Thursday, December 26, 2013

Passion of Joan of Arc [dir. Carl Dreyer]

I recently saw Passion of Joan of Arc on the Eureka blu-ray. The last I had seen this film about the trial of Joan of Arc at Beauvais and her subsequent burning at the stake was several years ago on a version that used Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light as the soundtrack. I held back a long time on getting this blu-ray for the reason that this score was a very integral part of the images I was seeing. But anyway, I took the plunge. This time I saw the film in a specially prepared 20 frames per second version (using frame interpolation) with a piano score by Mie Yanashita (I know director Dreyer intended for the film to be seen in complete silence, but I can't imagine doing that, at least for now). It remains a powerful experience. Earlier I used to wonder why large portions of the film do not have inter-titles, but now I realize that the inter-titles only reflect the words actually recorded in the written proceedings of the trial, and the script fills in the gaps with imagination and conjecture and does not give them any written dialog. Maria Falconetti's performance is THE reason to watch this film. Out of context it may just appear like a bunch of sad face expressions, but one can really believe her as a women tormented for her genuine conviction about being given a divine mission to rid France of the English.

Visually, the change in frame rate itself does not make a huge difference for me, but the image quality is a major bump from the standard definition version. Of course it's by no means reference grade material, because even after restoration there are plenty of minor scratches and other slight issues, but the image now has tremendous depth and nice texture especially in the (many) close-ups. The piano score does not have the awe-inspiring feel of the Einhorn score, but it is actually pretty good in holding the mood of the scenes.
The package is one of the most beautiful looking I have scene from Eureka. I have posted a few pics (from a crappy camera) of it here:

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Late Spring [dir. Yasujiro Ozu]

I hadn't seen Late Spring before, but felt relatively safe in buying it because having watched Late Autumn and Early Summer, I felt there was a sufficiently predictable pattern to director Ozu's style for me to take the gamble. Predictable is not a knock here, as Ozu's films are not about the destination but the journey, and Late Spring is another fine film in his repertoire. The plot concerns a elderly gent (Chishu Ryu) worried about marrying off his daughter (Setsuko Hara), but the girl is happy with caring for her father and wants to continue their present life. The plot is simple, the script's beauty is in the delicate portrayal of relationships and the dilemma the characters face between their emotional desires and the role that civilized human society requires them to play. It's sad that most Indian audiences are not interested in foreign cinema that doesn't come from Hollywood. I feel they would find a lot common social / cultural ground with the characters of Ozu films and the moral dilemmas they face - I would say they are very similar to Sooraj Barjatya / Rajshri films, if you put aside the gaudy naach-gaana and chauvinism. It also helps that Ozu has a very unpretentious low-key style. Late Spring, like his other films, has a gentle pace, but cannot be described as slow-moving in the sense that there are no wasted or empty moments. My favorite scene in the film is when the father advises the daughter as to why she should get married and how she should aim for happiness in life. It's beautifully understated both in direction and in the actors' performances, and brings a lump to my throat.

The video quality of the Criterion blu-ray is compromised on account of the source material. While the studio has doubtless done its best, there are many damage marks (most of them slight and non-distracting) and some amount of flickering. The mono sound is clear and solid. I haven't gone through the extras, but Wim Wender's Ozu related documentary - Tokyo-Ga - sounds pretty interesting.

City of Age, City of Decay

Footsteps cloaked in musty silence
You inhale the mold of ancient dreams
Dry lips emit no word, no whisper
Though your mind is wracked with screams.

Aging spires loom high in the darkness
At angles too monstrous to comprehend
Rust in the air, rust in your bones
There's no release and you can't pretend.

Sightless in the Alley of Shadow
You perceive by senses beyond the pale
Strung from lamp-less posts, the corpses
That forevermore shall tell no tales.

They have not mouths, nor ears, nor eyes
Not blood nor sex, these withered shells
Drained of conscious thought, you join them
Welcome to your personal hell.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

In Which We Serve [dirs. Noel Coward & David Lean]

It makes for an interesting comparison, this film and the one I posted about before, The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp. Both are British films concerning the Second World War, and made during that period. In Which We Serve (1942), released a year earlier, was the golden child, showered with a large expense account and all manner of advise and logistical support from the British armed forces. The reason is easy to see, it's plainly a propaganda film, one that exclusively celebrates the chivalry, selflessness and gentlemanly spirit of the British forces fighting the war, and the brave front put up by their loved ones back home. The enemy is always seen from a distance, a nameless warship or attack plane; for all this film cares, they might have been piloted by robots wearing horned Hitler masks. Where Col. Blimp differs is in giving a face to the enemy, suggesting that they too are honorable and courageous soldiers, and in implying that the days of battles being conducted as by-the-rules games of cricket are over. For this, the makers were strongly "advised" by the script-censors not to make the film, and denied all forms of official support. Winston Churchill himself did his damnedest to block its release. It was only several decades later, thanks to the efforts of cinema champions like Martin Scorsese, that the world got to see the intended version of Powell and Pressburger's wartime classic.

Anyway, we're talking here about In Which We Serve. While it is a propaganda film, that doesn't by any means make it a bad one. It was the brain-child of the versatile and immensely successful artist Noel Coward. Coward was a patriot and wanted desperately to do something to aid the British effort in the War. When the producers came to him with the offer of funding any script he had in mind for a movie, the normally film-averse Coward translated into an engaging screenplay the wartime experience of his friend Lord Louis Mountbatten, who captained the destroyer ship HMS Kelly before it was sunk by the Germans. The lead character, played by Coward himself (and rather well, exuding the requisite quiet authority), is based on Mountbatten (and Coward wore Mountbatten's cap for many scenes), although modified to avoid direct comparison on the man's request. Coward's search for someone to "help him with the technical side of things" led to his discovery through a mutual acquaintance of David Lean, then an editor. Lean accepted the job on condition that he share directing credits with Coward.

What is therefore most remarkable about In Which We Serve is that it is the feature film debut of both Coward and Lean. To start your film career on a large budget war epic with massive logistical challenges could not have been easy, but the final product looks remarkably assured. The film starts with the sinking of the destroyer HMS Torrin (a fictional stand-in for the Kelly), helmed by Capt. Kinross (Noel Coward). The surviving crew huddle around an inflatable raft, and as we focus on each of them, we enter a flashback that looks at their life, their relationships with their military colleagues and their family members. It's a somewhat clumsy structure, but allows for a variety of experiences as we get an inside view into a cross-section of characters from the clipped-tongued captain to the East End sailor. Uniformly, they focus on presenting a charming warm-hearted picture of regular patriots, with loving supportive families, so it's not as realistic (or cynical, if you so regard) as the war films of successive decades would be, but it does its job as a rouser of public feeling in a skillful and sincere manner. Especially touching is the depiction of the families. The characterization is simple but there is nuance in the evoking of social strata and in the performances. Easily the best of these is Celia Johnson as Mrs. Kinross, who belies her cinematic debut with a well-anchored performance, exemplified in the lovely single-take scene where she extemporizes on her feelings towards the "rival" of all naval wives, their spouses' ships.

On the technical side, Ronald Neame, a regular DoP on the Coward-Lean partnerships, does a sterling job of capturing the vision of the directors. The lensing is not flashy, but solid and effective, with great contrast. The scenes of on-ship battle look quite convincing in comparison to other films of a similar period. On the whole this is a very well accomplished rah-rah patriotic film that manages to rouse without appearing fake or grating.

