Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Death of Stalin (2017)

Director: Armando Ianucci
Writers: Armando Ianucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellows
DOP: Zac Nicholson
Cast: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambour, Michael Palin, Paddy Considine

Follows the Soviet dictator's last days and depicts the chaos of the regime after his death.

I had recently watched the BBC series on Cold War and thus was familiar with most of the names and their fates in this film. Not having any idea will also work because you won't know who will come on top at the end. Beria (Beale), the torture minister/NKVD head, was the one to take all the initiatives immediately after Stalin's death. He cuts off Moscow from rest of Russia and hand it to NKVD instead of the red army. The politburo is still coping with Stalin's absence and Khrushchev (Buscemi) starts to exert pressure gradually on the acting successor, Malenkov (Tambor), by influencing the likes of Molotov (Palin). The chief of the red army, Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), also makes a grand entry with his zillion medals in the second half of the film.

The first half of the film works pretty much like an absurd comedy but many of the things that is shown actually happened. The guards manning Stalin's bedroom don't check up on him after hearing him collapse because there is a Stalin diktat refraining anyone from disturbing him while sleeping. Central committee has to discuss before calling up on a doctor, a hard task considering that the good ones have been already sent to the Gulags. A respirator from USA was available but wasn't used because of fear of how will Stalin respond if he recovers. The events shown in the film are compressed to happen over by the time of Stalin's funeral when in real life it happened over a period of one year. The second half of the film is much more darker, culminating with Khrushchev becoming more like the Buscemi we know.

It is a great watch overall and one of the best from last year. The film is an adaptation of a French graphic novel. Political incompetence is familiar area for Ianucci. Thankfully, he doesn't use fake Russian accents in the film and each of the actors uses their own English accent, which makes sense as Soviet Union was pretty big in size. Some of the outdoor scenes have a cheap feel because of budgetary constraints but it kind of works because that is how it is in those shitty History Channel documentaries. The film has been banned in Russia.

PS: Modi ministers will relate a lot to it if they watch this film.

Rating: 4.75/5

Monday, February 19, 2018

Call Me By Your Name (2017)

Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writers: James Ivory, André Aciman
DOP: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Arnie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg
Language: English, Italian

In Northern Italy in 1983, seventeen year-old Elio begins a relationship with visiting Oliver, his father's research assistant, with whom he bonds over his emerging sexuality, their Jewish heritage and the beguiling Italian landscape.

Film reminded me of Eric Rohmer films that are set in countryside with characters lazing about during summer. It is billed as the third one in Luca Guadagnino's thematic 'Desire' Trilogy with 'I'm Love' and 'A Bigger Splash' being the other two. I've only seen the latter and stylistically both films couldn't be more apart. A Bigger Splash was shot in a very pulpy manner with some curious but great camera moves and zooms. Pace wise, it was leisurely at the beginning and quite frenzied towards the end. Call me by your name has a lazy vibe throughout keeping in with its summer settings and is purely European in its approach. It leaves you with the feeling that you get after reading a great novel. That is quite an achievement since it is an adaptation of André Aciman's novel with the same name.

Film can be described as a coming of age story and is basically 'Moonlight', but in a very supportive environment. Central performance from Timothée Chalamet is out of this world as things are conveyed more through looks and mannerisms rather than dialogue. At no point you are confused about what is going on. Only minor gripe I've with the film is the flawless English that he is speaking but he is anyway portrayed as quite an expert in almost everything he is doing. Luca Guadagnino's next project is supposed to be a remake of Dario Argento's 'Suspiria' which reunites him with the cast from 'A Bigger Splash'.

Rating: 4.25/5

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Black Panther (2018)

Director: Ryan Coogler
Writers: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole
DOP: Rachel Morrison
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o

T'challa, after the death of his father, the king of Wakanda, returns home to the isolated, technologically advanced African nation to succeed to the throne and take his rightful place as king.

Wakanda is a resource rich nation with abundant supply of a metal called Vibranium and they have chosen to keep this a secret from the outside world by adopting the veneer of being a poor farming nation. While the condition of rest of Africa and African Americans all over the world is poor, they see no reason to come to their aid out of fear of exposing their secret. One of their own (Michael B. Jordan), unknown to them, has a radical plan to overthrow the king and arm the oppressed against the ruling classes all over the world. So it is basically kind of like the Dark Knight films.

Like almost all superhero films, the premise is pretty fucking stupid. But the ones that work are usually films which doesn't take itself too seriously. That is not the case with Black Panther. I had seen Thor: Ragnarok recently and I don't remember the Norse characters in it putting on a fake Nordic accent. In Black Panther, even though most of the business takes place in Wakanda, the characters have a fake English accent, which is supposed to be African,  that takes you right out of the film. It is especially bad because many of the dialogues in it are blatant expositions and it was like watching a poorly dubbed film. Expected much more from Ryan Coogler, whose debut feature 'Fruitvale Station' was an excellent watch.

PS: Martin Freeman plays the token white guy among the 'good' side.

Rating: 2.25/5

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Director: Martin McDonagh
Writer: Martin McDonagh
DOP: Ben Davis
Cast: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Peter Dinklage

A mother (Frances McDormand) personally challenges the local authorities to solve her daughter's murder by putting up three billboards questioning them when they fail to catch the culprit. Her logic is that it would keep the case in people's mind and she calls out the local police chief (Woody Harrelson) in one of them billboards.

When a girl is brutally raped and murdered, you would expect her mother to receive wider support from the community when she is persistent even almost a year after the event. But the reaction she gets for the billboards is mixed as there is some extenuating circumstance around the Police Chief. We learn over the course of the film that she is doing her actions out of both grief and guilt and these actions become more and more questionable as the film progresses. The film is set in rural Missouri and the characters in it don't have much of a filter when they talk, which is perfect for a Martin McDonagh film as they tend to quite sweary anyway. It is centered around three characters- the mother, the Police Chief and a racist Mamma's boy police officer played by Sam Rockwell. What is so refreshing about films from McDonaghs, both the brothers, is that they are very unpredictable and this one is no different. As soon as we start to think that the film is going this way, it takes an unexpected turn- be it plot-wise or character-wise.

The other two Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) films can also be described as tragicomedies with the degree of tragic part varying and timing of it tending to be towards the latter part of the film.In contrast, three billboards have a tragic thread running throughout even though the trailer suggests it as an out and out comedy with Frances McDormand playing the female version of Harry (Ralph Fiennes) from In Bruges. It works really well with the great actors delivering great lines from the script and several scenes suddenly turning from tragedy to comedy and vice-versa. One could say that it deals with similar themes like anger, guilt, damnation, midgets and justice that is there in other two films of his as well. It is a favorite for getting the Best Picture award at the Oscars. It is almost a certainty that Frances McDormand will win her second best actress award (first one of course for Fargo) at the Oscars. Both Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell have been nominated in the supporting actor category as well.

There have been some recent controversy about the redemptive nature of Sam Rockwell's racist police officer's character arc and it is a load of bullshit. Almost all the characters in it are dealt in grey and fucking deal with it. After the most recent US mass shooting in a school at Florida, was it, three billboards style protest was done outside Marco Rubio's office. One minor quibble one might have with the film is the arbitrary nature of introduction and convenience of a character who is there only in two scenes. The ambiguous ending that the film goes for makes it alright though in my eyes. The film has done extremely well at the box office grossing around $100 million on its $12 million budget and is certainly one of the best film from last year.

Rating: 4.75/5

Saturday, February 10, 2018

റോസാപ്പൂ (Rosapoo) (2018)

Director: Vinu Joseph
Writers: Vinu Joseph, Santhosh Echikkanam
DOP: Jebin Jacob
Cast: Biju Menon, Neeraj Madhav, Anjali, Dileesh Pothen, Soubin Shahir
Language: Malayalam

Shajahan (Biju Menon) is a failed entrepreneur from Fort Kochi and he gets the idea of producing a soft porn film from an MBA friend of his (Basil Joseph). He sources money from a few people and takes off to Madras with his amateur director friend to get the film made. Film is about the struggles that they face while making the film in what the director intends to be told in a comedic manner.

I had recently read an article, probably a Facebook post, which contrasts the treatment of village prostitutes by Mohanlal's characters in Spadikam and Naran. Kerala society is getting more and more conservative these days and this is reflected in these two films which came a decade apart. In Spadikam, Aadu Thoma sleeps with Silk Smitha's character and is not ashamed to flaunt this relationship of his, especially when it serves the purpose of riling up his father. In Naran, Mullankolli Velayudhan acts as the moral police of his village by sleeping outside the home of Sona Nair's character and thus stopping her from doing business and negatively 'affect' families.

