Tuesday, May 31, 2011


2005, 114m

Truman Capote was a prominent American writer, known, among other things, for inventing the genre of non-fiction novel. The present film is about how his novel, In Cold Blood, got written. The novel is based on a 1959 multiple murder in an isolated farmhouse, which Capote (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) decided to make the subject of his book. The two killers are arrested and convicted early into the film. Capote, using bribery, lying and influence, is able to enter into a long interaction with one of the two killers, driven by his need to create, not to speak of the associated fame and wealth. He even helps the pair with their appeals, prolonging the legal process by four years.

Apart from the psychological aspects of the criminals, and Capote's own difficult childhood, the film is interesting about the way the novel took shape. At one point he says he feels it as if he and Perry, one of the killers grew up in the same room. He (Capote) escaped from the front door while Perry left from the back door. Capote is completely immersed in his work, and feigns all kinds of deception and sympathy to gain the confidence of Perry, who is the subject of his study. Towards the end, he even longs for the Supreme Court to turn down the last appeal and confirm the sentence, so he can finish his book.

It is an engrossing film which manages to spare us unnecessary depiction of the gruesome events (with the exception of some minimal segments), but the horror is , through indirection, all the more effectively conveyed. Hoffman is adroit in portraying peculiar character types, and this is a film adequate enough to pass an hour or two. It makes up in execution, control and restraint it's lack of depth. It makes me curious to see the movie based on the novel and also to read at least a short story by Capote.

Saturday, May 28, 2011


Ray, 1989, 100m

This is the second last of Ray's films, made at the age of 68. It is ponderous compared to earlier films, as it examines man in relation to society. It is based on Ibsen's drama, An Enemy of the People, which it follows fairly closely, as far as I can make out from a synopsis.

Ashoke Gupta (a now somewhat wrinkled Soumitra Chatterjee) is employed as a medical practitioner in Chandipore, a small town with a temple which attracts large number of pilgrims, which is the city's primary source of income. Some people come down with a serious variety of jaundice, which the conscientious doctor is able to trace to the water supply of the temple. To rectify this would call for major repairs which would affect the traffic of pilgrims as well as the reputation of the temple. As the doctor seeks to awaken the people to an impending epidemic, he is brought into headlong confrontation with the authorities, headed by his own brother the president of the municipal committee. The situation escalates and the doctor soon finds himself homeless, jobless and friendless.

The film is a straightforward and powerful portrayal of the elemental conflict of good and evil, drawn in broad bold strokes, compared to the subtlety and delicacy of many of the more famous films. Ray was ever experimental, and his films do not fall into a single genre. This tempts me to read the play on which it is based.

Adventures of Goopy and Bagha

Satyajit Ray, 48m, 1968

This is one of several films which Ray made for children.

Goopy, a rustic lad, is banished in disgrace (mounted on a donkey) by the music loving Rajah of a small village for his atrocious playing on the Tanpura. Soon he encounters Bagha, another youngster in identical straits except that the offending instrument was a drum. They are set upon by a lion who makes his exit causing no more damage than a bit of roaring. Very soon they meet the hilariously ferocious King of Ghosts and we are treated to a prolonged ballet performed by his retinue of ghosts depicting, for no apparent reason, an enactment of the country's colonial past. The benign Devil grants them three boons, the first of which is to summon food of choice anytime, anywhere. Next, they are able to bring about rapprochement between two armies poise for conflict by the simple stratagem of causing it to rain sweets. The starved warriors forget everything in their eagerness to do justice to the refreshments. Not just that, the tearfully reconciled brothers, leaders of the two armies, express their gratitude by offering the hands of their respective daughters to the two friends.

One of the nice things is the melodious singing of Goopy , set to words which are a mixture of poetry and nonsense. The power of musical entrancement was one of the three boons. This was used in the peacemaking process also, as the friends regale the armies with the futility of fighting.

This is an utterly lightweight tale told with abandon, and great fun all the way. It is a contrast to Western fairy tales, which, below the surface, are anything but child-like, as they present themes of death, destruction and doom.

This definitely makes me want to see Ray's other films in this genre, there being around half a dozen.

Here is one of the songs:


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Mahapurush (The Holy Man)

Ray, 61m, 1965

This is possibly the least of the Ray movies. This is comedy bordering on social satire. Movies with a message are not his forte.

This is about a conman posing as a Guru. He claims to be several thousand years old and to have encountered the likes of Jesus and Buddha. He has a following and offers magical solutions to problems. A group of friends take on the task of exposure. Lacking in any kind of psychological depth or richness of characters for which Ray is known, it evokes little mirth and the climax turns out to be far short of hilarious. In any case, it is a relief to encounter a Ray film in which it is unnecessary to search for adequate words or to go hoarse in the strain of being eloquent. Unbroken perfection is also tiresome and this flawed non-entity of a film cuts him down to human proportions.

Prasad Mukherjee as the Guru gives gives a versatile acting performance.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Masque of the Red Death

Roger Corman, 1965, 88m

This is my introduction to Roger Forman, the King of B-movies. They say it is better to be a king in the god forsaken Place rather than a lackey elsewhere and the title bestowed on Corman is indicative of his phenomenal success in the niche he chose to inhabit—low budget quickies catering to a market which does not fancy subtlety. He boasted having made a hundred films and never losing a cent.

The movie under review is based on a story of Edgar Allan Poe, and this is what attracted me to it. But as a matter of fact it is a potpourri of several of Poe’s tales, trying to glue them into something one may be able to consume in an undiscriminating mood.

An epidemic of a dreaded disease called the red death visits the kingdom of the cruel and perverted Prince Prospero. The prince has already sold himself to the devil and his pleasures in life consist in tormenting his subjects with unspeakable acts of violence, degradation and humiliation. Among his courtiers is the dwarf Hop Frog (borrowed from the story of the same name) and his beloved, a midget dancer. Part of the story is about how Hop Frog avenges the insult to his friend, and that itself could be the material for a tightly knit tale of minutely contrived revenge, but is here perfunctorily inserted as if to make up the stipulated weight of the consignment.

Poe’s stories, springing from his demented personality, are visions of hell, with a unique macabre beauty. Death, decay, premature burial, chilling vendettas (The Cask of Amontillado),  terror of painful death approaching inch by inch (The Pit and the Pendulum)—such are the themes that sprang up from this fertile but sick imagination. I remember in my teens to have been star struck by this small collection of tales.

The flavor and Gothic majesty of Poe’s fevered mind is altogether missing. Corman’s movie is merely a juvenile high school drama. I have a feeling most of the audience would comprise of that age group. The acting is stiff and labored and the characters are either marching like soldiers on parade or overdoing the bacchanals. The canvas is crimson, more the color of overflowing chilly sauce than blood. The idea seems to assemble and deliver the product at the earliest, assembling the available parts like lego pieces.

A movie need not be faithful to source material but here the product is sold on the strength of Poe’s renown, even using the title of one of his stories. Everything is in the public domain so the late Mr Poe can do no more than groan in his grave.

But as an ardent Poe aficionado, I claim the right to protest this desecration. In the unlikely event of my visiting the US, one of my acts would be to lay a wreath at the writer’s grave. Certainly, nobody should judge Poe, genuine if not great artist that he was, by this tomfoolery.

Incidentally, I have heard it said by no less than Roger Ebert that Poe could have been a fine film director, by virtue of his strong visual imagination. I wonder how he would have reacted to this. I am reminded of the film Hannibal, in which the musically inclined and cannibalistic Dr Lector makes mince pies out of a violinist whose playing was out of tune in a musical performance the previous evening, and serves it graciously to other members of the symphony orchestra (of course without disclosing the recipe), much to their approbation. Perhaps that was a bit extreme.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Kapurush (The Coward)

Satyajit Ray, 66m, 1965

This is a profound , minutely etched and exquisitely delicate character study. Amit (Soumitra, Ray's favorite), a writer, has a car breakdown in a sparsely inhabited region of tea gardens in Eastern India. He is offered shelter by a wealthy estate manager Bimal Gupta, and it turns out that his wife Karuna (Madhabi) is the woman Amit wooed in college but was not courageous enough to marry. The story flashes between past and present. Amit proves unequal to the hour of crisis when Karuna visits him in his hostel. She asks him for immediate marriage or else she would be cast into a bleak future planned out by her well meaning but orthodox foster parents, alarmed as they are by the ongoing affair. Satyajit Ray is a great admirer of the fortitude of Indian women and Karuna, in this marvelous portrayal, takes a place in his gallery. Her inner strength and anger is tightly leashed, and pride prevents her from expressing the pain of her dilemma in words. But her eyes and expressions are communicate all.  Bimal (Haradhan Banerjee), as the loud, good natured, anglicized husband gives an equally riveting performance.

Ray's treatment of the Amit character is contemptuous and unsympathetic. This is a story about how we write out the scripts of our lives and the way a crisis lays bare human character as if in a stroke of lightening. Ray's greatness lies in his sensitivity to the human heart, his attunement to the subtlest strains of feeling, and the ability to put the drama of the dignity of life (the feminine viewpoint particularly) on the screen, with refinement and delicacy.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

To be or not to be

Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947), 1942, 93m

Woody Allen's films are sometimes described as Lubitsch type comedies, and that was what made me want to encounter the work of this director whose name has become an adjective. The film itself was entertaining enough, though the identification with Allen was not at all apparent. The film is about the adventures of a troupe of actors in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation. Hitler or his impersonator appear and the doubles and mixing of identities gives rise to numerous amusing situations. The film is said to have shocked many people because it appears to make light out of the grim horrors of the occupation of Poland right when it was happening. If a comparison is to be made on the basis of this single film, one might say the humor is crass compared to Woody Allen.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Whatever Works

