American Animals [2018] – A Wistful and Darkly Humorous Heist Story

We all have our fantasies that we hope would by-pass the hardships of life and puts us directly in the path towards prosperity. Maximum wealth through minimum effort has oft been the misguided mission of many. Nevertheless, a lot of us can well-judge the demarcation point, which stops us from switching to the action mode so as to strive for the ludicrous wish-fulfillment fantasy. We can enjoy all these well-crafted old & new heist/robbery sequences, savoring the display of criminality with popcorn and beverages. But what if some frustrated, alienated youngsters who feel ‘special’ like the heroes of heist flicks doesn’t understand that you can’t attain self-fulfillment at the expense of committing a crime? Then it’s a truly a recipe for disaster. Earlier in Bart Layton’s fascinating true-crime drama American Animals (2018), the camera pans a DVD shelf containing heist classics like “Riffi”, “The Killing”, “Reservoir Dogs”, “Point Break”, etc. The thrill-seeking college kids binge-watch it for education as well as motivation. But once their preposterous plan is set in motion, they confront turbulent emotional reality which thwarts their fantasies in a matter of minutes. American Animals is refreshing because it starts off like any caper flick and slowly switches gears to dissect and critique how pop art persistently lauds criminal behavior.

Based on the 2004 real-life crime, which was dubbed in the media as ‘Trans Booky Heist’, documentary film-maker Bart Layton’s first narrative feature ‘American Animals’, assembled with slick visuals and cool music, recreates the events that led four college kids of privilege to steal a rare-book collection at Lexington, Kentucky’s Transylvania University library. Art student Spencher Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) hates his fraternity, college life, and embraces his outcast status. He yearns for unique life experience and staunchly believes that only suffering can lead to the creation of great art. Spencer’s only friend is brash and eccentric Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), who is in college with his athletic scholarship and is also seeking for life-altering experience. During a visit to the University’s Special Collection Library, Spencer’s attention is grabbed by the prized works: naturalist John James Audubon’s “Birds of America”, rare first edition of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”, etc. Audubon’s book alone is valued at $12 million, which is held in a glass-case, the key to its lock is held by the old librarian/archivist (Ann Dowd).

The robbery plan gets more serious and elaborate. Warren supposedly meets up with a ‘fence’, who points to a potential buyer at Amsterdam. Considering the intricacies involved in the robbery, Warren recruits two more in the team: a loner with an ambition to join the FBI, Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and super-rich fitness freak Chas (Blake Jenner). The four have a great time planning the robbery, right up to the elderly men disguises. Then comes the ‘Day of the Robbery’ where their fantasies are shredded by jangling nerves and the inescapable weight of reality. The result of heist and the fate of the quartet could be comprehended early in the narrative. Because, the narrative is interspersed with documentary-like snippets as the real-life culprits, now in their early 30s, look back at their self-centered youthful selves (the snippets also includes the four guys’ family members; an approach bit similar to ‘I, Tonya’, but there the reflection is done by older selves of actors itself). The reason for this narrative choice is simple: to flex the thematic muscles more sharply.

For me the starting and ending of American Animals seemed a bit overwrought. The assemblage of supposedly kinetic imagery to realize the character and their real-life counterparts felt to be overdone. The ending also has ‘in-your-face’ moments, conveying the sociopolitical commentary among others with no subtlety whatsoever. Even so, the movie gets right the youngsters’ superficial concerns about life and the later robbery-day panic. Layton, particularly, builds great tension during the robbery sequences, imbuing it with perfect emotional authenticity. Even if we know the results of the heist, the details of the quartet’s downward spiral unfurls with high-wire tension and dark comedy (‘the elevator mishap’ moment is so hilarious, irrespective of the characters’ despair). Director Layton smartly avoids farcical tone during the robbery and post-robbery scenes, bringing up the narrative’s lamentable dimension to the surface.

