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.