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Friday, September 16, 2016

Café Society: A Review

With Woody Allen films, at least in recent times, the viewer either gets a movie that’s instantly forgettable (Magic in the Moonlight, Irrational Man) or instant classics (Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine). Café Society breaks the trend by falling between these two categories by being neither a classic nor unmemorable. Drenched in nostalgia like many of Allen’s best films the movie never really seems to come off as a film instead of incredibly well-crafted idea and so at times it’s possible to lose interest.

The movie is theoretically about emotion and passionate love but surprisingly (considering the director) never really manages to find the right chord that makes it seem like this passion is felt. Jesse Eisenberg is the latest actor who seems to be playing the onscreen role of a young Woody Allen and easily nails the role. His scene with the prostitute may be the best Woody Allen scene not actually starring the man himself.

The film is separated into two main arcs -Eisenberg’s Bobby moving to Los Angeles and his attempts to make it out there while falling for his uncle’s secretary Vonnie( played by Kirsten Stewart in an excellent performance) and his return to New York to run a nightclub with his mobster brother. The first half of the film is the better with the structure of Bobby and Vonnie’s relationship and the barriers to it more believable. The second half seems somewhat rushed and while some of the vignettes are entertaining (especially those featuring his brother, Ben) they don’t seem to merge seamlessly enough to stop the story from jarring.

In terms of the technical aspects, this is Allen’s first film with acclaimed cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (The Last Emperor, Apocalypse Now) and also his first film in digital. The result is a beautifully shot film which definitely brings the viewer into the Golden Age of 1930s Hollywood. The scenes in the nightclub especially are representative of the excellent visuals of the film.

Café Society is not one of Allen’s best films but it is his best film since Blue Jasmine three years ago. In sentiment and style it is closer to 2011’s Midnight in Paris (though my bias will always lean towards a Parisian setting even on scripts of equal measure, which this script is not) but with repeated emphasis on older Allen works set in New York. The total movie feels as though Allen was happy self-referencing rather than challenging himself and while that isn’t a bad thing when the body of work that’s being referenced is of such quality, the film never really speaks to the heart. And that’s a problem when you’re watching a love story. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

Selection Day: A Review

Selection Day: A Review

Aravind Adiga has a reputation as a chronicler of the ambition of the Indian masses to bridge the gap of inequality. In this, his third novel, the scope is once again on the effort of members of the lower classes trying to make it into the exclusive world of privilege but this time the author goes about it by focusing on modern India’s great love: cricket.

 Few things are more representative of the aspirations of the Indian masses than the dream to be a cricketer. IPL success stories capture the entire nation's attention and this allows the writer to detail another familiar Indian character, the entrepreneur who sees brilliant opportunities everywhere. The cricketers are Radha and his younger brother Manju, both exceedingly talented and continuously bullied by their father, who has made a contract with God that his son’s will be the best and second best batsmen in the wold. They make a less divine contract with Anand Metha who sponsors them in return for a percentage of their future earnings.

The novel is not a straight story on the pressure of schoolboy cricket and the potential for it to change the lives of those who would be invisible. Though there’s enough in that theme for an entire novel, Adiga expands further by introducing the character of Javed, a wealthy teammate of Manju who attempts to have the younger brother to attempt to make his own path in life instead of doing what his father has prescribed.  Manju’s confusion and difficulties with his adolescent sexuality is one of the main drivers of the novel but unfortunately, it’s also one of the more thinly written parts of the novel. Perhaps it’s intentional but it seemed as though there was the potential to write deeper scenes of emotional conflict. When compared to the depth at which Metha philosophizes on the state of India and the Indian people every time he appears, it seems like a missed opportunity to not develop the poignancy of the Javed and Manju story.

A more character-focused author would have made the father of the boys, Mohan, the lead character of the novel. With his maniacal devotion to having his sons become the best, coupled with his bizarre superstitions (“No shaving before turning 21 as it releases hormones into the body”) he’s easily the most memorable character in the novel. Unfortunately his presence becomes rarer as the novel progresses and though this is necessary for the story’s progression, one does wish to see more of him.

The novel is extremely readable and the prose flows with great verve, making it possible to read the novel from start to finish without interruption. The problem with such a book is that when there’s no reason to stop and think about things the book can be a bit forgettable. The character of Metha is one of the most cliché, in the sense that he’s an entrepreneur who drinks a lot and doesn’t enjoy members of his social class and by having him spout drunken speeches regularly it becomes possible to gloss over the character, which is unfortunate because he delivers some of the best lines in the novel (He thinks cricket exists “to pacify hundreds of millions of desperately horny young Indians of the lower social classes”).

The entire novel is mostly well-written and like Adiga’s previous works serve as a broad satire on aspects on India, especially class-mobility. The scope of the novel is exceedingly ambitious and occasionally the writing doesn’t seem to convey the entirety of the ideas. But ignoring those occasional missteps, the novel remains entertaining and worth reading. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Everybody Wants Some- A Review

Richard Linklater’s films always make the viewer conscious of time, whether it’s the years represented in Boyhood or the hours that go by in Before Sunrise. Everybody Wants Some details the weekend before the start of semester for a group of college baseball players. Linklater has stated that he considers the film to be the spiritual sequel to Boyhood but in tone and style it definitely reminds one of Linklater’s 1993 comedic masterpiece Dazed and Confused.

The film is quite light on plot but overall follows freshman pitcher Jake as he interacts with his teammates and navigates his first college weekend. It’s extremely heavy on the conversation and as expected for the director (possibly the best writer of dialogue in current cinema?) the characters go over ideas of varying magnitude which seem to be relevant on a universal level. Sure, the characters aren’t discussing the biggest ideas in the world but the philosophies somehow seem to be profound.

There’s no real story arc in the film. The characters don’t come up against a huge obstacle to overcome nor do they learn deep insights along the way. While it might seem meandering if that’s done wrong, in this case it’s refreshing. The entire film seems like one fun rush of hanging out with the guys. It’s an almost wholly male dominated film but perhaps by being set in 1980 it seems to be less of an aggressive masculinity that’s channel and more of a mellow and chill type. It’s an important feature because if the characters were all entitled, misogynist stereotypes of athletes the film wouldn’t work at all. So there can’t be enough praise for writing characters that are multi-dimensional (and likeable).

Managing to fit a multitude of distinct and memorable characters can easily overwhelm a film (or worse, the characters don’t manage to be memorable) but the film finds the balance in putting the right amount of each character in. From the smooth-talking Finn, aggressively talented McReynolds to the team’s designated outcast Niles, who has a habit of going on rants and treating everything way too seriously, there isn’t a single character who doesn’t seem to fit into the film (even if several are trying to figure out how to fit into the team). In fact, the characters and their antics are so much of a draw that it’s almost the end of the film before there’s any baseball at all. And even if there hadn’t been any, it’s unlikely anyone would have really clamoured to see more baseball despite the guys talking about the sport fairly regularly.

The fact that the film is set in 1980 definitely plays a big role. It’s a decade that’s currently popular for nostalgia as Stranger Things and the Ghostbusters reboot have shown. Whether the 1980s were a more hopeful time is probably a personal opinion but it does seem written as this is so. Dale, the team’s only black player, never says a single thing about his race and neither do any of his teammates. It’s all written in the sense of acceptance. And, being the 1980s, music plays a huge role in setting the scene and the soundtrack for this film may be one of the best for the year.

I’d easily place it as an instant classic and the only reason it isn’t in the top five of Linklater’s films is that this is the same director who’s done the Before trilogy, Boyhood and Waking Life (which shares some of the philosophizing upon ideas style that this film has , especially in the bong scene). It’s still September but Everybody Wants Some has a strong case to be one of the best comedies of the year. Thoroughly enjoyable watching and fun from start to fin

Monday, September 5, 2016

Victoria: A review

With films that are shot in one take the majority of focus tends to be on this fact and the difficulty of achieving such a feat. This is understandable as the difficulty of achieving this has made the production of any one-shot film an impossibility till the fairly recent past and the development of digital movie cameras. In 2002, critically acclaimed releases such as Russian Ark and Irreversible were released and while there was sufficient regard for the technical aspect of the films being shot in one-take it was only until Birdman (edited to seem as one take, not actually one take) in 2014 that it could really be said the one-shot entered the realm of regular film criticism.

The posters and trailer for Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria regularly reference the fact that this film was shot in one take. It remains an impressive feat even if they do tell us a lot. Filmed in a couple of hours in the Kreuzberg and Mitte neighbourhoods of Berlin during the early hours of the morning, the director needed only 3 takes to complete the film. Combined with the fact that the script is a bare 12 pages and most of the dialogue is improvised, it is an impressive feat.

The film is not all about the technical effects as there’s more to a film that just quality camerawork. In fact, despite all the hype about the camerawork in the advertising the film itself does not flaunt this technical mastery, leaving lots of time to focus on the story.  Led by stellar performances from Laia Costa and Federick Lau, who progress deeper in character as the film progresses, from fun and sweet into roles with markedly darker and determined aspects.

The premise of the film seems very simple and the opening shots of Victoria dancing in a club and then chatting with a group of guys after exiting seems like we’re being set up for something along the lines of a mumblecore indie romance or a Linklater Euro talkie. It certainly seems that way from the dialogue at the piano between Costa and Lau when they leave the group and are alone at the café Victoria works at. The film does an excellent job of bringing the action to another level from the point where we think it’s done.  Only after Lau’s Sonne leaves the café and we think the film is winding down does the director immediately send us into an unexpected heist film, filled with action, drama and bad decisions.

Transitioning swiftly into a film about a bank robbery and getaway, the tension is ramped up into an intense sequence of the setup of the robbery followed by a surprisingly smooth actual stickup.  Just when it seems we’ve gotten the happy climax via a wholly crazy night out, the director again ramps up the action and we’re given another action sequence with police shootouts and chases between (and into) Berlin apartment complexes.

 It’s hard to write much more without giving away too much but the film manages to stride between the indie beginning and the criminal heist ending successfully. It is a film that could be said to successfully transition between the two genres and should appeal to fans of either. Hopefully it could even be the start of further mixes of these genres.

The film packs a lot into the two hours it runs for. By the end when we see Victoria at the climax of the film it’s as if she’s lived years in those hours. That we get this feeling is due to success of Schipper’s ability to convey a frantic and engrossing film. There may be a sense of improbability at one or two aspects of the film (would the heist really be that smooth when done by drunken criminals with no experience?) but the film more than makes up for these rare moments of disbelief.