Saturday, April 30, 2011

Shor in The City [Raj Nidimoru & Krishna DK]

The short answer is that if you are at all interested in non-run-of-the-mill Hindi movies that also aren't pompous this-is-ART statements, you definitely should check out this film. After their rollicking laugh-a-minute Bollywood debut 99, the director duo are back with another caper. While in 99 they poked a lot of goodhearted fun at the stereotypes of Delhi, the new film is wholly focused on the mores of Mumbai and it's a more ambitious venture – The narrative has multiple threads running in parallel, and unlike its predecessor's always light-edged laughs, Shor... has a darker, bleaker underbelly.

The most interesting story thread, and one they could have run an entire film on, is that of three small-time bumbler con-guys (An astonishingly good Tusssshar Kapoor, a solid if unremarkable Nikhil Dwivedi and the totally livewire Pitobash who rips Joe Pesci's act a whole new one). These crooks run the gamut, from printing pirated copies of bestsellers to flicking luggage off local trains, chilling off at bars with their aspirations and their petty boasts. Their plot takes first a subtle turn with Tusssshar's newly-married status, then a major swerve when Pitobash and Nikhil accidentally grab a bag of contrband arms.

The second strand is of a US-returned native (Sendhil Ramamurthy) putting his earnings into a business here, then faced against an extortion scheme. My mind started groaning at the NRI theme because these have in general been cliched or shitty affairs (Bombay Boys, anyone?) but this one is nicely handled. Sendhil's own background makes him a good fit for the character and a palpable sense of menace is exuded by the extortionists, headed by Zakir Hussain (he of Johnny Gaddaar fame). The last and least interesting theme is of an aspiring cricketer (Sundeep Kishan), desperate to be selected for the Indian team because his love life hangs upon his getting settled as a professional player. To give due credit this thread is also handled with sincerity, with spot-on natural acting and accurate depiction of the milieu, but the endangered romance is not as interesting in comparison and deserved less screen time.

You probably won't be busting your gut as much as you did with 99 (and if you didn't there, you're a grouch and a snob), but there is a good deal to be amused at, especially in the con-men thread. The lead characters have more personality and their overall trajectory is significantly bleaker. And this is one of my main grouses with the film, that the makers didn't have enough courage to sustain the bleakness. They use the “have your cake and eat it too” approach of showing you a dark emotional moment and subsequently diluting it for the comfort of easy laughs and Hallmark card sentiments. I can't get into too many details without spoiling the film for you but one example is when the con-men take out a bomb they found in the bag of smuggled arms with the intent of exploding it in an isolated area. In the midst of their tomfoolery the bomb goes off near a child, and that's a powerful moment...until the child rises again, like the bomb was just a slightly better endowed Deepavali firecracker. This is repeated on various occasions.

So ya, the pussyfooting spoils things some but this is still worth ticket money.

99 [Raj Nidimoru & Krishna DK]

The opening moments of 99 are among its worst: Amateurish framing, actors clearly struggling with sketchy material, clich├ęd unfunny jokes and glaring continuity errors (check out the constantly varying density of Boman Irani's goatee). The first half of the film also suffers from a grave degree of plot slackness, so much so you begin to wonder if its the sparseness of the juicy bits that makes them feel good. But then the strike rate of the comic situations and the jokes improves, the main characters grow more likable, and by the end, you are entertained enough to cheerfully excuse all the convolutions and contrivances of this Get Shorty influenced little caper.

All of 99's characters have shady corners to them: Sachin (Kunal Khemu) and Zaramud (Cyrus Broacha, incredibly fat or wearing very convincing padding) are Mumbai-based sim-card counterfeiters who in their quest to escape the law end up totaling an expensive car of the local bookie bhai (Mahesh Manjrekar, actually entertaining). Taken on as bonded labor by the bookie to pay their debts, they are given an assignment to collect on debts from a motley of Delhi-ites. Bumbling their way through Delhi's mores, they corner the main debtor Rahul (Boman), a compulsive gambler with widespread debt. The bulk of the narrative is about their attempts to recover the money from Rahul while he conjures various schemes to slip their (and a lot of other creditors') grasp. There is also an extended and entirely useless romantic angle thrown in with Soha Ali Khan as the (incredibly vella) floor manager of the fancy hotel the amateur loan collectors pile into.

