Sunday, December 30, 2018

Age of Consent [dir. Michael Powell]

Michael Powell, especially in conjunction with his partner Emeric Pressburger, made films across genres and in a variety of styles, but in each film there was a unified vision, a fidelity to the theme that marked their genius. Even in Powell's solo output, Peeping Tom was a product of that same consistency of design. Which is why I find Age of Consent somewhat puzzling.

There's the central story of a aging jaded painter trying to find himself again and the young (underage, the film repeatedly reminds us) girl who becomes his muse, and in the process discovers her own womanhood. This is done with an admirable delicacy of touch and aided by the involved acting from James Mason and a very brave Helen Mirren in their respective parts (of course the sense of taboo is mitigated by the fact that the frequently naked Helen doesn't look remotely like the underage girl she is supposed to be, or perhaps that was just the gin-soaked tyrant grandmother's attempt to delude the girl and rein her in as a continued source of income).
What jars here is the mixture of the bawdy comedy track, majorly from the scenes with Jack MacGowran as a money and "bird"-fancying moocher. It seems at odds with the central narrative, looking more like an attempt to inject some crowd-pleasing laughs to keep the film from becoming too serious. The film is otherwise fine in its low-key manner (very low-key, I thought the death of a certain character would have more melodramatic consequences, and the film ends all too abruptly, leaving pertinent questions about the equation between the painter and the girl unanswered). There's terrific location and underwater photography capturing the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef, and a hypnotic score by Peter Sculthorpe. And yes, a terrific performance by the dog Lonsdale that plays Mason's companion Godfrey (Powell was apparently miffed that none of the critics at the time mentioned the dog in their reviews).

The credits specify that "Miss Mirren is a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company", probably to establish her respectability and discourage anyone only interested in the naughty bits.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

2018's Journey in Movies

Unlike what some cranky geriatrics might say, there are a good number of interesting and/or entertaining movies made these days too, and testament to this is the strong slate of movies that kept me engaged this year, whether at the cinema or on streaming and home video. Concentrating only on movies produced this year I present to you my list of:

Black Panther - A fun action-packed superhero movie that holds its own and in fact manages to mostly avoid the cookie cutter feel of other Marvel adaptations. The first half feels more like a James Bond adventure (if Bond had access to a Crysis-style exosuit).

Bhavesh Joshi Superhero - It would have been more apt to call BJS 'Bhavesh Begins' because this vigilante hero origin story is a fitting companion piece to Chris Nolan's Batman Begins. BJS is notable for the grounded manner in which most of the action is set. The film is also to be praised for its non-stereotypic exploration of Mumbai and its surroundings, raising issues that mainstream cinema will not acknowledge. Slack editing, a half-baked romance angle and mostly cardboard villains bring down the experience, but the reasonably unique approach to the vigilante hero genre is worth a watch.

Annihilation - I haven't read Jeff Vandermeer's book, the film comes across as a mix of Stalker the film and STALKER the game. Its best elements for me were purely visual, with some gorgeous artistry on display. I'd definitely recommend as a watch.

Carbon - A gripping and visually ravishing tale of one man's obsessive quest for (fool's?) gold, evoking comparison to Herzog classics like Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo. Excellent direction and a strong lead performance from middle-of-the-road Malayalam cinema's hot favorite Fahadh Faasil. Damn, why couldn't this have come out on blu-ray?

The Incredibles 2 - This one turned out, all things considered, as good as the first film...which automatically makes it about 3 zillion times better than most superhero movies of recent times.

Manto - Biopic of author SH Manto. While the script does simplify the complexities of the author's personality and distill his life as a vehicle to discuss issues of religious hatred and censorship, Nawazuddin does an amazing job as the flawed and tormented writer and Rasika Duggal who played Manto's wife Safia is wonderful. Lots of great cameos from seasoned actors.

Andhadhun - Overall not on the same scale of greatness as Johnny Gaddaar, on account of the twists in the second half falling into the territory of "kuch bhi!", but yeah this is probably Sriram Raghavan's most FUN movie after JG. Ayushmann Khurana and Tabu totally rock their parts. Don't read any detailed reviews or synopses beforehand, just see andhadhun.

Tumbbad - IMO the best Indian horror movie ever, with a strong script and incredibly good shadowy visuals and great sound design. Focused direction and a defining performance from Sohum Shah (who also produced the film and stayed committed to its making over a period of several years). Also excellent staged CGI for the budget.

Badhaai Ho - There is little that feels new and much that appears contrived in this tale of a mother of significantly older children discovering that she is pregnant again and deciding to go on with it. But I was hooked. It was mainly the performances that worked, Neena Gupta and Gajraj Singh look the part of a long-time middle-class couple and their interaction has a warmth that overcomes cliche.

Wildlife - Paul Dano's family drama with Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan is captured with restraint and quiet attention to detail. Its impact is limited, ironically because of its civility; the script never tries to probe the wound of family discord or seriously discomfit the viewer with the emotional angst of the characters, but with steady direction and strong acting a very respectable effort it is.

Ballad of Buster Scruggs - In a series of unrelated episodes set in the West represented in old-school Hollywood, the Coen Bros anthology (co-produced by Netflix) seem to pay tribute to masters like John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, and hell, even animator Tex Avery. Over the various courses of this banquet, the tone goes from hilarious to stirring to romantic and a dash of the macabre. I won't spoil it any more save to say that I enjoyed myself thoroughly and look forward to revisiting it. Entertainer of the Year!

Manta Ray - This Thai directorial debut (Phuttiphong Aroonpheng) was a slow but engaging and eventually hypnotic blend of reality and fantasy, highly reminiscent of the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee, Cemetery of Splendour).The beauty of the film is in its rhythm and its evocative mix of real and imagined elements, coming across as a fable of sorts. And towards the end there are some sequences that are rapturous pure audio-visual experiences. This is a brilliant assured debut from a maker whose future work I will be looking forward to.

Endhiran / Robot 2.0 - The middling reviews of this movie were right about stuff in-between the action being dull filler but what they don't tell you is that there is very little footage that is not badass action or imaginative VFX. While it has less rewatch value, this movie is in overall feel like Pacific Rim - dumb but awesome. For anyone who understands Tamil, that version is clearly superior. It also has very good 3D, with solid depth and some excellent front projection.

Roma - Alfonso 'Gravity' Cuaron's latest film (produced by Netflix) deals with the life of a housemaid and the family she works for in Mexico. It takes a while to feel immersed with the characters, and sometimes the technique is a little overwhelming for the actual scene, but it turns out a brilliant and compassionate portrayal of the humanistic bond between the characters, the parallels that run in the lives of mistress and servant. The scene at the beach towards the end is nerve-wracking and cathartic. Highly recommended.


Avengers: Infinity War - The overwhelming feeling I had all through this movie was one of weariness. I got BORED of seeing stuff blow up and huge things come crashing down. The dialog is caught between dull exposition and desperate attempts to inject humor. There is absolutely no sparkle here.

Raazi - It's not as jingoistic as some of the worst offenders in the patriotic movie genre, but that's about the only good thing I can say about it. Bad writing and direction, give this Raazi a Razzie.

