Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada ***1/2

Slow moving but rewarding, this film is a simple story of sin and redemption, crime and punishment.  A western set against the sprawling American landscape, The Three Burials is the story of a reckless young border patrolman and the consequences that arise when he accidentally kills a Meskin. The Meskin works in a ranch owned by Tommy Lee Jones, and, as has been proven numerous times, one does not fuck with Tommy Lee Jones and escape unscathed. The upright,tough Tommy is a man who lives by a strict moral code and when he finds out that this bloke did his Mexican friend in, he decides to give him a dose of frontier justice.

After making border patrolman dig up Mel, Tommy Lee gets himself three horses and embarks on an arduous journey to take the dead displaced Mexican back to the native village he fondly remembers and once described to him. The young patrolman, played to perfection by Barry Pepper is not too keen on the idea and has to be dragged kicking and screaming, at gun point. Tommy Lee directs himself with extraordinary grace, letting the slow, lethargic, mostly silent story tell itself at its own pace. It is hard to direct a slow movie that captivates you and The Three Burials does that to perfection. There are so many small things going on in the movie that captures the essence of the small Western town and the harsh Mexican landscape. The storytelling, non-linear in parts, manages to hold our attention throughout. A haunting score and a masterful script clinch the deal. The restrained and controlled direction is especially laudable, given that it is Tommy's directorial debut. Two gringos, one meskin with an unpronouncable name, sparse dialog, tight scripting, repetitive burials. 'nuff dead.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Hitcher (1986) ***1/2

Though not a road movie in the strictest definition of the term, for me The Hitcher will forever be classified under that elite domain. Set against the vast open landscape of America, the wide empty roads and bleak but beautiful backgrounds remind one of such roadies as Vanishing Point and Easy Rider. However, the similarities end there. While most road films have rebellion and freedom as their central themes, this one has fear.

 The Hitcher is a nihilistic depiction of a psychopathic killer, yet is never too violent or gory. Robert Harmon has crafted a beautiful little genre flick that eschews the gratuitious gore, faces in mirrors and cats leaping from hidden corners while still remaining atmospheric and chilling. 

The plot is simple. Jim Halsey,a young buck driving to California, picks up a hitcher on a deserted highway on a rainy night and soon finds out the man has more on his mind than simple transportation. The taciturn hitcher soon becomes voluble on his predilection for cutting off appendages and does the nice young driver know what happens to an eyeball when it gets punctured. Jim manages to kick the hitcher out, but our friendly thumb-waving maniac rejoins the hunt after getting picked up by another passing vehicle. The harrowing chase becomes a tornado of violence as the hitcher builds a mound of bodies. When a planted knife casts suspicion on Jim Halsey, the entire local police is mobilized for a massive manhunt. Halsey, framed and falsely accused is helped by a cute chick from a cafeteria. The ensuing car chases replete with helicopter seems to have been lifted straight out of Vanishing Point, but it works extremely well. Rutger Hauer, steely eyed, implacable and ruthlessly efficient steals the show as the hitcher. His character, John Ryder, a Ramboesque inscrutable badass whose motives are unclear is definitely one of the greatest villains of film. 

The Hitcher has a Kafkaesque feel to it, an anti-existentialist touch that suggest that we are merely pawns in a game of random chess, where every character can move anywhichwhere it pleases. The Hitcher is the only one in control; anarchy rules. One feels that his destiny is intertwined with Jim's and can only lead to the inevitably fatal conclusion. Good does triumph in the end, but at what cost? For what is humanity advantaged, if the evil man dies but the good man loses his soul. A pyrrhic victory this, like in Se7en. But to hell with the philosophizing. This is a brilliant little gem and when I say that this movie made me shit-scared of road trips and hitchhikers, you'll understand how hauntingly effective it is. All the goodwill that Jack Kerouac built for hitchhikers, this film effortlessly annihilated. 21st century traveler, you have been warned.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor ** ( two stars out of five)

They should never have resurrected this franchise. The third installment of the Mummy is a piece of lamentable, uninspired filmmaking that will leave Imhotep spinning in his pyramid.

Having exterminated every mummy worth his linen in Egypt, Rick O’ Connell (Brendan Fraser) now fights the undead in another well known mummy habitat: China. This time along, the titular mummy is Emperor Han ( Jet Li), a ruthless megalomaniac whose quest for immortality leads him to Zi Juan ( Michelle Yeoh) a sexy, powerful witch. Han fancies Zi Juan, so when he finds her in flagrante delicto with his trusted general Ming, he orders Ming executed, which prompts the witch to literally petrify Han and his army.

A couple of millennia later, Rick O’ Connell (Brendan Fraser ) and his wife Evelyn are coaxed to come out of an idyllic retirement to deliver a sensitive package to China, where their dashing, rebellious son Alex has just unearthed the tomb of the Dragon Emperor. A propitious confluence of events leads to a family reunion, at which point, things (and the movie) start going to pot. With formulaic predictability the O’Connells manage to reawaken the Emperor who starts wreaking havoc and generally being an ill-mannered, fire-breathing badass. Rick and his family, who hate the undead on principle and feel the only good mummies are dead mummies, take it upon themselves to exterminate Han before he can turn immortal and enslave the world. Wild adventure, romantic entanglements and several standoffs ensue, and there are rare moments when you feel again the outrageous chutzpah and roguish wit that made the original Mummy so memorable.

Brendan Fraser and Jet Li manage to hold their own, but the rest of the acting is so wooden it could have been phoned in. There are numerous attempts at humor, but since these attempts have the success rate of impotent sperm, the laughs are few and far between. The CGI sequences, featuring undead armies, the odd yeti or three and an Emperor Han who can transmogrify at will into three-headed dragon or giant lion thingy do little to salvage a script plagued with cringe-worthy lines and lackluster direction. At the end of the film Jonathan ( Evie’s brother ) relocates to Peru, so a possible next installment might have Rick and family battling the Peruvian crystal skulled Mummies that starred in the last Indiana Jones flick. Tutankhamen save us from that possibility.

The Midnight Meat Train ***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura. Stars Leon Bradley, Leslie Bibb and Vinnie Jones

Without a doubt, The Midnight Meat Train is one of the best horror movies in recent years. Adapted from a short story by horror maestro Clive Barker (of Hellraiser fame) and helmed by Japanese director Kitamura in his Hollywood debut, this film is bound to please horror aficionados who have gone too long without a worthy spine-tingler. Atmospheric and infused with a sly sense of foreboding throughout, TMMT eschews cheap scares in favor of a mildly stewing discomfiture that culminates in a violent potboiler of a train ride

When photographer Leon Kauffman (Bradley Cooper, TV’s Alias) is persuaded by a prominent art gallerist into exploring the naked underbelly of the city for grittier subject material, a foray into the subway offers him a glimpse of Mahogany, whom he begins to suspect of being a serial killer. Despite the vehement protestations of his sultry girlfriend (Leslie Bibb, Iron Man) and disregarding all sane options, Leon begins shadowing him to confirm his suspicions. Mahogany (the effortlessly menacing Vinnie Jones, Snatch) is a butcher by day, and as soon becomes apparent, does not entirely dispense with the tools of his trade at night. As Leon’s nocturnal peregrinations in pursuit of the butcher increase, his obsession consumes him and places his loved ones in jeopardy, leading to a nail-biter of a climax in the eponymous midnight train, which is the butcher’s base of operations.

