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.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Victim [dir. Basil Dearden]

Wikipedia says Victim (1961) is the first English language film to have used the word "homosexual". It speaks volumes for the level of daring it would have taken in that period to come up with a film that treated homosexuality in a somber and sympathetic manner. Heck, it was only 6 years later that consensual sex between same gender people was no longer automatic grounds for criminal prosecution in the UK (a policeman in the film remarks that the punishment for this "offence" is similar to that for robbery with violence). Against this backdrop one understands the measured way in which the film unfolds its theme. For a good part of the beginning we are not even told why young Jack Barrett is on the run and desperate to get away from the country, mostly oblique glances and dialog that dances vague circles. Jack would rather take the sole blame for embezzling his employer's funds than reveal his reasons for doing so to the police. The film's core of cruel persecution is wrapped in a blackmail plot, where vulnerable folks are drained by a ruthless parasite frightening them with exposure of their "unnatural tendencies" - probably drawing from true events, the script also informs us that 90% of all blackmail cases arise from homosexual relationships. The homosexuals here are a sad and lonely lot, finding solace in clandestine companionships and a loose network, horrified at any suggestion of coming together to expose the villains extorting them.

Such trepidation is also manifest in the character of its lead Melville Farr (played by the dashing Dirk Bogarde). Farr is a rising barrister, due to take silk. He is also the man Barrett was desperately trying to protect. Farr has suppressed his homosexual tendencies to the extent of being in a long-time married relationship - he loves his wife (Sylvia Sims), though tellingly they have no children. He has pushed himself away from relationships with men that threatened to get intimate because he is afraid of his own desires. Farr's sexual identity is a victim not only of external society but his own guilt; he may well believe homosexuality to be a weakness or disease, even when he fights against its criminalization. But this cautious approach actually makes for a stronger drama. Bogarde's acting conveys both dignity and anguish, and is the lynchpin of the film's emotional thrust. He presents a more conflicted individual than a flaming gay character would. Bogarde would later remark, "It is extraordinary, in this over-permissive age [c. 1988], to believe that this modest film could ever have been considered courageous, daring or dangerous to make. It was, in its time, all three"

The film does make clear its horror of a society that views homosexuality as evil or perverse. The characters that speak against homosexuality are mainly the villains of the piece, although in one scene a bartender may be reflecting public opinion of the time when he suggests that a society that accepts homosexuality might as well let by "every other perversion". Farr's wife expresses her horror at his sexual orientation (of course, one sympathizes with her for his infidelity in thought, even when he is emphatic about never having been intimate with any of his 'acquaintances') but later stands by him when he resolves to take on the blackmailers even if it means coming out in public view. That although may have to do with her being impressed by his sacrificial suppression of his sexual desires at the altar of their marital love.

Basil Dearden as director (The Blue Lamp, Poole of London) brings verisimilitude with his experience in location shooting and realization of a palpable contemporary London milieu. While it may have been a tactical decision to couch the film's defense of alternate sexuality in the wrappings of a police procedural, the screenplay never seems like a contrived or awkward message piece, and its characters are more than just mouthpieces for the creators. In its chaste deliberate manner, Victim projects the message of tolerance more acceptably than an outright chest-thumping film about homosexuality may have been able to. Even with all that, it was slapped with an X-rating for its UK cinema run and initially denied a rating by the MPAA. While it's easy in hindsight to regard some of Victim's content as too timid or not sufficiently defensive of gay rights, the courage the film displayed in its time to open the closet even a crack must forever be respected.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Speed Racer [dir. The Wachowskis]

I had first seen Speed Racer a long while ago, and while in terms of story and characters, the film had a puerile manufactured quality (the fat kid brother of the lead character was an annoying git), the near hallucinatory audio-visual experience with a super-vibrant color palette and constant use of gimmicky wipes and dissolves was sufficiently engaging for me to get the film on blu-ray. In fact the disc was in my collection for nearly 6 years but only last night (after I returned exhausted and wanted some trashy entertainment) did I feel the momentum to re-watch the film.

I understand Speed Racer is based on an anime TV series and the Wachowski director duo incorporate a lot of the hyperbolic anime style in their film, with the deliberate flat photograpy, improbably cheerful Michael Giacchino score, utterly nuance-less characters (I sure hope Susan Sarandon got a good paycheck) and the clunky in-your-face graphics during the non-vehicular action sequences (which are like a combination of the 60's Batman TV series and 80's Indian campy Ramayan TV series). At more than 2 hours the film is a bit of a (ha!) drag, and could have definitely done with excising of needless characters (fat kid bro immediately comes to mind, although I understand he's a regular part of the anime series). But every time the film takes you to a race track it's the visual equivalent of having head-exploding drugs without the side-effects. Compared to current day blockbuster extravaganzas the effects seem a little dated and the car physics don't feel sufficiently weighty, but they remain consistent to the cartoony aesthetic. I also appreciate that the Wachowskis were honoring the family-friendly nature of the original show, this is a film kids will love.

The blu-ray of Speed Racer had rave reviews for its video on release. One wonders if a new scan / encode would raise the bar further, or whether the limitations in terms of texture are more a function of the high-definition digital capture technology of that time. Nonetheless it is an attractive, extremely vibrant transfer and great reason to have this film in one's collection. I'm more hesitant about the audio. I'm not per se against lossy audio (and a 5.1 Dolby surround track at 640kbps is not something to sneeze at), but while dialog was clear and surrounds were active during the race sequences, I felt a certain deficiency in oomph factor even on raising the volume, not sure why.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Bhavesh Joshi Superhero [dir. Vikramaditya Motwane]

I suspect this movie would be out of the screens by the time you see this opinion but if it isn't you might give it a shot.

It would have been more apt to call Bhavesh Joshi Superhero (BJS) as Bhavesh Begins because this vigilante hero origin story is a fitting companion piece to Chris Nolan's Batman Begins. The vigilante movement begins with a more playful spirit when chaddi-buddies Bhavesh (Priyanshu Painyuli) and Sikander aka Sikku (Harshvardhan Kapoor), a trio with their more nerdy friend Rajat (Ashish Varma),start a youtube video campaign to confront and intimidate wrongdoers on camera wearing a patently goofy paper bag mask (the film even riffs on this when one petitioner offers a disguised Bhavesh tea and he struggles to drink under the mask). Things get more serious with a genuine ideological clash when Sikku bows out to social pressure, paying a bribe for his passport, and Bhavesh calls out some very bad guys in his bid to expose the Mumbai water mafia. A series of events leaves Bhavesh dead and guilt-ridden Sikku takes on the vigilante mantle.

BJS is notable for the grounded manner in which most of the action is set. When Bhavesh and later Sikku go into action, they don't become ultra-nimble fighters and genius masterminds that trounce legions of bad guys without breaking a sweat. Sikku's actions are more like a guy who got his ideas from watching movies improvising on them without realizing the drawbacks in reality. He takes a lot of dumb chances in his crusade against Bhavesh's killers and he must face the consequences of those decisions. On more than one occasion he is overwhelmed and has to get his butt saved by someone else. These are not script fallacies, they are the flaws within the character that go a long way to making him more human. 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. The sequence where Bhavesh tracks down the base of operations of the water mafia is a marvelous piece of guerilla style visuals in rarely captured locations (A previous film that shined in this regard is Chandan Arora's Striker).

Apart from some narrative snafus, the film IMO suffers mainly what I call the Gulaal Syndrome, where the character that really holds your attention dies before the interval. Harshvardhan Kapoor of course is nowhere as bad as the moronic milksop lead of Gulaal but his weaknesses in the acting department make it harder to empathize with the grief and confusion which his character is burdened with during his crusade. Like a mirror to the onscreen drama, Priyanshu Painyuli's spirited and passionate portrayal of Bhavesh Joshi leaves a void that HK struggles to fill. Slack editing, a half-baked romance angle and mostly cardboard villains also bring down the experience. But the reasonably unique approach to the vigilante hero genre is worth a watch.