Sunday, October 27, 2013

Movie Review: Shahid

Bollywood hardly ever churns out realism and even when the odd ‘true story’ comes along, it treads the commercialized tightrope. Hansal Mehta’s Shahid is one exception to that rule because it chronicles an under-appreciated man while still delivering an entertaining movie. Unlike the commercial hogwash that sloshes around movie screens every week, Shahid is a brave and ballsy film made for grown-ups who like a little intelligence in their entertainment.

First screened at least year’s Mumbai Film Festival, Shahid has finally made the slow crawl to a wide theatrical release this week. The film sheds light on human rights lawyer Shahid Azmi (played by Raj Kumar). His life was both eventful and controversial, made all the more so because of his stance against a law that allows authorities to imprison a suspect for an indefinite period without any tangible proof to validate the charges made against them. I won’t give away anything else of Shahid because it is the kind of movie you’ll enjoy the most if you go in knowing the least. The film does a good job being a character study and without being preachy, Mehta calls out the hypocrisy and incompetence that has plagued Indian courts for decades.

At its best moments, the film captures that queasy feeling that we’ve all had while watching the evening news and seeing the day’s top story is about a religious clash and the miscarriage of justice in this country. But Mehta and Co. are not content to deliver a knee-jerk reaction and a manipulative movie. Shahid will push our buttons, making you hurtle from empathy to seething anger and ultimately to a woozy sense of calm. It makes you invest in the central character and it’s this emotional connection that makes you feel that it doesn’t matter that the film runs about ten minutes longer than it needs to. Those who watched the film at MFF last year will be happy to know the theatrical cut trims the opening segments into a lighter, more effective, finished product.

It's not a flawless movie and Mehta takes a few too many shortcuts in the process of telling Shahid Azmi’s life story. But there’s some real angst powering Azmi’s story and it’s tough to not admire a guy who went through what Azmi did and sought to act against daunting obstacles like human ignorance and an unacceptable law. Mehta is also to be commended because he has been able to balance a most unpleasant subject matter with some well-observed sense of humour. You don’t often get such well detailed, nuanced and restrained films in India.

After LSD, Gangs of Wasseypur, Talaash, Kai Po Che and now Shahid, I’m fully convinced that Raj Kumar can do just about anything. You can complain about the physical discrepancies between Azmi and Raj Kumar or you can ignore these superficialities and appreciate an actor who has worked really hard on a role that clearly matters to him.

Mehta has a good eye for casting, which is obvious from the supporting roles – we see good performances from the likes of Bajinder Kaur, Vipin Sharma and Shalini Vatsa (she plays the hateful prosecutor). Newcomer Prabhleen Sandhu plays Shahid’s wife and brings nuance to her character; a rare talent in Bollywood. Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub plays Shahid’s brother and is another one of those actors who always delivers a strong, committed performance but doesn’t get any credit when the movies do well. That may change this year, thanks to his performances in Raanjhanaa and now Shahid.

(First published in Firstpost)

Movie Review: Katiyabaaz

With last year’s Superman of Malegaon and now Katiyabaaz, two things are confirmed – that India is capable of producing some seriously high quality cinematic docus, and that the era of India being a hub of brainless masala movies is over.  

Katiyabaaz, a documentary that plays out like a Dibakar Bannerjee movie tells in its own unique way the story of the power crisis in Kanpur. Veering between real and reel, the film is a comedy, an expose, a satire, a vigilante tale, an unapologetic bit of manipulation and one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen this year. It is required viewing not only for those looking for a ‘relevant’ and ‘important’ bit of desi cinema but also for those seeking an entertaining time at the movies.

