Saturday, December 26, 2020

Dark City [dir. William Dieterle]

Not Alex Proyas' dystopian sci-fi whose themes uncannily predated The Matrix, 1950's Dark City is a post-WW2 crime thriller that introduced Charlton Heston to the big screen (he had done TV work before this, and an experimental 'silent' film of Peer Gynt). While for most other actors to be handed the lead part in their first movie would be surprising, Heston even then exuded the personal charisma that made him a natural choice. The part of a small-time punk that draws a sucker into a card game with his friends (Ed Begley, Jack Webb), who then proceed to squeeze the man dry is somewhat grayer than his more famous roles, but Heston's aura automatically renders it more sympathetic than say a Kirk Douglas or Robert Mitchum would have been in the same role. Lizabeth Scott as the club singer besotted with him is a decent actress but the part is a bore. Almost every scene she has with Heston plays out the same:

Scott: "I love you so much, why can't you leave your dirty business and love me back?"
Heston: "That's the way it is, and I told you so."
Scott: "Oh it's all about you, boo-hoo-hoo" Rinse. Repeat.

Anyhoo, it turns out the man Heston and his pals left out to dry committed suicide and now his angry psychotic elder brother is after their blood. Meanwhile the cops led by Dean Jagger are investigating the growing trail of corpses. There's an interesting "what if" alternate romance with the dead man's wife (Viveca Lindfors) that gets nipped too early in the bud.

Heston makes tormented poses, and talks a little rough to his girl, but the film isn't true blue noir, and gets a not entirely believable happy ending. The long shadow of the war past makes for some interesting plot elements, like Heston's camaraderie with his gang's waterboy - and the film's conscience - Soldier (Harry Morgan, later famous as the TV MASH's Col. Potter). Taken in whole, this Dark City is reasonably engaging, with some interesting chiaroscuro visuals, including the noir genre's favorite Venetian blinds shot (DoP Victor Milner). I do wish they'd avoided the very obvious back projection shots of Heston walking down the main street at the film's beginning, they were distractingly amateurish.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

2020: The Year of Movies Outside of the Cinemas

So here we are at the end of one of the strangest years, at least post-millennium. Apart from some die-hard Chris Nolan fans, most of us would barely have seen anything at the cinema. But it's the film that matters, and not where you saw it, so here's my take on the movies I saw in 2020:

I was quite pleased with:

The Disciple (Marathi) - Chaitanya Tamhane's trademark observational style tracks the journey of a man aiming to make his place as a classical exponent. Steeped in the more esoteric world of Hindustani classical music, it doesn't have the impact Court had, but on the whole quite good, and especially rewarding for people that can appreciate large swathes of Indian classical vocal performances.

Ayyappanum Koshiyum (Malayalam) - A revenge story that could have easily been cliched is, by attention to detail and a beautiful organic building up of scenes, made into a gripping yarn. Three hours have rarely gone by so easily.

1917 (English) - Probably the only movie in this post I saw at the cinema. This WW2 action drama is good fun, technically well done, giving the impression of having been achieved as one long tracking shot. It's a gimmick of course, but marvelously achieved. The entire second half has the quality of a dream sequence. The script is like that of a video game and characters have no real depth, but except towards the very end, I didn't feel the film overstayed its welcome.

Choked (Hindi) - I thought the new Anurag Kashyap movie was quite decent. It's more modest than the usual AK film, but that also translates to less self-indulgent. There is one sequence which is brilliant in the way it cross-cuts two entirely different events generating the rhythm in-situ and then goes into a third sequence which is a marvelous fantasy that ties in with the main character. Also, an AK film where no one even says 'Chutiya' gladdens my sanskaari sentiments.

Uncut Gems (English) - It's not often I can stick through a film with a fatally unlikable protagonist, but even at 2hr 15min with some significant sag in the middle, this one can be said to be on the whole gripping and frequently outrageous (in a fun way). Both the script and Sandler's performance work to keep us interested without stooping to give the character cheap sympathy. Under the senses-saturating direction of the Safdie brothers, the film also becomes an ode to street smart New York.

These were alright, but could have been better:

Chhapaak (Hindi) - Fairly alright as these things go, similar to last year's Uyare. Thanks to excellent prosthetic work and quiet underplaying, Deepika Padukone is mostly convincing as an acid attack survivor who reclaims her life...far less so as the lower middle-class public school educated dilli-waali she is supposed to be.

Putham Pudhu Kaalai (Tamil) - An anthology of 5 stories, unrelated except that they are all set in the time of the initial Covid-19 lockdown period. The bulk of the individual episodes are more okay than great, a sort of sentimental oatmeal. Still, there are good moments, and it's lovely to see familiar faces do parts they are comfortable with.

Raat Akeli Hai (Hindi) - A sort of "noir lite" (latte?), never brilliant, but also doesn't have many obvious missteps, apart from casting Radhika "where did I leave that phone?" Apte and some lazy deus ex machina scripting. Mostly it works as a star-vehicle for Nawazuddin Siddique and for its excellent night-time cinematography.

Helen (Malayalam) - Even with its flaws (too long with unnecessary prologue to establish lead character), Helen was a nicely done survival story of a girl trapped inside a walk-in freezer, who must escape before she dies of cold.

Driving Licence (Malayalam) - The "other" Mallu revenge movie with Prithviraj (and written by Sachy). I thought DL was okey-dokey where AK was exhilarating. The situations in the script don't feel as organic, and there's too much of script contrivance, buffoonery and deus ex machina.

Extraction (English) - Extraction on Netflix was a rather decent serious action film up until the very end. The bulk of the film is a lot of road rage and close quarters combat set in the crowded bylanes and box-like apartments of Dhaka, and this is executed efficiently. It suffers in trying to give an epilogue for too many of its characters, and it could have definitely done with some trimming of the dramatic cliches, but it's not bad as Netflix fodder goes.

Avane Srimannarayana (Kannada) - With influences as disparate as Dabangg, Rango and the traditional Yakshagaana (or perhaps taking a leaf out of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne), it is only natural that after a point Avane Srimannarayana wobbles under its self-indulgent style (the last third is something of a cave-in - at the end, quite literally). But like with Jagga Jasoos, it is for a surprisingly major part of its (186 min!) running time, delightful in its whimsicality.

Vaanam Kottatum (Tamil) - A generic bad guy and a climax that cranks up the stupidity quotient spoil it a bit, but for the longest time, VK is a sturdy masala family drama mixing elements of the rural potboiler with classic Maniratnam style. I love that they give a fair amount of importance to the individual character arcs. Performances are very solid too, especially Radhika showing you why she is one of the great drama queens of Indian mainstream cinema.

Trance (Malayalam) - It has a very strong beginning and some trippy visual ideas, but sloppy writing in the latter half brings it down a few notches. Still worth watching for the strong acting talent on display.

Seriously undermined potential:

Gulabo Sitabo (Hindi) - A potentially beautiful story that turned out a terrible movie. The tone here (like Amitabh Bachchan's oversized prosthetic nose) struck me as completely wrong. What should have been a bleak vehicle about a pathetic rat-like scavenger with grandiose dreams, where the humor should come in biting irony, is painfully shoehorned into a sitcom with grating "comedy scene wala" background music. Even the end of what feels like a 5 hour slogfest is ruined by an imbecilic coda. Amitabh is surprisingly good as a wizened wretched geezer. If they had made it with the right tone he had the chops to give a moving performance. But now that's just a load of coulda-shoulda-yada-yada.

Kannum Kannum Kollaiyadithal (Tamil) - KKK aims to be a constant roller-coaster of plot twists, and it occasionally works, but the script suffers from depending on outlandish contrivances and logic gaps it does not have the chutzpah to smooth over. The actors have a (mostly) likeable presence and the script doesn't tries to preach morality, but 160 min is an ass-busting running time for a thriller that doesn't take pains to constantly grip the audience.

Fakk this crap:

Gunjan Saxena (Hindi) - It was so dumbed down they should have a label for it that says "for kids from ages 6-10". The writing has all the finesse of having been done with crayons and thick markers. Every scene is about handing out a homily or making a Hallmark frame. Not a single moment feels free of an agenda, ironic for the journey of a woman that wanted to soar unfettered.

Shakuntala Devi (Hindi) - Going by the tone, it seemed that the director comes from an ad film background. Half the film feels like a promo for detergent or a health drink, and the other half feels like it's trying to sell you a bank loan. I'd rather read a Maths textbook.

Bulbbul (Hindi) - It's not unwatchably bad, and has some seriously well done visuals, but it is the kind of horror story that, if you've seen / read any horror stories before, you will know within the first 15 min EXACTLY how it's going to play out; the film does not once in its entire 90 min running time surprise you. I suppose one must be grateful for its not having the twist-for-twist-sake convolutions that make you want to slap the writers silly, but it is a slog.

Good Newwz (Hindi) - More like Horrifying Newwz, THIS was a terrifying experience!

Ponmagal Vandhal (Tamil) - On paper this masala courtroom drama seemed like an interesting if flawed enterprise; in actuality, it's a train-wreck. The script seems written by a drunk 5 year old, and the direction is devoid of consistency, randomly veering between stylish and creaky 80’s formula. From start to finish a load of rubbish.

Mardaani 2 (Hindi) - I felt that the 105 min running time at least suggested a crisp movie; turned out to be mostly a waste of 105 min on a mediocre potboiler (no songs, that's a mercy) that needed far better writing.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Elevator to the Gallows [dir. Louis Malle]

Louis Malle's debut feature begins with a phone call where a woman (Jeanne Moreau) is planning with her lover to bump off her husband (who is also his boss), then meet with her at an assigned rendezvous. The lover carries off the killing, after he surreptitiously reaches the boss' chamber by climbing a rope with grappling hook, and rejoins his colleagues as they quit office for the weekend. But when about to drive off he realizes the rope he used is still hanging. To remedy the lapse, he again rushes into the building and is going up the elevator when the caretaker shuts off the power, leaving our man trapped inside.

Outside, his car is stolen by a blowhard delinquent and his girlfriend, who take it for a joyride. They find a gun in the glove compartment, and thus begins their own journey towards violence. Meanwhile, the woman waiting impatiently for the lover that didn't show up, trawls through their familiar haunts hoping to get news of him, only aware that she saw his car being driven away earlier with another girl in the passenger seat.

In terms of rational plot, Elevator to the Gallows is not always convincing. If the woman is having a secret affair, how is it that every bartender in town knows who she is going with? That would have been difficult to hide, especially from a husband who seems to be involved in arms dealing and some form of espionage. The behavior of some of the other characters also seems to be decided more by where the plot needs to go at a given moment rather than be an organic expression of their personality.

But it does not matter much because Elevator... is a film of style and attitude, and it delivers that in spades. Even when I am not convinced why, I can endlessly watch Jeanne Moreau walking the chiaroscuro Parisian streets at night with a smoky, downbeat Miles Davis trumpet in the background (the score is astounding, and reminds me of one of my favorite albums - Sunset Mission by Bohren & Der Club of Gore). Everyone is perfect in their parts (look for Lino Ventura turning up later as a detective). This may have been Malle's first fiction film (before this he worked on documentaries with Jacques Costeau), but his style is bold and consistent. Henri Decae's luminous B&W photography captures the claustrophobic confines of the elevator (and in a pulse-tingling moment, the shaft) and the gritty streets of Paris with equal flair, and Leonide Azar's editing is deft. Elevator... is a film I suspect I will be revisiting several times just to soak in its irresistible brand of elegant melancholy.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Holiday [dir. George Cukor]

Holiday, the 1938 George Cukor film (based on a Philip Barry stage play) with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, is a fine social satire meets comedy of manners. A young maverick Cary Grant barrels into the home of the girl he fell in love with on vacation (Doris Nolan) only to find she belongs to a wealthy upper-crust family. The father (Henry Kolker) is a proper prig who values money and privilege above all, and her brother (Lew Ayres) whose creative interests were cut short by dad, has become a depressed drunk (in old-skool Hollywood manner, meaning he pleasantly slurs out what the other characters demur from openly saying). But all is not gloomy, there's the lively sister (Hepburn) who refuses to abide by the house rules, and is one of the few who understands Grant's desire to concentrate on making life meaningful rather than slog for money and possessions.

Right from the early setup we know how this is going to turn out; there is no doubt that Grant and Hepburn are made from each other, and since it's not a David Lean film, it is unlikely to end in bittersweet parting. Such predictability does not however reduce the fun. The writing has the efficiency of clockwork and characters are drawn and acted in a hugely likable manner, even the snobs (I do feel for poor Henry Daniell, served up with a caricature similar to the Belknap-Johnson role from Ruggles of Red Gap, and unworthy of that actor's brilliance). The repartee is snappy and the chemistry is hot. Heck, Grant even turns cartwheels and Hepburn does a tumble trick, that's value for money right there.

It helps that even though Grant's character wants to please his bride-to-be's family, he is at no point willing to be a doormat. Hepburn's otherwise feisty character is less believable when she's suppressing her own emotions to try and get her obviously less interested sister together with Grant, and the climax could have been in less of a tearing hurry to get our leads to kiss behind the 'The End' titles, but these are minor quibbles for such an giddily charming film.

Monday, November 30, 2020

The Disciple [dir. Chaitanya Tamhane]

There are two measures by which Chaitanya Tamhane's new film may be measured. First, as a follow-up to Court, his seminal exploration of the machinery of the Indian legal system. Court (reviewed on this site HERE) was the antithesis of all Indian legal dramas that had appeared till then (and even most foreign films I have seen), not concerned with generating courtroom fireworks, but realistically depicting an ongoing proceeding in context of the greater institution which carries on in its phlegmatic fashion regardless of how the wheels of justice turn for any individual. The Disciple promises to bring that same kind of non-judgemental (ha!) fly-on-the-wall observation in its journey through the world of Indian classical music.

