Friday, May 25, 2018

Cash on Demand [dir. Quentin Lawrence]

A couple nights ago I saw Cash on Demand (COD) from a recent boxset I acquired of Hammer films with crime themes. The options in the disc menu offered a choice between UK Theatrical Cut (66 min) and Extended US Cut (81 min). I opted for the former, since I assumed "Extended" meant previously edited footage was tacked on to make it feature length in the US. It was later that I realized that the UK release was delayed by nearly 2 years and additional cuts made to fit COD in a double bill because Hammer were not convinced of its saleability as a standalone. That said the film I saw did not seem noticeably abrupt or truncated, so at least they did a good job with the scissors.


COD, which was adapted from a TV play called The Gold Within, is entirely set within the confines of a bank. The manager Fordyce (Peter Cushing) is a high-strung petty tyrant who delights in cracking the whip on his staff, idolizing machine-like efficiency and sneering at human niceties like the upcoming office Christmas party. Fordyce suddenly finds himself in a servile position when he is visited by a Col. Hepburn (Andrew Morell) who poses as an insurance company inspector but turns out to be a robber that threatens to do away with Fordyce's wife and child if he doesn't follow a detailed series of instructions to help with emptying the vault funds. The cat-and-mouse play between Fordyce and Hepburn is the engine that powers the major part of the film, and it's beautiful. Peter Cushing, usually the badass in Hammer productions, transforms across the course of the film from unpleasant bully to spineless sniveler, and the consummate actor goes at it enthusiastically. Morell, who I have previously seen only in good guy parts in Hound of the Baskervilles and Plague of the Zombies, seems to enjoy his character's sinister humor and delivers his lines with palpable relish. Apart from these two stalwarts, a strong supporting cast of British actors lends much by way of credibility and immersion factor.
I also laud Quentin Lawrence's direction, which deftly handles the intimate setting (Bernard Robinson's production design making the most of a measly 37,000 pound total budget) and keeps tight rein on the pace. In fact once Morell enters the film, the script moves in real-time without obnoxiously drawing attention to the fact. The end brings to mind Charles Dickens' story of A Christmas Carol. I will at some time take a look at the longer US cut (Clips from the 'making of' included on the disc suggest more scenes of Cushing being nasty to his staff), but the UK version was in itself cracking good entertainment.

The video presentation on Powerhouse/Indicator's blu-ray is beautifully replicates the film's classy B&W photography, with healthy contrast and texture. The mono audio is clear and free of distortion. For extras there are a feature audio commentary, a nearly 20-min making of hosted by film historian Marcus Hearn, shorter pieces involving actor Lois Dane (who was 20 at the time of making this film, and later played a more sinister part in Hammer's Captain Kronos) and high-resolution scans of stills and a publicity booklet filled with profiles of the cast and anecdotes from the shoot (the printed booklet in the package also contains this material in addition to a fine essay by Kim Newman).

My first viewing from this boxset was quite auspicious (of course I had the highest expectations of this, being a Peter Cushing fan), and I am eager to sample the other films soon.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Raazi [dir. Meghna Gulzar]

