Sunday, July 7, 2024

Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One: Review

About 20 minutes into the new Mission: Impossible, I found myself gazing up at the screen in a way I hadn’t in some time. Instead of standard mainstream Hollywood framing, the screen was suddenly a succession of giant faces. The architecture was unusual too, a lot of canted angles, the editing betraying the 180 rule. Even as I reoriented, it occurred to me that Christopher McQuarrie was doing this for a reason: to put viewers in the mind of the first M:I film.  

It's become standard practice for film franchises that are winding down to remind audiences of the journey they’ve been on (Dead Reckoning One and Two were supposed to end the series, though there's talk now of possible further films). McQuarrie, on his third M:I film, allows himself the luxury of nostalgia, though he takes an unusual route. Instead of doing what most films do—flashbacks, bringing back old characters—he borrows wholesale Brian De Palma’s style from the first M:I film. Because McQuarrie has no particular visual style of his own beyond finding the cleanest, clearest way to capture Tom Cruise in motion, the canted angles and giant faces are a jolt, and also a way of saying, this is where it all began.

There’s another, more direct indication that Dead Reckoning is bringing this journey full circle. Former IMF director Kittridge is back for the first time since De Palma’s film (still played by Henry Czerny), this time as a member of the Community, one of those nutty M:I organizations comprised of members of various intelligence services. McQuarrie could absolutely have introduced a new character, so Kittridge is as deliberate a nod to the first film as Cruise hanging off the roof of a speeding train. 

The Community is worried about an ominous experimental AI called The Entity, which has gone rogue and is infiltrating defense systems. The only way of stopping it from some world domination is a cruciform key in two halves. Ethan Hunt (Cruise), Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) are tasked with finding this key, one half of which is conveniently with old ally Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). The other half is with master thief Grace (Hayley Atwell)— brunette, quick-thinking, and up to no good, clearly an Ethan sort of girl. Also in pursuit is a lethal ghost from Ethan’s past, Gabriel (Esai Morales), assassin Paris (Pom Klementieff), arms dealer Alanna (Vanessa Kirby) and a bumbling bunch of Community agents led by Jasper Briggs (Shea Whigham).  

There are times when the practicalities of an invisible enemy start to weigh the film down (knowing there’ll be something real to punch at the end is a right that should never be taken away from audiences). Gabriel isn't fleshed out either, and Morales is too reserved for a primary antagonist. But the setup is irresistible: Tom Cruise, savior of the theatrical experience, versus evil AI. The set pieces are incredibly long pieces of choreography, lovingly conceived, the initial gag and the payoff often separated by 10, 15 minutes. One series of events goes on for what feels like the good part of an hour, starting with Hunt on a bike and Grace on a train until they’re united in the silliest, most spectacular way possible. A car chase through Rome is made even more challenging by Hunt and Grace being handcuffed together. It’s a Cruise film, so this isn’t sexy but instead comic, with Grace forced to race a tiny yellow Fiat 500 through the crowded streets (Klementieff’s deranged enjoyment in pursuit adds to the fun).  

While the John Wick series’ debt to silent film is often mentioned, I'd wager McQuarrie was also thinking of Lloyd and Keaton while making Dead Reckoning. With the exception of a charged encounter in Venice, the set pieces all have comic touches, but more than that they have the meticulousness and logic of great silent sequences, one thing triggering another and then another until all hell breaks loose. There's a famous shot out of Keaton's The General. Whigham and Greg Tarzan Davis are perfect Keystone Cops. Even the huge closeups reminded me of The Passion of Joan of Arc

The Mission: Impossible films had a great idea at the outset: each film passes to a different director, who puts their own stamp on it. This worked brilliantly for a while—the switch from tense spy thriller (De Palma) to gun ballet (John Woo) was head-spinning. Brad Bird brought a bizarro quality to the stunts that has remained. But this practice was discontinued after Rogue Nation—which has resulted in three quite similar films. This is not because McQuarrie imposes himself on the material. What he has done, instead, is remove the clutter and unlock Cruise. The plots are largely incidental—I couldn’t tell you what happens in Rogue Nation or Fallout. Everything is geared towards helping Cruise do the most outlandish stunts he can dream up, and presenting these in the clearest way possible so we can see he's actually doing them. McQuarrie is self-effacing and extremely good at what he does. But the ringmaster, the auteur, is Cruise, whose late-career crusade for the big screen experience now suffuses everything he does. 

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Neeyat: Review

Hindi films should really stop spoiling their own surprises. Not for the first time, a brief but significant appearance is clearly indicated in the opening credits of Neeyat. A thank you in the closing credits would suffice, and have the advantage of not tipping alert viewers off. Having seen the name at the start, it was always in the back of my mind. I didn’t know whether it would be significant, but I knew there was something—and in a murder mystery, something goes a long way.  

Ashish Kapoor—AK to his friends, though that’s a slippery concept—is hosting a party on a remote Scottish isle. Played by Ram Kapoor with huckster charm and flashes of menace, he’s modeled on Vijay Mallya and other Indian billionaire fugitives. His flagship company, AK Cyber, has gone belly up, employees haven’t been paid for two years, and he owes the government 200 crore rupees. So it’s a mild surprise when, in the midst of his birthday celebrations, he announces that he plans to sell his assets, return home and take his chances in court. 

Soon AK will turn up dead, pushed off a cliff during a storm. Since the staff has been sent home and there’s only one outsider, mouthy maître d' Tanveer (Danesh Razvi), Neeyat becomes that most comforting of genres, the locked room mystery. And in keeping with the genre’s conventions, the suspects are… everyone. There’s Noor (Dipannita Sharma) and Sanjay Suri (Neeraj Kabi), old flame and friend of AK’s respectively, and their camera-toting son, who stay in a Kensington mansion belonging to AK, which he was planning to sell. There’s Jimmy Mistry (Rahul Bose), his flamboyant brother-in-law. There’s his cokehead son Rayan (Shashank Arora), who’s brought his girlfriend (Prajakta Koli). There’s AK’s own girlfriend, Lisa (Shahana Goswami); her niece Sasha (Ishika Mehra), whose school fees AK pays; his tarot reader, Zara (Niki Aneja Walia); and his loyal assistant, Kay (Amrita Puri).

Into this vintage Agatha Christie scenario, Menon and her co-scenarists introduce a Poirot—sort of. CBI officer Mira Rao (Vidya Balan) is nothing like the Belgian dandy—or like Benoit Blanc, the loquacious sleuth in the Knives Out films, which Neeyat borrows a lot from. She’s diffident, has panic attacks and is easily overpowered, barely speaks, barely smiles. A better comparison might be with GK Chesterton’s mild-mannered Father Brown, unimpressive except for his remarkable powers of deduction. It’s a clever counterintuitive idea to have an uncool, uncharismatic sleuth, and Balan, all scowls and nervous glances, dressed in a dowdy orange sweater, is perfectly cast. 

There’s too much Knives Out and Branagh Poirot in Neeyat for it to not seem derivative. Even the final twist—which I didn’t see coming—is similar to a revelation in Knives Out 2 (I’m also reminded of Chris Evans’ much-discussed sweater in the first film). But if you can put questions of influence aside, there is enough in Neeyat to divert and amuse. It’s a relief to have a Hindi film that isn’t an eyesore. Cinematographer Andreas Neo introduces noirish flourishes every now and again, including a confrontation wreathed in dramatic shifting shadows. 

It’s always fun when actors with a sense of mischief—Kapoor, Goswami, Arora, Kabi—are put in a confined space and made to bounce off each other. Arora's Rayan in particular is strangely touching, a rich asshole easily moved to tears, the only one who seems genuinely moved by AK’s death, even though he hated him. The whole cast chews scenery, most of all Bose, who doesn’t have a sane line reading in the whole film. It’s slapstick fun, directed with a light touch by Menon, though a couple of subdued performances might have added some heft (Razvi’s Tanveer feels like it’s pitched higher than it should be).

While I wish Neeyat was more its own film, it’s nice to see Balan continue to work regularly and well, on what seem like her own terms. She starred in one of the best Hindi films of 2021, Sherni, and one of the best of last year, Jalsa. In an industry where most actors are operating from a place of calculation and fear, hers will be a second and third innings to watch.  

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny: Review

If you’re a director in Hollywood today, being a good mimic is a handy skill. Nostalgia is so hot right now that it isn’t enough for familiar characters to return in new releases. The original films must pass before the audience’s eyes. This applies to fandom-flattering productions like J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens but also to films that don't feel like they've come off an assembly line, like Joker, which appropriates '70s Scorsese, or The Batman, which channels Fincher. Meanwhile, directors with distinctive styles and worldviews are fetishized (the depressing Wes Anderson AI trend), take on commercial projects they’re unsuited for, or gravitate to the more adventurous world of streaming.  

James Mangold has worked in a variety of genres, with every kind of actor, and delivered often enough that he keeps working. I like a lot of his work, yet would be hard-pressed to identify a Mangold style—Cop Land, Girl, Interrupted and Ford v Ferrari are all fine films with little in common. It seemed like the right call when he was announced as director for the fifth (and reportedly final) Indiana Jones film: malleable enough to imitate Spielberg’s style, but with enough personality and skill to not make the imitation seem slavish. 

