The Holiday watchlist, Part 5: True stories


And so, we come to last of my holiday movies. These three films are based on true stories and are entertaining as well as informative. The saying that “truth is stranger than fiction” certainly applies to all three events depicted in these movies!

Battle of the Sexes: From the directors of the delightful 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine, comes this depiction of the events leading up to the historic 1973 exhibition match between women’s world #1 Billie Jean King and retired Grand Slam champion Bobby Riggs (who was 55 years old at the time). This match took place against the backdrop of efforts by Ms. King and other top women’s players to secure equal prize money from the tennis establishment of the time. In fact, the top ladies had only recently broken away from the Lawn Tennis Association and set up the WTA (which runs women’s tennis to this day) and had secured their first sponsor, Virginia Slims cigarettes. Just as the new women’s tour was taking root, ex-champ and serial gambler Bobby Riggs threw a spanner in the works by claiming that even at his advanced age, he could beat the #1 women’s player. If he succeeded, it would weaken the position of the players’ expectation of equal pay and equal recognition. This high-stakes story is told with a light and entertaining touch by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. And the biggest credit should go to the two leads – Emma Stone and Steve Carrell. I have talked about Carrell’s acting chops in an earlier post about the movie Last Flag Flying, in which he plays an introverted ex-Marine doctor. He plays a completely different type character here – flamboyant, attention-seeking, super-confident. And Emma Stone brings real earnestness and heart to the character of Billie Jean King, who at that time was also discovering her own sexuality, dealing with her husband’s discovery of her extra-marital affair and also fighting the establishment! This should have been a crowd-pleasing holiday movie that could have sold a lot of tickets and I am amazed that it could not find an audience. Definitely worth watching – hugely entertaining and also educational. I loved Alan Cumming as iconic tennis fashion designer Ted Tinling.

The Disaster Artist: From the sublime to the ridiculous. I don’t know how to describe this movie, but it is a must-watch for movie aficionados and it’s no wonder that it’s getting such high marks from critics and Hollywood insiders because of course, they all love movies about the industry. This is a movie about the making of a 2003 independent movie called The Room, which frequently appears in the list of the worst movies ever made! The Room was produced, written and directed by an enigmatic man named Tommy Wiseau, who also played the lead in the movie. The Disaster Artist is brilliantly directed by actor James Franco, who also does a amazing job playing Wiseau, a narcissistic man who had no self-awareness of how bad an actor, writer and director he was. It’s like watching a slow-motion train wreck; you know it’s not going to end well, but still cannot turn your eyes away. It’s truly remarkable that someone as un-talented and self-deluded as this man could find the money, people and equipment to make a movie. I guess it’s a commentary on the desperation of all the wanna-be artists who flock to Hollywood, looking for a break. Worth watching, although not entertaining in the conventional sense. Keep an eye out for Zac Efron and Josh Hutcherson playing the supporting actors in the movie.

All the Money in the World: And finally, we come to the movie that’s been making all the headlines for the wrong reasons, which is that 80-year-old director Ridley Scott reshot all the scenes involving disgraced actor Kevin Spacey, replacing him with veteran thespian Christopher Plummer (who has come a long way since he played Capt. Von Trapp in The Sound of Music 52 years ago). It’s amazing that he did so in a matter of days just weeks prior to the release date and still managed to get the movie out on the scheduled date. This is not one of Scott’s iconic ‘genre-breakers’ like Alien, Blade Runner or Gladiator. Instead, it’s a by-the-numbers thriller, but one that’s been superbly mounted and masterfully crafted by a veteran director who can probably put together a movie like this with one eye closed! It’s fast paced, gripping and features powerful acting performances from its two main leads – Mr. Plummer who plays the richest man in the world, oil billionaire J. Paul Getty and Michelle Williams, who plays his ex-daughter-in-law Gail. And the movie, of course, is about the infamous kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s 16-year-old grandson John Paul Getty III in Rome in 1973; J. Paul Getty refused to pay the ransom and it was left to the boy’s mother (who had no money of her own) to use all her wits to find a way to get her son back. While watching the movie, one can only marvel at the heartlessness and stinginess of this man who just could not bring himself to pay (until at last he found that he could get a tax deduction for part of the ransom money!!!). Also, a great performance from French actor Romain Duris who I have only seen cast as soft-spoken young men in romantic comedies, but here convincingly plays one of the Italian kidnappers.

And so, it’s back to work this week and an end to a fun week of movie-bingeing. Keep an eye out for the many of these movies to make big news in the coming weeks and based on their awards performance, some of them could get wider releases in the theatres.

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The Holiday watchlist, Part 4: Coming of Age films


My next set of year-end movies fall under the ‘coming of age’ category, which has yielded several great films and acting performances over the past few years. All three films mentioned here are earning huge awards buzz and are likely to be competing for major Oscar honors in a few weeks.

Lady Bird: Since 2010, Greta Gerwig has become the darling of critics as one of the bright young acting talents in America, appearing in indie films like Greenberg, Frances Ha and Mistress America which tell contemporary stories about young, single Americans and their urban lives. These movies don’t really run in international markets – Europeans already make very good films of this sort while most Asian audiences would struggle to appreciate the ‘first world problems’ that young westerners deal with. Frankly, I’ve found Ms. Gerwig’s on-screen personas to be too self-centered for my liking, sort of like a female version of the neurotic characters played by Woody Allen. So when I heard that she had directed a semi-autobiographical movie, Lady Bird (with Saoirse Ronan as the lead), I was already prepared to dislike the experience of watching it. True enough, in the first half hour, I was irritated with Ronan’s teenage angst, self-centered behavior, embarrassment about her family’s lack of affluence and never-ending arguments with her hyper-critical mother (played convincingly by Laurie Metcalf). The mother-daughter dynamic is brought to life when at one point during one of their arguments, the mother says “Of course, I love you”, and the daughter asks, “But do you like me?”.

But as the film progresses, Lady Bird’s experiences at the strict Catholic High School bring about a transformation and self-realization in her and at the end I found myself rooting for this fierce girl who is so full of life and the desire to thrive. One of the key turning points happens late in the movie while she is reviewing her end of term essay with her nun teacher Sister Sarah. The teacher praises the essay and observes that Lady Bird has written about her home town of Sacramento with so much love; Lady Bird is surprised (because she has always wanted to get out of this town) and responds that all she did was to pay attention to her surroundings. And Sister Sarah responds saying, “Isn’t it the same thing? ‘Love’ and ‘Attention’?” At that moment, it seems like Lady Bird has also realized that her mother does love her, in spite of their constant arguing. The script is filled with these sort of insightful, real conversations that reveal the hearts and souls of the people on screen. This is definitely worth watching and filled with talented young actors like Timothée Chalamet (more about him soon), Lucas Hedges (who received an Oscar nom last year for Manchester by the Sea) and Beanie Feldstein. Saoirse Ronan is brilliant as always. I finished the movie thinking that I didn’t mind so much that Greta Gerwig is like Woody Allen and that like with Allen’s movies, I prefer it when Gerwig is behind the camera and uses another actor to bring her persona to life on the screen!

