Sunday, December 30, 2012

Dabangg 2 aka Dawhimper [dir. Arbaaz Khan]

Dabangg 2 is a textbook example of how you can drag the horse to water and push its ruddy face in up to its neck, but still can't make it drink. Here's a movie “inspired” by the its predecessor to a degree so discomfiting it seems to use pretty much the same screenplay, several returning characters, and near identical locations, only with the fun bits snipped out. Of course, there are a huge bunch of fools that equate every “masala” movie released as the same, and thus the so-called sequel is also a box-office superhit. But if anything it totally misses the point on what made Dabangg such a great entertainer.
While Salman Khan had already gotten into playing the exaggerated hero in films like Wanted, Dabangg's Chulbul Pandey was the ultimate crystallization of that character, a fantastic refinement of the populist arsehole spirit Khan embodied in his films and to another effect in real life. What made Dabangg stand out from other maar-dhaad naach-gaana stereotypes was the sharply tuned script that showed an understanding of the best traditions of Bollywood entertainers. The film had a strong dramatic bedrock in the conflict between father-son and the step-brothers, an evenly matched villain, memorable supporting characters, and in the midst of all the exaggeration, a freshness and consistency of tone that propelled the story all the while having fun with the tropes of masala cinema. In short, Dabangg wasn't just a random assembly of fights and songs.
Which brings us to the exact problem that Dabangg 2 has. For one, there is no dramatic conflict at all. The significant time devoted to Chulbul Pandey's interaction with his family consists entirely of some of the poorest jokes imposed upon an audience. He does not come up against the main villain (Prakash Raaj, playing the same character he did in Wanted, Bbuddah Hoga Tera Baap, Singham and a million other movies) until about halfway in the film, and even then their confrontations are very lame compared to the spicy trading of one-liners in Dabangg. Everything between the action scenes is dull and annoying filler material; it was like my experience of watching The Expendables. Because of the near identical sequence of scenes in the first and second film there is no novelty at all, which lowers the fun factor for everything, including the fight scenes (choreographed by an Anal Arasu, a name that makes me laugh a good deal more than most of the jokes in this film). The slut item song is one of the most disgusting experiences I've had in a theater, it makes the corresponding song in the previous film look like the apogee of classiness. The film is supposed to have shifted to a bigger canvas in its move from Lalgunj to Kanpur, but the climax feels ultra-cheap in comparison. While Dabangg had an all-out police assault with a lot of vehicles and guns, the supposedly bigger villain of the sequel seems to have only a half-dozen men guarding that are easily taken out by a single-handed Chulbul Pandey. Like a friend of mine said, the cheapness makes it feel “like watching a Ram Gopal Varma movie”.
So in short, apart from the odd stray wisecrack or action shot, the sequel is a soggy non-entertaining affair, a huge comedown from the snappy badasserie that was Dabangg; this is Dawhimper.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Movie franchises

In response to a question I was asked on the forums...

Q. How do you feel about other franchises such as the Star Wars saga, Harry Potter, Star Trek 2009, Dark Knight Trilogy, Indiana Jones, etc?


Star Wars - the first 3 movies (now titled 4-6 ) are decent fun. There's lots of bad dialog (apparently Alec Guiness who played Obi-Wan asked to be killed so he wouldn't have to come back for a sequel and more bad dialog, but this could well be made up), but the film is more comfortable with its serial adventure roots, the proportion of action to exposition is pretty good on the whole, the sense of scale is amazing, I love the special effects and there's a sense of fun and adventure. Seeing it first when I was a kid also makes an impact (needless to say I wanted hugely to be a Jedi then). I may also add here that I don't have any issues with the George Lucas revisions, other than the stupid modification to the Han Solo / Greedo standoff.

Harry Potter - I have seen only some 2-3 movies in this series, not interesting to me as a franchise. Lead character is a twat.

Star Trek 2009 - Oh I enjoyed this tremendously, fast fun and great interplay between the characters. The guy who played Kirk especially nailed it with a performance that pays tribute to William Shatner without aping his style. Also realized here Karl Urban can actually act. Diehard ST fans may complain about how the film was all action and no science, but the fact is a fair amount of the original series was campy action. I'll definitely be catching the next film although I do hope they can bring in some fresh elements. The teaser trailer they had looked like it could be composed of alternate takes from the 2009 film.

Dark Knight - Saw the first 2 films. I personally find this hugely overrated and boring pop-psychology. Like I earlier linked, I agree with what the filthy critic said about this rubbish trend of taking comic book heroes and making mopey overly pompous "epics" out of them (pretty much everything seems headed up trilogy and epic territory these days, a trend I find wholly deplorable). Batman Begins at the cinema was a torturous experience for me. Perhaps it's a result of how much I loathed BB, but I liked the second film a lot more - it had significantly better pacing, excellent action sequences, Batman does more detective work. The main hitch for me was Heath Ledger's horrible performance. I never felt any menace in his mannerisms, only irritation. It was no better IMO than anything Shakti Kapoor has done and nobody ever talks of giving that bloke an Oscar. Going by this movie, I was ready to dismiss Ledger as an overrated ham that only got fame on account of his having died, but then I saw movies like Brokeback Mountain and Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus where I realized that he was a fine actor, but his Joker was a total turd.
I loved the 2 Batman films made by Tim Burton - they had the perfect blend of comic book sensibilities and a more adult outlook. The animated TV series was damn cool too. On the subject let me also express my opinion of Christopher Nolan - apart from that backwards movie with Guy Pearce I find everything I've seen by him (Insomnia, the Batman movies and Inception) OVERRATED AND BORING.

Indiana Jones - I must say here that I don't recall too much of the Indy movies since I only saw them on VHS as a kid. But the general memory is of them being good time-pass. I had issues with Temple of Doom, but I suspect that was just a "How can they show Indians eating insects and monkey brains?" knee-jerk response. I didn't see the recent film because I find it hard to get excited about the character now given that Harrison Ford is grandfather age.

Haha, you must think me a humorless bastard, but seriously, I'd rather see a bunch of different stories than the same rinsed and repeated with bigger budgets for box office returns. Here are some franchises I liked:

- I'm a Superman junkie and my fav childhood memories are of watching the Superman films at Eros cinema in Mumbai. I still love the first 2 Chris Reeve films and find the third one quite passable. Superman Returns had some interesting ideas but rehashed too much of the plot of the first film, had disastrously bad Superman-Lois chemistry and some plot points that shot the franchise in the foot. I think the upcoming film will be another terribly whiny boring movie, no thanks to Mr. "let's make this dark and gritty and epic" Nolan. Somebody shoot these geeks who're raping my childhood memories under the pretense of making "mature" superhero movies.

Alien - Mainly the first 2 movies, they are very different in tone - First one is horror and second is action - and both of them have good personality. Alien3 has some good moments in the extended cut but it doesn't all hold well, and beyond a point the "run through the corridors with the beastie after you" routine becomes monotonous.

