Sunday, January 13, 2013

Ten to watch

How was 2012 for movies? Well, it was the best of times and the better of times. Here are the top ten reasons (in no specific order) that forced me to mangle that classic Dickens’ line.

1)    Tabu: A daring, dotty two-part love story from Portuguese critic-turned-director Miguel Gomes, Tabu is set in modern-day Lisbon and mid-century Mozambique. Gambling, voodoo, sad crocodiles and a Portuguese version of ‘Be My Baby’ blend into an incredible monochrome poem to the past. So silent in stretches that it made The Artist look clumsy. Anchored by fantastic performances from relatively unknown but brilliant actors, this one will get under your skin and stay there.

2)    The Imposter: Last year, the documentary strands gave us Senna and Project Nim. This time around it’s the UK effort from the Banged Up Abroad producer Bart Layton. Tracing the 1994 kidnap of a 13-year-old boy, and his shocking re-emergence three years later, this documentary once again proves the aphorism that truth is really stranger than fiction. Like its subject, French trickster Frederic Bourdin, who stole the identity of missing 16-year-old Texan Nicholas Barclay and inveigled his way into his family, Layton’s film has also taken up residence in moviegoers’ minds.

3)   In Another Country: South Korean auteur Hong Sang-Soo’s intricate new comedy is a searing portrait of broken romances. The movie revolves around Isabelle Huppert who portrays a French woman visiting a sleepy Korean seaside resort. There she interacts with two movie directors, a sexy lifeguard, a Buddhist monk, among other bits and pieces characters who too are inadvertently affected by this energetic foreigner. Hong’s trademark long takes and sharp zooms blend breezily into this whimsically funny tale.

4)   Killing Them Softly: Not quite the Assassination of Jesse James reunion that it was initially touted as, but still a mean thriller from Brad Pitt and director Andrew Dominik. Pitt is Cogan, who investigates a heist while wielding a massive shotgun. Where this movie works the most is in its stinging indictment of Obama’s first term and the emerging talent known as Scoot McNairy whose in turns scared and audacious act as a stick-up man is otherworldly.

5)   The Cabin in the Woods: This much-delayed meta-horror starring Thor’s Chris Hemsworth about kids who spend a weekend in a cabin octopus-punched me the most this year. Joss Whedon’s wicked script is both a homage and stark dismissal of the horror fare that have been foisted on our faculties since time immemorial. The climactic twenty minutes of absolute madness and gore that includes garden variety cult symbols, which metastasise into evil creatures made this movie park right up my alley.

6)   Dredd: Mega-City One, a towering, crime-drenced metropolis sprawled across a post-apocalyptic, irradiated American East Coast deserves some massive clean-up. In comes Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) and trainee Judge/psychic sidekick Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) who are fighting their way through a 200-storey block floor by floor to the penthouse suite. There awaits psychotic gang leader Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), the woman behind a new drug, Slo-Mo, that makes Mega City One’s lowlifes see the world in saturated colours at one per cent of the normal speed. At once faithful to the 2000 AD comics and wholly accessible to the uninitiated, Dredd is the perfect anti-thesis to that steroidal snorefest called The Avengers.

7)   Ill Manors: Ben Drew— aka hip hop artist Plan B— is one of the hottest acts in British music, who has this year made a movie that Financial Times hailed as the “most exciting British debut in recent memory”. Set in East London this is an authentic story that obviates the tabloid stereotypes while masterfully telling an authentic story showing the real London and hip-hop culture. Nothing screams the Bs in ‘Broken Britain’ the way this mercilessly demanding movie Manors did.

8)   End of Watch: David Ayer’s tale of bromance between two LAPD cops (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena) who stumble across a massive criminal network on a routine traffic stop is very immersive. End of Watch plays like a mix of The Hurt Locker, The Wire, Elite Squad and the latest dodgy YouTube footage uploaded from a mobile (the bulk of the movie is footage being shot by Gyllenhaal’s Taylor). It’s been mentioned as an Oscar dark horse, while William Friedkin hailed it on Twitter as “maybe the best cop film ever”. Coming from the guy who made The French Connection, that’s high praise indeed. Deservingly so.

9)   Thuppakki: An army man foils the devious plans of sleeper terrorist cells’ leader, who wants to wreak havoc across Mumbai. That’s the sort of a story that has frippery all around it a la typical Tamil cinema. But where A R ‘Ghajini’ Murugadoss scores brownie points is in his intricate cat and mouse tale between the villain (a broodingly menacing Vidyut Jamwal) and his nemesis Vijay (who gets to show, for once, his acting chops). His postlapsarian effort (cue 7aum Arivu) reaffirms his status as one of the most original film-makers (despite that unnecessary Memento taint) in the sub-continent.

