Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Bharat Ek Khoj Episode 39

58m. Shyam Benegal
I viewed a major chunk of this 53 episode series long ago. This particular episode relates to the period around 1757, the Battle of Plassey. Britain consolidates its foothold by wily and unscrupulous machinations, as nations are wont to do. Amrish Puri as the Nawab with his sonorous and fluid Urdu elocution, retaining poise in the face of decline is impressive, as is the portrayal of Robert Clive by an Indian actor, and no less Raja Nand Lal. Benegal's directorial vision pervades this masterly take on the panorama of Indian history . I am sure this series will remain on the shelves of good cinema for a long time. It is the most accessible and enjoyable entry into Indian history for the layman.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Gunga Din

1939, 112m, Tony Curtis
Borrowing the title from Kipling's notorious immortal poem, and material from  an assortment of his short stories, the movie spins a Hollywood yarn about the thuggee cult. This is a nineteenth century battle movie in which the cult has been transplanted in the NW mountains of the subcontinent (actually it thrived in the plains). We see a regiment of mixed races, comprising infantry, cavalry (elephants included of course), and artillery, advancing on a serpentine route through the Himalayan gorges (actually filmed in California), to the tune of Scottish bagpipes. This is the pageant of history. As someone observes, "The army is not about fighting alone". Soldiering has always been a culture and a cult, if not a faith. It is surrounded by pomp, ceremony, brotherhood and celebration (to mask its essence, killing as a sacred duty). For the most this is a comic strip portrayal of the life in the British army, much in the style of  Beetle Bailey. It portrays army life as  horse play and pranks, and war as a camping adventure, if not a picnic. In fact, the present Indian Army inherits the culture and ethos of its British ancestor. Tony Curtis' here budding comic genius was to blossom fully some twenty years later in Some Like it Hot. It is hard to feel offended by this film in which both races compete in the absurdity of portrayals, with flashes of inspired, or perhaps fortuitous, historical reality. The racial tinges are too remote and anachronistic for indignation.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Europa Europa

1990, 113m
WW2 will retain it's hypnotic fascination for all times, or till worse happens. This film capitalizes the real life story of Solomon Perel, a Jew who survived the holocaust by pretending to be a German. Through his eyes we have glimpses of life in Nazi Germany. Sentimental, historical, harrowing--it is a well handled tale which sails you smoothly through its duration.

Friday, July 26, 2013

25th Hour

It has almost never happened that a film one did not appreciate first time improved on the second visit. This macho sob tale remains platitudinous and sentimental with hardly an opportunity to soar. The colors are garish and the script verbose. Little to add to what is below. Great A O Scott thinks otherwise--perhaps it is too culture specific for me.
A O Scott
"A turgid, bombastic and outrageously self-satisfied movie"...The Guardian

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Gatekeepers

2012, 95m, Drom Moreh
Shin Bet is a secretive Israeli organisation responsible for countering terrorism. As the film says, one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. The film comprises a series of interviews with six former heads of the organisation. The film definitely leaves one with the feeling of an additional brush stroke to ones picture of the world. These elderly interviewees who headed an organisation in which eliminating people was an important duty come out as grandfatherly types with post retirement enlightenment to the futility of military means as a solution to conflict. A gripping movie rich in insightful dialog. In a telling remark someone says, "Our victory is to make you suffer." Even at the cost of one's own life, so deep runs the vein of mutual hatred.
From the script
"....Professor Leibowitz, a critic of the Occupation, wrote a year after the Six Day War, in 1968. "A state ruling over a hostile population of one million foreigners will necessarily become a fascist state, with all that this implies for education, freedom of speech and thought....the corruption found in every colonial regime will affix itself to Israel....the administration will have to suppress an Arab uprising on one hand and acquire Arab Quislings." ....the future is bleak..... it's a brutal occupation force....we've become cruel, using the excuse of a war against terror...... the tragedy of Israel's public security debate we face a situation in which we win every battle, but lose the war..."
A O Scott
"....consists of interviews with six men, all of them retired, most of them bald, one of them a grandfatherly type, well into his 80s, in suspenders and a plaid shirt......what is most astonishing about the interviews Mr. Moreh has recorded is how candid and critical these six spymasters are, inflecting their stories with devastating assessments successive governments.....they are hardly doves or bleeding hearts.....and their shared professional ethos of ruthless, unsentimental pragmatism is precisely what gives such force to their worries about the current situation..........if you need reassurance or grounds for optimism, you will not find it here...what you will find is unbearable clarity.."
Roger Ebert
"......these officers speak as some of the key men in the Israeli state apparatus....they are soldiers with clear assignments....having stepped down from their positions, they now believe  that the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will end only with the annihilation of one or the other, is dead wrong. .....the strategy of vengeance and overkill is ineffective and leads to horrific behavior.....this film is the most pro-Israeli film I have seen..."

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer

1935, 108m, Spencer Tracy
We have here a look at the British Indian army on the NW Frontier (filmed in California), through Hollywood eyes (and American accents). It represents the colonialist viewpoint, the colonized painted in less than glowing terms. It is a boyish adventure yarn with historical overtones, a tale of chivalry, honor, comradeship and allegiance (to the Union Jack, of course). It's plus side is as a historical brush stroke and a view of the military organisation and dedication that made the sad reality of colonization of a vast subcontinent possible, which, from their perspective, reads the glory of empire. Perhaps its the the not so rare phenomenon of what a small group of committed individuals can achieve, for good or for bad.
"German dictator Adolf Hitler told British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax in 1937 that "one of his favorite films was Lives of a Bengal Lancer, which he saw three times. He liked this film because it depicted a handful of Britons holding a continent in thrall. That was how a superior race must behave and the film was a compulsory viewing for the S.S."
NY Times:
"With an adventurous delight which is tempered by a grim respect for the fighting qualities of the Afridi, it plunges into the dashing stuff of border patrols, guerilla warfare, Afghan torture methods and the honor of the regiment. "

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Man who would be King

John Huston, 1975, 145m
A lesser film than one would expect from Huston. It is set in India and based on Kipling. Only the rope trick is missing. The Indians are treated with scant respect, and made the butt of ridicule and scorn. Being filmed in Morocco and made by an American, the Indians resemble no segment past or present and often speak no recognizable dialect. The grandeur of locales is strictly monotonous. There is much plain stupidity, perhaps because Kipling's time was one in which the world was yet unexplored with room for mystery, magic and absurdity. If Huston is true to Kipling, it is clear Kipling had little interest in the country of his birth, if not domicile, except as a colorful literary background to the lives of the white man. Saeed Jaffrey provides a breeze of familiarity in this ill baked portrayal of India. However, the directorial command and narrative power is in evidence and this would come off as good escapist fare for a non-subcontinental viewer. As an American, it is unfair to fault Huston with colonialist malice of the nineteenth century European kind, and his caricature of India can be excused as an innocent historical hangover. Huston's forte is Hemingway style masculinity, including a mature posture towards death. Michael Caine and Sean Connery have given a memorable performance as the lead pair, and no less has Plummer as Kipling himself.
Vincent Canby:
".....It's a tall tale, a legend, of steadfastness, courage, camaraderie, gallantry and greed....and has just enough romantic nonsense in it to enchant the child in each of us."

Friday, July 5, 2013

Little Caesar

1931, 78m, Mervyn LeRoy (director)
This vintage mobster film seems stereotyped at times, specially in the dialog and delivery style, which is probably a result of antiquity. It is a short, powerful drama, with a reserve of power and authenticity. The simple plot goes beyond being a genre piece (in fact, it is the first talking gangster film). It is a gripping, poignant and compassionate story about ambition, courage, ego and loyalty. Rico, rising from the gutter only to return, finally lies stricken, a template for many a film to follow, like Asphalt Jungle and Breathless. After all, crime, punishment and conflict are the essence of tragedy. One may also add that the criminals are innocuous by contemporary standards.
Empire Magazine:
"It's a fully-realized performance and still imitated: Robinson's bullfrog features and strutting bantam walk, with the snarled catchphrases ("The bigger they I come, the harder they fall") ...remain an archetype of the gangster.....The last act is surprisingly moving. In the first great gangster death scene, the fatally wounded and disbelieving antihero breathes "Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?""

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Asphalt Jungle

John Huston, 1950, 112m
"Oh, there's nothing so different about them. After all, crime is only... a left-handed form of human endeavor," observes one of the crooks in this film The planned robbery almost comes off. Apart from the masterly build up of suspense, Huston reveals himself for the great director that he is by making each of the characters, even the worst, human and fallible. At the end, the least endearing of the team, staggers to a poignant death as he arrives at his long dreamt about childhood home. The artistic lode is robust and sure in Huston as he handles the raw stuff which constitutes life.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Treasure of Sierra Madre

John Huston, 1948, 120m
This one is about the power of gold. Three men, starting as friends, find themselves in a wilderness with a load of the stuff. Friendship turns to suspicion and greed, at least for the Bogart character, who we find at his masculine worst, all humanity jaundiced by gold. The farce becomes serious when two shots are fired in the night. This is an epic adventure, flawlessly directed. Humphrey Bogart, in the key negative portrayal, is unforgettable.
"There is a pitiless stark realism that brings the movie to honesty and truth. Leading up to them is a down-market Shakespearean soliloquy when Dobbs thinks he is a murderer and says, "Conscience. What a thing! If you believe you got a conscience, it'll pester you to death. But if you don't believe you got one, what could it do to ya?" He finds out."
NY Times:
"...this steel-springed outdoor drama transgresses convention...originality and maturity....Mr. Bogart as a prospector who succumbs to the gnawing of greed....physically, morally and mentally, this character goes to pot before our eyes, dissolving from a fairly decent hobo into a hideous wreck of humanity possessed ..."
Pauline Kael
"..when it's over you know you've seen something."

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Quest for Fire

1981, 100m
Set in Neolithic 100k years or so ago , this film gives a reasonably accurate picture of human life in that era. Fire can be controlled and tamed, but not created. It is the prized life preserving weapon against foes human and non human. We see the interaction of different human sub species and the film is even punctuated with a prehistoric romance. There is a moving sequence of communion between man and beast when a hairy mammoth accepts a clutch of grass from a man. Apart from fire, the discovery of laughter is depicted. Worth a visit if only to form a vague picture of where we come from. Actually, the most dramatic scene is where a flame is miraculously generated from stone and wood. Starting from a tiny swirl of smoke it is tenderly nursed till we behold a sublime bonfire! Tears roll down the face of the protagonist who has been braving the perils of mountain and valley in his quest.