“Before I was born, I definitely had the wrong identity. I already didn’t know — I was already prepared not to know who I really was.”
Bart Layton’s arresting documentary features a story almost as bewildering as Abducted in Plain Sight, with an American family who welcomed in a 23-year-old French man impersonating their missing teenage child. What makes The Imposter so fascinating is the involvement of Frédéric Bourdin, who candidly explains both his actions and his thought process, something that typically requires a great deal of conjecture in similar true crime stories. However, the statements of a serial liar perhaps ought to be challenged more directly than Layton chooses to. Instead, the story is told largely from Bourdin’s perspective. The Imposter sets up an obvious mystery as to how Bourdin’s deception will ultimately be exposed, but it also manages to take a surprising turn in the last act, albeit with the nebulous ending that is now de rigeur for true crime.
“To read and control people’s minds is the secret of the ninja strategy. Only real sincerity can move human hearts.”
A swashbuckling fantasy set in feudal Japan, Ninja Scroll’s action is its strength from mercenery Jubei’s lightning-fast strikes to the variety provided by his superpowered enemies, often requiring intelligence rather than brawn to beat. Ninja Scroll is considered to be responsible for the rise in popularity of adult-oriented anime outside of Japan alongside Akira and Ghost in the Shell. Although praised at the time, Ninja Scroll’s visuals do not hold up as well as its stylised sci-fi contemporaries but its character design is strong, with chins that rival Ben Affleck and distinctive supernatural powers for each of the eight devils that Jubei faces. The level of sex and violence is gratuitous but no longer shocking by modern standards, although the film’s treatment of female ninja Kagero does not hold up well. Jubei and Kagero are both reluctant heroes, coerced by a manipulative government spy, creating an interesting dynamic between the trio with their differing approaches to honour. That ultimately proves more compelling than the convoluted story which is delivered through lengthy bouts of exposition. Ninja Scroll may remain an anime classic but it shows its age in storytelling as much as visual fidelity, yet the action remains thoroughly engaging 30 years later.
“Yo, what up everybody. Roaring Kitty here. I’m going to pick a stock and talk about why I think it’s interesting. And that stock is GameStop.”
As a Reddit user, I followed the GameStop short squeeze in early 2021 with great interest as several Wall Street hedge funds were blindsided by loosely coordinated action from retail investors (to whom the finance industry derisively referred as “dumb money”), leading to the Robinhood trading app turning on its own users. Where The Big Short and The Wolf of Wall Street are “inside out” explanations of financial manipulation that affected the public, Dumb Money focuses on the outsiders breaking in, a grassroots movement that began on the r/WallStreetBets subreddit. The film is candid about the online community’s propensity for crude and offensive memes, reproduced here with the same weight as archival news footage. Presenting events as a “David and Goliath” story (characters are each introduced with their net worth) is an oversimplification but it captures the underlying emotional arc from hope to outrage. Dumb Money often feels like a zeitgeist movie that captures a specific point in time: the COVID pandemic highlighting wealth disparity, the rapid growth of fintech startups, spiralling student debt, and the new influence of TikTok. Craig Gillespie again collaborates with I, Tonya cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis, though here they opt for a more naturalistic style whilst building tension using David Fincher’s technique of cutting between a multitude of camera angles. The ensemble cast is impressive, Paul Dano standing out in his portrayal of Keith Gill, capturing his cadence but finding emotional resonance as well. As Gill has become a very private individual, there is a great deal of speculative material in this dramatisation, though it leans more toward aspects like the supportiveness of his wife rather than sensationalism. Dumb Money is entertaining without really having a message, Gillespie describing the film as “part of the conversation” in its portrayal of an inherently rigged financial system — there is a perhaps unfounded sense of catharsis as Dumb Money shows many regular folk winning despite the lack of structural change; in reality many retail investors also suffered huge losses, represented here only through America Ferrera’s sympathetic portrayal of a nurse burned out by the pandemic. It is a fantasy, then, but a relevant one.
“Am I playing that role or am I living that role? Or am I living through it by pretending?”
