Monday, April 26, 2010

I Know What Various Kapoors Did Last Summer

Kucch To Hai (2003)

I have some friends who watch Hindi films as part of a well-rounded film diet, and they -- well, recommended is the wrong word, but keep in mind that they know my specialized tastes -- a slasher film they had seen. Eventually the title was tracked down, and imagine my delight when the concept turned out to be an I Know What You Did Last Summer in which the kids run over not a sinister fisherman, but a sinister Rishi Kapoor!

Then imagine my disappointment when I Netflixed it, only to find: no subtitles. But I forged on ahead, and watched the whole thing in one sitting.

When I saw the "Jeetendra presents" in the credits, I wondered which of the youngsters involved was his kid. (He also gets an overly-explanatory acting credit, where they point out that his part is brief on purpose).

Turns out that Tusshar Kapoor, who I haven't had reason to research before, is his son. When I first saw him (as hero Karan), I immediately recognized him as that one guy from the "Deewangi" medley in Om Shanti Om. You can't tell I've watched that too many times, can you? In the film, he's in love with Esha Deol, the real-life daughter of Hema Malini, to whom Jeetendra was briefly engaged. That sounds like a romantic comedy plot waiting to happen.

But wait, there's more: producers Ekta and Shobha Kapoor are Jeetendra's daughter and wife, respectively. There's a nicely gossipy interview with Rishi about the film here, in which he says Ekta is like a daughter to him, but she runs a movie like a TV serial, which caused his role to become "rubbishy." (I also love the bit where he interrupts the interviewer to say "But let me tell you about all the films I haven't done.")

Overall, I think I followed the storyline pretty well. There's a group of college students, playing basketball and going to the prom, with only the quiet heartbreak of Natasha (the Anjali to her friend Tania's Tina) rendering anyone less than happy-go-lucky. Unfortunately, Tania is caught cheating on a test by Rishi's scary Professor Bakshi. I got the impression she was taking a fall for Karan (the designated Rahul), but can't say for sure. The gang decides to break into the Professor's house to steal something to help her, but what they find is a corpse in the basement, and when they flee in terror, they run him over.

Then he's not really dead, but then he is -- you know the drill. Tania leaves to put it all behind her, just like Jennifer Love Hewitt once did, and they all reunite years later at a wedding, where they're stalked by someone in a dark hood. Is it Rishi, back from the grave?

I was going to put in a shot of the stalker, since that's what's supposed to be scary, but frankly, it's just somebody in a generic hood. I couldn't resist a dramatic close-up of the great Rishi eyeballs instead.

Unfortunately, the eventual use of Rishi as red herring made no sense to me, since much seems to be revealed in a dramatic speech which I couldn't understand a word of. So maybe I now have a true Hindi-learning goal. Or just need to track down a copy with subtitles. The edition on Nehaflix is supposed to have them (from Video Sound as opposed to T Series), but they're out of stock. Some day!

Despite the part not being what he thought it would be, Rishi is great as a broody, intimidating guy. He's followed around by dramatic camera angles and music that sounds like it belongs in The Omen, and he even gets to do some amazing maniacal laughter. I want to see him play some kind of Shakespearean villain: I think he'd be great!

Someone on the IMDB says the film is like "an amateurish stage play," but I can't imagine they've seen Dhund: The Fog, the Ramsay Brothers version of the same basic story. This looked great in comparison, and the different elements (romantic college shenanigans; the mostly peppy, vaguely Main Hoon Na-like songs; Johnny Lever; and the suspense/slasher film conventions) were all integrated reasonably well. Maybe a pastiche of the lightweight American horror films of the '90s makes for a reach-not-exceeding-grasp situation. It's possible, too, that not hearing the dialogue might have improved it. Since I didn't know exactly what they were saying, I was much more sympathetic to the characters than I was in, for example,the American I Know What You Did Last Summer.

Speaking of Main Hoon Na, I was kind of surprised that Kucch To Hai came out a year earlier.

Director Anurag Basu, whose most recent film was the very different and critically acclaimed Life in a Metro, recently directed the upcoming Kites, which I suddenly really want to see. I think he and madman Rakesh Roshan were made for each other. The heroine of Kites is even named Natasha, same as a key player in the Kucch To Hai mystery! Coincidence? Or something more ... sinister?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The latest from the Bollywood Book Club

I recently picked up a slender little book called Light of the Universe: Essays on Hindustani Film Music, which I had seen cited in somebody or other's footnotes. The author, Ashraf Aziz, works as a Professor of Anatomy at a medical school, so that should stop me from whining about the distractions of my day job. In only 126 pages he discusses all sorts of interesting songs (most, of course, that I'm not familiar with), and makes several persuasive arguments.

These include: a strong statement that film music is neither debased classical music nor commercialized folk music, but a true musical genre in its own right. Also, the idea that while people like Ravi Shankar got a lot of acclaim for musical bridging East and West, earlier composers and music directors (including many of my faves -- C. Ramchandra, O.P. Nayyar, Shankar-Jaikishan, and of course S.D. Burman) had been doing that for years, without getting any particular credit for it. He points out, the extent that they didn't merely copy popular western musical styles, but combined elements and instruments to create something new.

