HELL OR HIGH WATER (Dir. David Mackenzie, 2016, US)

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With a title straight out of a Sam Fuller film, Hell or High Water is a delicious neo-noir Western, or a ‘film soleil’ as film writer Adam Batty pointed out to me, unexpectedly emerging as one of the most political films of the year. The political sensibilities of Taylor Sheridan’s very brilliant script tap into a bankrupt American culture. Truly, this is a flea bitten, austerity world sympathetically drawn out through a sinewy, fatalistic narrative so the loathsome political iconography of banks, foreclosures and mortgages aggregates to an undeniably prescient and antagonistic context. As brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) shoot their way through a series of bank robberies so that they can raise enough money to save their mother’s ranch from being swallowed up whole by a demonic bank, the real monster of our times, one cannot but help feel they are strangely justified in their actions.

While Hell or High Water has a brooding ideological subtext, the film also deals in many of the familiar conventions of the Western genre, notably the archetypal buddy bromance between Texas Rangers Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham), played out with a piercing beauty all of its own. Director David Mackenzie seems to understand and explicate the psychology of men better than most directors of his generation. And in some ways Hell or High Water is a continuation of Starred Up (2013), pausing to probe at male deficiencies with a suitably philosophical gaze. In addition to all of this, you also get Jeff Bridges, the cinematic personification of self-effacement, expressing a distinctly classic Texas drawl. Hell or High Water, along with The Hateful Eight, reminds us yet again the Western genre is perhaps the one genre that can live and breathe in any era.

MOH MAYA MONEY / In Greed We Trust (Dir. Munish Bhardwaj, India, 2016) – Delhi Noir

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In the traditional film noir universe the destruction of the male protagonist is manifested in a downward spiral of paranoia, guilt and death. And it becomes a virtual impossibility to attain redemption. No matter what one does to rectify an earlier regret usually leads to certain calamity from which there is no return. Thematically, a noir continually invests in the psychology of power and desire, returning to a morality, which is often framed, in capitalistic terms. Marriage, betrayal, adultery, masculinity, and all of the above steadily rise to the surface in director Munish Bhardwaj’s gripping slice of Delhi noir, in which Aman (Ranvir Shorey), a contemptibly low life real estate broker, is sucked wholly into a whirlpool of greed. What makes this slice of urban noir somewhat idiosyncratic is the locale of an affluent Delhi middle class desperate to get ahead in a morally dubious neoliberal capitalist India. Everyone is flawed and so they should be, after all this is a noir. Aman’s world, a corruptible milieu of back end real estate dealings, is made altogether worse by a repugnant exhibition of ethics.

Even Divya (Neha Dhupia), Aman’s wife, concealing her own terrible secret while castigating Aman for harbouring his lies, expounds a sordid marital and familial hypocrisy. And it is Divya’s marital betrayal that neuters the wounded masculinity of Aman, another trait of the doomed noir male protagonist, threatened earlier by the violence of Raghveer and his goons. Not many films have been made on the topic of white-collar crime in contemporary Indian cinema, surprising since the world of economics especially business is often romanticised in popular Hindi cinema as a stylish, apolitical accessory. Bhardwaj and Mansi Jain’s script acutely taps into disquieting anxieties notably social mobility, problematized as a kind of middle class syndrome representative of a new generation of Delhi socialites. If Aman is coded as a Yuppie, he is also like a modern-day vampire, sucking the life out of those around him so he can get ahead. And while Aman foolishly pretends he can remain immortal in a world from which there is no escape, he realises a little too late that his desperation to get ahead is contradicted by a guilt that consumes both him and Divya.

Munish Bhardwaj adopts an understated directorial approach which often best suits the melodrama form. But he also keeps in check the risk of tipping into sentimentality, a major problem with the domestic melodrama, instead confidently weaving together a narrative that switches back and forth as a means of exploring the moral choices and personal dilemmas that define this consuming, corrupted world of Delhi noir.

BOMBAY VELVET (Dir. Anurag Kashyap, 2015, India) – Bollywood Intermezzo

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Ambition can be a cruel thing: blinding, deceptive and bellicose. It can mean adulation and reverence for an artist while at the same it can produce sharp reactionary criticism. Imaginably worst of all is the euphemism ‘ambitious failure’ expressly for a film director who may have spent years on a project only to see it evaporate into the ether of cinematic memoirs. Anurag Kashyap is a risk taker, someone who has been disillusioned with a parochial mainstream Indian cinema. To date his oeuvre sings from an alternate hymn sheet since no one film is alike. Kashyap’s continuing impact on mainstream Indian cinema is substantial, serving to contest the traditional paradigm of stars, genres and narrative storytelling that has so often plagued Indian cinema. Although there is a complicated debate regarding the definition of middle cinema, much of Kashyap’s films have straggled such a middle ground, taking up a space contentiously dubbed the ‘Hindie’ film. Far too many Indian directors play safe.

Kashyap’s latest film Bombay Velvet never lacks ambition. It is his most mainstream film to date, featuring an ‘A’ list cast, hefty budget, studio backing and a glitz not far removed from high end Bollywood cinema. With Bombay Velvet, Kashyap is reaching for a wider audience than ever before (an audience who admittedly do not understand him as a director nor see him as an auteur) deploying a postmodern potpourri of Hollywood filmic intertexts (Kashyap borrows the device of factotum magazine writer Sid Hudgens (Danny De Vito) from Hanson’s L.A. Confidential who acts as a sort of omniscient narrator with his acerbic commentary) and riffing on classic Bollywood tropes to articulate what should have been a very compelling story indeed. We are told that Bombay Velvet was bit of a dream project for Kashyap except didn’t they say the same things about his crime opus Gangs of Wasseypur (2012)? To get past such hyperbole, one is faced with a broader problem; a script lacking in confidence to flex the edges of writer Gyan Prakash’s reclamation of Bombay’s netherworld. Why this project makes for perfect cinematic interpretation is not hard to see. It is a Bombay that everyone knows about unconsciously through film, mythologised in Indian cinema over the years, undeniably hypnotic in its pull and equivocally realised by Kashyap with a spectacular, unmarked stylised finesse. It has the swankiest opening titles to an Indian film in years. Aesthetically the world of Bombay Velvet is constructed with a real zing and we should not overlook the distinguished work of cinematographer Rajeev Ravi (Kashyap’s regular DOP), production designer Sonal Sawant and music composer Amit Trivedi.

This is some consolation for a film that suffers from a discordant script, failing to capitalise on developing the potential of many likeable characters and narrative strands (a Bombay jazz scene that goes under-explored is a mystery) into something gripping or a coherent whole. The creative liability with casting ‘A’ list stars is the star baggage they bring with them. Kashyap knows better than most that stars should be used cautiously. Both Ranbir as masochistic Johnny Balraj and Sharma as Rosie, the fatal moll, look the part, with a striking costume design, but they are in my view woefully miscast. Sharma is painfully wooden at times while Ranbir is out of his depth especially when throwing a punch. He lacks the swagger of a wannabe gangster and both actors struggle to convince that they could come from and belong to such a sordid milieu. Furthermore, not enough screen time is devoted to cataloguing the rise of Johnny Balraj. We don’t root for Johnny in the way we have rooted for other low life criminals in the past and the very idea of sympathising with the anti-hero never really transpires into an aspect of the genre paramount to our conflicted audience position as a spectator. I’m not advocating Kashyap should have gone for non professionals but Ugly and Black Friday is evidence enough that he produces his best work when casting relatively unknowns or underrated actors from whom he can get some unexpected work. Karan Johar as Khambatta, a sort of glorified middleman, is surprisingly good but then his character emerges as just another superfluous Bollywood villain.

In truth, I wanted more from the incidental characters populating the seedy margins of this Bombay and a far greater ideological engagement with the socio-politics of the time that Kashyap touches on fleetingly. Also, the way the film jumps around haphazardly, speedily ploughing its way through an epic narrative that should have unfolded more organically, pointing to a weighty script that tries to cram in too much. In fact, Bombay Velvet could have succeeded as a high end TV series with each episode focused on developing the backstory of all the characters. One gets the sense that Kashyap made far too many compromises in getting the project to the screen. Sad to say this is a disappointing studio film (raising wider institutional questions concerning the way working under studio constraints can be an anathema to some directors), much like the super vacuous spectacles that Sanjay Leela-Bhansali so often makes. Bombay Velvet is a wax museum without a pulse, a museum that quickly melts into a void of joyless intertextuality, over ambitious homage & self-aggrandisement. Moreover, I would not consider the film a misfire. Instead it needs to be positioned as part of Kashyap’s evolution as a filmmaker and his willingness to take on new challenges in trying to innovate, hybridise and fuse together authorial preoccupations with the demands of an ever changing commercial Indian cinema. In many ways, this is Kashyap’s Bollywood intermezzo, an overly cinephilic film and if anything it articulates a sensibility about his own tastes, influences and understanding of the traditions of populist Indian cinema.

Sunrise / Arunoday (Dir. Partho Sen-Gupta, 2014, France/India)

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Director Partho Sen-Gupta talks about the oneirophrenic space, a space that is both hallucinatory and metaphysical, realised in his latest film Sunrise with an audio-visual clarity, hauntingly rendering grief as eternal. I can’t remember the last time I saw a film that used rain with such cinematic dexterity, enveloping the screen as not only an elemental motif, but also articulating apocryphal convulsions, pointing to a depravity with which no one can contest. The rain, a conjectural metonym, nearly swallows up Inspector Joshi (Adil Hussain in one of his darkest roles) who spends his nights obsessively searching for his missing daughter (kidnapped ten years ago) in the sordid back alleys of a merciless Mumbai. Synchronously, the rain, iconographic of film noir vernacular, is deployed with a Freudian intensity, crafting a discombobulated ambiance, reminiscent of Claire Denis, in which it is impossible to see where reality begins and delusion ends. As the film progresses, Sen-Gupta bravely relinquishes a cinematic orthodoxy which can suffocate a film, so that a visual schizophrenia becomes a signature, fragmenting time and space, disrupting classical notions of sound and editing, imagining a terrifying nightmare shared between Joshi, his wife and the spectral figure whom he is hunting.

While neo noir is a genre with which Sunrise has an aesthetic affinity, it is also an anti-genre film in many respects, contesting expectations, pushing the fragmented gaze of the spectator out beyond the frames. The kidnapping and trafficking of children into prostitution forms the wider social framework but this issue is never politicised and remains connected to the story so that the humanist aspects are intact. Futility, despondency and fatalism are concurrent in Joshi’s futile search, resonating noir idioms, while the oblique ethereal figure that Joshi sees in expressionistic form functions as a metaphor for depravity, a projection of nightmarish recesses inscribed with the angsts of the city. However, it is trauma, grief and loss that defeat Joshi, classic horror tropes, leading to a psychosomatic displacement juxtaposed to a troubling nostalgic introspection. It ends with Joshi in a kind of metaphysical limbo; a slave to his memories. Overall, it’s a dark and unsettling film that confounds expectations and goes into an altogether more unconventional direction which is pleasing to see.

I think this is director Partho Sen-Gupta’s second full-length feature. He debuted in 2004 with Hava Aney Dey (Let the Wind Blow) that I have yet to see. Sunrise is deservedly receiving critical acclaim and has appeared at many prestigious film festivals including most recently Tribeca. I hope it gets a UK release and one can foresee Partho Sen-Gupta developing into a very promising director indeed.

BLACKHAT (Dir. Michael Mann, 2015, US) – Moments, Impressions and Aesthetics

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Defining moments in films can go unnoticed since the visual expressionism of most filmmakers is relatively provincial, acquiescing to broader commercial empathies. It is not right to reduce or distil the essence of Mann’s films to mere moments, as this would make the claim his films work fleetingly and intermittently. Moments can also be interpreted as marks of distinction attributed to an auteur as formidable as Mann whose films are some of the most authentic, aesthetically striking and thematically cogent genre pieces to have emerged from the mainstream of contemporary American cinema. There are two moments in question in Mann’s latest film Blackhat that are framed outside the periphery of genre, and which would constitute as authorial slight of hand. The first is when hacker Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) is released from prison and pauses briefly on a runaway before boarding a jet. The second sees FBI Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) gunned down by zealous paramilitary bagman Kassar on the streets of HK (Mann is one of the few directors who finds an aesthetic beauty and apotheosis from action sequences). Time and space are the two dimensions linking both moments, imbuing a transience and solemnity often affiliated with the urban universe of Mann.

The first moment framing Hathaway in a series of slow motion edits as he looks of into the distance is interspersed with a classic Mann visual trait, the asymmetrical composition, with the camera lingering slightly to the left of the urban male loner so that negative space fills the frame, creating a disruption which in this case could be viewed as Hathaway staring into the existential void or clearer still the abyss of cyberspace which is infinitesimal. Mann’s interruption of the logic of classical narrative cinema with such an authorial articulation punctuates and contorts the linearity of time so this moment becomes a defining point of reference rather than just an attempt to assert stylistic consistency. Such discontinuity is also philosophical since the very existence of Mann’s male protagonists is predicated on time: the time to think, to act, and above all, the time to live and die. What if we reframed such moments as in-between moments? Those extraneous micro details typifying realist cinema or the bits that no audience member would be interested to look at for a few fleeting seconds since it distracts from ignoble narrative pleasures. Kent Jones in his monograph (1999) on L’Argent (Money, 1983) argues the cinema of Bresson is a compendium of ‘impressions’ of life as recalled by the director and captured on film. Being impressionistic suggests something altogether deleterious these days, superficiality perhaps. Would we dare make the implication that De Sica was an impressionist, and that even the cinema of Mann is about framing impressions? Remarkably, Mann has referred to his cinema as a realist one. If authenticity, extended years of research, is proof that his films pulsate inorganically and demonstrate a noted aesthetic dexterity then it works aggressively to mask the realist argument, which inexorably gets displaced.

The second in-between moment is realised more sparingly than the first, occupying a more familiar Mann visual milieu, an urban topography, this time of late night Hong Kong. When Kassar and his men gun down Agent Barrett, Mann cuts to Barrett framed in a low angle medium close up, her body riddled with bullets and her lifeless eyes wide open. The next shot, from the POV of Barrett, is a vertiginous high angle shot of a glistening HK skyscraper reaching into the night skies. Framing Barrett’s death through the image of a tall building, Mann connects her death to that her of late husband, a victim of 9-11, and again contorts linearity so that a poetic visual metonymy surfaces. In both junctures, time is the enemy, the most ephemeral of contests in the Mann cosmos.

Blackhat is in many ways Mann’s first truly ‘global’ film, unfolding chiefly in HK and Jakarta. Both of these urban spaces are never positioned as alien environments and seem on many occasions inseparable from the American city streets of Chicago or Los Angeles. If a post-globalised urban context holds no barriers for Mann’s cops, criminals, outsiders and anti-heroes then cyberspace as a site for granting a precarious anonymity, so often craved by Mann’s urban male loners, is at stake, emerging as a contest in which Hathaway must confront his double and mirror image, the eponymous hacker. Such opposition educes Manhunter, Heat, Collateral and Public Enemies in which mirror images as an authorial preoccupation is taken to its logical conclusion, the shattering of the double and its final elimination, which in the case of Blackhat plays out with an erudite genre equivocation, hinging emotively on revenge. It could in fact be the most benign of all Mann’s endings since the world of crime is a digital one: undetectable and immeasurable unlike the tangible ‘scores’ of traditional urban crime.

This narrative departure is not a complete break from Mann’s authorial traits since time still matters. Yet in the past, Mann’s urban loners who know their time is up such as Neil McCauley in Heat or Vincent in Collateral, the doomed noir trajectory, means their existence is also hinged on adherence to a moral code that advocates a no attachments policy. But Hathaway goes the furthest to reject such an ideal since his escape at the end is with Lien (Wei Tang). Imaginably Mann’s male protagonists are that much freer in a post globalised world; that they can disappear and become invisible since time and space have become that much more fragmented. In this context Blackhat is closer to the narrative finality of Manhunter (note the parallels between Jack Crawford and Captain Dawai in terms of their roles as meditators) and The Last of the Mohicans. It is in the vagaries of transience that remains an absolute veracity about Mann’s work.

1992 and the release of The Last of the Mohicans is significant in terms of determining the point at which critics started to take Mann seriously. It was one of the few occasions that critics came to a consensus on a Mann film. Perhaps Heat is the film that brought wider mainstream acclaim and recognition but the mixed critical responses to Blackhat reiterates the fate of films like Thief, Miami Vice and most recently Public Enemies, misconstrued films that have grown in stature. The commercial failure of Blackhat lies with Universal who never pushed the film, botched the marketing and subsequently dumped the film. What makes Blackhat and every Mann film so exceptional is the exacting precision of the framing, composition and combination of shots; there is alchemy to his work, a rapturous aesthetician absent from the mainstream of American genre cinema in desperate need of resuscitation.

BADLAPUR (Sriram Raghavan, 2015, India) – Purgatory

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Director Sriram Raghavan fourth directorial feature Badlapur opens with a brave bit of tableaux cinema. We can’t quite figure out where to look; the frame is wide open with the camera observing at a distance everyday street life, all in a single take. A bank robbery and the violent getaway disrupts the ordinariness of the moment creating an urban tension that is never fully resolved but intrinsic to the thriller form. Badlapur is less neo noir and more urban thriller. Although one could argue the two are indistinguishable in many ways, what categorises Badlapur as a thriller is the way melodrama is constantly rising to the surface. Having said that Badlapur does still have numerous noir traits but it seems to have more in common with South Korean revenge thrillers like Oldboy and A Bittersweet Life than American film noir. Raghavan really knows his cinema as testified by his previous work and is more adept at working in such intertexts with a playfulness that doesn’t jar or feel too obvious in its mode of address. Particularly interesting is a capacity to reference an eclectic mix of pop culture; he begins by thanking Don Siegel and later acknowledging Daphne Du Maurier’s novel Don’t Look Now. Arguably Badlapur has more going on than simply labelling it a revenge thriller but the emotional thrust of Raghu’s (Varun Dhawan is inconsistently good) revenge mission is underdeveloped and the flashbacks (too few) to happier times with his wife and son are simply crass and unconvincing. Subsequently, Raghu’s thirst for revenge is contrived, lacking the necessary sense of indignation and violation often characterising classical revenge narratives. The songs are also dispensable, bolted onto as an afterthought.

Badlapur is a deeply nihilistic film though and Raghavan does succeed in getting across the way revenge creates a cloud of moral ambiguity but isn’t that a little simplistic? That revenge consumes even itself until nothing remains. Nawazuddin shines though as Liak in a delightfully comical role as a low life criminal who breezes through the film uttering the best lines and creating the film’s most rounded, involving and empathetic character. In a strange sort of way, this is a film about anti-heroes so returns to my early objection that Badlapur isn’t strictly noir. Perhaps it is then noir but only in its downbeat ending. Overall, this is still an efficient genre piece that shows Raghavan has a knack for pulling good performances out of average mainstream Hindi actors. It’s just not as brilliant as Johnny Gaddar which still remains Raghavan’s best film to date. Part of me would have loved to have seen what kind of film Badlapur could have been if Raghavan had replicated the tableaux style throughout, offering a Haneke like exercise in mainstream cinema (I’m thinking of how Cache works as a terrifying edge of your seat thriller). However, considering the categorical failure of Agent Vinod, Badlapur is a step back in the right direction for this promising young genre auteur.

UGLY (Anurag Kashyap, 2013, India)

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Director Anurag Kashyap really knows how to cast his films, finding actors (rather than working with stars) with the right level of anxiety in their faces, inculcating a strange volatility in the audience. Ugly could almost be a companion piece to Peddlers, a film produced by Kashyap and which is stuck in distribution hell with Eros. Both films are vicious tales about the city and its contemporary, hollow middle class inhabitants. Kashyap’s depiction of their psychology borders on derision, but the narrative meanders and gets caught up in the trap of trying to make all the pieces fit together especially towards the end. The story revolves around the kidnapping of a 10 year old girl but this becomes merely a device for Kashyap with which to get beneath the sordid milieu. A central métier is Kashyap’s inborn penchant for characterisation, assembling a vestige of stereotypes: the struggling actor, the depressed housewife, the desperate casting director and the embittered police chief, totaling a cesspool of monstrosity and urban depravity. Kashyap is right to take the position that his characters have created their own wretched circumstances and deserve not one shred of sympathy; he wants them to suffer as a way of expressing his own personal scorn. It also seems right that Kashyap made this film after Gangs of Wasseypur, exhibiting range but expressly reiterates a chief genre interest for urban noir that has emerged as a defining visual look. He also seems both enamored and repulsed by the Indian film industry and its systems, a theme that he has dealt with before and that resurfaces in the ridicule faced by the character of the struggling actor. Ugly is a minor work. Maybe it is a film that will stand up to repeat viewings as it certainly harbours a rawness and urgency about it that has been lacking in the past few films Kashyap has made.