Sunday, December 28, 2014

PK [dir. Rajkumar Hirani]

Today I saw PK at the cinema with my mum. I found it a slipshod, almost insufferable movie that by the theme it tackles and the willingness therein of the people behind it to attach their clout becomes ironically a courageous, even important film.

With a tip of the hat to the Terminator movie series (and also an oh-so-subtle "innocent infant" metaphor), a big-eared alien with a gym fetish turns up buck naked in a Rajasthani desert and is immediately robbed of a literal MacGuffin, a locket that calls up his spaceship. In a not-funny-the-first-time and even-less-humorous-later gag, the alien steals clothes from couples obliviously having sex in cars (I guess, because even with his sculpted pecs Aamir Khan can never look threatening enough to tell someone "I want your clothes...NOW"). For the next twenty minutes the scene abruptly shifts to a so-sketchy-it's-dead-in-the-water romance angle in Belgium, notable only to Bollywood nostalgists for a cameo by Prakash Mehra's Man Friday Ram Sethi. Then we hurtle forward again in time and space in this awkwardly bumpy script: the Brussels romance girl turned Bollywood's version of a journalist, runs into the alien, now called PK, clothed in gaudy garb and spouting Bhojpuri. Why Bhojpuri? Plot machinations aside, it is an attempt at giving the character a language that is understandable while still underlining the difference from earth-people (or Dilli-people) around him. I personally felt it an unnecessary conceit for a movie whose raison d'etre is mass acceptance; People like my mum that can just about handle conventional movie Hindi were left behind and laughed mainly at the cliched sight gags. The meat of the plot concerns PK's attempts to get a hold of this "God" character, spoken of as the only one that can help him get home. In extended and occasionally amusing sequences that poke at faith ritual and superstition, PK tries various ruses to get God's attention and seek his help, only to find himself frustrated by the lack of a definite answer to his pleas. He then challenges the authority and the concept of God as defined by religion.

As a film, PK lacks the relative sprightliness that Lage Raho Munnabhai had. There appears to be a good amount of anxiety about the humor, the sharpness of the religious digs frequently diluted with lame sitcom / slapstick. Aamir Khan's profile is great for the visibility of the film, but the character has to suffer his severe limitations as an actor. There are occasional scenes or visuals where the film shows its teeth in examining the illogic of specific religious rituals (like the milk bath of Hindu idols or the self-flagellation during Muharram), but these are few and far between. In the end PK is important mainly for the fact that a bunch of people with a massive following stuck their necks out with digs at the inherent folly of organized religion. We snobs can scoff all we want at the film's cautiousness and tendency to sugarcoat or over-explain, but let us not forget that we're in the country where a rationalist Sanal Edamaruku was driven into exile by the machinery of law for his act of "blasphemy" in exposing a fake miracle. Any film that can persuade its audience to question blind faith deserves all the support it can get.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Weird Tales of a Bangalorean [ Jayaprakash Sathyamurthy]

