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.