MI: Fallout - The action sequences are done efficiently and the final scene at the cliff carries some genuine vertigo-triggering thrills but the connective tissue between the set-pieces is unbelievably poor. No one seems to have given a thought as to making the script interesting or even bear a decent degree of coherence. Good humor is all about pacing, but that's lacking here. Worse, the dialog seems to have been written by amateur drama kids given a 5-min deadline, and the actors simply cannot make it work.

Saheb, Biwi & Gangster 3 - Even with a few okay moments courtesy returning actors Jimmy Shergill and Mahie (No Sher for you)Gill and unintentional laughs from a hilariously out-of-place (and likely drunk) Sanjay Dutt, this one is on the whole a whacking big turd.

Stree - The stray amusing quip aside, 'Stree' was such a load of cock it might as well have been called 'Purush'. The script is so poor and lazy even the brilliant cast can only occasionally raise it above the doldrums. Two thumbs down.

Blackkklansman - I suspect if Quentin Tarantino had made this film, Spike Lee would have been railing at him for being patronizing / exploitative towards the struggles of the black movement against white oppression. Unlike (the wholly fictitious) Inglourious Basterds this film is not able to take its preposterous narrative and milk its potential to create genuine tension in the narrative and empathy with the characters.

In Fabric - I did not immediately enjoy the new film from Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio, Duke of Burgundy). It begins well enough as a haunted object tale , but the film's tone is all over the place and its sense of humor never seems comfortably seated. I feel I could give this another try sometime in the future, but on the whole my first viewing left me dissatisfied.

Thugs of Hindostan - I thought I’d seen an okay if VERY bland homage to the multi-starrer masala movie, with a few touches - like the Bachchan homages to Coolie, Mard and Aakhree Raasta - it didn't really capitalize on. Then to my (most unpleasant) surprise, instead of ‘The End’ it said ‘Intermission’. Bloody Hell!

Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Swimmer [dir. Frank Perry]

The late 60's and early 70's were a time many kinds of weird interesting anti-establishment movies could get made in the studio system, especially if you had a bit of star power in the cast or director's chair. For star power, one could hardly get better than Burt Lancaster. Although 50+ at the time of this film, Burt was in excellent physical form and his animal magnetism still a force to reckon with. Better still, he was an intensely intelligent actor (if also someone likely to impose his own ideas) and interested in the part.

Even though it stretches out (sometimes rather obviously) to feature length, The Swimmer clearly shows its roots in the (John Cheever) short story, beginning abruptly with Ned Merrill (Lancaster) walking out of the woods and diving into a neighbor's pool. In the conversation that follows we perceive Ned as someone admired and even envied by his jaded neighbors, a picture of health and success nurturing an ideal family, yet retaining a youth's sense of wonder and hunger for life. Plotting a course of private swimming pools that go all the way up to his home in the hills, Ned improviso decides to swim the whole route, which he fondly names the River Lucinda (after his wife).

The swimmer's journey begins pleasantly enough as he is hailed by amused neighbors. We see Ned as retaining the liberated romantic soul his friends have lost in time. Subtly the narrative shifts. When Ned meets a grown-up girl that was once babysitter to his children he invites her to share his journey, their playful interaction (including an indulgent steeple-jumping sequence) eventually leading to a darker space. In a telling bit of symbolism, Ned's first stumble from the wholesome American Dream image coincides with his spraining an ankle. Bit by bit, the cracks in his face of contentment appear. Some of the neighbors hate Ned, some view him with scorn. The man we once see racing alongside a horse gains a more pronounced limp. Scene by scene, pool by pool, our impressions of Ned as the figure of envy wear down, reducing him eventually to wretched pity. As Roger Ebert points out in his trenchant review, Burt Lancaster is the right actor for the part because he is the hero whose aura generates the tragedy in his fall.

The film's theme may be interpreted in different ways. It would appear that the neighbors farthest away from Ned's home (and assumedly the goings-on of his life) are the ones most invested in his charisma, and as he moves nearer, the uglier truth is revealed. It may also be seen as the externalization of a nervous breakdown: At the beginning of the film we are seeing Ned's own image of himself, and as time passes, the illusion strips away to horrifying realization of of his true pathetic self - Ned could well be the ghost that didn't know he was dead.

Apparently, Lancaster (passionate enough about the project to fund the last day's filming from his own pocket) and director Frank Perry had conflicting ideas during the shoot and the film certainly carries some of that turmoil (Sydney Pollack conducted an uncredited reshoot of a scene in which Frank meets a former flame). That's not bad in itself, because it is in some way a reflection of the torment growing in Ned's mind in the course of his aquatic odyssey. The film's lush style (both in its glamorous depiction of upper-class suburbia and in Marvin Hamlisch's baroque score) is a brilliant counter-point to its sordid undercurrent. For all its flaws and indulgences and backroom battles, The Swimmer is a grand Experiment (with a capital E) worked by passionate people and deserving of a larger appraisal.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

2.0 [dir. Shankar]

While the trailer of 2.0 aka Endhiran / Robot 2 had moments of significant interest, I was not very hopeful of the end product. Shankar's last movie was crap. And let's face it, 'Superstar' Rajini isn't getting any younger. Even with the layers of pancake, and rather obvious wigs and fake goatees he looks like someone's grandpa at a fancy dress party - a simple shot showing his character slapping water on the face has to be haphazardly edited because it would be a make-up disaster. The pairing with Akshay Kumar (who ironically plays a geriatric nagging crank bird-lover) is a purely commercial exercise to draw in the Hindi audiences as well to diffuse the risk of this stratospheric budget movie. The reviews, including from my favorite critic Baradwaj Rangan were middling as well, suggesting that everything between the action and VFX is immensely boring and turgid.

Well, the reviews are right about the in-between stuff being dull filler, but what they don't tell you is that, apart from a testing flashback sequence in which the baddie Akshay Kumar character spells out his bird-brained motivation, there is very little footage that is not badass action or spectacular VFX. Again technically, the graphicsdon't have the same level of pixel perfect polish as your MCU or Star Wars movies, but they're a hell lot better than Bahuballyhoo, and Shankar's imagination as a visual director remains unparalleled. The action and VFX scenes in this movie are way more exciting than most stuff I've seen in Hollywood movies in recent years. In terms of inspiration this movie is like Terminator meets Transformers meets Avengers/JL, and without the bloat of those movies. While Rajinikant is ho-hum in his nice guy parts, he seems to find a special glee in playing Evil Chitti (and another character who I shall not spoil here), since it probably comes as such a relief to the goody-goody characters he has been restricted to play once he became a big star. And he gets to mouth several hilarious quips (at least some of the puns and allusions work only for Tamil movie goers, don't know how they are substituted in the Hindi version). This movie is in overall feel like Pacific Rim - really dumb but really awesome.