Criterion's blu-ray of this film, part of a set of Coward-Lean films, gives an excellent visual presentation, showcasing deep contrast and fine detail. The mono sound is limited by its source, but clear and free of distortions. A fair number of extras, including a Coward biographer talking about the film and a making-of documentary with interviews from several sources, including Ronald Neame.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Life and Death of Colonel Blimp [dirs. Powell and Pressburger]

I doubt there's any film made by the duo of Powell & Pressburger that's not at the least very interesting, and Blimp stands among the top of their varied and illustrious filmography. The film is about the old world transitioning into an uneasy new world. The old is represented by Col Blimp (Roger Livesey, marvelous performance) who personifies a Boy Scout fantasy of a soldier that believes in chivalry and fair play on the battleground. Following his career from an honored young officer of the Boer War through the First World War and culminating at the onset of the Second, the film shows how the world around Blimp changes irretrievably from his gentleman's cricket game approach to conflict, to a more sordid "the end justifies the means" approach. While showing the lead character with warmth and admiration (humanizing him mainly through his continued adoration of his first love - played by Deborah Kerr who also plays two other characters in Blimp's life that resemble her), the film also acknowledges that he is a relic in this changing time. It's a touching richly-textured film, if you hold a torch for the old-school values that Blimp stands for. Rarely have 163 min gone by so breezily, with every moment given to economical exposition or solid character development. Many major events of Blimp's life take place offscreen with the film focusing more on the effects of those events on his life. Like many other P&P films, this one is also marvelously designed and executed with panache. The Technicolor photography (Georges Perinal, with Geoffrey Unsworth and Jack Cardiff as camera operators) is breath-taking, and the sentimental music score genuinely moving in conjunction with the visuals.

Criterion's blu-ray gives a wonderful presentation of the film. Based on a restoration conducted by Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation, the image here looks even better than on their other P&P technicolor film Black Narcissus. Apart from scanning of the negatives (which for technicolor means 3 sets of negatives), the restoration has been carried out almost entirely in the digital realm, and the results are astonishing - there is warmth and beauty here. While our eyes are so accustomed to seeing grain in movies that it would still be nice to shoot on film, it is my personal belief that screen size and resolution apart, a good digital screening would have little significant difference from a good 35mm print, and any moaning about this is just *blind* prejudice. The mono sound is clear and rich taking into account the limitations of the period. There's a load of supplements, of which I have seen only the rather nice intro by Scorsese in which he talks about the film and how it influenced crucial scenes in Raging Bull.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Mahanagar aka The Big City [dir. Satyajit Ray]

It's a little sad that Satyajit Ray has a reputation as an arthouse film-maker, which to most Indians signifies a dry, intellectual exercise, difficult to digest or pretentious, because IMO more than anything else, his main interest has been in telling interesting stories in an interesting and clear manner. With a couple of songs and perhaps a dollop of slapstick, his film Mahanagar could easily sit amongst the popular films of Basu Chatterjee or Hrishikesh Mukherjee, and should definitely be checked out by the people who like those films.

The story is about how a conservative middle-class family in Calcutta is affected when financial circumstances require that the wife should also take up a job. The film looks at it from two aspects:
1) The impact on the other family members - the loving but traditional husband, his orthodox parents, the young child (They all have reservation to some extent, and the only unequivocal supporter is the husband's kid sister, who sees it as a projection of her own ambitions)
2) The changes in the woman herself - how she grows from a shy house-bound wife to a more confident worldly-wise person.
Without any arty pretensions, but with the sharpness of observation and empathy towards the characters which are his strongest assets, Ray paints a very tangible portrait of this little personal revolution in the traditional family. Of course he is here immensely aided by the marvelous chemistry between the gorgeous Madhabi Mukherjee and Anil Chatterjee - their husband-wife relationship is a very credible and heartwarming picture of romance and friendship, mischief and responsibility. While some reality-obsessed curmudgeons may find the film's end unduly optimistic, it is a very well-placed happy ending, representing the never-say-die spirit of hope over adversity that keeps humanity alive. Ray's touch is very much evident in the screenplay and the visuals - many times, more is conveyed than said, with the use of beautiful visual metaphor or plain restraint, allowing the sensibility of the audience to fill in the gap. For this film he also composed the score, which is lovely and worth hearing on its own. All in all, highly recommended, and screw the snobs who regard it as a "minor film".

My recent watch of this film was on Criterion's blu-ray. Video-wise this is another amazing restoration (taking a 2K scan of the original negative) from RD Bansal / Pixion (Chennai). Kudos to them for making such a brilliant effort when so many classic Indian films, including some of the biggest box office blockbusters, look like complete shit on home video. Sometimes, the brightness levels seem very high, although there are no blown whites; it might have something to do with the intended look or the shooting conditions. The encode itself is excellent to mine eye, with no apparent digital artefacts. The mono sound is clear and robust and the music comes across quite nicely. I have not seen Kapurush, the short feature presented as an extra on this disc, but the other stuff is quite nice - a critic's video essay talking about the film, Madhabi Mukherjee reflecting on her experience, a Films Division short by BD Garga on Satyajit ray, which briefly looks at the shooting of Mahanagar.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Recently Watched (with blu-ray remarks)

The Producers

One of the funniest movies ever made. The brilliant Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder come together in Mel Brooks' perennial laugh riot about a scam to raise funds for the worst Broadway play of all time "Springtime for Hitler". From beginning to end, this movie is like being on laughing gas it is so darn hilarious. The writing is amazing and the supporting cast is equally brilliant.
I gifted my previous 2-DVD set of the film for a friend's birthday otherwise I might not have got this BD. The transfer is quite good, but not a must-upgrade if you already own it on DVD. It carries over all the extras of the DVD version, I don't know if there're any new ones.

Monsieur Verdoux

An unlikely Chaplin film, one where he plays a Bluebeard, a man that woos and marries older women for their money, then murders them. The murdering is generally off-screen, although we see some bumbling failed attempts. The film walks an uneasily line between its slapstick and serious moments, but has a couple of powerful scenes where the atheistic Verdoux expounds on his world-view and tries to defend his actions in the context of survival in times of war and scarcity.
The transfer is quite pleasing with deep contrast and excellent detail. Extras include a feature on the context in which Verdoux was made, and one on Chaplin's treatment by the American Press, especially after he was denounced as a Communist sympathizer.

On The Waterfront
If you've seen Aamir Khan's Ghulam, this is the movie it was shamelessly ripping off. Marlon Brando plays a small-time thug running errands for the local union boss (Lee J. Cobb). Brando's brother is a partner of the boss and involved in all his mafioso activities. When a local is killed after giving testimony to the crime commission and Brando falls in love with the man's sister, he faces a dilemma of speaking out what he knows and facing the wrath of the mob. A taut script and excellent direction (Elia Kazan) with some fantastic shadow-drenched visuals from the great Boris Kaufman.
Criterion presents the film in 3 different aspect ratios (1.37:1, 1.66:1 and 1.85:1) which if you ask me is a bit of overkill. I saw the film in the middle ratio and the transfer (made from a 4K scan) is quite terrific.

The Man Who Knew Too Much

A Hitchcock film from when he was still working in Britain. A dying man gives an acquaintance family a message that talks about a political assassination. The daughter of the family is kidnapped and the parents warned that if they pass on the message to the authorities their daughter will be killed. Father then goes on a rather foolish mission to rescue his daughter. The story is quite slight and the staging is less professional than Alfie's later films set in Hollywood, but it's good fun with a pleasing old-school British atmosphere. Peter Lorre as the lead bad guy is quite terrific, expressing both fun and menace. You can see several early glimmers of Hitchcock's trademark visual style.
The transfer is pretty good considering the age and state of the film. It is soft and grainy but organic looking. The sound is clear if expectedly boxy.


