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Netflix | The White Tiger – Review

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“Spectacular” is a word rarely used when describing Netflix original movies, since so many get released at the same time. Once in a blue moon, a “spectacular” Netflix film comes out that blows us all away, but becomes buried within the next week when more “content” gets released. We’re more used to say “admirable” or “terrible” when describing Netflix movies. Ramin Bahrani made a “spectacular” film in 2015, 99 Homes, which contained career-defining performances from Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon, yet his follow-up, an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, was more than “terrible.”

His latest film, which adapts Arvind Adiga’s The White Tiger, is a mere “admirable” effort, as it tells a typical “rags-to-riches” story of Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), who becomes a driver to Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra-Jonas), in the hopes of getting out of what he refers to as “the rooster coop” (which reinterprets Robert Kioysaki’s “rat race” theory from Rich Dad, Poor Dad) that most lower-class Indians are stuck in. However, when an unfortunate incident happens, it puts Balram’s future in jeopardy as he is framed for murder.

The White Tiger' review: Dir. Ramin Bahrani (2021)

The White Tiger‘s reinterpretation of the “rat race” theory is, bar none, the film’s most engaging aspect. The audience becomes a witness in Balram’s descent into madness, as the people he drives with will constantly abuse and frame him to protect their own self-interests and “public image.” Because of this, once Balram “snaps” in front of Ashok and “The Stork” (Mahesh Manjrekar), you know exactly where he’s coming from. Throughout all of his life, he has been given opportunities to flourish as an individual and create lasting change in the world (one teacher compares him to a white tiger; someone who comes only once in a generation), but bad decisions from his family prevented him from escaping the “rooster coop.” Its lead performance from Adarsh Gourav is excellent, as he is able to convey different emotional states during the film’s three acts and seeing his transformation from “innocent-driver” to “cold-blooded criminal” who’ll do anything to get out of the “rooster coop” is incredibly gripping.

It’s a shame that the movie is told in the third-person, through flashbacks. Balram writes to China’s Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, and gives the audience “hints” as to what happened with Ashok & Pinky, instead of a typical, linear storyline. By watching the film’s opening sequence when Balram prints out his “wanted” poster, the audience can clearly predict what will happen at the end of the movie by connecting a few dots, once Balram starts working for Ashok. This reduces the emotional build-up and supense of the film, because the audience has clearly made themselves an idea of what’s [most likely] going to happen.

Most of the supporting cast can’t also match Gourav’s star-making performance. Rao’s line delivery, as Ashok, is quite flat and Priyanka Chopra’s Pinky is incredibly underused. The only performance that truly carries the movie is Gourav; all of the other actors surrounding him badly deliver their lines and melodramatically perform. There’s no legitimate access to The Stork, Ashok, or Pinky’s psyche, who bribe politicians into not paying taxes. A “bit” of access is given when Pinky feels terrible when The Stork and Ashok’s brother, The Mongoose (Vijay Maurya) frame Balram for murder, but it doesn’t last enough for the audience to care about the supporting cast. Their main focus is on Balram’s journey, but part of that journey’s unpredictability is reduced by knowing exactly how it ends.

Because of this, The White Tiger half-succeeds at telling a standard “rags-to-riches” story inspired by one of the best economic theories of our time. At times, the film is incredibly engaging and gripping; due to Adarsh Gourav’s immaculate portrayal of Balram and its wonderfully stylized cinematography, at times it delves into melodrama and complete unintentional hilarity from its cheesy supporting cast delivering subpar performances and a non-linear plot whose ending “shock-moment” is revealed within the film’s first five minutes. It’s an “admirable” effort, yes, but not a particularly memorable one.

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Film Festivals

Cha Cha Real Smooth | Sundance Film Festival 2022 Review

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After his first feature film Shithouse won the Grand Jury Prize for Best narrative Feature at SXSW in 2020, writer/director/actor Cooper Raiff is back with his second film, Cha Cha Real Smooth, and it’s sure to be the crowd-pleasing film of Sundance 2022.

After having recently graduated from college, 22-year-old Andrew (played by writer/director Cooper Raiff) is stuck back at home living with his family in New Jersey unsure of his career path going forward. After taking his younger brother David to a bar mitzvah, Andrew discovers one thing that he is very good at- partying. This makes him the perfect candidate for a job starting parties at all the local bar and bat mitzvahs.

It’s at one of these bar mitzvahs that Andrew meets single mother Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (played by Vanessa Burghardt, an autistic actor) and he finally discovers a future that he wants after striking up a strong bond with both Domino and Lola.

Much like with his first film Shithouse, Raiff fills Cha Cha Real Smooth completely full to the brim with emotion and with characters that feel so real and honest. Raiff proves himself as an absolute gem both behind the camera and in front of it as it’s a film that has so much heart to it. The cast are all fantastic which only fuels these characters and makes them stand out even more so that they really feel like real people.

Once again Raiff has created such complex characters with so much beneath the surface to the extent that if anyone of these characters were the protagonist it would still be an interesting film. If the film focused on Andrew’s brother, or his mum, or Domino or Lola instead of making Andrew the protagonist it would still be just as interesting a film. And so to have Andrew as well as all of these other characters makes for a really compelling film.

As the title of the film hints at, we do get to experience the Cha Cha Slide at one of the bar mitzvahs in the film and it’s a wild one. But as well as being very funny, Cha Cha Real Smooth is incredibly emotional. There’s a conversation around the midpoint of the film about depression and about what it feels like and the writing hits so hard, along with Raiff and Johnson’s fantastic delivery that you can’t help but start welling up.

Cha Cha Real Smooth is charming in every single aspect and it’s the best film of Sundance 2022 so far. Raiff is certainly one to watch going forward.

Cha Cha Real Smooth premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

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Sundown Review | Staring At The Sun

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Tim Roth is one of those actors that is impossible to take your eyes off of when he graces the screen. Even in a very gentle role like his in Bergman Island, there is something so fascinating about the British actor that is captivating. Above all else, Roth has always shown a complete understanding of the assignment; see The Incredible Hulk or The Hateful Eight. Sundown is one of the most subtle roles Roth has played, his character is so detached from the world around him. Unfortunately for him, Roth is the most memorable thing about Sundown. As nice as an 82-minute sprint is like Sundown, it feels like half of a movie and is missing a good portion of backstory that would have made the film resonate more. Even after two viewings, the first coming at the Philadelphia Film Festival in October, some elements are still unclear, which just makes Sundown a frustrating watch. 

Sundown is about a man, Neil (Tim Roth), who takes sojourning too far when he attempts to break away from his family during a vacation that is cut short due to a loss in the family. When Neil’s sister, Alice (Charolette Gainsbourg), and her two kids, Colin (Samuel Bottomley) and Alexa (Albertine Kotting McMillan) all arrive at the airport, Neil claims to have left his passport at the resort. As Neil stands alone in the airport, with an unsure look on his face, he decides to head back to a hotel and just sojourn there for an indefinite period, drinking bottomless beers on the shore and meeting a woman, Bernice (Iazua Larios).

Photo: Bleecker Street

The Sundown train truly starts and stops with Roth, who is simply unable to disappoint at this stage of his career. Neil lies through his teeth while countering every one of Alice’s solutions for his “lost passport.” If (for some crazy reason) you need to be sold on Roth, the scene where he talks to the family lawyer, Richard (Henry Goodman), in prison towards the end of the film, should do it. Roth acts completely with his eyes in this scene, a sad, depressed and altogether lost look in his eye that can’t help but make you pity him. 

Upon first seeing Sundown last October, it didn’t feel like much of the film made sense. When the credits rolled and people began exiting the auditorium, people pondered what the pig metaphor was supposed to represent. Another confusing aspect of Sundown is the usage of the sun and its meaning. Director Michel Franco has talked a little bit about the metaphor of the sun, which is shown frequently during transitional shots. When the sun is shown as many times as it is, it is clear that it has some meaning, but it just fell flat.

