Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Spout #9: A Peck on the Cheek

Prior to A Peck On The Cheek I had no real experience with Indian movies, outside of some of the more notorious Bollywood knock-offs of American films. Obviously those films do not constitute the entirety of Indian arts and culture, just as craptacular diversions such as Epic Movie or the Larry the Cable Guy oeuvre do not constitute a balanced view of American culture. So I set out with the direct purpose of dispelling the stereotypes I had built up in my head, and hopefully I would be rewarded with an eye-opening, mind expanding look at a completely foreign culture. On that front it both succeeded admirably, and failed miserably.

A Peck on the Cheek is the story of Amudha, a girl orphaned by the violent uprisings in Sri Lanka, who is adopted by a well-to-do(I'd imagine upper middle class, like the Cosby's, would be most accurate in describing their station in life) family as a baby. On her 9th birthday she is told of her real mother, and eventually talks her parents into traveling to find her. That's the condensed version, but the film itself is much, much more than that.

A pre-credits sequence shows an arranged marriage between Shyama and Dhileepan. These scenes are short, but we see through their shyness and awkwardness at their first meeting during the marriage tells us these are good people, and the humor of that wedding night, and the few domestic images we get, only reinforce that idea. Unfortunately this happiness is not going to last. An idyllic day out, swimming and walking through the woods, is interrupted by a troop of soldiers marching through the woods. Dhileepan orders to Shyama to run to her father's, while he remains behind to attack the soldiers in some unseen fashion. We find out that Shyama is pregnant, and is sent out of Sri Lanka with a boatful of refugees by her father, and she gives birth in a Red Cross center. This is the last we see of Shyama for most of the film as we jump, post-credits, to the 9th birthday of Shyama's daughter Amudha.

Amudha's parents seem loving and wholesome, but they show some pretty inept parenting skills. Choosing to tell the girl of her adopted status isn't in itself a bad thing, but choosing her birthday, of all times, seems needlessly cruel. The parents take turns reacting in sullen disappointment when Amudha is less than thrilled by this news, and her younger brothers use this information to tease her mercilessly. It's understandable that Amudha attempts running away to her birth mother several times before Indira & Thiru(her adopted parents) agree to help her locate Shyama. It's a noble enough endeavor, and certainly made with only the best of intentions, but it shows a slightly malnourished world view.

Sri Lanka is still in the midst of a violent uprising, and bringing a young child into the middle of a guerrilla war may not the wisest of moves. But it is in these scenes that the film kept surprising me. Every time I settled in for some rote melodrama, the film took a turn into some fairly gripping scenes of urban warfare. Almost immediately upon their arrival, Amudha is slightly injured in a suicide bombing, and guerrillas are constantly lurking in the background as tanks and soldiers march down public streets. Still, the family perseveres, with the help of a local doctor who acts as their guide, and eventually they find Shyama, who is now in charge of teaching the children of the revolutionaries who themselves march through the jungles with automatic half their size in their arms. The few scenes in the beginning with Shyama didn't do much to establish the character in our minds, but despite being absent for 90 minutes of screen time, those scenes speak volumes for the type of person she has become, and the life she is currently living. This is a person who gave up her happiness, her child for the chance to rid her homeland of war and oppression, and in the end she doesn't even have the hope that her dream will ever be realized.

A Peck on the Cheek was miles away from what I was used to in regards to Indian cinema, and yet it still kept up some of the traditions. Several musical numbers serve to lighten the mood and keep the pace up, but they feel out of place and amateurishly directed, with the visual aesthetic of a skin cream commercial at times. The story was undoubtedly going to be a highly emotional one, no matter how you cut it, but a penchant for rampant melodrama actually made some of the scenes slightly laughable, to my Western sensibilities. Also, and this may be due more to my ignorance of the local politics, but I found the Sri-Lankan elements to be slightly lacking. Perhaps if I actually lived there it would be more obvious to me, but I felt like the violence was merely backdrop, and not something that was actually explored, and could have used some expanding upon.

All in all an enjoyable, enlightening experience. I hear good things about the director, Mani Ratnam, who seems to be a fairly popular filmmaker both in and out of his country. This film, at the very least, has inspired me to check out more of his work.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Tales From The Discount Bin: Richard Matheson Edition: I Am Legend & Various Short Stories

This past week I rectified a hideous error, and filled a gaping hole in my pop culture knowledge by reading Richard Matheson's famous I Am Legend, along with a handful of his short stories. Previously my only exposure to Matheson was through the numerous films made from his work(which include three versions of I Am Legend and some of the most famous Twilight Zone episodes), and quite recently I picked up a copy of The Shrinking Man, partly because the movie has long been a favorite, and partly because the cover showed a man fighting a giant spider. And that's always awesome.

Reading the book was interesting, because, as my friend Rik pointed out, none of the film versions thus far have come anywhere near the apocalyptic excellence of the originals ending. I looked forward to a completely shattering, shocking finale. But, despite the fact that three films have thus far changed the outcome, the novel was still not as surprising to me as I expected it to be. That's the problem with immersing yourself into so much pop culture; eventually this stuff just seeps in by osmosis. I think, however, that if I had read this story fresh, without having seen any of the films, I would have been flabbergasted at that finale. Don't get me wrong, it's a killer ending, but the shock of it was ruined for me some time ago.

Reading the short stories so quickly after I Am Legend was illuminating, and helped me put my finger on what it is about I Am Legend, and Richard Matheson in general, that just doesn't jibe with me. As an author he's very dry, and spends more time focusing on the day to day mundanity of his character's lives than he does on the horror aspects. There's a section in I Am Legend where Neville spots a wild dog who has somehow survived both the plague and the scavenging vampires. For 18 pages he woos and entices the dog into his home, desperate for companionship, and we're given long accounts of him watching patiently as the dog eats food he's left out for it. Then, after grabbing the dog, we're given this sudden sentence; 'a week later, the dog was dead.' This is something Matheson does a lot; he spends all his time on the buildup, and then gives us a premature and almost incomplete finish. For the most part, that alone doesn't bother me. I enjoy the sense of how even the most horrific circumstances can become not only bearable, but boring, only to be punctuated by sudden, often senseless tragedy. My real problem comes in how far he takes it.

I've come to the conclusion that Matheson is that rare horror author who really doesn't believe in any of that supernatural hogwash. He repeatedly takes great measures to explain in scientific terms the reason for the apparently supernatural events. In The Shrinking Man I wrote off his psuedo-scientific explanation as an unfortunate necessity, because in the end the science made no sense and was unsatisfying, but I imagine Matheson probably felt pressured to explain things at least a little bit. In I Am Legend it's a little harder to ignore. I really dig the idea that Neville, an intelligent but not highly educated man, has so much time on his hands that he decides to study infectious diseases and try and discover the cause, and maybe cure, of vampirism. For the most part these experiments make sense and serve the story. The germ causes a severe reaction to sunlight and garlic(although only when smelled, not when injected, for some reason I don't think holds water), increases skin resiliency, so bullets wont pierce the skin but a strong blow from a wooden stake will. Other parts of the Vampire myth don't hold up; running water won't stop a Vampire, and a cross will only cause a psychosomatic response in Vampires who were once Christian or Catholic. A lot of this was pretty interesting, but after awhile I got tired and hoped that Matheson would shift the focus, since the scientific exploration eventually became redundant.

Perhaps more extreme an example would be Mad House, my favorite of the short stories I've read so far. It's a pretty unique take on the whole haunted house idea, with a man caught in a sort of feedback loop where the house has gained enough sentience to enrage the main character(by giving him splinters whenever he touches wood, or having rugs slip out from under his foot), and that man's rage in turn feeding the power of the house. This is all pretty evident by the story itself, and yet Matheson includes a scene where a scientist friend of the main character explains his theory about the house, and that it may be some aspect of science that they don't yet fully understand. He goes on a bit about physics and atoms, and it doesn't really explain anything concretely, but it serves Matheson's habit of making the horror more scientific than supernatural.

Most of the short stories he's written don't really do much for me, or at least not as much as his novels have(so far). They seem more like writing exercises than actual works of art. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and a lot of the stories are entertaining precisely due to the way he chooses to write them. The story Dance of the Dead is written as a story from the future, with little dictionary excerpts to define some of the unfamiliar slang, Witch War has a shifting focus of narrator that's a bit more subtle than most, and Dress Of White Silk is written from the point of view of a little girl around 8 years old(I assume) who's done something horrid that isn't quite explained. And that in itself is another major problem I have with Matheson; despite his long passages of scientific explanation, he never really explains anything at all. In his novels I actually really enjoy that. He gives just enough information that you can start to piece things together on your own, but not enough that he spells it out for you. But in his short fiction you're more often than not left with the impression that SOMETHING has happened, but you really couldn't say what it was.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Weekly Roundup; Movies 03//01 to 03/07

One of the greatest things about having cable, as I mentioned last week, is the ability to watch movies that have been eluding me thus far. The thing is, I don't have netflix, and I don't have an active account at ANY rental place. True, most of the movies are repeated ad nauseum, and many channels insert commercials, but for someone trying to fill in the blanks of his movie knowledge, something like TCM, or even AMC, is an indispensable aid. A quick note; if you're the sort of person to be bothered by spoilers, you may want to watch the movies first.

