Sunday, November 29, 2015

Spectre (2015)

Director: Sam Mendes
Writers:  John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth
Cast:       Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci

A cryptic message from Bond's past sends him on a trail to uncover a sinister organization. While M battles political forces to keep the secret service alive, Bond peels back the layers of deceit to reveal the terrible truth behind SPECTRE.

I am not really a big fan of James Bond films and the only ones I have seen in full are the ones with Daniel Craig in it- Casino Royale and Skyfall. Skyfall was comfortably better than Casino Royale, but that is going by the James Bond standards and not necessarily by the genre standard. It is a franchise which doesn't know where exactly to turn to and has been surpassed by both Mission Impossible films (last two) and Bourne series (next one is due with Greengrass and Matt Damon united). The pivot that they took with Daniel Craig and Casino Royale was a response to the success of Bourne series and one could say that considerable amount of humor was lost because of that. Bond series was never exactly known for being realistic and it seems MI films have managed to strike the right balance of Action set-pieces, ridiculousness and humor. Daniel Craig films can't be as 'seemingly' realistic as Bourne was, because of the baggage that the franchise carry, and is never as fun as MI films are. So you end up with films that are good watches but are not in any form memorable after you finish watching it. 
Spectre is no different and it is a good watch with nothing spectacular about it. You cannot really fault it for its cliches because that is what you get with these kind of films. Taking a leaf out of M1:5, double zero program is under threat of shutdown and Bond is on his own to figure out and defeat the villain. Christoph Waltz is as underutilized as Javier Bardem was in Skyfall. Film starts with a very good long tracking shot scene. Action set-pieces come frequently and all of them are good but the film as a whole suffers from not having any that would take your breath away, something MI films manages very comfortably. Global surveillance and related privacy issues is the it-topic, post-Snowden revelations, and that is also at the center of this film. But it is not done with much impact and just serves as a plot-point. Monica Bellucci is there as the Bond-'woman' and Lea Seydoux plays a role which is much more than a traditional Bond girl. It is almost confirmed to be the last Bond film with Daniel Craig in it and they have managed to give a nice closure for him. The plot also references and connects his other films as Bond, starting with Casino Royale.

So, it is a good enough watch without being anything more than that. Action set-pieces are good as is the humor but there is nothing spectacular about it on the whole. If I were to rank Daniel Craig films as Bond, this one will be number two with Skyfall being the first and Casino Royale the third (Not seen QoS). Product placement in CR was was just horrible and that poker sequence was also icky with expositions that felt to be so. Idris Elba as James Bond could be the boost that the franchise requires to stay relevant. TBF, it is doing spectacularly well at the box office as it is.

PS: One reviewer described the film as: "Bored...James Bored"...Hahaha....

Rating: 3/5

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Criminal Activities (2015)

Director: Jackie Earl Haley
Writer:    Robert Lowell
Cast:       John Travolta, Michael Pitt, Dan Stevens

Four young men make a risky investment together that puts them in trouble with the mob. To get out of this situation they are asked to kidnap a relative of a rival mob king for him. 

It is really a low-budget film by Hollywood standards despite boasting of a decent enough cast. It is a fun watch if you go in with low expectations. There are plenty of twists and it is not very hard to guess the main twist since it is not really a unique one in this genre. There is also this Tarantino vibe to the whole thing with the characters talking about things that seemingly don't appear to be all that relevant. In films like these, more often than not, the ending twist can seem totally disingenuous that would make the whole thing very convoluted in the impossible sense. That is not the case with this film since you can pretty much piece things together over the course of the film even if you are not entirely sure about the motivation. It does take the intelligence of its audience for granted and that is always good with respect to the level of engagement that you get with the film. 

Overall the film is a good one if you watch with right kind of expectations anticipating it to be a fun genre film. Performances are good enough and the film does have a low budget vibe, which actually suits its B-film sensibilities. It is the sort of film that you wouldn't like if it was done on a bigger budget. It is also a debut for both its director and writer and Jackie Earl Haley also plays the role of an enforcer with good effect.    

Rating: 3/5

Sunday, November 22, 2015

मसान (Masaan) (2015)

Director: Neeraj Ghaywan
Writer:    Varun Grover
Cast:       Richa Chadda, Sanjay Mishra, Vicky Kaushal
Language: Hindi

Four lives intersect along the Ganges in Varanasi: a low caste boy hopelessly in love, a daughter ridden with guilt of sexual encounter ending in a tragedy, a hapless father with fading morality, and a spirited child yearning for a family. The first two characters long to escape the moral constructs of this small-town. 

The film begins with a couple engaging in sex in a hotel only to be raided by the Police. The boy commits suicide and the police inspector takes the video of the girl in the arrested state as a tool to extort money from her father, who is a Sanskrit translator with a small shop on the river banks. This is not a surprising thing in most parts of the country where the state, in this case the Police, acts as an extortion racket and the 'family-honor' is valued so highly that people will kill for it. Parallel to this story is the story of a low caste boy who is in love with a richer upper class girl. The girl in the first story want to leave the place to escape from its morality as well as for better economic opportunities. The boy in the second story want to get a good job so that he could escape from the caste system which is much more entrenched in places like these. What the film does best is capturing the small town life and its mentality. It is made in such a way that you won't sense being lectured on the oppressive nature of Indian society. There are no cartoonishly villainous characters and even the police officer who is doing the extortion does it in a matter-of-fact fashion. 

Performances are really good and the only negative I can find is that there is a degree of convolution in the second story-line to add some artificial poignancy to the proceedings. It is exquisitely shot but not in a tourist post-card fashion. The Indian selection for Academy Awards this year, Court, also deals with similar kind of issues but from a larger societal view-point instead of the character driven model of Masaan. Both of them are great films. Masaan premiered at Cannes this year where it won two awards including FIPRESCI Prize in the un certain regard section. The English title of the film is 'Fly Away Solo', which captures the ambition of the two main characters, and the Hindi title of the film means 'Crematorium' as per google. Neeraj Ghaywan, who previously assisted Anurag Kashyap in Gangs of Wasseypur, made his directorial debut with this film and it was indeed some debut.

Rating: 4.5/5

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Les amours imaginaires (Heartbeats) (2010)

Director: Xavier Dolan
Writer:    Xavier Dolan
Cast:       Xavier Dolan, Monia Chokri, Niels Schneider
Language: French (Quebec)

The story of three close friends who are involved in a love triangle. That would seem like a very cliched story-line and going by the poster you can surmise that it involves two men and a lady. But the difference is that the object of desire is not the woman in it. The lady and one of the guys, who is gay, have a long term friendship. The middle guy in the poster is a new friend of theirs and both of them have a crush on him and they know that. They are not sure of his sexuality and so the film proceeds from there. 

That is a synopsis that would make you wonder why it took this long for someone to come up with such a story-line. Film is laugh out loud funny throughout. Dolan chose to make it in a cringe-comedy fashion as the camera just lingers on the faces of its two main protagonists as they get confused and humiliated over the course of the film. Film begins in documentary style with several people talking about their relationships and break-ups. It also comes up at several different points later in the film and Dolan uses it to pad up the film and also as an exposition tool. He makes it a point to have someone explain Kinsey's concept that sexuality can be classed into seven types starting from strictly hetero-sexual and ending with strictly homo-sexual. Going by recent scientific studies it seems that only few can be considered to be in the extreme ends of this spectrum. The interview like segments in the film had several funny ones in it. It serves as useful editing cuts and to signify passage of time as well in the main story but I thought it was kind of lazy film-making and was not really necessary in the film. 

The other two films (MommyTom at the Farm) I have seen of Dolan's have been on the intense side and so the out and out comedy style of this film surprised me a bit, but in a pleasant manner. I had actually put off seeing it thinking that I would need to get in the right kind of mood to watch it. Great soundtrack is a given in his films and this one is not different. The recurring song in it is Dalida's Italian 'Bang Bang' song, YouTube video linked above, whose English version is familiar to me from Tarantino's 'Kill Bill'. Dolan was just 20 years old when he made this film and it got premiered at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section. Come to think of it, Bertolucci's 'Dreamers' is somewhat similar in terms of its three characters but that one had a looking from outside quality to it as the film was told from the perspective of the new one in the group of three and it was the siblings that stayed mysterious. And while watching Heartbeats, I thought the main two protagonists were siblings till around the middle of the film at which point it was made explicit that they were just friends. Anyway, it is a great watch and certainly much better than Dreamers. 

Rating: 4.5/5

Friday, November 20, 2015

Rajamma@Yahoo (2015)

Director: Reghu Rama Varma
Writer:    M. Sindhuraj
Cast:       Kunchacko Boban, Asif Ali, Anushree
Language: Malayalam

Film revolves around two brothers- Michael Rajamma known as Rajamma and Vishnu Yohannan known as Yahoo. They were orphaned when they were very young with their only asset being an old bungalow which they cannot sell because of documentation problems. They grew up to be very lazy kind of individuals with their main source of income being through monetisation of their home and its property.

It was first day first show for me and the director of this film was previously assistant to director Lal Jose. Lal Jose is someone who straddles two generations of Malayalam cinema by having a pretty old school way of storytelling in terms of manipulating audience's emotions while being pretty innovative when it comes to visualization and technical qualities. I am not a big fan of his but he was a necessary filler for Malayalam cinema to transition from the 90s style to the so called new-generation style post 2010. Lal Jose picked up this film for distribution as well and there is a minimum guarantee when it comes to films distributed by LJ (Neram, Oru Vadakkan Selfie). That fact and the trailer being quite decent prompted me to take a risk with this film.

It will be an understatement if I describe the experience of watching this film as underwhelming. It is the kind of film that doesn't descend into a level that would openly invite boos from the audience but it doesn't also have any highs that would make it enjoyable even in parts. Kunchacko Boban and Asif Ali are not the kind of actors who can bring an element of comedy into the proceedings without adequate help from the script itself. It is quite a numbing watch as the humor doesn't land well at all and we are paraded with a series of un-interesting and half-baked characters and a parade of unnecessary songs. Trivandrum Lodge was a film which had a similar setting for the characters who were all connected by the home/lodge that they share with each other. The characters in it were interesting and humor was excellent even though the last act of that film was a severe let-down. This film also have a whole set of characters that share a living space but most of them are totally uninteresting. If the comedy doesn't work in what is essentially trying to be a comedy film, then you don't have anything else there to save the audience in terms of enjoying the experience. The basic story-line is really lame. Illegitimate daughter of a rich and powerful figure trying to get justice with the help of the main characters is just a tiresome trope of Malayalam cinema. I am sick and tired of it. You could have forgiven them if there was at-least some half decent comedy in it. The only fresh thing about the film was its ending, which was abrupt and not exactly what you expect. But by that time you are just itching to escape from this tiresome film.

To sum up, it is really a poor film. The only achievement of it is how thoroughly average it is throughout its running time. Normally you get films with some high points and some low points but end up overall as average. This one doesn't have any high-points or low-points. Just average throughout. It seems they have already managed to sell the television rights for this film, going by the opening credits, which should make sure that it breaks even at the least. 

Rating: 1/5

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Best of Enemies (2015)

Directors: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville
Writers:    Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville
Features:  Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley, Christopher Hitchens

A documentary on the series of televised debates in 1968 between the liberal Gore Vidal and the conservative William F. Buckley Jr. They were broadcast by ABC to coincide with the Republican and Democratic national conventions ahead of the elections. 

Late 60s was a crucial time for United States of America and both these intellectual heavyweights (bit of a stretch to call someone from the right that) recognized it to be so. Battle lines were drawn to determine which way the country was going to go and looking from the perspective of now it seems Vidal is finally winning in the US. But the 1968 election was won by Nixon and the Republicans. Event though the film doesn't try to show in some length what exactly they were debating, the little glimpses that we get is enough to conclude that the Democrats and Republicans haven't changed very much since then. 

Besides being a look at the careers of both Vidal and Buckley from the prism of their TV debates, the film also gives us the context in which ABC conceived it as an idea for convention coverage. They were the least popular of the three network TV channels and had to do something unconventional to get some foothold. The debates that they conducted with Buckley's meltdown on the 9th one ensured them enough eye-balls and ushered in the era of punditry that pass as news. I am not disparaging it but more often than not you get really shit people doing it. People who are really good doesn't choose to face each other like Vidal and Buckley did. So what you end up with is farces like Arnab Goswami's 'Newshour' here in India. 

India is also going through a decisive phase with liberals having their work cut out with a cultural fascist outfit ruling with a dude having dictatorial tendencies at the helm. 2019 elections could possibly seal the fate of 'Idea of India' once and for all. Both Buckley and Vidal were people with electoral aims but couldn't succeed. Both of them recognized that intellectual strength doesn't count for much in winning elections. That is the same for India as well and the sad part is that it is also lacking in the wider mainstream discourse. 

The documentary is a great watch and since I didn't knew much about the two people involved as well as their history, it was a very illuminating watch. I had in fact heard about both of them in passing. Gore Vidal died quite recently, in 2012, and I remember reading an obituary piece on him. Buckley's name gets frequently mentioned in articles covering the poor state of affairs in the Republican party and the current Republican presidential race kind of sums it up. The film took five years to complete because of struggles to secure funding, get interviews, and uncover archival footage. I presume the footage we see of Christopher Hitchens was exclusively shot for this film prior to his death.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

വടക്കുനോക്കിയന്ത്രം (Vadakkunokkiyantram) (1989)

Director: Sreenivasan
Writer:    Sreenivasan
Cast:       Sreenivasan, Parvathy, Innocent
Language: Malayalam

A man with a serious case of inferiority complex, Thalathil Dineshan (Sreenivasan), is married to a beautiful girl, a girl whom he considers to be way out of his league. Soon, his love and care turns into suspicion. 

It is a common refrain that Sreenivasan is someone who made money by selling his inferiority complex for films. While he has written for many directors there are only two films for which he took up the role of director as well and Vadakkunokkiyanthram (Compass) is the first one of those two. The second one is 'Chinthavishtayaya Shyamala' which came out it 1998. Both of these films are rightly considered as classics of Malayalam cinema marrying comedy and topic seriousness in a perfect manner. The films he did with his frequent collaborator, Sathyan Anthikkad, tended to be social commentaries while these two films that he directed were much more inward looking in terms of depicting its central character. The title of the film refers to Dineshan's propensity to react to all things in the film's story-line by orienting towards his inferiority complex and suspicion just like a Compass, which always orient towards north.  

The film is laced with high quality comedy, like you would expect in a Sreenivasan film, and can be classed as a cringe-comedy, a genre in which the likes of Ricky Gervais is an expert. The character, Thalathil Dineshan, and his antics has been part of Kerala pop-culture as its very meme-worthy as well as highly quotable. His is a very exaggerated portrayal and one might raise an eye-brow at the convoluted ways in which his mind goes. When you think the film is ending with a very cliched happy ending, he gives a nod to horror films by suggesting a relapse into his old self for the character. 

To sum up, it is a great watch but I do consider his second effort as director to be the superior one out of the two. Many of the characters introduced from the midway of the film serves just as plot devices and he managed to create a richer universe around the central character in 'Chinthavishtayaya Shyamala'. 'Thalayanamanthram', which came out a year later, could be classed as a sister film to this one. 

Rating: 4.5/5

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Seconds (2014)

Director: Aneesh Upasana
Writer:   Aneesh Upasana
Cast:      Jayasurya, Vinay Forrt, Aparna Nair, Vinayakan
Language: Malayalam

The film is a multi-narrative, told in a non-linear format, which revolves around a murder that happens in the elevator of a city apartment. Four unrelated persons of which one was a ruffian was in the lift; two were left seriously injured and one dead. 

Film was recommended to me by a friend, whose taste doesn't always match with me, and this one proved to be a bad suggestion. To be fair, the first half of the film is quite good when it follows the lives of characters leading up to the incident in the lift. One of them is from middle class background, while two others can be classed as from lower middle class. The last one is a from the lowest rung of the society. Their life is portrayed quite well with good humor. But the second half of the film is ludicrously bad with a very convoluted plot. It is not that just the plot is bad, but the way expositions are done is in the too bad it is good category (Salim Kumar character). 

So, it is a film of two halves with a very watchable first half and a stinking latter half. It does have a very low-budget feel in terms of production quality but it kind of suits the story though. It seems the story was written, starting from the central incident, and they just tried to make it as contrived as they possibly could. There are several clever mis-directions but the ending is just too ludicrous and laughable. Why would an assassin plan such a convoluted method to kill someone when there are more things that can go wrong than right. 

Rating: 1.5/5

Friday, November 13, 2015

അനാർക്കലി (Anarkali) (2015)

Director: Sachy
Writer:    Sachy
Cast:       Prithviraj, Biju Menon, Priyal Gor, Miya George, Kabir Bedi, Suresh Krishna, Sudev Nair
Language: Malayalam

Prithviraj plays the role of a diving instructor who is newly assigned to Kavaratti, Lakshadweep. There is a story behind why he has chosen to come there and that unfolds during the first two thirds of the film. He is in search for his love interest with whom he has lost contact and the last third of the film deals with whether he gets to meet her. 

Film can be best summed up as the Moideen-Kanchanamala story from 'Ennu Ninte Moideen' set to modern times. Difference between the two lies in its treatment. Anarkali works as a suspense comedy and the writer director uses the vast majority of its running time to gradually lay out the sequence of events in their love story in front of the audience. This is done expertly with him choosing not to dwell much time on establishing their love per se. This was one weakness of ENM where the development of love was done in a very superficial manner which was not in keeping with the depth that it required for the characters in the larger context. In this one also it is very superficial but the events that happen after that kind of strengthens it and gives credibility to the story. Life in Lakshadweep is portrayed very well and it wouldn't be surprising if the film gives a boost to Lakshadweep tourism. The last act of the film is kind of silly but it is done with a lack of seriousness and adequate dose of comedy that you forgive and go along with it. The slight twist can be seen from miles off.

Performance wise it is good from all concerned and Kabir Bedi is excellent as the girl's father. Priyal Gor is also very good and is suited for the role which demands a non-malayalee actress. Biju Menon is in a typical friend role for the main lead and pulls off the comedy pretty well although everything doesn't land all that well. It is not to say that he is the routine comedy crutch for the film as the comedy is pretty well spread among other characters as well. Its a role that could have gone to someone like Aju Varghese normally and am glad they chose someone more rounded, literally and figuratively. It was also a relief that they didn't add any cringy romance angle for that character as well even though an obvious candidate was there. Sudev Nair, who won state award recently, plays an important role.

To sum up, it is a good watch with a story-line that could have looked really silly but for the tight script and interesting presentation style. Songs are used to move the story and there are some breathtaking aerial shots. That said, one particular green-screened scene in the lighthouse didn't look that good. It is close to three hours long and they could have easily shaved off some twenty minutes. The opening scene where they show the lead's family is a very obvious one for the cut. Prithviraj had two blockbusters recently with Ennu Ninte Moideen and Amar Akbar Anthony and this one could very well make it three in a row.

Rating: 3/5

Thursday, November 12, 2015

ഇടുക്കി ഗോൾഡ്‌ (Idukki Gold) (2013)

Director: Aashiq Abu
Writers:  Dileesh Nair, Syam Pushkaran
Cast:       Maniyanpilla Raju, Babu Antony, Shebin Benson, Vijayaraghavan, Prathap Pothen, Raveendran, Anil, Anoop, Fabin Raveendran
Language: Malayalam

Five friends get separated during their school days, meet up after 35 years and decide to head back to their school in order to relive their teenage indulgence- smoke joints of marijuana that was exclusively available in Idukki. Its better known as "Idukki Gold". As the movie concludes they realize that true Idukki Golds was their friendship and not marijuana that they were searching for. 

The film begins with one of them coming back from Czechoslovakia and taking out a classified ad requesting his long lost friends to meet up. The film proceeds as a series of vignettes from both the past and the present without a story structure. Malayalees are so used to the three act structure of storytelling that they soundly rejected this effort from Ashiq Abu, which is a shame. Nostalgia has been a very marketable genre for Malayalam films recently and the film makes a couple of in-jokes on that. You can also see the Grindhouse effect on the film with the past portion getting that treatment. Visuals are quite stunning and the Idukki locales are always a guarantee for that. It is a habit in Malayalam films these days to unnecessarily bring great visual greenery when the film or the story does not really warrant it. That is not the case with this one. One gripe I have with this film is that it relies too much on coincidences in meeting up with many of its characters. Many of them are totally unnecessary and are just there for the sake of including some of the comedy scenes. The characterization of  the uptight French wife was also a bit off. The awkwardness in meeting up after 35 years is conveyed very well though.

Overall it is a good watch and is Ashiq Abu's best film so far in my opinion. I didn't like '22 Female Kottayam', his most acclaimed film, and 'Salt n Pepper' was a decent watch. Better to not talk about 'Gangster'. Aashiq Abu tries to do something different in each of his efforts but generally falls back to rely on traditional tricks ultimately to make them commercially viable. It is also true for this film as he goes for an unnecessarily dramatic ending that is totally out of sync with the rest of the film. I wish he had stayed true to its original intention. The performances from the young actors who play their old selves are really good. BGM and the couple of songs in it, done by Bijibal,  are also very good. The film was adapted from Santhosh Echikkanam's short story with the same name. 

Rating: 3/5

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

極道大戦争 (Yakuza Apocalypse) (2015)

Director: Takashi Miike
Writer:    Yoshitaka Yamaguchi
Cast:       Yayan Ruhian, Riri Furanki, Hayato Ichihara
Language: Japanese

In the ruthless world of the yakuza, no one is more legendary than boss Kamiura. Rumored to be invincible, the truth is he is a vampire- a bloodsucking yakuza vampire boss! When he is assassinated by an International syndicate, he just manages to pass on his vampire traits to a young Yakuza, Kagayama, whom he had taken under his wings. As Kagayama struggles to come to terms with his new-found abilities, things go out of hand as more and more civilians are converted to vampires and the Yakuza start facing an existential crisis due to lack of civilians. If that is not crazy enough for you, enter the super-villain teletubby, which can make earth-quakes happen.

In Hollywood, it is common to have a genre getting revived all of a sudden and it becoming a sort of fad. This is exactly what happened to the vampire genre, which came after the Zombie fad. Most of these films turn out to be trite but you do get interesting films that can be considered as genre-benders when the fad is kind of fading. That happened to the Vampire genre with three great ones coming out in succession last year- Only Lovers Left Alive, What We Do in the Shadows and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. When you were just thinking the genre is kind of dead on its feet, here comes Takashi Miike with a film that mixes vampire genre with yakuza and an apocalypse. Just that he doesn't adhere to the vampire rules like not being able to handle the sun and things like that.

Generally Miike kind of go for very violent difficult to watch first halves which then transforms into comedies during the second half. This one is comedic from the get go and there aren't that many stomach-churningly violent scenes. Don't know whether it is a case of me being desensitized to it. The film is mad as hell, just read the synopsis to get an idea, and I interpreted the English speaking syndicate and the teletubby character as Miike making fun of juvenile Hollywood crap dominating Japanese box office. There is even a Darth Vader aspect to that character and the ending fist fight scene at the climax is also poking fun at Hollywood action films which generally go for over the top destructive explosions while filming action sequences, Man of Steel for eg. It is not really a fist fight, but just two guys finding out who can survive when they are just punching the other's face in a round robin basis. That is just as anit-climactic that you can possibly get. 

Overall, it is a great watch but might not be suitable for everyone. If you are familiar with Miike's work, you might be taken aback by its relative light-naturedness. I generally find his films to be in the very good category without being great but the genre films that he is churning out lately have been quite great. But I do think it is an acquired taste and you should be familiar with his work to enjoy the humor in Yakuza Apocalypse. 

Rating: 4/5

Friday, November 6, 2015

Ben (2015)

Director: Vipin Atlee
Writer:    Vipin Atlee
Cast:       Gaurav Menon, Adish Praveen, Suraj Venjaramoodu, Anjali Upasana, Nila Noushad
Language: Malayalam

Film revolves around the titular character Ben (Gaurav Menon) and holds a mirror to society. It delves into things like goodness of Joint families, badness of nuclear families, goodness of small schools, badness of English medium schools for upper-middle-class and Kerela society's propensity to resort to God and religion which inevitably pushes them into the exploiting arms of religious freaks, Godmen/Godwomen etc.

As can be seen from the synopsis, the film is not a fan of subtlety. I prefer films to deal with things like these in a subtle manner which is not to say that you cannot make good films by being deliberately unsubtle. K. G. George's comedy classic 'Panchavadipalam' is a prime example for that. In 'Ben', debutant director Vipin Atlee, has made a conscious decision to have cartoonish characters and unsubtle treatment. Problem for me is that the funny bits are not funny enough and you get a sense that he is trying to have a rant through the medium against things that he thinks need attention. He has stated in an interview that the film and its story is very close to him as it is autobiographical and I would presume he might be the peripheral elder cousin. It does carry the 'Based on a True Story' tag on its sleeve. That can be an excuse for going over the top since the audience give you some leeway automatically. I just feel that he over-played his hand. It is another one of these social message films with some relevance and can be a decent watch for its target audience. 

The largely unknown cast does a decent job and the kids in it have a certain rawness which is good. Film is technically good with dynamic camera movements. The exploitative religious characters and such sequences are done quite well and the film could get some fillip if there is some unwarranted protests against it. It is not really a children's film and could become a TV hit in future.

Rating: 2/5

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Exorcist (1973)

Director: William Friedkin
Writer:   William Peter Blatty 
Cast:       Ellen Bustyn, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair, Jason Miller

When a teenage girl is possessed by a mysterious entity, her mother seeks the help of two priests to save her daughter. 

I had seen this film when I was about 12 and was scared shitless. That was not such a big deal back then since any decent quality horror film would have done the same at those sort of age. Once you grow up and become rational, horror films don't work that well for you on a getting scared level and the same thing happened to me. I am not a big fan of horror films these days and the ones that I end up enjoying tend to be 'Psychological Thrillers', which doesn't go all supernatural on us. Last year's 'The Babadook', a film championed by William Friedkin himslef, was one such film and you can pretty well explain that one as it happening inside the minds of the two protagonists- mother and son. My recollection of The Exorcist was that of it being a supernatural story and I really didn't feel the need to revisit it even though I became a big fan of Friedkin over the years after watching To Live and Die in LA, Sorcerer, French Connection and Killer Joe. Mark Kermode, film critic, frequently cites 'The Exorcist' as his favorite film of all time. That and general boredom led me to finally take the plunge and revisit the film.

I don't know if I am talking absolute bollocks, but I think Friedkin is playing a huge prank on our skepticism towards horror films and all things supernatural. The mother character is not at all religious and when her daughter starts behaving oddly the doctor explains it as caused by a lesion in her temporal lobe. The scans reveals nothing and the doctors recommend 'Exorcism' as a last resort, acknowledging it as a placebo technique. On the other side you have a priest, Father Karras, who is a qualified psychiatrist. He is suffering a crisis of faith and is grieving, with guilt, the death of her mother who died old and alone. He is bewildered when the mother approaches him, asking for exorcism. Like us the viewers, he is also skeptical about supernatural things and thinks her daughter's ailment is purely psychological. It is quite a habit to check who all are in a room witnessing when something seemingly supernatural happens in horror films. This is so as to explain events as hallucinations/psychological, and till the last exorcism part of the film, I could only put the mother as sole witness to unexplainable things in the film. So you can still possibly have 'The Babadook' explanation for it. But it goes apeshit during the final exorcism and it lands like a slap in your face when she defies gravity. It also does the same for Father Karras who finally accepts that they are dealing with the devil/supernatural indeed. So, the father character, is representing us in the story and we see the film from his perspective.  

So, to sum up, it is indeed great and is not just a horror film. Performances are excellent and the atmosphere it creates is terrific. The special effects and make ups have aged very well which is remarkable. Mike Oldfield's 'Tubular Bells' is used sparingly than I thought considering the fact that it achieved its legendary status due to its association with this film. The film was an adaptation of William Peter Blatty's 1971 novel with the same name. It was the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture Academy award but lost out to 'The Sting'. Yup, Mind-boggling!!! Begrman's 'Cries and Whispers' was also nominated.

Rating: 5/5

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

ലുക്കാ ചുപ്പി (Lukka Chuppi) (2015)

Director: Bash Mohammed
Writer:    Gafoor Arackkal
Cast:       Jayasurya, Murali Gopi, Ramya Nambeeshan, Joju George, Muthumani, Chinnu Kuruvila, Dinesh Prabhakar, Asmita Sood

The film delves into the lives of a group of married couples over an evening and a night as they get together after a gap of fourteen years. All the husbands and one of the wives among the characters had studied together in college and another lady friend of theirs, on whom the host (Murali Gopi) is infatuated with, joins them pretty late. The chemistry between all of them causes problems for the other two wives who are pretty much outsiders. 

Lukka Chuppi is pretty much set in one location, a river-side resort home, after the initial five minutes. That kind of adds to the claustrophobia and it did remind me of 'Bheja Fry', even though the nature of comedy is much more subtle. The quality of making is evident during the opening credits itself as the way the sound is mixed reminded me of Annayum Rasoolum (Yeah, dialogues are quite hard to decipher). It was thus no surprise to me when I saw Resul Pookkutty, Oscar Winner, credited for sound design. Sync-sound was used in the film and I deeply regret not catching it at the cinemas. It was released a week after Premam and, unsurprisingly, it didn't do well at all in the financial sense amidst all the hysteria surrounding Premam. If you suppose that married people are its chief target audience, then it was anyway hard to get them to see it at the cinemas since it is not suitable for children as they will certainly get bored.

I was not really that enamored by the trailer since there have been many cringy get-together films recently. The trailer doesn't really convey the realism in the film and kind of hides the marital tensions aspect of it. Decided to watch it based on a recommendation from a friend (not that dependable) and the fact that it got selected in the Indian Panorama section of Goa Film Festival swung it for me. Performances in it are excellent (Asmita Sood kind of stick out like a sore thumb) and the script is really good with very life-like interactions and dialogues. It earns enough credit in the bank during the first half of the film to tolerate some of the things and contrivances that they include in the second half. The Indrans character was not really needed and it did look awkward compared to the rest of the film. I would have preferred if they ended it in an 'everything got fucked up' manner instead of the happily resolved ending that we get. 

Overall, it is a great watch with great technical quality and excellent performances. The director and writer made their debut with this film and I hope to see them again in future. Lukka Chuppi was picked up by Prithviraj's 'August Cinema' for distribution and I commend him for taking the risks that he is taking with his production house. He doesn't do safe films, unlike other actors who get into production and distribution, and you can more or less watch a film just for the fact that 'August Cinema' is associated with it. Not to say that I liked all of their films but they are all worth giving a go/chance.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

In a World... (2013)

Director: Lake Bell
Writer:    Lake Bell
Cast:       Lake Bell, Fred Melamed, Michaela Watkins

An underachieving voice coach finds herself competing in the movie trailer voice-over profession with her father and his protege.  

The title of the film comes from the phrase that we hear at the start of many film trailers, especially the post-apocalyptic variety. The idea for the film came for Lake Bell when she noticed that all trailers feature male voice-overs except for 'Gone in 60 Seconds', which used Melissa Disney. She decided to write a story in which a female protagonist sought to overcome this prejudice. I am not a big fan of watching trailers since it is a trend in recent times to reveal too much and spoil the actual film. So it is a relief when you actually see a good one and the recent Mad Max: Fury Road trailer was one such example, using as an excuse to post a link to it.

