Sunday, January 12, 2020

Ninety Degrees in the Shade [dir. Jiri Weiss]

The Czech seem to have a way of making understated human dramas from genre tropes. Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Night Train was about the search for a murderer hidden somewhere on a packed train. Jiri Weiss' 90 Degrees... is a petty crime noir. In both cases, the suspense element is tamped down in favor of being a stark character study.

Weiss' film begins with a documentary coverage of people spending their afternoon break. One of them is Alena (Anne Heywood), who we see sunbathing. She is stared at by a fruit-eating youth and later a chubby middle-aged bespectacled man who seems out of place in the sunny outdoors in his buttoned up suit. We see this man again later - he is Kurka (Rudolf Hrusínský, famous as Juraj Herz's The Cremator), a supplies auditor come to take inventory at the shop where Alena works as an assistant. Kurka is an archetype bureaucrat, a stickler for rules, devoid of humor or affability; he has an almost slug-like persona. Kurka leads a suppressed life, estranged from wife and son. Flustered by even casual personal connect, his interaction with the world seems to be primarily a form of stock-taking, be it people or goods.

Alena on the other hand is a bundle of emotions. She is a good worker but has been involved in a serious affair with the store manager Vorel (James Booth), and in consequence shielded his pilfering of a dozen liquor bottles from the store, which could come to light during Kurka's inventory. In the film's most forthright noir sequence, she and Vorel hurriedly work to replace the missing bottles during off-hours, borrowing money to buy the liquor and making their way through a hidden back entrance (this is tellingly juxtaposed with the scene of Kurka lying sleepless in bed, reflecting on the sterility of his existence).In their scenes together, Alena and Kurka are an excellent study in contrasts. He is embarrassed by her attractiveness and she is inhibited by his dour nature. Early on they are placed in the cubbyhole storeroom, checking stock as they stifle in the titular heat. There is an atmosphere of sexual tension, especially when Alena accidentally spills coffee over Kurka's trousers and insists on wiping off the stains, kneeling by Kurka as he stands abashed in the closed silence.

Vorel is the third pivot of the script. He is seeing Alena but he is also married with children (in artfully inserted flashbacks of their private moments, he repeatedly talks of divorcing his wife, but seems unable to actually do it, and Alena is also unwilling for the arrangement). In an accident during the inventory, it is revealed that his sleight-of-hand is not restricted to the surreptitiously replaced bottles; he has been playing a more systematic swindle game. When suspicion falls on Alena for the theft, he is happy to let her take the blame, arguing that his punishment would be more severe and would affect his family. When she later meets an unhappy fate it is suggested that he has discarded her like an old doll. But he must now contend with Kurka who suffers the guilt of having indicted her for another's crime. While some of the symbolism is on-the-nose, 90 Degrees...  does not descend into soapy melodrama, remaining an incisive observational play.

The film was made, unusually, as a British-Czech co-production with actors from both countries. Separate versions were made for each language (the final edit of the Czech version was supervised by Weiss himself and is about 10 min shorter than the British cut). Unlike most native Czech films, this one was shot in 2:35:1 cinemascope, although I didn't find its use of widescreen particularly justified.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Dracula [Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat]

When it comes to Dracula, you could say I'm something of a fan. I first read Bram Stoker's soaring horror adventure novel as a kid and have returned several times to enjoy at least the best bits. Then there were the many movie and TV adaptations, of which I have previously seen:

Nosferatu (1922) - FW Murnau
Dracula (1931) -  Tod Browning
Dracula / Horror of Dracula (1958) - Terence Fisher
Count Dracula (mini-series) (1977) - Philip Saville
Dracula (1979) - John Badham
Nosferatu (1979) - Werner Herzog
Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) - Francis Coppola
Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2002) - Guy Maddin

There's also the Orson Welles radio drama adaptation, the interesting BBC radio pastiche Sherlock Holmes vs Dracula and that's not including the various sequels and spinoffs, and any vampire movies not specifically based on the Stoker book. With so much Drac-Koolaid consumed, it would take something out of the ordinary for another Dracula adaptation to make an impression. I was at the outset somewhat skeptical about the new mini-series from Messrs Gatiss and Moffat. I had grown disillusioned with their contemporary Sherlock series after the first season, preferring instead to watch Elementary, even though that one grew stale by repetition. But the sumptuous period production values, and the promise of Dracula as a ruthless monster rather than a wimpy lover made me give in.