The film follows Loha Singh, a dark knight-esque figure in Kanpur who fiddles with transformers and reroutes power cables illegally to power the homes of the destitute and give the finger to the tyranny of the UP government. We travel with Loha across the power ravaged city as he hurls a barrage of subversive, amusingly scathing observational statements. Loha’s footage is intercut with footage of Ritu Maheshwari, the MD of Kanpur’s electricity supply company who struggles to find a middle ground between beurocracy and adhocracy. There’s a method to this – as Ritu in her first world of luxury exudes helplessness in the face of practicality, Loha becomes a vigilante figure as the story spirals into scripted beats. The contrast between Loha’s acerbic commentary and the MD’s practical worldview makes Katiyabaaz and its documentary style provocative and enormous fun.

Directors Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa had the task of selling the film to the Indian audience which rarely watches documentaries, and they somehow managed to hit the sweet spot here. Katiyabaaz might be a docu but is more hilarious, insightful and gorgeous than a feature film. And thanks to Namrata Rao and Maria Eliaz’s editing the film is an energetic, chaotic look at a world that is foreign to many of us.

Most documentaries have scripted segments and it’s only a matter of how well the filmmakers conceal them. Katiyabaaz has quite a few staged scenes, including shots taken with a crane. But even if the entire documentary is a giant put-on it doesn’t matter, because Katiyabaaz does so many thing right. For starters it talks about a major political issue in the most politically volatile Indian state and it does it in a quirky, entertaining style. The film isn’t the final word on the power struggle in UP but it does provide insight into an issue with a very interesting protagonist. You might stay in a town where load shedding is the norm, but how many of you know who reroutes cables for a living and what the people in power are actually doing about it?

Moreover Katiyabaaz has some truly incredible footage and moments, like when a mini riot breaks out when a transformer blows out and the city is plunged into darkness. It doesn’t hurt that the film is frantically paced and beautifully scored with Indian Ocean’s music and Varun Grover’s lyrics. The filmmakers’ electric style of rebellion transcends from the protagonist to the film in a scene where Loha has a drunk profane philosophical argument with his uncle - if that scene was scripted it is brilliant, and if it wasn’t it is still endlessly fascinating and absolutely unforgettable. 

(First published in DNA)

The best of Mumbai Film Festival 2013

Thanks to the 15th Mumbai Film Festival, I got to watch 28 films in 7 days, 20 of which were very good, and 17 of them were truly outstanding. It’s difficult to rank them in any way because they’re all great films, so here’s a lowdown of the best of the fest.

Abdellatif Kechiche’s French film Blue is the Warmest Color was one of the most talked-about titles of the festival circuit this year, and it more than lives up to the hype. The pang of first heartbreak has seldom been captured so well in cinema and stars Adele Exarchapolous and Lea Seydoux are extraordinary in the lead roles. Hat tip to Mr Narayanan, the director of MFF who organized an extra screening of the film on public demand.

Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin is a bleak and powerful film that sheds light on the ferociously dehumanized state of modern China. The scene in which the protagonist uses three cigarettes as incense sticks to pray is easily the most hilarious and scathing shot of the year.

Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa’s Katiyabaaz was a funny, insightful documentary on the power crisis in Kanpur. It’s more a film of the Dibakar Banerjee genre than a documentary. The film won the Golden Gateway award for Best Film in the India Gold Category at the fest.

What stopped the moving, heartwarming Short Term 12 from being the opening film of the fest remains a mystery, because it has generated great buzz since its SXSW screening. Destin Daniel Cretton’s debut is by far the best American film of the year and it’ll be remembered as the arrival of Brie Larson.

The pitch dark Dutch comedy Matterhorn poses an interesting scenario: what would you do if you became a foster parent of the guy who accidentally killed your wife? Director Diederik Ebbinge beautifully establishes the themes of acceptance and forgiveness even though the film treads into Bollywood territory in the climax.

The Keeper of Lost Causes is a saucy Scandinavian cocktail of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Oldboy and it’s a perfectly serviceable thriller. The film has the trademark Norway-Sweden-Denmark snowy aesthetics and it’s been positioned as the first in a trilogy.