That’s pretty much what you get in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, in which an 80-year-old Harrison Ford reprises his most famous role as the hat-wearing, whip-cracking adventurer. After years of seeking relics, Indy has become one himself, telling the hippies next door to turn down the Beatles and grumbling at moon landing celebrations. On his final day as a teacher, he’s paid a visit by his goddaughter, Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge). We know why she’s there—the film begins with a flashback where her father (Toby Jones) and Indy (Ford de-aged) wrest from the Nazis a dial fashioned by Archimedes, one which, according to legend, has the power to turn back time. There’s a long, busy chase sequence in the streets of New York—and before you know it Indy’s in Tangier, complaining about the inconvenience and the danger, even though no one’s buying it.  

Waller-Bridge gives the series a welcome jolt. Helena has Marion’s daring, Indy’s resourcefulness and her own brand of recklessness—if the series were to go forward without Ford, so much better that it be her than Shia LaBeouf’s Mutt, killed off between the fourth and fifth films. Mikkelsen is wasted (elegantly) as archetypal Nazi scientist Voller. Jones makes it seem like he was always part of the series (there’s a scene where he clutches the dial like Bilbo with his ring—Ford’s expression in that moment is as sad as Gandalf’s). There’s another long, colourful, very Indy-ish chase in Tangier, before everyone moves to Greece to find the missing half of the dial—Voller has unrevealed but likely sinister plans. John Williams’ music follows every twitch. 

And yet. For all the film’s industry and eagerness to please, there’s something missing. It seems churlish to say that thing is Spielberg. Yet that is the difference, the ability to come up with that inevitable perfect detail which makes audiences laugh aloud with the thrill of shared enjoyment. The film is like a well-drilled cover band. You get the hits and you miss the real thing.  

The most interesting thing about the film is its final 20 minutes, which swings harder that you might expect. It seems to unnerve the makers themselves, as they reach for familiar surroundings and characters in the final moments. Despite Ford’s quite tender performance, I found myself not overly moved by the sight of ageing Indy. When The Force Awakens brought old Han out for a final time, it felt right. But that was 2015. We get these victory laps all the time now.  

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Satyaprem Ki Katha: Review

In the first half, Satyaprem Ki Katha is a bad film in a jokey, frivolous, meandering way. After the intermission, it becomes a different sort of bad film, all tears and trauma and moral instruction. To have a worthwhile Hindi film release in 2023 seems too much to ask, so perhaps we should be grateful when we get to sample different flavours of failure. 

Satyaprem (Kartik Aaryan) is a good-natured wastrel who lives with his parents (Gajraj Rao and Supriya Pathak) and sister (Shikha Talsania). He badly wants his bachelorhood (virginity) to end, but has neither money nor prospects. He’s fallen hard for Katha (Kiara Advani), the daughter of a wealthy snacks shop owner; she barely knows he exists and is in a relationship with some rich dude. Those with a taste for repetitive comedy and Gujarat porn—every scene a perfect storm of kem chhos and khakras and majamas—might just be awake when the film throws the first of three curveballs and Katha tries to kill herself. 

After an incoherent series of events, Katha’s parents offer her hand in marriage to her rescuer—Satyaprem. She’s dismayed with the arrangement, but is forced to agree when her father threatens to slit his wrists. Satyaprem knows she’s unhappy—she tells him so in as many words—but he chooses to get married anyway (it's unclear why—he really doesn't seem the kind who'd want his partner to be miserable). The film slips back into Aaryan-esque comedy as Katha refuses to sleep in the same bed as her husband because he snores loudly. Then comes another bombshell. “I’m asexual,” she tells him, leaving the parents in my screening who’d brought their kids with some explaining to do in the interval.  

Having grown up with two strong women and a meek father, it’s no surprise Satyaprem turns out to be a wife guy. He’s so supportive of Katha, in fact, that she invites him back into bed with her, rendering the debut of asexuality in Hindi cinema a brief one. But just when they’re on their way to belatedly consummating their union, she has what I can only describe as an episode. Her face stricken, she repeatedly takes the name of her former boyfriend, pleading with him to stop. Satyaprem looks on in shock, realizing not only that his wife was raped but that this was the reason she tried to take her life.

With that, Satyaprem Ki Katha completes the transformation into message film. What follows is as contrived as the comedy of the first half, but because it’s cloaked in moral certitude it probably won't be dismissed the same way. A character barely seen up till this point becomes the primary antagonist. Satyaprem continues to be supportive, fights with his family and in-laws, urges his wife to file charges, barely puts a foot wrong. Meanwhile, his hitherto decent dad morphs into a conservative scold, which just shows how vague the film’s idea of itself is. There isn’t a moment where director Sameer Vidwans and writer Karan Shrikant Sharma are able to suggest that these are actual living, breathing people. Like so many recent Hindi films, it lives in its own world, condescending to its viewers.   

Advani and Aaryan are an uninvolving pair—as always, he gives the impression he loves himself more than anyone else. The problem isn’t that he’s a worse actor than most of his contemporaries but that he seems to have an unerring instinct for terrible projects. Thirteen years is too long a stretch to be an in-demand actor and still not have done one unambiguously good film. As for new 'Pasoori', let’s not overreact. It’s perfectly in tune with the lack of ambition that surrounds it.   

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Once Upon a Time In China's secret ingredient

In the early days of cable TV in India, which were my early days as well, two credit sequences set my imagination on fire. The first was Chariots Of Fire (1981), for the Vangelis theme, of course, but also Nigel Havers’ beatific smile registering among the serious runners on the beach. The other was also a beach scene, also partly in slow motion, with a theme song almost as catchy. This was from Tsui Hark’s Once Upon A Time In China (1991), a phalanx of bare-chested martial club students executing a series of strenuous, eye-catching workouts.

By the time the 1990s got under way, Hong Kong film-maker Tsui Hark had already made cult favourite Zu Warriors From Magic Mountain (1983) and the masterful Peking Opera Blues (1986) and produced John Woo’s heroic bloodshed classics A Better Tomorrow (1986) and The Killer (1989). In 1991, he embarked on the project he’s arguably most associated with today, a six-film cycle chronicling the adventures of medic and martial artist Wong Fei-hung in late 19th century Foshan. It made a star of Jet Li, who played Wong in the first three films (he was replaced by Vincent Zhao in the fourth and fifth instalments). The final entry, Once Upon A Time In China And America (1997), which predates Jackie Chan’s kung fu Western Shanghai Noon (2000), was directed by Sammo Hung, with Li back in the lead. 

Wong Fei-hung was an actual medicine man and folk hero who died in 1925. Films on his life started being made in 1948 and never let up. Audiences in 1991 would have been familiar with Jackie Chan’s comic portrayal of Wong in the classic Drunken Master (1978) and perhaps even Gordon Liu in  Challenge of the Masters (1976) and Martial Club (1981). Li’s performance was strikingly different, though. While the films are fairly comedic, the humour doesn’t derive from Wong. Instead, Li presents him as a figure of immense dignity, formally polite and painfully conscientious. This makes Wong the perfect straight man to chaotic disciple Leung Foon (and Bucktooth So and Porky Wing in the first film) and the hapless object of Yee Siu-kwan’s affections. 

Unlike the strictly fight-oriented Chan and Liu films, Hark makes use of a historical period of great ferment in China, turning the films into riotous time capsules. Once Upon A Time In China I begins with French troops mistaking firecrackers during a ceremonial lion dance for an attack and returning fire; Wong jumps in and continues the dance himself. There are also Americans (running a human trafficking ring), British (ineffectual in II) and Russians (plotting to assassinate the empress in III). But for all the nationalistic satisfaction of clobbering or bettering foreign adversaries, the primary antagonists in the three Hark-Li films are Chinese. In I, it’s the nefarious Shaho gang and a wandering kung fu master they enlist. In Canton-set II, it’s the psychotic White Lotus sect, out to destroy all things foreign, and a wily military officer played by Donnie Yen. And in the third film, which unfolds in Beijing, it’s Chiu Tin-bak, a gangster bent on winning the lion dance martial arts competition.

Hark’s eye for scale and colour and Li’s poise and economy of movement combine to make these some of the most pleasurable martial arts films ever made. The legendary Yuen Woo-ping was enlisted to choreograph the fights in the first two films. The second film is legendary for the face-offs between Li and Yen. The climactic fight, with the actors balancing high in the air on a flimsy bamboo structure while wielding long poles, is rated as of the greatest in martial arts cinema. I also love their first meeting: Yen tosses Li a bamboo stick, and, without any warning, starts whacking away at him. This continues for a ferocious minute or so before Yen stops and says, “I just wanted to spar with you a little.” As is usually the case with Hark, the scene is capped with an extra payoff. A couple of spectators grumble that the pole Wong struck during the fight didn’t even move, let alone splinter. Foon walks up to the pole and touches it. The rope around it uncoils and it breaks in two.

Revisiting the Hark-Li films made me realise the series has a secret weapon that has nothing to do with kung fu—Rosamund Kwan as the foreign-returned Yee Siu-kwan, a character invented for the films, whom Wong insists on addressing formally as “13th Aunt” (Siu-kwan’s father was a blood brother of Wong’s grandfather). As the one romantic foil, she spends a lot of time being rescued by Wong. Yet, Yee’s curiosity and pluck means she’s rarely far from the action herself. She’s at her most useful in III, where her dedication to her motion picture camera—we see her graduate from still camera to film over the course of the trilogy—ends up foiling the assassination plot. 

Tsui Hark films often play like screwball comedy—Peking Opera Blues is perhaps the finest example. In the Once Upon films, Kwan is best suited to pull this off, the lone actor in a cast of action specialists. She doesn’t have their physical quickness but makes up for it with an ever-changing array of expressions. In the classic screwball sense, 13th Aunt is a great match for Wong: she’s chaotic and modern, he’s methodical and square. His inability to recognise her attraction to him, and then his panicked dodging of that attraction, takes up a large part of the three films, but never gets old. 

