India’s Daughter

Protesters stand up for women's rights in India - even when they can't stand.

Protesters stand up for women’s rights in India – even when they can’t stand.

(2015) Documentary (Paladin) Asha Singh, Badri Singh, A.P. Singh, Dr. Maria Misra, Laila Seth, Pawan Gupta, Akshay Thakur, Kalyani Singh, Satendra, M.L. Sharma, Mukesh Singh, Vinay Sharma, Mango Lal, Dr. Sandeep Govil, Amod Kanth, Raj Kumar, Kavita Krishnan, Pramod Kishwa, Dr. Rashmi Ahuja, Pratibha Sharma, Gupal Subramanium, Puneeta Devi, Sheila Dixit. Directed by Leslee Udwin

It is estimated that a woman is raped in India every 20 minutes. It is a huge problem in the sub-continent which is an emerging global economic power. Part of the issue revolves around cultural attitudes towards women which can only be described as barbaric, backwards and unenlightened.

Jyoti Singh was a 23 year old medical student with a bright future ahead of her. When she was born, her mother Asha and father Badri “celebrated as if they’d had a boy,” which is unusual even in Delhi where the Singhs live. Although relatively poor (Badri is a worker at Delhi’s airport), they had land that they intended to give Jyoti as a dowry when she got married.

Jyoti had other ideas. Her dream was to bring modern medical care to impoverished villages such as the one where the Singhs held ancestral land; she convinced her parents to sell the land so she could get the education she needed. When they agreed, the rest of the family was dumbfounded. Jyoti’s tutor Satendra described the family as “traditional with a progressive mindset.”

On December 16, 2012 Jyoti had completed her last exam and would start her internship the following day. Her entry into medicine would mean a lucrative salary that would enable to bring her family out of poverty. A friend invited her to see the movie Life of Pi and she went for an evening out.

At about 9:30pm, she and her friend boarded a private bus that offered to take her home. As recounted by Mukesh Singh (no relation), the driver of the bus, several of his friends who were along for the ride – his brother Ram Singh, Pawan Gupta, Akshay Thakur, Vinay Sharma and a juvenile whose name has been unrevealed due to Indian law, approached the couple and asked them why they were out so late when Jyoti’s friend was clearly not her husband, her father or her brother. When the friend told them to mind their own business, he was viciously attacked and beaten. The other men then dragged Jyoti into the back of the bus and proceeded to rape her over and over while the bus circled around the streets and highways of Delhi, the girl screaming for help throughout.

The rape was a brutal one; she was beaten, bitten (dental impressions were among the forensics used to find and convict the men) and raped so savagely not only by the men but using a crowbar as an insertion that the juvenile, who appears to have been particularly bloodthirsty, reached inside her and pulled out her intestines. The bus finally stopped across from a hotel and the two victims were thrown off and left for dead.

A passing police patrolmen discovered them – they were astonishingly still alive – and summoned an ambulance. While her friend would recover from his beating, Jyoti would linger on for several days before succumbing to her injuries. The doctors who treated her described it as a minor miracle that she had not been dead on the scene.

The incident galvanized Indian women. Protests erupted in the streets of Delhi and elsewhere and despite some police overreaction (tear gas grenades and water cannons were used against the mostly female crowds) the government of India convened a special legal committee to look into the laws governing sexual assault in India headed up by the respected judge Laila Seth and some real changes were made.

Director Udwin interviews Mukesh who clearly feels no remorse for what happened – in fact, in his view the bitch had it coming because she was out late and not properly escorted. If she hadn’t fought back, he opined, it wouldn’t have been so bad, as if women are supposed to simply accept that they are being raped and move on. Mukesh, like his friends residents of a Delhi slum, can quite conceivably blame his archaic attitudes to ignorance and poverty.

What is jaw-dropping however is that his lawyers A.P. Singh (again, no relation to the victim) and M.L. Sharma – who are presumably well-educated  – reflect the same attitudes. How much of it is legal grandstanding in order to support their clients is debatable but it is clear that the attitudes towards India are outdated at best and misogynistic for certain. These attitudes are colliding with the desires of Indian women, who see how women in the West are enjoying careers and independence, to have the same for themselves. Udwin exposes this conflict dispassionately and looks at the incident as a catalyst. However, one can’t help but feel affected by the obvious grief of the girl’s parents. Jyoti, whom the Indian media dubbed “India’s Daughter” (hence the title of the documentary) became a symbol but we get a sense of who the girl was, although she only appears in the movie as pictures of a toddler for the most part.

