitator with perfection.

But honestly, who steals the show?

Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Liaq. Yes, if you thought Badlapur was a film about Raghu’s revenge, you’re wrong. Nobody owns the screen quite like this man, and he simply towers over everybody, Raghu included. His chemistry with Huma Qureshi is as sizzling as it was in Gangs of Wasseypur. His equation with Pratima Kazmi, his mother, is endearing and daunting in equal measure. And who can forget his delightful exchanges with inspector Govind Mishra (an equally brilliant Kumud Mishra).

But the story we’ve come to watch is the relationship between Raghu and Liaq, no? That’s where the story experiences one of its glitches, though – Liaq is SO bloody good, that Raghu’s revenge-seeking act sometimes pales in comparison. Liaq brings all his intensity, all his humour, all his delightful quirks to the party. And what a party it is. Slowly, over the course of Badlapur’s 134 minutes, you find your allegiance shift almost naturally from Raghu to Liaq – and you won’t even realise it.

It has a few misgivings – the song during the end credits (it’s a good song, but the video is a dampener after such a great climax), Varun’s forced delivery of certain key dialogues and his inability to match up to Nawazuddin in those scenes (not his fault at all, I might add) and there is a smattering of Bollywood masala here and there, but that’s about it. It has great songs, killer acting (especially from the kingpin Nawazuddin) and beautiful cinematography.

Badlapur is Bollywood’s first great film of 2015. And by the end of it, you’ll be asking yourself whose side you’re on. Can’t take your eyes off this one.

Birdman: The Greatest Film Ever Made…?

“People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.” In that one line, Birdman ridicules everything we hate – and love – about films. And I’m not going to give this film a rating in points – I’m not worthy enough. 

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Sorry for the clickbait headline. But in all honesty, this is a question that must be asked.

People often refer to Citizen Kane as the greatest film ever made. They call it ‘the masterpiece of a megalomaniac’. It was a triumph in storytelling technique and cinematography (the use of deep focus, for instance). The acting was avant-garde. And the ambiguous, layered themes were a delight.

Okay, why am I comparing the work of Orson Welles and Alejandro G. Innaritu?

Because Birdman is all of the above – and maybe even more.

Thanks to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione – the whole film looks like one, long take. I haven’t seen such mastery over long takes since, probably, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.

But they’re only the triggers. The man who pulls them, the man at the helm of it all is Alejandro G. Innaritu. Along with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo, he writes a story so powerful, and directs it with such deftness, that an oft-repeated story of a washed-up actor trying to find redemption becomes a documentary that indicts society of pandering to the lowest common denominator, where true ‘art’ loses its meaning – there’s a dialogue from noted theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (played by Lindsay Duncan) where she calls Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) ‘a celebrity, not an actor’. And then Riggan lays into her, saying that as a critic, she only ‘labels people without taking any risks or doing real work’. The actor-critic dichotomy is fascinating. Dichotomy is one of the many recurring themes through this film, by the way.

But could Innaritu have been a better stage master without having an a-list cast? Maybe, maybe not – what the actors have achieved in Birdman is, well, nothing short of remarkable. The man of the moment (or f**king moment, as his agent calls it) is Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton. Or as I’d like to call it, Birdman played by Batman. Such an obvious choice, when you think of it in hindsight. Or, just like when he was cast for Batman, it could have been a huge gamble that might not have paid off. But it pays off, and how. Oh, all the snide little references to ‘superhero movies’ are there (Christian Bale’s Batman voice, anyone?). But you’ll have to watch it for yourself to enjoy it. And do watch it for Michael Keaton’s career-defining performance – Spider-Man fans will definitely see how Birdman takes over Keaton’s personality like Venom does Eddie Brock (for instance, Birdman always refers to them as ‘WE’).

Then from Batman, we move to the Incredible Hulk – oh, not Mark Ruffalo. Remember Edward Norton? The brilliant, ‘American History X, Fight Club’ actor Edward Norton? Yeah him. Another fine actor who gave a great performance in a superhero movie, but who’s MUCH more than that.

(Are you starting to see a pattern now? Yes, Innaritu has made a movie that parodies the superhero genre, with actors who parody THEMSELVES. A parody within a parody.)

