Thursday, December 30, 2021

Pauline at the Beach [dir. Eric Rohmer]

Pauline is pretty, intelligent and thoughtful. Pauline listens more than she talks, and is less quick to judge than the people around her. Pauline is 15. The next installment in Eric Rohmer's Comedies and Proverbs series after The Aviator's Wife and A Good Marriage, Pauline at the Beach (PatB) is again an  unhurried exercise in characters speaking on and on and, somewhere in that process, revealing a little of themselves.

Pauline (Amanda Langlet) is holidaying in a seaside town with her older cousin, the glamorous Marion (Arielle Dombasle). Marion has just finished with her divorce, and the beginning of the film is quizzing Pauline about her love life. Pauline reveals herself to be a blank slate, not yet marked by any serious "affaires de coeur". While at the beach (a frequent location justifying its name in the title), they come across Pierre (Pascal Greggory), a former lover of Marion who still worships her and would like nothing better than for her to accept him. But Marion is no longer interested in Pierre romantically (certainly not the burning passion she wishes to experience in love), and his petty jealousy only puts her off. She is aroused by Henri (Feodor Atkine), an older more worldly-wise man they ironically meet through Pierre. But Marion wants an old-fashioned passionate romance and fidelity, and Henri, with his nomadic roving nature may not be willing to give her that. Apart from the menage-a-trois, there's also the teen Pauline meets at the beach, who she likes enough to hang around with.

Based on the films I have seen above, Rohmer's special ability is to take the exaggerated emotional situations of his characters and put it through a light of realism that exposes the absurdity or pettiness of it while still not making caricatures of them. In PatB, this is less successful than in the previous pictures.  I felt that the characters and situations were not as nuanced as the ones in The Aviator's Wife and A Good Marriage. This is most apparent in the section of the film where a misunderstanding occurs, inadvertently initiated by Henri and perpetuated by Pierre. It is a gauche device, that feels like it dropped in from some dated melodrama. To be fair, it is resolved in a quiet Rohmer-esque fashion (the last scene between Pauline and Marion is lovely), but it does stick out. Pierre's character is also half-drawn; his petty behavior makes it hard to ever appreciate his side of the story.

Of course, the main character here is Pauline, and as Amanda Langlet plays her under Rohmer's direction, comes off very well. We understand and appreciate Pauline as an intelligent adolescent girl who listens to several opinions, but ultimately goes by her gut feeling and makes her own decisions. She seems more balanced than the adults around her. On the whole a decent watch, but I am hoping for the further films in this series to be better.

Friday, December 24, 2021

2021: Endgame

Now that the year will be coming to an end in another week, 'tis time to continue the saga of movie opinions. I'm laying down my summarized views of 2021 movies I saw between Aug-Dec 2021 (My take on 2001 Jan-Jul movies HERE).

Shershaah (Hindi, Amazon Prime) As a film, this biopic comes off all too formulaic and pat, with the shallow feel of an overlong army recruitment promo rather than the emotionally involving saga of a brave warrior.

#Home (Malayalam, Amazon Prime) Shallow as an ad-film for a retirement finance plan, yet stretching to a vegetative 160 min, this one wallows in blandness. Too many characters introduced without giving them enough to do. The actors are almost uniformly solid (Indrans shines as the mild mannered indulgent father), but the script foundations are too weak and shaky for this #home to stand up. Site review HERE

Bell Bottom (Hindi, Amazon Prime) While the bulk of Bell Bottom suffers from Akshaykumarism and all that the syndrome implies, it's actually less of a wince-fest than the other movies he has done in recent past. There are occasional sequences where the film springs to life, holding true to its 70's Bollywood hailing spirit. With an actor who has less of an off-screen agenda this could have been a significantly more entertaining movie.

Aarkkariyam (Malayalam, Amazon Prime) Aarkkariyam may be described as a moral mystery with a warm humanist streak. The film errs on the side of rambling, but it is avoids unnecessary dramatics or that dreadful habit of superfluous twists that destabilize the narrative. Beautiful writing and performances make it worth recommending at least as a once-watch. Site review HERE

Shang-Chi (English, Hotstar) Up to about halfways, Shang-Chi and the Something Something was fakking boring. Even after that it never achieves greatness but Ben Kingsley has fun and the climax (with its nods to Return of the Jedi's father-son lighsaber duel) generates sufficient enthusiasm to meet the threshold for a boilerplate marvel feature.

A Ghost Waits (English) While the movie (which mixes elements of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir with Beetlejuice) was pleasant, it was never more than that. There is a sweetness to the romance element, but I felt the makers should have put more bite into the scare and humor segments and not have them be so timid / perfunctory as to be nondescript. Decent as a one-time watch (I saw it on the Arrow blu-ray).

Jai Bhim (Tamil, Amazon Prime) This is reminiscent of 90's Indian movies that mixed scenes of gruesome torture / violence with mainstream masala sentiment. The victims have little personality other than being innocent oppressed folks, and the bad guys are cardboard evil. For a film that so obviously fictionalizes many elements of its story, they could have tried to come up with more interesting writing.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (English) Notable as my first post-lockdown cinema trip. This was a decent fun experience. It succeeds in keeping the fan service at a tolerable level and concentrating on giving likable characters (played by wonderfully cast young actors). It also, succeeds, without banging too hard on cheap references, to generate the sense of adventure Hollywood PG-13 movies had in the late 70's and 80's.

Still need to see (and would love to get more recommendations from y'all):

Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam, Churuli

Monday, November 29, 2021

The Wages of Fear [dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot]

In Le Salaire de la Peur aka The Wages of Fear, an unnamed heat-drenched fly-infested South American town is home to drifters from around the world. These are washed-up, lonely men whose consolations are cheap liquor and small stakes gambling at the local watering hole. When newcomer Jo (Charles Vanel) schmoozes in with his spotless white suit and big goombah manner, he creates a stir and makes an instant crony of the local tough Mario (Yves Montand), the men linked by memories of a shared neighborhood in France and a sense of macho camaraderie. Indeed, as soon as Jo appears, Mario ditches both his barmaid girlfriend Linda (Vera Clouzot, H-G's wife of the time) and his loyal roommate the cherubic and loquacious Luigi (Folco Lulli); yes, fans of a certain video-game franchise will be tickled, more so since Luigi's appearance is very like the iconic animated mushroom-stomping plumber.

Every migrant in the town is looking for a chance to make some proper money and get out of there. This opportunity comes up when an US-owned oil company fighting a blaze at its local drilling site puts out a call for truck-drivers willing to deliver a large shipment of nitroglycerine that will be used to snuff out the fire. There are no safety measures available to cart this lethal cargo, which is why the company is recruiting anonymous drifters whose deaths no one will follow-up on. But for the princely sum of 2000$ apiece, these men are willing to take the risk. Two trucks, each manned by two drivers, set out to traverse the distance to the oilfields: Mario and Jo make one pair, while Luigi and the taciturn German expat Bimba (Peter van Eyck) form the other.

It takes about an hour of the film's running time to lead up to this scenario, but once the journey starts it is almost the sole focus of the rest of the narrative. The men must ride night and day to reach the site in time. Their cargo is sensitive to heat and vibrations. The terrain is rough; paradoxically the trucks must move quick over the rockiest bits to minimize the jolts (references to keeping the speedometer above a certain level to avoid an explosive jerk will remind 90's kids of a certain Keanu Reeves starrer). There are serious obstacles, including a rickety plank bridge, an immovable boulder that blocks the road and later, a lake of crude oil that truck and men must traverse. 