Saw most of the extras on Stagecoach, including the feature length commentary track. The commentary by Western scholar Jim Kitses was decent but also quite boring in parts, I wonder if it might have been better to have a condensed video essay instead. The featurette on stuntman Yakima Canutt who did some rather hair-raising stunts jumping from horse to horse, and the one with Ford biographer Peter Bogadnovich who talks about Harry Goulding, the man who introduced John Ford to the now iconic Monument Valley where Ford shot many of his Westerns, are pretty darn cool. There is also a near feature-length 1976 interview with John Ford which promises to be interesting.
The transfer, as I saw from the commentary, is excellent for what is essentially an old lower-budget feature with good contrast and fine grain.

Ninja III: The Domination

N3:TD (which has nothing to do with any of its Ninja movie predecessors) is a Ninja meets Exorcist mashup where an evil Ninja who cuts up a scientist and half the local police department for seemingly no reason at all transfers his soul into a spunky aerobics girl (Lucinda Dickey ). Spunky girl at various moments gets possessed and dons Ninja suit to kill off the cops that shot down the evil Ninja. It's totally absurd and packed with all manner of 80's cheese. I saw this film more than a dozen times a kid, to the extent where the VHS rental guy began to hide the tape during my visit to the store. It doesn't hold up quite as well now, but is still good brainless fun.
Scream Factory's transfer is quite amazing, from the perspective of a guy who had only seen the film in pan-n-scanned VHS form till now. Seeing it in the 16:9 ratio is quite a revelation. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 track is not going to win any awards for immersion, and the sound effects seem to be set a level higher than all the dialog and music, but this is quite likely the original mix for this low-budget exploitation flick and works. The disc has a commentary and a photo gallery for extras but inexplicably no scene selection menu.

Humanoids from The Deep aka Monster

This is a pleasingly gory creature feature from Roger Corman's studio. It was directed by a woman Barbara Peeters, but had additional footage inserted from a second unit shoot because Corman felt that Peeters' cut did not have the requisite sexploitation content he had mandated (the evil creatures here rape and impregnate naked / semi-naked local women). This is alluded to in the making of docu where a distinct element of embarrassment hovers over most of the crew as they discuss the changes made by Corman to Peeters' film (she herself is not seen here). That said, the film is a lot more distinctive on account of its exploitative elements.
Shout Factory's 16:9 transfer (again for me a revelation from the 4:3 cropped version I'd seen as a kid) wonderfully recreates the look of the film. It's on the softer side, but lush and colorful, and the grain pattern is not tampered with. The LPCM 2.0 track faithfully presents the original mix of the film. The aforementioned making of is quite interesting with a lot of input from crew members like composer James Horner and editor Michael Goldblatt who went on to more prestigious jobs.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Chennai Express [dir. Rohit Shetty]

Call it a case of the Stockholm Syndrome, if you will. Considering my previous history of the films of both Rohit Shetty and that walking pile of hubris, Shah Rukh Khan, I went in for this movie expecting something of a major migraine. The trip was more on account of my mum who, having seen poster images of female lead Deepika Padukone in a traditional South Indian silk saree and gajra, declared the film as a “must-be-seen”. What took me for a loop from very early on is how light-footed and irreverent Chennai Express is in its adoption of masala cinema mores, even in its digs at SRK's own repertoire of self-aggrandizing dreck. An early scene which begins as a wince-inducing rehash of the insufferable climactic reunion from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (more on the DDLJ connections as we go ahead), veers into a sharply funny send-up of the same. This scene also establishes the complete madcap tone of the film – the heroine who has escaped from her hometown to Mumbai is running towards a train that is headed back there. If after this outright proclamation you're going to complain about lapses of logic and coherence in this script, you might as well point out plot holes in Tom and Jerry cartoons, because that's what most of the movie is, a zany live-action cartoon.

I was apprehensive that CE would be an uneasy mishmash of Shetty's and SRK's trademarks, but SRK slips comfortably into Shetty's setup, displaying a rare self-deprecating humility. Bar exceptions like Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, I find it hard to sit through 10 min of a SRK performance without wanting to punch him in the mouth several times, but here he is (gasp!) fairly likable. Of course, in a certain sense, this film is like Terminator 3 (which also had mixed, predominantly negative reviews), in that it needed the legacy of SRK's brand for the spoofing to hit home. I suspect a good modicum of ad-libbing and improvisation was worked out between him and Rohit Shetty in the course of making the film, and in a nice way, it is reflected in the final product.

What is also interesting is the film's mixture of Hindi and Tamil elements. Especially in the segments set in Tamilnadu, CE riffs on mainstream Tamil cinema as well, with a copious amount of (non-subtitled) Tamil dialog and the presence in pivotal and minor roles of well known actors of Chennai movie-dom. One can see it as a mirroring of the culture clash in the story. In that respect, the film has maximum resonance with Hindi film viewers that also have some familiarity with Southie cinema – if you do not recognize actors like Sathyaraj, Delhi Ganesh and others from their long-time legacy in Tamil films, you will not fully appreciate their presence in CE. Deepika Padukone and Niketan Dheer as the brawny baddie speak Tamil in accents atrocious to the point of being incomprehensible, but that again can be seen as a reflection of South Indian cinema's proclivity towards importing language-impaired leading ladies and villains.

Yes, there are pacing issues – one too many songs and a cliched romance make for some very slack moments – but the major disappointment for me was the climax, which, especially in the wake of all the winking and fun-poking is a surprisingly straight-faced and therefore (yep, here it comes) wince-inducing rehash of the insufferable climactic reunion from DDLJ. The hero makes a speech about the tragedy of how in independent India, women are still held captive by patriarchy, after which he takes part in a slugging contest to win the hand of the bride who looks helplessly on, how's that for irony? So that's a bitter bit, but most of CE is palatably breezy and unlike many other so-called “family entertainers” actually mindful of keeping its violence and double entendre in check.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

La Grande Illusion [dir. Jean Renoir]

Last night I saw La Grande Illusion. This is a 1937 movie about French soldiers captured by the Germans during WW1. There are several occasions in which the French soldiers try to escape their prisons, the ideas for which were later taken for several "escape" films. But this is not purely an escape movie. The film casts an observant eye on the class differences between the soldiers (especially between the noble-born officers and working-class soldiers) and how these differences are to them greater than the differences in nationality or religion. The movie does not explicitly show the cruelties of war, and the interaction between the prisoners and their German soldiers is generally of a chummy nature or at least showing mutual respect (most striking here is the cameraderie between Pierre Fresnay as the highborn French officer de Boeldieu and Erich Von Stronheim as the aristocratic German captain von Rauffenstein). Rather, it depicts the futility of war by showing how the people involved in fighting these wars do not have any inherent hatred or ill feeling towards each other, and it is the arbitrariness of those in power that pulls them into conflict. While La Grande Illusion is on the sentimental side, it is not preachy. There is a cautiously optimistic message that at the end of the war, people will once again learn to live with each other. Of course, this hope was undone 4 years after the film was released with the advent of WW2.
La Grande Illusion was banned in Germany and Italy (of course), but was a major success wherever else it was released. Audiences identified with the essential decency of the characters and the anti-war sentiment. A cross-border love story that blossoms towards the end of the film is especially poignant. I would really like to see India make a war-time film like this instead of just the ones that go rah rah patriotism.

