Sunday, January 14, 2018

Mukkabaaz [dir. Anurag Kashyap]

From an auteurist point of view Mukkabaaz represents one of Anurag Kashyap's biggest compromises to the mainstream Bollywood formula. Far from the audacious ideas of No Smoking and Dev.D and even the sprawling excess of the overrated Gangs of Wasseypur, this film sits so firmly in the masala entertainer mold his Dabangg brother Abhinav may well feel threatened for his livelihood (or whatever remains of it after the loud and offensively stinky fart called Besharam). But you know what, that's not necessarily a bad thing, because while AK here chooses to work within the limitations of the 'safe' formula, he gives it a welcome texture and relatable context that has been missing from traditional big-budget Hindi cinema, which usually takes place in an isolated fantasy land where none of the real-world issues we see occur.

The story of the underdog boxer / sportsman making his way to the top (and sometimes falling off it) is an old one in movie history, but 1976's Rocky landed the big punch in Bollywood, which briefly added pugilism to its existing potboiler template to churn out Main Intaquam Loonga (1982) and Boxer (1983). Boxing made another entry in 2014's rah-rah biopic of Mary Kom. While Kashyap's movie features boxing, a good deal of it, it is not a sports film or a biopic. Mukkabaaz's outline fits the typical Hero-Heroine-Villain-Supporting Cast framework of Hindi 'Phillum': Shravan Kumar (even the names of the characters are almost deliberately bog standard) is in love with Sunaina but falls foul of her autocratic uncle Bhagwan Das who goes on to lay obstacles galore and make life hell for the young couple and everyone around. Romance, Action, Dialogue-baazi, Music, The Works. Boxing is simply the medium by which the heroic underdog rises against his oppressors, whether literally in the film's several punch-up sequences in and out of the ring, or in terms of the prestige the sport gives him.

But Shravan Kumar is not just an upstart boxer hero, he's a Rajput with the audacity to desire a higher-in-the-hierarchy Brahmin girl. Uncle Bhagwan Das is a casteist Hindutva torchbearer that gets his goons to conduct "beef lynchings". Sunaina is a mute, but that doesn't make her silent - she is educated and feisty, and wants to make her 'bindaas' way in the world. She has no feeling of cringing gratitude for the man who "accepted" her. And Kashyap's film is not just about boy bagging girl. We also see Shravan struggling between the demands of job and sporting career. In the "railway job" he bags through sports quota he is made a dogsbody by his sarkari babu superior (a coach even laments that most youth that take up sport only do it for the quota). Early on in the film a boxing tournament is conducted on a makeshift stage because the sports venue has been usurped for some minister's family wedding. Even the climactic national championships are staged in a realistically modest stadium, with few audience members apart from the fighters and the coterie that arbitrarily decides their futures.

It also helps that while there is simplification, there is no condescension towards the film's mainstream sensibilities. The actors are sincere, with Vineet Kumar Singh utterly believable on-screen as the titular boxer and terrific chemistry from Zoya Hussain as the girl that drives him to win her. Other characters are solid if stock (I regret an actor of Jimmy Shergill's caliber reduced to playing a single-note blackguard like Bhagwan Das but he is game, while Ravi Kishan provides able support as the dignified Harijan coach who trains Shravan Kumar to go up against his opponents). The film is shot with an emphasis on naturalistic atmosphere; special mention goes to the boxing ring bouts which carry a ring of authenticity, and even the standard lone-hero-against-horde-of-henchmen battles eschew the cliches of slow-motion or wire-work.

I do hope that Kashyap's commercial picture gets at least a fair proportion of the box-office success that mainstream Bollywood movies get, so that a) more people in the mainstream industry are inspired to inject social observation into the fabric of their scripts without the need for specific message movies b) he gets the financial freedom to come up with more 'out-there' ideas for his subsequent projects.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Eat Drink Man Woman [dir. Ang Lee]

Eat Drink man Woman's (EDMW) title comes from a line in the film, "Eat, drink, man, woman. Basic human desires. Can't avoid them." If Yasujiro Ozu were to make a food-focused film it would come rather close. Of course this isn't Ozu but Taiwanese film-maker Ang Lee, one of the most interesting movie directors today for the sheer range of films that he has made, from intimate relationship dramas / dramedies to large scale spectacles, and sometimes interesting mixtures of the two. EDMW comes from Ang Lee's luminous 90's phase, shortly before he made the jump to Hollywood where he put out Sense & Sensibility and The Ice Storm, proving his masterly grasp of varied cultural sensibilities (and perhaps the universality of human emotion).
At its core EDMW (notably Ang Lee's only film actually set in Taiwan) is a relationship drama with the aging widower Mr. Chu and his three daughters Jen, Chien and Ning. Mr. Chu is the archetype patriarch, benevolent but domineering. The girls in one way or another feel constricted by the atmosphere at home. The eldest Jen is shaping up to be the unwilling spinster saddled with the looking after of the old man, Chien - the openly defiant one - looks for escape in apartment purchases and transfer promotions, while young Ning is making her way through college and the tricky path of relationships. This simmering pot of familial tensions is exemplified in the Sunday dinner, which also brings in the film's food connection. You see, Mr. Chu is a respected and passionate chef (even if the script signals his aging and dissatisfaction with life with a growing loss of taste senses) and the Sunday meal is a cornucopia of meticulously prepared and exquisitely crafted delicacies. It is a symbol of the bond between father and daughters even when the bond is so strained the girls consider sitting through the meal a torture ritual.
EDMW has the rhythm of a multi-threaded family soap in the hands of an intelligent and sensitive maker, with each strand given generous time to play out in full: Jen's quiet desperation for romance (or at least a form of escape from her colorless single status), Chien's resentment of Mr. Chu's controlling nature (it is suggested that her love of the culinary art was stifled by a father that pushed her out of the kitchen and into an admittedly successful corporate career), Ning a fast-food joint employee (What a slight for the epicurean Mr. Chu), tenuously building a relationship with her workmate's boyfriend. What of Mr. Chu himself? Alienated from his own daughters, Mr. Chu finds his outlet of paternal love in preparing elaborate lunchboxes for a young divorcee neighbor's schoolkid. There are other supporting characters each of whom in their own way stirs up the wok. With some mild surprises the film eventually brings each character's arc to a close and establishes a new balance of relationships and emotions for these people we have come to know and understand, leaving us satiated, like at the end of a multi-course family feast.
EDMW cannot be recommended as an incisive character study and is unabashedly sentimental, but only a joyless scrooge would deny its hot-soup-like heartwarming qualities, and in its detailed depictions of food preparation and presentation, it's a delight to behold (Vegetarians and people on a diet beware).

Friday, December 29, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi [dir. Rian Johnson]

So one of the last things I did last night was catching the last show of The Last Jedi (TLJ), and these here are my lasting impressions. Rather decent by way of disposable entertainment I thought, if also beset by the customary problems of these massively extended franchises. The good bits first. It worked a lot better than The Force Awakens, where almost everything other than the parts they were ripping off the 1977 Star Wars (fuck all this Episode 4 bullshit) was tedious filler. It's nice that they're at least trying for some fresh angles in a done-to-death enterprise. In TLJ it's not always the bone-headed "okay, we got one shot at this, so let's go blow shit up" plan that works, and even when it does there are consequences (well, at least for the peripheral characters there are). Like in Rogue One (which I also liked) the Rebels are not painted all-white and writer-director Rian Johnson manages this without too much ham-handed political discourse and post 9/11 paranoia metaphors. Some of the stuff from Rey's Jedi training are cool - that fun bit when Luke asks her to "reach out", the infinite mirrors scene. While the space battles have a sameness to them (what an age we live in, when meticulously detailed visuals of gigantic ships getting blown apart elicit a yawn), the climactic saber fight in which an elite Sith guard is taken down carries a propulsive intensity. Veteran John Williams' score rehashes the well-known themes, nonetheless I found  it sufficiently rousing to enhance my enjoyment.

On the other hand, at 2.5 hours, TLJ has butt-hurting levels of tedium. The entire strand where rebels Finn and Rico go to the Dubai-like planet with casinos and camel races, get imprisoned and escape, stands disjointed from the rest of the picture and achieves little other than introducing a convenient hacker character (Benicio Del Toro, slumming it these days). It's like watching video-game footage in which a player opts for ALL the side missions. Yes, when you have several characters you need to give them something to do, but don't take audience investment for granted. And talking of killing off the old, why the fuck is Yoda still hanging about? A relatively good scene of Luke destroying the old Jedi Legacy is spoiled by this dyslexic puppet. If Ghost Yoda can come back, you might as well bring in Ghost Vader to spice things up. The new Emperor (the head bad guy, whatever his name is) continues the legacy of Star Wars bad guys that love to monologue while they conveniently leave around the shit that gets them killed. A minor peeve is that the Jedi seem very reluctant to use force powers during combat, which are exclusively (ha!) saber-rattling. You'd think a scrap between elite Jedi would involve at least some neat bits of force push or lightning but no, apparently they are purists that believe in a fair fight even when they are evil.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Things to Come [dir. William Cameron Menzies]

