Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

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September 2021

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TIFF Review: Murina

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

There is a great abundance of film narratives centered on extraordinary people or individuals who achieved great feats in unthinkable circumstances. The same cannot really be said of ordinary people wishing to lead ordinary lives. As children, we’re often told that we’re special, even as the vast majority of us grow up to lead fairly mundane existences.

Antoneta Alaman Kusijanović’s film Murina explores the life of a girl who never received any kind of positive affirmation from her parents. Julija (Gracija Filipović) is a 16-year-old girl living on an isolated Croatian island. Julija is not particularly special, her most noteworthy talent being that she can hold her breath for a long period of time, a skill she puts to good use while spear-fishing with her father, Ante (Leon Lućev), an insufferably mean man who makes life miserable for her and her mother, Nela (Danica Čurčić). Isolated from anyone her own age, Julija spends her time being objectified by the men around her, almost always sporting a one-piece bathing suit.

A visit from Ante’s old friend Javier (Cliff Curtis) reopens old jealousies, Ante nearly driven mad by Javier’s much more successful career. Ante takes out his anger on Julija, getting even more frustrated by the kindness that Javier shows toward his daughter. While quiet and soft-spoken, Julija sees in Javier new possibilities for life beyond her father’s constant abuse.

Kusijanović presents an illuminating portrait of the long-term effects of living under the male gaze, a slow-burn narrative completely in sync with Filipović’s lead performance. Julija begins the narrative seemingly at ease with her underwhelming life prospects, gradually awakened by the possibilities of a world her picturesque purgatory. Filipović captures that moment so beautifully.

An a-ha moment is not a roadmap for life. The real world is a much bumpier ride, a notion that Kusijanović never loses sight of in the narrative. Murina’s narrative takes place over the course of a few days, hardly enough time for a young girl to break a long-standing pattern of abuse and live a happily ever after. Such a payoff wouldn’t hit home as hard.

The 95-minute runtime gives the audience plenty to chew on, a good amount of time to spend within Kusijanović’s world. At its core, Murina is a film about agency, and the difficulties that one has to face in wielding it. Kusijanović makes a strong argument for the power of telling kids that they’re special. It’s a lot harder to reach one’s potential If you’ve never been told there’s any point in trying at all.

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Saturday

11

September 2021

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TIFF Review: Silent Land

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Foreign travel is supposed to open one’s mind, and potentially heart, to new experiences and empathy for people of different cultures. Going abroad can certainly be scary when faced with trouble from local law enforcement, often operating under different investigative protocols. In general, one is supposed to feel bad when a stranger dies in a swimming pool barely fifty feet away.

Aga Woszczyńska’s Silent Land (original title Cicha Ziemia) follows a couple, Adam (Dobromir Dymecki) and Anna (Agniezska Žulewska), with some pretty rotten vacation luck. Staying at an Italian villa overlooking the ocean, the advertised pool is found empty. After prodding the owner to begrudgingly fill the pool, the maintenance man is found floating lifelessly inside, the couple blissfully ignorant nearby. Indifferent toward the plight of the deceased worker, the couple finds themselves increasingly agitated by the local police.

Throughout the narrative of her feature debut, Woszczyńska finds herself mostly concerned with the nature of empathy. The couple feels no remorse for the plight of the man, largely instead concerned with their own terrible fortunes. Woszczyńska has a knack for dramatic tension, lining up the audience’s sympathies for the tourists handed a raw deal abroad.

The trouble is, her protagonists are pretty insufferable people. Adam is particularly tiresome, his moods ranging from sullen to bothered. Dymecki and Žulewska have no chemistry as a couple. Whether that dynamic was intentional or not feels doesn’t really matter, as their obvious lack of compatibility is a major detriment to the narrative and its insufferable 113-minute runtime.

