Friday, December 30, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows [dir. Guy Ritchie]

The 2009 movie of Sherlock Holmes was a guilty pleasure. It had very little to do with the creations of Arthur Conan Doyle, but it was a fun romp in its own way, a buddy action movie that just happened to be set in the late 19th century and placed its protagonists in 221B Baker Street (for little time anyway, considering all the running about they did). Robert Downey's Holmes was more Robert Downey than anything else, but Jude Law gave a sassy entertaining spin to Watson, bringing that all-too-easily dismissed character to the fore. Yes, the plot was foolish and our sleuth showed more brawling skills than detective work, but the film wasn't to mine eyes any more offensive than the countless goofy plots thought up for the Sherlock Holmes radio programs and films with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.

The sequel, sub-titled A Game of Shadows, attempts to give us more of the same - more over the top action, more hoofing it across landscapes (country-hopping now), more of characters from the book being untrue to their source material. If you're one to complain how this franchise is not faithful to the Sherlock Holmes “canon” you had best stay away from this. They don't even have the decency to allow for a bit of time to pass before rushing in to tell you that Holmes survived his encounter with Moriarty at the Reichenbach falls.

Oh yes, in the second film itself Holmes has squared off against his arch-nemesis. Jared Harris does a good job of Moriarty as an evil mastermind, reminiscent of the Bond villains. In most scenes, he comes across as Holmes' superior, and even his tone of addressing the detective is one of condescension rather than the respect to which he alludes. Unfortunately, Moriarty's methods to eliminate Holmes and Watson are also reminiscent of Bond villains - Filling up an entire train with enough weaponry to take down a battalion for the sole purpose of snuffing out the good doctor and his wife? Seems rather wasteful, Professor. In fact, the usage of guns increases exponentially as the film progresses; towards the end our two heroes (and a band of ragtag companions) are dodging mortar shells and steam-era ballistic missiles.

So yes, this certainly ain't your daddy's Sherlock Holmes and it's patently absurd every which way you look at it, but is it fun? I liked the first movie a good deal, this one less so. Although Game of Shadows has the same running length as the 2009 film (which at 2 hours plus is a half hour more than what it should be), it feels more bloated, and runs even further if possible into the realms of the generic - there's a scene midway with Holmes and Watson as part of a horse-mounted posse, and it feels like you've landed in one of those Spaghetti western spoofs, Sherlock's disguise skills now extend to custom-designed leotards that allow him to blend in with the furniture, and Stephen Fry as Mycroft has a scene where he shows more naked Stephen Fry flesh than you'd ever want to see, a scene that has no reason to exist other than perhaps Stephen Fry mistakenly thinking it a good prank. But the film is not devoid of its charms: in its best parts it plays like a hilarious spoof on the original characters (Mycroft: ...a matter involving two countries that shall not be named, except that they speak French and German”). Jude Law's Watson remains endearing (Holmes in contrast is even less interesting), and several action scenes carry a good deal of energy. I also love Philippe Rousselot's classy photography that eschews the hyper-contrasted digital look favored by many of today's blockbusters for a more painterly palette.

So on the whole I thought it was quite alright as disposable entertainment. If you didn't like its predecessor, you're certainly not going to care for this.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

That Long-winded Tintin Movie [dir. Steven Spielberg]

Just to clarify, I have no issues with the fact that a lot of kids and their daddies & mummies like this film. The Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson team has given a very serviceable animated adventure flick to see and forget (until the next time your tyke insists on watching). But if all you're getting out of an adaptation of Herge's perennially marvelous and entertaining comic book series is a serviceable one-time watch, it indicates a certain lacunae.

To be honest, there will be some things inherently amiss with all motion picture versions of the Tintin comics. Much of the humor in the printed stories comes from the framing of the action, how a scene transitions from one panel to another, the joke concentrated in that concise staccato. Seeing those very actions expanded and articulated actually diminishes the fun. This was something that struck me even when I saw episodes from the Canadian cartoon TV series, arguably a far more faithful adaptation of the comics. The other aspect is that a still image, because it requires less repetitive labor and doesn't have to deal with the intricacies of fluidly transitioning from one frame to another, can be far more detailed than a moving image. Several of the larger sized panels from the comics feature lavishly depicted scenes of bedlam that reward you with fresh visual goodies as you cast your eye over each corner. Animated movies cannot afford to be so extravagant, since the frame is moving and they need to quickly set up areas of focus for the viewer. Also Tintin took advantage of many tricks of the comic book format, including the use of thought bubbles and halos reflecting the characters' emotions, that do not at all adapt well to cinema (check this panel as a slight example of what I'm talking about).

These are of course shortcomings innate to any “motion picture” Tintin. The new film in particular suffers from being done with 3D computer graphics (referring to the rendering style here, not the need for 3D glasses, since I saw it “flat” at the old-school Regal cinema). Now I've liked a fair number of CG rendered and roto-scoped adventure films, mostly those by Pixar and some pleasant surprises like Monster House and the super-awesome Rango. I have little to fault in the technical wizardry of the visuals, the noir-inspired lighting in particular, but the Tintin comics have a very distinct visual identity that hasn't translated well to the 3D animated format. In comparison to their bright primary colors and exquisite caricature expressions, the film's visual palate is rather bland – I specifically think it was a mistake to try to render the characters in a more “humanized” way, if you will call it that. In contrast, one of the most fun bits for me was the opening credits sequence where they showed a stylized cartoon version of Tintin set to a jaunty period tune from John Williams (who then goes on to deliver a generic Spielberg movie score for the actual film, why?).

The tone of the film is again mostly flat and lacking in the outright hilarity that makes the comics such a rewarding re-re-re-re-read. The jokes are far too few (Hot Fuzz's Pegg & Frost woefully underused as Scotland Yard's favorite bumbler sleuths)...and the script seems to specifically eschew the surreal and strongly flavored humor that distinguishes Tintin from other schoolboy's adventure comics – remember the scene where a hallucinating Haddock imagines Tintin to be a champagne bottle and tries to “uncork” his neck? Or the one where he gets drunk after they hijack the seaplane and insists on grabbing the controls, leading to their crash? All gone. The few highlights for me were Haddock's flashback of his ancestor's battle with Red Rackham and the hearty chase sequence in the second half of the movie, which successfully incorporate laughs with the thrills. The climactic action again disappoints, with Haddock and the villainous Sakharin seated in opposite cranes indulging in some Transformers-lite machine bashing. Ho-hum.

So these are my general impressions. Truth be told, I had pretty low expectations for the film as a Tintin adaptation and they mostly turned out right. You can definitely see it (hold your kids up as an excuse) but I doubt most Tintinerds will eagerly look forward to the inevitable follow-ups on this franchise. Incidentally if you want to see Tintin adaptations apart from the cartoon series, try this live-action movie called Tintin and The Golden Fleece. To be sure the budget isn't lavish, the actors wear obvious prosthetics to depict the characters, and the adventure is far more low-key than Herge's work, but in its limited way it does a better job of capturing that mix of action and wacky humor that characterizes the Tintin universe.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Nothing to Fear.

What frightens me is not the void itself but that I am no longer afraid to slip into it.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Note Extraordinaire [dir. Amol Palekar]

My knowledge of Hindustani or for that matter any classical form of music wouldn't be a thimble's worth but I appreciate some of the moods it evokes and have tremendous respect for the skills of the people that have dedicated themselves to the study and performance of such music. Kishori Amonkar, the subject of this documentary is someone I first heard of when I saw Govind Nihalani's film Drishti, for which she had done the score. Drishti as a film, the more I think of it, the more I feel it sucked, a lifeless Ingmar Bergman pastiche with some nice moody cinematography (Nihalani himself). But it had fine music, mostly on account of Amonkar's voice; there's an aura and resonance to it even a neophyte like yours truly feels captivated by.

I never got any albums by her because I didn't have a clue what to get, what compositions by her would suit the moods I have a preference for. But I found her interesting, having read of her being a temperamental person who transcended accepted norms and orthodoxies of technique, and who didn't indulge in the public relations exercises that a lot of renowned musicians do to keep their names abuzz.

Amol Palekar's documentary goes some way to giving an insight into the individual behind the name. The film begins with Amonkar talking about her mother. She waxes on about her mother's talent, her struggle to bring up Kishori and her 2 siblings after her husband's death, her philosophy towards music and its study, her manner of teaching the young Kishori and the corrections and criticisms she made, which shaped the singer we today know. There's a palpable emotional element during some of these conversations, revealing the depth of the guru-mother influence.

Palekar then puts the focus on Kishori's own evolution as a singer, her distilling of the training she received into forging her own path, and the development of her musical philosophy. She makes some very interesting remarks about how the rendition of a note is not an isolated element but weighs on its spatial and temporal relationship to the other notes, the overall composition and the mood it is trying to evoke. This is genuinely revealing stuff that takes this documentary from the domain of an ordinary biography to an exploration of an artist's thinking process. Full marks to Palekar for this kind of insightful reporting. Apart from Amonkar herself, there are conversations with her sons, who talk about her as an artist and as a mother, with other known names of Hindustani classical music (Amjad Ali Khan, Zakir Hussain, Shiv Kumar Sharma) who sometimes offer up more than superficial paeans to Amonkar's mastery, and with music critics who dissect the evolution of her style over time. This is a lovely portrait of an interesting artist that people who like Indian classical music will find very welcome.

The overall effort is quite laudable, but there are certain lacunae to Note Extraordinaire. Palekar is no Satyajit Ray, only intermittently realizing that interviews and conversations need not exclusively frame the talking heads. Amonkar's music is also not as prevalent in the background as it could have been. The volume levels for older performance excerpts are out of sync with the sound recorded for the documentary. Interestingly, on the DVD, you have 3 sound options – Marathi (original) or Hindi (voice-overs) with stereo sound, and a Marathi option with 5.1 surround. In my view, it's stupid to have a surround track for a solo performer documentary, but you have the option. Lastly, I believe it's plain cussedness that in this day and age, films presented in a widescreen (digital video) format are given non-anamorphic transfers that don't stretch correctly over flat-screen televisions. It is especially egregious since the makers have taken care to ensure that the provided English subtitles appear inside the film frame. It's better than UTV's Harischandrachi Factory DVD, where, if you don't grasp everyday Marathi, you couldn't watch the film in the original aspect ratio, on account of the subtitles going out of the zoomed in widescreen frame, but such carelessness spoils one's view of the overall worth of these off-the-beaten-track releases.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Whatever gave you the idea that I am a misanthrope? I LOVE people! I just want to see a lot less of them.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Forbidden Planet [dir. Fred Wilcox]

For people that like golden era pulp SF, Forbidden Planet is retro-futuristic mana. The use of miniatures and matte paintings in this movie makes for some spectacular eye-candy, if you aren't spoiled by the technological excesses of today's CG-fests.

The plot is something that could have come from an episode of radio's Dimension X. Leslie (Naked Gun) Nielsen is Captain Adams, helmsman of an Enterprise style spaceship sent to the planet Altair to investigate / rescue a previous space mission to colonize the planet. The only characters the captain and his two lieutenants (hmm, a precursor to Star Trek's Kirk-Spock-McCoy trio?) encounter are Dr. Morbius, a survivor of the previous mission, his naïve daughter Alta and a do-it-all robot called Robby whose absolutely charming suit design (it definitely is a man in a suit) without question inspired the look of the robot from Futurama

Morbius lives in a swanky pad at odds with the rocky barren terrain of the rest of the planet and has all manner of gee-whiz gadgets that eclipse any of the technology Adams and his men have seen. But there's a sinister side too: According to Morbius everyone from the previous mission except for him and his wife were culled by a mysterious force shortly after they landed on the planet, and it looks like the arrival of Captain Adams' ship has re-awakened an ancient evil.

Forbidden Planet's grasp of technology is classic pulp hyperbole and absurdity, and it makes for an entertaining film, even if you have the odd lame moment like Robby using his built-in chemistry lab to synthesize 60 gallons of whiskey for the cook in Adam's crew. Nielsen does well as the square-jawed swaggering hero and Walter Pidgeon as Dr. Morbius provides an admirable delusional scientist foil. Apart from the afore-mentioned snazzy visual FX, the movie makes huge use of electronic sound and music cues in the soundtrack to bolster the SF factor. Plot-wise it's not as good as some of the better Star Trek (original series) episodes, and certain animation effects may not now inspire the fear and awe the makers were hoping for, but the bulk of Forbidden Planet carries a nice old-skool shimmer that makes it worth for retro-pulp fans like yours truly.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Change of act

He jumped up on to the bare stage in his complete clown regalia, but it turned out his audience was composed entirely of the skeletons of little children draped upon the rickety, stained chairs. They'd been there so long cobwebs were strung across the chasms and canyons of the bones. He stared for a moment in disbelief, then let out a long sigh and proceeded to tell them the saddest story in the world.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Bat Lash

Spotted this as one of the DC Showcases available on Flipkart, and since the price was significantly lower than the standard ones, I did a recce on it. Turned out the price was low since the Showcase itself was significantly smaller - Bat Lash was a character with a very short run. I did some reading up which made these comics seem my sort, so I took the gamble.

Bat Lash is a Western hero come up with by Sergio Aragones (MAD magazine, Groo) and Dennis O' Neil (lots of my fav Batman era comics). When I saw that line-up I knew I had to check it out. Having read through the entire volume in a couple sittings, I can say I didn't regret it. Lash is in most of his outings the old-skool happy go lucky type, attracted to the ladies and while (very unsuccessfully) not looking for a fight, doesn't flinch away from one that comes to him...and one always does. The character is very similar to Terence Hill's Trinity and to a smaller extent, Bruce Campbell's Brisco County Jr. (a major difference being that Brisco is on the side of the law). Most episodes are self-contained and feature Lash getting into and out of a scrape, and kissing a pretty girl at some point. Towards the latter part of the series, Bat Lash's origin is revealed: His family was a duped by a land grabber and apathy from the law drove him to become a murderer and fugitive. The episodes dealing with the origin have a darker tone than the other stories. On the whole this is decent light reading if you like that sort of thing.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Duke Nukem Forever

I haven’t played the earliest versions of Duke Nukem but Duke Nukem 3D (DN3D), I totally tripped over. The initial appeal of course was the setting of the shareware version. In those days when internet connections and access to “naughty content” were largely restricted, DN3D with its racy imagery of adult movie posters, magazine covers and video clips, and even live strippers that’d obligingly flash you when you “used” a currency bill on them was a juvenile dream come true; suddenly Doom’s visions of Hell weren’t that arresting. If DN3D had been just a few dollops of sizzle with substandard gameplay, the fascination with pixilated boobies wouldn’t have lasted long. But it was a game with legs: long, sturdy, sexy legs. Crafted with the BUILD engine, the toolset that produced some of computer gaming’s kvlt-est shooters, DN3D packed a triple whammy of eye-popping level design, an innovative fun arsenal, and an iconic wisecracking lead character that would make PC gamers everywhere prick up their ears when they heard his name.

That was in 1996. From then on until a few months ago, the development of the sequel Duke Nukem Forever (DNF), examined in detail elsewhere, has been the most bloated (like a latter day Elvis, hail to the King, baby!) and tortuous saga in video game history, one that alienated all but a handful of the most dedicated fanboys that plugged their senses against the humongous wave of negativity that had risen amongst the gamer press and public. In this while the shooter genre went places. Half-Life came out in 1998 and, for better or worse, dictated the design document of most blockbuster action games that would follow. Story-based action, dialog-spewing characters, scripted sequences...everyone wanted to make the next “cinematic experience”. Single-player shooter level design became a straight line dotted with cutscenes and mission objective screens, rarely allowing, let along rewarding exploration of alternate routes. Another thing I hugely missed was the humor and sense of goofy fun from older games: Gordon Freeman was fine for the game he starred in, but now almost every action game lead is a dour silent entity with zero character appeal.

Which is why when I saw the surprise videos of Gearbox's revival of DNF, I had a pleasant feeling. I certainly did not expect the game to be anything like the revolution that it was touted to be. I expected graphics that would be a mish-mash of older and newer work. I expected rough edges all around. What I wanted was from DNF was precisely what most gamers feared it would be, a retread of a genre no longer in fashion. If it could have just captured the feeling of being a Duke game with a shinier graphical palette than its predecessor I would have been quite satisfied. So how did it fare?

First things first, DNF is nowhere the disaster Daikatana was. Given its multiple technology makeovers it has a reasonably consistent circa 2004 look. I didn't encounter aren't any blatant game-killing bugs, and while the enemy AI is dumb it at least doesn't do things like stand calmly while getting shredded by the player. Given the incredible mess of code that must be the DNF engine, I'd say that's something of an achievement. There are moments when the game is likable if you don't have exacting standards. A fight with Duke holding siege in a trailer against a horde of pigs (not cops anymore), while they pummel and break through it brings pleasant memories of pipe-bomb fragging. Duke's casino level occasionally has pretty sights. The weapons are hefty and satisfying to use in combat – the shotgun still packs a punch, the ripper is still good for firing at enemies en masse, the rocket launcher still has a suitably chunky feel, the shrink get the drift. DNF does a good job of making you feel like a badass in most combat situations. There's also a decent variety. Apart from standard FPS firefighting, there are vehicle driving missions (where you can run over enemies), bits where Duke gets shrunk and must run obstacle courses to get ahead, turret-manning wait, those turret missions really sucked. There's nothing more boring than for the player to sit in one place while enemies/spacecraft move towards him and all he has to do is keep the fire button pressed. If I wanted this shit, I'd have got Beachhead 2000. Although most of Duke's new lines aren't particularly memorable (no new Evil Dead films to rip from, that's why), Jon St Jon injects an agreeable machismo into his role and it's nice to have a chatty hero again in an FPS.

On the uglier side, DNF leans too heavily on the Half-Life school of design. The game is so linear, most of the time it's like being in a corridor with different wallpapers to suggest different settings. Boss fights can be particularly egregious, forcing you to fight either perched on a narrow platform, or constantly bumping into level geometry. Consolification or whatever else, there are other design decisions that take Duke several steps behind his earlier avatar. Early in the game you can make Duke do dumbbell curls but they don't seem to do him any good since he can carry only two weapons at a time a la Halo (pipe bombs and trip-mines thankfully don't count here). A patch put out after I had gone through more than 2/3rds of the game increased this carrying capacity to four, grrr. Medkit? No, there's regenerating health, sorry EGO. Scuba Gear? Natch, Duke has to go searching for streams of air bubbles when he's underwater. Compromises like these detract significantly from the gameplay and have no place in what should have been a resolutely old-fashioned shooter. The save system is another major disappointment. You can't have any saves other than the automated checkpoints, which makes some of the jumping puzzles annoying, and woe if you try to replay a mission before completing the game because you'll lose your current check point. That's right folks, while DN3D allowed you to save or quicksave whenever you wanted, DNF gives you a grand total of one automated save for all your needs.

In these days where all manner of gonzo porn lies a couple of clicks away, Duke's raciness is no longer a huge selling point. It also doesn't help that all the female models in this game have an undead-like appearance and gait, which makes you wonder what the fuck 3D Realms was doing with its in-house motion capture studio unless they were aiming for Zombie Strippers. There's one level midway in the game where Duke enters a strip club. Instead of pulling out money for favors he has to do a Leisure Suit Larry quest to get a lapdance. When did Duke get so pussy-whipped as to do errands for a titty flash? The situational humor is very forced. The entire prologue about Duke being this guy that everyone aspires to kiss the ass of, is one of the singularly most dull and unfunny experiences to play through. Like another reviewer said, it'd have been better to have a scenario where Duke has to re-earn the respect he has lost over the years. Sadly this game doesn't do that.

Since it was available for very cheap in India and I didn't have any significant expectations, I don't regret picking it up. But yeah it provides only a few moments of fun in what is for most part a bland and rote experience. DNF is certainly done, but well-done is another matter.

Monday, August 8, 2011

One of these days

One of these days I'm going to write an essay about what I came away with from Terence Malick's Tree of Life (It is indisputably a brilliant film, if that's all you wanted to know, go see it now).

One of these days I'm going to write the last act to that story I scribbled 2/3rds of during last month's vacation.

One of these days, I'm going to set my bookshelves right..and read more of the stuff that I've accumulated instead of lounging at the PC checking for Facebook updates.

One of these days I'm going to figure out what to do with my blog other than movie reviews.

One of these days I'm going to put myself least right-er than where I am now.

One of these days.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Monica [Sushen Bhatnagar]

If there's any one reason to see Monica, it's to say that you've seen a film where Rajit Kapur chews up scenery and Ashutosh Rana is impressively restrained. Otherwise, this one is no good as the story of a wannabe hotshot journalist (Divya Dutta) that is willing to make all manner of compromise to gain a foothold in the corridors of power, and is in general too coy to make much good in the sleaze department. Add to that a wholly unnecessary and intrusive non-linear editing style and you can't call this a great way to spend 2 hours. All in all it's OK for a FEW lulz moments. But yes, this is a movie where Rajit Kapur chews up scenery and Ashutosh Rana is impressively restrained, and that's something.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Browny Monday - 2

Browns and Grays
Are the colors for today
It's another
Browny gloomy Monday.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Atonement [dir. Joe Wright]

Atonement gives off the flavor of a film based on a Booker-prize winner; post watch wiki-ing reveals that the novel (Ian McEwan) was shortlisted for the same. The Bookers like to follow a pattern, don't they? Anyhow this is a very decent film. The atonement in this story is attempted by Briony who as a young girl on the cusp of World War II commits a breach of honesty that spirals out into turmoil for her elder sister Cecilia and Cee's lover Robbie. You see, Briony wrongly accuses Robbie of being a molester and the consequences are devastating for all concerned. Cecilia and Robbie are condemned to a lifetime of austerity and waiting, while Briony is left to reflect on the implications of her action.

The chain of events is narrated in an interesting slightly non-linear manner; typically this consists of seeing an event from Briony's perspective, then returning to the scene with a more holistic view. I assume this style would have its roots in the source novel, but I have yet to verify this. Atonement is set in Britain of the late 30's and 40's where people are still being “propah” and dressing dandyishly for tea. Even little actions heighten the sense of fettered sexuality, an aspect most beautifully exploited here. Yes, things are more overt here, with Cecilia stripping to her underclothing to dive into the family pond or having an impromptu bonk in the library, but even the holding of hands and the exchange of yearning looks carries greater significance than it would in a contemporary film.

It doesn't hurt as Kiera Knightley plays Cecilia with the same pixie-like allure that Helena Bonham-Carter once brought to her roles in the period films of Merchant-Ivory and others, and unlike the silly business in those overrated Pirates of the Caribbean films, she flourishes both presence and talent here. James McAvoy as Robbie is entirely believable as he goes from fresh-faced lover to shattered wreck, without the film going too far into melodramatic dreck territory. Like I said, the feel is that of a Booker book, a good thing in this case. Sherlock Holmes fans will get a kick out of seeing his newest player Benedict Cumberbatch in a small but effective turn as a complete cad. The photography (Seamus McGarvey) is rich in a picture postcard-vein, going from stately English mansions to the battle-scarred beaches of France, even throwing in some suspiciously leery glances at war wounds.

If there is a criticism to Atonement, once could say the flow of events in the script seems “constructed” rather than growing organically. But that is really more of a design decision for the film (and the book, possibly), and should not be a deal-breaker for people interested in seeing what is on the whole a good solid romance story.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Browny Monday

Like the slushy, grainy mess
At the bottom of a coffee press
This Browny Monday.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Curse of The Cat People [Gunther Von Fritsche – Robert Wise]

Don't let the dual director credits fool you, the 'real' direction for this film comes from producer Val Lewton, who made a remarkable series of low-budget high-concept psychological terror films for RKO studios from 1942-46. The first in that parade was Cat People, and 2 years later came this sequel. A sequel it is in name only, forced by RKO's demand with, like for most of Lewton's films, a title imposed by them, leaving the producer to work out the “little” details of plot and execution. Apart from Bedlam and The Ghost Ship, I thought all of them were immensely rewarding.

Curse... is in actuality a sensitive exploration of the dark side of childhood imagination. Apparently based on Lewton's own experiences and having at least a casual similarity to that achingly tragic tale Silent Snow, Secret Snow by Conrad Aiken, our center of attention is little Amy (Ann Carter), an unusual child that compensates with her imagination for the lack of friendship in her real world. Amy is a character that some of us, myself very much included, would identify with to a greater or lesser degree. With a mind that travels on a different track than the vulgarity we define as “norm”, Amy is unsurprisingly shunned by her peers who have not learned to accept her individuality.

And not just the children, this lack of comprehension also applies to her parents, especially her father who feels that he must pressure Amy to conform to his expectations of a normal child. This is an unthinking pressure that with its resultant guilt-complex only further destabilizes Amy's thoughts, making the fantasy-world an ever more desirable place to disappear into. Other characters she encounters, like the very Miss Havisham-like Julian Farren (Julia Dean) who denounces her own daughter as an impostor and insists on treating Amy to a telling of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, batter upon the fragile windows of her sanity.

Most of Lewton's terror films teased the audience with “Is this real or imagined?” dilemma where they had to judge for themselves if there was any actual supernatural element or merely reflective of the paranoid/fantastic imagination of the film's characters. Curse... also entwines the same philosophy into its narrative. The trademark play of light and shadows and sound is here more reflective of Amy's response to her surroundings: The dimming of the lamps as Mrs. Farren plunges deeper into her tale of horror, the magical glow of the garden when Amy's “friend” appears, the apparent clatter of hooves as a terrified Amy dreads the coming of the Headless Horseman. We are one with Amy's perspective as she repeatedly fails to find her footing in a world ever more unaccommodating to her beliefs.

Curse of The Cat People is no uninspired attempt to make a profitable franchise, it's a gripping original work that deserves to be seen on its own merits.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Drive Angry 2D [Patrick Lussier]

The 3D on the theatrical run of Drive Angry must have been really something for my friends to like it, because in plain ol' 2D it majorly sucks. Apart from an amusing-cool turn by William Fichtner as the supernatural Accountant, this Terminator-meets-Cobra-with-lashings-of-Shoot 'Em Up vehicle has scarcely any of the charm or wit of its inspirations. The colors look washed out, Nicholas Cage is in trademark "I shouldn't have gotten out of bed this morning" mode, and apart from VERY brief bits where the goofiness of the proceedings elicits a smile, the bulk of this shitty drive is a waiting game for the end-credits.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Manorama Six Feet Under [Navdeep Singh]

One of the pitfalls of working primarily as entertainment to either the great unwashed masses or the cud-chewing family archetype is that Indian cinema has either completely omitted or produced extremely crude and elementary examples of films in off-kilter genres like horror and noir.

The detective noir in particular has been rarely seen in home-grown film efforts. One suspects that the basic tenets of this type of film run in direct contrast to the basic tenets of mainstream 'masala' movie-dom. In noir, the central protagonist (hero, if he may be called that) is almost typically a deadbeat; a loser who nurses a dream of making it good in life and has compromised himself (or herself but let me concentrate on one gender for convenience sake) in some ways to get along with the world, but still lives on the fringes, by compulsion more than choice. Against this background he finds himself getting rapidly embroiled in an unfolding roller-coaster of characters and circumstances that often turn out to be other than what they initially appear. He finds himself in situations where his internal code of conduct - what may be his sleeping but not quite dead conscience - is called in to make the decisions...and the results are never entirely happy.

One of the previous efforts in Hindi films that could be said to have a brush with the noir genre is Ketan Mehta's 1997 outing Aar Ya Paar. That one suffered from two fatal flaws – incredibly bad casting and most abysmal direction. Thankfully, Navdeep Singh's debut feature crosses those hurdles with a nimble grace and has enough points of interest to merit viewing.

The protagonist Satyaveer aka SV (Abhay Deol) is archetype noir, right down to the irony of his name. He is the failed author of a detective novel Manorama, which according to his words was the “magnum opus that sold less than 200 copies”. Running his domestic affairs - which include affectionate, if not always sweet-tongued wife Nimmi (Gul Panag) and son - with a government job, SV bungles even this and at the start of the narrative, has received a suspension order for taking bribes. In the midst of this mundane not-quite-happy situation SV receives a visit from a strange woman (Sarika), supposedly the wife of a local MLA, who wants him to play private eye and investigate her husband for extra-marital shenanigans. SV is game for what seems a well-paying errand and comes up with some material...only to find that his client was not the MLA's wife, but a woman called Manorama and worse...this Manorama turns up dead in what is claimed to be an accident. A dazed SV starts to poke about the mystery and finds himself coming across a motley of characters, who...let it suffice to say initial impressions are not always the correct ones. Whether SV manages to reach the truth of the mysterious threads enmeshing him and whether he is able to come through his experience unscathed is what forms the rest of the narrative.

The thing that immediately strikes one about MSFU is that it is a seriously intended noir, and not a routine film with a few cute genre references (although it does refer to Roman Polanksi's Chinatown from which it liberally borrows plot elements). Audiences that are used to films bulldozing their plot points to get through to the feeblest of intellects be warned: MSFU does away with the hand-holding in favor of a brisk and packed narrative – for instance, the protagonist's entire background is revealed in two sentences of dialog near the film's beginning, and several other critical clues are flashed in a blink and miss manner rather than highlighted with a figurative big red arrow; the less alert may be stranded in the flow of events. The script sets up the noir archetypes in a credible manner for most part, and does a splendid job of transplanting them to the small-town Indian milieu. Furthermore, as a rarity in Indian movies not of the orthodox art-house canon, every aspect of the production is geared to serving the story, never for flashy irrelevant flourish. I believe that the way this film has been presented is an obvious indication of the sincerity of its makers and their respect towards the genre they are attempting.

The best part of the film is the casting. Character-play is paramount in noir and MSFU achieves that handsomely with its careful selection of players. Abhay Deol, the off-kilter sheep of the Deol family, gives a singularly apt performance as Satyaveer, easily conveying the failings and virtues of his character. Gul Panag makes the most of what could have been a very thankless role and gives presence to Nimmi. The other actors, including Raima Sen, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Vinay Pathak are also in fine form, playing archetype but with sufficient restraint to not come across as caricature. The film has excellent technical values: The sets and Rajasthan locations accurately portray the gritty situations of the narrative. Camerawork is also brilliant and makes wonderful use of the widescreen scope, events and motifs occurring all across the screen.

So is MSFU quite ready to place alongside the likes of LA Confidential? No, not by a few rungs. Without doling out spoilers, the main problem is that in its latter parts the writing gets a little too caught up with cramming in as many connections to make the spider-web narrative, which leads to some degree of messy contrivance without adding any emotional resonance. Manorama, who is by rights the central pivot of the film becomes almost an occasional reference in the latter part and her tie-in to the other narrative elements is tenuous. The circumstances under which the protagonist finds the damning proof to nail his adversary is also too convenient.

But despite its shortcomings and areas of muddiness, MSFU is interesting in itself and worth appreciating as a sincere experiment to bring a hitherto barely explored narrative style in Hindi movies. I hope we get more of such intelligent movie-making from Navdeep Singh in the future.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Inception [Christopher Nolan]

Note: Unlike a lot of the other reviews, this one assumes you've already seen Inception and know the major plot points. So if you've been as much of a "live-under-a-rock" person as I am, dust yourself off and see the film before you read any further.

Alright now. First, let's get the praise out of the way. Inception is a good way to pass a couple of your movie-watching hours, engaging enough as a big budget masala heist thriller with spadefuls of visual chutzpah. The production design and visual trickery are breathtaking at times and Hans Zimmer's score rocks. In terms of thrilling large masses of moviegoers and making tons of money the film has succeeded handsomely, while still appearing more thoughtful than its box-office competitors.

But seriously, a speculative or imaginative look at dream-scapes it is not. For that stuff, see any of Satoshi Kon's films (Paprika, Millennium Actress, Perfect Blue), which do a far better job of representing the disorientation and emotional impact of being caught in a dream world. If in fact I may say so, Inception is as anti-dream as it gets. What is it that makes our dreams special? It is that they play as our own 3D hyper-real movie loops, the emphasis being on “our own”, since individuality is what makes them special. They are designed by our mind, taking unpredictably from the flotsam of our memories, feelings and ideas. Sure, elements and themes can be common across the dreams of a population but while we are in them we see a personalized vision, which is what gives them emotional heft. The problem with the bulk of Inception's dreamscapes is that they're quite impersonal, and don't, as far as I recall, seem to reflect the personalities of any of the characters taking part in them. The “shared dream” is just a flashy theme park ride version of a heist caper, more Jeffrey Archer than Philip K Dick (to disagree with my good friend Nivedita Ravishankar). Without the layering aspect, it's arguably less imaginative than the gag in Johar Mehmood in Hong Kong where the protagonists prop up corpses at a morgue to pose as bank employees to fool the bad guys.

To fit an exploration of the human mind to the confines of the action thriller format was never going to be easy. Nolan's approach to this problem is to reduce the mind in question to that of an utter idiot. Cillian Murphy's character, the main victim, follows instructions and feels what he is told to. If he has any personality, we don't see it. There could have been some real fun to be had if his own sub-conscious (or that of ANY of the several players in the scheme) had flung in some genuine curve-balls to the dream-heist scheme. But noooo, his sub-conscious defenses (a skill of very dubious utility taught by specialists as a means of protecting your mind's secrets from dream-burglars) are a bunch of constantly spawning generic gun-toting goons, little more than speed-bumps for the “dream team”. Frankly that's a concept they should have left for the video-game tie-up.

Since in Hollywood thrillers, there must be a countdown to something or the other, Inception has this conceit where every dream (or dream within a dream) has a constant and measurable pace. So multi-tier dream constructs fabricated like Russian Matryoshka dolls can be synchronized to a single moment of awakening which, not surprisingly, reflects a typical blockbuster film climax (In this case, more than one). But how does it relate to the other plot point of this film, Cobb's wife? Without going too deeply into spoiler territory, the film suggests that they are undertaking multi-tiered dreams that at a certain level span decades. Given the kind of convoluted rules this process involves in the central heist plot, it hardly seems the stuff of husband-wife fun. Without these silly rules, the relationship aspect with the shared dream thingy would have in itself made for a great smaller budget movie. If you make it all the way to the climax of the classic Ashok Kumar film Mahal, there's something of that essence of creating a timeless love, which worked beautifully for that film. Sorry if I appear too harsh, but here it's just another MacGuffin to give our hero some guilt trip he must overcome by the film's end. Inception is not a clusterfuck of stupidity as some of its peers in the summer blockbuster category, but it's an action film with some clever duct tape to hold the explosions and CG imagery together than one with any serious speculative leanings, and you're likely to remember the wonders of its folding buildings and staircases for longer than the details of its story and characters.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Food pr0n

So of late I started watching some food oriented shows. I don't watch shows to learn how to actually cook stuff and so I am more interested in programs where the host takes culinary excursions and discovers different cuisines or eating locations. The Keith Floyd shows on BBC used to be a huge favorite of mine. Floyd had the lovable asshole part down pat, so even if you thought some of his own attempts at cooking were just random stir-fry stuff with liberal (really liberal) lashings of alcohol, his enthusiasm at roaming markets and food stalls and mooching on other people's food made for fun viewing.

Getting back I sat through an entire 18-episode run of this Travel Channel show called Man v. Food. MvF can very literally be described as food porn. The food here is of the greasy variety (I like cheese in general, but the ubiquity of said item here is staggering). The aesthetics of presentation are variable - more often than not dishes are created in slap-one-thing-over-another mode. The focus is hugely on quantity - most of the places featured on this show pile enough onto a plate to fill  at least two normal-sized servings. We do know that thanks to this culture of excess the US produces an alarming number of obese people (a third of its population or more) and trashes enough food to feed probably several African nations. If you're a vegetarian, avoid this one at all counts because I doubt if apart from the dessert oriented stuff, there was a single item that did not involve the death of mammal / bird / sea creature. Several of them featured kilos of flesh food.

