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:

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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.

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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