Opinion

Review | Viceroy’s House

At no other point in history has it been more fitting or important to share a story about the dividing of a nation and its people; extreme and differing political views, nations ravished by arguments over religion and ethnic cleansing often feature front and center in the news – only this story is set in India in 1947.

Welcome to the stunning epic of VICEROY’S HOUSE; the true story of Lord Mountbatten (played by Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville) who is dispatched, along with his wife Edwina (played by Gillian Anderson), to New Delhi to oversee the country’s transition from British rule to independence.  Taking his place in the magnificent mansion known as the Viceroy’s House, Mountbatten arrives hopeful for a peaceful transference of power. Yet ending centuries of colonial rule in a country divided by deep religious and cultural differences proves no easy undertaking, setting off a seismic struggle that threatens to tear India apart.

The sumptuous period detail created by the director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) brings to life a pivotal historical moment that re-shaped the world.  Indeed, the ramifications of decisions made seventy years ago have led to two nations (India and Pakistan) in a perpetual state of heightened tension with each other since their inception.

It would have been satisfying enough to watch this bygone event unfold through the lens of the Viceroy and his wife yet Chadha, ever an over-achiever, gives us a stirring love story that layers on top. Equally well acted, we experience the forbidden and complicated love story of Jeet a Hindu boy (played by the hundred Foot Journey’s Manish Dayal) and a Muslim girl, Aalia (played by Huma Qureshi) which perfectly demonstrates the impact that decisions made half a world away had on a people that had endured three centuries of colonization by the British.

An heir of this destiny herself, Chadha who describes herself as someone who “grew up in the shadow of partition” took her time to bring this project to fruition and in doing so uncovered some previously unseen documents, “I always got the impression that Partition was our fault, but the documents we found showed us there was already an agenda in place by the British”.

Chadha does a meticulous job of making this Every man’s partition story and as a result no one in this movie is portrayed as either a villain or a hero. Having been reminded by her own family to ensure that the “Mountbatten plan” was exposed, after doing her thorough research about this story, Chadha soon realized that India’s fate had already been sealed by Winston Churchill and that Mountbatten was merely a pawn led to the slaughter, the result of which would be a divided nation with millions of people getting slaughtered themselves in the process.  A tailor-made performance by Bonneville will certainly capture the audience’s empathy yet, when questioned about whether this was the desired outcome, Chadha reiterates her goal was to show just “how ill equipped he was to do such a huge task.”

It would be easy to think of this movie as just a political narrative but to do so would be an injustice.  Scattered with strong bold women like Edwina and Aalia who represent the heart and soul of the movie, we experience firsthand not only the exciting sights and sounds of India but also the heartache and trauma that many including the Viceroy himself experienced.  That along with an often heart wrenching last performance by the inimitable Om Puri makes this a must-see movie

One will easily be transported to another time and place when watching this movie yet when the credits run you can’t help but wonder whether we learned anything from history, given this was one of the largest movements of people from one place to another in the twentieth century.

THE VICEROY’S HOUSE opens on September 1 and is currently available on VOD – check local listings

 

 

Strike A Pose | Review

There are few pop songs that are as memorable as Madonna’s1990 hit VOGUE and along with it the iconic video that brought Voguing as a dance form into the mainstream conscience.  Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza and Luis Extravaganza were the vogue dancers and choreographers from the Harlem “House Ball” community who introduced “Vogueing” to Madonna and who later would become her main choreographers for the video and the Truth or Dare tour.
 
If you grew up in the era of MTV, not only will the words STRIKE A POSE make you wave your arms in the air and perhaps stick out your butt but this is also the name of the acclaimed documentary directed by Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaag abut seven young male dancers  (including Jose and Luis) – six gay, one straight who joined Madonna on her most controversial tour.  On stage and in the iconic film TRUTH OR DARE – one of the highest-grossing documentaries ever – they showed the world how to “Express yourself”, now, twenty-five years later, they reveal the truth about life during and after the tour. 
 
STRIKE A POSE is a fabulously candid documentary that reunites these sleek and effervescent dancers, exploring their lives after the tour and legal battles with Madonna, their glamorous and largely inspirational impact upon society, the horrific effects of HIV/AIDS during and since the 90’s and what it meant to participate in one of the most iconic and controversial tours of pop history. The film also explores what it’s like to overcome shame and find the courage to be who you are.
 
Watching people age over time is always a luxury and so this movie does a wonderful job of showing the promise that was and where these incredible dancers ended up.  As important as the story of the star is the story of those who get to bask in the fairy dust for a short period of time; It is clear that Madonna made a huge difference in these men’s lives and the short intense formative period of time that they spent with her was extremely meaningful for these men that left a long lasting effect.
 
The movie isn’t just a “Where are they now”, at times, it manages to go deep and uncovers the realities of youth, disease and even what the dark aftermath of fame (by association) can feel like.  Watching the genuine love and respect that remains between this group of talent after all of these years is beautifully captured and of course THAT song in the background will have you tapping your toes and clicking your fingers if not striking your own pose.
Following critical acclaim and successful premieres in Berlin and Tribeca, STRIKE A POSE comes to New York for its theatrical release at IFC on January 18, 2017, followed by its broadcast premier, an exclusive VOD release, and a home video release later in June to celebrate LGBTQ Pride month.  Check local listings: http://madonnadancers.com/req.php?req=static.php&page=where-to-see
 
 

