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Movies to watch in quarantine: ‘Dangal,’ ‘Snowpiercer,’ ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’

This week, Mark York and Nitish Vaidyanathan review ‘Dangal,’ ‘Snowpiercer,’ and ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’

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Intro: Hi! We’re Mark and Nitish, and we (like most of you we hope) are practicing social distancing to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. We recognize that this is a super stressful time for a lot of people, and that many of you are being harmed by the virus in one way or another. So, we thought we’d do something that would hopefully lighten the mood. We are going to be watching and reviewing movies available on streaming platforms. Our column will be published (roughly) every Wednesday. We hope that you can watch along, send us your thoughts, and recommend movies that you like or want us to watch. Best of luck to all of you in these trying times!

(Photo: UTV)

Dangal” (Released in 2016; watched by us on March 27, 2020)

A Bollywood film by Nitesh (whoa that’s my name but just spelled a little differently) Tiwari. We watched it on Netflix!

Mark:

Sometimes, it can feel as though when you’ve seen one sports film, you’ve seen them all. There are only so many ways a match can end, after all — and unlike, say, action movies, there is no imminent danger to make up for that (unless if it’s rugby — I swear each game feels like a Tarantino movie). 

“Dangal” stands out, surprisingly enough, not by doing anything new but by skillful execution of a tried-and-true formula. We follow foreboding and stony-faced Mahavir Singh Phogat. He was a former national wrestling champion who was forced to retire before he could win the national award for his country, India. But, when his eldest daughters Geeta and Babita come back after having beaten up a boy, he vows to train them to do what he could not. This is the story of how Mahavir trains India’s first world-class female wrestlers. 

This movie is about the passing of the torch. It is the transition from a traditionally male-dominated sports climate to a female-centric presence, but it is also the transition from father to daughters. While the former most certainly is present, there is more to say for the latter — it is, after all, the foundation on which “Dangal” is built. 

The film can be split into two parts. The first half focuses on Geeta and Babita as children, who struggle to adapt to their father’s sudden strict training regimen. They initially resist, but they begin to realize the love their father has for them, and decide to make a name for themselves as their classmates are being married off. In the second half, Geeta and Babita are now adults; the eldest, Geeta, qualifies for national matches and begins to disregard her father’s coaching while Babita stays true to her training. This tension makes up the most compelling pieces of the second part. 

I would argue the time skip makes this movie. While Mahavir is the clear lead in the film’s beginning, I was fascinated as the movie slowly takes the limelight away from him (and by extension, the buffy male wrestlers he’d fought with) and toward his daughters and their fellow female wrestlers. “Dangal” changes protagonists in a way that feels absolutely seamless, but it does so without ever letting any of its three central characters disappear completely — a masterful compromise. This is true even in the climax, when our former lead Mahavir is literally locked in a closet as the pivotal match plays out. In normal cases, I would complain, but here it is perfect. It emphasizes Mahavir’s current powerlessness, his successor’s definite triumph and the love they share with each other. This admittedly narratively blunt act signals to the audience that this is no longer his story. It was a gutsy move on the film’s part, and one I must respect.

Still, “Dangal” does not take many other risks. This need not necessarily be a deal-breaker — I am neither a sports-film enthusiast or a wrestling fan, but I was invested nevertheless in each match. I even picked up some of the lingo, which is impressive considering I just learned what the NBA was a month ago! I was hooked by the heart of the film, as well as its lighter comedic moments and its bopper musical numbers. I might struggle to recommend this film to somebody craving something original or crazily unpredictable (though I doubt they would be interested in a sports movie anyways), but I personally do not need much to enjoy a film. Considering that, I believe “Dangal” delivered. 

