Film Review: Lunana – A Yak in the Classroom (2019)

While I was doing a wiki on the recently released nominations for the Oscars, I observed this film, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, in the Best International Feature Film category. What surprised me was the fact that this film came all over from Bhutan. I had never watched a Bhutanese film before and Lunana created history to represent Bhutan for the first time in the Oscars. After further research, the film’s reputation impressed me that this film has reached various film festivals for screening and won a couple of biggies like Palm Springs International Film Festival and had a World Premiere at the BFI London Film Festival.

Lunana is a beautiful remote valley of Bhutan. With a few houses and an extremely limited population, people here make their living from yaks and sheep. The film is about young Ugyen who is enrolled for training in teaching. But his heart is in becoming a singer and moving to Australia for a better living. The institute moves him to Lunana for a temporary period to teach small kids. Meeting some new social challenges and way of living getting tougher, Ugyen experiences life like never before.

This film heavily reminded me of Ashutosh Gowariker‘s Swades and Greg Mortenson‘s famous book Three Cups of Tea because Lunana excitingly had elements of both. Like rural simplicities, hospitality, and generosity from both, Himalayan mountain climbing to teaching in a least-facilitated school from the book, reluctant of adapting rural methods but going 360 for the betterment from the film. Lunana is a hybrid sense of finesse for a film and a book.

Watching a Bhutanese film for the first time, I actually am impressed with the filmmaking as obviously there has to be the reason why this film came to international fame. The first forty minutes have quite a slow and steady buildup to the story. Ugyen’s character development is the clear winner. His character complexity in traveling Lunana to enthusiasm for children are the best parts of screenwriting. The audience goes with the flow; the audience travels to Lunana with him and feels his jeopardy.

With a delicate sense of detailing, the director Pawo Choyning Dorji has shot the film with meticulous care. A lot of small portions are taken care of that means a lot. There is a thoughtful moment when in Lunana, Ugyen observes the old villager without shoes. He reasons that he doesn’t have money to fill his feet. In the next scene, his child shows up to his bare feet in her shoes. Very touching. The scene had nothing to do with the plot but these are the segments where the director gives value to the sub-detailing that builds the characters and gives the audience their part of the theory.

There is a scene where Ugyen teaches ‘C for Car’ but the kids do not recognize what a car is. So he replaces the car with a cow because they are familiar with that. In the world of automobiles, the director gives the audience their chance to realize that there are remote places where a thing called a car can neither exist nor humankind can imagine such a thing to exist.

I keep writing about the film being Bhutanese but I am compelled due to the filmmaking brilliance that I wasn’t expecting to be that good. Yes, it is a predictable story with the script nowhere meeting its tragic anti-climax or any sign of negative energy about an outsider influencing people of a certain place; but the productional aesthetics and the screenplay are just marvelous.

Lunana successfully conveys the message that the simplest ways of life can transform a human into happiness. Reaching the Oscar is a historic moment in their history and the film deserves its piece of the limelight. Lunana is a beautiful drama and highly recommended to all the viewers.

Ratings: 8.3/10

Film Review: The King’s Man (2021)

The King’s Man is the third chapter in the Kingsman series of films that takes the audience more than a hundred years back to present what were the causes and factors involved that gave birth to the Kingsman organization. Directed by the same guy, Michael Vaughn, this film touches on so many important political events that happened before, during, and after World War I.

The Kingsman films are basically a comic book series ‘Kingsman‘ written by Mark Millar and the artwork by Dave Gibbons. Kingsman is so far consisting of three parts, starting with ‘The Secret Service‘ of 6 issues. Then ‘The Big Exit‘ which is only 1 issue. And then ‘The Red Diamond‘ of 6 issues. Keeping in mind, Mark Millar gave birth to Kingsman in 2012 and Michael Vaughn picked the literature in 2014; so the Kingsman franchise in all formats has made steady progress in just 10 years.

Rhys Ifans as Rasputin in 20th Century Studios’ THE KING’S MAN. Photo credit: Peter Mountain. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

History has been one of my favorite subjects. Therefore, time-traveling with Kingsman to one of the most important political events in history was necessary. Of course, the events were not historically accurate. Hitler didn’t kill the Tsars, Mata Hari didn’t seduce Woodrow Wilson, Rasputin wasn’t a fighter, and many more.

There may be two reasons for these inaccuracies. One is that Michael Vaughn took the liberty to present the film with such theatrical license to become how the history would look like to build a purpose of giving birth to an organization.

