Sunday, December 19, 2010

Quatermass and The Pit [Roy Ward Baker]

Having not seen any of the BBC televsion series, my exposure to Quatermass is restricted to two Hammer films, The Quatermass Xperiment and this one. Xperiment had good atmosphere and direction, and I am naturally a sucker for old-skool pulp science-fiction, but it was in the end more monster movie than hardcore SF. The Pit however, has greater ambitions.

The film starts with the discovery of proto-human skulls at a digging site in the underground rail station for this place originally called Hob's Lane (as one of the characters helpfully reveals, Hob is another nick name for the devil). Local science man Matthew Roney believes that the skulls date to a time well before previously known existence of man. More mystery unfolds when the digging crew unearths a metallic compartment never seen before. Colonel Breen and Professor Quatermass come in as the government's military and scientific representatives. While Breen is quick to dub the compartment as an unexploded German warhead, glossing over such inexplicables as why the metal is hazardously cold to the touch and can resist any amount of heat/drilling without disclosing its insides, Quatermass, alongwith Roney's assistant Barbara, undertakes a more holistic investigation, linking events in the local history of Hob's lane to the presence of the alien compartment. The script by Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale interprets old superstitions in the light of an alien intelligence and its impact on the human civilization. In fact, The Pit's major idea is that modern man was an engineered product of the aliens as a means of transferring their mindset, and thereby surviving by proxy, when their own race died out. Shades of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey there, but in a far more accessible package.

Roy Ward Baker's direction maintains a serious scientific tone and the solid acting does a lot of service to the immersion factor here, necessary since the props and optical effects are distinctly low-budget and unsuited for the script's ambition. Andrew Keir is a good Quatermass, more pleasant-mannered than Xperiment's Brian Donlevy (Apparently that was a very wrong portrayal, rendering Quatermass an egomaniac, but I actually liked it a good deal and thought it added a certain bite to the character), but not afraid to talk tough when the situation calls. The supporting characters are all strongly etched in this film, although Col. Breen suffers from a lack of depth.

While the bombastic trick solution climax (all these alien invasion films have to have them, don't they?) is not particularly satisfying, the film on the whole is a good one, traveling a long way on interesting concepts delivered with respect and intelligence. Consider that a strong recommendation.

Monday, December 13, 2010

That blu-ray thingy

Having acquired a blu-ray disc (BD) drive and watching stuff on it for the past week or so, I'm just giving off a few of my collected impressions of the format and what I feel it's worth.

First off, I'm not one of those people that want “the latest and the greatest” as soon as it's available, so my reason to go BD was not simply because “it's there”. But to be frank it was also not because I felt that there was some unbridgeable gap in visual quality between DVD and BD. Depending wholly on the type of film, available source material and the quality of the transfer that is made, the difference can sometimes be quite fine. An indispensible guide for me in this regard has been DVD Beaver, which gives you not only erudite “not-muddled-in-jargon” opinion but also provides actual screencaps through which you can make your own opinion.

My first inclinations towards blu-ray came when the major studios in a bid to push the blu-ray format on to a reluctant public started piling their “extras” aka bonus features onto the blu-ray versions of their releases; Star Trek and Up are prime examples of such favoritism. Also, while initially there was a significant price difference between BD and DVD, that difference has come down to the point where unless you buy everything at launch, you're paying the same price for BD as you did for DVD some years back.

But a major sticking point for me was still the player. I did not want to invest Rs. 10,000 (>200USD) in a new blu-ray player, not especially after I had just set up my own decent DVD-based home viewing setup. The other aspect here is that, unlike the mature DVD, blu-ray as a format is still evolving, a point on which I will elaborate later in this update. Then came my PC upgrade and the building of a system that had the horsepower to, among other things, effortlessly play high-definition media. This neatly coincided with the arrival of low-priced blu-ray drives for PC. Since I'm not looking to write blu-rays anytime soon, I went in for a cheap ASUS drive that essentially serves to only read disc media, be it BD/DVD/CD.

So having gotten a player and a half dozen films on the BD format (Adventures of Robin Hood, Avatar, Star Trek, Terminator 2, Up, Wings of Desire), what are my impressions so far regarding the benefits of blu-ray?

In the case of new films shot on High-Definition (HD) video or featuring significant amounts of computer generated imagery, the shift to blu-ray is a no-brainer. Having seen the BD version of James Cameron's Avatar on my home system, I can attest to that from personal experience: the gob-smacking clarity and level of detail, rock-steady stability of the image in motion and ability to handle strong color contrasts without any noticeable flicker/graphic artifacts is beyond what I have seen on DVD thus far (granted I have not seen Avatar itself on DVD but IMO the DVD versions of Pixar films (The Incredibles, Wall-E, Up) form a sufficient benchmark to hold against). This sort of film is what will act as the game-changer in swaying the minds of the public at large towards adoption of the blu-ray format.

But is blu-ray only good for the latest sci-fi action blockbuster with heavy CGI use? Not necessarily. A shift to higher resolutions and bitrates will benefit almost any sort of film. But in the case of older classics, the benefits are of a different sort. It's not so much in terms of giving a pop-out shiny quality to the visuals. That would be a wrong thing to aim for too; these classics were shot on film, some under low-budget conditions or using soft lighting schemes, and the transfer should faithfully reflect the source. With a skilled blu-ray transfer of an older classic, there will be an incremental (ranging from just noticeable to significant) increase of detail but the main benefit will be in terms of stability of the image, lesser need to manipulate the contrast to show detail and the accurate reproduction of the color tones of the original film to the highest extent. Check out DVD Beaver's screencap comparisons of the Criterion DVD and BD versions of Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha here. This is a very relevant comparison given that both these versions come from the same HD master, but the BD is able to depict the detail without the contrast boost and unnatural hue seen on the DVD transfer. If your aim is to see the masterpieces of cinema with the highest possible fidelity to the original source (and after all, isn't this why studios like Criterion enjoy their premium prices and their dedicated fanbase?) there is a tangible benefit to making the BD shift. Also unless you're the sort that feels some value-addition to having stuff spread out over multiple DVD's instead of being contained in a single BD, it's a damned sight more convenient.

