The Lunchbox (2013)

2020 #94
Ritesh Batra | 99 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | India, France, Germany & USA / Hindi & English | PG / PG

The Lunchbox

Yesterday the world heard the sad news that the actor Irrfan Khan had passed away aged just 53. An award-winning film star in India, Khan also had a noteworthy presence as a supporting actor in Western films — the police inspector in Slumdog Millionaire; the owner of the eponymous park in Jurassic World; the adult version of the main character in Life of Pi; not to mention The Darjeeling Limited, The Amazing Spider-Man, Inferno, and more. I’d seen all of those films and noted Khan’s presence — he’s the kind of actor who turns up and elevates the film almost just by being there, bringing a depth and interest to even the smallest roles. But I’d never seen any of the many films (he has 151 acting credits on IMDb) in which he played the lead, so it seemed appropriate to turn to one of the most internationally acclaimed of his films, The Lunchbox, in tribute.

Khan plays Saajan, an office worker who receives his lunch every day via the dabbawala service. It’s a remarkable network that delivers 200,000 lunches daily across Mumbai with unerring accuracy. Indeed, their precision is so famed that one of the major criticisms of this film in some quarters was that its premise is too far-fetched — that being that, due to a continued mixup, Saajan begins to receive the lunches Ila (Nimrat Kaur) has prepared for her husband, rather than the ones he ordered from a local restaurant. He’s so impressed with the quality of the food, when the lunchbox is returned Ila observes that it looks to have been licked clean. This is good news, because she was trying to up the quality of her lunches as a way to reignite her stagnant marriage; but when her husband returns home still disinterested, with only thin praise for something she hadn’t even included in his lunch, she realises the delivery mistake immediately. But politeness compels her to send lunch again, this time with a note explaining the mixup. After a rocky start, soon Saajan and Ila are in daily communication through short letters passed back and forth in the lunchbox.

Saajan

Both are characters desperately in need of that connection. Ila’s loveless marriage, and young daughter who spends most of the day at school, means her primary human contact comes in shouted conversations with her upstairs neighbour. Saajan, meanwhile, is taking early retirement, but first must train Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the overeager new recruit appointed to replace him. He tries to duck even this level of interaction; at home, he tells off kids for playing in the road outside his house, refusing to return their ball. We could infer Saajan is a misanthrope, and the impression is given that his colleagues do (they share a story that he once kicked a cat in front of a bus then casually walked away), but the film affords us more insight than that, primarily through Khan’s performance. It’s the underlying sadness in his eyes that first give the clue to his true loneliness, and the way his demeanour begins to brighten as the relationship with Ila brings a spark back into his life.

Lest you think this is all somewhat dour, the way it plays is uplifting. Saajan and Ila may be miserable at the start, and continue to confront problems in their lives throughout the film, but their connection injects a measure of happiness into both their lives, the mutual support helping them through. Plus there’s a strong vein of humour, at first from the faltering beginnings of our leads’ relationship, then from the antics of Siddiqui’s junior employee. This isn’t the kind of broad comedy you might expect from a Bollywood movie, but something more grounded and closer to reality. At first Shaikh seems as irritating to us as he is to Saajan, but soon the latter’s growing empathy leads him to become a father figure to the younger man, and we too begin to see the truth underneath his cheery facade.

Ila

While that subplot is a bonus, the film really comes down to Saajan and Ila, and consequently the performances of Khan and Kaur. That’s particularly important because so much of the story occurs in the form of letters, and so the characters’ true reactions come across in doleful expressions, or changes in posture or behaviour; subtle, human indicators that leave us in no doubt what they’re feeling, and only strengthen our own connection to and investment in these characters. This pair of deeply-felt performances carefully steer The Lunchbox into being a heartfelt, quietly affecting film.

5 out of 5

Sholay (1975)

2018 #200
Ramesh Sippy | 205 mins | DVD | 4:3 | India / Hindi | PG

Sholay

For many Western readers (and the stats say most of mine are, though India is in 3rd of all countries for 2019 so far), there’s every chance you’ll’ve only heard of Sholay (if you’ve heard of it at all) as “one of those Indian films that’s on the IMDb Top 250 nowadays”. But in Indian culture it’s a much bigger deal, a huge and longstanding success; like Star Wars or something is to us, I guess, only without the reams of sequels and spinoffs and merchandise and theme parks. Instead, it’s enjoyed remarkable success of its own: it topped the Indian box office for 19 years, was the first film in India to celebrate a Silver Jubilee at over 100 cinemas, and eventually set a record of 60 Golden Jubilees across India. From a British perspective, in 2002 it topped the BFI’s “top ten Indian films of all time” poll, and in 2004 it was voted the “Greatest Indian Movie” in a Sky poll of 1 million British Indians. I first heard about it years ago in that context, and my desire to see it was only exacerbated when it made it onto IMDb’s list. All of which is why I chose it to be my second-ever #200.

