La La Land (2016)

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City of stars, are you shining just for me?

Damien Chazelle is a revolutionary traditionalist. If he helms a movie chronicling the heroic travails of a drummer, he’ll grab you by your ungodly cuffs and make you feel the drummer’s rage and insanity until you start to sweat and swear quietly to yourself, unable to quite comprehend the magnificent crescendo of pure cinematic energy emanating from the screen. If he makes a bittersweet jazz-themed romance musical about the Herculean gap between dreams and reality, he will leave you unbearably dizzy with melancholy by the film’s end, shaken and wounded and gratified and intoxicated.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone pick up on the film’s exuberant flow and take it in stride. Their chemistry makes the film; there is some Annie Hall in there, some Casablanca, but the film, like its stars, is driven forward  with unbridled invention. The seamlessly flowing colors of clothes and aquamarine skylines and the neon-lit streets of L.A. mix together so wholesomely well, you’d think this guy’s been making movies for an entire century now. Because how else does a film like this even exist?

The film belongs to its cast and its director, but it belongs just as much to Tom Cross, whose editing prowess elevates the film’s pathos into some obscure, otherworldly feeling; it belongs to Justin Hurwitz, whose original score is the movie’s thrillingly rich, complex heartbeat; and it belongs to Linus Sandgren who shoots this odyssey in glorious widescreen Cinemascope at 24-paintings-per-second. All my respect and love to the lighting department, production design and make-up crew. La La Land looks and sounds and feels and breathes like a true musical: a relentlessly poignant film that has no other agenda for existing before you except to ask that you give a little more love.

To the people who, like me, sit and stand and walk and live in the sidelines of their lives transfixed by the endless possibilities of how it could all turn out: this movie is for us. Mia and Sebastian are our angels.

Udta Punjab (2016): !THIS IS AN EMERGENCY!

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“Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”
Danny Boyle’s masterful 1996 film opened with Mark Renton running through the streets. It caused a small revolution encircled by all things political, moral and societal; at the center of it, a dizzying, unholy spiral of drug addiction. Lives lost, families destroyed, human wills broken: this war on drugs escalated so fast it became as individual as it was encompassing.
And its victims need our help.
Abhishek Chaubey’s fearless and absolutely terrifying Udta Punjab turns the mirror on us. How we failed our nation’s youth. This failure isn’t carried only by corrupt police officials who take their cut and let the drugs be sold without prescription or control. The failure isn’t just on the part of a government whose workers are more bent on profiteering than on saving actual human lives. The failure is ours. Every single one of us, who stood by and let our brothers and sisters in the beautiful, holy land of Punjab suffer. They suffered for our mistakes. But we can start mending it. Little by little, starting now.
It doesn’t surprise me at all that in a film full of electrifyingly authentic performances, Alia Bhatt’s acting stands out. Everything her character is subjected to, every fight she puts up; it is a horrible, brutally honest, emotionally naked playing field. And her acting chops elevate its uncomfortable crudeness into something damn near spiritual.
This is an urgent film. It borrows the unrestricted anger and fist-shaking intelligence at injustice from Spike Lee (WAKE UP!). It borrows the metaphorical light at the end of the toilet from Trainspotting. It borrows dark, DARK humour from Tarantino. But it is explicitly and fearlessly Indian. I’ve been to Punjab with my family, and believe me when I tell you, it is a state whose people, culture, faith and language are beautiful and kind and generous and have hearts of gold. And now this wonderfully magical place has turned into a literal warzone because of a menace we can’t seem to get a hold of.
Udta Punjab’s status as a work of art cannot be judged solely based on aesthetic merit. This film is WAY too important for that. After crossing through so many hurdles of censorship and right-wing propaganda, the film has finally released in a theater near you. Please go and watch it. It needs to be seen.
And afterwards, in place of being film critics and poking around for plot holes, maybe we can have a discussion about helping our countrymen who are wasting away at the hands of this monstrosity through no fault of their own.
Maybe Udta Punjab is the last push we need to say ‘enough’ and start doing something about this. Hats off, team Phantom. The country owes a great debt to you.

Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo: a spiritual analysis

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Samurai Champloo looks and smells (when you become a hundredth as insane as it is) and sounds like the botched memory of a fallen God, drunk and out on his ass alone, in some unpopulated corner of the planet, residing in a time where unfinished business was a virtue; a land of mystic uselessness, the era of the death of purpose, the directionless abyss of the perpetually bored.

Its three fascinating protagonists inevitably bring to mind Cowboy Bebop’s magnificent failures masquerading as people with actual ambition, without any hint of irony. Being broke is their superpower, second only to stumbling headfirst into unneeded trouble for no reason and to no reasonable end whatsoever. There is a reason Edo Japan and 22nd century outer space connect in this manufactured continuum, running like parallel rays in opposite directions and creating an illusion of difference so perfect it is shattered only when you acknowledge how much of it is like real life.

