Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum [2017] – An Expertly Crafted Social Drama

Dileesh Pothan’s spectacular crime dramedy Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (aka ‘The Mainour and the Witness', 2017) is knitted together with perfectly timed abruptness and potent element of realism. The film opens with a stage play, a familiar make-believe love story, which doesn’t hold the attention of one of the central characters Prasad (Suraj Venjaramoodu). He moves away from the open ground, has few drinks with the local guys, and wakes up with a cold in the morning. He doesn’t yet know what fate has in store for him, since soon like the hero of the stage play, Prasad is going to ask the girl he would woo to marry him. However, it won’t be as simple as the scenario in the stage play because in the real world there’s the troubling concern over caste and culture. Before their courtship, Prasad’s initial encounter with Sreeja (Nimisha Sajayan) is marked with distress and misunderstanding. As in Pothan’s debut feature Maheshinte Prathikaram (aka Mahesh’s Revenge, 2016) or many other small-town-set Malayalam films, the opening sequences are enlaced with a breezy liveliness, elegantly capturing the character’s idiosyncrasies and the beautiful landscape’s singularities. The evolving phase of love between Sreeja and Prasad is pretty familiar but there are some gracefully poignant and humorous touches (just an act of spitting is turned into such a hilarious moment). It’s all intertwined carefully, smartly, and affectionately and moves with depth of emotions

The fantastic script written by Mr. Sajeev Pazhoor (Syam Pushkaran co-wrote the dialogues) commences with a small, seemingly insignificant crime. But the myriad of complex dilemmas and situations that rise from this simple scenario shrewdly observes the human condition and the pitiless, overly twisted bureaucratic system. Fahadh Faasil provides yet another versatile, chameleonic performance as a petty thief, characterized with mixture of wilful charm and craftiness. After the opening courtship vignettes, the narrative abruptly moves to arid lands from the earlier profuse water-locked lands. Soon, we comprehend that the lovers have married and eloped due to heavy opposition from Sreeja’s parents (owing to caste issues). The parched land is riddled with solar panels, and Sreeja is dozing off on a moving bus. She wakes up just as the thief cuts up her wedding chain. As Sreeja immediately turns and catches him in the act, the thief swallows the chain. Prasad and the other passengers come to her rescue. However, the thief coolly maintains his innocence and the bus travels to a nearby police station. The couples are on their way to mortgage the 2-carat gold chain for digging a bore-wall in their dried-up farm land.

Although it looks like an open-and-shut case, the politics within the station and the unnecessarily convoluted bureaucratic process brings more woes to all the parties involved. Over the course of nearly two days at the police station, the simple theft of a gold chain sets off complex chain of events. The thief not only has stolen the chain, but also steals the name 'Prasad' (he has no ID on him). Gradually the material is imbued with a potential of a thriller with many unexpected yet well-judged narrative turns. Our stereotypical image of a thief, cop, and witness are constantly upended and the subsequent emotional intensity thoroughly takes us by surprise. Interestingly there are no bad guys in the narrative. Everyone from the thief to the police superior are just caught in the middle, running in circles for a solution to relieve themselves of the predicament.

Dileesh Pothan’s creative process involved in Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum is nothing short of astounding. The script parcels out little fascinating circumstances and exchanges within the larger narrative stretch. For example, the long, unobtrusive tracking shot that follows up the exchange between the policeman and drunkard or the old couple fretting over the absence of a big banyan tree, etc. Pothan’s impeccable, unfussy staging and Pazhoor writing keeps us keenly aware of the mild events that unfold in the backdrop. The writers and director are conscious of representing the people from different walks inside the station without affecting our attention on the main narrative. In the due process, we sometimes funnily and at times harshly learn the realities of justice system which doesn't vigorously preach the ‘message’ to the viewers (the message passing tactics are usually the habit of untalented directors and ludicrous star actors). Except for the wonderful character-artist Alencier Ley Lopez all the other characters in the police station are played by real cops. It brings a perfect authenticity to the proceedings. Particularly, I liked the mix of casualness and tension in the exchanges between the SI, CI and other lawmen which rightly captures the temperament within the station's power hierarchy (and it’s sort of amazing how the cops were comfortable in showcasing the inanities of their own departmental rules).