To read the rest of the review, submitted as a Readers' write-in to Baradwaj Rangan's blog, please go HERE

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Dekalog [dir. Krysztof Kieslowski]

No, you're not going to find this on your favorite streaming channel (at least in India, although if you do, let me know so I can sign up too). Dekalog (or The Decalogue) was a 10-episode anthology serial made for Polish television in the late 80's by Krysztof Kieslowski (later known for The Double Life of Veronique and the Three Colors trilogy). It is predominantly set in a housing complex, and each hour-long episode is a self-contained that deals with one person / family. Dekalog is a loose reflection on the significance of the biblical Ten Commandments in modern existence.

By loosely, I mean that it's not easy to pigeonhole an episode as a rumination over a specific commandment. And that is as it should be, because life's moral dilemmas rarely come with convenient labels or pat resolutions. A wife demands to know if her critically ill husband will survive, because that will decide whether she keeps or aborts the child from a lover. A daughter may have found that the man she regards as her father may not be so; would that legitimize her incestuous feelings towards him? An impotent husband who suggests his wife take on a lover finds himself less equanimous when he discovers that she may have done so. A woman drags a former lover from his family on Christmas eve because she has been long abandoned by her husband and is jealous of having to spend that time of traditional joy alone. The most famous episode of Dekalog, and one of two that were expanded by the director to feature-length, deals with two killings - the first, in which a young man brutally strangles a cab-driver for no apparent reason, and the second, in which said young man is hanged by the state with apparently equal callousness. It is credited as being instrumental in the abolition of the death penalty in Poland.

Like the individual apartment blocks of a building complex, each episode is self-contained, yet contains strands that link it to other episodes. A lead character in one story may make a fleeting cameo appearance in another. The outline of one story may be referred to in passing elsewhere. The effect is to create a rich tapestry of this microcosm of a civilization. As with James Joyce's Dubliners or Rohinton Mistry's Tales from Firozesha Baag, the individual parts are worthy in themselves, but the sum is significantly greater.

For this of course, thematic unity becomes essential. This comes primarily from Kieslowski's direction. Originally the idea was that he and his co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz (a lawyer when Kieslowski met him in the course of conceiving a documentary on legal trials) would script the episode and leave the direction to young film-makers looking to prove their mettle. But as the project progressed, Kieslowski either grew more possessive or realized the power of the material, and helmed the whole anthology, giving it a unifying vision. His musical collaborator Zbigniew Preisner provides an additional emotional anchor with the minimal main theme and the haunting pieces for the individual episodes (abetted by the great "Van Den Budenmayer").

With ample justification, the series made Kieslowski's name internationally and gave him the opportunity to become the universally respected artist he deserved to be. Dekalog was and continues to be a landmark of what television could be when it is not geared to gratify instant cravings, when it is not the idiot-box.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Eeda [dir. B Ajithkumar]

Indian cinema owes a debt of gratitude to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet; that tale of star-crossed lovers is almost its own genre in this land. The hearth of the Great Indian Melodrama has in turn given back to the source by way of variations on the theme. As I recall in the bard's original script, the background for the feud between the Montague and Capulet families is never particularly elucidated and we are to take for granted their sworn enmity that forbids the romance of their children. In our film adaptations wealth/social divides, histories of revenge and even language/cultural barriers have been woven as the backdrop of clan animosity against which our young lovers revolt in the avowal of their love.

B Ajithkumar's Eeda (2018) introduces political conflict as the new ground for the discord. Our Romeo and Juliet are Anand/Nandu (Shane Nigam) and Aishwarya/Ammu (Nimisha Sajayan), natives of Kannur who first meet - appropriately - in the midst of a curfew. Their encounter is not a peaceful exchange of sweet nothings: Nandu is tasked with taking her home on his bike while avoiding rioters, and they have a tense exchange about his choice of unfamiliar routes. The selection of the leads and the manner in which this whole sequence is captured sets the tone for the film to follow. While Shane (also seen in the enchanting Kumbalangi Nights) has a Ranbir Kapoor-esque appeal that may set teenage hearts aflutter, neither he nor Nimisha in this film are given any kind of gloss or halo separating them from the rest of the cast. Nandu's entry and his manner of rescuing Ammu are never adorned with the HERO treatment. Her fears about being led by a stranger on an unknown route are sympathizable, and their ensuing arguments not the exaggerated blow-ups that are precursor to cloying romance. When Nandu drops her off at her destination, there's no grand moment of chivalry or macho posturing.

In Mysore, just a bus-ride away but a different world altogether with its cosmopolitan air, the two later meet again as regular young urbanites - she is a student in the university while he works for an insurance firm. The same groundedness and attention to small details underlines the romance that develops. How rare and refreshing it is to come across an onscreen depiction of budding love that respects the spaces, silences and the awkwardness which define that sweet ache of courtship. Like how the late Sachy's Ayyappanum Koshiyum reinvigorated the revenge drama by its organic building up of one sequence upon the other, Eeda's script and direction encrust the romantic narrative with a realism that overrides any sense of déjà vu. Even the scene where Romeo's famous balcony climb is referenced is not a quick stunt moment; you can feel Nandu's trepidation and physical struggle to reach Ammu's window. It is precisely because they are relatable ordinary people whose emotional attachment transcends their fears that their bond emerges as a powerful entity which justifies what happens later.

The third major character here is their hometown in Kannur, a constantly simmering pot of tense relations between the Marxists and the Right-wing. Here politics is not an abstract concept or a matter for leisurely teatime discussion among gentry, it is a vital, visceral force running through the populace, gripping entire families (womenfolk included). For each faction, the 'Party' is like a collective that governs the fates of its members and their kin: an individual may on orders cheerfully walk away from a kabaddi game to prison, or a marriage alliance may be fixed as per their directive. And from time to time, each tribe demands its quota of blood. While Nandu and Ammu's romance would be an unquestioned fact in Mysore, it is a different story in Kannur: here, they belong on opposite sides in a conflict they want no part of, but which is determined to bend them to its will. There are few obvious villains here. Nandu's uncle Govindan cares for his followers even as he orders them to perform violent acts, while Ammu's mother obviously loves her, but will not support her defiance of the party's ditkat. Keeping stereotype hysterics to a minimum, Eeda steeps us in the enveloping quicksand of violence and dread that strangles the dreams of our young lovers.

