Saturday, August 4, 2018

Sudani from Nigeria [dir. Zakariya]

Last night on Netflix, me and mum watched the feel-good Malayalam movie Sudani from Nigeria (SfN). The titular "Sudani" is Samuel (Samuel Abiola Robinson), a Nigerian imported to play for the Mallapuram local football club managed by Majid (Shoubin Shahir, an actor with fine feelers for comedy and drama). Samuel is the growing star of the team which earns from games with rival clubs. The going seems good until one day he gets an ankle fracture and needs lengthy recuperation. Suddenly, Samuel is a liability for Majid, who as sponsor must arrange for the treatment and recovery, as well as deal with the legal issues pertaining to his foreign national ward. The film also touches on Majid's personal issues, including his estrangement from his step-father and search for a marital match.

If SfN is decided on one thing it is to be a intimate-scale warm-hearted family film. The script raises no issues of race or ethnicity. India is known for its specific prejudices about black Africans, but the locals in SfN interact in as friendly and hospitable a manner with Samuel as they would with any newcomer to the state. The differences in language and culture are played purely for innocent laughs. When Samuel meets his misfortune almost everyone is immediately sympathetic, including Majid's mother (Savitri Sreedharan) and her neighbors who, won over by his cherubic smile, shower the youth with maternal favor. While Majid is hassled by the "breakdown" of his team's asset he is, touch of self-centeredness notwithstanding, a decent man.

SfN begins as a football-themed movie, but it's not about the sport per se, and the climax is not about scoring goals (literally or figuratively). It manages the rare quality of being emotional but not cloying. There is a message about being a decent human being but it's not pounded through your head. The actors feel right in their roles, and the direction maintains a light touch. While not a masterpiece of humanist cinema, it is an accessible mainstream movie which succeeds at getting the audience to like its characters and convey a feel-good spirit. And that is in good measure, a win.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Confession [dir. Costa-Gavras]

From the director of the political thriller Z (which was also adapted in 2012 by Indian film-maker Dibakar Banerjee as Shanghai), The Confession is another film which looks at corruption endemic to power. It is based on the book written by Czech communist politician Arthur London. Played by French movie star Yves Montand, the film looks at how London, appointed as a deputy minister of foreign affairs just 2 years prior, is suddenly brought in for questioning about his past dealings and accused of being a traitor to the ideals of the ruling communist party. The interrogation, dealt with in great detail, is really more a process of extended torture. Made to keep walking inside his cell, barely allowed to sleep or eat, an increasingly disoriented London is alternately yelled at or coaxed by his tormentors to confess to deliberate treason against the state. Initially London denies the charges vehemently, confident that his basic innocence and his political connections will soon lead to his release. But they are relentless, breaking down his emotional defences, chopping up his testimony to individual sentences and then rearranging them to suit their purposes. London and several of his colleagues are put up for what is called a show trial, one where the guilt of the accused has already been decided and the court proceedings are merely to make a strong example of them. As part of the notorious Stalinist purges, of the 14 people accused at this trial, 11 were executed and 3 - including London - sentenced for life. He was released 2 years after Stalin's demise.

Inherent to the nature of the film, there is a lot of repetition: we see day after day London undergoes repeated cycles of torture. He is held for months without official charges under emergency law where his persecutors have extraordinary powers. When London's wife (Simone Signoret) protests about her husband's abduction in the ministry, their house is seized and she has to take employment in a factory. By the time they have compelled him to sign on practically fabricated confession he has been reduced to a pale thin shadow of his former self (Montand lost 23 pounds over the course of shooting). Then in the period towards the trial they reverse the process, feeding and medically administering to him ("preparing the goose" London remarks), even using a lamp to give him an artificial tan, masking his continuous isolation. The film is powered by Montand's performance, but it's a performance wholly in service to the strong statement the director wants to make.

