The Gray Man (2022)

I don’t watch many Hollywood films and haven’t seen any of the Russo Brothers previous works, but with Dhanush in the cast I decided to watch their latest film: The Gray Man. While the film was an okay watch, it hasn’t changed my view that USA action films rely too heavily on firepower and heavy-handed morality while skipping essential elements like characterisation and storyline. While there is plenty of action, most of this relies on gun fights and blowing things up, making the few physical fights scenes stand out in comparison. Thankfully these mostly feature Dhanush too, but otherwise, the film consists of a series of action sequences, loosely bound together by a vague storyline that’s full of clichés. It’s not a bad film, but it’s also not particularly memorable and slots neatly into the standard US action mould that’s a reasonable timepass but not much more.

Court Gentry (Ryan Gosling) is recruited from prison by Donald Fitzroy aka Fitz (Billy Bob Thornton) to become a black ops agent for the CIA. In exchange for his freedom, he becomes the nameless Sierra Six who carries out assassinations for the organisation as directed – no questions asked. The film opens with Sierra Six in Bangkok to remove a target, later revealed to be another Sierra agent who passes on details of corruption within the agency. Six escapes with the information but CIA boss Denny Carmichael (Rége-Jean Page) sets private contractor and ex-agent Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) on his trail to eliminate Six and retrieve the information. Lloyd is a psychopath with no boundaries, which ensures plenty of collateral damage as he chases after Six. This includes kidnapping Fitz and his niece Claire (Julia Butters) to try and flush out Six, leading of course to a rescue mission by Six. Lloyd has numerous teams of assassins who attempt to kill Six in various locations across Europe while causing mayhem, carnage, and destruction in the process, but completely failing to succeed in their mission.

Dhanush appears well over an hour into the film as Avik San (aka Lone Wolf), an assassin also hired by Lloyd to eliminate Six. While the other mercenaries are all faceless teams, Avik San works alone and relies on his wits and fighting skills rather than weapons and gunpowder. This means that Avik has a few lines of dialogue and a couple of well-choreographed fight scenes that look awesome and stand out compared to the rest of the repetitive bloodshed. In comparison to Lloyd’s other mercenaries, Avik San also has a strong sense of morality which leads him to break with Lloyd, when he discovers his reckless methodology. This leaves Six and another CIA agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) free to finish Lloyd if they can.

The film has a great cast, but most have thinly sketched characters who appear, either help or hinder Six, and are then disposed of. Six is also a caricature of a man on the run and despite flashbacks explaining his crime and his childhood, there is never any real sense of who he actually is and what he thinks of his whole situation. If his enemies weren’t so bat-shit crazy, it would be difficult to care whether he wins or not given how little empathy is given to the character. Chris Evans fares somewhat better as Lloyd, who has several character traits (mostly all psychopathic), which at least make him a more interesting character, even if it is one we are meant to hate. With so many one-dimensional characters and a continuous turnover as they are shot, beaten to death or blown-up, the only real interest in the film are the locations and the overall appearance of the scenes. But even then it’s only the title on screen that explains where the scene is set, since little of the location is shown onscreen. While an action sequence in Prague is beautifully staged and well shot, most of the other action set pieces are so dark it is difficult to see what is going on. Even the best fight scene, with Dhanush and Ana de Armas, is hard to follow due to the low lightening and smoke that hides the action. Since there isn’t much happening in between action sequences it seems strange that these aren’t shot more clearly so that the choreography can be better appreciated. For a film that is all about the action, it seems an odd choice. 

The story itself is generic and the dialogue mostly consists of a series of one-liners and off-hand quips that may have read well on paper but don’t translate well on screen. Alfre Woodard as Margaret Cahill, the former head of the CIA London branch, has some of the best and most effective dialogue, but Lloyd generally sounds petulant and seems to be trying too hard, while Six has little to say for much of the film. I’m not the target audience for this kind of film and while I enjoyed the brief appearance by Dhanush, this entire film seemed to waste so many good opportunities to be more than just another action movie. I missed the masala mix of Southern Indian cinema and the heavy reliance on guns and explosives here rather than fight sequences became boring by the end. 2 ½ stars.

Double Seat (2015)

Sameer Vidwans’ Double Seat tells the story of newlyweds Amit (Ankush Choudhary) and Manjiri (Mukta Barve) starting out their married life in Mumbai, a city where space comes at a premium.

The film opens with a montage of a luxury resort honeymoon passing in lazy days, huge beds with drifts of crisp white linens, peace, and privacy. And then Amu and Manjiri arrive at his home in a chawl in Mumbai where they share a very compact apartment with his parents and brother Alpesh. Amu seems content with the way he lives, but maybe he just needed some encouragement. Manjiri is a pocket rocket, excited by achieving her dream of moving to Mumbai and her career in insurance sales. She sees nothing wrong with taking the occasional calculated risk and having aspirations. And so as they get to know each other, the dream of getting their own home is born.

I like the way the relationship between Amit and Manu is portrayed. They genuinely like each other and they’re dead keen to spend time alone together. They get around the limited privacy by texting each other, even in the same room, with little in jokes and hints. They get each other’s humour and enjoy talking about their hopes and dreams. They go out on late night dates, checking out the homes of the rich and famous, and talking about wonders like having a bath in your flat. Amit never wants Manjiri to change. He enjoys her cheerful blend of ambition and pragmatism, and encourages her. I loved how achievable and relatable some of her dreams were – like getting her first pair of jeans or learning to drive. She doesn’t want things out of greed as much as she wants to make the most out of her opportunities. Being so close to his parents, who are very warm towards her, still has an effect on Manjiri as time passes. She becomes a little less demonstrative and more concerned about what other people might think. She still gives as good as she gets, but she seems stifled.

Amit sees that change and doesn’t like it one bit, partly because it’s killing his nascent sex life. But he too has been squashing some of his aspirations and wishes in order to avoid causing ructions at home. I love the way Amu raises the subject of getting their own place, and how it’s what he needs and not just a thing to make his new wife happy. And then Manju falls pregnant. Both actors deliver likeable and well calibrated characterisations. When things take a turn for the worse Ankush Choudhary nails the blend of self-pity and fear that drives Amit to behave in a disappointing way. Mukta Barve gives Manjiri a spirit and energy that dims at times but is never really overcome. And I liked seeing a nod to realistic pregnancy with Manjiri looking more and more tired and uncomfortable as her due date drew closer.

Nothing ever runs that smoothly, or we wouldn’t have a 2 hour 20 minute film. There are a couple of incidents and scenes in the latter part of the film that I felt were a bit too clunky, but by and large the focus stays on the relationships and domestic life. Amu and Manjiri have some issues but realise they need commitment and communication to resolve their problems. And when financial woes hit, there is little blame or hysteria. Instead of wailing and moaning, Manju tells Amit to get his tears out today because tomorrow they start anew. But he has to remember he has not failed and he did nothing wrong by trying. Some people are a tad more dramatic than others, and some take a little longer to show up with practical support, but they get through things by coming together.

Vandana Gupte as Amit’s mother is delightful. She is very supportive of Manjiri having a job, but she is accustomed to certain rules for living so there is a little bit of friction between the kids and her husband. She usually aims her complaints at Amit though, expecting him to communicate the expectations to Manjiri. She bonds with her daughter-in-law over the mega popular soap Chhakuli Mami. And when she accepts the move will happen, she gets right on board to help the kids out. Her entrepreneurial spirit fires up and she takes to business like a duck to water. Vidyadhar Joshi is the mercurial and comfortable self-centred father and good at showing the wounded dignity that lies under some of his more inflammatory remarks. He’s not bad, he’s not horrible, he’s really quite friendly and tolerant to a point. But when his son wants move up in the world it exposes a tension between the generations and opens up a lot of anger and disappointment that Amit has been dutifully suppressing. He does come round to seeing that his son just wants to fulfil a dream. And as an almost full time dreamer himself, that is something dad can understand.

The remaining support cast are all good. I liked the contrast between Amit’s policeman buddy (Sandeep Pathak) and his wife with Amit and Manjiri’s relationship. Asawari Joshi plays the lead on the addictive soapy and appears as a kind of chain-smoking guardian angel for Manjiri. Shivani Rangole has a small role as Sapna whose proud and supportive grandfather was intent she complete her studies and get a good job.

This reminded me a little of the excellent Love and Shukla, although I like the couple’s dynamic more in Double Seat. See it for a thoughtful and engaging exploration of evolving values and relationships in the big city hustle. 4 stars!

One Cut of the Dead

Ueda Shinichiro’s One Cut of the Dead was a highlight of the recent Japanese Film Festival in Melbourne, and possibly my favourite film of the year. It’s a budget horror flick, a movie about movie-making, and a sweet story about the shared love of things that can bring people together.

Opening with Director Higurashi making a low budget zombie movie in a spooky abandoned facility, the film quickly takes a turn as the cast find themselves under attack by “real” zombies. He sees this as an opportunity to get genuine emotion and real horror from his cast so he will not stop shooting and actually pushes the actors into more peril. Bloody, profanity laden, decidedly B movie, unintentionally funny, the story speeds to its conclusion. All in one epic 37 minute take. But then the clock winds back and we get to see how Higurashi and his crew came to be in this place, all the planning and preparation for their movie, and what motivated them to do it. And finally, Ueda takes us back to the day of filming, but this time we see the things happening on and off camera and what that means for Higurashi and co.

The director Higurashi is completely over the top, threatening his performers and demanding they keep filming even when their life may be at risk. He has one shot at making the film and will do what it takes to deliver. I really enjoyed Takayuki Hamatsu’s performance as he would swing from politely earnest to literally spitting with rage and back, all in the service of his film. His relationship with his sulky teenaged daughter Mao (played by Mao) and retired actress wife Nao (Shuhama Harumi), who are both on the set, gives the film an unexpected sweetness amidst all the gore and dismemberments.

Akiyama Yuzuki and Nagaya Kazuaki play Chintatsu and Ko, the stars of the film. I enjoyed their deliberately bad acting in the movie within the movie, and the contrast with their vacuous celebrity sides. When things started to go awry they were the least prepared and therefore, among the funniest. Shuhama Harumi’s Nao is a walking cliché in some respects, intoning warnings and urban legends straight out of every other horror movie. Her hobby and practical application of her skills almost brought the house down, and her character really comes to life in the latter part of the film. The rest of the cast includes stock types like the has-been actor who drinks to steady his nerves, the goofy AD who never challenges an order, the finicky cameraman, and his enthusiastic assistant who just wants a chance to try her style.

Things move at a frenetic pace but there are beats where you can simply enjoy what’s going on before plunging back into the thick of it. I was constantly delighted by small details like the appearance of a hankie wiping blood spatter off a lens as the cameraman gamely ran in pursuit of a screaming actor and zombie.

The narrative structure is brilliant and the editing is timed to perfection. Things that looked like bad acting or glitches in the movie might later be seen in a different light and instead make you want to cheer for this game little bunch of movie crazy people. The jokes were sometimes funnier from the second perspective too, which is quite an achievement. Dolly Parton once said it takes a lot of money to look this cheap. Ueda Shinichiro has managed to make a highly technical and polished film look like it was made on a shoestring, but in a good way. It’s a tribute to the spirit of making do.

I flinched, I groaned, I cheered, I laughed so hard I cried. If you can stand a lot of swearing and fake blood splashing around, see this.