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Old School Review: Pather Panchali “Song of the Road” (Apu trilogy 1/3) (1955)

Written and directed by world renown Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, “Pather Panchali” is his first film and the initial story in the celebrated ‘Apu Trilogy’. I came upon “Pather Panchali” and the Apu trilogy after hearing that these films are prerequisites for Werner Herzog’s classes on film. If they’re held in such high esteem by one of the most prominent filmmakers over the last half century- well, that’s good enough for me. “Pather Panchali” is first and foremost Apu’s (Subir Banerji) story, it is of his beginnings and of the people and places that informed his childhood. We begin, however, with the young Durga (Runki Banerji), Apu’s older sister, traipsing about the local garden stealing fruits for herself and for her mischievous ‘auntie’ Indir Thakrun (Chunibala Devi). The elderly Indir lives with Durga and Apu’s family in their ancestral home in bengal, India. We see Durga’s mother Sarbojaya (Karuna Banerjee), pregnant with Apu, overhear other women from the village gossip and complain about Durga and her family as thieves- and poor thieves at that. Money is a constant anxiety for the family then as it is now, Sabojaya’s suffering has only begun though, as she is the foundation of the family and who keeps everyone together throughout the film. After Apu is born in the night, and his father Harihar (Kanu Banerji) proudly holds him, we fast forward several years.

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The film is a mirror held up to the human experience, it reflects daily life in it’s cyclical rhythms, humble and lyrical in nature. We see life through the young Apu and pre-teen Durga’s (Umas Das Gupta) eyes, delighting in the small treasures of waiting for the sweets merchant and running through a field to see a train for the first time. We also see the quiet and lonely moments, one of great sadness in particular is of Indir Thakrun alone on the stoop at night in the rain as she sings, lamenting her dead family and friends, essentially coming to terms with the end of her life and wishing to die. Her unceremonious death later is at once horrifying as she is found by Apu and Durga, but also it has a sense of relief and release about it.

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One of the larger arcs across the story is that of Harihar, the dreamer. He envisions great fortune from his writings, eventually leaving the home to obtain consistent work and pay through his writing and practice as a Brahman priest. With Harihar’s head in the clouds and scraping to get by the duties of day-to-day life and structure for Apu and Durga fall to Sabojaya, and thus we spend a lot of time with her through Apu and Durga’s experiences. We witness her shame at the accusation of Durga stealing from another young girl, we see her resentment of having to share her home with Indir, who never listens to the rules and undermines her authority with the children. She has a lot to deal with. Mostly though we follow Apu and Durga simply experiencing life through childish awe and ambition. It’s a film that asks a lot of it’s audience, but it gives a window into another world removed from technology and modernity.

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After spending too much time out in the rain after a spat with Apu over trivial toys Durga becomes ill and bedridden. She worsens after a visit by the doctor and during a raucous storm in the night, she eventually passes away. Harihar returns home shortly after the destructive storm has wrecked their home to find Sabojaya distraught and broken. Once he discovers what has happened there is a feeling of helplessness achieved in the film that stayed with me well after the credits rolled. Once they salvage what they can from the rubble, the three take a caravan to Benares (Now known as Varanasi, the spiritual capitol of India) to start anew. Sometimes you have to accept change as it happens and evolve with it. As a Brahman priest, Harihar could provide for his family there as many make pilgrimages to wash in the cleansing waters of the Ganges river.

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The film has been derided as slow, unfinished, unpolished, and raw. I would argue, as many have before me, that that rawness is what makes it so powerful. Satyajit Ray had never directed performances or blocked scenes on a film before this. Subrata Mitra, the cinematographer, had never previously shot a scene, or framed movement before. Even the (now legendary) sitarist Ravi Shankar, had never composed a film’s score before either. How they collected such natural and seemingly untouched performances from children will forever be amazing to me. “Pather Panchali” is a uniquely beautiful film because of how closely it reflects our own lives even though the setting of the film is near a century ago in a small village in Bengal, India. If time and place can become inconsequential to how relatable a story can be, then what you’ve got, dear reader, is something truly miraculous in cinematic form.

Though, admittedly this is an arthouse film. That may be a scary and insurmountable term for some, and a well known comfort for others, but if you have a love for cinema and storytelling you owe it to yourself to see this film and others like it at some point. This form of film isn’t necessarily the most profitable and consumable for the masses, and not everyone will sit through a subtitled black and white foreign film, but I’d suggest giving it your time if you love cinema. It has earned that much of you.

Final Score: 1 small family, 1 ancestral family home, and a lot of boiled milk

*Below is a video on the work the Academy did with the Criterion Collection to save the film stock of the Apu trilogy after a fire burned down the warehouse in London. Give it a watch to see the work and diligence put into restoring this piece of film history.

 

 

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Review: Rampage!

Written by Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan Condal, and Adam Sztykiel and directed by Brad Peyton, “Rampage!” is an adaption of the arcade video game of the same name in which three giant monsters wreck a bunch of buildings. This movie is a giant monster B-movie with a budget that is as stupid as it’s concept. By now you’re probably sure whether or not this type of movie will work for you. While I enjoyed some of the action in the later half of the movie, most of it is mired by incredibly cringe-worthy dialogue and gigantic leaps in logic when it comes to the main characters’ problem solving abilities. Well, let’s dive in shall we?

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The only relationship this story is concerned with is that of primatologist Davis Okoye (Dwayne, The Rock, Johnson) and George, a large albino Gorilla at the Santa Monica Zoo. So, it’s good that this relationship actually works in the movie because almost everything else is either acted far too cartoonishly, or with a transformers level of ignorance. However, the third act is a good time- even if there is absolutely no regard for human life whatsoever. So the (very) basic premise is that an evil company, whose generic name you’ll never remember anyways, was funding science experiments on a space station that blew up due to the volatility of said experiments (their purpose? who knows) which resulted in three vials cascading down to North America and landing in Wyoming, Florida, and Southern California. These vials mutated the animals that interacted with them first and therefore we have three giant mutated animals running around causing all sorts of havoc. As you can imagine, one of those animals happens to be George the albino gorilla. There’s also a wolf, and an alligator. Eventually the Cartoonishly evil villains in Chicago, Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy as the Wyden siblings, decide to activate a low frequency beacon to draw the beasts to downtown Chicago so the military can kill them and they can salvage some of the mutated DNA for future evil-doings. Davis Okoye travels with the unnamed government agency that took George for study, he also brings along Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), a genetic editing scientist that used to work for the evil company. There’s also a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Joe Manganiello as a gruff military badass who’s only there to be eaten by a giant wolf. What a waste.

12-rampage.w710.h473 I have to admit, Jeffrey Dean Morgan seems to have been having a great time portraying Harvey Russell, the agent leading the unnamed government agency. His southern drawl is comically amusing throughout his time onscreen and he seems to be the most self aware character in acknowledging this very, very, dumb movie he’s in. However, dumb can be fun, and if that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll get it in “Rampage!” One such example that caught me off guard completely was when the chaos is unfolding in downtown Chicago (a city I’ve lived in) and the military is picking up movement in the Chicago river as the leading personnel seriously says, “That’s odd, we don’t have any submarines in the area..” I mean, really? You don’t say? No submarines in Lake Michigan huh? Well isn’t that just the oddest thi- OH MY GAWD IT’S A GIANT CROCODILE!

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If the film wanted to add even an iota of depth to the story they could have chosen to actually follow the source material’s only nugget of storytelling by having the origins of the three monsters be humans that are mutated into the destructive threats instead of animals. That might be asking too much of this movie though. “Rampage!” can be fun at times, but it’s also incredibly dumb, the script is one of the worst I’ve seen in years. There’s lots of brazen assumptions, low brow humor, and aggressively stupid character decisions that go hand-in-hand with their cardboard thin characterization. However, if you’re willing to completely shut your brain off for a big dumb monster movie, this might work for you.