It’s a tricky film to sum up, because it offers a massive mash-up of tones and genres in a way we’re not accustomed to from Western cinema. There are whole sequences (not just fleeting moments) of broad slapstick humour, epic action, heartfelt romance, brutal violence, colourful musical numbers, intense tragedy, plus backstory that’s filled in via regular, lengthy flashbacks. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say its primary genre was Action, or Comedy, or Musical, or Western — it’s all of those things, by turn; sometimes at the same time. Apparently it’s a defining example of the “masala film”. Masala is, of course, a mix of spices in Indian cuisine, and the films that take that name blend genres together, typically (according to Wikipedia) action, comedy, romance, and melodrama, plus musical numbers.

Who doesn't enjoy a colourful sing-song?

That sounds like a recipe for disaster, but what’s perhaps most remarkable about Sholay is that it pulls them off. Thanks to engaging characters and relationships, powerful and humorous performances, quality filmmaking (there’s some strikingly effective camerawork and editing in the big scenes), it all flows. You can see why it became such a success: there’s something for everyone. And you can see why it struggles to transcend the culture it originates from, because when Western movies ever even vaguely attempt this kind of range of tones, there are trolls aplenty waiting to rip them apart for the perceived fault of being tonally inconsistent.

The heroes are Veeru (Dharmendra) and Jai (Amitabh Bachchan), a pair of crooks with hearts of gold, who are recruited by a retired policeman who once arrested them, Baldev Singh (Sanjeev Kumar), to capture a wanted outlaw, Gabbar (Amjad Khan), who’s terrorising Singh’s village, and who he has a personal history with. The way that storyline plays out is highly reminiscent of Spaghetti Westerns and the samurai movies that inspired some of them — anyone who’s seen the likes of A Fistful of Dollars, Seven Samurai, or Once Upon a Time in the West (or any of the other films that have riffed on / ripped from them) is going to see a lot of reflections here. I don’t mean that to be a criticism — after all, Dollars was an unendorsed remake of Yojimbo, and Seven Samurai was remade as classic Hollywood Western The Magnificent Seven, so there’s strong pedigree among these movies for reworking each other to excellent effect.

I'm not sure that's safe...

Sholay certainly adds its own stuff to the mix. I mean, those other films I’ve mentioned don’t have musical numbers or slapstick comedy (not much of it, anyway). Lest you think this plays as a spoof, Singh eventually unveils a tragic backstory (and a neat twist to his character), and Gabbar is a properly despicable, nasty villain. Plus, like most of the best bad guys, he’s not just evil for evil’s sake — he’s motivated to subjugate this particular village for a reason — but he’s still a properly nasty piece of work, excessively and inventively cruel. Rather than a spoof, then, the different genres come into play via an array of plots and asides. At times it does feel like a selection of unconnected subplots to bulk out the running time (and, as you may’ve noticed, it does have a long running time), but most of them come together in the end. Your tolerance for those that don’t (a lengthy comedic aside in a prison, for example) is another matter.

Musical numbers are another thing that put some people off. There are only five though, and they don’t actually drive the plot that much — I was kind of forced to assess their impact, because for some reason my DVD copy didn’t bother to subtitle the songs, leading me to search out translations online so I could get the gist. Still, when they fill several minutes of screen time each, it is nice to at least have an idea what’s being said sung!

In the West, Sholay has been hard to find at times (personally, it was years ago that I managed to source an out-of-print DVD by a label you’ve never heard of from an Amazon Marketplace seller), but as of this week it’s available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK (either as part of a subscription or to rent and buy individually), and in HD to boot! Based on the running time it’s the shorter widescreen theatrical version; there’s also a longer, open matte 4:3 “director’s cut”, which is what I watched. There’s info on the differences between the two cuts here, but the mostly it’s a couple of bits of violence that were censored. The biggest change, though, is the ending. No spoilers, but I think the original version is better — it included one of my favourite parts of the entire film, in fact. The revised version was at the insistence of India’s censor board, and includes a heavy-handed moral lecture — it’s not just less good in itself, it also feels overtly censor-mandated. Oh well.

