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36 China Town (India, 2006)

My rating: +1 (Enjoyed it) – but only because Akshaye Khanna is in it *sigh*
Bechdel Test:
1 out of 3
Director: Abbas Alibhai Burmawalla, Mastan Alibhai Burmawalla
Cast
: Akshaye Khanna, Kareena Kapoor, Shahid Kapoor, Paresh Rawal, Payal Rohatgi, Johnny Lever, Tanaaz Currim Irani, Isha Koppikar, Upen Patel, Vivek Shaq, Rajendranath Zutshi, Priyanka Chopra (cameo)
Plot: A crime movie with a very heavy dose of comedy about a murder investigation in Goa’s Chinatown

About the film

I am going through a serious Akshaye Khanna fixation at the moment and since for the first time such a fixation has happened to me in the UK, where legal access to Bollywood films is fairly easy, I have been obsessively going through his filmography.

36 Chinatown isn’t really the best of films (it didn’t do particularly well in the box office either AFAIK), but it has stuck with me more so than some of the other films I’ve watched in my Akshaye Khanna mini-retrospective. This is because I really love his performance in this.
He plays the police detective investigating the murder. The whole point of his character is to be as ridiculously macho as possible and make all the other characters very uncomfortable the moment he appears on screen. I’ve really wanted to see a film where he has a very domineering sort of screen presence, so this made me very happy.
But it gets even better than that… I don’t know if I’m imagining this, but to me it seems like part of his intimidation tactics is to come on to his male suspects, so they’re even more uncomfortable. It’s very, very subtle and yet the body language, the winking, the unbuttoned shirt, the facial expressions… there’s something about this role that’s very sexual and it’s definitely not directed at the female characters.
The most suggestive bit IMO, happens towards the end of the movie. He tells all the suspects that he’s looking for one final piece of evidence and then he’ll know which one of them will be sent to the gallows. Then he tells them there’s a festival going on in China Town and he wants all of them to go out and enjoy themselves in the meantime (obviously they’re all too nervous to want to do so). And that’s when this song happens:

There’s no subtitles on the video, but in case you’re wondering, the line he’s singing for most of the song (while glaring at male characters) is “I’m interested in you”.
Nor is the song the only part of the movie that I find suggestive. There are other small moments in the dialogue scenes. Like the bit when he tells one of the suspects that he has some bracelets for him, takes out a pair of handcuffs and winks at him.
There’s even a scene at the end where the line he says is in that vein. One of the murder suspects is a playboy, who uses really bad pick up lines on any pretty woman he meets (married ones included) and should they respond positively, takes them on what he calls “long drives”. At the end, when the playboy tries to pick up yet another woman, the police detective gets involved in the conversation and teasingly offers a “long drive” to the playboy.
The character itself is most definitely straight, so I’m not suggesting there’s any real attempt at portraying homosexuality in this film – far from it. If it’s even there (I’m still not convinced I’m not simply imagining it), then it’s only there as a device to make the scenes look that little bit more uncomfortable and funny.

Gay innuendo and Akshaye Khanna aside, there’s not much more I really like about this film.
It’s unusually short – at just 2h 14min. it is probably the shortest commercial Hindi movie I’ve ever watched. It still manages to squeeze in 5 dance sequences (which is probably the standard number of songs in a Bollywood film nowadays), though one of them is during the ending credits.
It has an absolutely huge ensemble of characters. This abundance of characters makes for an interesting murder investigation (oh so many suspects), but it also brings in a fair share of problems. With that amount of characters, very little screen time remains for each of them and all of them suffer – particularly (oh so predictably) the female ones.
There are five female characters which drive the plot (and if we’re counting named ones we could probably add 1 or 2 onto that), which is a lot more than in most movies. Even with that many female characters it fails the Bechdel test completely – I don’t remember a single conversation between two female characters (even in a group scene). There are, naturally, plenty of conversations between men. That tells you a lot about how little focus the stories of the female characters get.

The resolution (i.e. who actually murdered) is quite predictable (turned out to be the character I suspected from the very beginning) and while there are some funny scenes and ideas, I found the comedy a bit heavy-handed most of the time. The romance between Raj (Shahid Kapoor) and Priya (Kareena Kapoor) felt rather tiresome to me. I think it would have been funnier (and much more original) had they not fallen in love and simply remained at each other’s throats for the whole duration of the murder investigation. And the production quality isn’t particularly high either.

On the positive side of things, Priyanka Chopra has a really great (and very funny) cameo at the end. It’s actually amazing how much screen presence she has.

And I did love how they dealt with India’s short-lived smoking ban. The ban made it illegal for Indian films to show smoking on screen because it supposedly makes it look cool and influences people to take up smoking. It only lasted a few years though. It was essentially censorship, and as is often the case, people always come up with ingenious ways to get around it or simply challenge it.
There was a film with Amitabh Bachchan soon after the ban came into place where they simply blatantly disregarded the ban. Then there was Don, which showed the smoke coming out of the main character’s mouth, but never showed the cigarette itself, while adding lines said in a very over the top way about how smoking kills you.
But I think this film’s way around the ban may be my favourite yet. The police detective keeps trying to light up a cigarette, but the lighter keeps failing – either no flame appears at all or the flame is way too big. And then at the end when the police detective almost succeeds in lighting his cigarette, they hilariously put up a sign about how smoking is injurious to health.

Overall, this is probably not a film I would particularly recommend, but I did find it a very pleasant way to satisfy some of my Akshaye Khanna fixation.

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Jab Tak Hai Jaan (India, 2012)

My rating: +2 (Loved it)
Bechdel Test:
I’m going with 3 out of 3 but it’s borderline
Director: Yash Chopra
Music: A.R. Rahman
Cast
: Shah Rukh Khan, Katrina Kaif, Anushka Sharma, Anupam Kher, Neetu Singh, Rishi Kapoor
Plot: An epic love story in which the lovers are separated by the heroine’s beliefs.

About the film

You can’t really write about Jab Tak Hai Jaan without mentioning that the director, Yash Chopra, died that same year. This in itself makes the film a bit of a milestone – Yash Chopra is known for his classic love stories and his death is in a way an end of a certain era in Bollywood.
But there’s another thing that caused this romance to make the news in a major way – it marks Shah Rukh Khan’s first on-screen kiss. Kissing still doesn’t necessarily happen in every romantic movie in Bollywood, but it’s certainly not as unusual as it once was. Nonetheless, for the last 20 years Shah Rukh Khan, arguably Bollywood’s biggest romantic hero, has had a no kissing on the lips policy. Unlike Salman Khan (one of SRK’s contemporaries), his stand was never against kissing in movies in general, just a personal choice, but until now it seemed like a firm one. To add a bit of spice and irony to it, Shah Rukh Khan does not one but three kisses in the movie and they are all with Katrina Kaif, Salman Khan’s ex-girlfriend!

That said, even without the more obvious reasons why this film is a landmark of sorts, there’s still more that makes this film feel like a bit of a game changer. I’ve not watched that many of Yash Chopra films, but it seems to me that Yash Chopra’s romantic heroines are usually very classical. I suppose we could call them the Bollywood version of Disney princesses – they’re very beautiful, at some point in the film appear dressed in a white sari (because white signifies purity) and are very respectable girls.
This film does away with that concept to a certain extent. Meera (Katrina Kaif) may fit the classic Yash Chopra heroine at first glance. She’s from a rich and respectable family, has a classical sort of beauty and indeed does appear in a white sari at one point in the film, but… she’s also a modern girl. It’s made pretty clear that the reason Samar (Shah Rukh Khan) is attracted to her is that although on the surface she’s very suave with upper class manners, her true nature is not at all so well-behaved. When nobody is looking she smokes cigarettes on the sly and does some swearing too. It’s also spelt out very clearly that they have sex before marriage, which is a huge contrast to the more traditional heroines that would never have considered anything of the sort.
Akira (Anushka Sharma) is an aspiring documentary filmmaker. She breaks the Yash Chopra heroine mould even more so than Meera does. She’s a bit tomboyish, does not wear a sari even once in the film and openly says that she has boyfriends for about 3 months before she breaks up with them and that these relationships are just about sex for her. The best bit – the film doesn’t pass any judgement on her for this!
A Yash Raj Films production with an 80 year old Yash Chopra directing strikes me as a very conservative combination, so to see female leads like that really is a positive sign.
On the not quite so bright side, it’s debatable whether this passes the Bechdel Test. The conversations between Meera, Akira and Dr Khan are all about Samar. Akira has conversations with her (female) boss at the Discovery Channel which are career-related, but seeing as Akira ends up making a film about Samar, this is also a bit debatable. Early on in the film Akira has a conversation about how it sucks that she’s an intern and won’t be able to go to London with other young aspiring filmmakers (and collects money for a dare she completed), but these are in mixed-gender company. Meera has a conversation with her mother, which is about her mother’s reasons for separating from her father, but seeing as those reasons relate to a man it’s again debatable. I would tend to give it a pass as I think Akira has enough career-centred conversation that doesn’t relate to Samar, but it is a bit borderline.

Regardless of all of its modern ingredients, Jab Tak Hai Jaan is still an epic Bollywood romance at heart with all the beauty, sensuality, passion and tragedy that comes with that. It’s very beautifully shot – the most beautiful portrayal of modern day London that I’ve seen, it really captures the spirit of it. The cold tones that are used somehow really suit the film and London in particular. This is also the first film I’ve ever seen that uses Southbank, my favourite part of central London, as a location.
The sequences in Kashmir (or rather Ladakh as that’s where they were really shot) are also extremely beautiful, as are the dance sequences. The Ishq sequence in particular is very spectacular and very modern (and oh so London in those grafittied tunnels!).
This is also probably the first Bollywood film I’ve watched, that has charmingly pointed out that if you start randomly dancing in public places in London, you may get arrested. They also managed to make getting arrested look very sexy.
The music is very beautiful as well – A. R. Rahman (the man behind the oscar winning soundtrack of Slumdog Millionaire) really outdoes himself IMO. It’s not just the dance numbers, but the background score that really makes this movie.

The acting is really good. Shah Rukh Khan kept it pretty subtle 99% of the time – none of the over the top crying scenes or over the top emotional speeches that he’s known for. The story spans across 10 years, so I was expecting him to go over the top in either the younger or older version of Samar as I’ve seen him do in other movies, but not so.
He has many strong moments. One that is particularly memorable to me is just before Meera and Samar’s separation. He says very little – he congratulates her and then repeats one of Samar’s comedic sayings, but this time there’s nothing funny about it. The anger and whole range of emotions behind those words really gave me a kick in the gut. It was clear Samar was going to be a very different and very resentful man from now on.
I suppose that has always been SRK’s strong point – whatever people say about how well or not he gets into character, to me there’s never been any doubt about how great he is with subtext and layering lots of (sometimes seemingly conflicting) emotions.
I’ve not seen much of Katrina Kaif before, but I really liked her in this. I think one of the best things in this part was how she did Meera’s relationship with God (or Sir Jesus as Samar calls him). Meera has a very particular relationship with God and how she prays to Him. Essentially, she makes deals with Jesus. She asks him for things that are important to her and promises to give up something she really likes in exchange (chocolate, fur coats and so on). At the beginning of the film this relationship is quite lighthearted, even comedic. But as it goes on, there’s more and more depth to it and there’s actually a kind of intimate feel to it. It also becomes apparent that because she gets what she asks for every single time, she really believes in the importance of these bargains.
This relationship between Meera and God turns out to be pivotal to the film. SRK usually has to win the heroine from some other man in his romantic movies. This time “the other man” is God.
It’s the first time Shah Rukh and Katrina have been paired up together on screen and they really work well together. When Meera finally opens up to Samar it’s quite special. There’s a real intimacy in how she talks about the issues in her family and how she has him take part in one of her “deals” with God. I got a sense that she’s inviting him into her own private world in a way she’s never invited anyone else before.
From that emotional intimacy, physical intimacy naturally follows… as does kissing *grin* When I heard SRK explaining himself about why he did the kissing, I was kind of sceptical when one of the arguments he used was that the movie required it. In Western cinema, kissing on the lips tends to be a shortcut for telling the audience “they are passionately in love”. Bollywood, and Shah Rukh Khan in particular, have so many ways of getting that point across that I found it difficult to believe he truly needed to do a kiss. In Dil Se, one of his 90s movies, there’s a scene where the story truly requires his character to kiss the heroine (it’s not a romantic kiss, he forces himself on her and the fact that he does this is important to how the story develops) and they managed to get away with a shot of the back of his head as he “kisses” the girl – looks real enough.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally in favour of watching gratitious kissing scenes with my favourite Bollywood actors, but I still wondered what was so different about Jab Tak Hai Jaan. To my surprise, upon seeing the film I found myself agreeing with SRK. Perhaps the third kiss was a little bit gratitious, but the first two sure as hell weren’t. There’s a real sense that they’re crossing an important boundary and I don’t think they could have achieved that without the kissing.
Mind you, all the kisses are still rather coy – you only get to see their lips touch either just as they’re starting or just as they’re finishing. The rest of it is all wide shot where you can’t see a thing really. And to be honest, I’m really not sure why the fact that you see the lips touching for a few seconds makes such a difference, but somehow it does.

Are there disappointments? For me, unfortunately yes. The first half of the film had me mesmerized (if it had continued as strongly I think it would have become one of my all time favourite films), but the second half is much weaker IMO.
The writing in the second half gets too soap operish (of course we have to have one of the characters get amnesia *sigh*) and some characters and storylines that are introduced in the first half never get a resolution. The storylines of Meera’s parents are pretty important to how Meera makes her decisions in the first half of the film, but in the second half when she changes some of those decisions, these are not considered at all. We never learn what happens to her father when she makes some decisions he definitely would not like. Or what happens to her mother for that matter. These were both well developed and memorable characters, so really needed a resolution IMO.
Another reason why the second half doesn’t work so well for me is that while Katrina Kaif is the leading lady for the first half of the film, in the second half it is Anushka Sharma who takes up more of the screen time. I liked Anushka a lot more in this than I did in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (the only other film I’ve seen her in). She did a decent job as Akira and it was good casting, but for me she just wasn’t able to carry the film the way Katrina does.
I am, however, relieved that they did not try for any sort of romantic relationship between SRK and Anushka. For me Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi was once too many. As much as Shah Rukh can still easily pass for 10 years younger than he is, I find it a little disturbing when they pair him up with young 20 somethings. He is going to be 50 by the end of this year, so could they not stick with heroines no younger than their early 30s? *sigh* Or if they’re going to pair him up with a 20 something then at least they could make the age difference a plot point IMO.
Anyway, the relationship between Samar and Akira is kind of nice in how it develops. Akira does sort of fall for Samar, but it’s a one-sided love and he makes it clear that he’s too old for her. And actually, the way she falls for him is quite believable – I’ve seen young girls fall for older men in that sort of way. They develop an odd sort of friendship.
What’s also very disappointing in the second half is that Meera loses her “edge”. In the first half she has a bit of that “bad girl” vibe, but in the second she loses it. She’s pretty much written as the more classical Yash Chopra heroine.

Overall, this is a movie that will stay with me for some time. Though I really wish the second half was as good as the first. I imagine most people who like a good romance would respond well to this, but how well this would go down with people who aren’t into romance I have no idea. But whether this film is your cup of tea or not, there’s no doubt that aesthetically it is stunning.

Firefly /TV series/ (USA, 2002)

My rating: -1 (Disliked it)
Bechdel Test:Ā 
2 out of 3 for some episodes, 3 of 3 (but barely) for others. Detailed Bechdel test breakdown for Firefly
Creator: Joss Whedon
Cast: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Summer Glau, Ron Glass
Plot: Hundreds of years in the future, a crew of a small spaceship earns their living doing all kinds of (usually illegal) ventures.

About the series

Disclaimer: I’ve watched 5 episodes out of 14 (first 4 + “War Stories”). So my criticisms may or may not apply to the rest of the series.

I watched a few episodes of Firefly because my colleagues highly recommended it and it was a mistake! I suspected my film tastes were quite different to those of the majority of people at work and now I am sure šŸ˜‰

The idea of Firefly in and of itself, as far as I’m concerned, is revolting. It’s basically a western, but set in space. With a premise like that, it is of course horribly macho, in a way I find difficult to stomach. I’m not sure why certain types of machoismo turn me off quite so strongly, but they just do :]
That said, what probably affects my enjoyment of this series the most is how underdeveloped the characters are. I need characters that draw me in to be able to enjoy any sort of fiction and Firefly is an epic fail in this. I just couldn’t get into any of them.
Part of my issues with the characters might just be that there’s a very macho feel to most of them (even some of the ladies), which is not normally my thing. But I also think there’s some bad writing going on here. There’s a basic rule in storytelling and that’s to give all of the characters their own story goals, which Firefly just doesn’t follow.
Here’s a breakdown:

  • Mal: The captain of Serenity (the ship). Being the central character, he’s actually got a bit more depth than most other characters in the series – he has a story goal and even a proper dramatic arch. As a soldier he fought a war against the Alliance which was eventually lost and he wants to get back at them – that’s his story goal. This sometimes motivates him to make very risky decisions.
    There are other things about Mal’s characterization that annoy me. It feels like they try to make him out to be all mysterious and deep, when I find him rather simple-minded actually. He’s the honest crook type of character who is out for personal revenge on the baddies. A pretty common type of character IMO, especially in American action moves.
    And also he makes sexist jabs at the girls sometimes, which annoys me… Don’t get me wrong – it’s perfectly ok to have sexist characters in a story, but I rarely find them likeable, which I think the creators want him to be.
  • Zoe: Zoe served with Mal in the army and fought with him against the Alliance. She’s his most loyal and reliable crew member.
    Zoe is the character that annoys me the most. She has no real story arch or goal of her own. So far, in the episodes I’ve seen, her motivation seems to be loyalty to Mal and love for her husband.
    Her lack of any story goals of her own is particularly frustrating because she’s portrayed as such a strong woman. She is brave, smart and strong. She also constantly goes around wearing tight clothes that show off the shape of her perfect body and heavy, sexy make up to complement that. And if perfect soldier and super attractive lady wasn’t enough, she’s also the perfect, domestic wife – the “War Stories” episode even shows her serving breakfast to her husband in almost 1950s style.
    All that and yet her whole being in the series is just to support the male characters’ storylines. Even when she’s in situations when she must take matters into her own hands, she seems to do it because that’s what Mal or her husband would have wanted. What’s even more frustrating – she’s the first character every one mentions to “prove” the series is feminist. Well, to me feminism isn’t about showing that women are smart and strong, it’s about showing women who are complete human beings with their own goals and even *gasp* flaws. Whether they are super strong or very vulnerable is beside the point.
  • Hoban: Zoe’s husband. Any series as macho as this has to have a counterbalance. That’s what Hoban is. He’s a guy who would like to be macho, but it’s not within his nature. His insecurities are often the but of the jokes in Firefly.
    His story goal? I’m afraid I can’t identify one.
  • Inara: The premise behind Inara’s character is actually quite interesting. She is a “companion”. In the reality of the series, “companions” are essentially high-class prostitutes. They are highly educated, cultured, officially registered and very well-respected in society. They choose their clients and therefore (at least in theory) never have sex with somebody they don’t want to.
    Does Inara have her own story arch? You guessed it, nope. To be fair, she might do in episodes I haven’t seen. There’s definitely some kind of unrevealed back story between Mal and Inara that has been implied. This might be what’s motivating her. But then this would be another case where a female character’s motivation lies solely with a male character.
    As you might expect, she’s also sexualized a lot. Understandable, considering her profession, but the way it’s done still annoys me (I’ll get back to that later).
  • Jayne: Jayne is as stereotypical as you can get. He’s the macho macho guy, the kind who is unreliable and only thinks of himself, but is still useful on the ship because he’s good at beating people up.
    His own story arch? Nope.
  • Kaylee: Kaylee is actually the only character in Firefly that I found endearing. I’ve since seen Jewel Staite (the actress) in Stargate Atlantis and I adore her as Dr Keller. So perhaps it is down to Jewel? That said Dr Keller is a hell of a lot more developed as a character than Kaylee is (we actually have Dr Keller’s story arch/goals spelt out fairly clearly in the first episode of Stargate Atlantis that she appears in).
    The premise behind Kaylee isn’t that bad. Kaylee is the ship’s mechanic. So on the one hand she’s in charge of stuff that’s usually a man’s job and is somewhat tomboyish, but she’s also very girlish in some of how she behaves and what she likes. Naturally, the girlish part of her (her crushes, her admiration of dresses with ruffles and probably other things in later episodes) gets ridicule from Mal and Jayne. And this annoys me too! I don’t like when “girlishness” gets ridiculed. I see it too much in day to day life. And it’s damn annoying that the only of the main female characters that doesn’t get ridiculed for anything is Zoe, who is the perfect sexy woman who serves two men without a word of protest or defiance ever.
    Kaylee naturally does not have a story arch or story goals of her own either.
  • Simon: Simon is a doctor. He has rescued his sister from the Alliance and is in hiding. He’s not a very developed character, but he’s the only character other than Mal who has a strong story goal (to keep his sister safe from the Alliance at all costs), which counts for something.
  • River: River is Simon’s sister. Whatever experiments the Alliance did on her have made her crazy. She does not have a strong story arch/story goal, although I’m inclined to forgive that as it’s harder to give someone who is not of sane mind a good motivation for what they’re doing. What I’m less inclined to forgive is that River is more of a condition than a character. Better films than Firefly have done this – made a character to be about the mental condition they’re suffering rather than about personality (for example – just because somebody is autistic doesn’t mean autism is their whole personality), so perhaps I’m expecting too much, but it’s a pet peeve of mine.
    What was more shocking to me about River is that she gets sexualized! In episode 1 she appears naked for a relatively silly reason. I get that Inara will get skin show, I can even get that Zoe needs to have sex scenes with her husband to show how good they are with each other, but why on Earth does River need to be naked because freezing her is supposedly the best way to transport her and apparently she needs to be naked for it?
  • Shepherd: A preacher. Little is known about his personality and his motivation is very, very general (spreading religion, doing good?). He seems to be the token man of colour, just so there is one on the show. And the snarky part of me wonders if it’s an accident that the one non-white male character happens to be old and completely asexual. In reality I doubt that was done on purpose, but it’s not nice.

It’s no coincidence that many episodes do not pass the Bechdel test and those that do, do it feebly – you need to have female characters with goals of their own for them to have something to talk about with each other.
What’s particularly frustrating is that this series seems to have an aim of being feminist and racially diverse. For the kind of show it is, four is a lot of major female characters. Usually we don’t get that many on shows with a lot of fighting and action. In a politically correct sort of way it also makes sure that one of the female and one of the male characters are not Caucasian.

Apart from how the characters are constructed, what bothers me about Firefly is the way it sexualizes women. It hits a particular nerve in me. Don’t get me wrong – I like films and TV series’ with a lot of sex and I don’t mind female characters getting a bit sexualized, but there needs to be some counterbalance for me to not get grumpy about it.
For one thing, when I see a sexualized female character, it’s particularly important to me that the character is well written – she needs to have a personality, a back story, an arch, story goals and all of those kinds of things they teach in writing classes. Without all those things she becomes more about being sexy and pretty than about anything else and I don’t like that.
But just as importantly, if a film or series is catering to the sexual tastes of straight men, I want them to cater to the tastes of straight women too! In Firefly, women are sexualized a lot (especially Zoe and Inara), but men are not. Even though the principal cast of men has four young and handsome guys, there is little effort to titillate the audience with them. Particularly disappointing as the premise actually gives a lot of scope for that – the show is clearly styled to be a bit like a western, so there honestly is room to dress the guys up in sexy attire and put some effort into this.
Another of my pet peeves is about how movies and TV tend to portray sex – why does it always have to be from such a strongly male viewpoint? The episode that particularly got on my nerve was “War Stories”. In that one Inara takes on a female client – she explains that she does this because sex with a woman is more satisfying for her. So what kind of scene do we get? The two women are in full and very heavy make up and it looks like a TV-censored version of fake lesbian porn for men. Honestly, does female sexuality really have to be shown like this? I get it, they want to titillate, but would it really be so bad to show something that looks a bit more like what two women might actually do when they want to have fun? That could still be titillating.

Some say that the macho thing in this series is actually made fun of, but I don’t see that. To me it seems the joke is in it being impossible to live up to the macho ideal (hence, Hoban, the least macho of the guys, is the but of the jokes). There is no effort to undermine the macho ideal itself, that is still portrayed as cool and worthy of trying to live up to.
It seems to me that this series ridicules pretty much every feminine trait (whether it’s in a male or female character) with the exception of being sexually desirable (Inara gets unpleasant comments from Mal for sleeping with many men, but her being sexually desirable is respected). On the other hand, it shows pretty much all masculine traits as either positive or neutral regardless of whether these traits appear in a man or a woman. Since Zoe has many masculine (macho) traits and is sexually desirable, she is pretty much never ridiculed for anything.

In short, I hated this series! I realize it has a bit of a cult status and clearly I’m in the minority here, but for me, I’d need a very different treatment of machoismo, vulnerability and female characters to be able to stomach it.

Aakrosh (India, 2010)

My rating: +2 (Loved it)
Bechdel Test:
3 out of 3 but only just
Director: Priyadarshan
Cast: Ajay Devgan, Akshaye Khanna, Bipasha Basu, Reema Sen, Paresh Rawal
Plot: An investigation of the disappearance of three students takes place in a small and very uncooperative Indian village. The film handles the subject of honour killings and caste issues.

About the film

Aakrosh is an unusual mix of things. On the one hand, it’s a film with a very strong social conscience. On the other it’s also a commercial thriller with a few very spectacular (and very unrealistic) chase scenes. It has a lot of violence too and somehow manages to be fairly naturalistic and yet still make a bit of a spectacle out of all the fighting. And since it’s a Bollywood film, it also has dancing, though not a lot of it.

To me, first and foremost it’s a very beautiful movie. The cinematography and editing made a huge impression on me. It’s a very mobile camera with a good mix of some very wide and spectacular shots of large groups of people, as well as many naturalistic shots that get close to the actors. To me the way it was shot and put together, really is a thing of great beauty.
But its beauty aside, it has much to recommend it storywise as well. In India, even in this day and age, you can still get killed because you fall in love with a person with a different social standing to yourself. This is the true subject matter of the film, though all this is packed into the formula of a thriller. Even if the social theme doesn’t interest you, it’s still perfectly possible to enjoy the film simply as a good thriller. It has many good twists and turns, but perhaps the best bit for me was the ending. Maybe not the most realistic of endings, but I really liked it and totally didn’t see it coming!

This is only the second of Priyadarshan’s films I’ve watched and apparently quite an unusual one for him (it seems that usually he makes purely commercial films without a social message). But something that strikes me is that he seems very good at observing people. There’s something very real about how he portrays human behaviour and the style of camerawork in this film really helps in that.
Aakrosh portrays the different levels of Indian society with a lot of subtlety. Different castes are one thing, but there are also the differences between big cities and villages and many other power disbalances such as age or occupation. The way the police work, the way corruption works, the way the villagers stay silent despite it all – all of that is portrayed very beautifully and believably.
And then there is gender. The events of the film happen very much in the world of men. Small villages in India seem to be places where women are not seen much outside the home and they rarely speak when in male company. Seeing as the two main characters (the investigators of the case of the disappearance of the 3 students) are male, they don’t interact much with women.
It was quite a surprise to me that the film passes the Bechdel test – this is solely thanks to the interactions that happen later on in the movie between Geeta (a battered wife in an upper caste home, played by Bipasha Basu) and Jamunia (a lower caste woman who loses her family through the events of the film, portrayed by Reema Sen). The reality is that for these women a lot of their lives do revolve around the men in their lives, so men are much of what they talk about. But I think arguably when Geeta inquires about Jamunia’s situation after she loses her husband and son, she is not really inquiring about the men in Jamunia’s life but Jamunia herself. The relationship and interactions between them turn out to be extremely important for how the plot develops in the end – this was something I had not expected, I was expecting it all to play out between the men.

The cast has some bigger Bollywood names (Ajay Devgan, Akshaye Khanna and Bipasha Basu), but they are amongst the subtler Bollywood stars, so Aakrosh has a slightly more realistic feel without as much of the bigger than life acting that Bollywood usually serves up. All three of them turn in good performances.
Ajay Devgan is Pratap, an investigator from the village assigned to help out in the CBI’s (Central Bureau of Investigation) work. He is a lower caste man, who has tried to get an education and make a decent life for himself despite having the cards stacked against him and having some truly haunting stories in his past. He genuinely wants to help and has a personal motive since Dinu, the missing boy from the village, is low caste like Pratap himself (the other two students are better connected boys from the city, who came to the village with Dinu). But he is also quite sceptical about whether the investigation will come up with anything since he knows first hand how the village works and how difficult it will be to get information from anyone. As the investigation develops, some of the things that happen are very, very personal to Pratap.
Ajay Devgan is well cast here – the tough, suffering, low caste man is something I’ve seen him do very well before. He’s a good balance of action hero and real man off the street – perfect for this kind of film.
Akshaye Khanna (who I am a big fan of and who is partly responsible for me seeing this :D) is Siddhant. Siddhant is a Brahmin (the highest caste) from Delhi with a rather privileged life – a soft-spoken young man with a respectable job whose mum is arranging his marriage while he investigates the case.
Siddhant is the designated investigator from the CBI with a good track record of handling difficult cases. Still, he has no idea about village politics and greatly underestimates the difficulties of investigating a case like this. Pratap has his doubts about Siddhant, but it soon becomes clear Siddhant is very determined. They don’t always see eye to eye (especially when things get personal for Pratap), but they make a good team. Siddhant blunders through initially, but slowly gets better at playing the village politics game.
Again, this is really good casting – Akshaye Khanna is believable both as a soft-spoken clerk and as a man who has just enough temper and machoismo that he could end up in a fist fight.

Overall, I highly recommend the film to anybody who likes a good thriller or a beautifully shot film on a serious topic.

Agora (Spain, 2009)

My rating: -0 (Ok)
Bechdel Test:
0 out of 3this is an interesting one as the main character is female and is the only really developed character, but the film completely fails the test.
Director
: Alejandro AmenƔbar
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac
Plot: The story of Hypatia of Alexandria, a female philosopher and astronomer living at a time when Christianity was gaining power in Roman Egypt.

About the film

The great thing about this film is the story. Usually, we hear only of accomplished men of science from the Ancient world, but Hypatia may have been just as talented.
Unfortunately, little about Hypatia has survived. She lived at a time when Christianity was gaining power in the region, which eventually led to the destruction of the library in Alexandria along with much of the knowledge gathered in it.
None of Hypatia’s works survived, so the truth is we only have a vague idea of what she may have been working on, thanks to mentions of her work in other sources from that era. Hypatia herself was brutally murdered by a Christian mob in 415AD.

The film theorizes that Hypatia further developed the theory that it was in fact the Earth that circled the sun and that she managed to calculate the Earth’s trajectory accurately. Whether this is true or not, we will never know, but it’s not impossible. What we certainly do know is that regardless of what she herself studied, she tried to educate others too – she was the head of the Neoplatonic school in Alexandria and was much respected.
Rachel Weisz is excellent as Hypatia – the way she portrays the passion and obsession with science really makes the character come alive. Hypatia is shown as a woman who is extremely open-minded. She questions all ideas and encourages others to do the same. Although she does not try to change the structure of society in any way (her family owns slaves and she seems perfectly content with that), she does believe that science is open to all. Her school has both slaves and people from the upper classes studying together.

Hypatia is a very rich and complex character, but this is not the case with the other characters in the film. None of the other characters has significant screen time and they are all far less developed. The film is particularly poor on female characters. There is a slave girl who is not named and has one important scene (but I don’t think she even speaks in it) and that’s it. This is rather odd – it’s rare for a film to have such a rich and complex female protagonist and then do so badly on all other female characters. It’s somewhat explainable in that women in that time and place did not feature much in public life (Hypatia was the exception rather than the rule), but even so it’s a bit weird.
In the film Hypatia has two students of note – Orestes (Oscar Isaac) who eventually becomes governor (from historical accounts, we know he did indeed attend her classes and held her in very high regard) and Davus (Max Minghella), Hypatia’s slave. Both men are attracted to her, but neither has success with that. Davus, being a slave, is somewhat doomed from the start. Orestes does try to court her, but is turned down in spectacular fashion – she gives him her menstrual rag (this is apparently based on historical accounts though how true this is, who knows).
The two men take very different paths as Alexandria destabilizes, however. Davus joins the Christians and adopts their agenda. Orestes stays pagan as long as it is practical and when he turns Christian it’s not entirely clear whether his beliefs have honestly changed or whether he is simply taking the necessary steps to have political support. He never adopts the more extreme views that some Christians in Alexandria take.

For me Agora is a film very much worth seeing once (and I’m very glad my interest in Oscar Isaac introduced me to it), but I don’t expect to be re-watching it. It’s the character of Hypatia that is so interesting rather than the film itself. I may, however, pick up a biography of Hypatia at some point. She really is fascinating.

Belle (UK, 2013)

My rating: +1 (Enjoyed it)
Bechdel Test:
3 out of 3passes easily
Director:Ā Amma Asante
Cast:Ā Gugu Mbatha-Raw,Ā Sarah Gadon, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, James Norton, Tom Felton, Sam Reid, Matthew Goode, Penelope Wilton
Plot: Set in the 18th century and based on a true story. A Royal Navy Admiral has anĀ illegitimate daughter with a black woman and brings the little girl back to England, where she is raised by her aunt and uncle.

About the film

Belle is basically one of those quality period dramas that regularly come out of the UK, but with a difference. It’s quite unusual to see anybody who isn’t white in a period drama and in the rare instances anybody of different racial heritage appears on screen, it’s usually as a servant. To have a woman of colour as the central character is pretty much unheard of, but it’s also what makes this film so interesting.

It has all you’d expect from a good British period film – good cinematography, a nicely structured screenplay, a great cast with many familiar faces. But it’s also a fascinating story, even more so because we know it really happened.
Little is known about the real Dido, though from what I understand the script takes quite a few liberties. But there’s no doubt about the essentials of the story – she was brought up in an aristocratic family and her uncle was the judge in the first case of its kind, against a company suspected of drowning a whole cargo of slaves because they were sick and therefore impossible to sell (it was more profitable to get insurance money for them).
The case is an interesting backdrop to what is essentially Dido’s coming of age story. Naturally, finding a suitable marriage partner is a big part of coming of age in a period film and that is a large part of the story. But as the film goes on, the court case starts dominating Dido’s thoughts more and more. To her, it is an important piece of the puzzle of who she really is and where she fits into society.

Obviously, the reason I came across this film in the first place is Tom Felton (I’m a big fan). He has a fairly small part in the film and as usual, he plays the villain – in this case simply the biggest racist (not very far from Draco Malfoy when you think about it, just a different sort of racism). There’s not that much you can do with a part like that, so I wasn’t expecting much, but was surprised. For me this was, in some ways, his creepiest villain yet. While for the most part James Ashford behaves very respectably with the occasional out of line comment here and there, there’s one particular scene that’s really nasty. The scene stayed with me for a while.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is great as Dido. The film relies on her very heavily, she’s pretty much on screen the whole time, so that’s a lot of pressure, but she carries the film well and holds her own with some very good actors. She’s also very natural in all the 18th century manierisms.

There are quite a few familiar faces in the film and it would take too long to mention them all, but one of the stand out supporting performances definitely belongs to Tom Wilkinson. Lord Mansfield is quite a conflicted character, so there was a lot to work with there. He is a man, who tries to be very rational and proper, not allowing his emotions to get in the way of his work and behaviour. But at the same time he loves Dido very much (even while trying to keep her in her proper place – wherever that is!) and is very much disgusted with how a whole ship of slaves was murdered, even while meticulously researching the details of the case and making sure he does not overstep what the letter of the law allows him (the law does not allow him to punish the company responsible for murder, only for insurance fraud, but that needs to be proven beyond doubt).

Sam Reid is very good as John Davinier. The passion he has for human rights really comes through. There’s a beautiful clarity about him.

On the whole, a very good film with a lot of good performances (also ones I haven’t mentioned), but it’s main selling point is very much the story.

Sucker Punch (USA/Canada, 2011)

My rating: +1 (Enjoyed it)
Bechdel Test:
3 out of 3passes easily (interestingly enough, if you did a “reverse” Bechdel test, as in two male characters talk about something other than women, I’m not sure it would pass!)
Director
: Zack Snyder
Cast: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Oscar Isaac, Carla Gugino
Plot: There are three realities stacked on top of each other in this movie. A girl is put into a mental institution by her abusive step father (reality no. 1). She imagines the hospital is in fact a brothel (reality no. 2). When she dances for men in the brothel she is mentally transported to a completely different place where girls fight with monsters and totally kick ass (reality no. 3).

But the deleted dance scene is way cooler than the trailer.

About the film

My Oscar Isaac phase has introduced me to this really bizarre film, which (perhaps unsurprisingly considering how weird the plot is) has people completely baffled and writing lengthy texts about what it all means. People don’t seem to be able to agree on things as basic as:

  • Who the protagonist is. It would seem it’s Babydoll (Emily Browning), but the ending kind of flips it so that it’s suddenly implied that actually we were watching Sweat Pea’s (Abbie Cornish) story all along.
  • Whether the film is very feminist or very sexist. One camp says this is a film about how women are used and how they fight back, the other camp says it’s pure fetishism and uses women’s bodies to titillate in a way far worse than a regular Hollywood movie.
  • What actually happens at the end or even generally what happens
  • Whether the film is a masterpiece or a total piece of crap

For me it was a collection of interesting ideas and a few very strong scenes that didn’t make a particularly great whole.
I think my main issue with it is that I found all the fight sequences much too long and rather boring. They unfortunately take up quite a lot of the movie. The mental institution and brothel plots on the other hand were fascinating to me, though indeed both those plots were very fetishistic.

All the female characters had a lot of skin show in this (though no nudity) and there’s quite a bit of violence (both sexual and otherwise) against women in the film. But then this is also a film about women fighting back against oppression and how can you make a film about that without showing the oppression?
Men are very much on the sidelines in this film. So much so that this is the first film I’ve watched in a long while that wouldn’t pass a “reversed Bechdel test” I think. There are hardly any conversations between men in the film. The only ones I remember are Babydoll’s stepfather bribing Blue (the man running the mental hospital) to make sure Babydoll doesn’t tell anybody about the abuse she suffered. That and men during the fighting sequences exchanging some words about fighting the girls. Both of those conversations are about women.
And as much as it’s the girls getting all the skin show (which is the main reason some feel this film is sexist), it’s worth noting the men are also put in some rather fetishistic clothing. Blue (Oscar Isaac) appears for the whole film with make up almost as heavy as the girls – lots of eyeliner and even some very visible blush in there.

Sucker Punch has some pretty well-developed female characters and mostly undeveloped male ones. I didn’t care that much for Babydoll (Emily Browning) to be honest, but Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) really grew on me. There’s something about Abbie Cornish that really moves me every time I see her – a kind of beautiful vulnerability. I really love watching her. She’s awesome in the ending sequence (which I must not spoil).
The relationship between Sweet Pea and Rocket (Jena Malone) is also really nicely fleshed out. But my favourite female character is Dr Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino) – the main psychiatrist and burdelmama. That’s just a really bizarre combination, but it works! And Carla Gugino is really fun to watch in that.
I obviously enjoyed Oscar Isaac in this a lot – to me it was an opportunity to see him in some very fetishistic attire with lots of over the top dominating behaviour. He gets some pretty emotionally twisted scenes, which he’s really good that, so that’s another win as far as I’m concerned.

Probably the most fascinating part of the film is the ending sequence. It’s hard to write about properly because it’s obviously a spoiler, but I shall try! The ending is the part of the film that gets the most discussion and lots of elaborate interpretations. It also happens to have been heavily cut. The uncut version is floating about on youtube and I totally get why Hollywood couldn’t handle it in uncut form – it’s perverse :] And the perversity of it is nothing to do with sexual acts – it’s the whole idea of it, the idea that that is the only way Babydoll can attain her freedom. Even with the cut that was made, it’s still a very uncomfortable sequence.
In fact, at one point in the sequence I gasped out aloud. I was surprised it hit me so hard – it’s the bit when Blue leans over to kiss a certain other character and it was just so, so disturbing… I think previously my personal winner for most disturbing kissing scene would be Closet Land (1991), but Sucker Punch is now my new winner in this prestigious category.
That said, the ending sequence isn’t just uncomfortable and disturbing, there’s also a really, really beautiful bit to it too. Both the message and the visual beauty of it is stunning and it’s going to stay with me just as long as what precedes it.

Overall, this is definitely not a film for everyone, but if something weird like that sounds interesting to you, maybe it’s a good film for you? Personally, I’m really curious what the whole uncut version of the film is like – it’s been released on bluray I think, so I may just buy it when I finally get a bluray player.