Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Innocent Sorcerers: Review

The Polish public was left with mixed feelings in the aftermath of World War II. They were free from the Nazi regime, but found themselves a part of the Soviet Union, whose socialist agenda would not allow them to enjoy the same freedoms their European allies were now able to. For the generation that grew up in the ’50s in particular, these restrictions were particularly galling. They wanted to listen to jazz, be materialistic, discover themselves as individuals; the State wanted them to share and to conform. This tug-of-war is the unspoken subtext of Innocent Sorcerers, Andrzej Wajda’s “youth film” from 1960.

Wajda burst onto the scene in the 1950s with his “War Trilogy” – A Generation, Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds. These were sombre, moving films that captured not only the ravages of the war years but also the uncertain peacetime that followed; they made Wajda’s name in Poland and overseas. His next film Lotna was also connected to the war, but the one that followed that was a significant departure. The characters in Innocent Sorcerers are – at least on the surface – comfortable in their own skins and on the lookout for fun. At the film’s centre is Andrzej, a “sports doctor”, jazz drummer and compulsive womaniser (played with sublime cool by Tadeusz Łomnicki), who meets his match in a young woman who calls herself Pegalia. 

It’s fascinating how easily Innocent Sorcerers could be mistaken for a French New Wave film. There’s the self-referentiality: the film’s poster is revealed to be a billboard after the opening credits, a radio gives a song’s source as “the film Innocent Sorcerers”. There’s a strange moment when Łomnicki looks at the camera and addresses the “author”, a move that was probably a jab at the censors, but nevertheless one which would have fit right in with the auteur-worshipping New Wave crowd. There’s also a striking similarity between the long seduction scene that takes in Andrzej’s apartment and the one in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. Yet, all of this is happy coincidence – there’s almost no way Wajda could have seen the films coming out of France by the time he made Innocent Sorcerers.
Keen followers of Polish cinema should find a lot to get excited about in this, one of Wajda’s lesser-seen features. Two future greats of Polish and global cinema, Roman Polański and Jerzy Skolimowski (also the film’s co-writer), make cameo appearances. Krzysztof Komeda, who started one of the first jazz groups in Poland, contributes a terrific score. (Many Polish films of this period have a strong jazz element.) Best of all, there’s a brief but entertaining appearance by Zbigniew Cybulski, the “Polish James Dean”, with his ever-present shades and leather jacket. Wajda had earlier cast Cybulski to great effect as the lead in Ashes and Diamonds. His role here is miniscule, but there’s an eerie moment when Łomnicki tells him “You’ll get killed one of these days if you’re not careful”. Cybulski died in 1967 while jumping from a moving train. His unique, nervy charm is on display this fortnight in three films – Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Night Train, Janusz Morgenstern’s Goodbye, See You Tomorrow, and Wajda’s – which, along with Andrzej Munk’s Eroica, are being screened by the Polish Institute. 

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Dark city: L.A. neo-noir

Though film noir will forever be associated with American movies of the ‘40s, the term actually originated in France. It was coined in 1946 by a French critic called Nino Frank (noir means ‘black’ in French), and in 1955, with A Panorama of American Film Noir, his countrymen Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton conducted the first in-depth study of the genre. It was an apt label: these films were undeniably black, both in their visual style (mostly dark interiors lit with a single light source) and their pessimistic outlook. Many of the golden age noirs – Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep – were set in Los Angeles; something in that city’s mixture of seediness and high glamour called out to directors working in this genre. Decades on, L.A. is still a favoured setting for filmmakers looking to push the boundaries of noir, as can be seen in these four titles.

Blade Runner (Reliance Home Video, Rs 499)

In 1982, Ridley Scott released a sci-fi film that was, strangely but unmistakably, also a noir. Blade Runner plays out in a Los Angeles of the future, with flying cars and android-like creatures called replicants. Yet it’s also possible to draw a line connecting Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard to the loner private eyes played by Humphrey Bogart and Ralph Meeker over half a century ago. The film has other noir characteristics as well – voice-over narration, wet, dark streets, a femme fatale and a general air of fatalism. Blade Runner is based on Phillip K Dick’s cult novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and in the years since its release, it’s become somewhat of a cult item itself. Twenty years after its dystopian visions first surfaced, the film remains one of the most persuasive arguments for taking noir out of its comfort zone and allowing it to spread its dark sheen over other genres.  

The Usual Suspects (Sony Pictures, Rs 599)

For certain film geeks who grew up in the ‘90s, Bryan Singer’s film was the height of cool. It looked like a noir, sounded like a gangster movie, and behaved like the smartest kid in the class. It had one of the juiciest set-ups in film history: a group of criminals meeting in a line-up at a police station. The characters all had names to die for – Kobayashi, Fenster, Verbal Kint, Keyser Soze. The action is spread over two great noir cities – New York and Los Angeles. Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay was pure pulp, a late entry in the hardboiled tradition of Raymond Chandler, though with one significant difference – Chandler’s universe is usually governed by some kind of moral code, while The Usual Suspects is exhilaratingly amoral. Its rug-pulling denouement is justly famous, but the real fun is in getting the surprises out of the way and coming back to admire the sleight of hand filmmaking that sets everyone up for a fall.

L.A. Confidential (Reliance Home Video, Rs 499)

L.A. Confidential would make a nice double bill with Chinatown, another noirish look at systemic corruption. Polanksi’s film was a key influence, and Confidential’s director Curtis Hanson acknowledged this by giving one of his characters a bandaged nose like the one Jack Nicholson sported in the 1974 film. Set in the 1950s, L.A. Confidential’s Los Angeles is a city going to seed. The editor of a sleazy gossip mag provides tip-offs to a detective. A prostitution racket supplies call girls who resemble movie stars. Policemen spend Christmas Eve administering a beating to a group of jailbirds. Amidst all this, two straight-shooting cops see their parallel investigations dovetail. While it didn’t quite break new ground for the genre, L.A. Confidential is nevertheless a stylish, highly entertaining period thriller. Watch it just for its cast – the pre-fame duo of Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, James Cromwell, and Kim Bassinger made up as Veronica Lake (two femme fatales for the price of one).

Drive (Reliance Home Video, Rs 599)

When Nicolas Winding Refn won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival last year for Drive, he earned comparisons with Michael Mann. While its slick action scenes and night-time explorations of L.A. place it in Mann territory, Drive is also reminiscent of the more romantic noir films by Hollywood émigrés like Robert Siodmak and Jacques Tourneur. (Like Tourneur’s lushly poetic Out of the Past, Drive too has a protagonist who lives on the edge of society and returns for one final job.) Ryan Gosling plays The Driver, a stuntman and getaway driver-for-hire who falls for his married neighbour, only to find himself inheriting her husband’s problems with the local mafia. Juxtaposing moments of great tenderness with shocking bouts of violence, the film ends up somewhere between a fairy tale and a very gory gangster film. Still, if you like your movies sleek, swift and sentimental, Drive is your vehicle.

This piece was published in the October issue of Man's World.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Nosferatu: DVD Review

The first thing to keep in mind is that Nosferatu released in 1922. This means the German public had just been given a mighty scare off-screen, and would receive a series of shocks for the next two decades. Onscreen scares had not been invented yet, but FW Murnau would change all that. Though some might cite The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari or The Golem, both released in 1920, or even 1913's The Student of Prague, it is actually Noseferatu which should qualify as the first horror film ever made. (It beat the Swedish faux-documentary Haxan, a scarier affair, by a few months.) It was also the first vampire movie, which makes Murnau the earliest – and unlikeliest – cinematic ancestor of the Twi-hards.

Murnau was one of cinema’s great early poets. He would go on to direct The Last Laugh, Faust, and the most lyrical of all silent films, Sunrise. Nosferatu was his first classic; an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Apart from a few minor changes – the count was called Orlok, Harker was changed to Hutter – the film was to a large extent faithful to its source. Hutter is a real estate agent who visits Orlok’s castle in the Carpathian mountains. After some broad hints, it dawns on him (here begins the horror film tradition of the slow-witted pretty boy protagonist) that his host is a nosferatu, or a vampire. The rest of the movie is a mish-mash of fangs, ghost ships, rat plagues and women in ecstasy (the vampire as seducer: another genre staple born).

Is Nosferatu still scary? Ninety years of films that bump in the dark later, the answer is no. There are a few creepy moments – you just know Tim Burton loves that shot of Orlok’s shadow menacingly advancing towards a wall face – but the greater shock today is the openness with which Murnau pushes the psychosexual aspects of the story (unlike the 1931 Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, Nosferatu does not shy away from showing Orlok suck the blood from Hutter’s thumb). This was the only element that Hollywood did not – or could not – borrow wholesale from the Germans for their own horror films of the 1930s. In every other way, German expressionism formed the basis for what we now regard as the golden era of horror.

A minor gripe about this particular edition of Nosferatu. Viewers might be surprised to find that the film isn’t in black and white at all; instead, scenes have strong yellow, pink and blue tints, an early cinema trick to alert audiences to changes in time and mood. Noseferatu was released in this form, but then the original print went missing. In 1984, the “colour” print was discovered and restored, followed by two other versions in 1995 and 2005 (the latter is on view here). Film buffs might have welcomed nuggets like this, but the bare-bones DVD pack, like the film, is silent on these matters.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Auteurs Anderson

Wrote this for Man's World. Couldn't find a link online, but here's the piece as it was carried. 

They both made directorial debuts in 1996. Since then, both have been called ‘America’s best filmmaker’ at one time or another. And as fate would have it, they’re both named Anderson. The first, Paul Thomas Anderson, struggled with studio interference on his first film Hard Eight, but bounced back with an incredible sequence: Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood. Wes Anderson, by contrast, emerged fully formed with Bottle Rocket, and was anointed ‘the next Scorsese’ by Scorsese himself. He’s followed that with one intricate, idiosyncratic gem after another.

Scorsese is actually one of the few things these two have in common. His stylistic influence can be seen in PT’s bravura long-takes (the opening of Boogie Nights recalls the Copacabana Steadicam shot in Goodfellas), as well as Wes’s scored montages. Apart from this, and their shared habit of casting a certain set of actors in several of their movies, the two inhabit different cinematic worlds. PT is like Robert Altman, Wes is more Hal Ashby. PT’s characters are usually in the process of discovering themselves, while Wes’s are preoccupied with mending, escaping or replacing their dysfunctional families. Wes’s movies are set in an off-kilter universe all of his own; PT’s are located within the cracks of a recognisable world.

Both directors have a film out this year. Wes’s Moonrise Kingdom premiered at Cannes, while PT’s The Master will release abroad in October. While both films should make their way to our shores eventually, you can use the time before that to catch up with – or revisit – their earlier work on DVD. Here’s my pick of the Andersons.

Wes Anderson: The Royal Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr Fox

Though some argue that the 1998 film Rushmore is Anderson’s best till date, a strong case can also be made for The Royal Tenenbaums (Disney, Rs 399). Released in 2001, it tells the story of the Tenenbaum clan – distracted patriarch Royal, his ex-wife and their three children, child prodigies once but now adrift in life. While Salinger’s Glass family is a probable inspiration, the film is bursting with little details that are pure Anderson: Dalmatian mice, a falcon called Mordecai, matching red tracksuits worn by Ben Stiller and his two sons. Gene Hackman heads a superb cast that includes Luke and Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston and Gwyneth Paltrow, and the soundtrack is both eclectic and apt.

