Sunday, May 31, 2015

Bamako (2006)

Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
Writer:    Abderrahmane Sissako
Cast:       Aissa Maiga, Tiecoura Traore, Maimouna Helene
Language: French, Bambara, English

The film depicts a trial taking place in Bamako,  the capital of Mali, amid the daily life that is going on in the city. The two sides argue whether the World Bank and IMF are guided by special interest of developed nations, or whether it is corruption and the individual nations' mismanagement, that is guilty of the current financial states of many poverty-stricken African countries as well as the rest of the poor underdeveloped world.

The central idea of the film, aid given to African countries which end up as debt in their balance sheet does more harm to these countries and their people than good, has been tackled in mainstream media prior to this and there have been books devoted to the same. The film conveys this idea in a play like fashion with the fake court procedure. It doesn't quite descend into the age old debate of Capitalism Vs Socialism and those who are making the case against the banks states the importance of public institutions like schools, hospitals, transportation etc for the prosperity of their people. Giving them loans and insisting on privatization of these things do more harm than good. 

The book 'Why Nations Fail' provides the best explanation for why many of the poor nations remain poor. It states that capitalism is indeed the best solution but for it to succeed, you need strong institutions and property reforms to ensure that there is enough at stake for the people to make democracy work. If that is not the case, then whatever the development banks try to push through as structural reforms will end up enriching the private contractors from developed world and the elite of the poor countries. It will do fuck all good for the people. I am not in the camp which states that IMF, World Bank etc are pursuing this as an agenda but this is how it ends up and you have decades of evidence for the same. What you see looking from outside is continuation of imperialism but this time in the financial form and you end up with issues like terrorism and immigration. It is a bit rich of developed countries to complain about these issues when they have a very big hand in the creation of the same. If you are so adamant about globalization with free movement of capital, then why balk at the prospect of immigration which is essentially free movement of labor.

Overall the film is a good watch but I didn't care much for the non-court scenes in the film and its symbolism which included a Western genre film within the film. There are better documentaries dealing with the same issue and one episode in Adam Curtis' 'Pandora's Box' which essentially deals with the same topic in a more informed manner. But a feature film will always attract more attention if done well and this managed to do so by getting released at Cannes film festival. 

Rating: 3/5

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Back to the Future (1985)

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writers:  Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale
Cast:       Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Le Thompson

A young man is accidentally sent 30 years into the past in a time-travelling DoLorean invented by his friend, Dr. Emmett Brown, and must make sure his high-school-age parents unite in order to save his own existence.

This is one of those films that almost everyone have seen and I hadn't yet. I have caught bits of it on TV but never watched it in its entirety. Raging Bull is also another one of these. It came one year after the release of 'The Terminator', which is really the first mainstream hit with time travel as its major theme. It was also used in 'Planet of the Apes' but Time Travel aspect of the film was more of a twist rather than it being the major theme of the film. So in the 80s, you had two successive time-travel hits in two different genres-action and comedy. Both are indeed considered as all time classics even though the first Terminator is rated inferior to its sequel by many, which I don't agree with.  

As for Back to the Future, it is a very good watch but I really didn't think it was all that great. That is not because it not aging gracefully, it has, but because the whole Steven Spielberg vibe of the film is something that don't sit well with me. The film was produced by him with Zemeckis as the director and the whole redneck 'American Dream conformity' family thing is just an irritation for me. That is only a minor point and it is a film that is part of many people's childhood memories and I can totally understand why many just love it. By the by, I am also not a big fan of Indiana Jones franchise and I do think these are  films that you will appreciate to the full extent only if you were part of that time period. 

The film has McFly travelling back in time and accidentally preventing the first meeting of his parents. To his horror, his mother has a crush on him, and his whole existence depend on making sure that his parents end up together. One could actually make a really dark film having similar story line but with the crush going the other way, creating a Freudian Oedipus complex nightmare. There is a film idea for you and the guys who did 'Predestination' might be interested I guess. 

I am not a big fan of Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Cast Away) but I did enjoy 'Flight', which was a proper R-Rated film with adult subject matter. Most of his early films are for children and that is precisely the demography that will love it. There are really small nuggets of historical anachronism in the films like skateboarding in 1955, Ronald Reagan as a political figure etc but none of them have the same impact as Hula Hoops in 'Hudsucker Proxy'. There are three films in the franchise with Zemeckis directing all of them. First one was the highest grossing film in 1985 and other two, which were back to back productions, didn't quite achieve the same level of success. 

Rating: 3.5/5

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Timbuktu (2014)

Director: Adberrahmane Sissako
Writers:  Adberrahmane Sissako, Kessen Tall
Cast:       Ibrahim Ahmmed, Abel Jafri, Toulou Kiki
Langauge: French, Arabic, Bambara. Tamashek

A cattle herder and his family who resides in the dunes of Timbuktu find their quiet lives -- which are typically free of the Jihadists determined to control their faith -- abruptly disturbed. Meanwhile in the town, Jihadists are controlling the people which among other things include- imposing Sharia,  dress codes, ban on music and football, anti-loitering measures etc.