I saw it in Tamil 2D at the local screen with about a dozen people total in the auditorium, let me see if I can catch the 3D version as well.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Zodiac [dir. David Fincher]

Last night I re-watched David Fincher's 2007 movie Zodiac and the film still manages to grip. Zodiac looks at the investigation of a series of unsolved murders during the late 60's and perhaps early 70's in the San Francisco Bay Area, committed by an intelligent but crazy killer who called himself the Zodiac, and after the acts sent taunting messages to the police and the press. This led to significant panic in the region, especially when the Zodiac in a published letter speculated about attacking school-buses and killing children, a plot point used in the first Dirty Harry (1971), which based its cold-blooded villain on the Zodiac.

In Fincher's film we see the investigation from the point of view of SFPD investigators David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). The Zodiac's letters and cryptograms sent to the SF Chronicle newspaper also attract the attention of its crime journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr) and cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). While Avery's speculation on the Zodiac being a latent homosexual earned him a death threat (which the film suggests led to Avery's deterioration along with his alcoholism), Graysmith became obsessed with identifying the killer, unofficially interacting with the police and compiling information over several years, even to the detriment of his family life.

Zodiac is mainly a procedural, interested in the details of the investigation, the politics of cooperation between different jurisdictions, the landslide of drudge-work and official pressure once the killings become public knowledge. Unlike Fincher's previous serial killer feature Se7en, this film is not particularly interested in the killer's motivation or in exploring his psyche. And despite its lack of a conclusive denouement (although there were some strong suspects the killer was never identified) Zodiac also does not have the nihilistic aftertaste which defined its predecessor. The case dies down, Toschi and Graysmith carry on with their lives.

Under Fincher's measured vision, Zodiac for all its sprawl is an unrelentingly focused film, eschewing high style but still keeping us engaged all through its nearly 160min running time. Especially in Ruffalo's Toschi, we see an investigator doggedly pursue his quest, growing older and more frustrated as time wears on with no clear answers forthcoming. Gyllenaal's Graysmith goes from cheerfully curious to disturbingly obsessed. He is so convinced of a suspect's guilt he says, "Just because you can't prove it doesn't mean it's not true" only for Toschi to respond ironically with "Easy, Dirty Harry".

A few notes on the blu-ray release for those interested:

I got Paramount's 2-BD set in 2011 for nearly 30$ when it reported to be going OOP. The only other option that time was the UK release in which film and HD extras were all stuffed onto a single disc (and lossy Dolby instead of the US release's TrueHD track). unfortunately for me, in this case, what going OOP meant was that Paramount's film library was going to be distributed by Warner Bros in the US, and so that same package came to be re-released by Warner (and later by Paramount again), frequently hitting the sub-10$ bargain bins. Gnaar! Oh well, so long as one doesn't compare it's still a strong offering for the price.

Zodiac was shot digitally, and although I think 35mm would have been stunning, it looks quite good (Fincher's penchant for yellow filters aside). It is the first time since getting a surround setup that I am watching the film and I'm shocked at how front-loaded the track is. Most of the time I can't hear anything significant from the rear speakers. Dialog occasionally struggles for clarity above the music and ambient effects.

I have seen most of the extras on previous viewings but outlining them for completion's sake: On the feature disc there are 2 commentary tracks, one with Fincher and one with the actors, writers and whoa, James Ellroy. Disc 2 contains a multi-part making of the film, showcasing Fincher's obsessive penchant for authenticity of props and huge number of retakes. Of course everyone is in awe of the director and gushes over the opportunity to work with him. There is also a feature-length documentary covering the confirmed Zodiac murders, talking with investigating police personnel and survivors of those incidents.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Clark Ashton Smith - The Emperor of Dreams [Darin Coelho]

You've heard of the term musician's musician. Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) was the fantasy writer's fantasy writer. He may be less known among the public at large than some of his contemporaries and several of the people that could regard him as a spiritual teacher, Smith's otherworldly vision and felicity of expression puts him in the top echelons of the genre.
The Emperor of Dreams (EoD) (taken from the opening lines to Smith's poem The Hashish-Eater "Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams") is a serious look at the life and work of this reclusive titan. Going in chronological order, the documentary first looks at CAS as a shy and frequently sick child growing up in a remote part of California, quitting school early for self-education aided by his photographic memory and voracious appetite for literature, particularly poetry. Poetry was Smith's calling to early fame, and the film discusses the support he got from serious American poets like George Sterling for his first book of poems, even proclaimed by one critic as the "Keats of the Pacific". The fame was short-lived. EoD suggests that Smith's constant health issues combined with a severe shyness (although conversely he was something of a local ladies' man) meant that he was confined to his neighborhood of Auburn (he apparently demurred from traveling out of Auburn to meet Ambrose Bierce and Jack London). His commitment to poetry that rose purely from the realms of fantastic imagination (like Lord Dunsany) also meant that his work would in time go out of fashion.
Somewhere in this course his work attracted the notice and adulation of his contemporary HP Lovecraft (HPL), which led to a deep friendship over correspondence that lasted more than 15 years (till Lovecraft's death in 1937). It was HPL who encouraged Smith to write fiction prose, even if that was not his preferred medium. Like Lovecraft (and Robert E. Howard) CAS was frequently published in the Weird Tales magazine, which went some way to help support himself and his aging parents, but he also had to take on several odd jobs involving labor. The film  examines Smith's output in fiction, comparing his style to Lovecraft. We also see his artistic expression through sketches and paintings, and sculpture. CAS frequently illustrated his own and other writers' stories in magazines. For the famously erotophobic Lovecraft's tale of The Lurking Fear, Smith produced a drawing of trees that look rather like sensuous nudes.

Once Smith's parents and his friend Lovecraft passed away, it would seem he lost interest in writing any more, depending solely on his manual skills (woodcutter, fruit-picker), and often lived in poverty. Although weird fiction patron August Derleth gave CAS's fiction a second lease of life by releasing his stories in limited edition volumes, he could not persuade Smith to produce new work. For a long while Smith lived alone as a recluse (he was said to be, under the circumstances, a gracious host to visitors), but at the ripe age of 60 he entered into matrimony with a nearly 20 year younger Carol Dorman, who had children from a previous marriage. Unlike with his friend Lovecraft, married life seemed to agree with Smith (although he was distraught when he lost his Auburn home to fire) and lasted 8 years till his death in 1961.

EoD benefits from the contribution of CAS experts like Donald Sidney-Frier, Ron Hilger and Scott Connors. His close friendship and literary kinship with Lovecraft means that HPL disciples like ST Joshi and Wilum H Pugmire are on hand to talk about Smith and the association (Joshi also edited the first edition of CAS's work on Penguin Classics - The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies). Celebrity weird fiction Harlan Ellision professes his huge admiration for Smith's fiction (he does ramble on a bit towards the end). EoD also gives a brief look at the rare instances of films loosely inspired by CAS stories.

