VIFF 2017: Close-Knit (Naoko Ogigami, 2017)

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While watching Naoko Ogigami’s Close-Knit, I often remarked to myself, “The camera is always at the right distance! Every Time!” like an idiot. But it is this observation that best captures the appeal of Ogigami’s cinema. She is not fashionable or current or modern in ways that are obvious. Indeed, her concepts and sensibility are probably downright corny. But she has judgment, and her gaze is always a respectful one. Thus her camera is always at a careful distance, marveling at the nature of her characters and accepting them for who they are. Hers is a welcoming vision, perhaps most ably realized in her masterpiece Kamome Diner (2006), where all sorts of people are brought into the fold of the narrative, their tastes, mannerisms and behavior given their place. The same applies for her latest feature, Close-Knit.

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SIFF 2017: Chronicles of Hari ( Ananya Kasaravalli, 2016)

The film begins with a series of Yakshagana artists readying themselves for the show. They sit still and silent as makeup is applied to their faces, and rituals are performed to bless their performances. In an interview, a man backstage explains that in a Yakshagana performance, men play the female roles. He extols that some performers’ movements are so feminine that they are mistaken for women. He is questioned off-camera about a particular performer who might or might not have worn women’s clothing at all times, and committed suicide. After a few more questions, the camera gives us the reverse shot, showing two young filmmakers huddled over a camera, listening to the interview subject.

These early sequences depict the film’s strengths and also its limitations: its fascination with these performers and their pathologies is earnest and often illuminating, but the film layers on a critical distance which feels unproductive and tacked on, rather than organic in approach. It posits the main character, Hari (Shrunga Vasudevan), as a sort of enigma – the film’s narrative does a great job of shading in the detail of this particular person, but the film’s conception casts him as a host of contradicting details and stories, reduced to what might or might not have happened to him.

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Hari is a young star in his rural theater troupe who specializes in playing female roles. However, after his request to play male roles is rebuffed, he becomes more unsure about who he is. He begins to wear a skirt which causes trouble at home (his younger’s brother marriage proposal is laughed off because of Hari’s reputation). He finds himself sharing a house with another man so the neighbors threaten to take them to the authorities. His struggles with his identity haunt him and Vasudevan’s performance is wonderfully mopey, but more often than not the film sits there on the screen, its dynamics and conclusions set in stone.

This is the first film of  Ananya Kasaravalli, the daughter of famous Kannada filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli, and she acquits herself well for the most part. Most of the interest here is in Vasudevan’s performance, the slow rhythms of the rural villages of Karnataka, and the strange, stylized rituals of the Yakshagana art. But the film truly sabotages itself with the frankly useless conceit of the filmmakers trying to find out more about Hari and his life. The ending is as ill-judged as I’ve seen in a long time, essentially commenting on the film’s emotional high point (a long shot of a character walking into the middle of a lake, followed by a stunning look at the camera) and rendering the emotional fallout of these images as meaningless. The film’s failures are crystallized in its final image: two useless characters stare out at the ocean, deflating the drama, and putting the whole thing in quotation marks. Why wasn’t Hari’s story enough?

 

Baahubali: The Conclusion (S.S. Rajamouli, 2017)

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S.S. Rajamouli’s Baahubali: The Beginning (dutifully reviewed here at SSS) was a work of grand spectacle, visual wonder and narrative simplicity. It found Rajamouli delivering a shot across the bow, if you will, announcing his intent to deliver a film worthy of the epics which drive the mechanics of the plot, and could stand side by side with Hollywood. But it is Baahubali 2: The Conclusion which truly delivers on that promise.

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My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (Dash Shaw, 2016)

The debut feature of comic book artist Dash Shaw, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, begins by firmly zeroing in on the concerns of young adult fiction: the new school year, the character’s social status, and all the insecurities that are inherent in being a teenager. But these early moments soon take backseat to what is basically a disaster film in miniature, inserting small nuggets of character detail and humor into what is a tired narrative. However, the stock scenario does nothing to derail from the wondrous sensibility of the animation, which is relentlessly inventive.

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Max Rose (Daniel Noah, 2013)

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Max Rose marks Jerry Lewis’ first starring role in a film in about 20 years. It tells the story of the eponymous character, an 87-year-old former jazz pianist whose wife has recently died. While going through her belongings, he finds evidence of a possible relationship his wife had with another man.
This is the material of a somber drama, but the film never quite arrives there. This is mostly because first time director Daniel Noah’s script is rather banal and trite. The film’s insights into marriage are sketched out in a series of flashbacks of Max with his wife, Eva (Claire Bloom), which are simply clichés of what a long-term companionship consists of. There’s nothing unique at all about their interactions, or about their conception. The film also throws in Max’s relationship with his son Christopher (Kevin Pollak) and his granddaughter Annie (Kerry Bishé). The former has some sharp moments; primarily, a tense, awkward scene where Max refuses to say “I love you” to Christopher. The latter is downright maudlin and has Bishé be reduced to putting on a clown nose and trying to get Max to smile. Noah’s staging is also flat and usually cut up into a series of unnecessary reaction shots which betray a lack of visual imagination (the film’s final shot is a catastrophe). The lighting at points reminds of a bad TV movie.