Vicious villainy

On the bright side, the 4:3 version isn’t great to watch compositionally. The makers wanted to produce an epic 70mm widescreen kinda movie, but didn’t have the tech to do it properly, so they shot it in full frame 4:3 on 35mm and then had it cropped and blown up in London. Watching in 4:3, it’s obvious that it was always intended to be cropped to widescreen: there’s loads of dead space above everyone’s heads, things like that. That said, every once in a while there’s a shot that seems to be perfectly framed. Maybe they look just as nice cropped, I don’t know. To further muddy the waters about different versions, five years ago Sholay was converted to 3D. Despite the film’s enduring popularity, it didn’t come close to making its money back (the conversion cost US$3.5 million, but the 3D release only grossed US$1.4 million). In the West the studio would seek to recoup more of that with home media, but apparently Blu-ray isn’t popular or successful in India, so the chance of getting a 3D BD is basically nonexistent. But, as I said, it’s on Amazon in HD now, so at least there’s that. (Hopefully it has subtitles for the songs…)

Whichever version you watch, Sholay is best described as “an experience”. Perhaps lots of Bollywood movies are like this (after all, with huge success comes huge influence, and I’m sure many have tried to emulate it), but I’m not familiar with them so this was all new to me. That epic running time makes it feel like an event to watch, and the winding plot and variety of tones it encompasses make it feel like a whole buffet of entertainment, as opposed to the just one meal that most films offer. I guess, like any food that is foreign to an individual, it comes as an acquired taste, but it’s one I enjoyed immensely. It would also be entirely accurate and fair to roll out a somewhat clichéd sentiment: if you only watch one Bollywood film, this is the one to watch.

5 out of 5

As mentioned, Sholay is available on Amazon Prime Video now.

It placed 25th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

2017 #35

Whoa there! Hold your horses! Before The Darjeeling Limited, we need to talk about…

Hotel Chevalier
(2007)

2017 #34a
Wes Anderson | 13 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

Hotel Chevalier

The short film that exists as a kind-of-prequel, kind-of-Part-One to The Darjeeling Limited. It’s probably best remembered for its controversies — around whether or not it was attached to the feature’s theatrical release (it was, then it wasn’t, then it was); and around Natalie Portman’s ass, firstly because oh my God you get to see Natalie Portman’s ass, then later about whether or not she regretted baring it (long story short: she didn’t). The former issue annoyed fans at the time for reasons that, a decade later, are immaterial (though if you’re interested you can read about it here). The latter… well, frankly, I guess it got a lot of attention because, a) men are men, and b) what else there is to talk about from the short isn’t necessarily all that obvious.

In it we’re introduced to Jason Schwartzman’s character from The Darjeeling Limited, one of the feature’s three leads, who here is seen lazing about in a Paris hotel room when he gets a phone call from a woman, who shortly thereafter arrives. Then they talk and stuff. All shot with director Wes Anderson’s usual style, because obviously.

Natalie Portman's ass not pictured

Hotel Chevalier exists in a weird in-between state, where it’s almost essential to the main film (the feature includes numerous callbacks to it; some inconsequential, others that I’m not sure make sense without seeing the short), but it also feels like the right decision to have left it out of the film. Its setting and the presence of only one of the trio of main characters mean it feels like a different entity, and if it had been in the feature itself, even as a prologue, it would’ve shifted the focus onto Schwartzman as the primary character. I don’t think that would’ve been right.

So maybe it’s just a glorified deleted scene, then? Or maybe there was something I didn’t get and I’m doing it a disservice. The thing it most reminds me of, watching in 2017, is those Blade Runner 2049 shorts: it informs the main feature without being an essential component of it. So, while I didn’t dislike it, I don’t know how much it has to offer outside of setting up part of The Darjeeling Limited. Unless you just want to see Natalie Portman’s ass, of course.

3 out of 5

You can watch Hotel Chevalier on YouTube here.

The Darjeeling Limited
(2007)

2017 #35
Wes Anderson | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Darjeeling Limited

So, the film proper. It’s the story of three estranged brothers (Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman) who reunite a year after their father’s funeral. One of them has organised a train trip across India so they can reconnect, although he also has an ulterior motive…

My impression has always been that The Darjeeling Limited is a lesser work on Wes Anderson’s CV. I don’t remember it making much of a splash when it came out — maybe I’m wrong, but “another film where Wes Anderson does what Wes Anderson does” was my impression at the time — and I don’t think I’ve seen it discussed a great deal since. As someone who still feels new to Anderson’s world and is working through his oeuvre in a roundabout fashion, I don’t necessarily disagree with this sentiment. If you want to find out what’s so great about Anderson, there are certainly other places to start.

