Sunday, April 30, 2017

सैराट (Sairat) (2016)

Director: Nagraj Manjule
Writer: Nagraj Manjule
DOP: Sudhakar Reddy Yakkanti
Cast: Rinku Rajguru, Akash Thosar, Tanaji Galgunde, Arbaz Shaikh
Language: Marathi

In interior Maharashtra, a fisherman's son and a politician's daughter fall in love against the restrictions of caste hierarchy. Things pretty much escalates from there.

Finally managed to watch the very much hyped Sairat after coming across it on Google Play, where it is available for Rs. 100 to rent. Well, it was most definitely worth all the hype. It is the highest grossing Marathi film of all time with it crossing Rs 100 crores at the box office and it also managed to do well in other states as well. I do remember it being played in Kochi multiplexes but was not able to catch it then. The genius of Sairat is its commercial success because it is a subject matter that has been dealt with numerous times but more often in an offbeat manner without much commercial success. Masaan is a recent example which had one of its storyline featuring similar themes but done in a way such that it was the weak point of the film as it seemed forced and a bit contrived.

The first half of the Sairat is hugely entertaining with a stylised approach of storytelling despite its rural settings. Even there the director does some interesting things with the girl character taking the lead more often. The second half is not the usual rose-tinted take on what happens after an elopment with the director taking a social realist approach as life becomes a lot harder for the protagonists. Some aspects of it reminded me of Malayalam film Annayum Rasoolum but Sairat is still very much superior.

Indian society is one where kids from middle and upper caste/class are a pampered lot in return for trading away their freedom. Arranged marriages helps you to continue enjoying this pampering as the vast network of family support is still there. When people opt for love marriages outside the class/caste norms in places like Kerala, more often you just lose this support network. But in most other places of India, the family won't leave you alone and you have to escape from the place. This is quite the norm in Indian villages, which Ambedkar had rightly described as den of ignorance and narrow-mindedness among other things. So for many people the anonymity in cities become a huge relief.

When it comes to Arranged Marriages Vs Love Marriages, my view is that it should be viewed from the point of view of freedom. Youngsters should be free to choose the latter and family should be free to withdraw their support network if the kids opts so. It is well within their rights to have a say in the choice of new relatives they are inheriting with a marriage if the marrying couple is expecting support from family. But in India people never deal with things in an adult manner due to the inherent melodramatic nature.

Coming back to the film, it is a glorious watch with great performances from the excellent cast. The two friend characters of the boy is worth a special mention. On the technical front also it is on solid footing with some breathtaking visuals.  Remake rights have been sold for many languages including Malayalam but I don't see it happening here with Kismath already doing something similar. Karan Johar acquired the Hindi rights. But in my opinion, people should just watch the original and can't understand what is everyone's problem with watching a film using subtitles.

Rating: 5/5

Sunday, April 23, 2017

രക്ഷാധികാരി ബൈജു ഒപ്പ് (Rakshadhikari Baiju, Oppu) (2017)

Director: Ranjan Pramod
Writers: Ranjan Pramod, T S Arjun
DOP: Prasanth Raveendran
Cast: Biju Menon, Aju Varghese, Janardhanan
Language: Malayalam

Baiju is a slacker kind of Government officer whose highlight of the day is the time he spends with youngsters on the ground every evening playing cricket. He is 44 years old and is the captain of sports group 'Kumbalam Brothers' which he had co-established as an eight year old. The members had come and gone and he had been the only permanent fixture.

The ground that they play in is quite small and is the kind that we used to play. It is not basically a ground but just a backyard with just sufficient tree clearance to have a pitch set up and play. When we were growing up, surrounding area was undergoing the process of wetlands getting filled up in order to construct houses on them. Once it is filled up, there would be a time gap for the construction to start and we had the place for ourselves to play cricket. Once the construction starts we'll have to look for some other place to play and over the course of me getting from 10-15 years old, we had three such places which got filled up and now three houses stand there. I guess we played a part in getting the soil set.