 The film gains more profundity in the second-half as the themes of belief and trust – two things which we often find it hard to associate with police and justice system – is pondered upon. The performances are magnificent all around. Fahadh Faasil, an actor who has repeatedly proved himself adept at playing the common man, plays the thief with great panache and subtlety. Once again like Mahesh, this character seems to be a simpleton at first, but gradually Fahadh brings out the multi-layered nature of the character. There’s finesse in the way he powers through big and small dramatic moments that it never feels like watching an actor essaying a role. 

Creep 2 [2017] – The Maniac is Back with a Mid-life Crisis

Patrick Brice’s debut feature Creep (2014) is one of my favorite horror movies of recent times. Ever since the ginormous success of Blair Witch Project (1999) & Paranormal Activity (2007), the audience’s overexposure to found-footage/faux documentary horror reached a point that every project this sub-genre of horror was written-off as cheap, nonsensical fare. Although Creep starts off with a standard found-footage horror setting – a freaked out videographer, weird guy and dark woods – it doesn’t surrender itself to the limitations or expectations of the sub-genre (Japanese found-footage horror Noroi the Curse is another good example). The two-member crew -- Patrick Brice and the multi-faceted Mark Duplass -- reinvigorates a banal idea that we are left with a note of uncertainty, wondering the outcome of the seemingly simple set-up. In Creep, Brice plays an underemployed videographer who answers an obscure Craigslist ad, posted by Josef. The guy promises $1,000 for a day of filming at his house in the woods. Aaron meets Josef and finds him to be weird and the guy’s eccentricity clear makes him uncomfortable. But he puts up with him for the pay. However, Josef’s behavior increasingly goes off-the-wall. The smartest element of Creep is, like Aaron, we aren’t sure what Josef intent is: to just have devilish fun to dispel loneliness or is there any deeper sinister plans. Many sequences straight-out play like black comedy, but the perfectly tuned script and astoundingly spontaneous performance consistently upends our expectations.

The sequel to Creep obviously fills us with doubts. Because for one, the film has now have developed some built-in audience (it’s not any more a unknown indie horror gem) and it’s clearly revealed what fuels the titular character’s existence. But the duo’s penchant for subversion and spontaneity in Creep 2 (2017) once again surprises us by taking unexpected narrative paths for a found-footage horror sequel. While Creep’s driving factor was mystery (about the freaky central character’s true nature), Creep 2 depends on the curiosity factor. The first movie is all about, ‘what’s he gonna do?’, whereas the second one makes us inquire, ‘Will he do it, if so how?’. The foremost interesting change made in Creep 2 is that it’s clearly much more than a cat-and-mouse game. For those who have seen Creep, they would know what happened to Aaron. But his name has survived, as Josef has now christened himself as Aaron (Mark Duplass). The charming serial-killer operating in his unique mode posts similar Craigslist ad. It’s answered by a woman who isn’t exactly a mouse like Aaron in the first part.

‘I think I might be deeply untalented’, laments Sara (Desiree Akhavan) to the camera whose independent web docu-series ‘Encounters’ has been received with lukewarm response. For the YouTube video channel, Sara answers Craigslist personal ad that are absolutely weird. She visits those strange, extreme loners and simply does whatever they are seeking (for example, one guy desires to be ‘mommied’ and so she cradles the grown-man, singing him a lullaby; one other guy just wants someone to talk). Although unemployed, Sara says she isn’t doing this just for money; that she wants to reach out to the weird lonely souls like her. So Sara naturally finds Aaron’s ad to be intriguing (being a fan of ‘Interview with a Vampire’ is a plus, says the ad). Before we remark, ‘I know where this goes from here’, director Patrick Brice changes tack and this time the killer offers to his alleged victim (Sara) a more peculiar job to do. Right off the bat, Aaron confesses that he is a serial-killer with 39 kills. But as he is turning 40 soon, he is plagued with painful mid-life crisis. “It's like a job now,” muses Aaron about how he lost the thrill he gained from killing unsuspecting victims. He is OK if Sara wants to go immediately and if she takes the job – to film his goofy realizations for a day – Aaron promises not to kill her within the 24-hour window mark. Sara, as I mentioned earlier, isn’t the typical ‘damsel in distress’ character. She believes the guy is just toying with her and she is fully on-board to film his wacky antics on camera. Of course, there’s some part of Sara that considers if Aaron’s confession is true. But the voyeuristic interest and the inner-sycophant assures her. Anyway, she has come equipped with a knife if things turn out dangerous.

Patrick Brice once again employs innovative ways to put the faux documentary style to good use. All the creative decisions made in this particular horror genre, boils down to one vital question, “why is the camera on at this moment?” Hence, each of the minimal yet edgy scenarios perfectly justifies the decision to observe or capture certain things and leave others to our imagination. Brice’s characters in both parts aren’t obnoxious ones, whose purpose is to simply catch something out-of-the-box in their camera. The camera in Creep primarily informs on the character and the genuine scares arise from what we glean from those character interactions. Of course, the odd, carefully construed visual angles -- mostly set in sparsely lighted compact spaces -- brings more edge to the scene (the minimalist frames in the prologue scene and in the one towards the end are absolutely thrilling), but all the haunting stuffs originate in the way Brice & Duplass parcels out the disturbing information or confessions of deeds in the most organic manner. One other fascinating thing about Brice’s direction is the way he keeps alive the sense of dark humor in a scene even when he is about to hit us with terrifying developments. Jump-scare moments are hilariously called-out and the beloved ‘Peachfuzz’ (that terrifying wolf-mask from the first part) is reduced to a weird comic side-note.

Through Sara’s desperate search for soulful connection, there’s some mild commentary on our society’s obsession to record or document every moment in our life in devices accompanying us. Common sense would motivate people to turn the capturing devices off and get the hell out of the place, but for Sara it’s all about finding connection (not just the desire to be popular) through meticulous documentation. It’s a vicious cycle, where the voyeur feeds the narcissist and the narcissist the voyeur. The performances of Desiree Akhavan (who made a very good directorial debut with the indie film ‘Appropriate Behavior’) and Mark Duplass are nothing short of enchanting. Sara doesn’t fall into the potential pitfalls which often await women characters in horror films. Desiree’s energetic portrayal imbues Sara with her own specific ambitions and desires that really makes sense. Mark Duplass is once again terrific as the unpredictably oscillating sociopath. The way his character refers to ‘Infinite Jest’ or Coppola (and Apocalypse Now) remains absolutely hilarious. And, it’s particularly hard to take eyes off him when he rants about his woeful past (and since says he is a pathological liar we aren’t sure if anything he says is true), looking straight into the camera. There are already talks of Brice and Duplass doing a third ‘Creep’ movie. Considering how the duo had peeled-off interesting layers of this dangerous character so far, it would be so intriguing to see what they have in mind for the next one.  



Creep 2 (80 minutes), like its captivating predecessor, stuffs the simple, old-fashioned horror premise with surprising ideas and pure psychological thrills. Director Patrick Brice and actor Mark Duplass’ idiosyncratic style perpetually finds fresh ways to embroil us in the unnerving situation.   


The Meyerowitz Stories [2017] – An Invigorating Take on the Timeworn Trope of Dysfunctional Family

American film-maker Noah Baumbach, complimented by critics as Woody Allen’s artistic heir, once again returns back to his pet theme with his tender & well-crafted family drama The Meyerowitz Stories: New and Selected (2017): about an individual reflecting upon his own self-worth or reputation through other people’s acknowledgment. The perpetual misfortunes that are showered upon Baumbach’s characters often arise from such a yearning or deep-seated insecurity. They are capable of making great art, may splendidly philosophize on things we repeatedly overlook in life, and can see what’s wrong with the world. But Baumbach’s men & women are shortsighted in one aspect: they don’t like themselves a lot. With The Meyerowitz Stories, the director subtly delves into what’s at the root of people’s nature to undermine their self-worth: the dysfunctional family. Is there a solution for the problem? Of course, the director doesn’t throw you up concrete answers, but he nudges us up to see how some sort of solace is achieved by addressing the dysfunction. Any way, as I remember the great Leo Tolstoy’s words about ‘unhappy family’, I feel there’s something cathartic about watching unique yet fictional unhappy families.

