Riaad Moosa is Cassim Kaif, the son of a textile shop owner seemingly destined to a life amongst bolts of cloth and endless family expectations. Unable to say no to his domineering father or escape the traditionalist ties of Johannesburg’s Indian Muslim community, he finds fulfilment in nightly stand-up comedy. Anticipating his family’s disapproval, Cassim keeps his moonlighting a secret from them, aided by his goofy best friend Yusuf (Joey Rasdien). The collision of the two worlds is inevitable, particularly as his star begins to rise in the underground comedy scene and the material business runs into financial trouble. Unable to keep a lid on his ambitions, Cassim must find a way, as these films typically do, to ‘follow his heart’ without alienating his staunchly religious and conservative family. Offsetting the serious main plot is a gentle love story, as Cassim falls for (and consistently embarrasses himself in front of) the beautiful yet seemingly unattainable Zulfa (Carishma Basday).
One of the strongest points of Material is its treatment of Islam. At last, there is a feature film out there that doesn’t automatically regard swarthy bearded people as terror suspects and instead furnishes them with humanity and foibles. The religious conflict that brews between Cassim and his father Ebrahim is more abstract and has roots within culture–Ebrahim views bars as haram, and his son’s hobby of standing up in the middle of them to good-naturedly laugh at his family’s habits as an unprecedented embarrassment. Material also doesn’t make the mistake of hammering home its views on religion: it is an intrinsic part of the story but it never comes off as being preachy. Spiritual development is the film’s more compelling focus, as Ebrahim and Cassim both move towards paradigm shifts in their lives. Johannesburg’s Indian community also plays a key part in Material, providing both comic relief and a fascinating insight into a tiny microcosm of what the customs and culture are really like, from lavish weddings to family quarrels.
Based loosely on the life of Riaad Moosa, Material must be praised for overriding the syrupy, cookie-cutter inspirational film aspects with doses of reality and its attention to detail. While you don’t need to shield yourself from spoiler alerts, as the film unfolds largely as you would expect it to, the dialogue is fresh and the characters are endearing. Moosa in particular is a likeable leading man, with his ability to change gears between being the easygoing would-be wit and serious and repressed when the script calls for it. Material isn’t a strictly religious film, or a knee-slapping comedy, and this is what makes it so rewarding. The comic touches are light, and the film’s main conflict is resolved and tied neatly with a bow by its end, yet the story’s progression doesn’t feel forced.
A criticism, however, must be levelled at the film’s pace. Understandably, Material deals with big issues and existential crises, but at times it moves so slowly that your fingers itch to press fast-forward. Longing looks and meaningful, evocative sniffs are all very well, but unfortunately by the middle of the film it does come across more like tedious dithering that is trying to pass itself off as profundity. Material is far too good a film to need these dull devices, which you would expect in an Oscar-baiting Spielberg or fluffy Bollywood melodrama.
Material is a joyful retelling of the culture clash trope, made palatable by Riaad Moosa’s strong performance and its sensitive treatment of religion and culture. Jokes abound, yet it rises above the somewhat predictable plot with the aid of its rambunctious supporting cast and the adorable love story at its heart. While it is at times painfully slow, Material wins you over by being as sweet and satisfying as a plate of ladoo.
Savages is a film that opened to much fanfare, and with good reason. Think back to some of Oliver Stone’s best – Platoon, JFK, Natural Born Killers, and it’s understandable why big names fall over themselves to appear in his movies. Stamping the Stone name onto a film ultimately lends it credibility and cool. Unfortunately, his first feature since Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is uneven in places, despite its intriguing premise and crowd of heavyweights.
Chon, Ben and O (Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson and Blake Lively) are the prettiest trio of weedheads you ever did see. Life’s a beach, and somehow they have found a way to cultivate extremely potent marijuana. It’s a pity then that their adorable Laguna Beach love-in is interrupted by the arrival of a drug cartel, led by the ruthless Elena (Salma Hayek). Mexicans, you would be surprised to find out, aren’t known for their even tempers, and Ben and Chon’s refusal to cut them into their business results in the kidnapping of O. This sets off a chain reaction of murder, double-crossing and many scenes in four wheel drives, as the hapless potheads scramble to recover their sun-kissed beauty.
One of Savages’ main letdowns is Blake Lively. This was meant to be her breakout film, as far away from the girly frippery and travelling pants as she could get. However, it seems that the newly-minted Mrs. Reynolds is still a paid-up student at the Keanu Reeves School of Wooden Acting. While her role is of the pretty and ornamental Ophelia, any attempts to convince us that she can roll with the tough guys (a back of tattoos, her neglected rich kid backstory, a potty mouth) fall flat in the face of Lively’s bland brand of reaction-acting. She is beautiful, but little more. It’s hard to understand why Ben and Chon would sacrifice millions, weaponise and go to such lengths to save such a mealy-mouthed dullard.
Other supporting cast members aren’t as bad – Benicio del Toro is as wild as ever, and John Travolta straps one of Nicolas Cage’s cat wigs to his head to play the corrupt narcotics agent with a level of convincing smarm.
It seems that Savages is trying to do a lot with a little. It’s dark – heads roll, skin is flayed, but ultimately to little purpose. Savages’ biggest weakness is that it lapses into an orgy of violence and loses sight of the plot. The ending in particular is a little ridiculous, and 2 hours of action wraps up with a finale so formulaic that it must have been lifted from an episode of Law & Order or CSI.
Johnson and Kitsch are decent in their leading roles, yet Kitsch in particular plays his part of the ex-Navy SEAL turned weed botanist with a bored detachment, perhaps conscious that he will forevermore be pigeonholed as the next Channing Tatum or Sam Worthington: he’s undeniably gorgeous, but never really up to much, which is as clear here as it was in John Carter. Johnson is given a little more to work with as Ben, the happy hippy who’s trying to make the world a better place, one plant at a time, and rallies by the film’s end to show a bit of backbone along with the sensitivity.
Lively is, as mentioned, a liability – she should definitely get back to playing the wasted schoolgirl, where at least she doesn’t try to overstretch her repertoire of facial expressions from one to two.
Savages isn’t Stone at its best, and perhaps that is where the hyper-sensitive expectations come from. It might not be fair to expect the man who gave us the brash brilliance of Platoon or wrote Scarface to deliver such cinematic greatness every single time. Savages does not hold a candle to a lot of Stone’s early work, and makes one think that he is getting soft in his dotage – or that somewhere in the course of adapting Don Winslow’s novel, he indulged a little too heavily and had a few half-baked hallucinatory ideas that found their way into the script.
Savages is good but not great – it is a gripping two hours, but not a film that you should get serious about. Take it out for dinner, by all means, just don’t bother introducing it to your parents.
The verdict: 6/10
Savages is released in the UK this Friday, 21st of September. Check out the trailer below: