Tuesday 31 July 2012

Sorcerer [1977]

William Friedkin, fresh out of his back-to-back successes, viz. The French Connection and The Exorcist, nearly had his career destroyed by Sorcerer because of the large budget for its time and the unfortunate responses it elicited. Inspired from Clouzot’s Wages of Fear, it is a rarity in that, without going into comparisons with the classic French original (which was admittedly superior of the two), it was one of those rare American remakes that has managed to survive the test of time and stand on its own merit. Four men from different parts of the globe have taken refuge in a rundown, godforsaken South American town, in order to escape from their past crimes. However, they all long to leave the dreary place, and so, when presented with the opportunity by an oil company to earn good money if they drive a deadly cargo of nitroglycerine over 200 miles by two rickety trucks through some of the most treacherous terrains imaginable, they leap at it despite the incredible dangers the insanely arduous task is fraught with. Though the character arcs and dynamics weren’t as well portrayed as in the original, the hellish ride, along with the emotional toll that it takes on them, were nearly as well depicted. And since back-stories of the four disparate and desperate men were shown, their intents too were thoroughly understandable. Whatever the movie lacked in terms of the emotional coldness of the script, it made up through the nail-biting suspense, and the visceral, gritty, and grimy content courtesy the superb cinematography, set-pieces and pacing. The acting by the four leads, specifically Roy Scheider and Bruno Cremer, were also quite commendable.

Director: William Friedkin
Genre: Thriller/Psychological Thriller/Adventure Film
Language: English
Country: US

Sunday 29 July 2012

A Man Escaped [1956]

A Man Escaped is widely recognized as one of the finest escape dramas ever made, despite it being anything but an archetypal escape film. French auteur Robert Bresson, true to his love for minimalism and under-dramatization of proceedings, stripped the film to its bare essentials while chronicling the story (based on the memoirs of Andre Devigny) – the end result is a nerve-racking experience and an outstanding film. Fontaine (François Leterrier), a member of the French Resistance, is captured by the Nazis and put into a prison. Right from the moment he arrives there, there’s just one thing and one thing alone occupying his mind – finding a way to escape from the hell-hole. He makes exceptional use of his fecund mind, resourcefulness, observant nature, and searing will to accomplish his goal, and gets crucial assistance from some of his fellow inmates as well as in the form of much needed luck at times, in order to meticulously plan his escape. The first half of the film deals with the planning and preparatory process, while the second about the actual escape with a young cell-mate in tow. Stylistically the movie is anything but the kind of pulsating, edge-of-the-seat thrillers that one would generally expect, what with its stark B/W photography, long takes, matter-of-fact voiceover, and long moments of silence (only to be punctuated from time to time by Mozart’s compositions). Yet, despite the quintessential Bressonian elements, this managed to be a truly gripping account courtesy the minute detailing, clinical storytelling, brilliant narrative pacing, and the importance laid on subtleties over grandiosity.

Director: Robert Bresson
Genre: Thriller/Prison Drama/Escape Film/Docu-drama
Language: French
Country: France

Saturday 28 July 2012

Man on the Tracks [1956]

The exceptionally talented Polish filmmaker Andrzej Munk, who would go on to make the seminal classic Bad Luck, made his feature film debut with Man on the Tracks, one of the earliest works in the Polish Film School movement and one of the most influential movies of the country. Munk made wonderful use of Rashomon Effect, immortalized by Akira Kurosawa in Rashomon, to chronicle the tale of Władysław, a former railway engineer, who has died under mysterious circumstances. During an indoor fact-finding session to investigate his death that nearly resulted in the derailment of a passenger train, the engineer’s life and the possible explanation for the event under the lens, are meticulously pieced together from the accounts of various participants – the stationmaster who had once worked under him and later went on to fire him, the driver of the train which killed him and who had apprenticed under him for a period of time sharing a strained relationship, and a signal operator who was the last person to speak to him. Though some of the members of the small committee are quick to draw conclusions about him, the elaborate, brilliantly structured and exquisitely layered flashbacks present him as a complex, well-rounded human being – a gruff person whose love for the locomotive ultimately results in his downfall, and that the reality was quite different vis-à-vis the perceptions. Kazimierz Opaliński provided a superb turn as the deceased protagonist in this psychologically invigorating, darkly ironic, politically charged, and deeply humanistic commentary on the subjectivity of human memory.