None of this could work without Kwan’s endless good cheer in the face of constant frustration. When Wong finally comes around at the end of the third film, Hark frames this with the momentousness it deserves. Wong, who thinks Yee has left forever, sees her across the room. He calls out to her, using her real name, not 13th Aunt. He then runs towards her, the shot of scurrying feet a neat parody of kung fu films. To the surprise of everyone in the room, most of all Yee, he lifts her up and whirls her in a most un-Wong-like fashion. Kwan laughs in delight, then looks shocked, relieved, exhausted and content. A few seconds that sum up an indelible performance.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Tiku Weds Sheru review: Rock bottom

He lives in a tiny apartment in Mumbai with his wife and kid. He’s crazy about movies. When he’s cast as an extra, he makes suggestions, takes it all too seriously. He has few prospects and big dreams. 

This is Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the Dibakar Banerjee segment of Bombay Talkies (2013). But it could also be Siddiqui in Tiku Weds Sheru. After dragging myself to the end of this Amazon Prime comedy, I revisited the Banerjee short, just to remind myself of a time when Siddiqui, and to some extent Hindi film, came with hope attached. Ten years later, that dream is dead. Hindi cinema is barely watchable, with many of the better directors and all the ambitious writing heading to streaming. And Siddiqui seems adrift, turning up in forgettable films, unsure of how to pitch his performances. 

Last month, Siddiqui featured in Sudhir Mishra's angry Afwaah, where he was comprehensively outshone by a talented cast. It felt strange, seeing a film succeed in spite of Siddiqui, not because of him. Tiku Weds Sheru is at least straightforward: it succeeds on no front whatsoever. It’s co-written and directed by Sai Kabir, who made the Kangana Ranaut comedy Revolver Rani back in 2014. Ranaut is producer here, and third-billed in the acting credits, though she only shows up onscreen for five seconds.  

Sheru (Siddiqui) is a three-time loser, a Mumbaikar from Bhopal who plays bit roles in bad films. He makes his living, reluctantly, as a pimp. He’s trying to get a film financed, but that only brings more trouble. A marriage proposal—with dowry attached—from back home comes as a rare bit of good news. But as the old blues song goes, if it wasn't for bad luck he’d have no luck at all. It’s not long before he realizes his trash-talking bride, Tiku (Avneet Kaur), is using him to get to Mumbai and unite with her lover, who’s promised to fulfil her dreams of movie stardom.

Until Tiku is introduced, the film is eccentric in minor ways, like Siddiqui saying to his Persian cat, “Elizabeth, you are irritating me, like a fly. Not a butterfly, a housefly.” But after Sheru decides he still loves Tiku, even though she’s pregnant with her lover’s child, it gets progressively unhinged. He’s been lying to her too; she thinks he’s a film financier and they’ll soon move out of their depressing flat into a proper apartment. Attempts to replicate the chaos of the Tanu Weds Manu films only mean that something ridiculously dramatic is happening every 10 minutes: she’s attempting suicide, he’s a drug dealer, she’s a sex worker, he’s being tortured by the police, she’s dancing for politicians, he’s in drag. 

When Sheru takes Tiku on a date to a fancy hotel, he wears a glittery blue ensemble and she’s dressed like a backup dancer in a ‘60s Hindi film cabaret. It's difficult to understand if the film is pitying the characters for their loud taste or celebrating them. Later, drunk and swaying on the beach, she shouts “Yo papaji, what’s up?” for some reason and compares his soul to a malpua (he compares hers to another sickly sweet dessert, shahi tukda). It almost feels like Kabir and Ranaut are daring viewers to find all of this ‘cringe’ so they can accuse them of being elitists who despise real Indians. 

I found Kaur’s performance unsteady—both in the early combative scenes and the later weepy ones—and redolent of a kind of TV acting. But what Siddiqui does is downright depressing. The sight of him in drag isn’t playful or sympathetic; it’s a grotesque gag. When Tiku says she’ll get an abortion, he snaps, pounding the ground and screaming ‘no no no’. It's a moment that suggests a career that's gone off the rails: the kind of florid acting Siddiqui would never have done 10 years ago, but also the kind of acting directors he was working with then would never allow him to do.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Adipurush: Review

In life, as in cinema, timing is everything. A couple of geniuses in my early morning screening of Adipurush were there for the express purpose of shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram’. As the ads finished and the lights went down, they started to yell, then abruptly stopped. They’d wasted their breath on the trailer for the new Indiana Jones movie. 

Of course, the shouting started again and continued through the film, mostly calls to Ram but also Bajrang Bali and Mahadev. Such are the joys of cinemagoing in India today, trying to focus on frequently awful films over loud celebrations of Hindu identity. It’s a self-sustaining cycle of dangerous mediocrity: terrible films pandering to majority groups, people flocking to see them, filmmakers doubling down on overtures to an increasingly radicalized audience.

It's because of Hindi cinema’s transformations over the past decade that we’re now seeing something like Adipurush in theatres. Mythology has traditionally been the domain of the small screen in India. It’s a good fit: epics lend themselves to episodic TV, and cheesiness isn’t an issue there. To adapt the same classics for the big screen, to make them cool enough for a generation raised on Western superheroes, that requires some creative leeway—which is hard to come by in India. Yet, there’s been so much religious-mythological allegory and symbolism in popular Hindi films in the last 10 years that the idea of a straight-faced adaptation seems not just possible but the next logical step.  

From the start, it’s clear that Adipurush is going to be a greatest-hits version of the Ramayan. All-powerful Lankesh (Saif Ali Khan)—weirdly, all the primary characters are identified by their alternate names—unsuccessfully tries to abduct Janaki (Kriti Sanon), wife of the exiled prince of Ayodhya, Raghav (Prabhas). His next attempt works, with Raghav and his brother, Shesh (Sunny Singh), off chasing a fake deer. He flies her to Lanka; Raghav sets out in pursuit with his army of monkeys. Jatayu, vaanar sena, Ram Setu, Lanka Dahan, Kumbhakarn… you know the drill.     

Adipurush is Ramanand Sagar on steroids. Raghav, Shesh, Bajrang—everyone’s buff as hell. Lankesh is a huge bruiser who—I can’t make this stuff up—gets a massage by placing himself in the constricting coils of giant snakes. The CGI is either grungy imitation-Snyder or tacky wall calendar brightness. In their happier moments, Raghav and Janaki float in slo-mo in front of backdrops resembling Windows screensavers. One peacock won’t do, I can hear Raut saying, I want dozens of them in the frame.

It's not that all the CGI is tacky—but it's too often that in a film which stakes everything on the visual. In Raut’s last film, the historical Tanhaji (2020), the effects bordered on kitsch but were sustained by some inventive fight choreography. Here, the images are weightless, unmoored, the physics of the universe left vague. What is possible for Raghav and Lankesh, and what is beyond even their supernatural capabilities? It seems to vary from scene to scene. Unlike Rajamouli, Raut doesn't generate a stream of original visual ideas. Lankesh’s foot-soldiers resemble orcs. His son zips around like The Flash. The monkeys are like the ones in the new Planet of the Apes series. Prabhas even does a Baahubali slide-and-shoot.  

The writing is amusingly ornate, your local Ramlila script but without the fun. For some reason, Raut and co-writer Manoj Muntashir are worried their audience won’t get 2000-year-old plot points. Which leads to scenes like this:

Vibhishan: Indrajit is invincible but he has one huge weakness. His powers are useless in water. 

Shesh: We should kill him in the water.

Raghav, a minute later: You must kill him when he’s in the water. 

On the few occasions the film speaks in a plainer tongue, it nods to a certain kind of politically charged language. “Jali na? (burns, doesn’t it)”, Lankesh’s general asks Bajrang as he lights his tail on fire—a common provocation on Twitter. “Jo hamaari behenon ko haath lagayega, hum uski Lanka laga denge (we’ll end anyone who touches our sisters)” is prime Hindutva rhetoric. Raghav’s big speech before they cross the sea includes a mention of bhagwa dhwaj—saffron flag. You can read as much as you want into Saif Ali Khan having to play the biggest villain in Indian epic literature as a Muslim stereotype: long beard, kohl under his eyes, handling meat, taking another woman even though he has a wife.

Prabhas—solid, manly, boring—is an apt, if not very interesting, Raghav. Sanon is all wrong for Janaki. Singh looks like he needs a hug. Khan is the only one having fun—as was the case in Tanhaji. Despite the wonky effects and the squareness of it all, there’ll probably be takers for a Ramayan that looks like a bad DC film; what effect this has on a creatively flatlining Hindi film industry I can’t even imagine. In an interview, Raut mentioned as one of his inspirations a 1992 anime version of the epic. I’m not surprised he was taken with a tacky cartoon Ramayan. He’s made one himself.  

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Extraction 2: Review

Sam Hargrave's Extraction wasn’t the first major action film to release online instead of in theatres. But it might be the first to become a big streaming hit and be adopted by the genre’s fans. The action was fast, brutal, pretty much wall to wall. There was that uninterrupted 12-minute action sequence. Chris Hemsworth was a mighty battering ram in the lead. And it flew in the face of Hollywood’s prevailing wisdom regarding the kind of action films that did well—it was pure carnage, no wisecracks.  

