Thursday, February 26, 2015

Relatos salvajes (Wild Tales) (2014)


Director: Damian Szifron
Writer:    Damian Szifron
Cast:       Dario Grandinetti, Maria Marull, Monica Villa, Ricardo Darin
Language: Spanish


It is an Argentine-Spanish anthology film, composed of six standalone shorts united by a common theme of violence and vengeance. Film was co-produced by Pedro Amodovar and Augustin Almodavar.

The stories get better and better one by one with all of them are hilarious. The first one has the surprise element since we don't know what the film is about and is kind of a thought exercise. The second one also retains the surprise since we think it is some sort of back-story to first one only to realize that it is an anthology. Second one is the weakest of all the stories. First two are about revenge for past deeds while the next two are about reaction to things that happen presently when people just lose their shit when things happen to their automobiles. Fourth and fifth are the most we in the developing world can relate to since it involves corruption with the latter being about a hit-run case by a rich guy. The last one is about a wedding between two people from rich families and it is something that makes George R. R. Martin's 'Red Wedding' appear mild. I don't know whether it was significantly longer than the others but it had so many twists and turns that I felt it could have been a feature length film by itself thus ending the whole affair on a very high note. It also reminded me of Vinterberg's 'Festen'. 

It was included in the official selection at the Cannes where it received a ten minute standing ovation after the screening. It was also nominated at the Oscars in the Best Foreign Picture film category, thus becoming the seventh Argentine film to be nominated thus far with the last three involving the excellent Ricardo Darin. I guess this is the best Argentine film I have seen so far but is a selection from a small sample with other two alos being Ricardo Darin films-Secret in their Eyes and Nine Queens.

Rating: 5/5
                                                                    

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Hross í oss (Of Horses and Men) (2013)


Director: Benedikt Erlingsson
Writer:    Benedikt Erlingsson
Cast:       Ingvar Eggert Siggurdson, Charlotte Boving
Language: Icelandic


It is a collection of interlocking stories about a group of rural Icelanders' relationships with their horses and each other. Its tone can be described as a black comedy about sex, death and fate set in exquisite locales. 

We see horses in many films but don't see many aspects involved in actually owning a horse that are not very glamorous. It is like how Pulp Fiction elevated people going to toilet as a major plot point when in most films it is something from daily life that is actually ignored. Tone of the film is set when a proud villager is taking a mare out to tame it under the watchful and voyeuristic eyes of his fellow villagers, only for it to get mounted by a wild stallion while he is sat on it. Embarrassed, he proceeds to shoot and kill the mare. Other stories involve people meeting their deaths on horses, how they go out to capture wild horses and one involving a man who kills his horse and empty its entrails to go inside of it to escape from cold. In some of these stories the horses acts as mere observers for the actions of the humans involved with them.

Overall it is a strange film but a very good watch. The soundtrack sounded a bit like Arabic music and I don't know whether the director is intending for us to be reminded of camels who are a big part in Arabic lifestyle. Since I didn't get any amazon links for the film, am just leaving a link for the Icelandic band Sigur Ros' music.

Rating: 3.5/5
                                                                

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Saving Private Ryan (1998)


Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer:    Robert Rodat
Cast:       Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Matt Damon


Following the Normandy landings, a group of U.S. soldiers go behind enemy lines to retrieve a paratrooper whose brothers have been killed in action.

I had seen the beginning of this film some years back. The headache inducing portrayal of Normandy landings in it is known for its realism and was shot with a budget of $12 million. Problem with the film is that after those initial 27 minutes, it just peters out. With Spielberg at helm, you expect only a feel good story despite it being set in a terrible situation. He did the same with Schindler's List but it being based on a true story kind of bails him out. 'Shaving Ryan's Privates' is a rather fictional story  inspired by a situation in WW2 where a family's eight siblings died in the war. 

I didn't expect to like this film since am not a fan of Spielberg and his shitty manipulative films which are high on production value but low on subtlety. After the half an hour bloodbath at the beginning of the film, Tom Hanks playing Tom Hanks gets orders to rescue Mr. Ryan because of the situation of his brothers being already dead. With some men under him they go to find Ryan based on hunches with some in the group questioning the logic behind the whole exercise. Along the way you get manipulative situations for the director to exhibit his 'Skills' involving a soldier who wants to rescue a child, another one who is protecting a POW, a sort of mutiny etc, all of which you have to watch cringing the whole way through only to finally find Ryan (Matt Damon) who doesn't want to go home before completing his mission of destroying a strategically located bridge. Bingo, we got a final set-piece of lengthy action sequence to give us some symmetry to the whole thing. 

Terence Malick's 'The Thin Red Line' also came out in 1998 and is the exact opposite of Saving Private Ryan. The latter dumbed down version of a war film was the box office hit predictably with the former standing the test of time. Nowadays most people recognize that Saving Private Ryan hoodwinked people into believing that it was good film based on the 'Call of Duty' opening. Still many people go on about how 'Shakespeare In Love' won the Best Picture Oscar over Saving Private Ryan but they should be complaining that Malick's effort didn't win. It is like people complaining about Forrest Gump winning over Shawshank Redemption when in reality Pulp Fiction was the best of the nominated lot.

Rating: 2.5/5
                                                                       

Friday, February 20, 2015

Foxcatcher (2014)


Director: Bennett Miller
Writers:  E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman
Cast:       Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo


The greatest Olympic Wrestling Champion brother team joins Team Foxcatcher led by multimillionaire sponsor John E. du Pont as they train for the 1988 games in Seoul- a union that leads to unlikely circumstances.