Studio Canal's blu-ray of La Grande Illusion features an impeccable presentation. Unlike the previous Criterion DVD release which from screenshots now appears digitally sharpened and cropped on all sides, this BD uses a newer 4K restoration sourced from the nitrate negative and the image is simply stunning. Terrific depth, deep (but not boosted) blacks and such minimal grain that one could almost suspect noise reduction if not for the terrific detail. There are occasionally soft scenes but none that seem a by-product of digital manipulation. The French audio track (DTS-HD MA 2.0) is clear and does the job, though as expected for a movie of this vintage, not especially immersive and the highs in the background score jar a teensy weensy bit for me. There's a boat load of extras which promise to be interesting, but I have not seen any other than the (very nice) lengthy video introduction/essay by French movie critic Ginette Vincendeau (who seems to be the go-to person for video essays on Arrow and Studio Canal releases of French movies).

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Gattu and The Searchers

Gattu [dir. Rajan Khosa]

Children in India do not have a whole lot of home-grown entertainment specifically catering to them. Most mainstream Indian movies come under the very dubious category of "family film", which essentially means that they are a schizophrenic mash-up of conflicting ingredients. where rudimentary stories and banana peel humor sidle up with crude sexual overtones and/or stomach-turning violence. As a result, z-grade animation flicks like Bal Hanuman and gratingly precocious garbage like Chillar Party are what we have in the name of children's films. It is embarrassing that a miniscule percentage of an already low number of films produced by the Children's Film Society of India (CFSI), get any theatrical or home video release, although to be frank the few I have seen are such amateurish efforts there is little pride to be gained from their exhibition. But occasionally there is a whiff of freshness on the horizon. Gattu is one such example; here talented film-maker Rajan Khosa (Dance of The Wind) takes a simple story and mounts with enough sensibility to keep it interesting for both kids and adults.
The titular character is a street-smart orphan that works in his uncle's small-time recycling factory and is passionate about flying kites. The target for this spunky sport (and many like kids in the neighborhood) is Kali, a black kite that has gained notoriety as an undisputed victor of kite duels. The film is about Gattu's various little schemes to procure the means for his sport, including posing as a student to get access to the school roof from where to fly his kite. The 74-min running time makes for a breezy experience, the locations and characters mostly ring true, and the film thankfully does not preach or talk down to its younger viewers. Mohammad Samad as Gattu displays a natural non-cloying charm, and ably carries the film on his tender shoulders. Also, there are no annoying songs to slow the pace. In all, Gattu is a worthwhile watch especially for parents looking for sensible entertainment they can share with their kids.
Eagle Entertainment has put out a decent DVD with an anamorphic transfer of the film and short but insightful featurettes into the vision behind the film. it can be purchased online HERE.

The Searchers [dir. John Ford]

The Searchers is a good movie, no doubt. It's a tale of revenge where white man Ethan (John Wayne) goes up against a marauding Indian tribe that attacked his brother's family and carried off their young daughter. In the story we see how the thirst for revenge brings to the fore Ethan's innate prejudices and makes him at various moments as savage as his enemies. This is accomplished decently, but I think there was a conscious attempt to not strike such strong notes here as to significantly diminish the heroic archetype. I was more affected by his performance in Red River. Some of the film's humor, especially its caricature depictions of supporting characters, sits uneasily alongside its grimmer aspects.
What struck me most about the film was its use of the widescreen process (referred to as VistaVision). Unlike most films where the widecsreen is used to expand the canvas horizontally, the attempt here seems to be to pull the camera back with the intention of showing more vertical space, especially above the characters' heads; one sees a lot of this in the outdoor shoots in the ever-popular Monument Valley). The intended aim appears to be to show how the rocky landscape towers over the characters. While Man aims to carve civilization out of his surroundings, he is dwarfed by the sheer force of unforgiving nature around him and must constantly resist the impulse to be more than savage brute.
Warner's blu-ray for the film gives an excellent presentation with a panoramic 16:9 transfer that is stunningly detailed, and the original mono track (albeit only in lossy form, but it's clear enough, although it may lack the oomph of more elaborate mixes).

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Celluloid [dir. Kamal]

Getting down to brass tacks, Celluloid attempts to provide a slice of Malayalam film history: The early half deals with the making of Kerala's first film Vigathakumaran aka The Lost Child, a 1930 silent by J.C. Daniel (played by Prithviraj Sukumaran), and the second half deals with the aftermath of the film's release and subsequent events on Daniel's life.
The first part feels a fair bit like Paresh Mokashi's charming little film on Dadasaheb Phalke, Harischandrachi Factory (in a nice bit of continuity, when an enthusiastic Daniel meets Phalke to learn from him about movie-making, we see the same actor Nandu Madhav playing the part). While Phalke had to rely on men to play the female roles in his early films, women had started to appear onscreen when Daniel started out. Female actors were still highly uncommon though, and the profession was regarded as one for loose women, which is why Daniel has to opt for a lower-caste Christian convert Rosamma aka Rosy (Chandini, to me one of the best performances in this film) to play the role of an upper-caste Brahmin woman in his film. In the film, Daniel's personal outlook to the caste system is very progressive. Significant footage is devoted to the making of Vigathakumaran (a routine melodrama, frankly), treading similar ground as the Phalke biopic, therefore less interesting. A more grounded non-theatrical approach here would have done a lot to differentiate it from the previous film and allowed for a better segue into latter events. The major emotional crux in this segment comes at the film's release when the local Brahmin community violently reacts against the idea of an “untouchable” woman role-playing one of their caste. Rosamma disappears, and the film's commercial failure costs Daniel dearly.
In its second half Celluloid abruptly swings into retrospective mode, with a journalist Gopalakrishnan (Sreenivasan, based on an actual person that wrote a book on JC Daniel), investigating into Daniel's history, wanting to know about Daniel's life. By way of flashbacks from an aging Daniel and his faithful wife Janet (Mamtha Mohandas), Gopalakrishnan (and the audience) learns about the ups and downs in their life post-Vigathakumaran that culminated in them leading an abandoned impoverished existence in a small town in Tamil Nadu.
I can understand Celluloid was walking a line between doing justice to its subject matter and avoiding the arthouse label, but a lot of it feels routine. If Daniel had been anybody other than the founding father of the motion picture in Kerala, this would be one of numerous passable middle-of-the-road melodramas Malayalam cinema churns out. Especially in the second half, a lot of Daniel's life is given short shrift – his career as a dentist, his attempt to make a second film – focusing more on Gopalakrishnan's attempts to provide legitimacy to Daniel's pioneer status; there's some irony in that. We never feel privy to the workings of the protagonist's mind, his attachment for the moving image that repeatedly pulls him away from a stable life, and for a biopic that's a serious flaw. To my mind the film would have been much stronger in dispensing with the wearisome awkwardly fitted flashback structure.
Technically, it's a mixed bag. Some scenes are striking in their framing and/or camera movements, but several others are routine flat mid-range full-bright shots, and in general, not enough thought has been given to imaginative use of lighting and shadow, which would have been nice for a film narrating a chapter from cinematic history. In my mind I compare this with Madhusudhanan's Bioscope, also related to early film history and one of the most gorgeously captured films I've seen, and wonder what could have been if some of that vision had been incorporated. As is, Celluloid is an intermittently interesting but overall disappointing movie with little repeat value for me.

That's about the movie, a short note on the blu-ray from Horizon Audio-Video: What do you know, this is pretty decent. The image is sharp and colorful and looks faithful to the makers' intentions. One casualty is that the mediocre-to-amateurish green screen work sticks out. Needlessly, two lossless surround tracks, one DTS-HD MA, and one Dolby TrueHD, have been provided. Apart from volume differences, they sound similar at least on my analog stereo setup. One would have appreciated some special features, at least a short introduction / interview with director Kamal, but none are provided. The blu-ray package also includes a DVD of the film to use as backup or gift your friends.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Recent watches

Intimate Lighting [dir. Ivan Passer]

This movie is part of the Czech film box set from Second Run DVD. I have to say that for a good while, the script seemed to me disjointed and anecdotal, and not in a good way. The story mainly features these two musicians who have known each other long ago, but are now in very different circumstances: one is provincial family man Bambas with parents and several children, the other is Petr, a townie with a gorgeous child-woman girlfriend. Petr is called in to play with Bambas and the other provincials at an important local concert, and during this time he and his girl stay over at Bambas' house. So most of the film obliquely hints at the differences between the circumstances and outlooks of Bambas and Petr, in which a fair amount of the humor seemed to me rather idiosyncratic and even during the course of the rather short film, I was looking at the watch a few times. But in the last third of the film, you have a conversation between Petr and Bambas that really brings a lot of the film together. When I say conversation, I don't always refer to the exchange of words, but you essentially see the two men in common ground, reflecting on what unites them despite the disparity of their circumstances. There's no preaching here, and a fair amount of what happens is just the two guys getting drunk and making casual chatter. At one point they have the idea of running away from their existing lives and making a fresh start elsewhere. I'm not suggesting there that the film is like some puzzle with a revealing twist, but somewhere in the midst of this extended scene the threads of the film came together for me, and what seemed pointless before comes into context. So while initially I was very dubious about the DVD cover's claims of subtle humor, at the end I'm somewhat in agreement and I do feel that I can revisit the film with a better perspective the next time.

Apparently Karel Blazek, the actor that played Bambas died very shortly after the film's completion of leukemia, of which the director was not aware until he died.

Indie Game – The Movie [dirs. James Swirsky – Lisanne Pajot]

I got this Kickstarter-funded movie through download as part of the Jim Guthrie Humble Bundle deal currently on. The film attempts to give an insight into the lives of independent game designers – their lives, their philosophies and how they differ from those employed in mainstream game developer studios. It covers in parallel the lives of three prominent indie game developers, the people behind Super Meat Boy (SMB), Fez and Braid. The first two games are given the closest attention as the film chronicles the time leading to the commercial release of SMB and the showing of Fez at the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) convention. Braid is shown mainly in the wake of its success. I would assume that at least some part of the film is shot in retrospect since it is a little hard to believe that the camera was in position at all the crucial junctures of the development of these games. Although there is a fair amount of footage from the games explored, the film does not require you to be a game nerd to appreciate it. It's mainly a look at the personalities involved, what makes them tick, it's about what you face when you choose to travel off the beaten path. SMB developers Edmund and Tommy are a nice study in contrast. While Tommy is almost stereotype loner game geek coder (perhaps I'm being unfair, he does have a good vibe with his parents), Edmund has a wonderful open-faced smiling countenance reflecting his happy inner child (He looks rather like a younger Guillermo Del Toro). Some of the film's most touching moments come from scenes like Edmund's proposal to his supportive girlfriend at a gaming convention and when they reflect on the toll that SMB took on their personal lives. Phil Fish, the one-man developer of Fez is the other main participant in this film. He often comes across as a self-absorbed and arrogant man, with an almost 3DRealms-like reaction to fans criticizing the protracted (2007-12) development cycle of his game. He gets his moment of relief when Fez, despite game-crashing bugs received a positive showing at PAX 2011.

While there are moments of repetition, it generally works in the film's favor in terms of depicting the routines and frustrations of indie game devs. On the whole Indie Game – The Movie was a lot better than the Minecraft – The Story of Mojang documentary. The documentary was shot on digital video and the 1080p quality file I downloaded looks great within the limitations of the medium. The soundtrack by Jim Guthrie is also excellent and fits very well into the context of the film. Recommended even if you're not a big gaming fan.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Dance of The Wind [dir. Rajan Khosa]

Saw the film last night, and while it's not an amazing or revelatory movie, it's decent with a thankfully brief running time of 86 min. Kitu Gidwani (This woman is ageless. I remember seeing her as a kid in this DD serial called Air Hostess and later in some detective serial with Mazhar Khan, and had a childhood crush on her. She looks good even in this '97 movie and in some more recent stuff) plays a singer that loses her voice after her Guru-mother Karuna Devi (Kapila Vatsyayan, very solid cameo performance) passes away, and this is a metaphor for how she has not developed her own style and feel for the art. The film is about how she goes after this quasi-mystical little girl Tara who represents the unfettered original spirit that she is looking for to regain her confidence after her mother's demise. Pleasant in a vaguely arty way. Kitu is not a gifted actor but she is involved in the role here, and does a good job in depicting the emotional vacuum in her character after her Guru-ma's death. She's never hugely convincing in the singing bits though, more Bharat Bhushan like.

Piyush Shah's cinematography is in the style he used for Mani Kaul's films, and makes for some pleasant and soothing visuals. The score by Shubha Mudgal is pretty interesting - for one she does not herself sing (Shweta Zaveri for Pallavi, Shanti Hiranand for Karuna Devi and Brinda Choudhari for Tara are the major vocal artists), and secondly the focus is less on elaborate hi-falutin' performance music and more on unaccompanied melodies and songs. There is one song that gets repeated as a thematic element in the film and it has a lovely luster to it, worth hearing several times over.
Youtube song link

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Tristana [dir. Luis Buñuel]

While it may be open to reading of all manner of subtext, what is really cool about Tristana is that it works perfectly well as a straightforward character drama, and in its exploration of sexual desire and perversity (and some other aspects, more on that later), it makes a lovely companion piece to that other collaboration between Buñuel and actor Catherine Deneuve, Belle de Jour.
Which is not to say that the film is devoid of subtleties or ambiguities, no. In the initial part, when a youthful wide-eyed Tristana (Deneuve) is first adopted by the aging chevalier Don Lope (Ray Fernando) only to be then cornered by that man into a carnal relationship, she does not immediately react with horror. It is not made explicit as to whether it is naiveté that clouds her awareness of the perversity of her situation, or an underlying sexual curiosity – her behavior with the local teenage boys is curious – mixed with a cynical acceptance of her situation as an orphaned child. Lope himself is a layered character, alternatively paternal and lustful. He is socially respected, an impoverished noble with claims to old-world charity and chivalry, although some of that is later dispelled. He pampers Tristana but jealously keeps her under virtual house arrest, the only outings approved being to the church (The Don is an atheist, but indulges Tristana her “superstitions”). It is of course just a matter of time before the situation becomes unbearable for the girl, who turns resentful and insolent towards her guardian. On one of her unauthorized outings accompanied by Lope's servant Saturna (Lola Gaos) – who in her pragmatic simplicity is one of the few pillars of emotional and moral strength in the film – Tristana meets a painter Horacio (Franco Nero, yes, he of Django fame), who she is immediately infatuated with (romance or plain lust after having only been with an aged lover?). In a scene where Lope's claims to honor at all cost are called into doubt, he is quickly brushed off by Horacio, and the couple go off to make their own life. Interesting enough, they do not marry because the otherwise Christian Tristana believes in Don Lope's claims of unfettered love (or perhaps just finds it more convenient than being hitched to one person).
That's however not the end since after an abruptly mentioned two years, Tristana is back with Don Lope at her own insistence, now in dire illness on account of a tumor in one of her legs. The Don, who has been restored to good financial straits thanks to an inheritance, is happy to once more play the benevolent patriarch, confident that Tristana will now (figuratively) never leave the house. But while his stance has become more sincerely patriarchal, Tristana now only has corruption and cynicism in her heart, and vengeful feelings towards her guardian, and in more ways than one she becomes responsible for his death.
So yes, a straightforward character drama, but what brilliantly fleshed out characters. It is no mean feat that the script (Buñuel and Julio Alejandro based on a novel by Benito Pérez Galdós) can shift your sympathies from one character to the other without ever seeming contrived, and without requiring any kind of pretentious “reading between the lines” from the audience. There are no “set-piece” scenes, but the entire narrative has a lucid flow. Fernando Rey and Catherine Deneuve give themselves whole-heartedly to Buñuel's vision, casting aside any personal ego with brutally honest performances. José Aguayo's cinematography is magnificent; in its earthiness, it reflects the passionate (sexual and emotional) thrust of the story and is an interesting contrast to the colder visual style of Belle de Jour (appropriate to that film's dealing with sexual frigidity).

A few words on the Cohen Media Group blu-ray of the film:
In terms of video quality the high-definition master used to produce this blu-ray, based on a 2012 restoration of the film, is a revelation. The previous BFI release (which I believe was also the source for the Enlighten DVD in India) is anemic, muddy and video-like in comparison. This is not just the difference between HD and SD (Cohen have also released it on DVD, which I am sure will be a big improvement from the BFI release), it is the result of a fresh scan from the original negative (and occasional use of other sources, which are noticeable). The colors are rich and true, and filmic texture is apparent. For audio, they have provided Spanish and English surround mixes. While it would have been nice to have the French mix in addition to or in lieu of English (since Catherine Deneuve is very obviously delivering her lines in French), the bulk of the film is in Spanish (although most of the cast appears to have been dubbed in post, a widely followed practice of the time) and the audio is quite satisfactory. I have not yet accessed the extras, but you mainly have a video essay and a commentary track with Catherine Deneuve and a film critic. There's a nice booklet that also includes excerpts from Deneuve's diary during the making of the film. This a fantastic Criterion/Eureka grade package and highly recommended. Also, I think it is region-free, in case that's an issue.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Agora [dir. Alejandro Amenabar]

The thing that most distinguishes Agora for me is its center character, the philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria (4th Century A.D.). How often have we seen a film with a central woman character who is not a creature of emotion or sexuality but of ideas. Which is not to say Hypatia (as breathtakingly portrayed by Rachel Weisz) is unfeeling; no, she is warm and affectionate, progressive in her thinking with a gift of empathy, not to mention incredibly offhand about the effect her beauty and persona have on the men around her. But she has deliberately chosen to relinquish romance and the comforts of domestic life women of her time almost inevitably accepted, because she is devoted to constantly developing her mind and acquiring a better understanding of the universe around her.
This is explored primarily in Hypatia's quest to decipher the riddle of the planetary system. How accurate the events of Agora are in this regard is perhaps a matter of conjecture but Hypatia was known to be an accomplished student of astronomy and, while simplified for the purpose of drama, there is a strong element of verisimilitude in the depiction of this search. It also defines what sets her apart from the other characters of the film. While her epiphany will reveal the puniness of Earth in the context of the Universe (and by implication, human civilization), the immediate world around her is dividing itself into factions – Greco-Roman pagans, Christians, Jews – each of which believes in its all-encompassing superiority and divine right to reign over or exterminate the other.
As played out here, there are no absolute heroes on any side. The pagans, including Hypatia's father Theon (Michael Lonsdale), believe themselves dominant and spark conflict by launching an open attack on Christians in their land, only to find themselves foolishly outnumbered and besieged. The Christian retaliation leads to the destruction of the library of Alexandria, then one of the great centers of learning. Most surviving pagans convert to Christianity, either for basic survival or for ascension to power. Then on, the Christians led by bishop Cyril (Sami Samir) and his enforcers aka Parabalani, become increasingly militant in enforcing rules that would not seem out of place in contemporary hardcore Islamic countries.
There are two other major players in the cast – Orestes (Oscar Isaac), a pagan nobleman who once proposed to and was given a bloody rejoinder by Hypatia, has embraced Christianity and is now Prefect of the city. While he knows he cannot expect romance, his friendship with Hypatia and respect for her endures, eventually landing him into direct conflict with Cyril's hardcore fundamentalism. Davus (Max Minghella, who played the Indian guy in The Social Network), a former slave in Hypatia's house and secretly pining for her, is then swayed by Christanity and unabashedly channels his frustrations into life as a Parabalani. He is shown to have his doubts with the deeds of fellow-Christians (notably their lack of forgiveness in dealing with the Jews) but goes along with the tide, only realizing too late what it means for the object of his yearning.
Agora is a big budget film with several scenes of huge scale (using computer imagery, many times to zoom perspective as far back as outer space), but expectedly, none of the major Hollywood studios have seen fit to produce an expensive film which criticizes the excesses of militant Christianity or features a woman intellectual). Depictions of the hazards of militant religion and politics are not uncommon in films and while Agora's setting is fresh, it is not exceptional in that aspect. It is mainly the unique nature of its protagonist gives a special aura to the film. According to Amenabar, for whom it is undoubtedly a labor of love, the project started out as a study of Hypatia and other early astronomers (which I would still love to happen, perhaps as a TV mini-series), but in the final film she is a metaphor for rational thought in an age when such ideas were regarded as blasphemous and fit to be destroyed. It is more than 1600 years since, and we are, sad to say, not entirely out of those times.

I was lucky in that my first viewing of this film was on a blu-ray (a terrific gift from my internet friend Aadil Moosa, whose interest and knowledge of Indian music – especially film music – has been hugely enlightening to me). This region B release is from South Africa (although the film is in English and features well-known actors of those industries, it does not seem to have been released in the US / UK) and features a consistently terrific transfer of the film, the only downside being that high definition exposes the limitations of the computer imagery depicting the scenes of large scale massacre / pillaging. The audio has immense range and clarity, although the scene of the destruction of the Alexandrian library had me rushing to cut the volume, for fear of bringing down the neighbors. There are some extras including a commentary and some featurettes, which I have not yet gone through, but am sure will be interesting in the case of such a thought-provoking film. Highly recommended unless you like your entertainment to exclusively be of Dadumbb variety.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Ai No Corrida aka In The Realm of The Senses [dir. Nagisa Oshima]

For all its stretching of credibility, Nagisa Oshima's controversial 1976 film Ai No Corrida aka In The Realm of The Senses has its roots in a true-life incident from 1930's Japan, where a woman Sada Abe was found wandering about with the severed genitals of her lover Kichiza Ishida, who had been fatally asphyxiated, her name carved into his arm and the bedsheets smeared with a bloody message "Sada and Kichi, now together". Oshima takes the framework of that bizarre incident and casts Sada and Kichiza as the lead characters in this tale of sexual obsession.

Sada, who has been a prostitute at some earlier point in her life, takes up employment as a help in the inn run by Kichiza and his wife. Kichiza is almost immediately attracted to her, as she to him, and they begin an intimate liaison. It soon reaches a point where Kichiza moves her to another house and they have a mock marriage ceremony. This marks the commencement of a life dedicated to the exchange of sexual pleasures. Seemingly free of any worries of unwanted pregnancy or venereal infection, the couple seem to spend all their waking hours having sex. Sada, who resumes her occupation as sex worker to support them, forbids Kichiza from ever going back to his wife or having sexual intercourse with her, although she doesn't seem to mind if he calls geishas over, and in some instances, insists that he have sex with other women, including a 68-year old geisha. The general inference seems to be that if he has sex with another woman it should be with someone with whom he has no emotional connection with or sexual desire for. 

In time, Sada grows increasingly obsessed with Kichi-san's sexual apparatus, even threatening to cut it off so it will always remain with her. Her desperation to always be with him and ensure his sexual fidelity puts him under virtual house arrest and their carnal fetish grows more extreme with the inclusion of strangulation. The eventual climax (pun unintended) of this volatile communion mixes desire, pain, love and death in an inseparable splatter.

That ends my humble interpretation of the film's story but how does it actually stand? I will say this: Ai No Corrida is is not a film designed to appeal to a wide audience. Quite the opposite, in fact, because the film requires an audience to conform to certain patterns for them to find any appeal in it. Some of these I'll try to outline as below:
  1. This is not a film to be watched with family or friends. Out of 100 odd minutes (or longer depending on what cut you see), there are probably some 3 minutes of footage that do not have some kind of sexual activity going on...and that includes the credit sequences.
  2. You have to be comfortable with hardcore sex scenes, non-gym toned, non-surgery enhanced figures and proudly unshaven crotches.
  3. You need to take the sexual obsession part seriously. If you're not sold on that, the movie is just an endless parade of sex acts, occasionally hilarious, occasionally extreme. You need to give the movie a bit of running time to build on the obsession theme. In my view, the director fumbles early on, and the initial sexual interactions between Sada and Kichiza are emotionally unconvincing, appearing to be structured solely for the outre factor.
You could adhere to all the above and still find the film to be just a boring snob version of a porn film. I will not attempt to change your mind (the same courtesy I expect from anyone with a contrary opinion). I am only expressing my point of view here.

What to me saves this film from falling in the exotic porn category is the way Oshima has developed the situations and the way he has directed the actors. It could not have been easy finding competent actors that are also willing to perform explicit onscreen sex. But in Eiko Matsuda (who appears to have had a very short and otherwise wholly unremarkable film career) and Tatsuya Fuji he finds a pair that delivers the goods. Though not particularly blessed with beauty, Eiko has her charms, especially when she gives us her lovely dimpled smile, and more importantly she brings to the role an emotional weight that makes Sada a credible character, not merely a plot device on which to hang assorted pornographic scenes. Tatsuya Fuji is also charming and he has a genuine chemistry with his co-star that keeps the sex scenes from feeling mechanical. It also makes the final consummation of their relationship more acceptable, less contrived.

It is to me also obvious that Oshima is as interested in the faces and sexual emotions of his characters as he is in depicting their sexual organs, sufficiently differentiating his film from a run-of-the-mill porn industry product. His portrayal of obsession is refreshing in that it is two-way, and not the more standard theme of one character entrapping the other in a menacing way. ANC is not all roses though, and there are moments when Oshima seems insistent about depicting a little of every known sexual fetish. But on the whole I find this film an interesting (and re-watchable) exploration of the theme of sexual obsession and the extremes to which it can reach. Your mileage may vary....a lot.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Return to Salem's Lot [dir. Larry Cohen]

Return to Salem's Lot (RTSL) is one of those films that has all the stinky ratings at IMDb and tepid to scathing reviews at the few places that even bothered to review. But this little obscurity IMO deserves a lot better. OK, the title can be misleading, since apart from the setting of the town this one has little relationship with Stephen King's novel Salem's Lot or Tobe Hooper's tele-film version of it. Like most of Larry Cohen's shoot-on-the-run ventures it doesn't have spanking production values and the FX have to be taken with a voluntary suspension of disbelief. And with some wild swerves between gripping emotional drama and obvious camp it certainly can't be described as having a very consistent tone. But unlike most modern day 'epic' films where every sparse scene and nuance is stretched out like a taffy competition, this film is packed with so many cool concepts and dramatic ideas it can barely contain them.

The story has a scoop-seeking anthropologist Joe Weber (Cohen regular Michael Moriarty in another pleasing turn) going off with his problem son whom he has not seen in years to an inherited house in a quiet ancestral town where they can sort their issues...and yes, that place is Salem's Lot. In Cohen's version, the town has been entirely taken over by vampires, who constitute a society unto themselves, using humans only as servants. They are intrigued by the anthropologist and want him to write a chronicle, nay bible, of vampire civilization. In turn Joe's son is intrigued by the vampires and not sure if he doesn't want to become one himself. Cohen's pacy script presents his quirky and subtly humorous take on a vampire society with its peculiar lifestyle and its own attitudes towards the human race. He also presents the gripping dilemma that Joe faces, forced to stay and write for his son's safety and at the same time seduced by the prospect of writing a unique chronicle...and by an ex-girlfriend who has never aged after he left.

Thus far is a film that's plainly brilliant in its setup and I would have loved to see a greater progression in this vein. But after that Larry's script seems to have run out of ideas or time and he quickly reverts to a showdown where Joe teams up with a crusty old vampire slayer (played by maverick movie-maker Sam Fuller, and there's also a cheeky reference to his film Pickup on South Street) who just happens to have blown into the town. There occurs that same abrupt change of tone that happened in John Carpenter's They Live which, beginning as this quietly unsettling SF thriller, suddenly veered off into high camp territory with the scene where Roddy Piper decides it's time to 'kick ass and chew bubblegum'. To it's credit, RTSL goes for much longer before the camping grounds are laid, and even after that, retains a good modicum of interest.

Thus while not entirely streamlined or satisfying, RTSL is a film with several points of interest and IMO one that deserves a better appreciation than it has thus far received.

3:10 to Yuma [dir. James Mangold]

One consequence of the success of the Sergio Leone – Clint Eastwood films (in themselves inspired by Akira Kurosawa's itinerant sword-for-hire character, Sanjuro) is that the Western genre has become almost synonymous with The Man with No Name. But cowboy films were made before the archetype was crystallized, and 3:10 to Yuma harks to those Westerns of yore, where the protagonist had ties and cared about values of family and decency.
Rancher and ex-soldier Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is deep in debt and needs to hold out till the rains come in and save his cattle (and his family consistting of a wife and 2 young sons) from starvation. After coming across the gang of outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) he does his bit in aiding Wade's capture and for the sum of 200$, takes on the job of being part of an escort to load the prisoner onto the titular train to Yuma prison. With Wade's gang desperate to rescue their leader the job is dangerous, but Evans needs the money to keep afloat till fate rules in his favor, and even though by nature a cautious man, is willing to risk it for family's sake. Christian Bale approaches the part with his trademark sincerity, while its underdog nature saves it from the annoying pompousness that many of his other roles have suffered.
Wade on the other hand is a creature embracing ruthlessness and whimsy. I have not seen the previous film version where actor Glenn Ford played the role, but imagine if you will, a cross between Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear and Anthony Hopkins in Silence of The Lambs. Crowe is an actor whose interest or lack thereof in a part is generally palpable, and it is easy to see he is having a good time here. While his murderous cronies do what they can to rescue him, Wade psychologically teases his captors, probing the chinks in their armor, alternatively giving vent to his own psychotic leanings.
While there are several other supporting members in the cast, the crux of the story is the interplay between Wade and Evans. The former is amused by the latter's humble courage and desire to do good by his family, and it is suggested, although not in a hugely credible sense, that an emotional chord is struck in Wade's mind. It seems odd and contrived that a veteran vicious criminal like Wade could be so moved by Evans' decency, but not in a manner that hampers one's enjoyment of the film. The story moves with the precision of a well-oiled timepiece (which means you never look at one while watching) and absorbs in its character moments The action sequences are equally immersive, thrilling without losing coherence. It also helps that the film has solid production values and a gorgeous old-school visual texture.