But there are also reasons to hold back right now, especially if you want to be the pop-in-and-play user. As of now there is no widespread availability of region-free BD players, at least at reasonable cost; if you want to mix and match BD's from different regions based on content or availability, you're out of luck. Also, while DVD is a mature standard, BD technology is still evolving: Player firmware may require to be upgraded to support new copy protection measures if you want to keep playing the latest discs. With successive generations players will improve in speed of access to content. Since my BD's are played on an internet-connected PC drive using readily upgradeable software (to play the media and allow multi-region access) I have a greater flexibility than a conventional BD player owner would. If you're not comfortable with this kind of software upgrading, one suggestion would be to hold off buying loads of new content for maybe a couple of years now and then plunge whichever way you are suited.

Am I committed to buying only blu-rays from now on? Absolutely not. For me it's a wait and watch game. I intend to look through trusted review websites to give me their viewpoint (and yes, actual screen comparisons, more of them should do that). Remember that BD cannot give you a good experience if the source material or digital mastering is not of a high caliber. I certainly wouldn't want to upgrade my existing DVD's unless I see a massive level up in video quality or a boatload of new extras on the blu-ray version (So no Superman The Movie BD for me, unless someone is feeling generous :D). For new purchases, price will be an important factor. I would go for a cheaper DVD version if I thought the blu-ray didn't give me a significantly higher wow factor on the visuals / bonus content.

So that's my take on the far.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Sorry for having avoided you so long, blog. Things have just been like that, when typing more than a Facebook status update has seemed taxing to the mind.

Lots of good things happened today, and a few nasty ones (they have to, don't they). First off, a trip to my Santa Claus cousin who now appears almost every quarter with bags full of goodies. Feast your eyes on these:

The main haul of course is the ASUS Blu-Ray drive. With this I finally enter the realm of HD movies, fuck YEAH!
Movie haul is a mix of DVD's and Blu-rays. Wings of Desire, a beautiful film by Wim Wenders, is my first Criterion Blu-Ray. I was a little apprehensive after rumors that the blu-ray cases being smaller the booklets accompanying the disc would be badly affected. Yes, it is smaller in size, but the quality of paper and print has been maintained so Criterion blu-rays are very much in the running so far as future purchases are concerned. Star Trek and Avatar Collector's Edition blu-ray hauls were no-brainers. Another look at the movie hauls:

Off to Lamington road then to get another fan for the PC, forgot to get those darned L-shaped connectors for SATA drives which I need to be able to hook up both my optical drives and also any future hard-drive, given that my gargantuan video card has nicely seated itself over the existing ports.

Okay, the BAD. After getting home, put the drive in and installed the software, told my bro we would be soon watching the new Star Trek movie on  fucking blu-ray. I then discover that switching the display to my plasma TV causes the PowerDVD to throw up a warning that the "Protected content cannot be played on this output" because it's not HDCP compliant! OK now, my TV is connected  by HDMI to the DVI port on my card through an adapter. So I take the cable and plug it directly into the HDMI output on my card. and vice-versa for my monitor. Fine? Not so. As various combinations brought to light the horrible fact that for some reason, my plasma TV refused to accept HDMI connections from anything other than the DVI port. I have no idea where the problem is. The plasma TV manual says that the HDMI connectors are HDCP compatible, the card is HDCP compliant. Then why the FUCK does it not accept a direct HDMI (or even a Displayport to HDMI adapter) output from the PC?

So I was going to be resigned to watching blu-ray movies on a 22" monitor while my 50" plasma TV would lie unused? Searching through the internet reveals no clue as to the problem. But in the end I found one solution. I installed a program called AnyDVD HD which strips off the copy-protection and allows me to play the disc on an unprotected digital video connection. So yes, I saw a bit of Star Trek on the bigger screen and it was good. I still think the image is not optimal (colors sometimes seem a bit off and I'm not sure smoke and fog look as natural as they should), but at least it works.

A software hack that may be defeated is not the solution I would have wanted but it's the one I have to use because nothing else works you mother-raping movie industry jerks! I will evaluate this trial version and if it proves universally suitable I may have to give the makers of this software my money for their useful program.

P.S. Update on the visual quality bit: Turns out some of the wonky quality visuals I had been getting was because of settings on my video card. The main culprit was this setting called "Dynamic Contrast" which makes on-the-fly adjustments to maximize the contrast in any given frame. Totally fucks up dark scenes / scenes with fog. All is good now.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Princess and The Frog [Ron Clements & John Musker]

If you have kids at all, I would have no hesitation in recommending The Princess and The Frog (TPATF). It's a short breezy adventure in the classic Disney mold, with a handsome prince, a spunky damsel, assorted animal sidekicks, even the archetype witch...OK, voodoo priest

The film is set in a Jazz era New Orleans, albeit a cleaned up version, where blacks work as servants to whites but are not subjected to any remarkable degree of discrimination, at last so far as the principal characters go. TPATF introduces Disney's first black heroine Tiana, whose ambition is to fulfill her father's dream of opening a classy restaurant (which one suspects few of their neighbors could afford to eat at) and, as she indicates in the zesty art deco inspired ditty “Almost there”, will work no end to reach that aim. The handsome prince is Naveen of fictional Maldonia, recently landed in New Orleans. Naveen leads the high-life and is in consequence dangerously low on funds. He aims to rectify this by marriage to the pampered Charlotte, Tiana's constantly sympathetic friend and daughter of the town's leading moneymaker.

Cue in the film's bad guy and it's most interesting character, Dr. Facilier. A voodoo priest dressed up to resemble Baron Samedi, Facilier snaps his slender bony fingers, turning Naveen into a frog and induces Naveen's disgruntled valet to impersonate him and claim Charlotte's hand, upon which they will share her father's bounty. Naveen in an effort to get rid of the curse mistakes Tiana for a princess and they kiss, turning her into a frog as well.

It's all quite predictable: our frog protagonists must race against time to regain their human form and in the process fall in love, yada yada. The animal sidekicks this time around are a friendly jazz trumpet-playing crocodile named Louis (in capital letters, REFERENCE) and a jive-talking firefly mistakenly infatuated with a star.

So yes, no surprises here, but keep your expectations child-high and the film delivers. The return to 2D warms the cockles of this nostalgic fan and the film's settings, be it the flashy town with its gaudy nightclubs and mardi gras parades or the night-shaded bayou swamps, allow for Disney's artists to whip up rich backgrounds and amazing riots of color and movement and shadow. The best example of their artistry is Facilier's song “Friends on the other side”; it is for me the film's outstanding moment. It also helps that Facilier himself is an awesomely etched character, falling only a little short in the eeriness department of Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty.

The film is sadly tamer than the classic Disney films it aims to evoke. After pre-emptive protests from pressure groups, Disney dropped the race card and there is no indication that Afro-Americans at the time then had any less rights than their Caucasian counterparts, making Tiana's struggle an entirely personal one; but the catch is, she's not interesting enough as a person for adult audiences to care about what happens to her. It would have been a nice counterpart if Naveen had been a black African prince with a humiliated white serf but that's not happening either. Actually most characters apart from Facilier have been painted with a pleasant but unmemorable brush. Even the illustrators seem to have been instructed to trim the scare elements (like the spirits raised by Facilier to help achieve his ends) in their work, mixing in cheerful colors and reducing darkness levels to keep things within the kiddies' “comfort zone”. All this toning down is a little disappointing because Disney classics like The Fox & The Hound had some poignant moments drawn from the characters' struggle with their role in the world, and I can attest that the moodily lit scene in Sleeping Beauty where Maleficent draws an entranced Belle into activating the curse still creeps me out.

But with its thankfully limited number of songs, frequently eye-popping visual chutzpah and a breezy pace with little downtime, TPATF will delight the kids without putting off their parents much.

The Coroner's Lunch [Colin Cotterill]

Equal parts crime thriller, ghost story and political lampoon, The Coroner's Lunch mixes these éléments divers to provide an engaging tale. The unlikely hero here is Siri, a septuagenarian doctor in communist Laos compelled by those in authority to be the state's sole coroner, though he has neither aptitude nor inclination for the job. With only a cheerful magazine-reading nurse and a Down Syndrome afflicted attendant by his side, Siri must rely on outdated manuals and scarce chemical resources to do the best he can, which is barely competent, and only his wry humor keeps him from losing his control with an incomprehensible bureaucracy. And oh, Siri often encounters the ghosts of his autopsy 'patients'.

The mystery kicks off with the death of the wife of a high-ranking bureaucrat, seemingly an accident. But aided by his investigative instincts and more than a little help from his "friends on the other side", Siri finds himself reeling in a tangled thread of murder and conspiracy that would not be out of place in a Raymond Chandler book. Siri however is no Marlowe clone; his bitterness is far mellowed by age and resignation, and he retains more faith in his fellow-men (and their post-death avatars) than that archetype of the burned out sleuth.

Cotterill's prose has that very enviable quality of “readability”. Indeed, it was a cursory glance over the first few pages that prompted me to buy a book by an author I had never heard of before. The characters are sharply etched and the humor, be it the digs at the state's absurd Big Brother mentality or bawdy age-related jokes, constantly nails you - This could easily be the script for a Joon-Ho Bong film (Memories of Murder, The Host).

The Coroner's Lunch is not quite a masterpiece. There are several instances of deus ex machina including Siri's all-too-convenient encounters with the spirit world, which sully the process of unraveling the puzzle. But it's still an entertaining ride, holding up a lot better than Smilla's Sense of Snow so far as stories of unlikely detectives goes.

My verdict for The Coroner's Lunch: Quite palatable!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Monday, October 25, 2010

Death by Haiku - 3

Familiar, Strange
Once more up the garden path
The air still, waiting.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Hisss [Jeniffer Lynch]

Some of you would have formed a certain opinion of Hisss after seeing the tagline “She's sexy... venomous... and she'll swallow you whole...”. Yea well, it is all that, but it is a good deal more. The spirit of the movie is captured in an early scene when the perpetually dazed cop played by Irfan Khan wonders in one of his several mumbled monologues to himself if everyone around him is crazy. You see, unlike many other movies which show you the descent of a character into madness by holding it against the sobriety of his own earlier self or of other players, Hisss offers no such bedrock of normality against which you, the audience, can assuredly rest upon while judging the motivations of its characters; Here insanity is the common thread that binds them all.

In a performance that in its lightest moments reflects Jack Nicholson's gone-round-the-bend turn in The Shining, Jeff Doucette plays the white man dying of cancer that wants to attain immortality by getting hold of the mythical snake gem from India. Brushing aside conventional wisdom which would suggest that he appease the snakes, he decides to get his way by separating two lover snakes while they're in the act of making snake babies, and then blackmailing the female snake into providing him with said gem. To do this he takes away the male snake to a hidden jungle locale and keeps it in a box where he gives it periodic electric shocks. Pragmatism at work here.

Separated from her lover, the female snake grows boobs and butt and morphs into Mallika Sherawat. Since white man neglected to leave any forwarding address, she must now track him down to get her lover back. Depending on the wildly varying whims of the script she is presented either as superlatively naïve or ridiculously omniscient. Her pursuit of her lover leads to a trail of immensely bloody deaths and hugely entertaining cheap CG imagery. If I may pick nits I'd say that  the first sequence of over-the-top snake ownage is never topped later on. But the camp level is maintained and every other character in the film chips in generously to its overall insanity quotient. I won't say too much more for fear of spoiling it for you, but it is a rewarding film for people who appreciate that sort of thing. With (T)Hisss, David Lynch's daughter has given us Eraserhead for the masses.

Friday, October 22, 2010


 Have you been in a situation where you recall having read a book or seen a film and you general impressions but you can't recall a single thing about the story or the characters? This happens to me a fair deal, especially with short stories. The title is recognizable and I recall if the story was good/bad, but I just can't remember what actually happens in it. Maupassant's The Horla is for me the prime example of this phenomenon. I know it's a cool story that I've read several times, but if you were to ask me now what the plot was I couldn't tell you a thing.