I have to say here that the documentary is not as juicy as Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown. But that is essentially a function of its subject. Smith in comparison to Lovecraft was arguably less influential on the genre even if as a writer more skilled. His vision was, as some of the people speaking in the film suggest, too otherworldly to gain the same amount of traction. In Lovecraft's most celebrated work he starts off in the present day of his time and provides an exhilarating glimpse into another dimension, but Smith eschews any sense of connection with the real world. Also, the bulk of Smith's output in fiction is in short stories, not the novellas / near-novellas which made Lovecraft's name. Smith's work is far less concerned with plot and action than it is with creating an alien world we experience for a short while till the tale lasts. Hence the discussions of his work also tend to me more of an overview than a dissection of specific themes and plot points. Also his personal life wasn't filled with the quirks and controversial flaws that made Lovecraft a more luridly interesting study.

That said, for people who are acquainted with the work of CAS, and interested to know about the man, EoD is a fine introduction with some serious academic weight behind it. It is currently available via streaming on Amazon (US) Prime and Vimeo (I rented it from Vimeo for 4.99$), and you can also purchase a DVD or blu-ray from Hippocampus Press.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Mumbai Film Festival Weekend Round-up: Day 2

Concluding my previous blog with all the films I watched on my 2nd (and likely final) day of the Mumbai Film Festival. This was Sunday, the 28th of October, and I opted to go to the Andheri side where  the cornucopia of adjoining multiplex screens (PVR Cinemas) offered a greater choice than the single screen cinemas. These were the films I saw:

Manta Ray (Phuttiphong Aroonpheng) - This Thai directorial debut was a slow but engaging and eventually hypnotic blend of reality and fantasy, highly reminiscent of the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee, Cemetery of Splendour). A Thai fisherman searching for gemstones in the forest (for an intriguing purpose) comes across a battered half-dead person (hinted to be a Rohingya refugee). He brings the man home, tends to his wounds and slowly nurses him back to health. In all this time the stranger does not utter a word, but there is an emotional connect between them. One day the fisherman abruptly disappears and the stranger from  that moment carries on life in the manner the fisherman taught him. Even the fisherman's wife who had abandoned him for another man returns and moves in with the mute stranger, as though she has accepted him as a substitute for her husband. Already we are going into spoiler territory so I will not discuss the plot any further but the beauty of the film is in its rhythm and its evocative mix of real and imagined elements, coming across as a fable of sorts. And towards the end there are some sequences that are rapturous pure audio-visual experiences. This is a brilliant assured debut from a maker whose future work I will be looking forward to (There was a QA with the director after the screening, a shy unassuming gentleman who said that it took him almost 8 years to get the resources for making his film. I hope we won't have to wait that long for the next one).

Udalaazham aka Skin Deep (Unnikrishnan Aavala) - After that positive experience I was hoping for another interesting debut feature, this one from Unnikrishnan Aavala, a school teacher turned writer-director. The protagonist of Aavala's film is a transgender tribal Gulikan who faces regular sexual abuse and is chided for not being a man. He is married to a tribal girl to whom, although they share a mutual affection, he can give neither children nor sexual pleasure. The vandalization of Gulikan is compared with the vandalization of the forest and the tribal way of life by modernity and encroachment. Gulikan's wife Mathi is carrying on a tryst with the local fish-seller, but one day they are espied by the forest officer who tries to proposition Mathi into sleeping with him. Her refusal sparks off a series of events which lead to the uprooting of Gulikan's homestead and a general dissent within the tribals. Unnikrishnan's film reminded me a lot of Shyam Benegal's Aarohan (which looked at the exploitation of farmers in Bengal) in that it carries the same heavy-handed treatment of social issues. In an attempt by Aavala to showcase all the research he has done towards the film we get in-your-face info-dumps about how pesticide use, building of dams and conversion of the original forests to teak plantations have led to erosion of the environment and the traditional tribal way of life. The build-up of miseries and personal tragedies is so relentless and lacking in originality it ceases to have any effect, other than inducing tedium. Characters with humanities / fine arts backgrounds (the danseuse and the PhD student) are portrayed with a halo around them, possibly as a reflection of how the director would like to be seen. The film may have noble aims, but as far as I am concerned they didn't make it consistently interesting or worth the while.

The Sound Man - Mangesh Desai (Subhash Sahoo) - Chatting with another film buff in the food court, I so lost track of time that even though I had pre-booked for the show, I had to stand in the lower priority walk-in line. I did manage to get in, although the seat was only available for the first row. But even with that discomfort I was glad to have got the chance to see this documentary.
Mangesh Desai is a name you will see in the credits of almost every major Hindi film from the 60's onwards (and he was working even before). Desai was primarily a sound mixer / re-recording expert and he was supposed to have such demand for his craft that the biggest producers would stand in line outside the studio to get a slot from Mangesh-da, and often hear abuses from him when they did not provide him with the sound material he needed. The film features talking head interviews with several major league film personalities including Shyam Benegal, Ramesh Sippy, Yash Chopra, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Sandip Ray (son of Satyajit Ray), Subhash Ghai, Manoj Kumar, adman Prahlad Kakkar, composer Vanraj Bhatia, Kiran Shantaram (son of V. Shantaram and owner of Rajkamal Studios where Desai worked for the largest part of his career). Veteran and current audio professionals like Hitendra Ghosh and Resul Pookkutty shower paeans to Mangesh Desai's genius. Anecdotes told by major directors indicate the complete vision Mangesh-da had for the final product, even demanding (!) that they bring him specific shots to which he would add effects and build an intricate tapestry of sound that provided impact for the whole scene. The docu also presents a facet of Mangesh's life not commonly known: he had been actively involved in the freedom struggle and even worked to smuggle pistols and make crude bombs as part of the revolutionary movement. A personal touch is added by the reminiscences of his daughter Sucheta Lad. Alongside the interviews a careful selection of film clips underlines the impact of Mangesh Desai's work in the movies (ironically, many suffering from poor video quality and audio hiss that comes from negligent preservation and incompetent transfer to digital media).
On the whole an absorbing documentary, and now I feel enticed to watching some of the Shantaram films (like Jhanak Jhanak Paayal Baaje) to appreciate their creativity.

In Fabric (Peter Strickland) - I went for this one with some anticipation having enjoyed Strickland's previous features Berberian Sound Studio and Duke of Burgundy. In those films Strickland showed a great craft in building atmosphere and rhythm. His knowledge of the horror / weird film genre allowed him to pay tribute to influences but not being just emptily referential. In Fabric, however, I did not immediately enjoy. It begins well enough as a haunted object tale (in this case a mysterious red dress), but the scene jumps are jarring, the film's tone is all over the place and its sense of humor never seems as comfortably seated alongside the horror element as in BSS. At one point it seems like a Halloween special episode for the naughty 80's British departmental store sitcom series Are You Being Served? before going into total gonzo territory. Perhaps the disorientation was an intended effect and I feel I could give this another try sometime in the future, but on the whole my first viewing left me dissatisfied.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Mumbai Film Festival Weekend Round-up: Day 1

Since the weekend was pretty much the only time I could head out to the cinemas during the ongoing Mumbai Film Festival conducted by the Mumbai Academy of Moving Images (MAMI), I tried to take as best advantage as I could and watched 8 movies over the past 2 days. This year being the 20th Anniversary the organizers significantly lowered the attendee rates to 500 rupees, to (I think) match what they charged for the first event conducted in 1998 (at that time it was a non-sponsored event with no mainstream film industry support, and only a couple of  auditoriums in the city were screening films. The first one for me was notable mainly for it being the premier screening of Malayalam film-maker Adoor Gopalakrishnan's classic Kathapurushan (Man of the Story). The maker himself had come for the screening and gave a small talk afterwards.

Anyhoo, lower rates meant that the number of delegates was going to be significantly larger and pre-booking individual shows over the internet became the equivalent of a train reservation in peak season. Booking for each show started at 8 am on the previous day and within a few minutes at least the talked about movies would be sold out. For the first day (which I didn't attend, it being a Friday), there was a clusterfuck with servers going down due to overwhelming demand. While I got all the shows I was aiming for on Saturday, I had to exercise alternate options for some of the shows on Sunday on account of being pipped to the post.

So on Saturday morning (My Day 1) I landed up at the classic single screen Regal Cinema in town and this is what I watched.

Wildlife (Paul Dano) - Dano's film is a family drama set in 1960. The glamor of the American Dream is slowly peeling off although large scale disillusionment arising from the Vietnam conflict is still a way off. The idyllic close-knit relation between spouses Jake Glylenhaal and Carey Mulligan and their teenage son (Ed Oxenbould) is strained when Jake is fired from his job, and a mix of ego and inertia keep him unemployed. His self-image of provider is threatened when both Carey and Ed take up jobs to put food on the table and he grabs a reckless stint in a wildfire-fighting exercise that takes him away from home. While Ed has faith in his father Carey feels abandoned and does what she can to secure the family's future, including seducing an older client she feels might provide her and Ed with the necessary security. In this chain of events we see erstwhile family bonds straining and bending, with some violent twists towards the end. Wildlife is captured with restraint and quiet attention to detail. Its impact is limited, ironically because of its civility; the script never tries to probe the wound of family discord or seriously discomfit the viewer with the emotional angst of the characters, but with steady direction and strong acting a very respectable effort it is.

Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel and Ethan Coen) - "Please God let this not be some bleak country music fare" I was hoping as I sat down to the new Coens film (co-produced by Netflix so expect to see it at home soon). Well, there is singing, especially in the first vignette of this anthology western, but boring it certainly ain't. In a series of unrelated episodes set in the West represented in old-school Hollywood, the Coens seem to pay tribute to masters like John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, and hell, animator Tex Avery. Over the various courses of this banquet, the tone goes from hilarious to stirring to romantic, even a dash of the macabre. I won't spoil it any more save to say that I enjoyed myself thoroughly and look forward to revisiting it (hopefully on blu-ray).

Blackkklansman (Spike Lee) - Based on the true life incident when a black police officer in the 70's (a time of racial tensions and open maltreatment of Afro-Americans) infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) with the help of another colleague, a Jew (also hated by the KKK). They acted in tandem as one person, the black cop over the phone and the Jew in person. The premise sounds utterly preposterous, but it apparently happened that way. The film is a mixed bag, essentially trying to make a populist narrative - the blacks in the film are handsome and heroic with a glowing aura around them, while the members of the KKK are shown to be sleazy dumb rednecks. I suspect if Quentin Tarantino had made this film, Spike Lee would have been railing at him for being patronizing towards the struggles of the black movement against white oppression. Unlike (the wholly fictitious) Inglourious Basterds this film is not able to take its incredible narrative and milk its potential to create genuine tension for and empathy with the characters, like the best thrillers do. For me there was only one effective scene, where a veteran black activist (played by singer Harry Belafonte) recounts the shameful incident where black teenager Jesse Washington in 1916, after conviction of rape and sentenced to death, was dragged out by the public and lynched in an ordeal that involved painful mutilation and being burnt to death, cheered by an audience of thousands. The scene in its restraint and humanity carries a power that is missing from the rest of the film.

Since I had opted out of Lars Von Trier's new film, I went for a meal (pizza and salad) and made my way to Liberty cinema for the day's last watch:

Transit (Christian Petzold) - Petzold's film is based on events set in WW2, but apart from the absence of modern communications technology he doesn't take the trouble to mount the film as a period piece. Franz Rogowski is running from the Nazi authorities in France, taking on the identity of a writer who has been offered asylum in Mexico. His period of waiting and applying for the necessary permits is likened to a passage through purgatory. In this course he meets people he develops emotional attachments with, a young boy looking for a father figure, and the writer's wife who is now in a relationship (of convenience or something deeper?) with another man. With its exploration of identity noir-tinged melodrama, Transit could have been something good (and many professional film critics think it is, so I may be wrong) but I thought its attempt to be this epic romantic tragedy a la Casablanca render it contrived to the point of wincing. The use of a voiceover from another character describing the state of mind of the protagonist and the basis of his actions is such a clunky device, it brings to mind the pointless and excruciatingly detailed flashbacks of the gangster's life provided by the police officer in Once Upon a Time in Mumbai. On the whole I thought this was a load of Casa-bunkum.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Dam Busters [dir. Michael Anderson]

In an interesting coincidence the last film I saw also dealt with historic events during WW2. This time I'm talking about the 1955 war movie The Dam Busters. Quite a good one, it reminded me of David Lean's In Which We Serve (and I learned from the retrospective making of that the director Michael Anderson had assisted Lean on that film). It's a story of quintessential British valor and scientific thinking used to score a tactical victory in 1942 on the Germans by destroying some major dams adjoining their factories and thereby crippling their armament manufacturing capacity. Of course, from the other side, one might think a lot of German factory workers probably died or were rendered homeless in the deluge, but then war as a wholly ethical "soldiers only" enterprise probably never existed.

Based on the actual events of Operation Chastise, the film begins with scientist / engineer Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave) coming up with the concept of a "bouncing bomb" when dropped from an aircraft in a precise manner would skim over the water (like pitching stones across a pond) and finally slide down next to the dam wall, the consequent explosion causing greater damage than an attempt to directly hit the wall from above. Wallis stakes his reputation on the plan, even resigning from his position before the war administration allots him the necessary facility to scale up and test his idea. The plan involves using a series of air sorties that will repeatedly bounce bombs till the structure breaks, so you have a special squadron of experienced pilots assembled under Guy Gibson (Richard Todd, who was himself a decorated serviceman in the war), who run a series of test missions. There are failures and setbacks till the idea is perfected, barely before it is time for the actual execution (in mid-May, when the tide was highest and the damage from the dam bust expected to be the most).

The film had the support of the British armed forces and Anderson paid a lot of attention to technical detail and authenticity, and thus the scenes of preparation and aerial attack are both credible and thrilling. It also helps that the British war film shows the operation as disciplined team-work and stiff upper lip, and less of swaggering war heroics (apparently Howard Hawks had proposed a script which he sent across to Barnes and others for inputs but they were offended by its tone and did not revert to him). The only niggle is the weak optical effects used to show flak and gunfire in the scenes where the sorties battle German defenses to reach their targets. Against the other elements they look very out of place, although I don't know what they could have done to alleviate it given the budget and technology at their disposal.

OK, just a heads-up in case anyone else goes in to this one blind. There was a language warning before the film opened and disclaimers about prevailing culture, and I didn't realize what it was about till the character of Guy Gibson called out for his dog with the N-word. It is a bit of a shock and one wonders how the Peter Jackson remake that was floated at one point would have addressed it (oh wait, here) but it's historical fact and no way to retrospectively take it out without seriously mutilating the picture.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Tora! Tora! Tora! [dirs. Richard Fleischer - Toshio Masuda - Kinji Fukasaku]

Over the weekend I watched in its extended Japanese cut the 1970 war movie Tora! Tora! Tora! (TTT), which covers the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese military and documents the events leading up to this audacious attack which roused the US into becoming a major participant in the Second World War.

The key element powering all the decisions about the making of TTT was its meticulous attention to historical detail and authenticity. Thus we are privy to the backroom discussions among the military and the politicians, the cat and mouse game played between the US and Japan. While the US (or at least Congress) was still undecided about taking an active role in WW2, the major bone of contention for Japan was the US opposition to its invasion of China, which led to trade sanctions blocking their access to war resources. While ostensibly continuing negotiations Japan surreptitiously organized a full scale guerilla air attack (planned by Commander-in-Chief Isoroku Yamamoto) on the US military base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Although American military had vague rumblings about Japan's plans, a combination of indefinite knowledge and their own complacency led to their being wholly unprepared on that fateful Sunday of December 7, 1941, when Japanese fighters launched off carrier ships positioned nearby, and in two waves managed to damage several US carrier ships and destroy a large portion of parked military planes. More than 2000 men were killed and a thousand more seriously injured in the attack which was made before Japan had formally declared war with the US.

The film was a prestige project for 20th Century Fox, who were looking to replicate the enormous success of their Normandy invasion film The Longest Day. It was planned as a US-Japanese collaboration with film-makers from each nation telling the story from their viewpoint. Versatile journeyman Richard Fleischer directed the American portion of the story making use of a respected American ensemble cast including Martin Balsam, EG Marshall, and Joseph Cotten. Akira Kurosawa's name was attached to the Japanese side of the project and he worked the script with his regular screenwriter team, but a couple of weeks into filming he either quit or was let off because of his disinclination to work in tandem with the American studio. Then Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasaku were brought in to complete the work. The Japanese cast included Kurosawa regulars Eijiro Tono and Susumu Fujita.

The film is excellent as a visual classroom lesson telling us about the event and what led up to it, but it is dramatically quite flat, mainly because the people we see till the events of the actual attack are not caught up in it, and so there is no dramatic tension. There are lots of facts here but very little feeling. The film seems overly cautious not to make any individual appear as a villain or a blunderer (most notably its sympathetic treatment of US Commander-in-Chief Husband Kimmel, who was demoted after the debacle). Also it is quite obvious that the characters are more puppets to dole out information than 3-dimensional people (Within this limitation, the Japanese segments are better directed and carry more emotional impact, possibly because the Japanese side has a more defined purpose). The last 20 odd min are devoted to showing the actual assault, which is fairly thrilling, with some very dangerous moments captured on film. On the whole, while not as emotionally gripping as some of the classic British war films which follow a similar template, this is much preferable to the 2001 Michael Bay directed Pearl Harbor, which made a trite romance the center-piece of a deafeningly loud and pedestrian film. Probably as a function of which country regarded the attack as memorable, TTT was not well-received in America but a major success in Japan.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Sudani from Nigeria [dir. Zakariya]

Last night on Netflix, me and mum watched the feel-good Malayalam movie Sudani from Nigeria (SfN). The titular "Sudani" is Samuel (Samuel Abiola Robinson), a Nigerian imported to play for the Mallapuram local football club managed by Majid (Shoubin Shahir, an actor with fine feelers for comedy and drama). Samuel is the growing star of the team which earns from games with rival clubs. The going seems good until one day he gets an ankle fracture and needs lengthy recuperation. Suddenly, Samuel is a liability for Majid, who as sponsor must arrange for the treatment and recovery, as well as deal with the legal issues pertaining to his foreign national ward. The film also touches on Majid's personal issues, including his estrangement from his step-father and search for a marital match.

If SfN is decided on one thing it is to be a intimate-scale warm-hearted family film. The script raises no issues of race or ethnicity. India is known for its specific prejudices about black Africans, but the locals in SfN interact in as friendly and hospitable a manner with Samuel as they would with any newcomer to the state. The differences in language and culture are played purely for innocent laughs. When Samuel meets his misfortune almost everyone is immediately sympathetic, including Majid's mother (Savitri Sreedharan) and her neighbors who, won over by his cherubic smile, shower the youth with maternal favor. While Majid is hassled by the "breakdown" of his team's asset he is, touch of self-centeredness notwithstanding, a decent man.

SfN begins as a football-themed movie, but it's not about the sport per se, and the climax is not about scoring goals (literally or figuratively). It manages the rare quality of being emotional but not cloying. There is a message about being a decent human being but it's not pounded through your head. The actors feel right in their roles, and the direction maintains a light touch. While not a masterpiece of humanist cinema, it is an accessible mainstream movie which succeeds at getting the audience to like its characters and convey a feel-good spirit. And that is in good measure, a win.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Confession [dir. Costa-Gavras]

From the director of the political thriller Z (which was also adapted in 2012 by Indian film-maker Dibakar Banerjee as Shanghai), The Confession is another film which looks at corruption endemic to power. It is based on the book written by Czech communist politician Arthur London. Played by French movie star Yves Montand, the film looks at how London, appointed as a deputy minister of foreign affairs just 2 years prior, is suddenly brought in for questioning about his past dealings and accused of being a traitor to the ideals of the ruling communist party. The interrogation, dealt with in great detail, is really more a process of extended torture. Made to keep walking inside his cell, barely allowed to sleep or eat, an increasingly disoriented London is alternately yelled at or coaxed by his tormentors to confess to deliberate treason against the state. Initially London denies the charges vehemently, confident that his basic innocence and his political connections will soon lead to his release. But they are relentless, breaking down his emotional defences, chopping up his testimony to individual sentences and then rearranging them to suit their purposes. London and several of his colleagues are put up for what is called a show trial, one where the guilt of the accused has already been decided and the court proceedings are merely to make a strong example of them. As part of the notorious Stalinist purges, of the 14 people accused at this trial, 11 were executed and 3 - including London - sentenced for life. He was released 2 years after Stalin's demise.

Inherent to the nature of the film, there is a lot of repetition: we see day after day London undergoes repeated cycles of torture. He is held for months without official charges under emergency law where his persecutors have extraordinary powers. When London's wife (Simone Signoret) protests about her husband's abduction in the ministry, their house is seized and she has to take employment in a factory. By the time they have compelled him to sign on practically fabricated confession he has been reduced to a pale thin shadow of his former self (Montand lost 23 pounds over the course of shooting). Then in the period towards the trial they reverse the process, feeding and medically administering to him ("preparing the goose" London remarks), even using a lamp to give him an artificial tan, masking his continuous isolation. The film is powered by Montand's performance, but it's a performance wholly in service to the strong statement the director wants to make.

Gavras sometimes uses a non-linear style going back and forth in London's life. It is suggested that some of the trials he presided over may have obtained confessions of guilt using the same methods he is now subject to. Regardless of ideology, the people in power are invariably corrupt and hostile paranoia increases the more one climbs the ladder of political rule.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Thief of Bagdad [dir. Raoul Walsh]

As the name verily suggests, Thief of Bagdad (ToB) is a fantasy adventure inspired by the lore of the Arabian Nights. Which is not to suggest that the film in any way adopts the complex multi-story nature of that famous literary work. Nay this is a straightforward story of flamboyant heroism saving the day and winning the prize, and male lead Douglas Fairbanks is about as textbook a definition of flamboyant heroism as it gets. Aged 40 at the time the film was made, Fairbanks has the lithe physique a 20-year old would envy and athletic grace to match. It's sheer pleasure just watching him shimmy up ropes, leap over tables, trampoline in and out of oversized pots. But Fairbanks wasn't just the hunky star of this film. He was also producer (a co-production with his equally famous spouse Mary Pickford) and if Hollywood legend is to be believed, ghost-director along with Raoul Walsh.
In the film Fairbanks is the titular thief, a feckless braggart cheerfully taking what he wants from the streets and mansions of Bagdad, until he meets with the princess in the disguise of a foreign prince. Suddenly our man is sick of his existing lifestyle and wishes to win the princess honorably. Off he goes on a quest that requires him to fulfil several challenges before he can return with the ultimate MacGuffin that will allow him to sweep up her royal highness. Also in the mix is an evil Mongol lord (Sojin Kamiyama, an actual Oriental actor) who wishes to possess the princess and Bagdad by any means possible.

In these days, the idea of a Hollywood film where Islam is eulogized and the Chinese/Mongols are caricature evil carries an irony, but ToB is a film of its time, conducted in a cornily innocent spirit. The hero must win the day, dragons (also giant bats and spiders) must be destroyed, damsels must be rescued, chest-thumping good must win over narrow-eyed evil.

ToB's script is light on nuance and hardly justifies the 2.5 hour running time, but the film is an undeniable spectacle. Celebrated production designer William Cameron Menzies (later director of
Chandu the Magician and Things to Come) was then a newcomer, but justified Walsh and Fairbanks' faith with towering vistas of full-scale minarets and fortress walls, swirling staircases and intricate ornamental designs for the palace interiors, immersive depictions of underground caves and even an aquatic realm (specially shot using distorted glass filters to achieve the effect of waves). The camera simply surrenders to the impact of Menzies' sets, accentuating their scale - in many scenes, the human element occupies only the bottom third of the screen, giving maximum visual space to the architecture. It makes for a most interesting if also sometimes disorienting impact on the viewing. The optical FX are less impressive but there are some notable in-camera FX, including the use of a carpet actually suspended several hundred feet by a crane doing a flyby around the palace, brr.
In terms of flaws, the film does have pacing issues, with bales of obvious padding material. The princess, as played by Julanne Johnston is a milksop, given to such fainting and sighing as would make a Victorian lady envious. Far more intriguing was the sultry and resourceful Anna May Wong as the Mongol lord's evil spy in the palace, she would have made a better match for the thief, so what if she's a bad girl herself? As for Fairbanks his exaggerated gestures get tiresome after a bit. If you count the number of times he spreads his arms out in joy or surprise, often over the most nondescript elements, it would likely exceed Shah Rukh Khan's count for all his Yash Chopra and Karan Johar movies combined.

But in all, ToB is worth visiting as a thrilling adventure that in its time defined SPECTACLE.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Carbon [dir. Venu]

Although its subtitle Ashes and Diamonds would appear a shameless evocation of Andrzej Wajda's brilliant 1958 movie about individuals in a time of social upheaval, Venu's Carbon is unrelated except perhaps in suggesting an interface of dreams / aspirations and reality. In Venu's film this interface is core to the film's identity.

Sibi (Fahadh Faasil in a part seemingly created for him) is in his mind, a big player, facilitating deals between those that want and those that have - from gemstones to elephants it doesn't matter what - Sibi is ready to make the connection and pocket his commission. But the truth is he hasn't much success, his gift of gab never able to overcome his lack of working capital to grease the wheels of fortune. But Sibi can never bring himself to accept defeat and enter the routine of "doing a job and settling down" his friends have gotten into. He can be liked - we see his pals going to great lengths to back him up - but he cannot be trusted. Early on the film gives glimpses of his anarchic daydreamer spirit: passing by a bank he fantasizes about robbing it. The aforementioned elephant deal has an amusing epilogue which resonates deep into the film. And Sibi is not given the conventional motivations of getting rich "to support the family". His relationship with them is more perfunctory than anything and a later scene with the father beautifully underscores his essential alienation. Kudos to Venu and Fahadh for taking a character with such unlikable traits and getting the audience to empathize with him without cheap sentimentality.

After trouble with a loan shark over borrowed money Sibi goes into hiding, taking on the assignment of developing a remote jungle property as a tourist destination. With no electricity, no mobile network and no people apart from caretaker Balan (Kochu Preman, a wonderful character actor) and the occasional local, Sibi is entirely out of his element, his inner hustler stifled in this removed, almost alien environment. His luck appears to change when he meets the spunky Sameera (Mamta Mohandas) a self-professed "jungle junkie". He also comes to hear of the legend of a treasure hidden in the forest hundreds of years ago. Sibi grows obsessed with the idea of finding this treasure, even when the locals warn him that no one that went after the it came back whole. More than the monetary value, it becomes a sort of Holy Grail, a justification of his inner spirit. With Sameera and a couple of locals he puts together a small expedition that both literally and figuratively goes deep into the wilderness. What happens in the course of this quest and whether Sibi fulfils his dream of finding the treasure and becoming the big wheel he always dreamed of being forms the rest of the film.

This part of the film evokes the classics of master film-maker Werner Herzog such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, being like them about obsessed men with who plod in the face of an alien impassive nature with the idea of claiming it for their own. The treatment is less raw and relentless than what Herzog would have gone for, the makers aiming to keep one foot on the commercial acceptability boat with mostly glamorous natural vistas and unnecessary lashings of background music supplementing the forest soundscape.* But you can see the intent, and even though the expedition segment and its unraveling impact on the protagonist should have been given more breathing time (it occupies less than a fourth of the total running time), it makes an impact; a hallucinatory experience late in the film is a marvel of character exploration. I also loved that Sibi and Sameera are not forced upon us as a romantic pair. She goes along on the expedition because she likes Sibi's zeal and hustle, but also realizes that he is hopelessly unprepared for the hazards of the jungle. Mamta exudes the required pragmatism and warmth of the character, and provides an able counterfoil to Sibi. Of course the film ultimately belongs to Faasil and he keeps the audience with him from beginning to end.

Without going into spoilers, I was initially put off by the end, which seemed to me a pat commercial compromise, but thinking back, who's to say it is not another example of the fluid traversal between dream and reality in Sibi's mind? Recommended as one of the most interesting Indian movies I've seen this year.

