Wednesday 31 December 2014

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion [1970]

Italian filmmaker Elio Petri’s lauded but controversial Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion reminded me of such diverse films as Costa-Gavras’ Z and Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove in the way this politically charged film tore into socio-political corruption, arrogance and high-handedness among the powers that be in pulsating fashion. This bitingly satirical black comedy provided a scathing indictment on the brazenness with which power is abused and how truth is what the ruling class choses it to be. The film begins with the nameless Chief of Police (Gian Maria Volonté), who’s slated to be in charge of expunging the country of Communists, political dissidents and basically anyone who doesn’t conform to his fascist and hetero-normative ideology, murdering his sultry and liberated mistress (Florinda Bolkan) at her apartment, rumpling up potential evidences and then pompously walking out, confident that he’s beyond reach of the law’s arms. As the investigation proceeds, he diverts suspicion towards people – first her cuckolded husband and then her Leftist boyfriend – and subverts the system at his free will. In its lacerating and ironic climax, when he’s finally overpowered by his conscience, everyone around him conspire to prove him of his innocence. Volonté was frightening as the tale’s outrageously slimy, authoritarian and literally bullying anti-hero, albeit with deep-set guilt complexes and sexual insecurities. The sparkling photography (with a host of close-ups), Morricone’s idiosyncratic score (reminiscent of The Sicilian Clan) and excellent support cast (portraying the quirky characters) made this acerbic, intensely anti-establishmentarian and Left-sympathizing critique all the more compelling.

Director: Elio Petri
Genre: Crime Drama/Black Comedy/Political Satire
Language: Italian
Country: Italy

Sunday 28 December 2014

Happy Together [1997]

Happy Together, a ravishing and bittersweet elucidation of Wong Kar-Wai’s love and penchant for doomed romances, melancholia, loneliness, unhurried pacing and stylized visuals, and having a title that couldn’t be more ironic, would certainly rank amongst his best works, alongside the likes of Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love and 2046. Lai (Tony Leung), reserved and deep, and Ho (Leslie Cheung), impulsive and self-destructive, have fled from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires with the intent of giving a fresh start to their tumultuous and on-and-off relationship. They also want to visit the Iguaza Falls, which formed a constant leitmotif in its representation of longing, dream and freedom and jarring juxtaposition to their dismal, confused, emotionally torn and penurious existences. The haunting tone, and the pervading sense of loss and heartbreak, was very well complemented by the film’s freewheeling form. Doyle’s breathtaking cinematography – muted black-and-whites, washed out colors, tinted visuals, varying film speeds – made it ravishing for the eyes, while also deftly adding to the tale’s moody atmosphere, edginess and emotional power, revelation of the lost protagonists’ inner longings and emptiness, and portrayal of the city’s apartments, alleys and bars. The rather underdeveloped character of the friendly Taiwanese Chang (Chang Chen) seemed tad superfluous, more so when placed alongside Leung’s enthralling performance and Leung’s bristling supporting act; the 3-hour version of the film which never got released (Wong had himself cut it down to its 97 minutes length), hence, makes one all the more curious.

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

Saturday 27 December 2014

Fat City [1972]

Fat City, based on Leonard Gardner’s novel of the same name, one of John Huston’s late-career successes and a fine example of a sports movie, was a grim and lyrical film that nicely captured the themes of loneliness, disillusion and disappointment among has-been and wannabe small-time professional boxers. The story’s two main protagonists were Billy (Stacy Keach), an alcoholic former boxer who believes he could have been someone during his prime but now all he intends to do is get back in shape and once again step into the ring in order to make his ends meet, and Ernie (Jeff Bridges), a naïve 18-year old who just doesn’t have it in him to go the distance despite the potential in him noticed by others. Two others who played key roles in this deft character study were Oma (Susan Tyrrell), a perennially depressed barfly who gets engaged in a brief fling with Billy courtesy their affinity towards cheap liquor, and Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto), a manager of average abilities who has a plethora of losers under his wing. Dashed hopes, false illusions and pain, both physical and psychological, were thus the dominating emotions here. The few boxing sequences that were there, were filmed with utmost grittiness and in-your-face realism, and unlike most sports films, the opponents, wherever delved into, too turned out to be tragic characters; thus the finale, where Billy is pitched against a grim-faced Mexican in considerably physical pain, turned out to be heartbreaking as they smash each others already broken down bodies. Competent performances and excellent photography of the town’s dirty lanes, rundown buildings and dimly lit bars, made the film all the more naturalistic and affecting.

Director: John Huston
Genre: Drama/Sports Drama/Urban Drama
Language: English
Country: US

Thursday 25 December 2014

Kes [1969]

Kes, Ken Loach’s 1st feature to release theatrically and a landmark in British cinema, belongs to the pantheon of films which showed rare mastery of telling a tale through the eyes of a young protagonist. Adapted from Barry Hines’ novel A Kestrel for a Knave, the social-realist drama provided a bleak, unflinching and unsentimental portrait of working-class life and deeply engrossing peek into a young boy’s attempts at finding a ray of hope and freedom from the apathy and despair surrounding him. Billy Casper (David Bradley), a frail 15-year old boy, lives with his single mother and elder brother in a cramped apartment. He starts his day early delivering newspapers, goes to a school that he doesn’t like on account of the regimentation he faces there, is perennially bullied by his abusive half-brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher), and is destined to eventually become a coal miner once he grows up. The cold, dreary weather and the industrial grime add to his suffocation and his inherent, but futile, desire to break free. Hence, when he spots a kestrel while aimlessly roaming around, starts learning falconry and tries taming the bird, he suddenly finds something to look forward, viz. momentary escape from his dead-end life. Bradley, with his deadpan expressions and evocation of his fast receding innocence, gave a startling performance – the brief moments he spends with “Kes” imbued the brilliantly photographed and scored film with warmth and poignancy. The hilarious football match, conducted by the stern PE teacher Sugden (Brian Glover), a failed sportsperson who daydreams himself as his ManU heroes Bobby Charlton and George Best, added a dash of humour to this otherwise heartbreaking tale.

Director: Ken Loach
Genre: Drama/Coming-of-Age
Language: English
Country: UK

Friday 19 December 2014

The Third Man [1949]

Carol Reed created an instant masterpiece with The Third Man, which ranks, along with Dassin’s nightmarish Night and the City, as the greatest instance of British Noir. The signature of celebrated British author Graham Greene, who wrote the screenplay and also published it as a novel, was palpable from the murky Cold War era climate, moody doom-laden atmosphere, moral corruption and bankruptcy, tussle between idealism and cynicism, wry humour and pervading sense of melancholia, fatalism and heartbreak. The film begins with Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), an American writer of pulpy Westerns, arriving at the political hotbed of Vienna, which is occupied by Allied forces, in order to respond to a job offer that had been shared by an old friend of his, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Upon arrival he’s informed that Harry has mysteriously died in a road accident; however, the more he delves into the matter, the more he gets sucked into an elaborate and seedy netherworld of lies, betrayals and black-market racketeering that Harry was allegedly a mastermind of. He becomes acquainted to the opposing forces of Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), who’s relentlessly pursuing after Lime, and Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), an beautiful, sad-faced illegal refugee who works as a bit-actress, is besotted with Lime, and who Martins starts falling for. The excellent cinematography, with the striking chiaroscuro and frenetic camerawork, was memorably juxtaposed by the iconic zither score that added a dose of irony and an air of lamentation to the proceedings; on the acting front Welles was particularly unforgettable despite his brief screen-time; and these culminated into a feverish crescendo at Vienna’s dank, grimy and labyrinthine underground sewer system.

p.s. My earlier review of the film can be found here.

Director: Carol Reed
Genre: Thriller/Crime Thriller/Film Noir
Language: English
Country: UK