It's a blessing sometimes when you go back to short story collections and read with fresh delight. Sometimes it just makes me mad. Like now. Gah.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Friday, October 15, 2010

Aranyer Din Ratri [Satyajit Ray]

Aranyer Din Ratri aka Days and Nights in The Forest, a beautiful chamber drama from film-maker Satyajit Ray (who does this sort of thing very well) opens with a motley quartet going on a holiday road trip to a forested area. They are friends, but each coming from a separate milieu and with a different temperament: Ashim the unofficial leader (Soumitra Chatterjee, the lead in many of Ray's films) is a suave and successful executive. The neat and shy Sunjoy is a conventional pen-pusher tied to the mores of middle-class existence. Hari, a cricketer is short tempered and impulsive, while an unemployed Shekhar is the joker of the group. They halt en route at a vacant government guest house, where they intend to spend a few days. The film chronicles this interval, revealing the character of these men and the interaction they have with other people, often provoking them into reflection or change.

We get an insight into their personalities in the initial period of their holiday, their sense of needing to break convention to feel some freedom from their daily routine – they bribe the caretaker to assign the guest room to them, refrain from shaving, launch drunken diatribes at the local arrack shop…the hedonistic lifestyle in short. These scenes are presented with a wholly observant attitude, never persuading the audience to either like or dislike the characters.

Things take a big turn when they run into a couple of charming ladies living at a nearby bungalow. Invited by the inordinately trustful and hospitable patriarch of the house, they meet the lovely enigmatic Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) and her cheerful but widowed sister-in-law Jaya (Kaberi Bose). This part of the film is a beautiful study of the mental processes of male-female relationships in modern society: The rituals of socially acceptable cordial behavior mixed with the low-key sensuality and courtship that occurs at the outset of growing acquaintance with the opposite sex. Both Aparna and Jaya are warm-natured, confident and sophisticated women, and one well identifies with the sense of yearning mixed with hesitation that develops within the men when they interact with them. In the while Hari gets passionately involved with a young tribal woman, Duli (Simi Garewal, of all people).

The last phase of the film is when their interactions have proceeded just beyond the preliminary stage. Ashim learns enough about Aparna for him to regard her as more than one of the city women he meets at so many parties, and observes aspects of her nature that lead him to feel guilt for his superficial self-oriented thinking. Sunjoy who grows increasingly comfortable in the company of Jaya gets a jarring moment; and Hari's heated pursuit of Duli ends in a rude blow. But this is not to say that the film ends on a dark note…not at all. Life for our characters goes on…and who knows what the future will bring?

Aranyer...'s main strength is the completely natural way it presents its characters and situations. We've seen courtship rituals and the associated comedy thousands of times on film…a shipload of Bollywood films in the gaudily colored 60's and the 90's onward was devoted to increasingly bizarre and tasteless depictions of social romantic behavior. But you need to see a film like this to appreciate really how intricate and touchingly fragile the whole ritual can be, and how the anticipation of the man-woman relationship relates to and affects the existing behavior and thought process of the persons involved. It takes the deft touch of Satyajit Ray to show it to us in this light.

Which brings me to the rare sour note in my experience: The `transformation' scene of Jaya, the details of which I will not spill for the benefit of those that have not yet seen the film. I understand that Ray wanted to force some kind of a confrontation of the issue of Jaya being a widow and the social constraints upon her, but the way he has done it appears to me as very contrived and gauche, and a huge letdown given the immense easy-going charm of Kaberi Bose's performance up to that point. On a slighter note, Simi Garewal's hilariously accented Bengali makes her tribal character a hard act to digest.

But on the whole Aranyer... is a terrific movie of its type, leisurely but always focused, personal but never self-indulgent.

Anniyan aka Aparichit [Shankar]

In the wake of Endhiran aka Robot's making hot news, I dust off and put up this review I had done for a previous masterpiece from director Shankar:

Writing a review for this movie is one of the really difficult things because there's such a sense of "Where do I start?" when it comes to describing this masterpiece of spectacle oriented movie-making. In terms of theme Anniyan belongs to that rare genre in Indian films, the superhero movie…and to my knowledge this is alongside Endhiran as one of the best movies in that genre.

Which is not something that strikes you immediately because it starts off by introducing us to the character of Ramanujam aka Ambi, a complete pussy that can't stop rattling off about sticking to the laws and doing one's duty etc. With all his whining Ambi not only puts off his fellow men  / women but comes dangerously close to pissing the audience off as well.

But that is when the film deals out its central theme… wimpy Ambi develops a split personality (ya spoiler, but you'd have to be a special kind of moron to not figure this out real early) called Anniyan (tamil) / Aparichit (hindi) [meaning Unknown] who, garbed like the WWF's Undertaker, promises to deal all wrong-doers with suitable punishments from the Garuda Purana scriptures. The very first sequence of Anniyan, when a guy who refuses to help Ambi in saving an accident victim's life is thrown into a cave where he is gored by a herd of bulls, sharply raises one's interest quotient in the film. By the end of his second appearance - where he literally fries up an unscrupulous railway food contractor after smearing him with marinade - Anniyan sends multiple shivers of joy up the spine, defining badass muthafucka in a way that (in comparison) wimps like Batman or the Punisher can only aspire to.

These scenes would be hard acts to follow but each new set-piece in the film defies all previous notions of scale. A big showdown midway through the film is when Anniyan takes on an entire martial arts school in his quest to kill the heroine (for tax evasion, hahaha!!!). Doubtless this scene takes roots from Matrix Reloaded and Kung Fu Hustle, but has enough ingenuity and cheerful insanity in execution to stand out on its own; when 5 of the martial arts guys literally combine to form a single fighting unit and Anniyan, a manic grin pasted on his face, takes a running dive that segues into a gravity and reality defying corkscrew spiral blowing them apart, it's a moment of giddy joy you want to relive over and over.

In this midst, Ambi also evolves another split personality, that of the Casanova-wannabe Remo. Remo successfully charms the heroine whose love hapless Ambi can only yearn for.

Maybe you think I'm divulging too much into the film…but no words can come close to describing the sheer sense of happy incredulity the film operates on and in such a consistent way. You'd have to be seriously opposed to the idea of films as fantasy entertainment to not be completely floored by this movie.

The other aspect of this movie that I love is that it answers to the frustrations of the middle-class, who have been pretty much ignored in most mainstream Indian masala movies that cater either to ultra-rich Punjabi NRI's or rehash the "zopadpatti zindabad, oonchi haveli murdabad" [Hail the poor, down with the rich] pseudo-socialist diatribe. This is a movie where even the loutish poor get their due and I for one cheer heartily. The movie also correctly deprecates the apathy of the average Indian as the root cause of the country going to the dogs.

Lead actor Vikram superbly fulfills all his roles. Granted this is a performance of broad bold strokes and nothing in the way of subtlety, but this is exactly what the film demands and Vikram delivers handsomely. Stunt director Peter Hein is an integral part of the film's draw, the action scenes being absolute treats that teem with superbly executed daredevil stunts and, unlike the airy-fairy antics of Matrix Reloaded, exude a palpably punchy and brutal feel.

Anniyan is not flawless…the romance track with Ambi / Remo is pedestrian (but again notable for the difference Vikram generates between the 2 characters) and the songs necessitated by this track are cacophonous affairs (although a rustic track later in the film, where entire roads and hills are painted over in the loudest hues and lorries parade about wearing gruesome grins is a visual feast). But all things considered, this is a must-see for anyone even vaguely interested in the superhero / fantasy genres and Shankar is to be lauded as one of the few guys interested in taking fantasy cinema in this country to levels hitherto unreached.

Dagon [Stuart Gordon]

If Stuart Gordon is known for one thing, it is his screen adaptations of the works of one of horror literature's most revered deities H.P. Lovecraft. Having so far seen his adaptations of Re-animator, Dreams in the Witch House, From Beyond and now Dagon / The Shadow over Innsmouth (TSOI), I can say it's a reputation that's richly deserved because Gordon is able to consistently convey the overwhelmingly wierd essence of Lovecraft's work without slavishly mounting the original prose.

Innsmouth is one of my favorite Lovecraft stories and I had very high expectations for an adaptation of this one. In the original story, the protagonist goes to the remote New England coastal town of Innsmouth and finds that there's something literally 'fishy' about its inhabitants. The narrative deals with his frantic attempt to escape from the town and the horrible secrets that he uncovers in the course. In a brilliant move, Gordon shifts the narrative to a contemporary period and sets the action in an isolated Spanish coastal village where the geeky protagonist (played by Ezra Gooden who was later to do the lead in Gordon's tele-film adaptation of Dreams in the Witch-House) and his girlfriend land after they get shipwrecked in a storm.

Amidst the close packed stone houses, the narrow winding pathways and a perpetual blanket of rain, Gordon develops an atmosphere of intense tension and loneliness. We keep pace with our hero as he loses track of his girlfriend and finds his own life in peril from the decidedly abnormal residents. The only other complete human on the village is an aged drunk. Our hero is subjected to episode after episode of bizarre and often gruesome happenings, and a final revelation that will completely alter his knowledge of who he is.

Kudos go to regular collaborators Gordon and Dennis Paoli for generating a script that constantly hurtles from one strange incident to another. They are intelligent enough to understand where it's necessary to diverge from Lovecraft's vision without deprecating it in any way. In fact the film in my view does a better job of foreshadowing the protagonist's ultimate destiny than its source material. Also to be marveled at is the spectacular make-up and FX sequences that successfully belie their lesser budgets - the (necessarily) brief sight of the Lovecraftian creature at the end of the movie is worth the anticipation raised.

This film is a must see for all horror fans and especially those who are admirers of HP Lovecraft. Ia, ia, Cthulhu fhtagn!

Brides of Dracula [Terence Fisher]

I so much enjoyed Hammer Studios' maiden vampire production Dracula aka Horror of Dracula that I genuinely looked forward to seeing its immediate successor and the other highly praised film in this series, Brides of Dracula. The results are a bit mixed, but it on the whole an entertaining experience.

Since, due to whatever cause, Hammer did not call in Christopher Lee to reprise his role of the blood-slurping count (rumors vary from Lee declining since he wished to taste more variety in roles to Hammer setting him aside to cut costs), the plotline deals with Dracula's 'disciples' who carry on the unholy work after their master's death. One such is the Baron Meinster (David Peel) who serves as this film's arch-villain.

The film begins with a young girl Marianne traveling to Transylvania to take up a teaching post in a finishing school. Abandoned en route by her coachman and, for reasons unexplained, refused shelter by the local innkeeper, the damsel accepts an invitation by the aristocratic old dame of castle Meinster. The subsequent events of this sequence, where she comes to hear of the dame's son, believes him to be a prisoner of his mother and strives to 'set him free' make for wonderfully tight viewing: the dialog here sizzles with wit and portent ([Dame Meinster] "We pray for death, my son and I…at least I hope he prays."), the performance by Martita Hunt as Dame Meinster is spectacular and the atmosphere piles on so thickly that we dismiss some of the niggling and not-so-niggling plot inconsistencies in this regard.

Anyway, the vampire is set free and the escaped Marianne (who inexplicably still hasn't realized the Baron's true nature) runs into the forest where she faints and is revived by the ever-dependable Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing, in another gracious and manly turn) who just happens to be questing for vampires in the general vicinity. Not knowing of her run-in with Meinster, he escorts her to her employment (ticking off the pompous principal with the sneering courtesy that only Peter Cushing can convey), and continues with his vampire-staking adventures in the locality. In the meanwhile, the villainous Baron again meets and seduces Marianne. Subsequent proceedings converge towards a massive climax where Van Helsing combats and finally rids the menace of Dracula's disciple.

