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.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Letters from Hades [Jeffrey Thomas]

It's not often a book begins with its protagonist having killed himself with a shotgun blast...especially where the rest of the narrative is not a flashback of his death foretold. But then Jeffrey Thomas is not your everyday author. Into his several short story collections and novellas, Thomas has infused a unique fevered imagination. Tinged, yes, by classic and popular dystopian fiction and movie culture, but not derivative. If Worship the Night was a wonderful contemporary homage to the spirit of H.P. Lovecraft and Boneland a terrific piece of futu-noir à la Philip K Dick, Letters from Hades is his attempt at epic action fantasy.

Of course, it is not immediately apparent. For a good while, our protagonist is a lonely newcomer in Thomas' rendition of Hell, a world that draws on Dante's Inferno, with heaped helpings of smoke-and-engine-oil steampunk and a healthy spoonful of Guillermo Del Toro style baroque horror. Our hero (never named) starts at Avernus - the portal to Hell - as one of the Damned. Subjected to soul crushing labor and squirm-inducing tortures by their demon warders,  the damned are cursed to never die - even if grossly mutilated, their body parts grow back with all the associated pain for them to once more go through the cycle of unimaginable agonies. The biggest struggle the hero faces is to retain his humanity in the face of all he must undergo. He keeps a diary of his experiences (which serves as our chronicle) in a book that houses as punishment the eye of another damned with whom he develops a sympathetic understanding.

Sympathy is what distinguishes our hero and drives his actions. At one point when making his way through a hostile alien jungle, he rescues a demoness from death by a group of the damned, a deed that will trigger further consequences. He eventually reaches the city of Oblivion (some whiff of influence from China Mieville's Bas-Lag?) and discovers that Hell is not much different from a seedy version of Earth. Thomas covers in some loving detail the industrial yet almost sentient architecture of Oblivion, and you can almost smell the rust and toxic fumes. There he once again meets with the demoness he rescued and the aforementioned 'further consequences' are set into motion. Without going into spoiler territory, I can say Thomas sets off a powder keg of incendiary action with a literal war between demons, angels and the damned, our hero and his demoness in the midst of it.

Letters from Hades does not aspire to be high art. The interracial (or inter-species) romance is more mainstream than how Mieville would have dealt with it, and the depiction of angels in Hell as bike-ridin' shotgun-totin' toughies is a little on the nose. But what it is, is a thrilling ride with some terrific horror and action set-pieces, brisk to the point of breathless with an ending that simply begs for more. The book would make for a kickass blockbuster film if Hollywood were visionary enough to fund Jeffrey Thomas' imagination for, say, the price of your average Marvel Studios product. Perhaps Mr. Del Toro can be convinced to helm?

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Session 9 [dir. Brad Anderson]

Session 9 can be succinctly described as a blue-collar riff on The Shining. Unlike the swanky Hotel Overlook, the "Bad Place" (as Stephen King would describe it) here is a sprawling mental asylum fallen into disuse since the 1980's. To make the place viable for redevelopment, it is first required to bring it in line with regulations pertaining to safe removal of all asbestos material used in the construction, which is what brings in Gordon (Peter Mullan) and his team. Struck with family problems and desperate for the money, Gordon promises to finish the job in a punishing week-long schedule. With him are buddy Phil (David Caruso, where went he?), still mopey over losing his girl-friend to wiseguy and third member Hank (Josh Lucas), there's law-school dropout Mike (Stephen Gevedon, who co-wrote the picture with director Brad Anderson) who seems to know a lot of the asylum's history and Gordon's nephew Jeff, who is new to the job and has a fear of the dark.

Much of Session 9's allure comes from the eerie uncomfortable atmosphere generated by the location itself. Cavernous dust-choked hallways with sounds of water-dripping (and could those be whispers in the air?) and the ever-present hazard of asbestos fibres getting into the system. Tension builds in the men's minds, with each person seemingly encountering something in the building. Gordon hears voices that seem to call him, Mike finds the session tapes of a multiple personality disorder patient called Mary whose mind hosted some immensely disturbing alter egos, Hank finds a cache of old coins and strange objects...As each day passes, the sense of dread steadily rises until, as any horror fan can guess, it boils over into blood-soaked mayhem.

Anderson and his cinematographer Uta Briesewitz (who almost lost an eye capturing a chaotic shot) make the most of the setting - according to him, very little was needed by way of dressing the place up. The interplay of light and darkness is a crucial element in several scenes, generating a grim uneasy tone. One scene where a character is running terrified through a corridor while lights all around him go off is a throat-grabbing moment. The climax is an extremely well depicted unraveling of sanity that stands well with its predecessor in The Shining.
A few words on the blu-ray release from Shout Factory:
Session 9 was shot on 24 fps HD Video. Shout Factory's blu-ray gives an accurate depiction of the visuals and looks more polished than I remember of my previous viewing. Sound is stereo only (DTS-HDMA) but decent, although I would have been interested to hear a 5.1 remix that enhanced the sonic atmosphere. Extras include a solid 45 min retrospective making of with Anderson, Stephen Gevedon, DoP Briesewitz and other cast members, director's commentary and other featurettes.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Petta [dir. Karthik Subbaraj]

Petta is one of the best glamor shoots for its leading man Rajinikant. No really, after Mani Ratnam's Thalapathi as far back as 1991, this is probably the most beautiful looking 'Superstar' movie. Whether bathed in russet and amber glow, or cloaked in steel blue shadow, slightly out of focus like an emerging myth or sharp and up close like a sculpture in stone, the Rajini aura has almost never been so lovingly burnished. The legend himself, nattily dressed with mane-like coiffured hairpiece, looks relaxed and happy, a lion in his own jungle. Of course, Petta is far less ambitious than Thalapathi. In the erstwhile film Rajinikant played the Mahabharat inspired Surya / Karna, the iconic back-lighting as much in service of the character as of the star. Petta has no such thematic pretensions. The swanky production design (Suresh Selvarajan) and cinematographic lusciousness (S. Tirru) are for cosmetic effect (and what's wrong with that?). More crucially, Karthik 'Jigarthanda' Subbaraj's script is also purely in homage to the shrine of Rajini.

Using his iconic screen name 'Kaali', Rajini-saar swishes in as the new hostel warden of one of the strangest institutions: One with a cathedral sized assembly hall and a budget for candles that would make Sanjay Leela Bhansali proud, and prestigious enough to attract students from Australia, but where over-age thugs swagger the halls hazing newcomers, and the hostel idlis are hard enough to literally brain folks with. Kaali's entrance is equally strange - apparently his recommendation for the warden's post comes from the Prime Minister's secretary. When the true background of the character is revealed, one immediately wonders how he could have wrangled such a connection, but Petta's not a film for believable explanations. Kaali comes, he sees and he conquers - first the ragging thugs (led by Bobby Simha), then the corrupt mess contractor. While playing matchmaker to a young pair that came in from Australia, he meets cute with the girl's pranic healer mom (Simran, in real life near the age of Rajini's daughter, which here makes her an apt "mature romance" candidate).

A brilliantly shot "hero" action sequence with flashlights dancing in darkened corridors culminates in a dramatic reveal of Kaali's true purpose (with the expected drawn out flashback), and the introduction of new antagonists - Nawazuddin Siddiqui (dubbed) and Vijay Sethupati. The rest of the movie is about how Kaali takes the fight into the enemy's stronghold for the ultimate showdown, no prizes for guessing who wins. Some of the violence towards the end is unnecessarily gruesome (although not uncommon in the 80's potboilers Petta's roots lie in)

Petta is in the best and worst ways, a brand Rajini film: He talks, he walks, he dances, he nun-chucks, he everythings. There are numerous movie nods to both Rajini filmography and other  references - Mullum Malarum's Raman aandalum Ravana aandalum, rival Kamalahaasan's Andhi mazhai, Ennio Morricone's TGTBTU theme also gets a hat-tip. No character other than 'baas' carries any real weight. Simha and Sethupati have sufficient talent to bring nuance to their parts (and to be fair, Subbaraj does strive to make them more than run of the mill henchmen), but I doubt they would have accepted the roles without the R-factor. Some interesting supporting actor / cameo choices for Tamil movie fans - veteran comedian YG Mahendran, actor-director M Sasikumar (Subramaniapuram) and J Mahendran (he directed Rajini in Mullum Malarum) The women (Simran, Trisha, Malavika Mohanan, Megha Akash) uniformly have "say your two lines and GTFO" appearances. Once the action begins they are pushed off-stage, not returning even for a "The End" frame. Baas' party is purely a Boys' affair, but those invited are guaranteed a good time.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Le Trou aka The Hole [dir. Jacques Becker]

What is it with the French and crime procedurals? They seem to have an almost innate talent at turning out kickass movies centering around criminals either carrying out a caper or escaping from custody. Jules Dassin's Rififi, Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Cercle Rouge (and any others I've missed), Claude Sautet's Classe Tous Risques. These often feature a set-piece where a delicate and risky maneuver is depicted in exquisitely excruciating detail, making the audience feel one with the participants and feel their tension. I am happy to have found Jacques Becker's Le Trou (aka The Hole) to be another proud member of this clique.

Becker's film was adapted from a book (written by José Giovanni) based on a true-life prison escape attempt. A group of men sharing a cell make an audacious plan to escape from their confines by digging their way into the underground sewer system from where they can tunnel out of the prison. Jacques Becker's commitment to capturing the realism of the event was so great he not only had sets built to closely correspond with the original locations and shot the prison cell scenes in an equally cramped and claustrophobic space, one of the major actors in the film (Jean Keraudy, he called himself) was a real-life participant in the original escape. Becker decided to use Keraudy after speaking with him and becoming extremely interested in the colorful inventive man, and decided to populate his film with non-professional actors.

Le Trou is almost entirely set in the confines of the prison. It begins with one of the characters entering as a new occupant in the cell already occupied by four men. After chatting with the new man, they decide to accept him as one of their own group and include him in their escape plan. The film covers each aspect of the escape with loving detail and an eye for realism. When floors and walls are dug through, they don't just break apart in a couple of blows, but take about as much effort as you would expect concrete structures to. Iron bars take a lot to be sawed across. Between each set of operations the gang has to be careful to wipe off or put away all traces of their covert activities. The film establishes a routine and constantly reminds us of it. In the wrong hands this could have ended up as a rote and boring exercise, but between the screenplay, the actors, the superb production design and strikingly austere B&W photography, we become one with the rhythm and are constantly riveted. When they break through into the sewer labyrinth and open a manhole to see the road outside the prison, there is a palpable sense of fresh air and freedom.

Do they actually manage to escape? I recommend you watch Le Trou to find out. But Becker's film is not just about the suspense. The prisoners are not action figures carrying out the motions. They have personalities and the relationship between them - trust, friendship, brotherhood - is equally important, in fact the lynchpin of the film's lasting impact.