Gavras sometimes uses a non-linear style going back and forth in London's life. It is suggested that some of the trials he presided over may have obtained confessions of guilt using the same methods he is now subject to. Regardless of ideology, the people in power are invariably corrupt and hostile paranoia increases the more one climbs the ladder of political rule.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Thief of Bagdad [dir. Raoul Walsh]

As the name verily suggests, Thief of Bagdad (ToB) is a fantasy adventure inspired by the lore of the Arabian Nights. Which is not to suggest that the film in any way adopts the complex multi-story nature of that famous literary work. Nay this is a straightforward story of flamboyant heroism saving the day and winning the prize, and male lead Douglas Fairbanks is about as textbook a definition of flamboyant heroism as it gets. Aged 40 at the time the film was made, Fairbanks has the lithe physique a 20-year old would envy and athletic grace to match. It's sheer pleasure just watching him shimmy up ropes, leap over tables, trampoline in and out of oversized pots. But Fairbanks wasn't just the hunky star of this film. He was also producer (a co-production with his equally famous spouse Mary Pickford) and if Hollywood legend is to be believed, ghost-director along with Raoul Walsh.
In the film Fairbanks is the titular thief, a feckless braggart cheerfully taking what he wants from the streets and mansions of Bagdad, until he meets with the princess in the disguise of a foreign prince. Suddenly our man is sick of his existing lifestyle and wishes to win the princess honorably. Off he goes on a quest that requires him to fulfil several challenges before he can return with the ultimate MacGuffin that will allow him to sweep up her royal highness. Also in the mix is an evil Mongol lord (Sojin Kamiyama, an actual Oriental actor) who wishes to possess the princess and Bagdad by any means possible.

In these days, the idea of a Hollywood film where Islam is eulogized and the Chinese/Mongols are caricature evil carries an irony, but ToB is a film of its time, conducted in a cornily innocent spirit. The hero must win the day, dragons (also giant bats and spiders) must be destroyed, damsels must be rescued, chest-thumping good must win over narrow-eyed evil.

ToB's script is light on nuance and hardly justifies the 2.5 hour running time, but the film is an undeniable spectacle. Celebrated production designer William Cameron Menzies (later director of
Chandu the Magician and Things to Come) was then a newcomer, but justified Walsh and Fairbanks' faith with towering vistas of full-scale minarets and fortress walls, swirling staircases and intricate ornamental designs for the palace interiors, immersive depictions of underground caves and even an aquatic realm (specially shot using distorted glass filters to achieve the effect of waves). The camera simply surrenders to the impact of Menzies' sets, accentuating their scale - in many scenes, the human element occupies only the bottom third of the screen, giving maximum visual space to the architecture. It makes for a most interesting if also sometimes disorienting impact on the viewing. The optical FX are less impressive but there are some notable in-camera FX, including the use of a carpet actually suspended several hundred feet by a crane doing a flyby around the palace, brr.
In terms of flaws, the film does have pacing issues, with bales of obvious padding material. The princess, as played by Julanne Johnston is a milksop, given to such fainting and sighing as would make a Victorian lady envious. Far more intriguing was the sultry and resourceful Anna May Wong as the Mongol lord's evil spy in the palace, she would have made a better match for the thief, so what if she's a bad girl herself? As for Fairbanks his exaggerated gestures get tiresome after a bit. If you count the number of times he spreads his arms out in joy or surprise, often over the most nondescript elements, it would likely exceed Shah Rukh Khan's count for all his Yash Chopra and Karan Johar movies combined.

But in all, ToB is worth visiting as a thrilling adventure that in its time defined SPECTACLE.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Carbon [dir. Venu]

Although its subtitle Ashes and Diamonds would appear a shameless evocation of Andrzej Wajda's brilliant 1958 movie about individuals in a time of social upheaval, Venu's Carbon is unrelated except perhaps in suggesting an interface of dreams / aspirations and reality. In Venu's film this interface is core to the film's identity.

Sibi (Fahadh Faasil in a part seemingly created for him) is in his mind, a big player, facilitating deals between those that want and those that have - from gemstones to elephants it doesn't matter what - Sibi is ready to make the connection and pocket his commission. But the truth is he hasn't much success, his gift of gab never able to overcome his lack of working capital to grease the wheels of fortune. But Sibi can never bring himself to accept defeat and enter the routine of "doing a job and settling down" his friends have gotten into. He can be liked - we see his pals going to great lengths to back him up - but he cannot be trusted. Early on the film gives glimpses of his anarchic daydreamer spirit: passing by a bank he fantasizes about robbing it. The aforementioned elephant deal has an amusing epilogue which resonates deep into the film. And Sibi is not given the conventional motivations of getting rich "to support the family". His relationship with them is more perfunctory than anything and a later scene with the father beautifully underscores his essential alienation. Kudos to Venu and Fahadh for taking a character with such unlikable traits and getting the audience to empathize with him without cheap sentimentality.

