Dasara (2023)

As I mentioned when reviewing the Kollywood bank heist thriller Thunivu, my selection of newly released Indian action blockbusters has been severely limited in recent months, as I don’t currently have access to a car.  The only theater that screens the gloriously over-the-top action cinema I’ve taken for granted in recent years is all the way out in the suburbs, far beyond a reasonable bus ride, so I have to settle for whatever titles trickle down from its distant marquees to the streaming services I pay for at home.  Between Thunivu and the new Tollywood action-romance epic Dasara, Netflix has been the quickest to deliver the goods so far this year – give or take Pathaan, which I was lucky to catch on the big screen before it populated on Amazon Prime.  In Dasara‘s case, Netflix even premiered the film in its original language of Telugu, which isn’t always a guarantee for home viewing (even in big-name cases like S.S. Rajamouli’s Baahubali & RRR, which are still primarily presented in their Hindi dubs on the same platform).  As much as I appreciate Dasara making its way to my living room so quickly, though, I know in my stupid little heart that I would have enjoyed it much more had I caught it at the suburban multiplex.  The immense spectacles & body-rattling sound mixes of these movies demand the theatrical experience.  That environment makes a throwaway romcom like Radhe Shyam play like an action-hero riff on Cameron’s Titanic, crushing you so flat beneath its towering CG mayhem that you hardly have time to notice that the flirty jokes between its action sequences aren’t especially cute or funny.  For its part, Dasara also delivers the goods when it comes to large-scale CG action spectacle, but that can only carry you so far at home, so the lengthy lulls between its explosions tend to spoil the mood.  I’ve greatly enjoyed a few masala films I happened to see at home for the first time instead of the theater—Master, Karnan, Enthiran, the aforementioned Baahubali, to name a few—but they all would have been even more enjoyable & memorable had I seen them big & loud, which is an unignorable problem in more middling titles like Dasara.

Dasara details a lifelong friendship & romantic rivalry between a pair of mining-town besties.  After a youth wasted stealing coal off mining trains for liquor money and pining after the same childhood friend, the two ambitionless hedonists are forced to get serious about the politicians who poison their village – both through alcohol sales and through coal-mining air pollution.  The alcohol is treated as the bigger threat to local morale, in that it makes wastoid addicts out of every able-bodied man in their community (an anti-vice sentiment underlined by the opening credits’ health hazard warnings and a barn-burner monologue in the final scene).  Booze is also the main driver of local politics, as the powerful positions of bar owner & cashier are essentially treated as public offices, violently contested through rigged elections.  In establishing all of this big-picture conflict within the mining community, Dasara only leaves room for three major action sequences: a daring coal-train robbery, a vicious massacre of local drunks via machete militia, and a climactic act of revenge in which the evilest politician of all is decapitated via flaming machete after his goons are slaughtered one at a time.  There are some incredible moments & images in those sequences that highlight how India’s various film industries are regularly producing the greatest action movies on the market today, if not the greatest since Hong Kong action’s independent heyday in the 80s & 90s.  There is a lot of downtime between those moments, though, especially for a film with so thin of a moralist lesson (alcohol = bad) and with such cliché love-triangle tension.  A few weddings, cricket matches, and religious festivals liven up the dead space between the action payoffs, but not enough to make the picture especially worth seeking out at home.  Even when enjoying how its all-out explosive climax filled my TV screen with a wall of flames, all I could think about is how much cooler those flames would look if they were 30 feet taller and came with a bucket of popcorn.

Even though Dasara is a mixed bag overall, it’s really just one catchy composer short of being a stunner.  It’s got plenty explosive imagery, but its songs are mostly duds, so the time drags heavily between fires & beheadings.  To its credit, I was happy to see the musical numbers directly integrated into the narrative, when so many modern films in this genre separate them out as music video asides.  Unfortunately, they do so by adopting a plodding stage-musical songwriting style that never fully meshes with the score’s rapid, relentless percussion with any coherence.  Music is certainly one of the genre’s primary joys, but I’m not even sure that a louder theatrical environment would’ve helped the songs hit all that harder, even with the spectacle of dancers kicking up black coal dust in frantic choreography.  However, I do suspect that the constant coal-mine blasts of fireballs & air pollution would’ve been so much more vivid at the multiplex that I wouldn’t have cared about the mediocre music they interrupt.  Speaking from past experience, three great action sequences is usually more than enough to make one of these cheap-o epics worthwhile in that environment, whether or not the music is memorable.  Without that boost in scale & volume, Dasara is unraveled by its own thinness, which it appears to be aware of itself by the second flashback montage of earlier, more exciting scenes.  The action is too sparse for its songs to be this bland, and so the movie was only worth seeking out for the one week it screened at AMC Elmwood (or your local equivalent), when its few explosions would’ve stunned you for the longest stretches.  I don’t regret watching it at home, though, and I don’t think this experience will deter me from seeking out other Indian action streamers in the future.  In the past, I may have positively reviewed so-so masala films like Shamshera & Radhe Shyam for the enjoyment of the theatrical experience rather than the actual quality of the product, but that’s how they were intended to be watched.  Catching up with Dasara on my couch is only the Great Value™ equivalent of the real deal, and it will have to do until I have a car again or until one of the three remaining theaters in the city catches up with how fun these crowd-pleasers can be.

-Brandon Ledet

The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976)

There are plenty of 1970s women-on-the-verge psych thrillers out there where shit-heel men drive the women under their thumb to total madness.  And we’ve covered plenty of them here on this very website: A Woman Under the Influence, Puzzle of a Downfall Child, 3 Women, Images, Sisters, etc.  All those Driven Mad by the Patriarchy thrillers are varying shades of great, but few are as committed to their psychosexual terror or bloody revenge as The Witch Who Came from the Sea.  It’s the cheapest and least technically competent film of the bunch, struggling to convey a hallucinatory mental breakdown in its dive-bar drunken stupor.  Still, it’s incredibly potent, angry stuff, fearlessly staring down sexual terrors most movies would shy away from depicting and slicing into men’s flesh to avenge them.  The Witch Who Came from the Sea might not carry the same 70s auteur prestige as other examples of its genre, which tended to be helmed by names like Altman, De Palma, and Cassavetes.  It’s a true Misandrist Horror classic, though, compensating for its budgetary & stylistic limitations with an overriding sense of righteous anger.

Our heroine in distress is the alcoholic barmaiden Molly, who spends her days babysitting her adoring nephews on the beach and her nights serving well liquor for meager tips.  At least, that’s the part of her nights that she remembers.  Between Molly’s excessive booze guzzling and the half-remembered sexual assaults she suffered under her father as a child, there are large gaps of lost time woven into her nightly routine – often involving casual sex with strange men she meets at the bar.  And murder.  Molly has a spiraling habit of coaxing the beefcakiest men in her vicinity (often famous, square-jawed football players & television actors) into bed, where she initiates kinky sex and then mutilates their genitals with shaving razors.  It’s initially unclear whether Molly’s bisexual threeways & beachside mansion rendezvous are sinister wet dreams. However, once her nightly murder spree starts making national news, the audience gets some solid footing in establishing that her unraveling psyche has a physical bodycount.  Poor Molly never gets that same real-world footing, though.  She’s lost inside her own head, and it’s terrifying in there.

Molly doesn’t despise all men, at least not when she’s awake & lucid.  She thinks the world of her nephews Tadd & Tripoli—names she repeats to herself as an absent-minded mantra—and the closest thing she has to a healthy relationship in her life is a semi-open romance with her bar-owner employer.  She even speaks softly & fondly of the muscle brutes she murders in her drunken fugue state, championing their value as macho role models for, you guessed it, Tadd & Tripoli.  She also rhapsodically praises the memory of her abusive father, though, whom she sees as a heroic sea captain who was valiantly lost at sea, not a deranged drunk who sexually abused his own children.  Molly’s sweet, swooning musings about men—especially men that remind her of her father—do not jive at all with the dick-slicing violence that emerges when she lets her guard down.  This isn’t so much a rape revenge film as it is a violent character study of a woman who doesn’t have the vocabulary to express—even to herself—how men have traumatized her throughout her entire life.  So, that expression instead comes through as a very close shave, after ill-advised nightcaps & hookups.

The Witch Who Came from the Sea is just as tense & unnervingly bizarre as similar women-on-the-verge classics from the likes of Cassavetes & Altman; its aesthetic & production values just lean more towards tasteless genre payoffs than subtle psychedelic dilemmas.  The first sign we get that Molly is unwell is when she lustfully gawks at muscle men working out on the beach; her searing stares at the absurdly veiny bulges in their Speedos quickly turns hyperviolent, and she imagines their corpses hanging from the public gym equipment.  Her romantic remembrances of her piece-of-shit father conjure seafaring images of Sirens, mermaids, ancient tattoos, and once-in-a-life-time storms.  Her actual memories of his sexual assaults are scored by screeching seagulls and slurred grunts.  It’s all deeply strange in an unrestrained, sloppy-drunk fashion that calls into question how much tonal control director Matt Cimber was commanding behind the camera (with the help of a young, uncredited Dean Cundey as cinematographer).