Woody Allen, 2009, 91m

This is the other end of the spectrum, Woody Allen's latest at 74. He is still enacting himself, except that it's Larry David impersonating Allen, in the guise of a missed genius. There is considerable physical similarity and for quite a time I thought it was Allen himself grown bald and senile, if not less talkative. What emerges is that nothing has changed. People change little if at all, over the course of a lifetime. They return to where they started. The film depicts the relationship of the retired professor with a teenager. The familiar witticisms propel the film which is amusing in a mild way. The title expresses the philosophy which he has presumably derived from his journey of life and one can quote from the script:

"That's why I can't say enough times, whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace, whatever works. And don't kid yourself. Because its by no means up to your own human ingenuity. A bigger part of your existence is luck, than you'd like to admit."

This is  self indulgent, good natured, broad minded film with a contemporaneous feel. It would seem that Woody Allen has come full circle to return to the well known films of his younger days. What I found missing was the growth and evolution one might hope a lifetime brings. Except for a\ mellowing  one might say that this takes it's place in his life work as evidence of the stasis that life usually is.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Annie Hall

1977, Woody Allen, 93m

This film turned out to be exactly what I expected, and far below the riveting point. As my third film from him, I have a fair template of the branded product in my mind. There was little outside the numerous and often brilliant one liners, the references to high brow cultural subjects handled unaffectedly (that being what he is) and nuggets of homely or philosophical wisdom characterized by ease of delivery. This is too American a movie to be really effective in another hemisphere and it was with a sense of relief that I watched the end credits rolling up. The subject is the complexity, brief flowering and decay of relationships. It's the dolce vita all over again, tragic only in it's sheer boredom and absence of meaning. To paraphrase one of the witticisms from the film, life is like a restaurant where not only is the food bad, but also the portions are small. Life, he says is divided between the horrible (like being maimed or leprous), everything else being miserable, so one may be thankful to be merely miserable. The film is about those lucky enough to be miserable. But, from another viewpoint, even the horrible may be preferable to the enuii of a living death, implicit in the comforts of misery.

I still look forward to some of the "dark and serious" films of Woody Allen. I'm curious to know what time has done to this jittery philosopher.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Chimes at Midnight

Orson Welles, 113m, 1965

The character of Falstaff appears in three of Shakespeare's plays. Orson Welles takes on the daunting task of portraying tis complex comic villain in this compilation from the different plays (Henry IV and V and MWW), bound up in a seamless plot. This is one of the best screen adaptations of Shakespeare. Elizabethan England is brought alive in this boisterous mosaic which takes us through taverns, brothels and the court. Even more than the central characters of Falstaff (played by Orson) or the young and dissolute Prince Hal (later to blossom into the charismatic Henry V) or his antagonist Hotspur, or the aging Henry IV (played by the seasoned Gielgud) is the galaxy of  secondary characters, who have a dickensian vitality even though they are cardboard creatures. Perhaps the most brilliant is Justice Shallow, played by Alan Webb.

The brilliant b/w photography has shades of Citizen Kane with shafts of light streaming in diagonally through skylights or ventilators in darkened interiors. The battle scenes are unusually realistic in their brutality. Falstaff is played with aplomb, but it seems Welles all the way--the identification is uncanny. 

Friday, May 13, 2011


Woody Allen, 1979, 93m

Woody Allen made this film at the age of 42. It seems to be very autobiographical and personal in a straightforward way, even though the events may not have occurred. It is a sentimental, nostalgic portrait of the city in which it is set and the dusky black and white photography to the score of George Gershwin, makes the ancient and weathered phenomenon that is NY spring to life, as it could only through the eyes of someone who grew up there. The skyline of tall buildings, the river with it's bridge, the crowds, people drifting along the walkways lost in reverie--everything is lovingly lensed. One of the best sequences is when the lead couple gets caught in a thunderstorm. The film has something of the turgid neon-lit metropolis of Taxi Driver, and something of the beauty of decadence one associates with the word parisienne. After all, NY must be the old world of the New World.

The story is an effervescent romance set among a group of people with minds occupied by culture, books and ideas, and their own fragile affairs--it seems like an accurate portrait of the kind of set of people Woody must have grown up with, somewhat weird in thought and expression, but ordinarily human enough just a bit below the surface. This gives Woody, braniac that he is, ample oppurtunity to exercise his wit and gentle sparkling brand of humor, as the script roves intelligently but shallowly over the fashionable topics of the young academic crowd.The dialog is laced with unselfconscious references to artists, philosophers and books, and the characters are smart enough to recognise their shallowness. It is a good enough movie for similarly inclined folk, who may be kept pleasurably entertained by the unending dazzle of the repartee. Diane Keaton's former husband, whom she extolls in a mixture of awe and hate, as an overpwering prodigy of virility and intellect, "who taught me everything",turns out to be a dimunitive, balding "homunculus". This is obvoiously humorously self referential and shows Woody Allens broad humanity which embraces gays, intellectual morons and homunculi like himself (all manner of peripherals and battered souls). Woody Allen is his good hearted, brainy,creative self. Diane Keaton is brilliant in her emotionally confused, culturally pretentious and high spirited role.

It is a film that often touches the heartstrings. It is a refined, polished yet shallow movie, as perhaps it is meant to be, because Woody Allen is not one to feign profundity about the business of life. It is also a movie about human rootlessness, even in the best of times and places.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Love and Death

Woody Allen, 1976, 84m

This is my first film from this famous director, and it really goes beyond my expectations. This looks like an undiscovered cinematic vein of gold which may gobble much time and attention. It was equally welcome to re-encounter the beautiful Diane Keaton, so far known only as the bewildered and helpless Mrs Godfather the Second. Here she has a stellar role and an opportunity to exercise the complete range of her talent. One looks forward to Annie Hall, Allen's award winner which again features Diane.

This is a movie falling under the blanket of screwball comedy. More specifically, it is a philosophical comedy which fools around with sex, laced with wit, innuendos and abundant titter provoking wisecracks. The script scintillates as it irreverently engages in serious questions while always maintaining a dead pan face. Woody is obviously a person of erudition, aman more of words and thoughts than of feelings, except perhaps the weedy ones, which coming from a guy with his biodata and biometrics, is not too surprising. The Napoleon figure serves as a foil, and perhaps embodies Woody's own fantasies. We seem to be getting psychoanalytic, but he virtually begs for it, in so many words. But everything is fun, even the sickly ones, because they hide gentleness and refinement. As he says, "My disgustingness is the best part of me."

It is a costume drama set in nineteenth century Russia and we enjoy many hilarious situations as Boris (Allen) unwillingly joins the forces fighting the invading French under Napoleon. He gets to marry by a quirk of fate the woman he has unsuccessfully wooed for long; becomes a decorated national hero; plots to assassinate Napoleon in conspiracy with his wife Sonya (Keaton) but is held back by ethical qualms. We also see the Man wit the Scythe dancing away. The comedy is detail perfect, from the inflexions of expression, to the layers and multiplicity of meaning in the dialog.

This is in fact a movie comparable in philosophical depth to Bergman. Woody Allen however has a far lighter touch  (there are no answers anyway) as he examines questions of love, sex, death, war and morality. Here is none of the gloom, and even should you need pinches of salt for the ideas part, it's all part of the comedy, which is solid stuff.

More than anything else, Woody Allen reminds me of Voltaire's rapier sharp Candide.

A sample of the script:

"The question is have I learned anything about life. Only that human being are divided into mind and body. The mind embraces all the nobler aspirations, like poetry and philosophy, but the body has all the fun. The important thing, I think, is not to be bitter... if it turns out that there IS a God, I don't think that He's evil. I think that the worst you can say about Him is that basically He's an underachiever. After all, there are worse things in life than death. If you've ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman, you know what I'm talking about. The key is, to not think of death as an end, but as more of a very effective way to cut down on your expenses. Regarding love, heh, what can you say? It's not the quantity of your sexual relations that counts. It's the quality. On the other hand if the quantity drops below once every eight months, I would definitely look into."


The Son of God Goes Forth to War is a hymn written in 1812 by Reginald Heber.[1] It was used in the film version of The Man Who Would Be King, starring Sean Connery andMichael Caine, but was set to the Irish tune The Moreen/The Minstrel Boy and had reworked lyrics (which had already happened in the original short story).[2]
The Son of God goes forth to war,
a kingly crown to gain;
his blood red banner streams afar:
who follows in his train?
Who best can drink his cup of woe,
triumphant over pain,
who patient bears his cross below,
he follows in his train.

That martyr first, whose eagle eye
could pierce beyond the grave;
who saw his Master in the sky,
and called on him to save.
Like him, with pardon on his tongue,
in midst of mortal pain,
he prayed for them that did the wrong:
who follows in his train?

A glorious band, the chosen few
on whom the Spirit came;
twelve valiant saints, their hope they knew,
and mocked the cross and flame.
They met the tyrant's brandished steel,
the lion's gory mane;
they bowed their heads the death to feel:
who follows in their train?

A noble army, men and boys,
the matron and the maid,
around the Savior's throne rejoice,
in robes of light arrayed.
They climbed the steep ascent of heaven,
through peril, toil and pain;
O God, to us may grace be given,
to follow in their train.