After trouble with a loan shark over borrowed money Sibi goes into hiding, taking on the assignment of developing a remote jungle property as a tourist destination. With no electricity, no mobile network and no people apart from caretaker Balan (Kochu Preman, a wonderful character actor) and the occasional local, Sibi is entirely out of his element, his inner hustler stifled in this removed, almost alien environment. His luck appears to change when he meets the spunky Sameera (Mamta Mohandas) a self-professed "jungle junkie". He also comes to hear of the legend of a treasure hidden in the forest hundreds of years ago. Sibi grows obsessed with the idea of finding this treasure, even when the locals warn him that no one that went after the it came back whole. More than the monetary value, it becomes a sort of Holy Grail, a justification of his inner spirit. With Sameera and a couple of locals he puts together a small expedition that both literally and figuratively goes deep into the wilderness. What happens in the course of this quest and whether Sibi fulfils his dream of finding the treasure and becoming the big wheel he always dreamed of being forms the rest of the film.

This part of the film evokes the classics of master film-maker Werner Herzog such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, being like them about obsessed men with who plod in the face of an alien impassive nature with the idea of claiming it for their own. The treatment is less raw and relentless than what Herzog would have gone for, the makers aiming to keep one foot on the commercial acceptability boat with mostly glamorous natural vistas and unnecessary lashings of background music supplementing the forest soundscape.* But you can see the intent, and even though the expedition segment and its unraveling impact on the protagonist should have been given more breathing time (it occupies less than a fourth of the total running time), it makes an impact; a hallucinatory experience late in the film is a marvel of character exploration. I also loved that Sibi and Sameera are not forced upon us as a romantic pair. She goes along on the expedition because she likes Sibi's zeal and hustle, but also realizes that he is hopelessly unprepared for the hazards of the jungle. Mamta exudes the required pragmatism and warmth of the character, and provides an able counterfoil to Sibi. Of course the film ultimately belongs to Faasil and he keeps the audience with him from beginning to end.

Without going into spoilers, I was initially put off by the end, which seemed to me a pat commercial compromise, but thinking back, who's to say it is not another example of the fluid traversal between dream and reality in Sibi's mind? Recommended as one of the most interesting Indian movies I've seen this year.

* There are also a few songs composed by Vishal Bharadwaj, which are decent but I was very distracted during the Rekha B. sung Dhoore dhoore on account of her horrible diction.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The House That Dripped Blood [dir. Peter Duffell]

I first saw The House That Dripped Blood (THTDB) on VHS in the 80's and recalled segments from it with some fondness, and I had it on my wishlist for a long time. So when Shout Factory released a blu-ray of it some while ago it was time for me to indulge my craving.

THTDB is an anthology or portmanteau film, meaning it has multiple stories within an overarching framework. It was the third such film from the UK-based Amicus Productions, which specialized in horror portmanteaus. Amicus had a steady partnership with writer Robert 'Psycho' Bloch whose short stories were the basis for this and other films. This anthology has 4 episodes selected from Bloch stories framed around the sinister history of a house whose latest inhabitant has gone missing. The stories include a) a horror writer (Denholm Elliot) whose latest creation, a psychotic strangler, seems to come alive b) a bachelor (Peter Cushing) whose visit to a horror themed waxworks museum has unexpected consequences c) a father (Christopher Lee) who seems to be unduly repressive towards his little daughter, but may have his own reasons d) A horror movie star (Jon Pertwee) finds a vampire cape prop that may be more than just a prop.

Without going into specifics there is, at least for anyone that has spent some time reading / watching horror, a predictability to these stories, and one can generally guess the punchline before it comes, but the scripts are efficiently written and director Peter Duffell brings a pleasing visual aesthetic, with evocative set design and thoughtful lighting / camera choices that belie the production's low-budget short-schedule nature. The actors are very solid, with that singular British talent for taking slight, even silly premises and playing it "like Hamlet". The last story has a more overt humorous bent that goes a little against the other stuff and in retrospect I would have much preferred to see a more commanding John Carradine type do the part (the smoldering Ingrid Pitt's presence is however very welcome).