Evil Dead - one of my fav franchises, I love the first 2 films (Dead by Dawn especially is pure manic genius from start to end, a perfect blend of the macabre and the hilarious) and Army of Darkness is good popcorn fun. Bruce Campbell, Again I'm not likely to see the new film unless I hear good word from trusted quarters.

Terminator - The first one was pure awesomeness, the second had spectacular CG and a great villain, and the third one is a wonderful tribute/spoof on the franchise with a genuinely surprising coda (I prefer T3 to T2 as a film). Salvation had some decent ideas in the Sam Worthington segment but Christian "growling is acting" Bale totally killed the movie for me, to the extent that even the prospect of owning a 2-disc "everything and the kitchen sink" BD set for less than 10$ does nothing to tempt me into buying this film.

Toy Story - Truth be told the plots are interchangeable, but I find all the movies fun and they're at least short and pacy and great eye candy. But yes, no more please.

James Bond - love the first 3 Sean Connery films, then Live & Let Die and Spy Who Loved me from Roger Moore (absurd but fun) and Casino Royale with Daniel Craig. I can live without revisiting the other films in this series. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Lata Mangeshkar Sings Ghalib

Imagine a Lata Mangeshkar towards the end of the sixties, her voice slightly thicker than from the previous two decades, but still pleasingly fluid and her singing now enriched by a greater command of Hindi and Urdu diction. Add in Hridayanath Mangeshkar, a fantastic musician in his own right, and her brother, probably one of the few people that isn't in complete awe of her stardom. Now add in the words of Ghalib, many of whose poems I find difficult to understand, but I gather the bloke's pretty famous. What you get in Lata Mangeshkar Sings Ghalib is the combination of all these elements and the end result as may be expected is simply incredible.
No thanks to the efforts of Jagjit Singh (the song that makes me want to murder people) and his ilk, ghazal singing to most people has become synonymous with a low-pitched somnolent drone that can unobtrusively play in the background while they go about getting drunk or doing their social "thang". Hariharan is one of the few people I have heard who on a consistent basis tried to put some flamboyance and virtuoso element into the composition and singing style in at least a couple of songs in each his ghazal albums (sad to say the last 4-5 albums have been bereft of this, and even he is pandering to the lounge crowd). But this album is a great example of how a ghazal album can have energetic and technically demanding musical compositions and reward people for actually "listening" to it. Those that have only heard Lata as the aged crone she has been from the 90's onwards will be floored at her fluid vibrato (here not the effect of her voice quavering) and masterful navigation of the hairpin turns of the tunes. And Hridayanath seems to have intended his compositions as a stringent test of her abilities - You can almost hear him gleefully rubbing his hands saying, "So you got through that one, eh? Let's see you handle THIS" as he throws the next treacherous musical curveball at her.
Most songs are in the 4-5 min range and they are all remarkable in how much ground they cover in that while. On the other hand the brevity means that the poetry is slightly short-changed, given less importance than the music. Still I would rather have this than long stretches of lazy self-important noodling. Also, Hridayanath certainly likes to reprise his own tunes: a short verse "Naqsh Fariyadi Hai Kis Ki Shoki E Tahreer Ka" is a precursor of the heart-aching "Mere Sarhane Jalao Sapne" from Maya Memsaab and "Rone Se Aur Ishq Mein" is, words apart, an alternate take for "Sunio Ji Araj Mhari" from Lekin.
So yes, if you have any interest in ghazal music that's not the sonic equivalent of wallpaper, you need to get this album. If you can get hold of some super-duper vinyl edition, great. Otherwise you can get this one at Flipkart on CD or, where I first chanced upon it, in Flipkart's mp3 download store.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Life of Pi [dir. Ang Lee]

Imagine The Tree of Life meets Monty Python via Manoj Night Shyamalan. Sounds unlikely, distressing even? This is pretty much what went through my head while watching Lulz of Pi...oops, Life of Pi. I understand that a goodly proportion of people consider this an “important” faith-affirming movie, with a “meaningful” use of 3D to push its message in your face. I will refer to them as the Readers' Digest (RD) crowd. I suspect that (unlike me) they have read several times over the novel, which has received what is called a Man Booker prize (Booker for manly novels? I think not). I give them the benefit of doubt and accommodate their point of view. On the other hand unfeeling uncultured sods like yours truly find this film a barrel of hilarious incredulity.
Life of... begins with Pi recounting the origin of his name, one of the few intentional, thereby wholly unfunny, jokes in the film. Pi then goes on to a rough sketch of his upbringing (as a child the git practices multiple religions, like in Amitabh Bachchan's John Jaani Janardhan act, but with none of the fun) in a family that owned a circus (One of those “life is a circus” cosmic analogies, perhaps?) and the circumstances that lead to his being stranded on a lifeboat for months with a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker (the recounting of how the tiger came to be such named brought to my mind the joke about the Sardar who named his three dogs Satnam Singh, Gurnam Singh and Harnam Singh, and was himself called Tommy). Irrfan Khan as the adult Pi sports a bewildering mongrel accent, but then diction seems a problem with the film in general. Tabu in a blink-and-you-miss part mouths Tamil in a manner that screams phony phonetics, while the speaking style of Pi's uncle appears to have been modeled on Apu from The Simpsons. Suraj Sharma, who plays Pi in the bulk of the narrative, speaks English with a South Indian accent, acceptable given his maternal side origins.
The bulk of the film is about Pi surviving on the boat and forming a coexistence of sorts with the tiger. Apparently the events of the voyage and the formation of this coexistence are meant to nurture in us a belief of an omniscient God. Regardless of your personal beliefs there are major problems with this agenda, the foremost being Pi himself. Simply put the character is soft-headed and delusional, the sort that would regard the delivery of the morning newspaper as evidence of divine intervention. His act of blubbering repentance when a fish he kills for food loses its color on death only convinces me that this character was a God-obsessed nutcase long before he got on any boat.
Thanks to the film's need to keep from shocking its RD crowd, it's not even particularly gripping as a survival story. Any deaths or acts of violence take place off-screen. Despite the boat being the site of killing of a hyena, an orangutan and a zebra, there's no sense of tragedy because of this sort of pussy-footing. What we get instead are reams (and reams and reams) of mawkish Hallmark Channel monologue. The plot point involving the mysterious island with meerkats is far more apt for a schlocky Roger Corman movie. Without going into spoiler territory, there's a twist at the end which suggests that Pi is just telling a made-up story that he can substitute at a moment's notice with another (similarly improbable as the first one, but more Takesh Kitano than Takashi Miike). So what's the point here? Why does anyone take this woolly-headed cauliflower seriously? How come Pi isn't in a straitjacket inside a cell with padded walls? What this film feels most like is a spoof on the existential / magic realism genre, like a slightly more intellectual entry in the Scary Movie / Date Movie series. I can well imagine Ang Lee bursting into giggles at the end of every scene over what a huge con he is pulling over the audience.
Visually the film is often spectacular. Like my good friend Prachit said, “It's one of the best-looking worst movies”. Anyone who claims that this movie should be seen in 2D instead of 3D has either seen a bad 3D screening or is being a prig. It is very evident from early on that 3D is inherent to the director's intent. There are many frames with multiple layers that take full advantage of the added dimensionality. The only sequence that suffered a bit was the storm sequence where the low light levels and general murkiness of the scene causes a drop in the visible detail, but that's amply compensated over by several scenes where the 3D really shines. Most of Mychael Danna's score is rubbish new-age hooey.
A few words about the tiger...technically it's a marvel. From what I understand it was done using visual trickery instead of an actual animal (as I suspect, were most of the other animals shown in this film), and the illusion is mostly complete – my only gripe is that the sound design doesn't quite reflect the weight of the movement of a 500-pound animal.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Die Nibelungen [dir. Fritz Lang]

Calling Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen, a stupendous two-part film adaptation (Part 1 – Siegfried and Part 2 – Kriemhild's Revenge) of the epic poem Nibelungenlied, a heroic fantasy saga would be something of a misnomer. By definition these are crafted around the heroes, their persona and deeds. The other players are more in the vein of interactive filler, supportive or obstructive, or perhaps a stand-in for the audience, marveling at the hero's feats. But Die Nibelungen goes the other way. Siegfried the hero is merely a catalyst that triggers the reactions and actions of the surrounding characters. Appropriately enough he is portrayed in uni-dimension, all valor and naivete.


The beginning of the first installment deals with Siegfried's meteoric rise to legend – on his way to claim the legendary beauty Kriemhild, he handily slays the dragon Fafnir, and by bathing in its blood becomes “nearly” invincible (more on that later). Just as easily he later defeats the Nibelung dwarf Alberich and becomes master of his treasure. These scenes are visually sumptuous, with some fantastic production design to depict the Nibelung forest and Alberich's mysterious cave dwelling, and demonstrate Lang's masterful directorial chops, but dramatically they do not register since Siegfried is almost never shown to be in mortal peril. Text inter-titles inform us that Siegfried then goes on to make twelve other kings his vassals.

On reaching the palace of the Burgundy royals, of whom king Gunther is Kriemhild's brother, he asks for the maiden's hand, only to be told by the warrior Hagen Tronje that he must first win for Gunther the hand of the fiesty warrior-queen Brunhild. Using the magic cloak he got after defeating Alberich, Siegfried helps the far-less-able king to defeat Brunhild in competition and claim her. He uses the cloak again on a later occasion, impersonating Gunther to break Brunhild's spirit with a hearty dose of machismo to smooth out Gunther's way in marriage. Alas, these are actions that will have dark consequences. At this point, Die Nibelungen sheds its heroic fantasy trappings and effectively becomes a courtroom intrigue. Tronje seeks to get rid of Siegfried considering him a rival to Gunther and the Burgundy line, while Brunhild wishes to take revenge on him for having tricked her into marrying a physical inferior. The misunderstandings and conspiracies pile up and, after tricking the innocent Kriemhild into revealing Siegfried's Achilles' heel (it's not a heel here), Tronje and Brunhild, with reluctant connivance from Gunther, do the bloody deed. So by the end of the first part, Siegfried is dead. 

For me Siegfried really picks up when it goes into conspiracy mode. What works is that the so-called villains do not perform their deeds for villainy's sake. Tronje is a loyal of the Burgundy clan and his actions are directed to safeguarding their rule. Brunhild is a proud warrior and her rage at having been spited by Siegfried's trickery into marrying the wishy-washy Gunther is understandable. In fact her soul is so consumed by the thought of revenge that after Siegfried's death she kills herself because she has nothing else to live for. This is the stuff of great drama. The end of the first film also sees the bereaved Kriemhild rising from wallflower status into a source of greater substance.

So much so for the heroic fantasy, what next? Of course, revenge...


In the second installment Kriemhild, who is furious at the treachery that has murdered her husband, accepts a proposal of marriage from the savage king of the Huns, Etzel aka Attila. Unbeknownst to her family and people, her condition for marriage is that the murder of Siegfried shall be avenged. She bears Attila a son and goads him into inviting her family for the Summer Solstice feast. In the midst of the feasting, she contrives for the Huns to attack their guests, which eventually leads to a bloody siege where the Burgundy royals and their warriors are holed up in Attila's palace while the murderous Huns launch multiple attacks from outside. Kriemheld repeatedly asks her brothers to give up Tronje and save themselves, but they reward his loyalty by standing steadfast even in the face of death when she ruthlessly orders for the palace to be razed.

The second part of Die Nibelungen works even better than its predecessor. Freed of the trappings of the conventional fantasy adventure story, this one dives deep into the darkness of the human heart. What Kriemhild does here for revenge is no better than (and very likely a lot worse than) what Tronje and Brunild earlier contrive. In fact towards the end, the treacherous villains of the first part are shown as the courageous and loyal victims of her conspiracy. You cannot imagine how such a story arc can have a happy ending and the film-makers do not try to shoe one in either.

Through the course of both segments, the genius eye of Fritz Lang provides us with a sumptuous visual smorgasbord with fantastic use of locations and sets. The scale of the film is massive and detailing is exquisite with wonderful use of striking patterns and motifs. Siegfried had its share of excellent thrill sequences (given the restrictions of film technology of the day), and Kriemhild's Revenge is no slouch either. The last hour or so dedicated to the siege is a precursor to the battle in Peter Jackson's The Two Towers and a certain Akira Kurosawa could have well been inspired by the scene of the razing of Attila's palace for a similar sequence in his masterpiece Ran. The score by Gottfried Huppertz resurrected and played out for the restored version of the film is an iconic and inseparable aural match for the dramatic spectacle. I think it speaks for the entertainment value of the film that my initial intent to space out my viewing of the two installments over multiple days gave out and apart from the time necessary for sleep, I watched them pretty much back to back.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Good God, Holmes...

I thought these would be the size of trade paperbacks, maybe a bit larger. These are more in the vein of doorstops.

Comparison with a normal paperback. There's a more expensive version of the books that comes with a slipcase which would have been nice but about 800rs more for a slipcase seems too much for frou-frous.

Aha here's the secret. Lots of empty space. It looks like they've left a fixed amount of space per page for the annotations and where there aren't any, I guess you get to make your own.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Mummy (1932) [dir. Karl Freund]

After the smashing success of their Dracula and Frankenstein adaptations, Universal Studios was on the lookout for more monster stories to make (ha) monster hits of. Combining bits of sensational history and pulpy fiction, they came up with the story of a revived Egyptian mummy running (ok, shambling) amok in a contemporary age. The titular mummy is played by Boris Karloff, freshly propelled to stardom with Frankenstein and proudly labeled on the poster as Karloff The Uncanny (which must have been a change from being represented by a "?" in Frankenstein's opening credits). The film was directed by Karl Freund, who performed camera duties on Universal's Dracula and had previously worked with the greats of early German cinema like FW Murnau and Fritz Lang. Having Freund in the directorial chair gives the film a dramatic and atmospheric look with elements of Expressionism - the opening scene in the crypt where the archeologists chat about their sensational new find while a bandaged Karloff ominously stands in a half-open tomb in the background has a marvelous shadowy ambiance that immediately conveys a delicious shiver to the viewer.
The 1932 film shares a kinship of plot elements with Tod Browning's version of Dracula - the title character is an undead/revived creature looking to seduce/corrupt an individual betrothed to a conventional romance, and has a nemesis sufficiently well-versed in the folklore to fight and destroy it. The fact that in both cases the same actors play the respective roles of the nemesis (Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Van Helsing in Dracula and Dr. Muller in The Mummy) and the romantic hero (David Manners as Jonathan Harker in Dracula and Frank Whemple in The Mummy) only adds to the similarity. The main difference is in the element of sensuality - while Dracula had Lugosi primarily in a predatory role (even the women in the film find his stilted suavity giggle-worthy), the script for The Mummy and Karloff's approach to his character Imhotep give it greater depth and sophistication. Dracula is interested in the blandly virginal Mina as only another blood bank with a pretty face, but Imhotep is stalking and seducing Helen because she is a reincarnation of his beloved Anck-es-en-Amon. Zita Johann's interpretation of Helen / Anck-es-en-Amon fully supports the ambiguity and sensuousness of the premise and her scenes with Karloff crackle with a forbidden erotic energy that never dips into cloying sappiness. In comparison, Helen's attraction to Frank Whemple comes off as trivial and disposable.
The 1932 Mummy is not a film of set-pieces and big action moments, nor of convoluted plot machinations. What it is is a deeply atmospheric experience. Karloff wears the iconic bandaged get-up (brilliantly conceived and executed by Universal's "go to" monster make-up man Jack Pierce) only in  the opening reels, but his brooding eyes (aided by some tricks of make-up and lighting) he consistently convey an existence spanning thousands of years. Hammer's film and Universal's own reboot eschew the layering and ambiguity of the title character in favor of adrenaline-pumping. But about that, later. Freund-Karloff's film remains a landmark creature feature that does full justice to its creature.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

English Vinglish [dir. Gauri Shinde]

If you're a Sridevi fan, you should of course see English Vinglish. It is for her what Baghban and Bbuddah Hoga Tera Baap were for Amitabh Bachchan - a vehicle tailor-made to  her specifications and tapping her charisma and talent to full advantage.
Here Sri plays Shashi, an uber-caring housewife that also manages a small catering business, who is running low on self-worth because she is undervalued by her family. Especially she is needled by her frankly asshole-ish husband and teenage daughter for her inability to speak and read English. In urban India at least, it is a fairly common prejudice to automatically regard someone not fluent in the English language as lacking in understanding capacity. But I would question why a mother who seems otherwise so capable (and sufficiently aware about individuality to later show immediate acceptance of her English teacher's alternate sexuality) cannot teach her own daughter to understand that not everyone is oriented the same way, or at least not be stupidly rude about it.
So while on a trip alone to America to help with the wedding of her widowed sister's daughter, Shashi secretly (why she can't confide in her own sister is baffling) enrolls in an English-language class. Cue in a Mind Your Language / Zabaan Sambhal Ke type episodic setup where a bunch of (deliberately?) stereotyped immigrants (a French chef, a Mexican maid, a Chinese hairdresser, a Pakistani cabbie, a South Indian software guy) bumble their way through some very jerky grammar lessons from the aforementioned caricature homosexual English teacher. It's a little ironic given the film's theme that a fair amount of the humor in these situations arises from these stereotypes speaking halting English in various foreign accents. There are hints of a possible romantic attraction between Shashi and the handsome Frenchman, but of course nothing serious in that line is going to happen. You can pretty much predict everything that will happen from the word go, but that's really the sort of film it is, a feel-good ride, a mellow family drama where the underdog gets a chance to shine.
The film is hugely slanted towards being cute and digestible, and the extent to which it simplifies the characters and contrives the situations is patronizing. But all said, it's not offensive if you don't probe its machinations and Sridevi remains a delight to watch. The break from acting has not rusted her skills any, and her star charisma has been employed in a very measured, canny way. She shows that she can talk English and walk Vinglish with the best of them.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Revanche [dir. Götz Spielmann]

For some while I'd been meaning to see Revanche aka Revenge, since the premise promised a decent neo-noir. When I finally did a few days ago, I wasn't disappointed.

In the story, Alex (Johannes Krisch) is an ex-con turned bouncer in a brothel that wants to make some quick money so that he can pay off his prostitute girlfriend's debts and elope with her. To this end he comes up with the idea of robbing the minimum-security bank in his father's village. But this being a story with darker thrusts, things are never as simple as that. In the course of making off in the getaway car, a stray gunshot from local policeman Robert (Andreas Lust) causes the death of his girlfriend. A shattered Alex abandons the vehicle in the woods and hides out in his father's house, passing his time between fervidly performing the farm chores for his ailing father and grieving in his room. To his chagrin, he then discovers that his father's nearest neighbors are Robert and his wife.
In the course of bringing us to this point, the script separately charts Alex's and Robert's individual threads, making us appreciate them as fully-fleshed characters before springing the conflict - Alex's troubled relation with his stubbornly independent father, and Robert's loving but childless household situation. In the aftermath of the killing we see both Alex's anguish at his girlfriend's death and Robert's guilt over having accidentally shot the girl. The further events in the film explore Alex's thirst for revenge on the man that killed his girlfriend and how it is resolved.

The film's austerity of mood bears a passing resemblance to Jean-Pierre Melville's crime dramas like Le Samourai or Le Circle Rouge. But those films were entirely male-dominated; here the woman characters are also important and there's an upfront sexuality to the extent of betraying an obvious commercial interest (after all, art-house crime films have better market value when they feature naked women and sex). Again and again we have scenes occurring at the village lake and it serves as more than a backdrop - the image of a placid surface over hidden dark depths serves as an apt metaphor for the inner turmoil of the characters in the story.

In a film like this performances are paramount, and the actors give us splendidly understated turns. Visuals and sound are captured in an exacting, atmospheric manner, and technically the film is first class. The main flaw is in that the script tries too hard to draw a neat "c'est la vie" circle and does not feel like an organic evolution of the character interplay. Even the stately (some would say sluggish) pace is unable to hide the strings of contrivance. But Revanche still remains interesting enough to recommend as a watch to people that like a solidly executed quiet crime drama.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Now I know what Tantalus felt like

Newest haul of goodies in. Sadly I can't actually watch any of them right now on account of my home PC, which is also my blu-ray player, being on the furshlugging blink. I suspect it'll be nearly 2 more weeks before things return to normal. GRRRR!

Still, I will take the opportunity to give you a peek at what I could have been enjoying if not for this tragedy. As always click on the pics for full resolution:

The Criterions:

The non-Criterions (which are also awesome!):

Coen Bros boxset revealed:

Holy shit, I seriously didn't expect the Taxi Driver package to be so awesome:

What's a haul without some Lovecraft love?

More detail from the Horror in Clay (an awesome birthday gift from Prachit Pandey. Seeing this in full resolution might just drive you insane!):

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Adventures of Mark Twain [dir. Will Vinton]

I have to shamefacedly say that although I have liked most of what I have read of Mark Twain, the actual amount of stuff I've read is pitiful – some of his famous adventure stories (the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn novels, and The Prince and The Pauper) and some of his short satirical pieces. I suspect most of the general public is like that, they've heard of Twain and possibly gather his several quotable sayings to impress at social gatherings, but not read a good deal by him (as goes for George Orwell who in popular perception has written nothing apart from Animal Farm and 1984). Will Vinton, the man who made this wonderful Clay-mated film, is unlikely to fall in this category, having gone to such lengths to pay tribute to the author.

The Adventures of Mark Twain is a sort of meta-fiction based on Twain's “association” with Halley's comet (his birth and death were remarkably coincident with sightings of the comet and in his lifetime he even predicted his demise with the words I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.). Twain in the film actively sets out to meet his celestial brother in a tricked-out dirigible (stripped of the fantastic overtones it implies a fatalistic, perhaps even suicidal frame of mind) and tagging along for his journey as stowaways are Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Becky Thatcher (who Twain in the film describes as reminding him of his late wife “that same combination of innocence and sand”).

In this framework, Vinton references several of Twain's works (the biggest chunk reserved for a humorous interpretation of the Adam and Eve story) and even constructs many scenes around delivering those aforementioned quotable sayings. I can't say I recognize the source of a lot of these references but they do sound like things that the author would have said or written. Not unsurprisingly, the film doesn't have a single strong dramatic trajectory, but is more a meandering journey with a series of little stops. This is not a slur against the material, it generally works pretty well, and invests the central character with a depth not obvious from his popular image. This is most significantly observed in the film's allusions to Twain's last book The Mysterious Stranger – here an angel named “Satan” holds forth unchallenged on the pointlessness of civilization's belief in a benevolent God. This section stands apart from the other sequences of the film in how obviously sinister and nihilistic it is, and has the potential to give nightmares to children of unwary parents.

Literary leanings aside, the film is a fine watch, and a spectacular example of the Claymation process. In the hands of skilled artists with solid vision, it displays far more personality and palpable emotional impact than the computer generated animation we see so much of these days. You will notice that the screens from the film look pretty but in motion the impact is far greater. Even without knowing anything about its titular character you will find an abundance of charm that in itself makes The Adventures of Mark Twain a worthy journey.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

[dir. Mani Kaul]

I suppose by now most people that know me well know of my love-hate (actually I wouldn't say love) relationship with most of the late Mani Kaul's films. The man had some chops – his themes were not conventional, he had an eye for lighting and shot composition, and he could use music in a very evocative way. But he was a twat, too full of his own artistic importance and what an antithesis he was going to be to traditional narrative-oriented Indian cinema – one of the joys of reading Satyajit Ray's essay collection Our Films, Their Films was his contemptuous dismissal of Kaul's film-making style as “anemic”.
Most of the Mani Kaul films I saw were on the Doordarshan channel (yes, yes, in those old days when TV wasn't all Sari and Sins). Luckily enough the first one I caught was Nazar, which I remember being fairly intrigued by (especially Piyush Shah's images set to classical music) even though it wasn't breezy viewing. I will be revisiting it soon to see how my interest holds up. Later on, I slogged through Uski Roti (not even sure now if I saw it in full, because I was plain zombified by the experience) and Duvidha (more on this ahead). I was also “privileged” to see Beyond The Cloud Door, his "masterful" contribution to the shorts compilation Erotic Tales, at Mumbai's New Excelsior cinema. Despite Anu Agarwal's Tittu Ahluwalia act, most of the crowd gathered there was swearing at the dullness and incomprehensibility of the proceedings and I could not blame them. Sadly, I haven't seen any of his documentaries, I suspect the form is a lot more suited to his style.
Anyway, back to Duvidha, which I saw today on the NFDC Mani Kaul 3-movie set. In my first viewing on DD, I thought the film was an interesting ghost story done in a terribly dull manner. Consider the plot: When a young man leaves his wife on business immediately after the wedding ceremony for an interval of several years, a yaksha impersonates him and consorts with the wife (after telling her the truth). What happens when the young man returns? Who is her real husband? Very interesting folk tale with a powerful and timeless moral dilemma, like a Girish Karnad play. But dash it if Kaul doesn't aim to deliberately undermine the dramatic potential with his confirmed anemic approach. In Kaul's version, the characters are reduced to ciphers, their ethical dilemmas mere murmurs. It's not even in the name of realism, I've seen real people immensely more animated and emotional than the actors in this film. It's in my view a fake aesthetic designed to appeal to people that believe in the snob value of such esoteric examples of artistic expression.
That said, my second viewing was a better experience, mainly because of the better conditions of the viewing. Thanks to the clean-up job done by NFDC on this release, the mumble-mumble of the soundtrack is a lot more comprehensible and the sound design can be appreciated. It doesn't change my impressions of the film a huge deal but I am less bitter about it now. I suppose the image is better than what it used to be: It's still very soft and like with the Mirch Masala release, there's a problem with blown whites. You might find that you need to dial the brightness of your screen a few notches below usual to make the display easier on your eye and better appreciate the shadowy compositions.
I'll probably update this post with more impressions as and when I watch the other films in the set.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

It's raining movies out here

Click on the images to see in full resolution.

Behold once again how Ravi aka Crudo Cruox's avarice towers over my significantly more modest haul. Also, what appears to be a deliberate attempt to strain poor Rajesh Balakrishnan's limbs with the load of multiple copies of the same album (see top)

The Tower of Babel in close-up:

Modest haul in close-up (sorry for the flash but on my ancient camera I can't seem to get an non-blurry pic in the evening without using it):

Modest haul in more detail below:

1. I love me my Hammer horror and other thingies. Batman's a digibook and Blade Runner's the 5-disc (3BD + 2DVD) Complete Collector's set.

2. The name's Bond, James Bond.

3. The Criterions - including the most monstrous Criterion release of all time

4. Godzilla in full glory

5. And these came in today from Amazon UK. Return... is a Steelbook loaded with extras. Like I said, it's raining movies.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Freefall - 360

His first and foremost urge was to violently throw up; it was all so delirious and confusing it took him some time to deduce what had happened. When it finally struck, he was overcome by another wave of nausea. He'd gotten what he'd just wished for – he now had 360° vision.

His mind whirled in rage and terror at this new development. It wasn't even as if it was something he had repeatedly prayed for or craved with any consuming fervor, just a thought that had occurred to him as he was walking along the deserted beach. Even though he'd been to this place earlier, he had been once again captivated by its beauty: the wind, the sky the currents white and steel gray tirelessly throwing themselves upon the sands. There was such an immenseness to the scene, his eyes widened in greedy appreciation, wanting to taking in more and more and still more...

As he placed a tentative foot fresh spasms of dread drove through. With such an all-encompassing vision he had no perspective. He could not say what lay before and what was behind him. Distance became impossible to judge. But it was infinitely worse when he inclined his head. In one sweeping move he was looking at both earth and sky, and it felt as though he was being hurled between the two. As a child it had been one of his favorite pastimes to go up to the terrace of his house, lie flat on the floor eyes shut tight, then suddenly open them. At that instant it would seem to him that he was falling toward the sky, like it was some immense ocean. It was a sensation both terrifying and exhilarating. Now he worked desperately to keep his head straight so he would only have to deal with the horrors of the horizontal plane.

He could also see himself from both sides, though in his mind he could not tell front and back. How had this happened? Had he sprouted an extra pair of eyes at the back (and why always a pair), or had his own expanded out of their sockets to cover his entire head. The latter option so disgusted him he felt no urge to ascertain the truth.

It was when it began to rain that he realized the other thing. In all this while he had not once blinked. He willed himself to, concentratedly, but almost like it was some inverted blindness, he could not shut out his horrifically panoramic vision. The splashes of rain blurred and filmed over like water drops against a windshield, and he could not bring himself to wipe or shield what had become of his eyes. Each splatter sent ripples and distortions across the whole of his sight. Then he could bear it no longer and broke into a run.

For a spell he didn't perceive where he was headed, as he madly dashed, stumbling and struggling. It was ironically the chill of the water rocking against his legs that told him where he was. It had been wet weather all through, and the sea was suffused with a barely controlled fury. He tried moving back to shore, but his confusion by now was so complete he could do no more than to helplessly watch as the current dragged him further away. Floating on the back of mad foam-flecked waves his new-found eyes took in both wild sea and stormy sky and he felt as if he were suspended between two infinite depths. He was in freefall.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

King Solomon's Slaughter

Call me a politically-correct wuss, but some 50 pages into King Solomon's Mines by Rider Haggard, I'm more than a little horrified by what constitutes heroic adventure here. A trio of white men lead a band of African natives to look for the brother of one of the white men who was last heard of making his way towards the mythical mines. In the course of this expedition, they enter wild country and their first reaction is "Oh look, animals. Let's shoot them all. This brother hunting mission can wait." And it's not like they shoot what they can eat. Not even close. After shooting a giraffe, the 3 white men out of a total party of 10 shoot down 8 full grown elephants from a herd. That's nearly one elephant per man. And the rest of the herd gets to escape only because these trigger happy blokes got tired of chasing after them. Apart from these 8, there's a badly wounded bull elephant who goes on a rampage, finally running blind toward the white man who shot him in the first place. Just when you think that some redemption is at hand, it's not he who dies but a poor native who steps forth to hurl a lance at the beast to save his "I'll shoot me down a brace of elephants" master.

I'm wondering if I should go ahead with this.

Anyway, the book in question being out of copyright, I can safely paste the text that offended me:

Presently we caught sight of the herd, which numbered, as Ventvögel had said, between twenty and thirty, standing in a hollow, having finished their morning meal, and flapping their great ears. It was a splendid sight, for they were only about two hundred yards from us. Taking a handful of dry grass, I threw it into the air to see how the wind was; for if once they winded us I knew they would be off before we could get a shot. Finding that, if anything, it blew from the elephants to us, we crept on stealthily, and thanks to the cover managed to get within forty yards or so of the great brutes. Just in front of us, and broadside on, stood three splendid bulls, one of them with enormous tusks. I whispered to the others that I would take the middle one; Sir Henry covering the elephant to the left, and Good the bull with the big tusks.

"Now," I whispered.

Boom! boom! boom! went the three heavy rifles, and down came Sir Henry's elephant dead as a hammer, shot right through the heart. Mine fell on to its knees and I thought that he was going to die, but in another moment he was up and off, tearing along straight past me. As he went I gave him the second barrel in the ribs, and this brought him down in good earnest. Hastily slipping in two fresh cartridges I ran close up to him, and a ball through the brain put an end to the poor brute's struggles. Then I turned to see how Good had fared with the big bull, which I had heard screaming with rage and pain as I gave mine its quietus. On reaching the captain I found him in a great state of excitement. It appeared that on receiving the bullet the bull had turned and come straight for his assailant, who had barely time to get out of his way, and then charged on blindly past him, in the direction of our encampment. Meanwhile the herd had crashed off in wild alarm in the other direction.

For awhile we debated whether to go after the wounded bull or to follow the herd, and finally deciding for the latter alternative, departed, thinking that we had seen the last of those big tusks. I have often wished since that we had. It was easy work to follow the elephants, for they had left a trail like a carriage road behind them, crushing down the thick bush in their furious flight as though it were tambouki grass.

But to come up with them was another matter, and we had struggled on under the broiling sun for over two hours before we found them. With the exception of one bull, they were standing together, and I could see, from their unquiet way and the manner in which they kept lifting their trunks to test the air, that they were on the look-out for mischief. The solitary bull stood fifty yards or so to this side of the herd, over which he was evidently keeping sentry, and about sixty yards from us. Thinking that he would see or wind us, and that it would probably start them off again if we tried to get nearer, especially as the ground was rather open, we all aimed at this bull, and at my whispered word, we fired. The three shots took effect, and down he went dead. Again the herd started, but unfortunately for them about a hundred yards further on was a nullah, or dried-out water track, with steep banks, a place very much resembling the one where the Prince Imperial was killed in Zululand. Into this the elephants plunged, and when we reached the edge we found them struggling in wild confusion to get up the other bank, filling the air with their screams, and trumpeting as they pushed one another aside in their selfish panic, just like so many human beings. Now was our opportunity, and firing away as quickly as we could load, we killed five of the poor beasts, and no doubt should have bagged the whole herd, had they not suddenly given up their attempts to climb the bank and rushed headlong down the nullah. We were too tired to follow them, and perhaps also a little sick of slaughter, eight elephants being a pretty good bag for one day.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Cabin and The Rowdy

Went town-side today to catch a couple of films with pals:

Cabin in The Woods was up first. Thankfully I had kept away from the internet buzz about the film, not even visiting the IMDB page before seeing it, because the entertainment value of the film primarily depends upon you wondering what's going to happen next. It works decently enough as a meta-fiction spoof on the 80's haunted house / slasher genre, specifically referencing Evil Dead, Hellraiser and their ilk. It's a geekboy idea that will not stand up to any close scrutiny, being as full of absurdity and contrivance as the horror film conventions it aims to cock a snook at, but first viewing goes pretty smoothly and some moments ahead into the film, which I shall refrain from spoiling, have a lot of heh-heh-heh coolness value for splatter-horror fans.

We were all pretty chuffed with the film, and after that proceeded to a decent if not entirely great lunch at the Indigo Deli. The chilled melon soup was not chilled enough and on the sweet side, not to my liking. Pastrami and Cheese sandwich was alright, though not juicy the way I would have preferred (isn't that how a freshly prepared Deli sandwich should be?). Passion fruit sorbet for dessert was quite lovely, though, and at half the day gone we were generally at peace with the world.

And then came Rowdy Rathore. We walked out at the Intermission, what a waste of time. Action-packed my bleeding ass, the first action scene of any note comes just before the interval, more than an hour into the film and, without going into any details for fear of losing my sanity over the remembrance, everything before that is soul-suckingly inane filler. And the action scene was nowhere worth it, no imagination in the choreography. One would have thought that with Akshay Kumar being a skilled action hero who can do many of his own stunts, we would see some fairly spectacular stuff, but no, it's just haphazardly put together yawn material. It's amazing how once you apply terms like mass and masala to a film, it need not aspire to any notions of pace or grip in the screenplay. Dabangg was a recent film that got the masala formula perfectly with a pacy script, punchy dialog and badass fight scenes. This one, like the numerous Dabangg clones already out or in the making, randomly flings shit at the wall hoping something will stick.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ugetsu Monogatari + Oyu-Sama [dir. Kenji Mizoguchi]

I like Ugetsu a great deal, although the other Mizoguchi film I've seen, Sansho The Bailiff, was very tedious for me. The film can be described as a parable on the dangers of avarice, but that would make it sound very moralistic and boring. It's a drama mixed with supernatural elements and very nicely done at that. Mizoguchi has an eye for visuals and splicing them together through very deft editing - An important scene of a boat voyage over a lake forms a very memorable part of the film.

The blu-ray from Eureka's Masters of Cinema series is in most part a quality high-definition presentation of the film. Fine detail is evident throughout and contrast is balanced, giving a film-like quality to the image. Unfortunately there is a fair deal of print damage inherent to the source, with some instances so severe it looks like the actors walked into a downpour or stood under a very leaky roof. These moments don't last long but they're not easily ignored. It would have been nice if they could have been mitigated but that again brings the risk of erasing detail from the image, so in retrospect it's a fair tradeoff. The music of the film is very nicely represented in the audio. Apart from a nice booklet which bears some rather garish poster art and contains the original short stories on which Ugetsu is based, the disc houses an interesting video discussion of the film with critic Tony Rayns. The real bonus is the inclusion of another Mizoguchi film, Oyu-Sama. I'll update this post with my impressions of that once I actually see it.

 There would be those that will try to convince you that Oyu-Sama is a minor gem from a master film-maker. Rubbish, it's nothing of the sort. It's a typical Rajashri Productions melodrama like Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, but without the manically cheery song and dance sequences* and Laxmikant Berde, and I'm not sure it's any better for it. At a girl-seeing ceremony, a young man falls for her older sister Oyu. The hitch is that the older sister's a widow with child, and bound to her orthodox in-laws' home. The girl Oshizu has the absurd idea that she and the groom can have a "pretend" marriage while he "makes her older sister happy". In Meiji-era Japan, they apparently do this by taking walks at hot spring resorts and playing the sort of childish games that in adults take on a horrifying tone. Obviously, this leads to a situation where everyone's happiness gets raped, which in old Japanese movies means many scenes where characters face away from each other and bow their heads down to cry, while you scan the screen trying to find something interesting in the decor to alleviate your misery on having to sit through this tripe. Bleh.

*The emphasis is on cheery, there are a couple of ritualized musical performances with some spiffy stringed instrument playing and the quavering eerie vocals typical to the style of the time.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Rocket Singh - Death of A Salesman

...or something like that. Saw this one today. It's not a great movie by any stretch and the running time at 2.5 hours is way, way, way beyond breaking point, but it's the only Ranbir Kapoor film I've seen so far that I could sit through without wanting to repeatedly punch him in the face, and that's something. Perhaps it has to do with his ugly mug being mostly hidden behind the Sardarji getup. Also his demeanor is diffident rather than the usual boorish, which makes him almost affable. It's also nice to see a film pay attention to actors other than the matinee stars and there are some decent performances on show here (Gauhar Khan as the ignored office girl is very good and Prem Chopra does a wonderfully restrained act as the grandpa). But there are no really brilliant scenes or layered characters, only some amusing digs at the cutthroat sales industry.

This is a film that some people will consider "very good for a Hindi film" because it actually tries to adhere to the plot, the drama is dialed down and there aren't any elaborate song and dance sequences. Fine, except that the film is not hugely exciting beyond that. It's nowhere as absurdly fun as a 99 or a Tere Bin Laden, and I wasn't interested in it's characters the way I was for the ones in Khosla ka Ghosla or Oye Lucky. But like I said, I could actually sit through (spread over two sittings, but still) a film with large swathes of Ranbir Kapoor in it, so there must be something good about it.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Movies, movies...

Over the recent years, Marathi cinema, has put up some interesting examples of middle of the road sensible cinema, like Gabhricha Paus, Jogwaa, Valu, Harishchandrachi Factory, Deool etc. Khel Mandala [Viju Mane] not one of them. The plot has Dasu, a hereditary puppeteer trying to make a living in big bad Mumbai, finding an abandoned child that is blind and deaf/mute. He raises her in expected Samaritan fashion, and uses her as part of his act, controlling her moments by strings like a puppet. You would imagine that a story like this would involve some melodrama and tear-jerking and it wasn't that I walked into it blind-folded, but the film, at least whatever I saw of it, has little other than cliché and crudely wrought sentiment. Oh yes, I walked out of it halfway. I didn't expect to, I even spent an ill-advised hundred bucks on samosas and coffee at the interval mark, but when early on in the second half Dasu starts having romance song fantasies about the journalist girl who appears sympathetic to his cause, I had an undeniable feeling of having better things to do with my time than sit through this claptrap. Till that point the film was like Mehmood's Kunwara Baap, without the bizarreness that gave its predecessor a morbid curiosity value. I predict the following things to happen later in the film:
  1. Dasu gets complete KLPD over his imagined romance, and the journalist pairs up with her rival who runs competing stories about Dasu's “exploitation” of the child to steal her thunder
  2. The handicapped child is adopted by the rich childless housewife that bonds with her.
  3. Dasu dies of cancer / in a riot in protracted dialog-spewing fashion.
In case any of you see it in full, let me know by how much I miss the mark.

The Avengers [Joss Whedon] last night was pretty much what I expected it to be, a watchable disposable popcorn film (though I didn't have any popcorn). The story is ass, and you have to “marvel” at the need to go through three origin films to culminate in something that essentially comes from a randomized plot generator machine. What mainly works in the film's favor is Joss Whedon's penchant for witty dialog and character interplay – this ain't quite Firefly but it's a decent diversion. The most pleasant surprise comes from Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner / The Hulk. What Ruffalo / Whedon achieve here is make Banner interesting enough that you're not just waiting for him to go big and green. I didn't care for Tom Hiddleston's Loki in the Thor film and I don't particularly care for him as the main adversary here – he has too much of a mousy clerk air to really fill the boots of a mischievous God. After a shaky and schizophrenic first third, the dialog and action pick up sufficiently for the film to serve its purpose. The climax is a lot of computer generated imagery and stuntwork put together. I'm sure a lot of skill and hard work went into it but I'm not blown away mainly because the film rarely gives a sense of its lead characters being in any real danger. A classic adventure film, predictability notwithstanding, will attempt to give you some *gulp* moments in its good v/s evil battles. Here, no one seems to be breaking much of a sweat, they're so busy being cool. Anyway, if you like action-oriented comic book movies, you'll definitely find something to like here, just don't expect to find the Holy Grail.