"It is as hybrid as the contemporary world" (p. xxv), and "the cinema song continues to mediate between the home and abroad, the city and the village, and between the now and the now that has dissolved into then" (p. xxvi). In my case, it mediates across the decades, across the globe, across languages, to a completely unknown and unforeseen audience. Not bad for something deemed at the time to have nothing but "inferiority and frivolity" (p. xxii).

Another brief chapter makes a good case for Indian society undergoing a reactionary shift similar to the one the United States went through after World War II: that after Independence and Partition, women were pushed back into what was perceived as their traditional "place." He (possibly controversially) attributes the Lata Mangeshkar monopoly to this trend, one that would also explain why she was so often called upon to sing in the high-pitched, "little girl" style that Noor Jehan had used occasionally, for particular effect.

While reading this book's opening chapter on Noor Jehan, I sprung for a 5-disc set of her songs, and so far, I'm willing to concede that she was, in fact, all that. But that's a subject for another day.

The last thing I wanted to mention is a quote on the work of lyricist Sajjad Hussain (whose work is pretty much only available to me on YouTube, until I do more research and track down some more box sets). So here's a few videos:

"Kahan ho kahan mere jeevan sahare"

"Yeh hawa ye raat ye chandni"


Anyway, Aziz's comment: "Repeatedly one hears that Sajjad's songs are 'remote,' 'obscure', and 'difficult' ... We live in an astoundingly complex and obscure universe. It is, therefore, naive and unreasonable to demand moronic simplicity in everything." (p. 34)

Wow, it's nice to hear someone say that out loud!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Everything Old is New Again

FYI: Daleks are robotic-looking menaces from outer space. Doctor Who is a television program. Some people take these things very seriously. That is all ye need to know.

When I first heard about the Campaign for Real Daleks (via a tweet from our friends at The Horror?), I idly thought that someone was trying to build, well, real Daleks. I know folks who are building model Daleks, even life-size, but "real" ones would seem a little dangerous. Doesn't stop people from owning other random forms of weaponry, though, so who knows?

But now I realize that the "realness" or lack thereof has to do with the fact that the Daleks are not monochromatic: they're not the classic black or grey, but have been redesigned, and are now in multiple colors. (Or "colours," as we see in the press releases and UK based fan sites).

Now, I remember how startled I was when I first saw Doctor Who and the Daleks (although the movie came out in 1985, I saw it in it 1983). This film was the first time that any manifestation of Doctor Who had appeared in color. I wrote in my original review that these "Daleks were shorter, unthreatening versions -- some classic black, but others bright red and baby blue." So while I understand fans not caring for the new design -- after all, I did put the word "unthreatening" right up front there -- the idea of Daleks being multicolored goes far back in Doctor Who history, and as much, if not more, claim to the status of "real."

As for the overall look, here's a gallery of various Dalek designs over the ages.

Two questions come immediately to mind: why can't I find sci-fi buffs who are screenshotting at the rate of Hindi film fans, so I can get a good picture of those colorful old-timey Daleks to show you? Similarly, I've found promo shots of the new Daleks, but nothing that places them as they actually appear in an episode, for comparison purposes. Dudes, get on this! And secondly, why don't I own a DVD of Doctor Who and the Daleks? That's truly inexplicable.

P.S. The best part of the online campaign is that it seems to have originated from a blog called "Meme-Free Zone." They add, "PLEASE pass this on as widely as you can." This stuff writes itself.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Fog Blog

More examples of What's Wrong With Hollywood:

John Carpenter's 1980 ghost thriller The Fog has more an ensemble cast than a star. The closest thing to a leading man is 45-year-old Tom Atkins as small-town slacker Nick Castle, who makes a casual living fishing with his beer-drinking buddies.

In the 2005 remake, the character is played by 28-year-old Tom Welling, who's rather more, shall we say, on the Greek Godlike side. He's also been transformed into the responsible captain of his own boat, and owner of Castle and Son Fishing Charters.

Not that Welling hasn't shown some acting chops on Smallville, or that I don't like me the eye candy. It's just -- everything doesn't have to be eye candy all the time. American films used to occasionally feature people who weren't 20-something and/or gorgeous, and I miss them.

Both Fogs tell the story of a small seaside town, whose founders killed a group of lepers and stole their money to bankroll the colony. A hundred years later, the residents are plagued by a supernatural weather phenomenon: ghostly wet lepers that come out of a glowing fog bank, seeking revenge.

There are, however, some important differences between the two, not even counting the addition of the familiar "girl in the present looks exactly like a woman from the past!" bit. (Yup, again).

The characters in the original Fog fall into three groups:

Group 1: Nick and Elizabeth, played by Atkins and Jamie Lee Curtis, have just met and had a one-night-stand. They develop an easy rapport that carries through the rest of the movie, as they investigate what happened to his buddy's missing boat, the Seagrass. (Horror buffs will all know that the character's full name, Nick Castle, is the same as the actor who first played Michael Meyers, in the original Halloween).

Elizabeth, exploring: They drank a lot of beer last night.
Nick: Every night.
Elizabeth: What's it like?
Nick: It's always the same. The room starts spinning...
Elizabeth, sharply: I mean fishing.

Group 2: Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh) is an older woman who's setting up a Centennial hoopla in the town of Antonio Bay, with the help of her crabby assistant Sandy (Carpenter Ensemble Company player Nancy Loomis). They make what the Doctor Who About Time guides would call "an effective double act," with Mrs. Williams a highly-strung Lady Who Lunches type, and Sandy, as her boss points out, someone who can make "yes ma'am" sound like "screw you." Despite that, they show genuine affection for each other, and both get some fun lines.

Mrs. Williams: Are you going to give the benediction tonight, Father?
Father Malone: Antonio Bay has a curse on it.
Sandy: Do we take that as a "no"?

Groups 1 and 2 only interact in that Mrs. Williams' fisherman husband is Nick's friend, owner of the missing boat, which ran afoul of the deadly fog bank.

Group 3 includes Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau), the radio DJ and station owner, and her circle: her son, his babysitter, and the guy who gives her the weather reports. She recently moved to Antonio Bay from Chicago, and only interacts with the other character groups through her broadcasts, and once through a brief phone conversation with Nick, who calls the station. She spends most of the movie at work, alone.

Stevie: You're just a voice on the phone.
Dan the Weatherman: And you're just a voice on the radio. We'd make a perfect couple. You let me take you to dinner tonight, I'll prove it to you.
Stevie: Sorry, Dan. My idea of perfection is a voice on the phone.

Separately, the different people use their abilities to find and share the knowledge that will save them.

Group 1 finds the physical evidence that something mysterious is going on. Group 2, through a talk with the drunk priest who found a secret journal, gathers the information about the past that explains the "why" behind it. And Stevie provides direct observation of events from her vantage point in an old lighthouse.

As the characters separately begin to realize the strange things that are going on, they become more alert, so that by the time Stevie knows there's a strange knock on the weatherman's door, and Nick hears Stevie talking crazy on the radio, they recognize the actual danger of the situation. It's an intuitive leap, an acceptance of the strange and possibly supernatural, but they've all got different pieces of the puzzle, and are putting them together.

With the exception of Father Exposition, the priest played by Hal Holbrook, none of the characters have anything to do in any way with the back story about the town fathers and the lepers. Elizabeth and Stevie, as well as Stevie's son, are newcomers, complete outsiders, but that doesn't keep them out of danger. There's an idea that everyone in the town is, in an indirect way, profiting from the long-ago evil doings. Much the way that in Precinct 13, our police protagonists didn't do anything to the gang members, but they're judged guilty by association anyway.

In the remake, however:

Nick and Elizabeth (Lost's Maggie Grace) are an established couple, who've been in a long-distance relationship since she left town to find herself. The Seagrass has become Nick's own boat. Nick has gotten involved with Stevie (Selma Blair) in Elizabeth's absence. Elizabeth is Kathy Williams' daughter, although the two are estranged. (Funny they went in this direction, since Curtis and Leigh were, of course, mother and daughter, but any temptation to connect them was resisted. I suppose it's intended as an homage). Of course, Mrs. Williams knows and openly disapproves of Nick, and Elizabeth and Stevie know each other.

And they're all, to a person, the descendants of the original scheming town fathers, so it's a direct "sins of the fathers" scenario, instead of a more complicated form of guilt or responsibility. The movie's first line of dialogue is Stevie on the radio, talking about how one of the founders was her great-great-grandfather.

What's mainly wrong with the relationships in the new movie is that they're so over-determined. Atkins doesn't get drawn into the action because his son disappeared, or his brother, or his best friend: the kind of narrative crutch I'm used to in contemporary Hollywood. It's a guy he sometimes get drunk with. They're just good enough friends for him to know that something is wrong when his boat doesn't come back. The strongest bond he has is with Curtis, who he literally just met. They become a couple because when trouble starts, they stick together.

Welling's Nick, on the other hand, goes looking for the missing boat because it belongs to him. That's an absolutely crucial character difference.

They're also used to provide shorthand for motivation, and the use of shorthand is a way of avoiding complexity. In the original, the characters were connected by the story. They were all important threads, carrying the plot forward, uncovering separate clues, and eventually more or less braiding together.

In the remake, the characters are connected by backstory. All the information is really found and put together by Nick and Elizabeth, without any real contribution to the overall story by the other characters, who've become like the comedy track you could excise without noticing.

For example, the original Mrs. Williams' boosterish celebration of the town's anniversary is the means by which we find out what's actually happening. The remake Mrs. Williams doesn't know anything about what's going on, and is such a caricature, she's not even concerned that her estranged daughter just discovered a couple of horrible corpses. Instead, she's depicted as overridingly brittle and bitchy, for no particular reason, and certainly has no moment as endearing as Janet Leigh's comment about the priest, "Now say a little prayer that he's not in his cups."

Similarly, for the new Stevie: the whole narrative reason that the radio station was in a lighthouse was so she could see where the fog is and where it's going. Because of that, original Stevie finds herself in the position where she's the only one who can do the job of warning the town, and she does it. But the new Stevie actually abandons her post almost immediately. If you removed Leigh's or Barbeau's characters from the original, the actual plot would unravel. If you removed the updated versions, you'd lose scenes that take up time, but you wouldn't lose anything that actually drives the plot or contributes to any overriding theme. They could be replaced with anything, or anybody being menaced.

In the absence of their doing anything important to the plot, or displaying any heroism (see below), the only reason we're given to care about the fates of these characters is because of who they're related to: it's her mother, his girl on the side. And that's not enough reason.

While I'm talking about the characters, I need to go off on an Elizabeth tangent. One of the valid criticisms of the 1980 Fog is that the character development is a little on the sketchy side. What we know about Curtis' Elizabeth is fairly limited -- basically given in about two lines of dialogue -- but it's instructive to note what those two lines tell us. We already know that she's traveling alone, self-sufficient and able to take care of herself. The additional info is that she's from a rich, privileged background, where she wasn't happy and wasn't able to "do what I want," or be who she is. We also learn she's an artist, who sells her pictures to subsidize her adventuring.

There's also a line where she wonders if she's bad luck, but that's pretty clearly a tip of the hat to her role in Halloween. (As is, I suspect, her casual attitude toward sex. There's plenty of evidence that Carpenter was dumbfounded by the common idea that his slasher classic is saying that girls deserve to be punished for sex. In his next movie, he took the actress who played the supposedly significant virgin, and made her a really nice girl who'll fall into bed with anyone she kinda likes, with no disapproval whatsoever).

So the character is changed from someone who's in Antonio Bay because she left her hometown to be herself, to someone who's there because she's returning to her hometown and her old boyfriend. That's a big difference. Not to mention that she had no particular reason for leaving, beyond a vague sense of not belonging, and she came back because she was having weird dreams, so with a lot more screentime, she has a lot less motivation -- seeming to be carried along by fate.

Tangent on a tangent: the later Snake Plissken from Escape from New York is a lone wolf and criminal on the future equivalent of Death Row whose trouble really starts when he allows himself to get involved with other people, and becomes most dangerous to the world when he embraces higher ideals. Similarly, the man in They Live (credited as "Nada," but never named in the movie) starts out desperate and alone, but also becomes most endangered himself, and again, a true danger to the establishment, when he makes connections, joining forces with others. Elizabeth was an early tilt in that direction. Here's she's a young woman (Curtis was 22 when the movie came out) who's been hitchhiking alone on dark isolated roads, alienated from the people in the world where she came from. She only finds herself in a life and death struggle when she makes a connection to someone else, and decides to stick around in one place.

Alienation versus belonging, isolation versus connection: each has a down side. It's not a polarized view of the world, either/or. However a person deals with other people, there's a double-edged sword quality. The examples in these movies, in my opinion, clearly show belonging and connection as better. This is where the possibility of nobility occurs. This is what makes life worth living, worth surviving for. But belonging and connection can also make life harder and more dangerous. There's more to lose, and an individual loses a degree of control over their destiny. The clear, obvious virtue of self-preservation is made murky by concern for the people you care about, and for a greater good. ("The greater good.") Sorry, but if you've seen Hot Fuzz, you know I can't say that without echoing.

There are a lot of movies that show an alienated person learning to connect and love again. I'm gonna pick Garden State off the top of my head, because we just saw Zach Braff on TV the other day. But they rarely depict such a realistic world as Carpenter's, where life and elements thereof are recognized as imperfect, complicated, threatening, and worth fighting for.

In the remake of The Fog, as in the remade Assault on Precinct 13, everything happens for a reason. In Carpenter's films, the whole point is that there is no reason. His characters are in the wrong place at the wrong time (Halloween, The Thing), or being held responsible for things they didn't do (Precinct 13, The Fog). Thus the symbolic significance of Curtis playing a hitchhiker: sheer drifting chance brought her to this place at this time, to be menaced by ghostly lepers, of all things.

These early films (including Escape from New York, although as dystopian sci-fi, it's in a different class) are all set in existential worlds. Whether there are meaningful personal connections is a matter of chance (in The Fog, for example, Nick's parents are dead, and Elizabeth is alienated from her family). The social structure and authority figures that make people feel safe can't help them in the strange situations where they find themselves. The characters are on their own, by and large, and, as usually happens in life, don't really know what's happening to them or why. They're forced to find their own meaning in the world.

As the 1980 Nick says, "I don't believe in luck, good or bad. I don't believe in anything much."

Many people view this existential universe of Carpenter's as bleak, even cynical. When I watch them, though, I find the opposite to be true.

In the original Assault on Precinct 13, the hero's commanding officer asks him at the beginning of the movie,"Do you want to be a hero your first night out, Lieutenant?" When he responds, "Yes, sir!" the officer tells him, "There are no heroes anymore, Bishop. Just men who follow orders."

Then the whole movie goes on to prove the CO wrong. There are definitely heroes, although they're sometimes unlikely ones. In a Carpenter film, anyone can be a hero, because the hero is whoever rises to the occasion.

Carpenter's existential films start out grounded in the attitudes of normal people, rather than obviously exceptional ones. The characters live in safe, even dull small towns, and/or they're at jobs that they expect to be uneventful on a day-to-day basis. They have no reason to believe they're in any kind of danger (a point that decades of critical theorists on Halloween often ignore). They are complacent about their lives. Then something terrible happens that shakes their complacency.

The characters discover that the world is not what it seemed. Their assumptions about the world were wrong: actually, death is inevitable. There's no authority there to protect them, and with sheer personal survival suddenly on the line, there may not be any straightforward moral guidelines for them to follow.

Now, in real life, this is as far as many people go. You're an ordinary person with an ordinary life, taking your everyday reality for granted. Then something happens. It's a personal tragedy of some sort, as in Halloween. Or in the more symbolic Fog, you learn things that put that reality in a darker light.

In the new Fog, it's Elizabeth who reads the journal, and the information will eventually tell her how she's personally affected by the past: it's all about her identity. In the original, the information was given to Mrs. Williams and Sandy, and Janet Leigh handled the Everywoman reaction in a perfect low-key manner, telling the priest (traumatized by this violent disruption of his worldview) gently "There's not much we can do about this right now." She's not meaning to be callous; just realistic. This all happened a long time ago. Almost anywhere we can live has a bloody history we all ignore so we can go on with our lives.

The idea of people walking around unruffled in their little worlds, oblivious to all the terrible things that have happened (and may still be happening) behind the scenes, is of course a common theme, from Peyton Place to Blue Velvet to contemporary exposes about sweat shops and blood diamonds. But Carpenter's films neither respond with a jaded attitude of "Yup, that's life, get used to it," nor with a Lynchian, "Look, it's a pretty birdy! See, the world is okay after all!" (Huh, it just occurs to me, it's the twentieth anniversary of Twin Peaks, where Lynch most tried to really explore this favorite theme of his -- again, not quite successfully, but still mostly darn good).

His characters have to face up to the loss of a coherent belief system, and the absence of any external force that tells them what to do and, more importantly, what to believe, and hang on to their humanity. The people who become his heroes respond to the situation by refusing to act on selfish self-interest. Even in the absence of certainty or any hope of reward, they risk their lives for others.

(Note: I'm not arguing that there is no higher order, power, or meaning to the world. That's beyond my knowledge and capability. Rather, I'm acknowledging that we live in an age where there is much doubt, and loss of faith in the metaphysical structures that once helped people make sense of their lives. Within that state of mind, when the universe seems cold and purposeless, how do people create meaning and retain moral ideals that are for the good of all?)

When the storylines are of stripped of their existential edge, the heroism deflates along with it. For example, it's not particularly noble of Welling's Nick to go rescue a kid he knows personally, who's the son of a woman he's been sleeping with. Atkins and Curtis' characters, only vaguely connected by definable ties to anyone else, just hear over the radio that a complete stranger is in trouble, and rush to help, because it's the right thing to do.

The original Stevie stays at her post in the lighthouse, broadcasting the movements of the fog because it's job that needs doing, and she's the only one who can do it. This absolutely key part of the original story is completely abandoned in the remake, where it doesn't even occur to Stevie that she can help more in the lighthouse than by running off. The original Mrs. Williams even shows bravery in trying to carry on with the town festivities despite learning the awful truth, and the fact that her husband is missing at sea.

And you'd think I've picked on the new Precinct 13 enough, but that too has changes that render the remade characters much less brave or morally strong. In both versions, there's a person in the station that the attackers want the police to turn over to them. In the original, a frightened character suggests that they do it to save their own necks, and the heroes stare her down, refusing to do so. In the remake, by the time the option comes up to give the bad guys who they want, the characters already know they're all going to be killed either way, as witnesses. So the moral decision is taken away from them. They're all mainly saving themselves, not saving each other.

Even most of Carpenter's fans will agree that The Fog is one of the director's minor works, which doesn't hold together in all its details, despite my enormous fondness for it. In general, it's a moody trifle, with a likable cast, and a spooky score in the patented vein of John Carpenter minimalism. But it also contains a message of how to cope in a cold and apparently unfriendly, incoherent universe that I have always found personally inspiring.

An off-topic annoyance: I can't help mentioning that remake Stevie seems to think she can swear on the radio, which you can't do on "regular radio." But "what the hell, I can do whatever I want. It's my very own station." I think that would be news to the FCC.

And one last thing: in the original Fog, when Nick and Elizabeth rescue little Andy, he grabs the kid, leaving her at the wheel of his pickup. This leads to a suspense scene where they're stuck briefly in the mud, We know it isn't her truck, she's not skilled at driving it, and they're briefly trapped as the killer ghosts converge. Then she gets it to work, and they escape. She did it!

In the remake, the scene works the same way: Nick grabs kid, Elizabeth's at the wheel, they're stuck in the mud. But then, she can't get it to work. Nick actually has to get out of the car, get in the driver's seat, and in two seconds he has them loose so they can escape. When I saw the remake for the first time, in the theater, this change was so gratuitous, and so insulting, I swear to god I wanted to punch director Rupert Wainwright in the face.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Assault on "Assault on Precinct 13"

A bit of conversation from the supernatural TV show Angel, as the characters prepared for a siege by demonic forces.

Gunn: What are you doing?
Wesley: Trying to imagine myself as John Wayne in Rio Bravo. You?
Gunn: Austin Stoker, Assault on Precinct 13.
Cordelia: If we live through this, trade in the DVD players and get a life.

Ouch! Cordy always had a sharp, tell-it-like-it-is attitude, but it usually wasn't directed at me.

There's a in-joke there I doubt I caught the first time around, in that John Carpenter has openly admitted his 1976 urban crime thriller was loosely inspired by Howard Hawks' classic Western, and Austin Stoker in fact played the John Wayne part. What's really funny, though, is the very idea that anyone twenty years from now will find inspiration in Ethan Hawke, or the 2005 Assault on Precinct 13 remake he starred in.

I know, I know: slagging substandard remakes of John Carpenter films isn't exactly a challenge. Nonetheless, analysis of why they go so horribly wrong might lead to some insights into the perennial question of What is Wrong with Hollywood?

Side note: by "Hollywood," a.k.a. the "mainstream media," I mean films that are made or distributed under the auspices of the major motion picture studios, with all that entails: generally large-ish budgets, biggish stars, and the guarantee that the films will play in all markets all over the country. We're not talking about anything arty, anything indie, anything with subtitles. Occasionally a TriStar will pick up something like the Afrikaans-language District 9 and get it into all the multiplexes, but that's not the kind of film I'm talking about.

Assault on Precinct 13
tells the story of a run-down urban police station on its last night of operation. First, a bus containing some prisoners (one of them a famous criminal) stops off there. Then they're all attacked by shadowy adversaries (gang members in the first, a criminal conspiracy in the second). The police and the prisoners end up working together to fend off their attackers, in an attempt to survive the night.

In the opening credits of the new Precinct 13, I was amused to note that one of the production companies involved is called Why Not Productions. I don't mean to pick on them in particular, because I have no idea what part they played, but that seems like a particularly apt phrase in connection with this picture.

The original movie had a strong, self-assured African-American man (Austin Stoker) as the hero cop, and a skinny, weaselly-looking white man as the master criminal. (No offense to Darwin Joston, who was excellent in the original role). So let's reverse them! Why not?

The cop in the original is taking his first test drive at command when it suddenly turns into a trial-by-fire, life-or-death struggle. So let's change him into a well-trained, seasoned veteran, who's burnt out following an undercover drug operation gone bad. We can accessorize him with the standard angst, booze, pills, and the court-appointed psychiatric visits, so that the whole ordeal becomes about him overcoming his demons. In fact, the same character that was a cliche in the "erotic thrillers" of the '90s! Why not?

The original movie also had a cool-headed woman character (played by Laurie Zimmer, still beloved despite an otherwise almost non-existent career) who's easily an equal in strength and importance with the two male leads. Let's get rid of her altogether! We can bring in Maria Bello as a psychiatrist who trades sexual innuendo with Hawke, and then gets put into a sexy, low-cut dress for the siege itself. While we're at it, she can spend most of the movie panicking and hyperventilating. Why not?

In the original, the two sides were both rag-tag crews, armed with the weapons they were able to get ahold of. Let's keep the good guys that kind of makeshift bunch, but up against an enemy with a whole SWAT team's worth of advanced weaponry, including professional snipers and an armed police helicopter, so the contest isn't remotely evenly matched, and thus totally implausible. Why not?

The original was largely about the way individual acts of violence leads to more violence, until events spiral out of control. Because of this, the narrative contains two separate plot threads that together lead to the titular Assault: one is the murder of a civilian, a little girl who gets caught in the crossfire. So let's remove anyone from the entire film who isn't either a criminal or a cop -- in fact, any ordinary audience identification figure. Why not?

The other precipitating factor is that the police have killed some gang members in a raid. The gang's response is to kill one person for each of their own, so that that police are being targeted for the doings of other people they're identified with. Hey! There's that violence breeds violence/revenge theme again, along with the idea of unrelated individuals being blamed for the actions of a group. (We'll see that again in The Fog, coming up next). However, why do that when we can replace it with the tired old corrupt-cop conspiracy I remember from bad Bruce Willis movies. Why not?

(Offhand, I'm thinking of Striking Distance, which contained the full-on burnt-out alcoholic cop character, and the conspiracy within the force. Sorry for the spoilers, but you'd have guessed anyway).

Then there's poor Laurence Fishburne, who plays a major gang lord like he's still trapped in the Matrix, all deadpan all the time, and intoning portentously as if he's talking about the prophecy of the One. Why not?

Dude, I know have you have range! And this is not a role that calls for Morpheus; even a little Cowboy Curtis would have fit the bill.

There are people on the IMDB listing plot holes, and one of them got the awesome response "You are probably the most critical person I've come across." Just like with Cordelia there, I feel like they're breaking the wall and speaking directly to me! Because I can say that this shot was my favorite thing in the entire film.

But speaking of those plot holes: there's much debate online about the tactics used by the corrupt cops -- why did they send the SWAT team in a few guys at a time, for one -- and some of the answers include the fact they didn't know how many people were in the building, or what weapons they had. This is even a plot point in the movie, where someone gets killed rather than tell the bad guys how many people are in the building.

Now, I'm no trained strategist, but I know this much: the good guys are cops, in a police station. The bad guys are other cops, who the good cops don't know are corrupt, even though they know some of them personally. The bad cops could have stopped in to invite Ethan Hawke to the bar after work! They could have seen exactly who was inside and what the sitch was before playing any of their cards. In fact, a whole slew of cops could have walked in the front door together wearing party hats. They could count heads, see that everybody was relaxed and off guard, and then blow everybody away. End of movie.

You should all be grateful that I've applied my potentially criminal mind to blogging about genre films.

In the original film, the previously untested police officers discover their heroism and bravery under pressure. The murderer who fights on their side rediscovers his nobility and his humanity. In the update, Ethan Hawke gets his groove back, and that's about it.

The oddest thing about these remakes is that they seem to be done by people who honestly have no idea what made the originals any good. These aren't Battlestar Galactica-style rebootings, where an old concept is drastically changed to some artistic and/or thematic end. Instead, it's a willy-nilly borrowing of titles and elements, jettisoning everything that made the originals classics in the first place -- the stuff that, without it, they wouldn't be remaking them in the first place.

