Saturday, November 14, 2015

Chess in the movies

Theme: Chess in the Movies for Tuesday's Overlooked Films, Audio and Video at Todd Mason's blog Sweet Freedom.

In many ways, chess has been integral to films. The 64-square board game has featured umpteen times in all kinds of movies, from mystery and fantasy to horror and espionage. It is one of a handful of games and sports frequently seen in a cameo role, others being golf, snooker, and cards.

There is something fascinating about chess that appeals to a lot of people including film-makers, even if not everyone understands the game or knows how to play. It has an air of allure about it which, I feel, has to do with intellect, chance, suspense, winning, subtlety, intelligence, strategy, plot, thrill, and style associated with chess as well as films.

The game can make quite an impact in a film and on the viewer. For instance, the symbolic match between the characters of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender in X-Men: First Class, in front of a fireplace, resonated with me because that’s the kind of setting in which I’d love to play the game. The two brothers, Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr (alias Magneto), play in a relaxed environment even though they have serious issues to deal with, such as preventing World War III.

Chess blends perfectly with most plots and settings, be it in a comedy with Charlie Chaplin, science fiction with Leonard Nimoy, fantasy with Daniel Radcliffe or action with Jason Statham.

Although chess is incidental and mostly used as a prop or a backdrop, it glamourises films more than any other game or sport. It is an equaliser, a diversion, a fairy tale, even if for a short cinematic moment.

Here is a chronological list of movies that have featured chess. Some of these films, like Shatranj Ke KhilariSearching for Bobby Fischer, and Queen to Play, are actually about the game. 

Charlie Chaplin in The Masquerader, 1914
Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, 1942
Vladek Sheybal in From Russia with Love, 1963
Woody Allen in What's New Pussycat?, 1965
Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek, 1966-1969
Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen
in The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968
Timothy Dalton in The Lion in Winter, 1968
Charlton Heston in The Omega Man, 1971
Saeed Jaffrey and Sanjeev Kumar
in Satyajit Ray's Shatranj Ke Khilari
(The Chess Players), 1977
John Cleese in Silverado, 1985
Max Pomeranc in
Searching for Bobby Fischer, 1993
Samuel L. Jackson in Fresh, 1994
Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint in
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, 2001
Patrick Stewart and Ian Mckellen
in X-Men 2, 2003
Jason Statham in Revolver, 2005
Robin Williams and Christopher Walken
in Man of the Year, 2006. While Williams
was a prolific chess player in real life,
I'm not sure if this is a scene from the
film or they played on the set,
as actors often did. 
Kevin Kline and Sandrine Bonnaire
in Joueuse, or Queen to Play, 2009
Steven Seagal in Born to Raise Hell, 2010
James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender
in X-Men: First Class, 2011
Cliff Curtis in The Dark Horse, 2014
I haven’t seen many of these chess-o-pics. How about you? Which are the other chess flicks I missed?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

First Offense by Evan Hunter, 1955

I offer this review for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

A replica of my edition of the book.
Do you know what can make a gritty police procedural a good story? An element of humour. Evan Hunter (alias Ed McBain) provides a fair bit of it in First Offense, the first short story in The McBain Brief, a collection of twenty non-87th Precinct stories published in 1982. 

Of course, it’s all unintended and incongruous in this realistic story about first-time felon Stevie, a 17-year-old cocky and defiant boy who thinks he knows more than the Chief of Detectives and the other hardened felons, including one veteran called Skinner who sizes up our protagonist for what he is, a punk, and advises him to keep his mouth shut.

Stevie is one of many felons who is brought to Centre Street Headquarters in Manhattan for a line-up before every detective squad in the city, 
so they will remember him the next time. Stevie’s crime: he assaulted a candy store owner for a lousy twelve dollars.

The gravity of his offence—stabbing the old man in the chest and abdomen—is lost on Stevie who behaves like a bum at a party, only to find there is no escape from this one.

First Offense is cold and atmospheric. The narrative transforms the reader into a silent witness at the police inquisition. I liked the matter-of-fact questioning of felons (a McBain trademark), including Stevie, by the Chief of Detectives. It was all a bit unsettling. You don’t want to be inside a police station for whatever reason and you certainly don’t want to be in a line-up, prior to arraignment, where you are not innocent till proven guilty.

