Tuesday, May 31, 2016

ഉത്തരം (Utharam) (1989)

Director: Pavithran
Writers:  M. T. Vasudevan Nair, Daphne du Maurier
Cast:      Mammootty, Sukumaran, Parvathi, Suparna
Language: Malayalam

One fine morning, not any different from every other day, a promising poet shoots herself. Leaving no trace of motive, her husband's best friend and journalist, Balu embarks on a journey to find the truth.

The film is an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's short story called 'No Motive'. Since it doesn't have a wiki entry, I cannot really comment on whether they deviated too much from its plot. In general, film adaptations work best when the source material is a short story rather than a novel because more often than not, it will involve some universe expansion through adaptation. When it is from a novel, plenty of things get lost due to the constraints of the medium which normally means length limitation and also inner thoughts through perspective narration. I haven't seen any of MT's works quite recently and plan to explore it further, especially with his films that are set in contemporary times (not a big fan of Malayalam period films). He was a formidable force in Malayalam film industry, during what was considered as its peak, and him and Padmarajan were two blokes who came into it from a literature background though both were from very different generations. Unlike Padmarajan, he largely restricted himself into script writing and directed only a few films.

Coming back to the film at hand, it is an excellent watch and can be considered as a mystery thriller which moves at a very leisure pace. Mammootty is at his best when he plays polished intellectuals, like he does in this film, or boastful and insecure rich guys (വേദനിക്കുന്ന കോടീശ്വരൻ). As he begins investigating her past life, the things gets pieced together only gradually and there is no big twist or anything or what can be considered as twists does't feel like them because the film develops in such a fashion. I would have preferred a slightly different and less conclusive ending, with something just triggering a memory from her past instead of the improbable meeting that the film has now (I mean what are the chances !!). They could have taken the easy way out by leaving Parvathi's character out from the unfortunate incident but they quite bravely opt to give some sort of ambiguity to her plight and her memories. It is a great watch with excellent performances from all concerned.

PS: Malayalam filmmakers really knew how to do mystery genre right during those days and these days, it just means shitty twists and lengthy expositions at the end....

Rating: 4.5/5

Monday, May 30, 2016

Kes (1969)

Director: Ken Loach
Writers:  Barry Hines, Ken Loach, Tony Garnett
Cast:       David Bradley, Brian Glover, Freddie Fletcher

A young, English working-class boy spends his free time caring for and training his pet falcon which he doesn't really consider as a typical pet.

The film is an adaptation of Barry Hines' 1968 novel 'A Kestrel for a Knave' and was the first major film directed by Ken Loach. In what was a spooky coincidence, he won Palme D'Or at Cannes just after I had finished watching this film which was on my watch-list for so long. The only other film that I had seen of his previously was the Cillian Murphy starring 'The wind that Shakes the Barley' which was quite brutal. Kes is also quite brutal, all things considered, even though not in the same way. Billy is raised by his single mother and got a an elder brother who is sort of the bully of his house. He also gets plenty of bullying in his school even though he is not portrayed as the typical victim in these circumstances. He can take care of himself and doesn't have a care in the world, except for the falcon that he acquires and trains using a stolen book. His non-conformity in terms of what is expected of a working class kid makes him a target for many. It basically deals with how it is for a kid from his background where all his aspirations, not in a melodramatic way, are broken down gradually due to his circumstances and surroundings. 

When it comes to it, the fate of Kes is quite predictable but that does't really affect your perception of the film. The performances from all are great and especially the kid. Film is quite bleak visually keeping in with its theme. Its story is something that would be made in a quite melodramatic fashion if it was an American film. Ken Loach and Mike Leigh are considered as the torch-bearers of what can be considered as neo-realism in British film industry. I am more familiar with the work of the latter and 'Naked' is among my all-time favorite. 

Rating: 5/5

Friday, May 20, 2016

കമ്മട്ടിപ്പാടം (Kammatti Paadam) (2016)

Director: Rajeev Ravi
Writer:    P. Balachandran
Cast:      Dulquer Salman, Vinayakan, Manikandan
Language: Malayalam

Rajeev Ravi's third feature film tells the story of a bunch of boys from an area in Ernakulam called Kammatti Paadam. They grew up to be what is colloquially called as members of a 'Quotation Team', a euphemism for the low rung enforcers of local mafia.  The story follows them from their childhood to teenage years and then to mid-twenties and finally to when they are in their 40s. 

The title, Kammatti Paadam, refers to an area of Ernakulam which lies to the back of KSRTC Bus Stand. It is basically a tale of the growth of the city told from the perspective of its main protagonists, characters played by Dulquer and Vinayakan. Film begins in the present with Dulquer struggling to stay alive in a bus to Ernakulam with a stab wound. The backstory is told using a well-known concept of 'Life flashes before your eyes just about when you are about to die' and the recent Malayalam film, James & Alice, is another one which employed the same. The basic concept of the film can be summed up as a representation of 'Gentrification' of Ernakulam city told through a bunch of characters who get gentrified in their life due to it. They were part of it both as people who helped in displacing the original people to make way for high-rise buildings and also as victims who got nowhere in their lives even as they were just used up by their paymasters. 

A title of 'Once upon a time in Kammatti Paadam' would have been quite fitting for this film as it shares a lot with Sergio Leone's 'Once upon a time in America' in both its characterization and the way the story is told. It is also another film which begins its back-story through its main protagonist's memories as he lies in his deathbed. Only difference is that in Rajeev Ravi's film, the characters remain slumdogs. Another film that one would be reminded of is the Brazilian one- 'City of God' in terms of its rawness and the characters played by both Vinayakan and Manikandan, who revels in his role as the eldest gangster among them, would remind you of couple of characters from it. 

It is overall a great watch even though the strength of the central relationship between Krishnan (Dulquer Salman) and Ganga (Vinayakan) is not quite convincing. I also had issue with some of the lazy narration in it, especially during scenes where some of the characters in the present tell Krishnan about when they had last seen Ganga. These are some things you would never expect from a Rajeev Ravi film who is quite known for his aversion to traditional narrative techniques. I also felt the light-weightness of Dulquer's acting in many occasions. Rajeev Ravi is known for his tremendous casting of supporting characters and this one is no different with plenty of excellent new actors in it. One doesn't need to wax lyrical about cinematography in his films as it is quite understood how it is gonna be. Both his previous films, Annayum Rasoolum and Njan Steve Lopez, had quotation teams as characters and their influence in the films grew as he moved from former to latter. In his third film, they occupy almost the entire story. It is the least Rajeev Ravisque film out of the three and his weakest effort but it is still a great watch.

PS: It is quite ironic to see Dulquer Salman occupying almost all the space in its posters when it can be argued that Vinayakan is its central character. Maybe that is quite apt since the film is mainly about people who fall by the wayside.

Rating: 4/5

Monday, May 16, 2016

Er ist wieder da (Look Who's Back) (2015)

Director: David Wnendt
Writers:  David Wnenedt, Mizzi Meyer, Johannes Boss, Minna Fischgartl, Timur Vermes
Cast:       Oliver Masucci, Thomas M. Koppl, Marc-Marvin Israel
Language: German

Adolf Hitler wakes up in the 21st century. He quickly gains media attention, but whereas Germany finds him hilarious and charming, Hitler makes some serious observations about society.

The premise is that a struggling TV director finds him wandering the streets and thinks of making a show where, what he thinks of as a very good Hitler impersonator, will interact with German people. Hitler finally gets a show for himself where he is making his own honest observations which strikes a chord with the German people considering the migrant situation that Germany is facing today. The film was released in October 2015, just about the time migrant crisis was getting worse. So, the film is very effective in holding a mirror to the current German attitude and points out how easily it can degenerate into fascism. 

It is a very funny film and I guess some of the laughter it will generate in Europe will be the nervous kind. It is filmed in 'Borat' style and there are plenty of other cinematic references as well. There is one scene which reminded me of 12 Monkeys and it even got a Western themed and styled sequence. There is also this inevitable 'Donwfall' parody scene which I think almost everyone has seen on YouTube in one form or the other. The whole thing about the ambitious female TV programming head championing the totally questionable show is a play on Sidney Lumet's 'Network' as well.

Overall it is a great watch with a tremendous central performance from Oliver Masucci. They could have easily played it safe by making Hitler a totally ridiculous character. The film was a big box office success in Germany, surprising many, and one could say that Germany has matured enough to be self-critical using Hitler as a very relatable character. I don't know if the film was made in a social experimental semi-documentary manner, like 'Under the Skin', because there are many faces from the streets which are blacked out. Wouldn't surprise me if many of the characters shown in the film are their real selves. The funniest sequence in the film is Hitler getting beaten up by Neo-Nazis. The subtitles that I had was not the best and so some of the jokes might have been lost in translation.

Rating: 4/5 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Writers:  Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, Damien Chazelle
Cast:       John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallaghar Jr.

After getting in a car accident, a woman  is held in a shelter with two men, who claim the outside world is affected by a widespread chemical attack. 

It is a very enjoyable genre-bender of a film which doesn't take itself too seriously. There is an element of misdirection running throughout it as the director wants the audience to expect it to be one thing and pulling the rug out from underneath them quite often. It is not done in a disingenuous fashion as the clues given from the beginning itself are quite consistent. So the less watchful ones among the audience might think of what happens towards the end as a big twist when it was quite obviously not. If it didn't head in that direction then the film would have quite easily fallen off a cliff reminding one of a certain Manoj Night Shyamalan film. The reaction from the protagonist during those sequences are done in a way to mirror the audience's who didn't see it all coming. 

Overall, it is a very good watch and John Goodman is always ace. One criticism that one could make is that the character of John Gallaghar Jr. is quite poorly and lazily constructed and the interactions between the three characters in the claustrophobic environment doesn't develop any sort of complexity. Good thing about the film is that it doesn't stop itself to explain everything for the audience, especially towards the end. It ends in a  manner which sets up possible sequels to it (hopefully won't end up happening). I haven't seen the original Cloverfield film to make any comparisons but from what I have heard this one is supposedly superior. Damien Chazelle was supposed to direct it but he got himself the funding for 'Whiplash' and dropped out. Those who liked this film should also check-out 'Daybreakers', from the makers of 'Predestination'. 

Rating: 3.5/5

Son of Saul (2015)

Director: Laszlo Nemes
Writers:  Laszlo Nemes, Clara Royer
Cast:       Geza Rohrig, Levente Molnar, Urs Rechin
Language: Hungarian

In the horror of 1944 Auschwitz, a prisoner forced to burn the corpses of his own people finds moral survival upon trying to salvage from the flames the body of a boy he takes for his son. It is quite obvious that he knows that it is not really his son, if at all he had a son to begin with, and it is a coping mechanism for the guilt that he has for having his life spared for now by taking up a role as a 'Sonderkommando'. He insists on finding a Rabbi to give a proper burial for what he presumes to be his son.

The film tells the story from a point of view, I think, has not been previously explored in films about Holocaust. It is filmed in an extreme closeup fashion, maybe due to budgetary constraints and as a way to not overly concentrate on the grimness of his surroundings in a manipulative manner. Make no mistake, the film is a good watch, but comes with an overratedness factor that is quite common for Holocaust films. It is second year in a row that a Holocaust film has won the Academy award in the Best Foreign Film category, with the last one being Ida- a patently undeserved choice considering the strong competition that it had. One can't help but think about that Extras episode in which Ricky Gervais advises Kate Winslet to do a Holocaust film to finally win an Oscar. 2015 has been quite an average year and I haven't seen any of the other competing films in this category, except for Mustang, to authentically commend on whether 'Son of Saul' deserved the award. 

Son a Saul is a good watch but I really don't get the near perfect rating that it seems to be getting from almost all the critics. It took me three sittings to finish the film and I didn't watch it in a tired sleepy manner. Don't know if that is my fault or the film's. I didn't care that much for the central performance and the whole Rabbi thing didn't convince me either. 

Rating: 3/5

Thursday, May 5, 2016

James & Alice (2016)

Director: Sujith Vasudev
Writer:    Dr. S. Janardhanan
Cast:       Prithviraj, Vedhika
Language: Malayalam

James is an orphan and an artist without a steady job. Alice belongs to a wealthy family and whose father objected to his daughter getting married to a person without, what society considers as, stability. They decide to get married anyway and the marriage ends up compromising both of them as James have to settle for directing low grade commercials while being not all that happy with his life overall. The film begins in the present with them having a kid aged 6 years and their marriage in crisis. The backstory is told through flashbacks during the first half.

Sujith Vasudev is the latest in following the Malayalam cinema trend of cinematographers becoming directors. Usually they follow a visual way of telling a story and gives less importance to script. James and Alice is not such a case as, even though the visuals are striking, the story is largely told through the spoken language. Film deals with a subject and is presented in a style that is quite hard normally to pull off but it manages to do so quite effectively. There is enough clues in the trailer to suggest that an accident is involved as a pivotal point  and it happens just before the interval. This is where Sujith Vasudev, the cinematographer, shows off his skills. The second half of the film takes a turn which is quite familiar for Malayalees now after the success of Renjith's 'Pranchiyettan & the Saint'. It is then a look back at their life and how things could have been.

The best thing about the film is that you don't get a binary portrayal of the chief protagonists like in most Malayalam/Indian films. The first half is done in such a style that audience will find both James and Alice to be quite culpable for the state their marriage is in. Since it is told largely from the perspective of James, we might feel that he is quite hard done by Alice. But this works well in the second half as it is kind of told from the other side even though we still see it through James' eyes albeit with the intervention of a third person. The accident takes place while they are on the verge of a divorce and even during the divorce proceedings it is as if James is willing it to happen even though it is Alice who is taking the initiative.    

Overall it is a very good watch which deals with a subject matter that is very less dealt with well by Malayalam films. There is enough complexity to it characters to make them appear three-dimensional. The second half of the film could have very well turned out to be very preachy but there is enough cynicism from James to make it appear as if it is not. At close to 165 minutes, it is quite longer than it should be by about 20 minutes. The first two or three songs in it were helpful in moving the story forward but the ones that follow are quite problematic during the second half as we start to feel the length of the film. The background music is also quite overbearing at times but the theme music used in the trailer is quite good. The performances from all concerned are surprisingly excellent even though Prithviraj is still playing his normal smug mode in the first half. It will be box office success if the family audience takes to it which they should do, ideally. 

Rating: 3.5/5