Brothers on a train

That said, I did enjoy the film. Anderson’s mannered camerawork, kooky characters, and shaggy dog storylines seem to have gelled well with my own sensibilities. Conversely, finally getting round to this review nine months after I saw the film, I can’t remember many specifics. It’s a movie I’ll likely add to my Wes Anderson Blu-ray collection someday (for comparison, I can’t definitely say the same about Rushmore), and will be happy to revisit, but for the time being I’ve exhausted what little thoughts I had about it.

4 out of 5

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015)

2016 #38
John Madden | 118 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English & Indian | PG / PG

The Second Best Exotic Marigold HotelThe Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is not the kind of movie you expect to spawn a sequel in the current climate (i.e. it’s not a CGI-fuelled PG-13 science-fiction action extravaganza), but when you consider that it made $136.8 million on a budget of just $10 million, the existence of this follow-up becomes more understandable. The first was based on a novel, but that doesn’t have a sequel, so you’d be forgiven for assuming the movie sequel is a shameless cash-in. Far from it — if anything, it may even be better than the first.

There’s little point me setting up the plot here, because if you haven’t seen the first movie then this one launches out of it enough that you’ll spend forever playing catch-up, and if you have seen it, well, “the storylines continue” sums much of it up. The sequel is given narrative shape both by the forthcoming wedding of the hotel’s owner (Dev Patel), and the fact that he wants to open a second location. For the latter he’s sought funding from a US chain, so when Richard Gere turns up he’s assumed to be a ‘secret shopper’ come to assess the hotel.

As that story unfolds, along with the film’s raft of subplots, it essentially repeats the tone of the first movie: gentle drama mixed with gentle humour in roughly equal measure; though this time there’s an added dose of romance in pretty much every plotline. It works because the cast are so darn good at delivering their material. Dev Patel and Maggie Smith are both hilarious, though everyone gets a moment to shine in the comedy stakes; conversely, Judi Dench and Bill Nighy carry the heart of the movie — though, again, everyone gets their emotional moment.

It’s easy to dismiss films like this as twee vehicles chasing the so-called ‘grey pound’, but, in this instance at least, that would do it a disservice. When a film is as amusing and emotional as this one, while also exploring an increasingly relevant aspect of life — an aspect which is too often ignored by mass entertainment that’s more concerned with acquiring the easily-earned disposable income of youngsters — and is as well-made, too (in particular, Ben Smithard’s cinematography is rich with gorgeous light, colour, and contrast) — then its audience should reach far wider than the age bracket of its principal characters.

4 out of 5

Supermen of Malegaon (2008)

2015 #149
Faiza Ahmad Khan | 66 mins | streaming | 16:9 | Singapore, Japan, South Korea & India / Urdu & Hindi

In the impoverished Indian town of Malegaon, everyone either works on the power looms and is paid a pittance, or is unemployed and so has even less; apart from the women, who are squirrelled away out of sight at home. The population is 75% Muslim, the remainder Hindu, and that leads to tension. Outside of work, there is nothing to do for entertainment… except go to the movies. And Malegaon loves the movies.

A number of years ago, one movie lover and video parlour owner, Sheikh Nasir, decided to make his own film. He remade the beloved Indian classic Sholay, but with its setting relocated to Malegaon, and turned it into a kind of spoof. It was recorded on video, edited VCR to VCR, by someone who had learnt filmmaking only by watching films themselves and seeing the behind-the-scenes outtakes on the credits of Jackie Chan movies. He didn’t even realise a film crew consisted of more than one person. Yet Malegaon ke Sholay was a local hit, and so Nasir decided to produce more. All of his films are spoof remakes of popular Bollywood and Hollywood productions, but set in Malegaon and engaging with local issues. They’re something of craze, so much so the people have a nickname for it: Mollywood.

Supermen of Malegaon is the making-of story of Nasir’s most ambitious production to date. Having seen the use of greenscreen in one of those behind-the-scenes outtakes, he realised he could use the process to make a special effects movie — specifically, to make Superman fly to Malegaon. This documentary follows the trials and tribulations of Nasir and his band of hobby filmmakers through their film’s writing, planning, and its sometimes troubled shoot, until it’s completed. In the process, we meet some genuine characters, learn something of the unique lifestyle of Malegaon itself, and maybe even learn something about ourselves too.