Call Me By Your Name: Italian director Luca Guadagnino finishes off his so-called “Desire trilogy” with this coming-of-age drama about a teenage boy Elio (Timothée Chalamet) who falls in love with a young man Oliver (Armie Hammer), who is interning with Elio’s archeologist father at their sprawling house in northern Italy in 1983. I loved the first two movies in the trilogy, also set in Italy – I am Love (2009) and A Bigger Splash (2015) – and was surprised that they had not had wider releases, especially considering they featured heavyweight names like Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes. It looks like this third film is the one that will get Guadagnino the widespread exposure and acclaim that he deserves. This one has even better credentials, as the screenplay is written by none other than James Ivory. Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy this movie as much as the other two! Besides the slow pacing, I found it difficult to identify with the idyllic lives of Elio and his beautiful friends who live in the beautiful countryside eating, cycling, swimming, sunbathing, dancing, playing volleyball, all in a semi-bored, desultory fashion. They reminded me of the Eloi in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. And then there is Armie Hammer’s American graduate student Oliver, who comes across as brash and opaque, conscious of his Adonis-like looks and toying with 17-year-old Elio’s feelings. Eventually, after an hour of the movie has elapsed, the two get into a full blown relationship which lasts for a couple of weeks until Oliver has to return to the US. Elio is heart-broken and there is a beautiful moment when he returns home after saying goodbye to Oliver; his father, the professor (Michael Stuhlbarg, in a wonderful, understated performance) speaks to him, letting him know that he was aware of what was going on, letting him know that he has just experienced something special and encouraging him not to shut away his feelings or try to escape the pain. It is advise delivered with selfless love (in such contrast with the selfish love of Lady Bird’s mother in the other movie), with compassion, sensitivity and with the wisdom and experience of a father. Chalamet’s final scene (set a few months later in winter) as he contemplates the memory of this precious, one-off relationship is heartbreaking; Sufjan Stevens’ song Visions of Gideon, playing in the background with the lyrics “I have loved you for the last time…” makes it even more poignant. This last act is so beautifully rendered that I have resolved to watch the movie a second time and try to better appreciate the first hour. There is no doubt that the film will be an awards contender in the coming weeks. I would also strongly recommend watching I am Love and A Bigger Splash. Keep an eye out for swimming pools; they are a big part of all three films, especially the first two.

The Florida Project: The third of the coming-of-age films that is making waves this season, this film is set in a motel in Florida, close to Disneyland. It focuses on 6-year-old Moonee who lives in the motel with her young mother Halley. Moonee spends her days running wild and playing mischief along with her friends. With a poor role model as a mother, Moonee ends up trying to behave like an adult, doing scams to get free ice cream, using foul language and being generally unrepentant about any of her mischief. The only compassionate character in the movie is the motel manager Bobby, played by Willem Defoe. Bobby makes sure the residents follow the rules and keeps the motel in running condition but he also goes above and beyond the call of duty and keeps an eye out for the kids and tries to help the residents as best as he can (tenancy laws require that the residents cannot have long-term stays in the motel, so Bobby helps the tenants check out for a day, spend a day at another motel and then check back in under a fresh tenancy). There isn’t much of a plot in this film and all it does it to show the emotional poverty in the modern day American society; these families are surrounded by modern trappings and conveniences but live a hollow life with no soul and no future. I was shocked at the behaviour of Moonee and the other kids (and was equally shocked that child actors could have been made to act and speak in this way in a movie). I could not identify with these people at all. I disliked Moonee and her mother intensely and was so happy when childcare services eventually show up at their door to take Moonee away! I would not recommend watching this film except as a docu-drama to understand the sad reality of parts of American society.

In my final post, I will cover three 2017 movies which tell incredible true stories – Battle of the Sexes, The Disaster Artist and All the Money in the World.

The Holiday watchlist, Part 3: Guilt and Obsession


Continuing with my holiday movie watching spree, we enter into heavier territory now with some emotionally intense movies, some of which are in serious contention for year-end awards.

I have read articles which refer to a form of OCD called ‘Responsibility OCD’, in which a person suffering from guilt due to a past mistake or shortcoming (real or perceived), tries to assuage this guilt by obsessively trying to protect their loved ones or go above and beyond their call of duty. The characters in the films listed below seem to have that in common to some degree.

After the Storm: This is the 5th film from writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda that I’m watching and the one I liked the least, along with 2008’s Still Walking; is it a coincidence that both star Hiroshi Abe? As always, Kore-eda’s films show real people and real emotions, but I guess I just didn’t like Abe’s character, a downbeat, dishonest divorced dad who is trying hard to get back into the good books of his ex-wife and impress his son. What appears to be love for his family is actually a combination of guilt and selfishness, a desire to overcome his own low self-esteem. A disappointing experience for me (not the fault of the director, just that I didn’t like the characters or the story), especially after how much I loved his previous 3 films, especially 2015’s Our Little Sister, which I wrote about previously. Even so, Kore-eda was nominated in the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes for this film.

Wind River: Actor turned screenwriter Taylor Sheridan is hot property now, having written the screenplay for the highly acclaimed Sicario (2015) and Hell or High Water (for which he received an Oscar nomination last year). He has gone behind the camera to direct his latest script Wind River and what a piece of dynamite it is! Starring Avengers colleagues Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen, the film explores themes of guilt and alienation delivered in the form of a perfectly crafted, tightly wound murder mystery. Olsen plays the FBI rookie who is called in to solve a murder at a Native American reservation and Renner is the local wildlife expert who found the body and assists her on the case. Like the rest of Sheridan’s films this too is a Western in terms of DNA, even though it is set in the bleak winter of present day Wyoming. The pacing of the film never flags, at the same time the characters get time and space to express their feelings and fears (just like in Sicario). Jeremy Renner is perfectly cast as a man driven to excel at his job, trying to live with his own guilt related to the death of his daughter three years earlier. Sheridan won Best Director in the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes this year. I cannot recommend this film highly enough and I can see myself watching it over and over again.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Like Wind River, this film too deals with themes of guilt and alienation. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, one half of the duo who have put Irish cinema on the world map, this is a welcome return to form after the relative disappointment of his last effort Seven Psychopaths and reminds me of the tone of his first movie In Bruges. Frances McDormand plays a grieving mother who rents three billboards outside her small town to call attention to the lack of police action in solving the rape and murder of her daughter a year earlier. The film explores the darkest places of guilt, bitterness and self-reproach, but does so with a perfect blend of melodrama, action and black comedy. McDonagh brings out fantastic performances from the cast which includes Woody Harrelson (in one of his best roles in recent years), Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage (Tyrion from Game of Thrones), John Hawkes and Lucas Hedges. Frances McDormand got her 6th Golden Globe acting nomination as the mother obsessed with finding justice, forever remorseful of her own negligence in her daughter’s death; I would love to see her win at the Globes and I hope she will get her 5th Oscar acting nom as well. Sam Rockwell gets his first ever Golden Globe nomination as well. Highly recommended, even if the ending isn’t entirely satisfactory.

Good Time: This is yet another release from the fast emerging indie distributor A24 which was behind last year’s Best Film Oscar winner Moonlight and is distributing several award contenders this year like Lady Bird, The Florida Project, The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Disaster Artist. Directed by fast-emerging New York based indie film makers Josh and Benny Safdie, the movie stars Robert Pattinson as a young man whose attempt to rob a bank along with his mentally challenged younger brother (played by co-director Ben Safdie), triggers a chain of events which gets him deeper and deeper into trouble with the law. I didn’t care much for the Safdie’s guerrilla style of film-making or the jarring electronic score from experimental musician Daniel Lopatin (under his recording alias of Oneohtrix Point Never), but there is no denying the intensity that Pattinson brings to this role as a man whose guilt drives him to do whatever it takes to safeguard his younger brother. The 31-year-old British heartthrob has put together an eclectic and high quality body of work in the past 5 years, working hard to deglamorize and distance himself from his ‘pretty boy’ Twilight persona. The Safdie brothers were nominated for the Palm d’Or at Cannes for this gritty crime thriller.

Last Flag Flying: After winning multiple awards for Boyhood three years ago, writer-director Richard Linklater directed the little seen 80’s set comedy Everybody Wants Some!!. He returns to higher profile material with this film which is a “sort of” sequel to the celebrated 1973 film The Last Detail for which Jack Nicholson received an Oscar nomination. Both films are based on novels by Darryl Ponicsan and feature a train trip taken by 3 Marines as a key setting. The conversations on these trips form the essence of the films – exploration of beliefs, fears, the meaning of patriotism and friendship. Three old Vietnam War vets are reunited after a gap of several decades due to a tragedy and have to take a trip together during which they reminisce about their wild young days, about the mistakes they made while in combat in Vietnam and the remorse that each of them lives with. The acting by Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne and Steve Carell is outstanding and so, so real. I don’t think Steve Carell gets enough credit for how good an actor he is. There is one sequence in the train where the three men (accompanied by a junior officer) are laughing and joking about their time in Vietnam; anyone who has been to a reunion party with old college friends will relate to these scenes. The film may be a bit too ‘light’ to win any awards, but it is definitely worth watching and particularly interesting if you’ve seen the first film, as there are some parallel situations between the two movies.

In my next post, I will cover two coming-of-age films which have made a big splash in the past few weeks on the awards circuit – Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name.