Shout Factory's blu-ray is quite decent with respect to A/V. The print used is not pristine but boasts a nicely colorful (without looking boosted) and organic look. The mono audio presented as DTS-HD MA 2.0 is clear and the music score (including an excerpt of Schubert's Death and the Maiden) comes across well. Incidentally Death and the Maiden was the director's original choice for the film title, instead of the unnecessarily lurid one they finally used. I saw the archival making of (circa 2003 I believe, which interviews the director and some cast members) and the newer interview with the 2nd AD, both of which provided some nice insight and anecdotes in the making of the charming film. I also heard most of the commentary with horror film historian Jonathan Rigby and the director, which repeats some of the information in the making of, but is a pleasant listen on its own merits. Look forward to finishing it and the new commentary with Troy Howarth. The disc also has trailers and radio spots for the film.
It might be creaky for today's audiences but THTDB has a lot of nostalgic charm for me and Shout Factory's blu-ray is a nice showcase for its merits.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Incredibles 2 [dir. Brad Bird]

Note: This review assumes you have seen The Incredibles (2004) and know the major characters from that film. I've tried to keep references to a minimum but a major theme of my review is the collective resonance of the two films. And besides, you're an idiot if you haven't as yet seen what I describe below as...

The Incredibles was a classic of superhero movie-making (note that I don't specify animated because the film, like all true classics, transcends the format it was made in) and I totally respected writer-director Brad "Iron Giant" Bird for saying (despite the original ending with a sequel hook) that he would put on a follow-up only when he had the right ingredients. Despite those claims, I was skeptical, especially in the current climate of superhero franchise glut, whether the eponymous Parr family's adventures would still stand on Parr (ha!) or whether it would be a case of disappointing déjà vu. The initial trailers with focus on the household hijinks between dad Bob Parr and baby Jack-Jack suggested an accent on cloying cuteness. In other words, I was ready to pin on this one a label of The Incredi-Bores or at least The Not-Quite-Incredibles.

Still I felt it bounden to sit through the sequel and ascertain for myself, so I booked my ticket on the inter-web and whizzed off post work to the nearby mall-tiplex. After a surprisingly good cappuccino in one of the restaurants, I took my seat inside the movie hall in bated expectation. There was just one hitch. When a young couple came my side and told me I was occupying one of their seats, I re-checked the ticket and discovered that my inner boob had actually booked for the next day. Since the counterfoil had already been torn off the cinema staff was equally at fault, and they offered me another seat, to which I agreed. Crisis averted, back to the movie.

Incredibles 2 (I-2) is in good measure a mirror image to its predecessor. At the start the family finds itself once more at square one with the ban on "supers" still in place (not helped by the large-scale destruction from their battle with the Underminer). But relief comes in the form of tycoon Winston Deavor and his techie sister Evelyn with a scheme to slowly relaunch and push for legal resurgence of supers. The plan is to first focus on Elastigirl / Helen Parr, regarded as a safer opening choice. Bob / Mr. Incredible, while resentful of being sidelined from numero uno status, elects to take on domestic duties, which includes dealing with son Dash's math homework, daughter Violet's teenage angst and baby Jack-Jack, whose X-Men Academy repertoire of uncontrolled powers poses more issues than your average toddler. Thus what we see is an inversion of the first film where Bob was out superhero-ing while Helen held the home front.

This is of course a nod to the growing attention about gender equality issues in mainstream movies (not that Helen wasn't a badass in The Incredibles) and I-2 has its share of on-the-nose statements about that, but the shift makes for a refreshing change. Let's face it, Mr. Incredible is essentially Captain America with far less charm, a big lug with a massive ego and a 3:1 brawn-to-brain ratio. One of my favorite parts from the original film is when Elastigirl goes in to rescue him from the villain's lair - an episode of stealth, ingenuity and stretch-powered acrobatics that puts to shame any James Bond movie. This is not just equaled here, it is handily bested with multiple thrilling episodes; my favorite is when she rapidly ricochets between multiple helicopters to foil an airborne assassination. Anyone watching this movie can't help but say, "Go Elastigirl Go!" (take my money already for that origin movie, If Brad is up for it).

