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.

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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.

The history of Istanbul by Thomas Madden is as gripping and entertaining as Game of Thrones


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How do you compress the 2700-year history of a city (and empire) into 450 pages without losing any of the drama or human stories nor reducing it into a dry listing of events and dates? Thomas F. Madden, the 56-year-old American historian shows you how with his extraordinary 2016 publication, Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World. Mr. Madden is the Professor of History and Director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University and has been known for years as a specialist on the Crusades, so it seems only fitting that he write this history of the city that was the focal point of the war between Christian and Muslim armies for centuries.

I have always been fascinated by Istanbul/ Constantinople – its breath-taking architecture, its unique geographic position between Asia & Europe, the fiction it has inspired such as Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and even its cuisine including the Baklava and Turkish delight. I’ve not yet had a chance to visit this iconic city, so to prepare myself for a future journey (and perhaps to compensate for not having visited it before it became like any other modern world city), I searched for a comprehensive yet compact history of Constantinople which brought me to Mr. Madden’s recent publication.

By the time I finished the book, I was convinced that much of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones must have been inspired by people, events and settings from this city’s history! Even the Unsullied, the slave-soldiers of Astapor sound a lot like the elite Janissaries of the Ottoman ruler.

The book starts off with the founding of the city in 667 BC as Byzantion, a north-eastern trading outpost of the Greek city-state of Megara (now a small town about 40 km west of Athens). The outpost was about 600 km from Megara as the crow flies and the voyage by ship would have taken the Megarans across the Aegean Sea, through the narrow Dardanelles strait, past Gallipoli peninsula into the Sea of Marmara before arriving at the Bosporus straits. The Bosporus linked through to the Black Sea and was the key source for goods and grain from Central Asia. The control of this key trade route eventually made Byzantion the most powerful city in the world for close to two millennia.

It’s easy to think of this sea route as a straightforward journey when viewed on Google maps today, but I was amazed at how these ancient seafarers could have discovered this particular route from among all the hundreds of other possible combinations they could have taken on the open seas!

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From this point, the book takes us through the many rulers and dynasties which shaped the destiny of this city which became the seat of the Greek (Byzantion), Roman (Constantinople) and Ottoman (Istanbul) empires before emerging as the modern, secular city it is today.

There are many fascinating characters who have played a role in the city’s history. As in Game of Thrones, one realizes how the ambition, courage or foolhardiness of a single individual can influence the fate of empires and millions of subjects. This is a story of intrigue, betrayal, blindings (a common way of dealing with a rival to the throne was to gouge his eyes out), beheadings, massacres, pillage and destruction. But also a story of the creation of incredible artefacts and architecture, much of which have been destroyed over time and many of which have survived till today.

In particular, the individuals whose stories have stayed in my memory are:

Constantine I “the Great”: By AD 285, the Roman empire had grown so vast that it was divided into two halves, with the Western empire governed from Rome and the Eastern empire based in Byzantion, which had been “liberated” from Greek rule in 196 BC. This was the time when a new religion called Christianity had taken hold among the poor and downtrodden. After an initial period of peaceful co-existence, Christianity came under fire and was outlawed in AD 302 leading to large scale persecution of Christians. But then a new Western emperor came to power in AD 312 called Constantine. During an earlier military campaign, he had a vision that his victory would be assured by Jesus Christ and after coming to power he formally converted to Christianity. This led to the stoppage of the persecution and the elevation of Christianity as a religion of the emperor. In AD 324, Constantine defeated the Eastern emperor, unified the Roman empire and chose to live on in the East rather than return to Rome. He rebuilt and expanded Byzantion, renaming it as Constantinople. It became – along with Rome – the heart of the Christian world for the next thousand years.

Justinian and Theodora: In AD 532, Emperor Justinian was on the verge of being overthrown by a rival faction in what is now referred to as the Nika revolt. There were violent riots between the two factions for nearly a week with nearly half the city being burned or destroyed and tens of thousands of people killed. Justinian and his advisors were on the verge of fleeing the city when his wife Theodora made an impassioned plea to stay and fight. Theodora came from humble beginnings; her father was a bear trainer at the famous Hippodrome which held chariot races of the sort shown in Ben-Hur. She then worked as an actress and a prostitute (the two professions were interchangeable in those days) before coming to the attention of Justinian while he was heir to the throne. It was this former prostitute turned empress who prevailed on the ruling elite to resist the rebellion. Inspired by her words and spirit, Justinian did so and went on to rule Constantinople with Theodora for several more years, building aqueducts, bridges and churches including the famous Hagia Sophia.

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Andronikos Komnenos: Perhaps one of the most colourful of the Byzantine rulers, Andronikos was supposedly a handsome and striking personality, a general and statesman who lived a charmed life of debauchery, seduction and intrigue. He rose to the Byzantine throne in 1183 at the advanced age of 65. His rule was marked by murders, massacres and terror. He was eventually overthrown and handed over to furious mobs who tortured him publicly for several days; his right hand was cut off, his teeth and hair pulled out, one of his eyes gouged out, animal dung and boiling water thrown on his face. Finally, he was hung by his feet between two pillars and two soldiers competed to see whose sword would penetrate his body most deeply!

Alexsios IV Angelos: The machinations of Alexios IV to reclaim the Byzantine throne on behalf of his deposed and blinded father Isaac II resulted in four different emperors on the throne from July 1203 to April 1204. In a ridiculous turn of events, the Fourth Crusade which was organized to reconquer Jerusalem from the Muslims ended up sacking, looting and destroying Constantinople, the capital of the 2nd largest Christian empire! These events would lead to the eventual weakening of the Byzantine empire and 250 years later it would fall to the armies of 21-year-old Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror in May 1453.

Suleiman the Magnificent and Hurrem Sultan: In the 1530s, Sultan Suleiman (the great-grandson of Mehmed) sent shockwaves through the empire by marrying his Ukranian concubine Roxelana (later named Hurrem, “the cheerful one”). Previous Sultans never married, but fathered children from the many women in their harem, rarely sleeping with the same woman twice (there was a strong preference for virgins). However Suleiman became captivated by Hurrem and the two became true soulmates, effectively ruling the empire together for two decades. This was the Golden Age of the Ottoman empire, which saw the reform of education, taxation and criminal law. Suleiman’s brilliant architect Mimar Sinan supervised the construction of nearly 500 buildings, including the famous Blue Mosque and the even more impressive Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, one of the greatest achievements of Islamic architecture. Hurram’s partnership with Suleiman led to the 130-year period known as the Sultanate of Women, during which the wives and mothers of sultans exerted considerable political influence in the running of the empire.

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Incidentally, it was a failed invasion of Vienna by Suleiman during 1529-32 that convinced Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire not to burn Martin Luther at the stake as he needed the help of the Protestant leaders against the Ottoman threat. Thus the Protestant Reformation thrived and was saved from being snuffed out.

Mustafa Kemal ‘Ataturk’: The father of modern day Turkey, Ataturk was an Army commander who went on to become the 1st President of Turkey, abolishing the caliphate in 1924 and bringing to an end 2500 years of empire in Byzantion/ Constantinople/ Istanbul. Mustafa Kemal was responsible for establishing Turkey as a modern secular nation, adopting the Western calendar and the Roman script to re-integrate the nation into the global economy after decades of decline, recognizing and celebrating the pre-Islamic history of the city including conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a museum.

And so, I came to the end of this fascinating book which has got me even more excited about visiting this city one day soon. The complexity of Istanbul is perhaps best represented through this 16th century illustration of the city by Danish renaissance painter Melchior Lorck.

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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 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.

Best film winners at the Japanese Academy: Our Little Sister


In October 2014, I had written a bunch of posts about contemporary Japanese films which I’ve loved watching (and feel like re-watching). All have won or been nominated for best picture at the Japanese Academy awards – Welcome Back Mr. McDonald (1997), Spirited Away (2001), The Twilight Samurai (2002), Hula Girls (2006), Departures (2008), Confessions (2010) and Tokyo Family (2013).

I’ve just watched another film to add to that list, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister (2015). The 54-year-old Kore-eda is emerging as one of my favourite Japanese directors, with memorable family dramas like Still Walking, I Wish and his Palm d’Or nominated 2013 film Like Father, Like Son. Each of these films explore relationships involving parents, children/ siblings which are affected by death or separation.

Our Little Sister is the story of the 3 young Koda sisters, who live together in a quaint old house they have inherited from their grandmother, in the seaside city of Kamakura just south of Tokyo.

As the film begins, we are introduced to the middle sister, Yoshino who’s just spent the night at her boyfriend’s place. She wakes up early and gets back home in time to wake up the tomboyish younger sister, Chika. We then meet the strict older sister Sachi, who is the proxy ‘mom’ in the house. As the three sisters settle down for breakfast and banter, we realize they have just received news that their father has passed away. Through the conversation we understand the background, how he divorced their mother to marry another woman and then when the 2nd wife passed away, he moved to remote Yamagata prefecture in the North and married a 3rd time. Now with his death, he leaves behind the 3rd wife and a daughter from the 2nd marriage. This daughter is the subject of the movie title.

At the funeral, the three sisters meet their 13-year-old half-sister Suzu. Her calm demeanour and impeccable manners during some awkward funeral scenes immediately make an impression on the Kodas. As Yoshino says, “she’s got it together!” On the other hand, they are not particularly reassured by the overwrought widow who is so reluctant to greet the mourners at the funeral that she attempts to pass this responsibility onto Suzu. As the sisters board the train to return home, Sachi makes an impromptu offer to the young girl to come stay with them at Kamakura. The sisters are delighted when Suzu agrees.

And so begins the story of Suzu’s new life with the three sisters, settling into her new school and meeting others in their small circle of friends and relatives. The film doesn’t have much of a plot, but is really an examination of these young individuals, how their interconnected lives now expand to accommodate this shy but likeable newcomer.

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I liked how the 3 sisters’ personalities/ preferences are brought to life in small ways, like the different styles of their funeral dresses, or their food preferences – Sachi likes healthy food, Yoshino likes drinking and Chika eats everything! The youngest, Chika is the most uncomplicated of the lot, too young to have been scarred by their parents’ breakup or to have experienced heartache in a personal relationship. She enjoys the simple things in life – mostly involving eating and hanging out with her equally uncomplicated ex-mountaineer boyfriend (who innocently offers to show his toe amputations while they’re all eating breakfast!). Sachi, being the oldest, has the strongest memories of their father and greatest anger for being abandoned by him; his departure not only robbed them of a father but also caused their mother to have a breakdown and abandon the daughters, forcing Sachi to grow up overnight. She therefore resents Suzu’s mother for being the woman who caused this disruption. But the irony is that Sachi herself is in a relationship with a married man, the doctor who works at the same hospital where she is a dedicated and highly respected nurse.

Young Suzu who has settled well into the new town, picks up on Sachi’s pent-up feelings and worries that she will be blamed for being the daughter of the woman who disrupted their childhood. But Sachi’s natural maternal instincts take over and she assures Suzu that her place is here with her three sisters. The two go up to a solitary hilltop spot overlooking the town and yell out their anger and frustration at their respective parents. As Suzu cries on Sachi’s shoulder, united in love and pain, Sachi becomes both elder sister and proxy mother to Suzu.

The film ends as it begins, with a funeral…of a kind and motherly restaurant owner Ninomiya, whose place the girls frequented. As they reflect on life and death, the 4 sisters walk along the beach and enjoy their time together.

The film was a big success at last year’s Japanese Academy awards, snagging Best film and Best director awards. Teenager Suzu Hirose won Newcomer of the Year for her portrayal of ‘little sister’ Suzu. Haruka Ayase was nominated for Best Actress for playing the oldest sister Sachi.  Masami Nagasawa and Kaho both received nominations for Best Supporting Actress for playing the middle and younger sisters Yoshino and Chika respectively. I feel that this is the most accessible and light-hearted of the 4 Kore-eda films I have watched so far and definitely recommend it to anyone interested in contemporary Japanese drama.