Taylor Sheridan’s “Yellowstone” is a “Dallas” for the 21st century

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There’s no doubt that actor turned screenwriter and director, Taylor Sheridan has become one of the most exciting new voices in American cinema in the past 2-3 years, albeit in a very specific niche that he seems to have carved out for himself.

For about 20 years, Sheridan had been a journeyman actor appearing in small parts on American TV shows, punctuated by recurring roles in Veronica Mars (2005-07) and Sons of Anarchy (2008-10). Then suddenly, in his 40s, he decided to find a different form of creative expression and switched to writing.

He wrote the screenplay for the Mexican drug-cartel thriller Sicario, a big hit at Cannes and a sleeper hit at the box office in the Fall of 2015 for acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve. The following year, his brothers-on-the-run story Hell or High Water was directed by David Mackenzie and garnered four Oscar nominations including Best Original Screenplay for Sheridan. One year later, he directed his own script for the murder-investigation thriller Wind River, effectively his directorial debut (although officially he is credited as director for a student film he helped a friend make in 2011). And now in 2018, his screenplay for the sequel to Sicario, called Day of the Soldado, has just hit the big screen filmed by Italian director Stefano Sollima.

All four films are set in contemporary times but have the sparse and lonely feel of the early frontier Western films of John Ford. Wind River also deals with an aspect of American history that most people don’t want to dwell on, the emasculation and slow neglect of Native Americans. In January last year, I wrote about how the traditional Western genre has seen a bit of resurgence in recent years and I included Hell or High Water in that post as an example of a modern Western. It’s clear now that Mr. Sheridan has started to stake out a sub-genre that can be called the modern or neo-Western as his personal playground. His latest project, a TV series called Yellowstone that has just launched on the small Paramount network, further strengthens his credentials in this field.

Think of Yellowstone as a modern-day Dallas, the story of the super-wealthy but dysfunctional Ewing family that created so many ‘water-cooler moments’ in the late 70’s and early 80’s with its weekly servings of feuding, family politics and back-stabbing. Sheridan has taken a similar premise and placed it in a sprawling ranch in Montana, run with an iron hand by family patriarch John Dutton. The character is played appropriately by Kevin Costner, who has made his own name in the past as a ‘Western revivalist’ filmmaker and now makes his first proper foray into TV. As the world changes around him, John Dutton ruthlessly fights to maintain the status quo, to protect his power and everything that he has built up over the decades on his Yellowstone ranch. As the largest landowner in Montana, he is in constant conflict with Native American activists who live on the adjacent reservation, ambitious land developers who want a piece of his land and politicians who just want whatever works for them.

Dutton has four grown-up children; Lee (Dave Annable) is the simple-living oldest son, who has chosen to work on the ranch with his father; Beth (British actress Kelly Reilly) is a cut-throat, ambitious (and slightly psychotic) banker, who is as ruthless as her father; Jamie (Wes Bentley) is a corporate lawyer who steps in whenever the ranch requires his legal skills to fight off external threats; Kayce (Luke Grimes) is the youngest sibling, an ex-Navy SEAL who has married a Native American girl and moved with her into the reservation, thereby putting himself in potential conflict with his father. Also, in the mix is Rip Wheeler (Cole Hauser), the loyal ranch foreman who does all the dirty work for John Dutton. For those familiar with Dallas, it’s easy to pigeonhole the Dutton family into the standard personality types.

On the Native American Brocken Rock Reservation, there are a couple of familiar faces who acted in Sheridan’s Wind River – Kelsey Asbille plays Monica, who is married to Kayce Dutton, and Gil Birmingham plays the Chief of the reservation, Thomas Rainwater, a man who wants to establish his own power equation in this region.

When compared with Sheridan’s big screen work, which has featured interesting characters and unusual situations, Yellowstone does not live up to the same standards. From what I’ve seen in the first two episodes, it comes across as a standard big budget soap opera with stereotypical characters and a predictable over-arching plot. While I can watch Wind River and Sicario again and again (and I have), Yellowstone will fall, I think, into the ‘watch-enjoy-and-forget’ category of TV shows. Nevertheless, with charismatic and heavyweight actors on board, I know I will be hooked on to this show for mindless entertainment, while I will continue to turn to Sheridan’s big screen work for the really stimulating stuff.


