Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Voices [dir. Marjane Satrapi]

Deadpool may have garnered the hype and box office, but in my opinion this little black comedy from 2014 is more entertaining and a better showcase for Ryan Reynolds' abilities.
Unless you go into the film absolutely blind, and not likely for long even then, it becomes evident that Reynolds' character is a "special person". Like the munchkin lead of The Lego Movie, Reynolds believes "Everything is Awesome!", as he goes about his job at the bath fixtures company (with its dazzling bright pink aesthetic on everything, including workers' overalls, forklifts and cartons). He enthusiastically participates in setting up the company party and tries (too) hard to attract the attention of the office hottie (Gemma Atherton). He also regularly visits a state psychiatrist who constantly badgers him about taking his medication (uh-oh). And he has a dog and cat, Bosco and Mr. Whiskers respectively...who he talks to...and who talk back to him.

It's the curse of the under-confident person, I get discomfited by films / TV series where the humor is at the expense of someone's embarrassment, which is why I did not see more than the stray episode of Wilfred (in which the dysfunctional lead character sees his neighbor's dog as an anthropomorphic talking entity), but I can see how it could have been the inspiration for Reynold's interaction with his chatty friends - Bosco represents the angel archetype telling Reynolds he's "a good boy", while Mr. Whiskers is, like many cats, an unapologetic A-Hole. The film gets more drama when Reynolds ends up accidentally(?) murdering the hottie, and tries to (ahem) bury the issue by taking home the body, chopping it into little bits and keeping her head in the refrigerator; as it turns out, that's only the start of a chain of events.

What differentiates The Voices from other bizarre comedies is that it's not content with drawing easy giggles. Reynold's character may be a Norman Bates stereotype (there is even a deliberate wink to that inspiration), but he is developed with sensitivity and dimension, and the script succeeds in making you feel for this murderous bumbler. There is also intelligent use of visual cues to differentiate between Reynolds' fantasy world and reality.

There are some stumbles, like when a literal conga line of Reynolds' colleagues come snooping around his home instead of alerting the police even after they have uncovered enough indications to raise the flag of suspicion, but the film does not overreach its grasp and I found sufficient charm and that magic blend of humor and pathos to overlook these deficiencies.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

My Indian movie trips of 2016

GREAT

Kaul (The Calling) - Aadish Keluskar's debut feature in Marathi is a brilliant existential horror film with some of the best use of sound to create mood I've heard in a film since a long time. I saw it twice at the cinema, the second time in immersive Dolby Atmos. I pray it comes out on BD/DVD so whoever that is interested in such films can get to watch it.
Aligarh - After the brilliant and underrated Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar, Hansal Mehta and Manoj Bajpai join forces again to give a powerful drama of a man unfairly persecuted by society for the sin of being different. There are flaws yes, but damn it, this is a sincere and moving effort and deserves to be on your watchlist.
Budhia Singh - Born to Run - Manoj Bajpai is on a roll with this year's releases. In BS-BtR he is not the titular character but plays the equally important role of the coach determined to make a marathon champion of the child Budhia, even if he must resort to highly unorthodox and questionable methods of training him. Effectively portrays the other side of the rah-rah sports film.

GOOD

Ghayal Once Again - Not great, but surprisingly entertaining, with a script that makes The Matrix look like kitchen sink drama, retro-badass action and hilarious ineptness. I especially enjoyed the audacious extended chase sequence in the first half of the film, genuinely well done. Recommended for fans of 80's style action dramas.
Mohalla Assi - Not officially released, but you can find it on the interwebs. A cynical satire on Benaras by Chandraprakash Dwivedi that takes on too many "issues" and meanders more than needed, but has some good moments and is notable for the most uncharacteristic Sunny Deol performance ever.
Fan - This one turned out better than expected, especially in the first half. Post-interval it bloats up with increasingly preposterous bait-n-chase sequences and very dodgy script machinations. But like with Chennai Express, SRK seems to take a special delight in making digs at his own legacy. No songs is an added plus.
Ventilator - Rajesh Mhapuskar's Marathi film starring Ashutosh Gowariker struck a strong chord with its identifiable dramedy of the family commotion that occurs when a relative is admitted in hospital. Runs too long with an exhausting series of emo-moments towards the end but worth watching once if you like the Hrishikesh Mukherjee kind of cinema.
Akira - I can see the eyes rolling among some of you, but I waspleasantly shocked  to see a Murgadoss movie that doesn't have an extended flashback sequence so cloying and rancid it makes you want to stab your eyes out. Also, I have a soft corner for Sonakshi Sinha who I think is one of the promising actors of today, so catching her in a 'hero' role was a thrill, even if the action sequences were shot quite haphazardly. Anurag Kashyap as actor was fun too, a lot more than as the director of Raman Raghav Thoo.

MEH
 
Pink - Pink is actually good...until Amitabh Bachchan walks in and completely upends the story, taking attention away from the credible and sympathetic female cast. The wang-wagging courtroom drama was abysmally preachy and screechy and poor Piyush Mishra got the most thankless part.
Airlift - It arrived on the marquee in the same weekend as a bunch of interchangeable randy Tusshaaar Kapoor movies, and was a comparatively decent experience, but when I reflect on it, very generic in construction and quite forgettable.
Kahaani 2 - Better than the previous one IMO, but again dragged down by an ass-breaker running time (130 min), excruciatingly detailed flashbacks, caricature bad people and let-me-tell-you-what-to-feel background music...and of course the up-its-own-butt twist ending.

YUCK

Raman Raghav 2.0 - A terrible experience, a hodge-podge of contrived scenes and faux-edginess (Anurag Kashyap-ness?) with almost no good element that wasn't lifted from elsewhere.
MSG: The Lion Heart - yeah yeah, I know a bunch of you are going to say "What did you expect?" But I loved the first MSG film for its incredulity and complete absence of sense of proportion. This one began in a promisingly hilarious fashion but got bogged down with a sluggish and annoying flashback that lasted the entire length, with a message to wait for Part 2, grr


STUFF I NEED TO SEE
Visaranai (Tamil), Kapoor & Sons, Dangal...let me know what else I missed out on.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Stella Cadente aka Falling Star [dir. Lluís Miñarro]

Normally, Second Run DVD is home to the less-known classics of European cinema (especially Czech and Polish), but they also sometimes do new releases like 2014's Spanish entry Stella Cadente, which was interesting but less satisfying than one hoped.
 
The falling star of the plot is Amadeo I, who came from Savoy to Spain in 1870 after being elected king by the Spanish legislature, only to find that the country as a whole did not want a king. Against advice, he refuses to abdicate, determined to be an ideal monarch. He bubbles with ideas of progress, freedom and prosperity, but is roundly ignored by the politicians he interacts with and even the palace staff, who tend to his needs but snigger at his back. His vegetarianism, compassion to animals and fidelity to his absent wife are seen as weaknesses in character. Till a time, his only companion is his Man Friday Alfredo (who masturbates into melons in open fields). The arrrival of his wife provides relief from the loneliness, but only temporarily. She makes him aware of the uselessness of his position, that of an abandoned captive in the palace (not unlike his bejeweled tortoise pet). Just 3 years after he arrived, Amadeo left Spain, which then declared itself a Republic.
 
Stella Cadente is a handsomely mounted vehicle that takes references from Lucino Visconti in its depiction of decadent nobility (albeit at a 106 min a lot less indulgent in running time), and Alex Brendemühl as Amadeo I gives a fine depiction of the ineffectual ruler. But the film is confined to too narrow a scope for us to experience Amadeo's frustration, and so much of the social backdrop is kept off screen, there is a paucity of context. Instead we get an anemic character study with some (bizarre or otherwise) sexual asides from the supporting cast (If you have a problem with male frontal nudity you have been warned). Also, I found the anachronistic song interludes off-putting.
 
While your mileage may vary with the film itself, Second Run's release looks great, although I was jarred by the idea of seeing a historical drama captured on digital video. This may be on DVD only, but they really push the limits of the format, offering lush colors and texture.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Pit Stop [dir. Jack Hill]

Jack Hill's Pit Stop may lack the sophistication of the benchmark noir films, but in its scruffiness is a little gem. Set in the dangerous world of figure eight and drag racing, the film's protagonist (Dick Davalos) is an impetuous maverick who gets persuaded by race promoter (Brian Donlevy aka Quatermass) into pitting himself against current champ (a young and energetic Sid Haig). Davalos does that only to bear the brunt of Haig's fragile ego and destructive temper. Later the two team up to run interference at the Nationals for another champion racer (George Washburn). Washburn's initial arrogance puts off Davalos to the extent that he aims to show up the champ and makes a play at Washburn's neglected wife (Ellen Burstyn in an early role, already charismatic). In his quest to rise above his circumstances our hero ends up selling his soul.

Large swathes of footage are devoted to the races themselves, which look downright dangerous. Hill shot footage at actual figure-eight races - using up to 5 cameras, and himself manning the one in the most hazardous position - and edited them together selecting the most spectacular crashes, then had the actors' cars made to look like the participants. The actors take their work seriously too, with Haig's character undergoing a stark but believable transformation when he turns from foe to ally for Davalos. Brian Donlevy (whose footage was apparently captured in a few days, but carefully edited to make him appear throughout the film) perfectly conveys the ruthlessness of the promoter for whom winning counts more than anything else. The gritty high-contrast B&W visuals lend a documentary realism to the film. The soundtrack is also a live-wire mix of blues-jazz guitar with a dominant presence in the film. Pit Stop may be simple in structure, but its energy and earnestness make it memorable.