A lot of Layton’s metaphorical handling is mostly obvious: from its title based on Charles Darwin’s observations about a curiously evolved bird (native to Kentucky) to Audubon’s description of colorful, savage birds juxtaposed with four guys’ palpable fear of getting caught. Layton, however, shows good judgment in allowing many questions (with respect to details of heist) go unanswered. It is to say that regardless of the details attested to the narrative, the despair and misplaced sense of joy faced by the characters are very real and true. Furthermore, the director’s cool nods (established through crafty editing) to heist scenes (Ocean’s Eleven, Reservoir Dogs, The Dark Knight) are devilishly entertaining. In fact, much of the youngsters’ conversation mimics the dialogues from pop art (This is your red pill/blue pill moment”, Warren says while recruiting Eric). The performances from Keoghan (‘Dunkirk’, ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’) and Peters (‘American Horror Story’) are riveting, although I felt their characters are not fully fleshed-out and their motivations not impeccably accounted for. In addition, Jenner and Abrahamson, who play co-conspirators, are very thinly characterized. With more keenly observed characterization and deep symbolism, American Animals (116 minutes) would have been a stupendous work of the true-crime genre. Nevertheless, for now it’s an engrossing study of privileged yet purposeless youngsters swindled by the mirage of 'American Dream'. 


Merku Thodarchi Malai [2018] – A Stirring and Gorgeously Shot Docu-Drama

For the past decade or so, Tamil cinema despite the heightened excesses – violence, melodrama, didacticism – is consistent in staying true to the state’s cultural, political, and economic reality. Lenin Bharathi’s Merku Thodarchi Malai (‘Western Ghats’, 2018) stands as yet another testament to new wave of Tamil film-makers’ impulse for making naturalistic slice-of-life dramas. Merku Thodarchi Malai (produced by actor Vijay Sethupathi) deserves more attention (among similar contemporary Tamil films) since it is less concerned about plot mechanics and more invested in documenting life lived amidst the gorgeous mountain ranges. It’s more or less an anthropological record, which could only be relished by our willingness to watch and listen as the people on-screen reveal themselves: their life, rituals, and passion. Although there are certain questionable elements of melodrama, the film largely stays away from overtly sermonizing the trials and tribulations of under-served, landless rural poor.

While most films open to swiftly establish its characters and conflicts, Merku Thodarchi Malai slowly establishes the grace and beauty of its landscape alongside the lively dynamics between hillside villagers. The early scenes are set in still-dark early morning in the hamlet of ‘Thevaram’ (on the borders of Kerala and Tamil Nadu), as the central character Rengasamy sets about doing his routine tasks. He rinses his face using the water from steadily flowing rain. He bathes, chats with his mother about finalizing the deal on the land. He walks a lot and engages in idle chatter with other anonymous villagers in tea shops, in the curvy hilly paths, etc. The villagers’ livelihood revolves around carrying heavy sacks of cardamom from the rough terrain of peaks to the plantations. Rengasamy has saved money from these arduous trips so as to realize the dream of owning a land and be a farmer. The thin plot chronicles how this personal dream fares amidst the encroaching outside forces.

Although Merku Thodarchi Malai tells a very familiar, bleak story of capitalism, its soul rests on the vibrant display of cultural and regional specificity. The film is absorbing for what it reveals about the culture of the people of Western Ghats, as well as the practical aspects of their everyday life, where the land and nature is as much a living force as the villagers. Director/writer Lenin Bharathi also focuses on the myriad of small stories which reveals different facets of life and beliefs in Western Ghats. The early uphill trek of Rengasamy to the plantations is detailed in a brilliant manner, the intimacy of the production calms us into accepting it as an observation of real life. The people seem sincere, honest, and revealing as real people might be. The zealous and stubborn old man carrying the cardamom sack, the mentally afflicted woman haunted by her loss, the religious belief in carrying a small stone to the mountain top, and similar such refined vignettes presents us a grueling and often ravishing document of life in the foothills.

Cinematographer Theni Easwar’s wide nature shots offer something sublime in its simple gazes. The eagle-eye shots, showing the men carrying sacks like uniformly moving ants, are wondrous and heartrending.  Lenin Bharathi & Easwar subtly refers to the ruthless practices of capitalism without resorting to lengthy crowd-pleasing dialogues. What roads (tourism) and homogenization of farming practices does to these communities is gently touched upon without taking up a particular judgmental stance. A shot of government provided freebies – table fan and TV – and the lingering shot at the back of a van, bearing the stickers of various enterprises of a real-estate developer, tells something deep about the times we live in than the instructive words. At times, the camera generates the sense of poignancy the cast of non-professional actors fail to do so. If there’s a flaw in the narrative, I think it chiefly rests in the transitions between documentation mode and dramatic mode. The second-half that’s preoccupied with passage of time (as opposed to the first-half’s sense of timelessness) tries to portray the injustices directed towards the central character Rengasamy. The meek villager is tried to be transformed into a protagonist of sorts. But, Rengasamy’s life, punctuated with tragedies, doesn’t seem as absorbing and distinctive as the earlier portions. Moreover, during those melodramatic parts, the legendary Ilayaraja’s music strives to underline the emotions to be felt, whose graceful notes are otherwise sensibly used (though the emotional overflow might be consciously included to not entirely turn this into a art-house feature).

