Monday, December 4, 2017

Things to Come [dir. William Cameron Menzies]

Things to Come - the 1936 adaptation of HG Wells' novel The Shape of Things to Come - is an odd film, a combination of wonderful visual wizardry and sense of scale with an awfully stilted and preachy narrative about how socialist-tempered scientific progress is the eternal saviour and great equalizer of mankind. It reminds me a fair deal of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, but less expressionist.
To summarize the unwieldy narrative: The aftermath of a hypothetical Second World War (an uncomfortably close prediction, as history would reveal) brings most of civilization to its knees and nation-states are reduced almost to tribe-like status, with constant infighting and resource shortage pushing them back to the dark age. Somehow in all this an organization called Wings over the World (WotW) has managed to scrounge enough resources for technical superiority and aims to end warfare and unite mankind. Their representative (Raymond Massey) comes to the archetypical "Everytown" where he is thrown into prison by the local Boss (Ralph Richardson, in a performance of utter cartoon villainy). When a renegade engineer passes on this news to WotW, they come in their sophisticated bombers and drop a "gas of peace" which puts everyone to sleep, and then take over with their benevolently dictatorial agenda of peaceful scientific progress.

Cut directly a 100 years ahead to a utopian future, where people live in huge white cities with multi-storey screen displays (Here's looking at you, Blade Runner), poverty and discomfort have been eradicated, and everyone wears togas because apparently the Greco-Roman look is future chic. The scientific head honcho (Massey again, as his own descendant) wants to launch people into space to further the possibility of landing on and someday inhabiting other planets, and his own daughter volunteers (along with a friend's son). But some (rather curmudgeonly portrayed) people are tired of this ceaseless innovation and want the government to stop with unnecessary, perhaps even blasphemous scientific progress, even if it means physically attacking the launch cannon for the space ship (Yep, the rocket is shot off from a giant barrel). Science vs People debates issue forth while the two sides face off against each other till the rocket is launched off. The film ends with a grandiose monologue on the greatness of scientific progress in which Massey asks his friend (and the audience, one assumes), "All the universe or nothingness? ... Which shall it be? ..."

Wells himself wrote the initial treatment and intended to personally steer the production in a manner he felt his work ought to be presented. But he soon discovered the discrepancy between his imagination and the realities of film production (and according to at least some members of the film crew, mostly just stood around and showed more interest in flirting with the women on set). Many crew members that signed on because they admired Wells' novel were rather surprised to find its well-rounded characters and erudite dialog reduced to caricatures and blatant speeches. William Cameron Menzies whose major claim to fame was as a skilled art director, works manfully to bring at Wells' reportedly often vague vision to life, and thus provides the film's strongest asset. The scenes showing wide vistas of archetype futuristic urban-scape are often marvellous (even if the optical work is somewhat obvious now), depicting large populations of people dwarfed by gargantuan sleek structures, and the climax featuring a mob attacking the rocket launch cannon is excitingly staged. People who liked or admired Metropolis should definitely check this one out as well.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Kadvi Hawa [dir. Nila Madhab Panda]

Kadvi Hawa (KH) is undoubtedly a sincere film, but it's unfortunately not a gripping one. KH reminds me of one of the likely reasons why the Indian parallel film movement of the 70's and early 80's petered out - Repeated tales of exploitation, poverty, social injustice told in a rote solemn manner, their only aim to stand on a soapbox and awaken the collective social conscience (and maybe win awards for the same). But at the cinema people rarely bond with issues, they bond with interesting characters and stories, and the trick is to slide in the bolus of your agenda within a narrative an audience is interested to immerse itself in. Here we see many of the tired cliches: old man (Sanjay Mishra) waiting for hours at an institution only to be rudely turned away, painstakingly detailed daily routine of poor farmer's family, long shots of arid vistas...Art Phillum Class 101.
The publicity campaign made KH look like it was going to provide some kind of dramatized exploration of how India was reeling under climate change, but the bulk of the film is far smaller in scope, dealing exclusively with the issue of drought-hit farmers in Mahua (Bihar?) suffering from piling debt. One does not argue that climate change played a big role in their problems but there is no holistic perspective. There are flashes of such possibilities, like when the loan collector (Ranvir Sheorey) talks about his place in Odisha being tormented by floods, but it's just delivered in rapid chunks of exposition. On the whole this film makes a disjointed case about climate change as an issue, veering between barely mumbling about it or making ham-handed statements, like when a kid in school says he knows only two seasons because the rain falls for only a few days each year. In my view the film needed a multi-layered exploration like what Nishikant Kamat achieved with Mumbai Meri Jaan or some of Shyam Benegal's films that dealt with social injustice.

Which is not to say the film is unworthy. Like I said earlier, it has a sincere intent. The central plot point of the old man looking to attenuate his son's loan by acting as an informer about other defaulters to the loan collector is within itself dramatically sound, and actors like Mishra and Sheorey bring a lot of credibility to their parts. As an episode in a television anthology series, it may have been brilliant, but as a 90 odd min feature film, KH does not lift the kind of intellectual or dramatic weight that compels your attention through the grim proceedings.


Spider aka Zirneklis [dir. Vasili Mass]

Spider aka Zirneklis is a Latvian Nightmare on Elm Street, taking a little detour by way of Valerie and her Weekend of Wonders. Okay, it's not as ambitious as that combination sounds but it's a nifty erotic horror film that doesn't outstay its welcome, and exquisitely designed to boot.

Our nubile heroine Vita (the gorgeous Aurelia Anuzhite, both leered at and revered by the camera) is in the course of sitting for a painting of the Virgin Mary - ah, symbolism - assaulted by the creepy artist Albert. He then seems to invade her dreams as well, perhaps even taking on the form of the giant spider that ravishes her by night. Prescribed a course of rest in the countryside for her "self-suggested delusions", she goes to her aunt's family (inciting a bit of sexual tension there), but her visions appear to follow her.
 

 The narrative is slight and, like with the Italian giallo films, more a bag of contrivances to hang the visual set-pieces. But oh, what lovely visuals they are, bringing to mind the object-fetish style of Walerian Borowczyk: A fragile painterly atmosphere permeates most of the film - occasionally dipping into psychedelic territory - counterpointed by a moody, jangly electronic score (even the somewhat tinny sound appears to be by design). There are some memorable scenes towards the early part of the film where paintings appear to come to life. The horror / gore effects are also very nicely done, and I have to say stop-motion spiders look creepier than real spiders. Director Vasili Mass certainly shows a lot of chutzpah and it's sad to see that he didn't direct anything else.
 
 
In his review, Blu-ray.com's resident arthouse critic Svet Atanasov attributes a layered socio-political metaphor to the film, comparing it to Andrzej Zulawski's Possession and writer Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. I'm afraid I really don't find that connection, perhaps the director interview on my disc will enlighten me. Based on a recent 4K restoration of original film elements, Mondo Macabro's blu-ray presentation wonderfully replicates the unique look of the film. Individual frames could well be hung up in galleries, it's that good.

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Ipcress File [dir. Sidney Furie]

Based on a novel by Len Deighton (which I haven't read), The Ipcress File features protagonist Harry Palmer (Michael Caine - young and dashing, a far cry from the desultory valet of the Dark Knight series) is a secret service agent, but grittier and working class compared to James Bond (the comparison is valid since the film was produced by regular Bond series co-producer Harry Saltzman). While Bond's adventures have him traipsing around exotic foreign landscapes, Palmer (at least in this story) is mostly restricted to London and the nearby countryside. Bond can afford to gulp down Beluga caviar and Bollinger champagne without worrying about the expense account, but poor Harry earns only 1300 quid a year and hopes a promised raise will allow him to buy a coveted infra-red grill to satisfy his gourmet-on-a-budget whims.

The script involves the usual convolutions of intrigue, red herrings and double agents any self-respecting Cold War era spy caper would feature and they are done well. I must admit here that I am quite biased towards the old-school Brit "stiff upper lip" tone. Visually the film is quite stylish (DoP Otto Heller of Peeping Tom fame), sometimes to an extreme, with for example shots from the POV of a ceiling lamp or a outdoor fight sequence captured from inside an empty phone both. But director Sidney Furie ensures that it's all good pacy fun and never ceases to be interesting. Caine is in top form here and has strong support from a stellar British cast (including the ultra-manly Nigel Green). The film has more intrigue than action or spectacle so don't expect outrageous stunts but that's intentional - Palmer's world is designed to be an antithesis to the ultra-glamorous Bond-verse, and makes a forceful impact. The success of the film led to stardom and bigger roles for Caine (Italian Job, Get Carter), and though I suspect it will be a case of diminishing returns, I am tempted to try out the further installments of the franchise, including Guy Hamilton's Funeral in Berlin and Ken (seriously?) Russell's Billion Dollar Brain.

Recommended for gritty spy thriller fans.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

MAMI Weekend


Day 1:

On Body and Soul [Ildik├│ Enyedi] - A different kind of romance that wells up between a meat factory owner with a crippled hand and a quality control inspector with obsessive behavior from borderline Asperger Syndrome when they find that they have identical dreams in which they see themselves as animals. Like a more grounded Michel Gondry film, but very nicely done with a successful ambiguous end. People squeamish about the sight of animal flesh and abbatoir activities are warned.

The Third Murder [Hirokazu Kore-eda] - Slow-burn legal and moral exploration of a murder trial that goes beyond whodunit, to what constitutes truth and justice, and whose actions actually deliver redemption. While Kore-eda has been compared more to Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse, I find a slight influence of Akira Kurosawa's High & Low (especially the scene where the two opposing characters are reflected in the glass window that separates them). Not enough philosophical depth to fully justify the somber pace with some outright soap opera bits (and I could have done with less of plink-plonk piano to underscore the poignant moments), but a very decent watch.

The Other Side of Hope [Aki Kaurismaki] - AK's film winds the threads of Syrian Refugee Khaled seeking asylum and middle-aged Wikstrom who abandons his existing business and married life to start afresh. Through a fair portion, Other Side... exhibits a wry humor and nuanced character. But once the two threads meet, it gives way to a more unilateral sentimentality with a Chaplin-level simplistic message of charity and universal brotherhood. But it does offer a good bit of mood, especially with its use of music.

Call Me by Your Name [Luca Guadagnino] - This was one of the more hyped films of this fest (the line extended from Regal Cinema to Cafe Mondegar). Adapted from a novel by James Ivory (the other half of Ismail Merchant) the film promised a forgotten summer of romance between a young Italian boy and the American visitor at his house, set amidst lush Mediterranean surroundings, food and culture. Well that's how the theory goes, but frankly the film left me quite bored. For some reason I was never emotionally close to the protagonists, which constitutes a fatal block to one's immersion in the story. Brokeback Mountain worked because the writing and direction made you feel for their characters, this one is just too polite and breezy to make real impact.

Thelma [Joachim Trier] - Solid Carrie-inspired slow-burn horror flick in the vein of Let the Right One In or The Witch. Definitely worth the watch.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Chandu the Magician [dirs. William Menzies - Marcel Varnel]

As fans of vintage radio would very well know, Chandu the Magician (CtM) originated as a radio drama series in 1931. In reference to the show's popularity - apparently at one point almost 60% of households in America tuned in - Walter Winchell cheekily revealed that 'chandu' is Indian slang for opium. Chandu was almost certainly the inspiration for Lee Falk's Mandrake the Magician. The film of Chandu was an attempt by 20th Century Fox to cash in on the show's popularity and compete with Universal's lucrative horror/adventure properties. I have not heard the 30's radio program but thanks to Archive.org I did some time ago enjoy a late 40's radio revival of the character with Tom Collins as Frank Chandler aka Chandu and Luis Van Rooten as his nemesis Roxor.

In the film Chandler / Chandu, who has just completed his training in the various arts of magic with the yogis in India, is given the mission of fighting evil on earth. The fight begins at home with the disappearance of his scientist brother-in-law Robert Regent, captured by the megalomaniac Roxor to commission a death ray machine. Chandler must use his powers to engage with Roxor and protect his loved ones including sister Dorothy Regent and her wide-eyed kids Bob and Betty, and his lady love the Egyptian princess Nadji. Much hocus-pocus and hokum ensue.

CtM was co-directed by William Cameron Menzies and Marcel Varnel. Menzies' contribution is far more notable here. He was a highly respected art director (most famous for his work on Gone with the Wind, he also directed the film of HG Wells' Things to Come) and he does a smashing job of bringing alive the world of the story. Wonderfully detailed miniature work, optical FX and what-have-you help to depict the Indian temple setting where Chandu completes his training, a fabulous (if also rather impractical so far as entrances go) lair for evil Roxor, the sandstorm-hit residence of the Regents, the visualization of Roxor's dream of world domination by the use of the death ray etc Chandu's powers are also well-served by the tricks of the camera, including his ability to astrally project himself and have a doppelganger (or conjure a mini-me for his orderly to chastise his alcoholic tendencies). The camera is helmed by James Wong Howe (Seconds, Sweet Smell of Success), and in combination with the production design serves up several audacious shots that sell the illusion of the setting.

Bela Lugosi as Roxor is a thing to behold. The film calls for no-holds-barred stylized acting and Bela, fresh from his Dracula turn, plays to the gallery with aplomb (IMO Rooten's portrayal of the character in the revived radio series owes a debt to Lugosi), giving his all to a performance that pretty much washes out everybody else in the film. Which brings us to the film's single biggest disappointment - Edmund Lowe as Chandu the Magician. Lowe may be a character actor (he does a fairly decent job with the different disguises that Chandu dons), but he has all the charisma of over-boiled mutton. The battle between Roxor and Chandu should be one of fiercely matched equals, but against Lugosi's striking visage and commanding delivery, Lowe just does not measure up. Even the romance between Chandu and Nadji is cloyingly prim and bland. Little wonder then that the film did not do well enough to inspire any 'real' sequels (there was a serial called The Return of Chandu which interestingly enough, had Bela Lugosi as Chandu).

Kino Lorber's presentation of the on their film is adequate though not stellar. There is a fair deal of damage and contrast can vary sometimes. But for a film of this vintage, which is unlikely to have a big audience, I suppose it would be impractical to expect more. Extras include a 15-min featurette on the legacy of CtM, with famous horror/fantasy historians talking about the radio series and the films, and a nice commentary track by Bela Lugosi biographer Gregory Mank. There are also trailers for other Lugosi films.

If they had only used a more charismatic actor than Lowe in the title role, this could have been an excellent film and the start of a good series, but CtM is still worth a watch for its striking visual qualities and for the magnificent Lugosi performance.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Lone Wolf and Cub

At different intervals in the past couple of weeks I made my way through the Lone Wolf and Cub Japanese film series (released on blu-ray/DVD by the Criterion label). Collating the impressions of the individual films I had posted on other forums, I give you a compiled review of the series as a whole.

Films 1&2: Sword of Vengeance and Baby Cart at the River Styx

The series is based on a manga (that's Japanese comic-book, for those unaware). The protagonist Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is an archetype ronin, who previously served as an executioner for the Shogunate. The warrior was betrayed by his masters the Yagyu clan for which he has sworn vengeance, and is currently an assassin-for-hire carting around his little son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) in a rather James Bond-ian weaponized cart. In the first two films (bot directed by Kenji Misumi, as was the third) I saw the plot has 2 main branches 1) Ogami accepting an assignment to kill someone for a fixed fee of 500 ryo 2) someone from the Yagyu clan attempting to kill him. Tomisabur├┤ Wakayama in the lead role is mainly required to look gruff and chop up enemies with his famed sword, which despite a double-chin he manages fairly well. There is a good amount of cartoony gore (mainly blood-sprays) and a bit of female nudity. The action choreography is uneven. Sometimes there are nice long takes where Wakayama pulls off multiple moves, and sometimes there are a bunch of hurriedly put together 'cuts'. While not great cinema, these films were very serviceable entertainment fodder and I look forward to further episodes in the series.

Films 3&4:  Baby Cart to Hades and Baby Cart in Peril

These are a continuation of the adventures of the swordmaster Ogami Itto and his little son Daigoro, following a similar formula as previous films, with Ogami taking on assassination missions and in turn being attacked by other killers.

BCtH has some nasty rape / attempted rape sequences. Very early in the film two women are brutally raped and killed by mercenaries before they meet their fate by Ogami's sword. A little later a young girl barely escapes rape by her pimp before she kills him and seeks protection from Ogami. The lady of the brothel she was sold to respectfully asks Ogami to release her property, but he offers instead to take her punishment by torture. In the curious logic of manga stories, the brothel madam turns out to be the daughter of a nobleman who wants Ogami to kill a corrupt governor. Some interesting plot convolutions later, we reach the climax where Ogami takes on a veritable army of soldiers with his sword and weaponized baby cart (including a firing range worth of hidden guns). Some of the plot elements in the film (mainly in the form of an skilled and honorable opponent for Ogami that he becomes forced to fight in the end) reminded me heavily of Akira Kurosawa's action romp Sanjuro.

BCiP begins with little Daigoro wandering off and getting lost. In the course of trying to find his way back to his father, Daigoro encounters a lone warrior, who is surprised at his calmness when faced with a sword. Later on, the warrior allows Daigoro to be engulfed by fire in a field, just to observe his fortitude. I was beginning to wonder how he would have justified his own inaction had the boy died in the fire, when he goes one step further by trying to kill Daigoro, again only to assess his acceptance of death (talk about not knowing what to do with your time). Of course at the crucial moment, Daddy Ogami turns up to stop his boy from being turned into sashimi.There is another sub-plot about Ogami taking on a contract to kill a female assassin Yuki, who is identified by colorful tattoos across her back and breasts, which she flashes to distract her opponents before slicing through them. After the massacre of the previous film, the production may have felt obliged to climax with another Ogami vs an army scenario. This time a batallion of Yagyu warriors led by their leader track him down to a quarry type location and for a huge scrap. Good fun. The crew for BCiP is different from the previous films with Kazuo (Rashomon, Ugetsu) Miyagawa taking over cinematography (though you won't be as impressed here as with those films) and a new director Buichi Saito. 

Films 5&6: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons and White Heaven in Hell

BCitLoD sees the return of director  Misumi who had made the first 3 films. This one at least initially has a very videogame-y sensibility with Lone Wolf Ogami Itto coming across a series of opponents who want to entrust him with a mission, but will dole out information only in their dying breaths after challenging him to a fight. Little Daigoro gets his own spotlight when he stands up to punishment to keep a secret he has promised to. The climax again underlines Ogami's ruthless dedication to keeping the order, ready to murder even children if he has to.

WHiH is the last film, and under Yoshioki Kuroda's direction has a sense of visual scale to match. I personally felt this was one of the best looking entries in the series. My favorite scene was when Ogami cuts through a squad of enemies in and around a lake-front house - the scene features an amazing long take where lead actor Wakayama shines with his swordplay moves. There is a horror element in the form of the quasi-undead warriors who come after Ogami and his son. The climax is another mass slaughter, this time set in snowscapes where the baby cart becomes a sled that can race across the white slopes. You'd think that by now the enemy would know better than to send swordsmen rushing in a straight line towards Ogami's gun-stacked wagon, but perhaps it's against their honor code to shield against gunfire. The film does not in itself conclude the LW&C story but there were no further instalments made (apparently, Wakayama refused to participate further after news of a TV series surfaced).

If you watch all the films in a go, there is likely to be some sense of sameness, especially in the last 4, where all the climaxes are Ogami vs Huge Army with a similar blend of swordplay and gunfire tactics. The fifth film's contrived mission setup was also distracting in its game-like structure. But on the whole this was a good watch and I will return to at least some of these episodes in the future.