110)     Patience (After Sebald): The Mayans declared with confidence that the world would end in 2012. Personally, I would have preferred obliteration by asteroid on 14 December, 2001 when the blooming career of German writer W G Sebald was cut short by a car accident. This richly layered documentary on the man’s ground-breaking Rings of Saturn was the most heartfelt 80 minutes of my movie-viewing experience in 2012. Grant Gee deftly intersperses the talking head format with the hidden mysteries in the book. If ever you need some handholding while walking through coastal East Anglia, carry both the book and this beautiful documentary.

Festival follies

In the last couple of months, I’ve watched more than 50 movies at the Mumbai and Goa film festivals together. I am pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to get hold of even 10 of these mostly brilliant movies, either in the digital or in the real world. I have seen Sundance darlings, Cannes favourites, and many movies lionised at other festivals in the world. Hell, I watched a few American movies that Americans haven’t yet got to watch ( Gimme The Loot, The End of Love, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Smashed, etc).

While I was turning myself into a potential synaesthesia sufferer, I couldn’t help wondering if India is ready to see such utterly majestic cinema. A movie is best enjoyed when watched with a little bit of context. This doesn’t mean one should pore over the back issues of Cahiers du Cinéma and Sight & Sound — there’s always a first time. But what I have noticed is that most people who land up at the film festivals tend to not follow up on what they’ve watched.

Recently, I got introduced to the South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo. After watching one film of his, I didn’t know what to make of it; there are random long shots and bizarre close-ups and the vacant shots leave nothing to the imagination. But when I started watching more of his movies (he’s very prolific), I could join the dots. But few people seem to do this. Why?

This Independence Day, Salman Khan’s Ek Tha Tiger had a preposterous 1,250 shows in Mumbai alone. There must be an enormous amount of demand for this frankly ridiculous amount of supply. Someone should tell those multiplex owners that they would receive a special place in heaven if they could allocate at least one show every day to world cinema. Forget world cinema for a second; the Tarantino-esque Tamil movie Aaranya Kaandam went completely under the hood. That fate might also await my find of International Film Festival of India ( IFFI) Goa: Rituparno Ghosh’s magnificent Chitrangda. The Bengali auteur’s take on sex change and gay relationships is nuanced in a way reminiscent of European cinema; the protagonist’s parents come to terms with their son’s metamorphosis in a, let’s say, non-cinematic way.

At IFFI Goa, people used to walk out of what they called “slow movies”. The Argentinian film The Wild Ones is not outright amazing, but it rewards the viewer who is patient. Half an hour into the movie and people left the theatre in droves. I thought this weirder and grittier version of The Hunger Games has its flaws but is nevertheless beautiful. In a post-screening Q&A with the audience, the director Alejandro Fadel said his film professor always used to say, “There are no slow movies, only the audience is anxious”.
In the West, the big-budget gorillas’ profits help fund meaningful cinema from the same studios and directors. Here, on the other hand, the self-satisfied belief is that the big money spinner is the best movie in every department. Even the country’s “most intelligent” actor, Aamir Khan, has no hesitation in saying that he can’t sit through a Yasujiro Ozu film (this, while promoting his wife’s art-house flick, Dhobi Ghat).

The only flicker of hope for this country seems to be Kerala. I’ve met quite a few Keralites who are more than just passionate about South Korean cinema. Their first tryst with Korean cinema began a few years ago at the totally awesome International Film Festival of Kerala and ever since they have been worshipping Kim Ki-duk et al. Even the reclusive Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul was not just present but also agreed to serve on the jury in 2010 because he was impressed with the festival’s audience and its perennially brilliant line-up of films.

I still remember making my weekly trip to the PVR in Bangalore in 2008-09 for the solitary foreign movie it used to show. I watched some of the best movies on big screen at that time. Suddenly, they stopped it. Lack of patronage must be the reason. Apart from tooting our own horn about making the second-largest number of movies in the world after America, we should introspect a little bit. Let’s not fall back on Western accolades. They just admire our song-and-dance routine and are always bemused at how melodramatic and simplistic most of our cinema is.

That’s why, for us Indians, these film festivals are a bit of a fantasy world. The Internet-generation analogy can be going to a TED conference and coming back to the soul-destroying banality of daily life. Sadly, the Indian film festival-going audience works hard on looking serious, but isn’t, not at all.

