Musings of a Moving Image Enthusiast
Here’s a pro-tip, if you ever stumble across a great piece of filmmaking, or just love a movie you watched out of nowhere, look into the filmmaker’s repertoire. There’s a good chance you will end up finding more movies you haven’t heard of which are worth watching. If you’re lucky you might end up finding a movie that’s better than the one that make you look into the filmmaker’s work in the first place.
I used this trick after I got done watching Pearl Jam Twenty (read the review here), an ode to the world’s greatest (in my opinion) alternative rock band. Produced by Morgan Neville, the documentary is a look at how a local band from Seattle made its mark as one of America’s greatest bands . This led me to explore some more work done by Neville and that’s when I discovered the Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom. The documentary offers a rarely encountered insight into the lives of the givers of the indispensable, but usually overlooked, harmonies in our favourite songs – the backup singers.
Funny, honest, amusing, brash and brazenly emotional, the movie is a first-hand account of what it means to be a supporting voice to some of the greatest rock acts in musical history. The stories are told by some of the most legendary yet largely unknown backup singers like Lisa Fischer, Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Tata Vega and Judith Hill. Another notable thing about the movie is that Neville successfully convinced the icons, who used these singers to enhance their music, share their insights and sing praises about the contributions these ladies made to their music. It’s quite satisfying to see legends like Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler, Sting and Bruce Springsteen speak about the humble backup singer’s contribution to their music.
Though seemingly random and non-chronologically assembled, the documentary as a whole allows you to relish the stories filled sometimes with triumph and most of the times with heartbreak. It does a fine job of letting you into a world of musicians who started off as choir singers, made their way to the outskirts of fame, tried their best to be at the centre stage, but always found an invisible string holding them back.
The movie also offers a fantastic insight into the evolution of music and the state it’s in today. Fascinatingly it was the artists from the British invasion in the 70’s who let these singers, usually African-American, sing with the passion they wanted to in an attempt to sound “blacker”. Also why the music produced today lacks the richness it once had, because producers prefer to set aside a budget for auto-tuning rather than backup singers.
It’s a documentary full of music, joy, heartbreak and life as you look into the morose eyes of bona fide stars who had the talent but just couldn’t find their rightful space under the spotlight.
When it comes to movies depicting gore, there are mainly two kinds – one that contain visuals for the sake of shocking the audience and the other that attempt to set new boundaries in the portrayal of violence in film. Japanese auteur Takshi Miike’s Ichi the Killer belongs to the second category. Based on Hideo Yamamoto’s manga series of the same name, Ichi the Killer is an ultra-violent saga set in the seedy underworld of Japan. An antithesis to the Japanese art of understatement, the movie is filled with blood-spatter, severed body parts and one mutilation after another.
The movie starts with an underworld boss’ gruesome murder by Ichi (Nao Omori). After a cleanup crew clears all traces of the murder, the gang is led to believe that the boss is on the run with a huge sum of money. Everyone buys this story too, except Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano), who believes that his boss, Anjo, has been kidnapped by a rival gang.
By the time Kakihara realizes that the Yakuza is being manipulated to turn against ne another, he is so impressed with Ichi’s level of sadism that he can’t wait to meet him. Kakihara hopes that Ichi can help him recapture the exquisite pain he experienced when his late master tortured him. Meanwhile, it turns out that it’s an unassuming character that has been pulling the strings all along.
It’s a long ride to the final confrontation, and the period between is filled with extended scenes of torture, murder and mayhem. But that isn’t all. Surprisingly there are several scenes which just might make you laugh out loud. And that’s where the genius of Miike comes across. I discovered this director when I randomly decided to watch a movie called 13 Assassins (the review for which is coming soon). That movie exceeded my expectations like very few movies have. That’s where I decided to explore the legend of Takashi Miike, who time and again pushes the envelope when it comes to deciding what the audience can watch without getting overly disgusted with the visuals.
During the course of the film you just might lose track who is the cat and who is the mouse in this game that’s unfolding before your eyes. That’s where I feel lies Mr Miike’s shortfall as a great craftsman. Though this film made him a cult figure, it falls just short of being a masterpiece.
Well here’s a movie about time travel that does not involve any time travel, well… sort of. That statement might not be quite so confusing if you took the time out to watch the delightful Safety Not Guaranteed, directed by Colin Trevorrow. That’s right, before he took over dinosaurs in Jurassic World and power struggles in a galaxy far far away in Star Wars: Episode IX, Mr Trevorrow made this film which has way more soul than flash.
Very rarely does a film do a great job of blending sci-fi, relationships, fantasy and romance as Safety Not Guaranteed does. Jeff (Jake Johnson) a newspaper reporter comes across an ad in a newspaper asking for a companion to travel through time. After getting an approval from his editor, Jeff gets two interns, Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni), to tag long to Ocean View and track down this seemingly insane person, all in hope of getting a great story. But surprisingly, the man who posted the ad is an extremely normal looking grocery store clerk called Kenneth (Mark Duplass).
After Jeff makes a bad first impression, it’s up to Darius to strike a chord with Kenneth by posing as a volunteer for the time travelling mission. With Jeff not interested in anything more than hooking up with an old sweetheart, Darius takes it upon herself to complete the story. That’s where a huge revelation dawns upon everyone. Kenneth might be a loner, he may be that quirky but vulnerable guy who lives in his parents’ house in the woods, but he is dead serious about his ad and traveling back in time.
The other thing you realize is that this isn’t one of those dialogue heavy indie flicks we are used to. A lot is said in the movie without too many words. The characters have depth and get us to care about them. Also, without giving anything away, this movie has one of the finest endings you may have seen in a long time.
After a recent binge watch of Parks and Recreation, I loved the fact that Aubrey Plaza doesn’t once again play the eye-rolling, sarcasm spewing girl we are used to. There’s a reason for her initial disinterested behavior and you learn to empathize with it. Jake Johnson does a great job of being the narcissistic reporter whom you eventually like. The movie is so good when it comes to character definitions that you end up caring for a typical Indian-American sidekick, Arnau, and cheer for his life-changing experiences.
But the performance you need to watch out for is Mark Duplass’. In the last few years, Duplass has emerged as one of the most engaging actors in movies like The One I Love and People Like Us. The character of Kenneth is something I would think is an extremely tough role to play, but Duplass pulls it off with elan.
Though the movie might start off slow, my suggestion to you is stick with it… the payoff is worth it.
This one goes out to all the disgruntled 90s kids out there. If you were in your teens during alternative music’s golden age, there’s better than a good chance that you adored and dedicated a lot of your music listening time to the music created by Kurt Cobain, the frontman of grunge superstars Nirvana. Also, if you are one of those people whose music taste evolved but stayed true to its roots, then you probably consumed every bit of documentation about his life that came your way; be it in the form of books, documentaries or the tales spun at marijuana laced listening parties.
If you nodded sagely at the comments above, one might think that there isn’t much about Kurt Cobain that is not known. That’s where Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck proves you wrong. The first documentary shot with unconditional support from his family and friends (Frances Bean Cobain is one of the executive producers), the film departs from the usual representation of Cobain as the unofficial spokesman of the disillusioned youth and lets you in on the side of Cobain you never knew – as the son, the friend, the husband and the father.
With the title taken from one of collage tapes Cobain created, Montage of Heck has some excellent footage from his growing up years. Unseen home videos, personal recordings, scribbles from songbooks and other such unseen material tracks Cobain’s journey from a musician who’d call two people watching them perform “a gig”, to the megastar headlining stadium concerts. Interviews with Cobain’s parents, stepmother, siblings, a longtime girlfriend who supported him through his struggling years, bandmates and wife shed a light on the man he was in his personal time and make us see him in an entirely new way.
But what makes the documentary a personal journey is footage from family videos when Cobain was a toddler. You get the chance to watch him grow, play, laugh and be the most adorable child you may have ever seen. You also realize why Cobain was a genius who was, at times, a pain to hang out with by discovering the effect his parents’ divorce had on him, a devastating story from his teenage years and other personal anecdotes narrated by Cobain himself that you were not privy to until now.
In all my years of watching music documentaries, I think this was definitely one of the most intimate I have ever seen. The movie sticks to its subject matter without once giving in to the temptation of becoming a documentary about Nirvana. It sticks to that commitment so hard that the entire film doesn’t have even one hint of Smells like Teen Spirit’s legendary riff. Though an interview with Cobain’s daughter, Frances Bean, and Nirvana’s drummer, Dave Grohl, are sorely missing here, the rest of the cast does a well enough job of portraying a side of Cobain they want the world to see. I’ll leave judging the honesty of their statements out of here because while I was watching the film I was happy believing that Cobain was the anti-celebrity celebrity who had greatness thrust upon him even though all he wanted was to collect enough money to live a peaceful life with his family as a junkie.
United Network Command for Law and Enforcement – that’s what U.N.C.L.E in The Man from U.N.C.L.E stands for. Now that we have got that out of the way, let’s talk about Guy Ritchie’s big screen adaptation of the 1964 TV series of the same name. A breezy spy action comedy about an organization trying to end world peace with a nuke. Though the movie isn’t a complete disappointment, it fails to hold up against the Mission: Impossible’s and the James Bond flicks we are used to watching these days. Even the Guy Ritchie trademarks (which are sorely in short supply here) fail to keep us engaged until the end.
The film is set in the 1960s, when the Cold War was at its coldest. An American secret agent, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and a Russian spy Illya Kuryakin (Arnie Hammer) are forced to team up and track a former Nazi-scientist, with the knowledge to build a nuclear bomb, who has gone missing. Their only lead, the scientist’s estranged daughter Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), has to be freed from East German surveillance before she can join the agents in their mission. The agents and the seemingly innocent Gabby have to bust a plot of world domination by a billionaire fascist Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki).
Let me be honest, the only reason I trekked to the theater to watch this movie is because it’s a frikkin Guy Ritchie movie. Moreover, he has teamed up with Lionel Wingram to write this movie. This is the team that gave us two delightful Sherlock Holmes movies that propelled the legend of Robert Downey Jr to another level. Luckily the movie delivers on the expectations we have from it. With some fine attention to detail and some sort of unpredictable twists, it has all the elements we have come to expect from our favourite British director.
I am yet to meet someone who has seen the TV show. But from what I have read about it, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum were fantastic as Solo and Kuryakin. Their roles here are taken over by Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, who look and shockingly act like a couple of male models who are more concerned with looking good than saving the world. They look so uninvolved with the proceedings that a feisty Alicia Vikander manages to upstage them time and again.
The movie is obviously created as an indulgent fare instead of being aimed at someone who is looking for a serious spy drama.