The real bummer with Woszczyńska’s film is that she does put forth some compelling questions about the nature of empathy, at least initially. She just doesn’t seem all that interested in exploring this as time goes on, spending much of the film’s second half on the nature of the couple’s relationship. Having not put in the work to sell either character, it becomes increasingly challenging to muster up any empathy for them. They seem like pretty terrible people, but not in a way that’s remotely entertaining to watch.

Painfully long, Silent Land squanders an interesting premise with a directionless narrative centered on insufferable people. In an abstract sense, one can relate to a couple merely wanting to enjoy a nice swim on their vacation. It’s another thing entirely to spend a duration of time with people so utterly detestable, instead filling you with the sense that karma served its justice to an odious pair of individuals.

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Saturday

11

September 2021

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TIFF Review: Comala

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

The question of nature vs. nurture is an alluring thought experiment that rarely provides any sense of definite conclusions. The past and present work often synchronize in unseen ways, an exercise that’s not really meant to be easily analyzed. The mere act of trying to uncover the various pieces of one’s self can be a more rewarding journey than any idea of a destination.

The documentary Comala follows director Gian Cassini as he explores the life and death of his estranged father El Jimmy, a hitman who was killed in Tijuana in 2010. Cassini travels throughout Mexico and the United States, interviewing members of his father’s extended family that he hadn’t seen in years, people he has little ties to other than through blood. El Jimmy left behind a complicated legacy, beloved by many who knew him in spite of his career choices and shaky sense of morality.

Cassini does a superb job handling his intimate material, conducting himself with the professional aura of an investigative journalist though no one would expect him to be objective. The documentary itself exists to bring its director closer to the subject, but Cassini understands the value of the distance between himself and his father. The outsider sense of perspective that Cassini brings is incredibly valuable toward making the material relatable to the audience.

Perhaps most shocking in Comala is the nonchalant way that Cassini’s subjects speak about their careers in the drug trade. For many, selling cocaine is not all that different from any other line of work, a stable way to make a living if one is smart about their savings. The interviews are both intimate and generous, people opening up about their darkest days, presented in a way that makes you feel like you’re sitting at the table with them.

El Jimmy does not seem like the greatest man in the world. As a character study, Comala isn’t interested in rehabilitating its subject. The record is what it is. The son never tries to carry water for the father, instead giving the audience space to draw their own conclusions.

Throughout its 98-minute runtime, Comala consistently impresses with its innate ability to capture the messy nature of family. Few can understand what it’s like to have a hitman as a father, but the desire to discover one’s roots is a far more relatable predicament. Cassini takes his wild story and unpacks its many layers, along the way demonstrating the power of simply engaging in these acts of self-discovery.

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11

September 2021

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TIFF Review: Attica

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The 1971 Attica Prison riot represents the bloodiest uprising in the history of the United States penal system, as well as one of the worst atrocities committed by the American government upon its own citizens. 43 people, including ten civilians and correction officers, as well as 33 inmates, lost their lives as state police, acting on orders from Governor Nelson Rockefeller, retook the prison on September 13th. In the subsequent decades, countless people have asked the same question: why did it have to be this way?

Stanley Nelson’s documentary Attica provides an in-depth look at the riot and its root causes. Featuring ample archival footage and dozens of new interviews from eyewitnesses including prisoners, journalists covering the riot, and family members of the hostages, the film thoroughly explores the events of that chilling period from every angle. Few documentaries so effectively transport their audiences through space and time quite like Nelson’s work, a three-dimensional perspective on events that transpired fifty years ago.

The subjects of the interviews are generous with their accounts, clearly the product of decades of introspection. The demands of the inmates were quite benign in nature, desiring basic human necessities like decent food, toilet paper, and medical care. As a maximum security facility where a predominantly white male staff frequently abused the population that was more than 70% black and brown, it’s easy to see how tensions could fester in such an environment rotted to its core with institutional racism. With that in mind, the riot only seemed like a natural reaction to untenable circumstances.