The latter is the kind of claim liable to have your everyman viewer thinking, “yeah, right.” It’s a huge, horrid cliché for films to preach about following your dreams, or of finding something life enhancing through simple pleasures even when living in hardship; and generally movies that shove such ideals down our throats are gratingly earnest and/or sentimentally vacuous. Supermen of Malegaon is neither. There is no forcing here — insightful observations spring forth unassumingly; life lessons build up gradually and naturally. This is a film that doesn’t labour a point; doesn’t try to force some heartwarming message on you; but there’s every chance it will, almost incidentally, make you believe in the power of movies.

Even if it doesn’t, the situation in ‘Mollywood’ is an interesting one. This is a cottage industry: everyone involved has day jobs, funding the movies out of their own pocket, or by borrowing cash, or with favours, or by selling in-film adverts to local businesses — yes, that’s right, product placement, not that anyone involved would know that term. Women from Malegaon cannot appear in or work on the films due to local attitudes, so actresses are hired from nearby villages; the screenplay is written and shooting schedule arranged so that the actress only needs to be involved for the minimum number of days, to save money. Bicycles and motorbikes are used to create tracking shots; the director gets a piggyback for a high angle, or is raised and lowered on the arm of a cart to create a crane shot. The ingenuity and inventiveness of these literally-self-taught moviemakers is astonishing.

It really matters to them, too. As one young extra observes, people are keen to do anything they can to be involved, because being in a Mollywood movie buys you street cred in Malegaon. These things are that popular.

And yet it remains just a hobby… or it does for Nasir, anyway. He loves movies and so just wants to make them. He says that even if he was offered a job in Bollywood, he wouldn’t go. Not everyone shares his view: one of his relatives wants to make films as a career; Nasir is vocally against the idea — you can’t support a household doing this, he says. His films cost a pittance: at one point he tries to buy software to do the greenscreen and is quoted a price of $4,000, which he turns down because he could make four whole films for that much money. Even that little is scraped together. Mollywood moviemaking isn’t a money spinner, it’s a hobby. Still, one of the writers wants to make it as a proper writer; wants to go to Bombay and do it as his career. This has been his aim for 15 years, he says, and Bombay is no closer.

So there’s sadness here too, and controversy (to Western eyes, the position of women seems ludicrously unacceptable), and yet the ingenuity of these people, the endurance, the sheer love of cinema and the want to be involved, to not only recreate it but to forge something new, with their own enjoyment as the sole reward, is heartwarming, maybe even life enhancing. These are amateur filmmakers, working in their own backyard with a consumer video camera, who have greater integrity than all of Hollywood put together — and are still making movies, not falling to pieces and dying out, as Hollywood seems to think it would if it ever manned up.

In an interview, the director commented that “someone said after watching the film: ‘If you are about to give up on your dream, watch Supermen of Malegaon’.” I can believe that would work. A reviewer said that “if you don’t like it, then it can only mean that films were never really your thing in the first place.” A bold statement, but I’m inclined to agree. It’s an incredible, one-of-a-kind film; more powerful and life-affirming than it perhaps has any right to be. But then the filmmakers of Malegaon don’t really care about such things. They make movies because they want to, whether they ‘should’ or not; they make them better than you might expect; and it enriches their lives. Their story may do the same for you. In my opinion, it’s an essential film; a true must-see.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Supermen of Malegaon is on Channel 4 tonight at 1:30am. It’s also available on YouTube.

It placed 4th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

North West Frontier (1959)

aka Flame Over India / Empress of India

2015 #126
J. Lee Thompson | 125 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | U

British Army Captain Scott (Kenneth More) is charged with getting an Indian child prince and his American governess (Lauren Bacall) to safety as rebels attempt to murder him. With the palace under siege, their only hope is a barely-ready rust-bucket train engine, a single passenger carriage, and a long journey through enemy territory joined by a motley group of diplomats and hangers-on who’ve bargained their way on to this last train.

North West Frontier has been on BBC Two a couple of times in the last year or two (seven times in the last four years, to be precise), and on one of those showings I caught a few seconds and thought it looked fabulously shot — I confess, that’s the only reason I’d got hold of a copy. I’m so glad I did though, because it’s excellent stuff — a rollicking, action-packed, old-fashioned (in the good sense) adventure, full of peril, derring-do, chases and shoot-outs. In between all that there’s some great character stuff too. Judging from online reaction, some viewers seem to find these bits boring longueurs, but I thought they helped manage the pace and added to the whole feel.