The other reason is maybe this is how the original source of the comic book series is written. And if that is so, then the historical inaccuracy does not become a problem because the writer has the liberty to present his/her audience the way he/she wants to write a fictional story on a real event. There is no argument in that. There are tons and tons of fictional novels based on real events and that is completely okay. If anyone still has any objection, let me drop this to you, Joker was once Iran’s representative to the United Nations *cough*.

One more fact that we need to acknowledge is that Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons themselves are the executive producers of all three Kingsman films. So no one should have any problem with any portion of the story if the Gods of that universe are the ones financing these films.

Michael Vaughn’s direction was quite different than the previous two installments. But I must say, the direction was pretty complex in the middle of the film. I felt the film was deliberately running fast, they have to catch the train and reach the platform where the organization will come into existence. But also, Michael Vaughn usually paces the screenplay.

The casting of this film is so elite and perfect. Ralph Fiennes in the leading role as the Duke of Oxford was marvelous thought. He perfectly suits a franchise like Kingsman. Tom Hollander! I mean what a smart and intelligent pick for the triple role of Tsar, Wilhelm, and George. Giving such heavy roles to the same actor was funny and clever as two of the three, Tsar and George were identical. To my utter shock, Rasputin is played by Rhys Ifans. Never imagined him being Rasputin. What a thought! He looked so Rasputin in superb makeup. And I found this Rasputin in physical presence better than Ben Cartwright‘s in the limited series, The Last Czars.

And then the fast action sequences, that have been important elements of Michael Vaughn’s filmography, will not disappoint. Rasputin’s fighting was fun to watch, I was laughing at this action sequence because Rasputin was fighting with elements of Russian folk dance.

Maybe the film is not appreciated because of the complex direction in the middle of the film and is quite different than the first two Kingsman films. But I recognize the importance of this film and I think it was quite alright. I liked the idea of how one evil sent his followers to bring hell on the global powers. This film is extremely political and may also be the reason that Kingsman fans showed less fondness as compared to the other two. But I believe, this film stays untouched by the graceful aesthetics and makes no harm in this Kingsverse. With the development in the mid-credit scene, I wait for its continuity.

Ratings: 8.2/10

Film Review: CODA (2021)

CODA is an acronym for a ‘Child of Deaf Adult‘. That means an individual who was raised by one or two parents/guardians who were deaf. So this coming-of-age film is about Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) whose ambition is to become a singer. But the problem is the lifetime dependency of her deaf family who is reluctant to continue living their life on their own, without her support.

When I understood the plot, I realized I have watched an old film with a similar plot. It was none other than Sanjay Leela Bhansali‘s Khamoshi: The Musical. But Khamoshi’s story was also similar to a German film Jenseits der Stille that was actually released a few months after Khamoshi. So, was Khamoshi an original story? CODA itself is an official remake of French film La Famille Bélier.

So, for me, the story is ordinary. But CODA is all about the execution of the story that is blessed with an impressive screenplay and extraordinary performances by many major characters, especially Rubi’s father Frank played by Troy Kotsur. There are several scenes where the family’s deafness and sign language performance are done so well. And there are scenes that build a lot of attention for the audience like Ruby’s music teacher Mr. V (Eugenio Derbez) working hard on Ruby’s vocal cords, especially that pressing on little-dog-big-dog-exercise.

The beauty of CODA also is that the film grows on its audience. Note when the parents struggle to understand their daughter’s performance and observe the clapping and behavior of other listeners, or when Frank feels her neck when she sings, or when Ruby sings with sign language in the hall. Yes, the film is pretty slow but I think this subject in a coming-of-age film needed to be slow-paced.

CODA needs a quick visit to enjoy some astonishingly brilliant performances as deaf characters. A fabulous tone for coming-of-age needs a reminder to the audience that there are CODAs who face difficulties and get bullied, and they need help.

Ratings: 7.5/10

Film Review: Spider Baby (1967)

The Merrye family suffers from a rare genetic disorder called Merrye Syndrome that causes mental, physical, and emotional regression. After the death of the family patriarch, the family chauffeur Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.) looks after his children and tolerates the brutality and madness of the three Merrye siblings; spider-obsessed Virginia (Jill Banner), Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), and Ralph (Sid Haig). But protecting them from the heinous crimes becomes almost impossible when the relatives of the building owner arrive with their lawyer and secretary to claim the ownership.

