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.

Sansho The Bailiff [Kenji Mizoguchi]

I liked Ugetsu Monogatari by the famous-but-not-as-famous-as-Kurosawa Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi, but was told by those in the know that the skilfully crafted supernatural elements laced story is not typical of Mizoguchi's oeuvre and was recommended Sansho The Bailiff (STB) as a more representative work. Having duly seen it, I would say that while STB has its qualities, ones that would appeal more to those who regard cinema as an observation / critique of social structure and traditions, Ugetsu remains my preferred film by the director.
Set sometime in the Heian period of Japanese history (800-1200AD), STB's protagonists are Zushio and Anju, son and daughter of a compassionate governor who was exiled for trying to defend his subjects against the exploitative ordinances of the ruling class. When on a journey to join their father at his new station, the children are separated from their mother by slave traders and sold as servants at the house of the titular bailiff. Given that the story is always more focused on the doings of the Zushio and Anju, it's hard to understand why the film is named after him. Sansho's character has no depth either, he's the archetypal hard-ass that believes in working his slaves to the bone and punishing those that try to escape.
The brother and sister pair grow up in this harsh environment; While Zushio blindly follows his master's ruthless commands, including the branding of errant co-workers, Anju is the self-sacrificing stereotype. When one day Zushio is ordered to dump an aged slave in the mountains, Anju accompanies and persuades him to escape and search for their mother. With a promise to return, Zushio flees and in a convoluted way, comes to occupy the governorship his father once had. He comes back to the bailiff's house only to find, in true tear-jerker tradition, his sister long-dead.
So yes, if you like the unbridled predictable melodrama on display here or need a film to tell you how basic human rights of freedom, equality and justice were denied by a small ruling class coterie to the masses at large, STB does the job fine. It also doesn't hurt that Mizoguchi is a very skilled helmsman who has made excellent use of the camera (Kazuo Miyagawa - Rashomon) and editing (Mitsuzo Miyata - Ugetsu) resources at hand. The sequences of the kidnapping of the children, Zushio's escape from the bailiff's yoke, and Anju's death are particularly notable, and even in general the framing and splicing of scenes makes it obvious that he had very exact ideas of how the script would be filmed. But Ugetsu had equal or better examples of his fine directorial skill and was a more interesting narrative to boot.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Ultra-KLPD: Suraj ka Satvan Ghoda

No, this is not a review of the film. For my views on that, check out the piece I did on Shyam Benegal HERE. What this is, is one of the very blatant examples of how completely incompetent and/or contemptuous most Indian home video companies are with their releases. Comparing the transfers of Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda by a US based company called Cinebella and the domestic release by Ultra Home Video. These are not exact frame comparisons, just casual shots I took while playing back the movies on VLC. Cinebella shots on the left and corresponding Ultra shots on the right:

(Click on them to see in larger size for finer detail)

This is not to say that the Cinebella transfer is perfect, far from it. The source print is in no way restored and has a fair amount of damage including many instances of minor blemishes/scratches. There is an annoying moiré effect whenever any furniture, clothing or props with closely spaced lines appear. Also, in my view, the color scheme is slightly more saturated than ideal. But what Ultra achieves is utter disgrace. It's like the people there thought, "The public here any way is not going to pay more than 200 bucks for a DVD, let's show them what we think of them", and dunked the print in a gutter. The colors of the film have been completely squeezed out and detail is murky. And all of this is besides the huge fugly Ultra logo that stays with you throughout the movie.

And what's the best part of this story? Cinebella is now defunct and their DVD of Suraj Ka... is out of print (I saw this on a DVD-R copy of that release, thanks to a friend), meaning that your options for watching this masterpiece of modern Indian cinema in any respectable manner are mighty slim. Someone at NFDC needs to be roasted on a spit for this.