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Reviews

The Bari Tribe
(1911)

original title and other details
The original French title of this film is "The Tribe of the Bari, people negroid of the Soudan Egyptian" made by Pathé in conjunction with the British company Imperium Film with whom Pathé produced several films 1911-1915. Announced in Ciné-Journal, n° 133, 11.3.1911 Discussed in Bulletin Pathé n° 6 First shown at the Omnia Theatre in Rouen, 19th to 25th April 1911 My apologies for the pigeon English of the title but unfortunately I have had to replace words in the French title by their English equivalents to deal with the restrictive linguistic capabilities of the review-facility and its apparent belief that there is no such word in the English language as "negro".

The Oasis of Gabes, Tunis
(1914)

Original title and synopsis from Pathé catalogue
Just to say that the original French title is perfectly known. It is unsurprisingly L'Oasis de Gabès en Tunisie.

In the extreme south of Tunisia,in Ben Gardane, on the Tunisian border, the caravans gather ; they bring together at times no fewer than eight or nine hundred camels who set out from here for Tripolitania. At the doors of Gabès, in Menzel, the traveller arriving from the desert discovers the oasis. It abounds in picturesque features and many artists go there to seek inspiration (my translation, reluctantly but necessarily, since this wretched review-facility is seemingly monolingual)

Panorama du grand Canal pris d'un bateau
(1896)

The First Travelling Shot
This is a wonderfully elegant little film and thoroughly deserves its celebrity but it is almost certainly not the first "travelling shot" in cinema history as is so often claimed.

Alexandre Promio started his career in France in March 1986 (he was one of the men responsible for training the Lumière operators who would subsequently spread out worldwide). He himself was in Spain filming by April and stayed there until June. He was in Russia in July where he gave a command showing (one of many) for the Tsar and Tsarina (the Romanovs were themselves keen photographers).

He was in Italy at the end of the summer and almost certainly in Venice because Lumières opened a hall there in August and were definitely making films in the town. The film of Venice Lumière cat. 291 which appears on IMDb as 'Venice Showing Gondolas' was probably made at this time as was Lumière cat. 292 ('Pigeons sur la Place Saint Marc', missing from IMDb) because both of these films were being shown back in Lyon by early August (August 2 in fact). Ditto, 'Venise, tramway sur le Grand Canal' (shown at Lyon in September) Lumière cat 293. But none of these are panoramas.

There is no record of the two films shot from a Gondola, of which this is one, Lumière cat.295 and 296, being screened back in Lyon until December 1896 and January 1897.

In September Promio was in the US charged with the task of providing "American views" that Lumière could show at Keith's Union Square Theatre (very necessary since Edison and the new company American Mutoscope both finally had mobile cameras and the means of projecting films by the autumn of 1896). He seemingly made a large number of films during the month he spent in the USA (Lumière cat 319-340) and some of these are on IMDb but the remarkable thing is that, out of twenty films, not a single one is a panorama! Yet in his later career, Promio used the panorama as a sort of trademark. Everywhere he went, from Jerusalem to Liverpool, he took scenes from trains and he shot panoramas from boats on the Nile, the Bosphorus, the Mersey. So it is unthinkable that he should not have shot such panoramas in the US if he had already made his celebrated films in Venice before he went there.

In fact it is probably in the US that he first became familiar with the technique because while he was there in September 1896, American Mutoscope brought out a series of panoramas shot in Atlantic City and at Niagara Falls from trolley-cars and trains (all these are on IMDb) and it was Mutoscope who first referred to such film as "panoramas". Although he did not employ the term Edison (or rather James White and William Heise) had in fact shot a panorama earlier (June-July 1896) of the Niagara Falls with a camera fixed to the back of a train but the negatives came out badly and he had to re-shoot a new Niagara Falls series in December. So, if his was the first panorama, it has not survived.

We know that when he left the US at the end of the month, Promio went back to Italy. So it is reasonable to assume that these two panoramas shot in Venice date from this stay (September-December 1896). After that, Promio never looked back. It was panoramas all round the world.

This does not necessarily mean that either William Heise at Edison's or William Dickson at Mutoscope was the first man to take a travelling shot. The honour may still belong to a Lumière cameraman, a Swiss called François-Henri Lavanchy Clarke. He was Lumière's man in Switzerland as well as being the Swiss representative of Lever Brothers and made the first "product placement" film, Les Laveuses, showing women doing their washing amidst cases clearly marked "Sunlight Soap" in both French and German. (This film is also sometimes ascribed to Promio but there is no evidence of his ever having filmed in Switzerland). Lavanchy-Clarke was also responsible for covering the Geneva Exhibition which opened in May 1896 and ran until October. Amongst the attractions there was a "captive balloon" built by Swiss engineer Alexandre Liwentaal, which carried aloft some 400 passengers a day ten at a time (over 2000 ascents in all during the time of the Exhibition). It is entirely possible that the almost totally unknown "Panorama taken from a captive balloon" Lumière cat 995 (on IMDb however under its French title) may be the first "travelling shot" in cinema history.

Pace Orson Welles, the Swiss did not invent the cuckoo-clock (it was the Germans) but they may have invented both product placement in films and the travelling shot.

Nagarik
(1952)

Existential realism
Nagarik is an extremely remarkable film especially given the year in which it is made. Had it been made at the end of the fifties, one would be tempted to see the influence of Camus' L'Etranger, of Osborne's Look Back in Anger or the plays of Harold Pinter but Nagarik pre-dates all of them. Verismo certainly but not quite in the manner of Satyajit Ray's later Pather Panchali (1955) because Nagarik is highly stylised and has very much the feel cinematographically of a film noir. Although nothing like it in theme, it has stylistic echoes of Kamal Amrohi's 1949 Hindi film Mahal(and uses narration in a way very typical of Amrohi). Few films have ever better depicted the despair of poverty, the debilitating pattern of hopes defeated, of humiliations endured. Yet for all that it remains an engaged film (there are echoes too of Eisenstein, of Gorky, of the Renoir of Les Bas-Fonds). It is little less than criminal that this film remains so little known.

Shubho Mahurat
(2003)

This day and age
This day and age? Difficult to see why a novel that formed the basis for a popular (if not very good) American film in the 1980s and an excellent British television adaptation in the nineties should somehow have become so antiquated in 2003. Agatha Christie novels never work terribly well as whodunnits in film versions since it is almost impossible to duplicate in a film the devices she uses so superbly to fool readers in her novels. What Rituparno Ghosh has done is something very clever indeed. He has rewritten the piece so that in effect the whodunnit elements become less important and the psychological elements of the story (never a particular strongpoint with Christie) are much enhanced. The adaptation to an Indian situation is extremely adroit and all in all this is quite the best film (as opposed to television) adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel that I have ever seen (and I think one way or the other I have seen most of them).

Festen
(1998)

A chaste masterpiece
Festen is I think a film of genius. Theer is plenty of reason to regret, when one looks at films like Idioterne and Festen, that neither Von Trier nor Vinterberg have since adhered even to the spirit let alone to the letter of Dogma 95 (now officially withdrawn). Von Trier has gone on to be a highly successful Hollywood director, Vinterberg to be an unsuccessful one, but nothing either has done has the power and conviction of these Dogma 95 films. The hand-held cinematography is disconcerting, as is the use only of natural light as the shadows lengthen but the disconcertment is in complete rhythm with the theme and development of the film itself. I do not wish this to be a spoiler, but even the coyest synopsis gives away the 'surprise' and it does not matter in he least because it is the treatment of the subject rather than subject itself that really surprises. It is a film that pulls no punches,that cuts into its subject and turns the knife as far as it will go but which (in conformity with the 'vow of chastity' of Dogma 95) contains nothing gratuitous, nothing prurient, no ultra-violence, no falsely-sustained drama, no phoney climax nor shock denouement. Yet all these things (without the vow) might have been seen as 'natural' accompaniments of the theme. In this way the film poses extremely important questions about film and about our conditioned expectations of film quite as much as the questions it poses about society and family relationships. The film remains true to itself and true to its theme from beginning to end. It neither seeks to concoct a happy ending nor a tragic conclusion but achieves a real effect of catharsis all the same. At times it is also appallingly but always appalling. Devoid of sentimentality, it nevertheless achieves a remarkable quality of empathy with all the characters it portrays (the standard of playing being universally excellent). It is a film whose importance will I believe increase with time and which will come to regard as one of the finest of its decade and one of the very best films of the late twentieth century.

The Eagle
(1925)

Dashing away with a smoothing-iron...
Yes, what a golden classic this is to be sure. Valentino in not merely a dual but a triple role as the dashing Lieutenant, the dashing Black Eagle and the dashing Le Blanc. A less complex and more simple-minded actor might have chosen to differentiate the three roles in an ostentatious display of histrionic virtuosity but Rudy wisely eschews such a simplistic solution and, far more subtly, plays all three in entirely identical fashion. Nevertheless this is his comeback movie - all Valentino's movies for some reason seem to be comeback movies – and the great star is clearly at full stretch - regaling the audience with his full range of two expressions.

Then there is the wonderful sense of place and period. So Russian that one can almost smell the Bourbon on the actors' breaths and so historically accurate that one knows immediately that it is set in…well, olden times. Then one has to note the extreme delicacy with which the director ensures that there is nothing that might overtax or alarm the viewer. This is a plot that you could quite easily write yourself and utterly devoid of any nasty surprises or complicated narrative twists. Ladies may be assured that nobody or nothing in this film is going to be really horrible. Why, the cruel and capricious Tsarina is really just a kindly old granny underneath, the villain is nothing but a bluff old practical joker and even the ferocious bear looks so meek and mild that one could swear there for a moment that Valentino was going to dance with it.

In sum, when there are films that survive from the silent era as deft and subtle as this one, one wonders what perverse motive people have in seeking out all that strange and troubling stuff churned out by such wearying hacks as Murnau, Von Stroheim, Pabst or Lang.

Sangharsh
(1999)

Lambs that bleat
This is actually a rather risible remake of Demme's Silence of the Lambs (1991). Although the prison scenes are very similar and there are some suitably grisly scenes of violence, it does not adhere particularly closely to the model. It is not easy, for instance, to imagine Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster dancing a duet as Ashkay Kumar and Preity Zinta do, he dressed as Zorro and she in a pretty white frock - under the noses of the police they are supposedly hiding from!! This makes the film, in many ways quite a slick professional production, sound rather more awful than it is, but even on a charitable judgement it is pretty bad....

Do Bigha Zamin
(1953)

Bimal Roy and the Golden Age of Indian Cinema
Of course it is true that Do Bigha Zamin is strongly influenced by Vittorio de Sica's neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves (very improperly retitled Bicycle Thief in the English version). But De Sica's film has influenced virtually every realist film (and many non-realist films) ever since the day it first appeared. It is a crucial reference in world cinema and will probably always remain one.

It was of course particularly influential on all the Indian neo-realists of the fifties, including the greatest of them all - Satyajit Ray. Roy, like Ray a Bengali, would have imbibed that influence before ever he abandoned New Theatres in Calcutta to come to Bombay. He is not an especially innovative director. Devdas (1955) for instance is essentially a Hindi remake of a thirties classic of Bengali cinema; other Roy films show an eclectic range of influences. So it is not surprising to find him in Do Bigha Zamin attempting to adapt the style (and to some extent) the structure of Bicycle Thieves to an Indian context.

Once one has admitted that, however, it should not I think be seen as some sort of shameful plagiarism and one can go on to appreciate some of the real plusses of Roy's film. It is true that it is less restrained than the Italian model; Roy piles on the agony in no uncertain terms and tends to oversentimentalize. Note however that he resists any facile optimism...

The adaptation to a rural Indian context alters the politics of the film, concentrating on the issue (a burning issue to this day in rural India) of the cycle of debt and exploitation to which small peasant farmers in India are subjected (a theme that Mehboob Kahn had already explored in his film Aurat and would do again most famously in Mother India in 1957). This is a less subtle theme perhaps than that of De Sica (where in an urban context it is the poor who steal from the poor and prolong the cycle of misery) but it is nonetheless an important one and Roy (and Balraj Sahni who is excellent) paints a convincing picture of village-life and rural values.

Roy very deliberately counterbalances the picture of misery (rural and urban) with examples of solidarity, of the poor helping the poor, whether on the level of the adults or of the street-boys. And perhaps the most touching and most natural part of Roy's film - and something that owes nothing to De Sica - is his portrayal of the street-kids of Calcutta (which very interestingly prefigures Mira Nair's much later Salaam Bombay). Instead of being isolated companions as in the De Sica film, the father and son in Roy's film experience two rather different aspects of urban life and this layering of the story is perhaps Roy's most significant achievement.

Can one put paid once and for all, finally, to this idea that a realistic film or a film showing social awareness is uncharacteristic of Indian cinema (based on an essentially modern image of "Bollywood")? The golden age of Indian cinema (say 1949 to 1964) abounds in realistic films and films which, while not necessarily realistic in a strict sense of the term, show a good deal of social awareness. It is the period that includes the most memorable films of Satyajit Ray, Rithwik Gathak and Tapan Sinha, the films of Guru Dutt, the early films of Raj Kapoor, those of Bimal Roy, Mehboob Kahn's Mother India but also amongst relatively minor films, Arora's Boot Polish and B R Chopra's Naya Daur. To say nothing of great films in a non-realistic genre such as Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and Pakeezah (largely filmed during the period although not completed until 1972). By comparison with any contemporary cinema anywhere in the world including certainly American cinema, including even that of Japan (also experiencing something of a golden age at that time), it is a very impressive record.

Roy may not be amongst the first rank of cinematic geniuses - I would not put him in the same class as Ray or Gathak or for that matter as Guru Dutt, in my view the finest of the Hindi film directors of the period. He was a populariser (quite determinedly so) and constituted as such an important bridge between the more 'arty' Bengali and more 'popular' Hindi film industries of the time. His contribution remains an important and enduring one to an Indian cinema (and a popular Indian cinema) of real quality that has nothing to do with "Bollywood"...

Kaadhal
(2004)

Film of the decade
Balaji Shaktivel's Kaadhal seems to me to be one of the best films of the decade so far. It is certainly a highly realistic portrayal of urban life in southern India and, as such, is rare enough in itself. But the realism is not simply achieved by pointing the camera at the subject. There is real artistry in the way the film is put together.

Talking to young folk in India recently (not in Tamil Mandu but not a million miles away) I was struck by the desperateness of their search for some kind of intimacy (in the French sense of the word - 'privacy' we would more normally say in English). The omnipresence even in large towns of a 'small town' mentality, of watching eyes and busybodies ready to intervene at the slightest infraction of social codes. The absence of any places for young people to meet and be alone....

It is this atmosphere that Shaktivel catches so masterfully in the film. The way the camera allows us to see the gossiping women, the staring eyes, the curious neighbours at every stage of the film is an absolute marvel and creates better than any explanation could that stifling atmosphere of permanent surveillance of which my young friends had complained.

The magnificently realised scenes in the men's hostel are a sense the key moment of the film and the grimly farcical search for even a moment of intimacy (just so the girl can have a pee in the first instance) are actually very symbolic of this micro-political theme that runs through the film. The way a mini-flashback is used to show us a little of the history of the various men in the hostel and acquaint the audience with its inmates shows a deftness and economy that is characteristic of Shaktivel's thoughtful approach to directing.

The macro-political theme (the conflicts of class and caste) is equally well done. The superb scene in the car where the hypocritical uncle show his true colours is terrifyingly real and more frightening in its way than more overtly violent scenes elsewhere in the film.

The acting is consistently good (from the young boy at the garage to the friend in Chennai, from the grandmother from hell to the creepy uncle and the brutal father). The principals are both very good but the acting of Bharath is really exceptional. There is not a single moment where he overacts (and there are opportunities in plenty) or uses facile mannerisms or unnecessary gestures. It is a piece of naturalistic acting of the very first order (and a later Bharath film I have seen where ha plays a deaf and dumb boy - though not in itself such a good film - very much confirms his stature as an actor).

Kaadhal is a film that deserves to be much more widely known. I only hope this comment will encourage others to go out and find the film (available on DVD).

Chori Chori
(1956)

The puppets in Chori Chori
An earlier Raj-Kapoor-Nargis film, Awaara (1951), directed by Kapoor himself, had enjoyed an enormous success in Russia and the Middle East, where the social themes invoked had a particular resonance at this period. When Raj and Nargis toured Russia in triumph, they were treated amongst other things to a spectacular puppet-show where the puppets were replicas of themselves. One of the most memorable scenes in Chori Chori is that where the two central characters are watching a country puppet-show and Kammo (Nargis) imagines herself and Sagar (Raj) as the puppets. The duet that follows, with the two actually playing out this fantasy, is one of the best things in the film (and owes nothing to the Capra original). Although Kapoor is not himself the director of Chori Chori, the pair responsible for the music, Shankar and Jaikishan, had also worked on Awaara (and were for that matter a Kapoor discovery). It seems likely that the Russian puppet-show on the post-Awaara tour provided the inspiration for this scene.

Namak Halaal
(1982)

The unfortunate legacy of the Big B
Despite my great admiration for Indian cinema, Namak Halaal represents for me all that is unfortunate about the Bachchan phenomenon and the tendency to grotesque overacting and ridiculous plots that it spawned and which has done so much to cheapen Hindi cinema since. Do not get me wrong. Amitabh Bachchan is in my view a fine and multi-talented performer but this does not alter the fact that his period as a superstar has had a very detrimental effect on Bollywood films. Interestingly Amitabh's introduction to cinema owed much to his undoubtedly beautiful speaking voice (doing the commentary for a Hindi film by the Bengali director Mrinal Sen in 1968 and later also for a Hindi film by an even greater Bengali director, Satyajit Ray's Shatranj Ke Khilari). He turned in a beautifully understated performance as the rather uptight young doctor in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Anand (1970) - a sort of thinking man's Love Story about a man dying of cancer - for which he very deservedly won an award as best supporting actor (to then-superstar Rajesh Khannah's performance in the title role). In Namak Haram (1973), he was again teamed with Khanah but this time distinctly upstaged the star. Zanjeer in the same year gave him famously the image of 'an angry young man' and the period of his superstardom began.

By the time of Namak Halaal, an Amitabh film revolves entirely round Amitabh. The camera contrives to make him look even taller than he really is, dwarfing the other characters and allows him to upstage even those scenes where he is not the principal. The totally incredible plot is entirely subordinated to the set-piece scenes of slapstick comedy or elaborate dance-routines at which Amitabh excelled.

The film has a star-studded cast but even an actor of the calibre of Saashi Kapoor is relegated to a rather embarrassed and embarrassing support-role. More tragic still is the case of Smita Patil, an actress hitherto known for her hugely important contribution to serious realistic cinema (and 'regional' or non-Hindi cinema), here acting for the first time in a popular blockbuster and given nothing to do but cast loving looks at the superstar. The moment where one sees her love-struck face reflected in Amitabh's chest-hair may be thought of as comic but seems to me to be one of the most distasteful images in any Hindi film.

Patil looks embarrassed a good deal of the time and legend has it that she burst into tears after the famous dance in the rain with the big B. Hardly surprisingly since the dance, like other Bachchan routines, is anything but two-way and simply involves Bachchan tossing Patil to and fro like a sort of doll.

Namak Halaal is certainly a clever showpiece for the superstar but it is nevertheless a very unhealthy piece of cinema and marks all too certainly the end of the period of the Indian new wave (which had made a star of Smita Patil)but also of the socio-political elements that (however sentimentalised) had previously characterised even much popular Hindi film-making. It ushers in the dominance of an essentially caricatural Bollywood style which is still the hallmark of the great majority of mainstream films.

Ankur
(1974)

Classic of new wave Indian cinema
Ankur is to my mind one of the very best Hindi films ever made. Unusually for Hindi cinema, it is an entirely realistic film without singing and dancing. Since music is of huge commercial importance to Indian cinema, the pressure on directors to include it tends to be impossible to resist and is a constant problem facing 'serious' Indian film-makers. The late seventies was a very special moment with a concerted attempt by some directors ('New Cinema") to buck the commercial trend, of whom the most important were Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani (who is responsible for the cinematography in Ankur). Ankur was the first and most strikingly successful films of the "New India" movement (which only lasted some five or six years), Nihalani's Aakrosh (1980) being amongst the last. Working with a young cast (who formed a virtual repertory company for the "New Cinema" films and a committed team, Benegal was able to produce one of the freshest and most compelling of films. Without being in the least pretentious or even belonging to that nebulous category 'the art film', Ankur is a realistic drama without concession that managed also to be a significant commercial success. The acting is superb. Shabana Azmi has had a long and glorious career but has, in my view, never been better than in this, her first important role. Anant Nag (an actor who has never entirely received his due) is also as good here as I have ever seen him. Sadhu Meher (as the deaf and dumb husband) very deservedly won a national award for his performance and Priya Tedulkar is chilling as the narrow-minded malicious young wife. Nihalani's camera-work is also exceptional. In all it is one of those rare occasions when brilliant teamwork around a clearly thought-out project results in a near-perfect film.

For the anecdote: There is a nice moment towards the end of the film where Surya (Anant Nag) is playing records and his wife requests something by Nimmi. Before playing the record, he corrects her by pointing out that the record is in fact by Lata. This is a very typical Benegal touch. Not only does it fix the date of the events (c. 1950) but is at once a comment on Hindi cinema history and on the character of the young wife. 1949 was the key year in establishing the absolute domination of 'playback' singers, notably Lata Mangeshkar whose annus mirabilis this was with massive hit-scores in three films, Barsaat, Mahal and Andaaz. In those days, playback singers were often uncredited and many (like the wife in the film) believed the songs to be sung by the actors and actresses themselves. The reference is particularly sardonic in a film that is itself songless. Nimmi made her début as an actress in Barsaat where she plays a simple mountain girl seduced by a cynical young man from the city and this became her typical role in subsequent films. The wife's preference for Nimmi is therefore a comment on the hypocrisy of her harsh attitude towards Lakshmi in the film.

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