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.