The most interesting aspect of The Wages of Fear (based on a novel by Georges Arnaud) is the changing equation between its characters as they push forth in their hazardous course. Initially Jo is the heavy, the patron who twirls an eager Mario around his finger and bullies the other townsfolk with his revolver and his bravado. It is even suggested that he has 'eliminated' another fellow to be selected for the chance to earn the reward. But as the journey progresses, Jo's nerve gives way. He fidgets, he panics, he even tries to run away before he is dragged back by Mario, who grows increasingly disillusioned and contemptuous of the man he once deified. Both Vanel and Montand give their all to presenting the palpably credible transformation of their characters. In contrast Luigi, who had been earlier slapped around by Jo, throws off a cheerful courage and even the seemingly cold-hearted Bimba reveals an inner humanity. This is solid character drama wrapped around the mechanics of the tense suspense.

I do not agree with some of the criticisms leveled against Wages of Fear that the characters are shallow or that the film is unnecessarily bleak. Without spoiling events yes, it could have concluded on a more upbeat heroic note. But even if it is slightly overplayed in execution, there is nothing inherently wrong with the end as is, and it makes for a poignant conclusion for an equal parts thrilling and moving experience.

A few notes on my viewing experience:

More than a decade ago, a 148-min version of this film was released on blu-ray by the Criterion  label (described on their site as a 'New, restored high-definition digital transfer'), and that release was good enough for the time. Some time in 2017, a new 4K restoration of an even longer (152-min) version of the film sourced from the original camera negative was carried out. The UK release from the BFI is based on this restoration (I understand they postponed their previous 2016 release plans to avail of the new master). As expected (see screenshot comparisons), it is dramatically superior to the Criterion blu-ray in terms of image clarity, grain resolution and a much more refined contrast/gray-scale. Simply put, even if you own the Criterion blu-ray, this is a must-have upgrade (unless you want to wait for a possible 4K UHD announcement).

Monday, November 15, 2021

Pink Floyd - The Wall [dir. Alan Parker]

The Wall here refers to the 1982 film adaptation of the phenomenal Pink Floyd album directed by Alan Parker. The script was written by the band's main rudder of that era, Roger Waters, and is partly autobiographical: The lead character, a rock star named Pink (a trans-continental phone call he makes refers to him as Mr. Floyd), who in the midst of a successful career is a drugs and alcohol addled recluse disconnected from the world around him. We go into Pink's past as a lonely child whose father died as a soldier in WW2. Between an over-protective mother and an uncaring educational system (compared here to a meat-grinding machine), Pink grows up so emotionally stunted he cannot hold on to any relationship, and becomes incapable of forming new ones. He seems to spend all his non-working time watching TV, specifically re-runs of the populist British war film The Dambusters (apparently a favorite of Waters)

Waters originally conceived The Wall as a cinematic extension of the album that would incorporate footage from the planned live performances and animation sequences by the brilliant Gerald Scarfe. That idea changed as development moved ahead. Once Alan Parker was attached to direct the project, he convinced the team to drop the idea of using any stage footage of the band, and commit to the reality of the film's setting. Originally Waters was to play the lead himself, but the job went to another musician Bob Geldof, who fully commits to the craziness of the part without any sympathetic concessions (apparently one of Waters' bugbears with the film, and at least partly responsible for a very acrimonious working relationship between him and Parker).

Going back and forth in time, and slipping fluidly between reality and dream, The Wall is like an feature-length music video (long before concept-oriented music videos were a thing). There are astounding juxtapositions of live action with Scarfe's nightmarish animated drawings; the most startling one is when a woman's shadow on the wall morphs into a monster that terrorizes Pink. It may be remembered here that this was long before CG was used to any meaningful effect in films, and achieved purely by a mix of practical and optical techniques.

Watching the film and hearing its soundtrack so many years after the last time I played the album, I once again came to appreciate the brilliance of The Wall as a work of art. The album's ubiquitous popularity has of course led to a bunch of people calling it overrated, and I won't deny getting a little sick of the number of times Another Brick in the Wall Pt 2 played on MTV, but once you've allowed a little distance, the emotional charge of Waters' lyrics and the band's fantastic musical sensibilities hit you right in the chest. Several critics have complained that the film is just a sensory showcase with little depth, but I felt that the emotional sub-text comes across well enough. I am not entirely sure of Pink's fascist fantasy in the last act of the film, but I did not find that a serious drawback, and between the lead acting (even Klaus Kinski would have had a pause at Geldof's crazy turn) and the constantly inventive chutzpah on display, the film remains interesting up to the end.

PS: The Wall is an interesting comparison to Tommy, another rock opera by a talented egoistic artist: Pink Floyd's album is more consistently brilliant, especially because it knows when to draw its curtains. Similarly, Parker's film adaptation of The Wall makes for a far more watchable and engaging experience than Ken Russell's "Let's fling all manner of shit and see what sticks" approach to the film of Tommy.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

The Green Man [dir. Robert Day]

In a story that triggers brief memories of Ealing Studios' (ha!) killer comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Green Man's protagonist (Alistair Sim) is an unprepossessing assassin who specializes in bomb hits. The story starts with our bomber giving a self-laudatory account of his career, leading up to his latest endeavor in progress - giving an explosive sendoff to a pompous politician when the man is at an incognito weekend getaway. 

Unfortunately the mousy secretary Sim had been pretending to court, to get info on his target's movements, becomes suspicious and insists on an explanation. Rather preposterously, she decides the best way to do this is to go alone to the home of the man she suspects of ulterior motives. Now Sim must silence her before she can spill the beans. For this he arranges to lure her into the heretofore untenanted neighboring house and dispatches his not entirely trustworthy assistant (John Chandos) to finish the job.

But in what seems the beginning of bad luck for him, the new tenants (Jill Adams and Colin Gordon) choose that very day to move in, and there's also a pushy vacuum cleaner salesman (George Cole). This leads to a merry rigmarole in which the characters run helter-skelter and even the corpse seems to have a life of its own. The final showdown is in the titular Green Man hotel, where the bomb is supposed to go off. Will Sim's plan succeed or will his neighbors be in time to stop it?

If you like classic dry British humor, there is much to enjoy in The Green Man. It is all very silly and not remotely believable, but that doesn't stop the film from being fun. In the script by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder (of The Lady Vanishes fame), there seems to be a mischievous skewering of the snooty class, with characters called Upshott, Willoughby-Cruft and (really now) Boughtflower being the target of a lot of the humor. Alistair Sim is a consummate comic actor, carrying off his scenes with aplomb, and George Cole (who in real life was a protege of Sim) as the bumbling but dogged appliance pusher is an excellent foil. The much-loved British character actor Terry-Thomas as the Boughtflower character has a rather smaller role than one would have liked (he would have been excellent as the pompous politician target).

The film was also produced by Gilliat and Launder, who had a great regard for Alistair Sim. In fact it is said Robert Day (previously a camera operator) was a director more in name than deed, and the film was ghost-helmed by Sim (with some uncredited aid from Basil Dearden, who is seen directing  the cast in behind the scenes stills of the film).

For those interested, a few words on the UK blu-ray edition from Studio Canal:

The blu-ray gives an excellent clean presentation of this vintage movie with nice filmic detail and good contrast. The mono sound is limited by the source material (don't expect any floor-rattling explosions, and there is some hiss) but clear enough for the dialog which is the main thing. Extras include 3 approximately half-hour featurettes (plus a short photo gallery video)

Monday, October 25, 2021

One of Our Aircraft is Missing [dirs. Powell and Pressburger]

While not the first collaboration between the great team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, One of Our Aircraft is Missing (OOOAIM) was the first official production of their brainchild The Archers, in which they took a joint writer-producer-director credit. So it is an important element of film history. Lucky then it's an entertaining film too, especially interesting to fans of old-school war dramas (of course, OOOAIM wouldn't have been old-school but quite cutting edge in 1942 when it was released).

The film deals with a British bombing mission over Stuttgart that goes awry when the plane is hit by retaliatory fire and the 6-man crew are forced to bail out in their parachutes. They drift into a neighboring region of The Netherlands. The danger is far from over because this is still Nazi-occupied territory. They must rely on the patriotism of the native Dutch people and their resentment of the Nazi invaders to reach back home. The rest of the film is an episodic narrative where they are passed from one group of locals to another, all coming together to aid the Brits who they hope will ultimately help in eliminating the Nazi tyranny. It is a little piecemeal but the brisk pacing does not leave much time to reflect.

The focus of the screenplay is less on military heroics and more on solidarity between people against Nazi oppression, and cooperation for a common cause. Although OOOAIM primarily deals with the all-male British bomber crew, Michael Powell influenced Pressburger to write strong female parts, and so among the Dutch locals they meet some fierce women who are instrumental in arranging for the help they need; my favorite was Googie Withers' portrayal of the no-nonsense Joe de Vries who fools the Nazis into believing that she is friendly to them, all the while sheltering and aiding stranded allied forces. Powell's. autobiography claims that Googie, who had Dutch roots, was so overcome at being offered the part she broke down.

Technically too, the film is a marvel. Apart from exciting footage of actual planes obtained with help from the British armed forces, art director David Rawnsley designed massive floor-spanning miniatures of the Stuttgart landscape to depict the bombing run. Ronald Neame's cinematography is evocative and the film is skillfully edited by a young David Lean (just prior to his directorial debut with In Which We Serve). Powell also decided to avoid any background score and employ only digetic music, which generated a more realistic tone, while also highlighting the emotion when specific music cues like the Dutch national anthem were used. OOOAIM is old-fashioned in terms of its portrayal of war where soldiers could still be shown to be chivalrous and fair-minded, but it does not appear creaky.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Thupparivaalan aka Detective [dir. Mysskin]

A dedication at the start of Thupparivaalan salutes Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and 'the mercurial' Jeremy Brett. But the detective hero of Mysskin's movie owes more to the rude arsehole of the Robert Downey Jr. interpretation. 'Action' star Vishal is Kaniyan Poongundran, the archaically named moody sleuth that 'rebels at stagnation' (in the hero introduction scene he stomps all over his book-lined apartment, petulantly demanding to be given a challenging case). He behaves like a  perfect tyrant with almost everyone, but most notably his 'Watson' Manohar (Prasanna) who seems a loser with no life of his own.

Kaniyan takes up the case of a schoolboy whose family dog was murdered, but the matter quickly escalates to a more sinister degree, involving a gang of assassins-for-hire (including a near-unrecognizable Bhagyaraj) who come up with some truly outre ways of carrying out their hits. The plot is all over the place, but Mysskin's writing delivers some ingenious fun moments, like when the killers carry out a Rube Goldberg scheme of offing a target with the help of nitrous oxide aka laughing gas - this would not be out of place in a Denny O' Neil - Dick Giordano 70's era Batman comic (for some reason, all mentions of nitrous oxide are bleeped out in the soundtrack, as though they were threatened with legal action by the gas manufacturers). Kaniyan's incongruous golf cap and ascot - standing in, one supposes, for Holmes' deerstalker and pipe - and the throwaway references to Tamil pulp fiction detective Sankarlal and Stanley Kubrick raise chuckles as well.

Thupparivaalan becomes less interesting in the bigger picture. The villains bandy a generic ruthlessness (the leader takes a coffee break in the middle of chainsawing a corpse, whoop-de-whoop), the 'HERO' action scenes and location hopping chases lose the idiosyncratic touch (although one of them ends in a memorably crazy Seppuku sequence). Also, Kaniyan's treatment of the token romance (a simpering Anu Emmanuel) is risible. But even while commercial, this film has more of the Mysskin personality than his Mugamoodi and is a decent watch for fans.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Aarkkariyam aka Who Knows? [dir. Sanu John Varughese]

The story of Aarkkariyam (made by cinematographer turned director Sanu John Varughese) is set during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Married couple Shirley (Parvathi Thiruvothu) and Roy (Sharafuddeen) are driving down from Mumbai to be with her aging father at his home in rural Kerala. We learn early on that this is a second marriage for both of them; Shirley has a daughter from her previous relationship, now studying in a convent boarding school some hours away from her father's home. Shirley's father Ittyavra (Biju Menon) is the typical old-school backwater "Lord of the Manor", a man who for so many decades has nurtured his backyard and farmlands, and for whom old age is an unwelcome, if also inevitable burden. He is taciturn and sometimes crotchety, but dotes on his family. He is also deeply religious, a trait that echoes in Shirley.

As the couple integrate into the daily routine at Ittyavra's - having meals together and sharing the household chores - she is anxious to find a means of bringing her daughter home at the earliest. Roy has financial worries as well, what with the lockdown leading to his imported goods consignment indefinitely stuck in the customs hold. To help out his daughter's family, Ittyavra comes up with the plan of selling off his property, and giving them  a part of the money while shifting to a more manageable apartment. There is one slight hitch, as he casually reveals to Roy when Shirley is not around: He has long ago buried a body in the kitchen yard, and the skeleton needs to be destroyed before it is excavated by any builder that buys the property.

Aarkkariyam may be described as a moral mystery. The question that Roy (and the audience) has is, who is this dead person and why was his body buried in secret in the premises? Common logic would suggest that he get the story from his father-in-law, with whom he appears to share a relationship of trust and respect; after all the bonding between father and son-in-law is a core element of the film. But in a not very convincing conceit, Roy becomes withdrawn and secretive, opting instead for an exercise in tracing clues through a series of conversations with strangers in some way related with the tragedy. Rather than as an organic progression of the script, it is as though the writers (Sanu John Varughese with Arun Janardanan and Rajesh Ravi) felt that having Ittyavra directly spill the beans would not be sufficiently cinematic in a drama that is already conversation-heavy. The manner in which they attempt the circumvention leads up a convoluted path that only adds (pun unintended) 'dead space', without sufficient payoff.

But while the film errs on the side of rambling in trying to tell a measured tale, it is not guilty of unnecessary dramatics or that dreadful habit of superfluous twists that destabilize the narrative. When the truth is shown to Roy, it is not some earth-shattering moment. There is a quiet confession and an equally quiet laying to rest of an old burden. Without obvious sign-posting, it gives a beautiful underpinning to the actions and beliefs of the involved characters and helps us understand them better as people.

Apart from the aforementioned meandering tone during Roy's 'investigation' I thought there was an excess of external intrusion into the setting by way of Roy's interactions with his Mumbai friend Vysakh played by Saiju Kurup (Also, they speak to each other in a puzzling mix of Malayalam and Hindi, which I have never seen Malayalees in Mumbai do). These could have been pared down and perhaps Vysakh could have been reduced to a less frequent voiceover, just my thought. My other bugbear was with Sanjay Divecha's score. He is an excellent jazz musician for sure, but this movie has too much underscoring, to the extent that I got annoyed with all the guitar twanging. I would have preferred for it to go the other way, keeping non-digetic music to a minimum.