The Armstrong Lie made by Alex Gibney, the modern master of documentaries does an incredible job of making you simultaneously loathe and sympathise with Lance Armstrong. The research is colossal, the footage is provocative and the candid interviews really make you wonder if Armstrong beating the drug tests was a legal or a moral offense.

Jadoo is a fun little British-Indian film about two sibling chefs in London who face off each other in a cookery contest when the daughter of one plans to get married. The biggest surprise is Harish Patel, yesteryear’s bad guy (Ibu Hatela from Gunda) in the performance of his career. His grasp of comedy and drama is so spectacular one wonders where he’d been hiding all these years.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s film-within-a-film, The Act of Killing, doesn’t give us a history lesson, but instead taps into the psyche of people who were proud of committing genocide. It’s a terrifying watch because instead of the victims, Oppenheimer makes the film about the murderers.

The South Korean horror movie Killer Toon is fun, escapist entertainment that is tailor-made for horror film buffs, with enough laughs, jolts and filmi twists to warrant a place on your DVD shelf.

Blackfish, a scathing takedown of a marine park, makes one feel guilty about going to the zoo and keeping fish in aquariums at home. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film plays out like a razor sharp thriller on large smarmy entertainment corporations who abuse ethical boundaries and shoot animal rights to hell.

The Coen brothers have never done depressing dramas and their first attempt Inside Llewyn Davis is a glorious ode to creatives and artists struggling to get their big break. Apart from being gorgeously shot, written and acted, the film will also make you want to adopt a ginger cat or two.

Kim Mordaunts’ The Rocket is an unapologetically crowd-pleasing film about a kid in Laos trying to build a rocket to win a competition and earn enough cash to start a new life. The Aussie production is sure to find a place in the foreign language Oscar category later this year.

Ilo Ilo is a great first film from director Anthony Chen who won the Camera d’Or at Cannes. Chen tells the story of a family in Singapore that is struggling to deal with the country’s brutal financial crisis. The film commands exceptional acting and nuanced detailing and signals a major talent's arrival.

Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost is a terrific feature from Anup Singh who bagged the Silver Gateway Award in the India Gold category. The film is a bold, eerie drama featuring some barn-burning performances from Irrfan Khan, Tillotama Shome and Rasika Dugal.

The Great Beauty has been named so because that’s exactly what it is. Italian director Paolo Sorrentino channels his inner Fellini for a ridiculously fun, hallucinatory, amusingly acerbic comedy-drama starring Toni Servillo as a famous writer. It’s a film made for people who love films and especially for those who make films. There are enough one liners in the movie to entertain you for a lifetime.

The French film Tonnerre does what Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo failed to – making you feel for the characters. Guillaume Brac’s film is an exquisite, relatable modern drama of doomed romance that has shades of Blue Valentine and it’s fodder for anyone who has gone through heartbreak. Lead Vincent Macaigne won the Best Actor award for his performance in the film.

(First published in Firstpost)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Movie Review: Boss

In one scene of Boss, a melancholic and pained Mithun Chakraborty struggles with his crutch, looks pensively towards the camera and says, “Ghaav to wo bharte hai jo shareer pe lage ho. Ye ghaav to mere aatma pe laga hai.” (“Only physical wounds can heal. These wounds are upon my soul.”)

It’s a meta line because it perfectly encapsulates the effect that Boss has on the viewer. It hurts your soul.

Starring Akshay Kumar from Rowdy Rathore, Akshay Kumar from Khiladi 786 and Akshay Kumar from OUATIMD, Boss is one of the most shoddily-directed, pathetically-written and mind numbingly insipid expenditures of two and a half hours that you’ll have subjected yourself to this year. The film is a remake of the Malayalam movie Pokkiri Raja and seems to have been rushed into production the second Simbly South remakes like Rowdy Rathore scored box office platinum. It is shamelessly mediocre cinematic swill posing as masala entertainment.

Hired to create this masterpiece is Mr Anthony D’Souza, the filmmaker who gave us Blue along with the writer duo of Farhad-Sajid. I could end this review right here because that’s all you need to know about the lazy, unfunny awfulness of Boss, but since I love cinema, brace yourself for a meticulous and analytical plot synopsis.

Akshay Kumar upturns a red mirchi cart in slow motion, then Akshay Kumar swirls road dirt with his feet in slow motion, then Akshay Kumar does the jig at a couple of discotheques while trying to reunite with his estranged dad, and finally Akshay Kumar jumps screaming out of a pond in slow motion. There’s your plot. Dammit, I’m moaning about the lack of a plot while writing about an Akshay Kumar film titled Boss – look at my effrontery.

Kumar’s performance transcends campy and fun into Hellraiser’s fourth dimension of grotesque and horrific torture. It’s not that Kumar can’t do comedy – he was terrific in Hera Pheri. If only he’d return to doing well-written comedies instead of bile like this.

Bottom line: Boss expects you to laugh in the face of amazing stupidity. The jokes would struggle to make a guy attached to a nitrous oxide cylinder budge a facial muscle. The highlight of the film is a joke where Boss saves a woman and bestows his brotherly affection towards her by naming his truck ‘Behen ki lorry’. Seriously, I wonder how a human being would fund this sort of humour. Maybe the producers would pay me if I point and laugh uncontrollably at the first name of the film’s action director: Anal Arasu.

To keep up with the misogynist observational jokes of the film, I must say that Aditi Rao Hydari in Boss has done a really great job of showcasing her dripping wet, red bikini torso. Her character has no other purpose in the film. However the Grand Mufti of Atrociousness in Boss is the venerable Mithun, forced to play an utterly stupid character and bare his massive lack of dramatic chops in a series of ludicrous scenarios.

I can only assume that talented and likable actors like Ronit Roy, Danny Denzongpa, Sanjay Mishra and Mukesh Tiwari had a few mortgage loans pending so when the call came in for a big budget South remake starring ‘Akki’, they zoomed towards the auditions in an F1 car. There’s no judging anyone for putting bread on the table, but it is depressing to watch them wading through a wreck like Boss because of (presumably) the lack of options in India’s film industry. 

(First published in Firstpost)

20 Must Watch Films at the 2013 Mumbai Film Festival

BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (France/2013/180 minutes)

Based on the graphic novel Blue Angel by Julie Maroh, director Abdellatif Kechiche’s film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and also rendered the festival’s top prizes to the director and its lead stars Lea Seydoux and newcomer Adele Exarchapolous.

CLOSED CURTAIN (Iran/2013/106 minutes)

Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s follow up to the brilliant This is not a film won the Silver Bear for the best script at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. Much like Panahi’s previous film, Closed Curtain was shot secretly in and around his own apartment seeing as the filmmaker has been under house arrest and has been banned from making films.

THE PAST (France-Iran/2013/130 minutes)

Asghar Farhadi stormed to limelight last year with the terrific A Separation, and the Oscar gave him an opportunity to flex his dramatic muscles outside his home country. The Past is set in France but contains the familiar themes of relationship dynamics, troubled marriage and a tragic mystery as seen in all his previous work.

A TOUCH OF SIN (China/2013/135 minutes)

Perhaps the most important film of the year, A Touch of Sin satirizes the social and economic handicap China faces in the modern world. The film was nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year and the director Jia Zhangke scored the Best Screenplay trophy at the fest.

SHIELD OF STRAW (Japan/2013/125 minutes)

Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike is the master of controversial violent dramas and his new film promises exactly that – a busload of visceral risqué thrills. The film was nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes and has received extremely polarizing reviews, meaning either you’ll love the film or hate it, no middle ground.

THE ROCKET (Australia/2013/96 minutes)

Kim Mordaunt’s film has garned universal acclaim and is Australia’s entry to the Oscars this year.

THE GREAT BEAUTY (Italy/2013/142 minutes)

Paolo Sorrentino’s  latest chronicles an ageing writer on the verge of a breakdown  - the film was nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes and is Italy’s submission to the Academy awards this year.

WAJMA (Afghanistan/2013/85 minutes)

Afghanistan’s Oscar entry is an interesting film that sheds light on modern relationships in the country – a topic that has seldom been covered in cinema.

KILLER TOON (South Korea/2013/104 minutes)

This South Korean horror film was a gigantic critical and commercial hit, and it’d be futile to attend a film festival that doesn’t have a fun violent Korean movie.

HELI (Mexico/2013/105 minutes)

Mexico’s Oscar submission scored some highly contrasting reviews for its bleak tone and raw depressing message. Polarising reviews can mean one thing – that it’ll be an interesting watch.

ILO ILO (Singapore/2013/99 minutes)

Director Anthony Chen’s Chinese Sinagporean comedy came out of nowhere and bagged the Camera d'Or at Cannes. It’s one of few feel good movies to watch at the fest – and it’d probably be a welcome change.

KATIYABAAZ (India/2013/84 minutes)

Fahad Mustafa’s film follows two individuals who try to solve the severe power shortage in Kanpur – one, a power supply head honcho and the other who illegally routes cables and steals electricity.

QISSA (India/2013/109 minutes)

Anup Singh’s film has a terrific cast of Irrfan, Tisca Chopra, Tillotama Shome and Rasika Dugal andan equally terrific plot – a man who faces eviction during partition is forced to raise his daughter as a son. Qissa won the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema Award at TIFF.

THE ACT OF KILLING (Denmark/2013/159 minutes)

This stunning documentary focuses on one proud Indonesian executioner who agrees to enact the killings in a faux film about the genocide, and slowly begins to realize the horrors he’s committed.

MOOD INDIGO (France/2013/95 minutes)

Michel Gondry’s return to trippy French dramedies has the lovely Audrey Taotou and Gondry’s trademark flair for the bizarre, impossible visuals.

BEKAS (Sweden/2013/97 minutes)

Karzan Kader’s film finds humor in devastation as it chronicles two kids in 1990 Saddam Hussein plundered Iraq who want to travel across to America and hang out with Superman.

THE MISSING PICTURE (Cambodia/2013/90 minutes)

Rithy Panh’s film grabbed the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes – it’s a biographical account of the filmmaker’s time in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge administration. A bit like The Act of Killing, the central character reflects back on the violence and atrocities by recreating events that transpired during that time.

DON JON (USA/2013/90 minutes)

Joseph Gordon Levitt became an international star and internet sensation but apparently he wasn’t happy with just that – he’s turned to direction with a modern take on Don Juan, with Scarlett Johansson in the lead.

SHORT TERM 12 (USA/2013/97 minutes)

Starring Brie Larson in her breakout role, Destin Daniel Creton’s comedy-drama has been making a lot of noise ever since it premiered at the SXSW film festival earlier this year and has since scored some insanely positive reviews.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (USA/2013/105 minutes)

It’s the Coen Brothers’ new film - that is reason enough to line up and camp outside the movie hall for the screening. 

(First published in DNA)

Friday, October 11, 2013

Movie Review: Fire in the Blood

Steven Soderbergh, his frequent writer Scott Burns and filmmaker Tony Gilroy have stated over and over again that pharma-based scandals are an immediate threat to the world and are grossly overlooked by the media and investigators. Enter Fire in the Blood, an eye-opening expose of western pharmaceutical companies, which is simultaneously fascinating and depressing for anyone who has ever taken medication.

Like Michael Moore’s Sicko, Fire in the Blood film is pretty much a case study of how the US is more or less a massively profitable playground of a handful of conglomerates leeching off the rest of the world. Director Dylan Mohan Gray angrily takes his cameras to the AIDS hit third world and inside the underbelly of American pharmaceutical firms which price their medicines a hundred times their worth to keep the cash flowing. The very thought of these big pharma companies exploiting humans for gigantic monetary gains and still proclaiming to nobly help mankind is sickening in itself, but to watch the facts unfold on the screen will make you utterly despise America’s capitalistic proclivities.

Fire in the Blood has its share of shocking images from Africa but not in a manipulative poverty porn way. It’s hard for any single film to establish the extent of imperialist healthcare policies because the problems are not just abundant but systemic and racist. Gray focuses primarily on the way the western pharmas have become the mafia of the pharmaceutical industry by misusing the patent laws to maximize their own profits. Interestingly, the film intercuts to the Indian firm Cipla which was primarily responsible for ushering a new law that crippled the monopoly of American firms like Glaxo. It’s heartening to see Cipla’s Chairman Yusuf Hamied standing up against the tyranny of Glaxo and pioneering the advent of affordable multi-drug combination pills that were once out of reach for the common man.

Some of the facts in Fire in the Blood may only represent the surface level of the problem, and the film’s cutaways to an impoverished Africa tend to get a bit repetitive after a point. Gray’s cameras introduce us to various people in India and Africa who contracted HIV but are still alive due to their access to inexpensive medicines in the country. One really inspiring segment involves a man from the North East who was diagnosed with AIDS in his youth and went to become a Mr Universe runner up. The film juxtaposes this information with the fact that a half a dozen pharmaceutical companies make more profit than the rest of the Fortune 500 put together. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, and Fire in the Blood is an important film given the circumstances. Ironically, despite the film’s message about India being a hero in medicine, hospitals in India are doing exactly what the Western pharmas are. It’s about time someone makes a film on that. 

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: Gravity

There is a scene in Gravity where the camera pans around two astronauts in space for fifteen minutes in one single continuous take, then goes inside the helmet of an astronaut, swirls around showing the suit’s UI, and seamlessly pops out of the helmet. It’s at this moment where you realize that in space no one can hear you scream but everyone in the movie theater can hear you shout DAAYUUMMMNN.

Seven long excruciating years after Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron is back behind the camera with some sort of vengeance to entertain the crap out of you. For some reason Gravity is being billed as a Sci Fi movie. It’s not. There’s no fiction here. Gravity is in fact a horror movie, and it’s a masterpiece. There are no aliens here, but a very real, intelligent disaster. Think 127 Hours in space, but significantly more visceral, moving and immersive. Miraculously, it’s also 3D done right – it really is an astonishing cinematic achievement and it’s the only film I’d watch once again on a 3D IMAX screen. It’s also the only film whose filming techniques would be as interesting to watch as the film itself.

So what’s different in Gravity given that there have been other films about astronauts stranded in space? For one, Cuaron is a deadly filmmaker, a shaman. He absolutely nails the staging and pacing of the film, making it a 90 minute tense, dizzying, breathless experience. The detailing, the digital effects work and the long, uncut takes will divorce your jaw from the rest of your face. It’s not just one of the great CGI films of the decade but one of the five greatest uses of CGI in the history of cinema. When James Cameron was fawning over the film, he wasn’t kidding - Cuaron, Lubezski and their special effects team really have crafted something extraordinary here.

Apart from using groundbreaking technology like an LED box that’d change filmmaking as we know it, Gravity has a ‘believable’ disaster plot and a heroine who is quite different from the stock scream queens that you expect from Hollywood. She is smart, she has a reason to make us root for her, and more importantly, she’s heroic rather than corny, ping ponging between her primal urge to survive the disaster and her existential wish to stop trying. Sandra Bullock is terrific here, always convincing, despite the green screen around her, holding the film on her own in the vast emptiness of space.

There are some scientific fallacies in Gravity but laws of science can’t be questioned anymore seeing as Sandra Bullock broke them - she probably went around the space time continuum and aged backwards, because she looks 30 despite being 50. Except for Clooney’s wisecracks the lines (written by Cuaron’s son Jonas) are mostly pedestrian and simplistic, but not grating. One thing that I actually found problematic was a scene where the heroine’s weakest moment has a man saving her – it’s a tiny nitpick but it’s a little jarring to see a strong female protagonist being rescued by the hero in a film built around a strong independent female.

Regardless, all flaws of Gravity become infinitely smaller the bigger the screen you watch it on. In IMAX the film is perfect, utterly faultless. Cuaron clearly takes inspiration from video games with POV shots of Bullock’s character shuttling from one space station to another. One first person sequence where she changes her space suits and heads out to repair the damaged station is straight out of Dead Space. If this movie makes money, it’d have the potential for Hollywood to invest a bit more into smart original movies than shameless 3D cash grabs. If you’re interested in that kind of a future, you should buy your tickets right about now. 

(First published in MiD Day)

Sunday, October 6, 2013


Genre: Horror Thriller | Dir: Brandon Cronenberg | Country: USA | Year: 2012

We’ve all been afflicted by a sickness and we aren’t even aware of it. It’s worse than cancer. It’s highly contagious. There is no cure. There is no hope. It’s called the sickness of celebrity obsession.

Look at what happened to Miley Cyrus. The poor thing wags her tongue and twerks in public as an excuse for a song and dance performance. She humps cannon balls buck naked in music videos and magazine covers to escape from being a teen idol. Her sad, pathetic state is attributed to us. We can’t stop talking about her. We can’t have enough of her. The media can’t stop leeching off her.

The only way to realize all this is by watching the fantastic indie horror film Antiviral.

Directed by 28-year-old Brandon Cronenberg, the son of the great David Cronenberg, Antiviral is a swell demonstration of the mantle of cerebral horror cinema being passed from father to son. The film has Cronenberg Sr’s trademark creepy imagery, morbid humor, body horror, stomach turning violence and nihilistic overtones. Most importantly, junior Cronenberg has made his film a clever, twisted thriller to complement its chilling social commentary.

Antiviral is set in a dystopian future where the obsession with celebrities has reached a nauseating zenith. Celebs have sold out so much that food items are retailed with celeb brand names, and there are companies that sell diseases which celebs contract. Caleb Landry Jones stars as Syd, a technician at a pharmaceutical organization that harvests ‘celeb viruses’ and injects them into ‘customers’ who want to experience a connection with celebrities. Customers are given an inventory of various stars and corresponding illnesses, and they choose their favourite celebs after listening to Syd’s lengthy, seductive sales pitch. If this situation isn’t messed up enough for you already, Syd pirates the diseases, getting himself tangled in rival companies, shady mobs and the death of a popular star.

The film dances from satire and allegory in some pretty disturbing ways and it becomes more and more macabre as Cronenberg gets into the technicalities. There is a barely legal ‘meat market’ that sells steaks and flesh products cultivated from movie stars’ cells. There are skin grafts developed from the celeb tissues worn by their fans as tattoos. There is some sort of a ‘copy protection’ system that prevents technicians from duplicating the viruses, with a screen that displays a ghastly version of the celeb’s face. The way Syd manages to override the system and pirate the virus is horrific to say the least.  It’s just a gruesome, brutal takedown of pop culture and the ridiculously profitable business that supports it.

Cronenberg mashes the themes of perfection and imperfection brilliantly, juxtaposing the near perfect nature of the movie stars to Syd’s deathly pale freckles. It’s a bit unsettling when you fathom the meta surrounding the film – where cinema is just like the virus and can be sold commercially with digital copyrights, by sucking stars dry just to cater to our greedy little hands. The film also does a great job of establishing the utter lack of tact displayed by large corporations who profit from selling celebrities to their fans. Never before has a film been more relevant to us, and it’s perhaps time to leave Miley alone and think about the fact that we were directly responsible for the dozens of Disney stars ending up in rehab. 

(First published in DNA)