Director: Andrzej Munk
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Political Drama
Language: Polish
Country: Poland

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Cry Danger [1951]

Robert Parrish, who first attained fame as a child actor (most notably with City Lights), and then as an editor, made his directorial debut with Cry Danger, a low-budget crime thriller with noirish overtones. Shot in only twenty-two days and set in the city of Los Angeles, the breezily paced film is about a wrongly accused man, freshly out of prison after serving 5 years for a crime he never committed, seeking to get even with whoever who framed him. Rocky Mulloy (Dick Powell), had been sentenced for life for robbery and murder, but he gets released for the serendipitous witness corroborating his alibi. On one hand he makes it his agenda to go after Castro (William Conrad), a shrewd bookie and dangerous gangster who, he assumes, was responsible for taking the fall; on the other, he reconnects with the beautiful, alluring and enigmatic Nancy (Rhonda Fleming), his former girlfriend he still carries a flame for even though she is now married to his best friend who is in prison. Meanwhile the police too is keeping an eye on his whereabouts, and he starts using that to his advantage while dealing with the dangers posed by Castro. The script abounded in witty one-liners, cynical retorts and fatalistic overtures, and the bleak climax was expertly handled, thus accentuating the kind of moodiness and the themes of betrayal and urban loneliness that pervaded the proceedings. Powell gave a sharp and subtly affecting turn as a laconic man in a single minded pursuit to avenge the loss of 5 of the best years of his life.

Director: Robert Parrish
Genre: Thriller/Crime Thriller/Film Noir
Language: English
Country: US

Sunday 15 July 2012

The Manchurian Candidate [1962]

The Manchurian Candidate was made when the Cold War was at its peak; consequently, its theme, tone and subject matter was commensurate with the kind of fear and paranoia that defined that particular era in the 20th century, and continues to be prescient in today’s context too. Speaking about the plot for this nerve-racking political and conspiracy thriller would be giving away the surprise elements of the film, so I’ll keep it as succinct as possible. A group of soldiers engaged in Korea are ambushed while on patrol. A few months later they return to hero’s welcome, with Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), the son of an icy, domineering and over-ambitious lady (Angela Lansbury) who he passionately hates, being given the Congressional Medal of Honor. Simultaneously, Capt. Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), who had personally recommended Shaw’s name, starts getting bizarre dreams involving all those who were there under his command, and despite considering Shaw as the “kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life”, he becomes convinced everything is not as it appears to be – least of all, Shaw himself. The film dealt with such topics as brainwashing and thought control to supplement the tale of international political conspiracy, and the end result of the brilliantly enacted (and at times, far-fetched) movie was both incredibly tense and highly disturbing. The recurrent dreams that start plaguing Marco would rank among the most disorienting and disconcerting sequences ever filmed, as would the dangerous relationship shared between Shaw and his mother. The strange and ominous first meeting between Marco and the seemingly mysterious Rosie (Janet Leigh), however, ought to have been expanded upon.

Director: John Frankenheimer
Genre: Thriller/Psychological Thriller/Political Thriller
Language: English
Country: US

Thursday 12 July 2012

Ucho (The Ear) [1970]

Breakdown of a marriage, and political satire on an Orwellian state, require separate films in order for justice to be done to each. It was the genius of Czech filmmaker Karel Kachyna that the two seemingly disparate subjects could so seamlessly be combined into a single crisply-timed movie, that too with such pared down aesthetics. The political commentary was in fact so charged and scathing that it was promptly banned, and stayed so for 22 years! The collapse of the marriage of the bickering couple - Ludvik (Radoslav Brzobohaty), a senior Party official, and his bitter, alcoholic wife Anna (Jirina Bohodalova) – has been examined in scorching and heartbreaking details. The two are still in love though, and their suppressed mutual love has been brilliantly exposed through the external political climate. Ludvik has an ominous feeling that they are under constant surveillance, and the ominous presence of Big Brother is, ironically, what brings the two together during moments of cold fear. The narrative alternates between then the present – a seemingly unending night where all the vitriol for one another and their repressed guilt and frustrations come to the fore, thus making them hang delicately in their mutual distrust and the palpable fear of the secret police who might pounce onto them any second, and an immediate past dealing with an important political party they attend earlier in the evening. Minimalist in style, the film succeeded in creating nail-biting tension from start to finish thanks in no small parts to the excellent pacing, the moody photograpgy, the constant sense of marital imposion vis-à-vis political explosion, and superb performances by the two leads.

