Friday, June 10, 2022

Zombies of Mora Tau [dir. Edward L. Cahn]

Of B-movie maven Sam Katzman, Charles Schneer said that he "Knew everything there was to know about making a movie. He was a very enterprising fellow, and was enormously intuitive. But, he was a very tough taskmaster and a real skinflint... all his input was negative. He never contributed anything positive. I would suggest an idea, and he would knock it down. I would argue with him, but I never got very far. He wouldn't say: 'Do this instead of that.' He would only say: 'Don't do this'.

Katzman was a power player in the low-budget movie business that produced movies for a number of studios  constantly feeding product to small theaters across the United States. Sometime in the mid-50's he targeted the teenage and adolescent crowd with science fiction tinged horror fodder like Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) and The Werewolf (1956). While not exceptional cinema, they were quite decent as low-budget entertainment, capturing a certain zeitgeist of the atomic era. 1957's Zombies of Mora Tau is another interesting yet not entirely successful entry from Katzman's stable. It differs in some important aspects from previous zombie movies like White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie, and in some ways presages George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead as well as the Italian Zombo-calypse movies.

Zombies of Mora Tau begins with a bang when the automobile the leading damsel is being chauffeured in runs over a figure standing on the road. The scene is supposedly set in Africa where the lady is going to stay with her grandmother, but there are almost no cultural landmarks and not a single native African to give credence to that claim. Anyhoo, despite her protests the otherwise kindly driver refuses to stop after the "accident", remarking that he did not hit a man but "One of THEM!". When she finally reaches her grandmother's home, she finds that gramma (Marjorie Eaton) has similar notions, and that the stories she'd heard as a kid about the "dead but not dead" are actually serious beliefs among her folk.

In parallel, a ship expedition with a drunk captain (Joel Ashley), his saucy wife (Allison Hayes) and a hunky diver (Gregg Palmer) plans to explore the wreck of a 19th century sunken ship to recover a casket of uncut diamonds. But when they near the site of the wreck, they get some uninvited boarders who don't seem too troubled about getting shot or drowning. The survivors jump ship and take shelter at Grandma Eaton's place where she tells them about the undead sailors cursed to forever guard the booty of diamonds against anyone that came to take them. Of course, they think gran's off her head even if what they have seen can't be explained away.

Moonlight shenanigans ensue - damsels are carried off, zombies rise from their coffins, and our leading cast must fight for their lives. While the zombies are created by a curse, they are not under the direct control of any witch-doctor or mad scientist unlike previous movies, and more importantly, they have the ability to convert other humans to zombies to add to their number (how is not clarified - it seems to involve some ritual in their crypt, not just a chomp of flesh). This brings them closer to the zombies in NotLD than White Zombie. We also see sequences of them attacking the divers underwater (done with a gauzy filter and projected bubbles) prefiguring the memorable Zombie vs Shark scene from Lucio Fulci's Zombie Flesh Eaters.

While there are fascinating elements in the script, Edward L. Cahn's direction is pedestrian. Marjorie Eaton's performance plays to the rafters, more Old Dark House than the subtlety called for. Visually too, there are not many striking moments - a Val Lewton protege or a Mario Bava could have worked wonders with the material. That said the film is only around 70 min long and doesn't allow much time for one's interest to flag.


A few words on the blu-ray from Arrow Video's set of Sam Katzman movies:

Video-wise, this is a very decent HD transfer for a vintage low-budget movie with good contrast for the numerous nighttime scenes. The mono audio is clear if limited in immersion. Supplements include a Kat Ellinger commentary on the film (which was pretty decent, although she is a lot kinder to the film than I felt) and a Josh Hurtado video piece on genre transformation in Katzman's films.


Tuesday, May 31, 2022

KGF: Chapter 2 [dir. Prashanth Neel]

For my views on the first chapter of KGF, please click HERE.

KGF-2 is a continuation of the old-school swagger from the first installment, but taken a few notches higher. Rocky (Yash) is still the uber-badass, dealing out sneering one-liners and sledgehammer fists in equal measure. He now controls the titular gold fields, but in his "More gold! MORE GOLD!" attitude seems to opt for a far less smart plan than the original owners had - I would imagine that part of the perceived value of gold is the fact that it's hard to mine and is made available to the market in limited quantities. Rocky's business sense resembles the guy that slit the belly of the goose laying the (ha!) golden eggs.

But this is not a movie one criticizes for its lack of business sense, or for that matter any other sense. This is a movie where our gangsta hero can:

  • Barge in unannounced into the Prime Minister's working chambers and swag at her, while she hisses ineffectively like Lalita Pawar in Ek Din Bahu Ka.
  • Have a blooming helicopter hovering above his lawn for a spot of breeze on a warm day.
  • Single-handedly assault a police station - no wait, that's a branch office of the CBI - with a tripod-mounted belt-fed large caliber machine gun to recover a single gold biscuit because dammit, that's HIS property.

The large supporting cast is (dur!) cast in that same mold of exaggerated sentiment. Someone actually says with a straight face that the character Sanjay Dutt plays was inspired by Viking culture, and he turns up in the soul-sapping heat draped in chain-mail and leather, and a braid that must take some serious grooming. And beards, beards still rule. Raveena Tandon's PM character would have probably posed a bigger challenge if she sported one. Everyone speaks their lines like theater actors anxious to ensure that their voices carried to the last row.

This is again not a criticism, it is inherent to the film's design. The canvas feels genuinely big, and while the brush strokes are broad, they are also unabashedly virile, with some epic visual moments. You can see that writer-director Prashant Neel wants to pay a Tarantino-like homage to the glory days of Macho Indian Cinema, and when it works, it works really well. On the whole I liked this a good deal more than the sum total of Bahubali.

What I would criticize is the déjà vu occurring over the course of this two-part narrative (with the imminent warning of a third installment). The danger of painting in broad strokes is always that there's not sufficient layer or detailing for the characters. While individual scenes are calculated to raise whoops and whistles (I'm sure this would have been a riot in the cinema hall), there is choppy flow and a lack of connective tissue between scenes - A lengthy symphony cannot be composed solely of overtures, you need to also think of the quieter moments.



Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Mundane History [dir. Anocha Suwichakornpong]

The work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul casts a long shadow on Thai arthouse cinema, and Anocha Suwichakornpong's 2009 debut feature Mundane History certainly owes some debt of inspiration to him.
 
The film is centered around Ake (Phakpoom Surapongsanuruk), a youth paralyzed from waist down, and Pun (Arkaney Cherkam), the male nurse employed to take care of him at home. The other significant characters are Ake's father, who is considerate yet distant from his son, and the family members / domestic staff.
 
Ake has the simmering frustration of a youth whose entire way of life has been snatched away, reducing him to someone that needs help with his most basic needs. He also feels emasculated by his inability to sense any sexual pleasure, as demonstrated in the scene where he masturbates in the bath to no effect (a scene which was probably instrumental in earning the film the Thai censor board's strictest age rating 20+). This makes him taciturn and indifferent / rude to the people around.
 
Pun at the beginning of his employment feels lost. He is a friendly, open-hearted person and the hushed sombre atmosphere of the house wears him down - he confides to an acquaintance on the phone that he finds it "soulless". But as he diligently works with Ake and shares his own thoughts with his patient, a bond develops between the two young men - they are of the same generation and find common ground in their interests. Pun provides Ake a companionship and affection his own father seems afraid to show.
 