Even with these issues, there's a warm humanist streak in Aarkkariyam that beautifully shows in the writing and performances, and makes it worth recommending at least as a once-watch. Beyond that, well, who knows?

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Taste of Cherry [dir. Abbas Kiarostami]

In  Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry (1997), Houmayun Ershadi plays Mr. Badii, a man who for a good part of the film's beginning we see as a rather suspicious character. He is cruising around in his car, looking to pick up isolated men. At least one of them openly tells him to scram, falling to the obvious conclusion that Mr. Badii is trying to hook up for a gay tryst. But as we learn later he has a different motive.

You see, Mr. Badii has decided to commit suicide; he has even dug his own grave. What he wants is for someone to confirm his death and then spade in earth to bury him. For this he is willing to pay handsomely. He courts in succession a young Kurdish military cadet, an Afghani seminarian, and a taxidermist among others to do this deed for him. He is not interested to explain his reasons or to listen to justifications about why he shouldn't go ahead with his plan. A good part of Kiarostami's film is about the conversations between Mr. Badii and his prospects; how he inveigles himself to put forth his offer, and how they ultimately respond to him.

Taste of Cherry is not so much about being a character study (right up to the end we do not know anything about the life of Mr. Badii and why he wishes to end it) or being laden with symbolic meaning. It is a rhythmic existential film, and what happens at the end is a lot less important than the interludes along the way. This is also not a film for the impatient or plot-focused. I remember, when I first watched it I was fidgeting through the initial part when he is propositioning various men before we know his purpose. I was better placed on the re-visit since I knew the roads it would travel. I am not certain if it was shot that way, but the finished film does suggest an element of improvisation in the dialog and its use of non-experienced actors in pivotal roles.

It may not have served as direct inspiration, but the long-range visuals of Badii driving his range rover over the dusty hill paths with a purely diegetic soundtrack may have been in auteur Nuri Ceylan's mind when he conceived the magical Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. In its less ponderous way, Taste of Cherry is also a haunting existential fable.

This is an interesting American trailer for the film that gives almost nothing away about the feel of the actual film:

For those interested, a few words about the recent blu-ray release of Taste of Cherry from Criterion:
My previous viewing of the film was more than a decade ago on the Criterion DVD (gifted by a dear friend). Taste of Cherry was one of the early DVD's in the Criterion label, with a non-anamorphic transfer that was not hugely impressive even at the time of release. Not surprisingly, their blu-ray sourced off a new 4K restoration simply blows away the previous release. There are levels of detail and contrast that were entirely absent on the DVD. While there may be some push of blues towards teal in the grading, it does not take away from the overall superiority of the new master and this is a must-have upgrade for fans of the film. The original Farsi audio is presented as LPCM mono and sounds very clear, with surprising presence for ambient effects. I have not checked the extras as yet but they are definitely more than what was present on the previous DVD.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Tokyo Story [dir. Yasujiro Ozu]

So I finally saw Tokyo Story, Yasujiro Ozu's much-lauded 1953 feature about an aging couple from rural Japan that decide to visit their children in and around Tokyo, and find that they may not be as welcome as they had imagined.

With a cast headlined by Chishū Ryū (an almost constant Ozu protagonist) and Chieko HigashiyamaTokyo Story was loosely inspired by Leo McCarey's 1937 American classic Make Way for Tomorrow - Hindi film fans may be indirectly familiar with this one, it being the plot source for the Bollywoodized 2003 Amitabh Bachchan - Hema Malini starrer Baghban. As I understand, it was Ozu's regular screenwriter Kogo Noda, who  had seen Make Way... and suggested using the outline.

Tokyo Story doesn't go to the extent of showing the parents being separated by their children for selfish reasons, although there is a symbolic separation when they find they have to make individual arrangements for one evening their daughter is having guests over and does not want her dowdy country-folks lingering in the house. There are no 'confrontations' (the closest the film gets is when the daughter is upset with her father for having returned drunk from a reunion where he was actually hoping to be put up by one of his friends) and no one is outright rude, but the only person that seems to truly welcome them is their widowed daughter-in-law (Setsuko Hara, playing another noble Ozu heroine). Occurring mostly within the span of the parents' visit, it is a more restrained chamber drama.

While I generally like Ozu's quiet observational approach (Late Spring, An Autumn Afternoon, Floatng Weeds and End of Summer are among my favorites) I did feel this plot required a stronger treatment. The script of McCarey's film may have had more obvious tear-jerking moments (Orson Welles is famously quoted as having said "It would make a stone cry") but it worked beautifully. For me, Tokyo Story was polite to the point of feeling detached, like a curio behind a window. The characters are also not particularly layered or interesting (Haruko Sugimura appears rather shrewish as the daughter), and the film lacks Ozu's trademark sly humor, making the nearly 140 min drama something of a chore (Only a few of Ozu's films have stretched the 2-hour mark).

Which is not to say that there are no good moments - Setsuko Hara has a great scene where she breaks down in front of her father-in-law who now mirrors her widowed state. The reunion between Ryū and his friends (one played by Kurosawa regular Eijirō Tōno) is also remarkable in how it plays out, especially after they get drunk and confess about their  disappointments in their children. But the film could have done with more of such moments. This may be sacrilege to hear for many film-buffs, but Tokyo Story is for me more tepid than heart-warming.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

#Home [dir. Rojin Thomas]

#Home can, I suppose, be considered the Malayalam take on how "It's all about loving your parents".

Sreenath Bhasi (Kumbalangi Nights) plays hotshot young film-maker Anthony trying to script his second feature, but struggling with creative block (here attributed mainly to easy distraction from social media). Anthony goes back to the idyll of his parents' home - apart from the indulgent parents, there is a mobility-impaired grandfather and a younger brother who aspires to become a Vlog-Star. The crux of the film is how Bhasi and his brother do not appreciate their mild-mannered, self-effacing father, the colorfully named Oliver Twist (Indrans) who quietly does all manner of things to keep his family happy. Bhasi is more impressed by the flashy achiever father of his fiancee and keeps unfairly comparing the two. The film is also about how Oliver grapples with modern technology to communicate better with his kids and thereby earn their appreciation.

While there is the kernel of a good film there, the final product is really not it. The characters of the sons are shoddily etched – it is possible for children to like their parents without respecting them, but the sons here are shown as barely caring and self-centered to a fault, purely to glorify the unselfish parents (and not in the entertainingly goofy manner of the 80’s Mohan Kumar / Kalpataru / Visu movies). There is a forced insertion of too many social issues the makers want to include (appreciation for parents, older generation struggling with modern tech while current gen is addicted to it) and clumsy "Moshe the Explainer" devices to address them (Indrans' psychologist, who has a ready answer for all his personal issues) .

Shallow as an ad-film for a retirement finance plan (complete with jingle style song numbers), yet stretching to a vegetative 160 min, this one wallows in blandness. There’s one really effective scene where the parents have a showdown with their pampered brats in front of guests; it has an electricity wholly apart from the mildly humorous oatmeal tone the film had up to that point. But after that moment, the script again recedes into mush territory. Too many characters are introduced in a wasteful manner, without giving them enough to do; this seems to mirror the creative block of the main character. The heroic backstory given to the father and how it connects them to other characters is too contrived. And what if he hadn’t had such a backstory? Would the kids be justified in their cavalier behavior? Isn’t unselfish parenthood in itself a heroic act? The makers seem to lack faith in their own idea. The actors are almost uniformly solid (Indrans shines as the mild mannered indulgent father, hoping to be liked by his sons), but the script foundations are too shaky for this #Home to stand up.