So why? Well, I do happen to like my meat and there were many moments of drool at seeing various fleshy grills and sandwiches and pies (although you'll never convince me that fried hotdogs covered in melted cheese and snuggled into raspberry jam coated rolls are have anything other than gross-out value). Secondly, MvF has a great host in Adam Richman. The format of the show is that in each episode, Richman visits a different city/town, checks out the recommended local pig-out places and lastly takes on a local food challenge, which is typically to consume X humongous amount of food or some insanely spicy dish (chicken wings seem a favorite in this category, since I recall at least 2 episodes where he downs batches of super-hot wings). Surprisingly Richman's not some obscenely fat mouth-breather - if you check up on trivia for the show, he seems to maintain a pretty healthy lifestyle outside of the show and exercises religiously during program shoot schedules. He is boisterous and fun-seeking, but also exudes a humbleness and genuine liking for new people and places that keeps his act from crossing over into prick-like behavior. After a while, there's little novelty left in the food and the challenges get mononous, and it's really his enthusiasm and sense of humor that keeps one moving over to the next 20 min (without ad breaks) episode. Should I bother to check out Season 2? Apparently he meets Alice Cooper in one of the episodes. Hmmm....

I also watched one episode of No Reservations, which like MvF is another Travel Channel program. Host Anthony Bourdain is more in the Keith Floyd vein, traveling to different countries to see and taste their cultures. I saw an episode where he visits Kerala. This was fun. Bourdain meets up with Indians happy to host the camera-crew escorted gora-saab interested in "Indeeyan Culture", and has a good time, be it pigging out at roadside food stalls in Kochi, attending a traditional "saddhi" feast or giving himself to inertia and gluttony along the backwaters. He even wrangles entry into a Mammooty film set and gets invited to share the superstar's lunch. Bourdain makes the typical firang remarks about the complexity of Indian culture and the continued existence of the caste system, but he's pretty alright as a host - curious but traveled enough to not be gullible or cloyingly polite. He's also more cautious than Floyd about getting drunk and doing something stupidly embarrassing (which was part of Floyd's charm, to be frank). I'll definitely be checking out a few more episodes of this stuff.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

NFDC's Tagore Stories on Film DVD set aka Value For Money

I'll probably do reviews of some of the individual films on this set but this post is essentially to show you how good Indian DVD companies can make their releases of older films look when they're not completely jacking off in their customers' faces. In addition to the fact that none of the discs feature any unsightly watermarks (companies putting logos overlaying the picture should IMO be roasted over hot coals) this is the best release that some of these films have got so far. I'm including shots from the films I've seen in this set (You need to click on the pics and see in full size to appreciate their beauty).

First off is Tapan Sinha's Khudito Pashan (Hungry Stones). I don't believe there is any other available release of this film. An adaptation of a ghost story by Tagore, this one is one of the more battered looking releases on this set. The source is distractingly soft, bears burned-in subtitles that go out of sync in instances and has a significant degree of print damage (although scratches are mainly of a minor variety, nothing eye-gouging here). Also problematic is the weird aspect ratio. The film is encoded for the now defacto16:9 widescreen televisions with hard-coded vertical black borders on the sides. The aspect ratio for the actual film is a VERY non-standard 1.53:1 (737x480). It is possible that it's vertically cropped from a 4:3 ratio, but in general there are no obvious instances of such cropping, so I'm not sure what to make of it. On the other hand, the contrasts are towards the darker side, which is in tone with the sprit of the film, which is, apart from a clumsy last third, an  atmosphere-drenched haunting tale and a classic that deserves viewing.

Next up are screen grabs from Satyajit Ray's Teen Kanya (3 Women).  I'll take in order the first and second episodes only, since I didn't watch Samapti (Ray should have paced this one better, since it completely overshoots the appropriate time limit for the last in a set of 3 episodes).

Postmaster surprised me by how stable and damage free the image was for a film that old. Blacks are not Criterion deep but the contrast is impressively robust. There's a slight amount of strobing during pans, generally tolerable. The image is still on the soft side and the lack of strong grain indicates either a carefully stored video master or over-enthusiastically applied noise reduction. But this is still the best I have seen this film. Subtitles are optional.

Monihara is the "lost" episode of Teen Kanya, since in many instances of telecast or public screening, they eschew this one to cut the running time, making a mockery of the title. This is a neat little story of greed. The climax is cheesy and predictable for anyone that has read a few ghost stories. Nevertheless, I like this episode, especially for the leading lady's performance. It looks good, too, a tad more worn and dull than Postmaster but still blows away any previous video release.

Char Adhyay, a 1997 film from the decidedly arty Kumar Shahani. I'll probably do a review sometime soon, but check the video quality of this previously unavailable-for-love-or-money film. The print looks clean and relatively scratch-free and colors are good if a little faded. My major issue is with the ghosting that occurs during camera pans (fair number of them in the opening moments of the film), which is sometimes quite severe (the screenshot of the man walking in front of the painting is an indication). But like with the film, I was overall happy with the DVD too, considering that the chances of getting any better are nil.

Saved the best of what I've seen for last. Ghare Bhaire, I cannot believe how good this film looks here. You can take every previous video release of this film and burn them all. Colors are vivid without appearing blown, the careful lighting schemes are nicely reproduced and a thin layer of grain gives a lovely finish. This single disc alone is worth the price of the set!

So ya, spread the word. Anyone who is interested in this sort of film should snap up this set ASAP. And send in your e-mails/letters to NFDC, asking them to get off their lazy butts and release more of their catalog.