Nelson’s great triumph is the way he manages to cut through the material to present a couple of key points that ultimately could have prevented the carnage of September 13, 1971. Days of negotiations between the inmates, the prison administration, and outside advocates brought in to help mediate, produced a list of demands that could have been reasonably implemented. Whether Rockefeller’s broader political ambitions, in sync with President Nixon’s “law and order” campaign platform, would have followed through on any substantive reform is a different story, but Attica does a fabulous job exploring the riot in real-time.

Though the documentary covers quite a bit of ground over its 116-minute runtime, there are two glaring areas in need of some additional context. Nelson spends little time focusing on the actual taking of the prison grounds, a potential product of the lack of archival footage. The death of correctional officer William Quinn from injuries sustained during the initial takeover of the prison, is described as the tipping point where the inmates’ hopes for clemency were taken off the table. The circumstances of Quinn’s death are a bit unnecessarily confusing, described in the documentary as a hostage when he died of his wounds in hospital. The whole situation could have been presented with more clarity.

Attica is a very impressive documentary that cuts through complex material with relative ease. If anything, Nelson’s work might have benefited from an extended run as a limited series rather than a film. The way the government handled Attica remains a national disgrace. It didn’t have to be this way.

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Saturday

11

September 2021

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TIFF Review: The Hill Where Lionesses Roar

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

The notion of feeling claustrophobic by the confines of one’s hometown is a fairly universal sensation across cultural barriers. For a region like Kosovo, whose status as an autonomous country is widely disputed throughout the world, teenage angst reaches a particularly high boiling point. The Hill Where Lionesses Roar (original title Luaneshat e kordrës) explores a group of teenagers fed up with their seemingly predetermined course in life.

Qe (Flaka Latifi), Li (Era Balaj), and Jeta (Uratë Shabani) live in a remote village with little in the way of entertainment or upward mobility. Choices for an evening activity include lying on a hill staring up at the sky, or throwing rocks at beer bottles in a derelict empty swimming pool. Though the film showcases plenty of Kosovo’s natural beauty, it’s understandable how such a quiet landscape might drive a young person insane.

The arrival of newcomers Zem (Andi Bajgora), who quickly forms a relationship with Jeta, and Lena (Luàna Bajrami, who also directed the film and wrote the screenplay), an expatriate visiting from Paris, stirs the cabin fever within the group. Fed up with being rejected for university study, the girls decide to form a gang. Bajrami’s skill as a filmmaker quickly erases any inkling to judge the girls for their haphazard career choices, made in the relative absence of solid alternatives.

The 83-minute runtime absolutely flies by in the blink of an eye. Bajrami crafts a delightfully charming narrative, bolstered by strong lead performances from her trio of lionesses. The remote village is boring enough that it would seem like the kind of place where you’d be friends with just about anyone, but the girls demonstrate a genuine sense of affection for each other that goes a long way toward endearing the film to the audience.

The narrative’s ambitions are a bit too constrained by the brief runtime. While Bajrami is clearly more interested in exploring youthful indiscretions than arriving at conclusions, she does wrap things up a bit too abruptly. There are more than a few plot strands left completely unresolved, leaving her own character Lena to feel a bit superfluous given the limited scope.

The Hill Where Lionesses Roar subverts the very nature of the coming of age narrative, for the village has nothing to offer those who reach maturity. It’s a bleak reality within a film that constantly manages to put a smile on your face. If the kids are going to be alright, it’s because of artists like Bajrami who press on even as their countries let them down at every turn. Films like this remind us all of why art matters.

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Saturday

11

September 2021

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TIFF Review: Violet

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

Plenty of people can relate to the idea of having a voice in the back of one’s head spewing self-doubt and crippling negativity. Hollywood, hardly an industry known for its compassionate professionals, is not exactly the greatest environment for those carrying around that kind of baggage. Director/writer Justine Bateman’s Violet presents a unique perspective of a mind in turmoil when faced with nothing but rot.

Violet Calder (Olivia Munn) is a 32-year-old film executive who constantly hears a voice (Justin Theroux) pointing out all of her perceived flaws and deficiencies. Cursive text on the screen purports to share a different side of Violet’s personality, her inner desire to be something more than an awful person. Most of the people around Violet are pretty awful as well, especially her boss (Dennis Boutsikaris), who never misses an opportunity to humiliate her in front of clients or her coworkers.

With regard to Violet as a person, Bateman initially presents the text and Theroux’s voice as a kind of good angel, bad angel dynamic wrestling for control. As the film plays on, it’s clear that Violet is really more of a three headed Hydra, with Munn’s performance acting as a third form of driving force powering the character. The 92-minute runtime comes and goes without leaving any clear impression of the kind of person Violet wants to be.

Munn isn’t really a neutral arbiter between her two unseen voices, but her character never rises above a predictable trope. Other characters constantly talk about what a talented film executive Violet is, but we never see anything resembling genuine passion from her as a character. Even if you accept Violet as someone jaded by years in the business, she never comes across as someone who ever liked making movies. The cursive text designed to present an alternative to the jaded figure never feels like a genuine depiction of Violet’s character.

At times, it’s hard to tell if Bateman is trying to be satirical about the film industry, or if Violet is plagued with a bad supporting cast unable to deliver their lines in a convincing manner. There’s scene after scene of characters spouting generic Hollywood jargon into the abyss. Violet is far too pretentious to be aware of its own insufferable narrative, the worst kind of Hollywood film about Hollywood.

Much of the film’s core problem could have been alleviated if Munn or Bateman managed to give Violet a concrete point of view. Instead, it all plays out like watching an individual who knows that they’re a bad person but can’t do anything about it because they don’t care enough to change. For anyone who feels jaded at the idea that we’ll see a more inclusive, different film industry, Violet provides stark validation that the people in charge certainly won’t do anything to alter the status quo. If those findings felt at all earned as a result of the narrative and not in spite of it, maybe this might have been a worthwhile experience.

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Friday

10

September 2021

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TIFF Review: All My Puny Sorrows

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People say that suicide is selfish, not necessarily because that statement is true in every single regard, but rather because that notion undisputedly ranks higher than the alternative. To want to die is the worst feeling in the world, the kind of pervasive outcome that can sometimes feel like one’s only rational recourse. Miriam Toews’ novel All My Puny Sorrows did a beautiful job capturing all the pain that suicide brings, finding humor in unthinkable tragedy.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way that sense of open generosity vanished from the film adaptation of Towes’ work. Fans of the bestselling Canadian book can see the outline that director Michael McGowan attempted to follow. The voice so abounding in humanity just isn’t there.

The film follows Yoli (Alison Pill), a struggling novelist in the midst of a messy divorce. A parent at 18, Yoli finds seemingly no joy in raising her daughter, Nora (Amybeth McNulty), herself quite aware of her mother’s general aura of apathy. Yoli perpetually lives in the shadow of her sister Elf (Sarah Gadon), a successful concert pianist who inherited her suicidal tendencies from their father (Donal Logue), who committed suicide years before the events of the narrative.

Film Yoli is pretty unpleasant to watch. Extremely selfish and a crippling narcissist, listening to her talk about her shell of a career is like a best-of compilation of the cringiest overheard conversations on college campus coffee shops. As the title suggests, this sense of blatant privilege isn’t really lost on anyone, though neither McGowan nor Pill seem to know how to craft Yoli into something resembling a palatable protagonist.

Lacking its source material’s abundant wit, All My Puny Sorrows is a self-indulgent slog seemingly hellbent on guilting its audience into liking it. It feels bad to hate Yoli, a woman dealing with tragic family circumstances. Trouble is, she doesn’t elicit anything other than obligatory pity, making you feel nothing but regret for having made the mistake of listening to her story for too long to back out unnoticed.

The narrative plays fast a loose with mental health. Elf, top of her field, is regarded by Yoli as privileged for having reached a career peak high enough that if she did quit piano, she could coast later on in life as a genius recluse. Knowing the depths of depression’s effects, a simpler reality is that those with fortune rarely consider that at all when consumed with nothing but darkness. The 103-minute runtime feels suffocatingly long, solid acting unable to compensate for an atrocious script.

Annoying people who suffer from mental illness deserve sympathy, a reality that compassionate people can understand even if it doesn’t necessarily feel good to offer any. All My Puny Sorrows is the kind of film that makes you grateful that it is a work of fiction, because it’s okay to dislike its loathsome protagonist. McGowan’s work feels cheap and exploitative, a disappointing adaptation of source material that certainly deserved better.

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Friday

10

September 2021

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TIFF Review: Mothering Sunday

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The societal changes brought upon by World War I have been thoroughly explored by literature and film. A blunter, more imminent alterration stemmed from the millions of casualties, mothers who would never see their young sons again, families who would never be whole. Time only moves forward, risking to leave behind those who don’t know how to face the reality of tomorrow without those they loved most.

Mothering Sunday spends the bulk of its narrative steeped in the grief of families who lost their sons in the Great War. Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) works for the Nivens (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman). Abandoned at birth, Jane knows nothing of her upbringing, ambitious for a life beyond service. She finds romantic companionship in Paul (Josh O’Connor), the son of family friends of the Nivens, and the sole surviving soldier among his brothers and peers.

Director Eva Husson plays with time throughout the narrative, largely jumping between the events of a sexual rendezvous between Jane and Paul while the latter is late for his engagement party, and Jane’s subsequent career after service years later. Thrown into the mix is the reaction of the Nivens and Paul’s family to his perpetual tardiness, a glaring reminder of how absent their table will feel for the remainder of their days.

Young delivers a mesmerizing performance in the lead role, often buoying the scattershot narrative. Jane is not a particularly interesting character, consistently forced to live in reaction to the never-ending tragedies that land on her doorstep. Young brings to life the subtleties of her character’s position, a woman who wants more in a world that seemingly only knows how to take.

Of the supporting cast, only O’Connor manages to leave much of an impression. O’Connor and screenwriter Alice Birch chart a course for Paul that avoids reducing the lazy socialite to predictable stereotypes. Paul is tender, sweet, and irrevocably broken. O’Connor finds the nuance of a boy with the faint aura of a charm that’s been beaten down but never fully extinguished.

Firth and Colman are largely squandered in brief supporting roles. Colman’s scenes in particular look like they could have been filmed in a single day. Firth is given a little more room for his character, but Husson leans a little too heavily on a single scene at a garden party, frequently returning to the eternally dour Mrs. Nivens even as the frequent cutaways greatly advance the narrative elsewhere.

Husson shows off her ample skills, drawing attention to the minor pleasures of life that obviously mean so much to characters who are otherwise adrift in their own misery and boredom. Where she falters a bit is in the execution of her broader themes. Everyone is sad and Jane has lived a life full of tragedy. That same drum is pounded repeatedly throughout the 104-minute runtime, losing its impact by the third act.

Mothering Sunday is a first-rate production that lands with more of a thud than it should have. A compelling commentary on loss in need of a stronger sense of focus. Fans of Husson, Young, and O’Connor will find much to enjoy, but the film never quite shakes the feeling that it all could have been better.

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Friday

10

September 2021

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TIFF Review: Petite Maman

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The best relief for grief is time, advice that is of no practical use in the immediate wake of the death of a loved one. The responsibilities to take care of the deceased’s affairs tend to awaken long-forgotten memories, bringing with them a blanket of nostalgia that can sting as much as it can soothe. Céline Sciamma stakes Petite Maman in the midst of this painful period, a moving exploration of grief and all its subtleties.

Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is a young girl just old enough to understand the effect that her grandmother’s death has had on her mother (Nina Meurisse), who can’t bear to remain in her childhood house and all its memories. Left to her own devices, Nelly befriends a local girl Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) while her father (Stéphane Varupenne) packs up the rest of her grandmother’s things. Nelly and Marion quickly bond in the woods, united by a common sense of anxiety. While Nelly is still overcoming her grief, Marion is just days away from an invasive operation bound to make any young child nervous.

While Sciamma’s last film Portrait of a Lady on Fire dazzled audiences with its fiery passion, Petite Maman finds the director honed in on the subtleties of human emotion. The film is a quiet work of beauty, cinematographer Claire Mathon wielding the natural landscape of the woods to enhance the narrative’s meditations. With a runtime of just 70 minutes, Sciamma demonstrates her well-deserved confidence by letting the third act conclude right when it’s ready, not a single superfluous scene in sight.

While the adults both behind the camera and on screen help set the stage, the young Sanz sisters are largely entrusted to carry the narrative. It’s a peculiar casting choice to use siblings in roles where their characters are not related, but the talented young actresses work very well opposite each other. There are points where it’s a little hard to tell the two apart, perhaps deliberate, drawing attention to the kind of warm comfort a stranger can provide in trying times.

Grief is often all-encompassing. Even being aware of the idea that all of those painful moments will pass doesn’t really help them actually pass. You look for things to occupy your time until you’re able to be alone with yourself without feeling like the sadness will reopen all the wounds you’re desperately trying to heal.

Film often sets out to explore ideas that are massive in scope, narratives centered on saving the world or meeting the love of your life. Sciamma sets her sights on a narrower target, those days in the immediate aftermath of your whole orbit experiencing a cataclysmic change. A child doesn’t need to understand the depths of grief to reap the benefits of a friendly face when surrounded by nothing but sadness. Petite Maman is a moving reflection on the power of simple human connection in the wake of tragedy.

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Thursday

9

September 2021

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TIFF Review: Dug Dug

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At first glance, the idea of the spirit of a car accident victim inhabiting the motorbike they died driving sounds like a pretty absurd thing to use as the foundation of a religion. Such a story isn’t all that fundamentally different from countless religious narratives. The stories in the Book of Genesis essentially require the same level of suspension of disbelief, the key difference being thousands of years of tradition doing just that.

The film Dug Dug transforms an unsuspecting dirt road in India into a place of religious pilgrimage. When a 40-year-old drunk named Thakur finds himself bisected in a brutal accident, the police confiscate his Dug-Dug branded motorcycle. Miraculously, the bike escapes custody and returns to the scene of the crime. Efforts by the police to detain the bike by chaining it in a jail cell fail to prevent its return the following morning, showcasing its divinity to the townsfolk.

Director Ritwik Pareek crafts a masterful satire that relishes its absurdities without ever feeling like it’s belittling people of faith. The sight of people offering bottles of alcohol to please the spirit of a drunk burnout is ripe with obvious parody, yet Pareek plays his narrative out with a straight face. Taking the story at face value, there is a clear miracle here, the motorcycle being as good a deity to worship as any.

Pareek’s script is absolutely delightful, supplying constant laughs. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that the 107-minute narrative largely operates without a human protagonist. Altaf Khan, Gaurav Soni, and Yogendra Singh show off their acting talents playing the lazy police officers tasked with managing the situation, but the motorcycle is really the driving force of the story. Pareek successfully pulls off the challenging feat of keeping his ideas at the centerpiece of the film without relying on a lead actor to channel the themes through.

A psychedelic billboard overlooking the road essentially acts as a supporting character, along with the fantastic score by Salvage Audio Collective. Pareek’s singular aesthetic helps hone the audience in on his fascination for the absurdity of faith, a gateway to the existential nature of God and religion. Dug Dug is both a farcical satire and a deeply serious contemplation of humanity’s greatest questions.

The narrative does hit some bumps in the third act, which could’ve cut a few scenes without missing a beat. Pareek knows when to ease up on the gags to get his point across, but the transition takes a little longer than it needed to. Dug Dug is a very impressive film, the kind of material you could show a true believer, not to poke fun at their faith, but to seek a deeper understanding of how these stories take such holds on entire cultures. However silly the motorcycle seems, the Bible has plenty of narratives that are no less absurd.

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