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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Attack On Titan: End of the World (Shinji Higuchi, 2015)

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Seattle Screen Scene’s review of the first film can be found here.

Just a few weeks ago, the first Attack on Titan played in American screens. It was a frequently disturbing film that took the Titan universe and re-imagined it in tokusatsu terms. Because it appears that the latest trend in Japanese cinema is to take these manga/anime properties and milk them for all they’re worth, the film adaptation was split into two parts (see also: Parasyte, Bokura Ga Ita, etc.). This is where the problems begin.

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Attack on Titan (Shinji Higuchi, 2015)

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The Attack on Titan franchise has been a juggernaut in Japan for the last few years. The original manga has now spawned an anime series (a huge hit that can be seen on Instant Netflix), several light novels, other spin-off manga and video games as well. Since the Japanese film industry basically thrives on manga/anime adaptations these days, it’s not surprising to find the property now adapted into two parts and treated like a big event. It’s the Death Note movies all over again.

About 100 years ago, giant humanoid creatures named titans showed up and ate just about everyone in the world. Humanity was barely able to escape extinction by building three giant walls that kept the titans out. But then one day they disappeared. Humanity has since been living in peace. Starring young fashionable actors like Haruma Miura, Kiko Mizuhara and Satomi Ishihara, Attack on Titan tells the story about what happens when the titans attack again.

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Hit 2 Pass (Kurt Walker, 2014)

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Hit 2 Pass is a documentary which takes at its focus not just its subject (a demolition derby race – you have to hit to pass your opponent – and the community surrounding it), but the film grammar required to tell its story. Beginning with a surreal black & white bit with some kind of Jerry Lewis or Professor Pluggy-inspired MC that announces that the film will be presented in 4:3 and then pointing out that the image the viewer is watching is, in fact, a 4:3 image, the film explains its subject and how it will explore it. From the start, we’re conditioned to interrogate every image not just for what it’s showing, but also for what it’s saying about the people doing the shooting.

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Office (Johnnie To, 2015)

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The world of Office, the latest from director Johnnie To, is a world without walls. Or, rather, a world where walls do nothing to differentiate space. It’s hard to tell where one place begins and another ends. Each scene takes place in a largely artificial environment where geometric figures and shapes suggest the outline of a room; this strategy essentially means that at any given moment there’s tons of action happening on multiple planes of the frame. Whether it’s a hospital room, a character’s apartment, there is no personal space. There’s only a series of transparent chambers where only emotional/financial transactions can take place.

Chow Yun Fat plays Chairman Ho. While his wife is in a coma, he’s been having an affair with CEO Chang for the last 20 years (played by Sylvia Chang, the film is an adaptation of her 2009 play, Design for Living), and his daughter, Kat, is now working at an entry-level position to gain knowledge of the business. One of his underlings tries to get an accountant to cook the books. Meanwhile Lee Xiang, played by Wang Ziyi (Lee for Ang Lee, Xiang for Dream – aspirational!), also starting at the company, just wants to make a good impression, achieve his dreams and ride that direct elevator to the 71st floor. The film uses all of them to explore certain attitudes and ways of living in capitalist society by testing their bonds after the 2008 crash.

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Baahubali (SS Rajamouli, 2015)

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One of the biggest movie events of the year happened this past weekend, but you wouldn’t know about it if you read any of the biggest English language film publications around. Baahubali: The Beginning, the latest film from SS Rajamouli, was just released. The New York Times didn’t deem it worthy of a review. Variety publishes stories of its box office success and gigantic marketing push, but can’t throw a freelancer at it. A cursory search reveals a couple of reviews from English-language publications at best. It’s a rather sad state of affairs for one of the modern cinema’s best mainstream filmmakers.

SS Rajamouli has, over the last few years, steadily upped his scope and ambition. No longer content to tuck his most lavish and improbable images into narrative side trips or flashbacks (Yamadonga‘s trip to hell, Magadheera‘s flashback structure), Rajamouli in his last two films has focused his attention on utilizing his considerable gifts to giving shape to impossible images. His preferred tool is the CGI image, and he’s possibly one of the only filmmakers currently working not bound to traditional ideas of realism – for Rajamouli, each image is fantastic. So Eega, his fly revenge film, becomes not just about its technological advances (Rajamouli is proud of his special effects and wants to show them off – his Zemeckis or Cameron side, if you will), but about how the technology can enhance the film’s devilish sense of humor (the film shares DNA with Tex Avery and Joe Dante all while successfully invoking and playing around with the idea of the Telugu film hero). Baahubali successfully creates a world and aims for a sense of realism in its battle scenes, but will often drop an image of such iconic and mythic stature that any thought that realism is the end game here is quickly dispelled. Rajamouli demands more.

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