The extras disc in Criterion's release includes Shogun Assassin, a re-purposed (read, badly mangled) edit of the first two films that was dubbed into English for US theatrical release in 1980. It also features interviews with the comic book writer Kazuo Koike (in which he talks about how actor Wakayama, whose bulky frame didn't match the lean muscular silhouette of the manga's anti-hero, turned up at his place to perform somersaults and swordplay moves to get his blessing to play the lead), and the biographer of director Kenji Misumi (who talks about his relationship with brothers Katsu and Wakayama, and his contributions to Zatoichi and LW&C), a nice 2005 documentary on the film series, an interesting featurette with a sensei of the Suio-Ryu swordsmanship that is Ogami Itto's style and an old silent docu on the making of Samurai swords (that was a little less interesting than I'd hoped). The booklet features an essay on the film series as well as synopses of all the films. It would have been nice to have a little more about the actor that played the child Daigoro, about the effect that the role and accompanying media fame had on his life, what he went on to do later and how he ended up getting caught while transporting a gun from Thailand into Japan (assuming that story is true). On the whole, an excellent package, more than worth the 40$ I shelled out.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Raising the Dead - An Interview with Shamya Dasgupta

I may have picked nits in Shamya Dasgupta's book on India's premier horror film family in my review, but it has sufficient merits in terms of providing insight into the fraternal chemistry and working methods of the Ramsays, and an affectionate examination of their contribution to the cinema of thrills, to handily recommend to fans of their legacy. After having met the author face-to-face at the book's official launch (an intimate gathering where one had the lovely chance of meeting with members of the Ramsay family, and their iconic monster-man Aniruddh 'Ajay' Agrawal), I approached him with the idea of an e-mail interview, to which he readily agreed.

Before we go talk about the book, tell us a little of your background.
Well, I’m from Kolkata, Calcutta actually. Grew up there, studied there, then moved to New Delhi where I started working, 1999 onwards. I’ve been a sports journalist all along, on the web, in newspapers, in TV for quite a few years. I wrote a couple of books. My wife, dog and I moved to Bangalore in 2012, when I joined Wisden India. My wife is an editor and a publisher.

Great, now let's talk about your interest in films (and horror films in particular). How did it all start? Were you into movies as a kid or did it develop later?
No, movies were most certainly a very, very important part of life in general from as far back as I can remember. It’s interesting – my mother is from a family of pretty eminent writers and poets and … you know the sort, ‘cultured’ Bengali family, etc. They also had some connections in the Hindi film industry. And my mother was quite obsessed with Hindi cinema, as well as Bengali cinema. Not horror, of course, because we are talking about the 1950s and 1960s in particular. My father, on the other hand, was a left-leaning liberal, an economist, a Fulbright scholar who went to the USA and Canada to study and teach, and developed a major interest in world cinema, serious cinema. While my mother developed an interest in his kind of cinema over the years, I don’t think he ever got around to understanding the magic of Hindi movies. In terms of mainstream films, I think the only one he really enjoyed was Golmaal [Hrishikesh Mukherjee, 1979].
Anyway, so I was interested in all kinds of cinema from an early age. In Calcutta, there were lots and lots of film festivals, so watching ‘good’ cinema was easy. I read a fair bit too. My father had brought back many books from the US. I guess I wasn’t old enough to really understand film theory and stuff, but I read them all. And my mother’s Filmfares and Stardusts and stuff. So, yeah, movies have always been a part of life, in a very big way. I don’t think we ever had a VCR, but there were theatres, screenings of all sorts; ‘Good’ cinema, as well as mainstream Hindi and Bengali cinema.
As for horror, I enjoy my horror all right, but I won’t say I am a horror fan. I love all cinema, horror being one of them. If that’s a disqualification when it comes to writing about the Ramsays, I don’t know. As I have always said, I approached the book as a journalist telling a story, the same way I approached the book on Indian boxing I wrote some years ago – while boxing is a sport I follow very closely, I wrote it as a reporter, not as an expert.


Tell us about your interest in the films of the Ramsay brothers. How did the idea of writing a book on them occur to you? What was the process of bagging a publishing deal for this book?
I had watched a couple of Ramsay films when still in my teens (Which means I was not supposed to watch them, I guess). This was in the 1980s. They used to have these travelling video shows in tents and I saw them there – Purana Mandir, Veerana and one other film, which I can’t remember the name of any more. I saw their other prominent films later, on TV, and then all of them multiple times more recently. As for writing about them…there are many ideas about journalism; the one I subscribe to is that the job of a journalist is to tell an interesting story, a story that will interest people, using the words ‘interest’ and ‘interesting’ in the broadest sense possible. Whether it’s an investigative story, a report about the launch of a film or a political story, when you report, you report a story that will interest people in some way or the other. I have always felt the story of the Ramsay brothers – seven brothers making low-budget horror films and becoming incredibly successful – was going to be an interesting one. To everyone, not just fans of their films. The details about them obviously emerged later as I did my research and interviews, but it was always going to be an interesting story. One thing led to another, I met Amit Ramsay, got an 'in' into the family, and then on…
And ‘bagging’ the publishing deal was incredibly easy. Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri of HarperCollins India is the premier publisher of film books in India, in English at least, and is a film obsessive. I think it took just one email to him. I can’t imagine any publisher not being interested in a story like that of the Ramsays.


 What sort of research did you do for the book?
Well, fortunately or unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of relevant information about the Ramsays. Unfortunately, for obvious reasons. Fortunately because it meant that not many people knew too much about them, which meant that most of what I was going to write would be new to people. So yeah, I dug out what I could; old magazines, some academic writings, a little stuff off the internet; and then it was all to do with the interviews. I had very few starting points, outside of the obvious questions. But it seemed to all mostly fall in place eventually.
As for the time and the effort – well, I will never say this is the definitive, most exhaustive and ultimate book on the Ramsays. It isn’t. I have a full-time job and limited means in terms of money and time and access. Within that, well, I did what I could. Would I have liked to speak to more people? Certainly. Satish Shah, for example. Gulshan Grover, Deepak Parashar and others..and so on. Didn’t happen, for various reasons. So those were misses. Within the family too, there were people I spoke to but found nothing usable. But that’s par for the course, I guess. I made a few trips to Mumbai, spent time with whoever I could, and Don’t Disturb the Dead is what I managed to come up with. I don’t think I’ve done a bad job. 

Much more than that. In fact all things considered, it's a damn fine job. Who were the most helpful sources of material (conversely, who were the least)?
All the people quoted in the book [were helpful]. Honestly. The brothers, of course. Kumar, the oldest, doesn’t keep well, and Keshu and Kiran have passed away. I had spoken to Kiran, in fact, when he was in Dubai and he had promised to chat once he returned, but it never happened. The other four brothers – Gangu, Tulsi, Arjun and Shyam – were all wonderful, as were their children. Aarti Gupta-Surendranath gave me all her time, as did Anirudh ‘Ajay’ Agarwal. Komal Nahta, Jerry Pinto, Sriram Raghavan, Sridhar Raghavan, Rajesh Devraj, Beth Watkins, Bappi Lahiri...They all had stories and opinions to share, I just collected them. There were people I tried to speak to who didn’t want to speak to me, they must have had their reasons. There were also a couple of people that I didn’t want to speak to, whatever the reasons might be. It’s not fair to take names, so we’ll leave it at that.


