Tuesday, June 29, 2010

King Creole: Review

Man with a face like a cherub and a smile like a hustler does a bluesy duet from his balcony. A few minutes later, he’s rescuing a floozy in a bar, wielding off drunks with a broken bottle. He drops the floozy off, resisting her advances at first, then kissing her to prove a point to his gawking schoolmates. To top this manic sequence off, he punches one of them in the face and gets expelled. And this is just the first five minutes of King Creole, starring Elvis Presley.

Elvis movies were never high art, and King Creole doesn’t pretend to be so. But its great low art – imbued with the spirit of noir and offsetting the natural charm of Elvis with a toughness that’s very much of its era. Perhaps the director, Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), was more difficult to influence than the journeymen who directed the later Elvis movies. The musical interludes retain the anarchic energy of Jailhouse Rock; we’re still a few years away from the dreaded Hawaiian movies. And the action, when it comes, is fast and imbued with the spirit of noir.

King Creole has a grittiness that’s very much of its era - it isn’t difficult to imagine Brando or Newman playing the lead (Montgomery Clift was offered the role when it wasn’t a musical). It’s also interesting to note that “king” of the title isn’t Elvis, but Walter Matthau, playing a sadistic gangster. The Elvis of this movie is clearly aimed a notch higher than the teeny-bopper market - he falls for a hooker and mugs his own dad – and he seems believably tough (he looked naive anyway). You wouldn’t want to step on his blue suede shoes.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Sherlock Holmes - DVD Review

It’s ironic that the 2009 movie version of Sherlock Holmes is more successful in seeing through what Arthur Conan Doyle attempted in “The Final Problem” - namely, killing Sherlock Holmes. Not literally - the big guns at Warner Bros would have balked at the idea - but rather, killing off a certain idea of Holmes and replacing it with another. Gone are the deerstalker cap and the clipped British accent. In its place is a brawler-scientist who behaves like a cross between Johnny Depp in Sleepy Hollow and Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity.

Its fun to watch Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law quarrel like bickering lovers, but co-dependent hero-sidekick relationships are a common enough trope in action movies today without submitting Conan Doyle’s creations to it. Similarly surprising is Ritchie’s decision to use the vague mention of “baritsu” in “The Adventure of the Empty House” as an excuse to turn Holmes into a bare-knuckled brawler. Still, it’s all quite diverting while it lasts. Mark Strong as the criminal mastermind, Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler, and Eddie Marsan as Inspector Lestrade are appropriately menacing, spunky and befuddled. Downey Jr has fun with the titular role, but he’s a little too good-looking, and possesses such unending reserves of wit and brawn that even hardened fans might find the package tough to digest. Jude Law, though, makes a charming Watson, displaying the same virile charm he did as Errol Flynn in Scorcese’s The Aviator.

The DVD comes padded with an extra disc of supplements, including a making-of featurette, and closer looks at the production design, costume and casting. It is during the course of one of these that two comments, which sum the film up perfectly, are made. “This is best described as a Guy Ritchie version of Sherlock Holmes”, says one of the producers. “It’s the 1890s version of James Bond”, says another. Exactly.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Dirty Dozen: DVD Review

A sincere, if unlikely, tribute to The Dirty Dozen occurs midway through the romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle. After Rita Wilson has cried her eyes out over An Affair to Remember, Tom Hanks derides it as a “chick’s movie” and invokes Aldrich’s 1967 cult classic. The choice is no accident - Dirty Dozen is the quintessential anti-chick’s movie. It’s also the most anti-establishment war movie to ever come out of a Hollywood studio.

It’s been forty years since the dozen snarled and slouched their way into cinematic history, and while its influence runs deep (the ending of Inglourious Basterds is an unabashed tribute to the “turkey shoot” climax) this two-disc edition is a good opportunity to refresh one’s memory. Even though the story is pure pulp - 12 hardened convicts given a chance to escape their sentences if they agree to blow up a Nazi chateau behind enemy lines - the movie manages to capture the prevailing mood in society remarkably well. In 1967, America was deeply divided over the ugly fallout of the counterculture movement, race issues and the Vietnam War. One can only imagine the heat director Robert Aldrich must have taken for certain scenes, like the one where Victor Franco (John Cassevettes) responds to an order to kill every officer in sight with the question “Ours or theirs?”

If it’s true that a movie’s success lies is its casting, this would be a good case in point. Actors like Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine and pro-footballer Jim Brown were a different breed of movie star - ornery and utterly believable as sadists and killers. Lee Marvin plays the tough-as-nails Major Riesman, a role John Wayne rejected for its lack of patriotism. Aldrich also made some fortuitous oft-kilter choices - like the casting of indie legend John Cassavetes, whose anti-authoritarian rants have a joyful exuberance.

Despite a running time of well over two hours, the pace never slackens. Instead, a steady stream of provocation is aimed at every possible quarter – the military, the justice system, women, African Americans, rednecks, homosexuals. The unabashed cruelty of the finale is jarring even today - Aldrich insisted it remain so that audiences were left with no doubt that “war is hell”. Ultimately though, this movie both embraces and eschews realism, playing out like a demented version of Boy’s Own Paper. Special features include an introduction by Ernest Borgnine, a ”making of” featurette , audio commentary by some of the stars and a recruitment video for the US Army with Lee Marvin.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

¡Happy Birthday Guadalupe!

