Friday, May 30, 2008

Of all the mantras in the world...

Okay, I don't mean to mock anybody's spiritual path, even if they were on Oprah, which generally equals fair game, at least in my world. This is just in the interest of quirky information. But I was flipping through that super-popular Eat, Pray, Love book, about a travel writer who's having a breakdown, post-divorce, and bags a book assignment to spend the year Italy, India, and Bali, and all the spiritual insight she gleans along the way.

She proposes India in the first place because she'd started meditating with some world-renowned Guru who was visiting the U.S., a woman who studied with some super-famous Swamiji. (The author, Elizabeth Gilbert, declines to give their real names, but she stresses their credentials). So she spends time at a remote ashram, learning to calm her thoughts.

Okay, that might be useful, to a point, but anyway, she gets an ancient Sanskrit mantra from the famous Guru, and these special words are: "Om Namah Shivaya" (ॐ नमःशिवाय).

The exact same words are emblazoned on the bracelet I was wearing at the time, which I bought for four dollars at a science fiction convention. The hippies at the booth had told me that whatever it said was, well, now I want to say auspicious, but I doubt that was the actual word. At any rate, it was supposed to draw in something positive, and I was like, heck yeah, I can always use that! Although mainly I bought it because it's really pretty.

When I came across it a few months ago, I was startled to discover that I could actually read the inscription, which made me feel I'm making some progress in Devanagari, despite my general slacking off.

I like to think it's more meaningful if the mantra finds you than the other way around, but I guess I would. I was raised by Scandinavian Taoists, after all, so the straight path isn't necessarily the one for me. Hmm, if I wrote a book about spiritual advancement, the Bollywood way, I wonder if I could get on Oprah. Well, if I did, I'd have to admit what I think of her book club selections, and the fallout would be terrible. And unfortunately, the obvious title, Accidental Enlightenment, is already taken. But once I've got more coffee in me, I'm sure I can do better...

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Irfan Dances!

Sunday (2008) is a little self-consciously wacky for my taste, but let's face it, I got it for a particular reason: the "Loot Liya" number, in which Irfan Khan really dances for the first time that I've ever seen. (He did do some goofy dancing in the credits of The Killer -- odd, as he was a hardcore bad guy in that movie, but, like Sunday, he spent much of the film in the back of a cab). (I totally forgot that he sang in The Killer, too, but that's what YouTube is for:

There's still not enough Irfan for me in this movie (too many tangential characters in its convoluted plot), but here are some of the highlights from his role as an aspiring actor caught up in the drama surrounding a voice-over actress (who's lost all memory of a day in her life due to a date-rape drug, and may have unknowingly witnessed a murder):

-- The various costumes he wears to auditions and performances. The Dracula outfit is great, the Ravana outfit is great, and he looks suave and excellent in the black suit and shades he wears to audition for the role of Shahrukh's son in Don 3 -- ha!

-- The free-for-all fight scene in which he tickles an opponent.

-- The fact that when he first spots our heroine, he cries "Bhoot! Bhoot!" Made my day! Eventually, we get the full graveyard flashback that explains why he thinks she's a bhoot and his cab driver buddy thinks she owes him 42o rupees for a fare, and that's all pretty funny too.

As for the rest of the film: loved the guy wearing the Lost t-shirt in the police lineup.

There's an unexplained Jhoom Barabar Jhoom connection: the jangly musical intro to "Kiss of Love" plays at various points in the movie, and at one point, the out-of-it heroine sings "Jhoom" in the back of Arshad Warsi's cab.

And speaking of the heroine, she's personable and she cries prettily. Oddly, Ajay Devgan, usually a reliable presence (I mean, geez...he's OMI!), doesn't make much of an impression. Maybe it's the burden of coolness. He's being laid-back all the time, which doesn't lead to a dynamic performance. And those outfits he's wearing are really unflattering.

So, thumbs up for Irfan, and for the movie: thumbs sideways?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Don't meddle

Sigaw (The Echo)
Philippines, 2004

Baby-faced twenty-something Marvin (Richard Gutierrez) is on his own for the first time, having bought an apartment in a run-down older building. At first he's thrilled, but then he's disturbed every night by the sound of terrible domestic arguments down the hall, by the obviously beaten-up wife who bangs on everybody's doors, asking for help, and by the couple's creepy little daughter, who seems to be playing a perpetual game of hide-and-seek.

Eager to prove his independence to his mother (and even to his girlfriend Pinky, who'd obviously prefer they move in together to a nicer, newer building), he stubbornly refuses to hear any talk of trying to move out. He makes futile complaints to the management, loses sleep, and ponders trying to help the neighbor, despite the fact that the primary advice he gets is "don't meddle."

Eventually the situation escalates to the point where he witnesses a possibly fatal beating, and the drunken caretaker finally admits what should be obvious by now: the family is long-dead and re-enacting their last, violent day in ghostly form. Marvin tries to cope by focusing on the fact that it's not real, that they're not really there. But one day Pinky comes by looking for him, and it becomes clear that the abusive husband may not be corporeal any more, but he's still able to hurt people. And when bloody apparitions start following the two of them around, Marvin decides he needs to stand up and confront the ghosts once and for all...

As directed and co-written by Yam Laranas, Sigaw is a well-crafted movie, albeit it doesn't do anything really innovative with its premise. It bears more of a similarity to the current cycle of well-known Japanese, Korean and Thai horror films than, say, the same year's Feng Shui did (although a lot of commentators find Sigaw spookier and better made in general). The decrepit apartment building, always darkly lit and sinister looking, could be out of either of the Dark Water movies. But oddly, that fact just highlights the universality of the protagonist's experience in an alienated urban environment, where, as he complains about his apartment, "there's privacy but no security."

In the modern apartment setting, there's no connection or community between the neighbors, who don't know each other and barely even see each other. On the one hand, this suits Marvin fine, since he's trying to lead his own life, and mind his own business. But in reality, he's still vulnerable to the actions (and, especially, the problems) of the people around him. Both he and the neighbor seen in flashback, who used to live in Marvin's unit, are affected and potentially threatened by complete strangers.

Similarly, Marvin tries to cope with his problems himself, turning away his girlfriend's offers of help, and not telling her everything that's going on. But of course, the troubles that affect him also affect her, and recognizing that is part of his growing up.

Needless to say, there's an American remake in production right now, with the same director and Iza Calzado, the original's abused wife, playing the new version of the same character. The main star, though, is Jesse Bradford, who's always struck me as a generic male starlet, so I can't say I have high hopes. Not that one ever should, in the world of Asian horror remakes. Some day, somehow, I'm going to be pleasantly surprised. Come on, Hollywood, rise to that challenge!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

"After all, Missouri is not far"

Within the first ten minutes of the Ramsey Brothers' Veerana (1988), our primary villain (an inhuman witch/morphing bat woman and Satanic minion) has killed a visiting foreigner, been tracked down by the local Thakur, lured into the tub with him, exposed as a murderous bat creature and hung as a witch by torch-wielding villagers. That's certainly more plot than the average Hollywood movie, and quite a giddy pace to maintain.

Among the later highlights:

Back at the estate, the Thakur's brother has an uneasy feeling, but the hero thinks it's time they got back to normal life. This involves dropping his niece at school on his way back to work, because, "after all, Missouri is not far."

This isn't a subtitle problem, either, because he clearly speaks the word "Missouri" in the dialogue. So, uh, where the heck is this supposed to be taking place? We have a dearth of Satanic batwomen here in the Midwest, as well as of Thakurs, alas. I might, however, be able to purchase a sequined "Om"-on-a-stick online, just in case.

Then there are some "borrowed" insert shots from Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Carpenter's The Thing, neither of which have anything to do with the storyline and wouldn't be missed in the slightest. Now, just for example, the hidden temple at the "isolated spot" contains a group of creatures sitting around a table, who all have elongated coneheads that look like petrified tree trunks. We never find out who they are, or what's up with their heads; they just sit there, swaying occasionally. If you can just toss somethat weird into the background, why bother stealing from Hollywood?

Also, a rustic with a delivery of vegetables makes his entrance singing Amitabh's "Main Hoon Don" song! Sadly, he isn't wearing a tiger mask, but you can't have everything.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

If one must have a niche...

On my lunch break yesterday I ran across the street to a literary event. When I walked in the door, my former professor (one of the readers) and I waved at each other, and as I was making my narrow way toward the coffee, he called me over to where he was sitting with the distinguished out-of-town writer guest.

"What was the name of that movie?" he asked. "The one filmed in Lawrence, Kansas."

"Carnival of Souls."

"That's it! Carnival of Souls!"

He had gone to grad school in Lawrence, and actually went to the coffeehouse that the heroine's neighbor takes her to in a vain attempt to stop being such a longer. Turns out that the visiting writer went there too. So I got into the whole thing about Herk Harvey and his industrial films, and how they should avoid the bad public domain editions (and geez, on the spur of the moment, I forgot about the terrible '90s remake).

"Criterion Collection," I stressed. "It's like whole Night of the Living Dead situation."

Sometimes it's good to be an "expert," at least about fun things.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Pretty Girls Make Graves?

My Oxford Hindi-English Dictionary came in the mail (and I almost wrote Oxford-Hindi, like the languge of the university was being translated...which sometimes wouldn't be a bad idea), and I've been flipping through it. I happened along a word that's quite familiar to me from songs: "gori." (An amusing clip of the song "Chori Chori Hum Gori Se," from the movie The Guru, is here: It's supposed to be originally from the movie Mela, but I can't find any clips...although YouTube is full of people lip-synching in their apartment and dancing to it at weddings).

The dictionary defines "gori" as "1. a fair-complexioned woman; a beautiful woman. 2. a Caucasian woman." That sounds perfectly logical, the way it's used in context. But thanks to the wonders of alphabetical order, I found "gori" just a tish past "gor": "1. a grave. 2. a tomb."

I draw no conclusions: just a word nerd.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Hmmm, I saw that coming

The Psychic (a.k.a. Sette Note in Nero, Seven Notes in Black)

Italy, 1977

It's often noted how the media misrepresents American life. Recently, in a book called Affluenza, I was reading about how people can start to think everybody but them has a swimming pool, for example, because that's the way everyone on TV lives. Well, I've watched my share of Italian thrillers and slasher films, and as far as I can tell, everybody in Italy lives in an enormous mansion, usually ancient, and sometimes with a luxury apartment in the city on the side.

I first heard about Lucio Fulci's The Psychic as part of the Rolling Thunder Pictures line. In those giddy post-Pulp Fiction days, Quentintino launched the company to release influential cult films onto home video. An admirable goal, although the ads were hilariously self-aggrandizing: see for the promo that accompanied the releases of Chungking Express and Switchblade Sisters (both well worth watching, by the way). The release of The Psychic never materialized, and the the story at the online Quentin Tarantino archives has some interesting detail about the line and its demise, including the fact that they never actually got the rights to the movie...a small detail.

( . Warning: the Tarantino site contains four-letter words, which shouldn't surprise anyone who's seen his movies).

The Psychic begins with a very beautiful woman throwing herself off an incredibly beautiful cliff. This, by the way, is the only really bloody part of the movie, but the effects are totally unrealistic, so it's hard to imagine it disturbing anybody. Miles away, her little daughter is at school, but somehow witnesses the whole thing. The littlest clairvoyant grows up to be Scanners' poised and seemingly well-adjusted Jennifer O'Neill, who's recently married a suave Italian playboy. As a surprise, she decides to renovate his family's enormous, ancient palazzo, and almost immediately recognizes a room from one of her most recent and more disturbing visions, which includes a ripped-up wall and a murdered old woman.

Heeding the picture in her head, she finds herself a pick-ax and tears open the wall, finding a skeleton right where it should be. But she's confused when the dead woman turns out to be a pretty 25-year-old missing person. She's even more clueless about why the police are so suspicious of her husband, who admits he had an affair with the woman found dead in his house, so she used the clues from her vision to find evidence that will free him from custody.

This film looks like it's the basic template for a Bollywood movie called 100 Days, with Devdas stars Madhuri Dixit and Jackie Shroff. The premise is not completely original, however, so some other influences may have gone in as well. Which leads me to that other familiar aspect of Italian thrillers, besides the completely skewed impression their real estate situation. A common theme is how people can see things, "know" things, but if they can't understand and interpret them correctly, it's not helpful at all, and can actually put them into more danger than if they hadn't known anything. The context is everything.

This is a vision of prophecy and divination that goes back in Graeco-Roman history to the Sibylline Oracles and Oedipus Rex, and of course is familiar to the English-speaking world via Macbeth. Then, of course, there's Blow-Up (filmed in England by an Italian director, based on a story by the unjustly neglected Spanish writer Julio Cortazar) and the De Palma homage, Blow Out.

My personal favorite works in this vein are Argento's Deep Red (which contains both the supernatural, psychic-vision angle and the more realistic, Blow-Up-like storyline of the crime witness who doesn't understand what he's seen) and Don't Look Now (filmed in Venice by English director Nicolas Roeg). I suspect Fulci was going for a Don't Look Now vibe, but unfortunately, the film gets bogged down in its lack of, well, vision. A character will make a comment, or we'll see a cigarette in an ashtray, then it's a closeup of O'Neill's eyes and a flashback to a different detail from the same vision. How many times can one film reuse the same footage? After awhile I was rooting desperately for her to have another vision, or at least, please, see the room from a different angle.

Oddly, the film is hampered by its restrained quality. It's a fairly straight-forward mystery, apart from the random clairvoyance and perhaps the old hand of fate. It's nicely made; almost like he had something to prove. In retrospect, this makes me appreciate me the absolute nuttiness of The Beyond, a.k.a. Seven Doors of Death, a.k.a. (at my house) One Door of Death Out of Seven. I mean, where are the inexplicable tarantulas? That's the kind of thing that sets a film apart. Or even The House By the Cemetery. I think I mocked that one all the way through, but I have to admit, I didn't know where on earth he was going with anything.

But maybe in a movie about a psychic, the audience should know everything that's going to happen...