Mundane History is presented in subtle non-linear fashion where at different points back and forth in time we see the outlook of Ake and Pun, and their interaction with each other. This non-linearity is not an essential device for telling the story, but does prevent it from following a cliched path, and more importantly, allows for time lapses where more can be left to the viewers' imagination.
 
It is not clarified what mishap led to Ake's paralysis, or at what point the estrangement between father and son occurred - was it caused by Ake's accident and subsequent disability, or whether it predated that? Beyond a point, the film is less interested in the emotional drama (the tone is tamped down throughout, neither anger nor joy are given showcases), and becomes more of an overarching poetic reflection on the rhythm of life (even incorporating the depiction of a caesarean section birth). I didn't find this meshing as organic and magical as in my favorite Apichatpong film Uncle Boonmee Recalls His Past Lives, but it is done well enough and does not overstay its welcome.
 
 


A few words on the Second Run DVD:

The DVD came out in 2012 and gives a decent though not particularly stunning presentation. Most of the film is shot in a naturalistic manner with lots of static camera settings, that are not necessarily the most picturesque. There is noise, especially in darker scenes, but I would assume that to be endemic to the source material. Audio comes in Dolby 2.0 and 5.1 options, the latter slightly expanding the ambient sound field for the world around Ake, and giving more body to the occasional music score. Extras include a conversation with the director discussing the film's genesis, making and its reception, and a previous short film by her called Graceland, which is visually more striking but with a sketchier narrative. As customary with Second Run, the release includes a booklet with an essay.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Kaun Pravin Tambe? [dir. Jayprad Desai]

So I saw Iqbal Part 2. Oh wait, it's called something else, but Shreyas Talpade is playing another underdog trying to make it in cricket. This is the story of a real life guy called Pravin Tambe, a club cricketer in Mumbai who persevered in honing his game in all his spare time even though he was not selected for any national level tournament up to his 40's, which in most sports is when people start to talk about retirement. He finally got to play in the Indian Players' League, where he made enough of a splash to garner notice and have a movie made about his life.

Kaun Pravin Tambe? (KPT?) does not have the production value of an '83 (reviewed HERE) or the M.S. Dhoni biopic, and the scope is a lot smaller. There are some nice Sai Paranjpe style touches in depicting the Tambe family's lower middle class life in a chawl type society - when Pravin and his brother get married together, they have to draw lots to see who gets the 'bridal suite'. The film also looks at Pravin's struggle to keep up various jobs while he still tries to sneak in some play time - In one instance he is strung along with promises of making a company cricket team to work for cheap by an employer who has no actual intention of actually doing so.

The film also highlights how the sport outside of the more glamorous tournaments often offers meager incentive for the players. Talpade has some fine scenes in which he expresses his character's despondence, and the talented Anjali Patil (Newton) does the best she can as the spouse who loves her husband but is also frustrated with what she feels is his lack of prioritization towards his family.

But even when KPT? eschews the usual patriotic jingo of Indian sports movies (likely because Tambe never played for the country as a whole), the script is still formulaic and most of the characters are etched in very broad strokes. Parambrata Chatterjee as the sneering sports journalist Sanyal is handed a one-note part that does not do the actor sufficient justice - I know that Sanyal's scorn towards Tambe is driven by his envy, but there should have been a more nuanced portrayal instead of making him a stock villain till short of the end. Also, the background score (credited to a Sai-Piyush) is near-constant and unsubtle.

But if you like cricket in general or the idea of a Readers' Digest type slightly saccharine inspiring story, I thought KPT? was better than those bigger-budget cricket movies.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Nightmare Alley [dir. Edmund Goulding]

It is no surprise to hear that 1947’s Nightmare Alley, the first adaptation of William Gresham’s novel was a passion project for its leading man Tyrone Power. Tired of being the Hollywood heartthrob in swashbucklers and light romances, and having seen a darker side of life in WW2, Power for looking for something meaty to sink his acting teeth into, and found the decidedly anti-heroic part of the fast-talking born hustler Stanton Carlisle right up his (ha!) alley. Of course, it was not a simple matter to bag the part. Fox Studios’ head honcho Daryl F. Zanuck was against the idea of one of his top movie leads risking his box-office charisma with such an unsympathetic part. Tyrone’s persuasion and a bit of script doctoring to tone down the hard-boiled cynicism of the source story finally got his okay and the result was a remarkable film that straddles noir and even a little bit of horror.

When we first meet Stanton he is assisting at a small-time carnival sideshow where Zeena (Joan Blondell) and her alcoholic husband Pete (Ian Keith) do a psychic act powered by a secret code between them. While Zeena still loves her decrepit spouse she is not wholly immune to Stanton’s charms. An accident (or is it?) leads to Pete’s death and Zeena shares the secret code with Stanton who becomes her partner in the act. He in turn shares it with his child-woman lover Molly (Coleen Gray). Shortly after Stanton and Molly quit the carnival and tour as a stage psychic act in high-end clubs where a blindfolded Stanton amazes guests with his ability to guess their questions and answer them correctly. During this period, Stanton encounters the icy psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), who first challenges him, but later becomes his accomplice in carrying out a larger-scale swindle with a rich man’s spiritual beliefs. Of course, Stanton’s karma catches up, and his elaborate schemes come crashing down upon him.

Stanton almost has a streak of self-destructiveness in how he trapezes from one con game to another, raising the stakes each time, with nothing by way of a safety net. The only constants in his outlook are his uneasiness / dissatisfaction with his current situation and almost feverish eagerness to set up a bigger, riskier scheme. Tyrone Power’s performance brilliantly reflects this, eschewing any easy sentimentality for this equal parts fascinating and frightening character; even the occasional depiction of a softer side works to add more dimension to Stanton and not have him be a stock villain.

Aside from Stanton himself, the film is pegged upon its female characters – Zeena, Molly and Lilith. While Zeena’s psychic is a con-game, she still has scruples (Hers is only a stage act, not a swindle). Interestingly she is a firm believer in the tarot, and her predictions with the cards foreshadow the film’s tragic events. Molly represents an unquestioning love, but even she is shocked by how far Stanton is willing to go in terms of snagging his prey. Lilith on the other hand turns out to be Stanton’s equal in ruthlessness. As a psychiatrist she surreptitiously records her clients’ sessions and provides Stanton with intimate details that enable him to “hook them”. It is hinted that she makes romantic advances to Stanton which he brushes away, and perhaps this is in her head as she betrays him once the roulette wheel starts to spin away from his grasp. As much as the script, Helen Walker’s performance brings the character chillingly alive from her first appearance to her final scene in which she almost gleefully reduces Stanton to a paranoid wreck. It is tragic that Walker’s movie career was short-lived on account of off-screen misfortunes (A history of alcoholism, and a driving accident in which a war veteran she had given a lift to was killed led to hostility from the public and disregard from the studios).

As originally intended, the film runs a tragic arc in which Stanton becomes the thing he is most pitying of. Zanuck’s insistence on a more redemptive coda does soften the impact, not in a manner that blemishes the film significantly. Even for the picky folks there is a point slightly before the official end which serves as a perfect bitter-edged conclusion to this terrific drama.

A few words on the Criterion blu-ray presentation of the film:

The video comes from a 4k digital restoration that was sourced off a 35mm print element. It looks handsome, nicely reflecting the shadowy cinematography (Lee Garmes). There are instances where some black areas appear flat, and textures somewhat soft, but grain is also evident, indicating that the softness is not the result of undue digital tinkering. The mono LPCM track adequately presents the film’s soundscape, with strong support to the dramatic score (Cyril Mockridge), which brings to my mind some of James Bernard’s throbbing music for Hammer Studios. Extras are significant, including an audio commentary by noir experts Ursini and Silver, a half-hour video essay by the erudite critic Imogen Sara Smith, a very fascinating history of the carnival sideshow by an actual performer-turned-historian Todd Robbins, and a relatively recent interview with Coleen Gray. There is a leaflet with an essay and even a handful of tarot cards representing the film's characters.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

KGF: Chapter 1 [dir. Prashanth Neel]

Thankfully this un-kvlt blog was never designed to be a trend capturer, or there would be the question of why a 4-year old movie that created a certain splash on release is only being reviewed now. Of course the immediate reason is that I was prompted to finally see it by the glowing reviews of the "bigger, badder" second installment that has made its way to the cinemas now.

The buzzword in the film industry these days is Pan-India, a product that will work over the entire country, across multiple languages and movie-goer demographics. It first gained traction with S. Rajamouli's ostentatiously mounted 2-parter Bahubali. The 500 crore + India grosses for a film that featured no prominent Bollywood acting talent showed a massive nationwide appetite for its mixture of simplistic old-fashioned narrative and gaudy spectacle, as though the population as a whole was saying that these Fahadh Faasil and Ayushmann Khurana middle-of-the-road ventures are okay to consume as OTT fodder, but when it comes to actually putting money down at the cinemas, give us the archetype larger-than-life movie centered around the HERO that worships his mother, romances the pretty girl and takes on a legion of bad guys while everyone around dutifully drops their jaws in awe.

There is nothing inherently wrong with that sentiment. Some of India's most beloved and enduring films were forged in the smithy of HERO cinema, and movie icons like Amitabh Bachchan, Rajinikant, Subhash Ghai built their careers upon this shrine. More recent entries like the first Dabangg (2010) or 2019's whimsical Avane Srimannarayana pay homage to the formula even as they cannily poke fun at it.  Sincerity of spirit and consistency of tone is what separates the creative gems from the derivative dross.

At least in its first installment, KGF (Kolar Gold Fields) falls somewhere in the middle. What it wants to be is an epic-scope saga of a warrior hero fulfilling his destiny. Born on the same day as the discovery of gold ore in the Kolar region sometime in the 60's, Raja Krishnappa Bairya is orphaned young after the death of a destitute mother who implores him to become a big man at least by his death so he can afford a proper funeral. Like every other Indian movie hero faced with a similar proposition he takes to a life of crime and becomes a high-profile hit-man called Rocky (Yash, already hailed in the credits as 'Rocking Star'). Stealth and subtlety are not the strong points of this assassin who could give Daniel Craig in Casino Royale a complex for sheer swagger. As the supporting characters in the film repeatedly proclaim (this film believes in 'show AND tell'), Rocky can veni-vidi-vici his way through all opposition. Lucky for him then that even the opposition lacks all stealth and subtlety. What he and them have in plenty is beards, such thick bushy affairs that it's hard to believe they are not compensating for something.

By linking its hero to the titular location, KGF provides tangible context to his fate, and Yash's deep-seeing stare suggests a formidable implacability of purpose. A focused narrative that went from his introduction to his being set on the path of his destiny would have made for a solid machismo-worshiping adrenaline rush. But like Gangs of Wasseypur's first installment, KGF-1 decides to temporarily abandon the quest to make time for a romance detour. Until then Yash had impressed as a stoic juggernaut capable of overcoming huge odds with a flick of his slick locks (he seems to be dependent on quick edits and multiple camera angles for his action scenes). But with the entry of the whatsername girl who borrows her fashion sense from Rati Agnihotri in Star, Rocky is reduced to a pedestrian eve-teaser with such genius exchanges as: "How dare you?" "How fair you!" Around a third of the film is wasted on this no-sizzle-all-fizzle-wet-dog-luurrv-angle which has no relevance to the story other than that blockbuster cinema is required to have a romance. There is also the immensely clumsy device of the tale being told by a journalist (Anant Nag slumming it) to a sneering TV anchor after having supposedly written a bare-all book that is being banned by a scared government. 

Things get better when KGF finally moves to its main location of the much-heralded gold fields, run with an iron hand by the villains. Rocky infiltrates the setting as a captured worker (Of course, none of the henchmen notice this beefy bouncer type walking tall among the rows of reedy cowed-down slaves). During this period of laying low he observes the exploitation of the workers in the illegal mine. The setting reminds me of the bandit stronghold in Avane Srimannarayana and the secret gold mine in The Mask of Zorro. Like all criminal protagonists in mainstream Indian cinema, Rocky's steely exterior hides a heart of gold and in carrying out his mission of assassinating the current master of the gold fields, he is also facilitating their release. Chapter 1 concludes at a pivotal point, foreshadowing the arrival of fresh adversaries and challenges that await our hero.

Going by the reviews I've read, I am hoping that KGF-2 has more of the good stuff and less of the awkward rubbish that hobbles the first part. My overall recommendation will depend on how that turns out.

Monday, April 11, 2022

Bheeshma Parvam [dir. Amal Neerad]

Bheeshma Parvam is not as infuriatingly dumb as Mohanlal-Prithviraj's Lucifer, but there's a lot to be desired for in this umpteenth desi take on The Godfather series. Mammooty plays the Michael Corleone character, who is even called Michael. Most of the other male members of his family take their names from the apostles. There may be some biblical significance to this, I am not qualified to comment ...or it's just another instance of what director-producer Amal Neerad thinks is cool. Because really, Bheeshma Parvam is less a movie and more a collection of visual and narrative elements Neerad fetishizes over.

The plot is so boilerplate predictable I am not even going to bother giving an outline, and will move directly onto talking about the style and quality of the film-making. Slow motion is utilized indiscriminately and loses all sense of style. The camera zooms into and pans over late 1980's period detail (cigarette packs, soft drink bottles, magazine covers, posters) for no reason other than that Amal Neerad wants to show you how much he worked on the production design. Charles Chaplin once deplored the tendency of film-makers to depict a scene "from the point of view of a piece of coal in the fireplace". Under Neerad's direction, Anend Chandran's camera looks at a character from the inside of an oven or from two car windows away. Emotional moments are negated by a visual sensibility more concerned with period paraphernalia than its characters.

Inversely the writing is singularly devoid of detail and texture. The good characters are good in a bland way, while the evil guys are evil without redemption. This is tragic, since the core idea of internecine struggle in a powerful family had a lot of potential given the acting talent on hand here. But the script rarely rises to their level. Shoubin Shahir and Srinath Bhasi manage to make a limited impact. For me the best scene was when Shoubin breaks down after a character's death, and it would have been great to see a metamorphosis of his character post that event. But, apart from the opportunity to participate in some well-choreographed action towards the end, he is converted to a glorified lackey making homoerotic lapdog eyes while Mammooty holds court. As for the superstar himself, the lack of nuance in the part is reflected in the actor's sleepwalking performance. It may be a commercial blockbuster, but from the point of an actor's prestige this was an offer he should have refused.


A few words about my OTT (Hotstar) viewing:
I understand the film was released in cinemas with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack. On Hotstar streamed through Chromecast, I only got Prologic II, and the balance was all out of whack - sound FX and BGM were annoyingly loud at normal dialog volume.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Piccadilly [dir. EA Dupont]

I became interested in 1929's Piccadilly after seeing Chinese-American star Anna May Wong do a pivotal role in the Douglas Fairbanks' 1924 version of Thief of Bagdad in which I thought her slinky spy a much better match for the hero than the milksop princess. Here Wong plays Shosho, a pretty young girl that goes from dancing in the scullery distracting the kitchen staff to becoming the star dancer of the titular Piccadilly club run by impresario Valentine Vilmot. Of course, her ambitions go beyond Mr. Vilmot's club, she must conquer the man as well. And if that means cutting out his current flame Mabel from his love life after displacing her as the main attraction in the club, well, that's just tough for Mabel.

Piccadilly has some pretty good things going for it. For one, I was surprised to see a movie of that vintage showing its Chinese-British characters in a non-archetype way - they are not rendered as ponytail wearing, traditionally garbed laundry-operating chopstick users. They are also not shown as subservient to the white characters (except for money, but that's a universal trait).

The movie is a great showcase for Wong too - although you never get to see the super-racy avatar the poster tempts you with, her glamorous presence and commanding attitude get center-stage. It was lovely to also see her in a pre-glam avatar as the young ingenue who is confident in her ability to mesmerize men. Jameson Thomas as the club owner who is smitten by her and Gilda Gray as the rival dancer who finds her position eroded away by Wong's magic form the other angles of a contentious triangle in which love, lust and ambition collide. The great Charles Laughton has a one-scene appearance as a disgruntled drunk patron who makes a scene about dirty dishes early in the film.

The race angle is hinted at indirectly, like in that powerful scene when Wong and Thomas go out to a pub and are rattled by the sight of a black man being thrown out for dancing with a white woman (she was the initiator). But rather than explore it more deeply, the film shrinks back into the safety of a conventional melodrama with a bunged in murder. 

E.A. Dupont's direction has a reasonable amount of visual style - I like the opening credits which are presented as bus hoardings, and there are some interesting tracking shots and camera angles. But I wonder how much more ravishing it might have come across if a G.W. Pabst (Pandora's Box) had helmed the same material (or a better script that took the race bull by the horns).

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Kids Return [dir. Takeshi Kitano]

Unlike the violent cop dramas he is most famous for, Kids Return is one of Takeshi Kitano's quieter films. The story focuses on Masaru (Ken Kaneko) and Shinji (Masanobu Ando), a pair of delinquents who are fast friends - together they cut class, play pranks on their stuffy teachers, try to sneak into adult movies, even shake down their classmates for money. In their relationship Masaru is the boss and Shinji the happy acolyte. When Masaru is beaten up by someone as comeuppance for their shakedowns, he decides to take up boxing to get his revenge and drags a reluctant Shinji along. But Shinji takes to the sport far better while Masaru drops out, instead enlisting with the local Yakuza boss.

A more conventional narrative would show Shinji achieving Rocky-style underdog glory (and that pumping Joe Hisaishi score is quite cheer-worthy) while Masaru smashes into a bad end, possibly even juxtaposing the one winning a big match as the other gets gunned down. But Kitano is not judgmental in that way. While Shinji is making his mark in the boxing arena, he is still hungry for the companionship he shared with Masaru in which he was happy to 'follow the leader'.  This leads to circumstances that threaten his success story. Simultaneously, Masaru's being used to bossing his friend around leads him to make impulsive decisions not compatible with his stature in the Yakuza world.

Shinji and Masaru are the fulcrum of Kids Return, but the film periodically also looks at their friends. In doing so it captures a spectrum of Japanese youth, who are either consumed by mediocrity and convention, or are punished for arrogance / lack of diligence. The film suggests that whether it's school, career or life, if you are not focused on the things you are part of, you eventually get discarded / replaced. The tone is not tragic but contemplative and with a strong streak of Kitano's deadpan humor; this is a harder path to take because the film runs the risk of appearing distant. But apart from maybe the occasional feeling that it could have tried to be less episodic and less expansive in its comment on an entire generation, this is an intelligent, sturdy observational drama from an obviously gifted storyteller.

Here's a taste of Joe Hisaishi's musical magic in this movie:


For those interested, a few impressions of the blu-ray from Third Window Films:

Kids Return is not the most glam looking Kitano film, but it's shot well enough (especially love some of the continuous tracking shots when Masaru and Shinji are training), and the transfer on the blu-ray does not disappoint. While "only" stereo (DTS-HDMA), the audio has excellent punch, and presence, both for sound FX and the toe-tapping score. In terms of extras, the disc includes a 20min making of with lots of BTS footage of the filming and an audio commentary by Japanese film scholar Aaron Gerow.

Saturday, April 2, 2022

Lady in White [dir. Frank LaLoggia]

Before The Sixth Sense (1999), in which 11 year old Haley Joel Osment talked to ghosts, there was Lady in White (1988) where 11 year old Lukas Haas talked to ghosts. And there is a 11 year gap between these two films, talk about coincidence.

Of course this is where most of the similarities end. The Sixth Sense was a deliberately tamped down, brooding journey while Lady in White is steeped in the cheeriness of 80's Hollywood.  Where M. Night Shyamalan's film immersed you in its atmosphere by being perversely restrained, Lady in White smacks you in the face with archetypes so broad they appear manufactured.

The film is set in early 60's still innocent America where Lukas Haas' Frankie is a small town schoolboy and the youngest child in an Italian-American family. This is of course the sort of small town where everyone is a neighbor, all shops are adorned with the names of their proprietors and the church is full on Sundays. This is also the Italian-American family where first gen migrants grandpa and grandma constantly bicker at each other in Italian (there's a running joke about grandpa sneaking smokes), widowed dad dotes on his sons and saying "damned" or "bloody" is considered unacceptable swearing.

When Frankie is locked inside the cloakroom after school as a prank on Halloween, he sees the ghost of a young girl playing out her death. There is also a shadowy intruder that comes to retrieve something from the grate in the room, and when he comes across Frankie, he attempts to strangle the boy. After being revived by his father, Frankie comes to hear of a series of child killings over the years; he also discovers that the first victim Melissa is the ghost he saw in the cloakroom. In due course, Frankie discovers that the spectral Melissa's search for her mother is related to the dreaded "lady in white" that lives in the cottage adjoining the seaside cliffs. He decides to help Melissa "find" her mother and unravel the mystery of her (and the other children's) death.

A lot of Lady in White's charm is tied in to its lead star Lukas Haas, who thankfully embodies the combination of innocence and tenacity of his character without coming across as precocious. Under LaLoggia's careful direction of Haas, you can believe Frankie's bond of affection his family, his penchant for imagination (early in the film he is called on to tell a spooky story in class for Halloween) and his desire to do good by Melissa.

