Monday, 22 September 2014

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy [1979]

It’s no wonder that two mesmerizing spy films that readily come to mind were both based during the Cold War era and were adaptations of John Le Carre’s books, viz. Martin Ritt’s bleak, fatalist and deeply existentialist The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and John Irvin’s 7-part mini-series made for BBC Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Dreary, slow-burning, character-driven, decidedly droll with subtle doses of dark humour, wry cynicism and irony strewn throughout, un-glamorized yet convoluted, and filled with existentialist touches, it made for a fabulous chamber drama on the cold machinations of dapper-suited, middle-aged gentlemen in claustrophobic rooms concealed from the people at large. When veteran spy Jim Prideaux (Ian Bannen), upon being sent behind the Iron Curtain by Control (Alexander Knox), the ageing head of British Intelligence, in order to find out the identity of an alleged Moscow mole planted at the very top of Circus, gets caught on enemy territory, the ensuing scandal leads to Control’s ouster and replacement with the unctuous Percy Alleline (Michael Aldridge). The sudden appearance of discredited spy Ricki Tarr (Hywel Bennett), however, rejuvenates suspicions of a double agent, and leads to return from retirement of Control’s former deputy George Smiley (Alex Guinness) in order to flush the person out. The leisurely pace, wintry atmosphere, gradual development of suspense, a sharply written script that seamlessly traversed between the political and the personal in the form of Smiley’s barely concealed marital life, and desolate portrayal of the cold lies, betrayals and paranoia that the era as well as cloak and dagger business remind one of. Fine performances abound, but Guinness’ measured yet magnetic turn as the weary, cynical and brilliant protagonist remains a cornerstone in TV history.

Director: John Irvin
Genre: Drama/Spy Drama/TV Mini-Series
Language: English
Country: UK

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Goodbye, Dragon Inn [2003]

Rarely has a film captured loneliness, urban alienation, ennui and quiet nostalgia with such melancholia and wry humour, and with so few movements or words, as did Tsai’s gorgeous and minimalist masterwork Goodbye, Dragon Inn. It was also a rapturous evocation of the joy of watching cinema, and a poignant commentary on the death of mammoth movie places and certain genres on account of them being rendered economically unviable and out-of-favour due to modernization and changing tastes. It focused on the last movie screening, that of King Hu’s cult classic Dragon Inn, in an old-fashioned theatre in Taipei before it closes down forever. The narrative was timed at approximately the same length as the Hu film, and dealt on the few oddball people populating the theatre, the decrepit condition of the place whose days of grandeur are long past, and the movie-within-movie that formed a study in contrast to the Tsai film. A gay guy trying in futility to strike companionship, bored fellows incessantly smoking in the dingy corridors, people trying to escape their mundane lives, a crippled lady who, having sold the last few tickets, is hobbling along the byzantine corridors looking for the projectionist, and two aged men, who were part of the Hu film, watching it in silent rapture, and upon becoming aware of each other being taken down the memory lanes – these were some of the idiosyncratically etched characters the last show is catering to. The seedy interiors were brilliantly captured by the dazzling color photography, while the sparse style, with long takes, whimsical interludes, and hardly any spoken words except those emanating from the film being screened, hypnotically portrayed irony, dark humour and a somber sense of loss.

Director: Tsai Ming-Liang
Genre: Drama/Black Comedy
Language: Taiwanese/Mandarin
Country: Taiwan

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Ballad of a Soldier [1959]

Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier is often clubbed with Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying as companion pieces not only because the 2 Russian films had strong anti-war stances, deeply humanist tones, deftly lyrical storytelling and primarily focused on personal tales, but also because both, released 2 years of one another, became smashing international successes in the art-house circles. Alexei (Vladimir Ivashov), the film’s 19-year old protagonist and a soldier deployed on the Eastern Front during WWII, suddenly gets elevated to the stature of a hero when he, out of a mix of luck and fear, ends up single-handedly destroying 2 German tanks. As a reward he gets the unlikely leave of 6 days in order to visit his mother and repair the house’s roof. However, as it eventually turns out, the naïve young guy, as a result of his inherent goodness, ends up spending most of his limited travel time indulging in humanist luxuries – accompanying a crippled and embittered veteran who’s afraid to go back to his wife, ensuring the precious gift of 2 soap cakes get delivered to a fellow-soldier’s impoverished family, helping other passengers when the train they’re traveling in gets bombed, and most notably, falling in love with the beautiful and callow fellow-traveler Shura (Zhanna Prokhorenko). As a result of all these unplanned delays, at the end he has just enough time to see his mother for a few minutes before getting back to the front never to return. Filled with the little joys and sadness of everyday life, beautifully shot in glorious B/W, and shorn of formal or political indulgences, it provided a heart-warming meditation on the horrors and devastation of war through the eventful odyssey.

