Monday, December 30, 2013

The World According to Bauji: "Ankhon Dekhi (Before My Eyes)" (2013)

Deciding to reject everything you have assumed in life, and only believing what you experience physically, is a strange way to live. Is the Earth round? Maybe, but you only see flatness. Is there a God? Perhaps, but where are the miracles? Rajat Kapoor gives us an entertaining story of one man's rejection of his own world.

Bauji (Sanjay Mishra) is the patriarch of his crowded household that includes his wife Amma (Seema Pahwa) and children, as well as his brother's family. After his daughter Rita (the beautiful Maya Sarao) is forbidden to see her new boyfriend Ajju (Namit Das), Bauji and his friends decide to go to the young lothario's home to rough him up and keep him from his daughter.

What they find at Ajju's house is a nice young man terrified that these men have forced their way in and want to harm him. Bauji is changed by this. Ajju is nothing like he was told, and Bauji decides from then on he will only believe what he can see and experience personally. His family is thrown into tumult as he quits his job as a travel agent (how can he book passengers to fly to cities he has never seen?), and eventually acquires a group of followers. They sit around his house, and quiz him, first to laugh at him, then to learn from him. Chacha (Rajat Kapoor), Bauji's brother, moves out, and a rift develops as Bauji uses his new philosophy trying to solve everyday problems like his son who is flunking math, and another family member who is suddenly in debt to a gambling house.

Kapoor writes, directs, and costars in this nice little fable. It rarely goes outside of the family's small group of rooms, but Kapoor does a great job of keeping things moving. In fact, this could easily be adapted to play on the stage, the themes are universal, and many observers will be able to relate to Bauji.

Sanjay Mishra is wonderful as Bauji. He is soft-spoken, and as an actor, he doesn't call attention to his character by chewing the scenery or stealing scenes. The progression of his mocking, then worshipping, disciples is nicely handled. There are light touches mixed with the pathos, although some of the subplots wander in their own direction and get lost. Kapoor's screenplay lurches off the narrative path here and there. I could see a Hollywood remake of this starring Adam Sandler or Jim Carrey, and going the goofball route. Kapoor should be applauded for digging deeper, and not insulting the viewer's intelligence with dumb situations.

"Ankhon Dekhi (Before My Eyes)" had its world premiere at the South Asian International Film Festival earlier this month, and is definitely worth a look. This is one of those films that you are sad to see end (in a memorable climax), but Bauji and his outlook will stick with you. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Boogie Nights Lite: "Lovelace" (2013)

Linda Boreman's tale is a cautionary one. Blinded by love for the wrong man, she would end up being coerced into doing anything she could to make him happy and save her own life. This biopic shows us the rise and fall of porn icon Linda Lovelace, but unfortunately, it's a story you know all to well.

Twenty year old Linda (Amanda Seyfried) is in Florida, living at home with her stern mother (Sharon Stone) and nice father (Robert Patrick). Linda meets up with Chuck (Peter Sarsgaard), a ne'er-do-well who instantly attracts the repressed young woman, still being punished for having a baby out of wedlock (the child was put up for adoption, against Linda's wishes).

Chuck charms the parents, but after she comes home late and is slapped by her mother, Linda moves out of the house and into the arms of Chuck. Things go okay for a while, until Chuck gets into some legal trouble with his bar, and convinces Linda to go into porn as a way for them to get money. It's the '70's, so why not? After one of the film's best scenes (the audition where Chuck shows the film makers a home movie of Linda's oral talents), Linda finds herself shooting "Deep Throat" with a very nice leading man (a good Adam Brody who looks nothing like Harry Reems), and Chuck is left out in the cold. The film catapults Lovelace to superstardom. As the film makers get to the halfway point of the story, she is taking bows at a screening where she has met Hugh Hefner (James Franco) and other celebrities.

Fast forward six years later, and Lovelace is taking a lie detector test from Eric Roberts (one of the film's many "huh?" cameos). She is ready to write a book about what really happened behind the scenes, and in her relationship with Traynor, who she had divorced. Now remarried and living a normal suburban life, Lovelace tells the harrowing tale of physical abuse at the hands of Traynor, and that "Deep Throat" is nothing more than a week-long filmed sexual coercion.

The documentary film makers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have branched out into docudramas, and created "Howl," the best film of 2010. This take on the porn industry of the 1970's is an important story, but coming on the heels of the better "Boogie Nights" and the documentary "Inside Deep Throat," it feels unnecessary. I never saw "Deep Throat," but I did have the misfortune to sit through "The Confessions of Linda Lovelace," which featured an actress wearing a veil and outtakes from the original film. I read both of Lovelace's books, "Ordeal" and "Out of Bondage," (cowritten with Mike McGrady), and they are harrowing tomes. Shocking and salacious. Lovelace's honesty was questioned often about how much coercion was actually involved, but her supporters point to her seemingly willing behavior on set (unlike the film suggests, she made more than one pornographic film, as well as some softcore movies) as an example of post-traumatic stress disorder and being in an abusive relationship.

I bring up Lovelace's books because the writing of "Ordeal" figures prominently in the film. If Epstein and Friedman had "gone there," the film may have been stronger. Instead, the "good girl gone bad" plot is dragged out. The film is barely an hour and a half, and could have been double that with the amount of situations Lovelace found herself in before, during, and after her infamous fifteen minutes of fame. Seyfried looks the part, and does a nice job portraying Lovelace. She even resembles Sharon Stone a little bit, and their scenes crackle, especially when Linda returns home begging to stay. Another fantastic home life scene is a wrenching telephone conversation between Linda and her father, who saw his daughter's film and had to walk out. Really great stuff, and the film should have featured more of that. We never get any information regarding what Linda's second husband and children thought of her porn past, even though her children served as consultants to the producers. The film makers hinge their story on Andy Bellin's screenwriting trick of telling us "what really happened" in the second half of the film, but there is none of the imaginative energy that made "Howl" so special. The film looks amazing, the costuming, the editing, the soundtrack...all top notch. I don't know if the film was tampered with in post-production, but I am curious to see what was left on the cutting room floor.

There is no confidence to "Lovelace." Did the film makers decide no one remembers "Star 80," so we'll go that route? Val Kilmer in "Wonderland" presented an excellent look at a porn performer caught up in the debauchery of the times. Instead, excellent turns by Hank Azaria and Chris Noth are forgotten in the midst of cameos like Chloe Sevigny's two second, one line credited performance. Linda Lovelace died in a car accident over a decade ago, and her life is still being told and talked about. In this instance, the books "Ordeal" and "Out of Bondage" are much better than the film "Lovelace." (* * *) out of five stars.