Norton gives a brutally honest performance of a dickhead theatre artist, who honestly doesn’t give a shit about the audience. And you just feel like punching him in the face even before Riggan does.

The other superhero connection you’ll find is Emma Stone – Gwen Stacy from The Amazing Spider-Man. And she’s given possibly the best performance within this film, as a recovering drug addict who now is her father’s assistant (a job she hates). Her big, bright beautiful eyes light up the screen, and she matches all the veterans on screen dialogue-for-dialogue. So do the other two ladies – the lovely Naomi Watts (why is she not in more movies I don’t know) and Riggan’s clingy girlfriend Laura, played by Andrea Riseborough.

Stop. Stop the press. How can I forget the obsequious yet pragmatic attorney-cum-agent Jake, played by the slapstick funnyman Zach Galifianakis? Only this time, he isn’t slapstick funny, he’s deadly serious – and he plays the Robin to Keaton’s Birdman with aplomb. Hollywood should explore his acting talents in genres other than comedy.

Even the ending – well, I won’t spoil it for you. GO WATCH THE MOVIE TO KNOW HOW IT ENDS!

So, Birdman is an indictment on society and the superhero genre, it is next-level storytelling of the redemption of a washed-up actor, it has acting quality of the highest order and it is a technical marvel in the world of filmmaking.

All of this brings me back to the first question I asked – is Birdman the greatest film ever made?

Actually… THE END.

Boyhood: It’s a Mirror! It’s Magic!

Score: 10/10

Boyhood’s biggest victory lies in the fact that by the end of the movie, you’ve focussed entirely on Mason Jr.’s coming-of-age, while the fact that this is the most uniquely made film in the history of cinema has probably slipped your mind.

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Don’t get me wrong – no one’s ever going to forget that this film was shot over a period of 12 years, which is why the working title for this film was The Twelve-Year Project.

No one’s going to forget that the cast could not sign contracts for the film due to the De Havilland Law, which makes it illegal to contract someone for more than seven years of work.

No one’s going to forget that Linklater actually requested Ethan Hawke to complete the film if he died during filming.

However, that’s no reason for watching or liking the film, right? Just because it was MADE uniquely doesn’t mean it has to be unique, or good.

But that is exactly where Linklater scores – Boyhood works wonderfully as a coming-of-age film, arguably the best in the history of films.

The Story

Boyhood follows the life of Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) from childhood (age: 6 years old), all the way through adolescence till he’s 18. His stirring performance is ably supported by his pragmatic, no-nonsense mother Olivia Evans (Patricia Arquette), his happy-go-lucky and loving father Mason Evans Sr. (Ethan Hawke) and his annoying, claim-to-know-it-all sister Samantha Evans (Lorelei Linklater, daughter of Richard Linklater).

As we follow the Evans’ life through the Bush administration and into the Obama era, Mason Jr. encounters every possible situation that boys of his age in the Americas would have. And it’s not even a uniquely American experience – I bet if we put up a mirror to our lives, what would reflect back is the story of Boyhood. Reading naughty magazines, first encounter with a girl, bullying at school et al. Not only that, he and his sister have to cope with a couple of their mother’s failed attempts at finding a stable relationship.

Eventually though, the boy finds his niche in the world as you would expect. And at the end of the film, you feel a sense of satisfaction.

The Rabbit from the Hat

Until it hits you – it’s all the same actors! No CGI, no make-up – just good, old-fashioned ageing.

In a world where every other film ‘tricks’ you into believing stuff through deftly placed CGI, Linklater relies on the best CGI trick of all-time – time itself. That’s what makes Boyhood so credible, so believable and so relatable. Ellar Coltrane doesn’t grow up to be Chris Pine or some Hollywood young hunk – he grows up as Ellar Coltrane and that, in today’s day and age, is damn nigh unbelievable, until you see it for yourself. None of the acting or emotion is forced – it’s all just a natural process enabled by time.

It’s Richard Linklater’s ‘Prestige’.

The Verdict

You already know the verdict. Boyhood is an experience you cannot miss on the big screen. It deserves to be seen in all its 70 MM glory. It is the best movie of the year (pushing Interstellar to No. 2), and the best coming-of-age Hollywood film of all time.