If such a thing were possible, I would like to place a bucket in front of every Indian director set to make a movie on sports / espionage / war and say, "Here, throw up every bit of patriotic fervor you have inside of you into this bucket and THEN go make your movie."
Meghna 'Talvar' Gulzar's film about a young girl from Kashmir (Alia Bhatt) arranged to be married into a Pakistani military family with the agenda of functioning as a spy for her home nation in the period leading up to the 1971 war is not as jingoistic as some of the worst offenders in the genre (there is no hyper-macho posturing and I don't recall any scene where either of the national flags are flying), but that's about the only good thing I can say about it. The idea had potential but it needed to be done well. Look at the level of tension a Quentin Tarantino can raise through simple dialog scenes in Inglourious Basterds purely by suggesting or implying possibilities. A wartime spy drama unable to generate any real sense of urgency is a tragedy.
In a time where all kinds of movies ill-advisedly attempt non-linear narratives with timeline jumps, Raazi is one film that could have actually benefited by such a treatment. They could have started the film with the marriage, and the girl going alone into foreign territory, vulnerable and beset by fears. Then as she gradually starts her mission they could have given brief glimpses of the training she received and is now putting into practice in the face of real danger. But no, after an eye-rolling "your daughter will do your patriotism proud, daddy" speech (to a Rajit Kapur bandying Rahim Chacha level stuffed shirt nobility, and that old Bollywood standby, CANCER) Alia gets an entire Rocky-style training montage with rah-rah song backdrop. At the end of the montage she asks her hardass trainer (Jaideep Ahlawat, an actor that deserves better) if he thinks she can do the mission, and he replies that he is confident in her. That moment pretty much deflates any possible tension for the massive chunk of movie-time that is yet to come.

The other aspect is the emotional conflict of the girl "betraying" her new relations. To the script's credit they are always shown as a progressive loving family, whose only difference of interest is in the nation they owe allegiance to. However, there is never a true sense of bond-building. These are the people Alia's character must come to rely on as emotional anchor in a strange place. It is the sense of familial belonging with these Pakistanis that must generate the turbulence in her mind about her actions. But almost always she seems to be playing the spy role, and her actions, even when she wins hearts by training schoolkids to perform a patriotic song, are viewed purely from that perspective. More disastrous is the casting of Vickey Kaushal as her Paki husband. The marital relationship between the nubile girl and a chivalrous military gentleman should have been a lynch-pin of romantic passion and emotional turbulence powering this whole enterprise. Alas Kaushal's military man is a modern day Bharat Bhushan, a pitiable wallflower. The chemistry between them is colder than an ice-lolly in an Antarctic winter. When the moment of open conflict comes, you feel little empathy for either one.

Alia Bhatt's performance falls victim to bad writing and direction, consisting in large measure of breathing heavily against latched doors. Nonetheless she gets a fine climactic outburst in which the young girl inside of her spy wants desperately to go home. Of course they have to spoil that moment too with a soggy epilogue no one asked for. Give this Raazi a Razzie.

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Passion of the Christ [dir. Mel Gibson]

For the longest time (now almost 14 years after its initial release), I avoided watching The Passion of the Christ. A lot of it has to do with the word surrounding the film. "Torture porn", it was called in many quarters, "Anti-Semitic", others judged it. It didn't help that helmer Mel Gibson at various points of time after, rightfully earned a Crazy Mel badge. But after all this time, my misgivings gave way and I decided, mainly after a re-watch of his Apocalypto, that a film-maker of his calibre deserved at least a viewing. Also, with the Definitive Edition home video release in hand, even if I eventually disliked the film, it would not be for lack of context.

Passion is specifically about the final hours in the life of Jesus Christ, covering the period from his betrayal by Judas, his trial by the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, subsequent torture and crucifixion. Along with calling it "the most violent film I have ever seen" critic Roger Ebert says in his cautious review of Passion, "...[it] is a visceral idea of what the Passion consisted of...This is not a sermon or a homily, but a visualization of the central event in the Christian religion. Take it or leave it." A very accurate description of the film as it turns out. In that sense the film makes for an interesting pairing with Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. Scorsese's film confronts the internal battle he (and source book author Nikos Kazantzakis) imagines Christ faces, scared and emotionally fractured by the messages he perceives, doubting his own role as divine messenger and Son of God. As interpreted by that chameleon among actors Willem Dafoe, Jesus is heart-tuggingly human, and his eventual sacrifice the more weighty for that.

Jesus as presented by Gibson and actor Jim Caviezel is a different beast. As we see him in these last hours, he has no doubts about his role and his ultimate destiny. There is pain and suffering, but there are no second thoughts. Jesus performs miracles, insta-attaching a soldier's ear after Peter lops it off during a struggle in the Garden of Gesthemane. To offset any idea of a personal hallucination it is suggested that apart from him mother Mary also sees Satan (looking like, as critic Robert Wilonsky puts in his review "escapees from a David Lynch film"). This actually puts the character at a distance from us. We could better appreciate the enormity of Jesus' act of self-sacrifice, "of dying for our sins" if we were convinced that he felt the pain that any human being would, subject to those tortures. Here blood flows freely, and Jim's Jesus totters with convincing agony when flogged while carrying the cross, but there's the nagging feeling, "What if Jesus is just playing for an audience, what if he feels only a fraction of the pain an ordinary human being would? If he's not one of us, how can his suffering be measured in our scales?" While Gibson is to be appreciated for not following in Scorsese's trail, he is so quick to glorify Jesus and draw a halo around him (not so much in the gritty visuals as in the overly adulatory music score), that for any non-dyed-in-the-wool Christians he ends up making him more remote.

My problem is less with the torture sequences - they're done well, and the courage and dignity Jesus shows in the face of suffering indubitably elevates them above the quality of torture porn or snuff film. I was more jarred by cheap shots like Satan throwing a hissy fit after he is frustrated by Jesus or that last passing shot of a resurrected Christ, which felt like one of those post-credits spoiler hints in the Marvel superhero movies.

So that's my impression of the film per se. I will try to update this post with my gleanings from the contextual supplements provided in the home video package.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell [dir. Terence Fisher]

Partly poignant, partly grotesque, 1973's Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (FatMfH) is like its subject a mosaic of contrasting elements. It was the last in Hammer's multi-installment Frankenstein series (almost all of which starred Peter Cushing as the titular Baron Frankenstein) and the swan song for the studio's most triumphant director Terence Fisher.

 
The story begins not with Frankenstein himself, but with Simon Helder (Shane Briant), a young doctor desirous of emulating the missing baron's experiments (with an illustrated book whose title tells as much). It's a rip-roaring beginning with a policeman discovering the handsome doctor's study which houses among other things a fresh cadaver and a jar of eyeballs. Shane Briant is a strikingly beautiful actor, almost effeminate, and his Simon displays a chilling level temperament even when sentenced to a 5-year stretch at an insane asylum. It is at the asylum that he encounters his idol Baron Frankenstein, hiding under the not-so-clever pseudonym of Dr. Viktor. Cushing makes a dramatic entrance emerging out of the shadows to stop Simon's hazing by the crude asylum warders. He then takes him on as assistant to the task of administering to the patients' medical needs. You see, the asylum director is a wasted hedonist and Frankenstein himself runs the place (rather more humanely than the official warden), and is in return provided the space and means to conduct his "experiments".

Initially you feel this may be a different kind of Frankenstein film, in which the apprentice proves more eager than the baron himself to learn about and help with his work. Simon's almost creepy admiration and Frankenstein's initial hesitation gives it something of an Apt Pupil feel. But once the corpse is out of the bag, the baron quickly reverts to original form, and Simon finds that he may have got more than he bargained for, with inmate deaths occurring all too conveniently when the baron needs specific spare parts for his latest 'creation'. The monster of the title is played by muscleman David Prowse, famous as Darth Vader and trainer for Christopher Reeve's Superman physique. Prowse is encased in a hairy rubber suit, looking more like a badly shaved ape than a resurrected cadaver. But in his limited way his character suggests both savagery and pathos. There's also the beautiful but mute nurse Sarah (Madeline Smith), dubbed Angel by the inmates - in an early on-the-nose scene, an inmate sculptor (Bernard Lee aka James Bond's M) even gives her a winged angel figurine.

Unlike previous Terence Fisher entries for Hammer, the script (Anthony Hinds) is curiously free of character drama or tension for the longest period, devoting much time to the mechanics of the transplant procedure (since this is the 70's, blood and offal are on blatant display). The sequence of events leading to the climax come up quite abruptly: the baron hatches an absurd plan of having the creature mate with Sarah, which is vehemently opposed by Simon who then tries to destroy the monster. In turn the monster gets loose and...well, a good deal of mayhem occurs.

Prior to FatMfH the studio had tried to adapt to the more liberal time with explicit nudity, lesbianism and gore in their films (and awkward ventures like Dracula AD 1972). But this film is a return to the classic Hammer recipe, as if they knew that time was up for the studio, and wanted to go out with the sort of film that audiences first noticed them for. Both Terence Fisher and Peter Cushing were dealing with tough times - Fisher had had two automobile accidents in rapid succession leaving him in serious doubts about his ability to work, and 60-plus Cushing was still enervated from the death in 1971 of his beloved wife Helen. But they bring their game to the table, and the scene where Frankenstein smashes a bottle of anesthetic ether into his coat and then leaps onto the monster's back to smother him with the fumes, flailed around till the massive creature finally falls, undoubtedly brings nostalgic cheer to Hammer fans. Briant's Simon is a worthy player against Frankenstein and Smith is sincere as Sarah. A trove of classic Hammer actors serve in the supporting cast for this last hurrah to their alma mater.

Of course, FatMfH was damned to fail, appearing almost laughably quaint in the face of such ferocious competition as William Friedkin's The Exorcist, but the film has its own weaknesses. Hammer was always a tight-fisted studio, and in the absence of the American co-funding they previously enjoyed, the budget for this one seems to have been tighter than for earlier films. The penury is partially mitigated by being set almost entirely in a single location, but apart from the costumes and some of the props, it looks a little threadbare and the very obvious miniature showing the asylum and its surrounding is an eyesore. The lighting is blander than usual in large swathes of the picture. The creature's appearance is not justified by its origin. There might have been some desperation to up the gore content with some brutal blood-soaked stabbings, and the climax appears unnecessarily inspired by Night of the Living Dead's zombie carnage.

But flaws notwithstanding FatMfH is a fond farewell to an era of thrilling horror films from that classic British studio.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Anbe Sivam [dir. Sundar C]

So last night's Netflix movie with mum was Anbe Sivam (AS), the 2003 Tamil movie with Kamalahaasan and Madhavan.
 
AS's major plot line is ripped off from the 1987 John Hughes comedy Planes, Trains & Automobiles, which had Steve Martin as an uptight and rude ad executive and John Candy as a happy-faced boisterously friendly loudmouth salesman who are repeatedly brought together when trying to get to Chicago during a blizzard. Of course, since it's a Kamalahaasan movie the John Candy character is made into a handicapped and badly scarred character that Madhavan makes a point of passing snide remarks about.
Symbolism is rife in this movie. Kamal's character is called Nallasivan and Madhavan is called Anbarasu but prefers to be called plain Arasu (like how a Japanese
stereotype might refer to the buttocks) because he can't stand 'Anbu' (affection). They are both initially stranded at the Bhubaneshwar airport in Orissa on account of flooding. Without any hope of flying out, they first check into a hotel (where an incident with a shower head seems to refer to John Candy's job of selling shower curtains in the original film), and then try various means of getting from Orissa to Chennai over land. All during this while, Arasu is constantly irritated by Sivan's well-meaning curiosity and meddling and tries several times to dodge him without success.
Of course Kamal is not content with a mere comedy of errors, and hence we go into flashback mode where Sivan was once a handsome mustache-twirling union leader with socialist ideals fighting the oppressive factory owner for a wage hike. Potshots are taken at hypocritical religion as the factory owner (Nasser) is a God-fearing man that prays regularly (to Siva, of course) but shirks paying his workers a decent wage. Owner's daughter (Kiran Rathod) falls for Sivan and they plan to elope (a funny scene has a cascade of Sivan's worker colleagues confessing to their respective crushes). A freak bus accident (brilliantly shot, I would love to know how they filmed it) derails the whole affair and grievously injures Sivan thereby leading to his present situation. End of flashback.

After this huge chunk of Kamal-time, we return to the main narrative and the continuing misadventures of Arasu and Sivan. Being witness to the grisly aftermath of a major rail disaster (an otherwise PG-level movie gets scenes of dismembered corpses and blood soaked moaning victims) finally opens Arasu's eyes to his selfish mollycoddled nature and he learns to think about people other than himself. There are some last minute twists which shouldn't surprise anyone.

I have mixed feelings about Anbe Sivam. While the main plot is indeed a ripoff of PT&A, it has a gentler, more compassionate feel especially attributable to the writing and execution of Sivan's character. He also manages the handicapped character's tics and quirks without overdoing it. In contrast Madhavan's Arasu behaves like a caricature arse, and you wonder why his folks didn't think of whacking him a couple times (I was also bugged by Madhavan's twang when he speaks English). I appreciate that Kamal as writer brings his personal concerns - anti-religion, socialism, anti-MNC, empathy with humanity - but the messages are dumped in large clumsy blocks. Also, the film could have done without the audience appeasing heropanti (Flashback Sivan thrashing an army of goons with an umbrella). Too much time is devoted to the flashback making the transitions that come later abrupt and jarring, and there are curious lapses of continuity, like the sudden disappearance of Sivan's commie colleagues and even his girlfriend from his life immediately after the accident (in these days of mobile phones and hospital records, surely someone would have attempted to follow the aftermath of a major accident). But Anbe Sivam is still better and less egregiously egocentric than some of the other Camel Haasan flicks this side of the millennium.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Ittefaq (2017) [dir. Abhay Chopra]

*SPOILER WARNING for those that haven't watched at least the Rajesh Khanna - Nanda film of Ittefaq, because I am going to discuss plot reveals*
The success and longevity of mystery plots is directly related to how well they are constructed: Stapleton must always be the arch-villain of the Hound of the Baskervilles, and no adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express will change its central solution. Elements may be modified and rearranged in reinterpreting them, but fooling around with the core is akin to disturbing the structural pillar of a tower; get too clever and it all comes crashing down. My memory of the original Ittefaq (how original? IMDB tells me the 1969 version was an unofficial "remake" of a '64 film called Signpost to Murder) is a little hazy since I watched it when fairly young, but the part where Nanda's hand is revealed hit home strongly because of how her character was portrayed till then - a frightened, disheveled overripe hausfrau who we could easily accept as a victim. Even her attempts to "seduce" the crazed intruder in her home were tinged with the perspective of a hostage desperate to escape her captor.

With the attractive promise of a short running time (104 min, identical to the predecessor?) and absence of song breaks Ittefaq '17 begins decently, setting up the core mystery fairly fast and adopting the Rashomon device of telling multiple POV narratives. I never understood the arbitrary "solve this crime in 3 days" deadline. It did not make sense in terms of the justification provided, nor did it add any specific urgency to the investigation. Logical leaps are acceptable in suspense stories when they are successfully masked by interesting character play and immersion. This is where Naya Ittefaq drops the ball on its toes. The Rashomon device requires a sophisticated level of deception and ambiguity (ask the makers of the much-reviled Basic). It is easier to accept a malleable truth between stories when there is a sufficient tonal consistency to show the plausibility of either facet. But the differing sides told by Sid Malhotra and Sonakshi Sinha are contrary to the point of caricature. In each perspective the characters behave in such archly different manner that neither tale appears credible.