While retaining its credibility, Ajithkumar's script aims for more a mythic touch in its final act. Nandu and Ammu's more pragmatic visions of a joint future are shattered, but in a knowing reprisal of the circumstances of their first meeting, the lovers are determined to be together even if their fate has already been sealed. It is a fitting conclusion to a heart-tugging journey.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Orange Mittai aka Orange Candy [dir. Biju Viswanath]

My opinions of the Hrishikesh Mukherjee classic Anand have been conflicted. While the first time I was wholly in its thrall, laughing at the funny moments and bawling at the climax, I later harbored a growing resentment at the idea of a dying man devoting his remaining time to being an interfering dick in other people's lives, and playing the sympathy card because he's dying. At least Anand is the happy kind of dick (and that climax still works).

Orange Mittai's Kailasam (Vijay Sethupathi, who also co-wrote and produced) is a more difficult kettle of fish. In the beginning we see him as an opportunistic hypochondriac. He's lonely, and by default bitter and sarcastic to everyone around, but the moment he is given an inch of sympathy by the EMT nurse Sathya (Ramesh Thilak, thankfully in a better age of cinema than when he would have been reduced to Hero's Friend parts) he wants to butt into the guy's personal life.

Like the candy, Orange Mittai the movie promises to be a short sweet-tart experience. In actuality it's 100 min running time feels almost twice as long. And maybe it's just me, but I would question the judgement of any medical worker who chooses to ignore the call of his supervisor to reach an emergency site and remain as an emotional support to a whimsical, cranky old man who insists on stopping in the middle of the road to pull off a 'mass' dance routine (a scene that goes on for way too long). There are occasional poignant moments, like towards the end when Sathya hugs Kailasam after dropping him near his residence, and the latter reacts with stiff discomfort, like someone wanting affection but awkward when receiving it. But the film doesn't earn its demands of your attention (with its dumping of multiple epilogues, the editing is clumsy) and doesn't reward you with sufficient depth of character to make up for the annoyance caused by the assholery of the attention demanding old crank.

PS: Apart from Sethupathi and Thilak in the leads, the movie has a bunch of cameos from the Soodhu Kavvum cast.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Godha [dir. Basil Joseph]

Godha (Arena, the subtitles translate) is what Ali Abbas Zafar's wrestling movie Sultan would be like if it had not been Bhai-cotted. This is another story where an aimless youth Das (Tovino Thomas) falls for an aspiring wrestler Aditi (Wamiqa Gubbi) who would rather focus on her ambition. Initially Das is instrumental in Aditi running away from her orthodox brother in Punjab to become his dominating wrestler father's newest disciple. But her single-minded devotion to her craft makes him feel betrayed, until a tongue-lashing from her and his dad force him to get his priorities in life straight. He then revives his interest in wrestling, a sport he had abandoned long ago.

In Bollywood and Bahubaliwood this would have been the cue to shift the focus entirely over to the macho hero, with the girl taking a supporting part, marveling over his newfound awesomeness and discovering lurrrrv. But Godha is primarily Aditi's story, and while Das gets his spotlight moment of slow-motion running with blaring guitar soundtrack, his arc remains secondary to hers; even at the end the nature of their chemistry is ambivalent.

The other major character is Das's father Captain (Renji Panicker), a former mat champ frustrated at the lack of respect for the sport in current times, and seeing in Aditi a rare chance to mentor someone as dedicated. His favoritism towards Aditi extends to banning non-vegetarian food at the family dining table and insisting that his wife make paneer to please his vegetarian protege; the script always plays this for laughs, ignoring the dramatic potential for this encroachment on his affections. Towards his own son Captain's behavior is at first so blindly authoritarian that the rapidity with which he becomes an understanding life-gyan dispenser after Das is verbally whupped by Aditi, is a little jarring. Aditi's own behavior in her initial interaction with Das is somewhat schizophrenic, but there's a lovely single-take scene in which she opens her heart out to him about the pains of being an out-of-place girl sportsperson in a man's world, which explains at least some of her attitude.

The drama is peppered with a fair amount of slapstick humor, most which comes from the local lads' fascination for the "fair-skinned northie girl". It's not sublime comedy, but not intolerable either. Then there's the wrestling. Sadly, Dangal, which came before this, set such a high standard for authenticity in a wrestling movie that Godha just doesn't match up. Aditi is given a cardboard nemesis in the form of Pinto, a dread-locked wrestler from Delhi (if Pinto had been shown to be a Malayalee, it would have at least made for an interesting juxtaposition). Apart from playing unfair on the mat, Pinto repeatedly baits Aditi, even challenging her to a "Where you want, when you want" bout that makes Aditi's win on a home-crowd supported ground less of an underdog story. There's an unconvincing bit about the brother attending her bout and cheering her on when she needs it (there seems no reason for him to have had a change of heart).

Friday, July 17, 2020

The House Next Door [dir. Milind Rau]

The House Next Door aka Aval aka Gruham got a decent review from my favorite critic Baradwaj Rangan. In retrospect, I wonder if the fact that he was pally with the director and lead actor led to a softening of his otherwise sharp critical reflexes. Rangan made a lot of the fact that the film is a "pure" horror, not mixed with other potboiler elements. But apart from the fact that there are no song elements and comedy tracks, it's not particularly different from the standard Vikram Bhatt horror feature.

Siddharth and Andrea Jeremiah are a very-much-in-love married couple who set up home in a picturesque remote hillside (which must mean a really long work commute for the husband who works in a state-of-the-art hospital doing surgical "deep brain stimulation" procedures). They get a new set of neighbors in Atul Kulkarni and his family which includes his second wife and one daughter from each marriage. The elder daughter, who is infatuated with Sid (causing justifiable irritation in his wife, especially since Sid doesn't seem to be bothered to even politely tell the kid to back off) starts to show weird behavior and there's talk about evil spirits asking them to leave the house. Since she's a depressed adolescent with step-mum issues (and of course reads horror books) they first try to look for a conventional reason and after a pseudo-exorcism (Prakash Belawadi, pleasantly restrained) goes spectacularly wrong, they delve into the history of the house (hinted at in the prologue). More stereotype horror movie wankery till the end.

THND goes through a battery of tired horror movie stereotypes - stuff that goes bump, someone walking past in the mirror, ghostly face at the window, levitating furniture and stuff that gets hurled around. There's little here that's fresh or, like with the entertaining first installment of The Conjuring, done with enough energy to transcend the cliche. The stray good scene, like when Sid must try to ignore visions of ghosts while he's trying to do a delicate brain procedure, provides too little relief. The screenplay is predictable to a fault and while the camera captures some interesting colored lighting that harks back to Dario Argento's Suspiria, the imagery (CG or otherwise) to depict the ghosts is unimaginative. On the whole this Grudge is a drudge.

Helen [dir. Mathukutty Xavier]

Last night, me and mum watched this Malayalam movie called Helen, about the fate of a young girl (Anna Ben) working part-time at a fast-food outlet, who gets locked inside the walk-in freezer at closing time. No one knows she's in there, and for reasons, people including her widower dad (Lal) think she might have run off somewhere.

First off, the positives. What Helen is good at, is providing a credible look at how the girl deals with her predicament. She's not some superhuman survival nut that can duct-tape a bazooka out of a bag of frozen peas, but she's a trained nurse (her server job is a stop-gap earner while she takes English lessons and applies for an overseas posting) and applies her knowledge and natural quick-wittedness to use materials at hand to devise solutions for keeping alive. A good deal of thought seems to have gone into depicting the various phases of her hypothermic ordeal. Helen's actions while she is trapped are organic: they're not always the best choices, but you can appreciate her thinking in a desperate situation.

The script is however not perfect: The commercial compromise of a 2-hour film instead of a taut 80-90 minutes means we are subjected to a lengthy (half hour) prologue to establish what an absolute sweetheart Helen is, spreading joy and cheer, and acting as a gentle corrective rudder to both her father and her boyfriend Azhar (Noble Thomas, who also wrote the film). This is the stuff that would have worked better as quick flashbacks during her crisis. Administered as a concentrated dose at the start, it suggests that the makers were worried that the audience wouldn't empathize with Helen's plight if she wasn't shown to be all sweetness and light. There's also a longer than necessary sub-plot about a sleazy cop (Aju Varghese) who stonewalls the investigation into Helen's disappearance just cuz.

These cliches notwithstanding, Helen is a decent family-friendly experience and Anna Ben has a natural charm that carries the film.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Rio Grande [dir. John Ford]

1950's Rio Grande isn't quite the throwaway picture it could have been given the story behind its making - what director John Ford really wanted was to mount his passion project, the technicolor Irish romance drama The Quiet Man, but Republic Pictures put up the funds on the condition that Ford first make a crowd-pleasing Western for them with the same cast - but it's not top-tier Ford either.

The picture begins well enough with a majestic scene showing the return of a US cavalry regiment, after a skirmish with native Americans, to their frontier outpost near the Rio Grande river. Lasting several minutes without any dialog, we see the procession led by Col Kirby Yorke (John Wayne) slowly ride in, dust billowing all around them. The rider's faces are lined with sweat and disappointment. The outpost women look expectantly at the mounted party (and the wounded being brought in on stretchers) to ensure that their beloveds have returned. No words are spoken but much is conveyed about the life of the people in this settlement. The evocative feel and flow of this episode undoubtedly influenced some of the opening shots in Akira Kurosawa's movies. The sombre mood is continued when Kirby's commanding officer Sheridan (J Carrol Naish) laments the limitations placed on the US forces by the government, restricting them to stay within their borders, while the guerilla natives go back and forth between the US and Mexico. This has been taken up by critics as an analogy to the US government's handling of the Korean conflict, which had begun around the same time.

Chafing under restrictions which hamper their tactics, Kirby is a frustrated commander with an inadequate fighting force. A request for an additional 180 men is answered with a supply of 18...and one of those is his own son Jeff (Claude Jarman Jr.), who enlisted as a soldier almost immediately after failing the officer's commission at the military academy in West Point. A conversation between Kirby and Jeff in which they let each other know that no favors will be given or accepted reveals that the father has been away from his family for 15 years. This estrangement was mainly perpetrated by the incident during the American Civil War when Kirby, following Sheridan's scorched earth policy, ordered the razing of the farms and homestead of his Southern origin wife's family, and in the process his relationship.

Thus far we have a strong dramatic picture, boasting finely etched characters, each battling their inner demons. Alas, this is soon lost. In an earlier address, Kirby tells the new recruits, "...each of you will have to do the work of ten men. If you fail, I'll have you spread-eagled on a wagon wheel. If you desert, you'll be found, tracked down and broken into bits." This creates expectations of a frank and harsh depiction of life for the soldiers. But apart from when the natives attack, they appear quite  comfortable. We hardly see them do any chores, and the atmosphere is like that of a rather pleasant Boy Scouts camp. Within no time, Jeff makes himself one of the men as they sing inside their tents under starry skies. Then there's Victor McLaglen's comic relief Sergeant, who dispels all notions of the hard-nosed disciplinarian.

Kirby's personal life intrudes further into his domain when wife Kathleen (Maureen O'Hara) turns up unannounced, determined to drag her son back to the safety of an officer's commission. Between Kirby's obsession with duty and Jeff's own stubborn pride, she is not to have an easy time of it, and must stay back till she gets her way. This in turn rekindles the feelings between the couple (at a hosted dinner, she makes a toast "To my only rival, the United States Cavalry."). Rendered in smoldering glances and subtle gestures, the chemistry between the actors is palpable. It's a lovely path for the film, seeing these middle-aged people, not just as parents of a strong-willed adolescent, but as an intensely attached pair who despite their differences, love each other with a passion.

It is what comes to the picture's rescue when its take on the conflict with the natives is the old cliche of soldiers vs savages. Kirby gets his redemption when Sheridan orders him to declare an all-out-attack on the the Injuns, even if it means going over into Mexico ("I want you to cross the Rio Grande, hit the Apache and burn him out.")  Unlike Ford's own previous Fort Apache, this film refuses to acknowledge the natives as more than stock villains that deserve to be shot down in the admittedly exciting action sequences. Even children are made part of the propaganda machine (fronted by an irritating cutesy Karolyn Grimes). But if you are willing to excuse its faults it is still acceptable as an emotional romance drama in a military setting.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Bulbbul [dir. Anvita Dutt]

I remember Anushka Sharma's Pari had a gotten a lot of good word but for sheer cussedness, I did not see it in the time that it was making waves, and then it went out of my consciousness (I had better catch it while it's still on Prime). As some kind of atonement I suppose, when I heard that Sharma was producing another horror flick to be shown on Netflix I pounced on immediately. How did that work out for me?

In early 20th century Bengal, strapping young lad Satya returns after many years to a home where his much elder brother has deserted, abandoning his child bride Bulbbul. Much nearer in age to Satya, Bulbbul's coquettish behavior suggests old passions. Meanwhile, a bunch of murders in the neighborhood are being attributed to a Chudail.

Bulbbul is the kind of horror story that, if you've seen / read any horror stories before, you will know within the first 15 min EXACTLY how it's going to play out; the film does not once in its entire 90 min running time surprise you. I suppose one must be grateful for its not having the twist-for-twist-sake convolutions that make you want to slap the writers silly, but it is a slog.

It's not unwatchable, though. There's some serious thinking behind the visuals (DoP Siddharth Diwan), with lovely colors, dramatic lighting (and aggressive color grading), which make for the best reason to sit through. Director Anvita Dutt is obviously going for a lush Gothic feel a la Crimson peak (even if certain scenes like a prominent bathroom sequence evoke hilarity rather than the intended gut-wrench, while another set on a hospital bed is undeservingly icky). The climax with a forest fire fares well in terms of the integration of the CGI.

The titular Bulbbul is played by one Tripti Dimri who is...actually good. Depending on the scene, she has a smile that alternately conveys innocence or a knowing sensuality, and commits to the part. One wishes the writing had done her more justice. Male lead Avinash Tiwari seems to come from the T-series stable of bland movie heroes (interestingly, Deepa Gahlot gives him a lot of credit in her review of the recent Laila Majnu movie, so maybe he was just badly let down here). Rahul Bose in a double role is twice as awful. Damn it, why can't he be implicated in one of these #metoo scandals and made an industry pariah?

