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.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Speed Racer [dir. The Wachowskis]

I had first seen Speed Racer a long while ago, and while in terms of story and characters, the film had a puerile manufactured quality (the fat kid brother of the lead character was an annoying git), the near hallucinatory audio-visual experience with a super-vibrant color palette and constant use of gimmicky wipes and dissolves was sufficiently engaging for me to get the film on blu-ray. In fact the disc was in my collection for nearly 6 years but only last night (after I returned exhausted and wanted some trashy entertainment) did I feel the momentum to re-watch the film.

I understand Speed Racer is based on an anime TV series and the Wachowski director duo incorporate a lot of the hyperbolic anime style in their film, with the deliberate flat photograpy, improbably cheerful Michael Giacchino score, utterly nuance-less characters (I sure hope Susan Sarandon got a good paycheck) and the clunky in-your-face graphics during the non-vehicular action sequences (which are like a combination of the 60's Batman TV series and 80's Indian campy Ramayan TV series). At more than 2 hours the film is a bit of a (ha!) drag, and could have definitely done with excising of needless characters (fat kid bro immediately comes to mind, although I understand he's a regular part of the anime series). But every time the film takes you to a race track it's the visual equivalent of having head-exploding drugs without the side-effects. Compared to current day blockbuster extravaganzas the effects seem a little dated and the car physics don't feel sufficiently weighty, but they remain consistent to the cartoony aesthetic. I also appreciate that the Wachowskis were honoring the family-friendly nature of the original show, this is a film kids will love.

The blu-ray of Speed Racer had rave reviews for its video on release. One wonders if a new scan / encode would raise the bar further, or whether the limitations in terms of texture are more a function of the high-definition digital capture technology of that time. Nonetheless it is an attractive, extremely vibrant transfer and great reason to have this film in one's collection. I'm more hesitant about the audio. I'm not per se against lossy audio (and a 5.1 Dolby surround track at 640kbps is not something to sneeze at), but while dialog was clear and surrounds were active during the race sequences, I felt a certain deficiency in oomph factor even on raising the volume, not sure why.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Bhavesh Joshi Superhero [dir. Vikramaditya Motwane]

I suspect this movie would be out of the screens by the time you see this opinion but if it isn't you might give it a shot.

It would have been more apt to call Bhavesh Joshi Superhero (BJS) as Bhavesh Begins because this vigilante hero origin story is a fitting companion piece to Chris Nolan's Batman Begins. The vigilante movement begins with a more playful spirit when chaddi-buddies Bhavesh (Priyanshu Painyuli) and Sikander aka Sikku (Harshvardhan Kapoor), a trio with their more nerdy friend Rajat (Ashish Varma),start a youtube video campaign to confront and intimidate wrongdoers on camera wearing a patently goofy paper bag mask (the film even riffs on this when one petitioner offers a disguised Bhavesh tea and he struggles to drink under the mask). Things get more serious with a genuine ideological clash when Sikku bows out to social pressure, paying a bribe for his passport, and Bhavesh calls out some very bad guys in his bid to expose the Mumbai water mafia. A series of events leaves Bhavesh dead and guilt-ridden Sikku takes on the vigilante mantle.

BJS is notable for the grounded manner in which most of the action is set. When Bhavesh and later Sikku go into action, they don't become ultra-nimble fighters and genius masterminds that trounce legions of bad guys without breaking a sweat. Sikku's actions are more like a guy who got his ideas from watching movies improvising on them without realizing the drawbacks in reality. He takes a lot of dumb chances in his crusade against Bhavesh's killers and he must face the consequences of those decisions. On more than one occasion he is overwhelmed and has to get his butt saved by someone else. These are not script fallacies, they are the flaws within the character that go a long way to making him more human. 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. The sequence where Bhavesh tracks down the base of operations of the water mafia is a marvelous piece of guerilla style visuals in rarely captured locations (A previous film that shined in this regard is Chandan Arora's Striker).

Apart from some narrative snafus, the film IMO suffers mainly what I call the Gulaal Syndrome, where the character that really holds your attention dies before the interval. Harshvardhan Kapoor of course is nowhere as bad as the moronic milksop lead of Gulaal but his weaknesses in the acting department make it harder to empathize with the grief and confusion which his character is burdened with during his crusade. Like a mirror to the onscreen drama, Priyanshu Painyuli's spirited and passionate portrayal of Bhavesh Joshi leaves a void that HK struggles to fill. Slack editing, a half-baked romance angle and mostly cardboard villains also bring down the experience. But the reasonably unique approach to the vigilante hero genre is worth a watch.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Old Dark House [dir. James Whale]

I'd had one of those really awful days at work yesterday, and it was with something of "Thank God for this!" that I picked from the mailbox, my copy of the UK blu-ray for James Whale's The Old Dark House (TODH). I had heard of this Universal / Carl Laemmle Jr production years ago in the same context as The Cat and the Canary. I had then even watched it in a horribly poor public domain rip where you could barely make out some of the darker scenes and the audio was rife with drop outs and slowdowns and all manner of distortion.

Visually, this new new 4K restoration (by Cohen Films) is a revelation and one can properly admire the opulent Gothic production design and Whale's lighting choices. The audio still has some issues with hiss and higher frequencies but what you have here is far superior to any previous release, which means that the film can be judged on its own terms, so how does it hold up?

TODH is set in a remote mansion to which different sets of travelers rush to ask for shelter in the midst of a torrential downpour and landslide. The first group consists of the bickering Waverton couple (Raymond Massey and the lovely Gloria Stuart) and their debonair bachelor friend Penderel (Melvyn Douglas), while the second is the self-made wealthy Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton, seeming to use a Scottish/Welsh accent, I can't say which) and his "companion" Gladys (Lilian Bond). While a dry roof and a fire would seem just what these wayfarers need, they are intimidated by their very strange hosts, the Femm family, and their imposing valet Morgan (Boris Karloff, doing another dialog-less monster part for Whale).

TODH is an interesting combination of screwball comedy and Gothic horror, and manages a nice balancing act between the two. Whale as director makes some excellent use of traditional horror devices like mirrors and shadows and locked doors. Unlike some latter-day classics of horror-comedy it is not a genre spoof / send-up. Of course, for these modern days, the horror element is rather dated (and the non-immersive sound quality keeps the action at a distance), and for a while one may wonder if the film is going to be anything other than a comedy of eccentric manners, but there are some effective moments once Morgan goes berserk and the insanity of the Femm family is on full display. Soaking in its pleasantly creaky atmosphere (with some Bailey's Irish Cream at my side), I had a nice viewing experience. TODH is not a "Universal" (ha!) recommendation but anyone who likes their old horror pictures should give this one a shot.

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.