‘Rangamarthanda’ Raghava Rao
Opening with an antiquated monologue about the nature of acting, Ranga Marthanda is a Telugu drama that explores the relationships and tragic downfall of a venerated theatre actor following his retirement. It is a remake of Natsamrat, a Marathi film that started out as a stage play heavily influenced by King Lear — against his wife’s advice, Raghava Rao decides to grant his children their inheritance, certain that they will continue to support their parents, only to find himself rejected from each household. It is also reminiscent of Tokyo Story, not only in the inattentive children but the in-law who proves to be the most caring, with a surprising performance from musician Rahul Sipligunj (now best known for singing the Oscar-winning ‘Naatu Naatu’ from last year’s RRR). The film rests on Prakash Raj’s ability to embody both the towering performer and the much reduced retiree who adopts a joyful demeanour in the face of mistreatment (“Life is a sad play to be lived happily”), though it is Brahmanandam who perhaps delivers a more moving performance as his friend and collaborator, also in decline but contrasted by his lack of children. The familial drama is effective but largely predictable (given its well-known Shakespearean inspiration), and Ranga Marthanda is arguably stronger in its defence of culture and language — Rao deplores modern movie stars who scorn the stage and chastises his granddaughter’s international school which punishes the use of Telugu, explaining that “language preserves culture”. Yet this is not mere resistance to change as Rao fully embraces his daughter’s fusion music. Ranga Marthanda may not be charting new ground in its content or its direction, but it delivers several fine dramatic performances within its dated presentation.
“If you leave something behind, you gain something too.”
Opening with three individuals being observed from across a bar, Past Lives flashes back by several decades ultimately circling back to that same bar scene now imbued with the years of yearning and intimacy refined through the course of the film. Writer-director Celine Song’s debut explores the relationship between two Korean childhood friends who meet again decades later, its gentleness belying the aching longing it portrays with a haunting tone reminiscent of In The Mood For Love and more recently Decision to Leave. Unrequited love is a common theme for cinema but rare is the greater agony of requited love left unrealised. Song questions whether it is intrusive to connect with someone who is seeking to build their own life, resulting in the stagnating pain of being attached to someone at a distance. She uses the Korean concept of “in-yun” — that even the briefest interaction between people is part of a wider tapestry of fate connecting them across past lives — as both a metaphor and a shared language through which to address a nebulous relationship. Both Greta Lee and Teo Yoo deliver nuanced, moving performances, where much is conveyed through a glance or a gaze. The deliberately simple camerawork follows the actors, focusing on the subtleties of their performances like the importance of a brief but meaningful touch. Both Nora and Hae Sung reassure her husband — insecure, but determined to be supportive — that Hae Sung’s visit is not intended to disrupt their marriage, though the audience may not believe this as much as the characters. When 12-year-old Nora leaves Korea at her parents’ decision there is no melodramatic outburst, only pining and discontent — reconnecting with Hae Sung then represents not only the loss of a relationship but the loss of an entire culture, an alternate life. There are hints of Lost in Translation to its ending, including the closing shot, and the relationship it captures may likewise feel too ephemeral for some viewers; however, for those who have experienced this form of nascent love interrupted by life, Past Lives is likely to burrow deep within.
“Nothing is more important than finding these jackfruit right now.”
SP Angrez Singh Randhawa
A satire of Indian government masquerading as a light-hearted comedy, Kathal (“jackfruit”) is entertaining but lacks the requisite bite to make its satire as potent as it ought to be. Its intentions regarding political influence over the police are clear from the premise alone, as a police department is forced to investigate the theft of two jackfruit from a politician, sidelining more serious investigations. The film’s subtitle “A Jackfruit Mystery” is no doubt a play on Netflix stablemate Knives Out, a fitting reference to that franchise’s class commentary. Caste prejudice is shown to be rife within the police force, in their treatment of the public, in which crimes are investigated, and in the relationships between officers. Sanya Malhotra is superb as the accomplished Basor inspector instructed to recover the fruit, her nuanced portrayal favouring the dramatic over the comedic as Mahima’s internal conflict leads her deceptively to link the theft to a missing persons case in order to investigate both. Her romantic relationship with a higher caste subordinate provides Kathal with an emotional core and the conflict that forces both to evaluate their positions within the organisation. Fittingly for its title, food also forms a recurring theme of Kathal, in the way it can create connections between people as well as demonstrating relationships of control and dependency. Kathal covers a range of important topics and perhaps light tone is a necessary way to convey its message to a wider audience but it undeniably dilutes its potency if not its reach.
“I know this sounds crazy, but sometimes it feels like he can read my mind and there’s nowhere left that I can actually be alone.”
In Alice, Darling the titular protagonist is forced to acknowledge the non-physical abuse in her relationship during a girls’ trip away from her partner. Anna Kendrick delivers her best performance since Up In The Air, portraying Alice with a smiley veneer atop deep insecurity and fear of discovery, both by her partner and by her friends. Perhaps most powerful scenes are when she removes herself, sitting alone in a bathroom and tugging at her hair til it falls out — a physical manifestation of the harm caused by this constant stress. The film’s issues stem from indecision as to the genre focus. As a thriller, Simon turns up at the women’s holiday house too late and with too muted a presence — in general Carrick’s portrayal is neither charming nor threatening enough for this to work. As a drama, Alice, Darling has limited insight to offer, the abusive relationship being clear to the audience from the outset, yet it taking so long to come out into the open that there is only the most cursory discussion between the women afterwards. This is an important subject with a strong central performance but its muddled handling leaves no lasting impression.
Chor Nikal Ke Bhaga (literally “The Thief Has Escaped”) is a Hindi heist film centred around a diamond theft on a plane which is interrupted by a hijacking. Opening with a vegan meet-cute between air steward Neha and persistent businessman Ankit — which fluctuates between charming and awkward — the couple proceed with the crime only after a personal tragedy. With a running time under two hours, Chor Nikal Ke Bhaga wastes little time on the planning stage, vaulting forward several months to the heist itself. The constrained space of the aircraft adds tension but limits the scope of the action primarily to Ankit taking repeated beatings. The story may not be particularly inventive or convincing but it unfolds at a rapid pace — replete with the mandatory heist twists, flashbacks, and double-crosses — keeping the audience engaged. The result is slick rather than smart, but it is effective entertainment that demands little from its audience beyond a willingness to overlook contrivance.
“When we have liberated ourselves, we will have to ask ourselves who we are.”
Sarah Polley’s adaptation of Miriam Toews’ novel is a dour but moving experience, its desaturated melancholy swallowed by heavy blacks. Toews described her novel as an “imagined response to real events”, chronicling the women in an isolated rural religious community deciding whether to stay or leave after a series of rapes come to light — for women with no voice, merely making a decision for themselves becomes an act of defiance. Polley’s direction is restrained, not showing the violence but instead alluding to it through repeated recollections of the bloodstained aftermath. Women Talking feels theatrical in both the constraints of its hayloft setting and its near-exclusive reliance on dialogue. Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley and Claire Foy all excel in voicing varied aspects of the group’s response — thoughtful, angry, and fearful of change — though there is a definite artificiality to the debate with actors representing ideas more than fully rounded characters. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s gentle score colours scenes with a simple melody that coils itself around you, squeezing a little too tight. The biggest change in Polley’s script is a perspective shift: the book is narrated by August, a gentle man who attends the discussion to take minutes, and apparently Ben Whishaw recorded substantial voiceover before it was decided that this did not work in a cinematic medium. Instead, the voiceover — more commentary than narration — comes from the youngest of the girls, speaking to a child some time in the future. It further mutes Whishaw’s meek performance (“I want to help and I don’t know how”), but that is appropriate within an intentionally female space. Women Talking perhaps arrives a little too late in the #MeToo era and it asks rather than answers questions, but it is engrossing and thoughtful in its consideration of structural issues and religious belief without judgement.
Heart of Stone opens strongly with a mountainous MI6 mission that subverts the trope of field agents versus the techies stuck in the van; then the script intervenes and it at all begins to unravel into Netflix’s trademark action movie recipe of big name stars and poor writing. The plot centres around worldwide agency “The Charter” which, beholden to no government, is able to tackle problems that national security services cannot. Everyone receives an alias based on a deck of cards which probably sounded cool on paper but is used inconsistently and seems a highly impractical limitation for a globe-spanning organisation. They operate using “The Heart”, an algorithmic predictive engine that guides their actions — the script plays on fears about ceding decision-making control to AI, yet it seems that following the AI’s direction would have saved a lot of lives. This makes Stone’s rebelliousness harder for the audience to cheer, an essential component of these movies. The action itself includes a pleasing range of practical effects, much of the CGI budget being used to create The Heart’s interactive digital projections as events are analysed in real time back at base. That blend of technology gives Heart of Stone a visual identity of its own, even if there are few memorable set pieces. The result is another competent but forgettable action flick in Netflix’s search for a franchise.
Disclosure: I know personally at least one person involved in the making of this film