Friday, April 14, 2017

Dreams [dir. Akira Kurosawa]

Akira Kurosawa's 1990 magic realism journey does not have a central plot but is a portmanteau with the script evolving from, as the title suggests, actual dreams the film-maker had. To  get the most from it one needs to understand a little of Kurosawa as a person.

Kurosawa came from Samurai lineage and his childhood was steeped in old-world Japanese tradition that respected nature and the change of seasons. In Something Like An Autobiography, he recounts how when a child, his father used to send him out in the morning with a fishing net, cooking pot and bare essentials, with instructions to not return before sundown; he had to fish in the stream if he wanted lunch. The opening segments of Dreams reflect on our relationship with nature. In Sunshine Through the Rain a little boy (from a family called Kurosawa), slips out against his mother's advice into the woods and espies a wedding procession of "foxes", only to be told he can return home after he has begged forgiveness for his transgression from the angry foxes. The Peach Orchard's child protagonist is berated by a gallery of living dolls, representing the spirits of peach trees, for the culling of the titular orchard by his family.

The Blizzard takes inspiration from the same folk legend that inspired the Yuki Onna segment in Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan - a group trudging through snowy mountainous terrain is caught in a heavy storm, and one by one succumb to the elements and even the leader finds himself growing powerless and sleepy in the arms of the Snow Queen. Nature takes a different role, as the muse and inspiration for art in Crows, the episode devoted to Van Gogh. Played by Martin Scorsese, the painter is depicted as one obsessed with and compelled by nature to make his art.

In The Tunnel, a lament on war, a military commander goes through a tunnel and is faced by the walking corpses of his erstwhile unit. He apologises for having led them into a conflict both futile and fatal. In a final tearful command, he orders them to march back into the tunnel whence they came. Both Mount Fuji in Red and The Weeping Demon express Kurosawa's strident anti-nuclear stance, something he had dealt with earlier in the drama I Live in Fear. One talks about the state of panic induced by a nuclear catastrophe and the other is a grim fairy tale set in the aftermath of radioactive fallout.

Kurosawa who was a master of innovative film-making was apparently a technophobe in other aspects of life (''Modern technology and and I do not get along. My son tells me I look like a chimpanzee when I try to dial the telephone, and it would be hopeless for me to try to drive a car.''). Dreams' last segment - Village of the Watermills - speaks of a utopian return to an older way of living, of forgoing technological advancement and its accompanying effects in favor of settling to a slower rhythm, in greater harmony with nature.

Anyone who has seen Kurosawa's films will recognize in Dreams, the auteur's philosphies. Kurosawa's approach to his story-telling was always simple and direct, rarely dabbling in artistic ambiguities or playing with the perception of the audience. In consequence, the messages conveyed through the various segments of Dreams (respect nature, simple living is good, nuclear proliferation is BAD!) can come across as heavy-handed. But the visual expression of his ideas is powerful - the rhythmic procession of the "foxes", the dance of the peach orchard "dolls", the march of the dead soldiers, the Van Gogh landscapes through which the protagonist walks before meeting the man himself, raging Mt Fuji, the watermills village - His sensibilities as a painter get full reign here and, in conjunction with Shinichiro Ikebe's moving score, make Dreams a memorable and highly rewatchable experience from his fimography.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Giant's Dream [dir. Anthony Giacchino]

What if a gun had a soul and didn’t want to be a gun?

It's rare that making of's or special features content for movies feature anything truly insightful, but The Giant's Dream, an approximately hour-long documentary included on Warner's blu-ray of Brad Bird's underappreciated animation classic The Iron Giant is wonderful in its own right. It starts off with charting Brad's life right from when he was a prodigy kid keenly interested in animation who got invited to visit Disney's animation studio after they saw a rough demo reel of his version of The Tortoise and the Hare and was enrolled into arts school on an animation scholarship. It covers his discontented early stint at Disney where he was constantly at loggerheads with the play-safe management to the point of quitting his childhood dream workplace (Later he was invited by Pixar's John Lassetter and went on to do The Incredibles).

Biding his time with TV's The Simpsons and other projects Brad got his next shot at feature animation, ironically after the success of 90's Disney animated ventures, which goaded other studios like Warner to get into the game. Eschewing the trend of child-oriented musicals, Brad concocted (apparently without consulting his team) the tale of the bond between a kid and a hulking robot with massive capacity for destruction. Somewhere behind his take on Ted Hughes' source story was the death of his sister killed in a gun violence incident by her husband.