LEVEL UP | Review

Adam Randal’s debut feature LEVEL UP starring Josh Bowman (ABC’s Revenge)is an intriguing story about  a deadbeat gamer called Matt whose girlfriend gets kidnapped. This high concept British movie will make you question how real a gaming experience should or could become and shows a hidden, sometimes terrifying and often outright bizarre side of London as the kidnappers keep in touch with Matt by telephone issuing increasingly ludicrous and dangerous challenges that he must complete in order to keep his girlfriend alive.
mv5bndk5ntgymtc3of5bml5banbnxkftztgwotaxntu1ote-_v1_uy268_cr00182268_al_
The movie’s blend of dark humor against the backdrop of a chase thriller keeps you guessing as to whether this is really happening or whether this is an extension of a gaming experience that Matt is having in response to his failing relationship with Anna. What it does well is question how one would react if awoken wearing a suicide vest with  a cell phone next to you set up to give instructions.  The lines of reality and game fantasy are cleverly blurred in this movie but at its core it questions the lengths that one is prepared to go to for someone that they love.
As we watch Matt attempt to complete the series of bizarre tasks to get his beloved back, we are acquainted with a bunch of colorful yet equally sinister characters. Although the dialogue is a little clunky at times  and the story unfolds a little slowly, Randall’s direction provides suitable tension and there is definitely unpredictability regarding what Matt’s fate will be; maybe like the man throwing himself off of a building in the opening sequence or will love prevail as he fights and realizes what he’s made of and how far he is prepared to go
Part THE GAME, part NERVE set in the gritty urban underground of the city you can be sure of one thing though, this is not your london of NOTTINGHILL
The action packed UK thriller hits nationwide VOD September 19th

Septembers of Shiraz | Review

If you are feeling a touch of summer sequelitis and looking for something powerful and thrilling to watch then SEPTEMBERS OF SHIRAZ is an important must see movie.

Set during the 1979 revolution in Iran SEPTEMBERS OF SHIRAZ is the harrowing story of a secular Jewish family as they fight for their lives in an attempt to escape what is going on around them.  Based on true events with poignant and affective performances by Academy Award® winner Adrien Brody, and Academy Award® nominees Salma Hayek-Pinault and Shohreh Aghdashloo, SEPTEMBERS OF SHIRAZ illustrates the impact of political upheaval on ordinary people and gives us an incisive examination of a troubled moment in history.

shiraz

Expertly directed by Wayne Blair this movie brings droves of tension in what ultimately becomes an adrenalin charged cat-and-mouse battle of wills.  SEPTEMBERS OF SHIRAZ is moving and both topical and relevant to current world events.  In revealing what many families sadly encountered over 35 years ago, the genius of this movie lies in its ability to relate the events of that time to experiences that are tragically being suffered by many in a number of countries around the globe today.

The movie cleverly reminds us that the victims of one political party’s agenda versus another are the very people who are promised their protection whilst the accompanying pollution of such communities who ultimately get divided by religion, class and economic factors often end up being the casualties of promised revolutions.

SEPTEMBERS OF SHIRAZ is adapted by screenwriter Hanna Weg from Dalia Sofer’s bestselling novel.
SEPTEMBERS OF SHIRAZ opened in New York, Los Angeles, and additional cities on Friday, June 24, 2016.  please check local listings

Moonwalkers | Review

I LOVE conspiracy theories, Who killed JFK, Area 51 and of course one of my all time favorites The Apollo Moon Landing of 1969.

So what if Apollo 11 never actually made it and what if, in reality, Stanley Kubrick secretly shot the famous images of the moon landing in a studio, working for the US administration?

MOONWALKERS_Theatrical Poster

This is the premise of the totally plausible conspiracy theory movie MOONWALKERS written by Dean Craig and directed by Antoine Bardou-Jacquet that takes us to swinging sixties London, where a stubborn CIA agent played by the delightful Ron Perlman (HELLBOY) will never find Kubrick but instead is forced to team up with the ever adorable Rupert Grint’s (HARRY POTTER) lousy manager of a seedy rock band to develop the biggest con of all time, in this riotous, high-tempo action-comedy.

Of course It’s a strange set of circumstances that lead our protagonists to meet, including one of their idiot friends who has a tendency to royally screw things up but when they do, there is undeniable chemistry between the pair and a sweetness mainly with the introduction of Robert Sheehan (THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS, KILLING BONO) as the idiot friend who is equally huggable and slappable at the same time that forms the foundation of this recreational drug-induced caper of unbelievable proportions.

From it’s innovative psychedelic titles to the groovy sixties production, MOONWALKERS is a really fun and enjoyable movie which is both silly and thought provoking at times with great action and comedy.  Full of 70s clichés and nuanced yet likable bad guys on every corner, our anti-heros (complete in funky and colorful costumes), lead us from one absurd scene to another on their journey to complete an equally bizarre yet extremely important task

“The film is an action/comedy that combines what I love: fights and stupidity. I enjoy situations where two opposite characters must join forces to accomplish a common goal as it leads to the most hilarious conflicts” states Bardou-Jacquet

As trippy as the era it’s representing, this comedy of errors reminds us of the unresolved question that still plagues many of us after all these decades; was the moon landing real?

“Why would an audience be interested in a movie like this?  Bardou-Jacquet continues “Google “moon landing,” and add up the viewers interested in the conspiracy theory about it, and you’ll find millions of hits. All these people deserve at last the true story of how we “never” landed on the moon”

Of course, it also had me thinking about who would actually win in a standoff between America’s supreme CIA agents and England’s finest thugs?

