Saturday, January 29, 2011

Recent hauls

That's what comes of not visiting a bookstore for a long period. Even though there was no sale/discount, I still ended up with a fair bit of stuff. I think this will be interesting, though.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Dia de los muertos – Mexican Horror

I recently saw a couple of fairly interesting Mexican horror films and these are my brief impressions (click on the screen-caps to see them in a more appreciable size).

El Libro de Piedra aka The Book of Stone [Carlos Enrique Taboada]

The Book of Stone (1969) carries the echoes of an MR James story with its premise of ancient evil and suggested rather than depicted horror. The titular book is seen in the hands of the garden statue of a boy. The statue becomes the issue of concern for recently shifted wealthy house-owner Eugenio (Joaquin Cordero) when his only child Sylvie (Lucy Buj) shows an obsessive interest towards the stone boy, whom she calls her friend 'Hugo'.Eugenio is so concerned he hires an expert governess Julia (Marga Lopez) to take charge of the child.
For a long time, the film does not stoop to display any overt horror elements and instead presents a very plausible background for the child's obsession. Sylvie has no companions of her own age and is seriously upset over her father's remarriage. She lives then in her insulated world, 'Hugo' her only confidante. Bit by bit the story unravels, piling on one little disturbing incident after another, till it places itself firmly in the realm of the supernatural. 'Hugo' is revealed to have a sinister history and will resist all attempts made to uproot him from his pedestal. Even here, there is far more reliance on the play of light and shadow (cinematographer Ignacio Torres), and juxtaposition of circumstance than any elaborate flashy effect.

The story is also to be appreciated for not painting its characters in flat tones. Sylvie and her stepmother may share a hostile relationship, but neither of them harbors any innate evil, and nor are any of the other characters porrayed like the stereotype victims of horror films that “ask for it”.
While there are stumbles in execution and the film is simplistic as compared to Jack Clayton's masterpiece The Innocents, this is still an interesting enough entry in the classic horror segment for genre fans to give the look see. In fact, I wish I'd seen it when younger and less jaded, I am sure then The Book of Stone would have left me 'petrified'.

Misterios de Ultratumba aka Black Pit of Dr. M [Fernando Mendez]

If Book of Stone was MR James material then 1959's Black Pit... (the original title is literally translated as Mysteries of The Grave) surely owes some of its flavor to that master of the sepulchral, Edgar Allan Poe. Like a classic Poe protagonist, Dr. Masali is eager to know what lies in the after-life, and to this end he compels his dying friend Dr. Aldama to “arrange” for him to transcend the boundary between life and death, and then return to the flesh. A seance conducted after Aldama's death reveals to Masali that at a specified time, a series of events will precipitate that will grant him his wish. As any fan of the horror genre will know, such wish fulfilment does not occur without its heavy price, and the realization by Dr. Masali of the price he must pay for forbidden knowledge forms the rest of the film's arc.

Black Pit carries all the features of the gothic horror tale – it fuses its macabre element with romance and melodrama, and its striking use of shadow-play (Victor Herrera) creates an undeniable atmosphere for the viewer. Even the low-budget production values and sometimes overwrought plot elements create a theatrical ambience that adds to the film's appeal, like with some of the classic Mario Bava gothic horrors. Rafel Bertrand's portrayal of the obsessed Dr. Masali is in perfect sync with the Poe-inspiations of the screenplay and the film should definitely be checked out by enthusiasts as a worthy experiment in horror from Mexico.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Night of The Hunter [Charles Laughton]

This 1955 psychological thriller is regarded as a great classic and to an extent I can see why. It takes a story told with simple and broad strokes, and mixes it up with some of the most striking and iconic imagery. But, even if they take a lot of inspiration from this, I would say that the films in its aftermath significantly surpass it in terms of their narrative sophistication and depth of character.
In the movie Robert Mitchum is a crooked man of the cloth who's after a fortune hidden by his cell-mate somewhere in his home. To achieve his end, Mitchum charms the hanged cell-mate's widow into marrying him and then turns the screws on the children to get them to reveal the location of the hidden money.
The film has some great scenes to be sure, mainly thanks to Stanley Cortez's (Magnificent Ambersons, Shock Corridor) starkly gorgeous black and white imagery. We are served up several brilliant plays of elusive light and menacing shadow, Expressionist style. The scenes where Shelley Winters confronts a posturing Mitchum about his lies or when Mitchum goes into the cellar with the kids to look for the booty are but two amongst several bravura examples of the film's visual chutzpah. Mitchum's performance is also on many occasions entertaining; the man is clearly having a great time.

But really, the film is played a little too broad for my liking. Mitchum's character so obviously drips with evil intent he may as well have been wearing a large-sized flashing "CREEP" sign on his forehead, and beyond a point all the Christian malarkey begins to grate. There's none of the subtlety and poise that bolstered the creepiness of films like Peeping Tom and The Innocents, made less than a half dozen years later. Even Hitchcock's, Psycho, not a subtle film, is significantly more layered than this.