Fair enough. What impact did the effort of writing this book have on your life and routine?
Nothing at all. It was fun all the way. I do work on books pretty regularly, so no … no problems there at all. No story like I didn’t meet my wife and dog for days on end…

[Heh] If time and resources were not a constraint, would you have done anything different / better with the book?
Certainly. As I mentioned earlier, I would have spent much more time in Mumbai. I would have met the Ramsays and other people (their collaborators) more. Face to face, I mean. I met them a few times, and I did speak to everyone that I needed to on the phone multiple times, but that’s not the same thing. If I had more money, I would have had greater access to the archives of, say, Filmfare, Stardust, Film Information, all of those. There’s also the fact that I am not a film journalist but a sports journalist. So I didn’t have contacts in the industry in quite the same way. I might not have written the book differently, but I might have managed to make it richer in terms of detail. It’s fine the way it is, I think. No gaping holes. Some gaps, yes, but none that are major.

And now that it's out, what do you hope the book will achieve, both for its author and its subject?
For the author – I don’t know and genuinely am genuinely not bothered beyond a point. I don’t think I write to get anywhere. I don’t make a living from my books. It’s got mostly positive reviews, which is good. I hope it sells well. That’s all. For the subject – this is more important: We have seen a renewed interest in the cinema of the Ramsays in recent times; they have always had a cult following, but little recognition from the industry itself. I do hope people who read the book appreciate their contribution to Indian cinema: It’s huge. I don’t expect people to start loving their films after reading the book, but I hope people appreciate them for who they were and what they did, and achieved. And not just the Ramsays, even someone like Ajay Agarwal. He was outstanding, wasn’t he?

Couldn't agree more. Thanks a ton Shamya, for taking time out to do this. Here's hoping the book finds its audience and does some 'monstrous' business.
Thanks, Suresh.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Don't Disturb the Dead [Shamya Dasgupta]

While there are flaws in Shamya Dasgupta's Don't Disturb the Dead (DDtD), a book on the Ramsay Brothers and their films, I am on the whole pleased because it was a volume that needed to be written. Most times, in the name of books related to the history of Indian cinema, we only get biographies, or rather hagiographies, of famous film stars. Also audiences, especially those born after the 80's, are unaware of the significant contribution, warts and all, made by the Ramsays towards acceptance of horror in the Indian context (Some young 'uns even think Indian horror initiated with Ram Gopal Varma's Bhoot).

DDtD is thorough in its portrayal of the Ramsay heritage, starting with patriarch FU Ramsay (the family was originally called Ramsinghani and came from pre-partition Lahore. The surname was shortened to Ramsay for the convenience of the British clients at FU's radio store, and has stuck ever since). It chronicles how FU and later his children (Kumar, Tulsi, Shyam, Keshu, Gangu , Arjun and Kiran) got into film-making and how they hit upon their patented horror film formula. The making of a Ramsay film was literally a family affair, with the sons working together in various aspects and even the women of the house pitching in with the hospitality arrangements (Keshu's wife Kavita later did costume design for some films). Tulsi and Shyam were joint directors on most Ramsay flicks; from what we read here, Shyam was the more horror-focused, while Tulsi concerned himself with ensuring the right mix of other ingredients - song & dance, comedy, sexual frisson - that would make their films commercially viable. Keshu Ramsay after a point left the family and started his own production, dropping the Ramsay surname for the films he made, including several Khiladi ventures with Akshay Kumar and then the blockbuster Khakee (which he produced).

DDtD covers the making of several Ramsay features with special attention going to their landmark presentations including Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche, Purana Mandir (PM) and Veerana, and later their hugely popular tele-serial Zee Horror Show. There are enlightening interviews with Ramsay stars like Mohnish Bahl, Aarti Gupta-Surendranath and of course Aniruddha (Ajay) Agarwal, the iconic monster-man of several Ramsay features like PM, Saamri and Bandh Darwaza. All of them are very complimentary towards the Ramsay family, about the atmosphere in which those films were shot, how even under the conditions of low budget and short shooting schedules, they did the best they could. It was especially heartening to see input from Aarti Gupta. With Ramsay films like PM, Saamri and Tahkhana she was, for a short spell, the Scream Queen of Indian horror, but soon after, she quit acting, married ad-man Kailash Surendranath, and became a producer and well-known Mumbai socialite. One feared she would be dismissive of these links to her low-brow horror past, but she fondly recalls the warm convival spirit of the shoots, and even though she regrets the negative impact of doing low-budget horror on her acting career, she never has anything bad to say about her experience (unlike beefcake Hemant Tarzan Birje, who blames the Ramsays for his career decline - he did Tahkhana and Veerana with them - and refused to provide any input for the book).

The interviews with the Ramsay family members and their collaborators form the highlight of the book, for which the author must be commended. There is a good amount of anecdotal information presented with a refreshing absence of condescension towards the subject. It is also worthwhile to pick up the paperback for the several memorable stills collated from the shooting and publicity events, which will surely thrill Ramsay fans. However, repetitiveness and padding are an issue. Too many times we are made to hear that the Ramsay policy was to "make them cheap and fast", how their audience was restricted to adult males or young couples, their essential criteria for selecting lead actors being solely "how smart or sexy they looked". The other caveat is the stupendously boring extended exploration of the life and career of all the current generation Ramsay kids (of whom only Shyam's daughter Saasha is currently into horror).

A few things I would have liked to see here: a better critical appraisal of the films themselves. Some of the Ramsay films (like Dahshat and PM) are arguably superior to the others in terms of their construction and impact, and needed to be discussed in that context. Interviews with regular Ramsay stable actors like Deepak Parashar and Anil Dhawan would have been nice. While there is chapter devoted to how the Ramsays got their masks and latex props fabricated by a Mr. Chris Tucker (no relation to the Rush Hour actor, I presume) I wish more had been explored about the make-up work in their films (for instance, what was the semen-like goo covering evil guy Nevla when he emerges from his coffin in Bandh Darwaza?). It's great that Shamya could get quotes about the influence of Ramsay movies from famous film buffs like Sriram Raghavan, Ram Gopal Varma and Sajid Khan, but his repeated reliance on the opinion of blogger Beth Watkins is puzzling, considering she has no specific interest in Indian horror. It would have been more relevant to talk to Omar Ali Khan, who has reviewed a lot of Indian horror on his website, or to the people at Mondo Macabro who licensed several Ramsay films for their Bollywood Horror DVD sets.

Mr. Dasgupta also sometimes displays a degree of naive extrapolation that borders on ludicrous. While Aarti Gupta was apt for her parts in the Ramsay films, suggesting that she could otherwise have fitted into a pantheon of female Indian megastars including Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit is outright laughable. His speculations on the fate of the Ramsay family heritage and the future of their offspring should have also been left on the editing table.

Its misses notwithstanding, DDtD serves as a frequently entertaining and informative look at India's pioneers of the horror film and should definitely picked up by people interested in the topic.

A word of warning: Please skip the introduction written by a dolt called Jai Arjun Singh - it's rambling and pretentious, and more interested in flaunting the writer's knowledge of films than having anything relevant to say about the book that follows.


Thursday, June 8, 2017

Marriage of Maria Braun [dir. Reiner Werner Fassbinder]

I am ashamed to say I only recently cracked open my Reiner Werner Fassbinder blu-ray boxset released in Mar 2016 (In my defence I received it only around a year late, since I'd originally had it shipped to a friend living overseas to avoid it getting nicked or exorbitantly taxed at customs). This too was after a fellow member on a forum put me a query about the framing/AR of Marriage of Maria Braun. Anyhoo, I ended up watching the film and oh wow, it was terrific.

At the beginning of the film Maria (the amazing Hanna Schygulla), a gutsy and self-reliant gal, is getting married to Hermann Braun in the midst of an Allied bombing raid. Immediately after, Hermann goes off to fight and is reported killed. Maria, who is very clear about doing whatever is needed to survive and maintain her family, takes up with an American soldier who is good to her. But Hermann returns, and in the altercation that follows, the American is killed by Maria. Hermann takes the rap and goes to jail. Maria then takes up with a businessman Oswald, becoming both his hard-headed business adviser and sensual mistress, and doing a sterling job of both. But her heart remains with Hermann and she plans to be with him when he is released. A pivotal moment between Oswald and Hermann leads to Hermann scooting off to Canada after his release, and it is only later that he returns to Maria. When Maria learns the circumstances of his going away and return, it leads to a veritable explosive climax.

FB has said that in the later phase of his prolific film-making career (40 features and 2 TV series in 15 years, his shorts and theater work aside) he was less interested in promoting ideologies and more interested in the story-telling, and MoMB is a fine example of story-telling. Maria is a fascinating character, cold and iron-willed from one perspective, passionate and faithful from another, and on both fronts utterly honest. She never lies about her actions or intentions, but her personal magnetism is so strong, men are attracted like moths to her flame. It's a fantastically written and portrayed role, the sort I would love to see in an Indian movie. Technically MoMB is well done, with some arresting lengthy takes and the look of a ravaged Germany, but the story and performances are what grab the most.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Dopehri - A Dramatic Reading [Pankaj Kapur]

So last evening I headed to the Tata Theater at Nariman Point for an event billed as "a dramatic reading" headlined by Pankaj Kapur. Most of us 80's kids first knew of Mr. Kapur through the Doordarshan TV series Karamchand, in which he played the eponymous carrot-munching (and on occasion cigarette-smoking) detective, tailed by goofy secretary Kitty (Sushmita Mukherjee). Directed by Punkuj Parasher (oh, how the mighty have fallen) the series thrashed everything around it for pace and slickness, and was an instant hit. So of course one looked around for other things the actor had done. By happy coincidence this led to an exploration of non-mainstream cinema, for Mr. Kapur, like his National School of Drama predecessors Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri, was a rising star of this scene. I have a faded memory trying to sit through Sudhir Mishra's 1987 political drama Yeh Woh Manzil To Nahin, simply because the cast had both Karamchand and Kitty. The 80's were Pankaj Kapur's golden era, with a string of memorable appearances in Mandi, Jalwa, Khamosh, Chameli ki Shaadi, Raakh, the 12 Angry Men ripoff Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, culminating in his justly celebrated portrayal of the frustrated researcher Dipankar De in Ek Doctor ki Maut. The decline of the parallel film scene post that era meant that Pankaj Kapur had fewer opportunities to display his histrionics at the cinema. Being better known then on for television work in Zabaan Sambhal Ke and Office Office, he nevertheless registered his presence in such parts as the terrorist Liaqat from Roja, the Don Corelone-sque Duncan character in Maqbool...even in that ghastly misfire called Matru ki Bijli ka Mandola he was one of the saving graces. With his hypnotic gaze and gravelly voice, a wonderful capacity for brooding silence, explosive drama or pie-eyed comedy, Mr. Kapur has a staggering repertoire; and there may have been bad roles (Mohandas BALLB anyone?), but I do not recall any bad performances.


Dopehri, the theater listing informs, is a novella written by Mr. Kapur himself. The plot is a simple one, the sort that would feature in Readers' Digest or fill an episode of Katha Sagar. Elderly widow Amma Bi lives alone in her haveli, save for the servant Jumman. But even Jumman is not around all the time, and her loneliness grows ever more frightening. After some escapades, including a visit to an old age home, Amma Bi is persuaded by her well-wisher Dr. Saxena to take in a paying guest. How the guest's arrival changes Amma Bi's life, in the process giving her an identity and purpose in life, forms the crux of the story. It's a standard human interest story, but two things make the narrative come alive. The first is the language: Mr. Kapur's prose doesn't just read, it flows. On several occasions, you could hear the audience go "wah, wah" (respectfully) when they heard a particularly artful turn of phrase. Hindi has a uniquely apt flavor especially when used for satiric humor and Kapur fluidly molds the language to his bidding. The second is the performance: As a narrator and actor he is tremendous, able to convey much by glance, by inflection, by the rhythm of speech. And he has a love for his written world and characters that is contagious. Simply by modulating his voice and speech mannerisms, he "plays" all the characters: we see and hear them clearly, their amusing quirks and foibles brought to life in our heads. At numerous times, he has the theater rollicking with laughter, without ever cheapening the material or being untrue to his creations. By the end, we have been moved by these characters.

The production is also simple but effective: The sets are suggestive rather than elaborate, a tree with a broken kite, an armchair with a table holding a "paan" box, a writing desk. With the help of lighting changes to suggest time and mood, they are sufficient to convey the setting, and the actor expresses an ease that gives a wonderfully homely feeling, like a favorite uncle narrating a cherished family story. In all, a heart-warming experience in a time where we can always do with one.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Byomkesh Pawrbo [dir. Arindam Sil]

Admittedly I am a sucker for period detective stories, and in Indian fiction, I have been entertained by the adventures of Satyajit Ray's Feluda and Saradindu Banerjee's Byomkesh Bakshi. Recent times have seen a huge revival of the big screen detective movie (I believe there are at least 2 competing Byomkesh film series in Bengali, yes?), and that's not even including the Dibakar Banerjee misfire.
I had earlier seen Arindam Sil's Har Har Byomkesh (and his other detective film Ebar Shabor). I had problems with
HHB's narrative (with its very predictable mystery - my review) but it was quite attractively shot. Byomkesh Pawrbo (BP) continues the tradition. The film is set in post-independence India in the Dooars, a gorgeous North Eastern jungle-scape (which definitely calls for a visit, assuming that's where they actually shot). Byomkesh, accompanied by wife Satyaboti and buddy-chronicler Ajit, is assigned to track a large cache of hidden arms that may be used for nefarious purposes. There is also a mysterious black garbed 'ghost' rider galloping on a black horse in the forest (sadly, there's nothing very ghostly about him, I confess I was hoping for something like Sleepy Hollow's Headless Horseman). In the archetype narrative, there are a bunch of red herring suspects, and it's fairly easy to guess who the bad guy is (although showing him to be personally involved in the dirty work stretches credibility). To be sure, it's writing-wise a very mediocre film, but that way most detective films are. I believe excellence is rare in this genre, and even Satyajit Ray wrestled with the conventions of the genre in his Feluda films.
In a nod to today's trends, Bymokesh (Abir Chatterji, again) is given the action intro normally accorded to Telugu masala heroes, as he single-handedly dispatches a half dozen goons with high-kicks and slow-motion in Kolkata's Chinatown. Thankfully the macho-giri is restricted to the intro and the climax, and for most part he remains bhadralok. I like his interaction with Satyaboti (Sohini Sarkar, she looks like Maushmi Chatterji but much cuter) in these Arindam Sil films more than in the previous movies. But both Satya and Ajit remain mostly spectators here, it would have been nice to see them have more to do.

For me the best aspects of the film were Soumik Haldar's postcard-pretty cinematography (the lush locales certainly help) and Bickram Ghosh's creative background score - my fav example of the score is when Byomkesh visits a red-light area in disguise - you have a naughty saucy musical theme tracking him, which eventually erupts into a song that uses the same instrumentation.

Apart from the obnoxious logo and the omnipresent 'Smoking kills' disclaimer, Sangeet India Network's DVD gives a strong presentation of the film with bold colors and excellent contrasts. The level of detail is limited only by the SD resolution (the forest scenery screams for an HD transfer). Be assured this stands among the best of the format. Sound is excellent as well, with (surprise, surprise) a DTS track that does justice to the action moments and to Ghosh's music. No extras, but the presentation is stellar enough to justify the buy.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Moh Maya Money [dir. Munish Bharadwaj]

Sometimes a Baradwaj Rangan recommendation isn't all that it's cracked up to be.

The ingredients were good: Given its relative scarcity, noir is always a welcome shade in Hindi cinema, and the combination of Ranvir Sheorey as an inveterate wheeler-dealer led to faking his own death for insurance money, Delhi setting and a convoluted exploration of dark deeds promised much.

But there are crucial slip-ups. The relationship between the lead couple is a mystery: Both Sheorey and Neha Dhupia act well, but the script never convinces us why their characters are together. She is an independent aggressive achiever, irritated by his shady shenanigans, and he's a needy blowhard. There is no suggestion as to the romance or attraction which justifies why they got together at all, rendering null the crucial central chemistry. Not that the film needed a youth romance flashback, but there are rapid and subtle ways of hinting this, and it's not that Munish Bahardwaj's script is exemplarily ruthless about extraneous detail. In fact there is an abundance of tepid sub-plotting which adds to the running time without hugely propelling the narrative.

The clumsy execution of the central crime also hurts the immersion factor. Considering the highly suspicious circumstances of the faked death, it's laughable that the insurance company prior to making a multi-crore payout doesn't ask for a basic level investigation that would undoubtedly have exposed the lie.

While the film falls in the noir genre, it's not shot in the trademark Chiascuiro play of light and shadow, looking dull and flat most of the time. All is not lost however: There are occasional moments where it shows fleeing glimpses of the engaging thriller it could have been, particularly when Sheorey is doing jugaad to arrange for a corpse to stand in for him. In a lighter vein an amusing drinking game can be made of the number of shots Neha Dhupia is seen packing a bag.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Bahoo-bali 2 [dir. SS Rajamouli]

Yesterday being a public holiday, I took the opportunity of watching Bahubali 2 with mum. I really wanted to like this film, and it has its moments of thrill, but I found it overall more exhausting than exhilarating.

Let me talk about the good stuff first, lest y'all think I'm just a grouchy snob. The visual spectacle matches up, although does not surpass the first film. The climactic battle scenes like when beta-BB single-handedly opens the drawbridge or they use palm trees as catapults to send up troops are testament to the imagination that transcends the technical quality of the VFX. Also, the way Rajamouli uses the combo of fast and slow motion in fight scenes is a lot more sensible and interesting than others have done. Anushka Shetty's Devasena is the BEST thing by far about this sequel. Unlike Tamanna's Avantika from Pt 1, who meekly sat down once the **HERO** turned up, Devasena is a sexy, feisty firebrand that gives as good as she gets. The scene where she and baap-BB are fighting side by side smolders with sensuous camaraderie, precisely what was missing in the first film. She is also the perfect Draupadi to Ramya Krishna's Gandhari/Kaikeyi and their saans-bahoo confrontations generate sparks (Nasser's Dhridarashtra is more akin to a Shakuni / Manthara).

Part of my frustration has to do with the narrative structure. Part 1 had the responsibility of introducing all the characters and the colorful world they inhabit. I expected that in the second instalment the pace would be significantly accelerated, considering there was so much ground to cover. But the flashback segment just went on an on, with a large segment devoted to another wooing exercise, this time between father BB and Devasena. While there is nothing so distasteful as the disrobing / molestation scene in Pt 1, this should have IMO been handled more quickly and without wasteful song sequences - I doubt anyone from the audience would say "Oh, I won't watch BB2 because it has no / less songs". What makes it particularly galling is that for all the epic scale, the personalities and emotions are so simplistic it does not for me justify the time spent. Bhallaladeva's Duyodhana/Ravana mix could have made for a more layered antagonist, but no, he's purely EVIL [all caps]. And [SPOILER]for all the suspense raised over why Katappa killed father BB, simply saying "I was ordered to" comes off as a damp squib and reduces one's respect for the character if he's going to be a blind cuck. Even Nazi officers who ran concentration camps and gas chambers said they were following orders, how are his actions any more redeemable?[/SPOILER].

Because of the unbalanced pacing, all that there's time for after the flashback is the revenge climax, which hugely short-changes the current characters. Tamanna's role is so tiny it can't even be called a cameo, why then bother having a female "lead" then? Rajamouli has some great ideas and a grand sense of scale, but he also seems to have been fatigued by the rigor of working on such a massive project and lost focus amidst all the threads. Eega was fun from beginning to end (well, at least from where the fly made an appearance), because he took one interesting idea and played it to maximum potential. Here he juggles with too many eggs and a fair number slip his grasp.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Dreams [dir. Akira Kurosawa]

Akira Kurosawa's 1990 magic realism journey does not have a central plot but is a portmanteau with the script evolving from, as the title suggests, actual dreams the film-maker had. To  get the most from it one needs to understand a little of Kurosawa as a person.

Kurosawa came from Samurai lineage and his childhood was steeped in old-world Japanese tradition that respected nature and the change of seasons. In Something Like An Autobiography, he recounts how when a child, his father used to send him out in the morning with a fishing net, cooking pot and bare essentials, with instructions to not return before sundown; he had to fish in the stream if he wanted lunch. The opening segments of Dreams reflect on our relationship with nature. In Sunshine Through the Rain a little boy (from a family called Kurosawa), slips out against his mother's advice into the woods and espies a wedding procession of "foxes", only to be told he can return home after he has begged forgiveness for his transgression from the angry foxes. The Peach Orchard's child protagonist is berated by a gallery of living dolls, representing the spirits of peach trees, for the culling of the titular orchard by his family.

The Blizzard takes inspiration from the same folk legend that inspired the Yuki Onna segment in Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan - a group trudging through snowy mountainous terrain is caught in a heavy storm, and one by one succumb to the elements and even the leader finds himself growing powerless and sleepy in the arms of the Snow Queen. Nature takes a different role, as the muse and inspiration for art in Crows, the episode devoted to Van Gogh. Played by Martin Scorsese, the painter is depicted as one obsessed with and compelled by nature to make his art.

In The Tunnel, a lament on war, a military commander goes through a tunnel and is faced by the walking corpses of his erstwhile unit. He apologises for having led them into a conflict both futile and fatal. In a final tearful command, he orders them to march back into the tunnel whence they came. Both Mount Fuji in Red and The Weeping Demon express Kurosawa's strident anti-nuclear stance, something he had dealt with earlier in the drama I Live in Fear. One talks about the state of panic induced by a nuclear catastrophe and the other is a grim fairy tale set in the aftermath of radioactive fallout.

Kurosawa who was a master of innovative film-making was apparently a technophobe in other aspects of life (''Modern technology and and I do not get along. My son tells me I look like a chimpanzee when I try to dial the telephone, and it would be hopeless for me to try to drive a car.''). Dreams' last segment - Village of the Watermills - speaks of a utopian return to an older way of living, of forgoing technological advancement and its accompanying effects in favor of settling to a slower rhythm, in greater harmony with nature.

Anyone who has seen Kurosawa's films will recognize in Dreams, the auteur's philosphies. Kurosawa's approach to his story-telling was always simple and direct, rarely dabbling in artistic ambiguities or playing with the perception of the audience. In consequence, the messages conveyed through the various segments of Dreams (respect nature, simple living is good, nuclear proliferation is BAD!) can come across as heavy-handed. But the visual expression of his ideas is powerful - the rhythmic procession of the "foxes", the dance of the peach orchard "dolls", the march of the dead soldiers, the Van Gogh landscapes through which the protagonist walks before meeting the man himself, raging Mt Fuji, the watermills village - His sensibilities as a painter get full reign here and, in conjunction with Shinichiro Ikebe's moving score, make Dreams a memorable and highly rewatchable experience from his fimography.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Giant's Dream [dir. Anthony Giacchino]

What if a gun had a soul and didn’t want to be a gun?

It's rare that making of's or special features content for movies feature anything truly insightful, but The Giant's Dream, an approximately hour-long documentary included on Warner's blu-ray of Brad Bird's underappreciated animation classic The Iron Giant is wonderful in its own right. It starts off with charting Brad's life right from when he was a prodigy kid keenly interested in animation who got invited to visit Disney's animation studio after they saw a rough demo reel of his version of The Tortoise and the Hare and was enrolled into arts school on an animation scholarship. It covers his discontented early stint at Disney where he was constantly at loggerheads with the play-safe management to the point of quitting his childhood dream workplace (Later he was invited by Pixar's John Lassetter and went on to do The Incredibles).

Biding his time with TV's The Simpsons and other projects Brad got his next shot at feature animation, ironically after the success of 90's Disney animated ventures, which goaded other studios like Warner to get into the game. Eschewing the trend of child-oriented musicals, Brad concocted (apparently without consulting his team) the tale of the bond between a kid and a hulking robot with massive capacity for destruction. Somewhere behind his take on Ted Hughes' source story was the death of his sister killed in a gun violence incident by her husband.

The Iron Giant had only a fraction of the budget and prep time awarded to the typical Disney feature and the team included a lot of novices or retired animators, since the cream of the crop headed to Disney. The docu looks frankly at the often troubled production, with tight resource crunch and disinterest from the studio (they wanted to get out of the animation business after the failure of their previous venture Quest for Camelot) leading to protracted conflict between Brad and his producer Allison Abbate (who says diffidently in the docu that she would not want to work with him again). While the project was allowed to be completed (in one way the disinterest was a boon as there was no interference as well), Warner had neglected laying out any significant advance publicity for the film, none of the tie-ups and merchandising that garner the public's attention. So while the film did well with critics, it was a commercial bomb, which only later gained second wind as an undermined classic.

The documentary charts all this history superbly with tons of archival video and the use of still and semi-animated illustrations in Brad Bird's style depicting the significant events related to his life and the making of the film. What could have been just a series of talking head interviews is put forth in a terrific visual language that pays tribute to its subject's creativity.

The Iron Giant is a true American classic of animation and The Giant's Dream is an incisive and emotional journey into its creation.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Voices [dir. Marjane Satrapi]

Deadpool may have garnered the hype and box office, but in my opinion this little black comedy from 2014 is more entertaining and a better showcase for Ryan Reynolds' abilities.
Unless you go into the film absolutely blind, and not likely for long even then, it becomes evident that Reynolds' character is a "special person". Like the munchkin lead of The Lego Movie, Reynolds believes "Everything is Awesome!", as he goes about his job at the bath fixtures company (with its dazzling bright pink aesthetic on everything, including workers' overalls, forklifts and cartons). He enthusiastically participates in setting up the company party and tries (too) hard to attract the attention of the office hottie (Gemma Atherton). He also regularly visits a state psychiatrist who constantly badgers him about taking his medication (uh-oh). And he has a dog and cat, Bosco and Mr. Whiskers respectively...who he talks to...and who talk back to him.

It's the curse of the under-confident person, I get discomfited by films / TV series where the humor is at the expense of someone's embarrassment, which is why I did not see more than the stray episode of Wilfred (in which the dysfunctional lead character sees his neighbor's dog as an anthropomorphic talking entity), but I can see how it could have been the inspiration for Reynold's interaction with his chatty friends - Bosco represents the angel archetype telling Reynolds he's "a good boy", while Mr. Whiskers is, like many cats, an unapologetic A-Hole. The film gets more drama when Reynolds ends up accidentally(?) murdering the hottie, and tries to (ahem) bury the issue by taking home the body, chopping it into little bits and keeping her head in the refrigerator; as it turns out, that's only the start of a chain of events.

What differentiates The Voices from other bizarre comedies is that it's not content with drawing easy giggles. Reynold's character may be a Norman Bates stereotype (there is even a deliberate wink to that inspiration), but he is developed with sensitivity and dimension, and the script succeeds in making you feel for this murderous bumbler. There is also intelligent use of visual cues to differentiate between Reynolds' fantasy world and reality.

There are some stumbles, like when a literal conga line of Reynolds' colleagues come snooping around his home instead of alerting the police even after they have uncovered enough indications to raise the flag of suspicion, but the film does not overreach its grasp and I found sufficient charm and that magic blend of humor and pathos to overlook these deficiencies.