The Iron Giant had only a fraction of the budget and prep time awarded to the typical Disney feature and the team included a lot of novices or retired animators, since the cream of the crop headed to Disney. The docu looks frankly at the often troubled production, with tight resource crunch and disinterest from the studio (they wanted to get out of the animation business after the failure of their previous venture Quest for Camelot) leading to protracted conflict between Brad and his producer Allison Abbate (who says diffidently in the docu that she would not want to work with him again). While the project was allowed to be completed (in one way the disinterest was a boon as there was no interference as well), Warner had neglected laying out any significant advance publicity for the film, none of the tie-ups and merchandising that garner the public's attention. So while the film did well with critics, it was a commercial bomb, which only later gained second wind as an undermined classic.

The documentary charts all this history superbly with tons of archival video and the use of still and semi-animated illustrations in Brad Bird's style depicting the significant events related to his life and the making of the film. What could have been just a series of talking head interviews is put forth in a terrific visual language that pays tribute to its subject's creativity.

The Iron Giant is a true American classic of animation and The Giant's Dream is an incisive and emotional journey into its creation.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Voices [dir. Marjane Satrapi]

Deadpool may have garnered the hype and box office, but in my opinion this little black comedy from 2014 is more entertaining and a better showcase for Ryan Reynolds' abilities.
Unless you go into the film absolutely blind, and not likely for long even then, it becomes evident that Reynolds' character is a "special person". Like the munchkin lead of The Lego Movie, Reynolds believes "Everything is Awesome!", as he goes about his job at the bath fixtures company (with its dazzling bright pink aesthetic on everything, including workers' overalls, forklifts and cartons). He enthusiastically participates in setting up the company party and tries (too) hard to attract the attention of the office hottie (Gemma Atherton). He also regularly visits a state psychiatrist who constantly badgers him about taking his medication (uh-oh). And he has a dog and cat, Bosco and Mr. Whiskers respectively...who he talks to...and who talk back to him.

It's the curse of the under-confident person, I get discomfited by films / TV series where the humor is at the expense of someone's embarrassment, which is why I did not see more than the stray episode of Wilfred (in which the dysfunctional lead character sees his neighbor's dog as an anthropomorphic talking entity), but I can see how it could have been the inspiration for Reynold's interaction with his chatty friends - Bosco represents the angel archetype telling Reynolds he's "a good boy", while Mr. Whiskers is, like many cats, an unapologetic A-Hole. The film gets more drama when Reynolds ends up accidentally(?) murdering the hottie, and tries to (ahem) bury the issue by taking home the body, chopping it into little bits and keeping her head in the refrigerator; as it turns out, that's only the start of a chain of events.

What differentiates The Voices from other bizarre comedies is that it's not content with drawing easy giggles. Reynold's character may be a Norman Bates stereotype (there is even a deliberate wink to that inspiration), but he is developed with sensitivity and dimension, and the script succeeds in making you feel for this murderous bumbler. There is also intelligent use of visual cues to differentiate between Reynolds' fantasy world and reality.

There are some stumbles, like when a literal conga line of Reynolds' colleagues come snooping around his home instead of alerting the police even after they have uncovered enough indications to raise the flag of suspicion, but the film does not overreach its grasp and I found sufficient charm and that magic blend of humor and pathos to overlook these deficiencies.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

My Indian movie trips of 2016

GREAT

Kaul (The Calling) - Aadish Keluskar's debut feature in Marathi is a brilliant existential horror film with some of the best use of sound to create mood I've heard in a film since a long time. I saw it twice at the cinema, the second time in immersive Dolby Atmos. I pray it comes out on BD/DVD so whoever that is interested in such films can get to watch it.
Aligarh - After the brilliant and underrated Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar, Hansal Mehta and Manoj Bajpai join forces again to give a powerful drama of a man unfairly persecuted by society for the sin of being different. There are flaws yes, but damn it, this is a sincere and moving effort and deserves to be on your watchlist.
Budhia Singh - Born to Run - Manoj Bajpai is on a roll with this year's releases. In BS-BtR he is not the titular character but plays the equally important role of the coach determined to make a marathon champion of the child Budhia, even if he must resort to highly unorthodox and questionable methods of training him. Effectively portrays the other side of the rah-rah sports film.

GOOD

Ghayal Once Again - Not great, but surprisingly entertaining, with a script that makes The Matrix look like kitchen sink drama, retro-badass action and hilarious ineptness. I especially enjoyed the audacious extended chase sequence in the first half of the film, genuinely well done. Recommended for fans of 80's style action dramas.
Mohalla Assi - Not officially released, but you can find it on the interwebs. A cynical satire on Benaras by Chandraprakash Dwivedi that takes on too many "issues" and meanders more than needed, but has some good moments and is notable for the most uncharacteristic Sunny Deol performance ever.
Fan - This one turned out better than expected, especially in the first half. Post-interval it bloats up with increasingly preposterous bait-n-chase sequences and very dodgy script machinations. But like with Chennai Express, SRK seems to take a special delight in making digs at his own legacy. No songs is an added plus.
Ventilator - Rajesh Mhapuskar's Marathi film starring Ashutosh Gowariker struck a strong chord with its identifiable dramedy of the family commotion that occurs when a relative is admitted in hospital. Runs too long with an exhausting series of emo-moments towards the end but worth watching once if you like the Hrishikesh Mukherjee kind of cinema.
Akira - I can see the eyes rolling among some of you, but I waspleasantly shocked  to see a Murgadoss movie that doesn't have an extended flashback sequence so cloying and rancid it makes you want to stab your eyes out. Also, I have a soft corner for Sonakshi Sinha who I think is one of the promising actors of today, so catching her in a 'hero' role was a thrill, even if the action sequences were shot quite haphazardly. Anurag Kashyap as actor was fun too, a lot more than as the director of Raman Raghav Thoo.

MEH
 
Pink - Pink is actually good...until Amitabh Bachchan walks in and completely upends the story, taking attention away from the credible and sympathetic female cast. The wang-wagging courtroom drama was abysmally preachy and screechy and poor Piyush Mishra got the most thankless part.
Airlift - It arrived on the marquee in the same weekend as a bunch of interchangeable randy Tusshaaar Kapoor movies, and was a comparatively decent experience, but when I reflect on it, very generic in construction and quite forgettable.
Kahaani 2 - Better than the previous one IMO, but again dragged down by an ass-breaker running time (130 min), excruciatingly detailed flashbacks, caricature bad people and let-me-tell-you-what-to-feel background music...and of course the up-its-own-butt twist ending.

YUCK

Raman Raghav 2.0 - A terrible experience, a hodge-podge of contrived scenes and faux-edginess (Anurag Kashyap-ness?) with almost no good element that wasn't lifted from elsewhere.
MSG: The Lion Heart - yeah yeah, I know a bunch of you are going to say "What did you expect?" But I loved the first MSG film for its incredulity and complete absence of sense of proportion. This one began in a promisingly hilarious fashion but got bogged down with a sluggish and annoying flashback that lasted the entire length, with a message to wait for Part 2, grr


STUFF I NEED TO SEE
Visaranai (Tamil), Kapoor & Sons, Dangal...let me know what else I missed out on.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Stella Cadente aka Falling Star [dir. Lluís Miñarro]

Normally, Second Run DVD is home to the less-known classics of European cinema (especially Czech and Polish), but they also sometimes do new releases like 2014's Spanish entry Stella Cadente, which was interesting but less satisfying than one hoped.
 
The falling star of the plot is Amadeo I, who came from Savoy to Spain in 1870 after being elected king by the Spanish legislature, only to find that the country as a whole did not want a king. Against advice, he refuses to abdicate, determined to be an ideal monarch. He bubbles with ideas of progress, freedom and prosperity, but is roundly ignored by the politicians he interacts with and even the palace staff, who tend to his needs but snigger at his back. His vegetarianism, compassion to animals and fidelity to his absent wife are seen as weaknesses in character. Till a time, his only companion is his Man Friday Alfredo (who masturbates into melons in open fields). The arrrival of his wife provides relief from the loneliness, but only temporarily. She makes him aware of the uselessness of his position, that of an abandoned captive in the palace (not unlike his bejeweled tortoise pet). Just 3 years after he arrived, Amadeo left Spain, which then declared itself a Republic.
 
Stella Cadente is a handsomely mounted vehicle that takes references from Lucino Visconti in its depiction of decadent nobility (albeit at a 106 min a lot less indulgent in running time), and Alex Brendemühl as Amadeo I gives a fine depiction of the ineffectual ruler. But the film is confined to too narrow a scope for us to experience Amadeo's frustration, and so much of the social backdrop is kept off screen, there is a paucity of context. Instead we get an anemic character study with some (bizarre or otherwise) sexual asides from the supporting cast (If you have a problem with male frontal nudity you have been warned). Also, I found the anachronistic song interludes off-putting.
 