Monday, August 16, 2021

The Stranglers of Bombay [dir. Terence Fisher]

The Stranglers of Bombay is one of the more exotic productions from Hammer Studios, set not in Victorian-era England or Europe, but in India during the British rule (of course, economically recreated in Bray Studios and some external locations). The stranglers of the title are a large gang of thugs / highway robbers with a propensity to strangle their victims using an ingenious cloth noose. The film is loosely inspired by the actual history of Thuggee cults, and relies on the writings of the British official WH Sleeman who had worked towards their eradication during the 1830's.

But make no mistake, Hammer did not set out to make a documentary feature, their interest lay purely in generating lurid thrills from the material. Even the title is somewhat strange since the film is not set in Bombay at all, but somewhere on the eastern side of India. Like Fritz Lang's 2-parter Indian Epic released in the same year, Stranglers... is not particularly sensitive in its depiction of Indian culture. The production design is not a model of authenticity either, the vision for India seeming to incorporate elements of the Arabian Nights. Ah well, at least this one doesn't show the Indians gobbling creepy-crawlies stuffed inside snakes or chilled monkey brains.

The lead character is a Captain Lewis (played by Guy Rolfe) who has been studying the crimes perpetrated by the thugs and hopes to head an investigation to capture them. Instead the task is handed over to the son of a new blighter his Colonel went to school with. Obviously both the Colonel and the freshly-arrived Captain Connaught-Smith (Allan Cuthbertson) pooh-pooh all of Lewis' reports as excess imagination. The thugs on the other hand have infiltrated the local society surrounding the military settlement, and with their swift and brutal methods of punishing mistakes (cutting off of limbs and gouging of eyes is par for the course here) efficiently run their trade while keeping a low profile; only Lewis has even the vaguest idea about them. Will he be able to root them out before they commit more serious crimes or will he be destroyed by the cult forms the bulk of the ensuing narrative.

Stranglers... is directed by stalwart Hammer helmer Terence Fisher, but doesn't deliver the impact of his top-tier films for the studio (Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, The Devil Rides Out). Even with all the savagery an sensationalism on display, the film is lacking in the propulsive energy Fisher is known for. Perhaps Guy Rolfe in the lead is too bland and fails to make us feel for him the way a Peter Cushing could. Perhaps the use of B&W stock instead of color makes the sensational elements less so. Stranglers... is still serviceable (and moments like when Lewis' wife opens a package to see a severed hand or when the robbers carry out a stealth operation to kill off all the members of a caravan are thrilling in isolation), but not as barnstorming as it could have been.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Running Time [dir. Josh Becker]

Seeing Running Time (1997) directly after the French crime noir Le Doulos (reviewed HERE)  might appear repetitive on face, it being another black and white crime caper, but in tone and feel Josh Becker makes an entirely different sort of movie. It has more of a Quentin-Tarantino-meets-Kevin-Smith feel, but with none of the obnoxiousness such a combination might suggest.

Everyone's favorite cult movie star Bruce Campbell gets a rare chance to play in a non-horror film and he is a big part of why this movie works. Campbell plays Carl Matushka, just released from prison early for good behavior, and rewarded by the warden himself with a warm farewell and a box of Havana cigars. But Carl has other plans than walking the straight and narrow path. In fact, his first move after he exits the prison doors and meets up with long-time friend-in-crime Patrick (Jeremy Roberts) is to put in motion his plan to rob the place responsible for laundering the warden's dirty money - there is some poetic justice in this, since the warden runs a profitable laundry service using prison labor at below minimum wages. An old safe-cracker (William Stanford Davis) and a junkie getaway driver (Gordon Jennison) are the other parties involved in this heist. Early indications suggest that the caper is unlikely to go as per Carl's plan and this proves to be the case. A major scene has Carl and Patrick indulging in a verbal spat about their respective deficiencies in the presence of hostages, while the safe-cracker is trying desperately to finish his job. Later there are gunshots and chaos, they must go on the run from cops. Somewhere in all this Carl also catches up with a former flame (Anita Barone) he is looking to resume acquaintance with.

Running Time's USP is the attempt to frame its narrative in real time, which is to say, we see the events entirely as they unfold (Becker cites Alfred Hitchcock's Rope and its unbroken shot effect as his inspiration; of course, one recalls that just a couple of years before, there was a real-time Johnny Depp movie called Nick of Time). To achieve that end, Becker goes for long takes with steadicam, and skillful obscuring of cuts. This of course means that the actors  (and other shooting crew) need to be continuously on the ball. It is extremely helpful that the main roles are aptly cast, and the performers are enthusiastic. 

Campbell's Everyman Hero charisma is beautifully tapped into, and one really wishes he had been able to make greater inroads into mainstream Hollywood; but then one has to also wonder if that would have made him less accessible to indie directors like Becker and Don Coscarelli (Bubba-Ho-Tep)? He also has great chemistry with his co-actors, mostly notably with Barone, which is critical because in shorthand they have to establish a relationship history and a rapport that makes us root for their togetherness. Running Time is a film of modest scope but it is a labor of love and the final product conveys that admirable, plucky spirit to the audience.

A terrific article on the making of the movie, written by the director himself - LINK

For those interested, a couple of words on the blu-ray from Synapse Films:

Running Time is a low-budget independent effort and the 4:3 B&W transfer reflects those gritty roots. The limitations of contrast and details are those baked into the original natural light location shoot. Similarly the stereo sound ably conveys the film's ambience. Extras include a conversation with the always chatty Bruce Campbell who provides a lot of insight into both his old friend Josh Becker and the making of the film. It is extremely clear that the star is fond of this film and happy to see it get a new audience. An archival recording captures Becker and Campbell chatting extempore with a group of students as they wait for a video screening of Running Time. There is an audio commentary track with Becker and Campbell that promises to be interesting and a trailer that gives a small taste of the real-time storytelling style.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Le Doulos [dir. Jean-Pierre Melville]

The opening screen of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos clarifies that the title is street slang for 'Hat-wearer' but it also refers to a police informant (what in vintage American crime slang is called canary or stool pigeon). But before we meet the Doulos, we are introduced to Maurice (Serge Reggiani), a gangster just out from prison. Maurice is uneasy about a new job, discussing it with a friend, a jewelry fence who seems to be very understanding and generous to him, willing to lend him money and even a gun...which Maurice then uses to shoot him.

Next we see Maurice being visited by his friend Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a man everyone else seems to dislike / distrust. Silien has his own agenda, and he is also revealed to be Le Doulos in cahoots with the police. In a series of suspicious actions, Silien seems to be setting his friend up to be hauled in by the law, and also taking care of some other people to clear his own path. He is seen as a cold-blooded snakily ambitious sort with no scruples about how he achieves his aims. Later the film pulls out a dramatic reveal that wants us to re-evaluate many of the characters' actions.

Le Doulos is one of Melville’s early efforts in the crime genre he was best known for (Le Samourai, Le Cercle Rouge). We see the familiar stylistic tropes: The adoption of American noir fedora and trenchcoat fashions, the shadowy cinematography, the male bonding, the essential loneliness of the lead characters. But as a film, it comes across less smoothly. The twist reveal seems labored in its explanation, and some scenes like the one between Belmondo and Michael Piccoli are hard to swallow (you’d think a seasoned gangster would know an obvious frame-up and even at gun-point would realize that obeying the instructions would anyway lead to his death). The climax also seems more clumsy and drawn out, diluting the irony.

