Saturday, June 29, 2019

Letters from Hades [Jeffrey Thomas]

It's not often a book begins with its protagonist having killed himself with a shotgun blast...especially where the rest of the narrative is not a flashback of his death foretold. But then Jeffrey Thomas is not your everyday author. Into his several short story collections and novellas, Thomas has infused a unique fevered imagination. Tinged, yes, by classic and popular dystopian fiction and movie culture, but not derivative. If Worship the Night was a wonderful contemporary homage to the spirit of H.P. Lovecraft and Boneland a terrific piece of futu-noir à la Philip K Dick, Letters from Hades is his attempt at epic action fantasy.

Of course, it is not immediately apparent. For a good while, our protagonist is a lonely newcomer in Thomas' rendition of Hell, a world that draws on Dante's Inferno, with heaped helpings of smoke-and-engine-oil steampunk and a healthy spoonful of Guillermo Del Toro style baroque horror. Our hero (never named) starts at Avernus - the portal to Hell - as one of the Damned. Subjected to soul crushing labor and squirm-inducing tortures by their demon warders,  the damned are cursed to never die - even if grossly mutilated, their body parts grow back with all the associated pain for them to once more go through the cycle of unimaginable agonies. The biggest struggle the hero faces is to retain his humanity in the face of all he must undergo. He keeps a diary of his experiences (which serves as our chronicle) in a book that houses as punishment the eye of another damned with whom he develops a sympathetic understanding.

Sympathy is what distinguishes our hero and drives his actions. At one point when making his way through a hostile alien jungle, he rescues a demoness from death by a group of the damned, a deed that will trigger further consequences. He eventually reaches the city of Oblivion (some whiff of influence from China Mieville's Bas-Lag?) and discovers that Hell is not much different from a seedy version of Earth. Thomas covers in some loving detail the industrial yet almost sentient architecture of Oblivion, and you can almost smell the rust and toxic fumes. There he once again meets with the demoness he rescued and the aforementioned 'further consequences' are set into motion. Without going into spoiler territory, I can say Thomas sets off a powder keg of incendiary action with a literal war between demons, angels and the damned, our hero and his demoness in the midst of it.

Letters from Hades does not aspire to be high art. The interracial (or inter-species) romance is more mainstream than how Mieville would have dealt with it, and the depiction of angels in Hell as bike-ridin' shotgun-totin' toughies is a little on the nose. But what it is, is a thrilling ride with some terrific horror and action set-pieces, brisk to the point of breathless with an ending that simply begs for more. The book would make for a kickass blockbuster film if Hollywood were visionary enough to fund Jeffrey Thomas' imagination for, say, the price of your average Marvel Studios product. Perhaps Mr. Del Toro can be convinced to helm?

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Session 9 [dir. Brad Anderson]

Session 9 can be succinctly described as a blue-collar riff on The Shining. Unlike the swanky Hotel Overlook, the "Bad Place" (as Stephen King would describe it) here is a sprawling mental asylum fallen into disuse since the 1980's. To make the place viable for redevelopment, it is first required to bring it in line with regulations pertaining to safe removal of all asbestos material used in the construction, which is what brings in Gordon (Peter Mullan) and his team. Struck with family problems and desperate for the money, Gordon promises to finish the job in a punishing week-long schedule. With him are buddy Phil (David Caruso, where went he?), still mopey over losing his girl-friend to wiseguy and third member Hank (Josh Lucas), there's law-school dropout Mike (Stephen Gevedon, who co-wrote the picture with director Brad Anderson) who seems to know a lot of the asylum's history and Gordon's nephew Jeff, who is new to the job and has a fear of the dark.

Much of Session 9's allure comes from the eerie uncomfortable atmosphere generated by the location itself. Cavernous dust-choked hallways with sounds of water-dripping (and could those be whispers in the air?) and the ever-present hazard of asbestos fibres getting into the system. Tension builds in the men's minds, with each person seemingly encountering something in the building. Gordon hears voices that seem to call him, Mike finds the session tapes of a multiple personality disorder patient called Mary whose mind hosted some immensely disturbing alter egos, Hank finds a cache of old coins and strange objects...As each day passes, the sense of dread steadily rises until, as any horror fan can guess, it boils over into blood-soaked mayhem.

Anderson and his cinematographer Uta Briesewitz (who almost lost an eye capturing a chaotic shot) make the most of the setting - according to him, very little was needed by way of dressing the place up. The interplay of light and darkness is a crucial element in several scenes, generating a grim uneasy tone. One scene where a character is running terrified through a corridor while lights all around him go off is a throat-grabbing moment. The climax is an extremely well depicted unraveling of sanity that stands well with its predecessor in The Shining.
A few words on the blu-ray release from Shout Factory:
Session 9 was shot on 24 fps HD Video. Shout Factory's blu-ray gives an accurate depiction of the visuals and looks more polished than I remember of my previous viewing. Sound is stereo only (DTS-HDMA) but decent, although I would have been interested to hear a 5.1 remix that enhanced the sonic atmosphere. Extras include a solid 45 min retrospective making of with Anderson, Stephen Gevedon, DoP Briesewitz and other cast members, director's commentary and other featurettes.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Petta [dir. Karthik Subbaraj]

Petta is one of the best glamor shoots for its leading man Rajinikant. No really, after Mani Ratnam's Thalapathi as far back as 1991, this is probably the most beautiful looking 'Superstar' movie. Whether bathed in russet and amber glow, or cloaked in steel blue shadow, slightly out of focus like an emerging myth or sharp and up close like a sculpture in stone, the Rajini aura has almost never been so lovingly burnished. The legend himself, nattily dressed with mane-like coiffured hairpiece, looks relaxed and happy, a lion in his own jungle. Of course, Petta is far less ambitious than Thalapathi. In the erstwhile film Rajinikant played the Mahabharat inspired Surya / Karna, the iconic back-lighting as much in service of the character as of the star. Petta has no such thematic pretensions. The swanky production design (Suresh Selvarajan) and cinematographic lusciousness (S. Tirru) are for cosmetic effect (and what's wrong with that?). More crucially, Karthik 'Jigarthanda' Subbaraj's script is also purely in homage to the shrine of Rajini.