Nitish:

Both of my parents are Indian and love Bollywood movies, but I never really got into them. I watched a lot of foreign films when I was younger, but mostly East Asian action movies. So when Noah recommended “Dangal” to me, I felt a strange sense of obligation to watch a movie from my parents’ home country, from a moviemaking industry that I had often neglected. “Dangal” was also interesting to me for another reason: It’s a movie about fighting. I’ve been practicing martial arts since I was six, and since then I have been interested in all combat sports and action movies. As my friends can attest, I have very strong opinions about choreography in action movies, and I think it’s usually garbage. That being said, “Dangal” is a movie about wrestling, and most of my knowledge is in striking (kicking and punching as opposed to grappling). “Dangal” would be an interesting viewing experience for me, both foreign and familiar at the same time. 

So what’s the verdict? It’s solid. The acting is solid, the script is ever-so-slightly below solid, the direction is ever-so-slightly above solid. Nothing wowed me. But nothing was disappointing. Moving the ever-so-slightly below solid to the ever-so-slightly above solid column, we can see that the ever-so-slightly below solid and the ever-so-slightly above solid cancel out yielding: solid. 

In lieu of using the word “solid” 30 more times and giving my wonderful editors (shoutout to Chasity and Hannah) a heart attack, I’m going to rant for a bit about how fight scenes ought to be directed. 

In my opinion, good action scenes or fight scenes need to have three major elements: 1) narrative, 2) aesthetics, 3) logical choreography. Narrative is an obvious characteristic that has to be present in any kind of storytelling. For a fight to capture the imagination of the viewing audience, it has to either have its own narrative or it needs to be in line of the narrative of the movie. One of the most famous boxing matches of all time, Ali vs. Frazier III, engrained itself in the public consciousness in part because of what the men represented. Ali was a boxer whose footwork made him look like a dancer, a heavy puncher with a sharp wit, and a fighter whose most famous action was to refuse to fight in the Vietnam war. Frazier boxed like a raging bull. He despised Ali for his facility with the media and sought to destroy him. The air in Manila that evening was thick with sweat and blood and the hopes and dreams of millions around the world. Even though it isn’t really a movie, the “Thrilla in Manila” thus makes for a powerful viewing experience. In contrast, action scenes in the “Fast and Furious” movies can sometimes be impressive set pieces, but staggeringly disappointing anyway, mostly because they can’t manage to convince me that I should care if one of the characters gets beaten to a pulp. 

The second element is aesthetics. The aesthetic language of the fight scene has to support the narrative and, well, it has to look good. This fight from “Taken 2” looks bad. Shots aren’t well composed. I’ve watched the scene multiple times and I have no idea what the hell is going on. Movements are languid and strained. It just sucks. If you like this scene, you have bad taste and you should feel bad. But wait! There’s good stuff! In this fight scene from “The Raid,” Gareth Evans uses rapid cuts to create a frantic sense of paranoia that rhymes nicely with a plot that has members of a SWAT team pinned down inside a building with dozens of gang-members hunting them down. In this scene (watch in order) from “Atomic Blonde,” David Leitch fashions it to make it look like it’s a single long take, pulling us completely into the fight and into Charlize Theron’s perspective. Both look amazing, even though they use different filmmaking philosophies. In general, I’d say that for a fight to look good, it needs to frame the full movement in a well-composed shot and allow us to get a sense for the motion. While Evans cuts his fight scenes frequently, we are always able to get a full sense of the movement. And while Leitch doesn’t cut this fight scene, he plans it out meticulously so that the camera is always in a position to capture the best composed shot. Some fight scenes are devoted to turning violence into art. In this fight from “The Grandmaster,” (the totally peerless) Wong Kar-Wai (you should watch his stellar “In the Mood for Love”) turns the back-and-forth of a fight into a series of beautiful oil paintings. Peep the shot of the impact of Ziyi Zhang’s hands hitting the snow, or of her foot sliding into place. Those look really good to any viewer. But as someone who has been in a lot more fights than the average viewer, “The Grandmaster” is seriously something else. It captures the sensation of being in a fight: the scrambling for balance, the sudden cognizance of an incoming hand, the swift parry. 