Coming apart

Writer Martin Amis once said that to deal with a cataclysmic event an artist should let at least ten years pass. Hindsight and introspection will put things in better perspective. Mira Nair seems to have picked up this dictum as her screen adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist hits the screens eleven years after the towers crumbled on the fateful day of September 11, 2001.

The two best literary novels on post-9/11 are arguably Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Hamid’s novel that Nair meatily distilled into a movie with help from the writer himself. The movie opens in present-day Lahore where an American, an English professor at Lahore University, is kidnapped by extremist forces and the officials believe Changez Khan (a charmingly propulsive Riz Ahmed), a professor and alleged sympathiser of the same forces, might be involved. At the same time, Changez agrees to an interview with an American journalist Bobby (a functional Liev Schreiber) for his piece on “militant academia” of Pakistan.

The readers of Hamid’s novel would remember that Changez talks about his lucrative corporate exploits in New York with a random stranger, here Schreiber is that stranger. Fresh out of Princeton, Changez lands up with a plum financial analyst position at Underwood Samson, a consultancy firm, “the Navy SEALs of finance”. While he is rising under the tutelage of his bare-knuckled boss Jim (a ruthlessly brilliant Kiefer Sutherland), Changez feels amazing and looks as if he’s ready to get a full-length Ayn Rand tattoo on his back.

However, the post-9/11 paranoia results in quite a few ridiculously humiliating situations for Changez and that triggers a sea change in his so far reverential attitude towards America. His mostly on-and-off relationship with Erica ( a somnolent Kate Hudson), who is not fully over her deceased ex-boyfriend, is not helping him either. Honestly, it’s baffling that irreparable cracks still appear in relationships these days on the basis of whether to have a child or not.

There’s not much wrong Nair could do with a source that is as compelling as Hamid’s novel, where every sentence fizzes with subdued energy. In fact, some of the liberties that she took with the novel’s plot are the movie’s weakest links (the climax, the missing out of major events, major alterations of secondary character’ lives). That said, this is probably her best film after Monsoon Wedding and Mississippi Masala.

Yes, plot-wise, the movie is steroidal as compared to the novel’s organic self. But then, the canvas of the movie is bigger than the novel. Nair needs to be commended for her non-judgmental take on 9/11. She doesn’t paint either parties in broad strokes. Like Seurat, she carefully etches out the details. In one of the movie’s many standout scenes, the confrontation between Schreiber and Riz Ahmed literally crackles the screen up. Two differing ideologies whose aim is the same never collided better on screen in the last twelve months.

The all-pervasive Islamophobia that raised its hood post-9/11 has already been tackled by Nair in a short film for a collection of movies titled 11’09’’01. So, in a way, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is her full-length dip into the subject. For starters, her casting is impeccable. Riz Ahmed tops off this year on a very high note after his incredibly good performance in Ill Manors. After his previous turn as the gloriously bonkers Muslim in Four Lions, Ahmed over here carries his pain as a Muslim very ably. As the wet-behind-the-ears starry-eyed corporate guy he goes overboard but he is in his elements in the movie’s darker phase.

His near four-minute monologue at Kate Hudson’s performance art opening night screams “breakout performance” at the highest decibel-level possible. Of course, there’s the pat inevitability as to how Changez discovers his ‘true’ identity but even that has been handled cliché-free by Nair and she owes a huge credit to the intoxicating photography of Declan Quinn. His camera is very unfussy but nothing could have better captured the essence of Lahore. Like a gadfly, Quinn’s camera hangs on Changez’s face for one more moment and that shows his existential despair at its very best. Shimit Amin’s deft hand at editing too deserves a special mention.

That brings us to the all-important question: is the movie better than the book? Speaking at this year’s edition of Jaipur Literature Festival, the writer Lionel Shriver said that Lynne Ramsay’s film version of her book We Need To Talk About Kevin is an “elaborate trailer of the book”. Mira Nair’s largely superb, occasionally muted movie too is a trailer for Hamid’s terrific book. For its many virtues, it however needs to be mentioned that Nair tried to cram in too many themes— paranoia to xenophobia to war philosophy to unnecessary political jokes— which left the secondary characters barely any breathing space. It’s a testament to Om Puri’s years of experience as an actor that he still manages to shine through this mini mess. His takedown of the financial consultancy business is utterly imperious.

By the way, the naysayers should be told not to compare this with Khuda Kay Liye. The ridiculous discourse and kitschy elements of that movie render the comparison a levity of juxtaposing exquisite cheese and rudimentary chalk. Mira Nair has a genuine winner in her hands.