Director: Grigori Chukhrai
Genre: Drama/War Drama
Language: Russian
Country: Russia (erstwhile Soviet Union)

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Sicilian Clan [1969]

The Sicilian Clan was perhaps the best film that Melville never made on account it’s striking stylistic resemblances with his oeuvre. The heist film borrowed tropes from classic noirs, and then imbued quintessential Melville elements in the form of existential tone, minimalist and understated style, constant one-upmanship between dour-faced men on either side of the law, wry dose of irony, and the presence of the two French stalwarts Lino Ventura and Alain Delon who were regulars in his films; that Jean Gabin was also there in it made added icing to the cake. Impetuous-natured career criminal Roger Sartet (Delon) is helped in making a brilliantly planned escape from a police van by the suave and weary mafiosi patriarch Vittorio Manalese (Gabin), in order to aid the latter in staging a million-dollar jewelry heist – the mythical ‘one last job’ before he retires to his birth-village in Sicily. Commissaire Le Goff (Ventura), an irritable cop trying in vain to quit smoking, is hot on Sartet’s heels. Sensing the enormous complications involved, Manalese takes the help of his old pal (Amedeo Nazzari) and goes about meticulously planning a spectacular robbery; Sartet, meanwhile, unable to keep a check on his libido, is allowed to be seduced by the unsatisfied wife (Irina Demick) of one of Vittorio’s sons, which adds a crucial dimension to the twisting plot. That their outrageous plan of hijacking a passenger plan is ultimately undone by a seemingly irrelevant coincidence, made this a darkly humorous and fatalistic elucidation of Murphy’s Law. Despite the elaborate storyline that bordered on implausibility, character developments and minor interludes made it memorable, as did the palpable tension among the 3 men. Ennio Morricone’s idiosyncratic score underscored the tale’s irony.

Director: Henri Verneuil
Genre: Crime Thriller/Gangster Film/Heist Film
Language: French
Country: France

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Samurai Rebellion [1967]

In Samurai Rebellion, Kobayashi provided a bleak examination of the blind obeisance that feudal Japan demanded of its clans, and, in turn, on conformity and subordination being the pillars on which any hierarchical society stands, the degree of inhumanity that the demand for compliance, order and status quo begets, and that revolt being the sole option for those at the receiving end. The film’s anti-authoritarian stance, therefore, was both apt and potent. Isaburo (Toshiro Mifune) is a loyal vassal to his lord and master swordsman whose only equal is his best friend Tatewaki (Tatsuya Nakadai). When his master, upon a humiliating event in public, expresses his desire to get his concubine Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa) married off to Isabura’s elder son Yogoro (Takeshi Kato) despite her already having a child, Isabura grudgingly agrees on account of his loyalty. However, when a couple of years later upon his primary heir’s death, the clan’s lord wants Ichi, who now has a daughter with Yogoro, to come back, Isabura decides that enough is enough. Insolence is an offence that is punishable with death and hence is bad news for not just who has committed it but also for his extended family; consequently his domineering wife, unreliable younger son and others use means ranging from cajoling to cheating to rectify the scenario, while the lord’s henchmen devise means to bring Isabura to his knees; but now that he’s made up his mind, he’s ready for a bloody showdown, including a confrontation with his friend, in his quest for justice. Superb landscape photography, exquisite symmetric compositions and great attention to details powerfully complemented the story’s oppressive ambiance and its innate violence which literally exploded in the climactic fight to death.

Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Genre: Drama/Historical Drama/Samurai Film
Language: Japanese
Country: Japan