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.