Arrow's blu-ray comes off an in-house restoration job sourced from Jack Hill's personal 35mm film print. Under James White's supervision, we get a beautiful image with gorgeous contrast, detail and grain, very faithful to the history of this vintage low-budget feature. The lossless mono track is clear and impressive in its reproduction of the flashy soundtrack and audio cues. Extras include video conversations with Jack Hill, Sid Haig and producer Roger Corman.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Akira [dir. AR Murgadoss]

Simply by not having an extended flashback with an excruciating romance-meets-odious-comedy track, Akira (no relation to Katsuhiro Otomo's classic anime) is 200% better than most Murga-dross movies. Add to it an absence of tedious fantasy song sequences in bad fashion scapes and you have to wonder if the director had one of those "blow on the head that changes your life" moments his protagonists are subject to.

Akira is the official remake of a Tamil film Mouna Guru (which had a male protagonist, and according to Baradwaj Rangan, was a much better film). As Rangan perhaps rightly points out, a woman-centric action film feels obliged to point out why its lead is so quick to sock people. So in a preamble, Akira as a child is witness to an acid attack. For who-knows-what reason the victim's parents appear to have invited the entire neighborhood to witness the unveiling of her bandages, like it was a fucking award ceremony. Akira's Masterji father (Atul Kulkarni in a where's-my-paycheck part) then pushes her into a karate class, oh-so-meaningfully bypassing the adjoining dance class, and almost immediately after, a confrontation with the acid-hurling goons, which lands her a 3-year remand home sentence for causing one of them to splash himself with the corrosive after-shave. One would think the cops should arrest Akira's father for forcing his progeny into an acutely risky vigilante situation, but in Murugadoss' world this qualifies as awesome parenting.

Thus Akira (Sonakshi Sinha) grows up to be a Shiva, with breasts instead of a mustache - She is by nature reserved and taciturn, but ready to take panga with anyone that crosses her; This isn't layered writing, but you don't need more detail for this sort of film. Anyhoo, by a convoluted sequence of circumstances, our heroine gets mixed up with a posse of not-so-bright, not-so-upright cops (led by a cheerfully sleazy Anurag Kashyap) that stole a large bag of cash from an accident victim. To save their own skins they have her framed as a violent delusional and sent to an asylum that rivals the one in Amitabh Bachchan's Yaarana for WTF-ery. You know how it goes from here - Akira-gal must escape from the asylum and flush out her tormentors for justice. This happens with remarkable facility, and there's a last-minute twist that's more difficult to swallow.

Akira doesn't have the sleight-of-hand of say, an Ek Hasina Thi, but trots at a brisk clip without much in the way of stopping to smell the roses. Unlike Rani Mukherjee's forced mardaangi in Mardaani, Sonakshi slips into the character with ease. Given the space, she has an understated charisma and strong instincts as an actor, and effectively conveys Akira's tough-tender nature. It's unfortunate then that Murgadoss shoots the action in a manner that undermines her - lazy choreography, quick cuts and multiple angles don't help to sell the illusion of the badass heroine, and too much seems to have been left to stunt doubles (The brief  'making of' snippets on the DVD show Sonakshi doing multiple kicks-in-the-air, but in the film it's unnecessarily chopped up).

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Labyrinth of Lies [dir. Giulio Ricciarelli]

It is telling that 2014's Labyrinth of Lies was selected as Germany's entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign film. In a neatly laid-out manner it covers an "important" issue, of the 1963 German home-grown trial of former Nazis for their concentration camp atrocities, appeals to emotional heartstrings with writing and musical score cues that in no uncertain terms tell you what you must feel and also aims for mainstream appeal with its handsome Dicaprio-esque leading man Alexander Fehling. Fehling plays enthusiastic young lawyer Johann Radmann, a fictional composite of public prosecutors involved in the case, while making a pivotal but ultimately supporting character of Fritz Bauer, who conceived and spearheaded the legal onslaught to expose and lance the festering sore many Germans would prefer to have forgotten (Bauer is also supposed to have passed on crucial information to Israel that led to the capture of Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann).