The scariest aliens in sci-fi: Prador, The Hive, Lankies and Arachnids

I’ve just finished reading Neal Asher’s Prador Moon (2006), chronologically the first story in his Polity Universe timeline, spanning 16 novels (and counting). In the novel, mankind has spread across the stars, powered by instantaneous travel (using gates called Runcibles) and AIs. The novel begins with the first direct meeting between humans and a sentient alien race, the Prador. The meeting turns out to be an ambush; the Prador demand fealty and when this is naturally refused, they open fire and start an interstellar war. The Prador are a frightening race – carnivorous, crab-like creatures between 2 and 5 meters across. While they have not developed AI tech, they are highly skilled in metallurgy; their spaceships are made of a self-repairing alloy that absorbs energy from projectiles and energy beams, which then powers their own energy weapons. They are extremely cruel and subject captured human prisoners-of-war to a variety of cruel experiments and depredations, after which they eat the surviving humans! The aggressive Prador (they frequently kill their own kind) have absolutely no redeeming qualities and it takes a huge amount of weaponry, technology, luck and smart thinking to destroy even one Prador spaceship. Likewise, in individual combat, they are well protected by their hard, outer carapace and the only sure way to kill them is to attach a mine onto their carapace and blow each one up.

It got me to thinking about other alien races from other scifi books that have posed similar level of threat to humans.

In R.M. Meluch’s fantastic (and also misogynistic and pulpy) Tour of the Merrimack series – six books published from 2005 to 2015 – the good guys are from the US of A, and are engaged in an intergalactic Cold War with the New Roman Empire (yes, you read that right). In the midst of this, humanity encounters a frightening alien species called the Hive. These tentacled aliens appear to be made of some dark amorphous goo-like substance (described by one reviewer as giant space meatballs with tentacles and teeth!). The Hive exist as multiple individuals, called Gorgons, but have a single hive mind, because of which they can communicate instantaneously with each other across light years of space. And they are nearly indestructible – the irony is they can best be killed by swords rather than by projectiles or energy weapons, so that’s what the humans use when the Hive invade their ships. The Hive are semi-sentient beings, whose only reason to live is to attack and eat other forms of life. Their survival instinct is so strong, that they can learn about the enemy’s attack strategy which makes it virtually impossible to hit them twice with the same strategy.

Marko Kloos’ Frontlines series – six novels published from 2013 to 2018 – also has a cold war going on between the USA and the Sino-Russian Alliance. But the human must put aside their hostilities when their colonies start getting attacked by a race of 80-foot tall aliens, nicknamed “Lankies” (disappointing name)’; the space infantry call them “Big Uglies”. The Lankies land on a planet, set up a giant terraforming stations that rapid fill the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and basically ‘smoke’ out the humans from the planet. The Lankies move surprisingly fast for their size and with their height and thick skin, it takes an incredible amount of concentrated firepower to kill them on the battlefield. Destroying their mile-high terraforming structures can only be done with nuclear weapons, which then makes large parts of the planet unfit for human habitation, even if they manage to flush the Lankies out…a losing proposition either way! In five years, humanity’s footprint across space has shrunk from a hundred colonies to less than seventy. Marko Kloos paints a very realistic portrait of life in the military, dealing with war and politics (and in this case, an enemy that’s almost impossible to defeat).

Robert Heinlein’s classic 1959 novel Starship Troopers tells the story of an interstellar war between humans and an alien species known as Arachnids or Bugs. The 1997 film by Paul Verhoeven is a somewhat loose adaptation; it was a bit of a box office disappointment, but has risen to cult classic status over time. The Bugs are sub-divided into different castes, and we get to see the warriors as well as the plasma bugs. The Bug attacks in the movie are truly frightening, with the warrior hordes descending in wave after wave, spearing the humans and killed only by highly concentrated large caliber automatic weapons fire.

It’s not a coincidence that the three examples above are all from the military sci-fi sub-genre. I guess you need to create a formidable enough adversary in order to justify the use of substantial firepower!

While this post is about aliens from scifi books, not movies, the most well-known and scary alien in popular culture is the Xenomorph introduced in Ridley Scott’s seminal 1977 space horror film Alien. The plot of Alien is broadly similar to a storyline from the episodic novel Voyage of the Space Beagle by A. E. van Vogt, which consists of four different adventures involving the crew of the Space Beagle. In the first adventure, an intelligent alien creature named Coeurl (which looks like a cat with tentacles around its neck) infiltrates the ship and kills off several crewmen one by one. The author of the novel filed a case against the film makers, who denied stealing his idea and ultimately, the two parties settled out of court. When I read the novel in the 80’s, I was immediately struck by the similarity to the film’s plot. And in fact, I found Coeurl to be a more frightening alien than the Xenomorph, because it is cunning, unlike the instinct-driven killing machine that the Xenomorph is portrayed to be.

And finally, in Peter F. Hamilton’s The Night’s Dawn Trilogy, a chance presence of an energy-based lifeform at the exact moment of the death of a human on an isolated human colony planet accidentally opens a gap between our universe and another dimension, which contains the souls of all humans who have ever lived and died (sort of an eternal purgatory). With the opening of the gap, souls are able to cross over and ‘possess’ live humans, their intrinsic energy imbuing the physical body they possess with tremendous powers. In no time at all, the ‘possessed’ overrun the colony planet and before long are spreading across the galaxy, impervious to normal weapons. Although these are not aliens, the possessed humans in this trilogy are equally scary and unstoppable, posing an existential threat to humanity just like the above-mentioned aliens. The humans also face a moral dilemma, as killing the possessing souls can only be done by killing the host human body, an innocent life (which in turn could potentially come back as a possessing soul!!!). It ultimately requires all the human factions to band together, tap into an obscure and long-lost alien technology and exercise some esoteric quantum science to subdue the extra-dimensional/ supernatural threat and perform a mass exorcism of humanity spanning all populated worlds across the galaxy.

While aliens on TV and in the movies tend to be more well-known, virtually none of them (except the Xenomorphs from Alien and possibly the Borg from Star Trek) are shown to operate at the same scale and lethality as the Prador, The Hive, Lankies or Arachnids. If any of these stories were to be adapted to screen, we would have a whole new pantheon of sci-fi villains to be terrified of.

Satyajit Ray’s Calcutta Trilogy explores city life in the turbulent 70’s.

Satyajit Ray burst onto the world stage with the Apu TrilogyPather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959) – his first, second and fifth films respectively. The trilogy chronicled the life of Apu Ray from his poverty-stricken childhood in rural Bengal, to his itinerant schooling years as his family tries to find sustainable livelihood, to his life as a young unemployed graduate in Calcutta city. The films were lauded for their simplicity of narrative as well as for the stark depiction of life in early 20th century India.

Ten years, 17 films and countless awards later, Ray kick-started a new trio of films, later referred to as the Calcutta Trilogy. These films – Pratidwandi (1970), Seemabaddha (1971) and Jana Aranya (1976), continued in the same vein of showing real life, this time in the homes and on the streets of contemporary Calcutta. This was a turbulent time in many parts of India. Frustration from poverty, unemployment and social inequalities led many young men to pursue socialist agendas, frequently exploding into violence against all forms of authority – their version of “sticking it to the Man!”. The state of West Bengal and its capital city Calcutta was the epicenter of much of this “revolutionary thinking” while its more violent form was prevalent for many years in the smaller towns and rural areas across Eastern India. Simultaneously, the public and private sector were building up a culture of bribes and corruption, with the older generation teaching the youngsters how to “get ahead in life”.

In the first and third films, the protagonists, Siddhartha and Somnath, are graduates seeking employment in a stagnant economy with few available jobs. Young cinema goers at the time would surely empathize with the soul-numbing grind of applying for and attending job interviews week after week, being asked a series of random ‘general knowledge’ questions, second-guessing oneself after a while as to what ‘correct answer’ would impress the interviewers. In the second film, Shyamal is a successful marketing executive, living the quintessential yuppie life, while competing with another colleague for an upcoming Director position in his company.

All three films (especially the first and second) showcase strong dynamics between their male protagonists and the women in their lives. All of them have to deal with personal conflict and moral dilemmas in their efforts to settle down and find their place in society.

In Pratidwandi (The Adversary), Siddhartha seems constantly ill at ease in the presence of other women – his attractive sister who is blasé about her borderline flirtatious relationship with her boss while also harboring ambitions of becoming a model, the attractive prostitute with whom he has a brief encounter (he runs out of her apartment before she can get anything started!) and then a chance meeting with a neighbor (she hails him as he’s walking by to fix a blown fuse) which develops into a brief friendship. He is seeking some form of grounding, either a job or a relationship, but seems at odds with everyone around him.
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In Seemabaddha (Company Ltd.), Shyamal and his wife are playing host to his sister-in-law (played by Sharmila Tagore) who is visiting for a couple of weeks. Sharmila’s character is envious of the ‘perfect life’ her sister and brother-in-law have, all the trappings of their city life – the parties at home, nights out at the club, day at the races, as well as his upward career trajectory. Later, when she discovers that he has bent the rules to get a promotion, he abruptly falls in her eyes. Her disappointment is so heartbreakingly evident (without her saying a word) that it deflates his sense of achievement, even while his wife is blissfully unaware and basks in the change of their social status.Hosted by imgur.com

Jana Aranya (The Middleman) opens with Somnath graduating from college but with lower marks than expected, which will impact his job prospects. His confidence is further shattered when his girlfriend (played by future filmmaker Aparna Sen) succumbs to family pressure and gets married to someone else. At home, Somnath struggles to have constructive conversations with his conservative father and insensitive elder brother. Instead, it’s his sister-in-law who is his true confidante, to whom he expresses his hopes and fears, who buys cigarettes for him on the sly when he runs out of money. After several failed interviews, he is persuaded by a friend/ mentor to “get into business”. His father is almost scandalized that his son is entering the wheeling-dealing world of business, but gives his reluctant blessing. The mentor (played by the always entertaining Utpal Dutt) sets him up as a middleman (“buying and selling anything”). After an initial period of success with small transactions, he gets into murkier waters and has to cross a key moral barrier in order to secure a big deal. Hosted by imgur.com

While the subject matter and characters of the films were very grounded, Ray’s cinematic technique was exploratory and avant-garde.