* There are also a few songs composed by Vishal Bharadwaj, which are decent but I was very distracted during the Rekha B. sung Dhoore dhoore on account of her horrible diction.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The House That Dripped Blood [dir. Peter Duffell]

I first saw The House That Dripped Blood (THTDB) on VHS in the 80's and recalled segments from it with some fondness, and I had it on my wishlist for a long time. So when Shout Factory released a blu-ray of it some while ago it was time for me to indulge my craving.

THTDB is an anthology or portmanteau film, meaning it has multiple stories within an overarching framework. It was the third such film from the UK-based Amicus Productions, which specialized in horror portmanteaus. Amicus had a steady partnership with writer Robert 'Psycho' Bloch whose short stories were the basis for this and other films. This anthology has 4 episodes selected from Bloch stories framed around the sinister history of a house whose latest inhabitant has gone missing. The stories include a) a horror writer (Denholm Elliot) whose latest creation, a psychotic strangler, seems to come alive b) a bachelor (Peter Cushing) whose visit to a horror themed waxworks museum has unexpected consequences c) a father (Christopher Lee) who seems to be unduly repressive towards his little daughter, but may have his own reasons d) A horror movie star (Jon Pertwee) finds a vampire cape prop that may be more than just a prop.

Without going into specifics there is, at least for anyone that has spent some time reading / watching horror, a predictability to these stories, and one can generally guess the punchline before it comes, but the scripts are efficiently written and director Peter Duffell brings a pleasing visual aesthetic, with evocative set design and thoughtful lighting / camera choices that belie the production's low-budget short-schedule nature. The actors are very solid, with that singular British talent for taking slight, even silly premises and playing it "like Hamlet". The last story has a more overt humorous bent that goes a little against the other stuff and in retrospect I would have much preferred to see a more commanding John Carradine type do the part (the smoldering Ingrid Pitt's presence is however very welcome).

Shout Factory's blu-ray is quite decent with respect to A/V. The print used is not pristine but boasts a nicely colorful (without looking boosted) and organic look. The mono audio presented as DTS-HD MA 2.0 is clear and the music score (including an excerpt of Schubert's Death and the Maiden) comes across well. Incidentally Death and the Maiden was the director's original choice for the film title, instead of the unnecessarily lurid one they finally used. I saw the archival making of (circa 2003 I believe, which interviews the director and some cast members) and the newer interview with the 2nd AD, both of which provided some nice insight and anecdotes in the making of the charming film. I also heard most of the commentary with horror film historian Jonathan Rigby and the director, which repeats some of the information in the making of, but is a pleasant listen on its own merits. Look forward to finishing it and the new commentary with Troy Howarth. The disc also has trailers and radio spots for the film.
It might be creaky for today's audiences but THTDB has a lot of nostalgic charm for me and Shout Factory's blu-ray is a nice showcase for its merits.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Incredibles 2 [dir. Brad Bird]

Note: This review assumes you have seen The Incredibles (2004) and know the major characters from that film. I've tried to keep references to a minimum but a major theme of my review is the collective resonance of the two films. And besides, you're an idiot if you haven't as yet seen what I describe below as...

The Incredibles was a classic of superhero movie-making (note that I don't specify animated because the film, like all true classics, transcends the format it was made in) and I totally respected writer-director Brad "Iron Giant" Bird for saying (despite the original ending with a sequel hook) that he would put on a follow-up only when he had the right ingredients. Despite those claims, I was skeptical, especially in the current climate of superhero franchise glut, whether the eponymous Parr family's adventures would still stand on Parr (ha!) or whether it would be a case of disappointing déjà vu. The initial trailers with focus on the household hijinks between dad Bob Parr and baby Jack-Jack suggested an accent on cloying cuteness. In other words, I was ready to pin on this one a label of The Incredi-Bores or at least The Not-Quite-Incredibles.

Still I felt it bounden to sit through the sequel and ascertain for myself, so I booked my ticket on the inter-web and whizzed off post work to the nearby mall-tiplex. After a surprisingly good cappuccino in one of the restaurants, I took my seat inside the movie hall in bated expectation. There was just one hitch. When a young couple came my side and told me I was occupying one of their seats, I re-checked the ticket and discovered that my inner boob had actually booked for the next day. Since the counterfoil had already been torn off the cinema staff was equally at fault, and they offered me another seat, to which I agreed. Crisis averted, back to the movie.

Incredibles 2 (I-2) is in good measure a mirror image to its predecessor. At the start the family finds itself once more at square one with the ban on "supers" still in place (not helped by the large-scale destruction from their battle with the Underminer). But relief comes in the form of tycoon Winston Deavor and his techie sister Evelyn with a scheme to slowly relaunch and push for legal resurgence of supers. The plan is to first focus on Elastigirl / Helen Parr, regarded as a safer opening choice. Bob / Mr. Incredible, while resentful of being sidelined from numero uno status, elects to take on domestic duties, which includes dealing with son Dash's math homework, daughter Violet's teenage angst and baby Jack-Jack, whose X-Men Academy repertoire of uncontrolled powers poses more issues than your average toddler. Thus what we see is an inversion of the first film where Bob was out superhero-ing while Helen held the home front.

This is of course a nod to the growing attention about gender equality issues in mainstream movies (not that Helen wasn't a badass in The Incredibles) and I-2 has its share of on-the-nose statements about that, but the shift makes for a refreshing change. Let's face it, Mr. Incredible is essentially Captain America with far less charm, a big lug with a massive ego and a 3:1 brawn-to-brain ratio. One of my favorite parts from the original film is when Elastigirl goes in to rescue him from the villain's lair - an episode of stealth, ingenuity and stretch-powered acrobatics that puts to shame any James Bond movie. This is not just equaled here, it is handily bested with multiple thrilling episodes; my favorite is when she rapidly ricochets between multiple helicopters to foil an airborne assassination. Anyone watching this movie can't help but say, "Go Elastigirl Go!" (take my money already for that origin movie, If Brad is up for it).

Bob on the other hand finds domesticity a bigger challenge than he anticipated ("Math is math. Why would they change math?"), his inner man-child sometimes threatening to subsume his paternal responsibility. But he (and the kids) learn to cope and later team up to rescue mom when she falls prey to the villain's nefarious scheme. Sounds familiar? One wee problem with the mirror structure is that you know early on who the villain is, and even the motivation is explicitly spelled out long before the movie makes the official reveal. But you know what, it's okay. You feel so invested with the characters you've come to love, you enjoy the ride even when you know where its going. Judicious trimming would have made it even better, but Jack-Jack's onscreen antics remain on the right side of endearing. The art style retains the defining characteristics of the original film even but with more refined and palpable texture. The scale and fluidity of the action sequences is raised without losing clarity or assailing the audience with ADD cutaways, and composer Michael Giacchino once again serves up a rousing brassy score that supplements the thrills.

By the end of Incredibles 2 I felt as completely entertained as when I saw the first film so many years ago at the cinema, and that my friends is a superheroic feat.