But for me, the film does not succeed as a whole. The script is packed with too many horror film cliches and subtlety is sorely lacking. The tone of Lady in White is wobbly - the juvenile comedy interludes with the grandparents and the general squeaky-clean treatment would have made for a family-friendly PG affair, but after a point, the film suddenly shows us a rather graphic shooting and some intense child endangerment scenes. The identity of the killer is all too obvious, but the manner in which Frankie discovers it is unconvincing. Worse, the dependence on dated and awkward optical effects to depict the supernatural phenomena becomes a distraction, especially during the climax which looks amateurish.

Given the positive reviews I had seen from reliable sources - including Roger Ebert and Richard Scheib [Moria Reviews] I was hoping to be a good deal more charmed by this ghost story than I eventually was. But it does have its engaging bits, Lukas Haas being the most prominent of them.



Friday, April 1, 2022

Dawson City: Frozen Time [dir. Bill Morrison]

Sometime towards the end of the 19th century, a little town in the Canadian Yukon territory shone brightly for a brief spell as a gold-mining hub. In its salad days, the town had bulged with an ecosystem of tens of thousands of gold-hunters and others that lived off the prospecting boom. But it wasn't long before that shine dimmed and the population dwindled to barely a couple of thousand.

During the first three decades of the 20th century, Dawson city also experienced the magic of the cinema by way of film reels - including features, shorts and newsreels - that reached there after traveling a long way through America. After exhibition, these were generally dumped in Dawson because it was not viable for them to be sent back all that distance once their screening value was over. The film stock primarily used in this era was nitrate based, a flammable material which quite often spontaneously combusted, leading to major fires in movie houses and places of storage. After being shunted between different locations, the reels that were not disposed of by burning or throwing into the river were buried under the local ice rink. They were rediscovered in the late 70's and sent to Canadian and American film archives for preservation.


Bill Morrison's documentary starts with the story of the excavation that led to the discovery of these films, but the bulk of Frozen Time is a history of Dawson City itself, visually depicted by a marvelous splicing together of clips from all those reels that were originally buried there. The excerpt from Charlie Chaplin's original release of The Gold Rush, showing a serpentine queue of prospectors trudging up the snowy hills, is the most easily recognizable. Obviously the attempt is to have the feel of a silent film, with those vintage clips super-imposed with explanatory titles that tie them together into a heart-felt ode to this once vibrant settlement. The marks of damage and decay in the celluloid sources become a part of the film's artistic grammar, emphasizing the transience of human experience. The concept is terrific and one must give kudos to the film-makers who have sequenced images from so many different films and sources to provide a coherent and poetic journey.

If I have one complaint, it is that the film at 2 hours is quite long for an image-focused experience. A certain amount of repetition comes in - I realize it was a deliberate way of showing how fires from nitrate film and other materials were a constant and accepted hazard of life in those days, but when you see the 5th or 6th time a movie house or other building burns down set to a new age drone score, it starts to get a little old. It was the primary reason for me to split the viewing into two sessions.

While I did not love it as much as I hoped I would, Frozen Time is still an admirable painstakingly executed artistic effort that deserves to be seen.



Friday, March 25, 2022

Mifune: The Last Samurai [dir. Steven Okazaki]

 A short while ago I watched Mifune: The Last Samurai, the documentary on legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, who with Akira Kurosawa formed a legendary collaboration, as acclaimed as John Wayne and John Ford, Max Von Sydow and Ingmar Bergman or Amitabh Bachchan and Manmohan Desai.


To reference the Samurai of the title, the documentary (narrated, at least in the English version, by Hollywood's own Last Samurai Keanu Reeves) begins not directly with Mifune, but with the depiction of Samurai in Japanese cinema, which started as early as the silent era. The swordplay dramas became known as chanbara, a term generated by the sound of blades clashing in combat.

After this beginning the film turns to its subject, touching upon Mifune's childhood as the son of a Japanese family in China. It was actually sometime near the beginning of WW2 that he returned to Japan and worked as an aerial photographer. After the war, Mifune applied for work in the growing film industry. Popular rumor says that his application for a cameraman's position was misdirected to the actors' section and he took it up anyway. Better represented in Kurosawa's Something Like An Autobiography, Mifune captured the director's imagination with his wild audition performance, which eventually led to a nearly 20 year collaboration, starting with 1948's Drunken Angel and ending with 1965's Red Beard. This history is supplemented with input about Mifune's nature and work ethic from the sons of Mifune and Kurosawa, and several of Mifune's co-stars including Seven Samurai actor Yoshio Tsuchiya and his leading ladies. The partnership with Kurosawa ended after Red Beard possibly because of tensions caused on account of the commitment required by the director from his leading star who was by then also a movie producer with a company to run.

Mifune also worked with several other Japanese directors (including notably Hiroshi Inagaki for whom he played legendary warrior Musashi Miyamoto in the famous Samurai Trilogy). The need to keep his company running meant Mifune went into TV, something of a comedown for a star whose presence dwarfed the biggest screens. He also worked in some international productions including John Boorman's WW2 castaway drama Hell in the Pacific, the East-Western Red Sun and Steven Spielberg's war spoof 1941. Spielberg himself is on hand in the documentary, relaxedly talking about Mifune as a star, the Kurosawa collaboration and his own experience of working with Mifune. The narrative highlights Mifune's standing as the first global Asian superstar.

The tone is of course quite reverential, the documentary glossing over the scandal of Mifune's infidelity, which led to a decades long separation from his wife Sachiko. Also, there are few new facts for Mifune fans. Of course that's not a knock against its makers, but a byproduct of this trivia-hungry information age. It would have been wonderful if they had any archival footage of Kurosawa speaking about Mifune (the only contribution from Kurosawa is in the reading of a posthumous letter he wrote Mifune after the actor expired in 1997 (less than a year before Kurosawa himself passed away).



Sunday, March 20, 2022

The Batman [dir. Matt Reeves]

People have asked me, but I am as of now loath to do a full review of this new version of The Batman. The reason is, this movie tries to be something other than be a cliche costumed hero reboot story, and revealing too many plot elements would spoil the fun. But these are my salient impressions:

  • In terms of characterization, The Batman is definitely most inspired by the tone of the preceding Christopher Nolan series, but doesn't try to beat you as much over the head with turgid grandiosity. There are a couple of emocore scenes, but they only occupy a small portion of a 3-hour narrative that flows surprisingly smooth most of the time.
  • Full marks for not being another origin story. In this movie the Batman already exists as a young crimefighter, he has got his gadgets, and he has an ongoing liaison with James Gordon in the police force. No tedious exposition about who's who and what's what...and no fakking flashback recreation of when mommy and daddy were killed, hurrah for that.
  • Most of the movie is a cop mystery-action drama like L.A. Confidential, except where one of the cops dresses in a bat-suit.
  • They don't fetishize the bat-gear. Batman uses his stuff - batmobile, batarang and the other shit - but they're not haloed in a special spotlight for the fanboys to slaver over. During a large part of its introduction scene, the Batmobile is mainly seen as a pair of headlights coming up from the rear, and the sole 'hero' moment when it bursts through an explosion feels well-earned. One thing I felt they should have done is be even bolder in the costume department and remove Batman's cape - it serves zero purpose other than looking cool when he stands atop windy skyscrapers. Better still, they could have had a stiff kevlar-type folded structure that serves as backside armor and unfolds into a bat-wing glider when he leaps off buildings.
  • The action, when it happens, is furious and grounded. The scope is not overblown and it's executed with panache. The lighting of some of the set-pieces (Greg Fraiser) is stunning, but not in that self-adoring manner of Zack Snyder movies. Trust me, it's not a movie where the only exciting bits are in the trailer.
  • Catwoman is hot, she has a proper place in the story, and a relationship with Batman that's not just their common taste in S&M leather fetish. Heck, in this movie she seems a lot more confident in her skin than Batman does. She is played by Zoë Kravitz, who with this movie and Kimi seems to be the "it" girl for 2022.
  • On the other hand, it's not quite cinematic genius. People have compared it to David Fincher's Se7en, and I can see strands of similarity in the narrative, but really, that's like comparing the work of Frank Miller and Alan Moore. One of them manages only a superficial imitation of the other. But the best examples of that imitation are actually fun, and so is this movie.
  • Nirvana - Something in the way...this one was definitely a Zack Snyder grade eww moment.
  • Robert Pattinson's cool enough as the bat-eared hero. His Bruce Wayne is still iffy - that all-too obviously prepared goth chic hairdo makes him look less like a character and more like a sweater model.
  • Alfred (Andy Serkis, not playing a monkey this time, but wearing a monkey suit) is still the most useless valet in the world. I can only surmise that he and Thomas Wayne were lovers and he has incriminating photographs, the sole reason he's still keeping his job.
  • Without spoilers, the Riddler's grand scheme of villainy is really dumb. It is almost as dumb as whatsisname's from Skyfall, but it doesn't derail the film because the script is a lot more nimble and not striving as blatantly for symmetry and portent.
So for me, this was a good bit of entertainment, certainly more so than Batman Begins. I just hope that the cameo character that comes in at the end is not going to be the focus of the next picture when there are so many more interesting possibilities to take.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Erik the Conqueror [dir. Mario Bava]

I haven't seen The Vikings (Richard Fleischer) which is supposed to have been a HUGE inspiration for Mario Bava's Viking movie Erik the Conqueror aka Gli Invasori (The Invaders). I don't think Bava was too interested in an authentic representation of Viking culture, substituting fjords and rivers with some clearly studio-made exotic subterranean cave with a huge fake tree in it. There are also dances from slinky women clad in diaphanous outfits that would see them shivering in actual Viking climes. The scenes of people sailing in longboats are clearly done on a studio set without any water (I think they just move the camera on a dolly to give the illusion of motion).

The plot is about two brothers, sons of a Viking king killed in battle with the English by betrayal. They are separated as children - Erik (Giorgio Ardisson) is found by the English queen and brought up as her own son, while Eron (Cameron Mitchell) is raised by his uncle and poised to become the next Viking-king. These 2 also happen to fall in love with twin sisters, who are vestal virgins (in Viking culture?) and do the dancing in diaphanous outfits. There's a convoluted plot which involves an evil British regent who actually engineered the death of the brothers' dad and is continuously scheming to gain control of the British throne, even if it means handing over the castle keys to the Viking invaders.

This is a melodramatic adventure movie, in which a fair amount of the script feels like it was being made up or shuffled around on a daily basis. More than the brothers or their lady loves, it is François Cristophe as the British Queen and Andrea Checci as the scheming regent who make an impact. Erik the Conqueror is not one of Bava's more distinctive directorial features, but it has its moments. The action scenes, given that this would have not got even a tenth of a Hollywood studio film's budget are fairly well done, with multiple planes of fighting (although there are some obvious repeated shots of people being felled). I'm sure Bava biographer Tim Lucas' commentary, which is included on the Arrow blu-ray I watched it on, will give some revealing insights into how specific scenes were filmed and how Bava used his VFX expertise to conceive and execute scenes well above the production's meager means.



Monday, March 7, 2022

Ohm Shaanthi Oshaana [dir. Jude Anthany Joseph]

I think the best and worst thing you can say about Ohm Shaanthi Oshaana (OSO, not to be confused with the overhyped Farah Khan movie) is that it is a pleasant film (ditto the director's later effort Sara's). Told from the POV of the heroine Pooja (Nazriya Nazim) - the young daughter of a doctor who develops a schoolgirl crush on a local farmer and tries to win his love even after he dismisses her crush as a temporary infatuation - it has a whimsical take on first love and how it endures all manner of obstacles to be finally fulfilled.

The good stuff first: a romance story told entirely from the POV of the girl is a refreshing experience. OSO is breezy and family-friendly throughout. The script emphasizes that life does not stop and take a break when love happens - Pooja's romantic arc starts when she is still a uniform-wearing schoolkid. All the while that she nurses her crush on farmer and local do-gooder Giri (Nivin Pauly), she still goes through her medical education and works on her internship - her career path is not some pointless namedrop, unlike say Madhuri Dixit's "computer student" from Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. While the romance is between a Christian and a Hindu, religion is never a hurdle to their companionship. Critical for a romance, lead actors Nazim and Pauly have strong chemistry (they also vibed well in the watchable thriller Neram). The screenplay has some playful and inventive visual ideas that directly address the audience and poke fun at cinematic romance idioms - for instance, after Giri shunts off to China to "learn kung-fu at the Shaolin temple (yep)", Pooja has a disturbing dream of him in stereotype oriental getup speaking in Chinese to his native wife. 

The not-do-good: OSO is divided between its sincere romance and whimsical spoof elements. It simultaneously wants to poke fun at the romance drama genre and revel in its excesses. In a shorter (90 min) film, the whimsical 4th wall breaking aspects, well-done by themselves, would have been the punchy USP. In its current longer avatar, they sometimes seem like mildly annoying distractions from the narrative. Certain plot elements like the hints about "other women" in Giri's life are unnecessary cliches that suggest a kitchen sink approach rather than focus on how Pooja grows into adulthood while being steadfast to her first love.

Also the film is not clear about its stand on Pooja's tomboyish nature. When we first see her in the home of her indulgent parents, we learn that she loves to ride bikes, wear pants, practice archery, whistle and slide down bannisters. In her quest to win Giri (and his mother) she shifts to saris, and later sits behind Giri on his bike in the traditional sideways female pillion rider position. What does that say about her true inner nature and what her life is going to be post-marriage? Has she "matured" into the subservient Indian bride whose own preferences and expectations must take a backseat to her husband and family? Of course, there are hordes of feisty independent women that wear traditional clothing etc, but the lack of clear rationale behind these kind of deliberate changes in a film that is very vocal about championing the woman's desire leaves one dissatisfied.



Monday, February 7, 2022

Mothra [dir. Ishiro Honda]

As the title so blatantly hints at, the monster in 1961's kaiju offering Mothra is a giant moth creature. Of course, monstrous here essentially relates to the creature's size, since Mothra is at least neutral if not outright benevolent towards humankind. It is the deity of a Polynesian island which had been considered uninhabited and even used for nuclear testing. That perception changes after the survivors of a Japanese ship run aground during a storm on this island are rescued and found to not be suffering the expected damage of radiation exposure. Not only does the island host a native tribal civilization, but they have concocted a red brew which seems to protect them from the radiation.

A joint expedition with leading scientists and explorers from Japan and the nation of Rolisica (a fictional country that seems to satirize the capitalist culture of the US) also discovers a pair of tiny singing women that are linked with a giant egg worshiped by the natives. Nelson, the Rolisican leader of the expedition, is played by Japanese-American actor Jerry Ito as a caricature of evil greed. Disregarding the "live and let live" policies of his Japanese colleagues, he grabs the little women (twins Emi and Yumi Ito of the pop band The Peanuts) with the intention of using them to make money as a showbiz attraction (like in King Kong).

In a mirror of US domination of Japanese policies, Nelson forcibly asserts his rights over the twins. His greed eventually leads to the hatching of Mothra from the giant egg. On a mission to restore the twins to their home on the island, the caterpillar form of Mothra swims its way to Japan causing much havoc both at sea and on land. it then forms a cocoon from which emerges the final form of the titular giant moth. Whether Mothra completes its mission and whether our Japanese heroes are able to persuade it to not attack humans in its course forms the rest of the film.

Although made by the same director (Ishiro Honda), Mothra differs in style from the seminal kaiju film, 1954's Godzilla/Gojira. Firstly it is in brash (Eastman?) color, not the black and white that gave a newsreel vérité quality to its predecessor. It has more cardboard heroes and villains, and is not as much about the conflict between nature and human progress as a good humans vs bad humans scenario. In the humorous relief (Frankie Sakai's cheeky reporter) and introduction of precocious child characters, it is also more geared to entertaining young audiences. All of these do make Mothra less impactful as a film than Godzilla was. That said it has some decent visual effects of the practical kind, and the very concept of a giant monster being serenaded with a weird song by tiny women tickles the imagination.



Monday, January 31, 2022

Candyman 2021 [dir. Nia DaCosta]

The 1992 film of Candyman is an iconic horror feature, one that - apart from the first Hellraiser film - comes closest to writer Clive Barker's trademark blend of romance / eroticism and horror; in its strongest moments it is simultaneously poetic and horrific. I admire the film so much I declined to see the much less well-regarded sequels. Apparently the original's director Bernard Rose was attached to a follow-up project sometime in the early 2000's, but that did not ultimately crystallize. When a new take on Candyman was announced a couple of years ago I was skeptical, but the presence of Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us) in the creative team was a major attraction. Peele is known for horror films built around quality writing, and his presence at least indicated that this would not be some idea-bereft VFX-showcasing cash-in on a known IP.

The 2021 film carries the same name as the original, but is not a traditional reboot. It is in fact a sequel that incorporates into its backstory the events of the 1992 movie and revisits the setting nearly 30 years later. Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is a painter working to make a presence in the art world, with the help of girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris) who is an art curator. The film begins with them having shifted into a swanky part of the Cabrini-Greens neighborhood, and Brianna's brother Troy relates to them the events of Candyman 1992 as known to the public. Anthony jokingly invokes the Candyman summoning ritual, and shortly afterwards, strange and horrific events occur around him and his circle. Through the medium of the story, the film looks at the culture-stripping gentrification of minority neighborhoods, and also examines the art-world as a metaphor for racial integration in mainstream society. Candyman is represented as the collective (hive) spirit of the rage of a savaged / oppressed minority.

This does not mean that our Afro-American lead is enshrined in a golden halo. In fact, one of the early Candyman killings is of the gallery owner who wants to expel Anthony's work, and it is no secret that the artist is pleased with the reversal of his fortunes that comes in the aftermath of the murders. This change of fate is tied in with a physical transformation triggered by a bee sting (you definitely need to have seen the 1992 film to anticipate what this is leading to).

For me Candyman 2021 works a lot better on paper than as it unfolds on the screen. One of its problems is trying to depict a wide-ranging take on race prejudice within its fantasy universe in a very limited time-frame. The Candyman character is stripped off the intriguing ambivalence to a more outright sympathetic character. Also, too many of the supporting cast come across as exposition dumps. Yes, even the original Candyman had a lot of backstory reveal, but it was achieved in a more seamless fashion. Also this film over-uses the artistic device of paper puppets re-enacting the described events, as though the makers were not sure of the actors sufficiently holding attention with their lines. One of the best moments of Blackkklansman for me was when the Harry Belafonte character is describing a lynching - the event is presented solely through his retelling, and the scene is powerful because it asks the audience to imagine the event in their heads without distracting visual guides.

The film does get stronger in the climax, where it more fully realizes its potential of concomitant beauty and horror, but even here, it does not reach the heights of the original. Unlike Peele's previous films, Candyman 2021 relies too hard on the audience's memories of Candyman 1992 to play up the horror element in their heads, losing some of the majesty and mystique the previous film in favor of being a shrill social justice cry.


 

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Bheemante Vazhi aka Bheema's Way [dir. Ashraf Hamza]

In Bheemante Vazhi, Bheema aka Sanjeev (Kunchako Boban) is a bachelor living in the village with his aged mother. After an incident in which he had to struggle through convoluted narrow lanes to get her to hospital, he takes on the mantle of getting a road through his neighborhood. This requires him to obtain permission from all the neighbors to allow part of their property to be used for the road, and adhere to the necessary bureaucratic protocols necessary to get the job done.

But the movie is not just about our hero achieving this task. It is also about his personal life - specifically, his outlook on sex and romance, and his phobia to commitment in a relationship. When the movie begins Bheema is in a regular sexual equation with a girl neighbor. When she gets a proposal, he is the one who smooths the way for her marriage, even if later he remarks to his BFF Maharshi (Chemban Jose Vinod) about the unemotional way in which women change partners. Later, he forms a deep mutual attraction with a Kannadiga railway engineer Kinnari (Megha Thomas). But when, prior to embarking on sex, she talks about marriage, he backs off immediately.

Bheemante Vazhi is remarkable in how liberated it tries to portray itself. Especially considering the insular rural setting, the attitude towards the female gender is incredibly forward. Except for one representative villain Kostheppu (Jinu Joseph) who makes lewd remarks at women AND puts various obstacles in the matter of the road-building, women are treated without prejudice. They can guzzle beer with the menfolk at the local bar or have casual sex without society chee-chee-ing them. It's a nice wish fulfillment exercise, even if it doesn't seem to mirror the reality of small town India (I would love to be corrected about this, if anyone has a perspective they want to share).

Bheemante Vazhi has a pleasant, unhurried beat and mostly likable characters. It however doesn't take enough trouble to keep the details of Bheema's mission interesting. Some of the technical and bureaucratic hurdles Bheema faces are not explained clearly and it became a little hard to comprehend the sequence of events in that regard. Problems arise and are sorted in a very deus ex machina fashion. The climax doesn't make much sense - if beating up the bad guy solves the legal problems, it could have been done a good while back. Also the manner in which the film resolves Bheema's Lothario status at the end ignores some of the beautiful character writing up until that point, and just feels cheap and random.

While not as well-worked out as it should have been, Bheemante Vazhi is, with sufficiently tempered expectations, a watchable enterprise.