Since the film was released in 2014, it must have been in production before the Islamic State clusterfuck hit the headlines. We have been familiar with their brutality and one could say even desensitized to their acts of violence. The film doesn't go that path by portraying extreme cruelty but does an even more shocking thing by showing them imposing their will on people in a matter of fact way. You will get even more enraged as they are just brainwashed simpletons who can discuss normal things like Messi Vs Zidane while at the same time banning football in places they control. They are so dim that they can't recognize their own hypocrisies. It is all round a funny situation if you think about it-some dickwads from a far off place speaking a language that you don't understand coming to your place to dictate how things should be done for the simple reason that they share the same medieval religion with you. One could say imperialism was the same thing but the colonialists were bit more careful when it comes to respecting the practices in the places that they are ruling so that they can have some stability while looting the place. But these Jihadists want to establish their own practices and you don't need Americans complicating the situation by taking on things like ISIS since their own rule will make their position untenable because of discontent. If the Western countries intervene it will just continue the cycle that they have been responsible for with Iraq War leading to ISIS being only the latest example.

Overall the film is a great watch while being very low-key in its approach. It was nominated for Academy Awards this year in the foreign film category, submission from Mauritania, but lost out to 'Ida'. It won Jury prize at Cannes and was in the running for Palme d'Or. One could even call it as a dark comedy with some of the translation situations underlining the same. It can be seen as a micro-look at the theoretical Caliphate which they are trying to establish.   

Rating: 4/5

Friday, May 22, 2015

Paths of Glory (1957)

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers:  Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham, Him Thompson
Cast:       Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou

When French soldiers in World War One refuse to continue with an impossible attack, their superior officers decide to make an example of them. They choose three soldiers to be court martialed and subsequently killed but their commanding officer, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), decides to defend them against the charge of cowardice in the court-martial. Film is an adaptation of novel with the same name by Humphrey Cobb.

I have been listening to Dan Carlin's podcasts on first world war lately and that acted as a trigger for revisiting this early classic from Stanley Kubrick. There are six episodes in total done by Carlin and they amount to around twenty four hours of engrossing account of the war. I am now onto the fourth episode and chronologically speaking Gallipoli battle is over. What makes Carlin's podcasts very interesting is the same reason that makes Stanley Kubrick's film great. Both of them take time to give a humane account of the war dealing with how it must have felt for the people involved in the trenches. 

Many other sources would have tried to depict something grand about some battle but in this film, the politicking superior officers orders the company to attack and hold a strategic position, which was an impossible task for them. While Col. Dax charges forward with men from his company, another group from the same company does it halfheartedly and then falls back into their trenches. The General goes batshit-crazy and demands 100 men to be shot which the colonel and the general's superior negotiate down to 3. Among the officers in the film, only Col. Dax is shown in a positive light, while almost all others are portrayed as careerists. Trench warfare was something that developed during the first world war and it made the entire Western Front a stagnant one with the front running for about 500 miles from Belgian coast to Switzerland. These soldiers were subjected to unthinkable terror with constant shelling living in the company of dead and wounded. The term shell-shocked was coined during the war but it was recognized as a term for cowardice in stead of the term PTSD that we are familiar with now. Dan Carlin describes that some of the people who were executed for 'cowardice' were convinced that they were doing an act of courage by setting themselves as an example for other troop members and in effect they were told  that they should be proud of dying for France. This aspect is not explored in the film but would have been interesting if Kubrick had pursued that line.

It is a film that is quite underrated when it comes to Kubrick films. He had always tried to convey his anti-war sentiment through his films and this one is the most scathing out of the three, with Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket being the other two, with him not using humor for it. Film was not exactly banned in France but since it was not submitted to French censors due to pressure from the government, it was released there only in 1975. Even Germany postponed the release of the film for two years so as not to strain its relationship with France. Out of all the films of Stanley Kubrick leading up to Dr. Strangelove, Paths of Glory is my favorite. Film is also technically excellent with some great tracking shots and foreboding background score. The German singer who is entertaining the troops during the last scene was Christiane Harlan, who went on to marry Stanley Kubrick and become his partner till death.

Rating: 5/5 

Monday, May 18, 2015

നീന (Nee-Na) (2015)

Director: Lal Jose
Writer:    R. Venugopal
Cast:       Deepti Sati, Vijay Babu, Ann Augustine
Language: Malayalam

A married couple finds tension in their relation and life due to the intervention of an alcoholic and impulsive young woman. That IMDB synopsis don't quite capture the essence of the film as the tensions in the marriage remains in the background while it is more about the dynamics of the relationship between the boss (Vijay Babu) and his tomboy colleague Nina (Deepti Sati). 

Lal Jose is an old school director in Malayalam who has managed to get quite a few super-hits under his belt by adhering to the tired old cliched formula of the industry which he manages to gloss over by making people feel that the outer skins of his films are a bit different. Upon scratching you will realize that most of them are the age-old melodramatic moralizing bullshit. I have never been a fan of his and the only films that I thought to be half decent were 'Classmates' and 'Arabikatha'. The title 'Nee-Na' is supposedly after the names of the two female characters and the film is considered to be Lal Jose's attempt to get with the times by adopting the so-called 'New-Generation' approach. It has an alcoholic female lead and some mature handling of certain situations without the melodramatic nonsense and so in that sense it is indeed a step forward for Lal Jose.

The first half of the film can best summed up as a retelling 'Ulladakkam', a film directed by Kamal to whom Lal Jose himself had served as assistant director for quite a few years, It is done quite well with convincing performances. The back-story of Neena is given by the end of the half and she is apparently a kid born to parents who wanted a son. Her father dresses her like a boy and she grew up being friends with boys from a slum near her home (kind of inverse of Lal Jose's transvestite film 'Chandupottu'). As she grows up her father, who had encouraged her tom-boyishness while she was young, starts trying to control her life while she  hates being a girl. Along the way she picks up her addiction for drinks and smoke and an irreverence towards authority and people in general. Neena sees her new boss as the cooler version of her dad from her younger days and she falls in love with him- a subtle allusion to Freudian Electra complex. The film develops from there with a trip to de-addiction center after an attempted suicide and ends with a resolution to its triangular relationship.

Second half of the film has Lal Jose going back to his default old school methods to some extent but overall it is a very good watch. There is one scene where the wife talks to her crying maid, who surprise surprise is in a similar situation, and it is pure cringe. This is another one of those cliched situations in Malayalam films. There is also a stream of 'interesting' personalities in the de-addiction center which again is Lal Jose going back to his default mode. But overall he does it with enough restraint that you come out of it with a good feeling. There is a slight twist in the end which I thought was totally unnecessary and completely alters our perception about it. I would've preferred it going with the idea of Neena losing the infatuation she has for her boss when the latter becomes more controlling like her dad did.

Unlike most Lal Jose films, there aren't many songs in it and the ones that are there moves the story forward. At around 150 minutes it is slightly longer than it should be. Cinematography is exquisite and the background music and recurring music themes are stunning. Vijay Babu, whom I am seeing for the first time, is excellent and Deepti Sati, who is making her debut, as Neena is good even though dubbing is quite problematic in some places. Ann Augustine doesn't have much screen-time but handles her role well. There isn't much to talk about the other characters who are just there to support the main characters' stories. Lal Jose could have done plenty of things with a little more subtlety since the film is not gonna be commercially that successful anyway. So to sum up, it is a good watch with some fine central performances but some of Lal Jose's old habits prevent it from being a great film. I hope he goes full retard next time and don't get spooked if the film don't do well financially. 

Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

Director: Matthew Vaughn
Writers:  Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, Mark Millar, Dave Gibbons
Cast:       Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine, Mark Strong

An independent spy organization recruits an unrefined, but promising street kid into agency's ultra-competitive training program, just as a global threat emerged from a twisted tech-genius.

The film works both as an homage as well as spoof on James Bond films from the older times while art the same time poking fun at the the seriousness that have come to the spy-action genre post the success of Jason Bourne films. It goes where James Bond films cannot go with their PG-13 rating and the spoof element of the film gets apparent even as the film progresses. In the initial action sequences blood is not visible but by time it gets to that scene at the church it gets all bloody. At that point the director reveals his intentions to the audience through the conversation that Colin Firth's character have with the cartoonish villain played by Samuel L. Jackson. Film culminates with a very risque joke on a princess' back-doors and that is also a jab at James Bond franchise that has to convey its sensuality while staying within the boundaries of PG-13.

The first 30-40 minutes of the film is quite tepid and the whole theme is based on the class difference between protagonist kid and the establishment and this again is a play on James Bond films with its suave protagonist. It gets more interesting and funnier once the training starts and slowly and surely you realize that it is as much a spoof as it is an homage. The action sequences are intentionally/unintentionally funny and you do have a quite good time watching the film. It is doing to spy-action films what Matthew Vaughns' Kick-Ass did to superhero films while not being nearly as good as Kick-Ass. It works well as a standalone film mind, but, if they indeed go ahead with sequels I do think it will be a bad idea like it was for Kick-Ass 2.

Rating: 3/5

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Ex Machina (2015)

Director: Alex Garland
Writer:    Alex Garland
Cast:       Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Issac, Alicia Vikander

A young programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) is selected to participate in a breakthrough experiment in artificial intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a breathtaking female A.I (Alicia Vikander). The guy who selected him (Oscar Issac) had made money through his search engine business and while all other search engine innovators concentrated on just making money by using it to figure out what people were thinking, he used it to make his A.I by finding out how people think. The experiment that he wants the young programmer to conduct is of course the Turing Test

A.I and the warnings against it have been in the news recently with both Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk expressing concerns about it. We already had a film on the subject last year, the Johnny Depp starrer 'Transcendence', but it was ultimately a misfire with really poor script and performances even though it managed to convey the scale of the problems that humans could encounter with A.I. When put against that film, Ex Machina, is a master class about film making and the importance of the way a story is told to make them work. We are hooked from the first scene itself with an overall mystery surrounding everything and we are second guessing the director almost the whole way through. One can of course say that figuring out the twist is not that difficult considering you are continually trying to outsmart the filmmaker but he gets one over you by not going overboard with the twist. Another great thing he does is that he goes about 'AI being bad' in a matter of fact fashion without  relying on gunfire, explosions and shit like that. At the end of it you don't have a good/bad question regarding the characters in which I include the A.I. There is a moment in film where the programmer does a reverse Turing test by doubting whether he was in fact an A.I by cutting himself up and checking for some machinery inside him. 

Alex Garland was previously involved in Danny Boyle films 28 Days Later and Sunshine and he is making his directorial debut with Ex Machina. It is beautifully shot in a claustrophobic manner even though the house is nestled by exquisite surroundings. Performances are excellent and the expositions are done smoothly considering that there is some explaining to do. I really don't think you need much knowledge about A.I and Turing Test to understand the film but it would help in appreciating the questions and answers coming out of the Turing Test and the their discussion about it. There is even a reference to that famous scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, of Hal watching the two astronomers talk, but this time it is the two A.Is who are talking without us humans hearing what they are saying. Overall it is a magnificent watch.

Rating: 4.5/5

Friday, May 15, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Mastermind: George Miller
Writers:        George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nico Lathouris
Cast:             Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult

In a stark desert landscape where humanity is broken, two rebels just might be able to restore order: a man of action and of few words, and Furiosa, a woman of action who is looking to make it back to her childhood homeland.

So, in the fourth installment of the franchise, Max is captured and ends up as a universal blood donor prisoner of the dictator/Godman Immortan Joe. His blood is used by Kamikaze soldiers who always talk about Valhalla and greets death with glee which kind of makes them Jihadists of sorts. Joes's place is called Citadel that contains a water source which the Lord controls and markets as Aqua Cola. Furiosa smuggles the young wives of the dictator on a supply run during which she takes a detour to her homeland called Green Place. All hell breaks loose and Joe and his entire band of soldiers, with his metal band  featuring a fire breathing guitar/ist, chase them and the film is just that- a very long chase and maybe they should have called it Mad Max: There and Back Again. During the chase, Max ends up in Furiosa's war rig and at first they don't trust each other but eventually becomes a team along with Max's blood recipient Nux (Nicholas Hoult). 

Film is two hours long which makes it about 30 minutes longer than other Mad Max films. It is in 3D, of which I am not a fan, but it didn't bother me much. There are some scenes which makes you flinch covering your face with hands. I wish it was a bit less dark so that I could enjoy fully the Namibian desert where they shot the film. It is the best of what you expect from a Mad Max film and leave you with giddy smiles plenty of times during the film. Charlize Theron is really the lead of the film, with it having a feminist approach, and that is a breath of fresh air when you put it in context with other shitty action films from recent times where the role of female character is often  restricted to being an eye-candy damsel in distress. Charlize Theron is almost unrecognizable with her military hairstyle and Tom Hardy is fantastic as Mad Max with him giving his own interpretation for the role rather than aping Mel Gibson. 

What I found great about Mad Max 2 (Road Warrior) and Mad Max 3 (Beyond the Thunderdome) were the presence of very morally ambiguous villains and in second one we cannot really call them villains even. That is not the case in Fury Road with Immorten Joe being a ruthless dictator but his followers are more like misguided followers. The action sequences are just insane and it was done apparently done with minimal usage of CGI. That is essential for you to actually enjoy the action since you know that some actual physical effort was put into the whole thing. At the end of the grueling shoot, they had 450 hours of footage and it took 6000 hours of editing to come up with the final cut. Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron were at loggerheads during the shoot and the former was also unhappy with Miller as how the film would end up was not something that Miller could explain properly. But it seems everyone is happy with the end product and it is getting universal acclaim. One minor complaint would be that they changed the side of the steering wheel so as not to spook the American audience.

Overall it a fantastic action film and please don't miss it out during its theatrical run. George Miller is now 70 and he had directed films like Happy Feet during the time period between Thunderdome and Fury Road. It is good to see him back in the action genre putting younger generation directors in their place. (Trivia: After George Miller screened some footage at SXSW film festival, a man stood up and asked: "How the hell did you film that!?" That man was none other than director Robert Rodriguez.) It is as good as Mad Max: The Road Warrior, but I still consider Road Warrior as my favorite out of the lot since it is much more balanced. The first Mad Max film has not aged very gracefully while the third one is a good watch without being great. You don't really need to watch previous ones to enjoy Fury Road and a peek at the trailer would suffice to prepare yourself for what is to come.

Rating: 4.5/5    

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

Director: Joel Coen
Writers:  Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast:       George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Billy Bob Thornton

A revenge-seeking gold digger (Catherine Zeta-Jones) marries a womanizing Beverley Hills lawyer (George Clooney) with the intention of making a killing in the divorce.

It is the first film from Coens that is not set in a period of sorts. Even Big Lebowski was set in 1990 making it not exactly a contemporary set film on its release year 1998. Since Intolerable Cruelty, they have made Burn After Reading, an underrated film of theirs, which was also set in contemporary times. This aspect certainly gives it a different feel, at least initially, to the film when compared to typical Coens film and another novelty was that it was not an original screenplay from them. Film is not looked favorably now even though upon its release it was very well received by the critics. After watching this, it makes 'The Ladykillers' to be the only film from Coens that I have not watched and am not planning to watch that anyway.

It is a pretty good watch overall even though it is not up to their usual standards. George Clooney's role and the story arc is very similar to his character in the film 'Up In The Air' which came much later. There are enough laughs in it till the midway mark and by then you figure out where it is going. Still, the way it gets there is a bit surprising, without going all melodramatic on us, and the killer at the house scene is hilarious. It goes more and more slapstick as it goes on and you could see a bit of 'O Brother' creeping into George Clooney. Film is essentially about cynicism behind pre-nup agreements and I think it should be made mandatory for all marriages so that people don't have to be guilty about demanding it. Guess rationalism is not something you associate with the institution of marriage.

Rating: 3/5

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Writers:    Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Homer (poem Odyssey)
Cast:         George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson

In the deep south during the 1930s. three escaped convicts search for a hidden treasure while a relentless lawman pursues them. 

O Brother is an overlooked film by many when they talk about Coen brothers' filmography and the period after Big Lebowski from 1998 up to release of No Country for Old Men in 2007 is often considered as a lean period for them. Apart from O Brother, they made The Man Who Wasn't There, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers during that period out of which I haven't seen the latter two making them the only Coens films that I haven't seen yet. I saw O Brother some four or so years back and thoroughly enjoyed it. The print that I saw was a shitty one which didn't do justice to the Sepia-toned cinematography done by Roger Deakins and it was quite appropriate for me to revisit it in 720p.  It was the first film to extensively use digital color correction giving it, what fuckwits calls these days, an instagrammed look. 

The less than intellectual characters headed by rationalist played by George Clooney, who is a Dapper Dan man,  is at the center of it and I found them very funny. The level of enjoyments you get out of the film will very much depend on whether you buy George Clooney in his role and I didn't have any problems with it. There is a Forrest Gump feel to the whole thing with it touching upon features of the era it is set in like KKK, depression era politics, radio broadcasts, commercialization of music etc. It is really a charming film and the comedy is not as dark as they are in a typical Coens film. 

Film was quite successful at box office but its soundtrack was a blockbuster spawning a documentary and three follow-up albums. Noted musician and producer T-Bone Burnett, who is familiar for me from his work in True Detective, worked with Coens during the production stage itself. Even though George Clooney practiced his singing for the film, his part was dubbed over using the voice of Dan Tyminski. 

Overall it is great watch and might be up the ale of even those who are not quite fond of Coens. For me, they are in my top five three directors of all time and even possibly by most favorite period. They have tried out almost all the genres out there creating what can be described as classics in those and their broadness in range can be summed up by pointing out that they were behind 'The Big Lebowski' and 'No Country For Old Men'. 

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Jackie Brown (1997)

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writers:  Quentin Tarantino, Elmore Leonard (Novel)
Cast:       Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Robert De Niro, Michael Keaton

Jackie Brown is a crime-drama film adapted for screen by Tarantino from Elmore Leonard's 1992 novel 'Rum Punch'. The story is about a flight attendant, Jackie Brown (Pam Grier), who becomes a key figure in a plot between the Police and an arms dealer (Samuel L. Jackson). 

The rights for the novel was acquired by Tarantino and his writing partner, Roger Avary, after completing Pulp Fiction. They changed the ethnicity of the protagonist from white to black and the treatment they went with for the film was like a homage to Blaxploitation films from the 70s in which Pam Grier herself starred. They didn't inform Elmore of all the changes till a week was left for start of the shoot and the author was extremely happy with the screenplay calling it one of the best he had ever read. This is the only film in which Tarantino has worked with someone else's material and it works well for the film since he kind of went full retard on the self-indulgence quotient in his films that came after this, starting with Kill Bill. I enjoy all his films but in terms of perfection, his first three films are a class apart compared to rest of the films that came after Jackie Brown. 

Like in most of the Tarantino films, it is a comeback of sorts for its lead actors- Pam Grier and Robert Forster. One could possibly say the same for Michael Keaton as well. Maybe the fact that it is adapted from a literary work helps in having lead characters with real depth which cannot be said for the typical Tarantino characters. Film is quite linear with the only major trick that Tarantino used was during the pivotal shopping mall scene where it is shown thrice from the point of view of three different characters one after the other. Plot is kind of complicated but the expositions are done in an expert fashion and they trust the audience to figure out how the plan evolved over the course of unexpected events. This reliance on plot is also a novelty in Tarantino films and one could say that it makes it less re-watchable compared to other films of his since mystery is lost after the first watch. That might be true but the dialog is typical Tarantino and holds up very well on re-watch. I saw it for the first time some seven years back and have rewatched it again once before this. Some people were disappointed with the film, as can be seen from the mixed critical reception, and all the hype after his first two films might have contributed to that. I also didn't like it very much first time round but have come round to appreciate it as one of Tarantino's very best work.

Overall it is a great watch with a terrific soundtrack which is not at all a surprise in Tarantino films. Tarantino tropes like foot fetishness, boot-cam shot etc comes pretty early in the film itself. Robert De Niro's against the type role is a joy to watch. Robert Forster is just magnificent in his understated way and the love story at the center of it the most tender that Tarantino will ever manage to do. As far as my rankings of Tarantino films, 2-4 subject to changes depending on the mood, here it goes:

1) Pulp Fiction
2) Jackie Brown
3) Inglourious Basterds
4) Reservoir Dogs
5) True Romance
6) Kill Bill Vol: 1
7) Kill Bill Vol: 2
8) Deathproof
9) Django Unchained

Rating: 5/5

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Rundskop (Bullhead) (2011)

Director: Michael R. Roskam
Writer:    Michael R. Roskam
Cast:       Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeroen Perceval, Jeanne Dandoy
Language: Flemish, French

The film begins with the following monologue:

"Sometimes in a man's life stuff happens that makes everyone go quiet. So quiet that no one even dares talk about it. Not to anyone, not even to themselves. Not in their head and not out loud. Not a fucking word. Cos everything somehow got stuck.  No matter how long ago it was, there will always be someone to bring it all back. Because no matter what you do or think, one thing is for sure, you're always fucked now, tomorrow, next week or next year, until the end of time, fucked."

It is basically the story of a young cattle farmer, Jacky, who is approached by a veterinarian to make a deal with a notorious beef trader. We are shown, through flashbacks, why the farmer is taking steroids in the same way that he is applying a different set of steroids to his cattle to beef them up. The trigger for the whole thing is him encountering someone from his past during a meet with the beef trader and it sets off a chain of events leading to him getting caught up inadvertently under the Police scanner due to a set of coincidences.

For Matthias Schoenaerts, the role is not very dissimilar from his role in Audiard's 'Rust and Bone', which also was a very physical performance while playing an unhinged character. The director trust the audience very much and doesn't spoon-feed them which helps in utilizing the time very well. It stands at just over two hours in length but you do get a feeling that a plenty have been told during that time with four sets of story strands going on-Jacky's business and his dealings with the beef trader, Jacky's past and his connect with the informant, informant and his dealings with the Police and finally Jacky's personal story with an awkward love interest. The whole of it appears seamless which is something the director should be proud of as it is very easy for him lose the audience either through lame expositions or utter confusion. That said, there is an exposition scene towards the end of the film which was really not needed as it was not that difficult to piece everything together without that itself. 