In particular, it’s during those segments where you get to see that every cast member is excellent. More is surprisingly dashing as the heroic leader of this ragtag bunch on their ramshackle locomotive. Bacall is as feisty as you’d expect as the strong-willed, outspoken governess, creating an easy and perhaps-surprisingly plausible chemistry with More. For the rest of the cast, Herbert Lom seems to be channelling a little Peter Lorre as a critical Dutch journalist, Wilfrid Hyde-White is the perfect older English gent, I.S. Johar is fun as the train’s Indian driver, Ursula Jeans is redoubtable as the English lady forced to escape on the train by her governor husband, and Eugene Deckers is an arms dealer, who consequently no one likes but who remains unashamed of his trade. Through this prism there’s some discussion of the merits or otherwise of the British Empire and Indian independence, which some will judge to be extolling old-fashioned values, and others will take as little more than a (probably unnecessary) hat-tip in the direction of real politics.

And as for the reason I watched, success: it’s beautifully shot, in widescreen Eastmancolor by Geoffrey Unsworth, showing off stunning scenery lensed in India and Spain (with studio sequences shot at Pinewood, naturally). It may not be famed as a big-budget epic, but there’s nonetheless an impressively grand scale, with wide-open scenery, some extravagant locales, and hundreds of extras to fill out a few sweeping battle charges. They also come into play in one of the film’s most striking sequences, set at the scene of a horrid massacre, where a spread of blood-soaked bodies surely stretch the film’s U certificate. I’ve seen this part of the film described as unnecessarily dallied upon, but I think director J. Lee Thompson is more conveying the atrocity of such a tragic event.

In the US, the film was retitled Flame Over India (and Bacall was given top billing, as opposed to More in the UK), while in Australia it was named Empress of India, after the central train. That’s the best title, in my opinion. Flame Over India is pretty meaningless (Bacall didn’t like it either) and North West Frontier is a bit generic and bland, but Empress of India indicates the country and has meaning… though as it’s not about an Empress you could argue it’s misleading and sounds too romantic.

North West Frontier, on the other hand, sounds like a Western — which was perhaps the intention: the film’s structure and story style is fundamentally a fit for that genre, albeit British-made and geographically relocated. The storyline immediately brings to mind John Ford’s Stagecoach: a gaggle of mismatched strangers are thrown together as they cross hostile territory, interspersing conversations and arguments with adventurous survival challenges. In a review I otherwise pretty thoroughly disagree with, Glenn Erickson at DVD Talk makes the same comparison and offers this insightful point: “It may be a blatant reworking of Stagecoach as the original story was co-written by John Wayne’s son Patrick Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s husband Will Price. The final screenplay [by Robin Estridge] was adapted from a script by screenwriter Frank S. Nugent, the writer of eleven Ford films.” Sounds pretty likely, doesn’t it?

North West Frontier is a film I would certainly have overlooked were it not for some whim of fate. Thank goodness for coincidence and chance, then, because it’s a cracking adventure; one made, I think, with pure entertainment in mind. I rather loved it.

5 out of 5

North West Frontier placed 15th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of The Lauren Bacall Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

Life of Pi (2012)

2015 #107
Ang Lee | 127 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA, Taiwan, UK, Canada & France / English, Tamil, French, Japanese, Hindi & Chinese | PG / PG

Oscar statue2013 Academy Awards
11 nominations — 4 wins

Winner: Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Visual Effects.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Original Song, Best Production Design.


Life of Pi“Unfilmable” — now there’s an adjective you don’t hear tossed about so much these days. For a long time it seemed like it was all the rage to label novels “unfilmable”, but at this point too many ‘unfilmable’ novels have been filmed, and the wonders of CGI have put paid to anything ever again being unfilmable for practical or visual reasons. It may still be an apposite descriptor for works that feature very literary storytelling, though if you can render something like the subjective and unreliable narrator of Fight Club on screen — and in a movie that many regard as being superior to the novel, too — then there are few boundaries in that realm either. And someone even made On the Road, so just as soon as The Catcher in the Rye gets filmed we can probably put “unfilmable” to bed forever.

Yann Martel’s internationally-renowned Booker Prize-winner Life of Pi is one novel that used to have that adjective attached (of course it was — that would’ve been a pretty stupid introductory paragraph otherwise, wouldn’t it?) I’ve never read the novel, but I suspect it may’ve earnt the label for both of the above reasons, because it concerns, literally, the story of a boy stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger, and, figuratively, the very nature of storytelling itself — not to mention the purpose of religion and the existence of God. Never has “from the director of Hulk” seemed less pertinent.