Monday, June 15, 2020

Samskara aka Funeral Rites [dir. Pattabhirama Reddy]

It was probably a couple decades ago that I came across writer and academic UR Ananthamurthy's 1965 short novel Samskara, a searing indictment of the the hypocrisy in ritualistic Brahmin society. UR was a perennial iconoclast (in the years before his demise, he got into trouble with the establishment for suggesting that the Mahabharata has references to the consumption of flesh, including beef, by Brahmins) and a passionate fighter for his secular beliefs. In Samskara, by engineering a moral question that leads to the disintegration of a Brahmin colony he prods the hollowness of orthodox society, suggesting that in its quest for self-denying austerity and ritual, it has lost essential humanity. The 1970 film version, which I am seeing only now, is a faithful adaptation of these themes.

Fittingly, Samskara begins with a death. The victim is one Narayanappa, who during his lifetime was notorious for deliberately offending the Brahmin orthodoxy in which he was born, by abstaining from the prescribed rituals, indulging in meat and liquor, and - horror of horrors - consorting with the low-born woman Chandri. His lifeless corpse embodies the dilemma facing the community - should one whose life was dedicated to mocking Brahmin traditions be accorded the ritual funeral reserved for the high-born? And if so, who among them should undertake to perform the rites, since he then cannot be touched by anyone other than a Brahmin. The situation is compounded when a grieving Chandri offers all her gold jewelry to ensure a proper sendoff for her beloved Narayanappa. Trapped between their fear of ostracism and greed for the reward (and general necessity, as they are forbidden to even partake of food until the dead man has been taken care of), the Brahmin locals place the matter in the hands of Praneshacharya, the deemed leader of their community.

Praneshacharya is a study in contrast to Narayanappa. Known for his deep knowledge of scripture, he is single-minded in adherence to their prescribed norms and austerity. His marriage to an invalid woman he assiduously tends to by himself makes his home life also a model of self-sacrificing devotion and celibacy. Even his critics like Narayanappa admit that unlike the others he is at least a sincere Brahmin. In Sanskrit the name Pranesha roughly means "Lord of One's Life" and can be used as the term for a spouse. While not a caricature prig, Praneshacharya appears to have designed his entire life to focus on climbing the spiritual plane hierarchy. In fact one of the reasons why Narayanappa had not already been ostracized from the Brahmin community despite his provocative behavior is that Praneshacharya held back on this step, hoping that he could, by personal example and counseling, reform the wayward prodigal. This again can be interpreted as selfless benevolence or a calculated piety-garnering exercise.

Anyhow, with the matter placed in his hands, Praneshacharya feverishly pores over his texts but finds no answer. He then prays for divine intervention from the god Maruti / Hanuman (also a representative of celibacy and unswerving devotion in the Ramayana), relying on the device of placing a flower on the idol and waiting to see which way it falls. Here too, Praneshacharya's prayers fail him. In a daze from disappointment, exhaustion and hunger, he comes upon Chandri; at that moment, his self-control fails him and they give in to their physical urges.

His lifelong commitment to the austerities of spiritual life breached, followed immediately by the death of his wife (a reflection of the death of his self-imposed celibacy?), Praneshacharya wanders out of the village barely conscious of himself. In the meanwhile, Narayanappa's body continues to rot, and dead rats and hovering vultures show up as omens of blight. A plague is spreading through the community and nearby villages. As Chandri desperately tries to get her man cremated by any means, Praneshacharya's aimless tramping brings him in contact with the garrulous hedonistic Puttu, who takes the guru under his wing to show him the "sights of the world" (or at least the neighboring temple fair). In partaking of these pleasures (and eating at the temple feast without undertaking any purification rituals), Praneshacharya 'pollutes' the entire temple community. He begins to regard himself a bigger sinner than Narayanappa, who was at least open and honest about his transgressions.

I normally do not like to dissect plots in so much detail, but in Samskara, the course of the narrative and the questions it raises is what powers both book and film, and without bringing out these themes, there is no discussion. It questions the rigidity of strictures that force individuals to shirk basic human decency or be so conscious about denying oneself any gratification that the merest tremor can bring down the arduously built tower of virtue. Ananthamurthy's book was the subject of much debate when it was released, and the film version in turn had to fight the imposition of a ban by the censors.

Made on a low-budget with location shoots and a wholly naturalistic style, Samskara is a milestone in Kannada film. The crew, assembled as a true collaboration of creatives coming together to work on a meaningful project, included a foreign DoP (Tom Cowan) and editor (Steven Cartaw), possibly because the makers felt that local technicians at the time were not sufficiently conditioned for cinema verité. Acclaimed writer and stage personality Girish Karnad in his first screen role brings a lot of humanity to his portrayal of Praneshacharya, drawing our empathy for his dilemmas even as we realize that he (and the community he represents) has engineered his own fall from grace. The film adaptation of Samskara is undoubtedly a precursor to the social justice focused cinema of Shyam Benegal (Ankur, Nishant, Anugraham) and an engaging experience in itself.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The Return of the Vampire [dir. Lew Landers]

I am astonished that 1943's Return of the Vampire (RotV) isn't better known at least among classic horror fans. Starring Bela Lugosi as the titular vampire, it works almost like a sequel to Universal Studio's iconic 1931 Dracula (which IMDB's trivia section for the film tells me is what Columbia Pictures was aiming to put it as, before Universal threatened lawsuits, after which they changed the name of the vampire to Armand Tesla and made it anyway). RotV stands high with any of the classic monster movies and in some ways it is refreshingly progressive. The leading lady and, Tesla's nemesis is a woman (Frieda Inescourt), and not some screaming damsel in a negligee, but a strong-willed middle-aged scientist and mother who is willing to do what it takes to stamp out the vampire's menace, even if no one believes her.

Taking notes from the mashup movie Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, RotV includes a werewolf (Matt Willis), who is  slave to Tesla (although one wonders what he carries in those frequent packages to his master, it's not like the vampire needs takeout). The early part of the film is also notable in its implying of the vampire feeding off a child (I'm surprised the censors were okay with that). Later he also drinks from a young man, belying the exclusively heterosexual context of vampire attacks, at least in classic movies.

The resolution is a little pat and rushed (the film runs a brisk 70 min) but it carries sufficient interest and has some atmospheric fog-shrouded visuals (remember the movie clips used in Iron Maiden's video for Number of the Beast? They come from here). The dissolve effects used to show the vampire's demise might have been an inspiration for the death scene in Hammer's 1958 Dracula /  Horror of Dracula.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Vanaprastham - The Last Dance [dir. Shaji Karun]

If I correctly recall my school lessons, Vanaprastham in ancient Hindu scripture literally means "retirement into the forest". It refers to the phase of life when one gradually dissociates oneself from the affairs of the world - possessions, family - and becomes more spiritually inclined, in preparation for Sanyasa, the phase of complete renunciation and asceticism.

