Revisiting a classic: The Maltese Falcon

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Last night, I watched John Huston’s film noir classic The Maltese Falcon again after a gap of more than 10 years. When I first watched it during my initial period of “film self-education”, perhaps I was in a rush or I didn’t have enough context at the time; either way, I realized I could remember virtually nothing about this movie. And so, I decided to revisit it. In the intervening years, I have watched 9 other Bogart classics and he has become one of my all-time favourite leading men from the B&W era. So, to see him on screen again was like visiting an old friend and I settled back to enjoy the experience.

As the credits rolled up at the start, I was thrilled to see the names of 3 beloved character actors – Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet and Ward Bond. As I said, I remembered almost nothing from my first viewing all those years ago and was pleasantly surprised to see the names of these actors who have enlivened some of my favourite films.

Indeed, the most enjoyable aspect of The Maltese Falcon the second time around was watching the story take shape around these beautifully realized characters. This film could easily have been a stage play, given that it really revolves around just 4-5 people who dominate most of the screen time:

At the centre of it all is hard-boiled detective Sam Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart. This was the movie that catapulted Bogart out of playing gangster roles into leading man status. A year later, he and Ingrid Bergman made sparks fly in Casablanca and the rest, as they say, is history. In the mould of all noir film characters, Sam Spade comes in many shades of grey. One can’t be sure if he is heartless or whether the tough exterior is just for show. One of the first things he does after his partner is killed is to have all the signage in his office changed to remove his late partner’s name…not a shred of sentimentality there. Not just that, he’s had an affair with his partner’s wife, but now is no longer interested in her, just when her husband’s death could have paved the way for an open relationship. On the other hand, his professional integrity cannot be bought or compromised, which becomes amply clear in the closing minutes of the story, when he chooses justice over (possible) love and hands over the femme fatale to the cops. Bogart’s great asset is his face; he was not a handsome man and his head seemed too big for his physique, but he learned to use his facial expressions as a way to amplify his character and he could really project an air of menace on-screen with his look and expressions.

The femme fatale, Brigid O’Shaughnessy is played by Mary Astor in her best known screen role. I don’t think I’ve seen a more pathological liar on-screen, someone who just finds it impossible to say the truth, who only looks out for herself. She certainly has the audience fooled through the early part of the film playing the helpless lady in distress until Sam Spade peels back the lies and deception layer by layer, like onion skin. She ends up in a strange relationship with Spade and right until the end, it was impossible for me to figure out if her feelings for him were genuine. As she confessed at one point to Spade, perhaps even she no longer knows whether what she thinks and says is real or just playacting. Although there are other villains in the film, she was the one I really disliked and I hoped against hope that her character would not be redeemed to give the movie a happy ending. And indeed, in spite of her entreaties at the end, Spade holds firm and hands her over to the law.

Peter Lorre plays Joel Cairo (I love this name!), the assistant to the main villain. Lorre first shot to fame as the child-murderer in Fritz Lang’s German classic M, then moved to Hollywood and played interesting characters in films like Casablanca, Arsenic and Old Lace and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He is instantly recognizable because of his nasal, whiny voice and bulgy eyes; it became such a trademark that Warner Bros. later created a mad scientist character in his likeness called Dr. Lorre for their Looney Tunes cartoon shows. Because of his looks, he ends up playing slimy, unlikable characters and the audience always gets great joy when he inevitably gets roughed up by the hero or the cops!

Sidney Greenstreet is the main villain, Kasper Gutman; he’s the man who has been obsessed with the Maltese falcon (a relic from the Crusades that is supposedly made of gold and encrusted with jewels) and has been on its trail for the past 17 years. Unlike Mary Astor’s character, Mr. Gutman is quite open about his pursuit of this treasure and willing to pay a fair price to get hold of it. I was amazed to read later that this was Greenstreet’s first screen appearance at the age of 61 after a decades-long career on the stage. He went on to appear alongside both Bogart and Lorre in Casablanca a year later and brought his immense physical presence (he weighed nearly 300 lbs) and affected English accent to many memorable roles during his brief film career from 1941-49. In fact, the atomic bomb which was dropped on Nagasaki was code-named “fat man” after the nickname of his character in this movie.

I was also highly entertained by the fat man’s gun-for-hire, Wilmer who is constantly at the receiving end of Sam Spade’s verbal and physical barbs. The actor Elisha Cook Jr. does an amazing job of playing a man who is wound up so tight, he has tears in his eyes at one point from the unbearable rage he feels towards Spade.

Another notable aspect of this movie is the camera work. This was John Huston’s first film as director (after several years as a script writer) and he immediately clicked with cinematographer Arthur Edeson. The film is uses interesting camera angles to emphasize relationships between characters (the early couch scene between Bogart and Astor) or the personality of an individual (especially Sydney Greenstreet as he recounts the history of the falcon), zoom shots during dramatic moments and the trademark light-and-shadows of film noir.

There’s a lot packed into a 100 minute running time; I remember noting that so much had happened in just the first 15 minutes.

I definitely see myself revisiting other classic films in due course, given how much I enjoyed this experience.


Ozu’s Late Spring and Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum both tell poignant father-daughter stories

I just finished watching Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum, her 2008 family drama about a widowed father and his college-going daughter who live in an apartment in Paris. It’s a wonderful film, built on snapshots of their life together and showcases the strong bond that exists between the two.

The film is thematically based on Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring, which also tells the story of a widower and his devoted 27-year-old daughter, who ultimately gets married and moves out. Late Spring was my first ever Ozu film and I was deeply affected by the famous final scene in which the father (played by Ozu regular Chishu Ryu), comes back from his daughter’s wedding celebrations to a now-empty house, sits down and slowly peels an apple as the realization sinks in that he will now live alone for the rest of his days. For me, this scene is on par with the final scene in Forrest Gump in which Tom Hanks sits at the school bus stop having sent his little boy off to school.

Likewise, in 35 Shots of Rum, the film ends with the father (played by Alex Descas) coming home to an empty house after a round of drinks (he drinks 35 shots of rum) at his daughter’s wedding celebrations.

Although one is based on the other, the two films are naturally different in terms of tone and scenes. After all, they are separated by time and space, one taking place in the reserved and polite world of 1940’s Kyoto while the other is set in a multi-cultural suburb of 21st century Paris:

Late Spring was filled with scenes of temples, tatami mats and Noh theatre, which gave international viewers an insight into Japanese culture. In 35 Shots of Rum, viewers across the world will instantly recognize the ubiquitous home equipment (radio set, washing machine, stove, rice cookers) and modes of transport (trains, car, scooter) which are so much a part of our lives.

In Late Spring, the daughter is overtly devoted to her father’s well being, stating early on in the film that she will not marry so that she can continue to look after him; it is the father who has to push the daughter out of the nest for her own future well-being. In 35 Shots of Rum, the daughter of course cares deeply for her father but there is no question that she will eventually move out and live her own life. In fact, it is the father who wistfully hopes that they can continue living the way they are, although he can see that she is starting to respond to the overtures from the young man living upstairs.

There is one point of singularity between the two films and this is food. A number of scenes take place at home and while the homes themselves are vastly different, the father and daughter eating their dinner together showcases the degree of intimacy and easy comfort that exists in their little world. I think there is something universal about how the preparing and sharing of food allows people to express their affection for each other in subtle ways.

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I can’t remember much of the music in Ozu’s Late Spring, but I did like the music produced by English rock band Tindersticks for 35 Shots of Rum; they created a simple riff which repeats through the film and I found it both wistful and comforting.

Overall, 35 Shots of Rum showcased more subtle film-making than Late Spring (which itself is considered subtle given the time and culture it came from). Without being overtly manipulative, both films tug deeply at the heartstrings and lead the viewer to think about family bonds, parent-child relationships and the aching inevitability of growing old.

WftPotA: An intelligent movie trilogy about smart apes comes to an epic conclusion

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The Planet of the Apes prequel series which began with  Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, followed by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014, comes to an epic conclusion with the just released War for the Planet of the Apes. Other than the unwieldy titles, there is virtually nothing to complain about in what is perhaps the most intelligent sci-fi movie series of modern times. Particularly after the disappointing remake by Tim Burton in 2001, few industry watchers could have foreseen this franchise finding new life in any meaningful way. The original Planet of the Apes from 1968 starred Charlton Heston and was based on the 1963 French novel by Pierre Boulle (he also wrote The Bridge over the River Kwai). This new series serves as a prequel, setting up the chain of events which leads to apes gaining intelligence, speech and eventually, mastery over man.

A lot of the credit for this new series goes to the husband-and-wife team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who wrote the script for Rise and Dawn, while also co-producing all three films. Their achievement is surprising given their previous track record which is nothing to write home about. In fact, they didn’t even have any credited screenplays between 1997’s pulpy sci-fi horror film The Relic and the 2011 reboot of the Apes franchise. I would love to know what these two were doing during these years and how they convinced Fox to greenlight this smart and insightful approach to bringing the Apes property back to the screen. They also wrote the story/ screenplay for 2015’s Jurassic World and while that film was an outstanding box office success, it shows nowhere near the same level of attention to plot detail or plausibility as this new Apes series.

Another key factor is the extraordinary use of motion-capture and CGI technology in recent years and that too, applied at scale across dozens of characters. But mo-cap technology is only as good as the actor behind the CGI and in this case, no praise is too great for the unique talents of Andy Serkis as Caesar. Surely Serkis deserves a lifetime recognition award of the highest order for the iconic CGI characters he has brought to life over the past 2 decades, starting with Gollum in The Lord of the Rings (2001-03) and then the titular character in King Kong (2005); I am looking forward to his rendition of Baloo the bear in the Warner Bros. version of The Jungle Book which will be released in October 2018 with Serkis behind the camera as well.

War concludes the epic saga of Caesar the chimpanzee. In Rise, we are introduced to baby Caesar, whose mother was experimented on with an intelligence-enhancing viral-based drug developed to treat Alzheimer’s. Caesar inherits his mother’s intelligence and in due course, uses an improved version of the drug to enhance and free several other apes from the testing facility and also from the San Francisco zoo. After a pitched battle with police on the Golden Gate bridge, Caesar and the newly-intelligent apes escape to the woods outside the city. Meanwhile, the drug mutates and sets off a worldwide pandemic, wiping out most of humanity. Ten years later, in Dawn, Caesar and his tribe have established a settlement in the woods. But he has to deal with another ape Koba, who challenges his leadership and also triggers a confrontation with a group of surviving humans in San Francisco. Caesar defuses the conflict with the help of a sympathetic human family and the film ends Godfather-style with Caesar re-establishing his authority as the leader of the apes. War is set 5 years later and sets up the ‘final conflict’ between apes and man, as Caesar and his tribe are hunted down by a well-trained and armed militia led by a merciless colonel. One can see the influences of both Western and prison break genres in parts of the movie; and even though it’s the longest film of the trilogy, there is a strong forward momentum to the plot and the running time of 2 hours and 22 minutes does not weigh the film down.

The film also continues to explore the recurring themes of the franchise – racism, family bonds, loyalty, betrayal and revenge. Throughout the films, we are frequently left to wonder if it’s the apes or the humans who are more civilized. I had read that the third film was the darkest of the trilogy but in fact there are surprising moments of humor, particularly with the new ape character named “bad ape” and voiced by Steve Zahn. Woody Harrelson plays the ruthless colonel with an understated menace and keen sense of history and purpose, rather than as an over-the-top psycho (which Harrelson is well capable of doing!). The plot also employs the clever use of a little orphaned human girl Nova (played by Amiah Miller) who joins Caesar’s group and acts as a counterpoint to all the human brutality.

The technical level in this series has been consistently top class, but in this third installment it’s worth calling out Michael Seresin’s cinematography, particularly in scenes at the apes’ waterfall camp and later on the beach (which recalls the iconic final moments of the 1968 original). Also, composer Michael Giacchino employs some interesting percussion to heighten the tempo in key scenes. I’d love to see both of them get Oscar nominations this year.

For anyone new to the series, I recommend watching the 1968 original followed by this prequel trilogy. Fans of the series will enjoy references to earlier films, such as the beach scene or the use of character names like Nova and Cornelius.

Spider-Man: Homecoming – Engaging characters make up for ho-hum action

The Marvel-Sony partnership prompted by the critical and commercial failure of 2014’s Andrew Garfield starrer The Amazing Spider-Man 2, seems to be paying off. Early indications are that Spider-Man: Homecoming is going to pull in box-office cash in the same range that Sam Raimi’s original trilogy scooped up from 2002 to 2007. Reaction from critics and audiences likewise has been positive.

What’s made the difference?