Said director — Ang Lee, of course — did win one of this film’s four Oscars. Match that with two of its others — namely, for cinematography and visual effects — and you get an inkling of one of the film’s most praised facets. Whatever one thinks of the film’s story and themes (and I’ll come to those), it looks incredible. This is the kind of film that demands the increased resolution and colour palette of HD; it may even demand the 3D it was shot in, because watching in 2D it felt clear that wasn’t its native format — not because of the old cliché of things being thrust in the viewers’ collective face (well, only once or twice), Tiger's talebut because of almost-indefinable features of each shot’s crispness, its depth of field, even the compositions. It absolutely works in 2D, and it didn’t leave me longing for 3D in quite the same way as something like the swooping aerial sequences of How to Train Your Dragon, but, unlike with the majority of movies released in 3D, I did feel like I wasn’t seeing the director’s full vision.

Nonetheless, Claudio Miranda’s Oscar-winning cinematography proved controversial in some quarters. While the movie is indeed beautifully shot, swathes of it are also awash with CGI, so I think there’s some merit to the argument that it doesn’t count as photography. Conversely, I’d actually argue that the real-world bits look even more glorious than the digitally-rendered parts, on balance. Sure, you have the obvious spectacle of the psychedelic whale-jump, featured heavily in trailers and on the Blu-ray 3D cover, and the painterly skies and seas while in the lifeboat; but the early sequences in India, bursting with crisp, luscious colour in the zoo or at a nighttime light festival, are in some respects even more memorable.

To give with one hand and take with the other, however, I felt that the pair of aspect ratio shifts were utterly pointless and, worse, distracting. Firstly, I believe 2.35:1 was used for the flying fish scene to make the sequence feel more epic, and to allow the fish to jump further out of the screen. Well, in 2D the latter is lost entirely; and on TV (and possibly in the cinema, presuming the screen-space got thinner rather than wider), the movie suddenly feels constrained — the exact opposite effect to when films like The Dark Knight or Hunger Games 2 open out for their IMAX sequences, for instance. The book cover shotLater, the 4:3 “book cover” shot is just pure indulgence. There’s no reason not to just have empty sea to the left and right of frame, and the “it’s emulating the book cover!” reason/excuse doesn’t come close to passing muster simply because book covers aren’t 4:3. In both cases, then, what was intended to be striking or clever or innovative or in some way effective, I guess, comes across as pointless and distracting and pretentious.

And if we’re talking daft choices, don’t get me started on the meerkat-infested carnivorous island…! Maybe there’s some Deeper Meaning there — or, later, is the film deliberately lampshading the island’s total lack of meaning, when Pi tells the journalist that there doesn’t need to be meaning if it’s just what happened? Whatever — for me, it only served to make 110% sure we know (spoilers!) that Pi’s whole story is definitely BS. In that respect, the bizarre fancifulness was heavy-handed.

Ah, the story. To be honest, I liked it a little better a year later when it was called All is Lost; some people liked it better a decade earlier, when the tiger was a volleyball called Wilson. The striking imagery of a boy stranded on a boat with a tiger makes one assume that’s what the film’s About, but it’s not really About that at all. If you’re expecting a pure adventure on a life-raft, the long preamble where Pi describes his early experiences of religion must seem utterly pointless, but it all feeds back in at the end when we come to the point of Pi’s — well, Martel’s — tale.

I’m going to discuss the end while avoiding direct spoilers, but, honestly, any foreknowledge of the film’s (possible) message(s) is liable to colour your perception; so if you’ve not seen it, it may be best to skip the next paragraph until later.

TranscendentalReading around a little online, it seems that some people have interpreted the film’s message as being a defence of/justification for/persuasion towards religious faith, and hate it for that. This interests me, because I — coming, I suspect, from a similar perspective on religion — read it as a subtle condemnation of religious stories. Actually, not a condemnation, but a tacit acceptance of the fact that such stories are a nice fairytale, but not the truth. To put it another way, I took the message to be (more or less) that religion is an obvious fiction which people choose to believe because it’s a nicer story than the more plausible alternative, neither of which are provable. I think some focus on the point that the journalist hearing Pi’s story is told it will make him believe in God, and, at the end, the journalist seems to accept that it does. I don’t think that’s the film’s contention, though; I think the film is, in a way, explaining why people believe in God. Or maybe there are just no easy answers.

