The Holiday watchlist, Part 5: True stories


And so, we come to last of my holiday movies. These three films are based on true stories and are entertaining as well as informative. The saying that “truth is stranger than fiction” certainly applies to all three events depicted in these movies!

Battle of the Sexes: From the directors of the delightful 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine, comes this depiction of the events leading up to the historic 1973 exhibition match between women’s world #1 Billie Jean King and retired Grand Slam champion Bobby Riggs (who was 55 years old at the time). This match took place against the backdrop of efforts by Ms. King and other top women’s players to secure equal prize money from the tennis establishment of the time. In fact, the top ladies had only recently broken away from the Lawn Tennis Association and set up the WTA (which runs women’s tennis to this day) and had secured their first sponsor, Virginia Slims cigarettes. Just as the new women’s tour was taking root, ex-champ and serial gambler Bobby Riggs threw a spanner in the works by claiming that even at his advanced age, he could beat the #1 women’s player. If he succeeded, it would weaken the position of the players’ expectation of equal pay and equal recognition. This high-stakes story is told with a light and entertaining touch by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. And the biggest credit should go to the two leads – Emma Stone and Steve Carrell. I have talked about Carrell’s acting chops in an earlier post about the movie Last Flag Flying, in which he plays an introverted ex-Marine doctor. He plays a completely different type character here – flamboyant, attention-seeking, super-confident. And Emma Stone brings real earnestness and heart to the character of Billie Jean King, who at that time was also discovering her own sexuality, dealing with her husband’s discovery of her extra-marital affair and also fighting the establishment! This should have been a crowd-pleasing holiday movie that could have sold a lot of tickets and I am amazed that it could not find an audience. Definitely worth watching – hugely entertaining and also educational. I loved Alan Cumming as iconic tennis fashion designer Ted Tinling.

The Disaster Artist: From the sublime to the ridiculous. I don’t know how to describe this movie, but it is a must-watch for movie aficionados and it’s no wonder that it’s getting such high marks from critics and Hollywood insiders because of course, they all love movies about the industry. This is a movie about the making of a 2003 independent movie called The Room, which frequently appears in the list of the worst movies ever made! The Room was produced, written and directed by an enigmatic man named Tommy Wiseau, who also played the lead in the movie. The Disaster Artist is brilliantly directed by actor James Franco, who also does a amazing job playing Wiseau, a narcissistic man who had no self-awareness of how bad an actor, writer and director he was. It’s like watching a slow-motion train wreck; you know it’s not going to end well, but still cannot turn your eyes away. It’s truly remarkable that someone as un-talented and self-deluded as this man could find the money, people and equipment to make a movie. I guess it’s a commentary on the desperation of all the wanna-be artists who flock to Hollywood, looking for a break. Worth watching, although not entertaining in the conventional sense. Keep an eye out for Zac Efron and Josh Hutcherson playing the supporting actors in the movie.

All the Money in the World: And finally, we come to the movie that’s been making all the headlines for the wrong reasons, which is that 80-year-old director Ridley Scott reshot all the scenes involving disgraced actor Kevin Spacey, replacing him with veteran thespian Christopher Plummer (who has come a long way since he played Capt. Von Trapp in The Sound of Music 52 years ago). It’s amazing that he did so in a matter of days just weeks prior to the release date and still managed to get the movie out on the scheduled date. This is not one of Scott’s iconic ‘genre-breakers’ like Alien, Blade Runner or Gladiator. Instead, it’s a by-the-numbers thriller, but one that’s been superbly mounted and masterfully crafted by a veteran director who can probably put together a movie like this with one eye closed! It’s fast paced, gripping and features powerful acting performances from its two main leads – Mr. Plummer who plays the richest man in the world, oil billionaire J. Paul Getty and Michelle Williams, who plays his ex-daughter-in-law Gail. And the movie, of course, is about the infamous kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s 16-year-old grandson John Paul Getty III in Rome in 1973; J. Paul Getty refused to pay the ransom and it was left to the boy’s mother (who had no money of her own) to use all her wits to find a way to get her son back. While watching the movie, one can only marvel at the heartlessness and stinginess of this man who just could not bring himself to pay (until at last he found that he could get a tax deduction for part of the ransom money!!!). Also, a great performance from French actor Romain Duris who I have only seen cast as soft-spoken young men in romantic comedies, but here convincingly plays one of the Italian kidnappers.

And so, it’s back to work this week and an end to a fun week of movie-bingeing. Keep an eye out for the many of these movies to make big news in the coming weeks and based on their awards performance, some of them could get wider releases in the theatres.

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The Holiday watchlist, Part 4: Coming of Age films


My next set of year-end movies fall under the ‘coming of age’ category, which has yielded several great films and acting performances over the past few years. All three films mentioned here are earning huge awards buzz and are likely to be competing for major Oscar honors in a few weeks.

Lady Bird: Since 2010, Greta Gerwig has become the darling of critics as one of the bright young acting talents in America, appearing in indie films like Greenberg, Frances Ha and Mistress America which tell contemporary stories about young, single Americans and their urban lives. These movies don’t really run in international markets – Europeans already make very good films of this sort while most Asian audiences would struggle to appreciate the ‘first world problems’ that young westerners deal with. Frankly, I’ve found Ms. Gerwig’s on-screen personas to be too self-centered for my liking, sort of like a female version of the neurotic characters played by Woody Allen. So when I heard that she had directed a semi-autobiographical movie, Lady Bird (with Saoirse Ronan as the lead), I was already prepared to dislike the experience of watching it. True enough, in the first half hour, I was irritated with Ronan’s teenage angst, self-centered behavior, embarrassment about her family’s lack of affluence and never-ending arguments with her hyper-critical mother (played convincingly by Laurie Metcalf). The mother-daughter dynamic is brought to life when at one point during one of their arguments, the mother says “Of course, I love you”, and the daughter asks, “But do you like me?”.

But as the film progresses, Lady Bird’s experiences at the strict Catholic High School bring about a transformation and self-realization in her and at the end I found myself rooting for this fierce girl who is so full of life and the desire to thrive. One of the key turning points happens late in the movie while she is reviewing her end of term essay with her nun teacher Sister Sarah. The teacher praises the essay and observes that Lady Bird has written about her home town of Sacramento with so much love; Lady Bird is surprised (because she has always wanted to get out of this town) and responds that all she did was to pay attention to her surroundings. And Sister Sarah responds saying, “Isn’t it the same thing? ‘Love’ and ‘Attention’?” At that moment, it seems like Lady Bird has also realized that her mother does love her, in spite of their constant arguing. The script is filled with these sort of insightful, real conversations that reveal the hearts and souls of the people on screen. This is definitely worth watching and filled with talented young actors like Timothée Chalamet (more about him soon), Lucas Hedges (who received an Oscar nom last year for Manchester by the Sea) and Beanie Feldstein. Saoirse Ronan is brilliant as always. I finished the movie thinking that I didn’t mind so much that Greta Gerwig is like Woody Allen and that like with Allen’s movies, I prefer it when Gerwig is behind the camera and uses another actor to bring her persona to life on the screen!

