Back Row Thoughts – Better Late Than Never

While I’ve done my best to keep up with mainstream and independent cinema in the first full year back from COVID restrictions, there are two areas where I have been decidedly negligent, namely documentaries and foreign films. For the former, I haven’t been able to make time for any this year, mostly because none have really caught my eye until recently, and because self-serving garbage like Halftime has gotten all the press so far. As for the latter, the only international fare I’ve been able to see is anime, which is its own separate sphere for me. We’re getting close to the deadline for countries to choose their submissions to the Academy, and apart from Japanese animation, my viewing schedule has been entirely domestic.

That all changed this past weekend. Upon my return to Los Angeles, I was able to take in a double feature (across two different theatres), finally breaking through on both absent fronts. In both cases, these are films that I’ve seen hyped up for quite some time via trailers, critical press, and word of mouth, but for various reasons, I haven’t been able to track them down or adjust my schedule properly until now. I’m happy to say I enjoyed both films as well, though for vastly different reasons. If you have access to these works, I highly encourage you to seek them out. It took almost three months for me to see them from their initial releases, but the wait was certainly worth it.

Fire of Love

The trailers for this documentary were certainly intriguing, describing a married couple, Maurice and Katia Krafft, who came together through their shared love of volcanology, committed to their studies – and each other – unto their own deaths. The idea of a passionate love that burns figuratively as earth burns literally is compelling to say the least, and I admit that as I enter middle age, I long for such a connection.

The actual film is not quite as advertised, but it’s still very good. There is some exposition about the French couple, how they met, and how they grew up not far from one another, seemingly on a fated path to be together. But the bulk of the film is mostly an omniscient view of their individual personalities and their contributions to the study of volcanoes, up until they were consumed by the eruption of Mount Unzen in 1991.

Getting up close and personal with the mouths of the planet as pressure releases and new earth is formed is absolutely fascinating. There is a romanticism about the whole affair, but for the most part, it’s not the Kraffts or their relationship that fuels it. Instead it’s their hours upon hours of collected footage over the course of nearly three decades of work that truly sparks the imagination. The film they were able to amass over the years of lava flows and ash explosions is breathtaking, and the few moments where Maurice is allowed to be a bit cheeky (frying eggs over cooling rock, for example) are a supplement sure to put a smile on your face.

Where the movie comes up just a bit short are in the technical elements. Miranda July provides narration that tries to sound poetic but often comes off as pretentious and distracting. Maurice often appears on screen speaking, but with the exception of some late segments, Katia is reduced to “an actress reading her notes,” which robs her of any personality. And as someone who used to edit professionally, my ears were a bit too attuned to the work of the foley artist. In much of the footage from the 1970s, you can tell that sound effects were edited in rather than using the raw sound. Perhaps the footage didn’t have any, but if so, that’s a case where you need to just let the visual play with some ambient music, rather than obvious artificial noises. There’s even a scene where a molten rock rolls down the mountainside, filmed in slow motion, but the SFX of it breaking apart as it falls plays at regular speed. If you’re not trained to notice that stuff, you probably won’t, but because I am, it did take me out the moment a few times.

All that said, this was still immensely enjoyable. When Maurice and Katia are shown as people rather than scientists, it feels like a conversation with old friends (and if there’s ever a fictional biopic, John C. Reilly would be a dead ringer for Maurice). When we get to gaze in awe at the violent beauty of our world, it’s both informative and inspirational. The fire is certainly there throughout the film, though I would have appreciated just a little more emphasis on the love, but that doesn’t mean you won’t fall for this decidedly unique look at two people who gave their lives to each other, and to us in the form of a better understanding of the planet.

Grade: B

RRR

Ho. Ly. SHITBALLS!

I mean, holy fucking shitballs, you guys! I had heard that this movie was insanely over-the-top, to the point that it would either piss me off immensely or blow my mind entirely. Thank whatever god(s) might exist that it was the latter. I’ve seen bits and pieces of Indian cinema in my life, but never a full-on feature from beginning to end, to say nothing of this being my first exposure to Tollywood, which I now know is completely distinct from Bollywood (the former is Teluga-language films, while the latter is almost entirely exclusive to films produced in Mumbai).

Written and directed by S. S. Rajamouli, RRR (which stands for Rise Roar Revolt, though you could easily add a fourth “R” for Sterling Archer screaming “RAMPAGE!”) is a completely imagined fiction about two Indian revolutionaries pre-Independence. The two figures – Komaram Bheem and Alluri Sitarama Raju – never met in real life, but they forged similar paths during the British Raj era, so Rajamouli envisioned a grand “what if” scenario where they not only crossed paths, but became best friends, helping each other to find the roots of their rebellion and strike a blow for their people. And of course, because nothing is off limits here, the idea is executed as a bromance for the ages set against madcap action and intoxicating dance numbers.

Set in 1920, the film begins in a small tribal village, where the local governor, Scott Buxton (played by Ray Stevenson, best known as Volstagg in the Thor movies), and his wife Catherine (Alison Doody, aka Elsa from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) decide to flex their imperial muscles and straight up buy a young girl named Malli (Twinkle Sharma) away from her family. After the tribe pleads with them not to do this, resulting in Malli’s mother (Ahmareen Anjum) being beaten senseless, it falls to Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao Jr.) as the tribe’s protector to get her back. He hatches a plan that involves trapping several large animals and moving to Delhi in secret in order to make his move.

Meanwhile, an officer in the Indian police force, Rama Raju (Ram Charan) is keen to rise through the ranks to become a special officer, impressing his chain of command with almost superhuman agility and strength as he quells a local riot by defying every law of physics to capture one protestor in particular. Four years removed from his home and his fiancée Seetha (Alia Bhatt), Ram is on his own mission of honor, vengeance, and love.

The two meet almost entirely by chance. Ram has gone undercover with rebel groups and has keyed in on Lacchu (Rahul Ramakrishna), one of Bheem’s aides, pursuing him to a bridge where a freak train accident threatens the life of a small boy. Bheem, operating under the assumed name of Akhtar, sees the disaster about to happen, catches Ram’s eye, and the two work together in fantastical fashion to save the child, setting off their friendship, each unaware that they’re working for opposite sides. Ram even helps Bheem win the affections of Jenny (Olivia Morris), the governor’s niece, despite a quite rigid language barrier, thanks to one of the most eye-popping dance scenes ever put to film.

When the other shoe drops in this three-hour epic, the action goes completely off the charts in the best way possible. An opening disclaimer not only stresses the fictitious nature of this flight of fancy, but also that all the animals are digital creations, which sort of allows the audience to let its collective guard down when, say, Bheem straight up throws a leopard at a motherfucker. Now, to be completely fair, at no point do any of these animals look real. Only one or two would even have made it past the first cut of Disney’s Jungle Book remake (arguably the only Disney remake of any quality). There is a veneer of fake all over every animal in the film, but at the same time, the CGI was drawn over practical models that the actors do interact with for the purposes of the scene, creating a decent illusion that we all know is fake but can trick ourselves into believing. Because of that, these utterly bombastic shots become exercises in glorious cinematic excess. While the visual effects may seem almost intentionally chintzy, it’s worth noting that this is the most expensive film India has ever made, filming for over 300 days during the course of three years, with stunt choreography unlike anything you’ve ever seen, and boasting a background cast that’s surely in the thousands.

Rajamouli clearly wears his influences on his sleeve, and it’s fun to see the melting pot of genres and homages at play. He’s on record saying that Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds had a huge impact on him, particularly the idea of balls-to-the-wall revisionist history and ultraviolence, a theme at the forefront of the proceedings. You can also see shades of just about every major filmmaker from John Woo to John Hughes at various points. The infectious “Naatu Naatu” musical number is basically a glorious mashup of Footloose and West Side Story, for example. References and Easter Eggs (or whatever the Indian equivalent would be) are littered throughout, and it’s enormously fun to try and spot every wink and nod.

It is rare when I can say with 100% accuracy that there is something for everyone in this movie. There’s action, comedy, romance, music, joy, sorrow, and just about anything else you can imagine crammed into this thing. And yet, it never feels overstuffed. The expositional parts play at the right pace at the right time. The action, beautifully insane and illogical though it is (imagine if the John Wick movies flipped off the entire concept of physics, but did so in such a loving way that you couldn’t help but be on board for it), is given time to breathe and made to feel almost interactive. There’s an immersive factor to all of this, even for the outside audience who probably has no interest or connection to Indian politics, past or present (there are some who argue that the film promotes a hardline nationalist stance similar to that of current Prime Minister Narendra Modi; I don’t know nearly enough to speak on that point with any credibility). But most importantly, this is the kind of raw, ambitious, batshit crazy film that makes movies worth going to. It rivals the likes of Everything Everywhere All at Once in terms of sheer spectacle, and like my front-runner for the best film of the year, it had me delightedly screaming, “WHAT?!” on several occasions as I was fully absorbed into the chaotic mass.

This movie debuted in India back in March, and was initially given a “one day only” release stateside in June. I had to miss it due to work, but ever since then it’s gained a significant cult following, to the point that it’s gone in and out of theatres across the country, and is available on Netflix for those living outside the U.S. This film has won over audiences around the world because of its ability to tap into the most primal yet fun instincts we have, to the point where I’m already figuring out when I can see it again. India has never won the International Feature Oscar. In fact, they’ve only even been nominated three times, most recently for Lagaan back in 2001. This may be the best chance they’ve ever had, assuming they submit it. God I hope they do.

Grade: A

Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you seen either of these films? Are there foreign films or documentaries that you think I should prioritize? Should I buy suspenders so I can learn the Naatu dance? Let me know!

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