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Indie Focus: On the rise in ‘The White Tiger’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

The first of this year’s Envelope roundtables dropped this week, with Jen Yamato talking to “Da 5 Bloods’” Delroy Lindo, “Sound of Metal’s” Riz Ahmed, “Minari’s” Steven Yeun, “The Midnight Sky’s” George Clooney and “Mank’s” Gary Oldman.

It’s an invigorating conversation to take in, either on the page or on video. Take Oldman’s response to a comment by Ahmed: “This impostor syndrome, it’s a good thing to have. I’m a little older than you, and I’ve been doing it longer, and I still have it. It’s the old story that performers have, or anyone in the arts, where you’re always waiting for that tap on the shoulder — where someone’s going to find you out and say, ‘We know who you really are.’ You’re always striving just to get better. I think it would be a sad day for any of us to maybe look up at the screen and think, ‘My God, I’m wonderful in this. My work is done.’”

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For this week’s episode of “The Envelope” podcast, I spoke to Radha Blank, writer, director and star of “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” which draws from her experiences as a struggling playwright in New York City.

Blank spoke about naming her character in the film after herself, putting her in a lineage with Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Lena Dunham and Cheryl Dunye. “I just wanted to tell this story and use my experience as an avatar for what I feel like many people have gone through. It just was never a question about whether or not I would do it … But it is a little daunting that people may feel the film means that they know me or that they have some kind of ownership over my story. But I really was just trying to be a representative of a Black artist.”

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‘The White Tiger’

Directed by Ramin Bahrani, who also wrote the adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel, “The White Tiger” is a social satire set in a rapidly globalizing contemporary India. Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) rises from poverty to become a successful entrepreneur after working as a driver to a wealthy couple (Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra-Jones) and learning how the system truly works. The film is streaming now on Netflix.

For The Times, Justin Chang compared the film to the director’s earlier work, writing, “Even on the bigger, splashier international canvas of ‘The White Tiger,’ there’s a becoming modesty to Bahrani’s filmmaking and a palpable reluctance to sensationalize or aestheticize his protagonist’s poverty. The movie naturally pulses with life and energy, invigorated by its narrative sweep, its nimble camerawork and propulsive musical score … The filmmaker may be as much of a cultural outsider as the Chinese premier, but every decision he makes feels born of a desire to see the country and these characters as honestly and matter-of-factly as possible.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “You may remember another English-language film set in India whose hero followed a similar trajectory, and ‘The White Tiger’ positions itself, sometimes explicitly, as a response to ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’ It isn’t luck, pluck or happy coincidence that propels Balram from his ragged beginnings to sleek triumph, but cunning, desperation and a coldbloodedness that can masquerade as servility. The spirit of Charles Dickens that hovered over ‘Slumdog’ has been banished; Bahrani’s literary reference points (and Adiga’s) lean more toward Dreiser, Dostoyevsky and ‘Native Son.’”

For Tribune News Service, Katie Walsh called the film “an incisive, almost anthropological breakdown of class and politics in a rapidly modernizing India, which also remains beholden to ancient ways … As the film progresses to its inevitable ending, it leaves us wanting in terms of resolution. Balram gets what he wants, but at what cost? ‘The White Tiger’ offers a cutting analysis, but no easy answers, leaving one with an uneasy feeling about not only what it means to make it, but what it takes.”

For rogerebert.com, Roxana Hadadi wrote, “What ‘The White Tiger’ wonders — as do Bong Joon Ho’s ‘Parasite’ and Ken Loach’s ‘Sorry We Missed You,’ films that would pair nicely thematically with this one — is whether wealth can ever be divorced from the inherent privilege it provides … Scene by scene, ‘The White Tiger’ punctures the fantasy that a rich man could also be a nice man, and although the comedy here is pitch-black, it strums with a particularly focused anger.”

Adarsh Gourav and Rajkummar Rao
Adarsh Gourav and Rajkummar Rao in “The White Tiger.”
(Tejinder Singh / Netflix)

‘Identifying Features’

Directed by Fernanda Valadez, who co-wrote the screenplay with Astrid Rondero, “Identifying Features” won two prizes when it premiered last year at Sundance. The story follows a mother (Mercedes Hernández) who leaves her town in Mexico to head north in search of her son, who has gone missing and is believed dead after setting out months earlier for the United States. Released by Kino Lorber, the movie is available now via virtual cinemas.

Carlos Aguilar spoke to Valadez and Rondero about the perspective of the film for an article that will be publishing soon. “It’s inevitable to have a political stance because our reality is so harsh. It pushes you to want to defend yourself and to want to talk about the issues the country is going through,” Rondero told him.

“What cinema does is to establish a conversation with reality, and that’s what makes it critical and non-conformist by nature, even if the themes are personal,” added Valadez.

In a review for The Times, Robert Abele wrote, “Hypnotic and heartbreaking, ‘Identifying Features’ is a feature debut to marvel at, but only once you’re able to shake off the bone-deep chills emanating from Mexican filmmaker Fernanda Valadez’s disorienting tale of a mother’s search for her missing son. Equal parts odyssey, investigation and descent, this eerily shattering dispatch from the heart of a grief-beset country — a double-winner at Sundance last year that’s been racking up festival awards ever since — has the power to expand our notions of what a border story is.”

For the New York Times, Teo Bugbee wrote, “Though it is a somber story, the film is enlivened and energized by striking, purposeful images … There always seems to be movement happening just outside of the characters’ field of vision, events that develop without their understanding. It’s a confident debut feature, and a sophisticated acknowledgment of the powerlessness that migrants face.”

For the Hollywood Reporter, Beandrea July wrote, “A movie about the border situation that explicitly avoids the ‘Sicario' or ‘Narcos’ route of the unrelentingly violent drug-war epic indeed is a welcome change. Valadez signals her arrival as a young filmmaker, unapologetically both Mexican and female, with well-earned confidence in her artistic voice.”

Mercedes Hernández
Mercedes Hernández in “Identifying Features.”
(Kino Lorber)

‘Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time’

Directed by Lili Horvát, “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time” is Hungary’s submission for this year’s Oscar for international feature film. The movie follows a doctor (Natasa Stork) who returns to Budapest to pick up on her romantic attraction to a fellow doctor (Viktor Bodó). But he does not respond as she anticipated, setting in motion a chain of enigmatic events and behaviors. Released by Greenwich Entertainment, the movie is available now via virtual cinemas.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “At first glance, it appears to be a strange, noirish tale of love and misunderstanding, in which a missed connection and an unrequited attraction threaten to spiral into a full-blown obsession. That the would-be lovers are both neurosurgeons offers an early insight into one of the story’s other subjects: the inner workings of the brain and the intricate, unpredictable circuitry that connects them to the desires of the heart.”

For the New York Times, Beatrice Loayza wrote, “Here, the absence of evidence and witnesses is less an erotic thrill than a point of despair. Marta is an expert in treating diseases affecting the human brain, yet Horvát understands that even the most sophisticated calculus is ill-equipped to interpret the mysteries of desire. After all, love itself may be a kind of neurological disorder.”

Natasa Stork
Natasa Stork in “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time.”
(Greenwich Entertainment)


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