Bob on the other hand finds domesticity a bigger challenge than he anticipated ("Math is math. Why would they change math?"), his inner man-child sometimes threatening to subsume his paternal responsibility. But he (and the kids) learn to cope and later team up to rescue mom when she falls prey to the villain's nefarious scheme. Sounds familiar? One wee problem with the mirror structure is that you know early on who the villain is, and even the motivation is explicitly spelled out long before the movie makes the official reveal. But you know what, it's okay. You feel so invested with the characters you've come to love, you enjoy the ride even when you know where its going. Judicious trimming would have made it even better, but Jack-Jack's onscreen antics remain on the right side of endearing. The art style retains the defining characteristics of the original film even but with more refined and palpable texture. The scale and fluidity of the action sequences is raised without losing clarity or assailing the audience with ADD cutaways, and composer Michael Giacchino once again serves up a rousing brassy score that supplements the thrills.

By the end of Incredibles 2 I felt as completely entertained as when I saw the first film so many years ago at the cinema, and that my friends is a superheroic feat.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Victim [dir. Basil Dearden]

Wikipedia says Victim (1961) is the first English language film to have used the word "homosexual". It speaks volumes for the level of daring it would have taken in that period to come up with a film that treated homosexuality in a somber and sympathetic manner. Heck, it was only 6 years later that consensual sex between same gender people was no longer automatic grounds for criminal prosecution in the UK (a policeman in the film remarks that the punishment for this "offence" is similar to that for robbery with violence). Against this backdrop one understands the measured way in which the film unfolds its theme. For a good part of the beginning we are not even told why young Jack Barrett is on the run and desperate to get away from the country, mostly oblique glances and dialog that dances vague circles. Jack would rather take the sole blame for embezzling his employer's funds than reveal his reasons for doing so to the police. The film's core of cruel persecution is wrapped in a blackmail plot, where vulnerable folks are drained by a ruthless parasite frightening them with exposure of their "unnatural tendencies" - probably drawing from true events, the script also informs us that 90% of all blackmail cases arise from homosexual relationships. The homosexuals here are a sad and lonely lot, finding solace in clandestine companionships and a loose network, horrified at any suggestion of coming together to expose the villains extorting them.

Such trepidation is also manifest in the character of its lead Melville Farr (played by the dashing Dirk Bogarde). Farr is a rising barrister, due to take silk. He is also the man Barrett was desperately trying to protect. Farr has suppressed his homosexual tendencies to the extent of being in a long-time married relationship - he loves his wife (Sylvia Sims), though tellingly they have no children. He has pushed himself away from relationships with men that threatened to get intimate because he is afraid of his own desires. Farr's sexual identity is a victim not only of external society but his own guilt; he may well believe homosexuality to be a weakness or disease, even when he fights against its criminalization. But this cautious approach actually makes for a stronger drama. Bogarde's acting conveys both dignity and anguish, and is the lynchpin of the film's emotional thrust. He presents a more conflicted individual than a flaming gay character would. Bogarde would later remark, "It is extraordinary, in this over-permissive age [c. 1988], to believe that this modest film could ever have been considered courageous, daring or dangerous to make. It was, in its time, all three"

The film does make clear its horror of a society that views homosexuality as evil or perverse. The characters that speak against homosexuality are mainly the villains of the piece, although in one scene a bartender may be reflecting public opinion of the time when he suggests that a society that accepts homosexuality might as well let by "every other perversion". Farr's wife expresses her horror at his sexual orientation (of course, one sympathizes with her for his infidelity in thought, even when he is emphatic about never having been intimate with any of his 'acquaintances') but later stands by him when he resolves to take on the blackmailers even if it means coming out in public view. That although may have to do with her being impressed by his sacrificial suppression of his sexual desires at the altar of their marital love.

Basil Dearden as director (The Blue Lamp, Poole of London) brings verisimilitude with his experience in location shooting and realization of a palpable contemporary London milieu. While it may have been a tactical decision to couch the film's defense of alternate sexuality in the wrappings of a police procedural, the screenplay never seems like a contrived or awkward message piece, and its characters are more than just mouthpieces for the creators. In its chaste deliberate manner, Victim projects the message of tolerance more acceptably than an outright chest-thumping film about homosexuality may have been able to. Even with all that, it was slapped with an X-rating for its UK cinema run and initially denied a rating by the MPAA. While it's easy in hindsight to regard some of Victim's content as too timid or not sufficiently defensive of gay rights, the courage the film displayed in its time to open the closet even a crack must forever be respected.