Fantastic Mr Fox (Excel Movies, Rs 399), made eight years later, achieves something even rarer – the transfer of directorial handprint from live action to animation. For though the story is based on Roald Dahl’s children’s book, Fantastic Mr Fox looks, feels and sounds like a Wes Anderson film. It’s all there: the atypical family dynamic, a son looking for his father’s approval, the little cinematic nods (Citizen Kane, Day for Night). Even the choice of animation technique – the fastidious, elegant process of stop motion – seems appropriate.

PT Anderson: Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood

Boogie Nights (Eagle Home Entertainment, Rs 99) released in 1997 and immediately marked Anderson out as an ambitious, fluid filmmaker. The film was set in the Los Angeles porn industry of the ‘70s. Burt Reynolds’ director chances upon the prodigiously endowed Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and offers him the lead role in his film, as well as a glimpse of the high life. At first, the film bounces along like a cork on the water, buoyant and sunny. Then, as the decade draws to a close, it changes face and becomes darker (the actual porn industry also suffered a downturn in the ‘80s, with the advent of video and the threat of AIDS). Boogie Nights is dotted with sensational set-pieces: the long opening shot introducing the principal players; the swimming pool sequence that echoes Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba; the stand-off at the mansion, with a dead-eyed Wahlberg as scary as the raving Alfred Molina.

If 2007's No Country for Old Men and Michael Clayton were portraits of modern-day America’s spiritual crisis, There Will Be Blood (Disney, Rs 299), released the same year, was a key to the miasma. It’s the story of an early 20th century oil prospector, played with menacing authority by Daniel-Day Lewis, and his battle with a young priest for the soul of a small town. The movie is gritty and stark; you can almost taste the dust and the oil through Robert Elswitt’s visuals, and hear the madness in Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s score. Anderson said that he watched The Treasure of Sierra Madre repeatedly while making There Will Be Blood, and it’s clear how much John Huston’s movie about frontier lives ruined by greed has influenced this one. One also gets the sense of a naturally flashy filmmaker cutting away the fat and getting down to the basics. No Country may have nabbed the Oscar with its more abstract apocalyptic visions, but There Will Be Blood was the real deal. 

English Vinglish: Review

Sridevi always seemed like a great candidate for a second innings. India’s biggest female star in the ’80s and early ’90s, she was also – script- and director-willing – a terrific actor, with standout performances in films like Sadma and Lamhe. On hiatus for the past 15 years, she’s back as the lead in Gauri Shinde’s directorial debut English Vinglish. Happily, she still has that unforced charm that made her one of the least narcissistic Bollywood stars of her generation. Pity, then, that this diverting but uneven comeback film spends its latter half struggling to keep it real.

Sridevi plays Shashi Godbole, a Pune homemaker with a tenuous grasp on the English language. Her bratty daughter and supercilious husband (Adil Hussain) keep pointing out her mistakes – something she’s embarrassed about, but has come to accept and live with. But when she has to travel by herself to New York for her niece’s wedding, the problem is compounded. Enter an impossibly diverse English tutorial class (pro-gay, even) and English Vinglish becomes an American version of the British TV series Mind Your Language. Shashi and her classmates (including the fine French actor Mehdi Nebbou) stumble towards fluency, even as Shinde throws in a bunch of touristy montages that tell us little about the city they’re flattering. Still, the classroom scenes are funny, with everyone gamely playing up their racial stereotypes. (Rajeev Ravindranathan’s broad Tamilian accent must have tickled Sridevi, who belongs to that state.)

As Shashi began to find herself, we started to find ourselves dreading a melodramatic backlash. It arrived on cue. Her family joins her early, and turns out to be as insufferable on holiday as they were back home. Her final examination is scheduled for the same day as the wedding (of course it is). Most disappointingly, instead of taking her emancipation to its logical end, Shashi goes ahead and does what Hindi film mothers have been doing for the past century – sacrifice her dreams for her family. “I don’t need love, I just need a little respect,” Shashi tells her niece at one point. For that to happen, she’ll probably have to start respecting herself a little.