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.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Robinson Crusoe on mars [dir. Byron Haskin]

Robinson Crusoe on Mars was directed by War of the Worlds' Byron Haskin and based on a script by Ib Melchior, who seems to have written several space adventures. Like with recent years' The Martian, it deals with the survival of an astronaut marooned on the surface of the Red Planet. The astronaut is played by Paul Mantee, a buffed All-American type that embodies the hearty golden age SF image of future-age humans visiting and conquering new planets. In a nice bit of misdirection, the character we are first introduced to is his co-astronaut, played by a pre-Batman Adam West, who seems at home with the campily colorful spaceship console design (who knows if part of it wasn't re-assembled into the Bat-computer?). After a space mishap, they both eject out in capsules heading towards the Martian surface. Most of the remaining feature focuses on Mantee.

Of course the depiction of Mars (exteriors stood in for by California's Death Valley) was limited by our awareness of the planet at the time. In this movie, Mars has oxygen (in thinner amounts), water and native edibles. Mantee must gather and ration his resources, so he can survive as long as possible. Since this is an adventure movie in the 60's he has the company with of the ship's monkey - Like Kirk Douglas in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and Pat Boone in Journey to the Center of the Earth, I was half-expecting Mantee to burst into song to entertain his simian co-actor, but we get away with only some improvised bagpipes.

One of my problems with the film was Mantee's behavior. Early on, it is critical for him to conserve oxygen and not exert himself, since he cannot survive beyond a quarter of an hour in the Martian atmosphere. He even rigs up an hour-glass that will awaken him from sleep when his oxygen levels are about to drop below safe level. But when he sees the place where West's capsule is supposed to have landed, Mantee careens at top speed down the loose pebbled mountain, not even considering the risk of cracking his helmet, yelling like a clueless idiot. It's hard to believe this boob is a trained astronaut and harder still to sympathize with his plight. In a later scene where he meets his Man Friday, his imperialist tone with the stranger is again grating, but thankfully that is dealt with in a cannily subversive way.

Some of the film's most effective moments for me are the long shots featuring the character standing / climbing the gravelly slopes. They are the only parts of the film that convey something of an alien landscape (Some of the matte work is striking but also too obvious). There's one highly effective spooky scene involving an unexpected visitor. The bulk of Robinson Crusoe on Mars is, however, clunky and prosaic. The worst is when Mantee comes across the aliens with their spaceships and their slaves. After Ray Harryhausen's marvelously designed creations in Earth vs the Flying Saucers, these spaceships appear static and the scenes of large-scale destruction feel stock and repetitive instead of thrilling. The aliens are all-too-briefly seen generic spacesuit dudes wielding guns; their slaves are just actors in bad haircuts and cut-price Egyptian outfits. Despite the widescreen ratio and some striking outdoor vistas, the overall feeling is that of a TV movie.

Blame me for falling for the gloriously pulpy space adventure poster art, but in all I felt Robinson Crusoe on Mars promised a lot more than it delivered.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Doctor Mordrid [dir. Charles Band]

In 1992, long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe was even a speck on anyone's horizon, there was a Doctor Strange movie. Only, since the studio didn't have active rights to the character (If you believe the rumor, their option expired before they could mount a movie), they chose to rework their vehicle under a different name, Doctor Mordrid. Here, Jeffrey Combs - star of Re-animator and all its sequels, From Beyond and several other cult vehicles - gets his chance at playing a heroic lead as Anton Mordrid, a powerful sorcerer out to stop a trans-dimensional evil embodied in the chiseled form of Kabal (Brian Thompson). Kabal plans to gather the necessary artifacts that will open a trans-dimensional portal and release his demonic minions to take over the earth; in short, your everyday megalomaniac. A young Jamie Lee Curtis channeling Yvette Nipar is the sassy neighbor and research consultant Samantha Hunt that Mordrid bonds with in the course of his mission.


Doctor Mordrid was produced by Full Moon Features (a family outfit run by Charles Band and his father Albert Band, with brother Richard contributing soundtracks to many of them), a company known for their low-budget genre flicks aimed primarily at the home video market. This shows in the script and execution of the film. Large-scale FX laden spectacle was obviously out of the question, so the struggle for the fate of earth is conducted in a rather modest vein. Apart from Thompson's gnarly frame, the threat of invasion is represented by less than a handful of demons peering sleepily out of a portal. While the writing in the original Doctor Strange comics could be wince-inducingly hyperbolic, the dialog in this feature borders on mundane. In general, Mordrid's sights are not set very high in terms of cinematic adventure.