In a World is essentially a feel-good comedy film and it is a genre which can always use niche settings to bring some freshness to it without appearing to be too cheesy. It is not to say that this film adheres firmly to the genre stereotypes at a core level. Most of the characters in it are connected to this voice-over business and the film really doesn't have any overly dramatic moments. Everything is done in a matter-of-fact way, which is always welcome, and the characters are sufficiently quirky and awkward. One might assume from the synopsis that it is trying to make a women's rights/feminist statement in an 'In Your Face' manner and that is not how it deals with it. Protagonist wants to do it just because  she is good at it and want to make a career out of it. When it is announced that she got the big gig in a newly launched franchise, it is a lady executive that is doing the announcement. When the protagonist gets a chance to thank her for giving her the gig, the executive flatly states that she got it not because she was the best candidate for the job but to make a statement to all the girls out there who are watching the trailer. That is just a very clever way of portraying 'contradictions' and debates surrounding the movement. 

In a World is a great watch. It is not just unique in terms of the background of its characters but also because of its non-conformity wrt the genre. Performances are all great and it is a great directorial debut for Lake Bell also considering the fact that she also played the principal protagonist. It was filmed over 20 days in LA and was very well-received at the Sundance Film Festival. It was also a financial success, grossing close to $3m on a less than million dollar budget. 

Rating: 4/5

Monday, November 2, 2015

Man Up (2015)

Director: Ben Palmer
Writer:    Tess Morris
Cast:       Simon Pegg, Lake Bell, Olivia Williams

A single woman who's mistaken for for a stranger's blind date, leads to her finding the perfect boyfriend. Sounds really cringy, doesn't it?

Ben Palmer had previously directed 'The Inbetweeners Movie', which I didn't like very much and I hadn't seen the TV series TBF. Man Up is a good one-time watch romantic comedy. The basic premise is of course very contrived, especially the stalker from the past part, but there are enough laughs in it to sustain you till the end. I haven't yet seen Simon Pegg in a bad role (He was alright in MI:3 even). Man Up was co-produced by BBC films and Amazon Prime along with others and the market that Simon Pegg commands and the success of 'The Inbetweeners Movie' should have been reasons enough for them to produce it. I hadn't seen Lake Bell prior to this and she was really good as well. She seems to have directed and starred in 'In a World', which looks interesting (obtaining it as we speak). 

To sum up, it is a nice movie to watch in a relaxed mood with sufficient amount of laughs in it. If you are enjoying it then you'll find the ending charming as well, despite its predictability. I didn't really care much for the supposedly deep things they are saying but it is not done in a manner where you're supposed to take it very philosophically, as they are drunk while having those conversations. Romantic comedies are really hard to do very well and it is a good effort indeed. The title of the film is ironically more significant for the lady lead in it. It was also good to see nighttime London in a different color tone, compared to the usual way it is filmed. That said, the color tone used is indeed the stereotypical one for rom-coms.

Rating: 3/5

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The End of the Tour (2015)

Director: James Ponsoldt
Writers:  Donald Margulies, David Lipsky
Cast:       Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg

The story of the five-day interview between Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky and acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace, which took place right after the 1996 publication of Wallace's groundbreaking epic novel, 'Infinite Jest'.

I really had no idea about what the film was exactly going to be and things like Rolling Stone and Tour from the title led me to believe that it was something about the band which goes by the same name (Not really a fan of theirs except for 'Sympathy for the Devil'). When I started watching it, I slowly recalled hearing the name David Foster Wallace related to something the director Paul Thomas Anderson had said in an interview. It turns out that was from the WTF podcast that he did with Marc Maron and Wallace had taught Paul Thomas Anderson English briefly when he was in Boston. 

I don't know how the film would be for those who are familiar with DFW's books but what I took out from the film was mostly the dynamics between an interviewer and his subject when there is an element of fanboyishness. It is common to have such a dynamic in many of these interviews and that can come in the way of being objective about things. While the Lipsky character is pressured by his editor to get something juicy for the article, he himself is trying to rein in on his fanboyishness and jealousy. As for the interview subject, David Foster Wallace, he is conflicted and guarded about how much honest he wants to be for the interview. He is someone who has always struggled with depression and was on a suicide watch when he was 28. He is 34 now and the interviewer is 30. The film doesn't really try to completely explain the personality of its subject but rather give an honest account of their conversations and we are free to glean whatever from it. I saw it more as a journalistic film rather than a dissection of DFW. It turns out that the interview was not actually published until after his suicide death in 2008.

It is a great watch overall and a unique film. It is really a cerebral kind of film and the 90s is recreated with great authenticity. The winter Illinois setting reminded me of 'Fargo', which I should be rewatching. Performances are really good and Jason Segel conveyed the awkwardness very well. I think I should try to read 'Infinite Jest' at some point in near future.

Rating: 4/5