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.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Emmanuelle [dir. Just Jaeckin]

Whatever I expected from a film described on the back blurb of the blu-ray case as "the seminal soft core porn classic", it certainly wasn't hearing a wholesale ripoff of legendary prog rock band King Crimson's Lark's Tongue in Aspic Part II used as a soundtrack theme. Stealing it was, but I have to admire the gumption of (ha!) composer Pierre Bachelet to imagine that gnarly intimidating track as a serenade to nearly every major sex scene in the film, and some of the reworkings using flute and acoustic percussion ain't half bad.

 For the rest, Emmanuelle sets the E(u)rotic movie pattern. The titular heroine (Sylvia Kristel, very easy on the eye) is the archetype fish out of water in exotic Thailand where she has come to join her husband Jean (Daniel Sarky) - as Roger Ebert describes in his review "a world of wicker furniture, soft pastels, vaguely Victorian lingerie, backlighting, forests of potted plants, and lots of diaphanous draperies shifting in the breeze". Add to that description, a batch of native servants who like to spy on their employer's sexual activities and in turn carry out their own physical comedies.

Jean claims to want Em to not feel tied to him, and to try out any sexual experiments she wants. But it would appear in fact that little Jean wants her to be liberated only in the shallow unromantic manner he and his society of expats indulge in. When she ignores the clique of bored grope-happy neighbors and falls for a winsome lady archeologist (Marika Green), he shows himself a jealous husband like any other. Sylvia's scenes with Marika are some of the best in the film, sexy, funny and carrying a palpable sense of romance. Most of the sex thus far is of the tame variety, pleasant to look at without being outright fap material (unless you're in your teens, in which case little isn't).

After she is sent off by Marika, Em returns to Jean who then coaxes her to go with aging Casanova Mario (Alain Cuny). Mario looks somewhat like David Lynch and talks like you would expect Lynch to, if you knew him only from his movies, a lot of solemn balderdash. Mario's ideas of sexual liberation take the film into queasy territory, including a gang rape sequence and later one where Em is made the prize of a Thai boxing bout. She accepts these situations with questionable equanimity and we must believe that they contribute to her erotic awakening. Maybe it's just me, but I find the frank exploitation scenes of Zakhmi Aurat or Savage Streets more palatable than such arty rape fantasies.

Still, for most of its running time, Emmanuelle is a pleasant trip with good looking actors, ravishing locales, lovely soft focus photography (Richard Suzuki)...and yes, large swathes of Larks Tongue in Aspic Part Sex.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Kavaludaari [dir. Hemanth M Rao]

Last night, on a friend's recommendation, I tried the recent Kannada flick Kavaludaari (Crossroads) on Amazon Prime.

In the story, a frustrated traffic cop (Rishi) wants to be a crime-solver and after a road excavation reveals decades old bones, obsessively aims to solve a long-closed case on his own. In his quest he meets with a scoop hungry journalist (Achyut Kumar) and later the cop who did the original investigation, now a disheveled drunk (the legendary Anant Nag). Whether they manage to solve the crime and bring justice forms the rest of the film.

Kavaludaari has a fantastic first half, in which we see Rishi's cop single-mindedly digging into the case. I appreciate that Rishi is shown as a novice detective finding his way with a mixture of amiability and doggedness, than the obnoxious sociopathic know-it-all favored by modern crime shows. Director Hemanth Rao essays a terrific visual showcase of past events as seen through Rishi's perspective, even incorporating them as part of a song that pushes the story forward. Rishi in this role has a very approachable presence and one empathizes with his character's desire to rise above his job. The entry of Anant Nag at a pivotal point adds another color. In his initial appearance as the rundown loner ex-cop Nag is so very convincing with his slovenly appearance, unsteady gait and trembling lips, it is almost disturbing. To the script's credit it doesn't immediately bow down to the bigger star - Nag's senior cop is a strong support to Rishi's investigation but does not supplant him.