Seeking those answers, Rafe Spall is very good in what amounts to a tiny supporting role… but then, I have a fondness for him as an actor (his excellent, just-the-right-side-of-OTT turn as a gangster’s unhinged psychopathic son is the only real reason to watch The Shadow Line), so I may be biased. One must also single out Suraj Sharma, an unknown cast almost by accident when he accompanied his brother to the auditions, but who gives a good turn even when mostly performing opposite a CG tiger, a CG sea, CG fish, more CG…

Living the Pi lifeI found Life of Pi to be a little bit of a mixed bag, on the whole, where moments of transcendent wonder-of-cinema beauty rub up against instances of thumb-twiddling; where insightful or emotional revelations rub shoulders with pretentious longueurs. There is much to admire, but there are also parts to endure. The balance of reception lies in its favour, but while some love it unequivocally, a fair number seem to despise it with near-equal fervour. Either way, it’s definitely a film worth watching, and in the best possible quality you can manage, too. It also made me want to read the book, which for a movie I wasn’t even sure how much I liked is certainly an unusual, but positive, accomplishment.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Life of Pi is on Channel 4 (and 4HD) tonight at 9pm.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

2010 #1
Danny Boyle | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 15 / R

Slumdog MillionaireAs we head in to this year’s awards season, I’ve finally got round to seeing last year’s big winner. It’s the Little British Film That Could, and I do feel like I’m the last person in the country to see it.

With its brightly coloured posters and home ent covers, cute child actors wheeled out at awards dos, and widespread popularity, it’s not hard to believe the pullquote someone at Fox’s marketing chose for the DVD cover: “the feel-good film of the decade”. An uplifting tale of a young no-hoper appearing on the world’s biggest game show and winning millions of rupees thanks to a generous helping of luck that means his multifarious life experiences have provided him with the exact answers to all 15 of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’s genius-stumping questions, surely?

No.

Everything that claims it’s a “feel-good film” is being slightly disingenuous. It has a happy ending (I don’t think that counts as a spoiler for something that’s billed as “feel-good”), but until those closing moments it’s unrelentingly grim. Realistic, I’m certain, and depressingly so, but it seems designed for anything but making you feel good. The author of that chosen quotation, News of the World’s Robbie Collin, claims that he means the film is cathartic (not that I got that from his review, to be honest) — the happy and justice-bringing endings unleash goodness in the wake of the dire events that lead to them. It’s a sound theory, one that has often worked elsewhere, but not for me with Slumdog.

The problem is the ending. Director Danny Boyle’s recent films have all made a relatively poor show of their conclusion and Slumdog is no exception. True, it’s not close to the mess of Sunshine, but it doesn’t hold up in the way it ought to either. I don’t have a problem with it being reliant on guesswork — coincidence and luck form the backbone of the plot, making it permissible that our hero should win by chance rather than knowledge — but that some of its resolutions are too little too late to make one feel good about what’s already occurred, and the way it seems to bend the concept of Millionaire to fit its story somehow grates for me. I mean, is the name of the third Musketeer really a £1 million question?

But I don’t want to berate it too much because, in spite of the unconvincing finale, Slumdog Millionaire is a rather brilliant film. It’s peppered with convenience and flaws that go beyond the extent allowed in a plot based on coincidence (how come the questions come in the order the answers happened in his life? What about answers to all the questions we don’t see asked?), but these can be allowed to slide as a structural gimmick that facilitates something of an exposé of life for slum kids in India. Whether it has a documentary level of realism or not, and whether it under-sells or over-states the influence of gangsters and ease of mutilation and murder, the film’s unabashed grimness is surely closer to reality than most would dare. No wonder it nearly went straight to DVD.

The real revelation — once you get over the shock of it being, well, shocking — are the child actors. Here is where Boyle earns his Best Director awards, coaxing flawless lead performances out of a very young cast. Dev Patel may have been the focus point for plaudits, and while this isn’t undeserved, it’s the younger kids who play the same characters that arguably give the most memorable turns. They’re put through the ringer in almost every way imaginable and are never less than convincing, a feat for such young actors — so young that, as mentioned, the skill of Boyle (and, one imagines, “Indian co-director” Loveleen Tandan) is what’s really on display.

If there’s one good thing about Slumdog being billed as feel-good it’s that more people will have seen it, whereas promotion based on it being a gritty account of poverty, misery and abuse would surely have turned audiences away. And perhaps for most viewers the catharsis of a happy ending works, though the only person I’ve spoken to who felt that way is the aforementioned Mr Collin (and by “spoken to” in this instance I mean “tweeted”). The journey there certainly works though, and if by the end Slumdog is trying to both have its cake and eat it… well, I like cake.

Now there’s a quote for the DVD cover.

5 out of 5

Channel 4 and 4HD kick off their Indian Winter season with the TV premiere of Slumdog Millionaire tonight at 9pm.