Saturday, April 14, 2018

I Wish aka Kiseki [dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda]

I Wish (or Miracle, as the original title Kiseki translates to) is mainly the stories of two brothers Koichi And Ryu (played by real life siblings Koki and Oshiro Maeda), each staying with one of their estranged parents in a different town. They take to their predicament in different ways. Koichi, living with his mum at her parents' in Kagoshima - a town adjoining the Sakurajima volcano - becomes more introverted and sad, obsessively wiping off the volcanic ash, wondering constantly how people could live in a place like that. His fervent desire is for the entire family to live together again, and he wishes for the volcano to erupt so he and his mum are forced to leave. The younger Ryu, living with his dad in Fukuoka, becomes almost manically cheerful and enthusiastic, zealously doing the household chores (while indie rocker dad and his buddies chill out), taking joy in gardening and hanging out with his schoolmates. While he is close to his brother he is less enthusiastic about a reunion because he does not want to relive the bickering between his parents. On hearing a rumor that when two local bullet trains pass each other, they generate a magic field that grants the wish of anyone nearby, Koichi hatches a plan with his buddies to travel to a point where they can witness this phenomenon and make their wish. Ryu and his friends also join in and we become part of an adventure / quest undertaken by these kids. Apart from K and R, we get vignettes of the lives of their friends, and of the elders they interact with.
I blind-bought Arrow's 3-film Koreeda Set on account of the comparisons of his work with Yasujiro Ozu. In his quiet observation of people and rituals, I can see where those impressions come from, although Koreeda does not use the austere formal aesthetic that defines Ozu - the camera is not still and he does not use classic framing. But you can see Ozu's spirit in the warm and affectionate portrayal of people - the kids of course, but also the adults around them. When they go off on their adventure, the adults directly or surreptitiously help them out, and no one seems worried about them encountering pedophiles or serial murderers (Taken's Dad Liam Neeson would be aghast at this carelessness). But at the same time, Kore-eda does not go for some fake treacly happy ending in which everyone gets what they want. While the film runs somewhat long for its style and errs a little much on the side of cute (the actor playing Ryu is total Kawaii), his ability to portray kids as real people with moods and personalities makes I Wish a charming experience.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Le Plaisir [dir. Max Ophuls]

The screenplay for Le Plaisir is sourced from 3 short stories by the celebrated author Guy De Maupassant - The Mask, The House of Mme Tellier and The Model.
The Mask opens with a ballroom dance entertainment to which all of gay society seems attracted. A man wearing the mask of a bohemian toff rushes in and sways wild on the dance floor till he suddenly drops. A doctor takes off the mask to find an old man beneath, and after first aid, undertakes to escort him home. It turns out the old man was a dandy in his youth, much sought after by the womenfolk. He wears the mask to barge into dance-halls to relive his naughty youth. Ophuls tells the story with the pithiness it requires for impact, and the vigorous camerawork in the dance-hall sequences is a delight.
The House of Mme Tellier aka Le Maison Tellier, the longest running episode in this triptych, is an amusing social comedy of what happens when the ladies of a respected brothel go on a suddenly announced holiday to the countryside. There is an uproar amongst the townsmen with their weekend boredom and frustration leading to quarrels ("This is how wars start", one character notes). On the other hand, the ladies, who are attending the communion of Mme Tellier's niece, have an emotional quasi-religious experience in the village church during the ceremony. There is also the sub-plot of Mme Tellier's brother Joseph (Jean Gabin) having less than honorable intentions towards one of her ladies, culminating in a drunken episode. There is observation of social mores, the endearingly friendly relationship between the ladies and their clients (was this true of the time? who knows?), the amusement from contrasts of the characters. When Joseph's playful flirtations cross the line into sexual transgression, he is immediately contrite and apologizes to the women, recognizing their dignity. This was my favorite episode, wonderfully acted and directed with subtlety and a delightful lightness of touch. There are some fantastic pans and tracking shots, like towards the beginning of the film where Ophuls explores Mme Tellier's House through its various doors and windows. I do wish he could have shot this episode in color. The visuals of the countryside were crying out for some technicolor goodness and the scene in the train where the ladies are being seduced by a salesman of colorful garters has less impact in grayscale, IMO.
The Model is to my mind a lesser story and thankfully relegated to a short quarter of the film. An artist falls in intense love with a model and they stay together, only to find differences of temperament that lead to quarrels. He moves out, no longer interested in the relationship. When she threatens to commit suicide by jumping off a building, he dares her, only to find that she is actually capable of the deed. The fall leaves her legs permanently damaged, and either in recognition of her act of adoration or the guilt of being responsible for her condition, he marries the crippled woman and devotes his life to her care. Even with the brevity with which it is shot, there is an element of shrill melodrama that's less interesting than the clever and observant episodes that came before.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Art of Loving - Story of Michalina Wislocka [dir. Maria Sadowska]

Michalina Wislocka (Magdalena Boczarska) was a Polish Gynecologist / Sexologist who in the 70's put out a taboo-breaking book of sexual advice called The Art of Loving (known in its English edition as A Practical Guide to Marital Bliss). She wrote it out of frustration of having to deal with a huge number of unwanted teenage pregnancies and botched abortions, and battled a double-whammy of culturally (and sexually) repressive socialist regime and orthodox church to get it published. Wislocka herself had an off-the-beaten-track personal life, coexisting in a threesome with husband Stach (Piotr Adamczyk) and best friend Wanda (Justyna Wasilewska), which eventually led to domestic conflagrations and the severing of ties.

Art of Loving moves back and forth between three major time-lines: the 40's, when she was in her unusual marital arrangement with Stach and Wanda, the 60's where in the course of providing her services across the country she meets and has a passionate affair with the sexually liberated but caring family man Jurek (Eryk Lubos), and the 70's where as a middle-aged rebel she pushes hard against an obdurate openly hostile bureaucracy to publish the book that would eventually go on to sell 7 million copies and revolutionize the intimate lives of the common Polish people.

The film is written to be a crowd-pleaser, with Wislocka presented almost as a haloed saint of sexual liberation. While her personal issues (especially with bringing up the children she and Wanda bore with Stach) are touched upon, they are forgotten after a point to focus on portraying her as a champion of secular love. The sex scenes in the film are portrayed with glamorous angles and soft focus, and all the naked flesh (female and male) seems to have been vetted for its photogenic quality. The back-and-forth between time-lines gets tiring after a while and one feels that at least one of the periods should have been shortened and referred to in hearsay rather than actual time-jumps. The Art of Loving is beautifully shot with pretty color schemes, and manages to be an inoffensive though not very emotionally engaging entertainer.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Three Brothers [dir. Francesco Rosi]

Last night I watched Three Brothers (3B) by Francesco Rosi on the blu-ray from Arrow.

The previous film by Rosi I'd seen - Salvatore Giuliano - was utterly brilliant, and so this was a blind-buy. While certain elements between the two are common, most notably the shifts in narrative chronology and use of flashbacks, they are very different in nature. SG was an uncompromising and objective portrayal of a person once considered a rebel hero and later a terrorist, based on his affiliations. It was shot in a quasi-documentary gritty B&W (albeit with stylish compositions akin to film noir) - as I recall now Rosi also made the not as brilliant but still interesting political thriller Hands over the City (HotC).

3B is a more intimate and nostalgic film. At the start of the film the titular brothers are informed by their father of their mother's death and come down to attend the funeral. The eldest Rafaelle (stably married) is a judge working high-level cases where he receives death threats, middle brother Rocco (a bachelor) works for an orphanage / correction home while the youngest Nicola (separated, with a little girl) is a rebellious blue-collar worker that is willing to retaliate hard against oppressive management. Once the brothers meet at their family home in the village, the film looks at the differences in their position and personal outlook, while also chewing over how distanced they are from each other and their old-world father who has little to live for after his wife's demise. In pivotal scenes the brothers argue and counter each others' position. Rosi's social concerns show but not in the direct and angry manner seen in SG or HotC. A good part of the film has a resigned and languid atmosphere, and the rhythm of village life - the dreamy sun-kissed country vistas (DoP Pasqualino De Santis) convey a lot of that. Piero Piccioni's score is IMO overwhelming and melodramatic, with explicit spoon-feeding about the tone of a scene.
Arrow's blu-ray gives a handsome job of the film. I thought the video presentation looked very healthy. The mono audio track is good, albeit with the caveats of post-dubbing, a common practice in Italian movies, especially those having multi-national casts (in this case French actors Charles Vanel and Philippe Noiret). Haven't yet gone through the extras, but there's an hour-plus audio interview with Rosi (and my copy came with a booklet, yay).

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Mukkabaaz [dir. Anurag Kashyap]

From an auteurist point of view Mukkabaaz represents one of Anurag Kashyap's biggest compromises to the mainstream Bollywood formula. Far from the audacious ideas of No Smoking and Dev.D and even the sprawling excess of the overrated Gangs of Wasseypur, this film sits so firmly in the masala entertainer mold his Dabangg brother Abhinav may well feel threatened for his livelihood (or whatever remains of it after the loud and offensively stinky fart called Besharam). But you know what, that's not necessarily a bad thing, because while AK here chooses to work within the limitations of the 'safe' formula, he gives it a welcome texture and relatable context that has been missing from traditional big-budget Hindi cinema, which usually takes place in an isolated fantasy land where none of the real-world issues we see occur.

The story of the underdog boxer / sportsman making his way to the top (and sometimes falling off it) is an old one in movie history, but 1976's Rocky landed the big punch in Bollywood, which briefly added pugilism to its existing potboiler template to churn out Main Intaquam Loonga (1982) and Boxer (1983). Boxing made another entry in 2014's rah-rah biopic of Mary Kom. While Kashyap's movie features boxing, a good deal of it, it is not a sports film or a biopic. Mukkabaaz's outline fits the typical Hero-Heroine-Villain-Supporting Cast framework of Hindi 'Phillum': Shravan Kumar (even the names of the characters are almost deliberately bog standard) is in love with Sunaina but falls foul of her autocratic uncle Bhagwan Das who goes on to lay obstacles galore and make life hell for the young couple and everyone around. Romance, Action, Dialogue-baazi, Music, The Works. Boxing is simply the medium by which the heroic underdog rises against his oppressors, whether literally in the film's several punch-up sequences in and out of the ring, or in terms of the prestige the sport gives him.

But Shravan Kumar is not just an upstart boxer hero, he's a Rajput with the audacity to desire a higher-in-the-hierarchy Brahmin girl. Uncle Bhagwan Das is a casteist Hindutva torchbearer that gets his goons to conduct "beef lynchings". Sunaina is a mute, but that doesn't make her silent - she is educated and feisty, and wants to make her 'bindaas' way in the world. She has no feeling of cringing gratitude for the man who "accepted" her. And Kashyap's film is not just about boy bagging girl. We also see Shravan struggling between the demands of job and sporting career. In the "railway job" he bags through sports quota he is made a dogsbody by his sarkari babu superior (a coach even laments that most youth that take up sport only do it for the quota). Early on in the film a boxing tournament is conducted on a makeshift stage because the sports venue has been usurped for some minister's family wedding. Even the climactic national championships are staged in a realistically modest stadium, with few audience members apart from the fighters and the coterie that arbitrarily decides their futures.

It also helps that while there is simplification, there is no condescension towards the film's mainstream sensibilities. The actors are sincere, with Vineet Kumar Singh utterly believable on-screen as the titular boxer and terrific chemistry from Zoya Hussain as the girl that drives him to win her. Other characters are solid if stock (I regret an actor of Jimmy Shergill's caliber reduced to playing a single-note blackguard like Bhagwan Das but he is game, while Ravi Kishan provides able support as the dignified Harijan coach who trains Shravan Kumar to go up against his opponents). The film is shot with an emphasis on naturalistic atmosphere; special mention goes to the boxing ring bouts which carry a ring of authenticity, and even the standard lone-hero-against-horde-of-henchmen battles eschew the cliches of slow-motion or wire-work.

I do hope that Kashyap's commercial picture gets at least a fair proportion of the box-office success that mainstream Bollywood movies get, so that a) more people in the mainstream industry are inspired to inject social observation into the fabric of their scripts without the need for specific message movies b) he gets the financial freedom to come up with more 'out-there' ideas for his subsequent projects.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Eat Drink Man Woman [dir. Ang Lee]