Well, fuck me that was an intense watch! There is practically not a single bright moment in the film and it is grave from start to finish. The only laughs you will get is if you find some dark comedy in the antics of Mr. John du Pont who has the pretension of being a coach and mentor to the wrestling athletes he is taking care of by providing infrastructure and money. I did find some of it funny because I was reminded of the Oligarch asshole, Roman Abramovich, who owns Chelsea football club and treat it as his dildo. I am not really in a position to say whether Mr. Abramovich fancied himself as a coach but there were some rumors of him getting involved in the dressing room and imposing expensive players he bought on to the coaching staff. Sorry for digressing. 

An almost unrecognizable Steve Carell plays the role of millionaire benefactor and Ruffalo and Tatum plays the older brother and younger brother respectively. There is some sibling rivalry going on between the brothers with the older one being a family man involved with coaching now after retiring and the younger one being a loner with short temper. This kind of leads to Mark (Tatum) joining the millionaire's facility first and he is the only medal prospect in the Team Foxcatcher. He develops a relationship with the millionaire which gradually erodes leading to David (Ruffalo) also joining the facility. During all this, we are shown why the benefactor is behaving in this manner and it is because of his uneasy relationship with horse race loving mother who owns a stable. She finds Wrestling to be a low sport and the upbringing that she gave to her kid might have very well created all kinds of insecurities in him. I kind of knew someone was going kill someone in this film based on whatever tidbits that I have read about it but didn't know who was going to do it. The ending kind of came as a surprise to me. The great thing about the film is that you really don't find the action to be out of character which is a testament to how well the characters and their motivations been established over greater than two hours running time. 

Overall it is a great watch despite it being very depressing. I have seen all three feature films done by the director Miller with other two being Capote and Moneyball. This one is much more closer to Capote than Moneyball and similarity with the latter is limited to the sporting background of its characters. Miller won the best director award for it at the Cannes. *Spoiler Alert*. Credit to America that the status of being from the wealthy Du Pont family doesn't absolve you from a grave crime that you commit. John du Pont died in 2010 while serving time for the murder. I really wonder what would happen if it happened in India. Something similar happened in Kerala recently for which the investigation is going on but I am not really hopeful about justice being served. Kerala Story

Rating: 4/5
                                                                       

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Inherent Vice (2014)


Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writers:  Paul Thomas Anderson, Thomas Pynchon (Novel)
Cast:       Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston


In 1970, drug-fueled Los Angeles private detective Larry 'Doc' Sportello investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend. 

The trailer for Inherent Vice, which Paul Thomas Anderson himself cut, gave the impression that it will be a very similar to Coens' 'Big Lebowski' in its tone. The last two films of the director was quite different when compared with his works pre-There Will Be Blood and the trailer made it look like that it will be more like his earlier works. Nice work Anderson, because you would've fooled everyone who went by trailer. Luckily for me, I was aware of trailer being misleading and didn't negatively affect my viewing of the film. That said there is some similarity with 'Big Lebowski' in the sense is that both of them is about a slacker kind of character who is caught up in an investigation and for both the films the plot is not that important. The latter could be one reason for people not to like 'Big Lebowski' when they watch it first time round because many do have a habit of getting hung up on plot even when the film is not really about that. Anderson takes it one step further by making it almost impossible to make any sense of it. I really don't have any clue about major portions of the film as he introduces newer and newer characters with vague connections to the central investigation and by the end of it you are just dazed and confused. I guess Anderson manages to convey how a stoner is feeling about things but I need some of my stoner friends to confirm the same for me. 

Another film that is all about giving the stoner vibe for the audience is Terry Gilliam's 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas'. Inherent Vice takes a very different approach to it but Benicio Del Toro is common in both films playing the role of lawyer friend to the protagonist. The other main character in  the film is Doc's nemesis cop 'Big Foot' (Josh Brolin) who has a propensity to suck some inappropriate looking things (chocobars, black banana etc, you get the idea) throughout the film. Both Phoenix and Brolin are super great in the film playing very different characters to their normal fare. The way Joaquin Phoenix goes about in public, a common criticism that he gets when it comes to his films like 'The Master' and 'The Immigrant' is that he is just playing his usual self. This film will shut up those people since you don't see Phoenix at all in the role. Robert Downey Jr. was initially associated with the project but I am glad it finally went to Phoenix since the same criticism would have come with the former. Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood is again involved with the soundtrack which starts on the best footing with Can's 'Vitamin C' used during the opening credits. 

Overall it is a great watch and don't ask me anything about the plot. Like the last two Anderson films, this one also require multiple viewing but I am not sure whether my liking for it will depreciate, appreciate or stay the same with it. Forgot to mention that it is an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's, what was regarded as an un-filmable, novel with the same name. The title Inherent Vice, as explained somewhere in the film, is a terminology used in marine insurance to refer to substances that deteriorate because of the fundamental instability of the components as opposed to external forces.

Rating: 4.5/5
                                                                  

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

I am Offended! (2015)


Director: Jaideep Varma
Features: Vir Das, Raju Srivastav, Johnny Lever, AIB guys


The documentary was released last week on the back of controversy around AIB Roast. They made use of the issue and the title to make the maximum out of the timing of the release to make it seem out to be more on that particular issue. It works more like a film that charts the evolution of stand-up comedy in India, relatively a recent phenomenon. India's audience is unique when compared to their Western counterparts in the sense that there is a higher probability of them taking offense rather than the comedians being heckled on stage. It is a place with pretty low sense of humor and I don't mean people don't laugh but that the standard of humor required to generate laughter is pretty low.

Film can be described as 75% on the history and the current scenario of stand-up comedy in India and the rest 25% on the troubles that they face when some assholes get offended by it. I would have preferred a little bit more of the latter because it is something that I really feel strong about. I am not really a stand-up comedy aficionado and tend to listen to only those guys who confirm my own worldview like Bill Hicks, George Carlin and Bill Maher. Anti-establishment liberal voices are not very prominent in the Indian scene. From the guys featured in this documentary, I guess Varun Grover's seems to have the kind of material that I will enjoy. India is severely lacking in Satirical and fearless take on current affairs in the mould of 'Real Time with Bill Maher' or 'Last Week Tonight' and I hope something worthwhile comes soon enough because the corporate owned mainstream media does not look capable of being the anti-establishment voice. 

