Saturday, September 22, 2012

Film #87: Nayakan (1987)

Director: Mani Ratnam

Initial Release Country: India

Times Previously Seen: none

Semi-Rapid-Fire Summary:

A young boy, Velu Naiker, in the Tamil region of India sees his union-leader father brutally shot by local government officials. Naiker flees to a massive slum in Bombay, where is taken in and fostered by a Muslim man who smuggles local goods and uses his profits to help those in poverty like himself.

When he becomes a young man, the clever and capable Naiker decides to help his foster father with a smuggling run. Naiker is successful, but his father is discovered and killed. Naiker takes revenge by finding the man responsible, a corrupt police official, and killing him in the middle of the slum. Naiker’s neighbors witness the act, but see him as a brave protector against the government, so they all support him rather than turn him in.

Over the next several years, Naiker continues to expand his smuggling empire, while also defending the poor in his foster neighborhood. His status grows into a man who is respected by other organized criminals, loved by his neighbors, and feared by the privileged elite. Naiker marries a former prostitute and has two children with her.

The young Naiker, complete with high-rise bouffant hairdo, ruminates in the presence of his future wife.

Nearing middle age, Naiker is stricken by tragedy when his wife is killed during an attempt on his life, as revenge by one of his criminal rivals. In retaliation, Naiker kills all of those responsible, further consolidating his power hold on the Bombay underworld.

More years pass, and Naiker’s two children are nearing their late teens. Despite his father’s desire that he have nothing to do with his criminal empire, Naiker’s son wants to involve himself in the organization. He takes it upon himself to set up an assassination of a potential witness against his father. The witness is killed, but Naiker’s son is also killed in the process. Naiker is grief-stricken, and his daughter leaves the family, so as to remove herself from the death surrounding them.

About another decade passes, and Naiker is now a patriarchal crime overlord. A new, young police commissioner launches an all-out war on Naiker, in an attempt to take him down. Unbeknownst to either Naiker or the officer, the officer’s wife is Naiker’s daughter. When Naiker is finally captured and brought to court, his daughter helps to negotiate a peace between them. Naiker actually escapes conviction, as he is far too beloved for anyone to testify against him. However, he is assassinated upon exiting the court by the deranged son of the corrupt policeman whom he had killed when he was a young man.

The aged Naiker, shortly before he is acquitted and then assassinated.

My Take on the Film:

Nayakan is billed as “India’s answer to The Godfather”, according to many summaries. If so, then it’s a rather weak answer, in my opinion.

Maybe I would have a different feeling about it if I weren’t so heavily steeped in the high-quality film making and masterful execution of The Godfather, Parts I and II. It is quite clear that, while having its own Indian influences and adaptations, Nayakan rather shamelessly takes more than a few elements from Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppolla’s classic movies. So many that it nearly crosses the line between “homage” and “rip-off”.

The Naiker character is a very thinly veiled Tamil version of Vito Corleone – a young man on the run from corruption who enters the criminal world out of survival, and whose intelligence, personal integrity, and character set him apart from other criminals. These kinds of stories are usually compelling, and maybe Nayakan’s would have been as well. Except for the fact that it really is Vito Corleone’s story – one that I’ve watched at least half a dozen times.

The young Velu Naiker, facing off against the corrupt cop who eventually kills his father, a la a young Vito Corleone in Sicily. This is just the first of many aspects that the movie apes from The Godfather films.

Granted, it’s not a wholesale rip-off. The tale of Velu Naiker involves social and political themes that are nowhere to be found in The Godfather story. Naiker represents a dark defender of the absolute poorest of the poor in Bombay. His refusal to buckle under the pressure of selfish and power-hungry authoritarians puts a different twist on the familiar story, and it makes him sympathetic in a way somewhat different from Vito Corleone. This is one of the few novel strengths of the picture.

Another way that Nayakan pales in comparison to The Godfather is character depth. Naiker himself is actually rather well fleshed-out, and is easily the most complex character in the movie. His wife and children also show some range. Virtually every other character, though, is at best two-dimensional. Aside from the Naiker family, nearly everyone else is either a sneering, leering, scuzzy criminal or simply not given enough time to show any depth beyond blind loyalty to their benefactor. This lack of time for development is at least partially due to another hallmark of Indian films – the music.

Ahh, the music. First of all, I am no fan of musicals, as I have chronicled in my reviews of Meet Me in Saint Louis and Singin’ in the Rain. At least in that latter film, though, the music was integrated into the movie in a logical way. Nayakan, just as literally every movie produced in India, has a handful of musical and dance numbers. A few of them fit into the story somewhat organically, and the theme song is actually really good (I might even download it on iTunes). Most of them, however, are shoe-horned into the tale in ways that are really bizarre and awkward. I’m sure that, to a viewer from Asia Minor, this does not seem in the least bit odd. For someone like me, though, it’s completely incoherent. It was a far cry from the mostly enjoyable melodies in the other Indian film I reviewed last year, Pyaasa.

