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Haunted - 3D (2011)
Having seen this movie on a 3D screen yesterday, my remarks: If you've seen one Vikram Bhatt horror movie, you've pretty much seen them all. The man is just shuffling and recycling elements from his earlier films, which weren't great to start with. As expected, the horror elements never get particularly nasty, and an abundance of songs and treacly romantic elements bring the pace to molasses slow. Mimoh or Mahakshay as he now likes to call himself should be given an award for the longest period an actor has carried a single expression...in this case, the entire movie. As a fellow movie-watcher pointed out, if there is anything at all notable about this film, it's that a South Indian character, an Aiyar, is for the first time presented as a raging villain instead of plain comic relief. The 3D does give a sense of depth to most of the visuals, but very little use of it is made in the story and there are all too few of the "throw things at the screen" elements that make a cheesy horror film in 3D fun.
Not as good as the hype suggests but still worth a watch
This movie is definitely not the second coming of Christ or whatever else it's being hyped up to be in the reviews. There's a lot that is absurd, contrived and clumsy. The film also has a severe Quentin Tarantino / Guy Ritchie "gangstas are cool guys who can discuss the weather and where to get good pav bhaji while shooting people" hangover. But that said, in its good parts I found it engaging. The central double role angle with the relationship between the two twins is handled nicely and Shahid Kapur does an excellent job of differentiating the characters in a more intelligent manner (and I'm not referring to the speech defects here) than is the norm for such films. The climax has such a WTF-ness you will either like it or hate it. I fall in the former category.
Johnny Gaddaar (2007)
Excellent crime thriller that stands with the best
This seems to be a watershed year or at least month so far as thrillers in Hindi movies are concerned. First there was Manorama 6 Feet Under and now I saw Johnny Gaddar, which totally ROCKS!! A tight and layered script that pays a lot of homage to erstwhile thrillers (tons of 70's references here) but remembers to have its own identity, absolutely SUPERB direction and performances that are indicative of the relish all the actors took in their parts. Even Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy provide some measure of compensation for the emasculation of 70's songs they did in their remix albums by coming up with a background score that's booming with the meaty brass sounds of that era. If there is any flaw I'd say the lead pair of Neil Mukesh and Rimi Sen are kinda vacuous but even that mostly works in the film's favor because they play characters that remain under everyone else's horizon.
The Phantom (1996)
Not an immortal classic but a pretty good diversion for Phantom fans
Comic book movies more than any other genre are enjoyable or not predominantly on how much you're attached to the original source. The Phantom movie adaptation is a striking example of this. During my childhood I was a huge fan of the Phantom comics as released in India on the Indrajal label...I still try to get the stories that I consider distinctive enough when I see them...and my opinion of this movie is definitely colored by my enjoyment of its relation to the source comic.
The story is quite hokey. In 1938 the 21st Phantom must battle a lawless magnate called Xander Drax who wishes to acquire 3 magical skulls whose combination will release an energy more powerful than anything else and enable him to control the world. Yada.
Quite a few things have been done right here. The production design is very handsome, be it the depiction of the Phantom's jungle realm - the Skull Cave, treasure room, ancestral crypt, the phantom chronicles etc. - or late 1930's art deco New York. The narrative moves at a zippy pace and the writers have rightly analyzed that the Phantom is a macho wise-cracking ass-kicking action hero who doesn't waste time moping over his dead ancestors or over his love Diana. Some of the action set-pieces, like the one where the Phantom and Diana are escaping from the villains in a small plane and do a leap onto the back of the Phantom's horse Hero are terrific. Billy Zane (who is probably more famous as the snob suitor of Titanic) carries the Phantom mantle with charm, effacing to a great extent the essential goofiness of the purple costume. Unlike the alter-ego of many other costumed heroes he's also equally interesting as Kit Walker.
So what are the disappointments? The plot. The Phantom's world in its limited scope has been distinctive. His villains are pirates, poachers, despotic rulers of tiny neighboring nations. Bringing him to New York just a third into the film and having him combat a generic world domination scheme takes away from the uniqueness of the franchise One of the quibbles that those wanting the most faithful sort of adaptation of the Phantom franchise will have is that the film does not feature any BLACKS. The tribes surrounding the Phantom seem like they're from Hawaii or south America, as does his retainer Guran (dressed here in a Nehru jacket and turban). 1938 New York too seems totally free of blacks, even as serfs. Probably the makers chickened out from depicting blacks as they were portrayed in the Phantom strips.
The perceived need to have emancipated women also hurts the movie's legend. Sure, Diana has always been a tough cookie but if she can also wipe out guys with single punches, what is special about the Phantom and all his hardcore physical conditioning? The villain Xander Drax is a huge disappointment. Sure he has a great name but he's played by an actor with a reedy voice who inspires no chill even when he's doing questionable things like having librarians eye-stabbed by spring-loaded knives or lobbing javelins into the backs of disagreeable colleagues.
The film seems to have had a curious budgeting. The sets and props are handsome and some of the action is painstakingly choreographed but the post-production budget seems to have been nothing because all the visual effects have a very low-quality to them, frequently worse than even some of the more recent Indian movies incorporating SFX. The climactic showdown in the lair of the Singh brotherhood also has an underwhelming feel to it. I imagine the original vision was to have a huge pirate warren but the budget constraints reduce the Singh stronghold to little more than a single mid-sized room set and a clash with around a dozen pirates at most.
All this nit-picking may seem that the movie has more bad points than good. But if you keep an open mind and fill in the gaps that the lack of budget creates you have still a fairly enjoyable if also rather uneven outing and possibly the best Phantom adaptation given that there is no scope for one in the future.
El laberinto del fauno (2006)
A superb mature fantasy tale!
If there's anything about Pan's Labyrinth that disappoints me, it is only that when the DVD comes out it'll be advertised as being made by the same guy who made Blade II and Hellboy, two examples of half-cooked SFX wankery coated with comic-book fanboy drool. Pan's Labyrinth is everything those films aren't: It has a story that actually interests, it has visual FX that are built entirely to tell its wondrous tale and don't look like generic "sci-fi meets kung-fu" tech demos and it's not afraid to make you feel depressed about cruel things that happen to characters you grow to like.
Set in WW2 era Spain where the Fascist military is doing its best to suppress the rebellion, the film centers around Ofelia (a bravura performance by Ivana Baquero), an imaginative child who with her re-married and pregnant mother comes to stay with her step-father, the iron-handed Captain Vidal. Shying from the general air of militarism and brutality around her, Ofelia slips into a fantasy plane where she meets a faun who tells her that she must complete 3 tasks for her to reclaim her legacy as the princess of a magical realm. The plot travels between the real and fantasy worlds of Ofelia, and scenes of civic unrest and fascist oppression alternate with magical quests that involve giant frogs and creatures with (removable) eyes on their palms. Even the climax has 2 parts, one in the real world and one in the magic world.
Under Del Toro's guidance the story moves seamlessly between the 2 worlds and he does not discount the existence of either of them. Some may pick nits about the somewhat one-sided characterization of the military as dedicated sadists but the thing to remember is that this is a film told essentially from a child's POV and reflects the simplicity of that perspective. Of course it is not to be taken as a film for children, because it does not flinch from graphic violence when needed and even the ending has a moving tragic air to it.
In the end, this is a modern day classic that needs to be seen and savored by teenage/adult audiences that look for something beyond merchandise-oriented studio crap. And move over Tim Burton, there's a new prince to claim the mature fairy tale fantasy crown that you've been wearing so far. His name is Guillermo Del Toro and from the looks of it, he has kicked your ass by a long mile.
The Changeling (1980)
Decent but flawed
THE CHANGELING Peter Medak While Hollywood produced horror films in the majority have been targeted towards the teenage / adolescent audience, there have been selected attempts to make horror films that would appeal to an older crowd as well. The salient feature of these films would be their distinctly older protagonists (sometimes big movie stars of an earlier era), a generally more substantial (or al dente, as the Italians might say) plot than your routine teenie slasher flick, reduced levels of gratuitous nudity and/or blood-spilling, and a reliance on building a steady atmosphere of suspense and dread before breaking out the visceral thrills. Examples of this include Hell House, The Exorcist, The Omen, or more recently, The Sixth Sense and Stir of Echoes. The Changeling, released in 1980, is another example of this 'mature' horror category.
The film stars George C. Scott (Patton, Exorcist III: Legion) as a composer, John Russell, who retires to a secluded town after the shock death of his wife and daughter in an accident. Intending to occupy himself with teaching and composing, Russell leases a sumptuous old house. Unfortunately for him the old house fulfills the horror tradition of having a troubled history and roofing the things that go 'bump' in the night. Disturbed enough by the phenomena to even hold a séance, Russell finds its roots in the murder of a child that was heir to wealth and power and its substitution by another. Russell confronts the substitute, or the 'changeling' as he puts it, and consequences follow.
While the film is photographed with elegance and Scott delivers a restrained and empathetic performance as a the grief-stricken composer, it has flaws that prevent its ascension to classic status. The first half of the film is a literal catalog of the clichés of haunted house stories: doors opening and shutting by themselves, thudding noises in the attic, water pipes turned on automatically. It's hard to feel immersed in a story that confronts you with massive deja vu. While things improve somewhat with the turns the narrative takes, the film-makers also show their insecurity by clumsy insertion of scenes of freak death (like in The Omen, even cribbing the murderous tricycle scene using a wheelchair) and large-scale domestic destruction (a la The Amityville Horror), which stand wholly apart from the otherwise measured pace of the film. The climax comes across as especially egregious because, the way it plays out, it gives short shrift to the somewhat interesting moral compass of the changeling, whose death is brought passively by revenge from the beyond.
To my view The Changeling has its roots in the M.R. James tradition and would fit more comfortably as a small-scale Twilight Zone drama. Its best moments are its quietest ones, where the characters grapple with their emotional state than with the overt manifestations of an inconsistently powerful supernatural force. The compromises made to pepper it with jaded jolt moments and "big" scenes dilute that focus and ultimately reduce its appeal. In the end it is a good-intentioned effort executed with polish but rarely an involving experience.
Flawed but still interesting
Madhumati is far short of a perfect film. it's main flaw, like with many Bollywood ventures, lies in its pacing. The narrative is stretched out too thin (although there are rumors that some additional convolutions of the plot's reincarnation themes were chopped off after it was felt that they would make the story confusing), there are an insane number of song-breaks (although the songs are crisp with lyrics bearing relevance to the film's theme) and apart from the prologue almost 2/3rds of the film is a conventional fairy-tale romance and tragedy theme. But in entirety it does have points of interest for the genre fan and is a good notch above uninspired mainstream Bolly product.
The film boasts some very effective scenes thanks to excellent editing and moody cinematography. Also a great performance from Dilip Kumar as the obsessed lover.
Nice concept but annoying execution
In the Bollywood context it was definitely a novel idea. One problem with Kaun is that it has a slight plot, which would have been great for, say, a 60-min television episode. But at its existing running time (90 min or more I think) it's badly stretched out. The other issue is Varma's lack of subtlety in building atmosphere and tension. Too many times, the film just grates with all the actors going into hysterics in the name of providing thrills. Like Bhoot, this is songless, but piles on background score and thumpity-thump sound effects that begin to really annoy. And the climax, for anyone who has seen a few noir/thriller movies and/or read any Robert Bloch stories isn't really a shocker.
God Told Me To (1976)
This is one of the most astoundingly creative films made by one of the most brilliant and innovative makers in the horror/fantasy genre.
Sometime back I'd seen the opening scene of this movie and while it was nice I thought I pretty much knew where it was going...as it turns out I was completely mistaken, and it was all for the better because the kind of twists the plot takes totally blew me away.
Having seen this and Q - the winged serpent and having heard immensely good word about his It's alive series, I'd say that for sheer chutzpah of ideas, Larry Cohen's only equal in the horror genre IMO is David Cronenberg.
The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)
A grand artistic vision
TALES OF Hoffman Powell & Pressburger This colorful film adaptation of an by Offenbach is a musical in the truest sense, meaning every bit of narrative and dialog is put forth by means of song. I am not in general the biggest fan of such endeavors, but it works quite well for this film, although some of the love paeans may be outstaying their welcome.
In the story a poet Hoffman tells in episodic fashion about the many times that he has loved and lost. There have been several films made with such a theme but Hoffman stands well apart because of the Goth-fantastic nature of the narratives. Hoffman, in turn, falls in love with Olympia - a puppet, Guiletta - the temptress of a soul-stealing demon, and Antonia - a singer doomed by fatal consumptive illness.
This narrative is complemented by the brilliantly supportive artistic design of the film. The makers construct a deliberate stage-like ambiance, with the use of representative backdrops, suitably exaggerated props and striking motifs to convey the settings and moods of the various episodes. In this aspect it shares strong kinship with Masaki Kobayashi's period ghost story anthology Kwaidan. You also have the concept of the same actor returning to play different parts in the various episodes of Hoffman's life, the most notable of which is Robert Helpmann who portrays the sinister element in all the episodes (and with his vampiric menacing look, does a terrific job of it, although his motive for evil in the Antonia episode goes unexplained).
The fantastic elements of the plot, color-drenched distinctive look, intricate balletic choreography and excellent fit of all the actors in their roles make Tales of Hoffman a very interesting watching experience on the whole.
One of my caveats with the film is that Hoffman's companion Nicklaus is never properly explained. Who is this woman in man's garb and why is she doing what she does?