No matter where you land on that question, Molly’s bottomless anger towards the manly men of the world cuts through the seaside fog like a scythe.  When she threatens to “break your bones then suck the marrow,” you better listen; otherwise, you’ll soon be ejaculating spurts of blood onto her hand-embroidered bellbottoms.  It’s that pointed, visceral anger that makes The Witch Who Came from the Sea stand out among similar women-on-the-verge thrillers of the 1970s, and my only disappointment is that Molly’s anger wasn’t enough to save her from the same tragic fate this archetype always suffers in the end.

-Brandon Ledet

Ticket of No Return (1979)

When we recently discussed Jacques Tati’s PlayTime as a Movie of the Month selection, we fixated on the film’s iconic restaurant sequence, in which its sterile, icy façade is gradually broken down into a sweaty mess of drunken revelry. It was a pleasure, then, to discover a sloppy-drunk lesbian remix of PlayTime in Ulrike Ottinger’s Ticket of No Return that seemingly adapts that one restaurant sequence into a feature-length narrative. Self-described as a “portrait of a drunkard”, Ticket of No Return follows an unnamed, mostly silent, seemingly wealthy woman as she deliberately drinks herself into oblivion in Berlin. She’s not as befuddled or as passive as Tati’s signature Monsieur Hulot character. Rather, she’s a self-destructive lush who stumbles through Berlin as a silently obnoxious tourist, determined to guzzle down cognac & cocktails by the gallon on every barstool in the city. The film also chooses an entirely different political target than Tati’s screed against the nearing homogenized monoculture of a tech-obsessed future, focusing instead on the ways in which publicly misbehaving women are socially treated as repulsive beasts, while men are afforded much more leeway in their own libertinism. Still, Ottinger extrapolates a lot of her narrative’s sweatiest, most debaucherous impulses from the drunken restaurant breakdown sequence in PlayTime, converting the best scene from a well-loved movie into its own self-contained world of degeneracy & despair.

One of the more curious dynamics of Ticket of No Return is the film’s balance between subtlety & on-the-nose political commentary. Ottinger directly inserts her own voice into the picture as a narrator in the opening scene, a lengthy introduction to the unnamed protagonist’s sole function as a self-destructive alcoholic. Without that preface, it might have taken a while for her behavior to seem out of the ordinary, as excessive alcohol consumption is so socially encouraged that it doesn’t initially register as being especially unhealthy. Ottinger even deploys a literal Greek chorus to state as much in-dialogue, casting three characters as Social Question, Common Sense, and Accurate Statistics – morally uptight women who only speak in plain facts relating to their absurdist namesakes. However, even with all this blatant commentary on our gendered societal relationship with alcoholism, the film somehow comes across as a cryptic, esoteric art piece that cannot be fully understood, at least not on a first watch. As our “sightseeing” boozer protagonist becomes increasingly plastered in her dizzied tour of Berlin, the film exponentially obscures its messaging & intent in an absurdist fashion. It’s simultaneously an on-the-surface political statement that discusses its gender theory & alcoholism themes in plain academic terms and an enigmatic gaze into a drunken abyss that’s just as mysterious as it is playfully meaningless. It’s a fascinating internal conflict that will likely confound & alienate some audiences just as much as it delights the cheeky art school lushes who find themselves on its wavelength.

There’s a listless repetition to Ticket of No Return that will test a lot of audiences’ patience. After the narrator announces that our unnamed protagonist has purchased a one-way ticket to Berlin with Leaving Las Vegas-style intent, there’s not much that changes from scene to scene. She simply stumbles from bar to bar, drinking gallons of booze and swatting away sexual advances from both men & women while reaching for bottles. Often, the biggest excitement in the film is what outrageous outfit she will wear next, as her high-couture wardrobe harshly clashes against the degenerate behavior of her drinking escapades. The movie can be very unaccommodating if you’re not onboard with the most exciting action onscreen being how an asymmetrical primary-color dress is accessorized with dramatic sunglasses, in which case this movie is very much not for you. After it settles into its boozy groove, all that’s left onscreen is a woman engaging in self-destructive behavior while modeling obnoxious, over-the-top fashion pieces. If you’re looking for more grandly staged commotion, Tati’s PlayTime is better suited to dazzle you in its extravagance. Personally, I was much more attracted to this drunken, feminist, low-stakes/high-fashion tale of a bumbling tourist in a strange, overwhelming city. I even found it to be the funnier film of the pair, in its own nihilistic way.

-Brandon Ledet