The setting of the first music and dance number of the film - the brothel where Velu meets his future wife. While there isn't a massive amount of musical numbers in the picture, most of them are oddly placed and break up the coherent tone of the film.

As far as the filming goes, there is actually a bit of merit. While this movie was made in 1987, it was clearly working on a budget of, I would guess, around $87. The visuals and sound effects have that cheap, grainy quality of the cheesiest of Kung-Fu Theater movies from the 1970s. Despite these limitations, there are actually some really well-framed and choreographed shots. Also, some of the long shots in Bombay are rather stunning, capturing the different regions of that massive, ancient city. For the most part, the cinematographers did a lot with very few resources.

A final problem I had with the movie is something that could not be controlled by the filmmakers – the subtitles. Nayakan is not an easy movie to get a hold of, and there has seemingly been no high-quality version of it produced for Western audiences. The subtitles were sometimes linguistically clunky and sometimes grammatically mangled. Also, multiple characters’ lines would pop up on the screen simultaneously, often before the second or third person would even speak. This added to the “Kung-Fu Theater Effect”. If a company like the Criterion Collection could get the rights to this movie, polish it up, and do the translation justice, it would help immensely.

Actor Kamal Hassan does a good job of bringing the necessary intensity and heart to the role of Velu Naiker. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to overcome the elements that I didn't like about the movie.

Ultimately, I have no real idea exactly why the reviewers at TIME magazine put this movie on their “All-TIME 100 Movies” list. While there are some clear merits and strengths to it, Nayakan did not give me anything original. It recycled one of the most famous film stories, and did it with weaker visuals, far less character development, and shoddier execution. Will I ever watch it again? I think you know the answer to that question.

That’s a wrap. 87 shows down. 18 to go.

Coming Soon: The Decalogue (1989):

 This is another film “series”, consisting of ten one-hour movies by the famed director of the Red-White-Blue trilogy, Krzysztof Kieslowski. These will take me a while, but I’m going to do multiple posts on it, so stay tuned.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Film # 86: Der Himmel uber Berlin

Title for us English-speaking Types: Wings of Desire

Director: Wim Wenders

Initial Release Country: Germany

Times Previously Seen: once (about 12 years ago)

Rapid-Fire Summary:

In 1987 Berlin, Germany, angels are watching the citizens of the city. With quiet and stoic curiosity, dozens of angels (distinguishable to us by their trench coats and short ponytails) watch living humans, though the angels are completely invisible to people they observe. The angels are even able to listen in on these people’s innermost thoughts, be they benevolent, deeply philosophical, petty, or any other range of quality.

One particular angel, Damiel (Bruno Ganz), becomes intrigued with the notion of actually living as a human. Growing tired of merely chronicling life along with his immortal angelic brethren, Damiel becomes more and more curious about feeling emotions as a human does.

The angel Damiel, looking down on Berlin from on high.

Damiel focuses his desires on Marion, a female acrobat in a small-scale local circus. Marion is a pretty young French woman whose thoughts run towards the very deep and introspective loneliness that Damiel seems to understand. After observing Marion on and off for a few days, Damiel renounces his immortality and enters the vibrant world of human existence.

After a day or so of wandering Berlin, getting his bearings, and receiving a little help from a fellow former angel – the actor we know as Peter Falk – Damiel seeks out Marion. He finds her at a Nick Cave concert in the city. The two meet, exchange some epigrammatic words, and spend the night in each others’ arms.

Damiel and Marion are together the next day, with Damiel assisting Marion in her acrobatics routine. He ponders just how much fuller his life has become since becoming human and finding the woman who appears to be his soul mate.

Though she cannot see him in his angel form, Damiel watches and listens to Marion with growing interest and attraction.

My Take on the Film:

This movie had me totally enthralled. For about 30 to 45 minutes.

It’s not that I found Wings of Desire a complete bore, or that it totally ran out of steam at the 45-minute mark. There are actually some excellent moments in the latter half of the film. In total, though, some aspects of the movie got to be a bit tedious by the end.

The premise of the movie is certainly an interesting one. Watching immortal angels peer into the thoughts of humans at various moments in their lives is compelling. Especially since some of those moments reveal not only thought-provoking observations, but also the silly, cheap, and illogical things that pop into people’s heads. It’s often fun to simply sit back and see what the next person on the screen is going to “think”. I do have to say, though, that the people’s thoughts were generally of the much more positive and amusing type. The director clearly did not want to get into anything overly vicious or nasty. This may have been because Berlin at the time was still dealing with the Wall and the decades-long cultural fallout of World War II. Perhaps the specter of the Wall was enough torment to present in the film.

The primary tale of Damiel is also a time-honored and engaging one. The emotionless immortal pining for mortality is certainly the stuff of romance. Actor Bruno Ganz is excellent at playing the desiring angel, wanting to embrace human emotion, and doing so with a very genuine blend of fear and excitement. His meetings with Peter Falk have a very organic warmth to them that are arguably the movie’s greatest assets.

Peter Falk plays a version of himself as a former angel-turned-human. His conversations to and with Damiel are some of the most touching and amusing scenes in the movie.

Despite the interesting premise, meditative themes, and some solid acting, the movie dragged to me and somewhat disappointed towards the end. Virtually all of the first two-thirds of the film are in black-and-white, to convey the bland perspective of the angels. This makes perfect sense, and it actually works very well for a while. As the film open with long, panning shots over Berlin, along its streets, and inside some of its more striking buildings, it is easy for the viewer to adopt the calm, thoughtful mood required. After about 45 minutes, though, I found myself a bit weary of the constant “deep thoughts” moments that ran virtually non-stop through the picture. It almost became a repetitive drone at times.

Again, one thing that rescued it from being a total drone was the presence of Peter Falk. As a fallen angel himself, he adds a welcome amount of dry humor and fraternal affection that lets you know that the movie still has a pulse.

Maybe the biggest disappointment is the character Marion and Damiel’s ultimate meeting with her. Through her thoughts, we see that Marion is a deeply introspective woman who seems to find pleasure in rather simple things, such as performing in a low-rent circus. However, she does yearn for a larger stage and to find a companion with whom she can be her “whole self”. This is all understandable and admirable, but it is all expressed through thoughts that come across like philosophical treatises. And it really never changes. Even when Damiel finds her and they begin to interact, there isn’t the slightest amount of visible human passion. Marion instead regurgitates some of her thoughts in a bland monotone. Now, I’m no romantic and I don’t need melodrama (I hate it, in fact), but this final scene was like watching two Terminators trying to express their feelings for one another. It was rather a letdown to me.

When it shifts to the human perspective, the film becomes one of color. This is what makes this eventual meeting between Damiel and Marion all the more disappointing - I found virtually no human passion in this scene. 

I do have to say that, even though I have a lukewarm overall opinion of this movie, Wings of Desire has clearly been an influential film. The entire notion of “seeing” into people thoughts in such a panoramic way has been aped countless times since the movie came out in 1987. One example is the R.E.M. “Everybody Hurts” video from the early 1990s, but there are plenty of others. The movie also ties together many extremely heavy and touchingly lighter elements of humanity in a novel way. All the same, I don’t feel any urge to watch the film again, or even watch the sequel movie, Faraway, So Close! (1993).

That’s a wrap. 86 shows down, 19 to go.

Coming Soon: Nayakan (1987):

 Supposedly, this is the India/Bollywood version of “The Godfather”. Or at least, is an epic gangster movie. I have no idea what to expect here, which is sometimes a very good – or very bad – thing.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Film #85: The Singing Detective (1986)

Director: John Amiel 

Initial Release Country: United Kingdom

Times Previously Seen: none

Rapid-Fire Summary:

In the mid-1980’s, detective crime fiction writer Philip Marlow is in a hospital ward, crippled by debilitating condition resulting in severe arthritis and massively inflamed and flaky skin. Surrounded by fellow invalids, Marlow fights his way through the pain and frustration by losing himself in his own mind, mostly in his own history and his own detective stories.

As he slips in and out of bouts of pain, three distinct aspects of Marlow’s life come to the fore. The earliest is his childhood in a small village in the English countryside. Though a clever young child, Philip has to deal with his parents’ marital strife, including witnessing his mother’s infidelity with one of his father’s friends.

The second aspect is once of Marlow’s detective novels, The Singing Detective. Though the plot is never completely spelled out from start to finish, it involves World War II espionage and intrigue. Shady characters drift around a dark and foggy London, and an inevitable mysterious death is involved. The primary villain looks exactly the same as Marlow’s mother’s lover, while Marlow himself is the suave private detective who is trying to solve the case.

The hero of his own detective novels, Marlow sees himself as far more dashing and heroic than the crippled figure that he throughout most of the "real" story.

The third aspect is in the modern world. As his illness first worsens and then dissipates, Marlow begins to imagine a nefarious plot involving his semi-estranged wife. He imagines that she is working with a rogue film producer, a man who also looks like the villain from the other two elements from his life that Marlow focuses on. The two are trying to steal a film script of Marlow’s and sell it to Hollywood.

In the end, we see that the Singing Detective novel and the modern tale of the backstabbing wife are all the stuff of a fiction writer’s imagination. However, Marlow’s troubled childhood is clearly very real, and has had a profound effect on his mind and imagination. He leaves the hospital under his own power and with his wife, seemingly not too worse for wear in the end.

My Take on the Film:

This is another one of those shows where no summary can really do it justice. The Singing Detective asks a lot of its audience, to the point that I’m surprised that it was no network television.

First off, patience is a must with this story. The summary I gave above may seem rather straightforward, and perhaps even boring. I assure you, though, that it takes most of the series’ six-and-a-half hours for all of the plot points and connections to become at all clear. Once you get to around the third episode, though, you can see that the show was put together very carefully, and you start to build faith in where it is taking you. Initially, though, you have to have a strong stomach.

A stark contrast to the stylish hero of his own novels, the real Marlow is a physically hideous shell. His illness drives him to hallucinate and verbally lash out at most of the people around him. If you can take it, though, there is far more to him than his repulsive exterior would suggest.

The show certainly wasn’t what I expected, based on the standard summary on the DVDs. I expected far more of the noir elements, which had me rather excited. (Anyone who’s read my reviews of other noir films, like Double Indemnity or Out of the Past can see why). Therefore, it was initially a bit of a letdown to see that a great part of this show is given over to seeing Philip Marlow suffer in a hospital ward. His dreadfully horrid skin condition and his visible anguish over his arthritis is difficult to stomach at times. It actually works well, in that it gives a sense of relief when Marlow retreats into his own head.

These meanderings into his own mind are, of course, what set this show apart from other films and shows that attempt to tap into the psychology of the writer. The Singing Detective seems to get it dead on, in so many ways. Anyone who has ever tried any form of creative storytelling knows that the creative process often involves blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. This is sometimes intentional, but often is deeply subconscious. We can see this happen over and over as the various aspects of Marlow’s life and mind bleed into one another and begin to shift and change upon each interaction. It’s pretty fascinating to watch it unfold over the course of the series.

These shifts do result in some rather surrealistic scenes. This may not be every person’s bag, and it’s not necessarily mine, but it fits the tone of the show extremely well. Seeing a couple of standard 1940s noir goons, complete with trench coats and fedora hats, barge into a 1980s hospital ward and start shooting up the place, is plain bizarre on the surface. But when you realize that it’s the culmination of all of Marlow’s frustrations at his surroundings, then it takes on a different meaning. The series has innumerable examples of this, and attempting to explain them all would take far more words that you want to read or I want to write. Suffice it to say that it is a highly effective way of conveying a complex mental state.

I should mention that the series is far from some gloomy sludge through one man’s torment and misery. There is a very healthy dose of humor throughout the story. Sometimes it’s in the form of songs that break out in the middle of nowhere, and often it is in Marlow’s pitch-black sardonic humor. Whatever the case, there is plenty in the show to prevent it from becoming too depressing.

One of Marlow's many fever dreams, in which he envisions the hospital's often detached staff doing song-and-dance numbers in the ward. These scenes are almost reminiscent of Monty Python, but not nearly as heavy on the zaniness. 

Even more than the humor is the very genuine humanity behind it all. Between the many strange hallucinations and disorienting splicing of elements are the very real and powerful emotions of the characters. Whether it is the young Marlow's sorrow at his disintegrating family or the spiteful adult Marlow's attempts avoid embarrassing himself to the people around him, there are several highly memorable and ground-breakingly earnest moments. Along with the humor, these things contribute to an amazing balance to the entire show.

The acting is incredible. The title role is done great service by Michael Gambon, now a staple British actor with many a feather in his cap. Virtually all of the other actors do great work, especially considering the range of grave, bizarre, and outright goofy performances that their parts often required.

The visuals are nothing to speak about. As with a lot of great BBC shows in the past, the crew seemed to be working with a very limited budget, but they made the absolute most of it. The show has a grainy, sometimes washed-out look to it, which can add to the sense of despair in a lot of places. Still, it is not the visuals whereby this show finds its strengths.

Would I watch this show again? Probably not. Even though I think it is an excellent piece of work, and exceptionally unique in its boldness, I don’t know that repeated viewings would offer me much. Once is probably enough for me to appreciate it and agree with its place as an all-time great.

That’s a wrap. 85 shows down. 20 to go.

Coming Soon: Wings of Desire (1987):

 I saw this German flick a number of years ago. It’s about a love-struck angel, and it’s got Peter Falk and Nick Cave in it. What more do you need to know?

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.