Weird Tales... is about as functional a name as you can give for a book that's, well, what it says. But it's also another clever conceit in this sinuous volume packed with slyness: Jayaprakash's Bangalore is the fulcrum of his narratives, a sentient presence, ancient enough for soul-swallowing secrets. There may occasionally be some ostensible location changes but as the author himself says, "Parts of Bangalore aren't in Bangalore at all". It would appear that this Bangalorean always finds bits of his city wherever he goes (perhaps unknowingly he carries them along). Jayaprakash's stories delve into those intriguing facets of the city that have evoked his qualities of observation and imagination, its protagonists almost always transparent surrogates for his Bangalorean self.
With slipped in phrases, whispered references and mostly subtle sleight of hand, he threads the individual stories into a stealthy cloak of collective experience. Certain concepts resonate across stories, but in a sufficiently distinct way as to render them as variations on a theme.
In every sort of creative endeavor, but perhaps more so in in the Weird Tale, every new voice carries with it the spirit of earlier voices. You can find in Jayaprakash's work echoes of both HP Lovecraft's cosmic horror and Thomas Ligotti's existential horror - My Saints Are Down for whatever reason had me thinking back to Ligotti's Last Feast of The Harlequin, which in turn was a homage to Lovecraft's The Festival - we come full circle here.
In a collection everyone will have their favorites, mine is The Song of The Eukarya - here he takes the time to first build an emotional resonance with the characters which he then craftily employs to make us feel their horror as it unfolds. If I were to nitpick I'd say the last entry (Bean Town Blues) seems a little forced in its attempt to join up the earlier experiences, like some cast bow after the curtains fall. But that's, like I say, a nitpick, and one that in no way effaces the brilliance of everything that comes before it. I finished the book almost entirely in a single short duration flight and intend to return to it soon to revel in the simply marvelous spider-web of imagination that is Jayaprakash's work.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Garm Hava aka Scorching Wind [dir. MS Sathyu]

This weekend, I saw at the cinema a restored version of MS Sathyu's classic Garm Hava. The film looks at the plight of middle-class Muslims in the wake of partition from the perspective of a single family running a small scale factory in Agra. The patriarch (veteran Balraj Sahni, in arguably his most memorable role) believes in India as his home country and dismisses petitions by his friends and family to shift to Pakistan, but finds himself increasingly isolated and marginalized by social and financial institutions. Without going all melodramatic, the film underlines the frustrations of a class of Indians that finds secularism a concept that exists more on paper than in reality. In a very effective move, the film never shows the faces of non-Muslim characters that refuse to extend rightful aid (bank managers refuse loans citing the example of Muslims that run off to Pakistan after taking loans, landlords don't rent to Muslims making non-vegetarianism an issue), usually expressing helplessness due to the current social climate - these could be anybody, and giving them a face would only demonize the individual, instead of criticizing the social environment that asked for such callous behavior of its citizens.

Sathyu's film is not just dry social message, it carries a personal edge too, with well-etched characterizations and emotional depth for the different family members. A sharp sense of bleak humor and a screenplay that deftly cuts between scenes to show irony makes the film interesting to sit through its entire 146min runtime. More evident now than during its screenings on television, the film also has a fine visual touch, with shots at various well-known Agra monuments that eschew the conventional postcard angles to give a more intimate feel to the scenes performed there.

The restoration for large parts looks pleasingly strong. Sequences shot at the Fatehpur Sikri and Taj Mahal especially are breathtaking and have a palpable veneer compared to previous screenings on TV. The first half still has some stretches where the film has a sickly green pallor of print damage. Perhaps these were issues that were beyond repair or could not be resolved without prohibhitively expensive restoration. Sound is generally clear although some sections appear a little tinny, I suspect these are mostly limitations of the source recording and existing technology for a low-budget film.

After being held up by the censors for 8 months, Garm Hava was released in '74 to high critical and public acclaim. Now this generation has a chance to see one of the classics of Hindi cinema that still holds good. Take that chance or you will be the poorer.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Salvatore Giuliano [dir. Francesco Rosi]