Poetic. Poetic as hell. It seems very natural that the Killers, whom I've been raving about since way back, have matured enough to feel their way on upwards from "Mr Brightside" to "Read my mind" to this. Its a Christmas single, but I hope it lands up on their next album, 'coz God knows hip-hop's shallow cyphers and Jason Mraz and Rihanna and the Jonas Brothers and Kid Rock have no use for mariachi horns or genuine emotion, and not necessarily in that order. Anyway, hear it if you haven't. If the humour and the heartbreak and the catch in the Brandon Flowers' voice doesn't get to you...well, you can always turn on FM radio. Meanwhile, my friend and I will keep waiting for that one astonishing album that we're convinced The Killers have in them.

¡Happy Birthday Guadalupe!

Well I woke up Christmas morning and what did I see?
I saw a lovely señorita looking back at me
Named Guadalupe, with big brown eyes
Boy what did you do this time?

Made my excuses and a beeline for the bedroom door
She was beggin’ and a-pleadin’, screamin’, “¡Por favor,
Mi cumpleaños, stay with me,
Baby it’s cold outside!”

We are livin’ in a difficult time
We’ve been walkin’ down a difficult line
Put your feet up baby, it’s Christmas time
Cumpleaños feliz¡
Happy Birthday Guadalupe!

(Our time will come)
(We both hold on)

She gave me coffee and tortillas to console my head
Prepared the slippers on my feet before she made our bed
And blew the candles from her favourite cake
And we kissed beneath the mistletoe

I pulled her body close to mine and I had just one chance
I whispered, “Baby will you marry me for just one dance?”
Infatuation, the things you say
I got scared and I left that night

‘Cause we are livin’ in a difficult time
We’ve been walking down a difficult line
Put your feet up baby, it’s Christmas time
Cumpleaños feliz¡
Happy Birthday Guadalupe!

Deck the halls with rosaries
Wish upon a Christmas tree
Silent night please come to me
Bearing gifts from my… my Mexican angel

At night I wake up cold and lonely, bustin’ at the seams
She haunts the early morning hours of December dreams
My Guadalupe, with big brown eyes
I wanna break the spell tonight

‘Cause we are livin’ in a difficult time
We’ve been walkin’ down a difficult line
Put your feet up baby, it’s Christmas time
Cumpleaños feliz¡
Happy Birthday Guadalupe!

¡Happy Birthday Guadalupe!

1947: Play Review

For all its strengths, 1947 is an unfortunately named play. People in India are conditioned to think of this year either in terms of India’s independence from the British or Partition from Pakistan. But these events occupy less than five minutes of the play’s running time of an hour and a half. Instead, this is a work preoccupied with more symbolic partitions. Geography has parted Ghazanfar Hussain from his friend Mushtaq, death has parted him from his wife, and Alzheimer’s is in the process of parting him both from his long-suffering family members and eventually, from his conception of self.

Written and directed by M Syed Alam, who heads the Delhi-based Pierrot’s Troupe, 1947 is a running dialogue between Hussain, the sole protagonist, and several off-stage characters. Since we neither see nor hear any of other characters (though Hussain repeats some of their responses) we are privy to his views alone. These turn out to be less than reliable – one poignant moment sees his attempts to visit a friend fall through when he is reminded that the person is dead. To resist using Alzheimer’s as a plot twist is a brave move – it could have been used strategically to raise dramatic tensions, but this would have shifted the focus away from old age in general and to the disease, which is not what the play is about.

Still, it’s tough to resist the temptation to make your senior citizen cranky. Hussain’s situation gives him plenty to complain about. Family members keep foisting pills on him, the memory of his deceased wife haunts his days and his son corrects his anecdotes just when he’s in mid-flight. 1947 is strongest when it stays close to Hussain and his travails, and weakens when it strays into the realms of political and cultural commentary. Telling the audience about himself, Hussain shares his views on Bilkis Bano, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lord Dalhousie, the current state of Urdu and the possibility of peace with our neighbours. Like any experienced arm-chair critic, he has occasional bouts of insight (as when he discusses the narrow-mindedness of people who dismiss Hindi poets writing in Urdu), tempered by a sea of generalities and the odd incomprehensible pronouncement (“Urdu today flourishes only in India”).

Although the NDA-era references (POTA, the Indo-Pak bus service) are dated, the writing on the whole succeeds at evoking very different eras. We grow to understand Hussain as he addresses the various off-stage characters differently – boasting of past glories to his daughter-in-law while bickering with his less patient son. The play is written in Hindustani, country cousin of Urdu, but a Hindi-speaking audience shouldn’t have trouble understanding it. The sparsely populated stage is lit dimly, as if to suggest the dual interiors of a lower middle-class household and a brain that is slowly shutting down on itself. With the exception of some attempts to bridge the fourth wall, which created the uncomfortable feeling of a lurching gear-shift into a different theatrical genre, 1947 proceeds smoothly – an anti-thriller of the mind, as it were, its secrets laid bare in the beginning.

Ultimately, though, one-man performances must sink or sail through on the prowess of the one man in question. In 1947’s case the man is Saleem Shah, a 45-year-old playing twice his age. That may sound audacious, but it’s a decision that paid off, especially because Shah circumvents the clichés associated with “acting old”. Ghanzafar Hussain is testy and loud, a raconteur with the worst possible affliction. Shah wisely avoids letting him become too endearing; his voice and mannerisms are arthritic and ungainly, his manner querulous. In the end, he retains our sympathies not because he is charming company, but because he is, in all his struggles and insecurities, and in his embodiment of what Charles Dickens called “poor dreams”, every man.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi