Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ace in the Hole

Those who appreciated Peepli Live’s vision of a cannibalistic media feeding off one man’s tragedy will find Ace in the Hole an intriguing companion piece. Made over half a century ago, this movie stars Kirk Douglas as a washed-up reporter forced to work for a small-town newspaper, who sees his ticket back to the “big league” in a man stuck in a cave collapse. Newspapermen – whether muckraking or crusading – were the basis for some of Hollywood’s best pictures of the ‘40s and ‘50s; this movie is no exception.

As Chuck Tatum, Douglas is as enterprising and ruthless a leading man as Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of Sierra Madre. He gambles with the victim’s fate, forcing the rescue team to drill instead of shoring up the walls because it would mean more time for him to whip up a media frenzy. He also strikes deals with the crooked sheriff, and the trapped man’s wife, who, in a way, is also trapped. The film intersperses the increasing despair of the man inside the cave with a savage indictment of society at large, as hundreds of tourists turn the sleepy town into a capitalistic carnival. The media’s attitude, meanwhile, can be summed up in Douglas’ practical assessment of the situation: “One man [trapped] is better than 84…that’s human interest.”

This hardboiled outlook will come as no surprise to those familiar with director Billy Wilder’s films. His black comedies took aim at those aspects of life that America held dear – corporate zeal, the institution of marriage – and turned them inside out. His leads were often unsympathetic; Fred MacMurray helps an adulterous wife murder her husband in Double Indemnity, and in Sunset Blvd, William Holden is a kept man who leads on an ageing star. Ace in the Hole may be the sharpest of them all, the grainy darkness of the dust-covered faces matched every step of the way by the blackness of the humour.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi. Also, an earlier post of mine on Peepli Live.

Monday, October 25, 2010

If you like your poetry hardboiled...

"And then I saw her, coming out of the sun, and I knew why Whit didn't care about that forty grand"

(Out of the Past, 1947. Directed by Jacques Tourneur and starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas. Script by Daniel Mainwaring, who also went by Geoffrey Homes, important in this case because a certain Geoffrey Homes wrote Build My Gallows High, the novel on which the film is based)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Thoughts on the CWG closing ceremony (even as it continues to continue)

  • Why are they singing English songs?
  • Why is Shiamak singing at all?
  • Why did they resurrect the ghost of Usha Uthup?
  • Why does Kalmadi give such long speeches?
  • At least they aren't messing around with intricate classical dance moves that no one can see from the stands...
  • ...or large laser-generated outlines of people doing yoga
  • Maybe there's a level of self-understanding that set in post-opening ceremony that made them say, look, this is us. We are Indians, and we are best at large-scale synchronised dances set to a medley of random film songs. All that talk about showcasing culture and heritage was a way to spend the ginormously inflated budgets that we were given to...well, to do exactly those things. But that's the past. Today, we sing, we dance, we rationalise

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Canis lupus

An excerpt from an interview with Jason Schwartzman, who describes his favourite scene from Fantastic Mr. Fox. Its mine as well. It comes out of nowhere and plays like an old Disney scene, full of wonder and an elemental sense of fear. Also, as Schwartzman tells us, it has an uncredited contribution by Bill Murray.

Q: What is your favorite part of the movie?
JS: I love this one part of the movie, but it’s in the end. What should I do in this situation? Can I tell it anyway?

Q: I think it’s okay.
JS: Well, okay. I’m just gonna say it. There’s a scene at the end of the movie when George Clooney’s character, myself, my cousin and the opossum, Kylie, are all on a little motorcycle driving back to our home. And we’ve just rescued my cousin. And we stop and we see a wolf on a distant hill, and it’s a really beautiful, beautiful scene. It’s like so heart-warming because it’s just a beautiful moment between these foxes and little animals and this really like mysterious wolf who we’ve heard about the entire movie and who doesn’t talk in this scene and he’s not wearing clothes. He’s kind of, he represents I guess, the wild. He’s a wild wolf and animal, and it’s a beautiful moment where they have this great connection, and in that moment, it really like to me the point of that scene is let’s keep on being free. Let’s keep on being animals. And it’s such an uplifting moment, and like when I’ve seen it with audiences, a bunch of people break into huge cheers and hooting. It’s such an awesome, awesome scene. It really just blows my mind.

And actually, when we did the movie, you know, we did the movie basically live together as a cast. We didn’t do the scenes, none of us really did it separately in recording booths, which is how typical animated movies are done. This one, Wes Andersen had us literally go and move onto a farm together and we all lived together. And we’d wake up in the morning, have breakfast and then if there was a scene, for instance, that took place underneath a tree, George Clooney and Bill Murray, everyone, would walk over to the tree that we’d find, we’d take our scripts out and we’d just start acting out the scenes. And it was basically like doing a movie just with no cameras. So there were actors, the director, Wes, and a sound man. And we were running around, growling and hooting and hollering, and if we had to eat a bunch of food like in the movie we always are eating like French toast or biscuits, we would literally be eating French toast and biscuits and toast, I mean it was so much fun.

Anyways, one day when we were doing this particular scene with this wolf, we were all about to shoot it and then Wes said, you know we should really get someone to play the wolf so that the guys have someone to act opposite, and we looked around and Bill Murray was standing there with his hands in his pockets. He took his hands out and said, “I can be the wolf.” And Bill Murray just took off running, or I guess trotting. And he ran, ran, ran, ran really far away until he was tiny. And he turned around and actually became the wolf, like he, it’s almost as if he embodied the wolf. And he acted it out for us, and it was so inspiring and so beautiful. And Wes actually took out his camera phone, filmed it, and then sent that footage to the animators to base the wolf off of Bill Murray, so Bill Murray is the uncredited wolf in this movie. And he actually, it was so good, it was as if he practiced it. I mean, it was incredible, his wolf performance. So, I think because of what the scene means, what it represents in the movie and the great warm message that it has in the scene, plus knowing the behind the scenes, what went into that scene, I think that’s my favorite scene in the movie.