                                    

In the documentary the comedians give their twopence on their own trade and it is done in an interesting way so that you get different take on same things. There will be someone contradicting what someone else said immediately before and you get a sense that like genres in film, stand-up comedy also gives same kind of variety in its offerings. I prefer people who take a critical look at current affairs and ideological issues to the ones who have got a permanent sketch like routines and jokes based on stereotypes (Russell Peters-lite). I do think the documentary was kind rushed and looks a bit uneven in its tone maybe because they wanted to make use of the AIB thing.

I guess I will also my take on AIB Roast controversy for what it is worth. The roast itself was not very funny and since I consider Bollywood to be the lowest form of entertainment in India and the people involved with it the ultimate lowlifes, it is not a surprise that I didn't enjoy their circle-jerk. It is not that hard to make fun of couple of guys who are very low in the Bollywood food chain. My dismissal of the show's quality is not a hindrance for supporting them when the controversy occurred because it is a matter of freedom of speech and it is a big issue in India. They have went on to make an apology to a fucking priest of all people and that kind of restored my low respect for these people and their material. This documentary is funnier than their AIB Roast thing and is a recommended watch. I enjoyed that particular instance where a pilot in the audience clarifies that they don't actually engage in in-flight sex, and that kind of sums up our sense of humor. 

Rating: 3.5/5
                                                                          

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Listen Up Philip (2014)


Director: Alex Ross Perry
Writer:    Alex Ross Perry
Cast:       Jason Scwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce


Anger rages in Philip as he awaits the publication of his second novel. He feels pushed out of his adopted home city of New-York by the constant crowds and noise, a deteriorating relationship with his photographer girlfriend Ashley, and his own indifference to promoting the novel. When Philip's idol Ike Zimmerman, whom is very much like him but older, offers his isolated summer home as a refuge, he finally gets the peace and quiet to focus on his favorite subject: himself.

The main two characters in it, Philip and Ike are unabashedly self-absorbed and narcissistic to the point that most people will find them intolerable like the other characters in the film seems to. I guess the level of enjoyment that you will get out of watching this film would depend on how much you relate to these characters. They are people who don't want any baggage that come with investing one's time on human relationships of any sort. The way they do that could appear to be very self-defeating but the point is that they seem to need it for their own ego and some sense of artistic integrity that they want to maintain. Plenty of the film is also driven by narration that would evoke a feel of Wes Anderson films but got to say whether the explanation given by the narrator about how Philip is feeling is actually correct  at all. The timeline jumps that it takes can be a bit disorienting but shouldn't be a problem for people who are watching these kind of films. There is a little bit of exaggeration in how Philip is behaving and you doubt whether anyone could be this level of deliberate twattishness. That said I have found that people will tolerate you more if you are honest about your own narcissism and selfishness since there is a feeling of nobility in embracing those things rather than doing it slyly. 

I was also reminded of Noah Baumbach's films when watching this and the color palette coupled with the New-York setting reminded me of 'The Squid and the Whale'. Overall it is a great watch but might not be suitable to everyone's taste. I haven't seen any other films from the director and his debut feature is an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's 'Gravity's Rainbow', which is supposed to be a very difficult to read masterpiece. Jason Scwartzman is someone had who made his debut with 'Rushmore' having no prior acting experience and this role might be his best since that.

Rating: 4.5/5
                                                               

Monday, February 16, 2015

Company (2002)


Director: Ram Gopal Varma
Writer:    Jaideep Sahni
Cast:       Ajay Devgan, Vivek Oberoir, Mohanlal, Manish Koirala
Language: Hindi


A slumdog named Chandu (Vivek Oberoi) teams up with Malik (Ajay Devgan), a middle-level enforcer for a criminal syndicate. Together they eliminate all their enemies, becoming the most feared gangsters in Mumbai, known as Company, before insecurity, anger and misunderstandings turn them against each other. Amidst all this, the South Indian  police commissioner Sreenivasan (Mohanlal) looms in the background scheming their downfall.

It is certainly the definitive gangster picture of Indian film industry aided no less by the fact that it is more or less inspired from what happened in Mumbai underworld. The director Ram Gopal Varma was at his peak and was able to fully utilize the stellar cast at his disposal. Acting is tremendously restrained and it is shot in what can be called stylistic minimalism. The soundtrack is also kick-ass and the narration when it comes gives us a sense of foreboding. Unlike Satya, RGV is not apologetic about making us root for two characters who are law-breakers and on top of that he gives us a very likable Police Commissioner who is out to get them. Another great thing about it is that it is not through the efforts of the Police that things go tits up for Company, but through very understandable sequence of events that can afflict any organization when undergoing change. Things begin to unravel when Malik starts concentrating more on his international businesses leaving Chandu to take care of Mumbai underworld. Insecurity about giving too much power to Chandu causes problems at ground level leading to misunderstandings. To compound all this Chandu doesn't become as ruthless as he should be to reflect the position that he occupies in the crime syndicate leading to conflicts with Malik. Sreenivasan makes use of the situation to bring Chandu to the other side of the law.

Vivek Oberoi makes a very assured debut with this film and Ajay Devgan, whom I consider to be a very limited actor, is also in surprisingly good form delivering some dry philosophical lines. It could have really went wrong but both of them are able to pull it off. Mohanlal made his Hindi film debut with Company and the fact that his character is a Malayalee in it helps him to use his own voice for the role. I don't know whether they shot the film sequentially but his fluency in Hindi also seemed to improve as it went on. Rest of the cast are also very good and the sparingly used songs help in ,moving the story. 