There was a time for the spooky and horror films that achieved cult status in Hollywood and Europe in the 1960s followed by Giallo films of Italy in the same decade until the late 1970s. This was a special wave created by some innovative filmmakers who believed in setting trends of the genre.

Two prime examples to make my point is Robert Aldrich‘s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psycho. But those films were directional classics of the genre and their production budgets were around $1 million. This Spider Baby was a low-budget film with a production investment of hardly $60-70 thousand. Maybe the reason is that director Jack Hill was making exploitation films in those times and this kind of film had a relatively low budget because, from the business point of view, they were never able to compete with the biggies of those times.

Spider Baby’s accomplishment is the presentation of the elements of black comedy and horror. The story itself was unique for the audience. Plus the actors of that syndrome did a lot of justice with their crazy portrayals. I was completely sold at the beginning scene where Virginia suddenly arrives in the room with two butcher knives and a rope which she calls her ‘web’ and brutally kills the visitor. The camera work and Jill’s body language were phenomenal. So was the main theme of the film that gives you a very exciting gothic feeling.

How good is it? Well, it definitely is not a masterpiece due to the low budget but an easy visit to the spooky genre for entertainment. Spider Baby will be remembered for its story and horror elements.

Ratings: 5/10

Film Review: Passing (2021)

I swear I never knew the word ‘Passing‘ has a racial meaning and that is unsurprisingly connected to American history. Passing is a term that is used for light-skinned Black Americans who can assimilate into the White majority or in other words, they are accepted or perceived as ‘White’.

This film is based on Nella Larsen‘s 1929 novel ‘Passing‘ about two light-skinned Black American friends who meet each other after a long time in the Harlem neighborhood of New York in the 1920s. Irene (Tessa Thompson) is married to a Black doctor while her friend Clare (Ruth Negga) has passed as ‘White’ and is married to a wealthy white man John (Alexander Skarsgård) who ranks and regards Black people low. Clare rediscovers the truthfulness of life in Irene and tries to gather more with her friend until she ‘pass’ out.

The film is slow-burn but the emotional application is more burning on Clare’s side. The revelation and denial are shocking as it looks disturbing when Clare agrees with John that she is white. Although it is dramatic, the story is executed in the right direction so that the audience gets to feel how difficult it was for a Black to be accepted in a society most of the Whites more than a hundred years ago.

Passing is a technical brilliance with a delicate sense of crafting of the screenplay and direction. The subject was given its piece of thoughtful tribute to that generation who were divided in color concentration. Thompson and Negga were brilliant, especially the latter made us feel heartbroken with her remarkable body language. I am surprised Passing got not a single Oscar nomination. At least Negga deserved the nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Ratings: 7.5/10

Film Review: House of Gucci (2021)

As the title gives the precise indication, Ridley Scott‘s House of Gucci is about the legacy and incidents that occurred in this rich family that led to the downfall and disgrace to their name. With the ensemble cast of Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Jeremy Irons, Al Pacino, Jack Huston, and Salma Hayek, the film with a fair portion of historical accuracy indicates that the film was set for a definite showdown.

What marvels with the film is the consistent pace at which the screenplay holds firmness and makes the actors mesmerize with their quality performances. They all were exceptional. Their roles were well adjusted in their given screentime according to their weight and importance of them in the story.

As many major incidents were directed in the right tone, there do are some issues where I felt that Ridley Scott lost the edge or preferred theatrical license. The most critical concern was Jared Leto as Paolo Gucci. Couldn’t understand why Leto was chosen for the role and all this hard work on prosthetics transformation. Only Ridley can explain the vision behind believing that Leto will do justice. Leto’s Paolo Gucci is a strange comic relief who is like a fool or a jester in the Middle-Age royal court. I could not take him seriously. I felt as if this was some parody or his imitation of Paolo’s foolishness. Not sure if this was disrespect but I had to question myself if Paolo Gucci really was a nincompoop. There is no doubt about Leto’s performance as a funny Gucci being entertainment for the audience, he did act well. But, did Paolo carry the same traits, or was he deliberately put to insult?

Another concern is the film’s length. Because the pace of the story was consistent, a lengthy film made the watch on the wrist tickly-ticking. To my understanding, a story like House of Gucci perfectly fits for a limited series format rather than a 158-minute saga. I think FX‘s American Crime Story would have done a favor to its audience way more than this film. Despite being a quality film, a school of thought may construct to theorize that the dramatizing of around three decades with these characters in a single film would not develop that much storytelling.

I am disappointed with the Oscars, how come Lady Gaga is not nominated for the Best Actress? This has to be her best performance. The role of Patrizia Reggiani in the house of Gucci was a bomb that exploded with many consequences. And Lady Gaga’s execution was so well-crafted that the viewers will get irritated with her for everything she stood for. In the second half, she will be on everyone’s nerve, and would love to see her die. And this is what performance is about. Play a good or bad character in a way that the audience treats the actor in the same manner as the character himself/herself.

The other major actors did well. Adam Driver continues his form. Jeremy Irons had his moments when his character gets extremely sick. Al Pacino’s prowess in his artistry was reflected when he returned from prison to lose his mind over the incidents he never came to be aware of.

House of Gucci is a favor to the fashion enthusiast and the history-digging audience who are interested to know how the mighty fell and lost control of one of the greatest luxury brands.

Ratings: 7.5/10

Film Review: Three Songs for Benazir (2021)

Three Songs for Benazir is an Afghan-American short documentary film about a very young couple, Shaista and Benazir, who are newly married and soon expecting a child. They all live in a camp for war-torn displaced people in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. Shaista dreams of making his family proud by joining the Afghan army and becoming the first in his family to do so. But the elders are scared of Taliban threats and the news of his recruitment will break the hell on them.

I think a much-needed push and gentle storytelling about Afghan’s portrayal of their miseries and jeopardies. Usually, the filmmakers focus on the gallantry of their warriors and rage of the Pashtun warfares that always makes one imagine if the country offers anything else in their thousand years of history than wars and warfares. Do they live a normal life? Yes, they do. And their wars do have consequences. There do are Afghans who become the victims of this political mess.

Shaista’s love for Benazir is out of this world. He sings for her, he passes some pieces of information about technology. But this is the phase where people like Shaista with ambition and admonition of his life decisions are reluctant and despondent. When national and domestic commitments or responsibilities surface together, quick decisions become overhanging with weight. The film being 21-minute short is the reason that the character of Shaista lacks that development and runs swiftly towards the conclusion.

But the productional aesthetics of an Afghan subject in a short format are quite some standard. The camera work over domestic activities is captured well.

Spoken in Pashto and Dari, Three Songs for Benazir is a documentary about family values blended with ambitional sense of honor. The documentary has met its critical acclaim enough to reach the Oscars. The documentary gives its audience a chance to look at conflict-ridden Afghanistan from the other angle.

Ratings: 7/10

Film Review: Sovdagari (2018)

Netflix’s Sovdagari (The Trader) is a Georgian short documentary film about the importance of potatoes amongst the Georgian villagers. This is a 23-minute documentary that presents the living hood of the villagers and their usual consumption of potatoes. This documentary is about the entire process from production and cultivation to selling it to the local consumers who buy in bulk quantity.

What Sovdagari propels you to think is that when a certain geographical location is doomed and its people are hopeless, they find a way to survive whether they like it or not. Here, potato is their currency, their bread and butter. Potato serves their livelihood.

Sovdagari shows old villagers talking about their lives, the farmers arguing about women, a poverty line that is stretched on their faces. I liked the part where a very old woman tries to bargain for buying potatoes and reminds her of old age to him.

The makers have emphasized the troubling times and alarmed the audience of the consequences of the political, social, and economic meltdown that can grow concerns among the people and make them think about how to survive. Whether they should leave the place where they lived all their lives or find an alternative. So many villagers buy potatoes and made me think how much do they consume daily.

The camera work of this show is the heartbeat that convinces the subjectivity of this short documentary in all bounds. The close-ups and some moments where the camera pauses to scrutinize the deep meanings of human moods like an old man smoking and addressing what he wanted from life or a suited child in his swing looking at the camera.

Then there is one thought-provoking scene that I am not sure if it was real or fake but a facially excited child is asked what he wants to become. He is happy but lost for words. His mom suggests responding that he wants to become a journalist. But he still does not utter a single word and keeps thinking for an entire minute. He doesn’t reflect any sign of grievance or annoyance but a lack of self-confidence. He is struggling to construct a dialogue. His mother gives a staunch look at him and then leaves him on his own. That leads to a few theories for the audience whether he doesn’t have a clue what he wants in life at such a tender age or if he never happened to speak to an outsider and communicate freely. Sovdagari stretches the social and domestic dynamics in their miseries.

Trying something new, I found the language quite interesting. Like the title word is Sovdagari that is supremely similar to the word Saudagar (soda-gar) in Persian. By reading the history, I find out that Georgia and Persia had relations for no less than a thousand years. Therefore, they had a cultural exchange in the past. So this may be the reason that the Georgian language may have some Persian words.

Sovdagari is the winner of Best Short Film at the Sundance Film Festival.

Ratings: 6.5/10

Film Review: The House (2022)

Netflix’s The House is an anthology film about three stories centering around the house. Presented in stop-motion animation, the stories reflect on human elements that try to survive or play games on the others to invade your space. And this paves a way for those who want to present their ideas through stop-motion because it is a beautiful art. So far we have usually observed using this medium for humor and entertainment but making things very dark and sensitive like The House has rarely happened. So I appreciate the makers for this.

There is your despairing corner of childhood that is stored somewhere in this film. Some picks of episodic agitation of your loneliness that you watch in one of the stories. A part of privacy that is invaded and irritates you; your complaints and your angst that keep building the nerve but you tolerate until it becomes intolerable. You, somehow, see yourself in at least one of the three stories and compels you to think the ugliness of the greed and the individual negative energy.

The observer can come up with many theories from these stories. The first part was more consortium of brainwashing that resulted in punishment and abandoned the children. I think some magic spell befooled them and their children at a tender age were lost to survive on their own.

The second part was my favorite and I liked the developer’s frustration that built in time after those unexpected guests had no plan to leave at all. The conclusion of the story pressed an unwanted truth that people who are not like you drive you insane and transform you. You become like them. It was a sorry ending but very thoughtful and disturbing.

THE HOUSE. Susan Wokoma as Rosa in THE HOUSE. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2021

The third story can be observed from many angles. One was Rosa’s stubbornness and will to survive on her own in the house and believing that she was right to stay in the house after the disaster. Rosa was the only one who was serious to make the money when there was no hope while the other tenants had understood that the house is sinking at any time so live it on your own whatever is left. And then the key factor Cosmos was the one who made Rosa’s survival certain. Do you need to listen to someone who is the least interested to you? Should you let go of your childhood home in a natural disaster situation?

There are anthology films in which the story fails to give any meaning but The House is murky and embezzles your mood and emotions to think what if you are a part of an invasion? What if you have to speak or communicate with people you don’t want to? What if there is no escape?

The House is like a root canal. With the horror elements, this film agonizes your assumptions. The dancing parasites in the film are a marvelous exaggeration of your repeated failure, the thing that needs to leave mocking at you. Watch this remarkable surrealist film.

Ratings: 8.7/10

Film Review: Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui (2021)

A bodybuilder from Chandigarh Manu (Ayushmann Khurrana) falls in love with the Zumba teacher in his gym Maanvi (Vaani Kapoor) but to his utter shock, he discovers that Maanvi is actually a trans-girl. Things expectedly do not go well and the film majorly begins to focus on the repercussion.

It is neither a typical masala entertainer nor a trans is put to mocking for fun as usually, the makers intend to put the subject to entertainment. But the problem with the film comes around by application of a very forced humor, stereotypical aesthetics like super-cringe pariwar or over supportive friends, or needless video songs that break the sensitivity of the subject and the rhythm this film could have built when the flow was going right.

And then the direction. Is that Abhishek Kapoor‘s direction? I refuse to believe that the guy who directed Rock On!! and Kai Po Che executed this project. Vaani Kapoor as the trans-girl deserves the credit of playing such a courageous role. She performed her being insecure pretty fair and the argument with Manu in a public place was also a very good attempt. She hasn’t acted much in the last few years so not sure what was she capable of but she did her best.

Ayushmann, like always, picked a film with a social issue that needs to be addressed and did his part that he always does. And I like that professional stance that he maintains making good choices and attracting the audience to watch what they need to watch. But one factor he needs to consider while picking the film is to scrutinize the team involved in the making of the film. Because most of the time, Ayushmann addressing a social issue meets low expectations due to weak screenplay and direction resulting in awful execution. I respect his professional attitude of taking the risk.

Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui could have done so well if the screenwriting was not been so off. Maybe a writer like Juhi Chaturvedi or Shonali Bose would have done justice and made this film with a very good plotline making a strong impact. The clear indication of the writing going off is the entire second half of the film, the continuity from the first half fell flat. Someone explain to me why Manu lifted the car. At that moment, the writer could have come up with dozens of ideas. This is why I say, the writing was badly let down.

You may watch this film for its subject, Ayushmann, and Vaani’s try on acting such a critical role.

Ratings: 4/10