Partly reminding us of Wes Anderson’s strange dysfunctional family in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), the Meyerowitz family’s patriarch is the less-heralded but talented sculptor Harold Meyorowitz (Dustin Hoffman). Harold, a septuagenarian, reminds me of the older version of Jeff Daniels’ father character in Baumbach’s earlier brilliant drama ‘The Squid and the Whale’ (an achingly painful semi-autobiographical portrait about the effects of parental divorce on adolescents). Similar to Daniels’ Bernard Berkman, Harold sports a beard and has the looks of being a polite, well-learned man. But deep inside, they are just selfish, needy, and overlook life’s gifts by getting stuck at this idea of themselves. To put it simply: ‘they are pricks’. While ‘Squid and the Whale’ is about father’s inability to see the damage he is doing to his children, Meyerowitz is altogether different story; because the damage is already done here. And this brings up a dry wit to the proceedings even while the family addresses their deep-seated resentments or engages in shouting matches.

As the title promises, Baumbach serves up the Meyerowitz experience through interrelated vignettes, opening with literary-type inter-titles. The film opens with Danny Meyorowitz (Adam Sandler) and his young daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) visiting the sculptor father/grand-father Harold who lives in an upstate New York apartment with his current bohemian wife Maureen (Emma Thompson). Eliza is going to college to study film and Danny is going through divorce process. He hopes to stay with Dad and Maureen for a while. Danny is a genial person whose self-defeating personality has halted his ability to be a talented musician. He’s been a stay-at-home dad and feels proud of raising a smart daughter; they play piano together and the rapport and tenderness they share together is so graceful. Now that Danny’s duty of being a full-time parent has come to a screeching halt, he needs to find a job or figure out things that would liven up his existence. During an early lunch scene, where Danny’s sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) also visits her father, it is made clear that their embittered father has always neglected them but favored their financially successful half-brother Matthew (Ben Stiller). Despite Harold’s disregard for his elder children, Jean and Danny are more concerned with their father’s legacy as a sculptor so much as to arrange for a retrospective gallery show.

Matthew, the business manager at L.A., has grown up with Harold and mother Julia (Candice Bergen), but over the years he is also agonized by hidden ‘daddy issues’ (he chose finance over art). Harold dotes on him with unbridled affection, but Matthew still has no idea how to handle his father (who spirals down or vents out for little spiritual discomfort). The chaos that ensues when Matthew meets Harold for lunch funnily realizes how hard it is to put up with the father’s passive-aggressive behavior. Soon, a perilous health issue renders Harold unconscious; leaving his three children to confront the unfathomable hospital bureaucracy (the Meyerowitz children’ fixation on young nurse Pam is absolutely hilarious). While working together to save their dad, Danny and Matthew also confront the hatred they have for each other. Danny is so worked up about Matthew’s proposal to sell his father’s apartment and his artwork. Since, the movie deals with truth and reality of family relationships, it doesn’t succumb to the prospects of a sentimental ending. Nevertheless, beneath the complicated and messy relationships, there’s an air of hopefulness for Meyerowitzs’ (life goes-on, irrespective of the big baggage of unhappiness and disappointments).

Self-deception & self-destruction are the important themes that anchor the encounters between dysfunctional family members.There’s an Altman-esque feeling in the manner the exchanges overlap each other (they talk a lot but don’t hear each other). Moreover, the abrupt cut between each vignette is intriguing, and in the case of Danny and Matthew it depicts how they are caught in a rut, unable to free themselves from the cycle of rage and despair. Noah Baumbach’s writing caliber perfectly ensures to balance the emotions of confrontation and rapprochement. From Eliza’s weirdly sexual short films to the Meyerowitzs’ desperate handling of the hospital situation, the narrative is lot nuanced as well as funny, devoid of the overwhelming quirkiness of ‘Mistress America’ and abundance of pathos in ‘While We’re Young’. The film may lack the shrewd dialogues of Frances Ha or Mistress America, but Baumbach’s realization of characters and his observation of them is much more sharper. The dialogues were written in a way that sounds very truthful and seems spontaneous when a character utters it (I particularly liked the sad moment when Danny says, “If dad’s not a great artist, that means he was just a prick.”).  Interestingly, director Baumbach doesn’t scrutinize whether Harold Meyerowitz is truly great artist or not. We see his art works fleetingly to come up with sound judgment. But the director rather concentrates how Harold has focused on being a celebrated artist that he is never acknowledged the role of a dad. He sought the validation of his artistic peers and habitually dismisses those whose works are popular.

However, Harold isn’t a failure. He has had a successful academic career alongside his artistic pursuits. The problem is Harold’s own harsh judgment of his self-worth, regardless of the things he gained in life.  The narrative is pretty much a ripple effect of Harold’s past behavior. The shadow cast by Harold’s artistic legacy and parental neglect has embroiled his children with self-doubts and distrust. Nevertheless, like his children we couldn’t totally despise Harold. Thanks to the great Dustin Hoffman’s eloquent performance, we get acquainted with Harold’s sad and longing side more than his obstinate stance. Even Marvel’s Jean, who at first seems to be just a peripheral character is blessed with a wonderful poignant scene.  Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler offer one of their career-best dramatic performances. Stiller’s Matthew brilliantly showcases the love-hate relationship with his father and is particularly remarkable in the scene he breaks-down while delivering a speech at the gallery. It’s fascinating to see Sandler subtly facing up to his emotional trauma and self-doubt. The great sequences in the film are when these two actors play each other. The tension between them is well built up that their over emotional and comic vengeful act (by vandalizing a car) provides the due cathartic moment. 


Profoundly textured with 3-dimensional characters and a great ensemble, The Meyerowitz Stories (112 minutes) is a bittersweet and keenly humanistic family drama.  Oft filmed in close quarters, director Noah Baumbach thoroughly immerses us into the little sufferings and joys of the dysfunctional yet vibrant family.

Afonya [1975] – A Highly Impressive Soviet Tragicomedy

Georgian-Soviet Russian film-maker Georgiy Danelia is well regarded for his distinctive characteristic of diffusing joy and sadness with a touch of lyricism. Danelia’s protagonists are common men. His narrative focused on simple truths rather than weaving explosive moral statements. Like many auteurs of cinema, Danelia sought perfection, reworking each scene and immaculately worked on the details placed in the frame. Danelia’s 1986 satirical science-fiction Kin-Dza-Dza earned him the cult director status. Kin-Dza-Dza is an exemplary movie which would certainly trigger one’s interest in the director’s oeuvre (like it did for me). And, I have discovered little known, earlier satirical masterpieces made by Georgiy Danelia. One of my most favorite among the director’s tragicomedy is Afonya (1975). The central character in the movie is a trouble-maker with a penchant for caustic remarks. Yet, director Danelia approaches the character with enough compassion that we can see through the protagonist’s clownish-acts to reflect on his inner emptiness. It’s a simple, funny film with a tinge of sadness. Afonya also could provoke cinephiles interest to watch other great Russian comedies (The Diamond Arm, The Irony of Fate, Office Romance, etc).

Director Georgiy Danelia studied engineering, but later embraced cinematography and joined the famous Mosfilm Studios (in the late 1950s). Danelia’s 1963 film Walking the Streets of Moscow was renowned at Cannes Film Festival. In the 1969 comedy, Don’t Grieve, Danelia depicted the picturesque beauty of Georgia (known as quintessential Georgian film). The movie reminds us of Fellini’s works, especially in the way Danelia observes life with all its intermingled layers of misery and jubilation. The director’s tragicomic character study Afonya, predominantly takes place in an urban setting. Unexpectedly, the film became immensely popular with USSR audiences that it went on to become one of the highest grossing films in the Soviet Union film industry. Afanasy Nickolaevich Borschov aka A.N. Borschov aka Afonya (Leonid Kuravlyov) is a self-absorbed middle-aged guy, who works as a plumber. He has a tendency to drink excessively and imagine ideal fantasies to root out the burgeoning dissatisfaction in his mundane life.

Afonya brings home his new drinking pal Kolya (Evgeniy Leonov) and is confronted by the annoyed girlfriend. She declares that she has wasted two years on him. She leaves Afonya for good, before throwing out Kolya. Afonya Borschov as usual tries to dress up his emotional bruises with overly funny and sarcastic behavior. Kolya returns back to Afonya’s apartment and request to stay there for few days, since his wife had also thrown him out. Despite the arrival of newfound pal, Afonya’s descent into darkness couldn’t be curbed. The guy’s disposition to earn tips and indifference towards solving the plumbing problems (however desperate the problem is he runs off immediately after his working time) brings couple of severe reprimands. An evening trip to have fun at a party ends up in a fight. Life seems to be slipping away from Afonya. But his acquaintance with two attractive women reinstates some hope. A young nurse named Katya (Evgeniya Simonova) is one of the women. The way Katya’s face lights up when looking at Afonya tells she has some feelings for him. Nevertheless, Afonya entrapped by his fantasies or wrong dreams stays frustrated.