In the film Radmann is eager to prove himself with more worthy cases than the traffic violations assigned him. He picks up the trail of a school teacher identified by as an SS officer by a camp survivor, and is encouraged by Attorney General Bauer (Gert Voss). Radmann digs deeper to unearth a mass machinery of torture and murder that many ordinary Germans of the time were aware of, and complicit in deed. People exposed to Allied accounts of the Nazi evil will find nothing here that's new or shocking (the Nuremberg trials were held immediately after WW2 ended), but the German public remained for a long time in a state of shock and denial about the actions of their own government and people, of what crimes against humanity had been committed in the name of "following orders". Radmann carries out  interviews with survivors and pores over several directories worth of documents to identify former Nazis associated with the camps. His investigation faces resentment and opposition, from his own colleagues and from forces in high circles. But with Bauer's support and encouragement he brings the case to trial, which is where the film ends.

LoL (an unfortunate abbreviation) is very clear-cut and sanitized, too much so to have much impact (at least for a non-German who doesn't have that kind of personal resonance with the issue itself). Compare this to David Fincher's Zodiac, which covered a far smaller scope (lone killer, half dozen victims) but with sufficient detail and layering for us to empathize with the emotional toll on the characters and see them as three-dimensional beings. Here, both victims and perpetrators are mostly cogs in the story machine for us to see the struggle and eventual victory against odds of the haloed hero (the latter are particularly flat, even the teacher is shown to harshly address a pupil just before he is arrested). There is also a romance with a pretty dress-maker, and a lover's tiff when he tells of her father's involvement in Poland. This is not exploration of a searing issue, this is HBO Movie of The Week.

Perhaps I'm being unkind. Perhaps this is the sort of film that needs to be made first, to allow people at large to accept this part of their history before they are ready for more studied works. LoL works well at that, but it is not by any means a great film in itself.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Budhia Singh - Born to Run [dir. Soumendra Padhy]

Budhia Singh - Born to Run is the biographical film of the wunderkid from Odisha who ran about 50 marathons before he was 5 years old. It's equally, and perhaps more so, a portrait of Biranchi Das, the coach who discovered young Budhia's ability and tried to hone it through punishing extremes.

Early on we see Budhia as an ordinary slum kid sold by his impoverished mother for 850 rupees as a domestic help. Biranchi, a Judo instructor, social worker nurturing a bus-load of kids and hired dogsbody for political parties, rescues Budhia from this situation and takes him under his wing. A chance discovery of the child's stamina (when Biranchi orders Budhia to run rounds without stopping unless told, and forgets about him for hours after) ignites the coach's desire to mould his protege into a marathoner. His formula is a mix of reward (Budhia gets new shoes and better food, compared to his foster home siblings, and more attention) and punishment (Biranchi puts him through a tortuous routine of long hours of running everyday, refusing even water during the endeavour).

While the use of a rah-rah "let's do it" soundtrack seems to put the film in the same bracket as other recent Bollywood sports films like those on Milkha Singh and Mary Kom, there is always an element of ambiguity in the depiction of Biranchi Das' attitude towards Budhia. While he may have rescued and nurtured Budhia (and the film makes a point of Biranchi's affection, even to the point of ignoring his own child), providing a more stable father figure than Budhia had previously known, he is also shown to be ruthless in his ambition to make the boy excel. Shots of Budhia running alone are intercut with scenes of his siblings and classmates enjoying a normal childhood while his teachers and principal gloat over the fame that his achievements will bring them. One of the most powerful scenes comes in the staging of Budhia's 65km run from Puri to Bhubaneshwar. Biranchi tagging alongside on a bicycle taunts Budhia with a water bottle but never gives it to him. The soundtrack dies down and we hear Budhia's faltering gasps, which are spliced with visions of cold drinks and ice lollies, the fantasies of a boy racked with unimaginable thirst. Towards the end of the race Budhia faints and is carried to an emergency station where he throws up the fluids he is made to drink. After this Biranchi takes him out to display to the crowd almost like a trophy, not exactly a hurrah moment.

The film also takes into account the allegations that Biranchi exploited the boy to fulfil his own desires for fame and fortune. Manoj Bajpai gives a trademark measured performance, fully embracing the character's ambiguity, making him alternately sympathetic and provocative. Young Mayur Patole who plays Budhia gives a non-cutesy blank-faced performance appropriate for a boy whose actions were entirely dictated by the people around him.

The Odisha Child Welfare Commission filed proceedings against Biranchi Das for exploitation, which led to Budhia's separation from his coach and a ban from long-distance running that only caused the wastage of a potential talent. In the film the committee is portrayed as a coterie of unimaginative babu-dom more interested in preening its feathers than any real concern for the boy. Shortly after, Biranchi Das was gunned down by unknown assailants, while Budhia languishes in the state sports hostel where since he has regressed to a life of mediocrity, resting only on the hope that we will once again meet a coach with the passion of his former mentor.