Tyler Rake (Hemsworth) appears to die at the end of the first film. But if we’ve learnt anything from years of self-regenerating action franchises, a character’s chances of survival are greatly improved if they’re fatally shot and fall from a great height into a body of water. Extraction 2, also directed by Hargrave, thus begins with a comatose Rake airlifted out of Dhaka, resuscitated, rehabilitated and deposited in a cottage in the icy middle of nowhere (in, like, a nice way). Like most retirees, he watches rugby on TV, does some ice fishing, looks at old letters. Just when the prospect of watching Chris Hemsworth do nothing for an extended period started to send chills down my spine, a tall handsome unnamed man—let’s call him Idris—shows up.

Idris has a new mission for Rake: extract your ex-wife’s sister, Ketevan (Tinatin Dalakishvili), and her two children from a Georgian prison. Mind her psychotic incarcerated gangster husband, Davit (Tornike Bziava). Watch out for his brother, Zurab (Tornike Gogrichiani), an even scarier gangster with an army of trained killers, once you’re out. Rake just sighs and starts exercising. Next thing you know, he’s in the prison, ushering Mia and the kids to safety. There’s about a minute of quiet and then all hell breaks loose.

The first film’s reputation was largely built on the long unbroken extraction sequence, so there was no way the sequel wasn’t going to try and one-up it. So we get 21 minutes of Rake killing dozens of inmates on his way out of prison, followed by a breathless car chase, culminating in an almighty train wreck, all in one (stitched) shot. It’s relentless, and exceptionally gnarly—headshots are the kindest way to go, the worst might be getting your face smashed it with dumbbells. 

As with the first film, I made my way through Extraction 2 duly impressed by the planning and execution but feeling bereft of joy. The unsmiling, unending ferocity is tough to fault on a technical level, but there’s no thrill because it’s all the same. Unlike, say, the Raid films, which are equally grueling but introduce new opponents and fighting styles and visual ideas every few scenes, everyone in Extraction 2 resembles and fights like black ops soldiers. Of the four or five mini-sequences that make up the extraction, I liked the free-for-all jailhouse brawl for its sheer chaos. But I still prefer the prison riot in The Raid 2 because it literally messes up the playing field, Iko Uwais having to squelch through mud while fighting for his life. Rake uses everything in sight as a weapon—though it falls to Zurab to use an actual rake—but the environments don’t make an impression (the ancient church at the end could be any old building). And though the third world sepia filter of Extraction has been shelved, there are no memorable shots here, only efficient ones. 

It's amusing how Rake protecting a complete stranger is much the same as Rake protecting family—zero sentiment, total focus on the task at hand. The film gives him a tragic backstory, but it’s a little bouquet of action film clichés: one rose for sick kid, one rose for heroic absent dad. Hemsworth is a physical marvel, but rather a bore as the monosyllabic assassin who alternates between ‘danger, kill’ and ‘safety, mope’. Thankfully, this time around there’s more of Golshifteh Farahani and Adam Bessa as Rake’s teammates; Bessa, coming off a searing lead turn in the Tunisian film Harka (2022), is particularly sympathetic.

Hargrave and writer Joe Russo have no use for Hemsworth’s comic timing; one gets the feeling the film considers humour beneath it. Like the first film, this should appeal to action fans who’d rather have their senses pummeled than their hearts lifted. But there’s more cinematic propulsion in the five seconds Rina Sawayama leaps into action in John Wick 4 than the entirety of Extraction 2.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.  

Bloody Daddy: Review

If you’re a director who got permission to shoot during the pandemic, should that come with added responsibility? Not a civic responsibility but a cultural one—a realization that these are extraordinary times and ought to be captured on camera to whatever extent possible. The Malayalam film Joji did this superbly; so did the country-hopping Netflix anthology Homemade. I wasn’t expecting Ali Abbas Zafar's Bloody Daddy, shot in the pandemic, to be similarly interested in its environment; with that title it was never not going to be pulp. But I was still disappointed by how little the film uses covid to its advantage. Even the nifty opening, which unfolds in a desolate Connaught Place, is a missed opportunity: had it taken place during the day, rather than early morning, the emptiness would have been so much more disquieting.

Bloody Daddy parcels out information in the manner of a film with rather more exciting reveals up its sleeve. In that opening sequence, Sumair (Shahid Kapoor) and Jagdish (Zeishan Quadri) steal 50 crore worth of cocaine. Sumair heads to his hotel and we find out he has a son, Atharv. Then we learn he and Jagdish are with the narcotics bureau. Two other cops, Sameer (Rajeev Khandelwal) and Aditi (Diana Penty), are introduced, and are soon shown to be on Sumair’s trail. There’s also Sikandar (Ronit Roy), whose cocaine it is, and whose swanky Gurugram hotel most of the film takes places in, and kingpin Hameed (Sanjay Kapoor), to whom the drugs were to be sold.    

We never find out if Sumair had a plan to follow the robbery because Sikandar immediately kidnaps Atharv and demands his property back. Sumair is forced to comply, but matters are complicated when Aditi moves the drugs. As an increasingly frantic Sumair dodges the cops and looks for the drugs while trying to keep Sikandar calm, the film doles out some crunching fights. The best of these takes place in a gaming arcade, Sumair wasting half-a-dozen armed henchmen, the neon lights and suits reminiscent of the John Wick films (the stylized fonts are lifted from that series as well).  

While it’s a nice surprise to see Mukesh Bhhatt as Hameed’s lieutenant, the one memorable minor part is the Nepali cook in the hotel kitchen, played by Anant Manger. He’s an immigrant, terrified of eviction because he’s been unable to pay rent as a result of the pandemic shutting down the hotel (“I’m a genuine person,” he insists). Sumair bullies him into making fake packs of cocaine with flour, but the cook’s transparent niceness thaws something in him. As he’s leaving, he leaves him the rent money and pats his face affectionately. 

It's no secret Shahid Kapur is at his most effective when aggrieved and frantic. His Sumair is a fine lead turn in a film that lacks for meaningful support. Khandelwal is as he’s always been through his career: solid but not memorable. Roy’s even-voiced antagonist would be effective if we hadn’t seen him to the same thing in so many other films (him and Sanjay Kapoor swapping parts might have enlivened things). Quadri’s corrupt cop is a nice study in weakness but the film has less use for him after the opening half hour. Sartaaj Kakkar’s whingey Atharv made me wonder if it would be all that bad if the kid were to violently exit the picture midway.  

Bloody Daddy is a nearly-there film, funny in parts, crudely thrilling in others, but neither dazzling nor pulpy enough to stick in the mind. The markers of covid are all there—santizers, masks, antigen tests—but none of the eerieness and melancholy of the time. Zafar continues his very interesting, uneven career: an action-minded director with a feel for large-canvas cinema, whose films are a lot of fun, often oddly touching, and usually stop short of great.   

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

EO: A vivid update on the most famous of donkey films

A beautifully off-kilter moment at the Cannes Film Festival last year was when Jerzy Skolimowski was awarded the Jury Prize for his film, EO. “I would like to thank my donkeys,” he began his acceptance speech. The Polish director proceeded to list, by region, with great care, all six donkeys who played the titular character in his film. He ended with a bray: “Eeeeoo”.

In telling the story of a donkey navigating a corrupt, venal, violent human world, Skolimowski tips his hat to a film over five decades old. Au Hasard Balthazar, directed by Robert Bresson, is often cited as one of the greatest films ever made. A donkey named Balthazar is separated from the only human who loves it, Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), and passes from one cruel owner to another. The Balthazar of legend was one of three Magi in the Bible—given Bresson’s Catholic upbringing, it’s no surprise that the donkey Balthazar’s sufferings have a Christ-like aspect.

EO is immediately recognisable as an update on Au Hasard Balthazar—the same essential story with a few tweaks. EO starts the film as part of a travelling circus in Poland. He has a close bond with the performer Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska), whose act he’s part of. When animal rights activists shut down the circus, he’s taken to a horse stable, then to a petting farm, and so on. Whatever new situation EO finds himself in, he remains unhappy and listless. In flashbacks, we seem to see him remember his time with Kasandra.

Yet, Skolimowski’s film also has its own concerns and vision. Bresson was interested in Balthazar as an allegory and an object of pity but no real affection for the animal comes through in his film. Skolimoswki, on the other hand, is clearly enamoured of these gentle creatures. The religious overtones of Bresson are gone, replaced by a protagonist so sympathetic we feel we can read his thoughts. In one scene, Kasandra has a touching reunion with EO across a fence on his birthday in the dead of night. As she’s driven away by her friend, she hears a long bray in the distance. It’s a heartrending sound—or it could be me projecting my feelings onto a regular bray.

Skolimowski seems fascinated by nature in general, filling his film with fields, farms, snowy mountains, forests. He gives over long sequences to horses running in a field at dusk or nocturnal creatures watching the donkey by a stream by moonlight. Au Hasard Balthazar was set in a human world, with multiple speaking characters and storylines. EO, by contrast, is a largely wordless film. The humans are of little importance here, barely registering as characters (including the countess played by Isabelle Huppert). Michał Dymek’s camera is often right up against the animals. This is the donkey’s story, and, often, we are literally seeing the world from his point of view.

I knew Skolimowski from his work as an actor and a writer: a small but memorable turn as a boxer in Andrzej Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers (a film he co-wrote), the dialogue for Roman Polanski’s Knife In The Water, a part in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. But he has also been a director since 1960’s The Menacing Eye, with over 20 films, notably Deep End, starring Jane Asher, and The Departure, Golden Bear winner at the 1967 Berlinale. EO isn’t the kind of work you would expect from an 80-something film-maker—the acid tinges are more like something Carlos Reygadas or Gaspar Noé might attempt. Had EO released in the 1960s, it would have been called a “head trip”. Sometimes the screen turns dark red or blue, like colourised silent film; sometimes strobe lights flash. There are interludes that come out of nowhere—why are we suddenly following a robot dog in a field? The images bend and warp on occasion, as if we are seeing through an animal’s eyes. Dymek works subtler wonders as well—there’s a trick shot towards the end when the donkey and the trees in the back seem to blend into one.