But what does this have to do with Kunjikuttan (Mohanlal), the sad-eyed protagonist of Shaji Karun's ravishingly mounted poetic drama? Kunjikuttan is an exponent of the operatic artform Kathakali, a star on the rise. When the film begins we hear that he is graduating from female parts (he portrays the demoness Putana, known for trying to kill the god Krishna in his infancy, by suckling him with her poison-tainted breasts) to heroic male leads - he is slated to play the  Mahabharata's famous warrior Arjuna. But Kunjikuttan is also a tragic figure. Born of an illicit tryst with a lower-caste maidservant, his father refuses to acknowledge Kunjikuttan, even though he is also his rigorous mentor in the Kathakali discipline. All through his youth, Kunjikuttan has yearned for a father's affection, for the identity it would give him, and always it has been denied because of his mother's lower social status.

Even as an adult with his own family Kunjikuttan feels the loss; it is reflected in his perennially distant gaze. His marriage is an empty shell, only his little daughter bringing a spark of liveliness in his face. Kunjikuttan's art is his sole raison d'être - against the red glow of the flickering oil-lamps, under the layers of traditional make-up and costume finery, escaping into an entirely different character is when he lives rather than merely exists.

The second act of the drama of Kunjikuttan's life begins when his role-playing of Arjuna is attended by Subhadra (Suhasini). A high-born erudite woman of literary persuasion, Subhadra is the niece of the local diwan (landed nobleman representative of the ruling class). There is an innate double entendre in this: The Subhadra of mythology is the consort of Arjuna and the mother of his celebrated son Abhimanyu. Our Subhadra too is smitten by Arjuna; apart from entrusting Kunjikuttan with her own libretto for the famous episode of Arjuna's abduction / rescue of his consort, she also pulls him straight from his Arjuna performance into her boudoir. After their love-making, she exults in smearing the colors from his make-up on her face, while he quietly slips out like a thief into the night.

This courtship also marks the end of their affair, because Subhadra has no feelings towards Kunjikuttan, the lower-born Kathakali performer. Her eyes are only for the mythical Arjuna. She shuns his attempts to contact her, and even the son born of their one-night stand is shown to him only once (Subhadra's moneyed status in old Kerala's matriarchal society means she does not need a husband to rear her son). Kunjikuttan's caste thus robs him also of the identity of father to Subhadra's child. His soul torn apart at these repeated betrayals, Kunjikuttan turns away from hero parts, preferring to play demonic characters that mirror the rage within him. Time moves on, seasons change, people around him grow older or die, his own head grows gray, but the void within Kunjikuttan remains; he is neither the son of his father nor the father of his son. He decides that there is but one way to resolve the situation. He must stage Subhadra's libretto in which he will for one last time return to the role of Arjuna.

Those who have watched Shaji Karun's previous films like Piravi and Swaham will know what to expect - a languorous reflective journey with feet placed in the boats of past and the present. Vanaprastham is something of an epic project in Karun's career - a co-production between Indian and French studios, it has apart from Malayalam cinema superstar Mohanlal, an international behind-the-scenes crew (the gorgeous cinematography is by Santosh Sivan and Renato Berta while editing duties are shared between Sreekar Prasad and Joseph Guinvarch) and is scored by the acclaimed classical music maestro Zakir Hussain. Thankfully, all of this does not add up to a tiresome prestige piece. While Mohanlal does not seem entirely convincing in the performance segments (it takes several years of practice for an actual Kathakali practitioner before he/she can ascend the stage), he anchors the tragic arc of Kunjikuttan's personal life with a restraint that is evocative; In his soft-spoken words, in his silent stares we feel the pain of a rootless man. This Vanaprastham would seem to be for one who has renounced the hope of having an identity in this world.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Vettai [dir. N Linguswamy]

Vettai's plot about two brothers, one timid and the other foolhardily brave, was potentially interesting as masala entertainment. Madhavan as the timid elder one becomes a police officer after he is goaded by rogue sibling Arya, and gets posted in a town where lawlessness runs rife. The brothers have an arrangement where Arya ass-kicks all the bad elements and Madhavan gets credit for it. The entire basis of such an arrangement is supposed to be the loving bond between them. This is however sketchily conveyed, with Arya getting almost nothing from the deal. Madhavan doesn't especially acknowledge him in private, and does not even come to his defense when his haughty wife labels Arya a loafer mooching off her "braveheart" husband.

The wife is played by Sameera Reddy, with Amala Paul as her sibling. These two are introduced in song as a super-spunky pair who send suitors packing because they don't settle for just anybody. Except, when Arya comes with Madhavan's proposal, they don't even feel the need to meet the actual man before accepting the proposal. Make up your mind ladies, liberated or not? It's still interesting that the initial encounters are between Arya and Sameera in a series of feuds that you think will set them up as a romantic pair, but they end up as devar-bhabhi (siblings-in-law). The main baddie is a dubbed Ashutosh Rana doing a stereotype tamil movie villain role, 'nuff said. This guy is so thick-headed he makes Prakash Raj in Wanted look like a genius.

While there are occasional thoughtful touches and winking nods to popular Tamil cinema, the major problem with Vettai as a movie is that for its butt-testing 2.5hr length there are no surprises and no tension. Arya is so badass he can beat up dozens of goons alone. At one point in the film, Madhavan's character undergoes a transformation that with a quick training montage converts him into an equal badass. Every encounter has a foregone conclusion, which makes the film a chore to sit through.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Sarkar [dir. AR Murugadoss]

AR Murugadoss' Sarkar is a masala puri that mixes elements from Shankar's Mudalvan / Nayak and Upendra's Super. Joseph Vijay aka 'Thalapathy' Vijay plays Sunder (apparently inspired by Pichai), a mega-bucks earning tech CEO known for swallowing up other companies when he's not strutting around a gaudy Las Vegas for a number called (I kid you not) CEO in the House. Sunder flies down to India in a private jet to vote in the elections. Apparently he does it every time, but someone forgot to give that memo to the local companies who, till his intention is announced on TV, are shitting bricks about whether they will be the next target of Mr. Acquisition. Anyhoo, swaggering in to the election booth, Sundar finds his vote has already been cast, and decides to take the Jallikattu by the horns.

This unveils the main social message of the film, awareness about Section 49p of the Conduct of Election rules which says that anyone who finds their vote has been illegally cast can demand to cast a ballot paper vote. Of course, like any self-respecting Tamil hero in the post-Shankar world, Sundar is not content with winning the right to cast his single vote; he provokes the public at large to submit similar petitions. As a result, the party celebrating its sweep of the polls finds that the administration has called for a re-election. This means war between Thalapathy and his politico enemies - P. Karuppiah and Radha Ravi in the best sneering tradition of Tamizh Padam villains - where he must go from merely claiming voting rights to setting up a virtual party of independent candidates to stand against the baddies. No prizes for guessing who wins.