The Ox-Bow Incident
Rating: 5

I think it's due to the fact that my idea of the 40s and 50s is so informed by the squeaky clean television shows of that era, but I am constantly surprised by the amount of cynicism, despair and overall bleakness that can seep into some of these films. Sure, I expect grimy atmospheres and unhappy endings when it comes to film noir, but when I'm watching a black and white western with Henry Fonda and Colonel Potter from M*A*S*H, well, I expect things to be a little sunnier. And so I'll freely admit to being surprised by the places this film went, and up until final showdown I expected rational shot to win out. Of course, that would have softened to impact and completely gone against whole focus of this film, which is about a trio of farmers accused of murder and cattle rustling and eventually hung by an impromptu, illegal posse.

Duck, You Sucker(AKA: A Fistful of Dynamite)
Rating: 4

This is typically the period I tend to associate with anti-heroes and unhappy endings; the sixties and seventies, and the revisionist westerns of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. This film may not be as grand and epic as The Good, The Bad & The Ugly or Once Upon a Time In The West, and it may not be as tightly woven as A Fistful of Dollars, but this is still a superior western. James Coburn plays an IRA member fleeing his own memories of being a revolutionary in Ireland who crosses paths with Rod Steiger's Mexican bandit. Steiger wants to utilize Coburn's skills with explosives to aid in robbing a bank, but Coburn seems to have other plans. This fits in nicely with Sergio Leone's other westerns, which seem to be the type of westerns David Mamet grew up on. Full of two-fisted action and ironic plots twists and double crosses galore. It's interesting how the film shifts it's idea of who the hero is. James Coburn, who seems to want to aid in the Mexican revolution, is also happy to remain in the shadows while manipulating Steiger, who wants nothing more than to steal a lot of money, into becoming a hero of the people.

Extras- The Extra Special Series Finale
Rating: 5

It's time for another credibility-shattering admission. I'm actually afraid to publicly state this, so fervent is the following Ricky Gervais has accumulated. But, wait for it... I actually prefer the American version of the Office to the bone-dry original. I know, this goes against everything pop culture holds to be true, and don't get me wrong, I like the original, and have mighty high respect for Gervais for getting there first, but I still like Steve Carrell and Co. better. I think it's because the British version of The Office is too realistic. The humor is buried beneath layer after layer of soul crushing depression, and I'm more often than not depressed rather than amused.

Extras, Ricky Gervais' follow up series(which aired on HBO) had much of that same attitude, showing how demeaning and soul destroying Hollywood can be, with the emphasis on failure instead of success. It's also odd that when the main character finally does get success, things only get more depressing. Andy Millman has success, but not respect, and although he's generally a good man, he never knows when to stop talking, and all of his faults are magnified for the entire world to see. The second(and final) season of Extras really veered into darkness, with some HIGHLY uncomfortable moments.. For most of this feature length finale, I thought I had misread the last regular episode, which hinted at some brightness in store for it's main characters. Andy Millman leaves his highly successful(but artistically hollow) television show, only to find there aren't a lot of offers for him, which leads to some embarrassing guest spots on trashy BBC shows, and, at the height of indignity, a spot on Celebrity Big Brother. Where it goes from there, however, was a nicely emotional capper to this TERRIFIC series. I'll stop talking about it for now, but I would recommend it to everyone reading this.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Weekly Roundup; Movies

Lately I've had more time to watch movies than I have had to write about them. Actually, that statement is a bit misleading, because any time I'm watching a movie I could be writing instead, but forgive me, I recently got cable for the first time in about 20 years, so I've been overwhelmed lately by so many viewing options. Some of the movies inspire a few random thoughts, but sometimes not enough to warrant a full review. So here goes, my first weekly roundup of the movies I've seen, but don't think I can stretch a full post out of. A little disclaimer; these weren't ALL within the past seven days, lest you think I've done nothing but sit on my couch 24 hours a day. I'm being a bit lenient in my first post so I can clean out the backlog.

Justice League: The New Frontier
Rating: 5
I haven't read the graphic novel this is based on, but seeing how closely the animation follows the stylistic illustrations of artist Darwyn Cooke, I'm going to assume it's fairly accurate. It's possible that the comic book is a little more coherent, since the central plot concerning a new villain called The Center doesn't get nearly as much screen time as the individual journeys of it's heroes. The New Frontier is an alternate history story set in the mid-50s, as the Justice Society, disbanded amid McCarthyism and public distrust, investigates individually some pretty gruesome cult activity. While this is going on we get to witness the seeds of the Justice League, as all of the founding members of that group start getting their powers. As I said the central plot tying everyone together is a little vague; I'm still in the dark as to who or what The Center is, or who that man who committed suicide in the movies opening scene was(oh yes, this film takes advantage of it's PG-13 rating), all I know is that it all culminates in a pretty badass battle between the Justice League and some weird sentient island that spawns dinosaurs, and veers off into some weird, 2001, A Space Odyssey style mindfuckery. All that aside, the animation is stylistic and smooth, with some unfortunate CGI(something you can't really avoid in DTV animation these days) that isn't actually too distracting, and the voice work is across the board impeccable. The main cast is of course full of name actors, but instead of stunt casting they all come across pretty well, particularly Neil Patrick Harris as the Flash. Also, it was great seeing Batman in his old school, big eared costume, and a humorous, self serving reason for getting a sidekick.

I bought this film on blu-ray(making it my first such purchase), and despite some cool extras(including an awesome sneak peek at the upcoming Batman: Gotham Knight anthology), I have to complain about their presentation. The entire menu is one screen, and filled with text. Even on my big screen TV I couldn't read the options, and had to go by trial and error.

Rating: 4
This one wins the title for least appropriately named horror film of the decade. The cover features a blood spattered hatchet, and yet only once does the killer wield the titular weapon, although he does so memorably. The setup isn't even worth mentioning, because it's all just filler to get to the gory murders, but props must be given to a screenwriter with the wit to inject real humor into the proceedings, and a cast capable of pulling it all off. And I know it's not really worth complaining about, because all slasher films do it, but I started to get annoyed at the group of tourists stalked by a deformed backwoods maniac; every time the killer showed up, someone would get a hit in and incapacitate him, and everyone would run away. After shooting him, and seeing him fall to the ground, no one thought to walk over and shoot him in the head, or stab him AGAIN with the pitchfork once he stumbled bleeding and incapacitated into the mud.

The Matador
Rating: 4
I really liked this movie, about a burnt out hitman and a struggling, slightly emasculated everyman, but something held me back from outright loving it. I think it was the on-the-nose nature of Julian Noble's(Pierce Brosnan) breakdown. I totally loved the storyline surrounding the mental decline of this character, and appreciated how nicely it was represented in his life, and how he envied Greg Kinnear for the simple act of owning a home. It was the more stylistic flourishes that I disliked, such as the visions of Julian framed in a gunsight and screaming to the heavens, or of Julian jumping on a trampoline in a cheerleader outfit. This seemed a bit of a hackneyed way of illustrating something that was already perfectly defined in dialogue and character interaction. Still, I enjoyed this movie for at least aiming high, even if I didn't feel it quite hit the mark.

Rating: 2
The same can't be said for this film, which seemed to set the bar low, and not even try that hard to reach it. The setup could have lent itself to any number of superior films; a tense crackerjack thriller, a biting examination of race relations, or an emotional character study of a mother suffering unspeakable loss and an African American cop trying to straddle both worlds; that of the street, and that of the establishment. Instead the film shows absolutely no interest in really examining any of these aspects of the film, and it doesn't even seem interested in any type of story. People arrive at conclusions to the central mystery with no discernible reason, and not even the capable performance of Julliane Moore made me care about her dead child. Which is surprising, given how sensitive to the subject I've been since having a child of my own.

The Lookout
Rating: 3
I hate to get into the wishing game when it comes to movies. That is, I hate to say of a movie that it could have been better if only it had done such-and-such different. A movie is what it is, and saying you wish it had been different means you should have watched another movie to begin with. And yet, I still wish this movie had done certain things differently. I found Joseph Gordon Leavitt's performance, playing ex-hockey player Chris Pratt, who has a brain injury due to a car accident, to be finely tuned and deeply affecting, and his friendship with a blind Jeff Daniels felt real and rewarding, but the movie itself was full of too many cliches. It had an interesting central twist(pinning the focus of the film on a man with brain trauma), but the rest of the film was standard fare. In the way that characters would stand in the freezing cold and stare at the horizon to show they were conflicted, or the menacing character who only scowls angrily at people through sunglasses that seem to be attached permanently to his head. The Lookout almost seemed ashamed of it's thriller lineage, until the very end, where Chris, with fairly severe memory problems, must figure out how to murder two thugs and save his friend. For a brief moment there, the film embraced the two-fisted allure of the thriller, and offered a few genuine thrills.

It occurs to me that my description of The Lookout, and it's central character, sound suspiciously like Memento. I should note, however, that that's probably due to my interpretation, since I watched the entire film without making the connection. Chris Pratt's condition isn't primarily associated with memory, but he instead must make do with limited physical and mental capabilities. He's aware enough to realize everything he's missing, but not always aware enough to do anything about it. And I should say again that Joseph Gordon Leavitt does an amazing job here. Pretty soon he'll be getting reviews that call him his generations (insert famous, respected actor here).

A quick note should be made about the ratings. I'm stealing the system almost directly from, since I find that one fits most intuitively into my viewpoint. I really have no idea what separates a B- from a C+, or a 7 from an 8, but the following system seems to work OK for me:

5 - I loved it
4 - I liked it
3 - I'm neutral
2 - I disliked it
1 - I hated it

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to watch Duck, You Sucker! so check back on Friday for what I thought of it.