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.


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.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Bali [dir. Vishal Furia]

Bali (Sacrifice) is the follow-up to director Vishal Furia's previous Marathi horror film Lapachhapi (Hide & Seek) [reviewed on this blog HERE]. Vishal's formula, if one may call it that for a 2-feature old maker (his third and most recent release Chhorii is a Hindi language remake of Lapachhapi), is to mix the chills with an underlying social message. Going into the specific details would be giving spoilers for those that have not seen them, so I will as much as possible refrain from doing so. What I liked most about Lapachhapi was its great location and atmosphere - Vishal has a real knack for identifying the inherent spookiness of an isolated / abandoned place and using simple but evocative visual framing ideas to allow the viewers to enhance it manifold in their heads. The best part of that film was the muscular middle-section showing a tantrik sequence where the protagonist appears to be trapped in a haze between reality and nightmare, not knowing which is which. The crafting of that sequence indicated a director with strong horror chops if he could control some of his other excesses, and it was with some anticipation that I sat down to Bali.

After a short prologue, Bali's main story begins with Srikanth (Swapnil Joshi) and his son Mandar (Samarth Jadhav). The opening moments are devoted to showing the close affection between the widower father and the little boy. Unfortunately, this is through cloying dialog and sentimental twaddle music that generates a sinking feeling about what lies ahead. Moving ahead, Mandar falls faint while playing cricket and is rushed by the father to the hospital, where incidentally he had been birthed.

Jansanjeevani Hospital (the name roughly translates as 'panacea for the masses') is where the bulk of the film is set. It is an old-style private-cum-charitable hospital setting with a closed-up disused wing, playing the same function of isolated eerie location as the remote sugarcane field in Lapachhapi. Once inside, Swapnila Gupta's script pulls out the corks on the weird stuff, as Mandar meets another child patient Bhaskar, who seems to move in and out at will, and claims to communicate with a nurse named Elizabeth who lives in the abandoned wing with the broken boarded-up windows.

This is also where the narrative becomes wobbly in credibility: The charming Dr. Radhika Shenoy (Pooja Sawant, returning from Lapachhapi) may radiate a caring attitude towards her pediatric wards, and is the daughter of the doctor that officiated Mandar's birth, but the fact that on his very first day in the hospital there are at least 3 instances of child patients, including Mandar, wandering off unattended and being found in strange places should have raised louder warning bells in Srikanth's mind. Even given that his financial difficulties may not give him a lot of choice about medical aid for his son, in an age where folks are ready to raise hell and bust a doctor's nose for any perceived negligence, Srikanth's wimpy acceptance of the "Oh hey, that kid's gone off again" situation in the hospital is strange. Perhaps the fact that Mandar was born there gives him a lingering attachment of familiarity and trust. Perhaps Dr. Radhika's charms are not restricted to her child patients alone. But the script does not trouble to give us ground for Srikanth's passivity.

It also does not sufficiently denote Srikanth's social circumstances. What does he do for a living? How does he manage work while at the hospital? Why does this amiable guy not seem to have any relatives / neighbors / friends to call upon? I am not a huge advocate for a story being explained to death, but there is an noticeable vacuum of context here. All we get is a lot of scenes where Srikanth implores Mandar to stay in his bed, while the brat (oh yes, that kid is annoying) whines incessantly about wanting to meet Elizabeth. These lapses in narrative are not sufficiently compensated for by the scare quotient. For seasoned horror fans, the clumsy cliches - like blood appearing on the hand-drawn map of the abandoned wing that Mandar gives Srikanth - generate more eye-rolling than dread. The whispery voices and glimpses of disfigured spooks passing from behind or reaching out have no freshness.

While not hugely enthralled, I did want to know where all of this leads to, and stuck out till the end. This eventually yielded benefits with one late scene showing dramatic character reveals and unveiling the cause of the eerie manifestations. There are also some important statements made about the modus operandi of hospitals and shady donation calls. While not as powerful as the aforementioned tantrik sequence from Lapachhapi, it is a heartening reminder of the maker's potential. Sad then, that it comes after so much empty noodling and is followed by a mundane finale.

Even with the lack of novelty, there's a decent story in Bali (and a hospital is a great horror setting - check out 1994's The Kingdom) A focused appeal to the sensitivities of horror buffs could have provided a well-made time-killer. But there are serious issues with the execution, subtlety being the biggest casualty. The incessant background score that seeks to underline every emotion only assaults the eardrums; Vishal would do better to trust his audience, and avoid such spoon-feeding. At the same time, the macabre element is anemic, and apart from that one late scene, there is little here that hasn't been done long before and to better effect.

As it stands, Bali does not live up to the ballyhoo.


Saturday, January 8, 2022

'83 [dir. Kabir Khan]

If  despite all of Kabir Khan and his team’s missteps, ’83 - the story of how the Indian cricket team under Kapil Dev's captaincy went from being complete underdogs to reaching the finals and defeating champions West Indies (WI) to pick up the trophy and forever change the future of the sport in India - works as a sports drama, it is because of the incredible true story behind it.

The screenplay (Kabir Khan, Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan and Vasan Bala) defines lack of focus. If they were trying to tell the story of India’s entire journey through the World Cup, it should have been an ambitiously mounted miniseries, India's answer to the Bodyline series, which we adored as kids. Or if they had decided to make a feature film, they should have done better than a collage of mostly rushed moments that do not give the epic build-up the narrative deserves.

For instance, they could have begun with the knockout match against Zimbabwe when India was at its ebb, and the manner in which Kapil almost single-handedly brought back the team from the brink of ignominious defeat, inspiring them to become the world-beaters they did. A gutsy film-maker would even have considered capturing the Zimbabwe game alone since it was also the sole unrecorded match in the '83 World Cup (due to the BBC being on strike that day, and most of the press being at the WI-Australia game). In the bid to cram in every match India played in that series, the games are reduced to highlights on steroids; there is no build-up or flow in their depiction.

Star Ranveer Singh makes an impact with his uncanny ability to absorb and emulate Kapil Dev’s persona. I must admit here that I am not per se a cricket fan, but as a kid the handsome toothy open-faced persona and flashy playing style of Kapil Dev would attract me enough to sit down to watch a cricket match. The two dialog scenes that really stood out for me are a) where Kapil vents about how the one thing that makes him angry is people’s lack of expectations from India, and b) when Krishnamachari Srikanth (Jeeva) gives a speech about the ‘mad’ captain who actually thought they had a chance to win this series when no one else did.

There are the occasional field action segments when the film takes a moment to focus, and provides some delights. The  depiction of the Zimbabwe game, while still too truncated, gives a taste of what could have been. When Ranveer's Kapil gives us his iconic Nataraja pose while slamming the ball all across the ground (and smashing several window-panes and even windscreens of cars parked outside the stadium), it is hard not to feel goosebumps and lumps in the throat.

While it would be foolish not to expect a grand show of patriotic fervor in one of the country’s most significant sporting moments, there are scenes where this goes into puerile jingo: For example, the Indian team sitting in their bus after being thrashed by the Windies in their second encounter burst into happy tears seeing a lone Indian flag waved by a kid, and I am not sure the armed forces appreciate being represented as people who are caught unawares by shelling while glued to the radio for cricket updates. Even considering 80's hair, some of the wigs are awful, and there are some really cringy homages, like Mohinder Amarnath playing his own father Lala Amarnath, Kapil Dev playing a spectator cheering himself (what was that about?!), and a cloying reference to a child Sachin Tendulkar.

Thankfully the real life legend manages to overcome these glaring potholes and one is still glad that a new generation of Indians (and sports fans in general) can relive one of the great cricketing moments in Indian history, one that, beyond the sport itself, forged a nation more confident in its own worth.