Review: Animation trumps live action in these three Netflix releases

Published 15 May, 2021 10:05am

Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi, Things Heard & Seen didn't hold up against the enjoyable The Mitchells vs the Machines.

Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi

In Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi, the camera is both an ostensible creative decision and a standalone character. Any other day, I would be happy to cite both as showcases of a director’s inspired adeptness. Not today.

The film opens on a familiar-looking house in the dead of the night. The camera floats through an open gully, then stops, recoils as if it hasn’t made up its mind, spots an open corridor, drifts through an open courtyard, through another corridor, straight into a room with a boy playing a piano, eventually settling to stand on the far corner of a room.

Sitting in his bed at the far end of the frame is Ramprasad (Naseeruddin Shah) and the clichéd sombre music we’ve heard until now is the boy’s doing. Ramprasad tells the boy — who is his neighbours’ son — that his key is off and, after the boy leaves, he collapses dead on the piano.

The next time we see Ramprasad, he is a silent apparition, who is, at last given freedom to move on to the afterlife at the end of the rituals. The film ends 10 or so minutes later.

Other movies with similar themes and settings would be a better bet than Ram Prasad Ki Tehrvi and Things Heard and Seen, while The Mitchells vs the Machines is a fairly enjoyable animation that’s not designed to win Oscars... but then again, who knows

Between both bookends featuring Shah’s titular character, the camera continues to cement its presence as a silent spectator, looking straight at the characters who are staying at the deceased’s house, until the rituals are taken care of.

The next of kin who get the most limelight is Ramprasad’s wife (Supriya Pathak) and his four sons played by Manoj Pahwa (also the director’s husband), Vinay Pathak, Ninad Kamat and Parambrata Chatterjee, who also doubles as a young Ramprasad.

Then there are their wives (Konkona Sen Sharma plays Chatterjee’s wife), their kids, and the close and distant relatives. The house fills up fast, and the usual bickering about being loved, ignored or not given proper respect flares up. Backstories casually make their way into the unfolding narrative during expositions. Everything we see is as routine and mundane as real life.

The wide frames and the long-takes cinematographer Sudip Sengupta and director-writer Seema Pahwa choose to employ are a deliberate, but ineffective artistic choice. The decision to shoot wide cramps most characters into frame, as they constantly bicker about one trivial family grudge after another. Standing this far away because of the lens choice, hardly — if ever — cutting into close-ups of facial expressions, we rarely connect to these people.

Any other day, in any other artistic interpretation, this would have been a good movie with good enough performances (at least, that’s one ace up its sleeve). But in its present state — the uber-realistic take, where everything cinematic, dramatic or engaging is vehemently stripped away — we have a tame film about crumbled relationships in a story we’ve all personally seen, with clichéd sad background music we’ve heard a million times over.

Pagglait, which also deals with a similar theme and setting, is a better candidate to spend two hours with.

Things Heard & Seen

If there is one film one should ignore this week (other than Ramprasad, or the usual messes and misfires coming out from Bollywood), then it would be Things Heard & Seen — an adaptation of All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage, written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (directors and writers of the Oscar-nominated American Splendour).

I hope the novel is better than this hot mess about a woman with an eating disorder (Amanda Seyfried) who moves into a haunted house with her philandering husband (James Norton), who lies his way into an art teaching position at a local college.

The film has zero scares, a lumbering pace, ineffective frames and an extremely long running time that wastes the talents of actors such as Karen Allen and F. Murray Abraham. I hope their paycheques were good, because the film just ain’t.

The Mitchells vs the Machines

In a perfect world, The Mitchells vs the Machines (MvsM) — a bright, imaginative anecdote-ish story about a dysfunctional family standing in the way of a robot-uprising — would have been a box-office smash. Right now (at the time of writing), though, it’s trending on number eight at Netflix, which I guess, also counts for something.

Sony, apparently, sold worldwide distribution rights — sans China — to the platform, so I guess it’s a win-win, because the film doesn’t look as expensive. Still, the spunk makes it enjoyable, and the film does take its time getting to the part about the robot uprising.

Before that — and even during the action — we have the story of a father desperately trying to reconcile with his teenage daughter, who is going away to study film at a distant university.

The father (voiced by Danny McBride), a brusque but happy outdoorsman who likes his tools and avoids technology, can’t understand his daughter (Abbi Jacobson), whose creativity appears bizarre at times. The sensible mother (Maya Rudolph) and a quirkily-voiced young son (Mike Rianda) — a dinosaur nut — are more understanding of the girl’s idiosyncrasies.

After a particularly nasty confrontation the night before she leaves, the family decides to take a road trip to college. The trip, covered in a gag-ish montage, could be an entire film — or even a series — on its own. While they’re driving, an artificial intelligence application (ala Siri and Google Assistant, voiced by Olivia Colman), commandeers next generation human-helping robots at the big unveiling.

Producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (directors of The Lego Movie, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and producers of Spider-Man into the Spider Verse) have a ubiquitous, stylised, sense of humour that pops up every few minutes. Whether that’s a distraction or not depends on an individual’s taste; the splashy text pop-up, and animations are a nice gimmick, though.

On the other hand, the screenplay by debuting director Mike Rianda is fast-paced and quirky. However, the nearly two-hour running time does feel a bit long. It’s a minor gripe in a fairly enjoyable film that’s not designed to win Oscars — but then again, given the line-ups every year, it just might wiggle into a nomination or two. Who knows, right?

Streaming on Netflix, *The Mitchells vs the Machines and Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi are rated 13+; Things Heard and Seen is rated 16+. Avoid the live action films, watch the animation.*

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, May 9th, 2021

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