Amen – Pellissery’s Quirky Musical Comedy

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Lijo Jose Pellissery’s 2013 Malayalam film Amen has all the elements that should make it a tailor made movie for me.  It’s a quirky comedy about a band competition and the lead actor even plays the clarinet, the very instrument I played as a child.  The film reminded me very much of the comedies of Michel Gondry or Wes Anderson.  We have a cast of odd characters in this Kerala village.  Pellissery seems to have a troupe of actors he likes to reuse — like Wes Anderson does in his films.  The film has a magical realism element to it, like the film Amelie.  There’s an inherent sweetness to the story, and a nostalgia for life in this little village with it’s troubled church.

The film opens with a story about a prank delivery of a packet of faeces causing a fued between two families in the village.  This has nothing to do with the main story of the film, but sets the scene of a village where everyone gets in each other’s business.

The opening credit animated song was perhaps my favorite song sequence of the whole movie:

 

The cinematography of the film is stunning, set in the scenic Kuttanadan area of Kerala, where the most common mode of travel is by canoe or ferry boat.  The ferry brings a new priest to this village, Vincent Vattoli (Indrajith) but at first he’s not recognized as a priest because he wears secular clothes and dances with a young French tourist on the ferry boat.  He arrives at the church under the iron grip of the stern head priest Father Abraham (Joy Matthew) and the corrupt sacristan.  Father Abraham is ready to tear down the church and abolish the church’s band.

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Fahahd Faisal (Solomon) plays clarinet only in secret to his love Shoshanna (Swathi Reddy).  He’s the son of the most famous clarinet master player of the area who died in a boat accident.  Solomon can’t overcome his fears to play with the band, and in their yearly competition, until Vincent Vattoli comes to town.

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There are some gorgeous set pieces when Solomon plays his clarinet in the dark to Shoshanna, and on a boat in the moonlight.  But his character is such a nebbish that I had trouble sympathizing with his plight.  Shoshanna’s family locks her away after she almost elopes with Solomon.  Swathi Reddy does a decent job and has some spunk to her, but she doesn’t have a lot to do in the film.

There’s another one of Pellissery’s long tracking shots for a song set during a “toddy” shop fight between the two rival bands, with the cameramam ending the scene floating away in  a boat.

This film should be my catnip, as I love Wes Anderson films, but this Amen film just did not resonate with me.  The romance between Solomon and Shoshanna is sweet, but I really didn’t like Fahahd’s nebbishy wishy washy character.  I did like Indrajith’s priest character, and he even gets his own song as the French tourist fantasizes about him!

The music was interesting because it’s entirely Western musical instruments.  In fact, with songs like When The Saints Go Marching In, it had a sort of New Orleans Jazz sound to the band combos.

 

This is my third of Lijo Jose Pellissery’s films, and so far my least favorite.  I love, love, love Angamaly Diaries, and I really enjoyed City of God.  Evidently, before Angamaly Diaries, I think Amen is the director’s most crowd pleasing film.  It must evoke strong emotions for the Kerala audience that just didn’t translate to me.  I admire the technical brilliance of the film making, and Margaret of Don’t Call It Bollywood does a great job expanding on that aspect.  But, Amen for me is a film I admire, but doesn’t make me love it.

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Kaatru Veliyidai – Mani Ratnam’s latest romantic film with complex characters

Screen-Shot-2017-03-15-at-4.04.28-PMA new Mani Ratnam film is an Event with a capital “E”.  He is one of the top Indian film directors and an auteur.  He makes the films he wants to make, and doesn’t just try to chase commercial success.  I’m lucky in that there is a theater five minutes from my house that shows Tamil and Telugu films.  I was able to catch a matinee of Ratnam’s latest film, Kaatru Veliyidai today – the title translates to something like “Breezy Expanse.”  I haven’t seen tons of Tamil films, but the ones I’ve sought out are mostly Mani Ratnam films, Roja to OK Kanmani.  He is the master.

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Kaatru Veliyidai is a romantic drama set around the Kargil War.  Karthi plays Varun or “VC”, a cocky fighter pilot, and Aditi Rao Hydari is Dr. Leela Abraham.  I have never seen Karthi in a film before, but I could tell he is a STAR and quite a good actor.

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I looked him up when I got home, and he’s the younger brother of Tamil Superstar Surya, who I really enjoyed in 24.

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Aditi I did not realize I’d seen before in a small role in the Hindi film Khoobsurat.  She is just luminously beautiful in this film, especially the way Ratnam films her.  She’s quite a good actress as well.

The film opens with VC flying his jet in a mission somewhere in Kashmir.  His plane is hit and he is forced to parachute, leading to his capture by the Pakistanis.  The film is a series of flashbacks from his time in prison to how he meets Leela and falls in love.  He gets in a car accident, and she tends to his injuries on her first day as a doctor in the general hospital in Kashmir.  There are some amazing feats of cinematography in these hospital sequences as VC goes in and out of consciousness and we see Dr. Leela reflected in his dilated eye.  He sneaks out of the hospital once he awakes, and Leela doesn’t meet him again until the Air Force ball, which is gorgeous tango dance sequence.  VC is so cocky in his attitude — his whole demeanor made me think of the film Top Gun.  He’s shocked when Leela stands him up to his invitation for a flight over the Himalayas.

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At first their relationship seems to follow a familiar path, but VC’s cockiness is also an arrogance and self absorption.  The relationship has some dark tones to it.  VC can be cruel and thoughtless.  Leela wonders why she keeps going back to VC again and again.  One scene struck me particularly when he gets her back and proclaims to his buddies in front of her, “I told you I’d bring her back.  She’s MY girl!  You owe me a whisky!”  Was it all for a bet?  Or can he really not live without her?  They have such a volatile passionate relationship, it’s really an open question if they should be together.  It reminded me in some ways of Rani and Abishek in Yuva.

Just at the moment that I was worried that Leela was turning into a dishrag at a critical juncture, she takes her life in her own hands.  And while there is one of those key “confrontation with the girl’s parents” scenes, it’s key that while they are NOT pleased with Mr. Varun Chakrapani, they don’t scream and yell.  It’s Leela who asks him to leave.  She is an adult, and she makes her own decision as to the direction of her life.  Mani Ratnam writes such great roles for women.  Both of these characters in this romance are wonderfully complex, but especially Kartihi’s VC character.

As we flash back to the prison scenes, his goal is to escape and to get back to Leela to prove he is a better man.  That leads to some gripping action scenes in the second half of the film.

I don’t think this is Mani Ratnam’s greatest film, but he truly excels at complex relationship films.  I left thinking about Roja, and Dil Se.  This is not a film about terrorism, but it does return to the theme of Kashmir.

The score is by A. R. Rahman and has some stand out songs — Rahman saves his best for Tamil cinema, and his very best for Mani Ratnam.  Ratnam has a really clever way to include the most commercial song, Azhagiye.

 

VC sends Leela a videotape (VHS! It’s 1999!) with a Marry Me song filmed with his air force buddies.  It’s sounds like the a cappella groups like Penn Masala.   It reminded me of all those amateur Youtube videos of  soldiers or sailors lip syncing and dancing.  Brilliant!

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There’s a family wedding setting for another great song, Saarattu Vandiyila.  That shot with the red powder!  Breathtakingly beautiful!

The ending left me satisfied, but yet wishing there’d been a little more.  I do like to see my rogue heroes grovel quite a bit to earn their HEA.  I’ll definitely be seeking out more films with both of the stars, especially Karthi.  Dear Reader, if you have any to recommend I watch first, let me know in the comments.

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City of God – Lijo Jose Pellissery’s moving hyperlink New Generation Malayalam film may have been ahead of its time

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After seeing the fantastic Malayalam film Angamaly Diaries last week, I couldn’t wait to seek out director Lijo Jose Pellissery’s other films.  City of God was the one recommended to seek out first, and glory be, it’s on Google Play for rental and purchase.  At $4.99 to buy, I snatched it right up.

City of God is part of the New Generation of Malayalam films with a hyperlink non-linear narrative of four interlocking stories.  It came out within months of Traffic, the first of the new wave Malayalam cinema, but City of God was pulled within a week of release.  It may have been a bit ahead of its time.  It felt much grittier and more violent than Traffic, and isn’t really suited to a broad family audience.  I felt Traffic relied a bit too much on the audience’s familiarity of all the actors in that multi-starrer, and I didn’t really get to know any character that well.  I liked City of God much more.

A signature of Malayalam New Wave films is an accident, and coincidences that bring people together and set off the events of the film.  City of God starts with a horrific car crash.  Prithviraj is driving a car that crashes into a street light pole, after hitting a motorscooter with a young couple.  There’s also a van full of toughs that pile out to confront Prithviraj after the crash, and then we flash back.  We see the events of the film from several perspectives, replaying various key scenes from the point of view of different characters.  This is a movie where you have to pay attention a bit to catch on to what is going on.

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Prithviraj is sort of a capo or enforcer for his rich friend Sony (Rajeev Pillai).  He gets lots of very cool fight scenes, mostly just kicking and punching his way out of various jams, but in the photo above wielding a firehose like a urumi sword!  Prithviraj looked pretty bulked up, and this film was around the time of the filming of Aiyyaa.  Hubba hubba.  It was super fun to see Prithviraj be a sort of gangster tough guy, smacking people down first, and asking questions later.

Sony is obssessed with a young actress, Surya (Rima Kallingal).  He had a romance with her in the past, but his parents made him abandon her, and he’s trying to get her back, even though she’s married to an abusive husband.  Surya is a big actress, and one of the big musical numbers is cleverly one she’s doing for a film within the film.  The director was very clever about the songs.  There  was this one during a film shoot, one big one at a wedding, and then a couple more playing on a radio and so on.

There’s a complicated land deal going on between some corrupt business types, Sony, and some mafia.  Prithviraj is sent out to “deal” with one guy, and his wife then vows revenge.

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My favorite story line involved the migrant Tamil laborers who were working on the building project for Sony.  My reader Mohzin let me know that half this film is in Tamil, including half the songs!  He said that the Malayalam audience didn’t need subtitles for the Tamil speaking parts.  The love story of Swarnavel (Indrajith) and Marathakam (Pavarthy) is just so wonderful.  It’s the heart of the whole film.  Marathakam has fled Tamil Nadu and her abusive husband.  Swarnavel obviously loves her, but holds back as she is already married.  Marathakam’s friend Lakshmi (Rohini from Baahubali!) urges her to marry again, but Rohini has other ideas than poor Swarnavel.  She tells both the other thinks of them as either brother or sister, and so Marathakam, heart broken, agrees to marry a supposedly wealthy man.  Then comes my all time favorite scene of the whole film.  The  cops come and arrest her husband, and then she finds the drunk Swarnavel to chastise him for letting her marry this thief.  Then the sparks just FLY once they realize they don’t view each other as siblings AT ALL!  When he breaks off her mangalsutra — so hot!  Another favorite thing is that she won’t kiss him as he’s drunk, and sobers him up with a bucket full of water over his head!

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This is the couple from the opening scene accident who were on the motor scooter.  Why they were so frantically racing on that bike gradually is revealed.

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Prithviraj doesn’t get a full on romance in the film, but he does rescue a damsel in distress and gives her very swoony longing looks through the rearview mirror.  Mostly, in this film, he just gets to kick ass in very cool fights, and he seems much more savvy and smart than anyone around him.  But then Prithviraj usually does seem like the smartest one in the room.

The tone of the film can change dramatically from scene to scene,as we’re going from one character’s point of view to the next.  There are several side characters who have comedic moments — quite a few sort of comedy uncle characters.  The main actors were all pretty good, but the guy playing Sony didn’t make much of an impression on me.  Prithviraj, Pavarthy and Indrajith were the standouts. Indrajith stole the whole movie, in my opinion.  I don’t really remember him from Classmates, but he’s in Amen, which I’m going to try to watch next.  Pavarthy looks so completely different from any other character I’ve seen her play, that I honestly did not recognize her until I saw her name in the end credits.  Once I went back and rewatched that HOT love scene song, I could tell it was her, maybe with darker makeup?  Quite the different look than in Bangalore Days or Charlie!

The cinematography was quite interesting.  Some cool different angles to many shots, and great editing.  The fights didn’t feel quite as intimate as the recent Angamaly Diaries.  There was a steadicam being shook up, I guess to  imitate the Bourne films, but it just made me dizzy.  It worked in Angamaly Diaries, and didn’t work for me here in the same way.

As I said earlier, I didn’t really enjoy the hyperlink in Traffic, as there were too many shallow stories that weren’t developed.  Here, there were four key stories that interconnected, and the characters were more fleshed out.  This film can be gritty and violent like Kammatti Paadam or Angamaly Diaries.  Maybe the audience 6 years ago wasn’t quite ready for an innovative film like this.  Angamaly Diaries is still the better film, but it was really fascinating to see this director developing his signature style.

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My First Podcast! Margaret of Don’t Call It Bollywood and I discuss Angamaly Diaries!

Margaret of Don’t Call It Bollywood has started a podcast, and she invited me to discuss Angamaly Diaries, which we saw together.  We’ve both written reviews of the film – here’s mine, and she discusses it here and here.  But we can’t stop talking about it!  I hope Margaret and I can make this a regular thing.  Enjoy!

Angamaly Diaries – A Fresh Malayalam Crime Film that Knocked My Socks Off

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I saw a Malayalam film tonight that absolutely blew me away.  Margaret of Don’t Call It Bollywood emailed me that she’d heard great things about Angamaly Diaries — did I want to join her tonight?  So, I went in knowing pretty much nothing about it, other than that @Mozhin123 raved about it to me on twitter, too.  Every single face in the film is new except one cameo by the debut screenwriter, actor Chemban Vinod Jose (Charlie, Kali, and Oppam).  I had director Lijo Jose Pellissery‘s film City of God recommended to me, but this is my first film of his.  Oh. My. God.  Pellissery is the rock star of this film!  The direction and editing knocked my socks off!

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Chemban Vinod Jose and director Lijo Jose Pellissery

From the very first moments of the opening credit sequence I could tell this was going to be a very different kind of Malayalam film.  There were lots of street shots, and close ups of real people, intercut with food, glorious street food, being made.  The food in this film is a whole character in itself!  From the first, I got a strong sense of this place, Angalamy, that pretty much the entire movie takes place in.  I looked it up when I wiki’d the movie when I got home tonight, and it’s a town of about 33,000 people.  The name means batttleground, an ancient battleground, which is so fitting for the script!

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The quick editing is a hallmark of the film, as well as steadycam shots that took me right inside each and every scene.  To get a sense, here’s a behind the scenes making of video, showing how the camera men ran along with the actors in chase scenes and got right into each fight.  I felt like I was right there in the middle amongst the characters in the action.

 

Another key aspect of what made this film so great was the soundtrack and the Foley sounds!  They added such tension and rhythm, with screeching metallic sounds in key action sequences that evoked pigs squealing — and pigs are key to the drama.  I have often complained that the soundtracks of Malayalam films just aren’t scary enough when they need to be – Ezra, I’m looking at you!  This soundtrack is a standout.

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As I was driving home, I reflected that the story of Pepe (newcomer Antony Varghese) is not that original in the crime drama Angamaly Diaries.  We have the familiar flashback to childhood, and the formation of the key male friendships that form the “team” or gang.  We have the innocent teen romance, and more serious relationships as he’s older. We have a rivalry with other toughs in town.  But it all still felt fresh because of the way it was filmed, and the fast paced editing.  This is not the sleepy paced drama that I’m used to in Malayalam film.  The bones of the crime and gang story and the set up feels familiar, but how it’s presented is new and original.  It just felt so gritty, so real and visceral!

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Tito Wilson and Sarath Kumar

 

There is a dramatic turn in Pepe’s life that happens just before the interval.  I was holding my hands over my mouth, stunned.  I needed that few minutes of the intermission to process it.  After the interval, the plot turned in some surprising ways. Sarath Kumar as Ravi and Tito Wilson as Rajan are Pepe’s rivals throughout the film.  They kill Pepe’s mentor Babuji in the first half, and then have a competing pork business to Pepe’s gang.  Things come to a head and fisticuffs, and then turn deadly.  If this was a Telugu movie, these seeming arch villains and rivals would be killed off by the end of the film by our hero, but that’s not what happens here.  Things are more complex, and I loved that, and how it surprised me.

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Pepe has two main romances in the film, one with Sakhi played by Binny Rinky Benjamin, but my favorite was Lichi, above, played by newcomer Reshma Rajan, the older sister of one of Pepe’s pals.  I just adored how she literally pounced on Pepe to let him know she was interested!  I also loved how Pepe’s main friend in the gang, ‘Pork’ Varkey (Kichu Tellus) has troubles because he’s dating a police woman!  Their wedding is one of the highlights of the film.

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The climax of the film is an incredible 11 minute tracking shot with no editing cuts.  We are immersed in a festival in the town and the procession, and follow the characters in and out of houses and encounters, and finally in a big fight and chase sequence.  That sequence is stunning filmmaking.  I was gobsmacked by it.

I was fascinated by just about everything in this film. The food.  The depiction of Christianity in the town, as most characters are Christian, and the festivals.  Even the pork business the gang was in was fascinating, with the open butcher stalls and all.  This film reminded me in some ways of the gritty Kammatti Paadam, but that film and its Dalit characters are all viewed through the perspective of the middle class Dulquer Salmaan.  This film was all about working class people and their lives in a way that I don’t really think I’ve seen in Malayalam films.  Most of the films I’ve seen, the recent ones at least, have been about middle class people.

I was really impressed that all these newcomers to film acted so well, even the child actors.  Antony Varghese is quite the looker, and I thought he did a great job.  Reshma Rajan as Lichi had sass and spunk, and I’d love to see her in another bigger role.  Going in, I kind of dreaded that I wouldn’t know a single actor in the film, but it served the story better that all the faces were fresh.  It made the drama more real feeling and visceral.  I am so excited that director Lijo Jose Pelissery has some older films for me to watch.  I will be seeking them out pronto.  Pelissery is such a talent.  He is one of the greats already.  This film is groundbreaking, and is garnering praise from everyone.  Anurag Kushyap tweeted that this is this is his film of the year so far.

I need to see this film again.  I’ll likely buy the DVD, because I have to see that ending tracking shot again, at the very least.  It was amazing.  I am so glad Margaret invited me to see this film!  Here’s her rave review.

Update:  Margaret and I did a podcast about this wonderful film.  Check it out!

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I Loved Taika Waititi’s Brilliant Vampire Mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows

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I have a huge comedy crush on director Taika Waititi at this point.  I am deliriously happy that he is directing Thor Ragnarok.

 

I adored his Sundance film Hunt for the Wilderpeople, one of my top 10 films of the year.  Hunt for the Wilderpeople is now on Amazon for rental or free with Amazon Prime.

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I realized this weekend that his earlier film What We Do In The Shadows is also on Amazon Prime.  I started laughing in the opening credits with the cheesy skipping scratchy New Zealand documentary board logo for this mockumentary.

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Taika co-wrote What We Do In The Shadows with co-star Jemaine Clement (known for The Flying Conchords on HBO and voice work in the recent Moana).  Taika made a short film first (available on Youtube here), and then premiered the feature film at Sundance in 2014.

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Taika stars as the fussy 379 year old vampire Viago.  Clement is the 862 year old Vladislav, and they share their Wellington, New Zealand flat with two other vampires, the relatively young vampire Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), aged 183 and the ancient vampire Petyr.

 

Just watch the first 6 minutes of the film. Taika wakes up his flatmates for a flat meeting about all the bloody dirty dishes that Deacon has left in the sink.  It is a riot from the get go.

Sort of like the Mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, this film is not so much about plot, but about the delicious ridiculousness of the characters and their situation.  Deacon’s human familiar brings over two young people (“I thought they were virgins!  Just look at them!”)    Things go South, and young Nick is turned into a vampire by the ancient Petyr.

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There’s another dustup in the house, and the police arrive at the door.  These two cops are hypnotized to not see anything out of the ordinary, and their deadpan, “Uh oh.  Do you see that? …… No smoke alarm!”  The cops are so amusing that Taika Waititi is creating a TV show based on their characters.

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Nick’s human friend Stu moves into the flat and teaches the vampires about modern technology, and they love taking selfies since they’ve spent centuries not being able to see their reflection.  My favorite scene may have been their encounter with a werewolf pack.  Things get a little heated and one werewolf swears, which earns the classic rebuke “We’re werewolves, not swearwolves!”

The sequel to What We Do In The Shadows is already in the works, and it has a puntsatic title:  “We’re Wolves”  LOL  The film culminates in a big masquerade ball filled with vampires, zombies, etc. where Vlad (Jemaine) has a loaded encounter with his ex.

I’ve already rewatched half the film because I had to share it with my husband.  I’m not sure he found it quite as funny as I did, but it’s one of those comedies where you start laughing when you know what bit is coming.  Great rewatchability.  I adored nearly every absurd moment.  The film lagged a bit in the middle, but it’s still a comedy gem.  Cannot recommend it highly enough.  I’m still chuckling thinking about fussy Viago (Taika) laying down towels and newspapers before he goes in for his victim’s neck.  And then making a huge mess and standing in despair with a roll of paper towels.  Who thought vampires could be so sweet and funny?

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I’m SO looking forward to Thor Ragnarok.  Taika’s given us a taste:

 

Also, Taika Waititi is hilarious to follow on Twitter.

Fukri – A Mediocre Malayalam Family Farce

fukriFukri is an amusing timepass family comedy directed by veteran Siddique who also acts as the Fukri family patriarch in the film.  Jayasurya stars as Lucky.  Lucky is a wannabe engineer who with his band of friends tries different get rich quick schemes.  They accept a job for two young women caught skipping school for a Salman Khan film.  They girls want Lucky to pretend to be their cousin to meet the school principal.  Of course Lucky falls for the beautiful Nafsi (in the red scarf below) played by Prayaga Martin.

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The girls say he is the son of their long lost uncle who left after a violent argument with their grandfather over his interfaith marriage.  The girls saying that Lucky is their cousin sets everything in motion.  Both his Brahmin “grandmother” and his Muslim grandfather (Fukri) then want to meet Lucky and welcome him back into the family fold.  To complicate matters, the real child (Anu Sithara) of that long lost son reveals herself to Lucky.

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At first Lucky and his friends are enjoying staying in the wealthy homes of his “family”, but Lucky’s good nature lends him to try to mend the rift between the two families.  I’m sure you’ve suspected that the long lost son makes a dramatic appearance, and it’s Lal, so it’s quite the entrance.

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Family farce comedies like this are a staple in Indian film.  Mistaken identities, family feuds, arranged marriages to the wrong partner, all with happy ending wrapped in a bow.

I’ve only seen Jayasurya as a supporting player in films like Mumbai Police and Classmates, and he has impressed me in those roles.  He is charming here as the mischievous scamp with a heart of gold.  I don’t know if he quite though has the magnetic star power to carry a film like this however.  Lal has a powerful impact as the estranged son of patriarch Fukri (Siddique).  None of the actresses in the film blew me away.  They were fine, but not exceptional.

I’m not sure I’ve seen another of Siddique’s Malayalam  directed films, but I did enjoy the light Hindi film Bodyguard (remake of his Malayalam hit) starring Kareena Kapoor and Salman Khan.

I wouldn’t tell you to run out and catch Fukri in the theaters.  It’s a decent timepass to watch on a streaming service.  It had some amusing moments, but wasn’t consistently laugh out loud.

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No Guts No Glory – Oscar Predictions

The Oscars are my Superbowl and I throw a big party every year.  I follow the race for the entire year, reading especially Awards Daily to keep informed how the race is shaping up.  At my party, people fill out ballots and I run a contest (excluding me because that wouldn’t be fair.)  The one with the most right gets 2 DVD’s of movies nominated.  This year I’m giving Hell or High Water and Manchester By The Sea, as many movies are still in theaters.  The biggest loser also gets a prize – a giftcard to our local cinema with my admonishment – “Go see a movie already!”  I’m pretty proud that my son won his college Oscar party pool four years running with my giving him the skinny.  So here’s your rundown so you can win, if you have a party tonight.  For details down to the technical awards, again, check out Awards Daily because they track all the previous awards and the guilds leading up to the big night.

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Best Picture is easy.  It’s La La Land all the way.  There are nine nominees this year, and really 2016’s crop of movies was an embarrassment of riches.  It was simply a great movie year.  La La Land garnered a record matching 14 nominations, the same as All About Eve and Titanic.  It’s not a question of will it win, but rather how many Oscars it will win.  Being a musical, it’s got those categories sown up.  If you want to know why there are only nine nominees rather than the allowed ten, it’s the complicated preferential ballot system that the Academy uses.  It’s Byzantine in it’s complexity, and if they stick with it, it’s unlikely there will ever be a full 10, only 8 or nine as we’ve had since they instituted the new rules.

Best Director is also Damien Chazelle for La La Land.  He won the Director’s Guild and just about every other award possible through the awards season.  He’s a proven commodity because everyone also loved his first film Whiplash.

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Best Actress is Emma Stone for La La Land.  She won the SAG and many other awards along her way to tonight’s big win.  She is the heart and soul of La La Land.  It’s her story.  This category I had issues as to who won the five nomination spots.  I love Meryl Streep, and I admit I haven’t seen Florence Foster Jenkins, but really?  A record 20th nomination for her rather than a spot for Amy Adams for Arrival?  Or Annette Bening for 20th Century Women?  I am pleased that Ruth Negga got a nomination for the wonderful Loving.  The problem is there are only 5 spots.  Viola Davis got a Tony as lead actress for the play Fences, but they put her in the supporting category for the Oscars.  I love Emma Stone, and I’ll be pleased to see her come home with an Oscar tonight.

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As I mentioned, Viola Davis is a LOCK for Supporting Actress for Fences.  You can take that one to the bank.  As The Daily Beast put it, Just Give Viola Davis the Damn Oscar Already.  Can you believe she doesn’t have one yet?  When she starts with that snot crying, it’s over.

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Supporting Actor is likely the wonderful Mahershala Ali in Moonlight.  Oh man, I loved his performance as the tender father figure drug dealer Juan.  That swimming lesson scene!

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He probably sealed the deal with his moving speech at the SAG Awards – “I am a Muslim.”  He was also in the Best Picture nominated Hidden Figures and now I realize just how many wonderful supporting roles he’s done, like in House of Cards.

 

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Best Actor is the nail biter of the night.  Casey Affleck gave a career best performance as a man shattered by grief in Manchester By The Sea, but he’s been dogged by the scandal of the settlement he made in a sexual harassment case on another film.  Denzel Washington was a powerhouse in Fences, but he already has two Oscars.  They’ve split the awards this season.  Casey got the Golden Globe, but Denzel surprised with the SAG Award.  This one could easily go either way.  I’m betting on Casey Affleck.  Scandal didn’t shut out Roman Polanksi with Academy voters, so I’m betting he still gets it.

Adapted Screenplay I think is also where Moonlight gets some love.  Director Barry Jenkins took Tarell McCraney’s very personal play, and added experiences from his own childhood to the movie script.  I just listened this weekend to an incredible interview with both of them on Fresh Air, and I highly recommend you listen.  They grew up blocks from each other, and went to the same elementary school, but did not know each other as children.  They both had mothers who were addicted to crack cocaine.

Original Screenplay is Kenneth Lonnergan for Manchester By The Sea.  I think this is where the Academy voters reward the other films, rather than giving everything to La La Land.

Editing:  La La Land

Documentary Feature: O.J.: Made in America  – Can an 8 hour mini-series be considered a film?  I guess so, because it’s won everywhere else.  I’ve watched about half of it and it is like reliving that time all over again for me.

Cinematography: La La Land

Animated Feature: Zootopia.  Kubo with Two Strings could upset, but I think the diversity message of Zootopia will particularly resonate with Academy voters.

Costume Design: Jackie.  The costumes were just stunning, but Fantastic Beasts may pull ahead here, as fantasy films usually have an edge in this category.

Makeup and Hair: Star Trek

Visual Effects: The Jungle Book

Production Design: Arrival  I loved the look of this movie, and I hope it gets at least one Oscar here in this category.

Musical Score – La La Land  Duh.

Best Song – I’m wavering on this one.  La La Land has two nominations, and City of Stars probably will win, but maybe the Hamilton love sweeps Lin an Oscar for How Far I’ll Go in Moana, which I watched last night.  I give it to City Of Stars, and I’m glad Lin is set to perform his song tonight at the ceremony!

Animated Short: Piper  You can buy all the nominated shorts for $5.99 to watch on Google Play which I did on Friday night.  Piper is the best, and it’s Pixar, but I really liked the fascinating Pear Cider and Cigarettes.

Foreign Language Feature: The Salesman  Whether it’s actually  the best of the lot, I have no idea as I’ve not had a chance to see any of them, but with the director being blocked from attending through the EO Muslim Ban, I think voters will send a political message by giving this one the win.

The other categories, I’m just guessing.  Sound Mixing and Editing I never know what they are exactly, to be honest.  Maybe Sound Editing to La La Land, and Mixing to Hackshaw Ridge as war movies tend to win with their complex soundscapes.

Check out this Awards Daily post for a full rundown of the odds for each category.

I can’t wait to see this little guy from Lion on the Red Carpet in a few hours!  He’s been the star of the moment with his thumbs up pose.

 

Ezra – A Malayalam Horror movie about a Jewish dybbuk that I found hilarious

ezraA new Prithviraj movie is worth a 40 minute drive, and his latest is Ezra which finally came to a few US theaters this weekend (it released in Kerala on Feb. 10).  Margaret of Don’t Call It Bollywood and I met to see a matinee, and the movie was playing at a theater that doesn’t usually play Malayalam movies, so there was a sparse crowd.

I didn’t see the 2012 horror film The Possession, but remembered the trailer with the family finding an antique box that turns out to house a dybbuk, an almost demon like spirit that possesses the body of a living person (from Jewish folk lore).  The Yiddish word that dybbuk is derived from is “cling”.  There was even a handy featurette for the The Possession movie explaining dybbuks:

 

The Malayalam film Ezra, directed by Jay K, is not a direct copy of The Possession but it is obviously inspired by it.  The Possession film, in turn, is inspired by The Exorcist, as the possessed person is a young girl.

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In Ezra, the possessed person is Prithviraj’s young wife, played by Priya Anand, who buys the dybbuk box while shopping for their new house in Kerala.  The couple have moved to Kerala from Mumbai for Prithviraj’s job with a nuclear facility.  Priya has a strained relationship with her parents because she married a Christian.  The box has ended up in the antique shop, because the last Jewish person has died in Cochin.  One of the most ancient Jewish diaspora communities in the world used to be in Kerala, but as this article says, the numbers are down to the double digits.  That last Jew dying releases the curse put on the dybbuk in the box.

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I don’t generally seek out horror films.  They’re not my thing, but it’s Prithviraj.  Horror movies don’t need to have a big budget to be scary.  This one relies on the usual dark haunted house kind of jumps and scares.  It’s just not tight enough of a movie.  There’s a lot of excess time spent establishing that Prithviraj and Priya are a loving couple (song montage!), and then a lengthy back story on how the dybbuk got in the box.  Jay K has used a lovers prevented from marriage story which is similar to the one in The Dybbuk Russian/Yiddish play from early in the 20th century, but he makes it interfaith, to mirror our modern couple.

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Yes, that’s a real hamsa Jewish amulet still used to ward off the evil eye.

I have several issues with Ezra.  I did jump a few times, but it wasn’t scary enough for me, and the narrative should have been tightened up.  Horror films shouldn’t be two and a half hours long.

But the biggest thing is that the movie made me laugh, which I don’t think was the intention.  I didn’t grow up Jewish, but my husband is, and I’m on the board of our synagogue.  The way the rabbis and the Jewish people in this movie dressed made me giggle hysterically.

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For someone who only knows Jews from Seinfeld and Woody Allen movies, I guess dressing up rabbis in Catholic bishop vestments seemed perfectly logical.  How else are Mayalalis to know that the rabbis characters are clergy if they don’t have white priest collars?   And the tallit (the prayer shawls) are worn in the movie like sari scarves wrapped this way and that.

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For the record, rabbis in the US generally just wear suits and the small yarmulke skullcap, but Hassidic rabbis, who practice Kabbalah (mystic Jewish faith) would look like the below, and I actually found a Chabbad rabbi in Kerala.  Jay K, Google is a wonderful tool.

The exorcism scene made me laugh the hardest, because they had to drag in 10 random Jewish tourists to complete the ritual (yes, many Jewish prayers need a minyan of 10 Jewish men, so that’s real).  It was the random tourist thing with their weirdly draped prayer tallit that made me guffaw.  That, and the HUGE shofar horn the rabbi had to blow.

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Prithviraj, I love you, but your red eyes were much scarier in Stop Violence.

I have another bone to pick.  The flashback for the dybbuk’s story goes back to 1941, and Ezra’s father actually says that the Jews want to take over the world.  Argh.  Let’s think a moment just what was happening to the Jews in 1941.  Again, smh.  That deserves a double Seth.

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There were some Jewish touches they got right, like an older rabbi gives a priestly blessing over some kids, a hand gesture familiar to Star Trek fans, because Leonard Nimoy used the Cohen hand position for Spock:

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I could see how The Possession would have been creepier just because a child was the one possessed.  I wouldn’t urge you to race out to the theater to catch Ezra.  It’s not Prithviraj’s best, and it’s not the greatest horror film.  It’s an okay timepass once it comes on streaming services.

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Running Shaadi -Fantastic Rom Com with some fresh faces

http-%2f%2fo-aolcdn-com%2fhss%2fstorage%2fmidas%2fbafcd286fb08688cd59882f7f9020aba%2f204779235%2fscreenshot2017-01-06at6-19-49pmMargaret of Don’t Call It Bollywood let me know that I HAD to go see Running Shaadi which I don’t remember hearing anything about before.  I went in barely glancing at the poster, and not even seeing a trailer.  I haven’t yet seen Pink, so this was my first Hindi film with Taapsee Pannu.  (Just looking her up, I forgot she was in the wonderful Telugu film Mr. Perfect with Prabhas, as that movie is all Kajal to me.)  But you can’t imagine my delight that the lead male actor in Running Shaadi is Amit Sadh.

When I saw Sultan last summer, I was really taken with Amit Sadh, who plays the MMA promoter who convinces Salman to come out of retirement.  I remember thinking to myself, Who is that?  I want to see a movie with him as the lead!  Wish granted!  Evidently, he was also in Sonakshi’s Akira, which I will be seeking out directly, and I had forgotten he was in Kai Po Che.

Running Shaadi reminded me in some ways of Vicky Donor, in that it’s an under the radar movie that deals with some serious topics in an amusing and ultimately very sweet way.

running-shaadi-com3_I was completely blown away by what happens in the very first 5 minutes or so of the movie.  I have never seen a rom com start this way, but I won’t spoil it for you.  Just know that the film begins with Amit working for Taapsee’s father in the family sari shop.  Taapsee is in pigtails and her high school uniform and goes to Amit with an impossible situation.  He is the only one she trusts to get her out of this jam.

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Taapsee gives Amit a sweet kiss on the cheek afterwards, and you can just see how dumbstruck he is.  They start dating at that point, but once she goes to college, he feels a gulf coming between them as she gains new sophisticated friends.  He constantly thinks that he is not worthy of her, as he is an orphan that her father took a chance on and gave a job long ago.  It’s a familiar filmi trope, poor orphan boy in love with the rich girl, but I love where this movie takes it.

They break up and he impulsively calls his uncle and finally agrees to the arranged marriage his uncle has wanted with a young Bihari girl.  He quits his job and has an idea to start a business helping couples run away and marry the person they want, when their families are against it.  He and his pal, played by debut actor Arsh Bajwa, start RunningShaadi.com (the .com was censored out constantly!) and they have to ask Taapsee for help as she has a credit card to secure the domain name.

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They help out all sorts of couples, inter-religious, intercaste and even a same-sex couple.  There is a wonderful undercurrent social message to this whole film, that of course love marriage is best, and the young people should be able to marry whoever they want.  The schemes to help the couples get quite elaborate and amusing, but their “disguises” are pretty ridiculous.

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Taapsee comes to Amit asking for his help for her own running shaadi.  Amit asks who, and rejects that she’s joking when she immediately answers with you.  Then she tells him she wants to marry her college classmate Shunty, and he demands that they meet.  He goes through with the plan, and while they drive all night to the rendezvous point, Amit can’t help but look longingly at the sleeping Taapsee.  She then reveals that it was all an elaborate ruse to force him to marry her.  Zing!  I loved this twist that she just takes her fate in her own hands, and forces the issue.

Her family chases after them, and the three of them are on the run.  Taapsee gets injured and Amit is driven almost mad that he might lose her.  He is so caring with her while she heals that I was ready to swoon.  She goes out to buy condoms, and my jaw was about on the floor that that scene was in the movie.  Fist bump up in the air for that touch!

But oh noes!  Her family finds them again, and they must escape to Amit’s uncle’s, and that leads to dealing with the fact that Amit is still set to have his arranged marriage.

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They figure out quickly that his intended bride doesn’t want to marry him either, and there’s an elaborate plot to give Amit his own Running Shaadi.  When Amit and Taapsee  finally are able to show each other how they feel, it was perfectly sweet, sexy and meaningful.

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I absolutely adored this Rom Com.  It was one of the best Hindi romantic comedies I have seen in years.  I loved that it tackled some meaningful issues, and has a strong female lead who goes after who and what she wants.  Taapsee wasn’t the best actress ever, but Amit Sadh was just wonderful in this.  I cannot wait to see more films from him.  This is a debut directorial film for former cinematographer Amit Roy.  He also wrote the script which I thought was simply fantastic.  Running Shaadi may exit quickly from theaters, but if you don’t catch it there, it’s definitely one to seek out on Netflix or ErosNow.  Hindi movies with fresh actors can struggle to make a splash, but I will guess this film will gather fans over time.  There was just almost no marketing for it, and the songs weren’t anything special to give it that pre-release push either.  The film was only two hours and has just a couple of montage songs, and that was the only thing I had wished for — that it had more and better music numbers.  I will definitely be buying this film on DVD to watch again and again.

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