Much speculation has been made about the part played by movies like Sarkar as a deliberate ploy by Vijay to pave the way for a future political career. The film works to promote him as an aggressive youth leader with a pulse on the people (one scene has him give the "I too have come from poverty" spiel). This is the first time I have seen a Vijay film in full, and this guy is basically a Rajinikant clone in terms of acting style and gestures. He is always two steps ahead of the bad guys, and takes on roomfuls of goons with barely a crease on his natty beige blazers. The fight scenes are boring, with random slow-motion, camera-shakes and freeze-frames, the bad guys flipping over if Thalapathy even looks in their general direction.

Keerthy Suresh plays a barely there romantic interest (more so, since we fast-forwarded the forced PT exercise duet songs), while Varalaxmi Sarathkumar has a little more presence as the steely daughter of his political opponent who masterminds many of their shady maneuvers (Her character's name of Komalavalli created a huge stir in TN, being the birth-name of J Jayalalitha). It is nice to see mainstream Indian film do a female antagonist that's not the femme fatale type.  A pivotal scene where she and her father discuss political sacrifice warms the cockles. Beyond that, there's no nuance to her character (and someone hilariously described her expression as though she was constantly smelling something bad under her nose).

Sarkar is still better than most Murugadoss movies I've seen (Ghajini, 7 Aam Arivu), especially since it dispenses with his excruciating flashback trademark and keeps the soggy romance to a minimum. The script doesn't have too many diversions from the main plot line (even Yogi Babu's comic track is surprisingly restrained). But it never achieves the high of the Shankar blockbuster (nor the insanity of Upendra's film), and Vijay's Sundar is unlikely to engage the full sympathies of an audience outside of his (considerable) fanbase.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Song of the Sea [dir. Tomm Moore]

A review of 2014's Song of the Sea, which I had first seen 5 years ago, but recently re-watched.

I haven't seen his previous entry The Secret of Kells, but with this film alone director Tomm Moore shows himself to be an Irish Hayao Miyazaki, with similar sensibilities towards nature, mythology and cultural heritage. In this wonderful fantasy, a Selkie (a mythological creature that can transform between human and seal forms) marries a human - a lighthouse-keeper on an island off the coast, but leaves him after the birth of their second child. The man is rendered a depressed shell and the older sibling Ben blames his new sister Saoirse (pronounced Seer-Sha) for the loss of his mother. Their paternal grandmother, insistent that a lonely island is no place to rear children, forcibly takes them to her home in the mainland city (the puffs of black smoke from her automobile, and the crowd and noise of the urban environment indicate where the director's proclivities lie). In the midst of this, Saoirse, who has not spoken since birth, is discovering her latent Selkie abilities.

This story is linked with that of an ancient legend of the giant Mac Lir who once cried oceans for a great sorrow, which his mother Macha the Owl Witch addressed by draining out his emotions, in the process turning him (and most of the faery folk) into stone. Saoirse is kidnapped by Macha's owl minions and Ben must now work to rescue his sister (and eventually free the faery folk from their stone husks and allow them to return to their mythical homes).

Song of the Sea is a 2D animated venture that uses the flat dimension as an artistic tool, placing the characters against impressionistic fantasy backdrops, giving each frame of the film the look of a gorgeous painted illustration. Colors are masterfully used, whether it be the muted natural shades of the island locale or when they run riot in the fantasy realm. The soundtrack (Bruno Coulais with Irish band Kila) has some haunting Celtic melodies that are an integral part of the narrative. The characters and their adventure elicit the same degree of emotional response as Miyazaki classic Spirited Away, and I would highly recommend this to all Miyazaki fans.

For those interested, a few remarks about the UK blu-ray from Studio Canal:
It provides a gorgeous 16:9 image that pleases from start to finish. Like I said before, you can pause the film at any point and have a ravishing painting facing you. There are options of 5.1 DTS-HDMA audio in English (default) and the native Gaelic (HOH English subtitles are available). Even in the English version, the songs are in Gaelic and there is occasional use of Gaelic phrases, so you may want to keep the subs on for the first time you watch the film. The audio is not as boom-bang as Disney-Pixar productions, but uses the surround channels to provide a welcome buffer.
Apart from the commentary, the extras are brief, with a behind-the-scenes, animation tests and a concept art gallery. The US release from Universal seems mostly identical (except for having French audio in place of the Gaelic track)

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Lens [dir. Jayaprakash Radhakrishnan]

It's late at night. Our protagonist Aravind (director Jayaprakash Radhakrishnan himself) is sitting alone at his computer, Salman Khan mask covering his face and boxers at his ankles, indulging in a risque webcam chat with a masked woman. The woman insists on them both unmasking, and he obliges. Then Aravind's wife furiously bangs on the door, and he yells back about being busy servicing "US clients".

On the next occasion, he gets a chat invite from another female ID. When he signs in he finds himself face-to-face (so to speak) with a bald-headed man who for a long time only identifies himself as Yohan (Anand Sami, malevolently effective). Aravind tries to back off, but the bald stranger insists on speaking. What he wants is for Aravind to watch as he kills himself.

This basic premise of this English-Malayalam-Tamil film, promising a trip into the dark side of human nature was what prompted me to watch, raising in turn memories of Michael Haneke's Caché/Hidden and Park Chan-Wook's Oldboy. Who is the mysterious Yohan? Why does he choose Aravind to be the witness of his suicide? How does he have such omniscient knowledge of our protagonist's personality? What hold does he have over Aravind that he can force him to his will?

These are details best not gleaned from any article you read before watching the film, because the strength is in their unfolding before you. Suffice to say, our stranger nurses a deep festering grudge against Aravind and his like, the voyeuristic purveyors of online prurience.

Lens is a curious journey. On the one hand, Aravind is a not very sympathetic protagonist, at least virtually cheating on his wife and scared of facing the consequences. On the other, the manner in which Yohan psychologically ball-squeezes him  can induce squirms in many of us, depending on the extent of our specific online vices - whether we consume/share pornography, indulge in cybersex, or behave like those Bois Locker Room groups. The film in most part avoids being a generalist rant against online porn, choosing to address the question of which of these are in themselves crimes, who the victims are, and who the perpetrators are (and to what degree).

The way Lens is executed is not an unqualified success. The screenplay could have certainly been tighter. The scenes outside of the interaction between the two antagonists in their individual surroundings could have been done without. The expository backstory is conventional to the point of banality. Performances are adequate, rather than exceptional (Sami's Yohan is the best of the lot). But even with these mis-steps, it is an interesting experiment, which may be inspired by but does not ape previous films. It is also a warning that we have to constantly take stock of our weaknesses, and consider the cost, inadvertent or otherwise, that we and others have to pay to indulge them.