Simply put, Sundown feels like half, or maybe two-thirds of a story, with its small-scale simultaneously being its best friend and enemy. Why does Neil even decide to stay back in Mexico? The opening ten minutes of Sundown show Neil seemingly disconnected from his family, constantly sitting out of board games and keeping to himself while staring off into the distance during family dinners. But why? This question is never confronted, though Richard does bring up a “condition” that Neil has, which is later revealed to be a form of cancer. When Alice returns to confront Neil, we learn a little bit more about the sister-brother relationship that likely plays some part in Neil’s actions. The duo owns and runs a successful business that Neil seems to be willing to give Alice full ownership of after their confrontation. Another 10-15 minutes that explained not only explained the relationship of Neil and Alice, but the relationship between them and their parents as well could have gone a long way in making Sundown make any sort of sense. If we learned that Neil had a troubled past with his mother, it’d make a lot more sense why he decides to stay back and avoid her funeral. Or maybe Neil and Alice have a hot-and-cold relationship. But as it stands, none of this is ever tackled, leaving most of Sundown (frustratingly) up for interpretation.

To its credit, Sundown is only 82 minutes, and the second viewing flew by even faster as each part of the progression of Neil’s arc is far shorter than the first go-around. Sundown is a very stoic film more than it’s not; occasionally going from zero to 100 within seconds such as when a quiet day on the beach is suddenly interrupted by gunshots or when someone is suddenly hit over the head with a bottle.

The beauty of Sundown is aforementioned small scale. It takes place almost exclusively in Acapulco whether it’s the streets, beaches, or prisons. Sundown does a great job of giving viewers an intimate tour of Acapulco, and the story is so self-contained.

Sundown won’t get the same level of praise as other films in Roth’s filmography. It’s a beautifully-shot film ranging from its oceanic scenery and dark rooms illuminated with neon signs. Roth is incapable of giving a bad performance, but the gaps missing from the story feel as big as the ones in The Tender Bar and the symbolism of the car. In both cases, those gaps weigh down the film from being something special, and despite the beauty of a film with such a small scale, this is an example of a film that needed more time to fully set up the characters and their arcs for it to make sense.  

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Film Festivals

Living | Sundance Film Festival 2022 Review

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Remakes seem like such a frequent occurrence these days that there’s often very little reason to make them beyond people liking the original so the filmmakers hope the remake will be just as successful. And with Living being a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 classic Ikiru it was always going to have big shoes to fill. Whilst Living never fully justifies its own existence, nor does it get anywhere close to the heights of Kurosawa’s classic, it’s still a powerful watch nonetheless.

Living switches up the setting and takes place in 1950s post-World War II Britain where we meet Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy) a veteran civil servant and bureaucrat working in a government office. Much like in the original film, upon discovering he has a terminal illness his outlook on life completely changes and he looks for the meaning of life. He realizes that he’s spent his whole life passively going about his day and he hasn’t truly lived. And it’s only now that his days are numbered that he wants to experience life to the fullest.

He keeps the news of his condition from his son and daughter in law and uncharacteristically starts avoiding the office in search of meaning in his remaining days. He’s determined to get a children’s playground built that the local mothers have been campaigning for despite the fact that him and his colleagues have failed to do so yet.

Oliver Hermanus directs this reimagining with poignancy and to some level he captures the essence of Kurosawa’s film. The film’s London setting works well for the story and 1950s London is lovingly recreated with such great detail and the film displays an incredible look to it that right from the opening really makes you feel like you’re there in post-war Britain. Nighy excels as Mr. Williams with a graceful performance that in tandem with the film’s charming score and elegant writing makes for a stunning film about what it means to live.

However Living never fully hits anywhere nearly as hard as Ikiru does. After finishing Ikiru the film leaves you completely floored and contemplating your entire existence as a human being on planet Earth. After watching Living you don’t come out with that same feeling. Granted, it is a very difficult feeling to capture and to reproduce and Living does get some part of the way there, it’s representation of life’s purpose never quite feels as strong as it does in Kurosawa’s film. And as a result, Living’s own purpose as a film is never fully expressed. It’s an excellent film that does really touch you at times, it’s just a very pale shadow of Ikiru.

Living is one of those films that on its own merits is a very good film, anchored by a remarkably moving performance from Nighy, it’s just that Ikiru in all its glory looms over the film and it just can’t escape that and it never reaches anywhere close to the greatness of Kurosawa. It was always going to be a difficult task and Living does take a pretty good stab at it, but it still didn’t really need to be made.

Living premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

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