While the film is generally pacy and rarely short of entertainment value, it does fall some notches below the standard of its predecessor, mainly due to some shoddy plotting. Van Helsing who had earlier claimed the rumors of transformation of vampires into bats/wolves a "common fallacy" retracts that statement without notice. Besides the various inconsistencies it makes with the plotline the problem with this is it gives us one of the most hideously unconvincing "rubber thingummy hanging by strings" gag onscreen. At another moment Van Helsing "cures" himself of the vampire's bite by cauterizing the wound….Huh? The good doctor should know that cauterizing is more useful to seal a wound and prevent future infection. As he does this he is watched by 2 vampires with strangely joyful expressions who are simply forgotten further on.

But flaws aside, there is still fun to be had. Peter Cushing commandingly portrays Van Helsing in a performance suffused with intelligence, good humor and admirable athleticism. Even the dubious cauterization is made a lot easier to accept by his presence: Dammit, Peter Cushing's doing it, so there must be something to it. David Peel as the vampire Meinster is a mixed bag: he is credible and cheer-worthy as the seductive ruthless Baron, but once he gets into his blood-drinking get-up he rather looks like Mr. Bean in a blonde wig and fangs, which, come to think of it, is goofier than the normal Mr. Bean. Terence Fisher directs with his customary flair for ornate visual design and action-laden set-pieces, and the climax, where Van Helsing leaps onto a windmill and
spins it to make the sign of the cross that traps the vampire and burns him down, readily surpasses that of the previous film.

Bird with The Crystal Plumage [Dario Argento]

The Bird with The Crystal Plumage was the early breakthrough of Dario Argento and while, like some of his other films, won't stand up to any scrutiny of plot and character development it stacks up pretty darn well as a stylish and fast-paced entertainer.

The flimsy plot centers around an American novelist, Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), who comes to Italy to get over his writer's block and inadvertently becomes the key witness to an attempt at murder by that staple of the giallo, a mysterious black-gloved killer who is into knifing and mutilating young women. Grounded by the police who confiscate his passport, Sam, as with all Argento protagonists, dives enthusiastically into investigating the trail of the killer and is actually encouraged in this by the police instead of being considered a busybody. The killer, who continues with the spree of dastardly crimes, threatens Sam to drop his nosiness or face fatal consequences. Events propel onto the climactic showdown where Sam comes face up with the killer.

While not the most deviously plotted of films, the story moves at a blazing clip and the general flow of events is a lot more coherent than in Argento's supernatural films. The script has some sparkling humor (and I don't mean the unintentional kind). For instance, here's the gist of part of a scene where Sam goes to meet the reclusive artist of a painting related to the crimes:

Sam: I've seen one of your paintings
Artist: Which one?
Sam: The one about a girl being murdered
Artist: Oh, I don't do that crap anymore. I'm into a mystical period. I only do mystical scenes.
Sam: Why?
Artist: Because...I feel mystical, that's why. And it's none of your damn business.

Technically, the movie mostly takes on a gritty real-world look (unlike Suspiria). Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, more famous for his films with Bernardo Bertolucci and Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now, displays his visual chops with some strongly atmospheric near dark shots and some audacious moves including one where the camera takes a first-person view of a man falling from a building. Another scene showing a murder in an elevator seems an obvious inspiration to a similar scene that Brian De Palma shot for Dressed to Kill. The performances by the actors are pleasingly apt and razor sharp editing keeps one's attention constantly held to the on-screen proceedings.

While gore-hounds may be a bit disappointed by the relative scarcity of the red stuff (especially for an Argento film), it is more than made up for by a taut narrative executed with admirable flamboyance.

The Science of Sleep [Michael Gondry]

The Science of Sleep, if cut down to its barest outline, can be described as a romantic story about two people who discover interesting things about each other and want to be together. Stephane is a graphic artist persuaded by his mother to live with her and take up a nearby job, which he discovers is the distinctly mundane task of pasting type-faces on to calendars. His neighbor Stephanie is an artist herself. After their chance encounter Stephane's initial interest in her is more due his attraction to her friend Zoe, but he slowly discovers that the low-profile and sexually disinterested Stephanie has her own charms.

This could be a conventional date movie about how the underdog wins, but Gondry introduces some unique viewpoints which take it far above the mundane. First, Stephane is torn between the real world and a fantasy world where anything can happen. Gondry himself does not bother about strictly differentiating these two worlds and cheerfully segues from one into the other. The fantasy elements give Gondry free rein to express his own trademark visual sensibility, with deliberate lo-fi effects that exude their unique charm. Thus we see Stephane flying over swaying buildings or riding with Stephanie on a stuffed toy horse or sailing on a forest-covered boat in an ocean of cellophane, all essayed with a warmth that would have been impossible to convey using the conventional photo-realism obsessed brand of CGI or that overused 'Tim Burton style'.

Up to this was very much expected. But what pleased me far beyond was Gondry's writing. In Stephane and Stephanie, he has created characters that are non-stereotypic and very empathic human beings; we genuinely like them even as we are made aware of their respective flaws. In a lesser movie Stephane's idiosyncrasies would have been translated as a cuteness factor that endears him to other stock characters. Here we have no doubts that any emotional relationship between him and Stephanie will have its share of troubles. Even at the end the status of their equation is ambiguous; we are given no assurance that their association will go beyond heartfelt friendship. It is to Gondry's credit that we appreciate this ambiguity and do not as an audience ask for a forced resolution. While the leads are terrific, the film also has an interesting set of supporting characters that add to the humor and charm of the experience.

To sum up, The Science of Sleep is a terrific emotional experience that no one who likes off-beat narratives should miss. It is also a great date movie, and one you do not have to leave your intelligence at the door for.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Unheard sounds, unheard voices

Couplet from a ghazal by Mumtaz Rashid:
Chaap kadmon ki gum ho gayi sannaaton mein
Kahin aisa na ho aawaaz bhi khaali jaaye
[The sound of footsteps is lost to the silence
Will the voice also go unheard, I fear]

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Big Sleep [Raymond Chandler]

Though I had heard much of his reputation as a storyteller, The Big Sleep was my first ever experience of a Raymond Chandler book; coincidentally, it is Chandler’s first novel as well.

TBS introduces us to the shadow-draped morally ambiguous world of Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s much-lauded contribution to the annals of detective fiction. Marlowe is the noir sleuth archetype: inelegant but professional, cynical but honest, committed to his duty, if more than a little disgusted at the world he functions in. To Chandler’s immense credit, Marlowe escapes being a furnishing of cliché pose and while you may not call him to drive away your blues, Marlowe in his own way is a likable man.

We pick up the line of TBS’ tangled web when Marlowe takes on a case to tackle a blackmailer tapping the wealthy iron-willed but invalid General Sternwood with some incriminating notes regarding his younger daughter Carmen. Marlowe investigates, only to find that things are never as simple as they seem. Events develop a habit of going out of control, one evil thread twines with another, and murder makes appearances with alarming regularity. Time and again, Marlowe is referred by various characters to the disappearance of the husband of Sternwood’s elder daughter Vivian, till he begins to wonder why he has actually been hired.

Chandler's narrative takes through a world that, be it the more-than-“bratty rich” shenanigans of the Sternwood daughters or the gallery of shadowy characters that touch their lives at various points, is a sump of moral decay. Marlowe must make his way through the slime of dark human nature and it is a journey that will bruise him in more ways than one.

TBS is not the sort of detective tale that hangs solely upon the unraveling of the tantalizing whodunit puzzle, that dazzling flourish of ingenuity where the master-of-his-game sleuth surprises and delights us at the conclusion with his impeccable deduction. To quote Marlowe's words, “I'm not Sherlock Holmes or Philo Vance. I don't expect to go over ground the police have covered and pick up a broken pen point and build a case from it.”

What Chandler offers here is a gripping and insightful journey into the darkness that lurks in the heart of a society where you don't need to pull a trigger to be a killer and morality sleeps the big sleep. TBS has a fine ending, to be sure, but it's a great book long before we get there.

P.S. this review was written a good while back when TBS was the only Marlowe book I had read. Subsequently I went through The Long Goodbye and Farewell, My Lovely. The plots are different but they follow a similar character path so yes, it's like variations on a theme but  Chandler plays them well enough to be enjoyable all over again. These books are definite candidates for the re-read pile.

Death by Haiku - 2

Searching in a dream
For a clue to the doorway
Of another dream.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Bigger Than Life [Nicholas Ray]

There's one reason beyond all else to see Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life, and that's James Mason. I haven't seen many films with this guy, but each one - Lolita, 20000 Leagues Under The Sea, this one - leaves me quite impressed with his presence (and he does seem to have a yen for playing the unhinged obsessive parts, doesn't he?). In this film Mason, who also produced, plays a school teacher who gets a rare and painful inflammatory disease that could be fatal. His only hope is an experimental new drug, the hormone Cortisone. But the renewed existence comes with its costs, because Cortisone has its own set of side effects. Soon Mason is acting over the top, going from affectionate and amiable to sarcastic and overbearing. As his addiction to the drug grows, he becomes a megalomaniac that terrifies his own family.

If you look in the right places, a lot has been said about this 1956 film, from extrapolating the cortisone dependence to drug use, and highlighting the dark underbelly of middle class complacent consumerist society of 50's America...some of which is true, although the extent of these discussions - even detailed dialog about the metaphors of the posters that hang in the protagonist's home - sometimes stretches credulity; there is such a thing as reading too much into a movie. Thankfully Bigger Than Life works even without its metaphors.

By showing us the likability of Mason's character in the first act (apparently brought in by extensive script rewrites from Ray and Mason) the film makes his transformation into a self absorbed tyrant more palpable. We can see how his suppressed worries and insecurities erupt into irrational actions when he can no longer think straight. Yes it's a little formulaic, but that's inherent in the film's structure and works well enough. Mason's performance with its attention commanding air is the strongest element that hold this picture together. The film is also notable for its very ingenious use of scope photography (Joe MacDonald) in a mostly indoors set drama play. The view is always interesting without getting gimmicky.

Caveats? Well, I thought Mason's wife's character (Barbara Rush) was a little under-done. She appears too submissive to her husband's manic whims, even when her own son suffers for the same, and her practical decision making ability varies as per the script's demands. Also the biblical element that forms the films climax seems to come on from, even for Mason's delusions, a little too far off. But these are lesser quibbles for what is still an interesting watch with a major league acting performance from the great James Mason.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Razer's Elite Gaming Gear Giveaway

Spam time :D

Razer, the makers of awesome gaming hardware have a massively cool gaming gear giveaway contest in which you have to just sign up and you become eligible to win an insanely cool arsenal of high-end gaming hardware.

Razer Gaming Gear Giveaway Link

To quote verbatim:

Until the 25th October 2010, one lucky fan will get to score the ultimate gaming suite powered by Razer - worth over US$500 - shipped right to your doorstep that will consist of Razer‘s suite of award winning gaming peripherals - A choice of your Professional Gaming Mouse, your ideal Professional Gaming Surface and Gaming Keyboard (just tell us which one you would like to have - it‘s yours), the Razer Megalodon 7.1 Gaming Audio Headset, Razer Armadillo2 Mouse Cable Management System, a Razer Attitude Tee, Razer Messenger Bag, Razer Gear Rack and a Razer l33t Pack.

We know. Call it complete overkill. Call it senseless. We just believe there‘s no replacement for being a major badass. We also have 1,337 prizes to giveaway just for people who take part in the MOAG*. Heck, even Chuck Norris would be proud.

If you‘re already feeling dizzy from reading, you can quit this page and leave. If you think you‘re worth a shot to be a part of this insanely massive pact - you can sign up below now. We honestly don‘t give a damn whether you‘re in Arizona, Zimbabwe or in the snowy hills of Tibet. Every gamer on this blue planet gets a fair shot and the complete details are available once you confirm your participation. For the brave - there are over 1,337 prizes to be scored, and for the truly Razer afflicted, the HardKore challenge awaits within.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The eye behind the lens

My friend Shashi aka Nishchara is an amateur photography enthusiast and as you can see from the pictures in his flickr album linked below he has quite the eye for composition and contrast.

nishchara's flickr photostream

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Endhiran aka Robot [S. Shankar]

Rewind some 3 years back to Sivaji – The Boss, the first collaboration between mega-star Rajnikant and mega-director S. Shankar. Given the colossally exaggerated stylistic flourish of several of the films made by these two names in their individual capacities, one expected the end product to be the embodiment of chutzpah and ass-kickery in the realm of mainstream Dravidian cinema. Sadly, this was not to be. The rare bit aside, Sivaji proved to be despite its lavishness lackluster, and the combination of “Baas” Rajni and Shankar turned out a wasted opportunity. Flash to the present now, to another collaboration of these two phenomena in the form of Endhiran aka Robot. How does the die roll this time around? Short answer: THIS is what Sivaji should have been. THIS is, in capital letters, REDEMPTION.

The most important thing that anyone going to watch this film should keep in mind is that it is built around the legend of its leading man; putting it simply, the movie exists to show there's nothing Rajni Kan't. Yes, one of the lead characters is a scientist (Rajni) and the other is his humanoid robot (Rajni, again), and there are casually dropped remarks about cloning, fuel cells and electromagnetism. But you don't need to be even remotely geeky to see that the science is utter hokum. When you're the most expensive Indian film made (180 crore rupees or more, approximately US$40 million) in a nation where even basic literacy is at a premium, you can't conjure a techno-fantasy to appeal to the fetishes of high school nerds, and robo-Rajni's references to his “one terahertz processor, one zetabyte memory” are probably about as much technical jargon as the largest contingent of Rajni-fans will take before keeling over.

In the admittedly absurd narrative, scientist Rajni devotes all his attention to making an advanced robot soldier that he proposes to provide as an asset to the Indian armed forces. He goes rather far in said quest, bothering to give the robot artificial skin (even feeds the robot dancing modules, which could...umm, I don't at those military balls). Scientist Rajni's work must really take its toll on his health because despite being depicted as an eligible bachelor with a medical student girlfriend, one could swear that at several moments he looks rather like grandpa in a bad wig. Harrumph, let's remind ourselves again that this is a Rajnikant film and push ahead. Robo-Rajni is proudly unveiled and takes his first steps into the living world, accompanied by a large number of simple-minded jokes about his bumbles with understanding humans, some of which, like his run-in with a corrupt traffic cop, are actually funny. Scientist Rajni then uses this evolved robot as a super-expensive valet (although given auto-rickshaw rates and attitude of drivers in Chennai, perhaps even actual servants cost a bomb and behave thuggishly). He also blithely loans him to the girlfriend (Aishwarya Rai, aged and dumb-mannered enough to support the character of a repeat failure medico). This affords the opportunity for Shankar to rub spit between the palms and break out some of his trademark visual chutzpah. A brilliantly mounted sequence where robo-Rajni takes on a small battalion of ruffians on and off a local train comes off as one of the best action sequences one has ever seen up till then.

In the meanwhile, scientist Rajni's erstwhile mentor, played by classy Bollywood baddie Danny Denzongpa, grows jealous of his student's success and after failed attempts to copy the magic formula (robo-Rajni's “neural schema”) makes use of his position in the regulatory board (for robo-research? I couldn't get that clearly) to reject robo-Rajni's entry as a combat soldier on the basis that he lacks “feeling” and cannot distinguish friend and foe. With the help of more absurd techno-jargon, scientist Rajni apparently “injects” feelings into his creation. This brings up a whole slew of problems as robo-Rajni with his “humane” outlook falls for the scientist's girlfriend and asserts his right to “live and love”. Cue then to spiraling chaos as “now feeling” robo-Rajni is turned to evil to achieve his end, even making a clone army in the process. What happens then and how his mega-menace is finally vanquished forms the remainder of the proceedings.

Having Rajnikant play the lead in a film is a double-edged sword. On the one financial success is almost a given; his fans care nothing that their superstar is in real life a bald, paunchy 60-year old with total disregard to sartorial trends. But it also severely limits his onscreen character. Presenting him as anything other than the super-heroic “protector of the poor” and “son of a thousand mothers” or daring to show him getting even slightly roughed up by a baddie has proved to be often dangerous to the makers and exhibitors of films in that part of the country. Shankar has circumvented this major limitation with his double-role gambit. Who better to provide a serious challenge to the heroic Rajni than a villainous Rajni? The superstar, who in the early days of his acting career played several roles with negative shades, grabs with palpable relish the long-lost chance of portraying a baddie again, and with his characteristic aplomb, significantly effaces reservations of him being the right actor for the role. In short Evil Rajni rocks!!!

But the foremost reason for seeing this film is its sequences of large scale daredevilry and visual effects audacity. My biggest fear after the aforementioned train battle was whether the rest of the film would have stuff to match it. As it turned out, that scene was not only matched but pounded to the ground by the sheer awesomeness of the action that followed. The CGI may not have the polish and integration that the typical Hollywood summer blockbuster has, but in my view Shankar's conception and choreography of the action rivals and even surpasses the work of the Wachowskis and Michael Bay. The climax with the shenanigans of the clone army of robo-Rajnis is the apogee of the imagination and painstaking effort taken to make the film. Also, thanks to the very malleable standards of the Indian censor board, this “U” certificate film happily shows us such sights as the large scale massacre of policemen, which even the Terminator franchise had to nerf in its sequels.

There are caveats, yes. The filler in between the action can be tedious, though I'd assert no more so than any other stereotype Rajni film; most scenes featuring Aishwarya Rai fall in this category. You'd think at least a film of this scale and intent would stoke him, but AR Rahman continues his trend of “Money for Nothing” scores, and only the song sequences shot in Machu Pichu and in the WTF futuristic lair of evil Rajni match up to the hallucinatory goodness of Shankar's erstwhile song picturizations. But to my mind the good parts of this film by their sheer impact far eclipse its weaknesses and I can confidently regard Endhiran/Robot as one of the most entertaining films in the repertoires of both Rajnikant and Shankar. Viva la combinación!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

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 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.