The relation of Malik and Chandu is supposed to be loosely based on the Mumbai underworld kingpins Dawood Ibrahim and Chotta Rajan respectively. The Pandit character in the film is also based on Dawood's confidant Sharad Shetty. Ironically Shetty was killed on Rajan's orders shortly after the release of the film in a case of life imitating art. Don't know whether any misunderstanding was involved mind. RGV later produced D, which is a prequel to events in Company, thus completing his Mumbai gangster trilogy which also includes Satya. 

To sum it up it is a near perfect film which could have had its running time cut down by a slight bit. To be fair the two and half hours running time is quite conservative for Indian films. I had seen it for the first time some ten years back and didn't expect it to be remain this good on a rewatch. RGV probably won't do a better film than this and the same can be said of Vivek Oberoi I guess. Got to say it is also miles better than Anurag Kashyap's bloated magnum opus 'Gangs of Wasseypur' which got good reception at Cannes where it was screened as part of Director's fortnight. 

Rating: 4.5/5
                                                                

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Satya (1998)


Director: Ram Gopal Varma
Writers:  Anurag Kashyap, Saurabh Shukla, Ram Gopal Varma
Cast:       J.D. Chakravarthi, Manoj Bajpayee, Paresh Rawal, Urmila Mantodkar, Saurabh Shukla
Language: Hindi


Film follows the activities of Satya (Chakravarti), a man whose background is not entirely given, who comes to Bombay in search of a job and circumstances lead him on to become the right-hand man of a middle level gangster called Bhiku (Manoj Bajpayee). Bhiku is the hot-tempered one and following Satya's advises he moves up the food-chain that is Mumbai underworld. This brings them under the scanner of Police as well as their new rivals in the mafia world. In between all this he falls in love with his neighbor (Urmila) whilst keeping the nature of his profession a secret from her.

I am a big fan of RGV's 'Company' and many have told me that his previous underworld film 'Satya' is a superior and grittier film. With Anurag Kashyap involved with its screenplay, making his film debut, it promised much. Got to say that overall it is a good film but 'Company' is far better, at least based on my memory of watching it some ten years back. Satya portrays a far more lower level of underworld in Bombay and in that sense it is grittier. The cinematography was done by a foreigner called Gerard Hooper who seems to have not done much work besides this. The way Bombay is captured is in a magnificently bleak and realistic manner and Danny Boyle had cited RGV's 'Satya' and 'Company' along with Anurag Kashyap's 'Black Friday' as influences for how he filmed his Oscar winning shite bag 'Slumdog Millionaire'. What is great about Satya is its supporting cast and where it is let down by a huge deal is the acting of its main protagonist, played by J.D. Chakravarthi. That and RGV's propensity to adhere to Bollywood conventions in the form of some unnecessary songs and overbearing & manipulative soundtrack. It is certainly very different compared to the normal Bollywood fare but the fact that it kind of stands in the middle doesn't do it any favors when not put in a historical context. It has been bettered by the likes of Anurag Kashyap himslef leaving Satya looking a bit aged in terms of its storytelling. The last one hour of the film is quite good after the arrival of Paresh Rawal in the role of a tough Police Commissioner. 

My main problem with Chakravarti in this film is with his dilaog delivery. It might be a case of his character being someone from South India, the polished sounding delivery (at least to me) didn't sit well with me. It didn't really reflect the nature of the character and this can be contrasted with how Mohanlal handled the situation in 'Company'. Since he portrayed a South Indian character he used his own voice giving legitimacy to his  very average Hindi fluency and vocabulary in that film. Company's average and cliched story-line is masked a great deal by its overall production quality as well the main cast who were all good, even Ajay Devgan. The moralising tone of Satya's ending was much more jarring when compared to its slow buildup in Company. It was not as if RGV was a small fry in Bollywood since he had already got his big breakthrough with 'Rangeela' and so he could have been a bit bolder.

Overall it is a good watch without being anything more than that. I feel like watching Company again. Got to say that the much maligned figure of Priyadarshan, who is notorious in the Hindi speaking world for his shitty Hindi remakes of Malayalam films, had made superior Bombay underworld films involving Mohanlal much before the likes of RGV began to ply their trade in Hindi film industry. He might not have conveyed the same authenticity but he made up for it with superior storytelling. 

Rating: 3/5 
                                                                      

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Double (2013)


Director: Richard Ayoade
Writers:  Richard Ayoade, Fyodor Dostoevsky (Novel), Avi Korine
Cast:       Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn


A clerk in a government agency finds his unenviable life takes a turn for the horrific with the arrival of a new co-worker who is both his exact physical copy and his opposite- confident, charismatic and seductive with women.

It is kind of strange in the sense that it is a modern retelling of Dostoevsky's novel of the same name but by modern we don't mean contemporary. It is set in an Orwellian place ruled by a dictator who is referred to as Colonel. But the oppression there is the normal dictator variety instead of going to the extremes of 1984. The film is not really about this aspect of the setting since it could very well have been set in a modern capitalistic society where the daily grind takes its toll on the protagonist. We generally find happiness when we are comfortable in our own skins but the clerk in the story is anything but. So enters an exact replica of his physical self who is exact opposite of how he generally behaves. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what is going on. To be fair the director is not trying to make this a twist as it seems only the protagonist is not aware of what is going on inside his mind. The trouble is that we have got a better version of this story in David Fincher's 'Fight Club' which most of us would have watched. While Fincher's was much more of a rant against the capitalistic system, this one is more of a character study. 

Overall it is a good watch. It is not as darkly funny as it should be and I am bit tired of Jesse Eisenberg playing Jesse Eisenberg in films. Mia Wasikowska is excellent as usual as are the settings, cinematography and the soundtrack. It could be described as a PG-13, romantic version of 'Fight Club'. All the voyeurism in it also reminded me of Kieslowski's 'A Short Story About Love'.

