(13/08/07)

The Chess Players | Dir: Satyajit Ray (1977) | With Saeed Jaffrey, Sanjeev Kumar and Richard Attenborough. Released by Artificial Eye.

The Chess Players is one of those rare period films that manage to evoke a historical period with precision without appearing to be a ‘period drama’. Set in the kingdom of Oudh during the last days of the Moghul Empire, The Chess Players follows two Indian noblemen (Jeffrey and Kumar) in their obsession with the game. Meanwhile General Outram comes to Lucknow (the ‘Paris of the East’) to depose of the song-writing, poet king and seize control of the region on behalf of the East Indian Company.

The Chess Players was the first time Ray worked outside his native Bengal and was also his most expensive production. Handled with his typical lightness of touch, it is a whimsical look at a period of political transition that judges neither the imperialism represented by the British nor the feudalism symbolized by the king. Ray is interested in characters and place; politics is just a game whose rules are adapted by those who play it. Life carries on.

Sleeping Dogs | Dir: Bobcat Goldwaith (2006) | With Melinda Page Hamilton, Bryce Johnson, Colby French. Released by Tartan Video.

It takes quite a flight of fancy to come up with a story based on a college girl’s sexual misadventure with a dog and turn it into a very watchable, well-written meditation on guilt, self-esteem and honesty. But that’s exactly what comedian Bobcat Goldwaith (Police Academy) achieves with this fine-tuned indie gem, whose American title is Stay.

Amy is played with utter charm by Hamilton (Sister Mary Bernard in Desperate Housewives), a prerequisite for a character whose secret is actually quite disgusting, even surreal. She reveals it to her new boyfriend during a weekend with her neurotic, suburban family and she gets ostracised by everyone except for her potential new lover. Will she give it away to him too? Or is it better sometimes to omit unpleasant past details to avoid trouble? Not necessarily a most important philosophical question but one most people come across some day. The pace of the film keeps it floating all the way and its televisual look works well as a counterpoint to the oddness of the film’s narrative trigger.

Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss | Dir: Tommy O’Have (1998) | With Sean Hayes, Brad Rowe, Meredith Scott Lynn. Released by Tartan Video.

Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss is one of a batch of gay films that came out in the 1990s in which stylisation was used as meta-reference to the camp grammar of gay culture. Also, like a handful of other gay films from that period, Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss is mildly influenced by the 1990s ‘teen film’ genre, which in this case is blended with visual references to vintage colour Hollywood.

It is starred by TV’s Will and Grace‘s Sean Hayes, who plays the Billy of the title, an aspiring photographer on the lookout for love. While working on a project in which he reproduces famous screen kisses, he befriends Gabriel (Rowe), a sweet, straight-ish guy whose relationship with a non-diegetic girlfriend is fizzling out. But all this is just an excuse for retro set pieces and punchy one-liners, although it’s fair to say that, behind all the artifice, the film has a real heart.

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