Using his iconic screen name 'Kaali', Rajini-saar swishes in as the new hostel warden of one of the strangest institutions: One with a cathedral sized assembly hall and a budget for candles that would make Sanjay Leela Bhansali proud, and prestigious enough to attract students from Australia, but where over-age thugs swagger the halls hazing newcomers, and the hostel idlis are hard enough to literally brain folks with. Kaali's entrance is equally strange - apparently his recommendation for the warden's post comes from the Prime Minister's secretary. When the true background of the character is revealed, one immediately wonders how he could have wrangled such a connection, but Petta's not a film for believable explanations. Kaali comes, he sees and he conquers - first the ragging thugs (led by Bobby Simha), then the corrupt mess contractor. While playing matchmaker to a young pair that came in from Australia, he meets cute with the girl's pranic healer mom (Simran, in real life near the age of Rajini's daughter, which here makes her an apt "mature romance" candidate).

A brilliantly shot "hero" action sequence with flashlights dancing in darkened corridors culminates in a dramatic reveal of Kaali's true purpose (with the expected drawn out flashback), and the introduction of new antagonists - Nawazuddin Siddiqui (dubbed) and Vijay Sethupati. The rest of the movie is about how Kaali takes the fight into the enemy's stronghold for the ultimate showdown, no prizes for guessing who wins. Some of the violence towards the end is unnecessarily gruesome (although not uncommon in the 80's potboilers Petta's roots lie in)

Petta is in the best and worst ways, a brand Rajini film: He talks, he walks, he dances, he nun-chucks, he everythings. There are numerous movie nods to both Rajini filmography and other  references - Mullum Malarum's Raman aandalum Ravana aandalum, rival Kamalahaasan's Andhi mazhai, Ennio Morricone's TGTBTU theme also gets a hat-tip. No character other than 'baas' carries any real weight. Simha and Sethupati have sufficient talent to bring nuance to their parts (and to be fair, Subbaraj does strive to make them more than run of the mill henchmen), but I doubt they would have accepted the roles without the R-factor. Some interesting supporting actor / cameo choices for Tamil movie fans - veteran comedian YG Mahendran, actor-director M Sasikumar (Subramaniapuram) and J Mahendran (he directed Rajini in Mullum Malarum) The women (Simran, Trisha, Malavika Mohanan, Megha Akash) uniformly have "say your two lines and GTFO" appearances. Once the action begins they are pushed off-stage, not returning even for a "The End" frame. Baas' party is purely a Boys' affair, but those invited are guaranteed a good time.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Le Trou aka The Hole [dir. Jacques Becker]

What is it with the French and crime procedurals? They seem to have an almost innate talent at turning out kickass movies centering around criminals either carrying out a caper or escaping from custody. Jules Dassin's Rififi, Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Cercle Rouge (and any others I've missed), Claude Sautet's Classe Tous Risques. These often feature a set-piece where a delicate and risky maneuver is depicted in exquisitely excruciating detail, making the audience feel one with the participants and feel their tension. I am happy to have found Jacques Becker's Le Trou (aka The Hole) to be another proud member of this clique.

Becker's film was adapted from a book (written by José Giovanni) based on a true-life prison escape attempt. A group of men sharing a cell make an audacious plan to escape from their confines by digging their way into the underground sewer system from where they can tunnel out of the prison. Jacques Becker's commitment to capturing the realism of the event was so great he not only had sets built to closely correspond with the original locations and shot the prison cell scenes in an equally cramped and claustrophobic space, one of the major actors in the film (Jean Keraudy, he called himself) was a real-life participant in the original escape. Becker decided to use Keraudy after speaking with him and becoming extremely interested in the colorful inventive man, and decided to populate his film with non-professional actors.

Le Trou is almost entirely set in the confines of the prison. It begins with one of the characters entering as a new occupant in the cell already occupied by four men. After chatting with the new man, they decide to accept him as one of their own group and include him in their escape plan. The film covers each aspect of the escape with loving detail and an eye for realism. When floors and walls are dug through, they don't just break apart in a couple of blows, but take about as much effort as you would expect concrete structures to. Iron bars take a lot to be sawed across. Between each set of operations the gang has to be careful to wipe off or put away all traces of their covert activities. The film establishes a routine and constantly reminds us of it. In the wrong hands this could have ended up as a rote and boring exercise, but between the screenplay, the actors, the superb production design and strikingly austere B&W photography, we become one with the rhythm and are constantly riveted. When they break through into the sewer labyrinth and open a manhole to see the road outside the prison, there is a palpable sense of fresh air and freedom.

Do they actually manage to escape? I recommend you watch Le Trou to find out. But Becker's film is not just about the suspense. The prisoners are not action figures carrying out the motions. They have personalities and the relationship between them - trust, friendship, brotherhood - is equally important, in fact the lynchpin of the film's lasting impact.