As a horror film, it succeeds remarkably well. Vinnie Jones turns in a spectacularly chilling performance. Taciturn, ominous and brutal, he is the seminal slasher; eviscerator extraordinaire. There’s enough gore, blood and decapitations to satisfy your inner sadist, but not so much you’ll lose your lunch. The mood, oh the mood, that holy grail of the horror genre, is captured and distilled with consummate ease. The satisfying twist at the end hinted at great conspiracy, of vast hordes of things that go bump in the night. Highly satisfying horror! Stephen King, eat your heart out.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Last House on the Left vs. Wolf Creek

Roger Ebert loved Last House on the Left enough to give it three and a half stars. That put paid to any notion I had of sensible critiques. All critiques are biased and all critics have pet peeves and prejudices that they cannot lay aside to write review. In fact, perhaps the best critics are the ones who see the movie through their own tinted lenses than pander to popular appeal.

What I cannot for the life of me understand is why Ebert rated this movie so high when he gave the similar Wolf Creek zero stars. Perhaps because pioneer trash is considered classic while modern trash is just trash. Not that the movies in question are trash, but a lot of people do see the horror/slasher genre with lone sociopathic nutcases slaughtering innocents devoid of value. I concur, but have to point out that the genre provides for damn good entertainment. In my guilty pleasure lies its redemption.

Both movies revolve around women who get kidnapped and savagely murdered. Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left benefits from an above average plot with a twist: the killers end up in the house of the woman they murdered and the distraught parents proceed to mete out their vengeance on them. Wolf Creek on the other hand, has no such poetic justice or sweet revenge; it is a bleak visual display of the evil that lies in man’s heart.

Both movies claim to be based on true stories, and I would well take their word for it. In this zany world, folks killing each other with no motivation is hardly cause for surprise. Wes Craven’s film, while hailed as a groundbreaking and pioneering oeuvre, hardly gripped me the way Wolf Creek. Granted, pioneering films are not always known for their cinematic excellence; similar films that follow have better technology at their command and they also learn from the mistakes of the past. So while Night of the Living Dead might have been pioneering, Dawn of the Dead is a much better crafted and more effective movie.

So too with Last House on the Left, it perhaps succeeds as a view into the dark recesses of human evil, but as for realism, suspense and gripping terror, it trails behind Wolf Creek. Both films are deeply unsettling, and Wolf Creek is damn near unwatchable. The villains in Last House might be coldblooded, remorseless killers, but they do not give you the jitters every time they are on screen. The Wolf Creek slaughter machine however, is chillingly efficient at raising your heartbeat and your nape hair.

Wolf Creek had a much tighter script, sparse dialogue and numerous scenes that notched up the nerve-wracking anticipation. Last House has a lethargic quality to it, it’s like watching a snuff film shot in slow motion with two bumbling cops who do a lousy job of providing comic relief. People might argue that Last House is less nihilistic, with redemption coming in the form of revenge. The killers do not go scot free. Be that as it may, Wolf Creek is the better film. I wonder how Craven would shoot Last House if he were to remake it today. For a directorial debut it’s not bad, but he’s definitely honed his craft well over the years.He’d do the concept better justice, I’d assume , long as he does not use the same scriptwriters employed for his last directorial outing, Spiderman 3

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

World Without End

Ken Follett has carved out quite a name for himself penning great espionage thrillers; the rare kind of airport novel that are a notch above the rest and worth re-reading. The mass paperback market is the territory of such personages as Robert Ludlum, John Grisham, Tom Clancy and Danielle Steele. Follett inclusion in this list would not merit surprise. But future times will not remember Follett’s Eye of the Needle or The Key to Rebecca as much as they remember his historical epic The Pillars of the Earth. Vast in scope and populated with tremendous characters who encompassed every vice and virtue known to man, Pillars transformed Follett from a purveyor of cheap thrills into a mature writer who could craft a thousand page epic that was as riveting as any of the paperback thrillers he wrote.

Eighteen years have passed since Follett’s magnum opus; years he spent writing fiction, which, while good, would be forgotten in a generation. World Without End, however is a different kettle of fish. I felt it inferior to Pillars, but that is in no way a criticism, considering how good Pillars was. The book is a sequel of sorts to Pillars; it takes place in the same village and the descendants of the Pillars protagonists feature prominently. The priory of Kingsbridge is home once again to the evil machinations and virtuous enterprise of rich and diverse characters.

Our hero Merthin, is an architect nursing grand ambition, great ingenuity and a seemingly hopeless love for the plucky and spirited Caris. Caris is an absolute rebel, and flouts almost every societal rule espoused by fourteenth century England. She is a woman before her time, torn by her desire for independence and her love for architect boy. She also dabbles in medicine, despises authority and her religious beliefs are heretical to the point of atheism. Our villains include Ralph, Merthin’s headstrong, bullying brother whose primary passions are fighting and philandering, Godwyn the stubborn prior whose purpose it is to thwart any and all plans with a semblance of sensibility and Philemon, his sycophantic lieutenant who’s got a severe case of kleptomania. There are a lot more peripheral characters, but Follett does them justice by fleshing them out, giving them significant roles and making sure they contribute to the overall plot. Against the backdrop of the Black Death and the Hundred Years War, Follett does a masterful job of crafting a vast story spanning many decades. As with most epics, one expects that good will triumph and the gallivanting hero will land the woman of his dreams; but the author manages to keep the element of suspense alive. Mostly, Merthin’s and Caris’ plans are frustrated by mere pigheaded authority, obstinacy, and the superstitions of those in power. Independently, they manage to make enemies of almost everybody who has a say in the running of Kingsbridge and only reason, and their popularity among the more sensible locals will help them in their causes. This book has it all: politics, dark secrets, conspiracies, steamy scenes aplenty, undiluted evil and virtue pure as the driven snow. It was a time when men were real men, women were real women and let us say nothing of Alpha Centuari.

I’d been reading Connie Willis’ Hugo winner The Doomsday Book at the same time I was reading this. Both novels deal with fourteenth Century practices and prevailing social mores in some detail, and the important lesson to be taken away from their perusal is this: the fourteenth century absolutely blows. Not only was there no internet, but also the living conditions were terrible, the people were absolutely filthy, superstitious to the point of idiocy and the plague didn’t help matters any. The church’s near-absolute governance over the people’s day-to-day lives coupled with their absolute ignorance in many matters further exacerbated an already terrible situation. The feudal system and droit du seigneur prevailed; the feudal serfs had about as many rights as the sheep and women had less. Depressing times to live in, but a great backdrop for storytelling. Witness the success of Braveheart, The Seventh Seal & Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Ultimately, World Without End is pure escapist pleasure; a rich tapestry of enormous proportions woven together by an author at the top of his game. He gives you characters that you can identify with and feel strongly about and forces them into crunch situations that bring out the best and the worst in them. In some ways, both Pillars of the Earth and World without End are an allegory of the eternal fight between reason and ignorance in a world that seems to elect its leaders based on the Dilbert Principle.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Academy Awards 2008

This has been a whirlwind year for Hollywood. The historic writes’ strike brought the industry to a standstill and the studio moguls down from their high horses. The watershed event impacted Hollywood so dramatically that they almost shelved their yearly glitz extravaganza, The Oscars. If it hadn’t been for the propitious and timely end to the strike, the Oscars would have gone the way of this year’s golden globes: just the peremptory reading of a Winners list. That would have been a pity, considering the fine slew of material that invaded cinemas this year.

Jon Stewart hosted the gig. Having had to churn out hours worth of comedy in just over a week due to the Writers’ strike, it was understandable that the jokes were not out of this world. But he was witty, interesting and even poignant when required; a collected and impressive performance. The nominees and winners themselves were hardly controversial; critics’ favorites clinched most awards leaving bookmakers saying, “I told you so”.

The best picture obviously went to No Country for Old Men. In a year of superlative films, the Coen Brothers' crime opus was light years ahead of the pack. Also-rans included the very good There will be Blood, Michael Clayton, indie sleeper-hit Juno and the Golden Globe winning but slightly overrated Atonement. The Coens picked up their second Oscars for Best Director for the same oeuvre, trumping Juno’s Jason Reitman, Michael Clayton’s Tony Gilroy and the masterful Paul Thomas Anderson. They also won the award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Daniel Day Lewis’s brilliant, imposing and unforgettable turn as an ambitious, amoral oil-man in There Will be Blood netted him his second Oscar, an honor he called “the closest I'll ever come to getting a knighthood”. To me, this man is the most gifted actor of our generation. Kudos to P.T. Anderson for bringing him out of self-imposed retirement.

Hollywood’s Finest!


Marion Cotillard’s Best Actress Oscar nod for portraying Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose had the stunned actress declaring “it is true, there is (sic) some angels in this city”.

The Best Supporting Actress Oscar went to Tilda Swindon who played to perfection her role as a corporate executive trapped by circumstance to make excruciating moral decisions. In her acceptance speech, she praised co-star George Clooney’s professionalism, dedication to his craft and antics both on and off-set, saying, “You rock, man.”

Javier Bardem’s mesmerizing portrayal as one of the most unforgettable villains in celluloid history ( with arguably the worst haircut ever) garnered him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, a weird choice given that Bardem was obviously the star of No Country.

Ratatouille clinched the Best Animated Feature Oscar, trouncing the intelligent and thought-provoking movie adaptation of Persepolis and Surf’s up, yet another penguin romp in the tradition of Happy Feet. Ever since they instituted this award, it has been given to movies starring ogres, horses, fish, superhumans, penguins and rats. I suppose animated creatures play to the strengths of the medium, but it’d be nice to see some regular animated humans make a play for the brittanium statuette.

Can you smell what the rat is cooking?


Juno won a much-deserved Best Original Screenplay Oscar and while Ellen Page’s refreshing performance as the eponymous protagonist did not get her an Oscar, we can take heart that Hollywood has discovered a prodigious new talent.

The much-touted The Bourne Ultimatum won the Film Editing Oscar while Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd won for Art Direction.

This year’s Oscars did not afford much in the way of melodrama and theatrics. For one, the statuettes didn’t get stolen before the ceremony. There were no drawn-out spiels about the war in Iraq, no emotional break-downs on stage nor did anyone manage to execute passionate lip-locks with Halle Berry. On the upside, it was a great year for movies and the Writers’ strike is finally over. All things considered, one should be grateful the event happened at all.

Also, for those of who are interested in such things, Penelope Cruz looked glorious as she paraded the red carpet in a glorious strapless black gown that accentuated her... But don’t get me started on that; we could be here till next year’s Oscars.

And the Oscar for Best Dressed Actress goes to…

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Santana: Live in Concert

As concerts go, this one was something of an anomaly. It started only 15 minutes past the scheduled time.

In a system where rock legends arrive fashionably late, leaving their fans waiting the obligatory hour, Santana’s uncharacteristic punctuality nearly made me miss the opening. Having accounted for a late opening, I made it with milliseconds to spare, just in time to see Santana himself come out on stage and begin his first solo.

Santana is one of the greatest guitarists of our time, a six-string demi-god in a pantheon that includes Jimmy Page, Brian May and Ritchie Blackmore. While he’s hardly on his last legs, a chance to see him live in concert might not come by again. Thus it was that despite the exorbitant ticket prices, the Singapore indoor stadium was packed to the gills. The crowd was a tad more mellow and older than the black-tee clad, shout-themselves-hoarse types that throng heavy-metals concerts.
The band started up with a few plucky numbers from the old days. It took a good hour or so before they tired of playing instrumental ensembles and launched into a proper song, lyrics and all. Not that I was complaining; Santana’s sonorous blues and Afro-Cuban rhythms had an ethereal quality.

In the tradition of the great Bob Marley, the band churned out stirring, passionate rhapsodies that conveyed the essence of proud Latin America in all its hot-blooded mish-mash of poverty, romance, rage, revolution and hope.