Dracula (2020) begins at a place where you think you know where you are, with an enervated Jonathan Harker recalling the harrowing events of his time with the sanguinary count, but soon shows that it is happy to jigger around and throw in new elements to surprise even the jaded Dracula fan. Such revision is of course a two-edged sword, but at least across two of the three episodes, the writing provides a brave and fun re-working of Stoker's novel. Sister Agatha who is but a bit player in the book is now a major character that takes on Dracula himself in a war of wit and tactics. Other major characters are modified, truncated or eliminated as per the script's demands. The iconic chapter of Dracula's preying on the Demeter ship is rendered like a tense variation on Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None.

The third and final episode is probably what will divide most die-hard fans. It involves a major transition that may or may not work. While I feel it could have been done better, I was certainly not put off by the shift. The conclusion draws inspiration from both Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu and Terence Fisher's 1958 Dracula and even in its not-quite-satisfactory way, manages to pull off a different spin on the typical "destruction of the vampire" climax.

I have spoken of boldness of the writing, but of equal importance is the excellent lead acting talent, mainly Claes Bang as Dracula and Dolly Wells as Sister Agatha. There is a constant stream of trendy quipping and dark humor, but the character of Dracula is almost never trivialized as a threat, which is crucial to the lasting power of the original work. The scenes depicting period Europe look excellent in the way that a high-budget series does, with sweeping vistas, moodily lit interiors and gorgeous dream sequences. Dracula doesn't skimp on the blood, but doesn't overdo it either, concentrating on being a character-driven adventure saga than a gore-fest. Given the way they ended this I doubt there's any real scope for a second season, but this was worth my while, and possibly even a re-visit. Pass me some more of that red stuff.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Section 375 [dir. Ajay Bahl]

A close friend had a theory of how Feroze Khan's film Dayavan came about. The way he figured it, FK and his friends, including Vinod Khanna, were having one of their customary all-night drinking sessions when they heard over the news that a Tamil movie called Nayakan had won its lead star Kamalahaasan and several others National awards, and was going to be sent as India's entry to the Oscars that year.

FK orders his Man Friday "Arre, woh Madraasi ke picture ka tape laa re, dekhte hai itna kya bada kiya hai". Viewing the tape over more drinks, FK in complete disbelief repeatedly spits whisky at the screen, all the while copiously swearing "B**** C****! Isko National Award diya hai! Oscar ko bhej raha hai! G**** maarke rakhna chahiye iska!" He then immediately calls up his production guy and orders him to buy the remake rights for Nayakan. The rest as they say is history.

I suspect a similar thing happened with Section 375. Someone educated in the Abbas-Mustan School of Cinematic Arts watched Chaitanya Tamhane's National Award winning and Oscar submitted Court (reviewed HERE) and said, "Is mein kya hai? Ek court scene ko recess-adjourn bolke paanch scene banana hai, beech mein lawyer log ka lunch-dinner dikhana hai, thoda Marathi-English bolna hai. Aur background music kam volume pe chalana hai."

A film that professes to be a timely debate on the complexities of justice in rape trials, but relies on imbecilic trick reversals to play with audience sympathies. Akshay Khanna veers between smug smirking and being so low-key he's in the basement. Richa Chadha, brilliant in Masaan, collapses under the dual whammy of awful make-up and pedestrian characterization. Ugly's Rahul Bhat plays another shady creep, with diminishing returns. Other members of the cast seem to have wholly contradictory views about what sort of film they're in, which appears consistent with the state of the mind of the people that wrote and directed it.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Njandukalude Naattil Oridavela (One Time in the Land of Crabs) [dir. Althaf Salim]

Since none of the films at the cinema seemed particularly inviting (Made in China and Saand ki Aankh included, which from the trailers appeared banal and cliched, respectively), and mum unwilling to step out of the house during Diwali because "What if someone comes to visit us?", Movie with Mum this weekend was on DVD with the middle-of-the-road family drama Njandukalude Naattil Oridavela (NNO), roughly translated as "One Time in the Land of Crabs".

NNO centers around an archetype family whose equilibrium is disturbed when the mother (Shanthi Krishna) is diagnosed with breast cancer (hence the crab reference). The focus of the film is on the impact this has on mum and the other members - father (Lal), his dad, two daughters (one married with a good-natured but miserly man) and a son - how their lives and their way of seeing life is affected. Popular actor Nivin Pauly, who also produced the film, plays the son. When his mother first summons him urgently, he assumes it is to fix his marriage, he and his siblings learning the truth only after an extended session of hesitation on the parents' part.

NNO attempts a light-hearted matter-of-fact look at the situation, keeping melodrama to a minimum. There is also some mild element of back and forth in time, including a crucial moment at the end. To be frank I felt that the first half was a little dull, not humorous enough to be engaging, and the characters not particularly well-etched. But the film comes around a lot better in the second half. Unlike many mainstream movies where the cancer patient has a constant fake courage personality - I like most elements of Anand, but was irked by the title character for behaving like an asshole happily interfering in other people's lives as though having cancer gives him some divine right - we see the mother's moods changing from initially brave and carefree to sometimes scared and angry at how much her family has come to depend on her.

Kinship is also depicted in a pragmatic way - although they love her the kids get annoyed with how mum's illness cramps their lifestyle and burdens them with responsibilities unprepared for, and the father is unhelpfully anxious most of the time. NNO is still a Readers' Digest movie but executed with a restrained level of treacle. The only thread which seems a little tacked on is Pauly's romance with a girl who also visits the hospital for her father.

After watching the film as a whole, I liked NNO a good deal and may consider revisiting sometime. It is a nice companion to Piku and recommended for people that appreciate a humor-lined exploration of age / illness / mortality and its impact on the family.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir [dir. Joseph L Mankiewicz]

For a good while I had my eye on the Indian (Excel) blu-ray release of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (G&MM), especially since the US release from Fox wasn't much cheaper even for a 2013 release. But I was not sure if the Indian BD would carry over the 2 audio commentaries included on the US disc, and so when I had the chance to order stuff from Amazon US to Singapore in time for my vacation there, I snagged the US BD.

G&MM is an old-fashioned story of love and friendship between the titular characters. Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) after her husband's death decides to leave her in-laws' home and make her own with daughter Anna and faithful caretaker Martha. Conscious of not having thus far led a life of her own, Lucy acts on impulse, renting a cliffside cottage that appeals to her despite strong misgivings from the buffoonish house agent, only to discover that it is haunted by the ghost of its former occupant, the salty seaman Captain Gregg. As played by Rex Harrison, Gregg is first seen as a bluff petty-minded bully, determined to drive out all tenants and preserve his home. But he quickly takes a shine to the young widow, and we see the beginnings of a (heavily sanitized) romance across the pale. When Lucy is hard-pressed for the rent he comes up with the idea of her writing a book out of his racy memoirs (called Blood and Swash). In the course of getting the book published Lucy meets with another man, a cheeky handsome writer-artist (George Sanders) who charms her off her feet and gives the spectral captain a bout of distinctly corporeal jealousy. What ultimately becomes of Lucy forms the remaining part of this whimsical story.

Despite the idea of a lonely house haunted by a blasphemous mariner's ghost, Philip Dunne's screenplay (based on a novel by Josephine Leslie, writing as - heh, heh - R.A. Dick) is not a stormy supernatural thriller, but a gentle funny romance. Captain Gregg's language may have raised polite brows in the early twentieth century setting of the story, but even in the 40's when the novel and film were released, his "blasted" exclamations would have been more cute than shocking. Without the use of special effects to depict the ghostly element, the real magic in G&MM is the chemistry between Tierney and Harrison. Never even implying the crossing of any taboos, there is an appealing sweetness in their scenes together. Captain Gregg is an under-written character with little nuance, but Harrison is energetic and, when needed, tender. Tierney gives a mostly good account of the widow who looks first for freedom and then for love. The other big stars of the film are Charles Lang's wonderful chiaroscuro cinematography (only a few years before he had captured The Uninvited) and a lush romantic score from Bernard Herrmann, very different from his compositions for Alfred Hitchcock.

Even at a little past 100min, the film goes on for a bit more than it should have, but it offers relaxing old-fashioned good-natured amusement and should bring at least the occasional smile to even the dyed-in-the-wool curmudgeon.

The stray bit of speckling aside, 20th Century Fox's blu-ray gives a luminous video presentation of G&MM's shadow-dappled visuals. The English audio is presented as lossless original mono or a respectfully repurposed 5.1 track that mostly gives additional space to Herrmann's music. I have not as yet heard the two commentary tracks, will try to update this review when I do.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse [dirs. Bob Persichetti - Peter Ramsey - Rodney Rothman]

The last movie I watched was Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, to be referred henceforth only as 'Verse.

'Verse arose from the curious situation of divided rights between Sony and Marvel for Spider-Man. Apparently Sony retains the TV and digital rights for any Spidey adaptations, and can make solo Spidey films with approval from Marvel. In return, Marvel gets to use Spidey as part of their cash generating MCU juggernaut. After a truncated non-Amazing Spider-Man series 5 years ago, Sony recently mounted Spidey onto cinema again, this time with the help of comedy / animation wunderkids Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie).