The last element is the one that Youtube videos take the most issue with, but it’s ultimately the least important: logical choreography. I think we’ve all watched a fight (2:50) at one point and looked on in askance at a bunch of henchmen deciding to use their loaded firearms as clubs instead of, uh, firearms. But the requirement for logical choreography is really a requirement to not have illogical choreography. If it’s bad enough to break the suspension of disbelief, then it’s bad, but otherwise it’s fine. For example, look at this fight from “Creed.” It works great in the narrative, it looks super good. I see a bunch of mechanical errors though — Michael B. Jordan’s hip is in the wrong place on some punches, there’s weird anticipation going on, punches land when they definitely should be dodged, punches are dodged when there’s no way to see it coming. To a real boxer, this scene must be the visual equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. But it doesn’t matter! It wasn’t so bad that it broke the suspension of disbelief for the average viewer. But the final fight from the rebooted “Karate Kid?”  With the little backflip thingy? That’s stupid. There’s no way that works, and you don’t have to have thrown a kick to know it. A perfect fight in a movie would be both realistic, aesthetic, and narratively effective, but if you have to make trade-offs, it makes the most sense to make a fight less realistic. 

Now, at long last, to the movie that I’m actually supposed to be reviewing: “Dangal.” I’ll work backwards through the criteria that I’ve established to review the fight-scenes, and then I’ll get to the movie as a whole. Firstly, does it have logical choreography? I have to restate the disclaimer that while I probably know more than the average viewer, wrestling is generally not my area of expertise. With that in mind, I think the quality of “Dangal” fight scenes varied. Some parts of the fights seem more or less realistic. Other parts have moves which are clearly exaggerated for effect, but seem within the realm of possibility. There’s a moment where the lead cartwheels out of a takedown that actually seemed plausible. However, there are a few moments which do break the suspension of disbelief, such as (spoiler) the ending of the final fight. Martial arts and sports movies tend to have a predictable pattern of explaining that one type of move is impossible to pull off and then later, against all odds, the protagonist pulls it off. It’s a real move in wrestling, and it can be done; but it looks pretty implausible on screen, and it definitely didn’t happen like that in real life. Overall? Much better than your average American action movies where Liam Neeson needs 14 cuts to get over a fence, but not enough to wow me. 

And what about the aesthetics? Also a bit of a mixed bag. Earlier on in the movie, shots are long and slow, and they move with the actors. This allows the viewers to get a full sense for the action, and the shots are all pretty well composed. Later in the movie, the shots get shorter and the framing gets worse. I’m not really sure what caused the change, but at least from my perspective, it was noticeable. 

Lastly, the narrative (at this point I’m just talking about the movie proper, like what I was supposed to do in the first place). I think that the movie also deteriorates as it goes on. Earlier on, it’s focused, and the narrative is relatively clear. The first fight where Gheeta fights a wrestler is fantastic. It’s tense, and has a clear place in the narrative: She’s a girl in a primarily male field, overcoming discrimination and physical disadvantages. It works really well. But the later fights take place amidst this weird pissing contest between Mahavir and the women’s national team coach, and for me it works a lot less. The fights just take in the context of Mahavir and the coach giving differing advice to Gheeta, and it’s … not that interesting. 

So yeah! It’s solid. There are good elements, and not so great elements. I will say though that the fight choreography, if not stellar, is still miles above what we’re used to in American movies, with rare exceptions like John Wick. Aside from that, there’s an interesting narrative about girl’s empowerment in the first part of the movie, but then it retreats into standard sports fare. Overall, I’d recommend it, and I’m glad I gave it a go. 

(Photo: TWC)

Snowpiercer” (Released in 2013; watched by us on March 30, 2020)

A science-fiction action film directed by Bong Joon Ho. We watched it on Netflix!

Mark:

Dear reader … am I missing something? 

Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” is a filmmaking triumph — a beautiful tapestry of style and theme that come together so succinctly and so entertainingly that it nearly feels inhuman. I still remember watching the Oscars this year with my dear friend, and shouting with absolute jubilation when it became the first international film to ever win Best Picture. It was, after all, from South Korea — my country of origin — but I feel unbiased when I say it deserved the win. And of course I grew interested in the works of Bong Joon Ho too.

So, I watched “Snowpiercer” and I was left slack-jawed. Despite all the craft that was likely put into it (it is, to this date, South Korea’s most expensive film) and all the praise that was put into it, I could not shake the conclusion that this was freakin’ stupid! 

“Snowpiercer” takes place in a world where, in a last-ditch attempt to curb global warming, all the sciency-powers that be freeze the Earth. The only survivors are in the massive Snowpiercer train, whose carts are divided by class. The front of the train gets to live in luxury, while the lower-tail is shoved in squalor conditions. However, members of the lower-tail — led by Chris Evans’s Curtis — begin a rebellion and slowly proceed towards the front of the train as the authorities try to stop them. The movie is based on the French graphic novel, “Le Transperceneige.” It is also based on my fever dreams. 

I mean … it is a very cool premise. Too bad not much at all is done with it. While we see glimpses of an interesting, dystopian class structure — Tilda Swinton, as Minister Mason, gives a speech likening the rich to hats and the poor to shoes which I do legitimately believe to be impressive — these themes are mostly a backdrop to some fight scenes, and some very absurd ones at that. 

Here’s an example: Our heroes stumble across a classroom cart, where a grade-school teacher gives a lesson to some kids. Our merry band, who I should mention, are bloodied up and holding Tilda Swinton captive, just sort of stand there and watch for a little bit … and everybody else is just sort of okay with this. The grade-school teacher, randomly pregnant for some reason (the movie treats this as a plot twist I think, but … like, some women just do that) then gets everybody to sing capitalist-y propaganda songs about the train as some uniformed guy serves everyone a wagon full of boiled eggs. Okay. But, there is a message inside the eggs which only one guy notices, and it says “BLOOD.” Then, the teacher reaches inside the wagon and pulls out a MACHINE GUN! And she starts firing at everybody as the kids are left to kind of run away. 

It is at this point when I begin to think I am supposed to laugh with the movie. But then the screens come on. Curtis stares. He watches helplessly as his father figure, Gilliam, is shot dead. What follows is a slow, wordless march that forces us to reflect on this grim circumstance, and observe how differently these classes live. Once again, I get confused — “Snowpiercer” cannot decide if it wants to be a deep allegory for class or a stupid beat-em-up, and in my opinion this results in the movie being dumb for the wrong reasons. 

But maybe … I am missing something. Perhaps, this just isn’t my kind of movie. Though in all likelihood, the problem is that I am sober. I am curious to see if the original graphic novel is the cause of this discord, but considering this movie also includes the lines, “You know what I hate about myself? I know what people taste like. And I know that babies taste best,” I might settle for just being curious. 

Nitish:

Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” was my favorite movie from last year. It was a (richly deserved) Oscar-winning movie about class and inequality. It was smart, complex, inventive — in short, exactly what we need more of in movies. So I was really excited to watch “Snowpiercer,” a movie about a train in a post-apocalyptic world, segregated by income. 

Mark, as you can tell, did not like this movie. At all. Unfortunately, I had a similar response, if less severe. While I think Bong Joon Ho should be applauded for going for an ambitious project, it doesn’t entirely work. I’ll chalk it up to a practice round, because “Parasite” is better than “Snowpiercer” in every way. 

One big issue with the movie that Mark addresses is the tonal mishmash at play. It attempts to be an intelligent allegory on social status, creating a society that’s segregated by class, a train stratified by greed. But the movie undercuts this in a variety of ways. The first thing that damages this premise is the revolution. “Snowpiercer” just spends too much time on the actual to-and-fro of the revolution, trying to turn itself into an action movie. This part of the movie needed to be dropped down to five minutes.