There are a few flaws here. The format is very much like an American television newsmagazine program which means a whole lot of talking heads. The musical score occasionally, in order to sound ominous I suppose, is a bit overbearing and sounds like it was purchased in the same way as stock footage. While there is plenty of footage of the rioting and protests that followed Jyoti, there is little footage of the woman herself which may well be at the request of her family, who were at the center of a media storm in India back when this all happened; I can imagine they wouldn’t want a repeat of that.

At the end of the short but powerful documentary (which has aired on British television already), Udwin scrolls statistics of sexual assault, female genital mutilation and other sexual violence against women from various countries around the globe and those statistics are sobering. India isn’t the only place where women are raped after all, but perhaps their attitudes towards women may be more openly misogynistic than in other more supposedly developed countries where that misogyny is hidden below the surface but no less uncivilized. This could be an early contender for the Documentary feature Oscar. However, you won’t be able to see this in the country where perhaps it would do the most good – India has banned the film because of the views espoused by the rapists and their defenders which shows that India has a very long way to go in making things better. Sweeping a problem under the rug and ignoring it is generally the best way for that problem to grow worse.

REASONS TO GO: Emotionally raw. An eye-opening look at attitudes towards rape and women in general in India. Complete look at the issue. Respectful to the victim.
REASONS TO STAY: Talking heads. Occasionally overbearing score.
FAMILY VALUES: Violent and sexual content, including graphic descriptions of rape and mutilation.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time Garfield has worn facial hair in a film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom
NEXT: Back in Time

What We Do in the Shadows

A flat portrait.

A flat portrait.

(2014) Horror Comedy (Unison/Paladin) Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stuart Rutherford, Ben Fransham, Rhys Darby, Jackie van Beek, Elena Stejko, Jason Hoyle, Karen O’Leary, Mike Minogue, Chelsie Preston Crayford, Ian Harcourt, Ethel Robinson, Brad Harding, Isaac Heron, Yvette Parsons, Madeleine Sami, Kura Forrester. Directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement

When you get a bunch of people together to live in a single flat, usually it’s for economic reasons – after all, shared costs are less. When you do though, it is imperative that you try to find people with shared interests and common backgrounds. Without something to hold the group together, harmony disappears and you get chaos and anarchy.

In an unassuming suburban flat near Wellington, New Zealand live four gents who tried to head off conflict by gathering because of one common characteristic – all four of them are vampires. When a documentary crew arranges to follow them about and try to get an idea of their daily routines (all of them wearing a crucifix for safety), we are given an insight to just how ordinary the undead truly are.

That’s the premise for this hilarious comedy from the guys behind the cult HBO comedy Flight of the Conchords. Jemaine Clement plays Vladislav, a 16th century despot with a penchant for torture whose confidence was shattered after the humiliating defeat at the hands of his arch-nemesis known only as The Beast. Taika Waititi (both of whom co-wrote and co-directed) plays Viago, an 18th century dandy who pines for the human woman who got away and conducts flat meetings on the chores chart.

Brugh is Deacon, a 19th century aristocrat who finds that doing dishes is beneath his status as a vampire and has let them pile up over five years. Finally, Fransham is Peter, who is 8,000 years old and really doesn’t say much of anything. The four of them are doing their best to remain inconspicuous and blend in, particularly when they go out looking for victims to feed on.

One of them, Nick (Gonzalez-Macuer) is accidentally changed into a vampire. He’s pretty delighted by it, telling all and sundry that he’s a vampire, much to the consternation of Deacon, Vladimir and Viago (Peter doesn’t really say much of anything). However, he does bring into the group Stu (Rutherford), a computer programmer who is a cool guy who gets accepted into the group more than Nick himself. Also hanging around is Jackie (van Beek), a familiar who runs most of their errands during daylight (they have quite a spectacular reaction to it) and does their bloody laundry in the hopes of someday getting eternal life for herself, although she feels her biological clock ticking – as in she’s in her mid-30s and doesn’t want to spend eternity as a middle aged woman. All of this is leading up to the biggest social event of the year for vampires witches and zombies – the Unholy Masquerade but this year’s event has put the house into a quandary. This year, the Guest of Honor at the ball is none other than The Beast.

This mockumentary is absolutely laugh-out-loud funny in a lot of places and you don’t necessarily have to be a vampire movie fan to get the jokes, like when the dim-witted police officers come to the home to investigate neighborhood complaints of smoke coming out of the windows and shrieking, and end up lecturing them on the lack of smoke alarms in the house.

Of course, it DOES help if you know at least a little bit about vampire lore but most of it you can figure out. Some of the funniest sequences involve a run in with the flatmates of a pack of werewolves whose canine scent is offensive to the bloodsuckers. When Viago sneers “Why don’t you sniff your own crotches” to the pack, one of them shamefacedly says “We don’t smell our own crotches; we smell each other’s. It’s a form of greeting.”

The tropes here are classic vampire, which is a good thing because I think most horror fans appreciate it more – the Twilight series is pretty much left out of it as are most of the Young Adult vampire mythologies, as well as modern stuff like the Buffyverse and the kind of Gothic vampire works of Anne Rice. No, this is more or less Bram Stoker and Hammer horror on display which to me anyway is a very good thing.

Most horror spoofs are godawful at best but this doesn’t fall into that category and Clement and Waititi both carefully avoid falling into that trap. Most of the humor comes from the ridiculousness of the everyday situations the flatmates find themselves in. While some of the sequences work better than others and the humor can be a bit dry, overall it works extremely well. The effects are nifty enough for a micro-budgeted indie which means not a lot of CGI and more practical effects, which also makes a case for those who prefer their horror more of the throwback variety. While it must be cautioned that those with weak stomachs for gore might find some of the scenes here pretty bloody, this is definitely tonic for a time of year when most of the cinematic offerings are particularly cringeworthy.

REASONS TO GO: Really funny in places and never descends into spoof. Classic vampire stuff.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags in places and a bit droll throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of foul language, plenty of blood, some unsettling images and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The hill where the vampires have a run-in with the werewolves was also used in the filming of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
NEXT: The Lazarus Effect

Handsome Harry

Handsome Harry

Steve Buscemi wishes he could be as Handsome as Harry.

(2009) Mystery (Paladin) Jamey Sheridan, Steve Buscemi, Maryann Mayberry, Aidan Quinn, John Savage, Campbell Scott, Titus Welliver, Karen Young, Jayne Atkinson, Rutanya Alda, Bill Sage, Emily Donahoe, Asher Grodman, Andrew Dolan. Directed by Bette Gordon


That which we do in our past often doesn’t remain there. There are things that we do that can haunt us or influence us from the moment it happens all the way until this very moment and all the way to the future. Reconciling ourselves with those events sometimes is the only way to find peace.

Harry Sweeney (Sheridan) is, as the title proclaims, a good looking man who has gone gracefully into middle age. He’s one of those charming Irish guys who strides into a bar and everybody knows him. The ladies adore him and the men want to be like him.

Harry’s son (Grodman) is distinctly different in that sense. He and his father have a relationship that is strained to put it mildly, although why it is so is never really explained. Perhaps it’s just the way of fathers and their grown sons. Harry has been a mechanic most of his life, ever since he got back from Vietnam and the Navy in which he served.

When he gets a call from his Navy buddy Thomas Kelly (Buscemi) to let Harry know he needs to talk to him, Harry is a bit reluctant – he has ambivalent feelings about his military years. However when Kelly tells him that he’s on his deathbed and won’t be around much longer, Harry knows he has to go.

Kelly reminds him of an incident in the Navy in which five men, including Kelly and Harry, beat up a sixth and maimed him. Kelly wants to find the maimed man and apologize. At first Harry doesn’t want to do it; he would much rather say his farewells to Kelly and move on but when Kelly passes away, Harry knows the right thing to do is to find the victim of their attack and try to make amends.

To do so, he first needs to visit the other men involved in the beating and not all of them want to be reminded of it. There’s Peter Rheems (Savage), a wealthy blowhard who’s become an abusive husband to Judy (Mayberry), who takes quite a liking to Harry. There’s Professor Porter (Quinn), who pretends not to know Harry or have been in the Navy. There’s Gebhardt (Welliver), another wealthy man who has a love for golf but not so much for Harry.  All of this will lead to Harry’s face-to-face with David Kagan (Scott), whose potential career as a concert pianist was ruined and whose life was forever changed by the attack on him.

Gordon has directed a couple of indie films over the past 15 years – you wouldn’t exactly call her prolific – but this certainly has the look and feel of an assured hand on the tiller. The movie is on the uneven side but the good does outnumber the bad pretty much.

Let’s start with Sheridan. He can be very charismatic (as he was in “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” and in the TV mini-series of Stephen King’s The Stand in which he played Randall Flagg), and while he mostly does television and mostly supporting roles, he shows the ability to carry a movie here. He has that easy charm that translates well to the screen.

The supporting cast is strong. Buscemi, Savage, Quinn and Scott are all capable actors who rarely give poor performances and the quartet of them don’t disappoint here. Buscemi in particular has become a regular on the indie circuit, although his critically acclaimed and Golden Globe-winning performance on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” might bring him some meatier roles in mainstream films.