That said the film has its charms. Combs fills the lead part well and looks good in a cape (though the baggy trousers were a no-no). He and Nipar (who should have been a more known face) have good chemistry that shines through, and I like that the film doesn't hurriedly force a romance (the end hints at a possible sequel, but I guess the returns were not good enough to green-light one). The production design is quite strong considering the budget limitations. I love the gorgeous baroque design of Mordrid's man-cave (complete with a pet raven called Edgar Allan). Full Moon regular DoP Adolfo Bartoli delivers some nicely lit frames and Richard Band's score delivers on the heroism. There are some good miniatures and the climactic stop-motion tussle between the skeletons of the T-rex and the mastodon lights up a special place in my heart. It doesn't quite deliver on the spectacular thrills the cover promises, but Doctor Mordrid is a charming bit of superhero ambition in the DTV scene and has the heart to make up for the deficiencies in its vision.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The Woman in Black [dir. Herbert Wise]

This is not the 2012 Daniel Radcliffe movie, but a 1989 British tele-film adaptation of the same source novel by Susan Hill. I got the film on blu-ray as a blind-buy, because I love old-fashioned ghost stories and the screenplay being done by Nigel Kneale (Quatermass, The Stone Tapes) was a major attraction.

Analogous to the horror classic Dracula, the story begins with young London solicitor and family man Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlings) traveling on his employer's express instructions to a distant coastal town in northern England on a legal errand. He has been ordered to collect and record all the personal documents of the recently deceased Mrs. Drablow, an old widow that lived in a solitary hous, smack in the middle of a mist-covered marsh. The local people Kidd meets with seem to have some strong opinions about Eel Marsh House, as the place is called, none of them complimentary. Naturally he puts it down to local superstition and after all, he must do his duty if he expects to "get along".

Access to the house from the town is restricted by the movements of the tides, and once the water rolls in, he is effectively alone on an island. No surprise then that he is rattled by the sight of the unnaturally pale spiteful looking 'Woman in Black' who other people in the town refused to acknowledge the presence of. Going through the records of the departed Mrs. Bradlow while also encountering some other unnerving incidents in the house, Kidd comes across some singular aspects of her past. These are corroborated by Mr. Toovey (Bernard Hepton), the helpful elderly local landowner who seems to know more of the matter than he initially let on. Does Arthur escape from this seemingly malevolent place, and does the evil that he perceives permit him to go unscathed, forms the rest of the spooky narrative.

The tricks of eerie illusion The Woman in Black uses are not new, but they are used effectively and sparingly, and serve its modest aims well enough. There is just enough explanation offered as to serve by way of narrative. Possibly as a consequence of the limitations of broadcast time, the film does not indulge in excess of backstory  or try to ascribe a moral compass to its supernatural element, which many newer horror films seem all too eager to. Helped immeasurably by the sumptuous early 20th century period settings (art director John Ralph)and the atmospheric cinematography (Michael Davis), this is essentially a feature of mood, not events. The end-product is a well-crafted spooky 100 odd min that holds your attention and gives you a few good chills on the way

 A couple of words about the UK blu-ray release from Network. The HD video quality is superb, coming off a recent restoration, and looking probably better than in its original TV showing. The colors, whether the muted hues of the marsh locations or the more vibrant warm hues of the interiors, are rendered excellently. The lossless mono sound is fairly solid and English HoH subtitles are provided. The major extra is a lively commentary track with genre aficionados Kim Newman and Mark Gatiss, and actor Andy Nyman who played a small role in the film.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Nizhal aka Shadow [dir. Appu N. Bhattathiri]

Nizhal starts with the depiction of a high-speed automobile accident on a rain-swept road. The mishap is seen from the point of view of a bird on a tree. This begins one's misgivings with the film. The makers thought they had such a brilliant idea in this perspective that they persisted with it despite having an egregiously goofy CGI bird that takes all attention away from the incident.

But the outline that follows shows good promise. A magistrate John Baby (Kunchako Boban) is involved in the accident, which is also revealed to be instigated by him. When he comes out of hospital he is wearing a nose guard shaped like a superhero-mask, and sees dark clouds and rain showers even on perfectly sunny days. Gloomy John then hears of a schoolboy who out of the blue comes up with a murder story during a class activity. The unnaturally specific details provided in the story intrigue the magistrate who wants to meet with the boy (a spunky and charming Izin Hash). This of course means getting past the resistance of his protective single mom (Nayantara, looking always like she had dressed up for a photoshoot and was impatiently waiting for it to begin). By this interaction John Baby discovers the threads of more than one crime. The bigger question of course is, how is the boy getting intimate details of dark deeds from a distant past that no one around him knows about?

Intriguing, isn't it? For some while, Nizhal does feel like it could go to interesting spaces - one scene, where the ex-flame of a long-ago murdered man uncovered by John Baby suggests that the spirit of the dead man has communicated the details of the crime, is superbly done in its understatement. But there is also a lot of (ha!) dead air in the script. I understand the desire to not be just a "point A to point B" narrative, but the detours and pauses need to be interesting. Here scenes are unnecessarily broken up and subplots go nowhere (a routine with a bumbling snoop following the magistrate is so pointless it could have been easily snipped off). There are numerous asides to John Baby's magisterial job, probably meant to suggest how his daily life goes on despite these events, but they mostly show him looking distractedly into space or at his phone. There's an even more egregious still view of Nayantara 's character staring at (I kid you not) the desktop wallpaper of her Mac. This is not my idea of interesting visual drama. The lead characters are one-dimensional; even John Baby apart from his "rain visions" doesn't have a real arc. The eventual resolution when it comes is unforgivably lame - It reminds me of the numerous Satyajit Ray myster/horror short stories that ended with the protagonist waking from a dream because the writer couldn't figure out how to take the story ahead.

A mystery adventure can work two ways - either be plausible or be entertaining. Some great movies do both. Nizhal, interesting bits notwithstanding, is not satisfying on either count. It does not earn its runtime and there's a distinct feeling of being let down at the end. This is but a pale shadow of the movie it could have been.


Sunday, June 6, 2021

Druk aka Another Round [dir. Thomas Vinterberg]


Recently I saw Another Round, the new Mads Mikkelsen - Thomas Vinterberg feature that made big international waves, including the Academy award for Best International Feature Film.

The original Danish title Druk literally translates (according to Google) as Binge Drinking, which is a little closer to the film's theme. Mikkelsen is facing severe midlife crisis as both a boring teacher and a boring husband, deeply dissatisfied with life. At a sit-down dinner with bunch of long-time colleagues, they decide to try out a controversial theory (proposed by psychotherapist Finn Skårderud) about the possible beneficial effects of maintaining a 0.05% blood alcohol content (BAC) by drinking through the day. In several countries this is near or above the legal limit for driving.

They set up the rules (no drinking after 8 or on weekends) and go at it, and begin to see the impact on their personalities and lives. Mikkelsen becomes a more involved and engaging teacher. His home life improves too, the wife finding in him once again the man she loved a long time ago. Some of his colleagues also see improvements, although the gym teacher starts to unravel a bit. They then decide to up the game, trying to find their individual performance limits, and that's when things start to go balls up.

Another Round walks a fine line between celebrating drinking and warning about its ill effects. To be sure, Mikkelsen and his colleagues do founder (and there is one tragic death), but that's when they elect to break their initial limit, which had been providing them with life improvements. 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.

The hype is a little overrated. It's a very man's club kind of movie with the script directions more manipulated than organic. Also, at least from my perspective in a country where alcohol is hugely taxed and expensive, it seems a bit classist - I don't know what teachers in Denmark earn, but these are privileged people who seem to afford natty tasting course dinners and expensive fun drinks, without their wives cottoning on to the liquor bills. But it's a film that avoids moralizing about drinking 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. Incidentally, one of his kids in the film was supposed to be played by Thomas Vinterberg's daughter, but she died in a car crash shortly after filming had started (DUI? That would have been ironic), and the film is dedicated to her.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Under Fire [dir. Roger Spottiswoode]

While watching Under Fire, Roger Spottiswoode's film about US journalists covering the civil revolution against the regime of the dictatorial president Anastasio Somoza Debayle in Nicaragua, it is hard to not compare it with Oliver Stone's Salvador, which deals with similar territory. Under Fire is the more clean-cut and old-school Hollywood of the two. The journalist characters (Nick Nolte and Joanna Cassidy, with a strong pivotal turn from Gene Hackman) are not jaded by corruption or moral cynicism. They respect their job and believe in its capacity to help good prevail. This of course brings them to a course where they set aside the objectiveness their profession demands, to support the people they see as oppressed underdogs struggling against a vicious establishment willing to use all means at its disposal to crush the rebellion.

Of course, the film does hint at the hand of the US government in propping up the Somoza government till the shocking killing of an American journalist by his soldiers led to a public outcry that reversed their stand. In one scene a native character bitingly talks about how the deaths of thousands of Nicaraguans mattered less than the death of a single American in directing the world's eyes towards the oppression their people faced every day. But I found Under Fire a little less effective as a picture of the political and moral chaos that occurs in a civil war than Salvador was; even though the latter was sometimes more scattershot, it better conveyed this aspect.

Reviews of Under Fire have also brought up comparisons with Casablanca, a film of romance in a time of strife. There is a love triangle between Hackman and Cassidy who have just separated as a couple, and Nolte, who is Hackman's best friend and in love with Cassidy. It's handled with good taste: In one beautiful ly understated scene Hackman comes across intimate pictures of his wife taken by Nolte, which obviously cause him some heartache from leftover feelings, but he takes the thing in stride, knowing that what is past will not return.

Under Fire is a fine prestige picture with good writing and fine lead performances (also worthy of mention are Jean-Louis Trintignant as a charming if chameleonic power-broker and a young Ed Harris as an American mercenary). Cinematographer John Alcott evokes a strong naturalistic style, and there are some stunning open set-pieces with Mexico standing in for Nicaragua. Jerry Goldsmith's score I am ambivalent about: it's a remarkable adventure film score, but to me it undermines the starkness of the events behind the story.