Firstly, Spider-Man is now integrated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) via his introductory appearance in Captain America: Civil War last year. Audiences are have been deeply involved with the characters in the MCU for some years now. Naturally, any new character introduced into an MCU film benefits from that halo effect. And that’s exactly what was set up in Civil War; we were introduced to a teenage Spider-Man played by Tom Holland and another new character Prince T’Challa of Wakanda (aka the Black Panther), both being set up for their respective solo films. And so here we are with Homecoming successfully picking up speed in the slipstream of Civil War and Black Panther scheduled to follow suit next February. Audiences know that whenever they go to watch an MCU film featuring any one character/ team, they will get some bonus Marvel character appearances as well; in the case of Homecoming, the guest stars are Iron Man, his security chief Happy Hogan (played by director of the first two Iron Man films, Jon Favreau), Pepper Potts and Captain America appearing in some public service videos.

Second, this time around audiences don’t have to endure an entire film repeating the well-known origin story of Spider-Man bitten by a radioactive spider. Instead, we get to see the character already set up with his powers and his suit. The fun part is seeing how his mundane teenage world contrasts with the jet-setting lifestyles of the Avengers, who he looks up to and so desperately wants to be a part of.

Third, the casting this time really works:-

EVERYBODY likes (loves!) Marisa Tomei as Aunt May.

Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes (aka the Vulture) is the best villain in the MCU (traditionally a weak area) and the 2nd best Spidey villain after Alfred Molina’s Doc Octopus from 2004’s Spider-Man 2. While not as tragic a figure as Doc Ock, Toomes’ motivation to move into a life of crime is something one can sort of empathize with.

Peter Parker’s high school gang are all interesting characters and oh-so-ethnically-diverse; his best buddy Ned is played by Jacob Batalon, who is of Filipino origin; class nerd Michelle is played by the multi-ethnic Zendaya; love interest Liz is played by African-American Laura Harrier and class smart-ass Flash who is blond and muscled in the comics is now played by Tony Revolori, who is of Guatemalan descent.

In fact, the only character I didn’t really care too much about is Peter Parker himself. Not because Tom’s a bad actor, but perhaps because the 21-year-old actor is too good at acting as a whiny 15-year-old motor-mouth who wants everything…at one point in the film, I really couldn’t handle that non-stop high pitched voice of his as he provided a running commentary during an action sequence!

Speaking of action sequences, that was the key weak link in the film for me. While I was engaged with all the characters, the action and the fights didn’t hold my attention at all. I think it’s because the outcome is so predictable. C’mon! it’s a PG-13 film. Of course, no one important is going to die or get maimed. This isn’t Game of Thrones, right? Well, to be fair to the studio, they did try that route in 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with Mary Jane Watson; I don’t think that movie failed because of that plot point at the end, but it’s understandable that the producers didn’t want anything really nasty to happen to any characters in this all-important reboot. And so, we end up with 3 action set-pieces which are all big-scale and spectacular, but not really gripping.

What was fun about the action scenes was all the showcasing of all the tech that Tony Stark had built into Peter Parker’s suit. The suit AI (F.R.I.D.A.Y.), a female version of J.A.R.V.I.S. seemed a bit too good to be true, even more intelligent that J.A.R.V.I.S., it seemed to me!

And to round off the complaints, I still dislike the mismatched fonts of the movie title.

By now, anyone who’s been to a few Marvel movies knows to wait back for mid-credits and post-credits stingers. Well, there are two in this movie. The first stinger sets up a potential villain for the sequel, a criminal named Mac Gargan who becomes the Scorpion in the comic books. The 2nd one is really cheeky joke, eliciting appreciative laughter from the audience in the theatre.

And so, we have a Sony back on track with the Spider-Man franchise, with more than a bit of help from their ‘friends’ at Marvel/ Disney. Fans can only hope that this success could fuel a similar partnership between Marvel and Fox to resurrect the Fantastic Four franchise (although Marvel boss Kevin Feige has assured reporters that the possibility is beyond remote).

We still have one MCU film to go this year – the ‘buddy road film’ Thor: Ragnarok releasing in November, featuring Thor and the Hulk forced into mortal combat in an alien coliseum.

Next year, there are no less than 6 Marvel films! Three are MCU films from Disney – Black Panther (Feb), Avengers: Infinity War (May) and Ant-Man & the Wasp (July). The other three are mutant films from Fox – X-Men: The New Mutants (Apr), Deadpool 2 (June) and X-Men: Dark Phoenix (Nov). Oh, the joy!

When directors remake their own movies, part 2 – McCarey and the Affair

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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a comparison between Yasujiro Ozu’s A Story of Floating Weeds and his own remake of the film, named Floating Weeds two decades later.

Today, I’m sharing my thoughts about Leo McCarey’s 1939 classic Love Affair and his even better known remake An Affair to Remember from 1957.

The 1939 original featured superstars Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer. Ms. Dunne had recently acted in the hit screwball comedy The Awful Truth opposite Cary Grant. Mr. Boyer had just appeared as the gangster Pepe Le Moko – one of his most famous screen roles – in the film Algiers (a remake of French film Pepe Le Moko). Love Affair was a critical and commercial success, getting nominated for 6 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Story, Best Actress (Irene Dunne) and Best Supporting Actress (Maria Ouspenskaya).

In the film, Charles Boyer plays well-known French playboy Michel Marnet, who has been recently engaged to an heiress and is on an ocean liner making a transatlantic trip to New York. On board, he meets a beautiful and witty American night club singer Terry McKay, who also has been recently engaged. She is well aware of Marnet’s reputation, but perhaps because of his recent engagement, she considers it ‘safe’ to spend the evenings having dinner with him and engaging in a fair amount of light-hearted flirting. Their snappy dialogue and smart one-liners was very typical of romantic films of that era.

About 20 minutes into the movie, the ship has a brief stopover at the island of Madeira, off Portugal. Michel goes ashore to pay a visit to his grandmother who has been living on the island for several years; on the way up to her house, he bumps into Terry and invites her to tag along. I think it’s brilliant how the scriptwriters wove this act into the story and made it (in my opinion) the emotional cornerstone of the film. This is where the flirting transforms into love. It seems that everything at grandma’s place conspires to make this change happen (mainly in Terry’s mind) – the peaceful surroundings, Michel’s warm and affectionate relationship with his graceful and gracious grandmother, the chapel on the grounds which Terry briefly steps into with Michel and finally grandma’s not so subtle hints to Terry that she’s the one to make an honest man out of her Michel. The chapel scene in particular is almost magical – the lighting and the music seems to give a sort of spiritual endorsement to their relationship.

At the end of the ocean crossing, they decide to give each other 6 months to consider their future together and promise to meet at the top of the Empire State Building. Unfortunately, Terry has an accident on the way and Michel waits at the top in vain – this is the scene that Sleepless in Seattle paid homage to more than 50 years later with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Eventually, the Terry and Michel are reunited in a tearful, happy ending with the famous lines spoken by Terry “I was looking up, it was the nearest thing to heaven…you were there” and then less romantically, “If you can paint, I can walk; anything can happen, don’t you think?”

The 1957 version features Cary Grant and Deborah Carr. At this time, Cary Grant had already been a superstar for two decades and Deborah Kerr too was at her peak with mega-hits like From Here to Eternity and The King and I earlier in the decade. The film was shot in colour of course and was made with a much bigger budget than the original. With a much-loved story and two famous leads, it was a guaranteed hit. It also went on to garner 4 Oscar nominations, although these were all in the less prestigious technical categories.

McCarey kept it simple and went for a remake that was almost identical shot-for-shot and line-for-line (he used the same script as the original); one key change is that Cary Grant’s character becomes an American, Nicky Ferrante. The main difference between the two films is the way the characters behave and this alone gives the remake a very different tone from the original. For instance, in the final scene, Deborah Kerr takes out her handkerchief and wipes Cary Grant’s tears, before wiping her own. In 1939, there were no tears from Charles Boyer (he would have been too macho to cry!). This is perhaps representative of the difference between the 2 versions – Charles Boyer was the epitome of suave and Irene Dunne was as sassy as they came in the 1930’s. Their screen personas in Love Affair were consistent with how romantic leads interacted with each other in those days – lots of witty dialogue and repartee. Although Cary Grant had an equally suave and debonair screen persona, he and Deborah Kerr are less poised, more expressive and seem more vulnerable in the remake. Was this because the director asked them to be so, or was it just the more informal film making style of the 50’s showing through? I’m not sure, but I do know that this made the 1957 characters more relatable. The only exception to this is grandma Janou – Maria Ouspenskaya delivers a far more touching and impactful performance in 1939 compared to that of Cathleen Nesbitt in 1957.

So, overall I prefer the 1957 remake, but script and the scenes are identical between the two films, the viewer is able to focus on the actors/ characters and each film is enjoyable in its own way.

When directors remake their own movies, part 1 – Ozu and Floating Weeds

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I recently finished watching Criterion Collection’s Yasujiro Ozu double header – his 1934 B&W silent film A Story of Floating Weeds and the 1959 colour remake, simply titled Floating Weeds. Watching them back-to-back marked the first time I had done so with a movie and its remake. It gave me the opportunity to compare and contrast the two works; how changing times and social mores, the film maker’s own experiences over 20+ years and the availability of new film making technology affected the way the telling of the story changes over time.

The plot, as with all Ozu plots, is simple. A traveling Kabuki troupe, led by a veteran actor (these itinerant actors are the “floating weeds” of society) returns to a small town after a gap of several years. As they settle in for a few weeks of performances, it is revealed that the actor’s old lover and their illegitimate teenage son live in this town. The actor has stayed in touch with the mother over the years, even providing for the son’s education, with the boy believing him to be an uncle. During the troupe’s off hours, he slips off to relax at their house, reminiscing with his ex-lover and trying to build a bond with the young man. But on this trip, the lead actress in the troupe is his mistress and when she finds about his secret ‘family’, she sets out to disrupt their harmony. This is a typical Ozu gendai-geki (family drama), and as with all his films, it is about inter-generational conflict – frequently passive – and the consequent fragility of the nuclear family, itself a relatively recent 20th century import from the West.

The 1934 film is fat-free. Ozu, always an economical director and a master of ellipsis, is particularly spare at this early stage of his career. He doesn’t show every event on screen. The viewer is allowed to fill in what has happened between one scene and the next. Also, the fact that it’s a silent film (there are occasional dialogue cards) means that there is no time wasted on long-winded conversations. All this makes for a brisk running time of 86 minutes.

The 1959 remake is identical in terms of structure and plot, but differs in form. The setting is changed from the countryside to seaside. And of course, there’s dialogue – they end up saying a lot more to each other than they did in the original film – making for longer scenes and a longer movie of 119 minutes. There is colour and interestingly, I found it to be a more vivid palette than in Ozu’s other colour films; is this because Ozu worked with a different cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa and not with his regular guy, Yuharu Atsuta? I can’t say, as I’ve only seen Miyagawa’s B&W films (Rashomon, Sansho the Bailiff and Yojimbo).

The 1959 story takes place in contemporary times and this means it is a more ‘open’ society, more explicit about illicit relationships and sex. For example, there is a sub-plot involving 3 actors from the troupe who trawl the town looking for female company. One of them tries unsuccessfully to flirt with a barber’s daughter. All three eventually end up at a bar and make the acquaintance of a couple of seasoned prostitutes – one with bad teeth and loud manners, but a genuinely friendly demeanour; the other is attractive, but cold and mercenary in her behaviour. All this is missing from the 1930’s original and while it’s entirely realistic and the scenes are interesting, it seemed to me to be an unnecessary – almost crass – distraction.

It’s not just the behaviour of these side characters; even the main characters seem simpler and more likeable in the original. In the 1959 version, they are all ever so slightly meaner, more calculating, more worldly wise. I don’t know if this is just a natural reflection of the times, or the choice of actors or something specifically called out by the director.

All the above comparisons may imply that I prefer the original and overall, that’s true. But I do appreciate the remake for the superior visual impact delivered on screen through the use of colour and the improved production design and set decoration, resulting from a larger budget.

The one consistent aspect of both films is Ozu’s famous ‘tatami shot’ technique, with the camera placed on the floor and shooting at the level of the actors’ waist. Ozu’s camera almost never zooms or pans. He doesn’t use fancy transitions like wipes or fades to go from one shot to the other, always a simple cut. Also, the opening title/ credits section is always shot against the backdrop of a sack cloth. Ozu never changed his style throughout his career and so, watching his movies with its familiar actors, settings, tight framing and geometric composition is cinematic comfort food for his fans.

So this story, brought to life in these two films separated by more than two decades of changing social standards, by the use of colour and sound and with a different set of actors, is still recognizable as having come from the hands and mind of the same creator. With Ozu, the focus is always on people and their relationships, on the fear of loneliness and on the poignancy of living and loving and growing old.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: fun characters, fun music, fun scenes

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James Gunn returns as writer-director for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 this week and from what Marvel Pictures head honcho Kevin Feige recently said, Gunn’s work on the sequel has earned him a place in the brains trust of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe); this is the core team who are responsible for building the ever-growing interconnected body of films which started with Iron Man in 2008 and now encompasses 15 films with 7 more to come by May 2019.

