Sunday, June 9, 2024

Godzilla Minus One [dir. Takashi Yamazaki]

You have to wonder, when Ishiro Honda helmed the first Godzilla film in 1954, did he have any inkling at the time of the enduring cinematic icon he was to forge? 70 years and 37 films later (and that's discounting the American studio films), his monstrous reptilian creation has been villain and hero, monster and god. In Honda's original film, Godzilla personified the horror of the destruction wreaked upon Japan  by nuclear explosives. It was a serious melodrama punctuated with memorable scenes of monster destruction. Later installments brought a more comic-book sensibility. Godzilla, either as destroyer or protector, grappled with other outsized creatures or technological threats in battles that increasingly resembled costumed wrestling bouts. 2016's Shin Godzilla was a return to roots for the franchise, re-emphasizing the big G as a nigh-insurmountable force of destruction upon humanity. My only issue was that the film's satire on the red-tapism of  Japanese bureaucracy while dealing with the Fukushima crisis took up huge swathes of the narrative without being dramatically interesting.

The long gap till the next live-action Godzilla feature was primarily on account of a no-competition agreement between franchise owner Toho and Hollywood based Legend Entertainment who'd obtained a license to make their own set of Monsterverse pictures featuring Godzilla with other giant creatures in more technologically advanced versions of the costumed wrestling bouts. The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic further postponed the project from 2019-2022. But it would seem that the additional time was well used by writer director Takashi Yamazaki, because at least in my humble opinion, Godzilla Minus One (GMO) has the best human drama in a Godzilla film since the 1954 original.

Set in the aftermath of WW2, when Japan is still reeling under the loss of the war and the untold destruction of the atomic bomb, the film is yet another reboot of the giant reptile's cinematic legend. Our protagonist Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) is a kamikaze pilot landed on the repair base on Odo island, ostensibly due to technical issues. The aircraft technician Tachibana (Munetaka Aoki) rightly guesses that Shikishima has abandoned the mission, not wanting to throw his life away on a lost cause. That night, Godzilla in a smaller avatar emerges from the sea and attacks the base. Shikishima's fear paralyses him from trying to save the island crew from the creature.

After Shikishima returns to a ravaged Japan, he meets young Noriko (Minami Hamabe), a survivor who has adopted an orphaned baby, and they form a makeshift family. But like Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim (or its Bollywood inspiration in Amitabh Bachchan's Vijay Pal Singh from Kaala Patthar) Shikishima cannot escape guilt over his cowardice. It colors his whole outlook, reflects even in his choice of profession, clearing deep sea mines off the Japanese coast. In this situation, he faces the return of an old nightmare - Godzilla resurfaces, now several times bigger and more powerful, an angry God laying waste all around while every attempt to counter him fails miserably.

Unlike the Hollywood Godzilla films (and several of Toho's own), GMO's human characters are not dull fodder to endure while awaiting the next episode of monster mayhem. In fact Shikishima's saga of failure and eventual redemption is the main story here, and people looking purely for monster thrills should check their expectations. That's not to say that the film lacks in destructive spectacle, far from it. Director Yamazaki was himself responsible for the visual FX which garnered the Oscar for Best Visual Effects for what it achieved on a fraction of Hollywood budgets. Like in Shin Godzilla, the big G is a unstoppable force. The recreation of the iconic scene from the '54 film where Godzilla attacks a train gives one goosebumps. Shusuke Kaneko's genre-revitalizing kaiju films  from the 90's are also respectfully referenced. The more somber arc of this narrative means that humans must pay a heavy price for the destruction the monster wreaks. But it is in the face of ultimate crisis that from our innermost recesses we dig out hope.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Furiosa - A Mad Max Saga [dir. George Miller]

It's general acclaim notwithstanding, many Mad Max fanboys were not pleased that the franchise's last installment Fury Road was less a Max showcase and more a film about its female protagonist Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Now 9 years later, this prequel goes even further in that direction, focusing entirely on the origins of the renegade woman warrior. Max is seen only in a single shot, replicating the one at the beginning of Fury Road.

We first meet Furiosa as a little girl from an unmapped oasis, kidnapped by raiders when she goes foraging. Her brave mother embarks on a rescue mission, but is killed by the horde of bad guy Dementus (Chris Hemsworth). Dementus imprisons little Furiosa to know the location of her oasis, but is soon forced to give her up to Citadel ruler Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme filling in for the late Hugh Keays-Byrne). To escape the fate of joining Joe's harem, Furiosa shaves her head to disguise herself as a boy, and works for the Citadel garage. Later as an adult (Anya Taylor-Joy from The Menu), she shows her mettle in an astounding vehicle combat sequence that demonstrates helmer George Miller's continued mastery of the craft. This earns her the respect of Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke), the Citadel's 'War Rig' driver, who then furthers her education in survival.

An aging Dementus reappears on the scene, engineering treachery to take over the citadel. Amidst the battle between the different factions in the wasteland, Furiosa must obtain her revenge and her release. As you may expect, there is a good amount of combat here, both on vehicles and off. Anya Taylor-Joy gives a decent account of herself as the taciturn constantly wary warrior, and she is certainly up for the physical demands of the role, which I had not expected from seeing her as the cigarette-huffing stick-figured girl in The Menu. But it is Chris Hemsworth who seems to be having the most fun. His Dementus is by turns a blusterer, a comic, a megalomaniac, a traitor...yet in the end he almost wins our sympathy with a superbly delivered monologue about how vengeance never takes away the pain. It finally leads to the point where Furiosa's mission in Fury Road begins.

At nearly 2.5 hours, the prequel is significantly longer than Fury Road. A lot of the time is spent on identifying the different factions and their politics. It's not Shakespearean drama, and some of it more in the vein of video game cut-scenes. Thankfully these proceedings (marked by portentous chapter stops) are sufficiently punctuated with enough blistering action to make the whole dish palatable. Once again, Miller shows how to conduct scenes of battle which are palpable and have a clear flow that makes them easy to follow.

While I would have liked for a more crisp adventure, I still had a good time at the cinema, which is really where you should be catching this spectacle.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

The Bat Woman [dir. Rene Cardona]

Directed by journeyman Rene Cardona (more infamous for Night of the Bloody Apes, which mixes  a Frankensteinian plot with wrestling), The Bat Woman aka La Mujer Murcielago is a Mexican cross between Adam West era Batman and Modesty Blaise. Leading lady Maura Monti's character Gloria is a multimillionaire socialite that uses her fortune to fight crime. As a bonus she is also a luchadora (costumed wrestler) called the Bat Woman. She dons a mask and a rather eye-catching outfit that takes major design cues from the Batman costume. How DC's legal dept wasn't immediately all over this is a mystery, but thanks heavens for that, because so far as copyright infringements go this is a load of fun.

Gloria / Bat Woman's adversary in this adventure is one Dr. Williams (Roberto Canedo), a mad scientist with an an Igor-like assistant called...oh hey...Igor (Carlos Suarez). Williams, as revealed from his monologues punctuated with bursts of evil laughter, aims to raise an army of amphibious fish-men. His plan involves extracting pineal fluid (a Lovecraftian touch?) from the bodies of wrestlers and doing...something...that involves goldfish and tiny man-dolls. It's patently absurd and the straight-faced manner the film gives it to you only makes it all the more funny. The fish-man suit is fairly nifty (a little like an orange version of the Creature from the Black Lagoon). This is an unpretentious goofy film, but it has a good deal going for it.

First off, The Bat Woman is gorgeous looking and colorful. It works as a kind of advert for the Acupulco locales, showcasing glitzy resorts alongside pristine beaches. And Maura Monti in the lead is a genuine star, exuding equal measures of sophistication and charm. Even in the skimpy bikini costume, neither she nor the film descend to sleaze territory. She takes guff from no one, and all the men - including the bad guys - treat her with deference. It may be naughty but it's still classy. Also, Monti does her own action and underwater scenes like a trooper. Only in the film's wrestling bouts she is replaced by a stunt person who has a noticeably thicker build.

Sadly, this is apparently one of less than a handful of headlining roles in her career. It would have been great if they could have exploited the Bat Woman character into a franchise similar to the El Santo films (assuming there were no cease-and-desist orders from DC). After she got married, Monti quit acting to step into journalism and eventually became an academic (NY Times bio link). But this film remains as a wonderful memory of her star appeal.

For those interested, a few words on the blu-ray release from Powerhouse/Indicator:

The 4K restoration sourced by Indicator for this release is first-rate, rich in color and filmic texture. Even the several underwater scenes  in the film look lovely. The lossless audio in the original Spanish language is clear and gives the bright jazzy score a nice boost. There are a slew of on-disc extras, including a recent interview with the 80-year old Monti - she has fond memories of the shoot and looks back on her various careers with affection and pride. There are some nice featurettes on Mexican fantasy cinema and on the Bat Woman legacy in Mexican pop culture. I wasn't so thrilled with David Wilt's feature commentary which, when not doling out IMDB style biographies of cast/crew, made inane sniggering comments about the onscreen proceedings. The LE version of the blu-ray uses a colorful digipak to keep the disc, which is housed inside a rigid slipcase, which also holds a hefty 80-page booklet. The booklet is stuffed with writing on the film, lucha libra cinema, luchadora culture, an archival interview with Monti and a biography of director Cardona.