The plot is set in late 1999 – early 2000 and an integral angle is the match-fixing scam with Hansie Cronje (kudos to the makers for setting up a lot of references to the period, be it posters and film references, or other winks like the immensely more primitive mobile network in India at the time). The humor in 99 is mostly situation based, thankfully steering away from cheap double-entendre or the “it must be funny because everyone is screaming” style. The script taps smartly into the cultural stereotypes of Mumbai and Delhi, and gives the characters a lot of nuance. It helps also that the actors plunge into their roles with relish; apart from the lead actors, who fit their roles snugly, relative newcomer Amit Mistry, who plays a Dilli-based operator for the bookie, is an absolute delight. Vinod Khanna as an alcohol-fueled big-time better is so bang-on I am convinced he was genuinely sozzled at the filming.

So like with Barah Aana, we have in 99 a schizophrenic experience where the film starts off on a limping note, but for the patient ones turns around in (over)due time and delivers a nice bit of entertainment

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Oh brother, big brother.

Oh brother, wouldn't you know it? Hopped into the local Crossword store and saw a paperback omnibus of the George Orwell novels. Although the paper was still only marginally above the sort used to print coaching class and salwar sale handbills, the print was more readable than an earlier version that Penguin had shat out for a significantly larger sum. At 399 rupees, I told myself to expect no better for the price and walked off with it.
Morbid curiosity of course led me to check the Flipkart site and it's available for a significantly lower 295 HERE. The bargain hunter cried "Gah!"
My dream still remains to some day get  hold of the wonderful hardcover edition Knopf had put out. This was the version in which I first read Orwell. The book was at my uncles' place, and I have no clue of how it ever came to be there, an aloof outcast among the large piles of  much-thumbed Erle Stanley Gardner's. I had of course then just seen the Michael Radford film of 1984 on Star TV (oh Star TV, lovely in your infancy, you grew up to be such an ugly shameless whore), which thrilled me enough to pick up that story first. I read all the others in that collection, except Clergyman's daughter, and loved all of them. Coming up for air is a personal favorite; it's themes of lament over a lost idyllic time could of course not have failed to strike a chord in this curmudgeonly heart. Like many good things of my youth, the book had to abruptly go missing from my uncles' house, with no clue as to which of the innumerable dastardly relatives had borrowed it, never to return.
Some while back, I got singed in an Amazon used copy sale when a scoundrel and blackguard of the first water claiming to sell that copy instead sent me a soiled library copy of Animal Farm for my money. Luckily Amazon was good enough to refund my money on that bad deal, but it's not about money, really. It's about expectations and their shattering. Which, come to think of it, is a lot of what life is about.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Rango [Gore Verbinski]

Rango's opening moments are its best, with a surreal off-the-wall quality reminiscent of a Michael Gondry or Terry Gilliam film. Once the film settles into the Pixar-evolved “unlikely hero saves the day” blueprint we don't see much more of that, which in retrospect is a bit of a disappointment. But even in its conventional groove, Rango is not ever short of entertaining.

With The Incredibles, Pixar began to infuse their animated adventures with more hooks for adult audiences. Rango goes further in this aspect, because the audience that would best enjoy this film would be adults, those that have seen a good crop of bygone era movies. It's all about homages (Chinatown, Apocalypse Now, both classic westerns and the spaghetti variety) and winking nods (LOL, Fear & Loathing in Vegas).

Thankfully none of the pop culture references feel bunged in. Character design and voice-acting, the bulwark of any animated venture, are top notch. Johnny Depp as the titular chameleon gives his most enthusiastic performance since Ed Wood, one of my favorite films. Old timer Ned Beatty's devious villain is a brilliant adaptation of the John Huston character from Chinatown, and Bill Nighy as the bad-ass gunslinger Rattlesnake Jake (supposedly based on the onscreen persona of Lee Van Cleef, and with a tail ending in chain-gun) is intense and memorable. One of the best surprises is when Timothy Olyphant (Hitman fame, or lack thereof) does an uncannily good imitation cameo of the No Name "Spirit of The West".

Hans Zimmer's guitar oriented musical score is sure to be one of his best, and I love the look of the film. Eschewing the glossy surfaces and hyper-saturated colors of most modern CG animated films, the makers consulted with long-time Coen Brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins to develop dusty naturalistic visuals that lend tremendous credibility and immersion factor to the setting. This may be Verbinski's and Industrial Light & Magic's first fully animated feature, but they've made a debut that stands tall with the best of the genre. “From the director of Pirates of The Caribbean”, the poster says, but unlike that frenzied, overburdened mess of an adventure film, this one entertains all the way.