The tempo sure picked up after their rendition of “Maria, Maria.” Crowd control authorities tried to get the few of us who’d left our seats to go by the railings to dance to return to our chairs, to little avail. Carlos Santana was thirty feet away, dressed in white, sporting a fedora and twanging away the dulcet notes of “Smooth.”

Nothing short of a Force 10 gale could have moved me, rooted to the ground as I was awe-struck by wonder and a feeling of profound gratitude to the fates. Then in a moment I’m not sure if I imagined, he steps over to the crowd and hands his plectrum to one of the women seated in the front row. She’s beside herself.
The highlight of the night for me was the stellar solo performance of Dennis Chambers, whose inspired drumming was a treat to listen to. This was followed by renditions of classic numbers like “Oye Como Va”, “Corazon Espinado” and “Black Magic Woman.” An Indian couple in front of me was doing the salsa to the sultry Spanish numbers.

While the final songs were performed, pictures of Santana’s musical history flashed on the big screen, both tribute and possible swan song to a legendary career. The three-hour concert ended with Santana’s latest hit single “Into the Night.”

Santana, despite his age, is still going strong. What with The Rolling Stones still rocking stages with one foot in the grave, I shouldn’t be surprised.

In the words that Kurt Cobain immortalized in his suicide note, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” Keep burning, Santana.

Picture Credits:

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Ang Lee seems to have a thing for making movies out of short stories. If Brokeback Mountain successfully exorcised the ghosts of that execrable piece of JUNK, “The Hulk”, his latest endeavor “Se,Jie”(Lust, Caution) cements his status as a gifted auteur . Naturally, I was keen to review the source material, Eileen Chang’s short story of the same name.

The old chestnut that the book is always better than the movie is not true of “Lust,Caution”. They are both powerful oeuvres in their own right and comparison would be unfair to both. While Lee’s film was a well fleshed out look at the sinister machinations of spies and the complex intricacies of conflicting loyalties and emotions, the short story is less overt, dealing in subtleties and nuances. The plot revolves around a young woman who finds herself rather confused about her feelings for her mark, a high placed enemy official who she is to seduce and lead into a death trap. Morality hardly enters the equation in this dilemma, the choice being between desire and loyalty to her fellow firebrands. It is no easy choice. Either her lover dies, or she tells him of her perfidy and subterfuge and saves him from death, thus losing him forever. Think of it as a Chinese take on “The Lady and the Tiger” set in the decadent Shanghai of the 1940’s. Only this time, we discover which of the two impossible decisions our heroine makes.

The novella itself was a sweet little gem that ended too quickly, but was all the more powerful for its brevity. The rest of this anthology of stories is hit or miss, love being the predominant theme explored. Eileen Chang’s characterizations are deeply thought-out and deserve much kudos. She is a student of human character and the personages that populate her world are excellent portrayals of the human race in all its complexity, passion and flawed beauty. Her eloquent depictions of the mystic East are powerful and sensuous, evoking nostalgia for places and ways of life long gone.
Keeping in mind the theme of the month,( the entire board of editors has become a bunch of smut peddlers), I would be remiss if I did not mention the steamy scenes of carnal congress in the movie version. The performance is so realistic, leaving critics wondering if the sex is simulated at all. Just in case you’re wondering, they have done it for real on the silver screen. It’s been done (forgive the pun) in” Wild Orchid” and Martin Scorcese’s debut crime opus “Boxcar Berthie”. Quizzed on the possible authenticity of the coupling, Ang Lee quipped, “Have you seen the film?” Those who have will agree that the sex, while elaborate, explicit (and exquisite) is hardly gratuitous, contributing an essential facet to the way we perceive the tumultuous relationship of the central characters. Seldom has one film so satisfied both the voyeur and the philosophical analyst of the human condition. Top marks on both movie and text versions.