Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Planets [BBC]

Oh this was terrific in most part. An 8 episode docu-series on our solar system, it looks at the formation of the principal planets and their characteristics. It also explores the efforts taken to get these facts, including majorly the 'Space Race' between the USA and the erstwhile USSR - the Soviets after their initial triumphs burnt their fingers badly in the missions to sulfurous Venus. The main attraction for a non-space nerd like me is the visual candy. They use a combination of archival footage and computer generated vistas to depict the planets and the space around them. The result is a sense of awesomeness that has perhaps only rarely been touched outside of films like 2001 A Space Odyssey and Solaris. Given the amount of repetition between episodes (Jupiter and its moons are talked about in at least 3, I think. To be fair, J's moons are some the most interesting elements) I feel this could have been done with 5-6 episodes; I think it's a factor of the production cost that they wanted to stretch the number of episodes. But this remains in sum a wonderful watch. It also reiterates a great respect for those visionaries and all the people working under them that have made possible the space projects, given how complex these missions can be.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Man Who Fell To Earth [Nicholas Roeg]

The Man Who Fell to Earth or TMWFTE (1976) can probably be best described as a psychedelic experiment in the same spirit that led to the progressive rock music movement of that decade. There's a boat-load of ideas - thematic and visual - that are flung right at you, and an audacious degree of artistic ambition...but also a pretentious indulgence that makes for a sometimes trying experience.

In probably the canniest decision ever, perennial cutting-edge rock star David Bowie is cast as an alien (there are those who would consider this a spoiler, but if you haven't figured it out from the opening scene and the title of the film, I could suggest some special school for you) who comes to earth with an agenda. Bowie, who was then in his Thin White Duke phase, brings a fragile otherworldly beauty to the part and is indistinguishable from his character. The outsider, calling himself Thomas Newton, makes his way to a patent lawyer with a bunch of inventions that will make him one of the richest entrepreneurs in the world. Once a mind-bogglingly successful reclusive billionaire ala Howard Hughes, he turns his resources to a gargantuan space transport scheme.


That's the bare outline, but TMWFTE is far from routine SF. Nicholas Roeg takes the theme and runs it through his style, giving the story a fragmented and often languorous dream-like feel. A single conversation may be carried out over a succession of scenes with different actors. Dialog serves more as a window into the emotional workings of the characters than as plot device. The depictions of Newton's austere home world, an Arrakis-like planet bereft of water (his mission being to carry water from earth, or something in that vein), are more symbolic than credible. Newton wants to save his family and world but, unlike the protagonists of a Jerry Bruckheimer film, is in no screaming hurry. When his space mission attempt is aborted by paranoid government intervention he gives himself up without protest to solitary confinement and the pleasures of dry gin. The allegory to a fallen angel is plain without being obnoxious. When it works, the film has a visual and narrative aesthetic that is stunning.


The film also builds its emotional moments from the interactions that Newton has with people, especially Mary-Lou (Candy Clark, bravely played), the earthy simple-minded woman he develops an intimate relationship with. We see these relationships growing and changing with time (the humans age while Newton doesn't) and circumstance. Roeg brilliantly uses sex as a means of conveying the tone of emotional make-up of characters and the relationships between them – the scene where Newton and a drained Mary-Lou make out, constantly shooting each other with blanks from a gun, is a more potent depiction of their falling out of love than any amount of exposition.


With all this goodness, the film also has its flaws. The leisurely pace beyond a point becomes wearisome. Even accepting that plot is not the be-all for the film, its flimsiness cannot be entirely ignored. But all things considered, this is still a solid example of the time when at least some directors got the opportunity to express their esoteric vision and films could take genuinely experimental “What if...” approaches.

Not just movies

A movie reviews blog I came across today. The reviews are a little on the wordy side but this is still a very cool site and one I intend to keep tabs on.

Not Just Movies

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

...but you might, trying to get through this boring movie. The original Wall Street was smart and gripping but this one plain doesn't work. Shia LaBoeuf garners a lot of the blame. He's a complete cauliflower of an actor, utterly devoid of personality. Why does he even get roles, let alone leads? In a movie where you're required to see from his character's POV and empathize with his feelings, this is a major FAIL.

It also doesn't help that the character itself lacks meat. Charlie Sheen's arc in the 1987 film from desperate cocky pup to someone who is himself horrified at how low he can stoop to soar in the cutthroat financial world made for interesting viewing. Here, the character's ridiculously contrived motivations do nothing to efface LaBeouf's milksop bearing. Most of the other roles too lack any real depth or interest. Josh Brolin's villain is underwhelming. Michael Douglas (who in old age is beginning to look more like his super-badass dad) slips back into financial lizard Gordon Gekko's skin with relish, and has some very quotable lines, but that well dries up all too soon. The depiction of the stock market crash and its impact is perfunctory and carries none of the vigor that Oliver Stone's previous film-rants have had. What good is a polite Oliver Stone, I ask? Lots of footage is expended on glossy shots of buildings and expensive parties without any of the resonance they may have had in the first film. In short, this is a sequel so tepid and featureless you wonder why they bothered to get it off the ground.

Also, Charlie Sheen's cameo stands alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger's appearance in The Expendables for embarrassment value. But Charlie Sheen was always something of an asshole so that's OK.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The loneliness of the ghost town

Still smoldering, the stones, faceless still
I trudged on, without a path, without a clue.
Don't ask, the loneliness of this ghost town,
Nothing here, except me and my blues.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

She

She spoke words
That turned my head
Can't recall though
(Who she was
or what she said)

This came to me once when I was thinking about a book called Tokyo-Montana Express by Richard Brautigan. I liked the book a good deal when I'd read it. I think I would like it even now.

Tokyo-Montana Express

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Touch of Frost etc.

I'm not a big fan of serials in general and some of my friends would shake their heads in derision at my not keeping up with their respective favorite series. Especially sitcoms are something I just don't find a great appetite for.


But one thing I like watching in general is detective stuff. Admittedly this has mainly boiled down to watching / listening to different adaptations of Sherlock Holmes - Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Jeremy (the best) Brett. Recently I started watching this 90's Brit series called A Touch of Frost. William "Jack" Frost (David Jason) is an aging police detective with a disdain for protocol and a passion for justice, something like a more mellow middle-aged non-trigger happy Dirty Harry...that drinks tea and says "luv". Each episode (which at 100 min long is like a film in itself) shows Frost coming to grips with a rash of crimes that later turn out to be related or the other way, a seemingly connected series of foul doings that are resolved as individual incidents.

I've been through two Seasons now, which makes for a sum of seven 100 min episodes (there are 15 seasons apparently, the last one ended early this year. Golly, that long-running?). Thankfully the stories are self-contained and don't REQUIRE to be seen in sequence. The connecting factor is Frost himself and his interactions with his colleagues, mainly his sparring banter with the paperwork-and-appearances focused Supdt. Mullet. Frost's personal life is touched upon briefly - his long ailing wife (that he was cheating on) who dies at the end of the first episode and Frost's attempts to reconcile himself with the tragedy and get on with life. All kept to a thankful minimum. Every now and then Frost will be saddled with a new deputy - a demoted former inspector with a chip, a black man in an episode about racial tension, a woman with an unconventional sexual preference. But the focus is mainly on the crime(s) of the episode and the resolving of it. There is a nice variation of themes in different episodes as Frost gets to investigate a smorgasbord of criminal activities. There is some talk of short-staffing but even so, it seems a little dubious that he gets called in for just about everything that turns up. Ah well, dramatic license.

