Saturday, March 16, 2019

Adventures of Captain Marvel [dirs. William Whitney & John English]

Of course when I should have been working I binge-watched through the remaining episodes of the 1941 movie serial Adventures of Captain Marvel (AoCM). Still considering that apart from the pilot, all episodes are 15min each, that's only a couple hours lost. Plus the time to write this up :p 

I can definitely see why DC lost their shit and sued over the original Captain Marvel comic book character. Apart from a magical origin (when the Tintin-like Billy Batson is given a boon to turn into CM by uttering the word "Shazam!"), the Superman parallels are unmistakable - the Capt has super-strength, is invulnerable to bullets and can fly. The movie serial also has its Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen characters in Batson's colleagues Betty Wallace and Whitey Murphy.

The serial follows an archaeological expedition into a Valley of Tombs in Siam (although it could have as well been Egypt, considering how vague the setting is). The very doings that give Batson his CM power also reveal a Golden Scorpion with a half-dozen lenses which when combines make a ray that vaporises living beings and turns base metals to gold, so yep every megalomaniac's dream. The megalomaniac here is one Scorpion who hides behind a most cumbersome robe and mask. The expedition members decide to split the lenses among themselves for safekeeping but the Scorpion is determined to track and hunt them down. Every episode till the finale ends on a cliffhanger note.

Unlike the ethical codes followed by more modern heroes (the non R-rated ones, at least), CM has no qualms about gunning down unarmed men or throwing them off the tops of cliffs and buildings. Separate actors play the parts of Billy Batson (Frank Coghlan Jr.) and Captain Marvel (Weightlifter-turned-actor Tom Tyler, whose buff looks make him quite convincing and he gets to lift and throw a lot of folks or their dummies). The visual effects are pretty good for the time and budget. Even when the technique is obvious, like the use of a full-size dummy along a pulley system, there's a special thrill to the flying sequences.


AoCM is a nice harkback to the simpler goofier kind of superhero adventure, recommended mainly for the Golden Age nostalgics.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Kalakalapu [dir. Sundar C]

Madcap caper comedy is a hard thing to pull off. You need a tightly paced script with good gags and actors with great timing...and you need to know where to stop; strain too hard and it falls apart. Unlike the often brilliant and even-in-its-most-indulgent-moments interesting Soodhu Kavvum, 2012's Kalakalapu (KK) is more a "what could have been" good movie than what is.

KK's story introduces us to Seenu (Vimal), a modest day-dreamer struggling to keep afloat a family heirloom restaurant. Each time the fellow thinks his luck has finally changed (he even gets excited at the prospect of a sit-in political protest near his hostelry, which promises thousands of hungry mouths), shit happens and he is in a bigger (ha!) soup than before. His creditors are constantly baying at the door, and even the woman he falls for at first sight (Anjali) turns out to be a food inspector who hands his restaurant a "shape up or shut down" notice. Just when Seenu feels life couldn't get more complicated, his brother Raghu (Shiva) is released from prison. An affable rogue and compulsive gambler, Raghu has no qualms about stealing what is not freely available. He finds his romantic succor in the cook's granddaughter (Oviya), this film's version of what critic Baradwaj Rangan cutely refers to as Tamil cinema's trademark loosu ponnu (bird-brain) heroine. In an ungainly way the script veers between Seenu's efforts to get the restaurant going, differences with Raghu, his love life troubles and the additional complications brought in by the Brownian back-and-forth of a mobile phone case hiding 10 crores worth of diamonds.

KK gets some things right, mainly in its casting. There are no 'superstar' / 'megastar' / 'ilaya thalapathi' names in the roll-call. The male leads Vimal and Shiva are credible middle-of-the-road hero types (no scuplted abs or slow-motion intro shots), and they have great chemistry with each other and the rest of the cast. Even when they are clearly disjointed items there is a lot of spark in the supporting roles: The creditor (Ilavarasu) forced to don a variety of disguises after he is fooled by Raghu into badmouthing the local inspector, the conked constable who becomes a showreel of famous cop impersonations from Tamil movies...of special mention is the modern day YG Mahendran avatar Santhanam as the puffed-up toughie rival to Seenu's affections for his girl. Especially in the second half there are some inspired crazy caper sequences.

But KK could have been a much better film if not for the script letdowns. Several plot lines are left as hanging threads. Not to say that other characters are all well-rounded but the heroines are noticeably underwritten, with more attention to their midriffs than their personalities. The premise of Seenu's flame being a food inspector is only used to generate a spot of comic friction before being entirely dropped; she is later reduced to a hanger-on waiting to be rescued from a forced marriage. Raghu's loosu ponnu is defined more by her outfits than by the writing.  Caper films like Soodhu Kavvum and Hindi cinema's 99 also had glam girls, but they were a more seamless part of the plot. The bit about reworking the restaurant as a traditional food joint is also dispensed with in a scene and a song. Santhanam is energetic, but he needed sharper and more substantial material to work with.

As a "movie night with mum" on Netflix however, Kalakalapu is decent entertainment with some chortle-inducing moments amidst the muddled filler.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Uri - The Surgical Strike [dir. Aditya Dhar]


Indian cinema's history of military films has been spotty. Unlike Hollywood's close ties with the US armed forces allowing the studios access to military equipment and manpower, relevant technical information and other resources, in return for a positive heroic showcase to the public of the actions of these forces (and cushy consultant positions with showbiz exposure for current and former military personnel), there are at most a handful of such collaborations out here. Then there is the matter of wedding a battlefield story to the stereotype ingredient-based melodrama structure of mainstream Indian films down the ages. Pushing aside the ones where the protagonist being a soldier is just a throwaway backdrop detail for a standard Bollywood product, it is hardly a surprise that we have very few military action focused movies (and only a subset of those have reflected contemporary / near contemporary events). Chetan Anand's Haqeeqat (1964) inspired by the Sino-Indian war of 1962, would appear to have established the paradigm subsequent desi battlefield narratives styled themselves upon. In the more recent past JP Dutta contributed to the Indian war movie genre with Border (1997), LoC Kargil (2003) and Paltan (2018). But these films in order offered steeply diminishing returns, on account of shamelessly rehashed story and character beats, and reduced quality of execution. Almost the only Indian film that seriously explores the soldier's psyche and his place in society is actor-director Nana Patekar's 1991 film Prahaar (and even that eschews the military backdrop in its second half).

Which is not to say that Aditya Dhar's ambitious debut film, based on the covert military ops carried out by Indian armed forces in enemy territory defies convention. Here again you have the heroic Indian soldier, who having faced tragedy from terrorism / foreign aggression, goes on a mission of national (and to some extent personal) vendetta to tell the enemy that their actions will, following Newton's Third Law, cause equal and opposite reactions. Critic Baradwaj Rangan's review has even likened it in outline to 80's Bollywood gratuitous revenge dramas like Hukumat (1987). But there is a focus and visceral propulsion in Uri's execution that invigorates the genre for Indian cinema. In few and bold strokes the film introduces its small cast of main characters and sets up the central conflict, the attack on the army camp at Uri in Kashmir by four insurgents who ended up murdering 21 soldiers before they were felled. The tragic blow to the armed forces and the nation at large is supplemented by a sense of personal loss when our protagonist covert ops specialist Major Vihaan (Vicky Kaushal) loses his brother-in-law to that massacre. Vihaan, who had by then shifted to a desk job to care for his ailing mother (a dignified if prop-like Swaroop Sampat), asks to be reinstated to field operations in the retaliation planned by the Indian army.

The entire second half of the film is devoted to the mechanics of planning and execution of the retaliation through "surgical strikes" hitting terrorist training camps in enemy territory - reconnaissance of enemy locations, gathering information through spies and from captured hostiles, detailing of operation parameters and preparation of the people involved in the actual op. Unlike an all-out war with rank-and-file soldiers, the surgical strikes employed a select band of elite warriors armed with rigorous training and technological aid. Modern combat rifles, night-vision goggles, binoculars with face recognition tech, body-mounted cameras, surveillance drones - as much as anything else, the film serves as a showcase for the sophistication and technical competence of the Indian armed forces as a world-class fighting force. The visual slickness is complimented by the laser-sighted focus of the script - there's no time wasted on throwaway romances (none of the women in the film are love interests), cloying religious integration (Vihaan passes by a group of his team members offering namaz but no big deal is made of it),  no one makes big speeches and the patriotism is not expressed through bovine-tempered never-ending ballads. The film revels in a spirit of (positive-minded) aggressive nationalism. At the same time, it is careful not to espouse a tasteless political bias. The characters standing in for real-life politicians are shown to be supportive of military decisions, but not directing them; Rajit Kapur may be made up like Narendra Modi but he behaves with a restraint lacking in the real McCoy.

There are of course the usual exaggerations and fabrications of any mainstream film. A bird-shaped drone used for overhead spying is shown to be the brainchild of a college intern at the DRDO (even if it was, wouldn't the army just ask the kid to write down the instructions instead of depending on him to take part in actual espionage ops?). The enemy is depicted as an indolent moron - Pak military council members shown to be more interested in golf and yakhni pulao than studying India's response to their activities, none of the militant camps have watch towers or night sentries - and the Indian soldiers have almost no worthwhile challenge in carrying out the mission (you're making stuff up anyway, why not invent things that add more tension in the narrative?). But as part of the new breed of Bollywood cinema, Uri-TSS is commendable. Some years ago, such a vehicle would have been unthinkable without a big star name attached and all the baggage that comes with that. Vicky Kaushal is not the first name that comes up when you think action hero, but he turned out to be the perfect choice. He invests himself physically and mentally into the character of Major Vihaan, and infuses him with a controlled exterior and an inner fire (how you wish some of this attitude had shown in his Raazi character). When he gets his slow-motion walk towards the end of the film, you feel he has earned it. The supporting actors (Paresh Rawal, Mohit Raina, Kirti Kulhari, Yami Gautam) may not sport well-rounded characterizations but they have defined roles and are not just props to accentuate the protagonist. Unlike other Indian military and patriotic films, Uri refrains from endless brandishing of the national flag / anthem, seeking instead to interest Generation Now in how cool and exciting an armed forces life can be for those that can handle the pressure...and yes, being terrific popcorn entertainment for the rest of us.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Murder by Death [dir. Robert Moore]

Written by Neil Simon (The Odd Couple, The Sunshine Boys), 1976's Murder by Death (MbD) is a spoof on classic archetype sleuth stories / films. The sleuths of MbD - barely veiled variations on the famous fictional detectives including Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Nick and Nora Charles (from The Thin Man series), Charlie Chan and Sam Spade - are "cordially invited to a dinner and a murder". They congregate at a remotely located mansion where they are greeted by a blind butler (There's a deaf-mute cook too, and as you may well guess, the combination makes for some peculiar circumstances). The major parts in this farce are played by a bevy of stars including Alec Guinness (irrepressible as the blind butler), David Niven, Maggie Smith, Peter Falk and, oh yes, Peter Sellers caricaturing to the hilt as the Charlie Chan character.

After assorted bits of comedy for the introduction and settling down of each sleuth party in their strange host's home they settle down to dinner, during which, in a nod to Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians / And Then There Were None, the host makes his appearance in the flamboyant form of Truman Capote and challenges each of them with the prize of a million dollars to solve by dawn a murder that is to occur at midnight (and I'm not sure he didn't say In Cold Blood), while failure will mean the loss of their reputations.

MbD is a no-holds-barred farce on the stereotype rigmarole of the whodunit. It has interesting elements, like the culture clash between the genteel fastidious sort of detective Christie created and the hardboiled gumshoe dick. Some of the comedy like the scenes played between Guinness' sightless butler and the deaf-mute cook for the dinner party is priceless. But given the premise and the stellar cast I expected greater sparkle. Beyond the introduction of the different sleuths, there is not as much fun extracted from their interaction. And Sellers' Oriental detective is problematic. I wouldn't have minded the racial stereotype so much (apparently Sellers had deliberately heightened the caricature to draw attention to the silliness of white people playing non-white roles) if it was actually funny, but most of it is just awkward. And while one understands that the script aims to poke fun at the ludicrousness one comes across in the denouement of many suspense stories, MbD's climax feels cloyingly overdone. I was looking for a comfortably funny film spoofing my favorite genre, but this one with all its promise doesn't quite hit the mark.

For those interested in details of the blu-ray from Shout Factory:
The disc features a rather decent transfer although the image is not free of age-related damage, and the compression (especially in the scenes of fog) is a little suspect. The lossless mono audio is fine within limitations, with a nice boost to the music. Extras include an okey-dokey short interview with Neil Simon (in which he mostly seems to describe specific scenes of the film) an audio commentary by a Mr. Lee Gambin (who seems to refer to everybody as incredible and makes such wincing gaffes that I turned it off after a while).

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Age of Consent [dir. Michael Powell]

Michael Powell, especially in conjunction with his partner Emeric Pressburger, made films across genres and in a variety of styles, but in each film there was a unified vision, a fidelity to the theme that marked their genius. Even in Powell's solo output, Peeping Tom was a product of that same consistency of design. Which is why I find Age of Consent somewhat puzzling.

There's the central story of a aging jaded painter trying to find himself again and the young (underage, the film repeatedly reminds us) girl who becomes his muse, and in the process discovers her own womanhood. This is done with an admirable delicacy of touch and aided by the involved acting from James Mason and a very brave Helen Mirren in their respective parts (of course the sense of taboo is mitigated by the fact that the frequently naked Helen doesn't look remotely like the underage girl she is supposed to be, or perhaps that was just the gin-soaked tyrant grandmother's attempt to delude the girl and rein her in as a continued source of income).
 
What jars here is the mixture of the bawdy comedy track, majorly from the scenes with Jack MacGowran as a money and "bird"-fancying moocher. It seems at odds with the central narrative, looking more like an attempt to inject some crowd-pleasing laughs to keep the film from becoming too serious. The film is otherwise fine in its low-key manner (very low-key, I thought the death of a certain character would have more melodramatic consequences, and the film ends all too abruptly, leaving pertinent questions about the equation between the painter and the girl unanswered). There's terrific location and underwater photography capturing the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef, and a hypnotic score by Peter Sculthorpe. And yes, a terrific performance by the dog Lonsdale that plays Mason's companion Godfrey (Powell was apparently miffed that none of the critics at the time mentioned the dog in their reviews).

The credits specify that "Miss Mirren is a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company", probably to establish her respectability and discourage anyone only interested in the naughty bits.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

2018's Journey in Movies

Unlike what some cranky geriatrics might say, there are a good number of interesting and/or entertaining movies made these days too, and testament to this is the strong slate of movies that kept me engaged this year, whether at the cinema or on streaming and home video. Concentrating only on movies produced this year I present to you my list of:
 
THE THUMBS-UPS

Black Panther - A fun action-packed superhero movie that holds its own and in fact manages to mostly avoid the cookie cutter feel of other Marvel adaptations. The first half feels more like a James Bond adventure (if Bond had access to a Crysis-style exosuit).

Bhavesh Joshi Superhero - It would have been more apt to call BJS 'Bhavesh Begins' because this vigilante hero origin story is a fitting companion piece to Chris Nolan's Batman Begins. BJS is notable for the grounded manner in which most of the action is set. The film is also to be praised for its non-stereotypic exploration of Mumbai and its surroundings, raising issues that mainstream cinema will not acknowledge. Slack editing, a half-baked romance angle and mostly cardboard villains bring down the experience, but the reasonably unique approach to the vigilante hero genre is worth a watch.

Annihilation - I haven't read Jeff Vandermeer's book, the film comes across as a mix of Stalker the film and STALKER the game. Its best elements for me were purely visual, with some gorgeous artistry on display. I'd definitely recommend as a watch.

Carbon - A gripping and visually ravishing tale of one man's obsessive quest for (fool's?) gold, evoking comparison to Herzog classics like Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo. Excellent direction and a strong lead performance from middle-of-the-road Malayalam cinema's hot favorite Fahadh Faasil. Damn, why couldn't this have come out on blu-ray?

The Incredibles 2 - This one turned out, all things considered, as good as the first film...which automatically makes it about 3 zillion times better than most superhero movies of recent times.

Manto - Biopic of author SH Manto. While the script does simplify the complexities of the author's personality and distill his life as a vehicle to discuss issues of religious hatred and censorship, Nawazuddin does an amazing job as the flawed and tormented writer and Rasika Duggal who played Manto's wife Safia is wonderful. Lots of great cameos from seasoned actors.

Andhadhun - Overall not on the same scale of greatness as Johnny Gaddaar, on account of the twists in the second half falling into the territory of "kuch bhi!", but yeah this is probably Sriram Raghavan's most FUN movie after JG. Ayushmann Khurana and Tabu totally rock their parts. Don't read any detailed reviews or synopses beforehand, just see andhadhun.

Tumbbad - IMO the best Indian horror movie ever, with a strong script and incredibly good shadowy visuals and great sound design. Focused direction and a defining performance from Sohum Shah (who also produced the film and stayed committed to its making over a period of several years). Also excellent staged CGI for the budget.

Badhaai Ho - There is little that feels new and much that appears contrived in this tale of a mother of significantly older children discovering that she is pregnant again and deciding to go on with it. But I was hooked. It was mainly the performances that worked, Neena Gupta and Gajraj Singh look the part of a long-time middle-class couple and their interaction has a warmth that overcomes cliche.

Wildlife - Paul Dano's family drama with Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan is captured with restraint and quiet attention to detail. Its impact is limited, ironically because of its civility; the script never tries to probe the wound of family discord or seriously discomfit the viewer with the emotional angst of the characters, but with steady direction and strong acting a very respectable effort it is.

Ballad of Buster Scruggs - In a series of unrelated episodes set in the West represented in old-school Hollywood, the Coen Bros anthology (co-produced by Netflix) seem to pay tribute to masters like John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, and hell, even animator Tex Avery. Over the various courses of this banquet, the tone goes from hilarious to stirring to romantic and a dash of the macabre. I won't spoil it any more save to say that I enjoyed myself thoroughly and look forward to revisiting it. Entertainer of the Year!

Manta Ray - This Thai directorial debut (Phuttiphong Aroonpheng) was a slow but engaging and eventually hypnotic blend of reality and fantasy, highly reminiscent of the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee, Cemetery of Splendour).The beauty of the film is in its rhythm and its evocative mix of real and imagined elements, coming across as a fable of sorts. And towards the end there are some sequences that are rapturous pure audio-visual experiences. This is a brilliant assured debut from a maker whose future work I will be looking forward to.

Endhiran / Robot 2.0 - The middling reviews of this movie were right about stuff in-between the action being dull filler but what they don't tell you is that there is very little footage that is not badass action or imaginative VFX. While it has less rewatch value, this movie is in overall feel like Pacific Rim - dumb but awesome. For anyone who understands Tamil, that version is clearly superior. It also has very good 3D, with solid depth and some excellent front projection.

Roma - Alfonso 'Gravity' Cuaron's latest film (produced by Netflix) deals with the life of a housemaid and the family she works for in Mexico. It takes a while to feel immersed with the characters, and sometimes the technique is a little overwhelming for the actual scene, but it turns out a brilliant and compassionate portrayal of the humanistic bond between the characters, the parallels that run in the lives of mistress and servant. The scene at the beach towards the end is nerve-wracking and cathartic. Highly recommended.

AND THE CLUNKERS

Avengers: Infinity War - The overwhelming feeling I had all through this movie was one of weariness. I got BORED of seeing stuff blow up and huge things come crashing down. The dialog is caught between dull exposition and desperate attempts to inject humor. There is absolutely no sparkle here.

Raazi - It's not as jingoistic as some of the worst offenders in the patriotic movie genre, but that's about the only good thing I can say about it. Bad writing and direction, give this Raazi a Razzie.

MI: Fallout - The action sequences are done efficiently and the final scene at the cliff carries some genuine vertigo-triggering thrills but the connective tissue between the set-pieces is unbelievably poor. No one seems to have given a thought as to making the script interesting or even bear a decent degree of coherence. Good humor is all about pacing, but that's lacking here. Worse, the dialog seems to have been written by amateur drama kids given a 5-min deadline, and the actors simply cannot make it work.

Saheb, Biwi & Gangster 3 - Even with a few okay moments courtesy returning actors Jimmy Shergill and Mahie (No Sher for you)Gill and unintentional laughs from a hilariously out-of-place (and likely drunk) Sanjay Dutt, this one is on the whole a whacking big turd.

Stree - The stray amusing quip aside, 'Stree' was such a load of cock it might as well have been called 'Purush'. The script is so poor and lazy even the brilliant cast can only occasionally raise it above the doldrums. Two thumbs down.

Blackkklansman - I suspect if Quentin Tarantino had made this film, Spike Lee would have been railing at him for being patronizing / exploitative towards the struggles of the black movement against white oppression. Unlike (the wholly fictitious) Inglourious Basterds this film is not able to take its preposterous narrative and milk its potential to create genuine tension in the narrative and empathy with the characters.

In Fabric - I did not immediately enjoy the new film from Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio, Duke of Burgundy). It begins well enough as a haunted object tale , but the film's tone is all over the place and its sense of humor never seems comfortably seated. I feel I could give this another try sometime in the future, but on the whole my first viewing left me dissatisfied.

Thugs of Hindostan - I thought I’d seen an okay if VERY bland homage to the multi-starrer masala movie, with a few touches - like the Bachchan homages to Coolie, Mard and Aakhree Raasta - it didn't really capitalize on. Then to my (most unpleasant) surprise, instead of ‘The End’ it said ‘Intermission’. Bloody Hell!

Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Swimmer [dir. Frank Perry]

The late 60's and early 70's were a time many kinds of weird interesting anti-establishment movies could get made in the studio system, especially if you had a bit of star power in the cast or director's chair. For star power, one could hardly get better than Burt Lancaster. Although 50+ at the time of this film, Burt was in excellent physical form and his animal magnetism still a force to reckon with. Better still, he was an intensely intelligent actor (if also someone likely to impose his own ideas) and interested in the part.

Even though it stretches out (sometimes rather obviously) to feature length, The Swimmer clearly shows its roots in the (John Cheever) short story, beginning abruptly with Ned Merrill (Lancaster) walking out of the woods and diving into a neighbor's pool. In the conversation that follows we perceive Ned as someone admired and even envied by his jaded neighbors, a picture of health and success nurturing an ideal family, yet retaining a youth's sense of wonder and hunger for life. Plotting a course of private swimming pools that go all the way up to his home in the hills, Ned improviso decides to swim the whole route, which he fondly names the River Lucinda (after his wife).

The swimmer's journey begins pleasantly enough as he is hailed by amused neighbors. We see Ned as retaining the liberated romantic soul his friends have lost in time. Subtly the narrative shifts. When Ned meets a grown-up girl that was once babysitter to his children he invites her to share his journey, their playful interaction (including an indulgent steeple-jumping sequence) eventually leading to a darker space. In a telling bit of symbolism, Ned's first stumble from the wholesome American Dream image coincides with his spraining an ankle. Bit by bit, the cracks in his face of contentment appear. Some of the neighbors hate Ned, some view him with scorn. The man we once see racing alongside a horse gains a more pronounced limp. Scene by scene, pool by pool, our impressions of Ned as the figure of envy wear down, reducing him eventually to wretched pity. As Roger Ebert points out in his trenchant review, Burt Lancaster is the right actor for the part because he is the hero whose aura generates the tragedy in his fall.

The film's theme may be interpreted in different ways. It would appear that the neighbors farthest away from Ned's home (and assumedly the goings-on of his life) are the ones most invested in his charisma, and as he moves nearer, the uglier truth is revealed. It may also be seen as the externalization of a nervous breakdown: At the beginning of the film we are seeing Ned's own image of himself, and as time passes, the illusion strips away to horrifying realization of of his true pathetic self - Ned could well be the ghost that didn't know he was dead.

Apparently, Lancaster (passionate enough about the project to fund the last day's filming from his own pocket) and director Frank Perry had conflicting ideas during the shoot and the film certainly carries some of that turmoil (Sydney Pollack conducted an uncredited reshoot of a scene in which Frank meets a former flame). That's not bad in itself, because it is in some way a reflection of the torment growing in Ned's mind in the course of his aquatic odyssey. The film's lush style (both in its glamorous depiction of upper-class suburbia and in Marvin Hamlisch's baroque score) is a brilliant counter-point to its sordid undercurrent. For all its flaws and indulgences and backroom battles, The Swimmer is a grand Experiment (with a capital E) worked by passionate people and deserving of a larger appraisal.