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.


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.

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.

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.

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.