Eventually, Merku Thodarchi Malai’s splendid mastery is evident from merely observing the first and last scenes (or shots). The briskness in the young man’s walk is replaced in the end with a passivity and nonchalance. The rain and chatter in the opening shots, for all its noise, produces a soothing effect. But the unagitated, steady zoom-out shot of wind turbine-riddled landscape in the movie's final shot invokes an unsettling feeling. Ah yes, ‘Progress’ has come to the remote hills and its people!

1968: 50 Great/Good Movies Celebrating its 50th Anniversary

The late 1960s and early 1970s stretched the cinematic envelope of Hollywood. As the studio systems slowly crumbled, it paved way to New Age Hollywood, whose movies burst with fresh ideas and novel techniques.  This was the era when American movies leaped up, in terms of creativity. Despite working under studios, the film-makers did what they wanted, and their choice for subject matters consistently pushed the constraints placed by censorship. Elsewhere, French New Wave and Czech New Wave ‘s stylistic innovations and experimental spirit forever changed the face of cinema. 

As the marvelous cinematic works released in 1968 are celebrating its 50th anniversary this year (2018), I had listed my 50 favorite works:

·         2001: A Space Odyssey  ||  Director: Stanley Kubrick

·         Once Upon a Time in the West || Dir: Sergio Leone

·         Rosemary’s Baby  ||  Dir: Roman Polanski

·         Faces  ||  Dir: John Cassavetes

·         Night of the Living Dead  ||  Dir: George Romero

·         Planet of the Apes  ||   Dir: Franklin J. Schaffner

·         Yellow Submarine  ||  Dir: George Dunning

·         The Great Silence  ||  Dir: Sergio Corbucci

·         Stolen Kisses  ||  Dir: Francois Truffaut

·         The Swimmer  ||   Dir: Frank Perry & Sydney Pollack

·         Valley of the Bees  ||  Dir: Frantisek Vlacil

·         Petulia  ||  Dir: Richard Lester

·         The Lion In Winter  ||  Dir: Anthony Harvey

·         Oliver!  ||  Dir: Carol Reed

·         Romeo and Juliet  ||   Dir: Franco Zeffirelli

·         The Odd Couple  ||  Dir: Gene Saks

·         Shame  ||   Dir: Ingmar Bergman

·         The Diamond Arm  ||  Dir: Leonid Gaidai

·         Naked Childhood  ||  Dir: Maurice Pialat

·         Funny Girl  ||  Dir: William Wyler

·         The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter  ||  Dir: Robert Ellis Miller

·         If….  || Dir: Linsay Anderson

·         Kuroneko  ||  Dir: Kaneto Shindo

·         Mandabi  ||  Dir: Ousmane Sembene

·         Memories of Underdevelopment  ||  Dir: Tomas Gutierrez Alea

·         The Profound Desire of Gods  ||  Dir: Shohei Imamura

·         Signs of Life  ||  Dir: Werner Herzog

·         Theorem   ||  Dir: Pier Paolo Pasolini

·         The Bride Wore Black  ||  Dir: Francois Truffaut

·         Where Eagles Dare  ||  Dir: Brian G. Hutton

·         Targets  || Dir: Peter Bogdanovich

·         Death by Hanging  ||  Nagisa Oshima

·         Silence and Cry  || Dir: Miklos Jancso

·         Les Biches  ||  Dir: Claude Chabrol

·         Isadora  ||  Dir: Karel Reisz

·         Hell in the Pacific  ||  Dir: John Boorman

·         Bullitt  ||  Dir: Peter Yates

·         The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach  ||  Dir: Jean-Marie Straub & Daniele Huillet

·         Capricious Summer  ||  Dir: Jiri Menzel

·         Fando and Lis  ||  Dir: Alejandro Jodorowsky

·         The Inferno of First Love  ||  Dir: Susumu Hani

·         Hour of the Wolf  ||  Dir: Ingmar Bergman

·         The Immortal Story  ||  Dir: Orson Welles

·         I Love You, I Love You   ||  Dir: Alain Resnais

·         The Reenactment  ||  Dir: Lucian Pintilie

·         The Golden Calf  ||  Dir: Mikhail Schweitzer

·         Prety Poison ||  Dir: Noel Black

·         Rachel, Rachel  ||  Dir: Paul Newman

·         Charly  ||   Dir: Ralph Nelson

·         Hang ‘Em High  ||  Dir: Ted Post


Upgrade [2018] – A Pulpy and Darkly Funny Tale of Vengeance

Writer/director Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade (2018) is a mid-budget sci-fi/thriller that borrows lot of elements from the 80s & 90s cyberpunk flicks, and sprinkles Black Mirror’s ‘beware-of-digital-world’ message on top of it. It has a good atmosphere, inventive gory action scenes, and a fairly captivating every-man protagonist. Of course, there are logical leaps and overplays its hand a bit in providing the grim futuristic vision, but it delivers some riotous fun, comparatively more than the average summer blockbusters. Leigh Whannell is director James Wan’s favorite screenwriter (Saw, Dead Silence, Insidious franchise) and he had made his directorial debut with the 3rd chapter of Insidious. With Upgrade, Whannell has tried to tackle a more ambitious, genre-bending project that gets points for witty script and visceral action.

Logan Marshall-Green of The Invitation (2016) plays Grey Trace, a stubbled, hyper-masculine, old-school mechanic. In this near-future digital world full of self-driving cars, smart houses, and cybernetic organisms, Grey remains a Luddite, watching the technological innovations enveloping his surroundings with innate suspicion. Despite the doubts over alleged utopian human-machine systems, Grey has married a hotshot worker in the cybernetic field named Asha (Melanie Vallejo). In few brief moments, Whannell conveys the mutual love between the couples, regardless of their contradictory stance on digital world. Soon after this character-building, Grey takes Asha for a ride to drop a car at the bizarrely-structured lair of a smug, billionaire technocrat, Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson). On return, a mysterious error in the automated car lands them on the wrong end of the town. The waylaid couple is attacked by a gang of thugs. Asha is brutally shot down and Grey wakes up a quadriplegic, wheel-chair bound for life.

Grey is determined to bring the killers to justice, but the investigation led by a well-meaning detective named Cortez (Betty Gabriel) doesn’t seem to have produced any results so far. While wallowing in the sea of post-traumatic stress, Eron offers help in the form of STEM, a surgically implanted computer system, which may restore the severed connection between Grey’s brain and his body. Eron simply wants Grey to be a guinea pig to test the efficiency of STEM, before making it into a marketable product. The resulting operation allows Grey to walk again. However, Eron asks to keep it a secret and thus Grey confines himself to wheel-chair outside the house. Unlike the 'Robocop', Grey doesn’t seem to have an inherent lust for revenge, up until the STEM begins to talk, a voice that’s  a mix of Alexa & HAL (voiced by Australian actor Simon Maiden). When requested, the implanted AI offers observations and advice. It also single-handedly uncovers a pivotal clue about the murderous gang members’ identity. Most importantly, if Grey hands over control of his body to STEM, it executes cool martial-arts moves to brutally kill his knife-swinging, gun-wielding foes. STEM’s killing spree seems to make Grey’s newfound thirst for revenge easy. Alas, a harsh truth is finally revealed which leaves Grey powerless and aghast.

Upgrade is at its entertaining best while harnessing the right amount of comedy and style out of the action scenes. The increasing estrangement between Grey and his own body bring forth an interesting kind of physical humor. Similar to Craig Zahler’s (Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99) intriguing blend of genres and solid visceral punch, director/writer Wahnnell’s frantic and incredibly fast action sequences will certainly infuse an immediate visceral thrill on viewers. The director’s skillfulness in deploying the comedic action, however, isn’t found in his critique of AI-dominating dystopia, where the man’s free will is expunged by his own hands. Even the climactic twist seems a bit iffy. But again, Upgrade wouldn’t be seen for the profundity of its message. It would be sought out for the unapologetic, adrenaline-rushing, schlocky tone, which is sincerely delivered.

Despite the minimal budget, Whannell cooks up some impressive special effects and vividly realized locations. Most of the other cat-and-mouse games surrounding the crazy action are familiar and falls flat; particularly, the conflict between the detective and Grey is tiresome. Marshall-Green’s precisely executed physical performance assuages some of the stiff writing. The horror, guilt as well as contentment that lights up Marshall-Green’s face after STEM disemboweling the goons is a delight to watch. Overall, Upgrade (100 minutes) is a smartly packaged blend of b-movie violence and retro sci-fi narrative that manages to concoct a heap of gruesome fun. It’s a tale of revenge best served by a wronged man’s inner cyborgian butler.