MOONWALKERS enjoyed it’s premier at SXSW 2015 and will be released on January 15th.  Check local listings

San Diego Asian Film Festival 2015 (SDAFF 2015) – The Real Jewel in San Diego’s Crown

sdaff

Just over a month has passed since the annual San Diego Asian Film Festival closed it’s curtains and I’m still gobsmacked by all of the incredible movies that were screened.  For it’s sweet sixteenth session, the festival run by the Pacific Arts Movement screened over 130 films from 20 countries and many to record sell-out crowds. All of the beautifully and carefully curated movies had one thing in common – they were thought provoking, poignant and showed off the talents of diverse Asian filmmakers from across the world whilst showing us many of the cultural threads and different lives in the countries that make up the rich tapestry of the continent of Asia.

This is a recap of the coverage that we live tweeted and recorded on Facebook during the festival

If you live or find yourself in San Diego and enjoy movies, you owe it to yourself to get a ticket to the next festivalmiss india america

Some of Moviewallas favorites:

MISS INDIA AMERICA

MissIndiaAmerica-Still-4-crop-770x433

 

Directed by: Ravi Kapoor

Screenwriter:Ravi Kapoor and Meera Simhan

MISS INDIA AMERICA kicked off the festival and tells a story about Lily Prasad (Tiya Sirdar) who is a winner, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Fresh off her valedictorian speech, Lily intends to continue living her storybook life according to “The Plan,” her meticulously-crafted scrapbook that ropes in her less-than-willing high school boyfriend Karim (Kunal Sharma). But when Karim is caught flirting with the reigning Miss India National, Lily is livid and takes aim at the crown to win Karim back, restore “The Plan” forever, and reaffirm her endless magnificence. Lily is appalled though when she finds that the path to glory is challenged by not just a drop-dead beauty of a nemesis (played by New Girl’s Hannah Simone), but also the internal nausea of having to win despite all consequences.

This is a smart and funny movie that transcends race and tells a story which is applicable to any nerdy girl who is threatened by the thought of losing her boyfriend to a model!  Most importantly  it is a feel good tale that reminds us that we are who we are, and deep inside there is a model waiting to get out in all of us.  Sassy and clever dialogue elevates the movie that crosses somewhere between Clueless and Legally Blonde, I can’t wait to see what this talented writing team brings us next

WONDERFUL NIGHTMARE

WONDERFUL NIGHTMARE

Directed by: Hyo-jin Kang

Yeon-woo (played by Uhm Jung-Hwa, Dancing Queen, SDAFF ’12) has the complete bourgeoisie starter package. A slick new BMW. A mixed martial arts personal trainer. Rare red steaks and French wine for breakfast. And she is head legal counsel to the biggest, sleaziest company in town.

But if we know anything about Korean rom-coms, it’s that sudden shocking comas are attracted to the rich and bitchy as much as grizzly bears are attracted to salmon wearing nightgowns of honey.

An automobile accident lands Yeon-woo in heaven, but even death can’t keep her spirit down. Korean angels cut her a deal. Teleport down into the chores, credit limits, and complications of a shabby housewife for one month. Then she will be allowed to return to the glitz, glamour, and unscrupulousness of her old life.

There have been many movies that explore what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes or bodyswap  and most often these fit squarely in the comedy genre e.g. Freaky Friday, Heaven Can Wait and most recently The Change-Up.  However, there are few movies that elegantly explore the emotion that goes with waking up as somebody else with a life that isn’t yours and is everything you didn’t want.  Welcome to the WONDERFUL NIGHTMARE; this is a deep and thoughtful look at what happens when a woman who seems to have it all wakes up in a life that she truly never desired and doesn’t want to be a part of.  This is a delightful movie that will have you laughing whilst reflecting on what it means to be human and what’s really important in life.

THE BEAUTY INSIDE

the beauty inside

Directed by: Jong-Yeol Baek

Screenwriters:Seon-jeong Kim, Jeong-ye Park and Kyung-hee Noh

Woo-Jin wakes up every morning with a different body. At first, it was a shock. Now, years later, he’s used to looking in the mirror and discovering a stranger. With only the companionship of a supportive mother and a highly-entertained best friend, Woo-Jin’s been forced into anonymity, working as a furniture designer taking orders from online clients he never has to meet. Falling in love is of course off limits. That is, until he meets E-Soo, a furniture saleswoman who makes him never want to fall asleep again.

From there, THE BEAUTY INSIDE becomes a most unusual romance, the kind that pushes its protagonists into the ultimate tests of love: can Woo-Jin be in a relationship with somebody who doesn’t recognize him? Can E-Soo feel security from a man who starts every day as a stranger? With all the magic of a good fantasy, THE BEAUTY INSIDE has the audience seeing the romantic comedy anew, much as E-Soo and Woo-Jin treat every one of their encounters like a rediscovery.

THE BEAUTY INSIDE is one of the most unique movies that explores the true nature of who you are and how this changes if you physically don’t recognize who you are in the mirror.  Stunningly shot with elegant dialogue, this film will leave you feeling like love truly can conquer all.  The most impressive thing about the movie is it’s female lead Hyo-ju Han who effortlessly captures our hero’s heart.

IT’S ALREADY TOMORROW IN HONG KONG

ITS_ALREADY_TOMORROW_IN_HONG_KONG

Directed by: Emily Ting

Screenwriter: Emily Ting

Josh struggles with his lucrative job in finance, his practical-minded girlfriend, and his desire to become a novelist. Ruby, content with her job designing toys, imagines what she could be doing had she pursued her love of fashion design. Both are young American expats who happen to be on the same Hong Kong street when Ruby gets lost and Josh decides to help her find her way.

Soon though, their serendipitous meeting and stroll through the city leads to the kind of expat fantasy that seems to allow for limitless possibilities – even infidelity. Together, they begin to see their desires come within reach, however stymied by impracticality and fear of the unknown.

IT’S ALREADY TOMORROW IN HONG KONG elegantly and wistfully captures what happens when a spark is ignited between two people with an ocean separating them and the questions that arise when we find ourselves in a situation that we shouldn’t be in.  The chemistry between real life couple Jamie Chung and Bryan Greenberg as Ruby and Josh is electric and we find ourselves rooting for this would-be couple who have more than distance to potentially contend with.  Moviewallas caught a screening of this during LA Film Festival earlier in the year but the movie was so good that we couldn’t help ourselves watching a second time.

MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART

images-8

Director: Zhangke Jia

Screen-writer: Zhangke Jia

At first, the latest from filmmaker Zhangke Jia appears deceptively simple, a step back perhaps, crude even. Why would the director of THE WORLD and STILL LIFE and most recently, the brutally unsparing Cannes winner A TOUCH OF SIN, want to make what seems a visually unkempt and thematically shallow love story. A girl in small-town China has to choose between the affections of her ambitious, pushy, city boss and her aggravatingly shy, local coworker. You wonder if the great Zhangke Jia has finally wandered into a genre – the romantic triangle – that is outside his grasp.

And then you spend the rest of the film realizing how wrong you were to doubt him in the first place. Because it is only after awhile that the ambitions of the movie become evident. And when they do, you sit back in awe. As this film jumps from the initial story set in 1999, to 2014, and then giddily to 2025! And here is why this film needs to be sought out by cinephiles, because even as the movie sprints 15 years ahead with each leap, it also literally opens up, with a widening aspect ratio. The screen widens with the passage of time!  And this was one of the most joyous surprises I witnessed in a cinema hall all year. And the widening is unqualified, as the film opens up thematically (it only lulled you at the start into thinking that this was a romantic melodrama), geographically (from rural China to Shanghai to Australia) and the scope of its reach (easily commenting on the big themes as the film progresses). The film also smartly avoids the rigors of traditional epic storytelling in which the very same characters are examined through a lifetime. Instead MOUNTAINS MIGHT DEPART concentrates, in the moment, on a specific character(s) during each time period. Yes, these characters are related, but the film has no interest in looping back to re-examine each of the original players from the first act.

The visionary filmmakers often tend to put all their cards on the table at once, aiming to dazzle you upfront, but they sometimes have a hard time sustaining that through the last act when things whimper to an end. I am more impressed by films which calculatedly build their fort and become increasingly more breathless on their way to the conclusion. MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART takes off in its last act, when it bravely somersaults into an unconventional (if not transgressive, for some) relationship between two new characters. How many filmmakers possess the bandwidth to grasp for so much.

In watching sons deal with the footprints of their fathers, and in its formal structure, this is like a smarter version of Derek Cianfrance’s THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES. But no matter how you cut it, this is the work of a master.

The Riot Club | Review

Riot Club is no Downton Abbey however, it cleverly explores class, gender and economics in a modern-day England where the existence of a privileged “Old Boy’s Network” is often under-estimated.

riot club

Filthy. Rich. Spoiled. Rotten. A band of overprivileged rich boys run wild in this savagely funny satire of money, sex and power. In the elite realm of Oxford University, no society is more exclusive than The Riot Club, the ultra-selective fraternity for Britain’s most privileged sons. When he’s recruited to join, down-to-earth first-year student Miles (Max Irons) is at first amused—but he’s about to get a taste of upper-crust entitlement at its ugliest when a hedonistic night of drinking and drugs spins out of control. The Hunger Games’ Sam Claflin co-stars in this deliciously dark look at boys behaving badly from the Oscar(R)-nominated director of An Education Lone Scherfig.  The movie is adapted for the screen by Writer Laura Wade from her play of the same name citing: “I think we are fascinated by that class, those of us who aren’t of it and I think we love watching rich people behaving badly”.

When all over the world the British Monarchy are loved and the presence of them almost envied, Riot Club explores the “Haves” and “Have little” along with the politics of the one percent in a country where young affluent boys are the heirs to debauchery, power, excess and a consequence of who they are born to vs what they will or won’t achieve; where as a result of deep routed nepotism, your family name can open up a lifetime of doors and quickly bury any of your mistakes should you make them.

Entitlement and breeding are a key theme throughout the movie as it explores rich boys behaving badly and rich boys who want to do something more than be known for who their Fathers or brothers are.  Palpable tension is at work throughout as this group of would-be playboys work incredibly hard to have a good time and leave a legacy.

Riot Club starts as a smart satirical comedy but quickly gets dramatic as ideas about right and wrong are pushed to the limit.  Sometimes a little tonally inconsistent, this movie does do a good job of examining what it means to belong and the limits you go to in order to protect it.  A look at life behind the walls of an age-old institution with often strange rituals, ultimately what I took away from this movie is that there are no limits to entitlement and the fact that often it’s not what you know but who you know

Check local listings for show times

Riot Club Trailer

Why We Should Care About Award Shows

It’s 3pm on February 22nd and if you are a movie fan then you will know that we are only hours away from the Oscars commencing; the crown jewel, climax or mother of all award shows.

If you are not such a movie lover and even if you are these days, it’s easy to feel fatigued from the never ending news cycles of Who is wearing what, Who will be presenting and what is in this years swag bag. However by the time it gets to the end of February, most people are wondering why they should even care anymore especially when you realize that this year’s cycle of film festivals and early predictions of next year’s Oscar winners is already underway with the first of the larger film festivals Sundance already over by the beginning of February.

oscar-3

Award shows are important though, not only because they support a huge number of jobs in a variety of industries but also because they have a direct impact on the films you will want to watch. There is a reason why the nominations occur in mid January a full almost six weeks prior to the ceremony. Often this gives movies released earlier in the year a second wind and allow those that only had smaller openings to go mainstream once they receive a nomination ala whiplash or The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Before starting Moviewallas, we often used to find ourselves waiting for the nominations so that we could check off any of the movies that we hadn’t seen that were deemed to be noteworthy by those who knew. We too found ourselves in a long line unlike anything I had ever seen in 2009 waiting to get into Slumdog Millionaire, a film I hadn’t even heard of up until the day of the nominations. 

In subsequent years since having had the privilege of doing Moviewallas, we love the fact that films that we have only been fortunate enough to watch through a film festival or a screener catch fire and gain momentum and become available for everyone to watch. The most frustrating thing as movie reviewer is that often films we love and get to watch don’t either get distribution or get such a small release and only in major cities.

There is a notion that over the last few years there has been a proliferation of award shows and well, that there are just too many these days. Is it so wrong though for each association such as The Director’s Guild, The Hollywood Foreign Press, The Producers Guild and many others to celebrate and reward/award good work and recognize their own?

One could say that that ultimately award shows are just for entertainment and that’s ok in my book too. Ultimately whether you enjoy a movie more or less because it was nominated is not important, long after the award season is over you wont even remember whether those movies that had a lasting impact on you were nominated or not. What does matter though is that good movies (studio or independent) keep getting made, that we find out what they are and we have a means to watch them and if award shows help, I say the more the merrier. Now who do you think will win Best Picture this year?

Best of 2014 | Yazdi’s Favorite Films

Why do we watch films?

I tend to get introspective this time of year when starting to think about the best films of the past 12 months. I am a listomaniac so I relish coming up with the films; that is not the problem. It is the paring down to come up with the top ten, or even the top fifteen that is excruciating. I have never understood those who bemoan that there are hardly any films worth celebrating from the past year. For me this is akin to those who complain that there is never anything good to watch on Netflix; I do not know what to tell them when I have more than 200 films on my Netflix queue.

This year I am more list-happy than usual. So apart from the list below of my overall personal favorites of the year, I will also be posting a list of the top mainstream films, as well a list of the best films watched at film festivals in 2014.

I think we watch film because film is the great equalizer. Once the lights go down and it is dark in that theater, it puts us all at the same station. All the inequalities of our each individual real worlds, those inherited and those thrust upon us, dissolve away. Social, economic, professional and physical labels all look the same in the dark; they are invisible. And for a short while, we can get lost uniformly in someone else’s world.  Which is why my criterion for picking movies for the year-end list has remained the same year after year: that each movie should have altered something within my emotional circuitry.But let me come back to my original question. Why do we watch films. Why should film matter. This year, being in India during the last week of the year, these questions became somewhat irrelevant. Because film in India is so intricately woven into the fabric of what makes this country what it is, that to isolate cinema and ask of its meaning is purposeless. All those who bemoan the death of publicly screened movies should book a plane ticket to Mumbai and walk into a theater here. And watch how the masses consume film. How they truly lap up film. Like a child consuming a ripe mango. With an almost obscene relish. With an abandonment of the real world that is at first embarrassing, and then unexpectedly comforting. Families come, hand in hand and filter into rows like ants. They jump out of their seats with righteous pride when the Indian national anthem is played before the start of the film, waiting until the last note is played before settling back. They squeal with glee. They talk at the screen. They warn the characters of impending danger. They openly cheer at the protagonist. They talk to each other.  They clap. They eat: covertly brought snacks from home as well as foods purchased during the intermission (yes, there is an intermission, if not formally built into the movie in Indian films then forcibly and often ineptly cleaved into American films). If I sound nostalgic it is because this is how I consumed cinema growing up and I now miss this reckless embrace of cinema, this utter surrender to the joy of it, that is somehow absent in the West. Just this year I shrugged off threats of bodily harm received when I asked someone to stop talking during a screening in San Diego. And yet, and yet, during a screening in India this week, I did not have the heart to ask the same of the audience here; besides it would have taken me the full running time of the movie to make my way through to everyone who was talking during the movie.

What does it say that my top four films (and five out of the top fifteen) are foreign movies. Only that the best in cinema, as always, comes from everywhere, and those who willfully choose to watch only American/English movies do so to their great detriment.

And so here are my personal picks for the best of the year:

