Gunga Din (1939)

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You will never leave here. Already your graves are dug! British army sergeants Tommy Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), Archibald Cutter (Cary Grant) and Mac MacChesney (Victor McLaglen) serve in India on the North West Frontier during the 1880s, along with their native water-bearer, Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe). While completing a dangerous telegraph-repair mission, they unearth evidence of the suppressed Thuggee cult. When Gunga Din tells the sergeants about a secret temple made of gold, the fortune-hunting Cutter is captured by the Thuggees, and it’s up to his friends to rescue him before the Thuggees run rampage across the territory... Ever since time began, they’ve called mad all the great soldiers in this world. Mad? We shall see what wisdom lies within my madness. Loosely adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s poem and his short story collection Soldiers Three, Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur’s story has a central conflict closely related to their play The Front Page. The screenplay by Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol with uncredited additions by Anthony Veiller, Lester Cohen, John Colton, Dudley Nichols, Vincent Lawrence and William Faulkner (if only we knew!) is a ripping yarn, classical Hollywood at its finest, with George Stevens at the helm. Redolent with wit, fun, danger and charm – Grant even has a way with an elephant! – and his and McLaglen’s reactions to Fairbanks’ marriage to Joan Fontaine are highly amusing. This is a marvellous action adventure, reeking of camaraderie and derring-do and good old-fashioned brio. Reginald Sheffield appears uncredited as Kipling. Lone Pine CA and Yuma AZ stand in for India! You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din 

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The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

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Now listen to me you benighted muckers. We’re going to teach you soldiering. The world’s noblest profession. When we’re done with you, you’ll be able to slaughter your enemies like civilised men.  The exploits of Peachy Carnehan (Michael Caine) and Danny Dravot (Sean Connery), a  pair of English military officers stationed in India in the 1880s. Tired of life as soldiers, the two travel to the isolated land of Kafiristan, barely known since it was conquered by Alexander the Great, where they are ultimately embraced by the people and revered as rulers. After a series of misunderstandings, the natives come to believe that Dravot is a god, but he and Carnehan can’t keep up their deception forever and when Dravot takes a fancy to local beauty Roxanne (Shakira Caine) his god-like demeanour is finally unmasked…  He wants to know if you are gods./Not Gods – Englishmen. The next best thing. This adaptation of a short story by Rudyard Kipling is one of the very best action adventures ever made: characterful, funny, brilliantly staged and performed. Director John Huston had wanted to make it so long that he had hoped to film it with Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. Indeed, there are clear connections with this and his The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, as well as Gunga Din. The imperialist story is really a parody of the desire for power. This country isn’t big enough for these good-natured overreachers! Their friendship is wittily explored and Christopher Plummer as Kipling is easily a match for the well-cast leads while Saeed Jaffrey makes for a marvellous Billy Fish, the sole Gurkha soldier remaining of a failed British expedition. Deftly told with non-stop action, this is a vivid, spirited and sublime, self-aware entertainment.  Adapted by Huston and his long-time collaborator, Gladys Hill.  Now Peachy, different countries, different ways. Tell Ootah we have vowed not to take a woman until all his enemies are vanquished

Victoria & Abdul (2017)

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Look at me – a fat silly lame impotent old woman.  Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) is a prison clerk in 1887 India, sent by some accident of position to bring a valuable coin to Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) in her jubilee year. She is sick and tired of her situation and fawning household courtiers and takes a fancy to Abdul, elevating him to be her Munshi, a sort of spiritual guide and teacher of all things Indian. His travelling companion Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) is kept on as his servant. She thinks Abdul is Hindu but he’s actually a Moslem. When the Queen realises Abdul has a wife she sends for her and she arrives with her mother, both clad in veils. Everyone in the house resents his increasing influence and when Prince Bertie (Eddie Izzard) arrives home from his feckless life in Monte Carlo expecting his mother’s death any day soon, he sets the staff on a course of revenge … Dench is in fine fettle as a naughty old woman just dying to let rip rather than having to endure endless official engagements and report on her bowel movements to doctors concerned with her poor diet. Lee Hall adapted the book by Shrabani Basu and Stephen Frears lends the material his customary sceptic’s eye particularly in the early stages where the comedy is high and the culture clash constant. The relationship at the story’s core is wonderfully played. Very entertaining return to the role for Dench, with apt mention of John Brown (Mrs Brown was released 19 years ago!) in another tale of Victoria’s unusual friendships and curses aplenty hurled at awful Scotland.  Funny, humane and good-natured with the inevitable bad ending wrought by the dastardly Bertie, the man who should never have been King.

Girl Flu (2017)

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I’m never going to have kids. I already have my mom. Robin aka (Baby) Bird (Jade Pettyjohn) moves from the San Fernando Valley burbs to the hipster Echo Park neighbourhood to housesit her grandmother’s home with her selfish stoner waitress mom Jenny (Katee Sackhoff). She has to become a woman whether she wants to or not when she gets her first period in the middle of a sixth grade picnic and the meanest of the mean girls Rachel (Isabella Acres) bullies her. She finds herself abandoned in ignorance and finds out how to deal with the blood letting from Mom’s friend Lili (Heather Matarazzo).  Mom’s boyfriend Arlo (Jeremy Sisto) tries to help the flaky Jenny to grow up:  it’s not happening to you!  he tells her as she wallows in self-indulgence, fatally unsuited to being a mother.  Bird finds out that she’ll never be able to return to the Valley but she has new friends here, against the odds even as she goes through the worst week in living memory … Sharp and funny on a gross-out topic, the writing and directing debut of actress and story consultant Dorie Barton is a refreshing and very impressive blast boasting seriously charming performances in a new twist on mother-daughter dramedy. While Grandma is blithely Skyping from an ashram in India (ensuring we know why her daughter is useless at being a mother) Jenny leaves Arlo to pick up the family’s pieces and even pretend to be Bird’s boyfriend when the bullies threaten. My mother is a narcissist and my father is a workaholic, he tells Lilli. That figures, she retorts. Smart, well written and a really authentic comedy of embarrassment and growing up the hard way. I want a real mom.

Black Narcissus (1946)

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I told you it was no place to put a nunnery! There’s something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated … A group of Anglican nuns, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), are sent to a mountain in the Himalayas. The climate in the region is hostile and the nuns are housed in an odd old palace, home to the Sisters of St Faith and previously home to the concubines of the General in the area. They work to establish a school and a hospital, but slowly their focus shifts. Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) falls for a government worker, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), and begins to question her vow of celibacy. As Sister Ruth obsesses over Mr. Dean, Sister Clodagh becomes immersed in her own memories of love back in Ireland while their conflicts are put into relief by the forbidden desire between The Young General (Sabu) and Kanchi (Jean Simmons) who is of entirely unsuitable caste.  Sister Ruth’s psychological problems devolve into violent madness … Rumer Godden’s story gets the high-velocity melodrama treatment in this extraordinary interpretation of her story about religion in a colonial outpost. Alfred Junge created the illusion of the exotic in Pinewood (and a Surrey garden) with Jack Cardiff’s magical cinematography enhancing the impression of lushness.  The Renaissance light and shadows highlight the growing atmosphere of hysteria. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger crafted an astonishingly sensual portrait of women in hothouse seclusion, lured to their various fates by a man in their midst as they wrestle with issues of conscience, race, sex and vocation. It has not lost its power to bewitch and Byron’s performance is unforgettable.

Viceroy’s House (2017)

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History is written by the victors. The final Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) arrives with his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and daughter Pamela (Lily Travers) in 1947 British India where he is tasked with overseeing the transition to independence, but meets with conflict as different sides clash in the face of monumental change. In this vast house, new valet Jeet (Manish Dayal) a former prison officer who left due to his political leanings meets beautiful Alia (Human Qureshi) whom he knew beforehand. She tries to ignore him because he is Hindu and she is Muslim and doesn’t wish to disappoint her invalided father Ali (Om Puri). While Mountbatten tries to balance the arguments about what to do regarding the various parties’ demands – hearing out Jinnah (Denzil Smith), Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) – and Edwina causes consternation among the staff by insisting on diverse meal preparation, Mountbatten realises that Lord Ismay (Michael Gambon) has been carrying out covert work to use partition to create a buffer state between India and the Soviet Union … This was gutted by some commentators and you can see why:  a project that was years in development, culled from several books of differing provenance with a foot in both camps as it were – a heritage romance that deals sharp lessons in politicking culminating in the greatest human migration in history with a million casualties. There are two books credited as the basis for the screenplay and a few writers: the principal source was Narendra Singh Saril’s The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition which was based on secret documents discovered in the British Library;  Paul Mayeda Berges, Moira Buffini and director Gurinder Chadha are credited as screenwriters. History does not look kindly on Louis Mountbatten, who was, as this film clarifies, something of a stooge for a plan that had been in the London Government’s works for some time. (Maybe). His intentions were good, his overlords’ were anything but, is the arc here. You divided India for oil. Nonetheless the (heavily beautified) portrait of the Mountbatten marriage (no hint of Edwina’s affair with Nehru) with all the attractions of soft power being exercised within and without the household plus the subplot of the below stairs romance which is the only kind of happy ending possible here, is meticulously made. It’s nicely performed, beautifully photographed by Ben Smithard, integrating some great newsreels (real and faux) and sympathetically scored by A.R. Rahman.  Chadha’s personal relationship with the material is clarified in the end credits. As you can see, there are no straight lines in India. MM #1600.

Shashi Kapoor 03/18/1938-12/04/2017

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The great Indian actor Shashi Kapoor has died aged 79. A renowned Bollywood and Hindi star and scion of the great Kapoor theatre and film dynasty, he was part of the Western cinema audience’s world through his association with Merchant-Ivory and his role as Siddartha. He was a true legend, a charismatic and prolific performer, an accomplished filmmaker and hero to many.

Happy Birthday Shashi Kapoor!

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The great actor Shashi Kapoor celebrates his 79th birthday today. I first discovered him in the wonderful Merchant Ivory production Shakespeare Wallah (with a very young Felicity Kendal) one Saturday night when I was a kid and the BBC was still showing an interest in international cinema. I was gobsmacked and sought out whatever films they made and whatever films he was in and I’ve a long way to go (he’s made 116 Hindi films alone…) but was fascinated to learn that Bombay Talkie co-starred his wife Jennifer Kendal, conjoining the famous Kapoor acting & filmmaking dynasty with the Kendals’ travelling Shakespeare family, who spent many years trundling around India with their repertoire (and daughters). Check out the amazing choreography on the giant typewriter! He started acting as a child for his father Prithvi’s theatrical troupe and after some screen roles playing the younger version of his brother Raj he worked as assistant director for Sunil Dutt and Ravindra Dave. It was in the Sixties that he became a Bollywood star and a great romantic hero as well as an international name. He turned to producing at the end of the Seventies and co-directed the film Ajooba, co-starring his regular acting colleague Amitabh Bachchan. He can rest on his laurels:  he is a true cinema legend. Happy birthday!

The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015)

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Tamil Srinivasa Ramanujan is toiling away as a clerk in Madras, a maths prodigy who is entirely self-taught and with little future in his home country. His work leads Professor GH Hardy to bring him to Cambridge and a difficult career ensues throughout WW1. Adapted by writer/director Matthew Brown from the book by Robert Kanigel, this biographical drama is puzzling and touching in equal parts:  the beauty of mathematics is difficult to convey to a dimwit like myself but the relationships and overt racism on campus bring out the best in Dev Patel’s acting skills. The essence of his character is religious faith – he eventually confesses to the gruff and irascible atheist Hardy (Jeremy Irons) that he believes his God is speaking to him in his sleep. Hardy’s inspiration is less theological and his insistence on proofs leads Ramanujan to a period of self-doubt, depression and serious illness. Hardy becomes his friend very late in the day, following racist attacks, vicious rivalries within the University and a declining marriage: back home in India, Ramanujan’s mother has been hiding the letters his illiterate wife was writing to him and his wife doesn’t know and ultimately writes to inform him she is leaving him. This is a beautifully handled drama about a little known man whose work during the last year of his life has been used to understand black holes. What was that about infinity and beyond?! Ah, sweet mystery of life. Gimme dat ol time religion.

The Jungle Book (2016)

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I was indisposed to the idea that the classic Disney cartoon would get a revamp. Part of my problem with photo-real animation is that when things get dark they get very lifelike and sinister indeed, as we found with the beyond-creepy Spielberg takes on Tintin and The BFG (where the villainous giant seemed like a big ole murderous paedophile). So when man-cub Mowgli gets separated from his wolf family and taken away to his own people by black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) the shifts in tone from good nature (Baloo the bear, Bill Murray) to bad (Shere Khan the tiger, an almost incomprehensible Idris Elba) are very jarring. The musical interludes while entertaining seem like they’re dropped in from another movie. Overall however, it has to be admitted that it all works out in the end. Good stories are sometimes immune to strange interpretations. And how nice is it to hear Garry Shandling voicing the porcupine?  Written by Justin Marks, directed by Jon Favreau.