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Mia Madre (Nanni Moretti, 2015)

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Mia Madre, Nanni Moretti’s latest film, tells the story of Marguerita (Marguerita Buy), a filmmaker in the middle of making a political drama about a factory strike. She’s dealing with her mother’s failing health and other personal relationships. The film is reportedly based on Moretti’s experiences with dealing with the death of a loved one while making We Have a Pope. So, in essence, Marguerita is something of a Moretti stand-in but the character has shades that wouldn’t quite fit if Moretti played the role, and allows for new wrinkles to Moretti’s cinema (three generations of women). Instead, Moretti settles for a supporting role as Marguerita’s brother, who seems to have abandoned his job in order to care for their mother. His scenes and performance act as counterpoint to the work/life balance difficulties of Marguerita. Mia Madre finds Moretti in European Master mode with measured compositions, Arvo Pärt strings and a general tastefulness that makes the whole project somewhat bland.  And yet it remains of interest.

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SIFF 2016: Rainbow (Nakesh Kukunoor, 2015)

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Dhanak (English title Rainbow), the latest film from director Nagesh Kukunoor, concerns a pair of siblings traveling the deserts of Rajasthan in order to meet Shah Rukh Khan. The reason is sentimental: older sister Pari (the wonderful Hetal Gadda) wishes to help her blind little brother Chotu (Krrish Chhabria) get his eyesight back. Inspired by a poster in her village that has SRK asking for eye donations, and learning that he’s shooting a film 300 km away, she takes her brother and hits the road.

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SIFF 2016: Angry Indian Goddesses (Pan Nalin, 2015)

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Contemporary Hindi cinema is not the most hospitable place for women’s stories. Bollywood largely casts them as doting mothers or arm candy for buff heroes. Angry Indian Goddesses begins with an actress (Amrit Maghera) being told by a director to make sure her hips and butt are shaking while she’s struggling against her captors. She blows up at him, declares Bollywood to be fake, and storms off. So, the film explicitly positions itself as a realistic alternative to this brand of escapist cinema which sees women only as sex objects, and a society that mistreats them at every turn. The other opening vignettes show the other main characters lashing out at their oppressors as well.

Billed as India’s first all-out female buddy film, Angry Indian Goddesses concerns the relationship between a group of friends gathering at a bungalow in Goa in order to celebrate the wedding of Freida (Sarah-Jane Dias) to a mystery suitor. This allows for director Pan Nalin to let a host of personalities bounce off each other and let things flow from there. Indeed, it is a pleasure to see these talented actresses inhabit the screen together, free of the pressures of the roles they might have in a normal Bollywood production. It’s a shame that this is such a rare sight.

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Fan (Maneesh Sharma, 2016)

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One of the interesting things about actors who have worked for a long time (and have a recognizable on-screen persona) is that when they get older, they begin to interrogate those personae, and what they mean. Clint Eastwood has been doing this since the 70s. In Fan, the latest film by director Maneesh Sharma, the subject is Shah Rukh Khan, arguably the most famous Indian actor of the last 25 years.

Shah Rukh Khan is a great ham. He’s a shameless entertainer, doing anything to ensure that the films he’s in work. SRK is great because you can see the effort behind his work, the flop sweat. It’s been that way since the beginning. SRK began acting in films in the early 90s in a series of villainous roles (BaazigarAanjam) before becoming more of a romantic hero. His iconic role in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge  paved the way for a new type of hero (and film) that directly addressed the Indian diaspora. The films in this period with SRK in the Swiss alps, his arms outstretched waiting for his love, often fell into cliched territory, but SRK always gave everything to the role. He’s branched out from these roles to become an action hero, a comedian, all while finding time to work with prestigious directors (Mani Ratnam, Kamal Hasaan). While the last few films have seen him make a few lazy choices (his work with Rohit Shetty is pretty uninspired), Fan acts as something of a rejuvenation for him. He hasn’t been this engaged in quite a while.

Fan stars Shah Rukh Khan in a dual role. He plays Aryan Khanna, the biggest Bollywood star in the world, as essentially himself. He also plays Gaurav Chandna, Aryan’s biggest fan, in a performance aided by visual effects that transforms him into a slightly askew version of his younger self. Gaurav moonlights as an Aryan impersonator, and it’s his dream to one day meet him. So, one day he sets out to the big city in order to accomplish this. Things get complicated from there.

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Tamasha (Imtiaz Ali, 2015)

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The opening stretch of Imtiaz Ali’s latest film, Tamasha, takes some of the biggest risks of any film I’ve seen all year. Opening with a metaphorical gambit that’s downright bizarre (Ranbir Kapoor as a tin man on a treadmill?!) that announces the film’s “all the world’s a stage” conceit, Tamasha then segues into an extended stay in Corsica where the film introduces its two main characters.

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