  1. THE LUNCHBOX:This film excels at the one thing that often evades Indian cinema: subtlety. A neglected young housewife builds a connection with an older widowed man when lunches she packs for her husband mistakenly get delivered to the other man. The film’s accomplishment is in how deftly it transcends the cliché of two strangers helping each other out. It does so by avoiding a face to face meeting between the two; much of their interaction occurs through handwritten notes accompanied with the lunchbox. The delicate tone so wistfully maintained early in the movie is ruined in the last act when the script tries, very unwisely, to force a romantic beat to the interplay between the two, but when you have as fine an actor as Irrfan Khan at the peak of his abilities it pulls the film through.
  1. ENEMY:What a glorious mind-fuck this film is. A man becomes aware of another who looks exactly like him; even as he tries to reach out to him, the lives of the two start to bleed into each other. Are the two doppelgangers the same person? Is the entire film a documentation of a mind coming undone. Or is it about the necessary duality in each of us. Based on the book by Jose Saramago, the film has no interest in providing easy answers; those insistent on a FIGHT CLUB like reveal should look elsewhere. But the stories of the two men (played with impressive dexterity by Jake Gyllenhaal) play out with a pleasing directness that it should remedy concerns about the film being too opaque. Extra credit: ENEMY will easily make it on any list of movies with the most shocking/perplexing/WTF endings. ENEMY is currently streaming on Netflix
  1. LOCKE: Like BOYHOOD and BIRDMAN, detractors have called LOCKE a gimmick. But what you might call a gimmick is to me the cinematic equivalent of jumping off a cliff without a safety net. All three films could have fallen flat on their faces on the basis of their innovation. All three are on my best of the year list. The entirety of LOCKE is filmed around a single character driving a car over the course of one night. That is it. As the night wears on, we realize this is a story about a man having arguably the worst night of his life. Tom Hardy plays this individual with slippery insight and writer director Steven Knight takes time to peel away at his motivations. We know the crises this man is facing and has to necessarily resolve while he is driving, but we do not know if he has had these coming to him. Not everything about the film works, but I will never begrudge a film that is able to commit original sin.
  1. A MOST VIOLENT YEAR: What richness of contradictions we have here. In a film called A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, you will find very little blood. For a film set in the late 70s, it easily speaks to contemporary themes of corporate greed and responsibility (which is not surprising considering this is from a filmmaker whose first film was MARGIN CALL). And for a mobster crime drama, it is surprisingly moody, some might say glacial even. I believe it is this slow burn that turned off many reviewers. But the simmer pays off as the movie builds a genuine sense of unease, of impending doom. Not interested in indulging in the conventions of the genre this film belongs to, J.C. Chandor instead has crafted the film as a character study of a man trying to do right. In an inherently criminal playing field. Two years in a row now, Oscar Isaac has provided indelible portrayals of men undone by self-destructive behavior that is inseparable from who they are (with FINDING LLEWYN DAVIS and A MOST VIOLENT YEAR).
  1. THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING:Much attention has been given to this handsome biopic about Stephen Hawkins, based on a memoir written by his wife. To the handsome cinematography and exacting recreation of a time and place from the past. To the handsome love story of a man many consider more intelligent than any that lived and the woman who stood beside him through his cruelly unimaginable physical deterioration. In fact there is a burnish of handsomeness through much of this film, a sense of rigorous craft with which the film has been put together. I will not begrudge any of those things. But that is not the reason this film is on this list (when say, THE IMITATION GAME is not). The film’s great accomplishment in my mind comes from its second act, when it follows Hawking and his wife through their latter years, much after the moony romanticism from their early years has faded. And it is the unflinching, level-headed honesty with which it regards these characters through the passage of time that the film rises above genre biopic conventions. The script’s refusal to readily submit to pat moral judgments about the two or to obviously tip its sympathies toward one or the other in the couple makes for the best part of this film. The most robust of loves are vulnerable to the cruelties of everyday happenings and it is a wise film that is able to go deep into these murky waters and come out with integrity.
  1. NIGHTCRAWLER: A man trains himself to be a crime photographer in Los Angeles and shows uncommon acumen in negotiating the use of his footage to the local television news stations. There is always something a bit off with the title character, masterfully played by Jake Gyllenhaal, but one of the joys of the film is to realize with sinking fear that there is no line this man will not cross to capture newsworthy crime footage.A film free from moral tether is a film liberated. And Dan Gilroy uses this setting to provide commentary on much of our contemporary mores. In its final act the film descends into a rarified other dimension of queasy disquiet, where you start at the screen the way you cannot look away from a road accident. What great, twisted fun this movie is. This film should have been celebrated at year end as this generation’s NETWORK. And yet it got precious little love. In fact the San Diego Film Critics Society was the only reviewing group to lavish awards on the film.
  1. MR PEABODY AND SHERMAN:The most intelligent individual on the planet, who just happens to be a dog named Mr Peabody takes a human kid (Sherman) through several adventures by way of a time-travel machine. This first feature film based on the Peabody and Sherman television shorts from several decades ago is frankly a minor miracle. It is giddily, wonderfully alive. It is cunningly devious in pulling in history lessons in the guise of time-travel adventure. It is visually as glossy and gleaming and wondrous as any film released in the year (animated or otherwise). But the greatest reason I consider this film a minor masterpiece is the slyness with which it slips in its message of acceptance. When late in the film, strangers in a crowd start saying, one after another, “I am a dog” in defence of Mr Peabody’s right to keep Sherman as his son and family, it was one of the most emotional cinematic moments for me all year. MR PEABODY AND SHERMAN is currently streaming on Netflix.
  1. BOYHOOD: A boy grows up and a film for quietly observes him. It observes him and it observes those around him including his separated parents. Much has been made of the fact that director Richard Linklater had his camera watch the same actor over a period of 12 years, and many have brushed this aside as a gimmick. And yet no one had thought to do this until now. But set aside the thrill of watching the contours of a face change on screen, watch hair bow to the wind of contemporary styles. Even if Linklater had hired separate actors of different ages to play this role, this would still be a great film. Because he makes the brave choice on every page of his script to avoid epiphany, to steer clear of melodrama, to have this be a story of banal everyday happenings. But isn’t that the nature of memory, a series of disconnected unremarkable personal remembrances. Having a film be able to capture the inscrutable and to do it with grace and understatement and to have it mean something is no small accomplishment.
  1. BIRDMAN:This film could have been insufferable. But instead it becomes the cinematic equivalent of jumping off a cliff without rope or safety net. It is the story of a has-been star of superhero films who makes one last ditch effort at being relevant by taking on a role in a Broadway play. That is nominally the synopsis of the plot. But I see the film as a study of a person slowly coming undone. A study of a person trying to handle demands both professional and personal, and losing control of the real from the imagined. We could be far more mentally unhinged than our self perception, this film is trying to tell us. And then there is the part about how the film has been shot: Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, known until now for films with disparate story lines that converge together (AMORRES PERROS, 21 GRAMS, BABEL) does the exact opposite with this film. Oh, and the one thing that there is universal agreement on, is that nobody knows what to make of the ending.
  1. PRIDE:This is the epitome of the feel-good movie. That nobody saw. Why this film didn’t get more love at the box office is baffling. The film carries a 92% rating on the Tomatometer, and the movie all but guarantees that audience members will leave the theater in a cloud of elation. So write the name of this this film down for the next time you are at a loss of what film to rent. The film is based on the real-life events surrounding Welsh mineworkers on strike during Thatcher-era UK who got unexpected and unsolicited support from a gay and lesbian activist group out of London. At first the mineworkers wanted nothing from this group, but gradually warmed up to how they might assist their cause. This film is a case study on how to avoid the sentimental, the hackneyed and the contrived. Every scene here rings with authenticity. And the film pulses with a hard-earned and quiet combination of dignity and anger. Even as it gets to dismal and dark places, the film ultimately demonstrates, with enviable subtlety that the disenfranchised are all the same. Seek out this film at any cost.