A few words about the blu-ray:
Lionsgate (who is distributing this in both the US and the UK, so one assumes these discs will be identical) has delivered a truly knockout release of the film on blu-ray. Although the VC-1 codec has in recent times been superceded by MPEG-4, this film showcases that it too can produce amazing HD encodes. Gorgeous, palpable textures, solid depth and color, I cannot imagine the film looking much better. While I am certainly not getting the most out of the 7.1 lossless PCM track, it boasts enough depth and muscle on my stereo system to suggest that surround setup owners will delight in its audio-scape. There are a good number of featurettes on the film's making, an audio commentary and an interview with auhor Elmore Leonard, whose short story served as the basis for the film.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Phantom [dir. Simon Wincer]

Comic book movies more than any other genre are enjoyable or not predominantly on how much you're attached to the original source. The Phantom movie adaptation is a striking example of this. During my childhood I was a huge fan of the Phantom comics as released on Indrajal, and I still try to get the stories that I consider distinctive enough when I see them, so my opinion of this movie is definitely colored by my enjoyment of its relation to the source comic.

The storyline is quite hokey. In 1938 the 21st Phantom must battle a lawless magnate called Xander Drax who wishes to acquire 3 magical skulls whose combination will release an energy more powerful than anything else and enable him to control the world. Yada.

Quite a few things have been done right here. The production design is very handsome, be it the depiction of the Phantom's jungle realm - the Skull Cave, treasure room, ancestral crypt, the phantom chronicles etc. - or late 1930's art deco New York. The narrative moves at a zippy pace and the writers have rightly analyzed that the Phantom is a macho wise-cracking ass-kicking action hero who doesn't spend time moping over his dead ancestors or over his love Diana. Some of the action set-pieces, like the one where the Phantom and Diana are escaping from the villains in a small plane and do a leap onto the back of the Phantom's horse Hero are terrific. Billy Zane carries the Phantom mantle with charm, effacing to a great extent the essential goofiness of the purple costume. Unlike the alter-ego of many other costumed heroes he's also equally interesting as Kit Walker.

So what are the disappointments?

The plot. The Phantom's world in its limited scope has been distinctive. His villains are pirates, poachers, despotic rulers of tiny neighboring nations. Bringing him to New York just a third into the film and having him combat a generic world domination scheme takes away from the uniqueness of the franchise

One of the quibbles that those wanting the most faithful sort of adaptation of the Phantom franchise will have is that the film does not feature any BLACKS. The tribes surrounding the Phantom seem like they're from Hawaii or south America, as does his retainer Guran (dressed here in a Nehru jacket and turban). 1938 New York too seems totally free of blacks, even as serfs. Probably the makers chickened out from depicting blacks as they were portrayed in the Phantom strips.

The perceived need to have emancipated women also hurts the movie's legend. Sure, Diana has always been a tough cookie but if she can also wipe out guys with single punches, what is special about the Phantom and all his hardcore physical conditioning?

The villain Xander Drax is a huge disappointment. Sure he has a great name but he's played by an actor with a reedy voice who inspires no chill even when he's doing questionable things like having librarians eye-stabbed by spring-loaded knives or lobbing javelins into the backs of disagreeable colleagues.

The film seems to have had a curious budgeting. The sets and props are handsome and some of the action is painstakingly choreographed but the post-production budget seems to have been nothing because all the visual effects have a very low-quality to them, frequently worse than even some of the more recent Indian movies incorporating SFX. The climactic showdown in the lair of the Singh brotherhood also has an underwhelming feel to it. I imagine the original vision was to have a huge pirate warren but the budget constraints reduce the Singh stronghold to little more than a single mid-sized room set and a clash with around a dozen pirates at most.

All this nit-picking may seem that the movie has more bad points than good. But if you keep an open mind and fill in the gaps that the lack of budget creates you have still a fairly enjoyable outing and possibly the best Phantom adaptation given that there is no scope for one in the future.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Go Goa Gaand [dir. Raj Nidimoru & Krishna DK]

I never expected Go Goa Gone (GGG) to be any match for the Return of The Living Dead's and Zombieland's of this world. But this trailer suggested what could be a passable attempt at an indigenous zombie movie mixed with the trademark humor of the guys that made the smashingly funny 99 and the more ambitious if flawed Shor in The City:

That however turned out to be not the case. If one were to ask, as the movie itself, taking inspiration from a Steve Jobs poster, likes to ask several times over, "What do we know? What have we learned?" these are the points one can put together:

1. Too many borrowed elements - Slackers? Call of Duty references? Foreigners as zombies? Not that many Indian movies in cult genres are known for their originality but the problem is that even the borrowing is done in a very lazy manner, with not a smidgen of freshness or creativity. GGG may be an Indian production with Indian lead actors, but the script and direction is utterly generic with respect to the setting.

2. Not enough local flavor - 99 and Shor... were remarkable for their attention to detail towards local cultural stereotypes, and much of the canny humor was generated therein. GGG has zero local flavor, not even Goan, which makes it numbingly bland for most of its running time.

3. Huge lacuna of decent jokes - Remember the bit about the "dumb charades in the jungle" from the trailer? I was hoping there would be a fair amount of like humor in the film, but it turns out that the trailer has most of the good bits in the film...which is bad considering that the trailer runs less than 3 min and the film stretches to a zombie-fying 110 min. People around me at the cinema seemed to be enjoying themselves a fair bit, but then they were the sort whose funny bone was tickled every time someone cussed. Kunal Khemu has very good comic timing but he can't transcend the absolute lack of even half-decent material to work with. Saif Ali Khan has a small number of one-liners in the film, all of which are equally un-funny.

4. Shallow and Inconsistent - Again not uncommon in movies, but here it's inconsistent without being entertaining. The supposedly expert video-gamers and cable TV nerds have trouble recalling what zombies are, really now. The scene from the trailer where Saif's character Boris reveals his Delhi origins comes very early on in the film, but then he reverts back to his faux Russian accent for the most of the remaining time - some more Punjabi humor would have been a shot in the arm for the proceedings. The paper thin characters have you not giving a fuck as to what happens to them. The zombie shots are very disjointed and almost never raise any tension. Most of the gore elements come from digital blood splatters, and some of them appear to have been cleaned up from what was shown in the trailer. While this appears a childish thing to complain about given the lack of personality in the main characters, even the zombies are totally non-descript and devoid of any memorable moments.

So if your horror-n00b aunts and uncles come talking about how they too have dipped their beaks into the zombie genre with GGG, just remember to aim for their heads.