“Tell us the story, Stevie.”

“Whatya makin’ a big federal case out of a lousy stick-up for? Ain’t you got nothing better to do with your time?”

“We've got plenty of time, Steve.”

“Well, I’m in a hurry.”

“You’re not going any place. Kid. Tell us about it.”

This story takes a hard look at delinquent crime and sociopathic behaviour of young people in the backdrop of some terrific police procedure. I think, this is an early instance of police procedural that Hunter/McBain became so notoriously famous for.

The McBain Brief is a collection of crime stories dating from as early as 1944. In ‘A Brief Introduction,’ Ed McBain ponders the question of why most of these twenty stories were first published under his pseudonyms like Hunt Collins and Richard Marsten. 'First Offense' was first published in Manhunt, December 1955, and was selected as one of the Best Detective Stories that year. McBain has said that he did not write the screenplay for this story on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, though the two masters of suspense met after he wrote 'First Offense.'


Further Reading

MysteryNet has an interview with Ed McBain on their website.

My blog friend Todd Mason had this to say about the story on his blog Sweet Freedom: “First Offense is a not-bad but utterly unsurprising story which reads for all the world like a rendering in prose of a typical script from the CBS Radio series The Lineup.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Musings from my Facebook page

As you can see, I have not been posting much on my blog for a variety of reasons, mainly lack of time and general lethargy. I have been trying to get back into blog and review mode by writing on my Facebook page, where I'm more consistent. I pen my thoughts, and little stories, mostly on sentimental and nostalgic stuff almost every day. I steer clear of controversial topics, politics and religion, about which there is growing intolerance on social media and elsewhere. The forced refrain is: “You have a right to your opinion provided you agree with mine.” There is just too much negativity out there and it is pathetic. 

I'm on Facebook for a bit of fun.

I stick to the simple and ordinary things of life—memories of my childhood years, everyday observations, books I read, movies I'm watching, inner peace, food I love eating, places I visit, life in pictures, and that sort of thing. I write about things that make me feel good—as everything we do, should—and also resonate with others including family and friends.

You’ll get an idea from the following compilation of my most recent Facebook entries published over the past ten days. Some of my blog friends who are also my Facebook friends might have read these before. Others need not be compelled to read at all. It might be dreadfully boring and result in reader mortis. I have edited some of the posts for brevity, if brevity is, indeed, possible these days.

November 8: The PhantomThe Ghost Who Walks and Man Who Cannot Die—married in the mid-80s, a few years before I did. I "attended" his wedding in the Skull Cave. He tied the knot with the beautiful Diana Palmer of New York, in the presence of an odd bunch of guests—Diana's mother and Uncle Dave; Mandrake the Magician and Lothar; the pygmy Bandar led by best man Guran; his adopted son Rex; friend Thal, king of the Little People; Hero and Devil, his white stallion and wolf; and, Hzz, the prehistoric half man-half beast living on his isle of Eden, where all his other animals, including a stegosaurus, eat grass and live peacefully; where lions eat fish.

I thought the Phantom's attire was wholly inappropriate for such an important occasion. But then, he got married as the Phantom and not as Kit Walker, his secret urban identity. If Diana didn't mind, who the hell was I to object? I wore a suit at my wedding. The Guardian of the Eastern Dark didn't show up. Ever since, we haven't been on talking, or reading, terms.

November 6: My dad loved Kapi. He liked his coffee hot and strong with a spot of milk and very little sugar. Sometimes he used to skip dinner and have Kapi and buttered bread or toast, instead. He'd apply a good amount of butter on the bread slices and toast them on an open pan till they were golden brown. He'd then carefully slice each toast into four perfect squares, dip each bit in hot coffee, and pop it into his mouth. He made them for me, too. And was it delicious! The taste of salted buttered toast dunked in coffee or tea, if I may rightly exaggerate, is heavenly. Over the years I have tickled my palate by dipping crisp and crunchy Khara biscuits and Brun-maska in tea.

I'm not fond of coffee unless it is an authentic South Indian brew. Occasionally, I feel like having Kapi when I'm reading about detectives in crime fiction, gulping down mugs of steaming black coffee. I can almost smell it.