Like with Gabriel Marquez's engrossing short novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Francesco Rosi's cinematic adaptation of Salvatore Giuliano begins with informing us of the death of the titular character, then spends the rest of its time in a non-linear exploration of the events leading to that point. But who is Giuliano really? It's not a question the film is too interested in exploring. This is no biopic, its "hero" almost a prop for all the personality he is imbued with. We hear about him from the conversations and accounts provided by the other characters. During the flashback scenes where he is alive, we never see him front and direct, only off-screen or from behind the shoulder views.
History tells us that Giuliano was a bandit conducting kidnaps and extortion from his mountain hideout in Sicily. He had the reputation of a Robin Hood, and the local polizia found heavy resistance from the poor locals in their attempts to capture / repress him. At one point he was allegedly hired by the Sicilian governing body to run a campaign to give Sicily independence from Fascist Italy. Giuliano was also supposed to have been in cahoots with the Mafia to crush the influence of communists demanding for land reforms. In the context of the latter occurred the incident that started the count for his downfall - the Portella della Ginestra massacre, in which his men allegedly fired into a crowd of hundreds of people attending a public address by the communist party.
Rosi's film covers the above ground with a surgically precise sequence of incidents and points of view. The script maintains a constant ebb and flow between the events of Giuliano's turbulent life and the immediate aftermath of his killing. In its way, the film shows us how the perception of Giuliano depended on who he was allied with at a given point of time - when he fought the Facists on the behalf of the local government and Mafia he was hailed as a hero, when he took on the communists for that same Mafia who wanted to guard their land holdings he was an infamous bandit. Even the suspicious manner of his death (was he taken in a gun duel with the army or shot by his own man) and the post-mortem efforts by various parties to squarely place the blame of the massacre on Giulano's men while severing all ties with them bring to mind the unholy nexus between people in power and people of violence to keep the masses in check. The significant use of locations and non-professional actors from Giuliano's home town of Montelepre greatly builds the immersion. It is to my view a cousin of Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers. It is not as incredibly thorough as that film in presenting a documentary-feel, but its roots in the neo-realist film movement can definitely be seen here. Gianni di Venanzo's visuals carry more flair and a strong whiff of film noir in the composition and lighting.

P.S. I also remember reading a Mario Puzo novel called The Sicilian, a potboiler that mixes up the character of Giuliano with Michael Corleone during his time of exile in Italy.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Pioneer [dir. Erik Skjoldbjærg]

Last night I saw Pioneer on the Arrow Films blu-ray. The protagonist of the film, Petter (Aksel Hennie, who would never be given a lead role in a Hollywood film), is Norway's star diver in a joint test mission with an American group to install an oil pipeline at the bottom of the sea for offshore drilling. During the course, a freak accident occurs, which leads to the death of Petter's brother, also a diver on the mission. Fighting guilt over possible responsibility in his brother's death, Petter investigates the matter (and this is where the casting is brilliant, because the actor doesn't have the star charisma that make audiences automatically root for him - in fact early on one thinks he may be looking for someone to blame to assuage his own guilt). But he finds a lot of doors being closed in his face, and even some attempts on his life. The challenges he faces in trying to ascertain the cause of the accident form the major crux of the film. As the story deals with a Nordic-American collaboration, the film has a mix of Norwegian and American actors, and Avatar's beloved evil colonel Stephen Lang plays a pivotal role.

Pioneer is not exceptional as a suspense/noir, but remains fairly solid with some (heh) immersive moments in its diving sequences. The pacing is mostly measured and low-key, as are the performances. The underwater scenes are excellently shot and there is a lovely moody electronic score from the French duo Air.

Arrow Films' (which is apparently a different company than the one that handles the Arrow Academy and Arrow Video labels) blu-ray is very solid in the technical presentation. Underwater, with its limited lighting and inherent murk, is never a great showcase for video quality, but we have a very strong presentation here with nicely saturated deep colors. Audio-wise I am likely short-changing the 7.1 surround track by playing it through stereo speakers but it sounds strong, especially in the occasional action sequence and in Air's score. There are zero extras here, which is disappointing for a film which would have had some interesting shooting challenges.
Edit: More than 6 years later, I revisited the film, the first time after my surround upgrade couple years ago. While my current 4.1 setup is still not taking full advantage of the 7.1 mix included on the disc, the sound-field is vastly more immersive now, especially during the underwater sequences (in combination with the visuals you get a great sense of the depth and density of the water medium), and ones where the weather is stormy. Even in indoor scenes there's a good bit of collateral ambience in the rears. It made the film a little more interesting to me, although I'd say after a point its script becomes a little too muddled and vague for the film to be really great. One little peeve is that for a film that has both Norwegian and English dialog, there is only one set of subtitles, which even provides subs for the English dialog. It would have been nice to have the option of a subs track that only covered the Norwegian dialog. There are zero extras here, which is disappointing for a film which would have had some interesting shooting challenges.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Lessee now...what did I last watch?

The Narrow Margin [dir. Richard Fleischer]
A 1952 suspense-noir set aboard a train...what more could I ask for? Here hard-boiled detective Charles McGraw is escorting by train to a court hearing Marie Windsor, a mob widow carrying a list of her late husband's associates. Things are hardly smooth sailing between McGraw and Windsor, who proves a hard-bitten and selfish woman that he holds responsible for his partner's death. To add to the mix are a ruthless team of professionals hired to prevent the widow from showing up with her list in court. This is a tense and atmospheric tale with a good amount of snappy dialog. Interestingly enough, there is no background music in the film save for the odd scene where a phonogram is actually playing. The twists towards the end are IMO unnecessary and a little hard to swallow, but Fleischer's direction is solid, and at a breathlessly entertaining 71 min doesn't give you much time to mull over its flaws.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning [dir. John Hyams]
I thought US: Regeneration was a pretty decent if not particularly memorable lower-budget action flick, but its 2012 successor destroys it and every previous entry in this franchise, including the first one. Despite what the advertising would like you to think, Scott Adkins is the lead in the film, with JCVD and Dolph Lundgren essentially playing extended cameos. But this is all for the better. Adkins has incredible action chops (check out his blistering extended scrap with Andrei Arlovski, another repeat for this series) and even manages to convey a certain amount of pathos for his character. I can't speak about the other stars for fear of giving out spoilers but I found both the aging veterans a delight, especially JCVD's is-it-funny-or-just-plain-insane rip on...well, let us just say a certain famous actor in a certain famous movie. The screenplay's inspirations are not hard to spot, but it is still refreshing to see a primarily DTV venture tackling ideas normally considered out of its sphere. In a way the film is even a meta-physical rumination on the B-budget action genre.Which is not to say that there is any skimp on what the paying public have come to see. If anything the unrated version of the film showcases some of the most brutal onscreen displays of combat - "Holy shit" doesn't begin to cover it.
So whether you're interested in an offbeat story or balls-to-the-wall visceral action, US: DoR has something for you.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Malcolm X [dir. Spike Lee]

Spike Lee's most ambitious joint is a biopic of one of America's most controversial black leaders, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz aka Malcolm X. Born Malcolm Little, the son of a bold preacher of black rights that was murdered, he grew up a delinquent and got into petty crime for which he was given a very non-petty sentence. In prison he meets Baines, a born again Muslim that becomes his mentor and introduces him to the religious leader Elijah Muhammed. Little buys wholly into the concept of achieving black emancipation by the embrace of Islam, and after he is released from prison, becomes by his natural charisma and zeal, a persuasive and provocative argument for the formation of a Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammed. The guiding principle for this movement as I understand from the film was that Africa was the first civilization and received the word of God while Caucasian races were still savages, and therefore Africans in America must eventually return to their roots in Africa from where their ancestors were forcibly carried off by Whites as slaves. Unlike Martin Luther who followed Gandhian principles and crusaded for integration of blacks into mainstream America, the Nation of Islam demanded total segregation of black and white societies and complete power for black leaders over their communities.
Macolm, with his natural charisma and zeal becomes for more than a decade the popular and powerful face of the movement. Eventually, strong differences of opinion with Elijah Muhammed and his elite council of ministers, and a late pilgrimage to Mecca, lead to Malcolm breaking off and starting his own movement, in which he retracted or rephrased several of the statements he made during his tenure with the Nation of Islam. Shortly after, Malcolm is assassinated by Nation of Islam members, allegedly on the orders of its founder.

