Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Passage to India

(Movie Review)

The reason I ended up watching this movie was somewhat due to the poverty of selection. (As a lot of my movie choices are.)
I was in the University library, looking over their limited movie selection. I knew I would be watching the movie on my small computer screen, so I didn't want anything with spectacular action sequences that would have been wasted on my small monitor. And I didn't want anything that was subtitled, because I didn't want to have to squint to read subtitles on the screen. I just wanted a nice, thoughtful little movie that I could enjoy over a cup of coffee. And hopefully something that would make me think a little bit.

This seemed to fit the bill. The DVD cover box describes it as:
[Enter a world where cultures clash so violently that an entire country could split at any moment. Nominated for eleven Academy Awards and winner of two, A Passage to India is a "wonderfully provocative tale full of vivid characters, all played to perfection" (the New York Times.)]

Well, so far so good. Sounds like an interesting story about culture clashes. I kept reading.

[When liberal-minded English ladies Mrs. Moore and Adela Quested arrive in India, they're shocked by the extreme racial prejudice that exists there. Fortunately, kind Dr. Aziz rises above the intolerance and guides the women on a splendid tour of the mysterious Marabar caves. But the outing turns tragic when Adela suddenly comes running from one of the caves--scratched, bleeding and terribly frightened. News of the incident quickly spreads across the whole of India...igniting a powder keg of tension just waiting to explode. "A rich tapestry woven of the clash between two cultures" (Newsweek), A Passage to India is supreme entertainment and a visual wonder that is truly spellbinding.]

It sounded like "To Kill a Mockingbird" set in colonial India--some good courtroom drama scenes, a bit of political tension--sounded good to me. Plus it had won lots of awards. Plus it was released in 1984, so it was a relatively recent film (by my standards) so it should have a relatively modern sense of pace and timing.

At least that's what I thought before watching it.

Now before I go into the review, I have a small confession to make: I have not read the novel on which this film is based. (Although it is on my list of "books to read someday.")
One of the rules I generally try to follow is to always read the book first before seeing the film (especially with the classics.)
...But, like a lot of rules I set for myself, I break this one all the time. And here is a case in point. I was in the mood to relax with a DVD, and I decided not to get puritanical about the fact that I hadn't read the book.
Besides, I have so many books on my list, and I'm such a slow reader, that it will probably be years before I ever get around to reading the book. By which time I'll have had plenty of time to forget the movie, and the plot can still seem new and fresh to me.

I do feel slightly unqualified to review this movie without having read the book first, but people do say that a good film should be able to stand on its own merits whether you've read the book or not. So I guess that's the criteria I'll have to judge this from. No doubt I would have had a different perspective if I had read the book first, but oh well.

My biggest criticism of this movie is that it takes forever to get to its point. The incident in the caves (the part where the movie actually develops some sort of plot) doesn't take place until 1 hour 25 minutes into the movie.

Up until then, nothing really happens. Characters are introduced, characters meet each other, characters make small talk with each other, characters go on bike rides and look around India, characters go to a tea party, et cetera.
It was kind of interesting for the first half hour. But an hour and a half of this was way too long. By the time the plot actually got started, I had given up on the movie.

Then to make things even worse, the court room drama, the key part of the movie that could have been really interesting, was either very poorly written, or very poorly edited. Most of the trial happened off-screen, and the audience was just brought up to speed by passing references.

For example, much is made of the fact that the political lawyer Amidullah comes to defend the case, but he's given very little screen time and almost no lines when he finally arrives.

In another case, the judge warns the defence team that yesterday's behaviour will not be tolerated again. But the behaviour itself was never shown on screen, we just get the judges reaction to it.

I suspect what happened here is that someone was trying to be too faithful to the structure of the book. The book may have included long passages describing characters and setting the scene before the real plot got underway. And in a well written book, you can get away with that.

But in a movie you need to pack your punches differently. You need to get the story off to a faster start, and then focus on the moments which allow for dramatic tension.

But that's just my opinion. Given how critical acclaimed this movie was (W) and how many awards it was nominated for (W) perhaps I'm just an uncultured philistine. But I felt like it took what could have been a very interesting story, and bored me with it.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - Fear of Democracy

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Inception

(Movie Review)

A quick recap of my Chris Nolan viewing history:

I didn't see Memento until a few years after it came out. But I rented it one afternoon, and was absolutely fascinated by it. In fact, I was so fascinated by it, I watched the DVD twice in one sitting. Once the movie finished, I just went back to the menu screen and played it again. (I've never done that before or since.)

Actually the second time I watched it, I noticed the plot wasn't quite as airtight as I had thought the first time. In fact, if you pay close attention there are a number of inconsistencies with the short term memory thing. Still, it was pretty entertaining.

"The Prestige" (which I reviewed on this blog) was a very similar experience. I didn't watch this one twice, but while I was watching it I was too absorbed in the magic of the story to think about the plot holes. Once the film ended, me and my friend started to pick away at bits and pieces of it.

(Nolan also did "The Dark Knight," but that's probably in a separate category as a super-hero movie.)

As for "Inception," I'm not sure if it all made sense or not. My brain was so busy trying to keep track of everything that I wasn't looking out for plot holes. Plus the pace of the movie just keeps you rushing from one scene to the next without really giving you a lot of time to think about what you just saw.

There were one or two scenes however, where I thought maybe the movie was breaking it's own rules. But I wasn't sure. Maybe I just missed something. I'd probably have to watch this movie a couple more times, or talk about it some more with a friend, to fully get my head around it.

So for the moment I'll leave aside the question of consistency, and just say that I thought the movie was very entertaining.

That's really the genius of these Chris Nolan movies. Sure movies like Memento, The Prestige, and Inception have lots of mysteries and plot twists that keep you guessing all the way through. But the movies are more than just their plot twists. They're also well told stories, well directed and expertly paced.

I loved the way the tension in this film kept building so I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. Even in the scenes where there's not a lot of action happening on screen, there's always a lot of tension.

And I loved the way the 1930s era pulp fictiony feel of this movie--the way the characters were always walking around with perpetual one day's stubble on their faces, the exotic locations and chase scenes through exotic streets. The protagonists are the standard rogues gallery of crooks who come together for a job, but it's done well: like the forger who is hiding out in Africa, or the chemist who hangs out in an office surrounded by chemicals.

At the beginning of the film you think you're in for an exploration of dream psychology. But after using just enough of this to set the tone, the dream world becomes totally unrealistic.
In fact the dream worlds reminded me a lot more of "The Matrix" world than actual dreams. Which is okay--you just have to accept that this is a Matrix type movie rather than a psychological exploration movie. There are certain alternate realities that the movie creates, and they're governed by certain rules which the movie lays out.

(Whether or not the movie does a good job of sticking to it's own rules is something I really would have to watch a second time to decide.)

The action scenes were for the most part pretty well done, although this movie loses at least one point for all those repetitive scenes in which the bad guys are firing tons of bullets but can't seem to hit anything.
(Yes, this is one of those cliche movies where every shot the bad-guys take is always wide of the mark, even when they're standing right next to their target.) But still a great movie

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - The War Against Terror

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Tom Brown's Schooldays by Thomas Hughes

(Book Review)

I encountered this rather obscure classic as a result of my interest in the Flashman series.

After my friend had originally recommended the Flashman series to me, the first thing I did was to go to wikipedia to read about it.

There I learned that the character of Flashman originally came from an 1857 novel called "Tom Brown's Schooldays."

(Ah wikipedia, what would we do without it? If I had read the Flashman series 10 years earlier, I would probably have just been confused about where the character came from. Now all the information is right at my fingertips. Already it's becoming hard to remember what life was like before wikipedia.)

Being the thorough reader that I am, I decided that if I was going to embark on the Flashman series, I would start with the source material first.
And so I did. And I got about 50 pages into "Tom Brown's Schooldays", before I got impatient with the slow pace of the book, and decided to jump right into the actual Flashman series itself. And while I read through the first few Flashman books, I simultaneously slowly chipped away at "Tom Brown's Schooldays."

I'm a slow reader as always, so it took me a few months to plod through this book. In the meantime, I finished off 3 books in the Flashman series:
Flashman,
Royal Flash,
and Flash for Freedom (see previous post).

I don't know how many other Flashman readers actual take the trouble to wade through the original source material. But I can observe that it was much easier to get ahold of the Flashman books than "Tom Brown's Schooldays." All of the local bookstores in my city had at least some of the Flashman books stocked (some had the whole series). "Tom Brown's Schooldays" was nowhere to be found in any of the bookstores I visited, and the only copy I was able to find was an old 1967 copy tucked away in the corner of the University library. So I can only conjecture that, at least as far as Melbourne goes, most people just plunge directly into the meat of the Flashman series.
(It's possible this book is more famous in it's home country of Britain. It was just made into a TV movie as recently as 2005 (IMBD). Or I don't know--maybe it's famous everywhere, and it's just my ignorance. If anyone else out there has heard of this book before, let me know.)