Rosapoo ends up in the 'Naran' camp as it goes all preachy towards the end. Even during the course of the film there are large tonal inconsistencies throughout when it comes to Neeraj Madhav's character. He worships Bharathan and Padmarajan and is reluctant about directing the soft-core film. He makes changes in script to make it more politically correct at the same time falling in love with the actress. She is at first flirting with him but as soon as he expresses his love, she is heart-broken to see that he is also seeing her as an object. Tone of the film is all over the place. Characters in it are very exaggerated and it doesn't work always. The first act of the film in Fort Kochi (Drones, drones and more drones) is plain boring and things do pick up in Chennai only to fall off a cliff little bit later. You get the stereotyped Muslim characters and their practices. The age difference between marrying couple among Muslims was shown in a very mature manner recently in 'Parava' and in this film you get a totally fucked up version of it just done for comedic effect. The film within the film derails while they are making it and I guess the same thing happened tothe film as well without anything meta about it.

Rating: 1.5/5  

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Florida Project (2017)

Director: Sean Baker
Writers: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
DOP: Alexis Sabe
Cast: Brooklyn Prince, Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite

Set over one summer, the film follows precocious six-year-old Moonee as she courts mischief and adventure with her ragtag playmates and bonds with her rebellious but caring mother, all while living in the shadows of Walt Disney World.

Films with kids as protagonists are very hard to get right. It is a delicate balance between coming across as too cute or too brat like. My favourite Malayalam kids film is 'Manu Uncle' and it works because the balance is right and the grown up characters in it behaves around kids in a realistic manner, except for a few cartoonish characters. It is a film which works really well for grownups as well.

Florida Project is another film which deals with poverty in USA and can also be classed into post-Subprime crisis genre. Many have lost their homes and are staying in motels on an extended basis with whole families staying in single rooms. Willem Dafoe plays the kind manager of one such motel and it was quite strange to see him play a normal sort of character. Moonee stays with her mum, a white thrash character struggling to make ends meet, in his motel. Her financial situation deteriorates over the course of the summer and this is not portrayed in a melodramatic manner but rather in a matter of fact manner with plenty of humour. What happens at the end is what you're willing to happen as it is the best for all concerned but it still left me quite teary eyed.

Sean Baker got his break with 'Tangerine' which was shot entirely using an i-phone. I only managed to sit through 5 minutes of it. He has got a mixture of experienced and non-experienced actors for this film and quite a bit of street-casting. Juxtaposition of American poverty against the Disney world is something that the director is going for. It took me some time to realise the proximity of Disney World in the film but I guess it was obvious with the funny looking shops and constant takeoffs and landings of helicopters. Kids in the film are just great but their energy levels throughout the film are a tad high. Brooklyn Prince just steals the show. Bria Vinaite, who was cast based on her Instagram profile, is also great as the thoroughly unlikeable single mother.

PS: You can also see the phenomenon of motel owning Patels in the film.

Rating: 4.25/5

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Square (2017)

Director: Ruben Östlund
Writer: Ruben Östlund
DOP: Fredrik Wenzel
Cast: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West
Language: Swedish, English

A prestigious Stockholm museum's chief art curator finds himself in times of both professional and personal crisis as he attempts to set up a non-controversial new exhibit.

What all things that you can think of to be in the European news cycle over the past few years, all of them are in here; the refugee crisis, political correctness gone mad, debate around freedom of speech and expression, #MeToo, so-called Islamophobia, social contract etc. All of this is expressed by different sequences which put either the protagonist or other characters in it in not so normal kind of situations where things are quite unpredictable. Normal reaction of the viewer will be what you will do if you are in such a situation. Östlund goes for the squirmy kind of humor that he is known for and you are just glad that you have not faced these situations in real life, yet. A significant numbers of us are the kind who would feel uncomfortable about asking for extra pappadams during wedding sadhyas and won't know how to react if you are in the process of being pick-pocketed.

His other films like Play and Involuntary were both with parallel kind of sequences and explored similar kind of themes but with a more singular focus. Play was about the timidness of Swedish/Western European societies, especially from the liberal left, while discussing the topic of immigration by putting a situation of a group of black boys bullying a group of white boys. Involuntary was about group behavior and conformity. The Square, which premiered at Cannes and won the Palme d'Or, has a single protagonist whole way through but overall has a collection of sketches feel to it. Don't know whether it started off as a multiple story-line feature but was later condensed to this current form. Sequences do work spectacularly well but the seemingly scatter-gun sort of approach to the topics that it touches make you feel that overall it is less than sum of its parts. Conclusion if to be drawn at all out of the film would be that there is no correct way to respond to these topics. Perfect example for it would be the press conference sequence where you are damned either way. It reminded me of the predicament faced by the makers of the film Padmavati.

Film is stunning visually and the unusual soundtrack also works very well. The poster that I saw initially of the film made me think it was a period piece but was pleasantly surprised to see that it was very much contemporary. If I were to rank his films, the order would be:

  1. Force Majuere
  2. Play
  3. The Square
  4. Involuntary

 Rating: 4.25/5