Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Hotel du Nord [dir. Marcel Carné]

Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22588108

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.