Unlike every previous Spider-Man feature film adaptation which goes with the best-known "Peter Parker is Spider-Man" timeline, 'Verse gives us Miles Morales (originally introduced in comics in 2011), an awkward school-going Afro-Latino lad who gets the bite. But wait, Peter Parker is here too...more than one...and a host of other Spider-people...including a pig (now that's going the whole hog). You see, the movie's premise involves the opening of a multi-universe portal by Spider-Man nemesis Kingpin which, after the original Parker is smashed into by a gargantuan Green Goblin, flashes in Spider-characters from a whole bunch of alternate planes. Their existence is however ephemeral unless they return to their own planes and the collider is destroyed, all of which needs to be done by Miles...once he gets a hang of how to control his new powers, that is.

So yes, the narrative is a wee bit over-packed, and doesn't have the space to explore its full multi-universe potential, but it works well most of the time, and the banter between Miles and another universe's Peter B. Parker forms a linchpin of companionship and character-building upon which the rest of the film rests.

Visually, 'Verse is an amazing trip that uses almost every color in the known spectrum. The animation is also unique, often resorting to a halved frame-rate to give the image a crisp still quality that looks like pages from a comic book. Supplementing this is the use of onomatopoeic verbiage, including thought bubbles and on-screen representation of a multitude of sound effects a la the Adam West Batman series. According to the makers the attempt was to make every freeze-frame look like a comic page or a work of art, and it works. For sheer eyeball-melting eye-candy, this tops most superhero films you know. With all their limitations of access to the character, Sony put out possibly the best Spider-Man feature film made thus far.

While I'm sure people with access to 4K and HDR will have an even better experience, the 1080p blu-ray also gives a topnotch presentation, incredibly colorful and texturally rich. 'Verse is a film that can be re-visited several times purely to admire the wizardry of the artists involved in the making. The 5.1 audio track sounds bombastic on my home surround, a heck lot better than some of the under-powered MCU blus (looking at you, Thor: Ragnarok). Of the extras, I watched all the featurettes, and they are decent though not significantly in-depth (I think they auto-play after the main feature). There is also an audio commentary and an extended version playback of the film, which inserts or discusses differently conceived scenarios and concept art elements.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Shin Godzilla [dirs. Hideaki Anno & Shinji Higuchi]

So the other day I saw Shin Godzilla aka Godzilla Resurgence, the 2016 Godzilla movie from Toho Studios. The film is directed by Hideaki Anno, primarily known for his work in animation films, and Shinji Higuchi (who appears to have been mainly responsible for the monster action sequences in the film).

For the benefit of novices to the Godzilla franchise, it all began when Ishiro Honda made Godzilla aka Gojira in 1954. That seminal tale of humanity terrorized by a gargantuan beast created from atomic radiation was influenced by the tragedy of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings, a parable for the immense destructive potential of atomic power. The picture struck a major chord with Japanese audiences and birthed a timeless franchise. With further installments however, the socio-political angles were diluted or altogether discarded, the films concentrated on providing simple popcorn entertainment with tag team wrestling bouts between various giant monsters, and humans generally restricted to the sidelines. Godzilla itself was represented alternatively as a menace or as a protector from other monsters.

Anno's screenplay for his Godzilla version has significant deviations from the bulk of the Toho franchise. The film is a reboot that ignores the existence of every previous Godzilla entry, including the '54. Godzilla is not immediately seen in its iconic avatar, going instead through multiple metamorphoses from a straggling bug-eyed amphibian with gills to the more familiar reptilian form, increasing in size and power with each transformation. The human characters also have a far greater presence. Anno seems to tap into the Fukushima disaster, and specifically the response of the Japanese government in terms of providing information and taking action in the wake of the catastrophe. We are subjected to large chunks of scenes showing politicians and government officials jabber endlessly, trying to classify the situation and what category of action needs to be taken, and the tedious red-tape culture that seeks proper chain of command approval for each step taken.

While the critique is appreciated, it is repetitively hammered in a manner not always advantageous to Shin Godzilla's dramatic value. Unlike the first Godzilla film's passionate researcher Dr. Yamane or the romantic underdog Dr. Serizawa, none of the human characters are interesting in themselves, and unless you understand Japanese or are watching a dubbed version, the film is in large part reduced to keeping up with rapidly changing blocks of subtitles for expository dialog / information dumps. Monster action, when it happens is good though, a couple of instances aside, not more impressive than what we've seen in Shusuke Kaneko's kaiju movies (his Gamera series, and GMKG: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack), but it is better than the incomprehensibly edited recent Hollywood film King of the Monsters. One impressive aspect of the presentation is how much more powerful Godzilla is. He seems nigh invulnerable to most weaponry, not even batting a (heh) figurative eyelid, while the atomic breath's range and destructive power is off the charts. Defeating Godzilla seems almost impossible, providing a far bleaker view of the people's impending fate.