Full interview here

Superman: DVD Review

Some movies are better viewed young. As we grow older, we become less susceptible, more jaded. We start to pick holes in our childhood fantasies. Superman is great for picking holes in. For starters, it’s very, very square. The screenplay is turgid, despite having names like Mario Puzo (Godfather) and Robert Benton and David Newman (Bonnie and Clyde) attached to its earlier drafts; characters say things like “I'm here to fight for truth, and justice, and the American way.” The adolescent Clark Kent looks very little like the older one. The scenes on Krypton are stagey and visually unimpressive. And no matter what Marlon Brando does as Jor-El, Superman’s father, all you can see is that ridiculous wig.

Superman was always the square one – the all-American superhero mothers wanted their daughters to bring home. Batman was a brooder, Spiderman was a troubled teen, Superman was blander than bread. It’s a miracle that Christopher Reeve manages to make Superman so appealing without deviating from the original template. His belief in the character pulls the audience along. The movie’s original marketing hook was “You’ll believe a man can fly”. What Reeve does is even more impressive, because he makes you believe it while decked in bright red underpants. Thirty-two years after Superman’s release, this much is clear: his performance makes the movie. It’s also fair to point out that some of the flying scenes still look pretty nifty, and that Margo Kidder is a hoot as Lois Lane.

If you’re the kind who values footnotes as much as the novel, you’ll enjoy the bonus features included. There are three documentaries: one on Superman’s pre-production, another on its development, the third concerning its visual effects. Reeve, Kidder, principal villain Gene Hackman and gravel-voiced director Richard Donner all turn up to reminisce. Also included is Reeve’s screen test, proof that he had the character down from the very beginning. The commentary track, though, is a rather dubious error – the disc advertises one by the director, instead we get producers Pierre Spengler and Ilya Salkind, who fired him after he’d shot a major portion of Superman II. Apart from that, it’s an interesting glance at a movie which, for better or worse, set the standards by which future comic book flicks would be judged.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Away We Go: DVD Review

Ever since he debuted with American Beauty in 1999, Sam Mendes has, in his polished way, spent his career taking different aspects of American life apart in films like Road to Perdition, Jarhead and Revolutionary Road. Now, with Away We Go, he’s given himself a chance to deconstruct his own process. By doing something that few big-ticket directors ever come around to – making a small movie, writer-led and not dependent on stars, as he states in a making-of segment – Mendes is pushing himself to see whether his art remains relevant when one removes the advantages that Hollywood affords.

Burt and Verona, unmarried but very much in love, are expecting their first child. When Burt’s parents, their reason for being in Denver, inform them that they’re going abroad for a few years, the couple sets off on a cross-country trip to find a place they can call home. The film subscribes to a brand of deadpan eccentricism pioneered by Mendes’ own American Beauty and more recently, Little Miss Sunshine. Nearly everyone Burt and Verona meet is more than a little unhinged, from a mother who calls her daughter a dyke and asks her to do a “tough-girl walk”, to another who believes that strollers are evil. While the supporting players are all talented (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeff Dianels, Allison Janney) there’s no real sympathy for any of their characters, and the scenes involving them end up a compendium of outlandish, if inventively humorous, situations.

The leads, though, are fleshed out beautifully. It helps that the writing team – writer and columnist Dave Eggers and novelist Vendela Vida – are husband and wife. They have a great ear for the speech patterns of married people, with all the assurances given and compromises made from sentence to sentence. John Krasinski is funny and endearing as Burt, a bearded, bespectacled, supportive square. And fans of Saturday Night Live will find Maya Rudolph’s performance as Verona a revelation. With Krasinki the more animated of the two, she sails just under the radar, her unconventional-by-Hollywood-standards face registering half smiles and occasional panic. These two are the main reason Mendes’ film ends up being touching and relatable, when it might otherwise have been ironic or arch. Included are a nice set of bonus features, including interviews with cast and crew, audio commentary by the writers and director, and a segment on how everyone who worked on this film tried to keep the process eco-friendly.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi

I Confess

I Confess may fall short of the sombre power summoned by Hitchcock in The Wrong Man, released three years after it. Yet, as the making-of featurette points out, these two films are of the same feather, and ought to be grouped together. Both are shot in black and white. Both are austere by Hitchcock’s standards. Both lack his trademark playfulness, which may have something to do with the fact that religion, a subject rarely given to humour, is a big part of both these films.

Father Logan, a priest in the Canadian town of Quebec, hears a confession of murder. He is barred by the rules of his faith from telling anybody, and matters become even worse when the evidence starts to point towards him and he becomes a suspect in the case. Montgomery Clift plays Father Logan as a man whose faith is so unwavering, it could cost him his life. Though Hitch was no fan of method acting (he never believed in instructing actors beyond a point) this doesn’t seem to have affected Clift’s performance. His face betrays only the tiniest signs of emotion as he finds himself further and further enmeshed, unsurprising in an actor who knew a thing two about keeping a secret (he hid his homosexuality from the public to protect his career).

The supporting players are very good as well, especially OE Hasse as the frightened, desperate killer, and Karl Malden, taking down his usual blustery style a notch, as a detective who’s convinced of Logan’s guilt. Bleak from start to finish, I Confess is a film that grips rather than thrills. In a key moment, the murderer tells the priest that he would be doing him a favour by killing him, because his life is so empty. Hitchcock doesn’t follow up on that insinuation here, but it obviously intrigued him enough to explore more fully in The Wrong Man, the implications of emotional deadness.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi