Sunday, December 18, 2016

Favorites of 2016: Movies and television

Indian films

Madhabi Mukherjee and Satyajit Ray: Satyajit Ray did only three films with the luminous actress Madhabi Mukherjee: Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963), Charulata (1964), and Kapurush (The Coward, 1965). All are brilliantly realized.

Kapurush is a brief and almost Hitchcockian story in which a man who finds himself stranded in a remote village has an unexpected encounter with a former lover, Karuna (Mukherjee). She is now the wife of the wealthy, affable but boorish tea-grower who offers to put the traveller up for the night. Will the reunited lovers run off together (and would that be a good thing?), or will Karuna remain buried alive in her marriage?

In Charulata Mukherjee portrays another wife who is stifled by her marriage. Her husband is so consumed by his political interests that he's unaware of how bored, lonely and frustrated she is. When her writer cousin-in-law comes for an extended visit Charulata's creative impulses are awakened—as are her yearnings for the profound emotional and intellectual connection that her husband, kind as he is, is incapable of providing.

But perhaps my favorite of these three films is Mahanagar, which is also the most warmly humanistic. Mukherjee is a sheltered young housewife and mother, Arati, who out of necessity takes a job outside the home. After her initial trepidation she soon blossoms as she discovers her own resourcefulness and inner strength. But her economic independence and newfound confidence bring her into conflict with the old patriarchal values inherited by her husband. She has changed; will he?

All three films are available in the Criterion Collection; the beautiful restorations do full justice to the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography of Soumendu Roy (Kapurush) and Subrata Mitra (Mahanagar and Charulata).

Read the full posts: Mahanagar | Charulata | Kapurush

Three films with Shammi

Somehow we had watched Bollywood films for more than a decade before we saw our first film starring Shammi Kapoor. His exuberance, charm, and surprising grace are overwhelming even on the small screen. This year we saw three of his best-known films, but Junglee (The wild man, 1962), Teesri Manzil (Third floor, 1966), and many others await (see, I hope, my Favorites of 2017).

Brahmachari (1968): Shammi stars as the title character, who runs a home for a group of utterly adorable orphans. One day he rescues Sheetal (Rajshree) as she's about to commit suicide because her greedy boyfriend Ravi (Pran) has refused to marry her. Sheetal helps Brahmachari with the orphans, and he vows to reunite her with Ravi. And he succeeds—only, he has fallen in love with her himself...

Bluff Master (1963): Newly arrived in the big city, Ashok (Shammi) finds a job at a newspaper owned by petulant rich girl Seema (Saira Banu). Of course, love is sure to follow—but first Ashok must overcome Seema's initial bad impression of him, and thwart an attempt by her corrupt uncle and her greedy fiancé (Pran, of course) to steal control of the paper and her wealth. This being a Manmohan Desai movie, Ashok's plan involves facing off against Seema in a qawwali competition—in drag:

The music is by Kalyanji-Anandji assisted by Laxmikant-Pyarelal, with lyrics by Rajinder Krishan; the playback singers are Shamshad Begum (Shammi) and Usha Mangeshkar (Saira).

Professor (1962): A strict aunt advertises for a tutor for her two orphaned nieces, but specifies that only an old man will be hired—she doesn't want her nieces consorting with eligible men. Pritam (Shammi), who must somehow pay for his mother's life-saving treatment in a tuberculosis sanitorium, decides to apply in disguise, and as the elderly "Professor Khanna" he's hired.

Professor Khanna tries to help the nieces understand that their aunt's strictness is an expression of her love for them, and tries to encourage the aunt to recognize that her nieces are nearing adulthood and that it's time to relax her rules—but to no avail on either side.

Meanwhile, when out of disguise Pritam meets one of the nieces in town, and mutual attraction ensues. At the same time, in the heart of the strict aunt unfamiliar feelings are beginning to stir for Professor Khanna...

As I wrote in my original post on these highly enjoyable films, "Shammi wears his heart on his sleeve. Watching him is just a joyful experience."

Read the full post: Big-hearted: Shammi Kapoor

Non-Indian films

Remember the Night (1940) features a Preston Sturges script, and co-stars Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray four years before the Billy Wilder classic Double Indemnity. MacMurray is an assistant DA who (thanks to a guilty conscience) decides to bail shoplifter Lee Leander (Stanwyck) out of jail and take her home for Christmas. If you think you know where this is going, you're only partly right. The holiday sentimentality is frequently undercut, not only by Stanwyck's wisecracking (and amazingly suggestive) dialogue, but with a bitter mother-daughter confrontation scene and a darkly ambiguous ending that suggests that redemption isn't always possible. A bleak masterpiece of Christmas noir.

Read the full post: Christmas noir: Remember the Night

Blancanieves (Snow White, 2012): Writer/director Pablo Berger's stylish homage to silent cinema was a victim of fate: it came out just after another stylish and highly acclaimed homage to silent cinema, writer/director Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist (2011). The coincidence meant that Berger's film didn't receive the wide notice that it deserved.

With its striking black-and-white visuals, Blancanieves is like a Grimm's fairy tale retold by Luis Buñuel. In Berger's film Snow White is Carmen, the daughter of a famous toreador who was gored by a bull and is now paralyzed. Her evil stepmother orders Carmen to be abandoned in the woods, where she is found by a travelling troupe of bullfighting dwarves. She soon becomes a famous bullfighter herself, but her renown catches the attention and excites the renewed jealousy of her stepmother. A poetic and surreal fable that should be far better known.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (2013): This darkly comic film begins with a 100-year-old man, Allan (an utterly convincing performance by Robert Gustafsson), fleeing his depressing nursing-home birthday party and setting out on his own. Misadventures begin immediately, as he winds up with a dead drug dealer's suitcase full of cash and is pursued both by the criminal gang and by an incompetent and easily distracted police detective. In flashback we see how Allan—whose main interests seem to revolve around getting drunk and blowing things up—cluelessly staggered from one of the 20th century's human catastrophes to another. The body count is high, and people meet their demise in a number of horribly absurd ways. Hilarious, disturbing and brilliant.


The Paradise (BBC, 2012-13): Émile Zola's novel The Ladies' Paradise (Au bonheur des dames, 1883) is about the development of the department store in the late 19th century, and the doom it spelled for smaller businesses. There are many differences between the novel and the series, not the least of which is the change of setting from Paris to northern England. (According to Michael Miller's "The Birth of the Department Store," the first shopping emporium in Britain was in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, only 50 miles or so from the Scottish border.)

Another difference is that although the series shows the impact of the large economic shifts brought about by the department store, the main focus is on a young woman's coming-of-age. Denise (Joanna Vanderham) travels from her small town to stay with her uncle Edmund (Peter Wight), a high street tailor and dressmaker, and finds herself inexorably drawn to the economic, social and romantic opportunities represented by the Paradise. The manager of the store, John Moray (a name that not only echoes that of Zola's protagonist, Octave Mouret, but nicely suggests Moray's position as dominant predator and his slippery, elusive nature), impressed by Denise's ideas, becomes her secret ally and soon finds himself falling in love with her. But his involvement with Denise only adds to the complications of his love life: he is already engaged to Katherine (Elaine Cassidy), the daughter of store owner Lord Glendenning (Patrick Malahide). As Moray, Scottish actor Emun Elliott does a great job portraying a man caught between his economic and erotic interests.

Miller takes the series to task for its departures from novel. Which is strange, because he also writes that Zola's book "fails miserably as a purely literary creation. Neither characters nor plot development carry any significant weight. . .[the] characters are almost all totally forgettable." Would it really be possible to create a watchable adaptation that was faithful to Zola's novel? Perhaps because I am unfamiliar with the source I wasn't bothered in the least by the freedoms taken by the creator of the series, Bill Gallagher.

Miller calls the series a "period-piece soap opera." There's a certain justice in that description, and there are also some obvious parallels to another excellent Gallagher-created series, Lark Rise to Candleford (in fact, the actress who played Laura in that series, Olivia Hallinan, has a cameo in one episode of The Paradise). But we thoroughly enjoyed the thwarted-romance plots, the vivid secondary characters (including the delightful Ruby Bentall as the shopgirl Pauline—who inexplicably disappears after the first season—David Hayman as the gravelly-voiced store accountant/investigator Jonas, and Stephen Wight as the brash shopfloor assistant Sam), the amazing costumes (based on paintings of the period by James Tissot) and the incredibly detailed sets. Another excellent BBC series.

Other posts in this series:
Favorites of 2016: Books
Favorites of 2016: Music

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