Tuesday 30 September 2008

Seven Samurai (Shichinin No Samurai) [1954]

Arguably one of Akira Kurosawa’s grandest ventures, Seven Samurai is a landmark movie of such epic proportions that most viewers would be left overwhelmed by its sheer force. Set in the feudal, war-torn society of erstwhile Japan, the movie is perhaps the epitome of honour, bravery, duty, friendship, loyalty and the art of war through strategy and cunning. At over 3 hours long, viewing the movie might appear daunting to viewers accustomed to watching sub-2 hour long films, but one can rest assured that “bored” is one word that no one in their right senses would associate with any of the sequences filmed herein. The legendary tale of seven samurai, hired by the people of a poor terror-stricken village, to fight against a group of 40 bandits, is just one aspect of the movie; the detailed etching of each of the seven samurai with all their traits, skills and idiosyncrasies, the exquisitely composed battle scenes, the human story of love, prejudice, suffering, self-centeredness, struggle, vindication and the greater glory, the lyrical beauty of humanism and service above self, the detailed team-formation and strategizing of battle plan (and its near-clinical execution), and of course the splendid performance by the actors – these are but a few of the features that would be forever engrained in the minds of every cine-goer and film-lover. The movie was remade in America as The Seven Magnificent Men, that, though entertaining, never achieved the awesome beauty of this Kurosawa masterpiece. It was also the chief inspiration behind the majestic Hindi movie Sholay.

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Genre: Drama/Adventure/Samurai Film/Action/Ensemble Film
Language: Japanese
Country: Japan

Saturday 27 September 2008

The Postman Always Rings Twice [1946]

Adapted from pulp fiction novelist James M. Cain’s most popular work, The Postman Always Rings Twice is a classical film noir movie. The idea of a weak man who is casually seduced by a sultry blond femme fatale (in the garb of a damsel in distress) to murder her husband has been well presented through deft psychological foreplay, an incessant shadow of the impending doom, moody atmosphere and a clinically edited voiceover. John Garfield, a drifter with the “road fever” makes a fatal choice of location by stopping for employment at a rural diner. He ends up having a torrid illicit affair with the owner’s wife, played famously by Lana Turner. What follows is a tale of lust, deceit, and cold blooded murder. The title, though apparently a non-sequitur, is explained at the climax – that crime never goes unpunished and sooner or later fate has a strange habit of catching up. Though lacking on the cynical dialogue or novel plot development fronts, heavily toned down in order to be acceptable to the then censor board, and very melodramatic and verbose at times, the movie nonetheless more than made up for them through fine acting, tense atmosphere, raw chemistry between the leads and the bleak irony of its climax. Though later remade starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange and without any boundaries imposed through pseudo-moralities of the censor board, this 1946 black-and-white version still remains the best adaptation of the Cain masterpiece. And along with Double Indemnity it remains one of the best adaptations of Cain novels for the silver screen.

Director: Tay Garnett
Genre: Film Noir/Crime Drama/Psychological Drama
Language: English
Country: US

Friday 26 September 2008

Crossed Tracks (Roman de Gare) [2007]

Brought to Calcutta for the discerning film goers thanks to the philanthropic endeavour of NDTV Lumierre, Crossed Tracks is the kind of thriller that will engage the viewers without providing any staple for edge-of-your-seat popcorn-and-cola entertainment. The story is simple and without a plethora of red herrings or startling plot twists; rather it is contented with employing a few small deviously deceptive moments of human misjudgments, maladroitness, ingenuity and errata. The tale (shot in a simplistic and almost minimalist fashion), bereft of explosive developments, has a strange ability to allure and involve the viewer’s faculty. The well-enacted protagonist, an unattractive, diminutive and mysterious man could be any of the following – a struggling small-time writer, a dangerous escaped convict who lures children into his traps by showing magic tricks, a man who has run away from his family, or a ghost writer for a famous, best-selling novelist. The movie comprises in its sub-plots a developing love-story, a murderous angle, and conning of identity. The movie, though never enthralling, delights on account of its subtle concoction of humour and suspense.

Director: Claude Lelouch
Genre: Thriller/Psychological Thriller
Language: French
Country: France

Wednesday 24 September 2008

Yojimbo (The Bodyguard) [1961]

Though not as universally renowned as Rashomon or Seven Samurai, Yojimbo is often considered to be Akira Kurosawa’s most influential work. If not anything, it remains one of the most quintessential and archetypal lone ranger movies ever made – a template that was famously remade into the spaghetti western For A Few Dollars More by Sergio Leone. Sanjuro (brilliantly played by Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune), the original 'Man With No Name', is a bored, detached and laconic Samurai. He is seemingly devoid of morals, friends and rules. But he believes in vigilante justice – the kind where end justifies the means, and he becomes doubly effective because he is a master swordsman with no equals. So when he decides to play the two sides of a warring faction of a ravaged village against each other, his principle foe turns out to be, quite appropriately, a character straight out of Western movies – a crafty, gun-slinging antagonist. The brutal action sequences have been magnificently juxtaposed with terrific character developments and moments of subtle humanism; case in point: the scene of a dog casually strolling by with a piece of a person’s chopped-off hand in its mouth is as jarring to the senses, as the beautifully composed background score played during the movie’s love-story sub-plot is moving. Stellar performances by the two principle leads add to the dynamic energy and flashes of dark humour of the script.

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Genre: Action/Adventure/Samurai Film
Language: Japanese
Country: Japan

Monday 22 September 2008

Shoot the Piano Player/Tirez Sur Le Pianiste [1960]

-->The 400 Blows is the movie that the former Cashier Du Cinema critic and legendary French director Francois Truffaut is universally associated with. However it was his second feature Shoot the Piano Player that not only formed one of the most defining movies of the French Nouvelle Vague movement, but is also considered by many as his greatest achievement. Arguably Truffaut’s most audacious and experimental work, it was his undying homage to Film Noir and Gangster movies, as well as, to a lesser degree, B-movies, musicals and farcical comedies – a pastiche to American genre movies in general. Loosely based on a pulp thriller, the movie comprises of a free-flowing blend of iconoclastic New Wave techniques like jump cuts, unrelated montages, ad-libs, improvised screenplay, dialogues that at times have no bearing with the scene under consideration, etc. The story of a washed out divorced piano player, trying to escape his past, and forced to be on the run by shady thugs, is fairly straightforward. But the memorable dialogues, brilliant comical interludes, moments of heart-touching delight and humanism, self parody, and marvelous turns by the leads, especially the actor (a famous singer in real life) who played the role of the chief protagonist, make this a truly exceptional work of cinematic achievement. The movie counts among its famous proteges Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

Find a larger review of the movie written by me here.

Director: Francois Truffaut
Genre: Film Noir/Gangster Drama/Crime Drama/Comedy/Avant-Garde/Experimental
Language: French
Country: France

Sunday 21 September 2008

The Devil's Backbone (El Espinazo Del Diablo) [2001]

The ghosts and demons of the real world are far more horrific than their counterparts who are trapped in a metaphysical environment – this is a theme that the supremely talented Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro firmly believes in, and the portrayal of this belief attained marvelous levels in The Devil’s Backbone. This is a movie with extraordinary power and with an immense ability to touch the viewer’s heart despite the unflinching (and brilliantly photographed) onscreen violence. The Spanish Civil War is in full rage; meanwhile, in a school for orphan kids owned and run by a loving patriarch and his incapacitated wife who are in essence rebel sympathizers, some murky secrets are lurking round the shadows. Told through the eyes of a young kid Carlos who has recently been admitted to the school, the movie deftly reveals the whereabouts of Santi, a former student of the school who disappeared the day the “bomb” was dropped. Right from its exquisitely crafted opening monologue on “ghosts”, the fluid narrative manages to engage the viewers with facile ease. Boasting of a series of fine performances, including from all the kids, and comprising of subtle moments of a plethora of human emotions ranging from joy and sorrow to pride, lust and envy, the supernatural thriller is as potent a socio-political statement as captivating it is in purely cinematic terms.

Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Genre: Horror/Supernatural Thriller/Gothic Horror/Haunted House Film
Language: Spanish
Country: Spain/Mexico

Saturday 20 September 2008

Righteous Kill [2008]

Righteous Kill is the kind of movie that lovers of popcorn detective thrillers wouldn’t mind watching, but suffice it to say that it would be futile to expect a classy, memorable murder mystery like say Heat; the fact that it has been directed by Jon Avnet, whose resume includes the horrendous 88 Minutes, should be enough of a clue. Set in New York City, the movie has a run-of-the-mill plot even though it has been given a pretentious arty look. But, as one fellow blogger has aptly put it, any movie starring Robert De Nero – one of the greatest actors ever, and Al Pacino – a favourite among movie-goers, can never be bad. And at times, De Nero, as Turk with his evil grin, and Pacino, as Rooster with his smooth talking, did let the sparks fly. But the good cop-bad cop buddy story with a serial killer (with a penchant for juvenile poetry) angle fails to be very engaging. The city too fails to be a fifth character even though there was ample scope for it. The movie, thus, ultimately comes down to the onscreen chemistry and rivalry of the two legendary American warhorses.

Director: Jon Avnet
Genre: Thriller/Police Thriller/Buddy Film/Psychological Thriller/Crime Thriller/Mystery
Language: English
Country: US

Wednesday 17 September 2008

Back to the Future trilogy [1985, 1989, 1990]

One of the most immensely enjoyable film franchises to have come out of Hollywood, the trilogy from Robert Zemeckis didn’t just entertain us to the hilt but also raised some thought-provoking issues (without being didactic). On the surface it is a science fiction comedy well enacted by Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd as the quick witted, smart ass Marty and the wildly eccentric serial-inventor Doc, respectively. The chemistry they share among themselves as well as with the other equally memorable characters makes the movies very alluring. The goofy, free spirited tone, and the extremely original spiraling storylines are responsible for immensely adding to the enjoyment quotient. On the other hand, the satirical pun-laden depiction of the past and the dark paranoia-filled post apocalyptic future, provide a well disguised philosophical angle for the more serious viewers. Its sugar coated critique on Americana and nostalgia, too, isn’t lost on the viewers. While the first episode of the series is a hilarious old-fashioned mad-cap science fiction, the sequel (the weakest link in the trilogy) is in the mould of a dark tech-noir; the final chapter is a loving homage to the good old days of the wild, wild west.

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Genre: Science Fiction/Sci-Fi Comedy/Satire/Adventure/Americana
Language: English
Country: US

The Last Lear [2008]

Bengali auteur Rituparno Ghosh’s latest outing has generated a lot of hype not only because this is his first English feature, but also because of his collaboration with Amitabh Bachchan. A number of people are of the opinion that this is the best performance of the iconic Bollywood actor. I will not go into that debate, but there’s no doubt about the fact that Last Lear is nowhere near Ghosh’s best works like Utsab and Dahan. At the heart of the movie, in a not so subtle but finely delineated manner, lies the age-old struggle between theatre and cinema, which was the principle theme of Ray’s masterpiece Nayak, too. Bachchan has delivered a powerful performance of Harry – a fiery, brooding, and fiercely independent Shakespearean actor, trapped in a time warp, and for whom “All the World’s a Stage”. The movie, told in elaborate flashbacks, essentially deals with how the veteran stage actor is coaxed into acting in a movie by an equally independent and obstinate director, and the disastrous aftermaths this leads to. The movie, though leisurely in pace, has an underplayed captivating quality, which maybe chiefly attributed to the arresting play between light and darkness. Though Indian actors starring in an English language movie might feel slightly disconcerting for some and the “explosive” climax doesn’t really create any palpable impact per se, but it would be worthwhile for Ghosh aficionados to have a go at it.

Director: Rituparno Ghosh
Genre: Drama/Showbiz Drama/Psychological Drama
Language: English/Bengali
Country: India

Saturday 13 September 2008

In the Mood for Love (Fa Yeung Nin Wa) [2000]

Perhaps the most restrained effort of Hong Kong maestro Wong Kar-Wai till date, In the Mood for Love is a beautiful movie that explores, with (infinite) sensitivity, themes like extra-marital affair, unrequited love and platonic relationship. It is 1962 Hong Kong, and the two protagonists of the movie, Mr. Chow – a journalist, and Mrs. Chan – an office secretary, have moved in a vibrant building as neighbours along with their spouses. Living next doors the two lonely individuals cross their paths over a period of time, and their acquaintance gradually changes to friendship, which becomes more profound (and reaches surreal, heart-touching depths) when they realize that their respective spouses are having an affair with each other. Their lovely yet restrained friendship and understated love are evocatively juxtaposed against their cramped apartments and offices, and the rise of Communism in China; like they say, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Heartfelt performances by the leads (Tony Leung is exceptional), languid camera movements and terrific use of background score (Nat King Cole’s lilting voice has produced a haunting effect) add to the beauty of the most un-Wong Kar-Wai movie of his fantastic filmography. Though never as brilliant as Chungking Express, it neverthelesss attains heart-warming proportions.

Director: Wong Kar-Wai
Genre: Drama/Romantic Drama/Period Film
Language: Mandarin/Cantonese
Country: China (Hong Kong)

Thursday 11 September 2008

The Big Sleep [1946]

Raymond Chandler’s first novel The Big Sleep isn’t just one of my favourite books, it also happens to be one of the most groundbreaking in the genre of gumshoe pulp fictions. And of course it also introduced the irresistible private dick Phillip Marlowe drenched in an overdose of cynicism, wisecracks and sardonic humour. To cut a long story short, I had to watch this movie. Even though it is literally impossible to capture the labyrinthine plot, all the underplayed intricacies (what with the draconian Hays’ Code in place) and the layered nuances of the various characters in a 2-hour feature, still I was expecting that perhaps Mr. Howard Hawks had managed to do the impossible; consequently, the movie left me a tad disappointed. However, that aside, the movie is admittedly a cornerstone in the great American genre of film noirs, with its moody atmosphere, and a crisply delineated depiction of the dark underbelly of the post-war society filled with crime and lack of the so-called inherent goodness of life. And of course, the sterling performances by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and the heavy undertones of their sexual chemistry nearly set the screen on fire.

Director: Howard Hawks
Genre: Film Noir/Mystery/Crime Drama/Private Detective Movie
Language: English
Country: US

Sunday 7 September 2008

Wanted [2008]

If you have some time to kill and you’ve exhausted all viable options, you might as well watch Wanted; but if you are a regular at forums for art cinema, infested with literati and intellectuals, do yourself a favour by not revealing you actually watched this one. So this is probably the last time I’ll let the world know that I’ve watched this unintentionally funny and overtly fantastical yet another brought-to-screen-from-graphic-novel popcorn action thriller. The movie involves a cult group of assassins, revenge, a chase sequence reminiscent of Terminator II, action scenes heavily “influenced” from Matrix, son-getting-reacquainted-with-his long-lost-daddy stuff, to name a few – but lets not spoil the fun for would be viewers by revealing more. However I must warn all you lovers of kick-ass movies – the stunt scenes here are ludicrous at best and ridiculous at worst. The director even managed to make Anjelina Jolie look dumb. The only saving grace of the movie perhaps was that Jolie was kind enough to let us have an extended look at her exquisitely-shaped and utterly delicious uncovered posterior to help us recover a part of the money we paid for the proceeds. And yes, if you have a company to share the laughs like I did, you might actually have some no-brainer fun at the cost of the hapless actors and the over-ambitious director.

Director: Timur Bekhmambetov
Genre: Action/Thriller/Chase Movie/Action Comedy/Fantasy
Language: English
Country: US