On an aside, the film's 2.35:1 widescreen theatrical presentation seemed to me somewhat cropped at the top and bottom. Frequently the crowns of buildings and hats would get cut off. This may be intentional design, but I'm wondering if the eventual home video release will feature a 16:9 transfer with more vertical screen area. It'd be awesome if that happens, but I'll be wanting to own this in any case.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Apropos speech defects

I saw two movies yesterday, both coincidentally dealing with speech defects of one or the other kind.

First up was My Fair Lady. I haven't read the George Bernard Shaw play upon which this is made but I suspect it's not quite the sugary comedy path this one is contrived along after a while. Oh there's smart humor by the ladleful, yes, and the performances can be splendid at times. Rex Harrison is at his best as the self-centered arsehole who believes he can change the social standing of a person by changing how she pronounces her vowels. Audrey Hepburn endows her tramp turned “lai-dee” with the same elfin charm with which she essays many of her other roles. The actor that plays her alcohol-endorsing pater has some of the most brilliant lines in the film and says them with aplomb. But the film is only interested in milking the theme for the laughs, and stops well short of any real satire. It has a romantic musical element with a wholly bunged-in quality to it – it would have been even alright if the young and dashing, if somewhat vacuous, Jeremy Brett character had got the girl. But noooo, towards the end of an unwarranted 3 hour length (between this and the significantly more watchable Gaslight, I suspect the director George Cukor's watch ran dreadfully slow) we are made to endure the most patently fake and forced onscreen romance, simply because the players are the major stars of the film. Bah.

Next was The King's Speech. Yes, it is about how a man learns to control his stammer to make an important speech. Yes, it is typical Oscar twaddle, mental retardation and physical handicap substituted by the milder speech impediment. But the movie is actually not bad: It plays with an easy rhythm, doesn't try to overdo the drama...and Colin Firth does a very fine job as the stammering royal, beleivable from start to end. His condition is revealed as a combination of both traumatic childhood upbringing and his feeling of inadequacy towards his royal position. It all feels a little neat but who am I to say it's not true? Geoffrey Rush as the unorthodox speech-tutor is not trying to look especially remarkable, which is good because in these sort of two-actor movies that results in a pissing contest over who appears more barmy. Guy Pearce is again wasted in a bit role as the speech-unimpeded brother who abdicates to marry a kitschy divorcee. And since it's practically a rule that you can't have a Brit period movie without a part for Helena Bonham Carter, she plays Firth's supportive wife; unless it's a great make-up job she hasn't aged gracefully and looks like a hag.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The damn'dest dream

I had the damn'dest dream
Of that I'm sure
But what it was
Not any more.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Gaslight [George Cukor]

The only problem with 1944's Gaslight is its length. At about 90 minutes, it would have made a cracking psychological thriller. At nearly 2 hours, it feels padded out, the problem exacerbated by the fact that the movie tips its hand very early on. Ingrid Bergman is a romantic woman who as a child was traumatized by the mysterious death of her famous opera singer aunt. She goes on to fall in love with and marry Charles Boyer, a European pianist. At his urging the couple return to London, to the house her aunt originally lived in. But all doesn't remain well. Indeed very soon after, Ingrid appears a reclusive nervous wreck, her behavior in many ways molded by the increasingly dominant, repressive influence of Charles who insists that she is becoming forgetful and fanciful, and is not mentally up to mixing with other people. When he leaves her alone every evening, the titular gaslight grows dim and she hears strange noises (or does she?), leaving her ever more anxious and brittle. For most of the film we see Ingrid being pushed further and further towards the edge of sanity till...

Oh, there's no mystery here, we know who the bad guy is, almost from the very beginning. However, the interplay between Bergman and Boyer is the highlight here and both stars put on sterling performances; Bergman apparently had studied patients with mental illness to prepare for her role and, like Deborah Kerr in The Innocents, she is convincing as a woman whose hold on reality is terrifyingly tenuous; she won the Academy Award for Best Actress that year.

George Cukor directs with noticeable chutzpah and the production has a richly embroidered look which serves the purpose of the story. The rooms of Ingrid's house, where most scenes of the film are set, are strewn with all manner of knick-knacks that create a cluttered claustrophobic ambiance, reflecting her mental suffocation. Joseph Ruttenberg, the man behind the camera, creates stark frames with deep shadow when needed to evoke the tension; this is one beautifully captured film, and apart from the unnecessarily long trek to a very obvious revelation, it makes very good watching for those that like their gas-lit mysteries.

On an aside, Enlighten Home Library, which have released this film in India have made their DVD from a sterling master (probably the same used for the Warner Bros release abroad). The 4:3 image has exquisite detail and contrast for a film so old and a lovely light sheen of film grain, indicating a respectful treatment of the source materials. The mono sound is crisp and clear. Unlike the WB release which also included a 1940 adaptation of Gaslight, Enlighten's release carries little by way of bonus features, but the picture and sound quality, as with their release of David Lean's film Oliver Twist, is immensely pleasing and, at the selling price, easily commended to lovers of classic Hollywood / British cinema in India.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Illusionist [Sylvain Chomet]

NOT in any way related to that unbelievably foolish 2006 film with Edward Norton, Sylvain Chomet's animated effort is loosely based on an unfilmed script by director-actor Jacques Tati who constructed it with autobiographical elements. In Chomet's hands The Illusionist becomes a whimsical nostalgic look at innocence and magic losing their place in an increasingly non-magical world. Chomet's previous feature Belleville Rendezvous aka Triplets of Belleville was a brilliant understated work. Using negligible amounts of dialog (in most instances for sound value, not the actual words) and not relying on convoluted plot mechanics or action set-pieces, Belleville sucked you in with its quiet, wry humor and a wonderfully nuanced style of illustration that appeared to come to life off the pages of a Herge comic book. Chomet finds similar threads in Tati's script and with what may be regarded as his characteristic style weaves them again into a tale that by virtue of its acute observation and underplayed emotion brings you under its spell.

The film is set in the 60's, the eponymous illusionist Tatischeff an aging stage conjuror trying to make ends meet, braving seedy performance halls and young audiences impatient for newer entertainment, like rock n' roll. Tatischeff must make sojourns to increasingly remote venues to peddle his art and from one of these, a young girl stows away with him, convinced that his tricks are genuine magic. It wouldn't take a greatly cynical audience to question why Tatischeff perpetuates the girl's notion to his own cost; they don't speak the same language but surely that in itself is not reason enough. Perhaps the old man is flattered in the presence of such naivete amidst the general indifference to his craft. Perhaps he embodies the spirit of the film itself, a lone hurrah to innocence and chivalrous old-worldliness in a world with little regard for these values. This of course leads to complications – chic dresses and shoes cannot be conjured without the magic of money, and old man Tatischeff must take up any odd job he can get to keep aloft the veil of illusion before his young ward.

In lesser hands, one can easily imagine such an arc going into cloying treacly territory. Having not yet seen any of Tati's films I can't compare, but some of Chaplin's films have slipped in this aspect despite their overall greatness. Thankfully Chomet makes no such mistakes and while we may sympathize with Tatischeff there are no forced handkerchief moments. We are also given a lot to smile about as we follow the foibles of the increasingly helpless sleight-of-hand man.

There is also a wonderful supporting cast. The bulk of the film is set in a rundown hotel in Scotland where several other similarly rundown entertainers lodge, and these characters, especially a depressed clown, a ventriloquist and a never-say-die trio of acrobats make wonderful additions to the story. The clown's portions form a mini-arc in themselves, the height of his tragi-comedy occurring when he postpones a suicide attempt to devour some soup prepared by the girl; his story strongly reminded me of that depressing and evocative chapter of the dying clown in The Pickwick Papers.

Even if you don't so much care for the plot, the film is worth watching simply for how absolutely wonderful it looks. Generated with hand-drawn and some carefully applied computer graphics, the richness of detail in the backgrounds is gob-smacking beyond the highest expectations; still frames could easily serve as paintings. Best of all none of this visual tapestry is empty window dressing: the film's look plays an indisputable role in evoking the era and the mood of the story it is trying to tell, and would stand proudly alongside that of the best-known animation films of the world. In other words you should really check this out.

Here's a very interesting blog post about Chomet and the making of The Illusionist: LINK