Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Indian TV: English channels with subtitles

A peep at the as-yet unseen The Secret Invasion, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and The Hunting Party for Overlooked Films at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

Most English entertainment and movie channels beamed in India carry English subtitles at the bottom of the screen. This is a fairly recent practice. It has its advantages and disadvantages depending on how you look at it.

On the plus side, subtitles help viewers who find it difficult to follow American and British accents to understand English sitcoms and films better.

On the minus side, subtitles are like annoying pop-up ads; even if you are able to follow the accents clearly, you end up looking at the bottom of the screen and reading the lines.

Either way, you’re caught somewhere between looking at the screen, listening to the dialogues, reading the subtitles, and watching one-fourth of a film.

I have found a new use for the subtitles, one, I suspect, everyone else has too. Whenever the children have their exams I switch off the volume and let the subtitles take me through the sitcoms and movies I am watching. Problem is I have got into the habit of watching soundless television even otherwise.

One channel that does not carry subtitles is MGM, a decent substitute for TCM India which went off the air last year. As a result, I often miss watching some very good movies.

For instance, on Friday, April 26, MGM telecast The Secret Invasion (1964). Directed by Roger Corman, the film tells the story of British intelligence using criminals to work behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia during WWII. It stars Stewart Granger, Raf Vallone, Mickey Rooney, and Edd Byrnes. I’d never heard of this war film or of Vallone and Byrnes before.

The next day the channel showed Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) directed by Michael Cimino. Clint Eastwood, George Kennedy, Jeff Bridges, and Catherine Bach star in this film about bank robbers who plan a daring heist of the fortress-like Montana Armored Depository.

Then, this evening, MGM is telecasting The Hunting Party (1971) which sounds even more interesting than the above two. Made by Don Medford, this western film stars one of my favourite actors, Gene Hackman, Oliver Reed, and Candice Bergen and relates the story of a ruthless rancher who pursues an outlaw who has kidnapped his wife, with a twist in the tale.

The good thing about Indian television channels is that they repeat everything, even news. Likewise, the same films are shown repeatedly over a long period of time which means I can always watch all three movies in my retirement.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

When books go abegging

The Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged next to my house in northwest Mumbai (Bombay) organises annual sales of a range of new and old household items like clothes, furniture, books, and foodstuffs, as well as lucky draws for the unlucky, the proceeds from which go towards the care of the elderly inmates of the Home.

This morning we attended one such bargain sale and I made my way to a small unused pantry where the section on books was located. The novels, mostly paperbacks and selling at less than half a dollar, were strewn carelessly above and below the dusty kitchen platform, in the dry sink, and in a couple of cartons.

Most visitors to the sale looked inside the pantry, probably murmured “oh books,” and went away. So we had the place all to ourselves except for the elderly lady who managed it. She sat there reading some biblical pamphlet. The only time she said anything was when two young men walked in, picked up a couple of books at random, put them back, and walked out. She said, “Your eyes and hands should know the books you’re looking for.” I think what she meant was the moment your eyes spot a book your hands will automatically pick them up, because, as a book lover, you’re familiar with the book and its author. It left me scratching my head, nonetheless.

On display in the pantry were assorted novels by various authors such as Dick Francis, Len Deighton, Patricia Cornwell, John Grisham, Irving Wallace, Sidney Sheldon, Michael Crichton, Charles Dickens, Alistair MacLean, Jack Higgins (Harry Patterson), Jeffrey Archer, Henry Miller, Barbara Taylor Bradford, J.T. Edson, Max Brand (Frederick Schiller Faust), Oliver Strange, Joseph Conrad, George G. Gilman, Loren D. Estleman, James Herriot, A.J. Cronin, Daniel Steele, David Baldacci, Ken Follett, Frederick Forsyth and a dozen others whose names I can’t recall, post-lunch.

Whoever donated all these books knows books well; hopefully, well enough to have read them first and then donated them for a worthy cause. 

We bought nine books of which four were mine of which two were by my favourite writers, namely Sudden Strikes Back, a rare western by Frederick H. Christian (English author Frederick Nolan) based upon characters originally created by his countryman Oliver Strange, and the monstrous 544-page Hatter’s Castle by Scottish writer A.J. Cronin of whom reference has been made elsewhere on this blog.

The other two novels I picked up were both westerns: Bloody Season by seasoned American writer Loren D. Estleman, and Breakheart Pass by popular Scottish author Alistair MacLean.

Breakheart Pass rang a bell for some time until my wife mentioned that we had seen the movie. I reached for IMDb. The film, made by Tom Gries in 1975, is about “A train with medical supplies and a small US Army unit heading through the Rocky Mountains towards the plagued Fort of Humboldt. Its passengers include a territory governor, a priest, a doctor, and a US Marshal with his prisoner, John Deakin. However, nothing on that train is what it seems.” The film starred Charles Bronson, Ben Johnson, Richard Crenna, Jill Ireland, and Charles Durning.

Many of MacLean’s novels have been turned into successful films, notably The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, Where Eagles Dare, and Force 10 From Navarone.

The back cover of my used 1987 Fonata/Collins edition says, “The Rocky Mountains, Winter 1873… One of the most desolate stretches of railroad in the West. Travelling along it is a crowded troop train, bound for the cholera-stricken garrison at Fort Humboldt. On board—the Governor of Nevada, the daughter of the fort’s commander and a US marshal escorting a notorious outlaw. Between them and safety are the hostile Paiute Indians—and a man who will stop at nothing—even murder…

Both the novel and the film look interesting and I might allow my yellowed and dog-eared copy of 
Breakheart Pass to jump the queue. In fact, I've been toying with the idea of my own Alistair MacLean Festival for quite some time now. All his novels have been reprinted. Like many popular authors of his era, MacLean was predictable but entertaining. 

The nine books, which included three Jeffrey Archer titles, cost us Rs.180 ($3.6)—a fine catch on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Saturday, April 27, 2013


A tale of the classics

I am not qualified to review classic literature. The kaleidoscope of people and places and the variegated events and elements, not to mention the Victorian style of writing, in a classic makes the task of reviewing one rather daunting. It requires a keen study of, and insight into, this form of literature and a sound knowledge of an author's entire body of work. If I must review any one book by Dickens, then I must have read most of his other books, if not all, for only then can I have a clear and credible perspective of the author, his writing, and the novel I intend to review. This much I have learned from the experts and biographers whose authoritative introductions adorn most classics reprinted today. Whether I am up to the task is another matter. 

In his introduction to The House of Mirth (1905) by Edith Wharton, which I am reading at present, Prof. R.W.B. Lewis, the author of Edith Wharton: A Biography, ends on an incisive note: “The House of Mirth has undergone a curious sea-change in the years since. It is not so much that the novel has grown on us, though that has happened too. But even more, the novel has appeared to grow in itself, to enlarge and thicken, to enrich and complicate before our beholding eyes. Cultural circumstances have obviously contributed to the event, especially the dimensionally increased attention of late to the achievements of American women. But when all that is taken into account, something pleasingly is left over. In some inexplicable way, The House of Mirth has become a masterpiece.”

One can take delight in the biographer’s well-written analysis of Wharton’s foremost novel in context of what he says about her second most famous book, The Age of Innocence: “It is not—the point is worth stressing—the society mirrored in The House of Mirth. Edith Wharton’s own vanished New York was portrayed in The Age of Innocence, written in 1920 and looking back to the 1870s; and its disappearance is that handsome novel’s central and ambiguously nostalgic motif. For The House of Mirth, Mrs. Wharton concentrated instead on a social world larger, showier, morally much looser, and even richer than the Joneses’ set: “the new breed,” as the longer-established folk called them; “the ultra-fashionable dancing people,” in a phrase of the 1880s.”

A studious comparison of Wharton’s two great novels, such as the one Lewis provides us with, would not have been possible without a thorough research of her work and, more importantly, the period she lived and wrote in. Both the stories are set in the aristocracy of late 19th century New York, which Edith Wharton called “a society of irresponsible pleasure-seekers” in The House of Mirth.

Classics, like Renaissance art, are masterpieces, and they need to be treated as such.

While I have read many classics, many more remain to be read. Among the classics I read in recent times, I liked Jude the Obscure and loved The Mayor of Casterbridge, both by Thomas Hardy. His two main characters in these books, Jude Fawley, the young stonemason, and Michael Henchard, who sells his young wife and daughter in a drunken stupor, are essentially flawed—powerful yet pathetic, dignified yet depressing, intense yet imperfect—and destined to meet a tragic fate.

I have been advised not to read Hardy in succession.

Although Hardy wrote the two novels over a hundred years ago, his stories mirror the failings and shortcomings of modern-day life in all its avatars. 

Jude the Obscure, for instance, created a stir when it was published in 1895. In it Hardy exposes three of the most hallowed institutions in Victorian England—religion, education, and marriage—and their role in the undoing of man and his dreams. In particular, his extreme views on marriage and relationship—as evident in the impulsive wedding of Jude and Arabella and their consequent separation and divorce; Jude’s romance with his cousin Sue Bridehead who is married to the school teacher, Phillotson, whom she divorces to live-in with Jude; two children born out of wedlock in addition to Jude and Arabella’s unwanted 12-year old son, who kills the children before killing himself; a distraught Sue’s turn to religion for solace and her return to a husband she never loved, as a form of repentance; Jude’s return to his drinking ways and Arabella tricking him into remarrying her; and finally his utter state of despair and desolation—offended the moral sensibilities of Victorian England. 

In Hardy’s dystopian world, Jude Fawley and Michael Henchard have a right to dream but they have no right to live those dreams. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Blue Streak (1999)

A not so memorable entry for this week’s Overlooked Films, Audio and Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

There is perverse satisfaction in doing the very things that you don’t want to do, like watching a Martin Lawrence film, Blue Streak (1999), and making it worse by watching a Vince Vaughn movie, The Break-Up (2006), soon after. But then, those are the perils of taking a month-long break from blogging and having free access to the remote. You do all kinds of silly things. It’s not as if there’s nothing more worthwhile to do. As Groucho Marx would say, “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”

Lawrence is a funny actor though he’s not so funny when he makes faces and big eyes while talking. It might be his trademark but if you eat with your mouth closed, you ought to talk without twisting your face, unless you’re Rowan Atkinson or Jim Carrey. Comedy suits Lawrence though not as well as it does Eddie Murphy whose Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, and The Distinguished Gentleman never fails to amuse even today.

I can’t think of a Lawrence film I’d watch twice with the exception of Wild Hogs (2007), a riot of a film whose singularly impressive feature is, incidentally, not Lawrence but the combined performance of all four including his three road-hog buddies, William H. Macy, Tim Allen, and John Travolta. Of this crazy lot Macy steals the show, Travolta proves he can do comedy, and baddie Ray Liotta sneers like a hyena till curtains down.

Blue Streak is an average film which, barring a few one-liners and a hyperactive Lawrence, fails to live up to its “comedy” tag. The story is unconvincing but passes muster because I don’t think it’s meant to be taken seriously.

Miles Logan (Lawrence) and his cronies are burglars who steal a large diamond but their near successful heist is marred at the last moment following double-cross by one of the crooks and the arrival of cops. Just before his impending arrest, Logan hides the diamond in the air vent of an under-construction building and makes a mental note of the place he hid it in. Two years later, Logan returns to the site of the old building, to retrieve his precious stone, and is shocked to find a swanky LAPD police station in its place. Now the only way to go after the diamond is to pose as a cop. 

Martin Lawrence and Luke Wilson in a scene from the film.

This is where the plot defies logic: Logan gets an elderly acquaintance to forge documents and produce an authentic shield (police badge) and walks right into the police station, suckering everyone including police chief Rizzo (Graham Beckel) and fellow detectives Carlson (Luke Wilson) and Hardcastle (William Forsythe) and going on to head the homicide division, a dubious position he earns because, rather unintentionally, he uses his own experience as a crook to catch other crooks.

One reason I did not like Blue Streak, directed by Les Mayfield, is the use of needless profanity which I have come to associate with a Martin Lawrence film. Here’s a sample:

Logan: “Hey, this is the police. Move your busted-ass vehicle. Move, move, move, move. This is the LAPD. We'll pop one in your ass. We got guns and shit.”

Tulley (his accomplice): “I'll rip your lips off, and kiss my ass with them shits. I'll rip your tongue out, and lick my balls with it.”

Logan: “What are you gonna do with one shoelace? Floss your ass with it!”

Now that last line might actually seem funny but it isn’t. The next time I have the remote, I am going to remember Grouch’s words and promptly act upon them.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Slaughter, Cronin, and Shute

Ron Scheer, an authority on early western books and films which he reviews on his fine blog Buddies in the Saddle, has written about his search for a copy of The Mantle of Red Evans (1914) by Hugh Pendexter. So far the western novel has been elusive. A copy of the book will eventually turn up.

In my own experience, a hard-to-find book often shows up unexpectedly, sometimes right under my nose. Three such examples are the voluminous The Penguin Book of Comics by George Perry and Alan Aldrige (1967) and DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favourite Comic Book Heroes by Les Daniels (1995), and the western paperbacks of Sudden by British writer Oliver Strange. These books are never easy to find in India.

Ron’s search for Pendexter’s book got me thinking about some of the books I have been looking for. Regular visitors to this blog will be familiar with my predilection for the novels of Frank G. Slaughter, A.J. Cronin, and Nevil Shute. For some time now, I have been looking for three specific novels written by these gentlemen. As far as I know, they are not available online, in the copyright-free domain. I should, however, like to read hard copies of all three, especially Slaughter and Cronin. 

Frank G. Slaughter is an American writer and physician who is best known for his historical (mainly biblical) and medical novels. His The Thorn of Arimathea (1960) ranks among my favourite Slaughter books yet. It is the romantic story of a sceptical Roman centurion who finds love and faith in Galilee and how he and his petite consort, Veronica, spread Christianity in England. All his dramatic and inspiring stories are written in old-school English. His descriptions of places and landscapes will leave you spellbound. His style reminds you of Lloyd C. Douglas, his predecessor and another great writer of historical fiction whose The Robe and The Big Fisherman were made into successful films.

The Slaughter novel I am looking for is That None Should Die (1941), his first work of fiction, which examines the healthcare system through his own experiences as a doctor. 

I was introduced to Scottish novelist and physician A.J. Cronin by an uncle who demolished my plans to read Harold Robbins and Irving Wallace at the age of 16. “Wait till you are 20 before you read those authors. Read Cronin, instead,” he said to me. I nodded and like an obedient schoolboy borrowed Beyond This Place (1953) from a circulating library. It is the dark and touching story of a son who fights against the odds to prove his father is innocent of the murder he has been convicted for. I read this novel in the early 1980s and liked it a lot and I want to read it again. 

British author Nevil Shute’s novels are associated with everyday people whose fictional lives are set in the backdrop of aviation and aeronautics, his vocation during WWII, on one hand and the Australian outback on the other. He has a simple and effective style and it is easy to identify with his portrayal of middle class families. The last of his books that I read was Beyond the Black Stump (1956) which got me interested in his most famous work, On the Beach (1957), which is about the horrific effects of nuclear war. I may or may not have read this book earlier. Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner starred in the 1959 film adaptation. 

In addition to my perpetual hunt for books by Frank G. Slaughter, A.J. Cronin, and Nevil Shute, I don’t think twice before buying the early paperbacks of several authors such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Paul Gallico (who wrote The Poseidon Adventure), William Faulkner, Oliver Strange, Henry Denker, C.S. Lewis, George G. Gilman, Alan Sillitoe, Louis Auchincloss, Mickey Spillane, Ian Fleming, and Erle Stanley Gardner. 

Who are the early authors whose books you have been seeking out? And how successful have you been in obtaining them? I am hoping to educate myself with your feedback on your search for the elusive book. I bet it’s one I have never heard of before.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

The Next Three Days, 2010

For links to more overlooked films and television this Tuesday, check out Todd Mason's blog Sweet Freedom.

It’s a coincidence that this post about Russell Crowe’s The Next Three Days (2010) coincides with his 49th birthday tomorrow, April 7. It was one of many films I watched on television during my recent leave of absence from blogging. I had never heard of this movie before and when I saw it, on STAR Movies last month, the New Zealand-born actor climbed still higher in my esteem. I’d rate his role as John Brennan, the distraught husband of Lara Brennan (Elizabeth Banks) who is arrested and convicted for the murder of her boss, as one of his best. This is a relative term for one whose performance never fails to captivate the viewer.

Like most actors Russell Crowe has a trademark screen persona: he is niggardly with words, he has a quiet intensity about him, and he is awkward. He is no different in The Next Three Days made by Canadian director Paul Haggis (of Crash, Million Dollar Baby, and Casino Royale fame).

In this film, Crowe’s character, John Brennan, is a family man who loves his career wife Lara and their little son Luke. Everything is fine until one morning when the police swoop down on their happy home and whisk Lara away. She is charged with killing her boss and is sentenced to near life imprisonment in Alleghaney County jail in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The evidence against her is clinching or so we are told. John and Lara await the verdict on the appeal even as their lawyer tells them that there is no hope.

Over the next three years, John raises their son, with the help of his father George Brennan (played by the ageing Brian Dennehy) and mother Grace Brennan (Helen Carey), and teaches English at a local college. Between his personal and professional obligations, John never misses a chance to visit his wife in jail and tell her all about their growing son.

As the months pass into years, emotions run high, tempers flare up, and a depressed Lara attempts suicide. In one poignant moment, Lara, who can’t accept her fate, tells John what if she really did kill her boss. John stares at her in disbelief. On his next visit, he tells her that he knows she didn’t murder the woman and nothing she says will ever make him feel otherwise and vows to get her out.

A large stretch of the film has John planning Lara’s escape from the airtight prison. But, before he carries out his elaborate, and often reckless, scheme, he seeks guidance from Damon Pennington (Liam Neeson), an ex-convict who tells him what he stands to lose…should he, god forbid, fail.

“But before you do anything, you have to ask yourself if you can do it. Can you forget about ever seeing your parents again? Can you kill a guard? Leave your kid at a gas station? Push some nice old lady to the ground just because she gets between you and the door? Because to do this thing, that's who you have to become. And if you can't, don't start, 'cause you'll just get someone killed.”

The Next Three Days, an allusion to the last three days before Lara Brennan is transported to another prison hundreds of miles away, is Russell Crowe’s film all the way. No other actor, not Elizabeth Banks, not Brian Dennehy, nor anybody else, matter in this extraordinary film. You think you know what the end is going to be like and yet you are not quite sure. Not when John Brennan buys a gun for the first time in his life and says, “Show me where the bullets go.”

Watch it.