Nightcrawler: He will make your skin crawl at night.

Score: 9/10

Sure it shows up the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles crime journalism, but only one man could have made that look creepier than it already is.

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I’ll try and keep this review short. Taut, actually, like the film.

Visually, Nightcrawler looks like the love-child of Martin Scorcese’s epic Taxi Driver and Nicolas Winding Refn’s breakthrough Drive. And anything that arrives as a combination of those two films has to be BRILLIANT. I doff the first hat then, to Robert Elswit, the cinematographer.

The background score by James Newton Howard is spine-chilling, to say the least. He makes Los Angeles seem like some kind of a debauched Chinatown (yes, similar to Polanksi’s). There isn’t a single positive note in the music he plays, except maybe for the protagonist. To him I doff my second hat.

The Story

Did I say ‘protagonist’ earlier? Louis ‘Lou’ Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is anything but. He’s more like a full-blown antagonist. He is slimy. He is sleazy. He will probably sell his mother as a news item to gain fame. And yes, he’s the cog around which the story revolves – life as a freelance reporter in the Los Angeles crime journalism scene. He lives life by this one maxim, which he utters during the film – to win the lottery, you gotta make the money to buy a ticket.

Revealing anything more would be a disservice to the movie. But I can say one thing for sure – Lou Bloom is probably the creepiest Hollywood antagonist since… Count Dracula or Hannibal Lecter? Sure, he won’t drink your blood or eat your flesh, but he’ll make it tremble with fear. And that’s the third and final hat I’m doffing – to Jake Gyllenhaal. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you one of the frontrunners for the Best Actor Academy Award.

I’m not saying anything else. Go watch this cracker of a film yourselves and be comforted by the thought that people like Lou Bloom exist – they’re probably living next door. And he likes the night time – because the city shines brightest at night.

Inter. Stellar.

Score: 9/10

Behind all the hardcore quantum physics and rocket science lies a big, beating heart at the centre of Interstellar.

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‘Normal’ isn’t a word you’d use for Christopher Nolan. Oh no sir, normalcy was never part of his grand plan. Especially not for what I consider his magnum opus, Interstellar.

Is this the greatest space exploration film of our generation? Most certainly, in my opinion. Is it the greatest of all time? Definitely not, that honour still (and probably always will) remain with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Safe to say though that Kubrick will probably be smiling in heaven, given the number of nods Nolan has given to his masterpiece.

And it’s not just Kubrick. Nolan has generously sprinkled the film with references to Spielberg’s ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. There’s a very obvious connect to Rob Zemeckis’ ‘Contact’ (and no, it’s not the fact that McConaughey stars in both films). And the background score (possibly Zimmer’s best work till date) smartly takes undertones of the Western Classical-laden 2001 and a smidgen of Vangelis’ electronic wizardry in Blade Runner.

Even with all these little hooks and references, Interstellar remains Nolan’s (and Zimmer’s) most original, personal and thought-provoking film.

Story

Set in an apocalyptic earth, where crops are dying, Cooper (McConaughey) is a widower, a retired engineer who now works as a farmer. Almost everyone on earth is being forced to take up farming because there’s no food. Space exploration is now considered a ‘sham’, a propagandist tool that reeks of wastefulness and excess. That irks Cooper.

Cooper gets one final shot at space glory, thanks to Professor Brand (Michael Caine). He is tasked with finding a new home for humans, but that has to come at a terrible cost – Cooper has to leave behind his daughter Murph (the brilliant Mackenzie Foy, and later Jessica Chastain), his son Tom (Timothee Chalamet, followed by Casey Affleck) and father-in-law (the terrific John Lithgow) – he faces the prospect of never seeing them again.

And so, he sets off on a (possibly) one-way journey with acerbic NASA scientist Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), two wise-cracking monolith-like robots (TARS, voiced by Bill Irwin and CASE, voiced by Josh Stewart) and two other NASA scientists Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi).

‘Love is the one thing that transcends time and space’

Here is where we get to see the storytelling genius of Nolan. Normally, you’d expect a director to hold your hand and take you through all the quantum physics and space science. He doesn’t do that though – he keeps it conversational and scientific, even while dealing with five dimensions. And he wows us with enough vistas of space to make us want to put a space suit on (thank you Hoyte Van Hoytema).