I have been wondering a lot if Shinichiro Watanabe is God. What passes for plot in his anime series is ridiculously close to the LSD-laden dream visions of a crazed genius who is hair-split close to the truth and lie of the universe. After the aforementioned genius makes his or her peace with the realization that the universe’s truth IS in its lie, it’s like s/he calls up Watanabe through some unobtrusive communication device, and asks to share these worthless secrets with mankind in disguise.

Watanabe, being the unrestrained beast of insanity that he is, puts it first in an anime where space cowboys merrily bounty-hunt through the chaos of creation, sets it in the future of what lesser humans falsely perceive as Time, and sets the score of a 22nd century tale to old-school jazz.

Then, being the unrestrained beast of insanity that he is, he does it again, not satisfied with only one once-in-a-century masterwork, prepping up another anime offering in the next five years, this time plotting the invisible outline of that scattered wisdom set in the Edo period of Medieval Japan, punctuated and enlivened by a score of modern rap, R-n-B and stir-fry hip-hop.

Most surprising of all, though, is that it works. Spectacularly, soul-shatteringly well.

Now, I do not presume to really understand what both Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo are about. I have made my peace with the fact that every time (once every year, no less, no more) I watch and re-experience these fictional universes, the less I will know about them. Their existential bullet-points redact slowly with time, or so I thought, disappearing into the dusky night of my subconscious like an untamed monster baring its fangs in front of me for the last time.

And then, out of nowhere, you miss the son of a bitch monster.

The cycle of rediscovery begins again, this time informed by your perception of what the respective shows stand for in your head, ready to be twisted into unrecognizable shards of what sane fanboys and girls call psychological implications. Bebop and Champloo stretch beyond that horizon of self-important and vain critical analysis, resting on the impressionistic gaze of its piercing meaningfulness into your soul rather than your flawed mental faculties.

It sets Watanabe’s work apart from lesser anime: anime which focuses on wonderfully brilliant plot twists, bizarre settings and profoundly imaginative characters. I’m often asked by my blinded-by-live-action popular culture compatriots why anime holds such a special and objectively superior place in my mind. The reason is simple: it makes me feel like less of a freak for having dreams where I am consumed by my own being. There is, quite literally, no limit to what you can conjure up to tell your story in an anime, combining sights and sounds to put forth the nakedness of the dark human will, spirituality or plain voyeuristic fun awesome enough to give the viewer a time of his life and then have him die a la Infinite Jest due to overexposure to pure magic.

You can say the same with regular 3D animation and live-action now that visual effects evolve exponentially faster than our human sensibilities. Technically speaking, you can very well show anything you want in a film or TV show in live-action without compromising on your vision (Tim Burton’s gorgeous rendition of Alice in Wonderland comes to mind). But there is something in the texture and canvas of a frame of anime that makes me imagine in a new color. It’s painting and poetry in motion with the depraved creative impulses of a maniac who happens to be the sweetest, most emphatic person that you’ll never personally meet during this lifetime.

Paradoxically enough, the restriction of anime to two-dimensional artistry is what raises it beyond the trappings of time and context. I really believe every person who has watched the best of anime, including front and center, of course, Miyazaki’s films, has experienced that particular work independent of everything and everyone else in his or her surroundings. No two people in the millions of fans worldwide could ever agree on what Bebop is actually about.

When I pass away, if there is a heaven, I would like visit there once, call in favors from the obscure, alcoholic God there, set up a kickass home theater system all to myself, and binge on Shinichiro Watanabe’s works for my soul’s redemption.

And this beautifully crazy hope is this only thing that fuels every decision I make in life from here on out.

Day #76, April 15th, 2016.

Still from How to Train Your Dragon (2010).

Dreamworks’ HTTYD stormed theaters and changed everyone’s perception of dragons. No longer (just) the fiery monsters who need to be slayed for victory, dragons could now be considered upsized versions of adorable cats. 

A coming-of-age film, an action-adventure, a buddy comedy, and an instant animation classic: all this rolled into a joint of dazzling colors in the landscape, a background for all the thrill to unfold.

Day #75, April 14th, 2016.

Quote from Shaun of The Dead (2004).

The first film in Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy, Shaun of The Dead is the finest horror comedy I’ve seen. Not that it would have turned out any other way, considering Wright’s penchant for endlessly zany visual inventiveness, and his unnaturally effortless extraction of the exact amount of crazy, goofy, lovable and offensive from any characters played by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

There is nothing to dislike here: the soundtrack keeps up with the film’s breathless narration, the quick-zooms and dry British humor all render a fantastic vision of a film funny to its very bones. Love.