So far so amazing. Alas, once the main baddie is revealed, which is a good while before the end, it succumbs to convention with muhahaha type "let me explain my masterful scheme" villainy, eye-rolling masala revenge, casual disregard of previously revealed details and leaps of logic that sully the precise and methodical way the film was built up till that point. There are still interesting visual metaphors and the actors are sincere, but it certainly falls short of the tense mystery-noir thriller it could have been. Still, damn it that first half certainly made it worth the while.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Super Deluxe [dir. Thiagarajan Kumararaja]

It would seem these days that making a film with a single plot is no longer good enough. No, if there is one thing that Mr. Tarantino has taught us, it is that multiple stories must must twist around and crash into one another, especially if one wants to build a cult value around it. Perhaps I'm being unnecessarily critical here - Thiagarajan Kumararaja (let's call him TK for convenience) is certainly an ambitious maker. I haven't seen his previous Aaranya Kaandam (Incident in the Forest), but it carried a lot of word for style quotient, and given the significant degree of acclaim for Super Deluxe (SD) - resulting in a far more widespread release than the typical Tamil film, with English subtitles to boot - I was eager to check out the work of the new dog and his new tricks.

In both the good and bad senses of the term, SD is a messy affair, with multiple writers including TK himself (who I assume wrote the overall framework), Myshkin (of Pisaasu fame, who also plays a role here) and Nalan Kumaraswamy (Soodhu Kavvum) and multiple cinematographers. At least some of the messiness appears to be deliberate, as though TK wants us to not just see the finished product, but the individual fingermarks in the material. The story of a precocious young boy (Ashwanth Ashokkumar) waiting for the return of the father that had long abandoned his mother is mixed with the misadventures of three horny teens scheming to watch a porn film ("Mallu Uncut" being the title given to their obscure object du désir) and again with a married woman (Samantha Akkineni)'s sexual tryst with a former flame ending with his death in her home.

Initially the tone in all the episodes is lightly humorous, the sort of deadpan banter Tamil cinema does best. The boy's father turns out a transvestite (Vijay Sethupati, effective and immensely courageous), the porn film features the mother of one of the boys (Ramya Krishnan), unspooling its own set of spiraling consequences, the married woman and her cuckolded husband (Fahadh Faasil) having to work together to get rid of the body. But the seams are already beginning to show: the shifts between narratives are not always organic, and to my mind the film would have done better to snip one of the plot threads (the corpse cover-up episode in my view most of the time seems its own film).

As the film progresses further the differences grow more starkly. The transvestite father episode gets more emotionally intense (Myshkin-like?), the horny teens segment is still trying to generate laughs (Kumaraswamy?), while the neo-noir husband-wife-body part still seems like a forced appendage. It may seem here like I am saying that a film should have the same tone throughout. I can understand that generating a different feel for each thread can be its own special experiment, but I am saying that for me, it seemed like an exercise for the sake of, especially when the joints where they fuse become more unwieldy. The over-the-top sleazy cop who is so apt for the femme infidèle segment is too cartoonish for the transvestite thread. There is a scene where the transvestite confesses a shocking crime, one you imagine will never cease to haunt her, but the script feels obliged to give each of its branches a happy ending and in this one it just feels forced.

I also felt there was a significant element of soap-boxing. Characters give sermons about discrimination, social / religious hypocrisy, universal oneness in an obvious manner, and Fahadh's rants come across as director mouthpieces than something his character's mind would come up with. A great screenplay is not one that has worked out all its flaws, but one whose strengths keep you sufficiently engrossed to gloss over them. The contrivances that occurred in Soodhu Kavvum seemed a natural part of its zany universe. In SD, I was pulled out by logical inconsistencies and deus ex machina because I could not give over my suspension of disbelief to the material. There are some terrific individual scenes here (the transvestite's confession in the subway, the immediate aftermath of the kid learning that his mom was a porn actress, the sleazy cop terrorizing the couple) but I felt that TK should have better respected the material by with less of cramming events, shifting viewpoints and too-clever-by-half twists.

I must confess here that apart from a few references, like the Star Wars theme (on a nadaswaram), and some of the references made to older Tamil films, I did not have the background for a lot of the film's clever homages (a friend had to explain the context for the song Ennadi Meenatchi and that a henchman character's t-shirt said F.U.C.K. in Tamil).