The writing is a bit uneven. Harry’s character doesn’t always act according to his own nature, going from pacifist in one scene to brawler in the next (and no, I’m not talking about the flashbacks either). There is also a feeling that the malaise that hangs over Harry’s life was hanging over the film as well; there are times it lacks energy.

Still, most films that depict middle aged regret in men show the men to be down and out losers who have drank, drugged or otherwise messed up their lives in almost incalculable ways and require some kind of redemption. Here you don’t get that sense; Harry is not after redemption so much as forgiveness, and the way that it is given is actually one of the film’s highlights.

Gordon never allows Harry to be completely forgiven – after all, the act that was committed by all five men was heinous and there need to be consequences for that and those consequences appear in very subtle ways. There is a lot to like here but there is also a lot that doesn’t quite work and so the recommendation is a mild one I’m afraid.

WHY RENT THIS: Middle aged regret is rarely portrayed as well as it is here. Sheridan does a great job. Terrific supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The writing can be uneven; certain changes in Harry’s behavior take place that seem a mite extreme.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words sprinkled here and there, as well as a bit of sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Handsome Harry premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 25, 2009.


BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $13,500 on a $1M production budget; undoubtedly this lost money.


TOMORROW: The Innkeepers

The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond

The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond

Bryce Dallas Howard incurs the wrath of PETA.

(2008) Drama (Paladin) Bryce Dallas Howard, Chris Evans, Ellen Burstyn, Ann-Margaret, Mamie Gummer, Jessica Collins, Will Patton, Peter Gerety, Marin Ireland, Zoe Perry, Barbara Garrick, Zach Grenier, Laila Robins, Susan Blommaert. Directed by Jodie Markell

Tennessee Williams is one of the greatest writers in American literature so when a previously unproduced television script (meant for director Elia Kazan and actress Julie Harris) was unearthed, it was reason for celebration. Sadly, rather than be the subject of a major studio release being heralded for Oscar gold, instead it is the subject of a well-cast but ultimately little-promoted indie film.

Fisher Sparrow (Howard) is a Memphis-area socialite in the 1920s whose family has fallen on hard times. Her father was the center of a scandal when he dynamited a levee, causing a low lying area to flood and drowning two sharecroppers who lived there, as well as ruining land downriver of the levee. Fisher had no knowledge of that before she returned from some time in Europe.

She is supposed to be making her debut in Memphis society (a big deal back then) and because of her supposed wild behavior and her daddy’s reputation, she can’t find a decent gentleman willing to escort her to the balls and parties of the social season. She resorts to paying a field hand, Jimmy (Evans) to be her escort. Jimmy’s a decent sort who has a governor of Tennessee in his bloodlines but his family has been driven to poverty, with an alcoholic father (Patton) and a mother who is in an institution which Fisher hints she can get her out of, or at least into a better facility.

An aunt of Fisher’s gives her a $10,000 diamond earring set to wear for the season. The first party turns out to be a disaster; Fisher has a meltdown wanting the band to play music more in the flapper style which causes the party guests to say cruel things to her. Jimmy rushes to her aid and takes her home. The party invitations dry up after that and the only one Fisher can get is a Halloween party on the other side of town which was unaffected by her father’s actions.

On the way to the party, Fisher and Jimmy stop at the levee for a few moments. Fisher attempts to kiss Jimmy but he pulls away. Angered and humiliated, Fisher tries to jump out of the car as they pull up to the house where the party is being held. Shortly after she notices one of her diamond earrings is missing. A misunderstanding causes Jimmy to believe that she is accusing him of taking it.

Heartsick, Fisher goes away from the commotion to find her Aunt Addie (Burstyn) lying in bed, wracked in pain. The two have a heart-to-heart and Aunt Addie advises Fisher to leave and go back to Europe which she is more suited for. Addie makes Fisher promise to give her a bottle of pills so that Addie can die with dignity; Fisher promises she will as soon as the missing earring is found.

Devotees of Tennessee Williams will find some of the characters familiar; the down on their luck Southern family, the crumbling gentility and honor, the fiery sexual Southern belle. However, the characters and situation aren’t the best to come from his pen.

The movie is subdued in many ways and a bit mannered; modern audiences might find it too slow paced for their tastes. Still, there are some good performances here. Howard turns in one of the better performances of her career (and certainly her best since The Village). She is at once brassy and vulnerable, ambitious and un-self confident. She isn’t the most likable movie heroine ever, but she has enough flaws to be interesting.

Evans is mostly known for comic book roles in Fantastic Four and Captain America: The First Avenger. A few decades ago this kind of role would have been played by Paul Newman and not so long ago by Matthew McConaughey. Evans doesn’t have the best Tennessee accent ever but that’s ok; it’s the man inside the accent that makes the role memorable and Evans does that.

This has all the tawdriness and quiet desperation of some of William’s best work but none of the really interesting, unique characterizations that make his best work great. It’s worth seeing from a standpoint that it’s Tennessee Williams but in all honesty there are far better movies of his work out there, not the least of which are Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. You’d do better renting those to get an idea of how great a writer he once was.

WHY RENT THIS: Howard is impressive and Evans is pretty good too.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Way too mannered and slow-moving for modern audiences. Not one of Williams’ better works.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of sexuality as well as some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lindsey Lohan was originally cast in the lead role but her legal problems precluded her doing the movie. Howard was given the role instead.







An awkward silence ensues after John Malkovich asks Jessica Haines for a loan.

(2008) Drama (Paladin) John Malkovich, Jessica Haines, Eriq Ebouaney, Paula Arundelli, Fiona Press, Antoinette Engel, David Dennis, Michael Richard, Natalie Becker, Charles Tertiens. Directed by Steve Jacobs

The consequences of our actions are utterly and completely our own – at least, most of the time. When we perform actions that beget disastrous consequences, then we fall into disgrace.

David Lurie (Malkovich) is a professor of Romantic literature at a university in Capetown, South Africa. He is an arrogant man who teaches poetry without really understanding it. Middle aged, he is divorced and estranged from his family, and spends much of his time taking up with black prostitutes. When he engages in an affair with a mixed race student (Engel) of his, he is found out and brought before a disciplinary board.

However, he refuses to defend himself for, by his lights, following his natural instincts. Given no other option, the board dismisses Lurie, which surprises and shocks him – he fully expected to escape sanction of any kind. His career ruined, he finds sanctuary on his daughter’s farm.

Lucy (Haines) is a lesbian who grows organic crops and takes care of dogs in a rugged part of the country. She is assisted by Petrus (Ebouaney), who does most of the heavy lifting and whom David develops an immediate distrust for. He tells Lucy he doesn’t think she’s safe on the farm with Petrus around.

In the meantime, he helps out the local vet with performing euthanasia on dogs. It’s the only job he can really get. He is actually beginning to put his life back together – until something horrible happens, something that will test his limits as much as anything else in his life to that point had.

Aussie filmmaker Jacobs has taken an award-winning novel from South African writer J.M. Coetzee and turned it into a stark, unyielding look at hubris. The landscapes here are soulless and colorless, from the muted colors of the university to the desolation of the countryside of the Eastern Cape.

Lurie is much like that, only reversed – his desolation is on the inside. Outwardly, he can quote the flowery poetry of Byron, whom he most identifies with – but inwardly he doesn’t understand it, is incapable of it. Or, if he is capable, chooses not to because of his own hubris.

Malkovich does a stellar job as Lurie. While his Afrikaner accent has a tendency to slip now and again, he captures the essence of Lurie in his granite façade, his opinionated stare. This is not a very nice man, and bad things happen to him, much of which is of his own device. Haines does a pretty good job in support of Malkovich. She manages to stand up beside him without being overpowered by him. That’s no easy task, as many actors can attest.

Although I’m not familiar with the source material, I understand that Coetzee’s original work was taken as a political allegory about the status of the white male in the changing South African society. I don’t get that as much from the movie, which seems to be more of a morality play about hubris and pride. There are allusions to Biblical wrath of God type of stuff happening to David Lurie, although unlike Job he brought many of his troubles on himself and in doing so, brought them upon others.

There is a lot going on in this movie and nearly all of it is under the surface. That does make for a pretty solid workout in the mental gym, which is not what the general moviegoing public is necessarily after. Unfortunately, I’m not exactly sure if I caught the nuances I needed to; they may have been more subtle than I’m used to, or else I just missed them entirely. In any case, this is a very solid movie that is going to provoke some thought and maybe even a little debate. What’s it all about? Probably not what I think it is; but I’m probably not wrong either.

WHY RENT THIS: A powerful performance by Malkovich is framed by a stark cinematic shell. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The violence is sudden and ferocious and might put off some.

FAMILY VALUES: The film went unrated, but there were some scenes of sudden and terrifying violence, including a rape. There is also some very adult themes as well as some very adult language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Steve Jacobs is married to Anna Maria Monticelli, who adapted the J.M. Coetzee novel into a screenplay.


BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.1M on an unreported production budget; my guess is that the movie just about broke even.


TOMORROW: The Bang Bang Club