 

Final Score: 1 Kong, 1 Zilla, & 1 Werewolf

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Review: Isle of Dogs

Written and directed by Wes Anderson, “Isle of Dogs” is a stop-motion animated film set in Megasaki City, a fictional Japanese city in the not so distant future, where a virus known as ‘Dog Flu‘ has devastated the pet populace and threatens to transfer to humans soon. In the face of this threat Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) declares an emergency order, exile all dogs to trash island. He begins with the public exile of his young nephew Atari’s (Koyu Rankin) dog/bodyguard Spots (Liev Schreiber). Six months later the decrepit isle is populated by every dog from Megasaki City and we focus on five particular pooches looking for food amongst the scraps, Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray), and King (Bob Balaban). After a quick scrap over the available morsels with another gang of roving dogs they spot an incoming small plane that’s about to crash land. After they drag Atari from the wreckage and dub him, the little pilot, they figure out that he’s looking for his lost dog, Spots.

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This little film was a joy to watch. I already have a proclivity towards stop-motion animation, so the film had already piqued my interest- but I really did enjoy the story of “Isle of Dogs” as well. At the heart of the film the story is about friendship and doing the right thing, but there were darker shades of conspiracy and a more realized threat for all of the four-legged companions than I was expecting. I won’t get into spoiler territory, but the film was more clever than I had expected and that was a nice surprise. The stellar voice cast cannot be ignored either as each dog had a major name behind their voice and their stylized performances, written for each celebrity, fit their larger than life personas which only added depth to their characterization. There’s also the visual treat of the film as a whole, the blocking and movement was tight and tactile while maintaining Anderson’s well worn Symmetry (with a capital S!) in all frames. This film might fall more on the niche side of his works than say “The Grand Budapest Hotel” but it won me over and I’ll definitely be adding it to my collection once the physical copy is released.

 

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Now, to discuss the elephant in the room; the fact that Wes Anderson made a creative choice to have all human characters speak in their native tongues and deciding against subtitles. There are also translations through interpreters at events or machines that perform the same function. The untranslated Japanese speakers didn’t bother me in this film’s context, it felt more like a quirky choice that was an example of the difficulties with translation as a whole as used in the dogs versus humans, but yes this was clearly made for an English speaking audience. Personally, I’m of the mind that ‘cultural appropriation’ and those who like to throw the term about wildly, aren’t nearly as bad or mean-spirited as people might immediately assume. Obviously context matters here, ‘blackface‘ for example was not okay and we all understand that. However, today’s outrage culture seems poised to sniff out any little tidbit of possible offense and use it to lambaste those who might simply be fascinated by other cultures and their traditions. Just so long as the Japanese voice actors’ speech wasn’t derogatory or insensitive to the culture, which after doing some mild research- it seems to be a fairly innocent tactic, the filmmaker seemed invested in playing with a motif of Japanese culture while also attempting to do so respectfully.

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I just don’t understand the effort that goes into being that upset consistently. I don’t want to get too far into the weeds about this here as this is just a review for “Isle of Dogs”, but its relevant to the film. Injustice is important to seek and stamp out in society if possible, but if you’re so narrowly focused that you’re actively protesting a Wes Anderson film- well, there are more productive ways you could be helping society as it relates to injustice. As an example, I don’t get that incensed when I see a white person wearing dreads, however, I am upset by government agencies destroying the environment and further ruining the last patches of land and water left to our Native American peoples. Anyway, that’s the end of my miniature lecture.

Final Score: 5 guide dogs and 1 determined boy

*Below are two articles that further discuss the translations, and lack thereof in “Isle of Dogs”, and I encourage you to give them a read if you’re invested in the topic.

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/what-isle-of-dogs-gets-right-about-japan

https://slate.com/culture/2018/04/what-its-like-to-watchisle-of-dogsas-a-japanese-speaker.html

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Review: A Quiet Place

Written by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, and John Krasinski and directed by Krasinski, “A Quiet Place” is an intelligent and intimate thriller that expertly showcases Krasinski’s skill behind the camera as well as in front of it. This is Krasinski’s third time in the director’s chair when it comes to features, his first two, “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” and “The Hollars” were both comedies with drama sprinkled in, though he also directed a few episodes of The Office. None of which suggest the talent and brilliance laying dormant within Krasinski for his third time at bat in “A Quiet Place”. I didn’t know what I was about to witness after buying my tickets to this particular showing, I had a night off from work so I looked at the showings and randomly happened upon the monster movie- some word of mouth around the internet from critics I trust seemed to suggest it would be a good time at the theater, and they weren’t wrong in the slightest. In the opening scene we’re introduced to the family Abbott in an abandoned grocery store. The parents (Krasinski and Emily Blunt) and three children all seem tense, barely making a sound as they carefully scatter about on the balls of their feet looking for supplies. They use sign language to communicate between others and through some clever use of sound editing we notice that one of the children (Millicent Simmonds) must be deaf. As they leave the store newspapers flutter in the wind as you can see the headlines read in bold letters, “IT’S SOUND!” consuming the page. I won’t divulge into details that one might consider spoiler territory, but it’s quickly established that any noise above a muted whisper is met with brutal violence from the monsters lurking just beyond sight.

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This film is a masterclass in efficiently showing you everything you need to know about every member of the family and how they all interact with each other through this world changing scenario. Since there is almost no spoken dialogue in the film and few signed lines, we’re inclined to study each character’s face and body movements more than a film might normally require of its audience. The film’s world and sense of danger are exquisitely portrayed in the first half of the movie. We’re introduced to the threat outside and how very real it is, we see how they survive through careful planning and awareness of their surroundings, and we see them trying to live a normal life amidst this ever present terror. At the beginning of being seated in my theater, I was worried that the crowd might be too noisy for this film. The audience was laughing and chatting, eating and coughing all throughout the trailers- but as soon as the opening scene captured everyone’s attention with rapt bated breath, I knew I was in for a treat. This is a film where precise sound design is key, it was utilized with such perfection in order to ratchet up the suspense as much as possible at any given moment that it seemed almost cruel in it’s execution, it was almost too good!

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What I loved most about the film was that, much like “Jaws”, the focus wasn’t on the unseen threat awaiting our characters, it was on the people at risk themselves. The monsters, or aliens, or whatever they were (it’s really unimportant as to what exactly they are) weren’t overused, though they do show themselves eventually, the simple fact that they were nearby created an unsettling atmosphere that was prevalent throughout the film’s runtime. The second half of the film is almost entirely steeped in suspense. Krasinski pulls from masters like Hitchcock here in that once things start to go off the rails for the family Abbott- there’s always another problem that exponentially increases anxiety and tension. He never lets the audience go once he’s got you, splitting up the various family members for one reason or another comes with a lot of variables and everything that can go wrong does!

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After this film, I know I’ll be paying attention to whatever projects Krasinski’s working on, because this shows great potential. “A Quiet Place” is a classic thriller that’s incredibly clever on several fronts and I imagine it will be a favorite among audiences from here on out! This film may be the evolution of a master at work, only time will tell!

Final Score: a million unsaid things and several screams!

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Review: Mute

Written by Michael Robert Johnson and Duncan Jones and directed by Jones, “Mute” is a futuristic sci-fi neo-noir that follows Leo (Alexander Skarsgård) a mute Amish man living in Berlin some forty years in the future as he searches for his missing girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). This is Jones’ fourth feature, but his first to be released through Netflix, which gives me even less of a good reason to have missed it until now. However, that being said, the film seemed to have been mired in a quagmire of sour reviews upon its release and I was perplexed by this given the enticing trailers. The film looked to be a unique take on the Blade Runner format with a few twists and turns of its own. After giving it a watch, I can see where some complaints make sense, but overall I enjoyed the film as a whole.

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There are several aspects of the film that stand out to me and what save it from getting too bogged down for its own good. The casting was a unique array of actors but the most worrisome of the bunch was Paul Rudd and whether or not he’d be able to deliver a compelling, and convincing, villain. A villainous turn may have seemed antithetical to most of Rudd’s past work, but his role as Cactus Bill turned out to be my favorite part of the movie. He portrays a nasty, rude, and entitled American soldier that went A.W.O.L. after a recent war in Berlin. Cactus Bill is volatile and unsettling at moments, but he’s also a father figure throughout the movie carting around his young daughter as he goes about trying to illegally obtain new passports and IDs to get out of town. His partner in crime is Justin Theroux’s ‘Duck’ the inverse of Cactus Bill. Duck speaks softly and wears outdated professor-marketed wool sweaters, but he too shares a darker identity that becomes more visible as the film goes on. Both are former military surgeons that work in tandem with Russian (I assume) mafia figures needing to be stitched up. These two garner a hefty amount of the plot and a lot of the attention away from Skarsgård’s Leo, luckily they earn their screentime.

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Speaking of Leo, his anchor in this story is formed based on his upbringing and the beliefs of his family that led to his muteness. After a tragic boating accident that shredded his vocal chords, Leo’s mother declined surgery citing that Only God can help him now, and thus we have our voiceless hero. Fast forward to Leo’s adult life as a bartender in a shady club run by criminals and we see the different shades of his life folding in on one another. Naadirah also works at the club where we witness Leo’s righteous wrath on several patrons after they crudely harass her. His stoicism and height lend to this handling of justice, however his occupation does not. Put on the bench by his superiors Leo steps back as tries to keep his life with Naadirah safe. Therefore, she disappears a few scenes later and Leo kickstarts his detective storyline as he desperately tries to track her down. The other idea in the story that stayed with me after the movie was the idea of an Amish man living in the futuristic world of Neo Berlin. The film did a good job of making his life in this world feel authentic, his apartment and his mannerisms play into that idea efficiently.

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There are some rough edges to this film though. The meshing of storylines between Leo’s quest to find Naadirah and Cactus Bill’s journey to escape Berlin isn’t always smooth. Ultimately the two storylines end up being far more linked than expected, but the atmosphere and feel of them isn’t as cohesive as it could have been. There’s also a scene in the third act that’s built up as something that could be more than what it ends up being, and it’s simply anticlimactic, which is a bit of a bummer. The film also goes on for about twenty minutes, or so, longer than I feel it needs to. It lingers longer than is needed and somewhat overstays its welcome because of this. Though if you’ve seen Duncan Jones’ first film “Moon” there are several entertaining cameos by Sam Rockwell’s Sam Bell on Television in the background of some scenes, there’s even a few recurring graffiti images of Bell throughout Berlin’s streets.

“Mute” is a good time in the end, even with a few uneven sides. It’s nowhere near as bad as the majority of reviews seem to have deemed it, I suggest giving it a watch if only to see Paul Rudd’s rare villainous appearance.

Final Score: 2 criminal surgeons and 1 good ole fashioned Amish beat down 

“Mute” is currently available on Netflix.

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Review: Best F(r)iends Vol 1.

Written by Greg Sestero and directed by Justin MacGregor, “Best F(r)iends” is the reunion piece of the infamous duo behind “The Room” in Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau. This time around with Sestero taking the writing and producing duties and outsourcing the directorial workload to MacGregor, Tommy Wiseau’s only focus was on the craft of his acting. Which was indeed, a wise decision. Okay, first, we must pause. If you missed “The Disaster Artist” this last year and have no idea what “The Room” is, then you’re in for a world of questions.. and possibly concerns. Tommy Wiseau was the writer, director, star, and producer of “The Room” a midnight movie cult unicorn of sorts released in 2003. Several critics at the time labeled it as the worst movie of all time but after awhile it garnered a status all its own for all of the curious filmmaking decisions, the enigmatic screeching of Tommy Wiseau’s lead character Johnny in particular, and the plot threads left unexplained. In fact I heavily suggest giving “The Disaster Artist” a watch before diving into “Best F(r)iends” to know whether or not this is something you might enjoy. Back to the movie at hand though.

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“Best F(r)iends” begins with a bearded and bloodied Jon (Sestero) waking abruptly a la Daniel Craig in “Cowboys and Aliens”. He’s a drifting homeless veteran that makes clever panhandling signs around Los Angeles. Shortly after we’ve been introduced to Jon we’re given creeping shots of a hearse with a purple underglow and purple headlights (the headlights are purple in some scenes and regular in others) seemingly stalking him. Enter Harvey (Wiseau) the mortician. Jon happens upon the alleyway where Harvey’s morgue operates and as the odd funeral director is pulling a casket from the back of the hearse he heckles Jon for help. Thus begins a beautiful f(r)iendship. Harvey proposes that Jon work for him (although he seemingly forgets this later and harasses him for looking homeless [several times] and not having a job or money) at the morgue and the mute (for some reason Jon is voiceless before he meets Harvey) Jon agrees.

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The plot from there revolves around Jon seeing the potential in Harvey’s work with boxes of gold fillings from the dead just lying around and they quickly start a trade in the black market of dental scrap. There’s some actual drama in the film and perhaps it only works because of the surreal and weird nature of the film as a whole, but I was honestly impressed with a few scenes. However, that is not why I, nor most came to see this movie. We came for the mistakes, the gaffes, and the specifically curious decisions that went into the production of the movie. For example, there is a number of shots spread throughout the movie that are in slow motion.. for no reason at all. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it and it constantly resulted in bemused laughter in my theater. There’s plenty of random things in the background of shots that also produced bewildered guffaws- like random boxes with the label “Mouth Stuff” written in sharpie. Or the fact that the DVD of “The Room” is hidden in several scenes. Or the more obviously odd choice of keeping their black market funds in an ATM in a shed.

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The movie has a few things going for it that take it a step or two above the quality of “The Room”. There is better cinematography this time around, the equipment they have access to is more polished- but some things are still out of focus at times (though this is rare compared to “The Room”). The score is unwieldy, but in the best sense. It plays over a string of montages granting the film a more absurdist texture- which helps to enhance the strangeness of everything surrounding it. The writing is better, but definitely stilted and unnatural, which could have been intentional this time around. As Sestero wrote the screenplay instead of Wiseau, you can only imagine that this must be a pairing of his perception of his oddball acting partner along with all the intricacies that Wiseau himself brings to the table. Which brings me to the greatest asset of the film, Tommy Wiseau. This time the weird and awkward elaborateness of Wiseau plays into his character which allows him to be as untethered and as quirky as he feels he needs to be. Wiseau has startling and screeching one liners such as “YOU CANNOT BREAK ME!” when he’s only been startled by Sestero’s Jon in the alleyway when he already knows who Jon is in the story. He sings some of his lines for no known reason and his, many, non-sequiturs inspire a whimsical brand of madness that is uniquely, and unequivocally, Wiseau. Sestero on the other hand, seems to have gotten better at acting in the interim. He does a surprisingly effective job of holding a sadness in his eyes, but he can often be seen acting, where the illusion is broken and the audience may feel as though they are watching college theatre, but God bless him, he tries.

Final Score: Hundreds of gold fillings and 1 dead clown

The movie ends with their version of a Marvel stinger for the second Volume coming in June, and I have to admit it- I’m gonna have to go see it. The first Volume was entertaining enough, plus the second half looks to be possibly more insane than the first!

Best F(r)iends Vol 2. will be released through Fathom Events on June 1st and 4th nationwide.