Another thing: do filmmakers really believe that the audiences for violent, R-rated shoot-em-ups are so sensitive that they can't handle the kind of violence dished out in 1976, where innocent bystanders are shot down at point-blank range? I just re-watched the opening ten minutes of the original, and the scene where the gang leaders become blood brothers is more flinchworthy than anything in the remake, despite the extra explosions and bigger body count.

So far, those are two ways that Hollywood is going wrong: replacing ideas that relate to larger themes with generic scenarios, which seem randomly stuck in for no real purpose. And sanitizing the existing violence, so where it was once harsh, and thus potentially existed for a reason, it becomes all surface. Guns go off, people get shot, but none of it really registers -- none of it is really felt.

One more related post up, and then hopefully back to a good helping of frivolity.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Two random thoughts about Lee Adama

We've gotten through the much-disliked third season story arc on Battlestar Galactica, with the quadrangle of marital disharmony, and I was left with a few notions about Apollo, who's never been, I'll admit, my fave character.

1. The only other thing the two women who are in love with Lee have in common is that they both worship his father. I wonder if he's ever noticed that, and if so, does it contribute to his angst? It may not be in either Dee's "I want to marry you" way, or Kara's "I want to get freaky with you" way, but I can't help thinking both of them are really, deep down, in love with the Old Man. I suspect that when Lee's being a dick, they think to themselves, "Well, but maybe he'll still turn out like the Admiral yet." (Not that Kara isn't a dick too, because she obviously is).

2. Speaking of the Admiral: even when they're getting along, it seems like Lee is continually trying to prove his worthiness to his father. The irony is that, by and large, Adama really loves the screw-ups best. I mean, apart from Laura, a relationship that's really one of a kind, the people he loves and trusts the most in the world are Tigh and Kara, who've pretty much made careers out of being screw-ups, with some abusive drinking on the side. Then there's the Cylon Sharon, who's the next most trusted friend on the horizon.

So it seems like either Lee is completely misinterpreting what it takes to win his father's esteem, or else the values the Admiral promoted as a father are not necessarily the values he has as a man in the world. Either or both are common enough family failings, and are both pretty sad. As is their whole relationship...

Monday, April 5, 2010

By any other name

Tamil, (2005)

This is the Tamil version of the same story that was re-made in Hindi as 2007's Bhool Bhulaiyaa, which I'm a huge fan of (especially its soundtrack, which is one of my favorites). There's also a 2004 Kannada version called Apthamitra, also directed by Chandramukhi's P. Vasu, and a 2005 Bengali one called Rajmohol, but I haven't tracked those down yet. Most people believe that the original 1993 Malayalam film Manichithrathazhu is the best of the bunch, and I've finally found a source, so I'll be able to judge for myself soon. Fingers crossed for subtitles!

The story goes: a young married couple moves with their disapproving extended family into an estate that's said to be haunted by the spirit of Chandramukhi, a beautiful, long-ago dancing girl, who was wronged by a tyrannical king. The secret room is opened, mysterious things start happening, and the family begins to suspect one of the young women is possessed by the spirit, and out for bloody revenge. Fortunately, a family friend/foster brother is an esteemed, if somewhat eccentric psychiatrist, who works in cahoots with a priest to solve the case.

Like any intelligent person, Chandramukhi's star, Rajnikanth, goes right to the library to investigate the house. Even though I know I couldn't read any of the books in it, I still want to dive right into those stacks.

His main source is a very cool antique book (with a trishul lock!) that contains the history of the mansion. We get a good look at it, and it's called Vettaiyapuram Samasdhanam, by Thoti Tharrani. That's actually the film's set designer! He worked on Kanthaswamy, too.

The two movies are structured rather differently -- in Chandramukhi, Rajnikanth is set up as the indestructible hero from the very beginning, unlike Akshay Kumar's Bhool Bhulaiyaa hero, who turns up midway through. Rajnikanth apparently attended the same school of manly, two-fisted psychiatry that Feroz Khan went to in the seventies, since he's first seen beating up a whole gang of bullying construction company rivals. He also reads minds, just from the looks on people's faces. The character is openly considered a "Super Star," whereas Kumar's interpretation is that of a goofy guy nobody takes seriously, who then turns out to be smarter than anyone thinks.

However, both movies are great examples of architectural porn, set in some of the most gorgeous abandoned mansions I've ever seen on film.

Even the cobwebs are pretty.

(There's a spoiler coming, so beware!)

When the relatively modern young bride, Ganga, convinces Durga, the gardener's granddaughter, to help her get into the amulet-covered room where the dancer's soul is supposedly imprisoned, Durga is reticent at first. But before long, the two secretly get a key made, and both seem excited by the infusion of a mystery into their lives. (Hmm -- what would a Hindi Nancy Drew story look like?) The picture of these two lovely young women, going up some dark stairs and opening a forbidden door, to find forbidden knowledge, is downright archetypal. The whole idea of forbidden knowledge is as Gothic as it gets, even if it hadn't come with the accompanying spooky ambiance.

As in the well-known Bluebeard variation on the theme, when the young women seek knowledge for themselves, what they find is horrible knowledge. And as in the majority of Gothic stories, the mystery is related to the past, about a history that they hadn't known about before. In opening the door, they discover violence, fear, and, usually, the fact that they are themselves in danger. All the things, in short, that a "sheltered" life prevented them from knowing before. But the fact of being sheltered didn't make them safe.

One of the reasons being sheltered doesn't work is clearly illustrated in both these films: when the door to the forbidden room is opened, one of the women opens a door into the darker part of her own imagination, where her submerged emotional and psychological problems exist. It's not possible to protect her from herself.

Yup, that's a giant snake on a chandelier.

Random thoughts:

Coincidentally, this was released on Sri Balaji Video, a company that has its own devotional opening, which is a very nice touch.

Among the many characters, there's a young, smug, buff guy who's always standing behind the matriarch. The camera always pans up to him, making him look vaguely sinister. Just as I was getting all "Who is that guy?" he took off his shirt (revealing very nice abs) and attacked Rajnikanth the night of an engagement party. Apparently he's Auntie's personal henchman -- and why don't I have one to menace my nieces and nephews with?

I've recently watched two Tamil movies, only my second and third (after Kandukondain Kandukondain), and they both had Prabhu for comic relief. Turns out he's the son of the famous Sivaji Ganesan. On the comic relief scale, I found him more tolerable than, say, Rajpal Yadav in Bhool Bhulaiyaa.

Also: this was my first Rajnikanth movie, and while he was good in the role, I think I've heard too much about him, so was expecting a little more. I'm looking forward to seeing more of his iconic films, especially since, along with Frank Sinatra, we share a birthday! Obviously, that's an auspicious date.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Love Guru

Mani Ratnam's 2007 Guru is clearly a movie with serious intentions. It's about the inequities in society, the pitfalls of ambition, the corrupting influence of power. I can't say, however, that I followed it all, and I can't tell whether that's because of the oft-chronicled subtitling issues, occasional narrative murkiness, or the fact that I was utterly distracted by the eye candy.

Do I prefer innocent young Abhishek?

Or intense older Abhishek?

Fortunately, I'm under no obligation to choose! Ahh, the wonder of cinema.

Let's go space rockin'

We had some friends over for superhero movies last night, and they brought along an episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Apparently, when they saw it, their first thought was "this was made for Anarchivist! She must see it!"

That's always kind of scary, but it frequently leads to some unearthly delights.

And yes, it was in fact made for me. This originally aired on February 20, 1980, here in what has long considered itself the cultural center of the world. I give you the future of rock and roll: Andromeda!

See, Bappi Lahiri doesn't seem so bad in context.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Her Deformed Back and Squeezed Up Figure

While reading Darlingji: The True Love Story of Nargis and Sunil Dutt, by Kishwar Desai, I was delighted to come across some good barbed quotes from Filmindia editor Baburao Patel. It's like the kind of over-the-top cruelty, but funny, that reviewers used to savage the Romantic poets with -- hence the famous line from Byron about "John Keats, who was killed off by one critique/Just as he really promised something great/If not intelligible." Come to think of it, they were pretty mean to each to other, too.

Our connection at Memsaab Story has shared some delightful Patel tidbits: I'd start here, then follow the Baburao tag where it leads. I mean, he describes films as "Visual Torture for Two Hours." Now, that's the kind of film criticism I'm looking for -- precise and to the point. I've had enough talk about "globalized intertexts," and the "epiphenomenon of historical trajectory." Yes, I've been reading academic criticism again, off and on, which I don't even want to cite. I don't want to make fun of these scholars, who are doing what they have to do to get respect, ugly as it can be.

But back to Nargis. On the movie Aag: "In the dance sequences her deformed back and squeezed up figure without any grace or contours become repulsive." (p. 109) That's terrible! But - ha ha! Even better is the headline for a movie called Ashiana: "Raj and Nargis Give Stupid Portrayals!"

That's what I want to see from the movie magazines when new Hollywood "romantic comedies" come out.

As far as the actual biographical subjects go, I learned that when Sunil Dutt went to Bombay as a starving college student, right after Partition, he roomed with another student, Rajendra Kumar, who eventually played his brother in Mother India. He was also college friends with Mac Mohan, who is described as "a cricketer and somewhat of a lad" (p. 92), which makes me like him even more! Even reading a biography, I'm more interested in the character actors than I am in the leads.

Anyway, Mac Mohan flouted authority by carrying steamy books on campus, and Dutt, who agreed with the disapproving authorities, confiscated his copy of Wife for Sale. Even though Dutt was obviously the straight arrow in his crowd, Desai says "his friends let him be...It was understood that when they went out into the world, Balraj (Dutt) would take up some boring conservative career." (p. 93)

Anyone who knows me will realize that I now desperately want to read Wife for Sale, which I'm assuming is the novel by Kathleen Norris. I suspect I'd be disappointed. One of the used copies on Amazon shows a cover, though, with the subtitle "Has a woman the right to sell her soul for security?" That sounds pretty promising! But come to think of it, her prose is unlikely to be as vivid as Baburao Patel's.

In college Dutt joined a theater group, and then got a job as a radio announcer for Radio Ceylon, interviewing film stars, including -- who else? Nargis! By the time they met up again, the possibility of a boring conservative career was long gone.

Ah, fate is sometimes like a filmi plot!

I'm about halfway through (the book is thick, but a quick read), so if I come across any more must-shares, I'll let you know...