  1. THE EDGE OF TOMORROW:This is a fully realized piece of science fiction that is thrillingly alive. How many films about man versus aliens have we seen by now, and frankly what more is left to say? It turns out, plenty. In the hands of Doug Liman, this movie gets shot by shot, scene by scene, component by component, everything right. The movie takes a simple doozy of a premise (based on the book ALL YOU NEED IS KILL) – that of a reluctant soldier caught in a time-loop in which he keeps dying again and again and looping back through the same few days before his death until he is able to find a way to prevail during the alien warfare – and builds a funny, richly executed narrative around it. Say what you will about Tom Cruise but he never phones in a performance, and Emily Blunt has never been better playing a fully convincing badass sergeant. There is an obvious homage to GROUNDHOG DAY with Blunt’s character named Ritam and the battle scene that plays again and again in France is meant to evoke the Normandy invasion. But forget all that and just enjoy what is the best action film of 2014. The film understands that the best sci-fi stories are about ideas, and not about spaceships and aliens. It is blissfully good.
  1. THE WAY HE LOOKS;This film (HOJE EU QUERO VOLTAR SOZINHO) was Brazil’s submission to the Best Foreign Film category at the 2014 Academy Awards. It tells the story of Leo, a somewhat shy teenager. He is blind and aware of his place in school due to his disability. Leo’s best friend since childhood has been Giovana and the two are inseparable; in many ways he sees the world through Giovana’s eyes. Enter the unreasonably amiable new student at school, Gabriel and Leo and Giovanna’s friendship will need to be redefined. Who hasn’t experienced the dynamics with a friend change due to the necessary introduction of a new person Nothing in this film is what we haven’t seen before. And yet, the film is written, acted and played out with such a matter of fact honesty and simplicity that it rises up to be one of the better films of the year. The Way He Looks makes its observations without fuss, without drama, and without prurience. So what if the lead character is blind. So what if he happens to fall for another guy. Without tilting into caricature, the film strikes authenticity while never submitting to melodrama. One The Way He Looks can do. more good than a hundred after-school specials about tolerance. Yes The Way He Looks may just be a teenage love triangle set in Brazil, but it is the best example of its kind to make you realize that sometimes a truthful story told with a good heart is all it takes. When films these days are seemingly only interested in hipster posturing and cynicism, the most provocative thing of all may be a film that gifts viewers with genuine sweetness. THE WAY HE LOOKS is currently streaming on Netflix
  1. LIKE FATHER LIKE SON:Two couples find out that their five-year old sons had been switched at birth.Think about this premise, and then imagine what most filmmakers might have done with it. To see what Hirokazu Kore-Eda does with this story is to recognize why he is one of the master filmmakers. The film presents a fascinating moral quandary. The discovery of a son you weren’t previously aware of is one thing. But that still cannot match the anxiety of knowing that the child you did rear as your own now legally belongs to other parents who could forcibly take him away. This story could have lent itself to any manner of tonal or stylistic construct. This might have been a bitter, angry film. It might have been a legal procedural. It might have been a deep, soggy wallow of a movie. But LIKE FATHER LIKE SON is none of those things.  Instead the film is elevated because the treatment given to this material is one of quiet observation. Kore-eda has been called an heir to Ozu for reason, not least because of his ability to watch his characters from afar without judgment. And this movie is no exception. It has no interest in melodrama; you will not find a shrill note here. And then there is the one thing about Kore-Eda’s work that makes him one of my favorite filmmakers: he refuses to create villains. There isn’t a mean character in any of his films.  How easy it would have been for this film to tip over, if even very subtly, with its sympathies toward one of the two couples. It would have been easy to call the rich couple out for their patronizing, intellectual detachment, or call the other couple out for being irresponsible and crude. But the film resolutely does not. It quietly makes it clear that each set of parents are well-meaning and generous in their love for their children.  They may be flawed, but both sides are inarguably decent. It is in this recognition of the decency of those who love a child that the film ultimately provides an abiding definition for family; the only one that matters.  That it does so apolitically, unemotionally and with authenticity, is cause for gratitude. LIKE FATHER LIKE SON is currently streaming on Netflix
  1. TWO DAYS ONE NIGHT:Are there more humanist filmmakers working right now than the Dardenne brothers? They have been making exceptional films for a long time, but with TWO DAYS ONE NIGHT they hit a perfect stride, bringing forth a clear, focused story with uncanny insight. And empathy. A woman who returns to work after a long break due to illness finds out that her job has been eliminated and her salary will be distributed as bonus amongst the 16 workers who covered for her during her absence. When she pleads to have her job back, she is told she can have it if she can over the course of a weekend, convince each of her coworkers to give up their bonus. Presented as a simple ethical quandary, this story is about all of the issues that matter today: the crumbling economy, people losing jobs, and the increasing loss of humanity in the great industrial shuffle. This film has one of the best depictions of a functioning clinically depressed individual on screen. And Marion Cotillard, in an Oscar nominated lead performance, breaks your heart. Each time she rises above everything that is pushing her down: her crippling depression, the loss of her job, the pain of having to asking another economically strained colleague to give up their bonus for her sake, every time she smiles in spite of all of that, it is an inconsequential victory. But it breaks your heart. Cotillard plays this character as a broken person. But she never strains for audience sympathy. And in a key scene toward the end of the film, her immediate reaction to a situation quietly demonstrates that she may be emotionally broken, but she has all the strength of character where it matters most. In all the films in all of 2014 that I saw, this is the only one with a fully, acutely human character. The only one breathing the warm exhale of life.
  1. FORCE MAJEURE: What a film this is. Pushing all the right buttons for me, I watched it with rapturous wonder. At different times, somber, probing, achingly funny, wise and damning, this is cinema for those who love cinema. What is it about? Conceptually, oh about a hundred things, but it is nominally about a seemingly perfect young family that completely unravels when they are presented very suddenly with a life-and-death situation. One spouse reacts a particular way and will not be forgiven for that by the other spouse. The most pervasively dominant of all human instincts, the one that prevails even over the basic instinct to protect our own is that of survival of the self. The film’s principal moral inquiry is whether we as a society are less forgiving of men than women when faced with such situations. First of all, FORCE MAJEURE is majestic from a technical standpoint. Some filmmakers have a spark to their work; you can sense a grandness, a flourish to every scene in their films. You can sense this in the films of Fincher, Nolan, the Coen brothers, and Welles. Writer-director Ruben Ostlund is a master aesthetist and earns the right to be compared to those filmmakers. There is an obvious pivotal scene in FORCE MAJEURE around which the entire film pivots and that alone is worth the price of admission for its technical grandeur. But set that money shot aside; even then, the film is remarkable for how neatly and studiously the shots have been culled together, with beautiful long, long takes that both present as challenges to the actors, some of them kids, and at the same time allow them to do remarkable work. The script here makes wry observations about the the soft, vulnerable, unexamined, scrupulously ignored underbellies of relationships as it focuses its gaze on several couples. And even when the gaze is terse, there is an intelligence to the examination that is exacting, precise. And lest this sound too lofty, I want to assure you that there is easily earned humor at every turn in this film. And wit. At one point, upon returning to their room after a testy dinner conversation, the wife tells her husband: “What’s wrong? That’s not us!” It is a marvelous way to think of one’s relationship. This is the quintessential film that will trigger intense debate after viewing. FORCE MAJEURE is currently streaming on Netflix

