Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Dirty Harry Box Set: DVD Review

In 1971, Clint Eastwood was on the verge of becoming a star. Sergio Leone’s Dollar trilogy had rescued him from TV Westerns and made him a marquee name (even if it was a man with no name). But it was with Dirty Harry, and in particular the scene which ends with “Well do ya, punk?”, when Eastwood’s scowl passed over into legend. The film, directed by Don Siegel, was as taut a cops-and-robbers tale as Hollywood ever produced but no one at the time paid attention to the craft involved. Critics, the media and the public were divided down the middle on the issue of whether the film was, as per reviewer Pauline Kael’s famous putdown, a “fascist work of art”. What’s interesting is how the remaining Dirty Harry films would take the premise of an edgy, violent cop at war with the system and tweak it in ways that were often unexpected.

Magnum Force, the second in the series, literally takes aim at its liberal critics; as the credits end, Harry points his .44 Magnum straight at the screen and shoots. With a group of rogue patrolmen playing the bad guys, the film tries to peg its antihero as a lesser evil. This is a bit of a con – Harry is excessive no matter who the antagonist is. But it’s difficult to deny the guilty pleasure in watching a perpetually pissed-off Eastwood battle the system until he gets frustrated and pulls out his cannon of a handgun. Next up was The Enforcer, the only film in the series that recognises the potential for humour in Eastwood’s stony mutterings. Under the direction of James Fargo, and paired with a female partner (Tyne Daly) for the first time, this was Harry’s last great outing.

Two more films would follow. Sudden Impact, with Eastwood himself directing, tried to present a more sympathetic killer, but ended up trite and predictable. The Dead Pool, directed by Eastwood’s one-time stunt double Buddy Van Horn, was also unremarkable, the only point of interest being a cameo by pre-fame Jim Carrey. Despite this decline in quality, the series as a whole has been remarkably influential (its raggedy spiritual heirs range from Lethal Weapon to Bad Boys) – a fact you’re reminded of again and again by the numerous special features on this box set. There are audio commentaries for three of the films, discussions on Harry, his methods and cinematic legacy and several looks back at Eastwood’s career. We’d recommend the Sudden Impact commentary by critic and Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel; perceptive and wry, it’s a good deal more rewarding than the film itself.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Good Night Good Morning

I’ve always had a soft spot for Richard Linklater, one of the few Hollywood directors who makes talky films. You might assume I’m talking about Before Sunrise/ Before Sunset, which are the most overtly talkative of the bunch. But Linklater has always been fascinated by words and their possibilities, from the rambling monologues of his breakthrough feature Slacker to the stoned, proud declarations by the teens in Dazed and Confused. Time and time again, Linklater gives his characters enough time to ramble, realise they’re rambling and steer the conversation back to safer ground (though some of them just go on talking).

This freedom to not make sense all the time lends Good Night Good Morning, which recently showed at the Habitat Film Festival, a bracing authenticity that’s perfectly in line with its subject matter. It’s been directed by Sudhish Kamath, and stars Manu Narayan as Turiya (The Love Guru) and Seema Rahmani, whom some may remember rising above average material in The Loins of Punjab, as Moira. The movie name-drops Before Sunrise early on and it soon becomes clear why: the movie is an extended conversation (on phone) between two almost strangers. It beings with Turiya drunk-dialing Moira from a car; he’d met her briefly at a party in NYC a couple of hours ago. She hangs up on him, then realises she can’t sleep and calls him back. You could argue that stuff like this don’t happen in real life. Or you could recall the times similar things have happened and you’ve said “Man, this is just like in the movies…”

Turiya and Moira proceed to talk the night away. They flirt, discuss their past loves, their mistakes and future plans. Since it’s their first meeting, there’s also an inevitable sizing up, followed by a subtle, ever-present struggle for the upper hand. The great triumph is in the way Kamath ensures that their lines never sound like a movie conversation. These two don’t have the nonchalance to look act when they say something witty – instead, they do what normal people do, and look extremely pleased with themselves. It takes great skill to write something that sounds this off-the-cuff. Too clever, and the viewer beings to question the likelihood of two strangers spitting out one-liner after one-liner at three in the morning; go too far in the other direction, and it becomes commonplace, and not worth watching. Kamath told the Habitat audience that when the movie was being scripted, he’s asked his friends to do what Turiya does – dial a stranger and speak to them. He said that what they spoke didn’t turn out to be important as the way their conversations unfolded, jumping from one topic to another. The dialogue in Good Night Good Morning has this same quality of leaping without looking. It’s that rare screenplay which sounds like it’s unscripted.

The movie’s shot in black and white, though I’m not sure I can see a reason why (I can’t see a reason why not, either). The leads had to be charming for it to work, and they are, Narayan with his timid overtures, Rahmani playfully knowing. The only off-note is Raja Sen as Turiya’s crass buddy J.C., providing comic relief in a film that doesn’t require it. The film is split-screen almost throughout, except for the flashback sequences (absent from the MAMI screening, but wisely inserted back). The actors in these sequences are always Narayan and Rahmani, no matters who the characters in question are. You could argue that the director uses this as a device to garner easy laughs. It’s also possible that this is his way of indicating how potential loves always have to measure up to past ones in the beginning. In the same vein, I must return again to the reference made in the movie to Before Sunrise. Once that title was out there, it would always be a question – maybe in the back of people’s minds, but there nonetheless – of whether Good Morning Good Night would measure up to it. I’m happy to say it does.

Addendum: A link to Sudhish Kamath's blog. Ain't nothing wrong with film critics making movies.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Call Northside 777

This 1948 film begins documentary-style, with grainy footage of Chicago’s streets and a portentous voiceover informing viewers about the crime wave that hit the city in 1932. The conceit isn’t kept up long; after those first few awkward minutes, Call Northside 777 settles down into a more conventionally satisfying whodunit, albeit with one important twist. The crime in question has taken place eleven years ago, and the two men sentenced to life imprisonment are innocent.

That much we gather from the first of five minutes. The rest of Call Northside 777 details the efforts of PJ McNeal, reporter for the Chicago Times, to help free the two men. Like every other Hollywood newspaperman of the time, McLean (James Stewart) starts off cynical but is eventually won over by the faith shown by the imprisoned Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte) and everyone who knows him. He starts piecing together the case again, and finds, like the real-life case this movie is based on, that it is full of holes.

Call Northside 777 is methodical to a fault, but Stewart’s performance, with its subtle transformation from bystander to crusader, is skilful enough to keep the viewer involved till the end. Lee J Cobb also does well, playing McNeal’s editor in his usual grouchy style. There’s hardly any score to speak of, unusual in a film from that time (maybe it was assumed this would extend the documentary motif). Joseph MacDonald contributes some top-drawer noir camerawork – plenty of shadows and just enough light to illuminate a silhouette. Director Henry Hathaway’s films, often uneven, have tended to produce some striking performances – John Wayne in True Grit, Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death. Stewart’s may the best of the bunch, and is the primary reason why one ought to see this film.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Seijun Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter

In pop cinema heaven, there’s a special corner reserved for Tokyo Drifter. Its story – about a veteran hitman who wants to call it quits but keeps getting pulled back – could have belonged to any yakuza B-film of the time. But in the hands of Seijun Suzuki, it was transformed into something strange and beautiful, an idiosyncratic mix of primary colours, eccentric editing and a score that ricocheted from opera to fifties rock ‘n roll to Morricone-like trumpets. Suzuki would soon become a thorn in the Nikkatsu studio’s side; he was never able to make his contracted commercial ventures straightforward enough for the studio bosses. This willful disobedience can be seen all over Tokyo Drifter – in the audacious jump cuts, in the unique visual aesthetic, and in the character of yakuza hitman “Phoenix” Tetsu, smart enough to do anything except find a way to quit.

In many ways, it is like a Melville film directed by Godard. The story isn’t unlike Melville’s Le Samourai, released three years later, in which the assassin Jef is carrying out what he hopes will be his last job (the scenes where the injured protagonists are standing alone in their rooms are intriguingly similar – though this is probably a coincidence). Suzuki also reminds one of Melville in the codified behavior that his protagonists exhibit. Notions of loyalty, to one’s bosses, one’s family, even to one’s enemies, populate Tokyo Drifter. It’s pretty much the first thing we hear, in the mournful song that accompanies the opening credits and spells out the movie’s world-view: “If I die, I’ll die like a man/ For me, loyalty comes before love”.

The treatment, however, is very different from Melville’s meticulous variations on gangster film genre. Suzuki never met a hurdle he couldn’t paint day-glo and straddle merrily. This aesthetic finds an echo in the early work of Jean-Luc Godard. There’s a similar use of colour in A Woman is a Woman, and Tokyo Drifter would make a great double bill with such unpredictable deconstructions of the gangster film as Breathless or Pierrot le Fou. But Godard was always political, whereas Suzuki by and large seemed to have no particular motive other keeping his audience as entertained as possible. In this, he is closer to equal Quentin Tarantino, who has acknowledged Suzuki’s influence on his pop fantasias. The more florid moments of Tokyo Drifter are paid tribute to in Kill Bill Volume I –fake, glittering snow, fountains of blood spewing from a slashed wrist.

A large contributor to Suzuki’s greatness is his use of colour, lighting and space. In this film, he’s assisted hugely by cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine and Takeo Kimura, one of the great art directors of Japanese cinema. I was particularly struck by three scenes, each with its own distinct visual style. The first is the gritty opening sequence, shot in high-contrast black and white. The second shows a girl unintentionally catching a bullet; after a long overhead shot, she keels over, and the stain on her blouse is matched by the luridly coloured red screen behind her. The third is the climax, in which the impossibly strange yellow d├ęcor tries to drag one’s attention away from a gunfight that John Woo must have watched and committed to memory years later. Each of these scenes could have been from a different movie. All of them, however, feel like they’ve come from the same director.

Branded to Kill, as memorable a flourish as any in the “cinema of flourishes” (as David Bordwell described Japanese cinema), released in 1967 and proved to be the last straw as far as Nikkatsu was concerned. Suzuki was summarily dismissed, but by then his reputation had grown. Retrospectives were held; his imprint was noted in the diverse styles of Tarantino and Woo, Wong-Kar Wai and Jim Jarmusch – four filmmakers who affected our conceptions of cool in definitive ways. Fans of their work should know this: if you like that Reservoir Dogs walk, or are fond of chewing a toothpick and wearing a long overcoat, Seijun Suzuki is where a lot of it began.

A music video with visuals from the movie expertly cut to a cover of the title song by Japanese Academic Punks.