Above paragraph is what the film is about. It will make you nostalgic in a good way. None of us had any pretensions about being serious cricketers and it was just time-pass. That is what makes this film different from 1983, which was a bit more fairytale like. It doesn't have any storyline per say and is just a series of things that happen without any great resolution. They had a rich friend guy of the protagonist set up during the interval point to save the day during climax, which is a clichéd tradition of Malayalam cinema (Think Balettan). Thankfully, they don't go that route and it is so refreshing to see a light film sans a contrived happy ending. Another good thing is that it didn't feel the need to hammer its 'Message' into your head with a sledgehammer.

Ranjan Pramod had a series of hits in early to mid noughties as a writer and had completely disappeared off the radar after his directorial effort 'Photographer' bombed very badly at the box office. I had seen that film in an almost empty theatre back then. He was the writer to give Sathyan Anthikkadu his last good films. It is really great to see him back. It is a dark horse at the box office and hopefully won't be swept away by the tyranny of Bahubali which is set to hit screens next week. Eros being the distributor gives me hope. Do watch it in a hall with good sound system because the dialogues can be a bit hard to catch. Do watch it if you want to catch a simple film without any melodrama.

Rating: 4/5

City of God (2011)

Director: Lijo Jose Pellissery
Writer: Babu Janardhanan
DOP: Sujith Vasudev
Cast: Indrajith, Prithviraj, Rima Kallingal, Parvathy
Language: Malayalam

Lijo Jose Pellissery's second film features an ensemble cast and has multiple storylines with them getting linked throughout the film. Some of the characters in it are involved with the local land Mafia, one of them is an actress and some are Tamil migrant workers from construction sites.

One big question in multiple storyline films is how often do all of them come in spatial contact in the film. The ones that does it best, like Haneke's Code Unknown and Iniaritu's Amores Perros, keep it minimal but when they do they make it count. My biggest problem with City of God is that the characters from different storylines seem to be coming across each other quite frequently and unnecessarily. The narrative that LJP goes for is very non-linear and quite ballsy. Very often he first shows a scene and goes back to show how different characters arrived at that scene. For a Malayalam film, it must have been quite novel when it came out. It is very chaotic and enjoyably so during the first hour of the film as you are figuring out its characters and storylines. But once you figure it out, it becomes really tiresome and boring and it doesn't help that the heavily caricaturised Tamil storyline takes more of screen time.

Nayakan, despite all its faults, was a good first attempt but you won't be as forgiving for CoG. He seemed to have been wanting to do a lot of things all at once and the result is not always coherent. He was more grounded in Amen, a film I didn't enjoy, which was his first and only commercial success till his masterpiece Angamaly Diaries came out this year. On the whole I've only enjoyed Double Barrel and Angamaly Diaries, last two films in his filmography comprising of 5 films so far. Those are the ones I could watch at the cinemas and I don't know how big a factor that is. Anyway, he seems to have come leaps and bounds as a director and is the most experimental among mainstream Malayalam film directors.

Rating: 2.5/5 

Moonlight (2016)

Director: Barry Jenkins
Writer: Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney
DOP: James Laxton
Cast: Trevante Rhodes, Andre Holland, Janelle Monae, Mahershala Ali

A chronicle of the childhood, adolescence and burgeoning adulthood of a young, African- American, gay man growing up in a rough neighbourhood of Miami.

I really didn't have much idea about the film when I was going in apart from the knowledge about the Oscars that it won and something about Wong Kar-Wai. I am wary of Oscar winning films as they very often tend to be very award-baity and won't stand the test of time. Also because of the whole diversity controversy from the year before, it seemed like they were overcompensating for it this year. The first half of the film with an overly showy camera movements and deliberate slowness did nothing to alleviate my fears about it going in. But the second half of the film totally blew me away and put the whole film in a different light. Now I see where the Wong Kar-Wai comparisons come from and I was expecting Christopher Doyle's name as its cinematographer.

The film is divided into three chapters with each titled after protagonist's names- 1. Little, his nickname provided to him by those who bully him, 2. Chiron, his original name and 3. Black, a nickname given to him by a friend. He is quite submissive during the first two chapters as he is confused by his sexuality and how others behave towards him. His junkie mum is not at all a helping figure for him during this ordeal. You think he finally breaks free towards the end of second chapter when he finally reacts violently. It is the point from when it started getting interesting for me. Then it cuts into the third chapter with him in his 20s running drugs business. But you later learn that rather than embracing his sexuality, he had rebuild himself from the ground up during and after his jail time. The film is basically about how the surroundings shape your life.

It is a terrific watch and I am glad it won ahead of the musical La La Land, which I'm totally disinterested to check out. The second half of the film, which is visually sumptuous, takes it to a whole new level and it is difficult to describe why. Three actors play the protagonist in the three chapters and all of them are terrific. The whole cast is terrific with Mahershala Ali, familiar from House of Cards, also involved in the first chapter.


Monday, April 17, 2017

Café Society (2016)

Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
DOP: Vittorio Storaro
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carrell

In the 1930s, a Bronx native moves to LA and falls in love with a young woman who is seeing a married man.

Woody Allen is still managing to do a film a year and this one is his latest starring Jesse Eisenberg in the Woody Allen role, who has a deer in the headlights quality. Unlike his latest few films, it is not set in Europe but in 1930s America with the age-old West Coast versus East Coast routine we're so familiar from Woody Allen films like Annie Hall. It does have a mish-mash feel to it but generates more than enough laughs to make it a pretty good watch.

Eisenberg has been in a Woody Allen movie before and it is the first outing for Kristen Stewart. Emma Stone had been starring in the last few. Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine have been the best among the latest Woody Allen films. Café Society is a good watch without being nearly as good as those two.

Rating: 3/5

Sunday, April 16, 2017

I, Daniel Blake (2016)

Director: Ken Loach
Writer: Paul Laverty
DOP: Robbie Ryan
Cast: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Dylan McKiernan

A middle-aged carpenter who requires state welfare after suffering an heart-attack is joined by a single mother in a similar scenario. He is advised by his doctor to rest while the state benefits department deems that he is fit to work and denies him benefits till he can win an appeal. Meanwhile he has to rely on job seekers allowance for which he has to pretend to be looking for jobs that he cannot take due to his medical condition.

The film couldn't have come at a better time as we've had Brexit and Trump happen since its release with the whole World pretty much reinforcing a death-wish like far right turn. It is not to say that the film explains the results but it is dealing with the woes of working class poor from the developed world which is cited as the prime-mover. The film begins with a voiceover sequence during its opening credit where the protagonist is being asked ridiculous questions as part of an assessment by a 'Healthcare Professional'. It is set in Newcastle and had me thinking wrongly that the lead actor was the Geordie from Alan Partridge TV series. Most of the Northern cities in England have been ravaged by the Thatcherite policies and quite recently by the Tory led austerity measures after the financial crisis. NHS and the benefits program are always a prime target even though the Brits are quite possessive of the former. The film shows that the bureaucratic benefits machinery over the years have transformed itself into a mechanism which will wear the people down from getting the benefits and it is the most weak and vulnerable that suffers most. In India also, we can foresee this coming with the introduction of Aadhar which will gradually mutate into a mechanism to take away the support systems that are already there in place.

The cruel bureaucracy is contrasted with the community nature of the people who are suffering. The other main protagonist of the film is the struggling single mother of two, played by Hayley Squires, who is new to the town and is late for an appointment because of which her benefits money is denied. She meets Daniel Blake during this ordeal and he starts taking care of her. The contrast cast between the communal nature of these people and robotic state is very stark which you don't totally buy because of the easiness with which Tories have come back to power. They do pit the working class people against each other by playing the tax card and maybe that is that.

Overall, it is a bleak and depressive film that leave you angry but there are many light moments throughout. It won Ken Loach his second Palme d'Or at Cannes. He is a very political filmmaker and the only films of his that I've watched apart from this are Kes and The Wind that shakes the Barley. I, Daniel Blake is a masterpiece and I am surprised that it didn't create much buzz at the academy awards. Says something about America that.

Rating: 5/5

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

Director: Kelly Fremon Craig
Writer: Kelly Fremon Craig
DOP: Doug Emmett
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick

Highschool life gets even more unbearable for Nadine when her only friend, Krista, starts dating her older brother.

Angsty teenage dramas are very hard to get right for all audiences and this is one which manages to do so. It is R-rated and has realistic language which is unusual because most of the films in this genre is aimed chiefly at not so adult population goes for a milder rating with mild language. Edge of Seventeen is suitable for all and is a fun watch even though it gets through most the clichés that you expect in terms of character progression.

Hailee Steinfeld, who made her debut with Coens in the 'True Grit', plays the protagonist and Woody Harrelson plays the role of a very non-cuddly, non-PC history teacher. Their chemistry is excellent. Overall it is a good watch with very good performances. It is one of those films where you don't end up pausing to see how much of it is left. Another film from this genre that I had like was Emma Stone starrer 'Easy A'.

Rating: 3/5

High-Rise (2015)

Director: Ben Wheatley
Writers: Amy Jump, J.G. Ballard
DOP: Laurie Rose
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss

Life for the residents of a Tower block begins to run out of control. It is set in a luxury tower block during the 1970s and it represents social hierarchy with the higher you live means higher your position is in the social order. The architect of the building, played by Jeremy Irons, resides in the top floor and this social hierarchy was not intended by him as he wanted the tower to be a crucible for change. Tom Hiddleston plays a bachelor doctor who had moved recently into the apartment.

It is an adaptation of a British dystopian novel with the same name from J.G. Ballard. It is very well acted, technically excellent and gorgeous to look at but suffers from the fact that its theme is not quite novel these days. We almost had the same thing, but set in a train instead, in Snowpiercer which worked surprisingly well. Snowpiercer had the veneer of a genre action film. Ben Wheatley's effort is more in-depth with point of views from all sides. But I found it to be a little too straight-forward, quite like Neon Demon which also I saw recently. It might go on to become a cult classic like Terry Gilliam's 'Brazil'.

Ben Wheatley is a very promising director with Kill List being my favourite film of his. A Field in England is also a great and weird watch and I have to revisit it soon. I didn't enjoy Sightseers particularly. High-Rise was his first biggishly produced film even though it is still a small production compared to Hollywood standards. Jeremy Irons is always a great screen presence and come to think of it, the only film I've seen Hiddleston in previously was the excellent 'Only Lovers Left Alive', in which his character was quite the opposite. High-Rise is not recommended for all but certainly for Ben Wheatley fans like me. Others should probably watch Kill List first.

Rating: 3/5

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Split (2017)

Director: Manoj Night Shyamalan
Writer: Manoj Night Shyamalan
DOP: Mike Gioulakis
Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley

Three girls are kidnapped by a man with a diagnosed 23 distinct personalities. They must try to escape before the apparent emergence of a frightful new 24th.

Genre of multiple/split personality disorder films is a tired one with many of it having this aspect as a twist device. So how do you overcome that? By having the central theme explicitly spelled out in the poster itself. Identity is another one which ended up having this many personalities and it worked well as a B-grade film. Split was made with a modest budget of $9 million and it collected $272 million worldwide from the box office acclaiming critical success as well with many declaring that Shyamalan is well and truly back. He took the first baby step with 'The Visit', which I haven't seen and I was curious to see whether the man Time magazine had quite prematurely proclaimed as the new Hitchcock was really back at it. Am glad to say that he just hit it out of the park. He is famous for his twist endings and the twist in this film is that there really isn't one in it if you discount the one which revealed the narrative universe it is set in. I was euphoric for quite a few minutes after that reveal.

It works as a horror thriller with a tour-de-force central performance from James McAvoy. Joaquin Phoenix was initially supposed to take this role and am really glad that McAvoy got it because the box office fate might have been quite different. I was not a big fan of him when I saw him first in the X-Men: First Class film but he has grown on me with films like Days of Future Past, Filth, Atonement and  Trance. You will really dig this film if you, like Tarantino and me, consider Unbreakable as Shyamalan's best film. That was one which came much ahead of its time with the plethora of super- hero films coming almost a decade later.

I do think Split will work very well on re-watch as well as it was quite hard to keep up with many of the different personalities and there wasn't much spoonfeeding going on. Shyamalan is currently working on the sequel to it and I do wonder how they're going to pull it off with the age of a certain actor. He still has plenty of time to leave a body of work to cement his place among the greats.

Rating: 4/5

Monday, April 3, 2017

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Writer: Kenneth Lonergan
DOP: Jody Lee Lipes
Cast: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler
Language: English

A depressed and withdrawn man is asked to take care of his teenage nephew after his brother's death. This requires him to move back to Manchester by the sea from Boston and he really doesn't want to because of the things that happened in his life when he was living there.

I was under the impression that this was an extremely sad and depressive film but I found it to be more of a black comedy and ultimately a feel-good film. Not sure if it is because of the staple diet of all the tear-jerker films from Sibi Malayil that I had feasted on while growing up. The film begins with Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) being a janitor and caretaker of several apartments in Boston living a very withdrawn and isolated life. He gets a phonecall regarding his brother's hospitalisation and by the time he reaches the hospital he is dead. While he is taking care of all the arrangements in an unconventional manner, we're given flashbacks from his past to let us gradually know what is simmering under Lee's exterior. It is a very subtle performance from Casey for which he rightly won the academy award for best actor. I've always been a huge fan of his and felt he was quite underrated till this film came around. He already had a tremendous body of work prior to this with films like Assassination of Jesse James, Gone Baby Gone and The Killer Inside Me.

This is Kenneth Lonergan's third feature film and I have also seen his second one, Margaret, which was in post-production for six years. I seem to be the only one who interpreted Maragaret as a depiction of United States' interventionist foreign policy and their reactions when they get some blowback. Lonergan made his name as a playwright and it was supposed to be Matt Damon who was going to play Lee but he got held up with that Chinese action move about some fucking wall. He thankfully recommended his good friend Casey's name for it and rest is history.

Even though Michelle Williams is prominent in its posters, she is there only in it for like 5-6 scenes. One thing I really didn't get is the way some people were referring to 'The Lee Chandler' in the film and might suggest that many in town saw him as guilty regarding the event that happened in the past. Or maybe just because of his behaviour after. Performances are all great and the icy wintery setting is just perfect. It is a terrific watch but as a darkly funny feel-good film.

Rating: 5/5

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Neon Demon (2016)

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writers: Nicolas Winding Refn, Polly Stenham, Mary Laws
DOP: Natasha Braier
Cast: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, Keanu Reeves
Language: English

When aspiring model Jesse moves to LA, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has.

As per Nicolas Winding Refn, who describes himself as a pornographer, Neon Demon came out of his desire to make an horror film about beauty and obsession. There is nothing better than fashion industry to set such a story in. We are used to many such films and what I've back in mind is not Madhur Bhandarkar's 'Fashion', with which I had the misfortune of having to watch thirty minutes of it. I am mostly talking about films like Black Swan and The Starry Eyes. But it is not to say they are similar because the approach is entirely different.  When he describes himself as a pornographer, what he means is that he likes to film what he wants to see and the objective is to get a reaction. All his recent English films have scenes that are supposed to shock you towards the latter half and become news. Compared to Drive and Only God Forgives, he goes even more extreme this time round and you've to see it for yourself. As far as narrative and dialogue is concerned, it is much more simpler till the last act where it goes ape-shit and all symbolically literal.

It is a good watch but you're left with the feeling that you're not seeing something deep or new. That is also kind of apt as that is how the fashion world is. It is purely down to your preferences though. It is gorgeous to look at like all his films with stunning soundtrack from Cliff Martinez. The performances are all good and it may go on to become a cult classic. It got a very divisive response from Cannes and Refn was delighted with it.

If I were to rank his films the order would be:

1. Only God Forgives
2. Drive
3. Valhalla Rising
4. Pusher 1
5. Neon Demon
6. Bronson

Rating: 3/5