The standard of acting is pretty good, with several of the individual episode characters coming across as more than just reservoirs of information. The unraveling of each episode's mystery provides a generally plausible conclusion, although a drawback of that may be that there are few surprises. The pace might get leisurely for those used to more contemporary serials with breakneck editing. At least in the period of the seasons I've seen there is no use of the internet and (clunky) mobile phones are rare too. Gunplay is rare. We see a good deal of old-fashioned investigation and teamwork. I like this sort of stuff.

So yea, this is what I've been seeing. If you have any other detective serials to recommend to me, go ahead...but not the ones where I need to see 15 episodes just to get the story.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sauna [Antti-Jussi Annila]

Sauna: a Finnish steam bath in which the steam is provided by water thrown on hot stones; also : a bathhouse or room used for such a bath (Merriam Webster)

The afore-mentioned sauna is the mute central character of this 2008 Finnish existential horror-drama. Apart from its physical presence it also describes the feel of the film – a brooding and claustrophobic, oftentimes suffocating, ultimately clarifying experience. Think if you will, like an Andrei Tarkovski film, with some elements from Guillermo De Toro.

In 1565, the recent aftermath of a long-running war between Sweden and Russia, two sets of people, one from each side, are jointly performing the task of marking the borders of the new territories of their individual countries. The main focus is on the Swedish side with lead characters Erik (Ville Virtanen), an aging veteran of bloody conflict, and his brother Knut (Tommi Eronen), a softer-minded academic. On the way to meeting up with their Russian counterparts Erik and Knut have been involved in the murder of a Russian sympathizer farmer and quite possibly also his daughter. Knut's guilt gives him repeated visions of the girl calling for him, while Erik carries his own burden of the innumerable acts of blood he has committed during the war and uncertainity over his place at its conclusion. The dynamic of the relationship between Erik and Knut forms a major pivot of the story. 


Making their way through isolated terrain where even the compass is not reliable (shades of Picnic at Hanging Rock here?) they come across a village set in the middle of a swamp. This strange village is composed almost entirely of old people and there is only a single child. The party put up at the village while they bicker over which territory it belongs to and try to question the inhabitants about its origin. The titular sauna occupies a central position in the village, and yet is avoided by its inhabitants: they have a legend that it can wash away one's sins without the need for a God, but that redemption has its price. This is a theme with a lot of ramifications in the Christian setup, which is reflected with a heavy use of religious motifs; Ingmar Bergman has often meditated on similar themes in both his period and contemporary films. But the film is closer in spirit to Andrei Tarkovski's Stalker or Solaris.


The bulk of Sauna's horror is implied in the emotional reactions of its characters. We see the ragtag alliance disintegrating as their pragmatic outlook crumbles fast under the oppressive influence of their strange surroundings. There are deaths yes, but these are not set-pieces like in some other horror films, the emphasis is on the effect that each death has on the mindscape of the survivors. The more outre elements are in comparison a little weak and derivative, but they do not significantly diminish the overall power of this brooding descent into, no, not a maelstrom, but a still deep pool of madness. 



Sunday, September 19, 2010

Influences on writing

Written primarily as a response to a Facebook note by my friend Jayaprakash, this is where I talk about some of the writers that have inspired my own meager works. I also give little descriptions of the aspects of their style that I tried to take from:


  • R. K. Narayan - Clean honest prose, not trying to bamboozle with ornate language, quick sketching of characters - description of little moments that define their personalities, and the ability to underscore dramatic scenes with measured prose. I also took ideas here as to how to depict Indian characters speaking in English that seems natural to their background. My favorite Narayan books in this regard are Mr. Sampath (The Printer of Malgudi), Swami and Friends and The Painter of Signs.
  • Vilas Sarang & Malayatoor Ramakrishnan - Indian horror yeah! These guys are brilliant in themselves and a tremendous if also intimidating look at non-stereotypic bizarre stories. Malayatoor's story Mridula Prabhu and Vilas Sarang's Bajrang,The Great Indian Bustard are but two of their several benchmark stories that I hold my work against to gauge the bizarreness quotient. In both cases, clean prose that pays service to describing the story than drawing attention to itself.
  • H.G. Wells - I love how he amplified the horror of a situation by writing from a distant, even slightly amused perspective, and I try to take from that. My favorite examples - Pollock and The Porroh Man, Empire of The Ants.
  • Amitav Ghosh - I loved the character interactions in The Shadow Lines and the sense of wistfulness he generates. Amitav Ghosh when he is in form can bring alive a place or event in history through his characters. The protagonist's attraction for his cousin Ila and the scene where she realizes it has been one of my benchmarks when I think of unfulfilled desire. The Calcutta Chromosome of course was something else, altogether. I riffed the Phulboni episode to come up with my own little old-style ghost story with a train.
  • H.P. Lovecraft - Little else I have read has compared with the level of cosmic horror HPL brought about in some of his works. Dreams in The Witch-House, which I recall having read when alone in a bachelor flat while nursing a fever, quite possibly was the inspiration for some of my attempts at writing about an overarching unexplained horror. What I also find interesting is that reading HP's stories you can see him struggling as a writer to reiterate the atmosphere of awe & dread. It is in a way reassuring to know that even the writers you admire had to overcome big mental blocks to express the ideas in their head.
  • George Orwell - No, not 1984 or Animal Farm, but Coming Up For Air and Keep The Aspidistra Flying. Orwell's biggest attraction for me has been the intensely perceptive and honest way he looks at his protagonists, even when he tells a story from their point-of-view. I hope to attain a similar if vastly less ambitious end. And depression over a lost idyllic past is something I have shared with Coming up...'s protagonist.
  • Thomas Ligotti - I haven't read any significant amount of Kafka, preferring instead to get my dose of "strangeness/absurdity as horrror" from Ligotti's prose. There is less plot here than in Lovecraft's stories but Ligotti is immaculate in developing an atmosphere of dust, brooding and dread, and a definite benchmark if you're interested in literate horror. Friends that have read a story of mine called A Life in Another Dream will possibly see the Ligotti influence there.
  • Ray Bradbury - I am in complete awe of how Bradbury with apparent ease strings words together in a manner that in itself captures an ephemeral beauty that so many writers (including yours truly) tie themselves into knots over. He has even abused that ability to peddle frankly unworthy tales but in its best moments produces an unparalleled emotional rush. But Bradbury is also a problem because virtuosity like that can cripple the anxious amateur; ask me.
  • Stephen King - Not so much for his horror fiction, but the conversational, even tongue-in-cheek manner he can "talk/ lecture" to the audience. Danse Macabre is a great example of the tone of a King lecture, and it probably rests somewhere in the back of my mind when I write pieces like...well, this one.
There are other authors whose style I'd like to muster inspiration from. I want to write an action sequence like China Mieville, a detective piece like Arthur Conan Doyle and so on. Alright, I'm done here.

Downtown Massacre - DownBeat Mix

Oh what I do for your entertainment :shaking head in amused disbelief:

Several millennia ago when I was in college, I had been (given that I couldn't write lyrics to an actual tune) nursing the idea of putting together some rap songs. I coulda been the next big gangsta rappa...or something. Sigh. I had even writen a few and here's the best of them brought to hilarious life in the record holder for the most amateur song recording that ever took place.

Downtown Massacre [Downbeat Mix]

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Shyam Benegal - A Master Storyteller

Of all the makers of Indian offbeat cinema that got its second wind in the 1970's, the most consistently interesting artiste for me has been Shyam Benegal. In my humble view, Benegal is the film-maker that can be regarded as the spiritual successor to the legacy of Satyajit Ray . Both of them did not restrict the kind of film they made, displaying their interest in a wide variety of subjects, viewpoints and styles. What they really wanted to do, and what to me is the most appealing quality of their work, was tell interesting stories; and unlike some of the other names of 'arthouse' cinema, tell them in a straight, approachable way, esoterica be damned. What I am attempting here is a list of Benegal offerings, culled from all his films I have seen, which I can heartily recommend to all the people who are interested in films that tell interesting stories in a sensible and entertaining manner. What is fortunate is that many of these films are available in home video format. There may be other worthy films that I have missed but I hope to give a decent representation of his far-reaching body of work. So here goes...

Charandas Chor aka Charan the Thief (1975)
It is not perhaps what I would recommend to a complete newcomer to Benegal's films, because the style runs contrary to the measured approach that he is better known for, but this raw and intensely flavored “slapstick comedy slipping into satire and surreal territory” based on a Habib Tanvir play about two rural con men has several moments of delight, be it the hyper-speed cops n' robbers chases or the absurd and ironic trial proceedings. Also notable for the first appearance of Smita Patil in a Benegal film. 

Nishant aka Night's End (1975)
What could have been a routine 'arthouse' story of social exploitation is fashioned into a far more interesting enterprise. A school-teacher's wife is abducted and gang-raped by the brothers of the tyrannical village landowner. While her husband at first makes frantic and fruitless attempts to get the law to rescue her and then sinks into resigned acceptance of the situation, the woman leverages her hold over the landowner's timid youngest brother, for whom she was 'procured', and demands verily the position of a second wife. The film ends in a hastily arranged revolt of the villagers against the landowner's family, the closing scene being that of the teacher's wife running away with the landowner's brother in escape. A biting irony-laden script, and a fiery performance from actress Shabana Azmi are the highlights. 

Manthan aka The Churning (1976)
Manthan is one of the more unique examples of film production, being funded by voluntary donations from farmer-members of the Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation. The film does not content itself being an extended plug for the milk co-operative, but provides an interesting narrative with sharp comment on the venal machinations of the various power-broking factions and how they keep the villagers submissive to their exploitation. The film is not to my knowledge available on video, but can be viewed in streaming format at the Amul TV website (video link).

Bhumika aka The Role (1977)
Bhumika is one of my personal favorites in Benegal's oeuvre. Unlike his trademark successes which carry an ensemble cast, Bhumika is squarely focused on its lead character. Smita Patil, queen of Indian offbeat cinema, gives a towering performance here as an actress (broadly based on the autobiography of old-time Marathi star Hansa Wadkar) who was forced into films at an early age to save her family from destitution and ended up becoming a star, but remained starved of true companionship. She goes from era to era, and man to man, searching for the elusive happiness. Benegal uses the background to give us a glimpse into the history of Indian cinema, starting from the early talkies. His sense of humor finds release in sly asides like the matinee hero, whose proposal of marriage has been rejected by Smita's character, with a liquor glass in front of a mirror, arranging his hair Devdas-style, or the director who becomes one of her lovers revealing that he made up a story of his daughter having died during the Holi festival so people wouldn't shower colored powder on him. Bhumika is also one of Benegal's most stylish efforts visually, combining B/W and color footage to show the passage of time and the advent of newer technologies in the film-making process (although Benegal has revealed that it arose from the need to save on the cost of color film stock). 

Kondura aka The Sage From The Sea (1978)
Social concern meets dark fantasy in this uneven but still strong entry from Benegal. Anant Nag plays Parsuram, initially a no-gooder chided by his family for his lack of gainful employment, then transformed after an alleged encounter with the sage Kondura, who grants him a boon which calls for various manner of sacrifice at his end, including complete celibacy. Parsuram finds himself talking to the village goddess and concerns himself with the task of building a temple in her honor. Ironically, the funding for the temple comes from the local zamindar who is a debauch that ill-treats his mentally affected nephew-cum-heir, and is also possibly infertile. Parsuram's increasing fervor to build the temple and restore values of righteousness to the village bring him increasingly bizarre experiences leading to a climax that perverts the cause of religious mania. The film can be shrill in making some of its points but it is undeniably effective in its good moments.

Junoon aka The Obsession (1978)
Based on a Ruskin Bond book A Flight of Pigeons, Benegal's most grandly laid out film of that time (funded by Shashi Kapoor's Film-Valas company) tells a story set during the 1857 mutiny of Indian states against the British colonists. A trio of British women of different generations barely escape from blood-crazed mutineers who have massacred a church-ful of whites and, after running hither and thither, are captured by the patriotic Pathan warrior Javed Khan who would cut them down in an instant...but he has fallen for young Ruth. Ruth's mother constantly rejects Javed Khan's proposals and advances towards her daughter, severely trying both his obsession for Ruth and his Pathan culture which requires him to protect guests against all harm, including himself and his jealous wife. Finally she works a deal in which he agrees to give Ruth's hand to him...if the Indian rebellion wins Delhi. A strong character-driven narrative and rich production are further enhanced by a razor-sharp lead performance by the immensely underrated Shashi Kapoor as Javed Khan

Kalyug aka The Machine Age (1981)
A contemporary interpretation of the Mahabharata played out as a boardroom battle between two business families that will not allow ethics to get in the way of conquest. Nothing more to say here other than that it is highly recommended viewing.

Mandi aka Market (1983)
This racy black comedy set in a brothel is one of Benegal's most openly outrageous efforts and one that, with its themes of incest and stinging digs at morality and politics, would doubtless be suppressed by the plunder-happy so-called 'culture guardians' if it were to be revived today. A richly talented ensemble cast compiled from the who's who of Indian parallel cinema probe into their bawdy parts (hah!) with unabashed relish and the end result is a film that sometimes shocks, often has you in splits and never fails to hold your interest.

Trikal aka Past, Present, Future (1985)
Possibly the closest Indian cinema gets to a Gabriel Garcia Marquez style narrative - a fairly good plot summary can be found here. Surreptitious affairs of passion cross paths with spirit summoning seances and political revolution in a multi-generation Goan family getting painfully shorn of its Portuguese moorings. Again a visually sumptuous film with mesmerizing candlelight photography by Ashok Mehta. Benegal also employs stylized tools like using the same actor to play an archetype across generations.

Suraj ka Satvan Ghoda aka Seventh Horse of The Sun (1993)
Possibly the last of Benegal's 'great' films. I remember seeing this one in its theatrical release in Liberty cinema (Mumbai), and it was, along with Ismail Merchant's Muhafiz (In Custody), the highlight of that year in movies. Adapting a Hindi novel of the same name by Dharamvir Bharati (and apparently simplifying it, I am told that the original work is a lot more labyrinthine, requiring frequent lookbacks to keep track of the characters and situational time-lines), Benegal plunges us into a multi-threaded storyline, each thread of which looks at a different aspect of Love, the sum giving us a picture of this supposedly ethereal emotion in the context of social mores and inner character. If this sounds too academic, I profusely apologize because SKSG is a comedy, and a brilliantly accomplished one at that. Starting off with its scathing dismissal of Sarat Chandra's Devdas, it brilliantly exposes the absurdity of the romantic sentiment as drawn in popular culture. There are no obvious banana-peel jokes but anyone with a smidgen of rationality will find plenty to smile (and frequently guffaw) at in these irony-laden proceedings. All the actors here are superlative but Rajit Kapoor as the narrator and Amrish Puri as a colorful lecherous father who thinks nothing of flirting with his son's mother-in-law deserve special mention. Again one of the best Hindi films I have seen.