Director: Karel Kachyna
Genre: Thriller/Psychological Drama/Marriage Drama/Political Thriller
Language: Czech
Country: Czech Republic (erstwhile Czechoslovakia)

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Jour de Fête [1949]

In his first feature film direction itself, viz. Jour de Fete, Jacques Tati displayed, in unequivocal terms, his genius at crafting marvelous humour and wit, with understated layers of pathos and social commentary, out of the simplest and most mundane activities and stories. This charming and delectable film also provided the template – both in terms of content and aesthetics – for the Monsieur Hulot films with which he took comedy and satire in cinema to stratospheric heights. As in the Hulot films, Tati played the role of the principal protagonist as well – a bumbling, good-natured postman in a small French town. The movie begins with vignettes of the unhurried lives of the ordinary folks the town is filled with, seen through the eyes of an observant wise old lady. The arrival of a travelling fair, however, turns the life of the simple-minded postman upside down, when he sees newsreel footage on the American postal system. Forever used to the leisurely style of the olden days, he suddenly feels an incredible urge of incorporating the buzzwords of speed and efficiency, and thus begins a hilarious account of his attempts at reinventing himself. Essentially plotless in nature, Tati filled the film with brilliant physical humour, wonderfully aided by the innovative score, and subtle observations to accentuate his pet theme of the clash between modernity and tradition (no points for guessing where his allegiance lay). Interestingly, Tati had shot the film simultaneously in B/W and an experimental colour scheme called Thomson Color, but it took nearly 5 decades for the latter version to see daylight!

Director: Jacques Tati
Genre: Comedy/Social Satire/Slapstick
Language: French
Country: France

Saturday 7 July 2012

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre [1948]

One might argue as to which was the greatest achievement of John Huston (my choice would be a toss-up between The Maltese Falcon and The Asphalt Jungle), or for that matter Humphrey Bogart’s finest moment under the sun (I’d go with In A Lonely Place) – but there’s no denying the place of The Treasure of Sierra Madre in the pantheon of the finest American movies ever made. This classic adventure tale remains as a corrosive treatise on the pliable and destructive nature of human beings when under the influence of money, greed and rabid suspicion. When two jobless, penniless drifters, Dobbs (Bogart) and Curtin (Tim Holt), eking out a day-to-day basis survival at the Mexican town of Tampico, get acquainted to a loquacious and aged prospector Howard (Walter Huston), they lap up the opportunity to embark on a perilous gold hunt, as they have nothing to lose. However, despite the wisdom of the wizened old man, the camaraderie that they show to fight bandits, fatigue and frustrations, and their decent natures, as soon as they strike gold, trouble starts brewing between them, and inevitably, things start going awry at a real fast pace. Bogart provided an absolutely explosive performance in the against-the-type role of an edgy, volatile and an increasingly paranoid man who self-destructs at the first given opportunity, and he received an excellent supporting turn from the director’s father as a wise old man who knows full well what money can do to a man. The incorruptible, goody-two-shoes characterization of Curtin was perhaps the sole blip in this otherwise exciting and immensely engaging B. Tavern adaptation.

Director: John Huston
Genre: Thriller/Psychological Thriller/Adventure Film
Language: English
Country: US

Thursday 5 July 2012

Andrei Rublev [1966]

Andrei Rublev, the second feature film of Andrei Tarkovsky, is considered not only the Russian master’s greatest masterpiece, but also universally recognized a seminal film in the history of world cinema. Loosely based on the life and times of the legendary 15th century Russian icon painter, this staggering historical epic faced significant censorship issues upon its release on account of its bleak and disturbing nature, and political and religious content – consequently various versions of the film exist. Though technically a biopic, Tarkovsky imbued the film with a breathtaking scope that expanded far beyond the confines of that sub-genre. A series of loosely defined chapters is used as literary device to chronicle the journey of the medieval-era painter (stoically played by Anatoli Solonitsyn) through some of the most turbulent periods in Russian history filled with tyranny, religious oppression, famine, war, murderous rampage by Tartars, destruction of museums and churches, etc. These historical upheavals have been counterpointed against Rublev’s personal and religious crises, and his coming to terms with himself and his art. The grim content, minimalist structure, complex ideology, and austere mood were brilliantly emphasized by the stark B/W photography, leisurely pacing and an excellent (but sparsely used) score. The final chapter dealt with the making of the perfect bell for the Grand Prince, against all odds, by a young boy with burning passion and ambition named Boriska (superbly performed by Nikolai Burlyayev). Though seemingly a detour, this ravishing section formed the most unforgettable section of this majestic work. Panorama of Rublev’s artwork in resplendent colours was the parting masterstroke by the maestro.

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Genre: Drama/Religious Drama/Historical Epic/Biopic
Language: Russian
Country: Russia (erstwhile Soviet Union)

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Ivan's Childhood [1962]

Andrei Tarkovsky made just 7 feature films in his life, and it was the marvelous war-time drama Ivan’s Childhood that begun the celebrated (albeit not-so-prolific) journey of the Russian master filmmaker while also eliciting superlative praise from Bergman. Harrowing and poetic in equal measures, this was yet another fascinating addition to the pantheon of memorable movies made at the backdrop of WWII. This is the tale of the eponymous 12-year old boy (Kolya Burlayayev) whose process of growing up has been accelerated on account of the raving war that has engulfed his home as well as his family, thus emphasizing the bitter irony of the film’s title. His burning hatred for the Nazis, coupled with his ability to remain under the radar while entering into hostile enemy territory, has made him a key resource for the Russian army in order to collect information. Tarkovsky brilliantly juxtaposed the harrowing and war-ravaged reality with lyrical, melancholic, and at times, grotesque dream sequences, in order to present a heartbreaking account of the horrors and futility of wars. Though Ivan is the principal protagonist, the point-of-view regularly jumped to two other characters as well – the seemingly brusque but essentially humane Captain Kholin (Valentin Zubkov), and a young stone-faced lieutenant harboring feelings for a pretty young medic. The stark monochrome photography, exquisite usages of shadows and silhouettes, and canted camera angles, added a dash of expressionistic touch to the film’s bleak visuals of the devastated landscape, while the alternatingly lilting and jarring score did a great job at complementing the dream-reality duality that the director played with.

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Genre: Drama/War Drama/Psychological Drama
Language: Russian
Country: Russia (erstwhile Soviet Union)

Tuesday 3 July 2012

The Wages of Fear [1953]

Henry-Georges Clouzot, referred to by many as France’s reply to Alfred Hitchcock, attained international stardom upon the back-to-back release of The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques. Universally considered amongst the suspenseful and most pulsating thrillers ever made, the film was set in an impoverished village in an oil-rich Central American country – suffice it to say, the US has a controlling presence there in order to extract the resources. The town is populated by a number of near-broke foreigners desperate to flee from the country, and for that they need money. Hence, when the oil company announces its need for four expert long-distance drivers in order to transport nitroglycerine, a highly volatile explosive, and offers 2000 dollars for the same, the response is emphatic; the four who ultimately get the job are, Mario (Yves Montant), a young French speaking Corsican, his Italian roommate Luigi, a laconic German called Bimba, and Jo (Charles Vanel), an middle-aged ex-convict Frenchman. The initial third of the film, which is used to introduce the characters and set the context, might seem slow given the reputation that precedes the film, but once the journey starts there’s no looking back. The journey on two dilapidated trucks, through some of the most treacherous terrain imaginable, in sweltering climate, and carrying the incredibly deadly cargo, doesn’t just call for skills, presence of mind and resourcefulness of the highest order, but also dollops of luck, and this made for a hellish and nail-biting ride – for the characters who are taken to the edge of their sanity, as well as for me, the viewer.

Director: Henry-Georges Clouzot
Genre: Thriller/Psychological Thriller/Adventure Film
Language: French/English/Spanish/German/Italian/Russian
Country: France

Monday 2 July 2012

Les Cousins [1959]

Les Cousins, the sophomore feature of acclaimed French filmmaker Claude Chabrol, one of the founding fathers of the Nouvelle Vague movement, was a bleak morality tale on lost innocence, moral decadence and the corrupting powers of city life. In his debut film La Beau Serge, the protagonist returns from the city to his village to reconnect with his past. In a sly reversal of that scenario, Charles (Gerard Blain), a naïve and introverted young man takes the trip from the country to Paris in order to pursue studies, and takes up residence with his brash and outgoing cousin Paul (Jean-Claude Brialy). The two cousins couldn’t be more different from each other – while the former is studious, has a softer personality and spends sometime everyday writing to his mother, the latter is a womanizer and party animal who prefers to rely on his intelligence and resourcefulness rather than hard work in order to pass his exams. And things get exceedingly complicated when Francoise (Stephane Audran), a beautiful and promiscuous young woman who Charles has fallen for, ditches him for his debonair and gregarious cousin without so much as an afterthought. The moody photography and carefully used score made this brilliant psychological drama a bleak examination of the unfairness of life. One of the most memorable moments in it is a lavish orgy with Wagner playing on the background. Chabrol also made terrific use of ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ for the deeply disturbing and darkly ironic finale.

Director: Claude Chabrol
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Urban Drama
Language: French
Country: France