Rating: 3/5
                                                                 

Friday, February 13, 2015

地獄でなぜ悪い (Why Don't You Play in Hell?) (2013)


Director: Shion Sono
Writer:    Shion Sono
Cast:       Jun Kunimura, Fumi Nikaido, Shinichi Tsutsumi
Language: Japanese


A renegade film crew become embroiled with a a Yakuza clan feud and end up staging fight scenes between them so that they could film it on 35 mm and make a masterpiece. Their production crew is called 'The Fuck Bombers'.

It is bonkers!!! Not normal kind of bonkers but the kind that only Japanese could have done. You can totally understand why Rajnikant has some Japanese following who come over to India regularly to catch his premiers. Shion Sono is giving not so subtle nods to Quentin Tarantino's 'Kill Bill and that is kind of funny since the latter is the king of homages. It is evident from the opening credits itself which uses a reworked Misirlou theme which was used in Pulp Fiction. Also the 'Japanese Bruce Lee' in it wears bride's yellow outfit and like real men, Yakuza uses swords and fight in kimonos. Tarantino's love for 35 mm film is also something that Sono plays up but the whole Tarantino thing is not overbearing in the film. It is very much a film like no other. The first half of it is kind of dragging but the second half makes up for it when the film making in it begins. It is a celebration of no-holds-barred approach to film making summed up by the machine gun wielding cameramen. All said and done it is a very difficult film to describe and you have to watch it for yourself and trailer might give you an idea.

I have seen half of Shion Sono's 'Love Exposure' and couldn't complete it because the subtitles stopped working. This one is more accessible than Love Actually and like that also there is some Japanese subtext to the whole thing. Yakuza gangs there are quite famous for supporting film making and the highly prolific Takashi Miike is someone who uses that avenue of funding. This is also something that is quite common in India with the film business being a good way to launder money. The film begins with a toothpaste ad featuring a Yakuza kingpin's child daughter and it is seen to be enjoyed by all and sundry. It kind of makes us squirmy because we have this idea of Japanese being very lax on child pornography. Sono seems to be playing on this in the same way he celebrates up-skirt shooting industry of Japan in 'Love Exposure'. 

Overall it is a great watch but is not suitable for everyone. Watch it if you are the kind that like to embrace some weird shit or you are a fan of Miike who is also someone that makes something similar in a very different way.

Rating: 4/5 
                                                                       

Love Is Strange (2014)


Director: Ira Sachs
Writers:  Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias
Cast:       John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei


After Ben (Lithgow) and George (Molina) gets married after living together for twenty years, George is fired from his teaching post, forcing them to stay with friends separately while they sell their place and look for cheaper housing--a situation that weighs heavily on all involved.

The fact that they are gay does not weigh heavily on the film. It is only used as a minor plot point with George getting fired from his musical teaching post in a school run by Catholics for his marriage. So the film is trying to reflect the normalcy around it that is there in Western World with many states in US also legitimizing same-sex marriages. The film may very well could have had a hetero-sexual couple as its protagonists. One could argue that if they had kids it would have affected the film but I don't buy it since in Western World parents usually don't stay with kids and vice-versa.

The film begins with their marriage and showing how accepting their friends and relatives are to the whole idea. When they are forced to live separately, Ben is staying with his nephew's family and George with their now former neighbors. George is an introvert and finds it hard with his hosts having their friends also frequenting their apartment. Ben's nephew is always busy with work and his wife (Marisa Tomei) is a writer which makes the situation quite awkward since she prefers to work without any distractions. He is bunking with their teenage son Joey who is also not enamored by the invasion into his private space. This kind of situation is something that has been quite common theme in Malayalam cinema with the exception that one of the partner's death is the usual cause for the situation. I think I have seen one film with an exact situation like this one where a couple is forced to live separately with two different children of theirs but I don't remember which film was that. These kind of Malayalam films tend to have either monetary issues, lack of time or a cruel relative being the cause for tensions whereas in 'Love is Strange' it is the lack of space in an expensive city like New-York. 

Many of us have been in this uncomfortable situation of having a relative or a stranger staying at our place. It doesn't matter how well you get along prior to this, living in same house and occupying same space will cause friction. It is also something that I have noticed in friendships. If you can endure the challenge of living together, the friendship will be better for it and many of my best friends are from my time during my first job where I had to share an apartment with my friends. Living together means you cannot hide what you really are and you have to be accepting of others at their best and their worst. This is exactly why I also think cohabitation is a must before marriage since it is the only way to truly know a person. In India, arranged marriage is the norm and it can be very much like two strangers suddenly forced to live together. Even in love marriages there is plenty of scope to fake your personality or just be on your best behavior prior to the marriage and wondering whether you've indeed married a stranger after the event.

I went off on a tangent and coming back to the film, it is a great watch. The great thing about it  is that it doesn't overplay the reactions and we have a better understanding about what they are saying to each other than they themselves. Nobody is portrayed in an overly positive or negative light and all of it is very relatable. It doesn't amp up on specific events and this gives us a sense of subtlety to the whole thing. I haven't seen other works of the director and it was good to see Alfred Molina playing against type. The role played by Marisa Tomei is also good in the sense that it is a very realistic ally behaving normal character and an inevitable shout-out for 'George Costanza' with whom I always associate her with.

Rating: 4.5/5
                                                                  

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Luther (TV Series Seasons: 1-3)


Creator: Neil Cross
Cast:      Idris Elba, Warren Brown, Dermot Crowley, Ruth Wilson


A crime drama series starring Idris Elba as a near genius murder detective whose brilliant mind can't always save him from the dangerous violence of his passions. Luther doesn't always go by the books and some in his department thinks of him as a dirty cop whom they tolerate just because he is exceptionally good at solving stuff. He is involved in the department 'Serious & Serial' and that just sort of sums up the series as it celebrates him solving very inventive serial crimes while battling through personal problems. You do get the perception that London is really a fucked up place where serial crime is a daily routine.

Idris Elba will always be known for his role as Stringer Bell in 'The Wire'. It is sad that he has not went on to be a proper leading man in the films business so far. The leaked mails that came as part of Sony hack suggests that the studio heads see him as a possible candidate to be the next James Bond after Daniel Craig. He can certainly carry it. Coming back to 'Luther', it is much more closer to 'Banshee' than it is to 'The Wire' in terms of its sensibilities. The plot can be very convoluting but you just go it with because it is enjoyably bonkers for most parts. First season consist of six episodes and the personal theme running in it is that he is going through a heart-breaking divorce process. The culprit from the first episode, Alice Morgan, develops a relationship with him and it gives the show a different feel. Her acting can be very hammy though. The crime plots find resolution in each episode while in seasons second and third they are tied up over two episodes and each of those seasons have four episodes each. The second season's personal story angle is very grating but the crime solving in it makes up for that with some bat-shit crazy ways of killing people involved. The last episode of this season is the high point of the entire series. It goes downhill from there with the third season which I found very difficult to finish. They just lose it as it become more and more ridiculous to the point of me not enjoying it at all. There is supposed to be a fourth season of it coming out this year and I am not really interested in watching that.

To sum up, it a good enough watch the first two seasons with a very bad third season which leaves a sour taste. Recommended just for the fact that Idris Elba is fucking great and this coming from someone who didn't like Stringer Bell that much, the character I meant not the acting.

Rating: 2.5/5
                                                             

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

King of the Hill (1993)


Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writers:  A.E. Hotchner (Memoir), Steven Soderbergh
Cast:       Jesse Bradford, Jeroen Krabbe, Lisa Eichhorn, Adrien Brody


A young boy struggles on his own in a run-down motel after his parents and younger brother are separated from him in 1930s Depression-era Midwest.

Film is set in 1933 Missouri and everyone is struggling as the effects of Great Depression is still very much there. He gets separated from his family and other people he is close with in the motel one by one basically because of poverty. Abject poverty and hunger is not something that we see commonly in films from the developed world and the way the boy deals with it is quite buoyantly. He is quite charismatic playing the main protagonist and quite curiously for a Soderbergh film, the film very much has a Coen vibe to it. The whole sweaty atmosphere reminded me of 'Barton Fink', which also was set during the same time and came out couple of years prior to this. The performances are excellent, particularly from the younger cast members. I didn't realize it was a 20 year old Adrien Brody playing the role of his best friend and mentor, Lester, even though he looked very familiar. Music was done by Soderbergh's frequent collaborator Cliff Martinez, who also has done some terrific work with Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive & Only God Forgives).

Overall it is a great watch and it was Soderbergh's third film after Sex, Lies & Videotape and Kafka, both of which I rate as among his very best. I think he is quite underrated as a director basically because most people remember him for his commercial films like Oceans franchise and 'Out of Sight'. He did have a quite underwhelming body of work beginning from 2001 which lasted till around 2009 after which he was back in from leading up to his so called retirement from feature film making. 

Rating: 4/5
                                                                      

Monday, February 9, 2015

Harold and Maude (1971)

Director: Hal Ashby
Writer:    Colin Higgins
Cast:       Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Vivian Pickles


Young, rich and obsessed with death, Harold finds himself changed forever when he meets lively septuagenarian Maude at a funeral. Harold's mother with her bourgeoisie lifestyle don't take much effort in understanding Harold and he likes to fake his own death in return. It is not the kind where the kid is trying to get attention. Maude very much has the hippie like lifestyle and thinking when it comes to liberty, authority and attitude. She has a set of keys that her carjacking husband left her with which she uses to take rides in whatever vehicle that she finds fancy. Both Harold and Maude like Hearses very much.

It must have caused a stir when it got released because of the romantic angle of the story between the teenager Harold and the 79 year old Maude. I guess it would have been edgy even for today's audience as well. I very much felt like how I felt when watching 'The Graduate'- must have been great when it got released but haven't aged that gracefully. All this hippie sort of outlook has become very cliched by now but it really shouldn't be used to find fault with this film considering that it got released in Nixon America. It is a very good watch without being all that great and the melancholic music is again something we have got very used to. 

It didn't do well either commercially or critically when it got released but developed a cult following gradually over the years. I suspect it must have influenced directors like Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach in terms of their style and quirkiness. I guess one can watch it if you are fans of those directors to see what must have been a landmark film for them.

Rating: 3.5/5 
                                                                      

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Master (2012)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer:    Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast:       Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern


A naval veteran Freddie (Phoenix) arrives home from the second world war unsettled and uncertain of his future-until he is tantalized by The Cause and its charismatic leader, Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman). Dodd is attracted to Freddie initially by the drink that he gives him which is made out of several industrial/household chemicals like Paint thinner. For Freddie it is a case of someone who is actively being interested in him and also it might be a case of him liking an authoritative figure around him. 

I had seen it when it got released and found it to be good but requiring multiple viewing to appreciate it more. It took me three viewings to fully appreciate P T Anderson's previous one, 'There Will Be Blood'. I finally got round to watching The Master again after listening to Anderson's interview with Marc Maron in the WTF podcast. When the film got released, most of the publicity it got was because of Lancaster Dodd's character being based on the Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. I am not that interested in that particular comparison mainly because we in India are so familiar with all these God Men/Women like figures and 'Art of Living' fraudsters. So it was better for me to view Dodd as such a generic sort of character and the conflicts that he goes through keeping with his lies is an interesting angle. I do think most of these people are just living their lies rather than actually believing in the kind of shit that they come out with.

Both Dodd and Freddie need each other. Dodd is surrounded by his family members and the cult. Some of the family members like his much younger wife, daughter and son-in-law are very much into the cult either being fully bought into it or as a matter of convenience. His son is of the view that Dodd is just making up shit as he go along and Freddie is also under that impression even though he want it to be the other way. When Dodd's wife warns him of Freddie being a negative influence and not really into the cult, he makes him go through the ridiculous programming process and we see how conflicted Freddie is when doing it. There could also be a homo-erotic angle to their relationship but sometimes they come across as a father-son combo or just friends. Freddie needs him but can't put up with all the other bullshit that comes with Dodd. Dodd needs Freddie to escape from the cult he is surrounded with, at least fleetingly.

Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead continues his collaborative partnership with P T Anderson which started with 'There Will Be Blood'. It is a 'tour de force' acting performance with all three of them earning academy award nominations. Film was shot in 70 mm which has become a sort of fad with Tarantino and Christopher Nolan also joining the bandwagon. They have at least saved Kodak with some of the studios guaranteeing a quota of films to be filmed in the traditional way. To sum up, I still find the film to be something that I admire rather than really love. That was the case with 'There Will Be Blood' also before the third viewing changed it to something that I love. To end it on a tragic note, Philip Seymour Hoffman had his first drink in 23 years at the wrap party of the film, leading to a relapse of his alcoholism.

Rating: 4.5/5 
                                                                      

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Kill the Messenger (2014)

Director: Michael Cuesta
Writers:  Peter Landesman, Gary Webb, Nick Schou
Cast:       Jeremy Renner, Robert Patrick, Jena Sims, Andy Garcia, Ray Liotta


A reporter becomes the target of a vicious smear campaign that drives him to the point of suicide after he exposes the CIA's role in arming Contra rebels in Nicaragua and importing Cocaine into California. Based on the true story of journalist Gary Webb.

The backdoor channel of arming Contra rebels started after the Congress denied the government permission to formally wage a war in Nicaragua during the cold war times. I was aware about this story and Gary Webb after listening to one of Dan Carlin's Common Sense podcast episodes. So I practically knew the entire story upfront. I really don't like Jeremy Renner and think he has such a punchable smug face. So there wasn't much incentive to watch it also because it didn't get an overwhelmingly positive critical reviews. Despite all that I finally took the plunge since it is a genre that I enjoy very much with Michael Mann's 'The Insider' and Pakula's 'All the President's Men' being the high watermark points. It is not a great film by any means but is nevertheless a very good watch with good performance from Renner. The complicity of the mainstream papers like NYT & WP was new information for me and in that regard they very much worked like establishment's mouthpiece like they did when they manufactured the consent for Iraq War through their reportage on imaginary WMDs. The media coverage CIA's shenanigans in Latin America and Central America is used extensively by Noam Chomsky in his book 'Manufacturing Consent'. The difference in this case was that they directly caused enormous harm to American people and as the film points out rather than American soldiers it was the black Americans who were addicted to crack-cocaine who were the victims. The irony of waging a War on Drugs and at the same time encouraging drug trafficking to pursue their interests elsewhere.

The CIA kind of admitted to its doing by releasing a 400 page report in a very cunning fashion during the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal so that it would not get any media attention. Poor Gary Webb, he was found dead in 2004 with two gunshot wounds to his head which was deemed to be a suicide. We are prepared to believe the worst about CIA and US intelligence community after the Snowden affairs. The merit of the film lies more with its documentary value rather than pure cinematic excellence. 

Rating: 3.5/5
                                                                     

το χαμένο σήμα της δημοκρατίας (The Lost Signal of Democracy) (2014)

It is a documentary about the un-constitutional shutdown of the Greek Public Broadcaster ERT by the conservative government under the pretext of Troika imposed austerity measures. ERT was funded by the Greek people with payment collected as part of their electricity bills and the broadcaster contributed to the government coffers to the tune of 110 million euros from a revenue of 300 million euros. It made no sense whatsoever when the government took the decision other than it being a fascist act eating away at the core of Democracy in the place where it was invented.

The narrative of German savers being screwed up by countries like Spain and Greece is something that has been going on since the advent of the Euro-crisis. This is wrong on several counts as explained by economist Michael Pettis in his blog: Syriza and the French indemnity of 1871-73 . It was not a case of one country borrowing from the other since the savings from individuals were collectively channeled to other individuals in the periphery through the banks. Both the lender and borrower are responsible for it and sacrifices have to be made by both sides when things go tits up. What has happened so far by means of austerity is that only one of them is being held responsible. Even more ludicrous thing is that it is doing no good but harm for both sides. Suppose a country's GDP is 100 and its sovereign debt is also 100% of its GDP. If the GDP growth is less than the rate at which the debt is growing then it is inevitably gonna spiral out of control. The austerity measures are only gonna put brakes on its GDP growth which is not gonna help anyone.

What is good about the documentary is that it is not painting a picture where ERT is held up as some sort of BBC like broadcaster with minimal problems. They concede that like any government organizations it is also under the grip of clientelism and what not. The situation they compare with is someone taking a boy with a broken arm to hospital where the doctor says that he is gonna kill him to relieve him from his pain. The un-democratic action by the government made the people to rally around the issue to vent their frustrations against austerity. Greece is not a place which is unfamiliar with fascism as it was under a military junta from the 1930s to around the 60s. People there seems very aware about the threat and the parliament shown passing ordinances with only three members present was indeed surreal. It is very good but a disturbing watch.

Rating: 4.5/5
                                                                     

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Kraftidioten (In Order of Disappearance) (2014)

Director: Hans Peter Moland
Writer:    Kim Fupz Aakeson
Cast:       Stellan Skarsgard, Pal Sverre Hagen, Bruno Ganz
Languages: Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, English

The honorable citizen Nils (Skarsgard) has the job of ploughing snow in the wild winter mountains of Norway. When his son is mistakenly murdered, Nils takes action, which ignites a war between the vegan gangster "the count" (Hagen) and the Serbian mafia boss Papa (Ganz).