Eat Drink man Woman's (EDMW) title comes from a line in the film, "Eat, drink, man, woman. Basic human desires. Can't avoid them." If Yasujiro Ozu were to make a food-focused film it would come rather close. Of course this isn't Ozu but Taiwanese film-maker Ang Lee, one of the most interesting movie directors today for the sheer range of films that he has made, from intimate relationship dramas / dramedies to large scale spectacles, and sometimes interesting mixtures of the two. EDMW comes from Ang Lee's luminous 90's phase, shortly before he made the jump to Hollywood where he put out Sense & Sensibility and The Ice Storm, proving his masterly grasp of varied cultural sensibilities (and perhaps the universality of human emotion).
At its core EDMW (notably Ang Lee's only film actually set in Taiwan) is a relationship drama with the aging widower Mr. Chu and his three daughters Jen, Chien and Ning. Mr. Chu is the archetype patriarch, benevolent but domineering. The girls in one way or another feel constricted by the atmosphere at home. The eldest Jen is shaping up to be the unwilling spinster saddled with the looking after of the old man, Chien - the openly defiant one - looks for escape in apartment purchases and transfer promotions, while young Ning is making her way through college and the tricky path of relationships. This simmering pot of familial tensions is exemplified in the Sunday dinner, which also brings in the film's food connection. You see, Mr. Chu is a respected and passionate chef (even if the script signals his aging and dissatisfaction with life with a growing loss of taste senses) and the Sunday meal is a cornucopia of meticulously prepared and exquisitely crafted delicacies. It is a symbol of the bond between father and daughters even when the bond is so strained the girls consider sitting through the meal a torture ritual.
EDMW has the rhythm of a multi-threaded family soap in the hands of an intelligent and sensitive maker, with each strand given generous time to play out in full: Jen's quiet desperation for romance (or at least a form of escape from her colorless single status), Chien's resentment of Mr. Chu's controlling nature (it is suggested that her love of the culinary art was stifled by a father that pushed her out of the kitchen and into an admittedly successful corporate career), Ning a fast-food joint employee (What a slight for the epicurean Mr. Chu), tenuously building a relationship with her workmate's boyfriend. What of Mr. Chu himself? Alienated from his own daughters, Mr. Chu finds his outlet of paternal love in preparing elaborate lunchboxes for a young divorcee neighbor's schoolkid. There are other supporting characters each of whom in their own way stirs up the wok. With some mild surprises the film eventually brings each character's arc to a close and establishes a new balance of relationships and emotions for these people we have come to know and understand, leaving us satiated, like at the end of a multi-course family feast.
EDMW cannot be recommended as an incisive character study and is unabashedly sentimental, but only a joyless scrooge would deny its hot-soup-like heartwarming qualities, and in its detailed depictions of food preparation and presentation, it's a delight to behold (Vegetarians and people on a diet beware).

Friday, December 29, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi [dir. Rian Johnson]

So one of the last things I did last night was catching the last show of The Last Jedi (TLJ), and these here are my lasting impressions. Rather decent by way of disposable entertainment I thought, if also beset by the customary problems of these massively extended franchises. The good bits first. It worked a lot better than The Force Awakens, where almost everything other than the parts they were ripping off the 1977 Star Wars (fuck all this Episode 4 bullshit) was tedious filler. It's nice that they're at least trying for some fresh angles in a done-to-death enterprise. In TLJ it's not always the bone-headed "okay, we got one shot at this, so let's go blow shit up" plan that works, and even when it does there are consequences (well, at least for the peripheral characters there are). Like in Rogue One (which I also liked) the Rebels are not painted all-white and writer-director Rian Johnson manages this without too much ham-handed political discourse and post 9/11 paranoia metaphors. Some of the stuff from Rey's Jedi training are cool - that fun bit when Luke asks her to "reach out", the infinite mirrors scene. While the space battles have a sameness to them (what an age we live in, when meticulously detailed visuals of gigantic ships getting blown apart elicit a yawn), the climactic saber fight in which an elite Sith guard is taken down carries a propulsive intensity. Veteran John Williams' score rehashes the well-known themes, nonetheless I found  it sufficiently rousing to enhance my enjoyment.

On the other hand, at 2.5 hours, TLJ has butt-hurting levels of tedium. The entire strand where rebels Finn and Rico go to the Dubai-like planet with casinos and camel races, get imprisoned and escape, stands disjointed from the rest of the picture and achieves little other than introducing a convenient hacker character (Benicio Del Toro, slumming it these days). It's like watching video-game footage in which a player opts for ALL the side missions. Yes, when you have several characters you need to give them something to do, but don't take audience investment for granted. And talking of killing off the old, why the fuck is Yoda still hanging about? A relatively good scene of Luke destroying the old Jedi Legacy is spoiled by this dyslexic puppet. If Ghost Yoda can come back, you might as well bring in Ghost Vader to spice things up. The new Emperor (the head bad guy, whatever his name is) continues the legacy of Star Wars bad guys that love to monologue while they conveniently leave around the shit that gets them killed. A minor peeve is that the Jedi seem very reluctant to use force powers during combat, which are exclusively (ha!) saber-rattling. You'd think a scrap between elite Jedi would involve at least some neat bits of force push or lightning but no, apparently they are purists that believe in a fair fight even when they are evil.