 

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Fuku-Chan of Fukufuku Flats [dir. Yosuke Fujita]

Yosuke Fujita's movie Fuku-chan of Fukufuku Flats seemed like it could be an interesting entry in the laidback whimsical movie mold, like Katsuhito Ishii's The Taste of Tea, which I enjoyed a lot. The story revolves around Fuku-chan aka Fukuda (Miyuki Oshima), a shy and pudgy bachelor that lives in a blue-collar apartment complex and makes a living as a wall painter. Fukuda's single status is worrying his closest friend Shimacchi (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa) who keeps trying to arrange matches for him. These attempts are firmly rebuffed by Fukuda, otherwise an easy-going and good-natured person that quickly makes friends, even with decided oddballs like the neighbor with a python and another who is constantly visiting shrines as penitence for having once been a panty-stealer.

One day Fukuda meets the woman Chiho (Asami Mizukawa) who in the past had done him a wrong that scarred him for life, but is now determined to make amends for her mistake. The rest of the film is about how the friendship between Fukuda and the woman is gradually nurtured, and the change it brings into their respective lives and the people around them.

The ingredients are there for a modern Ozu-like feature with some surreal elements. But while The Taste of Tea captured a wonderful souffle like delicacy, Fuku-chan... falls below those heights; the relation between Fukuda and Chiho is handled with less skill, showing a more turgid sentimental touch, which never feels truly earned. Some parts, like the curry house episode in which they are almost murdered by the curry house owner simply because they asked for water to quench the hot curry, feel bizarre for bizarre's sake.

Still, most of the film is sufficiently watchable to recommend this on the whole as a relaxed one-time diversion. Curiously enough Miyuki Oshima, the lead actor playing Fukuda is actually a woman, with her hair cut really short and wearing men's clothes. Perhaps the director felt she had the right face for the part, even though she is not very convincing as a male.


Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Serious Sam 3: BFE

Having finally caught the Covid-19 infection, I have been in home isolation for the past few days, and after I got over the initial hump of fever, I felt sufficiently alright to do some PC gaming. After the idylls of GRIS I thought I would get into some mindless shooting of some alien bastards with 2012's Serious Sam 3: BFE. I had played a bit of SS3 after getting it at the time of release, but an early challenge area where I kept dying (I admit I have no skillz) made me put it back on the digital shelf. This time I started afresh, managed to get over that hump and move ahead. The first two Serious Sam games, imaginatively called First Encounter and Second Encounter, are among the most fun I've had in first-person shooters (FPS), with gorgeous wide open environments, kooky physics, silly wisecracks, chunky weaponry and a massive and varied bestiary to use it against. After the overly cartoony and gimmicky Serious Sam 2, this was supposed to be a return to roots for Sam Stone, Croteam's iconic weapon juggling parody of machismo. 

But I feel they went a little too far in dialing back the humor and color. SS3's first third is primarily set in a modern day battle-torn Egypt, which looks more like a Call of Duty environment with its bombed out buildings and razed streets (Later your character moves towards older ruins and eventually opens the timelock transporting him into the ancient Egypt setting of the first Sam game). More concerning is the introduction of weaponry with reloading and iron sights. Anyone that has played a Sam game before knows that the USP is to relentlessly blast one's way through large hordes of colorful enemies rushing towards you. Having to reload pistol and shotgun every 10 rounds, and the assault rifle every 20, is an onerous task in this type of game. Still worse, till more than 2/3rds into the game, ammo is scarce for weapons bigger than the shotgun(s) and the assault rifle. This means that for a long time, SS3 is more effectively played as a shooter in which the player hides behind cover and fires in short bursts. That's not inherently bad, but it makes the game feel more like a Serious Sam character mod for a Call of Duty game; even the trademark hilarious beheaded kamikaze bombers carry a more melancholic connotation in the warzone setting.


That said the more 'realistic' vibe did grow on me, and it helps that the technical aspects of the game are fine, and hold up well for a game that's nearly a decade old now. While I missed the more colorful vibe of previous games, especially Second Encounter's Aztec jungle shrines, Mesopotamian minarets and European hamlets, the art direction and the graphics of Serious Engine 3.5, at least on Ultra settings, have a consistent palpable quality that are a major step-up from previous versions of the game engine, including the one that powered HD remakes of the first two games. The particle effects from smoke and explosions are intense (so much so sometimes you can't see what you're shooting at, but hey, that's war). SS3 realizes that it is hard to make out pick-up items against the debris-littered background and helpfully borders them with color-coded glows (red for health, blue for armor, green for weapon and yellow for ammo).

It is mainly in the last third, after your character opens the timelock, that SS3 becomes *relatively* more free-handed with ammunition for the big guns (even here, the laser gun and the big cannon are underfed, and you rely mostly on the minigun, rocket launcher and remote explosives) and allows you the feel of the vintage Sam games. But the challenge ramps up all too quickly in comparison. While Sam has never shied away from an adrenaline pushing fight, the odds here are staggering. Add to that a greater number of enemies that can fire accurately from a large distance, while dodging your rockets, and two classes of airborne foes that are both hard-to-kill bastards - one of them is a Half-Life 2 helicopter inspired flying mutant who only responds to explosive damage, and the other is a tele-porting witch that can slow down Sam and deflect his aim while doing damage. When you have to deal with them in the middle of a showdown with a hundred other critters, it's a daunting prospect.


With regards to the last level, I will state here that could not complete it. I did not even reach the end-boss because the sheer volume of enemies in the way, combined with insufficient ammo for the ultimate weapons, made it  outright impossible to get past without dying. Coming from someone who completed the previous Sam games, and found them fair even when tough, I have to wonder if this was play-tested for anyone below godlike shooter reflexes. It's sad, since the atmosphere of the game was brilliant at that point, with glorious combat music serenading as sun-rays flooded the massive canyon Sam is running through raising mayhem in the final leg. Checking on the net, I find that game reviewers (who normally are veterans that relish a challenge) are recommending to play this on Easy difficulty. Heck, for this last level, I dropped down to the so-called Tourist mode, which regenerates player health when not taking damage, and  I still could not clear a way past the literal army of thousands beating down on me. It's a bitter pill to reach this far in a game and not be able to complete it, but fuck that, I have better things to do with the last dregs of my isolation period than beat my head against this (Sam) stone.



GRIS

Un-kvlt has become so much a movie opinions blog it is shocking to even myself when I add other content. But I have previously done game impressions so this is not entirely unheard of.

GRIS is one of the few video games where the end is a sad place to reach because you feel you could have stayed on a lot longer in the gorgeous world. You could take a screenshot just about anywhere in this surreal 2D platformer with light puzzle elements and it'd look like a frame-worthy work of art. The soundtrack is minimalist but very soothing and emotional in parts. Add to that a VERY forgiving learning curve - no dying, no hard boss fights, no requirement of super-fast reflexes and generally very intuitive puzzles - and I would recommend EVERYONE to try this out, even people who do not normally play video games.

More experienced gamers might deride this as a pretty but casual walking (with some jumping and swimming) simulator with barely any test of thumb dexterity, but I was certainly not complaining. The only place where I had a spot of trouble navigating was in an extended underwater labyrinth level where the visuals would sometimes zoom out so much I had to look for where my character was. But even there, taking a break for some time and then trying again, I was back on track.

Check out these screenshots I randomly took while playing to get an idea of how incredibly ravishing it looks. In motion it is even prettier when objects light up or make subtle motions in response to your actions. Moving your character around and discovering further wondrous areas of the game-world is a joy that transcends hitting the game goals or the acquisition of achievement trinkets.