Things to Come - the 1936 adaptation of HG Wells' novel The Shape of Things to Come - is an odd film, a combination of wonderful visual wizardry and sense of scale with an awfully stilted and preachy narrative about how socialist-tempered scientific progress is the eternal saviour and great equalizer of mankind. It reminds me a fair deal of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, but less expressionist.
To summarize the unwieldy narrative: The aftermath of a hypothetical Second World War (an uncomfortably close prediction, as history would reveal) brings most of civilization to its knees and nation-states are reduced almost to tribe-like status, with constant infighting and resource shortage pushing them back to the dark age. Somehow in all this an organization called Wings over the World (WotW) has managed to scrounge enough resources for technical superiority and aims to end warfare and unite mankind. Their representative (Raymond Massey) comes to the archetypical "Everytown" where he is thrown into prison by the local Boss (Ralph Richardson, in a performance of utter cartoon villainy). When a renegade engineer passes on this news to WotW, they come in their sophisticated bombers and drop a "gas of peace" which puts everyone to sleep, and then take over with their benevolently dictatorial agenda of peaceful scientific progress.

Cut directly a 100 years ahead to a utopian future, where people live in huge white cities with multi-storey screen displays (Here's looking at you, Blade Runner), poverty and discomfort have been eradicated, and everyone wears togas because apparently the Greco-Roman look is future chic. The scientific head honcho (Massey again, as his own descendant) wants to launch people into space to further the possibility of landing on and someday inhabiting other planets, and his own daughter volunteers (along with a friend's son). But some (rather curmudgeonly portrayed) people are tired of this ceaseless innovation and want the government to stop with unnecessary, perhaps even blasphemous scientific progress, even if it means physically attacking the launch cannon for the space ship (Yep, the rocket is shot off from a giant barrel). Science vs People debates issue forth while the two sides face off against each other till the rocket is launched off. The film ends with a grandiose monologue on the greatness of scientific progress in which Massey asks his friend (and the audience, one assumes), "All the universe or nothingness? ... Which shall it be? ..."

Wells himself wrote the initial treatment and intended to personally steer the production in a manner he felt his work ought to be presented. But he soon discovered the discrepancy between his imagination and the realities of film production (and according to at least some members of the film crew, mostly just stood around and showed more interest in flirting with the women on set). Many crew members that signed on because they admired Wells' novel were rather surprised to find its well-rounded characters and erudite dialog reduced to caricatures and blatant speeches. William Cameron Menzies whose major claim to fame was as a skilled art director, works manfully to bring at Wells' reportedly often vague vision to life, and thus provides the film's strongest asset. The scenes showing wide vistas of archetype futuristic urban-scape are often marvellous (even if the optical work is somewhat obvious now), depicting large populations of people dwarfed by gargantuan sleek structures, and the climax featuring a mob attacking the rocket launch cannon is excitingly staged. People who liked or admired Metropolis should definitely check this one out as well.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Kadvi Hawa [dir. Nila Madhab Panda]

Kadvi Hawa (KH) is undoubtedly a sincere film, but it's unfortunately not a gripping one. KH reminds me of one of the likely reasons why the Indian parallel film movement of the 70's and early 80's petered out - Repeated tales of exploitation, poverty, social injustice told in a rote solemn manner, their only aim to stand on a soapbox and awaken the collective social conscience (and maybe win awards for the same). But at the cinema people rarely bond with issues, they bond with interesting characters and stories, and the trick is to slide in the bolus of your agenda within a narrative an audience is interested to immerse itself in. Here we see many of the tired cliches: old man (Sanjay Mishra) waiting for hours at an institution only to be rudely turned away, painstakingly detailed daily routine of poor farmer's family, long shots of arid vistas...Art Phillum Class 101.
The publicity campaign made KH look like it was going to provide some kind of dramatized exploration of how India was reeling under climate change, but the bulk of the film is far smaller in scope, dealing exclusively with the issue of drought-hit farmers in Mahua (Bihar?) suffering from piling debt. One does not argue that climate change played a big role in their problems but there is no holistic perspective. There are flashes of such possibilities, like when the loan collector (Ranvir Sheorey) talks about his place in Odisha being tormented by floods, but it's just delivered in rapid chunks of exposition. On the whole this film makes a disjointed case about climate change as an issue, veering between barely mumbling about it or making ham-handed statements, like when a kid in school says he knows only two seasons because the rain falls for only a few days each year. In my view the film needed a multi-layered exploration like what Nishikant Kamat achieved with Mumbai Meri Jaan or some of Shyam Benegal's films that dealt with social injustice.