There are many strong points to Spike Lee's film, the strongest undoubtedly being the casting of Denzel Washington in the titular part. Apart from strong acting chops, Denzel bears a striking resemblance to the historical figure, and exudes the same charisma in the scenes where he is preaching to the people. This is a lifetime role for him, which he grabs with the strongest relish. The supporting cast is great in most part, and I especially liked Angela Bassett as his wife Betty. Towards the end you also have a cameo from Nelson Mandela as a schoolteacher talking about Malcolm X. The screenplay and editing are also quite strong, making the 200 min running time go quite briskly.

If there is any flaw in the film as I perceive it, it is that it remains a piece of history depicted on film. Over the opening credits, you see the beating of Rodney King as caught on camera, but rarely does the film gain any contemporary edge after that. For all its gross exaggerations and moments of outright ridiculousness, Oliver Stone's JFK felt vital throughout. Malcolm X on the other hand rarely stops seeming like a museum re-enactment of past events; your mileage in this regard may vary. All things considered, this is still a grandiose and mostly well-realized account of a powerful and controversial figure in recent history, very much recommended for people who appreciate such stuff.

A few words on the blu-ray:
I got the digibook version of this film from Amazon Italy. Apart from the cover and back leaflet, the content is exactly the same as the US release, including the writing in the digibook. It could not have been easy cramming a 200 min long film onto a single disc (bonus features on a separate DVD) but Warner's transfer is quite strong (especially called for in the early parts of the film where Malcolm wears a LOT of red) and reflects the shooting style of the film. The DTS-HDMA track is subtle but effective. All in all a solid home viewing experience.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Whip and The Body [dir. Mario Bava]

Mario Bava was a master of the Gothic horror and The Whip and The Body is another fine entry in that line along with Black Sunday, Kill Baby Kill and Lisa & The Devil.

At Castle Menliff, an aging count lives with his son Christian and daughter-in-law Nevenka, and household servants, old maid Giorgia and her daughter Tania. Into this calm if sombre household bursts in the count's immoral and sadistic elder son Kurt (Christopher Lee), who had walked out of the house some while ago after having seduced and abandoned Giorgia's other daughter, who eventually committed suicide with a dagger that Giorgia keeps as a souvenir of Kurt's cruelty.

The count reluctantly allows Kurt back into the house, a move that stirs up a hornets' nest of emotion, including Nevenka who seems to have had a torrid masochistic affair with Kurt and married his brother as a compromise after Kurt deserted the family. Christian resents his brother's presence (as well as his claim on the inheritance), Tania has a soft corner for Christian and Giorgia hates Kurt for what he did to her daughter. This is a tightly-wound whirlwind of tension and melodrama that eventually leads to a murder...then another...and another.

The mystery as such is predictable, but the film has amazing atmosphere, and Dahlia Lavi's performance as the violence-aroused Nevenka is a strong one. Bava, with talented cameraman Ubaldo Terzano, paints a rich and beautiful canvas with hues that have to be seen to be appreciated. The film gives off the strong impression of walking in a dream, with its lush otherworldly colors, crushing deep shadows and intensely romantic score (Carlo Rustichelli). Some scenes bring to mind the moody beauty of Edward Steichen's Pond-Moonlight. If you have seen and liked any of the Bava films I mentioned earlier, you need to see this one too.

Kino's blu-ray gives a fine presentation of the film. The print is not restored to the extent Arrow or Criterion would have tried for, but on the other hand, it is not improperly manipulated, looking richly filmic. Like many Italian productions intended for international distribution, all the dialog and sound effects have been added in post-production. The actors mouth their lines in English, but Christopher Lee's voice was not used even in that version, which is disappointing (although to be fair, his English voice artist does a decent job). Kino provides 3 lossless mono (2.0) tracks for the various dubs - Italian, English and French (and English subtitles). The main extra is an interesting commentary track by Bava biographer Tim Lucas.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Antareen DVD Image Comparison (Max vs NFDC-Shemaroo)

At Un-kvlt Site, we do yet another image comparison, this time for two Indian release DVD's of Mrinal Sen's Antareen. For some reason this movie often has a bad rep, but I like it. Anyway, I'd got the Max DVD (retail price 349/-) some 3-4 years ago when the idea of NFDC actually getting off their asses and releasing some of their catalog was less than a pipe dream. At 199/- the NFDC-Shemaroo release is some 150 rupees cheaper, but that's not the point. Even with some overly bright segments and a questionable greenish tint, the image quality on the newer release blows the Max entry out of the water. So if you have any interest in the film at all the NFDC release is the one to own.

Screenshots (Left side Max - Right side NFDC), click on thumbnail to see original size:

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Once Upon A Time in Anatolia [dir. Nuri Ceylan]

Very little in terms of conventional plot trappings happens in this Turkish film from 2011. A murder has occurred (which we do not see), and in the course of investigation, an all-male posse of law officials (policemen and a public prosecutor) with accessory members (a doctor, a photographer and two diggers) are escorting a pair of suspects in search of the crime site to recover the corpse. When the movie opens, it is night and a small convoy of cars carrying the above-referred individuals is threading its way through a narrow path carved out in isolated rural landscape.
From this point, the screenplay appears to move almost in real-time. Only one of the suspects, Kenan, appears sufficiently cognizant, but it is difficult to identify the location. Kenan has only a fuzzy recollection of the scene of the crime (He was drunk at the time, he claims)  and in the darkness that envelops them, one field or tree looks much like another. Everyone is tired, wishing they were in bed at home, or anywhere other than looking for a corpse on a cold windy night. We hear the banter between the men; these are believable conversations between normal people, not movie dialogue aiming to sound cute or clever. After a few failed attempts at finding the place, a frustrated police chief roughs up the suspect before he is calmed by the prosecutor. The prosecutor understands; the men are tired and hungry, they have been on this trail far too long. He suggests calling ahead and proceeding to a nearby village to eat and rest before continuing the search.
The visit to the village forms the second act. The village mayor lays out what meagre hospitality he can; in a place so remote, life is hard for everyone. He repeatedly requests the prosecutor to help the village get funds for a cemetery wall. The prosecutor tells the doctor a story about a beautiful woman that died on precisely the day she had predicted several months ago. At one point the power goes out, and by lamplight the mayor's young daughter serves out tea to the guests, including the prisoners. The men are struck by her beauty and innocence. They also know that in this forgotten village with its hard conditions, there will be no happy endings for her. Kenan, who so far has been burying his emotions, bursts into tears and makes a confession regarding the crime. This act is to me the emotional center of the film, it defines the lives of the characters. It is a beautifully understated moment, relying on observation rather than overt philosophizing.

In the third act, the posse continue their search for the corpse. By the light of morning, they finally find the location and with some difficulty bring the body back to the town where the autopsy and other proceedings will be carried out. The film would have been quite a satisfactory gem of observation and empathy even if it just concluded with the journey home. But there is an extension of the last act: a surprisingly heavy-handed revelation from the prosecutor and a small twist in the autopsy. Neither of these in my view modify the overall arc of the film and, although others might disagree, I would not miss their absence.

All things considered, Once Upon A Time in Anatolia is a very intriguing film, a minor masterpiece that shares common ground with the works of Tarkovski and Bergman in its exploration of human nature.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Om Dar Ba Dar DVD screens

Apart from deficiencies of the source, brightness/contrast issues, some instances of what looks like digital noise, the biggest issue is the presentation of a 16:10 aspect ratio in a stupid 4:3 window-box which would lead to an ~30% resolution loss in scanning. This is par for the course with other NFDC transfers of widescreen films but considering that the grain in the print already looks kinda clumpy (and in some parts suspiciously like noise), it's a downer. I personally think Om Dar Ba Dar looked better at the cinema, but then one has no other choice. If you're at all interested in seeing surreal trippy movies, this one stands tall.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Gulabi Gang [dir. Nishtha jain]