Call Me By Your Name: Italian director Luca Guadagnino finishes off his so-called “Desire trilogy” with this coming-of-age drama about a teenage boy Elio (Timothée Chalamet) who falls in love with a young man Oliver (Armie Hammer), who is interning with Elio’s archeologist father at their sprawling house in northern Italy in 1983. I loved the first two movies in the trilogy, also set in Italy – I am Love (2009) and A Bigger Splash (2015) – and was surprised that they had not had wider releases, especially considering they featured heavyweight names like Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes. It looks like this third film is the one that will get Guadagnino the widespread exposure and acclaim that he deserves. This one has even better credentials, as the screenplay is written by none other than James Ivory. Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy this movie as much as the other two! Besides the slow pacing, I found it difficult to identify with the idyllic lives of Elio and his beautiful friends who live in the beautiful countryside eating, cycling, swimming, sunbathing, dancing, playing volleyball, all in a semi-bored, desultory fashion. They reminded me of the Eloi in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. And then there is Armie Hammer’s American graduate student Oliver, who comes across as brash and opaque, conscious of his Adonis-like looks and toying with 17-year-old Elio’s feelings. Eventually, after an hour of the movie has elapsed, the two get into a full blown relationship which lasts for a couple of weeks until Oliver has to return to the US. Elio is heart-broken and there is a beautiful moment when he returns home after saying goodbye to Oliver; his father, the professor (Michael Stuhlbarg, in a wonderful, understated performance) speaks to him, letting him know that he was aware of what was going on, letting him know that he has just experienced something special and encouraging him not to shut away his feelings or try to escape the pain. It is advise delivered with selfless love (in such contrast with the selfish love of Lady Bird’s mother in the other movie), with compassion, sensitivity and with the wisdom and experience of a father. Chalamet’s final scene (set a few months later in winter) as he contemplates the memory of this precious, one-off relationship is heartbreaking; Sufjan Stevens’ song Visions of Gideon, playing in the background with the lyrics “I have loved you for the last time…” makes it even more poignant. This last act is so beautifully rendered that I have resolved to watch the movie a second time and try to better appreciate the first hour. There is no doubt that the film will be an awards contender in the coming weeks. I would also strongly recommend watching I am Love and A Bigger Splash. Keep an eye out for swimming pools; they are a big part of all three films, especially the first two.

The Florida Project: The third of the coming-of-age films that is making waves this season, this film is set in a motel in Florida, close to Disneyland. It focuses on 6-year-old Moonee who lives in the motel with her young mother Halley. Moonee spends her days running wild and playing mischief along with her friends. With a poor role model as a mother, Moonee ends up trying to behave like an adult, doing scams to get free ice cream, using foul language and being generally unrepentant about any of her mischief. The only compassionate character in the movie is the motel manager Bobby, played by Willem Defoe. Bobby makes sure the residents follow the rules and keeps the motel in running condition but he also goes above and beyond the call of duty and keeps an eye out for the kids and tries to help the residents as best as he can (tenancy laws require that the residents cannot have long-term stays in the motel, so Bobby helps the tenants check out for a day, spend a day at another motel and then check back in under a fresh tenancy). There isn’t much of a plot in this film and all it does it to show the emotional poverty in the modern day American society; these families are surrounded by modern trappings and conveniences but live a hollow life with no soul and no future. I was shocked at the behaviour of Moonee and the other kids (and was equally shocked that child actors could have been made to act and speak in this way in a movie). I could not identify with these people at all. I disliked Moonee and her mother intensely and was so happy when childcare services eventually show up at their door to take Moonee away! I would not recommend watching this film except as a docu-drama to understand the sad reality of parts of American society.

In my final post, I will cover three 2017 movies which tell incredible true stories – Battle of the Sexes, The Disaster Artist and All the Money in the World.

The Holiday watchlist, Part 3: Guilt and Obsession


Continuing with my holiday movie watching spree, we enter into heavier territory now with some emotionally intense movies, some of which are in serious contention for year-end awards.

I have read articles which refer to a form of OCD called ‘Responsibility OCD’, in which a person suffering from guilt due to a past mistake or shortcoming (real or perceived), tries to assuage this guilt by obsessively trying to protect their loved ones or go above and beyond their call of duty. The characters in the films listed below seem to have that in common to some degree.

After the Storm: This is the 5th film from writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda that I’m watching and the one I liked the least, along with 2008’s Still Walking; is it a coincidence that both star Hiroshi Abe? As always, Kore-eda’s films show real people and real emotions, but I guess I just didn’t like Abe’s character, a downbeat, dishonest divorced dad who is trying hard to get back into the good books of his ex-wife and impress his son. What appears to be love for his family is actually a combination of guilt and selfishness, a desire to overcome his own low self-esteem. A disappointing experience for me (not the fault of the director, just that I didn’t like the characters or the story), especially after how much I loved his previous 3 films, especially 2015’s Our Little Sister, which I wrote about previously. Even so, Kore-eda was nominated in the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes for this film.

Wind River: Actor turned screenwriter Taylor Sheridan is hot property now, having written the screenplay for the highly acclaimed Sicario (2015) and Hell or High Water (for which he received an Oscar nomination last year). He has gone behind the camera to direct his latest script Wind River and what a piece of dynamite it is! Starring Avengers colleagues Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen, the film explores themes of guilt and alienation delivered in the form of a perfectly crafted, tightly wound murder mystery. Olsen plays the FBI rookie who is called in to solve a murder at a Native American reservation and Renner is the local wildlife expert who found the body and assists her on the case. Like the rest of Sheridan’s films this too is a Western in terms of DNA, even though it is set in the bleak winter of present day Wyoming. The pacing of the film never flags, at the same time the characters get time and space to express their feelings and fears (just like in Sicario). Jeremy Renner is perfectly cast as a man driven to excel at his job, trying to live with his own guilt related to the death of his daughter three years earlier. Sheridan won Best Director in the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes this year. I cannot recommend this film highly enough and I can see myself watching it over and over again.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Like Wind River, this film too deals with themes of guilt and alienation. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, one half of the duo who have put Irish cinema on the world map, this is a welcome return to form after the relative disappointment of his last effort Seven Psychopaths and reminds me of the tone of his first movie In Bruges. Frances McDormand plays a grieving mother who rents three billboards outside her small town to call attention to the lack of police action in solving the rape and murder of her daughter a year earlier. The film explores the darkest places of guilt, bitterness and self-reproach, but does so with a perfect blend of melodrama, action and black comedy. McDonagh brings out fantastic performances from the cast which includes Woody Harrelson (in one of his best roles in recent years), Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage (Tyrion from Game of Thrones), John Hawkes and Lucas Hedges. Frances McDormand got her 6th Golden Globe acting nomination as the mother obsessed with finding justice, forever remorseful of her own negligence in her daughter’s death; I would love to see her win at the Globes and I hope she will get her 5th Oscar acting nom as well. Sam Rockwell gets his first ever Golden Globe nomination as well. Highly recommended, even if the ending isn’t entirely satisfactory.

Good Time: This is yet another release from the fast emerging indie distributor A24 which was behind last year’s Best Film Oscar winner Moonlight and is distributing several award contenders this year like Lady Bird, The Florida Project, The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Disaster Artist. Directed by fast-emerging New York based indie film makers Josh and Benny Safdie, the movie stars Robert Pattinson as a young man whose attempt to rob a bank along with his mentally challenged younger brother (played by co-director Ben Safdie), triggers a chain of events which gets him deeper and deeper into trouble with the law. I didn’t care much for the Safdie’s guerrilla style of film-making or the jarring electronic score from experimental musician Daniel Lopatin (under his recording alias of Oneohtrix Point Never), but there is no denying the intensity that Pattinson brings to this role as a man whose guilt drives him to do whatever it takes to safeguard his younger brother. The 31-year-old British heartthrob has put together an eclectic and high quality body of work in the past 5 years, working hard to deglamorize and distance himself from his ‘pretty boy’ Twilight persona. The Safdie brothers were nominated for the Palm d’Or at Cannes for this gritty crime thriller.

Last Flag Flying: After winning multiple awards for Boyhood three years ago, writer-director Richard Linklater directed the little seen 80’s set comedy Everybody Wants Some!!. He returns to higher profile material with this film which is a “sort of” sequel to the celebrated 1973 film The Last Detail for which Jack Nicholson received an Oscar nomination. Both films are based on novels by Darryl Ponicsan and feature a train trip taken by 3 Marines as a key setting. The conversations on these trips form the essence of the films – exploration of beliefs, fears, the meaning of patriotism and friendship. Three old Vietnam War vets are reunited after a gap of several decades due to a tragedy and have to take a trip together during which they reminisce about their wild young days, about the mistakes they made while in combat in Vietnam and the remorse that each of them lives with. The acting by Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne and Steve Carell is outstanding and so, so real. I don’t think Steve Carell gets enough credit for how good an actor he is. There is one sequence in the train where the three men (accompanied by a junior officer) are laughing and joking about their time in Vietnam; anyone who has been to a reunion party with old college friends will relate to these scenes. The film may be a bit too ‘light’ to win any awards, but it is definitely worth watching and particularly interesting if you’ve seen the first film, as there are some parallel situations between the two movies.

In my next post, I will cover two coming-of-age films which have made a big splash in the past few weeks on the awards circuit – Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name.

The Holiday watchlist, Part 2: Netflix’s movies with a message


Continuing on with my year-end movies list, this post is about Netflix’s two big budget films of 2017. In both cases, the directors are trying to say something personal, wrapped up in a piece of larger-than-life, big-budget entertainment. So even if you didn’t get or care about the message, you could still enjoy your popcorn for a couple of hours. Other than that, there’s not much that the 2 films have in common!

Okja competed for the Palm d’Or at Cannes in May 2017; it caused some ripples because it was not a theatrical release and a part of the Cannes establishment didn’t think it should have been featured at the festival. Nevertheless, the movie carried the sort of message that really appeals to the liberal and progressive environment at Cannes and it got a standing ovation at the end of its premiere, eventually racking up an average Metacritic score of 75/100 from 36 movie critics.

In some ways, Okja is a mirror of Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 international breakout film The Host. In The Host, a huge mutated fish-creature emerges from the Han river and carries off a little girl to its lair; the rest of the film deals with her father’s attempts to rescue his daughter. In Okja, a little girl forms a strong bond with a huge genetically modified pig-creature which is being raised on her grandfather’s farm. The international corporation which owns the ‘super-pig’ takes it away once it’s fully grown and the rest of the film deals with the girl’s attempts to rescue the creature, which she has named Okja.

Unfortunately, all the characters in the film are irritating in some way (even the little girl on some occasions) and it’s not easy to really enjoy a movie when there’s no one in it that you like. Having said that, the over-the-top acting from renowned actors like Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano combined with various darkly comic set-pieces do keep the film chugging along. Even if you want to enjoy the film as mindless entertainment, it’s difficult not to think about its themes of mass-consumerism and modern society’s hypocrisy of compassion…we talk about protecting the environment and taking care of all living beings but turn a blind eye to the untold suffering of billions of forcefully domesticated animals who are put through a brutal mass production pipeline to satisfy our cravings. In that sense, the director has done a masterful job of getting his message across via a well-crafted piece of entertainment. Brad Pitt is an Executive Producer on this, by the way.

Bright was released by Netflix just a few days ago and makes no pretense of being an awards contender, having averaged a very poor Metacritic score of 29/100 from 26 critics. The film is directed by David Ayer, who for most of his career has scripted or directed films about cops, crime and corruption in Los Angeles. His films are generally hit-or-miss, with the first Fast and the Furious, Training Day (Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke) and End of Watch (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña) all enjoying both critical and commercial success. He has diversified his oeuvre in the past few years, directing the World War II tank movie Fury (which I loved), the much maligned Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Sabotage (which I also loved) and the disappointing DC Comics team-up film Suicide Squad.

Bright attempts to tell the story of race politics through the allegory of ‘species politics’, much in the same way as Alien Nation did in 1988 and District 9 in 2009. Set in an alternate present, humans co-exist with Elves, Orcs, Fairies and Centaurs. Elves are at the top of the social food chain, driving Lamborghinis and wearing high fashion while the Orcs are the gangsters and thugs…respectively playing the roles of WASPS, African-Americans and Hispanics from a standard David Ayer story line. Will Smith is an LAPD cop who is paired up with the city’s first ever Orc cop and has to overcome his own prejudice as well as that of his fellow police officers against Orcs, while trying to uncover a big conspiracy. The movie actually starts off well, driven by strong performances from Will Smith and Joel Edgerton (as the Orc cop Jakoby), but the third act is an incomprehensible mess and towards the end I was just waiting for the movie to end. Okja uses elements of scifi/ fantasy to lull the viewer into reflecting on the real world, but Bright misses that opportunity. Still, it’s worth watching, but you’ll find yourself fast-forwarding through the last half hour or so.

My next couple of posts get into heavier territory, covering several movies that explore the human condition, covering the entire spectrum from black comedy to documentary/ guerrilla style film-making.

The Holiday watchlist, Part 1: The entertainers


It’s that wonderful time of the year when I put in a concerted effort to watch all the year-end blockbusters and award contenders and also catch up on any notable indie films I may have missed out on from earlier in the year. In the past month, I’ve managed to watch about a dozen movies. They seem to fall into about 4 categories – pure ‘popcorn’ entertainment, action movies with a ‘message’, movies about the human condition (guilt is a common theme this year) and one set which I classified as ‘educational’, because I learnt something about history or society through watching them (with varying degrees of entertainment value).

Today I will cover the 2 straight up entertainers I’ve seen in the past month.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – This movie has been subject of much more controversy than should be necessary for a piece of pure popcorn entertainment. When The Force Awakens came out 2 years ago, critics and audiences both enjoyed it, but they also noted that the film rehashes several story beats from the 1977 Star Wars; too safe, too much comfort food. Now with The Last Jedi, critics appreciate the creative risks taken by director Rian Johnson, but fans are incensed that he is messing with their beloved recipe. Which leads to the question: what is the vision for any beloved long-running series of books, TV shows or movies? Fans expect their beloved characters to stay consistent (or at the very least, evolve gradually over time), but want to see them in new settings, facing new challenges. Something about this basic equation has not worked with The Last Jedi. I did feel impatient with Rey chasing a whiny Luke around that island and felt the plot get very thin with the codebreaker on Canto Bight. That middle part of the narrative was choppy and uneven. But equally, there was plenty to enjoy – the opening bombing sequence featuring the heroic Paige Tico, Vice Admiral Holdo’s stunning act of bravery, the visually inventive battle on the planet Crait, the porgs, the beautiful crystal vulptices, the repeated humiliations of General Hux, the reunion of Luke and Leia, etc. Overall, I came out of the theatre happy, but now all the online criticism has amplified the faults of the film and seems to have spoilt my memory of the experience. I definitely need to watch it again to ‘reset’ how I feel. In the long run, I think audiences will forgive Disney for this film. After all, in six months’ time, we’ll have some light-hearted fun in the spin-off movie Solo: A Star Wars Story which has been put together by the ever-dependable Ron Howard. And I am pretty sure JJ Abrams will wrap up the final trilogy nicely with Episode IX in Dec 2019.

Murder on the Orient Express – I enjoyed this movie sufficiently enough to watch it a second time with my kids a few weeks later. I haven’t read Agatha Christie’s book so cannot comment on how faithful an adaptation it is. I have seen the celebrated 1974 version which was very engaging, but I had actually forgotten the plot and the outcome, so I was fully engrossed while watching Kenneth Branagh’s version. I believe that the new version can be rated one notch better, mainly because of that element of twinkly-eyed mischief which seems to permeate the film and the character of Poirot himself. The production design and Haris Zambarloukos’ lush cinematography both do a superb job of evoking the romanticism of that era. And every single member of the ensemble cast is pitch perfect – from the big names like Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz and Dame Judi Dench to the dependable character actors like Willem Defoe, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Coleman and Josh Gad to relative unknowns like Tom Bateman (Bouc, the director of the train), Leslie Odom Jr. (Dr. Arbuthnot) and Marwan Kenzari (the conductor Michel). Of course, in this era of political correctness and fair representation, people may ask if there were no talented Belgian actors available to play Hercule Poirot, but Branagh inhabits the character with such flair, that it is difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role now. I am very much looking forward to having him return as director and star in A Death on the Nile. And hopefully with a star-studded supporting cast.

In my next post I will cover the two Netflix ‘movies with a message’, Okja and Bright.

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.