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Film Review: Second Chance (2024) by Subhadra Mahajan

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Film Review: Second Chance (2024) by Subhadra Mahajan

“Second Chance” is about healing and bonding, about forgiveness and acceptance of unjust cards dealt in life

Indian director Subhadra Mahajan has dedicated her black-and-white drama “Second Chance” in Hindi, English and Kullavi language to the Devis and Devtas of the Kullu & Lahaul Valley whose permission and blessings allowed her to tell a story set in their sacred Himalayan land. “Any and all merit accumulated by this work is dedicated to the happiness and awakening of all sentient beings”, she writes in the film’s opening credits. It doesn’t take long to understand these words. Once the story opens in the spectacular Himalayan scenery with the camera perched on the top of a hill to embrace it all, one can feel the overwhelming power of nature and its invisible creatures and deities. Not just the opener, but the whole film is shot in stunning black & white photography by the cinematographer Swapnil Suhas Sonawane (behind the lens of Pan Nali’s “Last Film Show”, India’s official entry to the Oscars 2023), who keeps things simple by not adding more to what the eye already perceives as beautiful.

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It’s winter when twenty-five-year-old Nia (Dheera Johnson) reaches her family’s summer retreat in a village situated in the Pir Panjal range of the state of Himachal Pradesh in Northern India. Her decision to be there at the most unlikely time of the year comes from the need to isolate herself from family and friends and from her boyfriend Kabir who ignores her pleas to call her back. Nia is going through a both psychologically and physically challenging situation on her own since the only person who knows about it decides to turn his back on her. At the same time, there isn’t a better place to be. Out of season, high up in the mountain with only locals around, Nia gets what she needs the most in the secluded village – anonymity, and time to heal.

By dealing with a range of heavy-weight topics, out of which particularly one stands out as taboo-breaking, Mahajan is painting a realistic picture of a society defined by unwritten rules of conduct. Although a country with one of the most flexible abortion laws that allows women to seek medical help to terminate their pregnancies, their decisions to do so are not met with a lot of understanding or kindness in the society itself. Abortion is still regarded as the last possible option, and welcomed in exceptional situations only, which is why many young women decide to choose the illicit instead of safe abortion supervised by the medical staff. This is exactly what happens to Nia who learns the difference between the first and the latter in a difficult, horroresque way. On the other hand, the village she chose to withdraw to offers her unexpected support coming from an illiterate but life wise woman called Bhemi (Thakra Devi), almost triple her age who has a very traumatic personal experience herself, but also time, heart and patience to come to Nia’s help.

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For her debut feature set up in the area she grew up in, the Indian director found it crucial to show real people and real situations in an anti-Bollywoodian, small arthouse movie manner, without romanticizing a life of scarcity. Also, there is nothing drab about the way Bhemi, her son Raju (Rajesh Kumar) and her eight-year-old grandson Sunny (Kanav Thakur) spend their time in the village. They do their best to live with the spirit of the mountains, their unpredictable fits and the lack of such commodities as hot water.

To bring the villagers and the local culture close to the audience, Mahajan opted for non-professional actors, casting locals from the area, who speak in the region’s genuine dialect. “Second Chance” is shot on a shoestring budget and with a tiny crew of film professionals, not surpassing four. Except for Johnson (who is also a new face on screen), as mentioned before, the complete cast consists of amateur actors found in the region. It took some time to convince Bhemi, who according to Mahajan, probably hasn’t seen a movie in her life, to join the team. Thankfully, she did because she is one of the strongest assets of the movie. Similar is the case with her onscreen neighbour and buddy, shepherd Ganga Ram who in real life is equally engaged in environmental matters, as in the film. Mahajan lets him talk about the change in water patterns, dry glaciers, tunnels being drilled despite the mountains giving way, and the shrinking of springs and rivers in a conversation with Bhemi, who just has one dry comment on it all: “Well, at least you lived your life long enough”.

There is a kind of flirty energy between the two elderly people who meet (given the nature of their hard-working life) only occasionally to exchange thoughts and goods: a rare bark from the high mountains (which is allegedly helpful against headaches, tummy upsets and all kinds of ailments: “Pound it, boil it and drink it, works like magic!”) for the knitted, woollen garments. “I’ve never seen such a spark on a sock”, says Ganga Ram hinting that, if he ever had a chance to meet such a woman as Bhemi, he wouldn’t stay a bachelor.

Under normal circumstances, Nia and Bhemi would never have met. The old woman is the mother-in-law of Nia family’s housekeeper Raju who, away in the big city doing some errands, asked for Bhemi’s help. The class difference is very obvious. The young woman comes from a privileged family who’s paying the villagers to maintain the household and the property. But this is a sideline of the movie whose auteur also comes from a similar background as Nia. The focus is put on relationships instead, and on the young woman’s bonding with Bhemi and her grandson, who in real life, claims Subhadra Mahajan “also is the naughtiest boy in the village”. First-time actress Dheera Johnson portraying Nia is a talent to watch, and knowing that she is currently in Los Angeles on Richard Boleslawski Scholarship for a full-time professional acting conservatory at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, we will probably get to see her in many more roles in the future.

“Second Chance” is about healing and bonding, about forgiveness and acceptance of unjust cards dealt in life. The film had its world premiere in the Proxima Competition of Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, which will definitely boost its chances of travelling to other great international film events in the near future.

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‘Frankie Freako’ Is a Fun Ode to ’90s Puppet Mayhem Movies [Fantasia Review]

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‘Frankie Freako’ Is a Fun Ode to ’90s Puppet Mayhem Movies [Fantasia Review]

Seeing isn’t always believing in The Chapel, the latest film from Piggy writer/director Carlota Pereda. Written by Pereda, as well as Albert Bertran Bas and Carmelo Viera, The Chapel is a supernatural drama about intergenerational trauma between mothers and their daughters.

The film opens in 1631 in a small Spanish town that is besieged by the Black Plague. Men in plague masks gather up sick individuals to lock them in the titular chapel to preserve the health of the community and, as the crowd watches, a young, infected Uxoa (Alba Hernández) is separated from her mother, who refuses to help.

The moment of familial discomfort is upended, however, when a member of the crowd raises a smartphone to shoot video of the event, shattering the authenticity of the moment. It turns out what we’re seeing is a historical reenactment: these are actors who are playing a part in an annual five day festival. Once a year the haunted church is opened up and the town becomes a debauchery-laden tourist destination.

A similar instance of visual questioning occurs only a few moments later when characters walk through town and arrive at a painted facade two-stories tall that mimics the real street behind it.

Because these moments are so close together – and occur so early in the film – it is clear that it’s a larger part of Pereda, Bas and Viera’s subtle agenda. The Chapel is clearly interested in exploring notions of life after death, spiritualism, and belief, but the screenwriters also seemingly want the audience to evaluate what we’re seeing and what constitutes truth.

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The heroine of the film is young eight year old Emma (Maia Zaitegi), an aspiring medium who is bullied at school because it’s a well known fact that her mother (Loreto Mauleón) is dying of cancer. Although the woman is effectively in hospice, Emma can’t bear to be separated from her mother, so instead of being sent away to relatives or into foster care, Emma is regularly babysat by well-intentioned neighbors, Edurne (Elena Irureta) and Asier (Jon Olivares).

The kindly adults are no match for Emma’s strong will and her tendency to sneak out, however, so her de facto surrogate parent becomes police officer Jon Elorza (Josean Bengoetxea). He’s the one who typically finds Emma in the middle of the night, unaccompanied, and performing spells to try and speak with the spirit of Uxoa, who haunts the chapel.

The plot kicks in when Ivana Peralta (Nagore Aranburu), the old “witch” Emma was studying under, dies of natural causes on the eve of the festival. Concerned that if her mother dies during the five days, her spirit will be imprisoned inside the religious site, Emma befriends the witch’s daughter, Carol (Belén Rueda) who arrives in town to settle the estate and manage the funeral.

Rueda is eminently watchable as the scowling disbeliever with a tortured backstory. Carol makes a living as a fraudster mystic, she actively tells Emma she hates children, and she stalks through town in her mother’s fur coat like a fury. She also wears her history, quite literally, on her face: the entire left side is badly burned, a detail The Chapel mines for a narrative reveal in the last act.

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The skeptical adult/precocious child partnership isn’t new, but it works exceptionally well here because both actors are great. Zaitegi is especially revelatory: the rare child actor who negotiates the fine line between cloying, annoying, and dangerously mature for their age. It’s the centerpiece performance of the film and it only works because Emma is inherently worth rooting for, even when she repeatedly sneaks out after dark, engages in risky spiritualist activities, and actively courts the attention of violent ghosts.

Alas the film loses its way roughly halfway through. While The Chapel makes a clear throughline between Uxoa, Carol, and Emma’s “abandonment” by their respective mothers, when it comes time to confront the literal ghosts of their past, there’s nothing else to explore. The climax is particularly muddled, as the aforementioned “question what you see” element comes roaring back in a poorly shot sequence featuring a fiery pyre. 

It’s even more disappointing considering the spectacle that Pereda creates only moments before: a mountain of mutilated plague bodies piled on top of each other. This is easily the most haunting visual in the entire film, but it stands out in stark contrast to earlier unconvincing CGI on the Plague Mask ghost that regularly attacks Emma.

Alas, it is the horror elements where The Chapel falls down. There’s more mood and tension in a scene when Carol stumbles drunk through the town in the middle of night than most of the overly familiar monster attack sequences. 

The film works best when it is investigating the nature of female relationships between Emma, her mother, and Carol or when it explores Emma’s inability to process her mother’s impending death (fans of J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls will find this to be a suitable companion piece). 

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As a female-centric drama with genre-adjacent tones, this is a strong calling card for Pereda’s talent. As a horror film, though? The Chapel is muddled.

3 skulls out of 5

The Chapel made its North American debut at the Fantasia International Film Festival.

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DEADPOOL & WOLVERINE Review

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DEADPOOL & WOLVERINE Review
(PaPa, C, B, H, LLL, VVV, SS, N, A, DD, M):

Dominant Worldview and Other Worldview Content/Elements:

Strong pagan, slightly mixed, irreverent, often lawless worldview, but the movie’s premise has a solid redemptive, moral aspect to it where the main character wants to make a difference, save his friends, be a hero, and defeat two power-mad villains, and sacrifice ultimately solves the movie’s plot problem, and this is overtly referred to in the dialogue, plus the movie takes place in a humanist multiverse, though the movie appears to acknowledge the monotheistic idea that there are ultimate values that transcend the individual multiverses (thus, for example, Deadpool truly does want to be the kind of hero that his girlfriend wants him to be);

Foul Language:

At least 139 obscenities (including many “f” and “s” words), one possible Jesus profanity, seven GD profanities, and 13 light profanities;

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Violence:

Lots of extreme and even bloody and well as strong violence includes Wolverine gets really mad at Deadpool two or three times, and they fight and try to kill each other even though the bodies of both men have regenerative power, lots of stabbing from Wolverine’s claws and Deadpool’s swords against each other and against bad guys, Deadpool decimates a bunch of Time Variance Authority soldiers with bones from a skeleton that have been infused with unbreakable adamantine steel, some explosions, a villain is able to infiltrate and control the minds of other people (this is depicted as if one of the villain’s hands is poking through the person’s head – there’s no blood, the action seems to be more metaphorical or taking place on a non-physical plane), explosions, gunfights, people are shot multiple times (for example, both Deadpool and another character shoot Wolverine multiple times in two plot twists), and-to-hand combat, villain with telekinetic powers kills one character by ripping his skin away, and people go flying during the movie’s many fight scenes;

Sex:

No sex scenes but the dialogue has a smattering of crude sex jokes, including a joke about a Boy Scout leader exposing himself;

Nudity:

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Brief upper male nudity;

Alcohol Use:

Some alcohol use;

Smoking and/or Drug Use and Abuse:

No smoking, but an older side character enjoys cocaine, and there are jokes about her cocaine use, though it’s never depicted; and,

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Miscellaneous Immorality:

Deadpool lies to Wolverine about an important matter, but Wolverine eventually forgives him and accepts Deadpool’s perspective on why his lie wasn’t really a lie.

In DEADPOOL & WOLVERINE, Deadpool wants to make a positive difference in the universe to regain the love of Vanessa and teams up with a reluctant Wolverine to stop a power-mad bureaucrat from the Time Variance Authority who’s trying to destroy Deadpool’s universe. DEADPOOL & WOLVERINE takes the crude language and extreme violence in the first two Deadpool movies to new depths of degradation, which ultimately overwhelms the movie’s redemptive heroic premise and dilutes the movie’s enjoyment level.

In the story, Wade Wilson aka wants to regain the love of his girlfriend, Vanessa, to become a true hero. However, The Avengers turn him down, so he stops using his Deadpool identity altogether and just enjoys being with his friends, including Vanessa. He still wants to get back with her though, but she nixes the idea.

Two years later or so, a power-mad bureaucrat from the Time Variance Authority (TVA), calling himself Mr. Paradox, picks up Wade. Paradox thinks Wade has matured enough to be a hero. He wants Wade’s help for a special assignment. Wade is gung ho and gets Paradox to build him a new Deadpool suit. However, he rebels against Paradox when he discovers that Paradox is trying to destroy Wade’s universe, including Vanessa and his friends. Apparently, the death of Logan, aka Wolverine of the X-Men, in Wade’s universe has set off a chain of events that will lead to the universe’s destruction sometime in the future anyway. So, Paradox decides why wait for all that pain and misery to develop? Why not just destroy Wade’s universe now?

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A fight occurs Paradox’s offices. Wearing his Deadpool suit, Wade manages to escape in one of the TVA’s multiverse time travel portals. Deadpool travels back to Wolverine’s burial place to revive him. Things don’t go according to plan, and Deadpool finds a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. He eventually figures a way around it, but only to find another obstacle. Wolverine is not interested in stopping Mr. Paradox, and certainly not to work with Deadpool, whom he loathes.

Even when Wolverine finally reluctantly agrees to help, he and Deadpool encounter the biggest obstacle of all, a new, even more powerful villain. This villain wants to destroy the whole multiverse except for one area.

Can Deadpool and Wolverine stop this new villain and Mr. Paradox too? Can Deadpool save his own universe? Will Deadpool stop his incessant talking?

Except for some exposition, the jokes and action in DEADPOOL & WOLVERINE don’t stop. The movie also has some surprising, funny cameos. However, the movie takes the crude language and extreme violence in the first two Deadpool movies to new levels, or depths.

For example, Wolverine gets really mad at Deadpool at least twice. They fight and try to kill each other, with Wolverine stabbing Deadpool repeatedly with his claws, and Deadpool stabbing Wolverine repeatedly with his samurai swords. As fans of the two characters know, the bodies of both men have regenerative powers, so these scenes seem to go on forever with no resolution. In another long scene, Deadpool slices and dices multiple TVA policemen. Also, in a third long scene, Deadpool and Wolverine wade through a horde of assailants together. The brutality of the violence is clearly too extreme.

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The number of obscenities in DEADPOOL & WOLVERINE has also sunk to new “heights,” going well over 100 to about 140 or more. There’s also some strong lewd dialogue, including a joke about a Boy Scout leader exposing himself. Unlike the first DEADPOOL movie, however, this third movie has no explicit sex scenes or nudity.

Ultimately, the brutality of the violence and the amount of obscene language in DEADPOOL & WOLVERINE dilutes the enjoyment of the story. It also overwhelms the movie’s redemptive ending. Shock for shock’s sake is a flawed concept that ultimately turns off more people than it attracts.

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Film Review: Brush of the God (2024) by Keizo Murase

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Film Review: Brush of the God (2024) by Keizo Murase

A tribute to a late special effects modeler leads to fiction and reality intertwining.

Following a prolonged absence, tokusatsu veteran Keizo Murase returned to film as a sculptor for Daisuke Sato’s wonderful short film “Howl from Beyond the Fog.” Recently, he’s made his directorial debut with the independent feature “Brush of the God.” Originally conceived as a story written by the director, it has now been adapted, with a screenplay by Takeshi Nakazawa, and Sato producing and directing the special effects. With a small budget, the project would receive additional funding through donations on Motion Gallery and Kickstarter. The final product is a movie with a promising setup but underwhelming payoff.

Renowned special effects model artist Kenzo Tokimiya passes away, and a memorial service is held for him to honor his legacy. His work is on display, and his daughter is organizing the event. One of the attendees is Kenzo’s grandaughter, Akari Tokimiya, who feels torn about the event because she doesn’t have the fondest memories of her late grandfather. While there, she runs into her classmate, Takuya Kido, a big tokusatsu fan, and they discuss the artist’s legacy and what will become of his work. Then, they meet a man named Hozumi, a proclaimed acquaintance of the old master, who shows the two teens an outline for a film Tokimiya had planned but never got around to making called “Brush of the God.” He then pulls out a brush and requests that they find it and save the world from vanishing. The duo is then transferred into a fantasy world that turns out to be the fictional reality of the unfinished movie, with the script being their only major resource available. They come across numerous creatures, including a friendly winged bunny creature called Mugumugurus, yet realize that the stakes are high when they encounter the legendary monster Yamata no Orochi, an eight-headed serpent capable of devastating catastrophe.

The premise for “Brush of the God” is very promising and, on the surface, endearing. It is a passionate tribute to the special effects art form of tokusatsu while channeling the filmmaking mode of meta-cinema. There is prominent self-insertion, with Kenzo Tokimiya meant to represent Keizo Murase and reflect on his career. The work of the deceased artist within the movie humorously references Murase’s real-life contributions to the medium, including films like “Matango,” the “Daimajin” sequels, and “The Mighty Peking Man,” yet the fictional movies showcased still feel like they could exist. There’s even referencing real independent productions, prominently “Howl From Beyond the Fog.” Additionally, there are themes of family reconciliation, with Akari reflecting on who her grandfather was as a person beyond his craftsmanship, material that can make for compelling drama.

There’s undoubtedly passion behind this feature, yet “Brush of the God” fails to deliver a compelling story, largely due to lackluster direction and writing, further dampened by awkward staging. The plot is incredibly rushed with how it progresses, reliant on continuous convenient contrivances that stretch subversion. It never feels like things happen naturally, which becomes a glaring detriment when the film attempts to insert drama, primarily with Akari reflecting on her relationship with her grandfather. All the characters are forgettable, with the only attempts at development being with Akari Tokimiya, but even she feels underdeveloped, and the intended resolutions to her conflicts don’t feel earned by the end, due to the lackluster screenplay. These narrative faults are not helped by almost all the dialogue being blatant exposition, frequently spelling things out for the audience, which becomes irritating.

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In addition to dull characters, the acting is generally poor here. Rio Suzuki and Takeru Narahara are distractingly subpar in their roles as Akari Tokimiya and Takuya Kido, with some especially clunky line delivery and emotional conveying. While intended to be mysterious, Takumi Saitoh looks more lost than engaged in playing Hozumi. There’s also a handful of cameos from recognizable faces in tokusatsu media, like Yumiko Shaku, Shinji Higuchi, and Shiro Sano, yet they are sadly just as wooden as the film’s leads, which can also apply to the rest of the cast here.

Another frustrating aspect of “Brush of the God” is the inconsistent production values, particularly the special effects. While this movie aims to stay true to classic tokusatsu techniques, the quality is all over the place. Granted, even with crowdfunding from Motion Gallery and Kickstarter, finances are more limited here than in a big studio production, and it’s admirable how determined Sato and the team remained. Yet, for every great visual effects moment, such as Orochi’s rampage on a city, there are numerous bad ones, with some very shoddy digital effects and green screen work. This issue also applies to the cinematography by Yoshihito Takahashi and Yoichi Sunahara, sometimes looking good while other times not so much. However, the music score by Shota Kowashi adds a nice mystical flare to the movie, and the ending theme song, “Kaiju,” performed by the pop band Dreams Come True, is an endearing tune.

Keizo Murase’s “Brush of the God” is a disappointing film, especially considering the talent the filmmakers have. There are elements to admire, yet a lot to criticize. Its heart is in the right place as an intended loving tribute to the special effects art form of tokusatsu, yet its narrative execution fumbles. For every visually stunning moment, numerous sections look incredibly poor. Keizo Murase and Daisuke Sato don’t quite capture the immersive magic here that they did with their previous and vastly superior creative collaboration, “Howl from Beyond the Fog.”

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