On the first look, A.N. Borschov confirms to the typecast character of good-for-nothing, cynical drinker. We expect that comedy may rise from his unsteady gait and misbehavior. But Aleksandr Borodyanskiy’s script gradually reveals the character’s depth, allowing the space for incorporating subtle social commentary. The narrative slows up a bit in these portions, but we get a profound look at his urban life with all the missed opportunities of the past. It depicts how Afonya needs the fake jolliness to stop the mudanity of city life from getting at him. This further reveals the emotionally rich life Afonya once experienced with his beloved guardian/aunt in the idyllic village. The nostalgic yearning for expansive & peaceful, rural setting as opposed to cramped urban quarters could be easily related by all those who have faced the social phenomenon of urban migration. But, writer Borodyanskiy or director Danelia doesn’t make a bland statement about the need to return to one’s roots or incriminates wider urban Soviet society for the emotional numbness. Apart from brilliantly portraying 70s USSR city life, the movie proposes the need to have right dreams and to reciprocate the true love showered on us, so as to not worry later about the lost opportunities. Director Georgiy Danelia conveys this simple, universal truth through his distinguished, poignant lyricism.

Formally, ‘Afonya’ may seem simpler (amongst Danelia’s oeuvre) compared to the visual brilliance of the movies like Kin-Dza-Dza. Nevertheless, there are many interesting visual insights to subtly reveal the protagonist’s nature and about the society he lives in. The movie opens in a theater stage as group of angelic ballet dancers carry out their rehearsals, which is disrupted by A.N. Borschov’s drinking pal (he walks to the center of stage). Borschov before trouble-shooting the plumbing problems in the theatre’s toilet walks out, remarking that his work-time is over. The guy’s mere presence seems to invoke disruption, unrest, and half-measure actions. Georgiy Danelia directs these character set-up scenes in a rapid pace and with broad humor. He employs the same dose of humor even when establishing Afonya’s kindness. For instance, the scene he allows Kolya to stay with him; only after opening the house and spending few minutes in conversation with previous night drinking friend Kolya, Borshov questions who the guy is. Borschov is also jovially generous and compassionate with Katya. Amongst the well-directed comic sequence, my favorite is Borshov’s slippage into fantasy world, where he dreams of living in idyllic rural life with a beautiful wife and sons.

As a master craftsman, Danelia shows strict control over deciding the mood of the film. He inserts little elements or gestures to provide depth to certain simple scenes. For example, there’s a recurring establishing shot of the apartment block, where a body-builder is seen weighting lifts. This guy’s presence could be interpreted as a show of external strength, lacking genuine contentment. Even if we are in no mood for interpreting, the guy seems a strangely funny addition to the frame. The dance-hall patrons with their little quirks are also absolutely hilarious. Although the gags wane in the second-half, I liked it the best as compared to fast-moving, funny first-half.  By the time Afonya descends into regretful mood, the director allows his simple visual set-ups to fully draws us into character’s idiosyncrasies (and care for him). Afonya’s journey back to the village was brilliantly shot, which didn’t just depict vast, lush green fields, but also reflected on the guy’s unexpressed frustrations. The external beauty of the land becomes obsolete (with passing of Aunt Frosya) and it once again manifests his lack of human connection. The ending is definitely unbelievable, but I don’t have any complain about it. And, Afonya finally discovers how a genuine, little strand of human connection could cast off the possible gloominess in his life. Leonid Kuravlyov offers an astounding layered performance as the titular character, a man who boasts love/hate attitude towards human relations.  Evgenia Simonova is enchanting as the young nurse. From the graceful flirting to showcase of her desperate love, Simonova keeps us in a spell.   

Afonya (88 minutes) is a simple, yet incredibly directed & performed character study of an urban dweller. It observes a common USSR citizen’s life with all its messy and happy parts. It also could serve as introductory point to explore the great works of Georgian film-maker Georgiy Danelia