Which is not to say the film is unworthy. Like I said earlier, it has a sincere intent. The central plot point of the old man looking to attenuate his son's loan by acting as an informer about other defaulters to the loan collector is within itself dramatically sound, and actors like Mishra and Sheorey bring a lot of credibility to their parts. As an episode in a television anthology series, it may have been brilliant, but as a 90 odd min feature film, KH does not lift the kind of intellectual or dramatic weight that compels your attention through the grim proceedings.


Spider aka Zirneklis [dir. Vasili Mass]

Spider aka Zirneklis is a Latvian Nightmare on Elm Street, taking a little detour by way of Valerie and her Weekend of Wonders. Okay, it's not as ambitious as that combination sounds but it's a nifty erotic horror film that doesn't outstay its welcome, and exquisitely designed to boot.

Our nubile heroine Vita (the gorgeous Aurelia Anuzhite, both leered at and revered by the camera) is in the course of sitting for a painting of the Virgin Mary - ah, symbolism - assaulted by the creepy artist Albert. He then seems to invade her dreams as well, perhaps even taking on the form of the giant spider that ravishes her by night. Prescribed a course of rest in the countryside for her "self-suggested delusions", she goes to her aunt's family (inciting a bit of sexual tension there), but her visions appear to follow her.
 

 The narrative is slight and, like with the Italian giallo films, more a bag of contrivances to hang the visual set-pieces. But oh, what lovely visuals they are, bringing to mind the object-fetish style of Walerian Borowczyk: A fragile painterly atmosphere permeates most of the film - occasionally dipping into psychedelic territory - counterpointed by a moody, jangly electronic score (even the somewhat tinny sound appears to be by design). There are some memorable scenes towards the early part of the film where paintings appear to come to life. The horror / gore effects are also very nicely done, and I have to say stop-motion spiders look creepier than real spiders. Director Vasili Mass certainly shows a lot of chutzpah and it's sad to see that he didn't direct anything else.
 
 
In his review, Blu-ray.com's resident arthouse critic Svet Atanasov attributes a layered socio-political metaphor to the film, comparing it to Andrzej Zulawski's Possession and writer Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. I'm afraid I really don't find that connection, perhaps the director interview on my disc will enlighten me. Based on a recent 4K restoration of original film elements, Mondo Macabro's blu-ray presentation wonderfully replicates the unique look of the film. Individual frames could well be hung up in galleries, it's that good.

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Ipcress File [dir. Sidney Furie]

Based on a novel by Len Deighton (which I haven't read), The Ipcress File features protagonist Harry Palmer (Michael Caine - young and dashing, a far cry from the desultory valet of the Dark Knight series) is a secret service agent, but grittier and working class compared to James Bond (the comparison is valid since the film was produced by regular Bond series co-producer Harry Saltzman). While Bond's adventures have him traipsing around exotic foreign landscapes, Palmer (at least in this story) is mostly restricted to London and the nearby countryside. Bond can afford to gulp down Beluga caviar and Bollinger champagne without worrying about the expense account, but poor Harry earns only 1300 quid a year and hopes a promised raise will allow him to buy a coveted infra-red grill to satisfy his gourmet-on-a-budget whims.

The script involves the usual convolutions of intrigue, red herrings and double agents any self-respecting Cold War era spy caper would feature and they are done well. I must admit here that I am quite biased towards the old-school Brit "stiff upper lip" tone. Visually the film is quite stylish (DoP Otto Heller of Peeping Tom fame), sometimes to an extreme, with for example shots from the POV of a ceiling lamp or a outdoor fight sequence captured from inside an empty phone both. But director Sidney Furie ensures that it's all good pacy fun and never ceases to be interesting. Caine is in top form here and has strong support from a stellar British cast (including the ultra-manly Nigel Green). The film has more intrigue than action or spectacle so don't expect outrageous stunts but that's intentional - Palmer's world is designed to be an antithesis to the ultra-glamorous Bond-verse, and makes a forceful impact. The success of the film led to stardom and bigger roles for Caine (Italian Job, Get Carter), and though I suspect it will be a case of diminishing returns, I am tempted to try out the further installments of the franchise, including Guy Hamilton's Funeral in Berlin and Ken (seriously?) Russell's Billion Dollar Brain.

Recommended for gritty spy thriller fans.