One particular sequence made me smile at the audacity of the film-making. EO is jogging across the wilderness when the camera takes off. It zooms over a forest towards a menacingly scything windmill, does a 360-degree loop and then another, the soundtrack switching from strings to grinding electric guitar. It ends with EO under the giant windmill, the sky a hellish red, like an F.W. Murnau horror frame.

EO is a strange mix: part eco-horror, part morality tale, part psychedelic freakout. Somehow Skolimowski, his co-writer and wife, Ewa Piaskowska, Dymek and inventive composer Paweł Mykietyn make it work, continually finding ways to expand their canvas, though always returning to their determined little protagonist. One of EO’s many escapes comes when an Italian priest finds him by the roadside. “Did I just save you or have I stolen you?” he muses as he unties the rope attached to a pole. “I hope you’re not a criminal,” he adds. It’s in keeping with EO’s philosophy that the priest is actually sinning and the donkey is the only one who’s wholly innocent.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Sirf Ek Bandaa Kaafi Hai: Review

Can we all agree that Hindi films have been looking just terrible lately? I’m not expecting Dil Se; even something framed and shot and designed with a little bit of style—Vikram Vedha, for instance—is all too rare now. Streaming shows are, occasionally, a little better, if only because some of the visually attuned Hindi directors have fled there. Caught in the middle are streaming originals, most of which have the feel of TV, the length of features, and the visual appeal of a harshly lit cardboard box. 

Sirf Ek Bandaa Kaafi Hai, a Zee5 original film, is a rather depressing example. A just-passable courtroom drama, it looks like an episode of Guilty Minds, only worse. Pause, if you will, at 1.03.30. In order to have the witness on the stand and lawyer PC Solanki (Manoj Bajpayee) in the same frame, the screen slopes from left to right. The décor is very Wicked Witch of the West: black and brown and green. Three tube lights sit distractingly at the top of the frame. The whirring blades of a fan are visible in the far-right corner. Nothing is clear, the eye goes nowhere, it’s a mess.

Sixteen-year-old Nu Singh (Adrija) accuses a powerful godman, whom everyone calls Baba (Surya Mohan Kulshrestha), of sexual assault. In a terribly stagey scene, her father discovers their lawyer is selling them out. Her case is taken up by Solanki, a self-described ‘Hindi medium’ lawyer from Jodhpur. The film is based, not officially but clearly, on the trial of Asaram, who was convicted of rape in 2018—the prosecutor in that case was one Poonam Chand Solanki. Nu is determined and has the support of her parents, but Solanki nevertheless advises they steel themselves for what’s to come. And sure enough, soon witnesses are being shot and smarmy expensive lawyers are being brought in to get Baba released on bail. 

Director Apoorv Singh Karki and writer Deepak Kingrani wring some drama out of a small-town lawyer coming up against pompous big-city types. The problem is, it’s difficult to see Solanki as an underdog. There isn’t a single exchange where he doesn’t come out on top, whether he’s facing his townsperson Sharma (Vipin Sharma) or one of the hired guns. Even when he’s surprised in court—like when Baba’s legal team says he has a neurological disorder— Solanki only needs a short break to come up with an argument to defeat it. It’s just good sense to let Solanki dig himself out of a hole once in a while, but all he does is win. 

Bajpayee floats above everything. His Solanki isn’t a vintage performance—the film isn’t sturdy enough to support one—but it’s the only thing to hang on to as a viewer. The film is built around him; we learn little about Nu beyond the assault that has derailed her life, or about her parents. Solanki’s junior counsel barely registers as a name, let alone a character. Vipin Sharma is a solid, restrained foil to Bajpayee, and the film resists making him into a monster. Given their chemistry, I’d have liked to see the two lawyers interact outside the court, but the only private lives glimpsed are those of Solanki, his mother and school-going son. 

It's curious how often we're shown evidence of Solanki’s religiosity. Our first glimpse of him is during his morning prayers; in one of the last shots, he takes the blessings of a holy man. Talking to Nu on the balcony, as temple bells ring, he blows an imaginary conch and shouts “Har Har Mahadev”. His closing argument in court is a mythological parable. It feels like a balancing act: send a holy man to catch a (evil) holy man.   

Solanki’s sense of mischief comes through in his interjections and deliberately unctuous manner. That he ends the case yelling like Sunny Deol in Damini is a warning about what to expect from this film. I’d urge you in the direction of another legal drama, a Tamil one, from last year. Gargi is as complex and discomfiting as Sirf Ek Bandaa is simple and sure of itself. It has a truly great lead performance. And it looks great.   

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Living on a thin line: Kanu Behl on Agra

Kanu Behl’s first film as director, Titli, a searing portrait of a East Delhi family, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014, and released in India in 2015. Since then, he’s been working on his second feature, Agra, co-written with Atika Chohan (Behl's inventive, vitriolic short, Binnu Ka Sapna, released in 2019). Agra is now ready, and will also premiere at Cannes, part of the Directors' Fortnight section at the festival, which starts today.

Agra is a difficult film to describe and a harrowing one to watch. It begins with a hallucination and continues like a fever dream, shoving aside the pieties of polite arthouse cinema. Guru (Mohit Agarwal) is a young man on the brink, ostensibly dating someone but intensely repressed, both sexually and emotionally. He lives in a multi-storey house with his mother, his father, and his father’s mistress—each one bitter and angling for power. He dreams of a room on the terrace for himself, but thwarted desires threaten to destroy the shaky edifice of his life. Lounge spoke to Kanu Behl about the long gestation of this project, the inventive sound design and the personal risks he had to take to understand his characters.

You’ve been working on ‘Agra’ for a while. Was it the kind of project that demanded time, or was getting it made particularly challenging?

There were two major difficulties. One I knew the moment I started: where will you get funding for a film like this in India? The other, more interesting roadblock is an unconscious one I woke up to in the middle of writing, to deal with the fear of making a film like this myself.

After Titli released in India in 2015, I truly got into Agra. I had the germ of the idea. I wrote a couple of drafts where I was a little scared—I was probably not writing what I really wanted to. After about a year of writing, and two or three drastically different drafts, I was at the Three Rivers residency in Italy. My mentor was Molly Stensgaard, who edits for Lars von Trier. On the fourth or fifth day, she asked me, why are you making this film? I was a little taken aback, and said I want to do a piece about repression and sexuality in India. She asked, then why are you not doing it? That really made me take a step back, ask myself what I was truly feeling and what was the impulse for not making the film.That proved to be a key breakthrough.

Around October-November 2016 is when the film really started taking shape and I started writing something closer to what the film is now. By early 2017, we had the first draft. We got Cinémas du monde (a French grant for foreign feature films) just after that, so 40% of the funding was in place. I always knew the other 60% would be the problem. I went around town but no one wanted to look at it. Two years went by like this. It was in 2019 that I finally found collaborators who were on the same page.

I shot the film in June-July 2019. Then everything shut down because of the pandemic. And we took some time with post [production], because it's a difficult film with a difficult character operating on a very thin line. I wanted to take time to edit the film.

What was the germ of the idea?

I would say it was more a very strong feeling within me that I'd carried for a few years—growing up, in my adolescent years, going to college in Delhi, and some of the early years in Kolkata. I was wondering why people don’t choose to address sexuality, why there isn’t more conversation in our cinema about that. That combined with my own feeling about sexuality and how I had been able or unable to express it in those years. A lot of what you see in the film is real-life stories I've seen happen around me.

‘Agra’ is definitely recognisable as a Kanu Behl film, but where ‘Titli’ was a slow burn, this one goes straight to 11.

For me it’s about being able to serve the film you're doing as truthfully as possible. Titli was a coming-of-age story. This is almost the opposite of that. When I was writing Agra, I was wary of doing something that othered the character. I wanted to do this piece about sexual repression but I had not experienced the intensity and chaos of the life of a boy who desperately wants some physical connection. He doesn’t know how to express himself but he’s looking for a moment of truth.

I decided I'd have to create that experience for myself. And that comes with the problem of staying safe, for yourself and the people around you. I went into a lot of sex chat rooms, sometimes posing as women, sometimes as men, to see how people were expressing their secret lives. The more time I spent in these rooms, I noticed that the complete white noise you start to feel if you're desiring that sort of connection and not getting it for a very long time, it’s amped up to 11. The more I started breathing in that noise, the film started emerging from there. So the amping up is my attempt to take you to that place.

You favour a bold, almost overwhelming sound design. There are these factory-like sounds that really make a particular scene with Guru.

Apart from the factory noise in that scene, there's a really high-pitched sound. It’s the little thing that goes in your teeth when you're in the chair at the dentist's.

The idea was just to create a string of really dissonant spaces. With the drones we try and give you a sense of the white noise that he's feeling—especially when Mala [his girlfriend] appears, you hear the noise. Slowly the drones start blending into his internal pain. In a critical scene with Guru and Chhavi [his cousin], the drone you hear is literally like he's not able to take the noise within himself anymore. In the final act of the film, there are a lot of sharp sounds you find in the construction space.

There's very little music. Did you feel a score might intrude?

Absolutely, because there's no music in his life. Very early on when I was writing, I knew this. The montage at the end—that's my Bollywood song. But that little calm or peace is also acerbic. I wanted to use score as a counterpoint to action in the second half.

Did you rehearse a lot?

No, there was little rehearsal, just a lot of character-building work. It's more about taking the character that you're playing from day one in their lives to the point where they start the film, so you know them as intimately as possible, so that when we're shooting the actor is the best person to decide what that person is feeling. That character needs to be lived fully by the actor. Most of the stuff in the workshops is designed towards arriving at the point where you start the film.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Air: Review

My favourite moment in Air is a little after Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), talent scout of Nike’s basketball division, finds out Michael Jordan and family will be coming down to hear their pitch. “Time to see Pete,” he says to marketing man Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman). As Sonny takes the elevator to the basement, the soundtrack revs up. Everything’s set up for Christian Bale to walk out in a wig (we’ve seen the top of Pete’s bald head in an earlier scene). Instead, it’s Matthew Maher. Now, Maher is a delightful actor you might recognize from any of a dozen films or shows. But it’s still hilarious that Pete, genius shoe designer, isn’t a star in regular Joe disguise but—by Hollywood standards—just some guy. 

This embrace of squareness is a big part of Air’s charm. Matt Damon's shirts are some of the drabbest a major movie star has ever worn. Ben Affleck, playing Nike founder Phil Knight, turns up in a hideous black-and-pink jogging suit and white jacket ensemble. Nike wasn’t cool in 1984, and so the film isn’t cool either. The sought-after basketball shoes are Adidas—Nike executive Howard White (Chris Tucker) tells a clueless Sonny about the just-released Run-D.M.C. track—and Converse, with their All-Star roster. Nike is a jogging shoe, an image that’s detrimental to its efforts in the basketball market. As Howard says, “You ain’t gonna catch no Black person running 26 miles for no damn reason.”  

Sonny’s friend might have Martin Luther King’s epochal 1963 address in his possession, but Sonny too has a dream: to land a promising young basketball player named Michael Jordan. The problem is, Jordan’s talents are self-evident and everyone wants a piece of him. Sonny goes around Jordan’s agent, David (Chris Messina), and—breaking an unwritten rule of the business—approaches the parents directly. He manages to convince Jordan’s formidable mother, Deloris (Viola Davis), to give them a hearing—after they visit Adidas and Converse. And the stage is set for Sonny to Don Draper his way into footwear history.

We know how it ended up. Jordan signed with Nike and became the star athlete Sonny hoped he would be. Air Jordan became the most famous shoe line ever. It isn’t Sonny’s ingenuity that wins the day for Nike but his perseverance and his almost messianic belief in the young athlete. There are a few sleights of hand—like defying the NBA’s rules about shoe colour—but not a lot (you can imagine someone like Adam McKay taking the film in a different direction). The film turns on Sonny’s increasingly emotional appeals, and Deloris’ careful assessment of his promises. 

Air, written by Alex Convery, might be seen as a series of conversations Sonny has with Rob, Howard, Phil, David (the funniest exchanges), Deloris. It’s difficult not to think of Sorkin. The wording, the pace isn’t his—less frantic, less perfect (though Pete saying “So the shoe is a physical manifestation of the individual rather than the individual as emblem of corporate entity?” is pure Sorkin-ese). But the characters are the types he’d write: there are shades of The West Wing’s Josh Lyman in David’s cheerful trash-talk, and of The Newsroom's Charlie Skinner, an eccentric boss who comes through, in Phil. Damon has some of the morose determination of Brad Pitt’s baseball manager in Moneyball. He’s onscreen for nearly the entire film, looking tired and grumpy but always switched on. 

For the last few years, in between their straightforwardly commercial roles, Damon and Affleck have been making the sort of films that Hollywood greenlights fewer and fewer of: human dramas, with life-size characters. Air is about a corporation and a brand but it doesn't feel like it's assembled by a boardroom, unlike any number of recent tentpole films. You can feel Affleck’s affection for everyone in it; the most moving scene might be Rob admitting he's been buying his daughter’s affection with free shoes after his divorce. Affleck can turn it on as a director—Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo are a stellar first three—but Air doesn’t have the scale or the razzle-dazzle of a film out to win awards. It’s the kind of film you’d put on when you want something familiar. The kind of film where, seeing it for the first time, I was already looking forward to the rewatch.  

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Dahaad: Review

Dahaad’s opening credits unfold as an unsettling montage of haunted Rajasthan. Most of the shots only last a few seconds. A man’s hand pulls away from a woman’s outstretched one. No men are seen after this, but the women—laughing, running, sitting around a barren bush—aren’t quite there either. Their faces are covered, and they keep vanishing from the frame. There are glimpses of decaying havelis, dolls hanging from trees, love graffiti scratched onto walls, a noose at dusk. It’s the show in precis: the ghosts of disappeared women haunting the parched sands and dark alleys of patriarchal Rajasthan. 

It’s been a week of Rajasthan-set crime stories. Sudhir Mishra’s Afwaah, playing in theatres, is an angry letter to bigoted India, as well as being an absorbing (if blunt) thriller. It’s another example of Rajasthan Noir, a sub-subgenre that includes the sublime Manorama Six Feet Under, the cop western Thar, maybe a bit of Gulaal. Reema Kagti and Zoya Akhtar’s new series flirts with this category as well, but soon aligns with another, more in-demand genre: the police procedural. 

Anjali Bhaati (Sonakshi Sinha) is first seen in judo gear, flipping over an opponent and trapping him in a vise until he taps out. This is the show letting us know the sub-inspector can break stuff—though it mostly just calls upon Sinha to look convincing barging into rooms holding a gun. She could probably take Anand Swarnakar (Vijay Varma) in combat if it came to that. The schoolteacher, who is quickly revealed to be a serial killer, is a wispy sort, mild-voiced. He doesn’t need force; he isn’t present for any of his kills, which are made to look like suicides.

A made-up case of ‘love jihad’ in the small town of Mandawa—the first episode really is an echo of Afwaah—points Bhaati and SHO Devilal Singh (Gulshan Devaiah) to another disappearance: a woman who’s eloped with a man named Vijay. Not long after, the woman is dead, the latest victim of Anand, who, under a variety of aliases, charms young women, has sex with them once, and then murders them. As Bhaati and Singh start to join the dots—aided reluctantly by sub-inspector Parghi (Sohum Shah), who's jealous of Bhaati's rapport with the SHO—they realise that their killer is responsible for over two dozen deaths, spread across various districts in Rajasthan.

The initial focus on religious xenophobia—it's worrying when lynch mobs assume a depressing familiarity—gives way to the show’s twin targets: patriarchy and the caste system. That it takes an uncommonly dedicated officer to notice that a number of young brides are committing suicide tells us everything about the state of gender rights in Rajasthan. Nor is it only the police’s fault: several parents tell Bhaati they don’t care what happened to their daughters, who they feel ruined the family name. The outright misogyny of someone like Anand is enabled by the everyday sexism we see. Even the determined Bhaati is relentlessly pressured for marriage by her mother. It’s so bad that Devilal is handed a thoroughly unsubtle subplot where—as the only good man in Rajasthan—he must stand up for his daughter’s right to go on a school trip. (Another scene offers a smart gender reversal: Parghi, who has recently found out he’s having a child, throws up violently.)

Caste is just as entrenched. Everyone knows Bhaati used to be Anjali Meghwal (a scheduled caste), and several people mention it. She’s a rare backward caste Hindi film/series lead, but it’s only her bullheadedness that allows her to push past the caste prejudices of people she encounters (it’s possible she’d have a tougher time if her superior wasn’t as progressive as Devilal). Significantly, Anand is an upper-caste man preying on lower-caste women. It’s another reason the crime spree has stayed under the radar; as Bhaati tells the sceptical Parghi, “If there was an upper-caste girl in the list, someone would’ve raised hell by now.“

Bhaati, someone who’s trying to leave caste behind, is more intriguing in theory than in practice, mostly because of the performer. Sinha works hard and has some forceful moments, but never manages to convey the sort of interiority actors should be able to over eight long episodes. When her character is upset, she scowls; when she’s really upset, she scowls some more. Sinha’s playing is so blunt she can’t even sell a readymade gag like turning up on a motorcycle in khaki uniform and shades to meet a prospective groom and his mother and scare them off. Shah, though, is dependably strong support as the morally conflicted Parghi—his struggles are more interesting after a point than Bhaati’s bluster. And Devaiah is wonderful as the film’s moral centre. As well as Sumit Arora’s Rajasthani-accented Hindi dialogue sits on Varma and Shah, it’s Devaiah’s musical line readings that gave me the most pleasure.    

Dahaad may not have a magnetic Clarice, but its Buffalo Bill is nightmarishly effective. The show focuses on Anand’s murderousness to a disturbing degree. Varma, seen last year as the brutish antagonist in Darlings, is chilling as the shape-shifting murderer, adopting different personae to seduce his victims. In contrast to Sinha’s stolidness, Varma is in constant flux, with subtle changes in accent, inflection, demeanour. Anand’s whole life is a maze of switched SIMs and specific lies in specific places. Varma makes his resourcefulness terrifying.

Anand is as scary as Hathoda Tyagi, but Dahaad doesn’t try to be Paatal Lok. Instead, it reminds me of Delhi Crime, especially the second season, which followed both cop and criminal. Like the Netflix series, Dahaad moves with the leanness of a procedural, whereas Paatal Lok had the digressions and ambition of a novelistic drama. Kagti and Ruchika Oberoi’s direction is efficient without being commanding; I’d have welcomed an Akhtar-directed episode or two. And there’s a sameness to the proceedings once Anand’s methods are made clear. 

