Sunday, August 31, 2008

don't they call it steadicam for a reason?

Aesthetic choices in recent action thrillers seem sharply at odds with what I can stomach when I watch them. Two recent movies, the Will Smith blockbuster Hancock and the Don Cheadle vehicle Traitor, found their merits overshadowed (nay squelched) by creative choices in the departments of cinematography, editing and colour grading.

In addition to its other problems (a promising germ of an idea sacrificed at the altar of Akiva Goldsman and eclipsed by the star power of Will Smith) Hancock boasted footage guaranteed to induce motion sickness, headaches and general annoyance. All the stunts and special effects, all the simple dialogue sequences, all the simpler establishing shots were charged with the anxiety of an incontinent person desperately trying to find a ceramic seat of solace. While bobbing in ecstasy, the shots also swing in and out of focus (mostly out) making one wonder if these represented experiments in combining the techniques of action thrillers and those of cinéma-vérité. When this stylistic approach is extended to the action sequence, one laments the lack of dollars to fund a simpler, more coherent and more effective approach.

Traitor takes a great premise, interesting ideas and a serious earnest performance by Don Cheadle and sets them up against a battery of technical clichés that mount an assault on the senses that is comparable to the terrorism in the film. Clearly in the running for the award for low average shot length, the film employs desaturation and oversaturation of colour randomly (I'm sorry I didn't get the "different look for a different locale" device), enthusiastic energetic cuts even in the calmest of moments (the familiar flash-cut technique from Japanese horror films also makes an appearance) and, of course, the faux cinéma-vérité. The material is more engaging than in the Will Smith vehicle and manages to soothe the senses. There are sequences that are familiar to viewers of thrillers; and yet, what little remnant suspense they may hold is eroded by editorial decisions that seem to come from a different school of thought. Had it switched to a simpler mode of cinema, this film, despite its rather cursory handling of interesting characters and ideas, would have, thanks to Cheadle's performance as Samir Horn, been a lot more watchable. It was a surprise to see Aly Khan -- I remember him from Banegi Apni Baat, Private Detective and S4H3.

If you want to see how to shoot an action sequence more effectively, look no further than The Dark Knight). If you want to learn how simpler effective cinematography can contribute to your narrative (especially when you seem to have technically competent creatively challenged people on board), go watch the films of Sidney Lumet. And please add a note on your film poster about how shaky things can get. If I wanted to throw up (especially after a buffet at one of the many local Indian restaurants), I'll know which hall to walk in.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

white comanche: when the B stings

A very very good reason to watch White Comanche is that it features William Shatner in a double role. It gets even better when you find out that the man who made the howl "Khan!" a classic plays twins born of a white father and an Indian (read: the American kind) mother; hence, the title, O gentle reader. Thanks to the uneven distribution of genetic contributions from each parent, one's more American/White and the other's more Indian/Comanche. After exercising his chops playing evil alter egos of James Tiberius Kirk, Shatner found the perfect project to unleash one of his finest slices of smoked ham. Since it's Shatner playing both parts, the differences between them are subtle: the American twin is named Johnny Moon and spends most of his time in the film fully-clothed, while the Comanche twin is named Notah (which means "Snake") and rides about topless with a foul mood and a mean streak. The acting, led by His Highness Ham Kirk himself, is lamentable and the dialogue is loaded with strings of surreal non sequiturs and flights of facetious fancy (eat the peyote, drug of the devil – dream your dreams of hate!). Joseph Cotten had notched up a formidable list of credits on B-schlock and foreign productions (Syndicate Sadists showed up in the following decade) and shows up here as the Sheriff, spitting his lines with professional distance. A special note must be made of the background score that mixes Morricone and echoes of cues from Star Trek: The Original Series along with a strange blend of skiffle and brass.

Such names as Cotten and Shatner most likely seemed spectacular struts for the producers of this enterprise, but they bargained not for the power of the one playing two. Should you not be able to summon the courage to endure this enterprise (no pun intended), you may wish to skip ahead to the climactic duel between the two brothers. It starts off with an exchange of lines whose order may have relied on pure combinatorics and momentous metaphors:

Notah: Johnny Moon!
Johnny: Up here.

Johnny: You're as the wild duck that sits on the pond.
Notah: I have promised my people you will burn in the fire.
Johnny: I'm coming down.

SYN/SYN-ACK/ACK was so much easier. The quid pro quo builds up to a final duel -- both men, bare to the waist race their horses towards each other as they try to get a good shot for a kill; Notah's war cries punctuate the beginning and end of each run. It's worth the price of admission.

Monday, August 25, 2008


(in which he shares some pointers to online treats)

The Parallel Universe Film Guide combines the detail of Wikipedia and the unlimited expanse of a creative mind on the loose and serves up a buffet of reelfests that exist only in the ether of its pages. A few samples include I Know What You Ate For Breakfast, its sequel I Know What You Did That Day Last Week You Took Off For So-Called Religious Reasons and The Erotic Neurotic. There isn't a Scott Of the Antarctic, but there's enough for a chuckle or two.

If you've had enough grief dealing with all the cruft scattered about your hard disk like confetti by various applications in the MSFT Windows universe, try CCleaner. It's small, fast, free and extremely effective (it took less than 45 seconds to determine that more than 1 GB of assorted scattered bits of binary poop would not be missed and cleaned it out all out in less than 35 seconds).

Ever noticed the product placement for Cadbury's chocolate in Andha Kanoon ? there is no such thing as free lunch[sic] said Akshay Kumar in Aitraaz, a film that also had Annu Kapoor going Karbuuzaa Kud chaakuu ko majabuur kar rahaa thaa ki aa kaaT; ##come and slice me##.

I leave you with a pearl of wisdom buried deep in a line of dialogue from Tauba Tauba, one of the few films in Payal Rohatgi's skin-flick kitty: When everything is nothing, then i'll show you something. As Bappi Lahiri sang (with Kishore Kumar and Mohd. Rafi, no less), nothing is impossible.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

stuck in the groove

terii aa.Nkhe.n bhuul bhulaiyaa (hare raam hare raam) from Bhool Bhulaiya was admittedly catchy and well-mixed. But it's also one of those sticky lingering artifacts of a music director's work that refuse to fade away as he/she moves to the next project. I can't shake off that feeling of hare vu as I listen to tuu hai merii soNiye from Kismat Konnection and bas ek from Singh is Kinng -- that Neeraj Shridhar, who belted out the original song of devotion and skimpy damsels, shows up again on both tracks doesn't help matters.

It happened when Vishal-Shekhar moved on from Cash -- the rhythm track in Tashan's chhaliyaa owed something to naa puuchh. And when Raja Hasan's voice broke out on maarii tiitarii in De Taali, it was as if he had begun to sing taalii bajaawe (Tashan me.n) from Tashan.

If memory serves me right, A R Rahman's Taal leaked into one of Padayappa or Sangamam (all I remember is my reaction; alas, I wish I could be confident about the Tamil film).

This isn't meant to stray into territory covered by long discussions on the "signatures" of music directors or on how they reuse their tunes in part (an interlude in one song becomes the mukha.Daa of another; a motif on the background score evolves into a song for playing hide-and-tree) or whole (Hridaynath churned out a robust melody for Lata to sing both Ghalib's rone se aur and Lekin's suniyo jii). This is thus not the place to mention that kisakaa hai ye tumako i.ntezaar mai.n huu.N naa (Main Hoon Na) was born as dha.Dakataa hai dil in Baazi; this is not the time to note a little interlude on the flute in Abhay's koyal-sii milii tumako prefigures the title song of Kal Ho Naa Ho.

Rajesh Roshan found inspiration in When Johnny Comes Marching Home when he delivered na bole tum na mai.nne kuchh kahaa in Baaton Baaton Mein (Had you already watched Stalag 17 or Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, you'd have been wise on the lift; or perhaps it took the third edition in the Die Hard saga to jog your memory). Have you ever noticed how that tune shares a lot with the title whistle in A Fistful Of Dollars?

We end with offering a musical reason to remember and talk about skin flicks. Wild Orchid, one of the more famous works in the canon of Zalman King, boasts an interesting soundtrack, a song from which, Bird Boy features prominently in a scene as the camera follows Mickey O'Rourke and Carré Otis walking -- that melody showed up later to contribute to Nadeem Shravan's success with koii na koii chaahiye in Deewana; years later, Anand Raj Anand made jaane kyaa hogaa raamaa hay in Kaante). And if you want to hear that loop from maa.Ngataa hai kyaa from Rangeela, go watch Emmanuelle in Space.

ooh la la la ... raindrops keep falling on my head

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

one man, one take, one stunt

Titus Tinnitus is back. As the Melodious Monty all set to melt the earwax and the Rhinal Romantic all set to breathe new life into allergic clichés, the Nasal Nawab impresses his fans with another stellar achievement: a stupendous display of jumps, kicks and yells (a tribute to the late Bruce Lee, no doubt) for an action sequence -- and in a single take at that.

An audio feed of the event would no doubt have sounded like this: and ... Action!! ... Tish. Tish. Tishuu.N. aa-Tishuu.N. Tishuu.N. ... uu.N uu.N. Tishuu.N. ... and Cut!!.

The bearer of Bollywood Bonanza Blower revealed the secret of his ability to deliver such an efficient single take:

I am a huge movie buff and have grown up watching only movies. I have watched each superstar carefully and every good performer is like a guru to me. They are inspiration to me. So acting comes as naturally to me as music. That is the reason I was comfortable doing those scenes.

And I thought I was comfortable doing those scenes was usually something people tossed out when talking about sequences of on-screen intimacy. I like the implication that an inspiration is enough to fuel excellence. uu.N shaa.nti uu.N.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

holy linguish!

Please tell me someone didn't get paid to write inarticulate (no pun intended) drivel like this (unless they were talking about Shahid Kapur's passion for photography).

The exploration of painful Inglish (that's Indian English for you puTTan) continues with a look at the shadow of a doubt. That's doubt used as a verb in a sense as to mean exactly the opposite of convention. Consider the statement I doubt that this is what is causing the problem. This does not mean, dear hapless reader, that the speaker does not believe that this is the cause of the problem. Au contraire da befuddlement. The speaker, should he/she own up to having an Indian passport, means to say that he/she suspects that this indeed is the cause of the problem. One pities the ears and eyes that are at the receiving end of such oppositely coded pronouncements. Should you choose to subject your brain to some more topsy loops, try the entry for doubt in Eric Partridge's Usage and Abusage.

Before the closing rites, let us pray for the soul of the dative case in German that seems to have inspired (without official credit, of course) concoctions like "I replied him yesterday itself" and "Can you explain me this?" Note that both examples sorely lack an appropriately placed "to." Note also the appearance of the familiar "itself" topping off the first example -- this word along with "only" serves to emphasise, assert and underscore what has transpired before it. Mind it itself. We are like this only.

In closing, allow me to recommend George Orwell's excellent article Politics And The English Language. One hopes that this encourages those that fight against the abuse of the apostrophe, against the singular decline of the plural, against the ubiquity of specious verbosity and crap-speak and noisome neologisms. You ain't never alone.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

in which RGV writes and talks to enthrall

It's always fun to listen to RGV talk even though the films he's produced and directed of late have comprised some choice zingers and stinkers -- veritable challenges to the faith of his fans and those who still believe in him as a director. PFC snags a slice of the maverick filmmaker's time and gets him to go voluble on reel matters and familiar subjects. The fragments are a delight and one wishes they'd uploaded more material. One of the things that comes up a couple of times is the tussle between craft and content. The Breathing Method contained what has now become a classic Stephen King line (he even uses it to open Different Seasons, the collection containing the story): It's the tale not he who tells it. Arguably, the teller is inextricable from the tale (consider Satya directed by Karan Johar as an example -- It's all about loving your shooting). RGV brings it up too, noting that if people noticed the craft in his movies, he probably wasn't working with subject matter that was strong enough to hold the attention of the audience. The craft exists to bolster the content. That along with why he thought Om Shanti Om was the most honest film he had seen.

Meanwhile, back at his blog, a new post talks about the genesis of Rangeela and offers some fine words about Aamir Khan; it also casts an arc light on the cause of the famous tiff between the two while dropping an all-too-familiar name in the process. It takes a great deal of courage to write some of the things he's written there and the closing block says it all:

And before some minds out there jump to this conclusion that this is an effort on my part to patch up with him in order to do a film with him I want to categorically state here that I will never ever do a film with him and the reasons for that are:
(a). I am not as sincere or as committed as him.
(b). I don't have his patience.
(c). Above all I truly think he is a far better filmmaker than me.

One could be forgiven for mistaking all that he has said and written as some sort of sop to all his critics (although there's enough evidence that he doesn't care much either for sycophantic bearers of praise or of sprinklers of caustic bile), but there really can't be any denying his ability to entertain as an interview subject. Few Bollywood filmmakers can manage that.

[august 16, 2008]: Elsewhere, Baradwaj snags an interview with the man and watches how RGV turns the tables and takes control. It's also interesting to see (as BR has noted as well) how some of the things RGV echo his statements in the PFC interview (not to mention stuff on his blog).

Sunday, August 10, 2008

capitalist JDBC and more lingua frantica

[with acknowledgements to JR for the samples we exchanged while discussing this many months ago]

Is it money, phone plans or calling cards? What affects the mind so much that you describe prepared statements as prepaid statements?

Homophones are a great cause of mirth and misery. Like the times people write "in sink" instead of "in synch" -- or were they offering subtle commentary on Timberlake's band of yore?

Then there's the apparently Indian (aka desii) fondness for the past tense of will in statements. Would, when used correctly, conveys a sense of the past or of the remote conditional (e.g. I would have said that if I could, If I had wings, I would fly) or even the touch of the formal (e.g. I would like a glass of water without ice please). But the desii take is a unique improvisation. Reading lines like I would be doing this tomorrow or I would be coming in late [did he/she mean I would be coming in late if I could? -- a case of elision feeding ambiguity that's highly unlikely] makes me cringe. Here's an article online (chosen purely at random, mind you) that opens with a salvo of teaky torture. I really wish they wouldn't do that.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

casablanca without heroes

I've never read a John Le Carré novel. Ever. Not even that precious weathered copy of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (retrofitted with a photograph of Richard Burton from the film adaptation) acquired in one of the numerous raddii shop runs years ago. But I've been aware of the adventures of George Smiley and of the film adaptations including The Russia House starring Sean Connery.

pinter, tailor, spy
pinter (centre), tailor (left), spy (right)

The first film adaptation of a Le Carré work I ever saw was The Constant Gardener. That solemn brooding piece of work could hardly have prepared me for The Tailor Of Panama, adapted for the screen by the writer himself (the only one so far) and directed by John Boorman. John Boorman creates a version of Le Carré's book that gets a life of its own on the screen. This is a film that works more as an acting piece than a thriller laced with spectacle and the players don't disappoint. Pierce Brosnan ends up being the second Bond actor to figure in a Le Carré adaptation and makes the most of his chance to play the "antithesis of Bond". His Andrew Osnard is an MI-6 agent, whose cover has been blown after an affair with an ambassador's mistress; Osnard's boss manages to get him a final chance -- he sends him off to Panama to try and uncover something; Osnard knows how to play people and especially women (a Bond-ian trait taken past the PG-gilded curtains of the franchise). Brosnan riffs on his image as Bond, as he imbues Osnard with a familiar charm and yet also spikes him with a dose of nastiness. Geoffrey Rush plays the titular character, Harry Pendel. Harry is a tailor, but the trouble with Harry (aah the pun!) is that he spins tales. Pendel is a nice timid and tragic figure; The shifting evolving relationship between the two men occupies the bulk of the film.

There are a few flourishes that I liked: The film opens with an interesting use of descriptive text over the film that describes the Panama canal and finally marks a segue to the main title. It's an interesting alternative to the voiceover; call it a "text-over" if you like. The other is a scene in a brothel where Harry tells Andy about the President's plans to sell off the canal as they sit on a vibrating bed while a porn film featuring Asian girls runs on the television set in the room. It's set up without fanfare and manages its effect thanks to the actors and a camera setup that eschews any attempt to draw your attention to the elements of the production design. Then there's now-Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter showing up as Uncle Benny, Harry's dead uncle and conscience. And there are references to Casablanca, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a Richard Blaine here. It's not that kind of movie.

Triviamongers will also spot Daniel Radcliffe making his film début, playing Harry's son; years later, Radcliffe has made the journey from Pendel to Potter to become famous for playing a Harry of his own.

retorts to billshot

JR's put up a splendid compilation of "malapropriate" crapspeak. Anyone who's been in corporate meetings or presentations will no doubt recognise these verbosely vapid samples of aeriform excess born from the unholy union of elision, obfuscation and political correctness. He's promised another post dedicated to retorts to stupefy the purveyors of spissitudinal codswallop; I cannot resist contributing a teaser for that: He brought a great deal to the table -- A great waiter, was he?.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

all about ash

image courtesy: the boston phoenix
The Evil Dead is perhaps the scariest of the trilogy that made Sam Raimi famous, even though it is not without touches of humour and moments where you wonder if you're supposed to laugh or scream (or, perhaps, both). The presence of footage from the film in Donnie Darko (which I caught again recently) might well count as a repeat viewing.

The Evil Dead II was a little more overt about its debt to The Three Stooges while still heaping up gore and comic horror. Issues with rights prevented this sequel from using footage from the original and it consequently ended up starting off as what looked like a re-interpretation of the events in the first film. The first time I saw it, the scene that lingered was the light bulb filling up with blood before inevitably exploding and splattering the basement. The second time I saw it, the wonderfully ingenious twist in the sequence when the force chases Ash into the house won. That scene merited an instant rewind.

Surprisingly, I ended up watching Army Of Darkness rather late (last year, to be precise). The verbal essence of this film and the two films that preceded it was already familiar thanks to heavy use of lines in Duke Nukem 3D, an old favourite on the PC. The film continues to riff on The Three Stooges, but its props betray a debt to Jason And The Argonauts and The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad, both featuring the classic stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen. Besides boasting the hilarious appearance of Evil Ash, the film itself proved to continue to showcase ingenious approaches to low-budget filmmaking: my favourite would have to be that they used women (dancers, especially) for the skeletons, because they had a more amenable body frame. Consider that a skewed example of forced perspective if you like. One must not forget Sam Raimi's multiple cameos.

But all this is really an excuse to show off the cool poster, which is one of several showcased in a book called Translating Hollywood: The World of Movie Posters that contains several samples of international posters for Hollywood movies. The use of Campbell soup cans is priceless.

Friday, August 01, 2008

balaji's angel

Celina Jaitley, who will always be known for the remarkable method acting employed in faking it at playing a violin in a bikini, has finally answered her true calling by appearing in her first item number. Who better to showcase her talents that the grocer of serial saponification, Ekta Kapoor. The film, which, as mandated by the Kapoor Klan Kasting Klause stars little brother Tus[s]har K, is called C Kkompany (why not just K Kkompany? creativity, perhaps) and revolves around three best friends and a harmless prank, which turns their lives topsy turvy. Sounds like Khel Khel Mein. While Ms. Jaitley attempts to meet or surpass the expectations set by RGV's uninhibited screen kitten Nisha Kothari, we can rest assured that the film's going to be a piece of Krap.

past popcorn-free experiences: breach, exotica

At the end of Breach, I saw it as The Ipcress File stripped of its humour and genre-spoofing, but with an extra helping of the mundaneness of espionage that went by on display in first half. It's a sweeping generalisation, of course. Yet, the calm patient narrative in Billy Ray's film manages to deliver a sense of tension while remaining primarily a drama whose outcome we are aware of simply because the film is based on true events: the arrest of Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent who was a spy for the Soviet Union. Without doubt, the film belongs to Chris Cooper's performance as Robert Hanssen, although our protagonist is Eric O'Neill, an FBI operative working undercover to snag evidence to bring Hanssen in, played by Ryan Philippe, who, despite turning in a competent performance, doesn't quite offer a convincing nemesis for Cooper's Hanssen. Hanssen was an interesting character (a devoted religious family man with a penchant for making amateur porn films and selling his nation's secrets to the enemy) and Cooper's performance draws you in. It, however, isn't enough for a film that is perhaps a tad too restrained, a mite too under-stated and rather "under-exciting." Cooper's performance offers a compelling reason to watch the film but also sets it a really tall order to live up to.

Atom Egoyan's Exotica uses a nightclub as a focal point in a film about characters very different and uniquely strange and yet very believable. Aided by strong performances and a wonderful sense of design, Egoyan uses a non-linear odyssey into a world of intimacy, aloofness, desire (or the lack thereof) and cold business. Mychael Danna's tapestry of Middle Eastern and Asian influences lends the film an appropriate aural texture as do the songs (listen carefully and you'll hear tumhe.n yaad karate karate). Lives and hearts seek ways to communicate in a claustrophobic world that encompasses the restricted carnal pleasures in the densely atmospheric strip club that gives the film its name and the cramped bustle of the exotic pet shop whose owner smuggles rare bird eggs into the country. There's no way I can forget Leonard Cohen's voice singing Everybody Knows after this.

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