So it's not quite the enduring classic so far as I'm concerned but still worth the watch, simply for its awesome visuals.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Batman: Arkham Asylum

While I haven't finished the game (yes, it's not a comic book, but read on even if you're not a hardcore gamer) as yet, I've played a fair deal of it and these are my impressions of it thus far. To put it in a nutshell, Batman: Arkham Asylum is not a great action game, great platformer or great adventure game; what it does however is to borrow enough good elements from all of these genres to make a great Batman game. As the title suggests, the setting is Arkham asylum where Batman's most memorable enemies (perhaps all of them, even) end up. The story begins with Batman wheeling the Joker in for an extended stay; only there's something fishy about the homicidal prankster's easy surrender. It's not long before Batman realizes it's a setup. Joker and his muscle-bound goons take over the asylum, and ol' Bats must catch the clown prince of evil before he unleashes his dastardly scheme find out, suffice to say it involves a few other Batman villains.

The best thing about BAA is how accessible it is to the non-hardcore player. Considering the sort of acrobatic moves people would expect Batman to perform, this could have well been one of those keyboard murdering nightmares only staunch fighting game fans would go for. As it turns out, the makers at Rocksteady studios have designed the Batman character to perform his trademark ownage maneuvers with very simple inputs from the player. It's a game for Batman fans, not just gamers that happen to like Batman. The scraps with Joker's henchmen at the beginning of the game can be won by mere random button-mashing (what I did), and the game is very ready with hints and suggestions if you're downed in a fight.

It's later on when you go up against a dozen or more thugs at a time that you begin to appreciate the range of Batman's acrobatic moves and apply them to your advantage in combat. But even in these cases you never have to press any impossible combination of keys, it's more about getting into the flow of the combat. Again the game is very helpful, with onscreen displays of which attacker is likely to strike and which keys to press for instant takedowns. In a laudatory move, the game is also very forgiving in the platforming aspect. A single key-press has Batman sending out a grappling hook and swinging himself on top of an edifice, and so long as there's ground beneath you, the game never causes you to die of even huge drops. Tomb Raider and Prince of Persia fans may scoff at all this hand-holding but better this than have Batman fans fear to undertake the very moves they see their hero performing.

There are several memorable setpieces in the game: Batman's refusal to pick up a gun is a design conceit that works brilliantly in the game's context making every encounter with machine-gun toting goons a delightful cat-and-mouse experience. The intelligence level of Batman's enemies is low but that works fine here too, because it means you can predict how the poltroons are going to react to whatever cockamamie scheme you're planning to take them down. Setting up a non-lethal explosive gel trap and luring enemies to it using one of their downed colleagues or a sonic batarang is a gas. One of my favorite set-pieces is when Batman faces off against a small battalion of electric prod-wielding thugs on a series of platforms which are randomly electrified by Harley Quinn  - leaping from platform to platform to avoid getting shocked, all the while laying down barrels of trademark Bat-whoop-ass upon the bad guys was a thrill I thoroughly relished.

BAA also incorporates some light detective work for the Darknight Detective with a player-activated objective mode in which Batman tracks down clues like cigar ash or fingerprints or even DNA traces (no deduction here, it's a follow the arrow mechanic). Objective mode also improbably allows Batman to have X-ray vision in which he can see enemies through walls and gauge how many are carrying firearms. It's a nice addition, but my only gripe is that it should come with some penalty on Batman's reflexes to restrict the player being permanently in X-ray vision mode. As of now the eye-strain of this mode is the only deterrent from keeping it always on. Apart from the aforementioned grappling hook, Batman gets a score of other useful devices including the trusty batarang, explosive gel aerosol, electronic lock decrypter etc.

The plotline isn't all that (Joker's scheme, at least so far as I have got, is disappointingly mundane), but the writing by Bruce Timm (who helmed the much-loved animated series) superbly evokes the Batman comics I loved as a kid (late 70's stuff) - y'know, serious but not mopey/psychotic. Even the obligatory “Batman relives the episode where his parents got killed” bit is handled with finesse. Throw in voice acting from series regulars Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker and you have major league goodness happening.

BAA also succeeds in being restrained in the use of Batman villains. The Scarecrow I have so far encountered only in dream levels where the game beautifully transforms itself into a side-scrolling stealth platformer where Batman must make his way over an obstacle course, avoiding the gaze of a giant Scarecrow till he reaches and manipulates the Bat-signal to dissolve the fearful phantasm. The Riddler from what I know is not actually seen in the game but his presence is conveyed in the form of riddles and collectible artifacts spread throughout the Arkham premises. Solving these little puzzles gives Batman experience points which he can use to upgrade his abilities or gadgets None of this is ground-breaking, but the implementation is impeccable and adds greatly to the fun of the game.

So if you're a Batman fan and own a reasonably recent computer with a decent video card you owe it to yourself to try this game out. The sequel Arkham City has already been announced and features Hugo Strange (mmmmm...). My wishlist for the sequel would include a little time for Bruce Wayne. Wayne himself was a bit of a badass as written in the Julius Schwartz era and the limitation of not being able to use all of Batman's tricks would add some spice. And yeah, tone down X-ray mode a bit.