In Pratidwandi, the opening scene is presented in X-ray type negative print, to highlight how the death of the protagonist, Siddhartha’s father has turned his world inside out. Later, an encounter with a prostitute is presented in the same way, again giving us a sense of how deeply unsettling this moment is to Siddhartha.

In Seemabaddha, there is a dinner table scene during which the camera tracks metronomically between Shyamal at the centre of the table, and his wife and sister-in-law who are seated on either side of him. M. Night Shyamalan did something similar early on in Unbreakable with Bruce Willis in the train.

Another interesting feature of the films is how much all the characters smoke. Virtually every conversation begins with one or more characters lighting up – on the streets, in the office, at home. Calcutta is after all the headquarters of India’s leading tobacco company, cigarettes were ubiquitous and chain-smoking seems to have been the norm at the time.

Ray’s favourite actor was Soumitra Chatterjee, who made his debut in the third Apu film and worked with Ray in 13 other films (he is still acting at the age of 83!). However, for this trilogy, Ray opted for three other charismatic young men – Dhritiman (a.k.a. Sundar) Chatterjee made his debut as Siddhartha in Pratidwandi and continues to act at the age of 73, Barun Chanda made his debut as Shyamal in Seemabaddha and continues to act nearly 50 years later and Pradip Mukherjee made his debut as Somnath in Jana Aranya and continues to act at the age of 72!Hosted by imgur.com

Watching the 3 films back-to-back was a wonderful experience. Ray developed a light touch by this stage of his career and was able to deliver work that was layered and insightful, touched upon social and moral issues of the day, but did not feel exhausting or depressing to watch.

Eifelheim: Using sci-fi to ponder cultural, religious and philosophical beliefs

We are all familiar with the ‘fish out of water’ trope in fiction. The country bumpkin in the city, the city dweller in the countryside (City Slickers) or the foreigner in another land (Coming to America) – these kinds of stories have used culture clashes as a basis for humor and melodrama. In the 80’s there were some ‘fantasy’ movies in Hollywood which explored this trope from various angles, e.g. Splash (mermaid among land-dwellers; almost literally ‘fish out of water’!), Big (corporate world from a kid’s perspective) and even Cocoon (senior citizens suddenly able to participate in the activities of younger people).

And of course, using time travel as a device opens up many entertaining possibilities. A big part of the charm of the Back to the Future movies was seeing Marty McFly try to navigate a culture from 30 years in his past. Surprisingly, Hollywood didn’t repeat this successful formula in later years; subsequent time travel movies like 12 Monkeys (1995), Source Code (2011) and Looper (2012) have used time displacement as an element in a mystery/ thriller rather than to explore cultural differences.

Given the pressure to pack maximum entertainment into a 2-hour movie, perhaps it’s the written word that provides better opportunities. Mark Twain’s 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is perhaps one of the earliest such examples. Twain used the time travel device as a satire of feudalism and the monarchy, both concepts that the American ideal is diametrically opposed to.

In modern sci-fi, several novels feature present-day humans sent into the past, usually into times of conflict, thereby giving an opportunity to showcase their superiority in weapons and technology.

In this sub-genre, a very entertaining novel I read some years ago is Eric Flint’s 1632 (published in 2000), in which the fictional town of Grantville in West Virginia (about 3 miles in radius) is mysteriously displaced in time and space, back to the year 1631 and transferred to the German province of Thuringia, right into the midst of the Thirty Years’ War. The book spawned a number of sequels and Eric Flint even encouraged fan fiction set in this universe to the point that several such stories were published from time to time in the anthology series, The Grantville Gazette.

S.M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time (published 1998) tells of a similar incident in which the island of Nantucket is transported back to the Bronze Age (1250 BC), in fact into the midst of the Trojan War! This novel too spawned sequels and spin-offs.

John Birmingham’s Axis of Time trilogy (published 2004-07) is the very entertaining story of a US-led naval task force operating in the Pacific theatre in the year 2021, which is accidentally transported back into the midst of World War II, due to the malfunction of an experimental weapon on-board one of their ships.

These three sci-fi series all focus on the impact of introducing modern technology into a historical conflict situation. The modern-day time-travelers inevitably end up taking sides in the existing conflict, their technological advantage partly neutralized by their unfamiliarity with terrain and culture, or perhaps due to one of their own people switching sides to fulfill ambitions of power. There are always sub-plots – people from the different time periods falling in love or misunderstandings resulting from cultural differences, especially related to racial and gender equality. In the hands of a skillful writer, these situations can very effectively force the readers examine their own beliefs and prejudices; aspects of daily life that we take for granted can appear very fragile when seen in the context of a culture where those things are unacceptable.

There’s another group of time-travel books featuring ‘professional’ time-travelers.

Michael Crichton’s Timeline, has a group of scientists using time-travel technology to go back to the year 1357 in the Dordogne region of France.

Similarly, Connie Willis’ Oxford Time Travel series has Oxford researchers using a time-travel machine to go back and study major events in history.

And, Neal Stephenson’s outstanding The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., is an entertaining romp about the impact of sending people back in time, or even worse, bringing people from the past into our time.

In these books, the protagonists know that they can come back to their own time and this makes their behaviour very different from that of the ‘accidental’ time-travelers. When you have made a one-way trip into the past and you know you have to assimilate yourself into a new culture quickly in order to survive, that makes for a very interesting story dynamic.

It is exactly that ‘one-way trip’ dynamic which operates in the book I am currently reading, Michael Flynn’s award-winning 2006 novel Eifelheim. It features a very similar situation to that of the novels mentioned earlier, a technologically advanced group of people suddenly appears in a small town in the Black Forest in 1348, just as the Black Death is sweeping through Europe. The twist is that the visitors are not time travelers or even human; they are an insectoid-humanoid species of aliens whose inter-dimensional ship has crash landed in the woods near the village and realize they cannot ever leave. The novel explores many interesting themes. This is a time when Jews are being burned across Europe as many believe that they are poisoning drinking wells or in some other way carrying the cause of the plague. There are some in the village who wonder if these creatures are the cause. Others simply cannot accept their presence, believing that if man is made in the image of God, then surely these non-humans must be representatives of Satan. Naturally, they fall back upon the comfort and security of their religious beliefs as a means of self-preservation. Ironically, the most open-minded of the villagers is  Pastor Dietrich, who tries to analyze how the existence of these creatures impacts his own beliefs and fits into his theological view of the world. Eventually, a couple of the aliens convert to Christianity; this act helps increase their acceptance among the locals, but some, including Dietrich’s own adopted daughter just cannot overcome their prejudices and xenophobia.

As conflict and disease close in on the little town, both humans and aliens are forced to come together in an uneasy alliance for mutual self-preservation. And indeed this is the way of the world. Our lizard brain seems programmed to classify everyone we meet automatically into ‘ally’ or ‘threat’ – Us vs. Them. But when faced with a common external threat, survival instincts kick in and suddenly yesterday’s enemies become today’s allies (not necessarily friends).

I enjoy reading these types of novels, as much for the insight into bygone people and cultures, as for the action-adventure. But after a few books, the experience has become repetitive because in almost all cases, the modern protagonists are transported into Europe (I guess that’s the culture that western authors are familiar with and are confident writing about); the exception is Australian author John Birmingham who chose to place the action in his Axis of Time trilogy close to home, in the waters between Indonesia and Japan. It would be cool if there were stories like this set in Asia, perhaps during the time of Genghis Khan in Central Asia or the Edo period in Japan or the Mughals in India.

“What a Wonderful Family!” – Yoji Yamada reassembles his “Tokyo Family” cast for a humorous examination of family dynamics

In 2013, veteran director Yoji Yamada remade one of the classics of Japanese cinema, Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story. The film Tokyo Family,  went on to be nominated across all leading categories at the Japanese Academy Awards, although it eventually didn’t win any. Perhaps one reason for the lack of wins was that it didn’t break any new ground, neither cinematic technique nor how it tackled the theme of the generational distance. It was merely a ‘present day’ retelling of those fateful few days in the lives of the Hirayama family. If anything, it further showcased the brilliance of the original film, that it could ring as true 60 years later.

The remake was a success principally because of the cast and if there was a casting director credited for the film (there isn’t), then that’s the person who should have been felicitated with an award. In my review dated October 2014, I had already singled out Yu Aoi for filling in the shoes of acting legend Setsuko Hara in the role of Noriko, but it’s a fact that all the actors clicked together beautifully in this ensemble piece.

They obviously clicked with the director too, because three years later, he reassembled the entire cast to make What a Wonderful Family!, a comedy about a modern urban familyAll the key actors return, playing the same roles, but this time in a new family, the Hiratas – the grandparents Shuzo and Tomiko Hirata (played by Isao Hashizume and Kazuko Yoshiyuki respectively), the three grown-up siblings (Masahiko Nishimura is the eldest son Konosuke, Tomoko Nakajima is the middle daughter Shigeko and Satoshi Tsumabuki is the youngest unmarried son, Shota) and their spouses/ partners (Yui Natsukawa plays Konosuke’s wife Fumie, Hayashiya Shozo is Shigeko’s husband Taizo and everyone’s favourite Yu Aoi is Noriko, the fiancée of the youngest son). A couple of the supporting characters from Tokyo Family return in similar (but expanded) roles, Jun Fubuki as Kayo, the owner of an izakaya and Nenji Kobayashi as Ginnpei, an old classmate of the grandfather.

For those who have watched Tokyo Family, the twist in What a Wonderful Family! is in the switching of personalities of the key characters. The grandfather who was soft-spoken and generous in Tokyo Family is now arrogant, chauvinistic and uncaring of others. The level-headed oldest son has now become brash and impatient. Not surprisingly, the two of them are constantly at loggerheads with each other. The irresponsible and unreliable youngest son has now become the sensible one with a respectable, fulfilling job and it is he the family turns to whenever there is a need to defuse a family crisis. Only Yu Aoi as Noriko remains unchanged as the gracious, caring and gentle fiancée of the youngest son. All fans of Yazujiro Ozu know of Setsuko Hara’s various interpretations of the selfless character “Noriko” and it’s great to see Yamada-san continuing the tradition.

Unlike Tokyo Story, which showcased the grandparents as a loving couple devoted to each other, What a Wonderful Family! starts off with a bombshell – the grandmother on her birthday informs her husband that she would like a divorce. This announcement throws the entire family into chaos and the rest of the movie is all about how the three siblings try to prevent the divorce from happening. Although the tone is comedic, the underlying issues and interpersonal dynamics are representative of any family around the world and this is why the movie is so watchable.

Yamada-san knows a thing or too about creating characters that audiences fall in love with. For decades, he has been directing the Tora-san movies, about an ordinary fellow who is the black sheep of his family and who is forever in search of love. Tora-san endeared himself to Japanese audiences over 48 movies running from 1969 to 1995! Every film had essentially the same plot revolving around Tora-san’s unsuccessful pursuit of love and his awkward interactions with his family. The series ended with the death of the lead actor in 1996.

In 1993, Yamada-san directed a film called A Class to Remember, about a high school teacher who teaches night school to a group of disadvantaged adults in a poor neighborhood; it was so successful that he churned out 3 more films in this series over the next 7 years.

Well, it looks like he has now found the seed of a new series; with the success of What a Wonderful Family! in 2016, he wasted no time in filming a sequel and releasing it in 2017. What a Wonderful Family! II continued the story of this crazy family, this time revolving around the death of grandfather Shuzo’s old classmate. The story beats are familiar, with the usual mix of pratfalls & laughs, melodrama and tears. And now the team are filming What A Wonderful Family! 3: My Wife, My Life for release in May this year. Who knows how many more of these are in the pipeline. The film has even had a Chinese remake in 2017. I can easily imagine this story in an Indian or Korean context and wouldn’t be surprised to see more remakes popping up in Asia.

The Holiday watchlist, Part 6: Award heavyweights

There were 3 films that weren’t yet released in this part of the world when I did my run of movie-watching at the end of the year. I had been desperate to catch them because they feature some of my favorite directors and actors, and the 3 of them have collectively been nominated for 21 Oscars (including Best Picture). The deed is now done courtesy the extended break for Chinese New Year and it was well worth the wait!

Darkest Hour: This is the latest effort from 46-year-old British director Joe Wright, who is well known for his literary adaptations Pride & Prejudice (2005), Atonement (2007) and Anna Karenina (2012)…all of which incidentally featured his lucky charm Keira Knightely. His last effort, the expensive fantasy epic Pan was a bomb and so it’s great to see him back at what he does best, another period piece set in the real world, this one focused on Winston Churchill during the early years of the Second World War. The film has been nominated for 6 Oscars, including Best Picture, Cinematography, Costume Design, Production Design and most critically for Best Actor and Best Makeup; Gary Oldman has been transformed into Churchill and it will be very surprising if the film does not win Best Makeup. Likewise, Mr. Oldman should probably be considered a joint front-runner with Daniel Day-Lewis for the Best Actor statuette. The performances of the two British actors are a study of contrasts, dictated by the characters they play. While Day-Lewis delivers an understated performance as the repressed head of a fashion house in Phantom Thread, Oldman is all fire and bluster as the man who almost single-handed, it seems, turned the tide of the war in favour of the Allies. The filmmakers have taken liberties with some of the facts, but all such considerations seem secondary, as the viewer is held in the grip of Oldman’s powerhouse acting. The film plays like a political thriller, with Churchill racing to create an evacuation plan for British forces trapped in Dunkirk, receiving no help from the then-neutral Americans, while trying to stave off attempts by members of his own party to overthrow him. Interestingly, Chris Nolan’s Dunkirk which tells of the famous evacuation from the viewpoint of the rescuers and the rescued, is nominated for Best Picture, along with Darkest Hour. Having recently watched John Lithgow as the older, post-war Churchill in Netflix’s The Crown, there was a strong sense of familiarity with the character while watching Darkest Hour. This film beautifully brings to life one of history’s most significant (though not particularly well-liked) figures.