Dahaad’s limitations are self-imposed: a show with this much going for it should reach for greatness instead of settling for a job well done. But it does raise a delicious question: what other magnificent monsters does Vijay Varma have in store for us?

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3: Review

The Guardians trilogy is the closest Marvel has come to hangout films—stuff you’d watch even if it was just the characters sitting around talking. Whenever the Avengers were put around the table, the results were dismal; you could sense the desperation of writers trying to figure what superheroes sound like off-duty. Whereas the Guardians bickering and correcting each other feels right after all these films because James Gunn never lost sight of the fact that this is a bunch of misfits and malcontents who don’t think of themselves or each other as heroes. They stay grounded because there’s always someone on hand to call them a stargazing moron. 

Official word is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is the last time we’ll see the gang. This lends the film a wistfulness that mists the edges of the screen. It’s a goodbye film from the moment Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is gravely injured in a fight with Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a literal golden god sent by The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), whose villain name needs some work, and whose cruel experiments on Rocket recur as flashbacks through the film. The remaining Guardians—Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Groot (Vin Diesel)—set out to find a passkey that will override the kill switch built into Rocket. Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), now a Ravager, returns to the fold, though without any memory of her former friends. 

Of all the directors making superhero movies, James Gunn has the lightest of touches. It isn’t the flippancy of the Spider-Man films or the filler banter of the Avengers films but genuine screwball timing, aided by a cast in total sync. At the same time, his work has a surprising emotional charge: he manages to bring out something touching in the orneriest characters. His Del Toro-like tenderness for misshapen, uncoordinated, forsaken beings is an antidote to the airbrushed quality of the rest of the MCU. The endlessly sympathetic Mantis, whose niceness plays so well off Drax’s and Nebula’s bluntness, is his philosophy made flesh. 

Having said that, Gunn’s touch isn’t quite as light in Guardians 3. Perhaps it was the thought of having to part with the characters that made his career. Maybe his new responsibilities at DC were a distraction. At any rate, the whole business of an override code implanted in a evil scientist’s head has the aura of something scribbled on the back of a napkin. The central idea of an evil father figure retooling his offering as a freak was done more resonantly in the second Guardians. The Rocket backstory doesn’t have the same horror as the Thanos-Nebula-Gamora one; Gunn has to resort to cute talking animals to try and sell it. And the image of a spaceship as a kind of Noah’s Ark has also been done better in an earlier Marvel film, Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok.

There are no cameos from the rest of the Marvel universe, which is a relief. The Guardians were always best as a self-contained unit off on their own adventures. There’s a beautiful image every so often (the leap into space in brightly coloured suits) or a memorably weird one (the outside of a ship like an exposed scalp). And there’s a bunch of one-lasts: last time Yondu’s arrow is whistled into murderous flight, last time Rocket snaps at someone for calling him an animal (my favourite was Thor addressing him as “Sweet rabbit” in Avengers: Infinity War), last time the group walks in slo-mo towards the screen as some reliable ‘70s riff plays. Gunn may not have wrapped up his Marvel career with the best Guardians film. But it’s a sweet, heartfelt goodbye. 

 This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Ponniyin Selvan: II: Review

Ponniyin Selvan: II is the most time-efficient 164-minute film you’re likely to see. Apart from a few necessary backward glances, nothing distracts from the serene forward march of narrative. The constant purr of the engine is something to behold (the editor is A. Sreekar Prasad), as is the committment to pristine image-making, but I wished at times Mani Ratnam would pause and take in the 10th century air. The first film leavened its court intrigue with glimpses of everyday life in the Chola empire. But in the sequel, everything is primed to drive plot, even the musical sequences. A Ratnam-Rahman film with not one song for song’s sake: is this the future we asked for? 

The Cholas are coming—in a bit. The first film ended with prince Arunmozhi (Jayam Ravi) drowning somewhere off the Lankan coast along with merry warrior Vallavaraiyan (Karthi). Crown prince Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) is on his way to the homestead to confront Nandini (Aishwarya Rai), his former flame who’s secretly plotting with the Pandyas. King Sundara (Prakash Raj) and princess Kundavai (Trisha) are distraught to hear Arunmozhi has perished, unaware that he was saved in the nick of time by a mysterious gray-haired woman who looks exactly like Nandini. The chieftains have banded behind Madhurantakan (Rahman), the royal siblings’ cousin who was passed over for the throne. The Pallava and Rashtrakuta kingdoms want in too. Did I mention the angry Shaivites?

Keeping all this straight is a task, and the breathless pace doesn't help (the film offers a quick recap, though you should probably brush up on your Vaanathis and Poonguzhalis). As with the first film, Vallavaraiyan is the thread that binds the stories, turning up at just the right time to fight, sweet-talk or be dense—sometimes all three. Karthi was a highlight of the first film, visibly enjoying himself in a display of charm and lightness in a genre that’s tended towards gruff manliness in recent times. But PS:I allowed him room to roam and to clown about with his horse and comical Vishnu devotee Nambi (Jayaram). Though his smile and his swagger are intact, Vallavaraiyan’s on a tight schedule in PS:II.  

The burgeoning romance between Kundavai and Vallavaraiyan is boiled down to a solitary scene. Blindfolded and hands tied, he stands on an islet as she playfully interrogates him. She frees his bonds but keeps his blindfold on as she points his sword at him. He grips the blade at the tip, then a little further up, and further until he’s made his way up her arm. The camera creeps closer too, until we’re right up against the couple. A.R. Rahman’s score is bouncy, playful. It’s a perfect little love scene.

A very different kind of love story is smouldering between Nandini and Karikalan, who ended PS-I by declaring that he’d either kill her or be killed by her. It’s a potent match: Rai unflappably regal, Vikram brusque and agitated. Whenever Vikram has a big scene, the camera starts circling him in (deliberately) ungainly fashion. This works for scenes like the one where Karikalan, atop a restless horse, delivers a mocking speech to a coalition of rebels. But in a pivotal scene with him and Rai, the constantly moving frame is more a distraction than a mirror of either character’s mental state.

Few directors shoot green fields and forests and water like Ratnam (working here with Ravi Varman). PS:II is exquisite to look at, a different sort of visual grandeur to the muscular Baahubali films and the inch-perfect designs of the Bhansali historicals. Nature even finds a way indoors; one of my favourite scenes is Arunmozhi fighting off a group of assassins against a backdrop of looming flora. The other fights are serviceable—Ratnam isn’t, never has been, a great director of combat. The comparison to make is not with Rajamouli but another master of the period epic, Zhang Yimou. Both he and Ratnam have a taste for tragic romance and achingly beautiful frames, but Ratnam’s action scenes have none of the painterly ambition of Hero or House of Flying Daggers.

I wasn’t thrilled with the way the film ends—even the extras look confused when the new ruler is announced. Of course, there’s actual history to reckon with, and Kalki’s source novel. Still, it reminded me of Bran being crowned at the end of Game of Thronesafter all that struggle, this guy? If Ponniyin Selvan: II doesn’t stick the landing, it does build on PS:I’s strengths: actor-driven, genuinely curious about history, with a softer touch and less strident politics than most period epics. And in the 25th year of Dil Se, who can resist Ratnam casually recreating one of its most famous shots?

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Meet the new boss

Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) is being reprimanded by his boss (Nobuo Kaneko), head of the Yamamori crime family in Hiroshima, for picking a fight with a distant cousin of a yakuza elder. The tough-as-nails Hirono offers to perform yubitsume—to cut off his little finger as penitence. When the boss leaves the room, the scene turns comic. As one of the gangsters asks, “Are you really going to do it?”, another glances, with perfect timing, at his own hand, as if contemplating whether he would be able to. No one knows how the ceremony is done until the boss’ wife offers instruction. The cutting is grisly but then there’s another layer of farce as the finger goes missing, eventually being retrieved from a hen coop.

Even the elder in whose name the sacrifice is made is surprised when Yamamori takes him the severed finger. “You didn’t have to go this far,” he says. “It was just a quarrel between hot-blooded youth.” This passage from Battles Without Honor And Humanity (1973) flies in the face of a decade or more of Japanese gangster films that emphasised the importance of rituals like yubitsume. By treating a genre mainstay like a joke and a meaningless gesture, director Kinji Fukasaku is bluntly saying that the old rules no longer apply. Tradition is only useful as far as it helps the powerful retain power. Cutting off one’s finger has as much meaning as the pledges of honour and chivalry that once meant so much to yakuza.

In the 1960s, the Japanese studio Toei churned out ninkyo eiga, or “chivalry films”. The yakuza in these films were updates on samurai, bound by codes of honour. Nikkatsu, meanwhile, dealt in a highly entertaining style called “borderless action”, which borrowed from America and Europe to make stylistically arresting gangster films. Fukasaku had been making features since 1961, including several for Toei. “The first film of mine that I felt really successfully blended the documentary feel with the fictitious drama was Street Mobster,” he said in an interview of a 1972 film starring Sugawara. This new style would explode in Battles and its four sequels, the ‘Yakuza Papers’ series that he made in a creative burst over 1973-74.