Don't confuse Gulabi Gang with the upcoming Madhuri Dixit - Juhi Chawla draamebaazi film, this is a documentary feature on the eponymous 'gulabi' (pink) saree wearing group, focusing on its founder Sampat Pal and other members. Directed by Nishtha Jain, GG starts with Pal looking into the death of a young bride that was possibly murdered by her husband's family: it covers her interactions with members of the girl's and boy's households and the local police, the general resistance she faces at all ends etc. Another thread deals with the group's efforts to overthrow an exploitative village chief. We also see the GG movement running a recruitment drive in villages to increase their membership and spread (Apparently 1.5 lakh women across several hundred villages are now GG members) and putting up several of its members as contestants in local elections. While following the course of these threads, we also get an insight into Sampat Pal's life and the formation of Gulabi Gang.

Jain's coverage is gratifyingly non-jingoistic, preferring to simply document the proceedings without telling the audience what to feel. She does not unnecessarily glorify the lead players or make heavy-handed statements. Their successes and setbacks are depicted with attention and objectivity. Later in the documentary she exposes the cracks in the organization, when members with differing social views have conflicts with the group and its hierarchy. In less than 100min a good amount of ground is covered, without confusion or a rushed feeling. The film is also visually strong; Jain has a great eye towards capturing the rhythms of rural life and the shots are edited together with admirable fluidity. On the whole this is a high caliber documentary film that should be seen by people interested in India beyond the metros.

Right now the film is being screened at select PVR cinemas at limited show times. If you're interested in the film, you owe it yourself to catch it before the coming weekend by which it is likely to be out of the running, probably in favor of the Bollywood version.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

In The Mouth of Madness [dir. John Carpenter]

In The Mouth of Madness is the rare sort of film made by one true horror fan (or should in this age one say tr00?) for others. I would not care to discuss the plot elements in detail because sitting through this film without prior knowledge would be the best way to experience the dream-trip it is. The film has been described as (HP) Lovecraftian, and makes references to Elder Gods, but to my mind it is more of a Stephen King story (who could also be inspiration for the film's fictional mega-selling horror author Sutter Cane, although a character says at one point, "Forget Stephen King. Cane outsells them all.") A lot of the small town evil atmosphere recalls King's prose rather than Lovecraft. Admittedly both of them have mined this theme with grand success, but the difference is that ITMoM leans more towards the robust everyman-ness of King's characters, especially his leads, rather than the fragile, overly credulous protagonists of Lovecraft's stories.

The film mostly sails on Sam Neill's performance as the sleuth who thinks he is going to Sutter Cane's mythical town of Hobb's End to uncover a grand hoax, only to find himself sinking deeper into a nightmare world; in other words he can't find the zipper on the monster suit. Neill solidly holds center-stage making one think about how he would have been a great alternative to Jack Nicholson in The Shining (and perhaps a little more believable in the initial "sane" portions). Everyone else is a prop to further the events around him. Carpenter's direction is focused on generating unease by constantly confounding the hero's attempts to make sense of the world around him. If I make a small complaint, it is that there is a little too much foreshadowing, a few too many "boo" inserts, perhaps a fear that the audiences might be bored before the big scares come in. Apart from the theme itself, the absence of overt sexuality or even foul language makes the film more unique than its contemporaries (and may perhaps be regarded as a Lovecraftian touch?). On the whole definitely recommended as an interesting horror flick. If you watch it, as I did, in a slightly sleep-deprived fashion, you feel more jolted by the constant turn of events.

Interestingly enough, Carpenter returned once more to a similar theme in Masters of Horror's Cigarette Burns episode and that one is pretty fucking cool too.

A few notes on the blu-ray from Warner / New Line:
The blu-ray is an almost barebones affair, but the transfer is solid if not exemplary. The colors in the opening urban setting are muted to the point of being dowdy, but things pick up significantly once the characters enter small town Hobb's End. Detail is not eye-popping but the many darker scenes are quite satisfactorily handled and the film has a sturdy un-manipulated look. Sound is good, although dialog seems a little low in the mix, leading to instances where one has to adjust the volume control between conversation scenes and those with "more excitement" happening.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Valley of Flowers

The rest of the pictures were rubbish, of the slice-of-life variety, but one called Valley of Flowers held his attention. It was in black and white (as they all were), and captured a stream in rapid foam-flecked flow over stones while a smoky mist suffused the air, caressing the water surface and the rocks' contours. To the right was the profile of a hill, foliage-wreathed, a rough path cut into it at the edge. A man and his donkey could be seen from the back walking up the path towards a bend.

There was an almost transformative element in the picture. As one's eyes moved from left to right, from the mist shrouded stream to the shrubby hill and path, the texture of the image seemed to shift from charcoal drawing to actual photograph, with infinitesimal gradients in between. His mind could not imagine the scene being ever in color, not even in the real life it was taken from. He wondered, when man and animal reached the bend, what would happen?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Dedh Ishqiya [dir. Abhishek Chaubey]

There's a bit in Dedh Ishqiya (DI) where Madhuri Dixit's character is performing a kathak dance, and during its course we're treated to a rapid flashbacks that briefly outline her backstory. Alas, little else in the script reflects the economy and precision of that sequence. I don't know if its the need to have an epic running length (2.5 hours in this case) that makes a number of Hindi movies drag in a load of unnecessary and/or stagnant elements, or whether the unthinking concoction of the above culminates in them being groaningly long affairs. I haven't seen the first Ishqiya but this sequel is to my mind a confused messy affair.

While not original, the opening setup which (re)introduces the audience to the thieving uncle-nephew duo (Naseerudddin Shah and Arshad Warsi) is at least brisk. It is once their characters land in the startlingly anachronistic Mahmudabad that the plot descends from entertaining slapstick to purposeless whimsy. We are to believe that Begum Para (Madhuri), the widow of Mahmudabad's Nawab, will select her husband from entrants in a poetry competition. Para preens like a sheltered peacock (okay, hen), while her younger companion Muniya (Huma Qureshi) is the trademark cynical sexually liberated woman now fashionable in Bollywood's "hatke" cinema. What follows then is a tour of crumbling lamp-lit surroundings, a splash of hi-falutin poetry and Begum Akhtar ghazals on gramophone, some dance, a coy courtship with Uncle and Para contrasted by a rougher brush between Nephew and Muniya. I would welcome the change of pace if it added any real depth or thrust to the story. Alas, it seems mostly superficial. The poetry competition makes its presence felt only sporadically and becomes irrelevant just a little way in (for some reason the poets must also compete in skeet-shooting).

Once this premise is established, almost nothing of any consequence happens till more than half the running time, after which we have a yawningly predictable plot twist (which nullifies the purpose of several previous plot points), supplemented by such random chaos (the climax packs in almost every character in the film, for no justifiable cause) as to wonder why no one looked at the script and said "Yeh kya chutiyapa hai?". The only thing that remains striking about DI is the relationship between Para and Muniya. In an age where most of Bollywood continues to use homosexuality only in the vein of tasteless humor, we have here the most thinly veiled depiction of homo-erotic companionship featuring an A-list star (OK Madhuri's not a current gen star, but still).

I am not happy panning DI in this way. The cultured language used in the feudal setting and some stimulating vintage-style music gives it an uncommon flavor, while the low-contrast darkness shrouded visuals of the haveli interiors are a soothing change from the gaudy full-bright mainstream eyesores. But I can't in good conscience recommend this film as well-conceived or consistently entertaining.