It has got a Scandinavian ensemble not just in terms of the nationality of actors but also the characters. Nils is Swedish, Count is Norwegian, his wife is Danish, Papa is Serbian and 'The Chinese' is actually Japanese. Many of the humor in it relies on the characters confusing the nationalities involved and it helps if you as a viewer correctly identifies it correctly. I could spot some of them based on what other Scandinavian films I have watched and the lady in it was in Borgen which is Danish. Each of the deaths are marked by a title card with their name and religion. Religions are denoted by the type of Cross and the sole Jewish guy is given that Jewish Star. I was disappointed that none of them were atheists but I guess the Vegan do count. The title of the film comes from the title cards and is also marked during the closing credits where all the actors' names are shown together and each of them disappearing from the screen in order of disappearance. 

It is very funny and exquisite to watch. The snow clad mountain and the confusion that ensues would remind one of Fargo but got to say this one is much funnier and less darker. The whole thing is an in-joke about setting a gangster picture in a civilized place like Norway. Some of the immigrant gangsters are bemused by the way things are in Norway and is evident in the way they talk about the lack of violence and rapes in Norwegian prisons. They also reckon welfare is the only thing that keep people in such a cold and shitty place. The funniest of all is the kidnapped school kid talking about Stockholm Syndrome. 

Overall it is just about perfect and a very enjoyable watch which continues to surprise as it progresses. The body disposal technique of Nils is just breathtaking. I haven't seen any other films from the director who seem to favor crime comedies.

Rating: 4.5/5 
                                                                  

Best of 2014


Here it goes...
  1. Birdman (Alejandro Gonazalez Inarritu)
  2. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyaginstev)
  3. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
  4. Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund)
  5. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
  6. Enemy (Denis Villeneuve)
  7. Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)
  8. Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
  9. Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)
  10. Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
  11. Wild Tales (Damian Szifron)
  12. New World (Hoon-jung Park)
  13. Predestination (The Spierig Bros)
  14. Black Coal, Thin Ice (Yi'nan Diao)
  15. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
  16. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
  17. A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor)
  18. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)
  19. Kraftidioten (Hans Peter Moland)
  20. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)
  21. Citizenfour (Laura Poitras)
  22. The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
  23. Two Days, One Night (Dardennes)
  24. Mommy (Xavier Dolan)
  25. Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)
  26. Housebound (Gerard Johnstone)
  27. Wild (Jean-Marc Vallee)
  28. Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry)
  29. The Drop (Michael R. Roskam)
  30. Locke (Steven Knight)
  31. Munnariyippu (Venu)
  32. Love Is Strange (Ira Sachs)
  33. What We Do In The Shadows (Clement & Waititi)
  34. The Rover (David Michod)
  35. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter (Zellner Bros)
  36. Snowpiercer (Joon-ho Bong)
  37. Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg)
  38. John Wick (Chad Stahelski)
  39. Respire (Melanie Laurent)
  40. '71 (Yann Demange)
  41. Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller)
  42. Starry Eyes (Kevin Kolsch & Dennis Widmyer)
  43. Timbuktu (Adberrahmane Sissako)
  44. Starred Up (David MacKenzie)
  45. Le Week-End (Roger Michell)
  46. Tusk (Kevin Smith)
  47. A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn)
  48. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski)
  49. Why Don't You Play In Hell? (Shion Sono)
  50. Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler)
  51. Frank (Lenny Abrahamson)
  52. Jodorowsky's Dune (Frank Pavich)
  53. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves)
  54. The Guest (Adam Wingard)
  55. Godzilla (Gareth Edwards)
  56. Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre)
  57. Coherence (James Ward Byrkit)
  58. X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer)
Its been a rather good year. 

Birdman (2014)

Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Writers:  Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., Armando Bo
Cast:       Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watss, Zach Galifianakis


A washed up actor, who once played an iconic superhero, battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career and himself in the days leading up to opening of a Broadway play which he wrote and directed. 

It is Inarritu's way of saying 'Fuck You' to the system that churns out sequels, prequels and reboots of superhero shitfests making billions along the way. But mockery is not just aimed at the studios but also at the vanity and pretentiousness of those who also operate away from that system. Edward Norton fits perfectly in that regard. I was fearful that Birdman would turn out very much like American Hustle from last year, which was adored by the critics and I couldn't just see what the fuss was about. It was not the case for Birdman and the humor in it is very layered and intelligent. Criticism is not limited to the performance arts business but also at the vapid 'Selfie' phase of culture that we are going through right now. Michael Keaton's role in it is not very different from how his career turned out as it stands and everyone hopes he gets the kick-start he deserves at this point of time. He was in the first two batman films with the second one coming in 1992, a year which is also referenced in this film as the year in which the last Birdman film released. Same can be said about the other actors in it with Edward Norton having a reputation of being very hard top word with.

It is not a film that you would expect from Inarritu and everyone would have raised their eye-brows when they heard he is making a comedy film titled 'Birdman'. There were several writing partners involved and the film is shot as if the entirety of it is a single tracking shot. It is not a distraction since we know it is not a single take anyway because of the amount of time lapsing. It was filmed in sequence and that maybe how they managed to include that reference to Meg Ryan's plastic surgery, which happened quite recently. The performances are delightfully screen chewy, especially from Edward Norton. The soundtrack which involved a lot of drumming reminded me of the Oceans series and the vibe that this one generates is also strangely similar. I sat through the entire film with a big smile and there are plenty of lines that makes you laugh out loud with some examples being:

Lesley: I wish I had more self-respect.
Laura: You're an actress.

"Sixty is the new thirty, mother fucker."

"Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige."

A put down of that critic is also perfect. I kind of thought it was gonna go the cliched path with the actor committing suicide during the performance but it surprised me again with how it went on from there. Overall it is just great and is certainly among the best from last year. 2014 has been really a great year.

Rating: 5/5