Overall it is a great watch with a very interesting and unique story line. Michael R. Roskam had directed Tom Hardy starrer 'The Drop', from last year, which was also something that I enjoyed very much. Bullhead was nominated for academy awards in the foreign film category but lost out to 'A Separation'. The highlight of the film is of course the performance from Matthias Schoenaerts who is literally a bullhead in it.

Rating: 4.5/5

Superbad (2007)

Director: Greg Mottola
Writers:  Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg
Cast:       Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Emma Stone

Two co-dependent high school seniors are forced to deal with separation anxiety after their plan to stage a booze-soaked party goes awry. Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg began working on the script when they were 13 years old and finished the first draft by the time they were 15. The characters played by Jonah Hill and Michael Cera are named after Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg respectively.

I had seen it some 6-7 years back and is my favorite out of the frat-pack films by a big margin even though it is an uneven film. The first half of the film is great and is laugh a minute but the second half kind of peters out after the introduction of Seth Rogan and Bill Hader as two cops. Micahel Cera as Seth and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as McLovin are excellent while Jonah Hill is bit of a hit and miss and annoying just like the mood of the character he plays. For Cera, it is basically a reprisal of his role as George Michael from 'Arrested Development'. Both Emma Stone and McLovin were making their debuts with this film.

Overall it is a great watch even though I didn't care much for the latter half of the film. McLovin is the most Memefied character out of the film and he is certainly the most memorable. Micheal Cera's character is the most intelligently written. It is interesting how Jonah Hill's career has panned out from there with him getting some very good and meaty roles lately. Many wouldn't have foresaw 'Academy Award Nominee Jonah Hill' appearing in posters of '22 Jump Street'.

Rating: 3.5/5

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Daybreakers (2009)

Directors: Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig
Writers:    Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig
Cast:        Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill

In the year 2019, a plague has transformed almost every human into vampires. Faced with a dwindling supply of human blood, the fractured dominant race plots their survival; meanwhile, a researcher (Ethan Hawke) works with a covert band of humans survivors led by a former vampire (Willem Dafoe) on way to save mankind. 

The film came at a time when there were numerous vampire films getting released along with the 'Twilight' films. I don't know whether that would have helped or hindered the prospects of this film, nevertheless,  it made a very decent $50 million at the box office on a budget of $20 million. Like Spierig Bros' 2014 film, 'Predestination', this one was also made in Australia. Last year we had three great vampire films which did interesting things with the genre through subversion-Only Lovers Left Alive, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and What We Do In The Shadows. Daybreakers also subvert the genre conventions by setting it at a time when vampires are dominating humans and they themselves are on the brink of collapse due to human extinction. The most valuable resource in this world is human blood and there are firms who farm humans in a very 'Matrix' like fashion and the Pharmaceutical company the researcher works for offers blood substitute. Many directors would have taken the lazy route of explaining this cinematic universe through narration but in Daybreakers things are revealed in a gradual manner, trusting the intelligence of the audience, and this keeps the first hour of the film very interesting. After that it kind of descends into a typical genre film with lots of gore and action sequences. The vampire society is also very much like human society that it replaces, with class stratification, similar kind of blood-sucking corporations etc. 

Overall it is a great watch even though it is not a perfect film. Surprisingly enough, Willem Dafoe was quite underwhelming in this film, and you don't say that about him in almost any other film. It was good to see Sam Neill playing the antagonist role in his typical screen-chewy fashion that I am familiar with from 'Peaky Blinders'. Makeups and effects were quite good and the production value is great considering the budget. It is not as good as Predestination but is still a great watch.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, May 7, 2015

ചിറകൊടിഞ്ഞ കിനാവുകൾ (Chirakodinja Kinavukal) (2015)

Director: Santhosh Viswanath
Writer:    Praveen S
Cast:       Sreenivasan, Kunchacko Boban, Rima Kallingal
Language: Malayalam

We are familiar with films getting adapted out of literature stories from the likes of Shakespeare, Philip K. Dick, Anton Chekhov, Stephen King etc...I guess it is a first, at least in Malayalam film history, where a film is adapted from a kooky story told within five minutes inside another film. Kill Bill was adapted from something said in Pulp Fiction, but that was more of an expansion of the idea rather than a story summarized, which is then fully adapted to a feature film. The said scene, from the film 'Azhakiya Raavanan', is one that has been quoted numerous times since then and is part of Kerala's daily lingo which is a very common phenomena here. Even I thought, before I heard anything about this film, that it would be an interesting idea to develop that story into a feature film. But the problem is how can you make it interesting when all the people know the basic story and the solution that filmmakers found here is to make it as a spoof on cliched aspects of Malayalam film-making techniques from recent times. That makes total sense since Ambujakshan's (Sreenivasan) story, 'Chirakondinja Kinavukal' (Broken Dreams), from Azhakiya Ravaanan was also basically a spoof on 'Painkili' novels from Malayalam weeklies.