Where he does hold the hand of the audience is through the sixth dimension – LOVE. That’s Interstellar’s message, really – it doesn’t matter if you’re stuck in a black hole or marvelling at the beauty of a wormhole, the effect of love isn’t relative, it doesn’t slow down or speed up with time. And that’s the beauty of Interstellar (as was the case with Gravity) – in space, you’re never really alone. The ones who love you will always be with you. And that’s why no matter what anyone says around you – always follow your heart.

Pros

Nolan has once again shown his complete mastery over the use of time. It’s a treat to watch how he’s edited the film – magical intercuts between Cooper’s time in space and the desolation back on earth remind us almost instantly of Inception – but what this has over Inception is that the emotion holds the science together, rather than being just a by-line of the complex scientific tropes. The pace of the film varies over time – exactly like the theory of relativity – and for me, this is what makes the film a masterpiece. What has to be admired about Nolan is his ambition and vision from a storytelling point of view. And oh yes, do watch it in all its glory on IMAX. It will make you want to put on a space suit and head off straight into space!

Cons

This isn’t a perfect movie – far from it, actually. He stretches science fiction to the point that some scenes feel a little incredulous (it makes for heady cinema though). There are complaints of ‘not enough space’ that are emanating from certain quarters (although I disagree). It lacks the – what should I say – ‘vagueness’ that made 2001 such a compelling watch. Almost everything is spelled out in no uncertain terms, so although there are questions at the end (believe me, you will have many) it’s not quite the ‘enigma’ that 2001 was.

But hey, why even compare? Interstellar is today what 2001 was back then. A magnificent spectacle. You may or may not like it, but you cannot ignore it. Watch it. Heck, even take your kids for it. They’ll enjoy the ride!

As it’s said often by Brand during the movie, I’d like to end with a stanza from Dylan Thomas’ poem. It holds true when you’re going to watch Interstellar.

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Hamlet or Haider? Thou dichotomy most profound! A review in 3 acts.

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Act 1, Scene 1 – Initial Reactions and Score

9.5/10. Finally! After a year of mostly average Bollywood films, save the delightful Finding Fanny, Queen and the great Dedh Ishqiya from the man himself (Vishal Bhardwaj produced), we have a film we can truly call the best of 2014 – Haider.

Ever since I got wind of this adaptation (over a year ago), I was waiting with bated breath. This is after all the same director who gave us Maqbool (Macbeth) and Omkara (Othello). Haider is the crown jewel that completes Bhardwaj’s Holy Trinity of Shakespearean Tragedies.

Act 1, Scene 2 – The Adaptation

Having studied Hamlet in school (and having played the role myself in a play) I was intrigued as to how Bhardwaj would marry Kashmir’s political tale to the ‘tragic history of the Prince of Denmark’.

Turns out, Kashmir and its political climate is the perfect setting for an adaptation of Hamlet. The atmosphere in Kashmir has been in a state of tension ever since 1947-48, and with the number of kids taking up arms for azaadi (Independent Kashmir) and the constant intrusion from neighbours (need I say who), it fits in quite nicely with the state of the Danish Court in the original play.

But even as you think that Bhardwaj is truly faithful to the original, some of his departures from the original are just brilliant pieces of writing and filmmaking. I can give you two instances – Haider’s ‘Ghost’ who tells him to avenge his father, and the climax. I won’t give anything away; you’ll have to watch it to experience its brilliance.

Act 2, Scene 1 – The Main Characters

Haider (Hamlet) – Shahid Kapoor

He’s the modern day Hamlet a.k.a. Haider of Kashmir. Unfortunately though, in a situation like Kashmir’s, there are a countless Haiders out there. Vishal Bhardwaj has chosen to tell his story. The last really outstanding performance from Shahid Kapoor came 5 years ago in Kaminey – directed by none other than Vishal Bhardwaj himself! There is something about VB that brings out the very best in Shahid. And in Haider, Shahid portrays the angst of a young man, distraught at the prospect of his father being dead (Dr. Hilal Meer, played by Narendra Jha, a brilliant casting decision), and disillusioned by the antics of his mother Ghazala (the magnificent Tabu) and slimy uncle Khurram Meer (welcome back, Kay-Kay Menon). He truly consumes the role with the hunger of a man who hasn’t done too much justice to his potential. For me, his high point is the song Bismil, where we get to see the man’s acting AND dancing talent in one go.

Ghazala (Gertrude) – Tabu

Ghazala is The Godmother of this ensemble. At the same time, she portrays the grief-stricken half-widow of Dr. Hilal Meer, the evil lady enjoying her illicit affair with Khurram, and the concerned mother of Haider. She juggles so many emotions at the same time that it’s hard to know what she’s thinking. But one thing is certain – no matter what her affection towards Khurram, it’s Haider she truly loves. She is the glue that holds (or at least tries to hold) all the broken fragments of her life. Tabu pulls off this one with panache, and I put this on par with her role from Maqbool. Easily the best performance of the movie.

Khurram Meer (Claudius) – Kay Kay Menon

Welcome back, you slimy, sleazy scumbag. Where were you all this while Mr. Menon? Kay Kay returns with a powerhouse performance that we have come to expect of this man. He is a living example of schadenfreude, a man who revels in the spotlight and enjoys being at the top at any cost. His high points are many, but again his best comes in the Bismil song – his change of expression and the range of emotions he goes through in that one song is palpable. We want more of you, Mr. Menon. More of this from you.

Dr. Hilal Meer (King Hamlet) – Narendra Jha

I got a distinct Bharat Bhushan vibe when I first saw him on screen. For good measure too – he plays the role of the upright, god-fearing, ghazal-singing doctor stuck in a dangerous land. He plays the perfect father. And oh, these lines: Haider, mera inteqaam lena mere bhai se… uski un dono aankhon mein goliyaan daaghna, jin aankhon se usne tumhari MAA par fareb daale the. He says it with a sincerity and intensity that you cannot help but empathise with.

Roohdaar (?) – Irrfan Khan

I’m not saying anything about him. Watch the film to find out how his role is brilliantly written and of course, acted out.

Act 2, Scene 2 – The Supporting Cast

Arshia (Ophelia) – Shraddha Kapoor

She’s not just a cute face in this group of highly talented actors. Shraddha Kapoor holds her own as the girl who truly loves Haider and her family in equal measure. She’s torn between her two worlds. Shraddha adds a touch of liveliness and freshness to the surroundings.

The Salman Khan Fan Club (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) – Sumit Kaul and Rajat Bhagat

‘Friends’ of Haider who later act as Khurram’s spies. They bring comic relief to the very tense surroundings of Kashmir. There’s also 90s Salman nostalgia to enjoy. Again, these are excellently scripted and acted out.

Arshia’s Dad (Polonius) – Lalit Parimoo

We’ve seen him in countless serials, TV ads and small roles. This too isn’t much different, although he plays the father with panache.

The Gravediggers

Taken straight out of Hamlet, these guys give the climax its much-needed tension release. No, it’s not that they make a mockery of the situation. It’s just that they almost appear out of nowhere and take the climax to another level with their singing, their graveyard humour and their earnestness. Magnificent little touch there from Mr. Bhardwaj. And what an ode to the original!

Act 3, Scene 1 – The Dichotomy

To be or not to be?

Main rahu, ya na rahu?

In the original play, we are introduced to this soliloquy in Act 3, Scene 1.

Bhardwaj has used it brilliantly. You can see it strewn across the fabric of this film and almost every character has this dilemma. But none more so than Haider himself. If you are a fan of Hamlet, you will certainly enjoy the way this has been used.

Act 3, Scene 2 – The Cherries on the Cake

Where do I begin? The cinematography, the music, the expertly written dialogues, the ghazals… there is just so much to love about Haider, and not enough ink in the world. And how can I forget Mr. Vishal Bhardwaj, the orchestrator of this magnum opus? He’s given us three absolutely magnificent films, adapted from the Bard’s original plays. What next? King Lear? I hope so.

So, to watch or not to watch?

No question. YOU BETTER WATCH IT. Yeh film mein kaafi CHUTZPAH hai.