George MacDonald Fraser, however, does constantly reference back to this book in his Flashman series, however, starting with the very first chapter in which Flashman complains of his portrayal by Thomas Hughes (while admitting it was accurate for the most part). And many of the characters from this book make appearances throughout the Flashman series.
For example Doctor Arnold and Harry "Scud" East appear in the first chapter of "Flashman." Speedicut appears in the beginning of "Royal Flash." References are made to Young Brooke and Scud East in "Flash for Freedom." And Scud East is a major character in "Flashman at the Charge," (which I'm currently reading now). So I imagine anyone who hasn't waded through this book first will miss a lot of the references in the Flashman series.

Even if the Flashman books are a lot more fun than this one.

"Tom Brown's Schooldays" isn't a terrible book, but it's a book from a different time, with a different sort of pacing, and a different sort of prose style.

I'm sure you've noticed, as I do whenever I read a Victorian era book, that some of these classics have aged better than others. Some of them read like they could have been written yesterday. And some of them are written with a more antiquated style. This book is one of the latter.

Still, if you're willing to put in the effort of engaging the book, there's a lot to be gained from it.

As with any old book, the main value of it is in being able to get a glimpse of what life was like before you were born. What did schoolboys do in the days before television, video games, and the internet? How did they entertain themselves? What sort of mischief did they get up to, and what sort of values were instilled in them? What was boarding school like in England in the 19th century?

Of course a work of fiction from a single writer can't be counted on to represent faithfully all the complexities of life as it is or was.

But in this case one has reason to think that most of the book is true to life. The book is based on the same school that Thomas Hughes himself went to as a boy. And takes place around the same time that Thomas Hughes himself was a student there. And real life figures, such as Doctor Thomas Arnold (W), the headmaster of the school at the time, are incorporated into the story. And although Tom Brown and his friends are fictional characters, many of the incidents in this book are probably based off of real life.

Much of the book has a realistic feel to it, and details the kind of mischief that it's easy to imagine real boys getting into. (Although every generation likes to imagine that they were the first to discover rebellion, it is always interesting to read older books and discover that even the respectable Victorian gentleman started out as young boys causing mischief 150 years ago.)

The book is written with a heavy moralizing tone, but it's not exactly the strict schoolmarm type of "never speak unless spoken to and stay out of trouble," type morality. It's more of the British bulldog old fashioned morals of the schoolyard: Never pick on boys smaller than you, but don't be afraid to stand up to bullies even if they are bigger than you. Never shirk from a fight if challenged. Always throw yourself fully into sports without worrying about getting injured. A certain amount of mischief is natural for a young boy, but never lie or be dishonest about it when caught. Et cetera.

Harry Flashman is the villain of this book, and represents the antithesis of everything our young heroes stand for. He mercilessly bullies younger boys when he thinks he can get away with it, but "toadies" to all the older boys. He takes great pleasure in inflicting pain on others, but shrinks away from a fight as soon as someone stands up to him.
Although Flashman is only in a small portion of the book (he doesn't make much of an appearance until the book is a quarter finished, and he gets kicked out of rugby school before the book is halfway through) his character, and the younger boys struggle against him, dominates the part of the book that he is in.

One can certainly see in this short section all the bad qualities which George MacDonald Fraser would later make a series out of.
(It was a stroke of comic genius for Fraser to take the character of Flashman and decide to explore what kind of man he would turn out to be.)

Parts of the morality bit, or at least the preachy way in which a lot of it is conveyed, maybe a bit tiresome for the modern reader. But it was readable as far as it went. The real problem with this book is when the characters find religion.

I'm over the stage of my life where I have much patience for religious morality. But even then, if the religious preaching had been well written I would have had less of a problem with it. However the religious change these characters undergo feels very forced, and not natural to the story at all. And near the end there are some passages when these schoolboys are sitting around discussing the Bible, and it felt so unnatural. I couldn't believe these were even the same characters I had been following.
It was one of those scenes that was so bad that you almost feel embarrased for the author as you read it.

P.G. Wodehouse has written a satirical essay on this sudden change of tone called "The Tom Brown Question" (available on-line--link here) in which he suggests that only the first half of "Tom Brown's Schooldays" was written by Thomas Hughes, and the second half was written by a moralizing committee. And I can definitely see where Wodehouse is coming from.

Link of the Day
Chomsky in Lebanon