Battles Without Honor And Humanity was a challenge to both the Nikkatsu and Toei gangster styles. That this was no ninkyo eiga should have been clear from the title. Fukasaku’s gangsters are cowardly, self-serving, unreliable, scheming. Hirono still carries certains ideas of yakuza honour, but he's also a man out of time, repeatedly sacrificing himself for a craven boss who doesn’t care about him. Fukasaku also changed the way gangster films looked in Japan. Unlike the stylish Nikkatsu films, the action in Battles is brutal and chaotic, shot with hand-held camera, lending it the feel of documentary (the director was inspired by the newsreels of student protests at the time). The first image in the film is the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb: both a newsreel still, and the destruction of an old world. The hard, desperate world that emerged after World War II is the one in which Fukasaku’s film is set (screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara adapted a series of articles by journalist Kōichi Iiboshi, which in turn were based on the memoirs of a real-life yakuza in Hiroshima).

The opening 10 minutes have some of the most kinetic, brutal film-making you can imagine. There’s an attempted rape, two dismemberments, a police raid, a chase, a shooting. Barely have you caught your breath than there’s a massive prison brawl, followed soon after by a gangster cutting open his stomach as a means of getting out of prison (the doctors aren’t equipped to patch him up). Occasionally, the action will pause on a freeze-frame of a character with his name and the position, present or future, he will occupy in the crime business (Quentin Tarantino, a big Fukasaku fan, used this device in Inglourious Basterds). When the camera isn’t whirling around, Fukasaku films his suited and hatted gangsters in crowded tableau. Someone’s always doing something in these scenes—I was reminded of the packed frames in Pa. Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai (2021)—a clue to personality or plot or just a throwaway gesture.

Fifty years on, Battles has become part of the DNA of gangster film. It started the trend of jitsuroku eiga (actual record film) in Japan; such was its popularity that Fukasaku started a separate series, ‘New Battles Without Honor And Humanity’, with an unrelated storyline, in 1974. Fukasaku continued to influence Japanese directors—Takashi Miike made his own version of Fukasaku’s Graveyard Of Honor (1975). In 2009, the magazine Kinema Junpo placed Battles fifth on a list of top 10 Japanese films of all time. Fukasaku’s influence extended beyond his own shores: His swan song, Battle Royale, was a precursor to the Hunger Games films and his jitsuroku eiga have inspired others as The Battle Of Algiers (1966) once inspired him.

An Indian film that might owe something directly to the Yakuza Papers is Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs Of Wasseypur. Like Fukasaku’s series, this 2012 film tracks the development of independent India over several decades through the prism of gang wars. There’s a similarity to the way both films use a clipped, unemotional voice-over, as well as documentary footage that grounds the action in a specific time and place (though Kashyap’s film is a lot more stylistically extravagant than Fukasaku’s).

Towards the end of the film, Hirono is sent to kill a former colleague, Sakai, but is captured. Sakai tells him to go, though, saying: “I can’t kill you today. Some other day.” Soon after, Sakai is shot in a market. Hirono turns up at his funeral, to everyone’s surprise, and shoots the “tributes” laid out in his honour. It’s a parting bullet in the body of orthodoxy. And not to forget, there are four films to go, so much more tradition to be violently severed.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Lukas Dhont on 'Close'

Before Close turns devastating, it unfolds in a kind of luminous hush. Director Lukas Dhont films Eden Dambrine, playing Léo, and Gustav De Waele, playing Rémi, in fields of blooming dahlias, and in soft golden light indoors. The two of them talk unhurriedly, tenderly. However, there’s a sense that it cannot last; this softness isn’t something we are used to seeing, in films or in our lives. Soon, their schoolmates ask them point blank if they are a couple. This question knocks their world on its axis, with Léo in particular reluctant to put a label to the relationship. 

This is Dhont’s second feature after Girl (2018), about a trans girl who wants to be a ballerina. Close, which releases on MUBI this weekend, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, winning the Grand Prix. It was later nominated for an Academy Award for International Feature. We spoke to the Belgian director over Zoom about his use of colour, using flower cultivation to show the passage of time, and why he regards his leads as co-authors. Edited excerpts:

Does it bother you that films like yours, both intimate character studies, are often evaluated in terms of broad statements on an issue?

First of all, you are right that what we show is a specific character with a specific experience that looks at the world through one pair of eyes. I think too often when we see one experience presented, we want it to be all experiences. So I resonate with that. But, on the other hand, I do think this film started from a more general political desire—there was this realisation for me that when it comes to expectations around masculinity, for the longest time we have been focusing more on men fighting with each other rather than finding intimacy within the masculine universe. The first desire was to really see the sort of connection between young men that is filled with tenderness and physicality without it having to be linked to their sexuality. I think we sexualise intimacy very easily. So if the film is, on the one hand, deeply personal and deeply specific, I think it has also always been a quest to make it somehow connected to all of us.

It reminded me at times of Ken Loach’s ‘Kes’, especially the sensitivity of the boys, and the casually brutal depiction of sports. 

Yeah, and I love that film. I think it’s an extraordinary portrait of the pressures that we feel from very young. When we went to look for portraits of that fragile age in the history of cinema, it was definitely one of the films that we saw. We, of course, also saw The 400 Blows (1959), Ratcatcher (1999), The Kid With A Bike (2011). It was very interesting seeing all these pieces on young male life. One thing we felt was underrepresented was the importance that boys find in other boys, this sort of connectedness, this tenderness.

Did your lead actors find each other naturally or did you put them together?

Our casting process was quite specific. We would work with groups of around 20-25 boys. We would organise a sort of workshop in which we would give them small exercises. Many of them had never acted before, had never done a casting before, so they were finding out whether they liked it. 

With Eden and Gustav, by coincidence they were in the same group. What was really remarkable is that they were immediately at eye level. It was clear from the beginning that a horizontal collaboration between them would be absolutely possible, maybe even a friendship. And that is unexplainable—you have that with some and you absolutely don’t have that with others. For us, it was important because we knew that so much of this film depends on the connection of the two main protagonists. 

You have said you treated the actors as co-authors. What does this look like in practice?

The boys read the script at the very last stage of casting. I think you have to imagine the script as a sort of choreography. It’s a full script with text and everything but not everything is pronounced precisely. We had very open conversations with them about masculinity because they are two young men. It was often a philosophical—though they are not aware it’s philosophical—conversation with them. Then I asked them to never read the script again. And they loved that, because their biggest fear was that they would have to study a text—in this case, 90 pages—by heart, which is something they have to do in school and which blocks, in many ways, every form of creativity. So from the moment they understood that it’s not going to be like that, they became active, because they had to remember parts of what they read, and at the same time fill in the blanks they did not remember. 

In the six months we rehearsed before the shoot, I would try to make them detectives, in the sense that I would ask questions like, why do you think Léo would not wait for his friend at this moment in time? And I wouldn’t give them my answer; they could make up their own. So what I saw happening is they felt more and more confident to take the lead in their own performance, because they understood that I am not going to dictate what I want them to say, but that it’s actually more about them speaking from a place that is authentic for them. This was not built immediately, this was something that had to be constructed and given time, but from the moment I felt we were there, I knew that our rehearsals were done.

There were other things that happened in those six months as well—for example, after the first month, I brought in the camera, because I wanted to arrive at this complete transparency between them and someone in the audience. I wanted them to get so used to the camera that it becomes this sort of organic object. Confidence takes for each person a different amount of time. Eden was faster in that confidence than Gustav, so it was just about giving them their personal time to arrive there. 

You use colour strikingly in the film. The first thing I recall about many scenes is a particular colour. 

Creativity for me has always been very linked to colour. My mother is a teacher but in her free time she would paint, so whenever I was next to her I always saw this very expressive use of colour. It’s something she passed on to me. 

I went to a film school that combined documentary and fiction. I have a very documentary approach when working with actors but a very stylistic approach when it comes to visuals. When I work with the cinematographer around the different spaces and tonalities throughout a film, we spend a lot of time working on the colour scheme of the piece. 

For example, I knew that in the middle of the film, there was a central image that needed to have impact, that needed to refer to a sense of violence, but which I didn’t want to be violent. I wanted an image that is concrete and, on the other hand, sparks the imagination profoundly. We had this idea of a door being smashed in, which showed the impact of violence. And then I thought, if we add the red, the tonality of that moment becomes so harrowing. The red that in the beginning of the film has a very different tonality, where the boys are in the room and it’s a safe space, a place of passion and of love that does not have a name. 

Léo’s family are flower cultivators; their work can be seen throughout the film. Was it beneficial to have this sort of seasonal underpinning? 

It was definitely one of the more challenging parts of production, because of course we knew that as we filmed different seasons, we would have to follow nature, to shoot both in summer and in autumn. So we had to divide our shooting period in blocks. But we were also working with 12-year-olds, who change rapidly. So there was a production challenge there that was very interesting. 

The flower farm gave us many gifts. I knew that the passing of time in this film would be incredibly important and I wanted to show that in an organic way. With the flower fields, when they get cut and then planted again, we know that time is moving on, seasons are changing. And there is a possibility to show grief in different stages. I also think there was a constant juxtaposition in this film between the fragile and the brutal. It’s present in the setting of the fields—the fragility of these flowers that get cut when the machines arrive. 

You have the same juxtaposition when Léo is in his ice hockey uniform.

Exactly. That’s why we felt Eden was great for the part because he had this sort of fragility and physicality that intrigued us. So many of us have this invisible armour. It seemed very powerful to be able to translate it through that hockey costume, in which this boy literally has a mask on and becomes twice his size. 

There was this image that we never filmed: this flock of black birds all flying in the same direction, in a harrowing and beautiful dance. In many ways this is what the ice hockey boys are in the film, black masses in which we don’t recognise personality, dancing and moving in the same rhythm and formation.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.