The Post: Like Joe Wright, Steven Spielberg is also coming off the disappointment of his last venture, the fantasy film The BFG, which had a lukewarm critical reception and lost money at the box-office, a rare occurrence for history’s most successful filmmaker. Before The BFG, his previous three films, all based on historical events, received Best Picture Nominations – War Horse, Lincoln and Bridge of Spies. Spielberg has gone back to that formula with his latest effort The Post, which tells the story of the ‘Pentagon Papers’ case in the early 70’s. The film has received 2 Oscar nominations, for Best Picture and for Best Actress (Meryl Streep’s 21st nomination!). This is the first time that Meryl Streep has worked with another of Hollywood’s biggest acting icons – Tom Hanks, or with Spielberg for that matter. Set during the most powerful days of the Nixon presidency (before Watergate), The Post is built around two themes which are relevant in today’s political and social climate – freedom of the press and equality for women. Streep plays Katherine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, a woman who has inherited the newspaper from her husband following his suicide, who has to deal with her own self-doubts and with being talked down to by her predominantly male stakeholders – the board of directors, investment bankers and lawyers. Hanks plays her editor-in-chief, Ben Bradlee, the man whose desire to publish a set of leaked government papers puts the newspaper on a collision path with the US government and puts Ms. Graham on a collision path with her advisors. The film falls into the category of ‘journalistic thriller’, much like All the President’s Men (1976), The Insider (1999), Zodiac (2007) and the recent award-winner Spotlight (2015), with the protagonists fighting the clock and the establishment to get their story out. It paints a romanticized picture of the glory days of newspaper journalism and I was filled with admiration for this fast-diminishing breed of professionals who had to fight the odds day after day to do their jobs. I felt that in this film, Spielberg has dialed down his melodramatic touches and I thought this was particularly evident in the final scene; following the Supreme Court hearing, as The Post’s flashier rival, The New York Times is busy courting reporters in the front of the building, Katherine Graham descends the steps from the side and doesn’t seem to realize that she is walking past dozens of women who gaze silently at her, in admiration of her courage and resolve in challenging the (male) establishment. I kept waiting to see tears or some other obvious form of recognition, but the silence and the expressions on the faces of the women was much more powerful.

The Shape of Water: Unlike Joe Wright and Steven Spielberg who have received their biggest accolades when telling stories based on real people or real events, Mexican auteur Guillermo del Toro is at his best when building worlds in which elaborate mechanical constructions co-exist with fantastical creatures. In his breakout movie Cronos (1993), an ancient clockwork mechanism is used to entomb an insect whose secretions can prolong life. His Hellboy films feature various devices which are used to control supernatural creatures. In Pacific Rim, mankind creates giant robots called “Jaegers”, to combat extra-dimensional monsters which are laying siege to our cities. And so we come to his latest film, The Shape of Water which is perhaps his most ‘human’ film. He initially conceptualized it as a sequel to 1950’s classic The Creature from the Black Lagoon, as he wondered what would have happened if the ‘Gill-man’ had been able to romantically link up with the female lead. This eventually led to the story of the relationship between a bizarre ‘fish-man’ who has been pulled out of the Amazon river by the American military and the mute cleaning lady who works at the scientific facility where they are experimenting on him. Set during the 60’s at the height of the Cold War, del Toro’s trademark machines built to contain and control the ‘fish-man’ are relegated to the background, with the focus on the memorable characters who populate this love story. Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, the young janitor whose expresses her passion and love for life with her eyes and hands. Her best friend at work is Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a sassy, no-nonsense woman with a heart of gold. Elisa lives in a room above an old movie theatre and she is close friends with the tenant next door, an ageing artist Giles (Richard Jenkins), who struggles to sell his work to advertising firms while dealing with his own loneliness and closet homosexuality. At work, there is the new head of security, Strickland (Michael Shannon), a sadistic, misogynist who takes great pleasure in strutting around, torturing the fish-man and projecting his authority in front of the scientists and cleaning ladies. In a small but pivotal role, Michael Stuhlbarg plays the lead scientist who wants to learn from the creature without harming it. And of course, there is the creature, played by Doug Jones. Just as Andy Serkis has become “Mr. Motion Capture”, Doug Jones is the go-to actor who is willing to work under layers of makeup; he played Abe Sapiens in the Hellboy films, the Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth and the alien Saru in Star Trek: Discovery. To understand why this film has received 13 Oscar nominations, you only have to watch the opening scene which is ‘pure cinema’. This is when one realizes the brilliance and vision of the director. There are many other delightful touches in the film and it’s really an extraordinary example of storytelling and characterization. It’s entirely possible that on Oscar night, it may lose out in many of the 13 categories to other nominees, but I do believe that this is a film where Guillermo del Toro has created something that is greater than the sum of its parts and I hope he will take home an Oscar for at least one of his 3 nominations – as scriptwriter, producer or director.

Phantom Thread: Exquisitely crafted story of love as a power play

About half an hour into Phantom Thread, Daniel Day-Lewis’ character Reynolds Woodcock speeds through the British country roads in his maroon Bristol 405 sports car; the camera is mounted on the rear of the car and gives a glorious view of the landscape whizzing by. On one hand, this sudden change of pace from Woodcock’s stately and ordered life as shown in the first half hour comes as a surprise…I thought to myself, “the old boy’s not so stodgy after all”. On the other hand, this camera view of the road in front with everything else a blur, accentuates Woodcock’s tunnel vision of life…no one else matters,  only him and his craft.

And speaking of craft, Phantom Thread is full of it, both in its behind the scenes look at life inside a luxury fashion house in the 50’s and in the way the film is put together by 8-time Oscar-nominated American auteur Paul Thomas Anderson. Both are full of meticulous detail, exquisitely crafted, in a way that reminded me of another American auteur Martin Scorsese.

Reynolds Woodcock and his sister Cyril run the reputed Woodcock fashion house like a well-oiled machine. Reynolds is the face of the business, an outwardly charming creative genius who is a god to his rich and royal customers; Cyril is the operational head, who manages the business and the house. They are served by a dozen or so experienced, quietly competent and highly reliable seamstresses. Behind the scenes, Reynolds is still a child, haunted by an obsessive love for his deceased mother and like so many outwardly successful people, racked by insecurity and a desire for control. Cyril is the person who is really in control, the gatekeeper who “manages” Reynolds, including helping him to get rid of lovers and muses who have become clinging and tiresome. And into this finely balanced set-up arrives young Alma Elson (played by Luxembourgish actress Vicky Krieps), a waitress at a countryside restaurant who catches Reynolds’ eye and becomes his newest companion. Unlike the previous women, Alma has a steely resolve hidden inside the unsophisticated country girl exterior and quickly engages in a power play with Cyril on who exercises more control over Reynolds.

And so, Phantom Thread ends up being a film about Love and Power. Both women would swear that they do what they do out of love for Reynolds. The sister does so by pandering to his whims (and thereby making him dependent on her) while the lover seeks to break him free of his self-created social cage, but ironically wants him to be free only so that he can focus entirely on her (and eventually goes to unconscionable lengths to win the battle and establish control over him). And a willing player in this game is Reynolds Woodcock, a prisoner of his own inflexibility, a child lost inside a man, who subconsciously seeks a female authority-figure to replace the mother that he pines for. I was reminded of Day-Lewis’ character Newton Archer, from Scorsese’s Age of Innocence, another man who was caught in a power play between two women, outwardly in control of his life, but ultimately outwitted by his seemingly simple-minded wife.

The music, composed by Radiohead guitarist and keyboardist Jonny Greenwood (for which he has received an Oscar nomination), is refreshing and distinctive; although recorded with a 60-piece orchestra, it stays simple and light, in keeping with the rarified, high society setting of the film. The film has also been nominated for Best Film (Megan Ellison, daughter of Oracle founder Larry, receives her 4th Oscar nomination as co-producer), Best Director for Paul Thomas Anderson (his 8th nomination across directing, screenwriting and producing), Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis’ 6th nomination – he has won thrice so far), Best Supporting Actress for Leslie Manville playing the stern, poker-faced sister and Best Costume Design. I think it would also have been nominated for Best Cinematography, but since the camera work was done by the director himself, uncredited, I suspect it didn’t comply with the Academy’s nomination rules. I am genuinely surprised it hasn’t been nominated for Best Production Design.

I had an interesting experience while watching this film in the theatre. Towards the start of the movie, I was distracted and irritated (as I always am) by the sound of someone noisily eating popcorn behind me; I turned around pointedly in the hope that this person would get the hint (the sounds soon stopped). Soon afterwards, in the film, Reynolds Woodcock gets supremely agitated with Alma’s loud eating and drinking at the breakfast table. She soon learns to eat her breakfast quietly so as not to disturb the great man’s early morning creative process, but later on she is back to her old ways and the noises of her eating visibly grates on Reynolds’ ears. In a film that is quite dark and serious, these sequences are played out with a degree of dry wit that had me (and the audience) chuckling in sympathy with Reynolds, giving me personally, a feeling of comfort that I was not the only person to suffer in this way!

This is not a film for all tastes, but if you have the patience to watch an engrossing, beautifully crafted film, with multiple layers of meaning and emotion, then do not miss this.