Strange Bits

A few new sound bytes...brought to audio newly, that is, it's stuff written a long, long time ago. These are not stories but a motley of unrelated short bits attempting for a certain mood. The good news is that they'll take up very little of your time.

P.S. I used a headset mic for this and recorded directly onto the hard drive so the sound quality is actually better than my previous shots at this. Weeny voice still sucks, though.

Strange Bits rapidshare link

Murder on The Orient Express [Sidney Lumet]


It is not often one hears of Sidney Lumet being regarded as a favorite director, even though several of his films are favorably recognized. Amongst all the showy geniuses and enfant terribles of movie-making, Lumet's understated studio-friendly style is perhaps a little too low-key. But check out the opening moments of his 1974 adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel from more than four decades previous and you will see why he should be better considered. Using a collage of newspaper clippings and silent film style footage set to a careful score, Lumet constructs the entire prologue of the film without a shred of dialog and with a chutzpah that in itself warrants looking at. Admittedly the remainder of the proceedings is more conventional, but for fans of the old-school detective drama the film is on the whole a smooth ride.

I have not read the Hercule Poirot novel upon whch the film is based. In fact, I have read only a tiny fraction of Agatha Christie's output, on account of a) the sheer volume b) the dissatisfaction with most of what little I had actually read. Her stories came across as a poor man's Sherlock Holmes, depending on such contrivances as make Arthur Conan Doyle's work appear totally grounded in reality. Besides, between us, Poirot was a pansy and Miss Marple a boring old bat. All the same, the idea of a bygone era murder mystery set on a train was appealing.

Barely managing to secure a berth on the luxurious Orient Express, Christie's Belgian egg-head sleuth has just settled in when an onboard murder figuratively takes the journey off the rails. When the train is stranded in a snowdrift, Poirot is implored by his friend and the director of the line M. Bouc to bring in his “little grey cells” to solve the crime before the train continues to the next station, at which the matter must be handed over to the police. This is followed by a series of interrogation sequences at the end of which comes a massive and hugely improbable denouement.

All of this of course suggests a movie with a lot of talking; and yes, it is. Lumet does his best to keep things interesting with his bevy of veteran movie actors each giving their character some or the other amusing quirk: Sean Connery is a tough Brit soldier with a woman problem, Lauren Bacall is an obnoxious nosy-parker, Ingrid Bergman is a missionary with a thick Euro-accent. When John Gielgud's valet of the classic type is questioned by his crude Italian co-passenger about the romance novel he's reading, “Is it about sex?”, he unflappably replies, “No, it's about 10:30”. Some obvious stereotypes are employed with a winking eye – Anthony Perkins as a neurotic mama's boy, who'da thunk it? Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot does a fine job, conveying the peculiarities of the character without going too far into comic territory. The last scene is of course his piece de triomphe, an alleged eight-page exposition delivered with an obvious actor's relish. As Roger Ebert's review states “...it's fun of a rather malicious sort watching a dozen high-priced stars keep their mouths shut and just listen while Finney masterfully dominates the scene”. 

The production is a handsome one and the ornately furnished interiors of the titular train provide sufficient eye candy to efface the limitations of its lone setting. Lumet also breaks up the monotony with some splendid outdoor visuals (grand old Geoffrey Unsworth) of the train and the snowy mountainside along which it majestically chugs along. Like the Orient Express itself, the film carries all the pleasures of a well-oiled stately locomotive journey.

Empty Words sound rich and full

While making my own poor recordings, it had come to my mind that my friend Jayaprakash who is a fine writer and my esteemed consultant on literature of the fantastic would do tremendously well in a reading out session. Lo and behold, he proves me true with his spoken word recording of an excerpt from his story ironcially titled "Empty Words".

aaahfooey: a lifeless voice intones empty words

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Death by Haiku

In the words of the immortal Emokoru-san:


I've tried my damn'dest
To wrench and bend them to shape
They hate me, these words.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Revolt of The Gods

Amidst the din of the Ganesh festival, I can hardly think of a better tribute than an excerpt from a delightfully weird story called A Revolt of The Gods by one of India's unsung surreal/weird authors, Vilas Sarang. This was originally printed as part of a masterful collection called Fair Tree of The Void. After being OOP for a long while the collection was reissued with some very questionable modifications as Women in Cages. Ah well, this is still a great story and I highly recommend that you get around to it.

Spoken excerpt from A Revolt of The Gods

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Less words more meaning

Aaahfooey: "they want less words more meaning but it should not actually mean anything..."

John Rambo [Sylvester Stallone]

As of now there’s one video game property that doesn’t need a movie to be made of it. That’s Soldier of Fortune, because the movie is already made, and it’s called John Mullins…er, John Rambo (aka Rambo 4). 

Sylvester Stallone’s latest franchise revival first started making waves when a small trailer skimming some of its brutal action sequences wended its way through the inter-web. Although causing some anxiety with the specter of intense annoyance from the lamely pontificating human rights activist female character, the promise of the gloriously exaggerated gore elements was unmissable. The question was…would the rest of the film live up to it?

The answer is a fist-thumping resounding YES! John Rambo is the ultimate blood n’ guts adrenaline junkie’s fantasy. There’s nary a scene where someone isn’t getting blown off or impaled or completely eviscerated. The makers of this film have delivered on that very rare count in today’s world…given the target audience exactly what they want, and actually surpassed all expectations on it.

The setting of the new installment is in the Thailand-Burma border where the Burmese army is orchestrating its reign of terror on the people, conducting such charming exercises as making them run through impromptu mine-fields. Rambo, who is first seen working as a snake capturer in the Thai side leads a coterie of missionaries looking to carry medical aid and bibles to the Burmese war-zone. It’s not long before these bleeding heart Yesu Christis are captured by the military and introduced to Burmese PoW hospitality (including having one of them eaten by pigs, hell yeah!). Rambo, along with a motley of other mercenaries, must go in to save their asses. Sly Stallone co-wrote the script which thankfully avoids any excess of emo-core heavy-handedness and concentrates on serving up the blood-filled thrills.

Before the film opens you get a notice that says that the film is entirely a work of fiction and has no bearing to the actual political situation. That’s the cue for all the sensitive people to get up and walk out because if you’re expecting any respect to the real suffering of the people in this part of the world you’re watching the wrong movie. Rambo 4 is glorious and unabashed war-porn, and it works brilliantly at that.

The film has an unmistakable video-game sensibility to it. Several of the action scenes could come right out of the SoF games…tankers worth of not entirely realistic gore, exaggerated death animations, and bad AI too. Even the few scenes of conversation have a game cut-scene quality to them. Rambo continues in his vein of taciturn toughness, successfully twanging the chords of nostalgia with the audience that grew up on his adventures. His interaction with the mercenary team has some hilarious cool moments, especially with the Cockney merc (Graham McTavish), who is a glorious piece of caricature.

The film aims for a grimy unfiltered look which gives it a very in-your-face quality, especially during the many frantic firefights. The CGI and other visual effects eschew the obsessive pixel-perfect look that most bigger budget Hollywood films aim for, the gore appearing somewhat cartoony,  but still gratifyingly punchy. In fact Stallone as director cannily uses this unrealism to his advantage, incorporating all manner of hilariously OTT elements.

I could go on, but the message in short is, John Rambo is a must-see for all visceral action junkies that won’t let their real-life political concerns hinder their enjoyment of this fat-laden rich-tasting delicious gore-burger.