While your mileage may vary with the film itself, Second Run's release looks great, although I was jarred by the idea of seeing a historical drama captured on digital video. This may be on DVD only, but they really push the limits of the format, offering lush colors and texture.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Pit Stop [dir. Jack Hill]

Jack Hill's Pit Stop may lack the sophistication of the benchmark noir films, but in its scruffiness is a little gem. Set in the dangerous world of figure eight and drag racing, the film's protagonist (Dick Davalos) is an impetuous maverick who gets persuaded by race promoter (Brian Donlevy aka Quatermass) into pitting himself against current champ (a young and energetic Sid Haig). Davalos does that only to bear the brunt of Haig's fragile ego and destructive temper. Later the two team up to run interference at the Nationals for another champion racer (George Washburn). Washburn's initial arrogance puts off Davalos to the extent that he aims to show up the champ and makes a play at Washburn's neglected wife (Ellen Burstyn in an early role, already charismatic). In his quest to rise above his circumstances our hero ends up selling his soul.

Large swathes of footage are devoted to the races themselves, which look downright dangerous. Hill shot footage at actual figure-eight races - using up to 5 cameras, and himself manning the one in the most hazardous position - and edited them together selecting the most spectacular crashes, then had the actors' cars made to look like the participants. The actors take their work seriously too, with Haig's character undergoing a stark but believable transformation when he turns from foe to ally for Davalos. Brian Donlevy (whose footage was apparently captured in a few days, but carefully edited to make him appear throughout the film) perfectly conveys the ruthlessness of the promoter for whom winning counts more than anything else. The gritty high-contrast B&W visuals lend a documentary realism to the film. The soundtrack is also a live-wire mix of blues-jazz guitar with a dominant presence in the film. Pit Stop may be simple in structure, but its energy and earnestness make it memorable.

Arrow's blu-ray comes off an in-house restoration job sourced from Jack Hill's personal 35mm film print. Under James White's supervision, we get a beautiful image with gorgeous contrast, detail and grain, very faithful to the history of this vintage low-budget feature. The lossless mono track is clear and impressive in its reproduction of the flashy soundtrack and audio cues. Extras include video conversations with Jack Hill, Sid Haig and producer Roger Corman.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Akira [dir. AR Murgadoss]

Simply by not having an extended flashback with an excruciating romance-meets-odious-comedy track, Akira (no relation to Katsuhiro Otomo's classic anime) is 200% better than most Murga-dross movies. Add to it an absence of tedious fantasy song sequences in bad fashion scapes and you have to wonder if the director had one of those "blow on the head that changes your life" moments his protagonists are subject to.

Akira is the official remake of a Tamil film Mouna Guru (which had a male protagonist, and according to Baradwaj Rangan, was a much better film). As Rangan perhaps rightly points out, a woman-centric action film feels obliged to point out why its lead is so quick to sock people. So in a preamble, Akira as a child is witness to an acid attack. For who-knows-what reason the victim's parents appear to have invited the entire neighborhood to witness the unveiling of her bandages, like it was a fucking award ceremony. Akira's Masterji father (Atul Kulkarni in a where's-my-paycheck part) then pushes her into a karate class, oh-so-meaningfully bypassing the adjoining dance class, and almost immediately after, a confrontation with the acid-hurling goons, which lands her a 3-year remand home sentence for causing one of them to splash himself with the corrosive after-shave. One would think the cops should arrest Akira's father for forcing his progeny into an acutely risky vigilante situation, but in Murugadoss' world this qualifies as awesome parenting.

Thus Akira (Sonakshi Sinha) grows up to be a Shiva, with breasts instead of a mustache - She is by nature reserved and taciturn, but ready to take panga with anyone that crosses her; This isn't layered writing, but you don't need more detail for this sort of film. Anyhoo, by a convoluted sequence of circumstances, our heroine gets mixed up with a posse of not-so-bright, not-so-upright cops (led by a cheerfully sleazy Anurag Kashyap) that stole a large bag of cash from an accident victim. To save their own skins they have her framed as a violent delusional and sent to an asylum that rivals the one in Amitabh Bachchan's Yaarana for WTF-ery. You know how it goes from here - Akira-gal must escape from the asylum and flush out her tormentors for justice. This happens with remarkable facility, and there's a last-minute twist that's more difficult to swallow.

Akira doesn't have the sleight-of-hand of say, an Ek Hasina Thi, but trots at a brisk clip without much in the way of stopping to smell the roses. Unlike Rani Mukherjee's forced mardaangi in Mardaani, Sonakshi slips into the character with ease. Given the space, she has an understated charisma and strong instincts as an actor, and effectively conveys Akira's tough-tender nature. It's unfortunate then that Murgadoss shoots the action in a manner that undermines her - lazy choreography, quick cuts and multiple angles don't help to sell the illusion of the badass heroine, and too much seems to have been left to stunt doubles (The brief  'making of' snippets on the DVD show Sonakshi doing multiple kicks-in-the-air, but in the film it's unnecessarily chopped up).