Le Doulos does have its good moments, like the shocker where a smiling Belmondo rough-houses “buddy” Maurice’s girlfriend (Monique Hennessy) for motives as yet unknown. The technical values are also fine for a low-budget independent production. On the whole this is still an interesting progenitor to, if not as well-constructed and smooth as, Melville’s later crime flicks.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Gold [dir. Reema Kagti]

Gold is the story of the the first post-independence Indian hockey team playing in and winning the gold medal at the 1948 Olympics conducted in Britain. It is one of those "loosely based on true events" stories, meaning just about everything other than the bare outline is made up. The fact that the real Indian team  thrashed Britain 4-0, while here we are shown a cliffhanger climactic match in which they manage to, at the very end, snatch victory from an unfair opposition tells you what kind of biopic this is.

It would be okay if it was at least made up in an interesting way. Sadly, Reema 'Talaash' Kagti's film pays a lot more attention to detail and verisimilitude in the production design than in the writing. Even as a fictional character the story of Tapan Das, a man who surmounted all manner of obstacles, including his own demons of alcoholism, to put together and guide the team that won the medal, might have been worthwhile if it had been invested with more layered characterization and entrusted to a gifted performer (Manoj Bajpayee, Irrfan Khan, Nawzuddin Siddique - any of them could have owned the part). Here it is wasted on Akshay Kumar dropping yet another whacking big smelly deshbhakti turd. He is supposed to portray a Bengali with a drinking problem; neither aspect carries the required conviction. Mouni Roy as the stereotype nagging-but-affectionate wife only draws attention for her lips, injected with so much silicone they resemble baggage handles.

The supporting cast is talented, but let down by flimsy development. The most notable are Amit Sadh as an affable but egoistic blueblood, Sunny Kaushal as the hothead working-class Sikh who resents him, and Vineet Kumar (Mukkabaaz) as a Muslim player who, shortly before the Olympics, opts to shift to Pakistan. Kunal Kapoor as a former captain turned coach is limited to looking noble throughout and his character is an all-too-obvious deus ex machina. Atul Kale plays the jealous sports official de rigueur in almost every Indian sports drama. The bickering between the players, the lessons they learn, the quick-fix remedies for serious issues, the speechifying about setting aside individual egos for national pride...everything is so rote, there's little joy in watching the drama unfold. Lagaan and Dangal were also stories that followed a predictable path, but in building up of little incidents and the peculiarities of their characters, they made us care for what happened. Here, the story of a team that came together for a common (ha!) goal is subverted into a self-serving glory piece for a fictional character purely because he is played by a box-office draw. The makers of Gold would have done better to paraphrase JFK's famous line, "Ask not what your film can do for your star, but what your star can do for your film".


Thursday, August 5, 2021

A Good Marriage [dir. Eric Rohmer]

While The Aviator's Wife (reviewed HERE) had a certain sweetness, A Good Marriage (Le Beau Mariage) - Eric Rohmer's second film in his Comedies & Proverbs series, falls into slightly disturbing territory.

Sabine (Béatrice Romand) is an almost pathologically wilful and impulsive woman. At the start of the story she decides, after her married lover takes a call from his family while they are having sex, to renounce the bohemian life and get married herself. Of course, it will have to be the ideal marriage to the ideal person. Sabine's best friend Clarisse (Arielle Dombasle) sets up a meeting with her cousin Edmond (André Dussollier), a good looking successful lawyer. In less than a couple of meetings, Sabine decides he fits the bill and tells all who will listen to her about the impending marriage, other than Edmond himself.

If it were to be made in 90's Hollywood, this would have been a Julia Roberts / Drew Barrymore starring rom-com vehicle and ended with the couple being joined in blissful matrimony. Thankfully, Rohmer's script is more nuanced: it recognizes the darker edges to Julia's self-obsessed worldview and there is a far more naturalistic vibe to both the development of her relationship with Edmond and its denouement. The only distracting factor is Clarisse, who seems to be blind to her friend's emotional insecurities and lack of perception towards other people while fixing a match for her.

A Good Marriage is still a comedy but a more restrained and observant one. Apart from the writing, the performances of the actors go a long way to carrying the drama, and the old-world French architecture seen in many of the outdoor sequences makes for a pleasant backdrop. I am not sure if I will revisit this one, but it is still a worthwhile watch.

Interesting vintage trailer that 'explains' the film to American audiences:

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Hotel du Nord [dir. Marcel Carné]

Fair use,

In Marcel Carné's Hotel du Nord, young lovers Renée and Pierre (Annabella and Jean-Pierre Aumont) take a room at the titular canal-facing working-class hotel. It turns out they are not out for a spot of private necking, but for reasons not explicitly spelled out, a double suicide. After some flowery last words, Pierre fires a pistol at her, then chickens and runs out. Turns out she is not dead either, and recovers in hospital while he turns himself in to the cops. Renee does not bear a grudge but Pierre loathes himself and treats her meanly when she visits him in prison. In the meanwhile she earns her keep as a waitress at the hotel, where her good looks mean that she attracts the attention of other men.

The film also focuses on another pair of guests, Mme Raymonde (Arletty) – a middle-aged lady of the night – and her pimp and lover Edmond (Louis Jouvet, whose face bears some resemblance to the German star Conrad Veidt). They have a more cynical and tempestuous relationship, which generates a lot of the spice and humor of the film. Then Edmond falls in love with Renee in a manner that breaks through his hard-boiled front. Apart from these two pairs, there's an ensemble supporting cast composed mainly of the people staying in or working at the hotel.

If Hotel du Nord is one thing, it is romantic. This is most apparent in its treatment of the young lovers. Annabella as Renée was very obviously chosen for her ethereal looks, and she is always made up and photographed in the manner of classic Hollywood stars. There is an element of theatricality in the lines she shares with her lover. In contrast, the repartee between Mme Raymonde and Edmond has a street-wise staccato rhythm. The film plays indulgent observer to these couples and their interactions with each other and with the other characters.

Hotel du Nord
has all the hallmarks of a classic melodrama – romance, humor and tragedy – which it delivers with a sincerity and controlled passion that transcends cliche and keeps the viewer hooked. The actors nicely reflect the chemistry between their roles. There are some interesting nods, like a gay character who is referred to in a very progressive, non-judgmental way. The hotel and its immediate neighborhood, created on a set, make for a very well-etched setting. The cinematography (Louis Née and Armand Thirard) has luminous night-time visuals and there are some lovely overhead and crane shots, especially towards the end depicting the 14th of July celebrations. I was initially a little worried about whether it would not be a too old-fashioned maudlin drama, but Hotel du Nord is surprisingly nimble and manages to convey its air of doomed romance without a heavy-handed treatment.

Monday, July 12, 2021

2021: Intermission

This is just the half-way mark for 2021, but I've seen a fair amount in the great democratic world of OTT / streaming, and I thought I'd do a sum-up of all the stuff so far from this year (there's some Nov-Dec '20 stuff in there too, if you want to be picky). The streaming networks mentioned are the ones hosting it for India. The majority are from Amazon Prime because for a good part of these 6 months, it was the only streaming network I was subscribed to.