Spoof is not a genre that Malayalam film audience is familiar with and one could cite  'Udayananu Thaaram' as a spoof film which went about it in a subtle way. 'Chirakodinja Kinavukal' is anything but subtle and it makes sure that the audience is aware about this from the off through a running commentary. There is a sense of spoon-feeding to this aspect of the film and they could have avoided it in some places and trusted the audience to catch the jokes on their own. On the whole it is quite uneven but there is plenty of laughs to be had and even though I haven't seen many of the films it is laughing at- like Traffic, Bangalore Days, many other so called 'new-gen' films- jokes are accessible which is again another way of saying that it is not subtle. It also makes fun of the old-school style of film making which involves too much melodrama and larger than life characters who are very good at stunts, dancing for no reason and classical music. It doesn't restrict itself to laughing at just the cinema people but also cast a wider net by tackling many of the current affairs in Kerala including the SSLC clusterfuck which happened just over the last two weeks.

Overall it is a good one-time watch that could have worked even better had they cut it by about twenty minutes or so. It is not subtle or all that intelligent but draws enough laughs to justify its tag as a  spoof film. You don't expect much from this genre anyway if you take away classics like 'Funny Games' and 'This is Spinal Tap'. It is a really good effort from all involved as it is quite out of the box for a Malayalam film. Hope it does well so as to encourage more people to take such risks. But I really don't think it will do well because the common Malayalee audience these days have some pre-conceived  idea about how a film should be, which is essentially what this film is mocking. There were about 20 people in the cinema hall for the screening that I was in.

Rating: 3/5

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Writers:    Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby
Cast:         Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford

As Steve Rogers struggles to embrace his role in the modern world, he teams up with another super soldier, the black widow, to battle a new threat from old history; an assassin known as winter soldier.

Am not really familiar with Captain America character and the Marvel universe. I decided to watch this since it got good reviews last year along with X-Men DoFP  and I found the latter to be really great. I didn't even know the actor who was playing the Captain America role and it seems he was the guy who played the lead in 'Snowpiercer'. I found the character Captain America to be really boring and the entire films was a turgid watch. The interactions between the main characters are really forced because of the clunky script and there is no real chemistry between any of them. Expositions are laughably bad. The basic premise of the film was interesting in the post 9-11 homeland security/patriot act US since the conflict in the film is between freedom and security. I have always found modern Utopian kind of future as depicted in films from these days, where you are already aware about the capabilities of CGI, to be quite uninteresting. It was interesting when they did it in Bladerunner where non-CGIed modernity is juxtaposed with Dystopia. But in films like this you get bored pretty quickly with it. I was also not familiar with the previous work from the directors and that is always a bad sign. The directors who have made some worthy films in this area are the ones who have come through independent film background with some strong films: like Bryan Singer (Usual Suspects), Gareth Edwards (Monsters), Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi), Doug Liman (Swingers) and Christopher Nolan (Memento). You really need some strong heads to actually have some gravitas to stand their ground against the studio heads. On the other hand studios prefer novice directors since they can have a control over them. In this film I guess it has been the latter case and it shows in the film.

Overall it is a turgid watch and I really don't know how it got such good reviews. I must be really missing something. I haven't watched the first film in this franchise but I don't think it would have changed anything even if I caught up with that. The only saving grace in the film is some of the action sequences which is interesting basically because it is very physical in nature instead of being a CGI shitfest.

Rating: 1.5/5  

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

Director: Bryan Singer
Writers:  Simon Kinberg, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn
Cast:       Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Peter Dinklage

The X-Men send Wolverine to the past in a desperate effort to change history and prevent an event that results in doom for both humans and mutants. It is a sequel to X-Men: First Class which was origins installment of the franchise. The next one, X-Men: Apocalypse, will be a sequel to Days of Future Past and will complete the trilogy.

I am not a fan of these DC/Marvel films and don't understand how people can really watch these ones as most of them are utter shit. Only other film I have seen from the X-Men series is the prequel to this one, First Class, and I watched it basically because of Matthew Vaughn and Michael Fassbender. It was quite well received but I thought it was thoroughly average with some boringly long action sequence at the end. The whole concept of mutants with special skills is really stupid since evolution of such functions take place over a larger time period and several generations. I guess one shouldn't pick holes in such comic book films but got to say Jupiter Ascending had a very scientifically accurate idea behind its setup even though script and acting were bit of a letdown. 

Having said all that, Days of Future past is a very good watch with the focus much on the story rather than action sequences. The central theme in X-Men franchise is the conflict between Professor (James McAvoy), who wants cooperation between humans and mutants, and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who is antagonistic towards humans and considers them as a threat to the mutants. Date that Wolverine send back to is 1973 during the time of Paris accords aiming to end the war in Vietnam. Peter Dinklage is a scientist who sees mutants as a threat to humans. Mystique is supposed to have killed him but got caught on the act and her DNA was used to create a machine which can easily kill mutants by adapting to fight against it. So the idea is to prevent Mystique from doing it and thus altering the past to affect the future conflict between humans and mutants. Film is very witty and what makes it a great watch is the presence of such a stellar cast. Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique is bit of a pain in the arse but rest of them are great fun. The best sequence in the whole film is a set-piece inside the Pentagon where Quicksilver steals everyone's thunder. 

Overall it is a very good watch and I think if I revisit First Class I might enjoy it more. Familiarity with the back-stories or what the characters go on to do will determine how much you enjoy these films. Maybe that is the reason why I really don't like these kind of films since I am not a comic book reader and people who are might find all the references thrown in to be quite good to make them an interesting watch. The next one in the franchise, Apocalypse, is slated for release in 2016 will be set in 1983 and will again be directed by Bryan Singer.

Rating: 4/5

Monday, May 4, 2015

Four Horsemen (2012)

Director: Ross Ashcroft
Writer:    Ross Ashcroft
Features: Noam Chomsky, Joseph Stiglitz, Herman Daly

Documentary takes a look at the systemic issues concerned with the form of capitalism pursued by Western Democracies, mainly United States of America. It criticizes the system of fractional reserve banking, debt-based economy and political lobbying by banks and corporations and regards them as a threat to Western civilization.

I first encountered the Biblical concept of 'Four Men of the Apocalypse' when Liverpool fans made a banner on this theme during the fight against the American owners of the club, Tom Hicks & George Gillett. In the banner both of them were depicted along with the CEO, Christian Purslow, and Chairman, Sir Martin Broughton, with question marks over the last two.
In the end the latter two proved useful in ousting the owners but Purslow, who referred to himself as Fernando Torres of Finance, was culpable in getting rid of Rafa Benitez and bringing in Roy Hodgson as the manager of the club and playing Fifa Manager with the club playing squad. 

In this documentary the four horsemen of apocalypse are: Financial sector which is acting as a parasite, wars being fought in the name of War on Terror and democratic evangelism, poverty and resource crunch due to consumption driven economic growth model. Systemic issues that exist in US economy coupled with its political system, which is driven by campaign contribution and lobbying, is known to people who pays attention to these things and the documentary will be good watch for those who are not familiar with those problems. Many documentaries have been made with similar theme, like The Corporation, but a common problem with them is that they just end up as an outright attack on Capitalism without any solution. This documentary is aware about that and includes a statement that people will criticize it as an advocacy for Socialism. Capitalism have won the battle against socialism and documentary makers embraces it by advocating it, but wants a return to classical economics model, instead of the neo-classical model unleashed under Reagan and Thatcher, and a return to Gold Standard instead of the Fiat system. I don't personally agree with the latter proposal of a return to Gold standard. Fiat currency model is better and fractional reserve banking system can work with the right kind of regulations. Problem is that the elite are shoving down our throats the idea that capitalism means deregulation and always manage to implement a system of 'Socialism for the rich and Capitalism for the poor', the best example of it being the bank bailout during the sub-prime crisis. It is moral hazard to bail out the poor by writing off debt but it is apparently not when you bail out big banks which failed in managing its risk or worse who knowingly made loans which they knew were never gonna get repaid but was fine with it since they were gonna get bailed out anyway during a financial crisis.

The version I saw was 99 minutes long and apparently there is an official 144 minutes long official version of it. Overall the version I saw was a very good watch even though I don't agree it with entirely, especially the solution that it offers. I wonder what the extra 45 minutes of it contains. Another part of solution that it offers is change in the taxation policy to reform the current form which helps in wealth preservation of elite. It proposes abolition of the concept of income tax and instead proposes that taxation should be based on consumption. Also the rentier economy things like land, natural resources etc should be taxed heavily so that inequality is reduced by preventing concentration of wealth. I broadly agree with this and find taxation of land based on its market value can also provide a solution for usage of land as a way of hiding black money in economies like India. Instead of trying to tax when transfer of ownership takes place, you tax the owner instead, every year, based on the value of land he owns. 

The documentary is not as compelling as the ones done by Adam Curtis since it largely features number of intellectuals explaining things for you. Adam Curtis have handled all these things but he did it over several different documentaries and you need to watch all of them to get a full picture. So this documentary has its place by providing a useful synopsis for people who have not seen anything similar prior to this. But I definitely recommend Adam Curtis documentaries for everyone, especially Pandora's Box, Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares, The Trap and Bitter Lake. The Youtube video titled 'Money as Debt' is also a very good watch for people who are not familiar with fractional reserve banking.

Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Blackhat (2015)

Director: Michael Mann
Writer:    Morgan Davis Foehl
Cast:       Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Wei Tang

A furloughed convict and his American and Chinese partners hunts a high-level cybercrime network from Chicago to Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Jakarta. Michael Mann said he was inspired to make Blackhat after reading about the events surrounding Stuxnet, which was a computer worm that targeted and ruined almost one-fifth's of Iran's nuclear centrifuges. It was designed to attack industrial programmable logic controllers (PLCs).

Chronologically speaking, the last film I have seen of Michael Mann is 'Collateral'. So, despite the bad reviews that Blackhat got, I was not quite prepared to see such a fall in quality from a great director like Mann. I count 'The Insider' as one of my most favorite films of all time and 'Thief', 'Heat' and 'Collateral' were all great. Both Manhunter and Last of the Mohicans were also very good as well and so what I am saying is that I hadn't seen a bad film from Mann before this one. He is most famous for making films that are very realistic in the filming of its set-piece sequences and I guess this one is not different when it comes to the depiction of cyber-crimes. But unlike other protagonists in Mann film, we don't feel one iota of 'Giving a fuck' about the lead character played by Chris Hemsworth. To make matters worse he tries to bring some emotional drama sequences into the whole proceeding and those scenes never failed to bring about some smiles and that is never a good sign. Whatever realism Mann is trying to bring in the central subject matter sits in stark contrast to the laughably bad drama part of it. To top it all you get several action sequences with guns, RPGs and fireworks and the length of just more than two hours is excruciatingly long. I can't really say that he is hamstrung by talent-less actors because the script is so shit that it is not fair to judge them on basis of their work in this film. 

Overall it is a terrible watch and should be avoided even if you are a big fan of Michael Mann. I don't know whether 'Public Enemies' was as shit as this one but it did get better reviews. You cannot really trust those reviews I guess because some of the reviewers might have deluded themselves because of their admiration for the director. Well, Blackhat, just about confirmed that he can really be shitty at times.

Rating: 1.5/5