Novel experience

This April, HBO aired a new show, Girls, which is about four 20-something New Yorkers who are dealing with post-collegiate despair. More than just being the Sex and the City for Generation Y, Girls transcends those clichés thanks to its creator Lena Dunham, whose strong characters, engaging shifting relationships and cracking one-liners keep the show afloat.

Where Girls totters is in Ms Dunham’s solipsism that doesn’t lead anywhere. That gap, thankfully, is filled by the Canadian author Sheila Heti through her second novel, How Should A Person Be? Based mostly in Toronto, the novel is about a playwright, Sheila, who is unable to write her “feminist” play and keeps finding solace in her small bunch of friends. The most important of these friends is Margaux, a free spirit and a gifted painter who thinks “painting is dead”. There’s Israel, a bit like Adam from Girls, someone Sheila has a kinda-sorta relationship with. HSAPB joins the recent spate of stream-of-consciousness novels like Teju Cole’s Open City and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station.

The premise does sound like an over-privileged white person’s clamorous thoughts on popular culture and relationships. Yes, no character bothers where their next meal is coming from; all are busy trying to make sense of the highbrow world. Paradoxically, that’s the real strength of HSAPB. In an interview with The Times in 2000, the recently deceased historian Jacques Barzun said, “By the time I was 9, I had the conviction that everybody in the world was an artist except plumbers or people who delivered groceries.”

This is exactly the sort of milieu Sheila and her coterie inhabit: Margaux and her painter friend indulge in an “ugly painting competition”; Sheila thinks a tape recorder would help her shatter her writer’s block; people take off to Africa to save the world; lots of art gallery openings and usually unnecessary house parties are part of the novel’s décor; there’s going to a clown class, reading The New York Times in panties and so on.
And there’s some self-indulgence thrown in to beautiful effect: “I am writing a play that is going to save the world. If it saves only three people, I will not be happy. If with this the oil crisis is merely averted and our standard of living maintains itself at its current novel, I will weep into my oatmeal.” Here’s one more: “The other night I learned that Nietzsche wrote on a typewriter. It is unbelievable to me, and I no longer feel that his philosophy has the same validity or aura of truth that it formerly did … Goddammit, the man had no more connection to the truth than a stenographer!” If this doesn’t scream “a serious writing talent to reckon with”, I don’t know what will.

Margaux and Sheila’s relationship form the book’s emotional core (“I have never had a kinder friend … or a more difficult one”) and their conversations – which are captured in various formats – are solid gold. And this relationship is really where this subtle, sinuous and very funny novel draws all its confidence, hesitancy, self-awareness and poignancy from. Sheila is overly dependent on Margaux for her artistic career to chart a glorious path, “If I had known, when I was a baby, that in America there was a baby who was throwing up her hands and saying, first words out of her mouth, Who cares? and that one day she’d be my best friend, I would have relaxed for the next twenty-three years, not a single care in the world.” If one has to triangulate HSAPB, the third dimension will be Israel, who walks in and out of the novel like a Navy SEAL.

The novel’s biggest virtue is Sheila’s messy complexity that Ms Heti never stops short of revelling in. Sheila imagines, and also has a lot of, degrading sex (a chapter called “Interlude for Sex” would make Fifty Shades of Grey look like a modern-day version of Gone With The Wind). She is constantly undermined or ignored by Israel, but she considers herself a feminist. The zeitgeist-y conceit of the novel seems to be this sentence that appears somewhere near the novel’s end: “Who am I to hold myself aloof from the terrible fates of the world? My life need be no less ugly than the rest.”

HSAPB is a broadly fictional memoir of Ms Heti. Most of the primary characters are her friends from real life (that’s why the subtitle: “A Novel From Life”). One gets the feeling that in real life, too, Sheila is trying to come to terms with her protagonist’s dilemma: who exactly is a woman genius? Someone who achieves artistic greatness while still fulfilling family responsibilities, as a woman is expected to? Or should it be the other way around, where she cocks a snook at raising kids and only concentrates on her work, like most men do? The narrative styles that Ms Heti employs – Q&A (she is the interviews editor at The Believer magazine), email exchanges, conventional narrative, confessional, self-help manual format – make the novel thoroughly engaging and ridiculously original. This is that rare novel: an airport read, a post-coital read, a beach read, a binge read. While trying hard not to sound like Virginia Woolf, I would wager that this is how a novel should be.

Sheila Heti
Henry Holt
306 pages; $15