Saw Singham [Rohit Shetty] today with my mum. Having heard so much about the visual quality of the blu-ray I really, really wanted to like this film – if it had been anywhere as entertaining like Dabangg was, I would have definitely bought the BD. But that was not the case. While both these films fit squarely in the masala movie bracket, the difference is that Dabangg took care to see that the script was tight and constantly entertaining – the quirky father-son / brother relation, the attitude of the lead characters, punchy dialog, good pace and humor etc. In Singham everything between the fight scenes drags tremendously. Ajay Devgan (or Devgn or whatever the hell he wants to call himself) has a chiseled physique and he may be better at action but his persona is so dour I don't feel any liking for his character, and in a film like this that's a fatal flaw. Prakash Raj does his usual campy act and he's good but this same role was done with more humor and chutzpah in Bbuddah Hoga Tera Baap. Looks like I won't be buying the BD because I can't imagine wanting to see this film ever again.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Megamind [dir. Tom McGrath]

One of the problems I have with many of the live-action superhero movies of the past decade or so is how they've gone emo-core or gritty (or both). Tim Burton's Batman movies kicked off the trend of the sombre comic book hero movie, but at least Batman was a more natural fit for that style. Since then, that route has been mostly a case of diminishing returns, and it's mainly the animated films that have given me my classic comic book movie fix. The DC animated features were in “serious” mode, but packed in sufficient thrills and superhero moments in their crisp running times to be worth the while. The Incredibles from Pixar remains the benchmark for the most fun superhero movie I have seen in more than a decade. Megamind is not up to that level but it comes a close second.
Short of getting an official license, Megamind is the closest is gets to telling a Superman - Lex Luthor story (close enough that I'm sure DC's lawyers must have at least vaguely considered some kind of legal action). The main new trick here is that we see things from the supervillain's point of view. Blasted off from his doomed planet by his parents in a spaceship (sound familiar?) Megamind as a baby crash-lands in a prison, where he learns his rights and wrongs (mostly wrongs). He also finds the world unfriendly to his more obviously alien appearance and nerdy personality (as opposed to his rival Super...Metro Man's hearty All-American Hero avatar). The rejection causes him to discard all attempts to befriend it, paving his way to becoming Metro Man's arch-nemesis. Sure, the plot is borrowed but kudos to Dreamworks for having an actually lucid script that's not just a collection of gags and references. Oh but all of this build-up is just the start of the film, and pretty early on Megamind, much to Metro City's, and particularly, Lois Lane clone Roxanne Ritchie's dismay manages to get rid of the hero.
What's a supervillain to do now that he has destroyed his only match forms the interesting and often endearing remainder of the film. The film throws up some lovely possibilities when juxtaposed against the Superman canon – Luthor building another superhero to battle with...and falling in love with Lois, even adopting an alter ego to court her? Hah, interested, aren't you? I won't spoil any more then. In any case, unpredictability is not the strong suit of the movie; it's charm, smile-inducing giddy boyish charm. The voice actors are a big part of the charm – Will Ferrell and Tina Fey totally nail it as the unlikely pair, Jonah Hill as Megamind-generated hero(?) Titan handsomely delivers, and Brad Pitt offers strong support as Metro Man. The setting and style is akin to The Incredibles' brightly colored retro-chic. It works equally well for this film, and the costuming is absolutely gorgeous. And then of course the thrills. The action sequences in the film, in particular the airborne ones, are as good as I have seen in any superhero film. All through I was thinking, THIS is how they should be doing a Superman film, not some dull gritty reboot.
Where Megamind falters is in its anxiety to cover all bases. The character of Megamind's minion (called...Minion) is half-hearted in construction and adds a noticeably more child-oriented element to the story. There are also instances where the ambitions of a scene are undercut by the need to place in a recognizable “Hey, it's that one!” soundtrack reference; Ozzy's Crazy Train was a fun addition and Michael Jackson's Bad is justified, but Welcome to The Jungle seemed to have been included only with the idea of passing on cocaine money to Axl Rose.
But these are petty niggles. Megamind is a fun and lively superhero movie, and very likely to appeal to pre-Frank Miller era comic book fans. In other words, there's no school like old-school.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The African Queen [dir. John Huston]

If The African Queen were to be made today, it would probably have more youthful stars (unless they went in for that old standby Harrison Ford, in which case it'd be called Indiana Jones and The Naval Juggernaut), a more convoluted and breathless screenplay, and far more elaborate stunts and explosions to qualify as an “adventure” film. But this was in 1951, when you could still have an old-fashioned romance with mature actors skilfully folded in with a rousing Boy Scout story about two people in Africa on a dinky little riverboat laden with explosives going on a mission to sink a German gunboat.

Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, as a boatman and a missionary respectively, are the unlikely middle-aged couple that set forth on this foolhardy mission, and beyond everything else they are what keep this film afloat. Having previously encountered Bogie only as the hard-edged arrogant bitter protagonist (Maltese Falcon, Big Sleep, Treasure of Sierra Madre), it was a pleasure to see him going sweet, and he shows a fine talent for comedy here. Hepburn gives her character the required hauteur without appearing unnecesarily mean (although perhaps the scene where she icily dumps all of Bogart's gin into the river is a close shave), and the chemistry between her and Bogie makes their emerging romance endearing enough to gloss over its convenience. Yes, there are thrills, when the boat has to be steered over rapids, when they go past a German fort with snipers firing, when they get stuck in reed-choked swamp territory. But African Queen, as scripted by Huston and James Agee, is at heart a romance, one that is charming not cloying, innocent not naive. The dialog drips with wit and intelligence, and, equally important, it remains consistent to the characters. A lot of the film was shot on location in Africa which invaluably builds the atmosphere and mood, and Jack Cardiff's technicolor photography is not in the same league as some of his work for Powell & Pressburger, but it makes for a sufficiently sturdy and pleasant presentation.

African Queen is a wonderful example of the old-school romantic adventure. Curl up with your beloved (or just yourself), a big tub of popcorn in hand and settle down to enjoy a genuine example of Hollywood movie magic.

For those that want to know, Paramount's blu-ray gives a lush video presentation of the film. The image is not always pin-sharp but that would mostly be due to the technology and shooting style of the film. Primary colors when seen have a nice pop and there is still a good amount of fine detail to be enjoyed. The Dolby digital mono soundtrack is decent but ordinary and one wonders if a lossless track even in mono would have had more punch. The sole extra on the Paramount BD is a very worthy one, an hour-long retrospective that comprehensively covers the making of this classic, with new and archival interviews and lots of production stills (Better yet, it is also in HD). For those in the UK, there is a blu-ray by ITV which features the same presentation of the film and the retrospective, and in addition features a feature commentary by Jack Cardiff.