The revolution also felt much too earnest, almost naive. For this movie to convince me of what was going on, I needed to have more emotional and thematic context. There is some of this with Edgar’s (Jamie Bell) conversation with Curtis (Chris Evans), and later with Curtis’ conversation with Gilliam (John Hurt), but I wasn’t compelled. Bong Joon Ho rushes setting up the philosophical premise of the movie. Yes, I get it: class segregation. But this movie is trying to make a broader commentary about oppressive systems, radicalism and change. Those pieces needed to be put into play earlier. Bong Joon Ho essentially tries to turn these themes into plot devices. There are few scenes later in the movie where they talk about the necessity of keeping people segregated in order to support the system, but it’s all references to weird numbers of fish and stuff. I was wondering throughout why they bothered to keep the tail-sectioners alive, and the question is answered, but the answer is so … particular, I guess? 

There were a bunch of weird moments, like a crazy knife-throwing badass who communicated with tattoos run across a bunch of tied together barrels with a torch to blind night-vision-goggle-wearing goons with axes (because bullets went extinct) who had dipped their axes into a fish. If that sounds incoherent, it’s because it is. There’s clairvoyance granted by this universe’s version of meth, which is literally explosive. There’s protein-blocks formed out of ground-up insects. There are plot twists upon plot twists. And all of this stuff just serves to distract from the narrative and the themes at play. 

As I understand the movie, it’s basically an argument that oppressive political systems, even (and maybe particularly) anarchic systems, need to be broken out of with courageous, radical acts of self-sacrifice. I think that’s an interesting argument, one that could be the basis of an excellent movie. But we spent so much time on random weird stuff that the heart of the movie was obscured. There should have been genuine disagreement among the revolutionaries, perhaps some of them buying into the Wilford corporation’s explanation of order. There was a moment where Wilford revealed that a mechanism inside the ostensibly self-sustaining machine has gone “extinct.” That should have been a huge moment thematically, maybe talking about the ultimate corruption of these systems. Instead, it’s just skipped over. This movie just feels half-baked. It should have gone through a rewrite, where the unnecessary was pared away and the thematic pieces that Bong Joon Ho thought were important should have taken precedence. 

The bright side though, is that Bong Jonn Ho did rewrite this, and we ended up getting “Parasite” out of it. But in this movie, themes aren’t fully thought out, there’s a bunch of random (not particularly well choreographed) action, and more errors of pacing and writing. It’s still pretty good, but it could have been a lot better. 

(Photo: Universal Pictures)

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (Released in 2010; watched by us on April 1, 2020)

An action comedy film directed by Edgar Wright. We watched it on Netflix!

Mark:

I wanted a fun movie for April Fools, and it looks like I got it. Based on the “Scott Pilgrim” comic series by Bryan Lee O’ Malley, “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” is an absolute delight. 

The movie follows Scott Pilgrim — a rather pathetic musician who falls in love and dates the new girl in town, Ramona Flowers. It turns out, however, that things are not so simple. Scott is challenged by a league formulated by Ramona’s seven evil exes, and he must defeat each of them in a duel. Video game logic and young adult melodrama are blended into a delightfully unique smoothie, straight out of the 2000s (which sounds gross but I hope you get the picture). If you are into this kind of dorky, early-internet fare, this movie will be perfect for you … and full disclosure, dear reader, that describes me perfectly. 

While it is likely impossible for live action to truly capture the energy of the comics — and from what I’ve read of it, I would sooner recommend the source material to you than the film — Edgar Wright comes as close as anybody could reasonably expect. The picture is packed to the brim with style. “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” does not tell its story like any other movie. Clever use of color, cuts, editing and typography (oh reader, I am a sucker for any movie that plays with typography) captures some of the feel of the comics, and keeps the viewer constantly guessing on what they will be treated to next. The most mundane of tasks can be littered with bursts of insane choreography — and the most intense of battles are given humorously relatable moments too. 

Each new duel adds something new to the journey. One might be a traditional beat-em-up, the next might be a battle of brains between a roided out movie star (and his army of stunt doubles). One might be a battle between a vegan with psychic powers, and before you know it Scott is engaged in a music battle between a pair of EDM twins. There is no boring moment, because it is clear the filmmakers had fun with each and every moment. In a sense, this feels like a very competently made version of the film I would have made with my friends back in middle school (if I had any) and this was definitely the right direction to take. 

“Scott Pilgrim,” to me, feels like an encapsulation of my younger self … but I was initially worried about it capturing his cringier traits as well. It seems as though the movie could quickly entrap itself into the “win the girl” male fantasy that, trust me fellow guys, is not as charming as it seems to be in your heads. Fortunately, “Scott Pilgrim” is self-aware enough to mostly avoid this trap. Our protagonist wins the day not by doubling down on those typical video game beats but by taking responsibility for his personal flaws (even if it is a little more brushed over in the film adaptation). Defeating the big-bad and self-improvement are one and the same. 

For this reason, most of those initial fears proved unwarranted, and I got to enjoy the movie for what it was … a fun, nerdy romp that got my adrenaline pumping (while still getting me in the mood for some Super Nintendo). “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” is the perfect Dave and Busters hype-movie! So, if this sort of delightful “Homestuck”-esque trash sounds like your kind of thing, it is definitely worth checking out.

 But, like, also read the books. I like them better. 

Nitish:

Honestly, I just didn’t have a strong opinion on this film. Which if you’ve seen it, is really really weird. It has a ton of special effects, its writing is hilarious, and its action choreography is surprisingly good. But uh, that’s all I got. Admittedly, part of the reason that this review is so short is because I’m on deadline, but uh, I don’t have a lot of thoughts on this movie. It’s standard rom-com fare. It’s a little more self-aware and not as sexist as other rom-coms, but that’s all I got. 

This movie is really funny. There’s an incredible moment where a guy goes super-saiyan through the power of veganism. Then, our protagonist tricks him into drinking half-and-half, and the vegan police come in and take away his powers as punishment. Chris Evans’ character is a hilarious parody of, well, himself now that he has Marvel money. The raw absurdity of Ramona’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) exes coming back from nowhere and having magical kung-fu fights everywhere is also pretty hilarious. The video game special effects that are just everywhere feel really grating at first, but it starts to grow on you. 

So why didn’t I love this? I liked it but I can’t really go that next step and say that it was great. I think it has to do with the heart of the movie: the characters. I didn’t find Scott particularly compelling, nor did I find the romance between Scott and Romana worth all the to-and-fro. Most of the characters felt two-dimensional, like they were there for a gag, but not there for any kind of emotional effect. Edgar Wright movies aren’t all like this. I loved “Baby Driver,” and thought it had some of the best character work I’ve ever seen. 


In sum, this movie is funny and super creative, but it never goes to the next step to become a great movie. I’d recommend “Baby Driver” instead, but this is still worth your time. 

Our Top 3 quarantine recommendations of March

It is high time to check in, dear readers and fellow social distancers. 

We (Nitish and Mark) have tried to fill the time (and fight off the tendrils of insanity) by watching a movie everyday … or, well, every other day. We started in March and have already developed quite a catalog — but which have been the best of the best? Since we are both different people, we are bound to have different recommendations, so sit back, relax, and enjoy our top three picks of our marathon so far.

Mark:

3. I Lost My Body (2019, Jeremy Calpin)

2. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975, Monty Python)

1. Goodfellas (1990, Scorsese)

Nitish:

3. The Lobster (2015, Yorgos Lanthimos) 

2. Goodfellas (1990, Scorsese)

1. I Lost My Body (2019, Jeremy Calpin)

Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu and Nitish Vaidyanathan at nitishv ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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