Summer of Blood | Review

Halloween is upon us and with it comes a slew of scary movies; “Annabelle” “Dracula Untold” and “Horns” just opened or are about to.  However, if you are not a die hard fan of having your adrenaline levels peak in the dark or find that a good nights sleep escapes you after getting the bejeezus scared out of you then this may just be the movie for you.  Welcome to Summer of Blood

th-8

Writer/director Onur Tukel turns in a hilarious performance as the monumentally lazy, socially oblivious and commitment-shy Erik Sparrow, who is dumped by his career-woman girlfriend (Anna Margaret Hollyman, White Reindeer) when he rejects her rather charitable marriage proposal. Feeling lost, he turns to a disastrous string of online dates that successively eat away at his already-deteriorating confidence until a lanky vampire turns him into an undead ladykiller. Soon, Eric is prowling the streets of Brooklyn in search of anything to satisfy both his maniacal sex drive and his hunger for blood.

Despite the fact that Eric is such a misogynist loser, Tukel shows skill in making the main protagonist incredibly likable; I couldn’t help but be on his side.  Helped by the witty dry comedy which runs through the movie both Eric and the rather ridiculous plot had me smiling and chuckling for the entire movie including a few belly laughs thrown in here and there.  The dialogue is hammy in places but mostly clever and smart and there is an interesting narrative about the lives we lead if you look for it. Anna Margaret Hollyman who plays Eric’s love interest plays her role perfectly, equally lovable and annoying all at the same time and is impressive in her ability to detest Eric so convincingly.

Summer of Blood is by no means as polished as other undead offerings like “Twilight” or “True Blood”  in fact at times at times this movie looks rather amateurish and even homemade, but that doesn’t make it bad.  I believe this hard working movie could turn into an underground cult classic in due course and I will certainly be lining up to watch this one again

Described as a horror comedy horror, this is more comedy than horror and definitely not a horrible comedy by any means.A collision of absurd, self-deprecating wit and existential curiosity, Summer of Blood is a hilarious horror-comedy with a clever bite all its own that starts with one of the best break up scenes ever right at the beginning of the movie and is definitely worth a watch

The film is releasing this Friday October 17th in select theaters and VOD.  Check local listings for a screening near you