November 5: I love slapstick comedy and I'm extremely partial to Laurel and Hardy. They are the best. Such sweet innocence and so much fun. It's a pity there have been such few comedians in that laugh-out-loud category. I left Charles Chaplin out because, while I like him as an actor and have enjoyed many of his films, he is not funny. In fact, he can be quite depressing. When I think of slapstick, I think of mindless comedy. Comedy for the sake of comedy.

November 5: Last evening, I hit pay dirt at one of my secondhand book haunts: a used brand new 4-in-1 collection of Lucky Luke comics. Lucky Luke is a Belgian namesake comic-book series created and drawn by Morris (Maurice De Bevere) and written by Goscinny, who also wrote many of the earliest Asterix comics. I have been reading the adventures of Lucky Luke, the American cowboy known to "shoot faster than his shadow," since early teens. Good fun and absolute value for my Rs.50 (less than $1).

November 5: My reading room on wheels—where I read more Facebook and less book. The 7.45 am siren at the Khar railway yard, en route to work, just went off. A familiar sound back from my childhood. As long as it's not an air raid siren, all's well with our world.

© Prashant C. Trikannad

November 4: At the end of the day

I step out of my air-conditioned coffin.
Street boys hammer drums,
the devil knows why.
Roadside woofers, like black holes,
blast distorted music.
Fuckin' drivers leapfrog signals,
nearly knocking me down.
Crackers go off on my tail,
precursor to the advent of hell.
I rugby my way to the station,
past hawkers and jaywalkers.
I sweat it out in a crammed local.
I sweat it out in a snaky bus queue.
I sweat it out in drunken traffic.
Two hours too late,
I reach home, lose my head.
My pet wags her little tail.
I growl at her, sending her off.
“How was your day, darling?”
My face looks like burnt toast.
A hushed silence descends.
The air-conditioner comes on.
I set off again,
this time on a guilt trip.

November 4: I grew up with images of many iconic films. Of course, I realised they were iconic much later, after I started watching old movies on VCR & VCP and cable in mid-80s and early 90s. Two classics are etched in my mind: the scene where a crop-dusting plane is chasing Cary Grant in Hitchcock's North by Northwest, 1959, and the Burt Lancaster-Deborah Kerr steamy beach kiss in From Here to Eternity, 1953.

Elders in the family fondly recalled actors of their generation, who they grew up watching on the big screen. I'm glad they became actors of my generation too. When I look back on their era, I think of absolute class, style, and substance.

November 3: This Christmas-New Year I'm going on a tour of some of the most fascinating places in the world. My global stopovers will include Gotham City, Xanadu, Metropolis and The Daily Planet, Jaigarh, Gaul, the Skull Cave and Denkali, Asgard, Marlinspike Hall, Dwarka, Riverdale, Mongo, Bayport, Rich Mansion, Coast City, Pellucidar, Disney, Atlantis, and Sherwood Forest. S.H.I.E.L.D. is lending me their Quinjet.

Would you like to join me?

© Prashant C. Trikannad
November 3: Spare a thought for my pet...and me: Next week is Diwali, the festival of lights...and loud noise. The next few days are going to be traumatic for Stubs as deafening firecrackers cause her such fear as to make her lose her appetite and spend most of her time under the bed. She and her affectionate kind must curse humans, as I do. Request a reveller to desist from firing bombs, or light them elsewhere, and the smirky response will be, "Uncle, it's Diwali. No fun without crackers!" or it could be something like this, in crass Hindi, "What goes of your father?" effectively telling me to go to hell.

There is growing awareness about the harm firecrackers can cause to animals and people, but it's never going to be enough without a corresponding increase in compassion.

November 6: The World's Finest comic pictured below was one of 40 DC-Marvel comic-books my uncle from San Diego gifted us in the mid-70s. He inspired my dad, and his elder brother, to add to the lot every month. Before long, we had an impressive collection of Amar Chitra Katha, Indrajal, including Phantom, Mandrake, and Flash Gordon, the Harvey bunch, Archie and the Gang, Walt Disney, Tintin and Asterix, Dell, Whitman, and pocket Commando, and Western.

I took the comics baton from dad in the early 80s and widened the collection to include M.A.D., Maus, Classics Illustrated, and DC-Marvel annual editions. Forty years later, I can still smell those 40 brand-new comics. 

If you've read thin A4-size comics from that era, you'll know what I'm talking about. It felt like heaven to this kid.

November 1: Chess has been the single greatest learning experience of my life. This beautiful game beats school, college, and university education by a long mile. Chess is a seamless blend of passion, excitement, concentration, strategy, management, sacrifice, loyalty, patience, and ambition. I like to think of the 16 pieces as members of a close-knit family who look out for each other, like the mafia. They have their strengths and weaknesses but what holds them together on the 64-square board is blood kinship. 

Chess has taught me a lot in life; everything else I learnt on the job.

October 31: Barring Red Sonja, I have read the wild adventures of the other three superwomen—Axa and Modesty Blaise as comic strips and Xena as a comic book. I first read Axa—the forever-nude female Conan written by Donne Avenell and drawn by Romero—in the tabloid magazine, The Sun, known largely for its coverage of music. This was in the early 80s. I think, The Sun bought the rights for Axa from its British namesake where it was originally published. 

Axa bears a striking resemblance to Red Sonja who came before her. The origins of these two sword-sorcerers is interesting. Modesty Blaise was, of course, a three-unit black-and-white comic strip that many Indian newspapers published, alongside a similar James Bond strip. Sometimes, you didn't know which was which. I'm sure most Indians first heard of Xena the Warrior Princess through her television show. I didn't know she had a comic-book until much later.

Have you read any of these femme fatales of the comics world?

October 29: Every morning, a blind couple enters my coach in the 7.49 local and begs for alms. They sing lovely bhakti-geet, or devotional songs. They don't have much of a voice but together they sound good. I find it soothing, even if it is for a brief moment, till they get off at the next station and hop into another coach and start all over again. Singing blind during peak-hour rush can’t be easy.

I was raised on devotional songs, thanks to my dad who sang to my sister and me at bedtime, almost every night in our childhood and early teens. You can't go to sleep with a more secure and comforting feeling.

October 28: I'm seriously thinking of replacing my car with this single-wheel eco-friendly self-propeller. I could get around much faster. But I'm going to have to make sure I look like a formal guy and not a circus clown. Imagine, I could wheel myself right into my office and up to my desk. No pay and park. The more I think of my fuel-efficient idea, the more I'm convinced it'll work.

This weekend I'll hop over to the nearest stone quarry and place an order for a custom-built spoked wheel with a small headlight and a loud horn that I can control with my feet. I"m pretty excited. I must thank Johnny Hart whose B.C. comic strip was my inspiration. Next step: licence.

October 27: When we dogear the pages of our book, the book must feel like someone is twisting its ears. We know how painful that is. A book has life too. Every word on a page is like each breath we take.

That’s all the corniness for now. If you’re on Facebook, I’d be delighted to connect with you.

© Prashant C. Trikannad

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Short takes on five films

When I'm not reading and writing (as I haven’t been much lately), listening to music or playing chess, I'm usually watching movies, and I saw quite a few in recent weeks. Some I liked and some I didn’t. Here are Short Takes on five of them for Tuesday’s Overlooked Films, Audio and Video over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

Aliens, 1986 - James Cameron

Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is back on dead planet LV-426 looking for aliens, who haunted her in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), or survivors. Ripley joins heavily-armed space commandos in the hunt for the frightening extraterrestrials. In the end she is left alone to face them, right in the centre of a slimy alien egg nest. Somewhat unbelievable, but I liked the way Ripley kicks alien ass with a weaponised blowtorch and lives to see another day. While the music and special effects are good, the film didn’t hold up as well as it did the first time. Maybe, I knew what was coming. Still, I like Weaver and Michael Biehn.

Hannibal, 2001 - Ridley Scott

Julianne Moore replaces the brilliant Jodie Foster as FBI agent Clarice Starling in this sequel to Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Mason Verger (Gary Oldman, but you wouldn’t believe it), a horribly disfigured victim of Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), wants revenge against the serial killer and uses Starling to get to him. While Hannibal doesn’t spare anyone, he has a very soft corner for Starling—he almost treats her like a daughter. Hopkins wasn't as convincing or chillingly intimidating as he was in TSOTL. It seemed as if he was going through the motions. Moore, otherwise a fine actress, is expressionless. Can someone tell me what Ray Liotta is doing in the film?

Marmaduke, 2010 - Tom Dey

There is trouble wherever the loveable Great Dane, voiced by Owen Wilson (who else?), goes, and that includes accompanying his adopted family to a new neighbourhood where he makes new talking friends. While Marmaduke more or less looks like Brad Anderson’s cartoon, I’d stick to the comic strip for the humour. This isn't funny at all.

Unthinkable, 2010 - Gregor Jordan

This suspense film justifies America’s paranoia after 9/11. CIA consultant Henry Harold ‘H’ Humphries (Samuel L. Jackson) uses every means to break hard-nosed Islamic convert Steven Arthur Younger (Michael Sheen) into revealing where he has hidden three nuclear bombs. FBI agent Helen Brody (Carrie-Anne Moss) must find the bombs before it’s too late. But she has another problem on her hands: reining in the rampaging torturer ‘H’. The film didn’t live up to its trailer which, on hindsight, would have sufficed. I'm going to give crazy Jackson a break.

The Love Punch, 2013 - Joel Hopkins

Now this one’s for the entire family. Divorced but friends, Richard (Pierce Brosnan) and Kate (Emma Thompson) prove they can do comedy as they set out to recover pension funds from the owner of a company who has duped them and several others. Richard and Kate, joined by their neighbours Jerry (Timothy Spall) and his wife, Pen (Celia Imrie), use the man’s girlfriend and a precious diamond he gave her to get back at him. The film is wacky in parts as Richard and Kate knowingly put themselves in risky situations, but it all sits well with the plot of this entertaining romcom.

So, there you are. I’d have reviewed some more films if I remembered their names. Have you seen this mixed bag of movies?

Monday, November 02, 2015

30 Stories to Remember, 1962

The lineup of authors in 30 Stories to Remember, the third anthology of stories, novelettes, and novels edited by Thomas B. Costain and John Beecroft, is quite remarkable. We have important contributions from Agatha Christie, John Buchan, George Bernard Shaw, Daphne du Maurier, William Faulkner, James Thurber, Rudyard Kipling, W. Somerset Maugham, Paul Gallico, and Arthur C. Clarke among several others. I have read many of the authors, including all of the above, though not the titles covered in this collection.

You can borrow the nearly 1,000-page ebook from Archive where it is currently on loan. Here is a complete list of the 30 stories.

01. The Split Second by Daphne du Maurier

02. The Theft of the Mona Lisa by Karl Decker

03. The Soldiers' Peaches by Stuart Cloete

04. A Night to Remember (from the book) by Walter Lord

05. Aerial Football: The New Game by George Bernard Shaw

06. Courtship of My Cousin Doone by Walter D. Edmonds

07. Hotel Room (from the namesake book) by Cornell Woolrich

08. Two Soldiers by William Faulkner

09. How We Kept Mother's Day by Stephen Leacock

10. The Witness for the Prosecution by Agatha Christie 

11. The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford

12. The Catbird Seat by James Thurber

13. Act One (from the namesake book) by Moss Hart

14. The Devil and Daniel Webster by Stephen Vincent Benét

15. Gigi by Colette

16. The Little Minister (from the namesake book) by James M. Barrie

17. The Alien Corn by W. Somerset Maugham

18. Profiles in Courage (from the namesake book) by John F. Kennedy

19. The Company of the Marjolaine by John Buchan

20. First Day Finish (from The friendly persuasion) by Jessamyn West

21. The Adventure of the Priory School by Arthur Conan Doyle

22. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

23. Death and Professor Raikes by Alice Duer Miller

24. Leiningen versus the Ants by Carl Stephenson

25. Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico

26. They by Rudyard Kipling

27. Son of a Tinker by Maurice Walsh

28. History Lesson by Arthur C. Clarke

29. The Truth about the Flood (from The Bible as History) by Werner Keller

30. A Candle for St. Jude by Rumer Godden

The anthology follows Stories to Remember and More Stories to Remember, also edited by Costain and Beecroft.