As for the performances, what we have here is the result of either indifferent acting, incompetent direction or both. I recall saying around a year back "I have a soft corner for Sonakshi Sinha who I think is one of the promising actors of today..." Now I must eat my words with disappointment. Caked in enough pancake to make breakfast for the entire Kaurava clan, Sonakshi delivers a pedestrian turn that conveys little of her character's distress. Even in her own story, her reaction to a possible crazed killer in her house is akin to being annoyed with the Amazon delivery guy because the lahenga she ordered (COD, of course) arrived in the wrong color. Rajesh Khanna in the '69 film may be accused of hamming but Sid Malhotra's definition of restraint is a continually constipated stare, about as convincing and less entertaining. Akshaye Khanna essays the same character he did in Mom and once again suffers the penalty for the writers' laziness - Here he doesn't even have a Nawazuddin Siddique to play against, and his sleuth's swagger comes across as blowhard stupidity because the investigation is conducted in the most bone-headed way possible. Interrogation of suspects is an adjunct to objective forensic evidence, not a substitute for it, Sherlock Dev. As for the other characters, the less said the better. The cops appear to have been tutored at Keystone Academy and the writers' stabs (ha!) at generating casual banter are not worth the toilet paper that is the focus of one such scene.

And then of course, the TWIST. If the makers of Primal Fear got royalties for every time a movie took misbegotten inspiration from its final scene, they'd amass enough riches to smoke 100$ bill hand-rolled cigarettes for three generations. Once again, it's a twist that destabilizes the structure of the narrative, undermines everything you have seen before, and makes you feel a fool for having wasted your time on this Watdafaq.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Jack the Ripper - 1988 mini-series [dir. David Wickes]

1988's Jack the Ripper (JtR) made an impression on me when I saw it as a kid on Indian TV where it was screened in its original 2 part mini-series avatar, possibly in the same year or only slightly after its UK premiere. It was possibly the first time I'd heard of the killer although now I can't be sure (because around the time I also had a World's Greatest Serial Killers book. Like the Sherlock Holmes series with Jeremy Brett, this was another prestige production from British TV, shot on 35mm film with handsome production design recreating Gaslight London, and thereby rendered immediately attractive to me. Childhood favorites can often be disappointing from a more mature POV, so how does this one hold up?
This telling of JtR purports to be a researched account of the original killings and their investigation under Inspector Fredrick Abberline, with a preamble stating, “Our story is based on extensive research, including a review of the official files by special permission of the Home Office and interviews with leading criminologists and Scotland Yard officials.” As horror/fantasy specialist critic Richard Scheib points out in his (ha!) surgical dissection of the film, the claim is rather bogus. The writers are guilty of cherry-picking some facts of the affair, while ignoring others and exaggerating or outright inventing new elements for drama or sensation. While that is certainly a failing, as is a certain half-bakedness that comes from shoehorning characters simply to fit in US marquee friendly names (like Jane Seymour as a former flame of Abberline), the film manages to keep up pace and maintain interest. Without giving out spoilers, the solution offered in this interpretation is even less convincing than the Freemason conspiracy. But unlike the aggravating movie they made of From Hell, JtR manages to be entertaining. Michael Caine is a sturdy Abberline (even if they invent a drinking problem for the character and seem to cram in unnecessary shouting scenes to make him earn his star-actor's paycheck). The production design and Alan Hume's cinematography bring the period to life and editor Keith Palmer does a good job of keeping the momentum going.

Network's 2-blu-ray set contains the entire 2-episode airing on the first disc in the original 4:3 aspect ratio with authentic lossless stereo. The image (based off a fresh 2K scan of original materials) looks quite good, supportive of the textures of the production and Hume's evocative visuals of night-time Victorian London. On rare occasions the accents can slightly obscure a line but optional English subtitles are present for any such difficulties. There are about 20 mins of extras of a previous run for this project when it was going to be a lower budget videotape production with another actor (Barry Foster) playing Abberline - After American producers showed interest it was remounted as a lavish 35mm production and Michael Caine was solicited as a star name. The second disc (which I haven't yet seen contains a re-edit of the series as a single film, framed for 16:9 widescreen with specially commissioned 5.1 audio. I might give it a look on some future occasion.