Happiness [Todd Solondz]

There are lots of people who do find love and fulfillment, but they are not in this movie.” Thus ends Roger Ebert’s introduction to Happiness in his review, which is also a clever gist of the film’s pursuit.

1998’s Happiness is an ironic bittersweet comedy, depending on your point of view, like a slightly more burlesque Mike Leigh film or a slightly more sober Simpsons episode. Its unique sense of humor is exposed from the opening restaurant scene, which (without giving you spoilers) opens as an almost stereotype re-lay-shun-ship sequence, where a couple is breaking up with teary-eyed dignity, then veers into total farce in which one of them gets humiliated and owned in an outright hilarious manner. The scene also defines your equation with the film’s characters: that you can (and will often) laugh at their foibles and failings, and yet sympathize because they are real enough for you to care.

The episodic plot is built around an ensemble cast; the connecting factor comes from 3 sisters and their interactions with the other characters. Interestingly, Solondz’s script does not center the triptych on the sisters themselves; only one (the youngest, Joy, who we see in the brilliant opening scene) can be described as a major character. Apart from Joy who shifts jobs and lovers in search of the elusive commitment, we meet Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a masturbating loner slob nursing wet dreams of his neighbor – Joy’s eldest sister Helen, a hawt and successful novelist. Unable to strike up a normal conversation, Allen can only make anonymous phone calls (with sometimes hilarious results).

The other main character is Dr. Bill Applewood (Dylan Baker, brilliantly played). Married to Joy’s middle sister Trish, Bill is a psychiatrist and caring family man. Bill is also a pedophile craving to exercise his fetishes on his son’s friends. Aside from these threads there is one (less important, in my view) of the sisters’ parents separating after 40 years of marriage because their father just wants “to be alone”.

All of the above must sound wholly depressing, and sure enough, Happiness’ major players are a textbook of neurotic behavior. But Solondz is able to extract the laughs from his material without, in my view, ever cheapening it (the Filthy Critic disagrees). His characters are consistent and superbly etched, his dialog is smart and funny. Check out this exchange between Helen and Joy:

Don’t think I’m laughing AT you, I’m laughing WITH you
But I’m not laughing.

This is but a tiny sliver of the brilliant humor that pervades the script. One also appreciates that, apart from the odd contrived moment (an episode between a certain fat woman and a janitor has a bunged-in-for-gag-value feel), the story is unforced and fleshed out without ever getting tiresome through its running length, and thankfully does not pander to the common tendency to engineer neatly-tied-up-smiley-happy endings for its cast.

Frequently hilarious, occasionally shocking, and tender without being sappy, Happiness is in sum a masterful and entertaining portrait of a modern dysfunctional society, one that richly deserves all the appreciation it has got .

Monday, September 13, 2010

Peeping Tom [Michael Powell]

Peeping Tom is one of those movies so ahead of its time (1960), it was bound to be admired passionately or hated to bits. Unfortunately for its makers the latter reaction prevailed and the film brought to a crash the illustrious career of its director Michael Powell. Powell had, in collaboration with Emeric Pressburger, worked in a variety of genres and fashioned some of the most enduring British films of the 40's and 50's.

Like Hitchcock's more famous Psycho (released six months after) Peeping Tom is the story of a psychopathic killer. The titular character Mark is a photography assistant in a movie studio. After a strange childhood in which he has constantly been recorded and documented as the subject of his neurologist father's experiments Mark has developed an obsession for the camera lens and what it captures. Mark is also a killer that stabs his victims and records their dying moments on film.


The story is told mostly from Mark's point of view and one of the most striking aspects of the screenplay is the level of sympathy his character is given, probably also the cause of its initial downfall with the censors and the critics. There is no shying from Mark's more despicable activities. None of his victims, even when they are "two-quid" whores, are shown to be “asking for it”. But Mark is also revealed as a painfully shy loner, a victim of his bizarre upbringing. When Helen the girl-next-door makes a friendly overture, his response is one of almost child-like happiness and gratitude. Carl Boehm in the lead role does a spectacularly convincing job, being simultaneously creepy and pitiable. Even his slight German accent works to underline Mark's distance from his surroundings.

Where the film again succeeds is in the brilliant material for the supporting characters, the best example being Helen's mother, blind and alcoholic but steely-nerved, and ironically the only person to see through Mark's dupe. She also gets some of the film's best lines; to Helen's defense of Mark saying “He's just shy”, she counters royally with “His footsteps aren't. They're stealthy.”


Powell develops a compelling visual style for the film, with deliberately lurid colors (including a prominent red motif) and POV shots that constantly reiterate the film's discomfiting voyeuristic themes. The use of a jazz-flavored dance score to build tension before one of the murder set-pieces is executed with a panache Hitchcock would have envied.

To my mind, this film takes a more difficult line than Psycho did. That it manages to walk without stumbling (that too by a maker who had never before handled a film of this flavor), makes it a more significant achievement than the latter film. Your opinion may well differ, but there is no dispute that Peeping Tom is a film that MUST be seen and savored by fans of the psychological horror genre.

Dev D [Anurag Kashyap]

The danger of judging a film that throws as much self-conscious style at you as Dev.D does is, too often the focus is solely on the style, and while it's easy to equate Dev.D's modernity with its contemporary settings, takes from real-life events and numerous MTV-style club song breaks, that's not true. The real refresh is in the portrayal of the lead characters and their mind-scape; everything else is just window-dressing.

Anurag Kashyap's script shifts the action from the Bengal scenario to Delhi-Punjab belt and strips out the affected bhadralok contrivances to provide a more raw atmosphere for the story. The Paro-Dev relationship is painted with primal non-coy brush strokes that give it a greater intensity than at least the Bimal Roy and (disastrous) Sanjay Bhansali adaptations. Mahie Gill as Paro immerses herself into the part in a manner that scorches away any hints of vulgarity, be it the scene where she travels all the way to the city to scan a nude pic of herself for Dev or, more importantly, where she reinforces her commitment by carrying nuptial bed et al to the fields. She reminds me of a young Tabu and I would love to see more of her if opportunity affords.

The script at this point veers from the Devdas book in that it is not Dev's cowardice that makes him turn away from Paro but ego. Even after a misunderstanding about her being a wanton slut is cleared, he makes no attempt to stop her marriage to another man, and the moment where Paro shakes off her demure bridal posture with an impromptu jig is an indication of her own break from the relationship. So much so for the eternal romance, and hooray for modernity.

Shift ho then to Delhi's swanky lanes and the last angle in this triangle – Chanda aka Chandramukhi (Kalki Koechlin, who provides the other brilliant female lead) – here given the background of a foreign origin sexually abused schoolgirl that then gets into the prostitution business to earn her keep. Her relationship with Dev is of one wounded soul finding another. In Dev's case of course, the wounds have been inflicted by his own stupidity and Chanda is frank enough to point that out. Post-marriage Paro is still around, but her equation with Dev, even when she cleans up his room and submits to a quickie, is devoid of any strong passion. She has completely grown out of their erstwhile romance. The rest of the film is essentially about Dev learning to come to grips with this fact and, by an understanding of Chanda's struggles to salve her wounds, healing his own.

Of course, none of this comes pat, and to Anurag's credit, the script never feels like it is patronizing or spoon-feeding the audience to its conclusions. The lead characters are fully fleshed out entities and the situations, be they taken from newspaper headlines or conjured in the writer's imagination, are seamlessly integrated into the constantly flowing plot. It's never easy to make a film where the lead character is a major league loser and Anurag deserves all credit for an experience that's almost constantly interesting; he even subverts Sarat Chandra's original deadbeat end for something more ambiguous. As director too, he succeeds brilliantly in creating a unique visual and sound palette. Some of the scenes of Dev's drugs n' booze orgies find obvious inspiration in Danny Boyle's Trainspotting , but they work quite well in the context. Both music and sound effects have been handled with a level of thought and detail that set an immensely high new standard for Bollywood and one hopes against hope that other movie-makers will take some clue from this.

Abhay Deol as the titular DevD he shows that he is one of the most daring actors in the Hindi film business today. Embracing all the flaws and essential assholery of the character and still maintaining a degree of audience empathy would be an indisputably tough endeavor but he manages it with skill. This film, Manorama Six Feet Under and Oye Lucky... have made for a shining showcase for Abhay and I wish him more power.

An ambitious venture like this is not without its flaws. The humor in the film's initial part can be quite annoying, the nightclub song breaks occur far too often, and the running time could also have been significantly crisper. But on the whole Dev D is a plucky and audacious piece that easily transcends its little failings to be one of the best Indian films of recent history.

Brokeback Mountain [Ang Lee]

Brokeback Mountain's script is not its strongest feature. It would be a little hard for me to find credible involvement in a love story between two cowboys that commences with a scenario that goes “It's freezin' mightily out there, so I'll poke yore ass for a l'il while and then you kin poke mine, alrighty pardner?” But trust Ang Lee to step over that bit of disbelief there and in his deliberate understated manner bring home a real empathy towards its characters.


Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gylenhaal) are the two cowboys in 60's America who, doing a grazing assignment for a man named Aguirre (hmm, any reference to Werner Herzog's film?) find in each other a more interesting alternative to sheep. They both initially agree it's a one-off thing and they're not 'queer'. But life doesn't turn out that way, and despite their later attachments, they time and again return to each other and Brokeback Mountain to revisit their companionship. Calling in at various (often arbitrary, more script weakness) points of time in their lives, the film examines the impact of their secret relationship on their selves and the people around them.

So yes there's a gay love story in the center but the film needn't be viewed solely on that ground (which is not to say that such excuses are required to appreciate it). Ang Lee's take on the material often suggests that he himself doesn't. Ennis is a protective husband and parent, and an orthodox Christian that does not believe in birth control, even finding it hurtful that his wife will not bear more of his children (he already has three). Jack's marriage comes in the wake of a hasty sexually fueled affair with the daughter of a rich domineering Texan. Their repeated trysts can be seen as much as a desire to return to a past where they were less shackled by the ties of society. This seems more apparent in Jack's case since he is trapped in a marriage with an increasingly shrewish wife and a father-in-law that openly mocks him (But Jack is also the more openly homosexual of the two, seeking out affairs with other men). Even other characters like Ennis' wife are not fixated on the gay aspect of the affair – she is more furious at Ennis for having lied about his 'fishing' trips than at having seen him snogging with his cowboy buddy.

Thus the forbidden relationship carries on. Jack repeatedly implores Ennis to come away with him and start anew, but the latter is held by the harsh conventions of society (as a child he is taken by his father to see a homosexual tortured to death) and perhaps his own misgivings, despite the sense of freedom he enjoys in Jack's company. There's an effective flashback bit near the 110min mark of the film which would have served as a wonderful coda had they chosen to stop the film there. But it goes on for a little longer and a more conventional (if also nicely done) ending.

It's obvious that such a film's effectiveness rests very heavily on its lead performances, and here Heath Ledger comes across as a revelation. His portrayal of the brooding conflicted Ennis Del Mar is one of the best performances I've seen in a recent while, and towers mightily over that overrated and mostly boring trick he turned in the Batman film. Jake Gylenhaal is less effective, although to be fair his character is also less nuanced. Ang Lee shows some element of Terence Malick, using the landscape and its spaces to resonate the emotional graphs of the characters; while vast unspoilt wildernesses (DOP Rodrigo Prieto) decorate the backdrops where Ennis and Jack gambol in secret, the scenes of their conventional lives are almost always depicted in unadorned, matter-of-fact fashion.

So yes, Brokeback Mountain is a pretty damn good film about a forbidden affair and you don't need to be a flaming gay rights activist to see that.

LSD - Love, Sex aur Dhoka [Dibakar Banerjee]

A la Pulp Fiction or Amores Perros here is yet another variation on the theme of multiple story-lines intersecting. To this Dibakar (Khosla ka Ghosla, Oye Lucky...) Banerjee adds film and television's latest gimmick, the 'reality cam'. Of course, like with most other cam efforts, you have to swallow the conceit of the electronic eye maintaining a ludicrous level of narrative continuity, but what the hell. If the proceedings are sufficiently interesting, that is easily forgiven. Are they in this case? Lessee.
 
To justify the contrived title, Banerjee has three loosely intertwined episodes, at least two of which seem no more suited for one epithet than the other...or was that a deliberate and devious plan of the script? I don't know. In the first episode a perpetual camera-bearing amateur director making his diploma film - a cheap knockoff of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge - gets into a romance with his lead actress and entangled with her roughneck Haryanvi family. The couple's affair is played out as a parody to the contents of the film they're shooting until the climax. They get the parody theme mostly right and there are some sweet moments thanks to the actors. However, this episode suffers from noticeable slack and the end being apparent to anyone other than the backbenchers of a 'special' school weakens it despite the implied savagery.

After this somewhat disappointing start, Banerjee slips into high gear with a cracking second episode about a lout in a store-cum-coffee-shop aiming to seduce one of the shop-girls in order to sell the footage on the store-cam. With keen observation, Banerjee captures the sordidness and humor of the situation without ever coming across as cheap. The performances of the lead actors in this episode (Neha Chauhan & Raj Kumar Yadav) is also to be applauded. Running length is again an issue but this episode comes padded with enough goodness to forgive that. Not so for the third and last episode, a surprisingly dull enactment of a sleaze journalist (portrayed as an ex-Tehalka 'sting' man) coaxing a maiden of flexible morals to entrap a Mika-lookalike pop singer into trading her career favors for sex. While the character of a reporter who shed his integrity (or whatever Tehalka likes to call it) for sex-press had a certain amount of potential, most of it is squandered on a very crude depiction of tabloid journalism. Realistic it may be, but it's also stale and boring.

So ya, an okey-dokey beginning, a really good mezzo and a soggy third act. To Banerjee's credit (and co-writers Urmi Juvekar & Kanu Behl) the episodes are hung together in a not entirely shabby manner, but what would have really worked is if they had chopped a third off the running time of each episode and put out a taut 60-minute film (or scrapped the scrappy title to put in an additional episode). The cinematography (Nikos Andritsakis) is done with care and is in its non-flashy way as good as for most 'reality-cam' movies I've seen. The settings are down to earth and credible, and Dibakar scores again with the colloquial touch for his third 'Delhi' film (dare we call this a trilogy?). But this is still a more-miss-than-hit experiment from the film-maker who had shown increasing promise with his first two feature outings.

White Ribbon [Michael Haneke]


My response to the two Michael Haneke films I've seen prior to this was polar. I loved Hidden and was bored to tears by Time of The Wolf. This Palme D'Or winner falls a lot more in the former category, though with not as much enthusiasm.


The narrative is set in a pre-WWI German village where a series of unfortunate incidents disturb the peace of the local populace. The doctor is injured when his horse trips on a deliberately placed wire, a farm laborer's wife is killed in a sawmill accident, the landowning baron's son is assaulted by an unknown person / party...and so on. The piling up of these incidents brings to the fore the bubbling discontent and animosity in the hearts of the characters. It has the bare structure of a whodunit but there is no pressing hunt. The focus is really more on the brittleness and insecurities of the so-called modern society and the possible fallout of the massive amount of brain-washing that goes on to produce responsible patriotic citizens. Taken as a whole the film succeeds brilliantly in conveying this outlook.

White Ribbon is a little hard to recommend to all and sundry. It's definitely in arthouse territory, and takes its sweet time to build up the blocks of its premise. There are several similarities with the work of Ingmar Bergman - the immaculate B/W photography is highly reminiscent of Bergman's Trilogy of Faith, and a certain priest in the film will evoke memories of a similar character in Fanny & Alexander. The characters are however less nuanced than they would be in a Bergman film, and while possibly “correct” as a narrative device, it doesn't help that our view of the proceedings mainly comes from the statement of a character with the personality of a cabbage. But excuse these bits and you have a very nuanced and suggestive experience well worth the watch.

Fifty-One Tales [Lord Dunsany]

For a book that contains 51 tales this is a remarkably slim volume at around a 100 pages. That's because this collection of Lord Dunsany's work (my first exposure to it) consists entirely of little fables, fragments of dreams or mood pieces.

Going through it one easily understands the fascination that H.P. Lovecraft had for Dunsany's writings. Sorrow over the relentless and unthinking march of modern civilization and the loss of glories past, a love of nature and rusticity, and deep affection for ancient mythology...yes, themes that were reflected in some of Lovecraft's works in what he referred to as his 'Dunsanian' phase.

Considering the brevity of the content it is but given that none of the stories carry much complexity or forceful impact, and there is a sense of "variations on a theme" traveling through several of them. Really what this collection is worth going through for is Dunsany's prose style, which has an unmistakable lilt to it - the simple yet majestic construction of sentences that ask to be read aloud and, like really fine brandy, savored on the tongue.

Consider this little example, the closure to a short called Charon:

...the boat from the slow, grey river loomed up to the coast of Dis and the little, silent shade still shivering stepped ashore, and Charon turned the boat to go wearily back to the world. Then the little shadow spoke, that had been a man.
"I am the last," he said.
No one had ever made Charon smile before, none one before had ever made him weep.
 Thanks Nivedita, for a very thoughtful gift.

Cries & Whispers [Ingmar Bergman]


The amazing thing is not that Bergman takes us through nearly 10 minutes into his film before the first line of dialog is uttered. What's amazing is that, using a masterfully conceived collage of shots he establishes the setting, the theme and – by way of the clocks doling out second by measured second – the innate rhythm of the entire film in a more convincing way than reams of exposition would have.

Agnes (Harriet Andersson) lies in the last throes of breath, gritting over the pain of her illness, looked after by her married sisters Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Marie (Liv Ullman), and more so by the devoted servant Anna (Kari Sylwan). The interaction between these characters is delineated by their respective actions and subtle responses towards each other. Agnes by virtue of her illness is unmarried and housebound, her innocence least victimized by the monster of civilized society. Both Karin and Marie are choked with the ennui of crushingly mundane relationships, being maintained rather than cared for. This makes for an interesting element wherein two women of disparate personalities are faced with a similar situation and their reactions are tracked. Karin hardens herself to a monk-like austerity aversely meeting even the slightest gesture of affection. The softer and wistful Marie gives way to an affair that only adds to her loneliness in its consequence. The servant Anna has lost her only child to a consumptive disease.



These events are shown, not in the way of a continuous saga, but as a series of flashback friezes book-ended by the frame dissolving into a primary red. This vivid red ironically seems to denote the colorlessness that dominates the lives of these characters. Agnes is dying, but the others are already `dead'. They are more animated corpses fulfilling the physical characteristics of life. The only time they seem to come alive is when they're attending to Agnes, washing and brushing her, reading to her, soothing her agonized wails. It makes for the sole moments when the sisters can bond oblivious to other influences, and Agnes' childlike dependence reverts Anna to motherhood otherwise lost. It is then an intense experience for them and for us to see death as it approaches Agnes, and to be reminded of their own meaningless existence that is a kind of death in itself. What follows then is the inevitable: Agnes's death confirms their irreparable acceptance of their own respective deaths as they return to their old lives (the momentary scene of emotional reconciliation between the two sisters makes for the sole false moment in this uniformly tragic piece). As for Anna, what happens to her is cruel but inevitable since Agnes' death means the loss of her `child' and her own purpose of existence: she too is a corpse.

This is an ultimately morbid story and Bergman is not himself unaware of it as seen from the tragic irony of the scene where he brings in Agnes' ghost only to have her `dead' sisters shrink away from her.

Here then is a brilliant study of death and living death.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Expendables [Sylvester Stallone]

I'm not disappointed in The Expendables because it didn't live up to the hype. Pretty much nothing could have lived up to the hype "the next movie from the man who give us John Rambo" coupled with its testosterone overload casting call garnered. And it was plainly obvious that some of the star turns would be cameos rather than full-fledged roles, so no, that's not a cause of grief. But really, it really should have been a LOT better than this cold kettle.

One of the big problems with this movie is that it takes this roster of lovable badasses and gives the bulk of them precious little to connect with. There is nothing worthwhile in terms of dialog or character sketch. You might argue that the action movies of the 80's and early 90's this film aims to pay homage to were not written by Shakespeare, but the fact is that even in their corniest moments (and with some, especially so) they had a definite likability and recall value: where are those cool one-liners that would be passed on between the fans, those colorful archetypes and boldly etched caricatures, the over-the-top cheeriness? Watching The Expendables is akin to hearing Santana's Supernatural album. You have the odd bit of nice phrasing here and there but it's nothing you want to go back to again.

Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis come together in one scene and what do we get? Tradeoffs so painfully amateurish and unfunny they would embarrass the makeshift writers of kindergarten school-plays. Mickey Rourke comes in with his Wrestler getup and his plum moment is an allegedly poignant story he tells about a woman in Bosnia, which only succeeds in being irritatingly pointless. Steve Austin who rocked hard in The Condemned is reduced to a cut-price henchman. Statham even considering his limited abilities had more fun in the Crank series while Jet Li and Dolph Lundgren are only good for one hand-to-hand scene. The script alternates mostly between bland and cringingly bad, and, unlike the last Rambo, the chemistry between most of the actors is quite tepid. This movie should have had the nostalgic action fan throwing popcorn at the screen going "Fuck, Yeah!". Instead it's mostly "What? Oh, alright, whatever." Hell, The Forbidden Kingdom, with its all-too-late pairing of Li and Jackie Chan had a better overall vibe as a tribute flick for genre fans.

The visuals of the film are mostly drab and soft, surprising given how good John Rambo looked. The action scenes have some good moments, like Statham firing out of the nose-cone of the plane or some of the heavy-weapons large-scale destruction set-pieces in the climax, but little we haven't seen done much better in the erstwhile films this one aims to cash in on. The gore elements for the Indian screening appear curtailed; I'm sure there will be a significantly bloodier unrated edition for DVD, I just don't feel it will make for a significantly better film.

Stallone had a good idea here but he would have really done better to hire a professional writer and director for this, people that didn't get so excited over the casting they totally forgot about the other critical factors that glue the memorable action film together.

High & Low [Akira Kurosawa]

Although Kurosawa is more known for his Samurai epics, he has made a number of contemporary films. Of these, High and Low is worked in the fashion of a crime thriller. The film is adapted from the novel King's Ransom by Ed McBain and was inspired by a series of high-profile kidnappings in Japan

A rich businessman, Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune), has mortgaged all his assets in a bid to take control of the shoe company in which he holds a stake. He is just about to send his right-hand man to catch a Tokyo flight to close the deal when a phone call informs him that his only son has been kidnapped for a huge ransom. But almost immediately it is discovered that his son is safe at home and the chauffeur's boy, who is a playmate to his son, has been erroneously picked up. The kidnapper realizes this but still insists that Gondo pay the ransom or have the blood of the chauffeur's child on his head.

The film focuses on Gondo's dilemma over paying a ransom that would surely ruin him and then the police's effort to track down the kidnapper. If this sounds somewhat familiar to Indian audiences it might be because of the “unofficial” Hindi remake Inkaar, directed by Raj Sippy and starring Shreeram Lagoo, Vinod Khanna and Amjad Khan.

High and Low's biggest strength is an exquisitely gripping screenplay, constructed with all the precision and polish of a good R.L. Stevenson yarn. The events of the plot unfold in a neat sequence, never flagging, and the film, even though mostly shot indoors, gives a sense of being in constant well-oiled motion. This is a textbook example of how to construct a story on screen.



Within the thriller format, Kurosawa puts up some interesting archetypes of a protocol and hierarchy-bound Japanese society. The chauffeur after realizing that his son has been kidnapped reminds the boss that his Man Friday needs to be driven to the airport. In the course of the investigation, whenever Gondo and his wife argue about paying the ransom, everyone else in the room looks away from he argument in a deliberately casual and unaware manner. The police investigations are presented as believable team-work as opposed to the lone heroic lawman stereotype that we're used to in other films. The character of the cold-blooded kidnapper is also quite nicely etched, his resentment of Gondo's prosperity symbolized by the "high" penthouse that looks down upon his "low" dwelling.



Toshiro Mifune does an excellent turn as Gondo and save for his characteristic guttural tone is utterly different from his other work in Kurosawa films. The rest of the cast, especially Tatsuya Nakadai as the utterly refined police inspector heading the investigation, provides able and ample support. Tsutomu Yamazaki as the villain does a fine job and is especially memorable in the last scene of the film where he confronts Gondo. The camerawork isn't in most part especially mobile or flashy but brilliantly uses the wide-screen (Toho)scope to capture the proceedings from the perspective of a theater stage, and helped by surgical editing, does a solid job of conveying the vitality of the screenplay.

Kurosawa's writing and direction speak volumes of his control over the film's content and format. High and Low may not be as famous as Seven Samurai or Yojimbo but is no less well made than these. A definite recommendation for the Kurosawa fan, the thriller fan or in general anyone who can appreciate a tightly made film.

Nosferatu - The Vampyre [Werner Herzog]

Werner Herzog's Nosferatu is primarily a tribute to the the 1922 Dracula adaptation by German silent film pioneer F.W. Murnau. Unlike Murnau who was forced to change the names of the characters in his adaptation of Bram Stoker's work to avoid copyright hassles (an unsuccessful move), Herzog is able to use the original names.

The screenplay while based on Dracula owes more to the script of Murnau's film than the source novel. Here, Jonathan Harker of Wismar, married to Lucy (yes), is sent by his employer, a man of dubious sanity, Mr. Renfield (yes, again) to Count Dracula of Transylvania to settle the purchase of an old house adjacent to Jonathan's own. Despite the warnings of locals and gypsies, Harker makes his way to the home of the Count, only to find himself in the clutches of a being more dead than alive. Dracula, enamoured by a photograph of Lucy, pushes forward the sale of the house and, trapping Jonathan in his castle, arranges to have himself transported as part of a shipment of soil "for botanical experiments". The arrival of the undead count brings forth a deadly plague on the townspeople, spread by his minions, the rats.

Meanwhile, Jonathan has escaped, but is a nervous and physical wreck by the time he reaches his beloved. Under treatment from Dr. Van Helsing, his recent turmoil is slowly beginning to change him. Dracula tries to blackmail Lucy into giving him some of the love she gives Jonathan, only to be rebuffed. In the end, she causes his death by making him forget the arrival of dawn as he feeds upon her, but is the sacrifice worth it?


 Although far more comprehensible, the movie reminded me to an extent of Carl Dreyer's Vampyr; both share a dreamy, predominantly sepulchral tone. The adventure elements of Stoker's story are severely pared down to strike a constant melancholic tone - Colors are muted, actions slow and deliberate, voices murmuring. It is also a visual film with long silent passages, every frame worth savoring for its sheer texture. Herzog's insistence on shooting at authentic outdoor locations – in scenes like Jonathan's journey to Borgo pass, the plague on the town of Wismar, the closing shot - makes for one of the most ravishing Dracula films made. Even the indoor sets and lighting have a marvelously tangible quality: It is like an exhibition of Gothic art.

Using the same getup as Max Schreck's Orlock in Murnau's film, actor Klaus Kinski plays Dracula as a repulsive rat-like being cursed with immortality, resigned to live through centuries of an unchanging futile pattern of existence. His vampire has no awe-inspiring super-powers and is no tail-coated seducer of nubile victims. You feel pity for him as he pushes towards dreary eternity, not able to die even if he wishes it. Aided by some evocative dialog, Kinski's performance is understated and credible. Also, I found it quite different from his swaggering lead portrayal in Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God, testament to his versatility.

Given its sedate pace and obvious art-house moorings, this film is not recommended for all, and certainly not for impatient viewers or gore-fans. But this is one leisurely trip where the journey is its own reward.

Nosferatu - Symphony of Horrors [F.W. Murnau]

Murnau's vampire classic certainly has its numerous good points but to my view it is, for the current day, a bit long in the tooth. An adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, which for reasons of copyright and pacing makes changes in the characters of the original work, Murnau's version suffers from the limitations of what was possible with a still camera and mostly stage-bound locations. Hence it does not have a very consistent cinematic quality. Some of the dialog can be unintentionally hilarious. Also the use of a constant musical background as was prevalent in the days of the silent film, dissipates some of the eerie atmosphere the film is trying to raise. My personal preference for a vampire film made in this era is Carl Dreyer's Vampyr, which scores higher on the surreal and eerie aspect and has some groundbreaking visuals. To Murnau's credit, he does the best within his possibilities and in the light of its good parts Nosferatu is doubtless an interesting and highly influential piece of film history.


 

The best parts of Nosferatu of course are the ones featuring Max Schreck as the evil Count Orlok. Schreck looks genuinely scary and evil, and Murnau pulls out some of his best visual tricks towards the depiction of the vampire; for instance the shadow shots showing the vampire's silhouette towering over Hutter/Harker, his hand moving across Ellen/Mina's heart. There are some other very well-captured episodes like the arrival of the ship of death and the funereal march in the plague-ridden town of Wisborg. Many such scenes were lovingly recreated by Werner Herzog in his atmospheric 1979 tribute/remake Nosferatu - The Vampyre, often using similar props and camera angles. I must here also commend screenplay writer Henrik Galeen's intelligent paring down of Bram Stoker's sprawling adventure with its bevy of characters into a much more intimate and sepulchral piece; virtually the same sequence of events is used by Herzog in his version.

Watching Max Schreck's portrayal of Count Orlok also makes one realize what a brilliant note perfect imitation was done by the underrated Willem Dafoe in Shadow of The Vampire where he played Orlok as a genuine vampire.

Youtube link to entire film