I'm not usually a watcher of series, but I did see a couple this year, including:

Family Man Season 02 (Multi-lingual, Amazon Prime) If you saw and liked Family Man S01, watching this is a no-brainer. If you haven't as yet seen the series, but like the idea of a fast-paced action series with some good writing and acting, this is again a no-brainer. The North-South regional / cultural divides are handled with humor and insight. What is especially interesting is that the terrorist characters are shown to be more open-minded and recognizing a common purpose across their differences than the establishment good guys. The action sequences are badass easily rivaling the scope of feature films and more coherent than many of those.

Lupin (French, Netflix) I have not read the original stories of Maurice Leblanc's famous gentleman burglar, but this series, which is a spiritual successor that acknowledges the source, is a wonderful piece of escapist adventure. Lupin is the type of character I have been long pining for in a crime / mystery series. A wave of relief from the surfeit of maladjusted misanthropic assholes that have dominated the genre in recent times, he is a warmhearted emotional man, with love for his family, and a sense of mercy and decency even towards the people who stand against him. Like bronze-age Batman, when he fights it is almost always in self-defense and not to beat someone within an inch of their life. Lupin may be a thief, but he is a Gentleman, and in the realms of entertaining fiction, that counts for a lot in my book.


Here are my brief impressions of all the movies I've seen from this half-year:

Drishyam 2 (Malayalam, Amazon Prime) The first Drishyam aka Scenario was a clever suspense drama about how conventionally uneducated but clever family man Georgekutty, outwits the law while shielding his family after the inadvertent killing of a top cop's wayward son. The sequel is a grimmer, heavier tale of how the crime is something that will never stop shadowing the Georgekutty family. A polished script and beautiful lead performances from Mohanlal and Meena make this a gripping follow-up and less dependent on the twist elements than the first film. D2 came early this year and still remains one of my top entertainers for 2021.

Middle Class Melodies (Telugu, Amazon Prime) is one of a new breed of Telugu movies that is not about glorifying misogynistic machismo, and hopefully will encourage more such ventures. It is an ensemble drama with at least half a dozen major characters, each of whom has their own 3-dimensional character and trajectory in the layered script, where numerous threads criss-cross with each other. Some judicious trimming might have reduced the film's sprawling runtime , but even as is, MCM is a charming narrative with relatable characters that will be appreciated by people who liked films such as Maheshinthe Prathikaram / Uma Maheshwara Ugra Roopasya, Kumbalangi Nights etc. 

Saajan Bakery Since 1962 (Malayalam, Amazon Prime) This is one of those examples of a decent idea hampered by a confused screenplay more interested in gimmicks than telling a straight story. It could have been a sensitive observational drama with lashings of humor. Instead, the writers veer the script's tone like drunk truckers, randomly shoving in non-linear events and breaking the 4th wall moments just because they thought it would be cool. In the moments when the film belongs to the actors you can see what it could have been. Sadly they are in the hands of incompetent string pullers and this bakery turns out half-baked.

Tenet (English, Amazon Prime) In general, I had about the same response to it as I had to Inception. The backwards/forwards conundrums are pretty damn good as a visual showcase, like the world's most expensive music video. But I never felt the urgency of the stakes - I mean, why is death by instant annihilation worse than the threat of nuclear catastrophe? The motivations of the characters are sketchy at best, and I never felt that these people were running around for a truly worthwhile purpose. More than 90% of the dialog in the movie is plot exposition and explanation of rules. Call me a fuddy-duddy, but I like a little more heart in my movies to consider them fun.

Joji (Malayalam, Amazon Prime) Adapting Shakespeare's Macbeth as a domestic drama, Joji eschews some of the grandeur of the source work, especially Macbeth's downfall, but within the more limited scope it does justice to being a gripping tale of ambition and intrigue; the bard would not complain, methinks. As is almost a given with most projects Fahadh Faasil is involved with, the acting and technical values are first-rate.

Karnan (Tamil, Amazon Prime) is a mass movie in the truest sense, a mass of people rise up in rebellion against their oppressors. It tries a little too hard for symbolism (butterflies, pigs, dogs, a donkey and even a baby are pressed into this service), but applause for the very organic way it builds up what could have been a boilerplate drama. I liked this a good deal better than Asuran and think Dhanush is going to hands-down take the Angry Young Man trophy for this year

The Great Indian Kitchen (Malayalam, Amazon Prime) This tale of what a newly married woman faces when she enters an orthodox household could have been a thoughtful exposure of the double standards of a patriarchy that sometimes exploits its women without even being aware of the fact, but the writing so loads the dice against the husband character, making him a rude and domineering asshole, that it inadvertently gives a lot of married men free pass to think, "I may have my faults, but at least I'm not THAT guy".

Andhaghaaram aka Darkness (Tamil, Netflix) Almost up to the 30min mark you wonder if anything is going to make sense, and the final explanation / denouement doesn't match the build-up, but for the longest part of its 170(!) min running time, this is one of the most ball-squeezingly creepy Indian horror films I have seen. If you're at all interested in the genre, this is a must-watch. Make sure to go in without reading any detailed reviews / spoilers.

Nayattu aka The Hunt (Malayalam, Netflix) was a tense and gripping dark thriller, about how those who serve power eventually find themselves prey to it. Cops who carry out frame-ups / wrongful arrests to serve their seniors and political masters find themselves in a situation where those very masters find it convenient to crucify them for a purported atrocity, and now they are fugitives on the run. With an interesting story, credible performances, atmospheric visuals and tight editing, it is another example of the seemingly effortless manner in which the current Malayalam film industry churns out incredibly well-made entertaining movies.

Druk aka Another Round (Danish, Amazon Prime) walks a fine line between celebrating drinking and warning about its ill effects. It  avoids moralizing and is made in a relaxing and thoughtful way. The performances are uniformly excellent, led by Mikkelsen expressing accessible charm and aching vulnerability in turn. I guess beyond a certain point what the film is saying is, do whatever it takes to get out of a rut, and find ways to relax when you're stressed...and have a few drinks if you want without guilt-tripping.

Nizhal aka Shadow (Malayalam, Amazon Prime) - A mystery story can go two ways - either be plausible or be entertaining. Some great movies do both. Nizhal, interesting bits notwithstanding, does not satisfy on either count. It does not earn its runtime and there's a distinct feeling of being let down at the end. This is a pale shadow of the movie it could have been.

Sherni aka Tigress (Hindi, Amazon Prime) is, despite how the trailer tries to sell it, thankfully not "just" a star-vehicle. Vidya Balan has a sensible non-obnoxious part she does good justice to. The movie tries to give a broader picture of the different forces that govern man-animal conflict and the forest department that's caught in the middle. Compared to his debut film Newton, the subject matter is less amenable to the brand of humorous and angry satire that Masurkar was able to exploit, and is a little more dry, inducing some forced injection of humor in the caricature portraits of Vidya's boss and family. Also, in spreading its net wide, it also seems less focused and dramatically interesting. But it's still an important film for its message.

Sara’s (Malayalam, Amazon Prime) was to me like watching PK (but less tedious) or Sherni (but less grim), in the sense that it’s not in itself a great movie. The writing is mediocre and the characters feel as designed as their trendy houses and bed-sheets. But it raises an important issue – that of a woman’s right over her body and the state of not having to justify one’s decision to not have children. It avoids obvious villains and in a couple of instances cannily subverts scenes that could have been used for grandstanding. You could probably have a more emotionally gripping and credible story from the same outline, but the candy-coating may mean that more people will be willing to watch this film as entertainment and the message thereby finds a larger audience.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

The Aviator's Wife [dir. Eric Rohmer]

About the movie-maker Eric Rohmer, a reliable friend told me, "If you like people talking, then you'll probably like his movies."

From my viewing of The Aviator's Wife (1981), the first in an episodic series of films he titled Comedies and Proverbs (C&P), that certainly feels accurate. It is very conversational in nature, with almost no pure visual or action scene. At the same time, it is not a stage-bound enterprise: many of the conversations take place in real locations / public spaces. In that sense, it is like the well-known Woody Allen films like Manhattan, Annie Hall etc. Of course, Woody was more of a visual stylist, working with skilled cinematographers Gordon Willis and Sven Nykvist. At least this film by Rohmer has a more plain and naturalistic feel, like the cinema vérité.

Our protagonist Francois (Philippe Marlaud), an insecure 20 year old in a shaky relationship with Anne (Marie Rivière) a beautiful older woman living by herself, is shaken when he sees her exiting the house with a former flame. Not having the gall to directly ask the girlfriend who treats him with a mixture of pity and contempt, he follows the ex-lover without a clear plan. In the course of this aimless spying, he comes across bubbly 15-year old Lucie (Anne-Laure Meury) who happily falls in with the scheme and even takes charge of the spying. They in turn have conversations where Francois slowly confesses his life to her, and she offers sometimes mocking, sometimes supportive opinions. At the end of the day, Francois visits Anne, who reluctantly lets him in her room, and they have a mini-showdown, in which she expresses her own sadness and frustrations.

All of this involves a lot of back and forth dialog. Lucky for us then that the writing is both interesting and natural-sounding. The characters feel layered and even when their flaws are exposed - Francois is immature and petty minded, and Anne is quite obviously not interested in any long term companionship with him - they are not caricatured. The Aviator's Wife ends of a note of ambivalent redemption.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Christ Stopped at Eboli [dir. Francesco Rosi]

Italian director Francesco Rosi made one of the best first impressions on me when I saw his film Salvatore Giuliano (reviewed on this site here), a propulsive docu-drama about a rebel who was hailed as a hero when he fought for the independence of Sicily and later became controversially implicated in the massacre of a gathering of communists. Hands over the City, while not as visceral, was still a strong indictment of the collusion of corruption between big business and government. Certain aspects of the plot seemed to have inspired parts of the classic Indian satire Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. On the other hand, Rosi's later output tended to more poetic / nostalgic features like Three Brothers (reviewed here) and Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

While it does have some criticism of a government that is fascist or does not bother to understand the lives of its less-privileged citizens, 1979's Christ Stopped at Eboli (CSAE, based on an autobiographical book by painter, intellectual and political prisoner Carlo Levi) falls more in the latter camp, being the sentimental study of an older, agrarian culture with its own rhythms and social hierarchies. Although CSAE was also shown as a significantly truncated 150-min film, it was originally a 4-Episode mini-series for the state-owned Radiotélévisione Italiana, totaling about 220 min. Gian Maria Volonté, famous abroad for his violent roles in the Dollars films and other spaghetti westerns, plays the soft-spoken Levi who at the beginning is seen coming into the remote part of southern Italy where he has been exiled by Rome.

Levi is treated with courtesy by the administration (led by the bureaucratic Mayor), but his movements and activities are restricted. A long ago degree in medicine comes to purpose when the villagers insist on consulting him, despite his protests of being inexperienced, because he is more intelligent and sincere than the local quacks. This is not a series packed with twists and turns and events of massive upheaval. The bulk of CSAE is about Levi being exposed to the local life and beliefs, and evolving his philosophy of how government and reform can actually help the people.

I haven't read the source novel but Rosi's film shows a strong strain of nostalgia for the old, "pure" ways. His camera lovingly caresses the rocky hills and the rough village roads. The people of this forgotten town may be poor and simple-minded, but they are good at heart and they respond to Levi's kindness, agitating for him to officially practice medicine in the village, even under threat of being attacked by the police. The moral of the film is that if we want to benefit someone we need to first examine and understand their way of life, and support it in the best way possible rather than impose a supposedly more progressive lifestyle and thinking upon them.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Doctor Sleep [dir. Mike Flanagan]

Doctor Sleep is the direct sequel to Stephen King's novel and Stanley Kubrick's film of The Shining. Most people that have seen/read The Shining would know that King and Kubrick had some significant differences of opinion regarding the film adaptation. King wrote the book as a cathartic exploration of his protagonist Jack Torrance - teacher-writer and family man that takes on an assignment of being a winter caretaker for the Hotel Overlook - dealing with the demons of alcoholism. His struggle is actively exploited by the evil that lurks within the hotel and lots of bad shit happens. Kubrick's film adaptation covers similar ground, but places more emphasis on the protagonist's writer's block and acceleration of his mental breakdown in the secluded and remote location. In his version the hotel is a looming but more passive presence and a lot of the stuff that happens can be attributed to the hallucinations of the protagonist and his young telepath son Danny. The film also removes a climactic scene from the book where the hotel goes down in flames. Having both read the book and seen the film, I'd say each has specific strengths and weaknesses, but I prefer the way Kubrick handled the supernatural elements.

In Dr. Sleep, Danny Torrance (Ewan MacGregor) is an older man, and at the film's beginning an alcoholic like his father was. He gets help from a kind quarter and sorts out his life as an orderly at a geriatric nursing home where his extrasensory gifts help him to spiritually ease the journey of people that are about to pass away. Danny is reminded of the past when he gets a mental communication from a fellow 'shiner' Abra (Kyleigh Curran), a schoolgirl with marvelous telepathic abilities. There's also a band of itinerant psychic vampires led by the alluring Rose (Rebecca Ferguson), who feed on the essence of shiners; Abra represents a fount of vitality to them. Danny must protect Abra and fight Rose and her gang, and this struggle involves a return to the Hotel Overlook.

The sequel is by Mike Flanagan, one of the interesting modern horror directors. Not having read King's sequel I don't know how faithful Flanagan's film is. It is certainly a different sort of experience than The Shining. In that one the place was an imperturbable entity that loomed heavy over the characters, whose best hope lay in survival. This one is a more straightforward good vs evil struggle where Danny and the girl take on the psychic vampires. Like in video-games and Christopher Nolan movies, there are rules and counter-rules and Macguffins. I think by putting aside my memories of The Shining, I was able to enjoy Dr. Sleep as its own unassuming entertainer. The one scene where it really made a connect with the previous story was when Danny is addressing an AA meeting and talks about his alcoholism as a connect with his father. Otherwise, it's a more generic though not unpleasant adventure.

One problem is that the stakes never feel high enough for our protagonists - in fact I felt more sorry for Rose, who seems to have blundered into immensely over-powered foes. The scenes in the Overlook are either empty reference or unintentionally funny (like when you have the Jack Nicholson stand-in). They're also nonsensical - how is it that the hotel appears to have been abandoned entirely (no caretaker, no repairs to the door smashed in by Jack Torrance's axe all those many years ago), but the electricity and everything still works. Ewan MacGregor and Kyleigh Curran have good chemistry (even if Abra's preternaturally mature attitude further reduces any anxiety we are supposed to feel for them) while Rebecca Ferguson seems to be having fun as a humorous Manson wannabe.

So I was reasonably entertained sitting through this with a couple of whisky shots (no more, I promise), but I wouldn't describe it as memorable. Make of that what you will.

P.S. Just to clarify, Netflix was streaming the theatrical version, running ~2.5hrs. There's also a 3hr Director's Cut available on disc at least, but I don't imagine it radically changes the tone of the film.