Gunn brought a new dimension to the MCU with the first GotG film in 2014; these characters were known only to Marvel fanboys and so, unencumbered by preconceived audience expectations, the studio was able to experiment with a different look (a brighter colour palette) and tone (a self-aware comedic sensibility, more violent, edgier language) compared to the previous Marvel films. And of course, there was the ‘Awesome Mixtape’ of 70’s tunes, a risky approach which paid dividends in spades and really brought some of the scenes alive.

In Vol. 2, Gunn builds on those successes with a bigger budget – using a fresh batch of music from the ‘Awesome Mixtape 2’, he goes for a more ambitious audio-visual experience (including a couple of intricately choreographed set-pieces) but most importantly, he continues with the character development, fleshing out some key characters, not just Peter Quill, but also Yondu, Nebula, Rocket Raccoon and introducing interesting new ones like Mantis and Ego.

Stand-out characters

Of course, all the 5 members of the GOTG team are appealing in their own way and we know that Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana as Star-Lord and Gamora respectively are effectively the romantic leads with the most screen time. But all credit to the director and to the visual effects teams for elevating the other 3 members (2 of whom are CGI) and ensuring they are more than just comic relief. Outstanding voice work by Bradley Cooper makes us forget that we are empathizing with a bunch of computer pixels arranged to look like a talking raccoon. Likewise, Dave Bautista as Drax, while mostly serving as comic relief, also provides one of the strongest emotional beats to the film in the scene where he sits on the steps of Ego’s palace with Mantis and reminisces about his daughter. And of course, Baby Groot is oh-so-cute in every single scene and has 3 significant set-pieces in the film – one is the opening title sequence, the second involves his attempts to steal a new ‘head fin’ for Yondu and the last has him trying to set off a powerful explosive device.

Beyond these 5, James Gunn manages to give sufficient space to develop the characters of both Yondu and Nebula who return with larger roles that fill out their back story.

Among the new characters, French actress Pom Klementieff makes quite an impact as the empath Mantis and rising Australian thesp Elizabeth Debicki chews up the scenery as the high priestess of the Sovereign race.

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Visuals and songs perfectly matched

Complex battle scenes fought in three-dimensional space are the order of the day in scifi blockbusters these days. Although all the different moving parts in these battles can now be pre-visualized and choreographed using 3D computer models, it still takes a degree of skill to make the scene comprehensible and entertaining. In GotG Vol. 2, director James Gunn shows off this skill in abundance, not just in terms of visual imagination, but also in the juxtaposition of those visuals against a superb collection of 70’s songs. My favourite scenes are:-

  • Battling the inter-dimensional beast/ title sequence – Mister Blue Sky by ELO: Accompanying what James Gunn describes as “the most hugely insane shot I’ve ever done” at the start of the film, the song powering the scene puts a smile on your face and gets your feet tapping.
  • Arrival at Ego’s planet – My Sweet Lord by George Harrison: This song really showcases the power of Ego (Kurt Russell) and what he has created on his lush and gloriously beautiful planet.
  • Yondu takes revenge – Come a Little Bit Closer by Jay and the Americans: Revenge is sweet, especially if it can be choreographed to music while the main characters walk through the mayhem in majestic slo-mo!
  • Battle at Ego’s planet – Wham bam shang-a-lang by Sliver: Reminiscent of the way in which Beastie Boys’ Sabotage punctuated the attack on the USS Yorktown space station in Star Trek Beyond, this little known song is the perfect choice to herald the start of climactic battle scene.
  • Ravager funeral – Father and Son by Cat Stevens: Given that the main theme of the story is father-son relationships, this funeral scene which takes place to the tune of Cat Stevens’ tear-jerker song forms the perfect coda for the film.

After the movie ends, stay back for not 1 or 2, but 5 mid-credits stingers.

I know critics are not giving this one as high ratings as the first movie, but it’s normal for critics to be disappointed and it’s so difficult to break new ground with a sequel and still give audiences the familiar elements they have come back for (yes, we know Empire Strikes Back is an exception). I’ll look forward to seeing these adorable “rogues with hearts of gold” in GotG Vol. 3 at some point of time in the future and as part of the larger Marvel ensemble in Avengers: Infinity War next summer.