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Adventures of Captain Marvel [dirs. William Whitney & John English]

Of course when I should have been working I binge-watched through the remaining episodes of the 1941 movie serial Adventures of Captain Marvel (AoCM). Still considering that apart from the pilot, all episodes are 15min each, that's only a couple hours lost. Plus the time to write this up :p 

I can definitely see why DC lost their shit and sued over the original Captain Marvel comic book character. Apart from a magical origin (when the Tintin-like Billy Batson is given a boon to turn into CM by uttering the word "Shazam!"), the Superman parallels are unmistakable - the Capt has super-strength, is invulnerable to bullets and can fly. The movie serial also has its Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen characters in Batson's colleagues Betty Wallace and Whitey Murphy.

The serial follows an archaeological expedition into a Valley of Tombs in Siam (although it could have as well been Egypt, considering how vague the setting is). The very doings that give Batson his CM power also reveal a Golden Scorpion with a half-dozen lenses which when combines make a ray that vaporises living beings and turns base metals to gold, so yep every megalomaniac's dream. The megalomaniac here is one Scorpion who hides behind a most cumbersome robe and mask. The expedition members decide to split the lenses among themselves for safekeeping but the Scorpion is determined to track and hunt them down. Every episode till the finale ends on a cliffhanger note.

Unlike the ethical codes followed by more modern heroes (the non R-rated ones, at least), CM has no qualms about gunning down unarmed men or throwing them off the tops of cliffs and buildings. Separate actors play the parts of Billy Batson (Frank Coghlan Jr.) and Captain Marvel (Weightlifter-turned-actor Tom Tyler, whose buff looks make him quite convincing and he gets to lift and throw a lot of folks or their dummies). The visual effects are pretty good for the time and budget. Even when the technique is obvious, like the use of a full-size dummy along a pulley system, there's a special thrill to the flying sequences.

AoCM is a nice harkback to the simpler goofier kind of superhero adventure, recommended mainly for the Golden Age nostalgics.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Kalakalapu [dir. Sundar C]

Madcap caper comedy is a hard thing to pull off. You need a tightly paced script with good gags and actors with great timing...and you need to know where to stop; strain too hard and it falls apart. Unlike the often brilliant and even-in-its-most-indulgent-moments interesting Soodhu Kavvum, 2012's Kalakalapu (KK) is more a "what could have been" good movie than what is.

KK's story introduces us to Seenu (Vimal), a modest day-dreamer struggling to keep afloat a family heirloom restaurant. Each time the fellow thinks his luck has finally changed (he even gets excited at the prospect of a sit-in political protest near his hostelry, which promises thousands of hungry mouths), shit happens and he is in a bigger (ha!) soup than before. His creditors are constantly baying at the door, and even the woman he falls for at first sight (Anjali) turns out to be a food inspector who hands his restaurant a "shape up or shut down" notice. Just when Seenu feels life couldn't get more complicated, his brother Raghu (Shiva) is released from prison. An affable rogue and compulsive gambler, Raghu has no qualms about stealing what is not freely available. He finds his romantic succor in the cook's granddaughter (Oviya), this film's version of what critic Baradwaj Rangan cutely refers to as Tamil cinema's trademark loosu ponnu (bird-brain) heroine. In an ungainly way the script veers between Seenu's efforts to get the restaurant going, differences with Raghu, his love life troubles and the additional complications brought in by the Brownian back-and-forth of a mobile phone case hiding 10 crores worth of diamonds.

KK gets some things right, mainly in its casting. There are no 'superstar' / 'megastar' / 'ilaya thalapathi' names in the roll-call. The male leads Vimal and Shiva are credible middle-of-the-road hero types (no scuplted abs or slow-motion intro shots), and they have great chemistry with each other and the rest of the cast. Even when they are clearly disjointed items there is a lot of spark in the supporting roles: The creditor (Ilavarasu) forced to don a variety of disguises after he is fooled by Raghu into badmouthing the local inspector, the conked constable who becomes a showreel of famous cop impersonations from Tamil movies...of special mention is the modern day YG Mahendran avatar Santhanam as the puffed-up toughie rival to Seenu's affections for his girl. Especially in the second half there are some inspired crazy caper sequences.

But KK could have been a much better film if not for the script letdowns. Several plot lines are left as hanging threads. Not to say that other characters are all well-rounded but the heroines are noticeably underwritten, with more attention to their midriffs than their personalities. The premise of Seenu's flame being a food inspector is only used to generate a spot of comic friction before being entirely dropped; she is later reduced to a hanger-on waiting to be rescued from a forced marriage. Raghu's loosu ponnu is defined more by her outfits than by the writing.  Caper films like Soodhu Kavvum and Hindi cinema's 99 also had glam girls, but they were a more seamless part of the plot. The bit about reworking the restaurant as a traditional food joint is also dispensed with in a scene and a song. Santhanam is energetic, but he needed sharper and more substantial material to work with.

As a "movie night with mum" on Netflix however, Kalakalapu is decent entertainment with some chortle-inducing moments amidst the muddled filler.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Uri - The Surgical Strike [dir. Aditya Dhar]

Indian cinema's history of military films has been spotty. Unlike Hollywood's close ties with the US armed forces allowing the studios access to military equipment and manpower, relevant technical information and other resources, in return for a positive heroic showcase to the public of the actions of these forces (and cushy consultant positions with showbiz exposure for current and former military personnel), there are at most a handful of such collaborations out here. Then there is the matter of wedding a battlefield story to the stereotype ingredient-based melodrama structure of mainstream Indian films down the ages. Pushing aside the ones where the protagonist being a soldier is just a throwaway backdrop detail for a standard Bollywood product, it is hardly a surprise that we have very few military action focused movies (and only a subset of those have reflected contemporary / near contemporary events). Chetan Anand's Haqeeqat (1964) inspired by the Sino-Indian war of 1962, would appear to have established the paradigm subsequent desi battlefield narratives styled themselves upon. In the more recent past JP Dutta contributed to the Indian war movie genre with Border (1997), LoC Kargil (2003) and Paltan (2018). But these films in order offered steeply diminishing returns, on account of shamelessly rehashed story and character beats, and reduced quality of execution. Almost the only Indian film that seriously explores the soldier's psyche and his place in society is actor-director Nana Patekar's 1991 film Prahaar (and even that eschews the military backdrop in its second half).

Which is not to say that Aditya Dhar's ambitious debut film, based on the covert military ops carried out by Indian armed forces in enemy territory defies convention. Here again you have the heroic Indian soldier, who having faced tragedy from terrorism / foreign aggression, goes on a mission of national (and to some extent personal) vendetta to tell the enemy that their actions will, following Newton's Third Law, cause equal and opposite reactions. Critic Baradwaj Rangan's review has even likened it in outline to 80's Bollywood gratuitous revenge dramas like Hukumat (1987). But there is a focus and visceral propulsion in Uri's execution that invigorates the genre for Indian cinema. In few and bold strokes the film introduces its small cast of main characters and sets up the central conflict, the attack on the army camp at Uri in Kashmir by four insurgents who ended up murdering 21 soldiers before they were felled. The tragic blow to the armed forces and the nation at large is supplemented by a sense of personal loss when our protagonist covert ops specialist Major Vihaan (Vicky Kaushal) loses his brother-in-law to that massacre. Vihaan, who had by then shifted to a desk job to care for his ailing mother (a dignified if prop-like Swaroop Sampat), asks to be reinstated to field operations in the retaliation planned by the Indian army.

The entire second half of the film is devoted to the mechanics of planning and execution of the retaliation through "surgical strikes" hitting terrorist training camps in enemy territory - reconnaissance of enemy locations, gathering information through spies and from captured hostiles, detailing of operation parameters and preparation of the people involved in the actual op. Unlike an all-out war with rank-and-file soldiers, the surgical strikes employed a select band of elite warriors armed with rigorous training and technological aid. Modern combat rifles, night-vision goggles, binoculars with face recognition tech, body-mounted cameras, surveillance drones - as much as anything else, the film serves as a showcase for the sophistication and technical competence of the Indian armed forces as a world-class fighting force. The visual slickness is complimented by the laser-sighted focus of the script - there's no time wasted on throwaway romances (none of the women in the film are love interests), cloying religious integration (Vihaan passes by a group of his team members offering namaz but no big deal is made of it),  no one makes big speeches and the patriotism is not expressed through bovine-tempered never-ending ballads. The film revels in a spirit of (positive-minded) aggressive nationalism. At the same time, it is careful not to espouse a tasteless political bias. The characters standing in for real-life politicians are shown to be supportive of military decisions, but not directing them; Rajit Kapur may be made up like Narendra Modi but he behaves with a restraint lacking in the real McCoy.

There are of course the usual exaggerations and fabrications of any mainstream film. A bird-shaped drone used for overhead spying is shown to be the brainchild of a college intern at the DRDO (even if it was, wouldn't the army just ask the kid to write down the instructions instead of depending on him to take part in actual espionage ops?). The enemy is depicted as an indolent moron - Pak military council members shown to be more interested in golf and yakhni pulao than studying India's response to their activities, none of the militant camps have watch towers or night sentries - and the Indian soldiers have almost no worthwhile challenge in carrying out the mission (you're making stuff up anyway, why not invent things that add more tension in the narrative?). But as part of the new breed of Bollywood cinema, Uri-TSS is commendable. Some years ago, such a vehicle would have been unthinkable without a big star name attached and all the baggage that comes with that. Vicky Kaushal is not the first name that comes up when you think action hero, but he turned out to be the perfect choice. He invests himself physically and mentally into the character of Major Vihaan, and infuses him with a controlled exterior and an inner fire (how you wish some of this attitude had shown in his Raazi character). When he gets his slow-motion walk towards the end of the film, you feel he has earned it. The supporting actors (Paresh Rawal, Mohit Raina, Kirti Kulhari, Yami Gautam) may not sport well-rounded characterizations but they have defined roles and are not just props to accentuate the protagonist. Unlike other Indian military and patriotic films, Uri refrains from endless brandishing of the national flag / anthem, seeking instead to interest Generation Now in how cool and exciting an armed forces life can be for those that can handle the pressure...and yes, being terrific popcorn entertainment for the rest of us.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Murder by Death [dir. Robert Moore]

Written by Neil Simon (The Odd Couple, The Sunshine Boys), 1976's Murder by Death (MbD) is a spoof on classic archetype sleuth stories / films. The sleuths of MbD - barely veiled variations on the famous fictional detectives including Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Nick and Nora Charles (from The Thin Man series), Charlie Chan and Sam Spade - are "cordially invited to a dinner and a murder". They congregate at a remotely located mansion where they are greeted by a blind butler (There's a deaf-mute cook too, and as you may well guess, the combination makes for some peculiar circumstances). The major parts in this farce are played by a bevy of stars including Alec Guinness (irrepressible as the blind butler), David Niven, Maggie Smith, Peter Falk and, oh yes, Peter Sellers caricaturing to the hilt as the Charlie Chan character.

After assorted bits of comedy for the introduction and settling down of each sleuth party in their strange host's home they settle down to dinner, during which, in a nod to Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians / And Then There Were None, the host makes his appearance in the flamboyant form of Truman Capote and challenges each of them with the prize of a million dollars to solve by dawn a murder that is to occur at midnight (and I'm not sure he didn't say In Cold Blood), while failure will mean the loss of their reputations.

MbD is a no-holds-barred farce on the stereotype rigmarole of the whodunit. It has interesting elements, like the culture clash between the genteel fastidious sort of detective Christie created and the hardboiled gumshoe dick. Some of the comedy like the scenes played between Guinness' sightless butler and the deaf-mute cook for the dinner party is priceless. But given the premise and the stellar cast I expected greater sparkle. Beyond the introduction of the different sleuths, there is not as much fun extracted from their interaction. And Sellers' Oriental detective is problematic. I wouldn't have minded the racial stereotype so much (apparently Sellers had deliberately heightened the caricature to draw attention to the silliness of white people playing non-white roles) if it was actually funny, but most of it is just awkward. And while one understands that the script aims to poke fun at the ludicrousness one comes across in the denouement of many suspense stories, MbD's climax feels cloyingly overdone. I was looking for a comfortably funny film spoofing my favorite genre, but this one with all its promise doesn't quite hit the mark.

For those interested in details of the blu-ray from Shout Factory:
The disc features a rather decent transfer although the image is not free of age-related damage, and the compression (especially in the scenes of fog) is a little suspect. The lossless mono audio is fine within limitations, with a nice boost to the music. Extras include an okey-dokey short interview with Neil Simon (in which he mostly seems to describe specific scenes of the film) an audio commentary by a Mr. Lee Gambin (who seems to refer to everybody as incredible and makes such wincing gaffes that I turned it off after a while).