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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