Friday, May 10, 2024

Crimson Gold [dir. Jafer Panahi]

Iranian movie-maker Jafer Panahi first garnered an international name in 1995 with The White Balloon, a soul-warming realist fable with children. While White Balloon was a hopeful humanist film,  his 2003 feature Crimson Gold (scripted by his mentor and Iranian cinema giant Abbas Kiarostami) tells a far bleaker tale.

The film opens with a jewelry shop robbery in which the perpetrator attacks the owner, while his accomplice waits outside with a bike. He demands to see a jewel, and then asks for the safe keys. The attempt ends in the shop owner's murder, after which the criminal is pointing the gun to his own head.

The film shifts to a few days earlier: we see the to-be criminals Hossein (Hossein Emadeddin) and his sycophantic companion Ali (Kamyar Sheisi). They are wage workers at a pizza delivery. Hossein is a war veteran and is apparently taking medication for PTSD. Ali's sister is to marry Hossein. When they go to a high-end jewelry store they are turned out by the proprietor, advised to go to cheaper gold stores. We see that Hossein is deeply offended by the owner's condescension.

We then follow Hossein in various situations as he makes his deliveries: One customer turns out to be a former war comrade, who embarrassedly hands him a huge tip. In another place he is held up by the police staking out an apartment to arrest party-goers. One day, on his way to work, he sees a fellow pizza delivery man killed in an accident.

He then makes a delivery to a posh apartment, only for the customer to tell him that the girls he ordered pizza for have abruptly left. The young man (Pourang Nakhael) invites Hossein to come in and share the pizza, and proceeds to tell him his woes. He whines about the fickleness of women. He has come from America where his parents have shifted because he felt homesick for Tehran, and now finds himself a stranger in this country, living alone in an all too large house. For a while Hossein experiences the life of the rich, drinking wine from the man's fridge, even jumping into his swimming pool. Something triggers in him, and the next scene we see is the beginning of the robbery attempt that the film opened with, before the credits roll.

Panahi's film looks at class differences in his country and suggests that each class feels isolated and disenfranchised in its own way. There is an entropy that arises from a sense of collective hopelessness. This is a dark film - none of the characters seem to have any scope of real happiness. Hossein as a medicine-dazed ex-soldier slaving in a low-paying job where he is hassled by the police is representative of the abandonment of the people by those in power.

Kiarostami's script includes his favored motif of people driving around, and several scenes are conducted as bike rides through the city. Crimson Gold is definitely not a cheerful experience, but it's an interesting watch.

Monday, April 29, 2024

Aavesham [dir. Jithu Madhavan]

A close friend coined for me the "10% Rule" wherein supposedly I develop an immediate distaste for any piece of entertainment enjoyed by more than 10% of my friends list (this was before Facebook, when that phrase had a little more meaning). It is of course wholly untrue: I love Chennai Express and despise Ghostworld as much as all of you, so there.

Anyhoo, this came to mind because of the hype I encountered about Aavesham from Malayalees of my acquaintance as an "event" movie. With only a teaser that showed star Fahadh Faasil doing a dhappaankoothu dance number in bath-towel and glares, I went in without many preconceptions.

In Aavesham, Faasil's introduction is nearly a third into the film and one that flips over the usual "mass star" dick-waving even as it takes place in a urinal. And the build-up is its own interesting character, because the story's actual protagonists are a trio of Kerala teens (Mithun Jai Shankar, Hipzster and Roshan Shahnavaz) enrolled into engineering college in Bengaluru. A sly vein of humor outlines the difference between the expectations of college from these young men and their naive parents.

For a little while we see our guys spreading their wings; they're not wastrels, they just want to have a bit of fun alongside their education. Hipzster's Aju is the street-smart one, urging all the newcomers to go united as a gang to avoid getting hazed by the seniors. But when one of them gets too cocky, that plan backfires and they are subjected to a humiliating beating. Interestingly, the seniors gang leader Kutty (Midhutty) is not all sneer and brimstone. Once his ego is satisfied, he hands out drinks and calls them his 'bros', accepted members of his troupe. But Aju wants vengeance and comes up with the foolhardy scheme of befriending a local gangster to aid them.

It is in their trawling through shady local bars that our trio meets up with Ranga (Faasil). Ranga is a conglomeration of the archetypes of on-screen toughies. He wears an all-white outfit and is laden with gold jewelry. Branded sunglasses and a well-oiled handlebar mustache complete the outfit.

Ranga takes the kids under his wing and shows them a good time. Regaled with booze and legends of Ranga's badassery told by his burly right-hand-man Amban (Sajin Gopu), it isn't long before the colorful nightlife eats into their academic schedule. At last, taking the opportunity, they let Ranga know of their humiliation, coaxing him into exacting retribution from Kutty's gang. But all actions have consequences; so does their association with the gangster for the purpose of petty revenge.

On paper, Aavesham has a lot going for it. The 3 youngsters have the right combination of cockiness and naivete that you can believe their sticking together for this cockamamie business. It helps that there is no romantic sub-plot for any of them. For a while, there is a delicious ambiguity as to whether Ranga's past exploits are real or just tall stories; during most of the fights, the kids only see him barking instructions to his lackeys, not actually taking part. The writing and Faasil's commitment to a 'big' performance glorify the gangster archetype while simultaneously poking fun at it. Sajin Gopu provides an able foil to Faasil. Their Ranga and Amban have a rapport that pleasantly harks back to the Munnabhai-Circuit scenes from that franchise, and Faasil does not hesitate taking the character to psychotic extremes when needed.

In short, the ingredients are great, but alas, the final dish turns out overcooked. The major issue for me was, the pacing is way off on this one. What could have been a riveting and joyful sub-100 min black comedy (One part of the climax recalls a similar moment from The Shining) is stretched out to a fatiguing 160min. Ranga's full-vein swag is fun the first couple of times, but the movie piles it on ad nauseam. The sub-plot with Mansoor Ali Khan as Ranga's jealous ex-mentor Reddy is amusing in itself, but an unwieldy addition to an already stuffed narrative. Even with all its interesting bits the movie became a bit of an ordeal.

At the risk of my 'Mallu' friends sharpening their 'tools' to skewer me, I have to say that this Aavesham is marred by the 'anaavishyam' (excessive and unnecessary) amount of swag. YMMV.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Civil War [dir. Alex Garland]

55 years ago Haskell Wexler, known primarily as a cinematographer (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, In the Heat of the Night, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest), made a film called Medium Cool. Wexler's film was an auteur-driven enterprise, written, photographed edited, co-produced and directed by him. In it, a young Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) played a Chicago TV news cameraman dispassionately capturing sensationalist stories with his 16 mm in the period leading up to the rioting at the Democratic National Convention. While not a period of actual civil war, there was a strong element of unrest among the American people on account of opposition to the Vietnam War and the assassination of Equal Rights activist Martin Luther King. With its nouvelle vague inspired freewheeling journey, Medium Cool captured the zeitgeist of that period in a manner few films have. As critic Vincent Canby says in his review, it portrays "...a picture of America in the process of exploding into fragmented bits of hostility, suspicion, fear and violence."

Alex Garland's Civil War is set in an even more chaotic dystopian near-future, with the White House a fortress occupied by a Fascist dictator and the country torn apart by violent secession. Veteran combat photojournalist Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) and her comrade Joel (Elite Squad and Narcos fame Wagner Moura) plan to travel from Brooklyn to DC to interview the president. Tagging along is their mentor Sammy (Stephen Henderson). Sammy has played the game a long time, but now he's "too old and fat to run", even to save his life. They have another fellow traveler in Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) a wet-behind-the-ears novice lugging around her father's film camera. Having seen her lose it at a riot event they previously met at, Lee is reluctant to take the girl on board, but Sammy and Joel convince her.

In their road journey to the capital, the group see violence in multiple forms, including armed assault, cruel vigilantism and even mass civilian murder by militia groups. Garland dishes out some mordant humor: The once-almighty US dollar is shown to be hugely devalued ($300 can only buy a ham / cheese sandwich). In a shootout between two bands of snipers, one of the men mockingly answers Joel's question about which faction they are fighting with "The guys trying to shoot us".

While Garland originated as a writer, the most gripping parts of Civil War are the visuals (DoP Rob Hardy, who handled cinematography for Garland's previous features Ex Machina, Annihilation and Men). The scenes of rioting and armed conflict are captured with veritable intensity. Garland also uses the  full height of the IMAX screen, especially noticeable in the scenes where helicopters glide over troubled vistas or during the large scale climactic battle in the capital. The format also gives tremendous depth of field and a 'window effect' into the happenings on screen.

The visuals are sadly undercut by the predictability of the narrative. Where Medium Cool or Oliver Stone's Salvador (also about an American journalist caught in a civil war) echoed the chaos and desperation of unrest and gave it a personal edge, Civil War mostly follows a conventional coming of age drama - Lee is the aging camera-slinger that takes a maternal interest in Jessie (even Joel who is said to be hitting on her never crosses any line) and the youngster in the course of her adventures wises up to emulate her idol (this is contrasted with Lee suddenly losing her nerve during the final conflict). A certain "circle of life" metaphor hinted at early in the narrative is given a groaning realization in the climax.

Don't get me wrong here, Civil War is admirable for its technical audacity - Garland achieves the kind of spectacle that would normally require 2 or 3 times the budget, and he does not trivialize his material with fake heroism. The actors are fine too, adjusting to the physical and emotional needs of their characters. But the rote writing reduces the film's power as a statement on the brutality of civil war.

P.S. If you are seeing the film, make sure to catch it on the largest screen format.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Funeral [dir. Juzo Itami]

Juzo Itami's Tampopo, an ode to the transcendent pleasures of food, has been one of my favorite films to re-watch, so I had no issues about blind-watching his debut feature The Funeral (Ososhiki). This is a strongly autobiographical narrative about a couple that has to organize a wake ceremony for the wife's recently deceased father. Nobuko Miyamoto and Tsutomu Yamazaki (who were also the leads in Tampopo) play married actors who must rush out to their country home to arrange a 3-day funeral for her just-expired father. This involves calling all the close relatives and friends (over 100 people), setting up the funeral altar, inviting a priest to chant sutras, and then there's all the catering for the guests during and after the rituals.

Almost every mainstream culture across the world has its own set of elaborate (and frequently absurd) ceremonies to mourn the passing of the lost one and "ensure passage of his/her soul to a higher plane". We have all been through these experiences, and had moments of bafflement and even inner  outrage over the arcane rituals constituting the death ceremony. While not disrespectful, Itami does see the humor in these proceedings. There's a delectable comedy of manners that plays out here, some insidious satire - the couple watch instructional videos on how to behave during the ceremonies, the priest (Yasujiro Ozu regular Chishu Ryu) arrives in a luxury car. There's even a bit of slapstick, like when a relative flops over after his feet go numb during the lengthy ritual, or when the couple's young son deviates from the cursory tap on the coffin nail to really hammer his grandpa in.

The film has an episodic structure, dividing itself into the 3 days of the funeral. Even aside from the casting of Ryu, there's a strong influence of Ozu in the look and tone. I suspect the 4:3 aspect ratio reflects Itami's desire to emulate Ozu's style. He also pokes gentle humor at the master's trademark low angle 'Tatami mat' shot with the distorted perspective view of an ad film shoot, where a man is shown to be served tea by a giant geisha. His own nods to the sensual pleasures are indicated in the extravagance of the deceased man's last supper and the scenes of merry making during the wake ceremony.

The Funeral ends on a poignant, but positive note - the ceremony has allowed the family the emotional catharsis to overcome the loss and get on with their lives. It may not be as flashy or well-known as Tampopo but The Funeral is a terrific debut film, and one I feel will be an excellent comfort watch to return to.

Here's a really strange trailer of the film:

Now a few words on the blu-ray release from Criterion.

The back cover blurb simply says "High-definition digital restoration", which raises doubts about whether this is some older HD master. Fear not, the film looks so spanking good it might have been shot yesterday. Colors are healthy and detail is strong. The lossless mono audio nicely recreates the subdued acoustics of the dialog and gives a full-bodied rendition of Bach's Air on a G string, used at multiple points in the film. Supplements include illuminating interviews with Nobuko Miyamoto (who was also Itami's wife and creative partner) and their son Manpei Ikeuchi (who was the delightful child actor in the film), a short piece on the husband-wife collaboration, and a set of rather puzzling pastry commercials directed by Itami.

The booklet is also healthier than usual (nearly 40 pages!). Apart from the standard essay, it contains excerpts from a diary Itami wrote of the shoot, and a candid recollection of the maker by lead actor Yamazaki.

Frankly, this is a film I think everyone should see (You have to be a special kind of curmudgeon to not like it). It's very relaxing and gently contemplative, the humor sly but not mean-spirited. The blu-ray presentation is stunning and the supplements worth going through.