Friday, July 13, 2018

Thief of Bagdad [dir. Raoul Walsh]

As the name verily suggests, Thief of Bagdad (ToB) is a fantasy adventure inspired by the lore of the Arabian Nights. Which is not to suggest that the film in any way adopts the complex multi-story nature of that famous literary work. Nay this is a straightforward story of flamboyant heroism saving the day and winning the prize, and male lead Douglas Fairbanks is about as textbook a definition of flamboyant heroism as it gets. Aged 40 at the time the film was made, Fairbanks has the lithe physique a 20-year old would envy and athletic grace to match. It's sheer pleasure just watching him shimmy up ropes, leap over tables, trampoline in and out of oversized pots. But Fairbanks wasn't just the hunky star of this film. He was also producer (a co-production with his equally famous spouse Mary Pickford) and if Hollywood legend is to be believed, ghost-director along with Raoul Walsh.
In the film Fairbanks is the titular thief, a feckless braggart cheerfully taking what he wants from the streets and mansions of Bagdad, until he meets with the princess in the disguise of a foreign prince. Suddenly our man is sick of his existing lifestyle and wishes to win the princess honorably. Off he goes on a quest that requires him to fulfil several challenges before he can return with the ultimate MacGuffin that will allow him to sweep up her royal highness. Also in the mix is an evil Mongol lord (Sojin Kamiyama, an actual Oriental actor) who wishes to possess the princess and Bagdad by any means possible.

In these days, the idea of a Hollywood film where Islam is eulogized and the Chinese/Mongols are caricature evil carries an irony, but ToB is a film of its time, conducted in a cornily innocent spirit. The hero must win the day, dragons (also giant bats and spiders) must be destroyed, damsels must be rescued, chest-thumping good must win over narrow-eyed evil.

ToB's script is light on nuance and hardly justifies the 2.5 hour running time, but the film is an undeniable spectacle. Celebrated production designer William Cameron Menzies (later director of
Chandu the Magician and Things to Come) was then a newcomer, but justified Walsh and Fairbanks' faith with towering vistas of full-scale minarets and fortress walls, swirling staircases and intricate ornamental designs for the palace interiors, immersive depictions of underground caves and even an aquatic realm (specially shot using distorted glass filters to achieve the effect of waves). The camera simply surrenders to the impact of Menzies' sets, accentuating their scale - in many scenes, the human element occupies only the bottom third of the screen, giving maximum visual space to the architecture. It makes for a most interesting if also sometimes disorienting impact on the viewing. The optical FX are less impressive but there are some notable in-camera FX, including the use of a carpet actually suspended several hundred feet by a crane doing a flyby around the palace, brr.
In terms of flaws, the film does have pacing issues, with bales of obvious padding material. The princess, as played by Julanne Johnston is a milksop, given to such fainting and sighing as would make a Victorian lady envious. Far more intriguing was the sultry and resourceful Anna May Wong as the Mongol lord's evil spy in the palace, she would have made a better match for the thief, so what if she's a bad girl herself? As for Fairbanks his exaggerated gestures get tiresome after a bit. If you count the number of times he spreads his arms out in joy or surprise, often over the most nondescript elements, it would likely exceed Shah Rukh Khan's count for all his Yash Chopra and Karan Johar movies combined.

But in all, ToB is worth visiting as a thrilling adventure that in its time defined SPECTACLE.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Carbon [dir. Venu]

Although its subtitle Ashes and Diamonds would appear a shameless evocation of Andrzej Wajda's brilliant 1958 movie about individuals in a time of social upheaval, Venu's Carbon is unrelated except perhaps in suggesting an interface of dreams / aspirations and reality. In Venu's film this interface is core to the film's identity.

Sibi (Fahadh Faasil in a part seemingly created for him) is in his mind, a big player, facilitating deals between those that want and those that have - from gemstones to elephants it doesn't matter what - Sibi is ready to make the connection and pocket his commission. But the truth is he hasn't much success, his gift of gab never able to overcome his lack of working capital to grease the wheels of fortune. But Sibi can never bring himself to accept defeat and enter the routine of "doing a job and settling down" his friends have gotten into. He can be liked - we see his pals going to great lengths to back him up - but he cannot be trusted. Early on the film gives glimpses of his anarchic daydreamer spirit: passing by a bank he fantasizes about robbing it. The aforementioned elephant deal has an amusing epilogue which resonates deep into the film. And Sibi is not given the conventional motivations of getting rich "to support the family". His relationship with them is more perfunctory than anything and a later scene with the father beautifully underscores his essential alienation. Kudos to Venu and Fahadh for taking a character with such unlikable traits and getting the audience to empathize with him without cheap sentimentality.

After trouble with a loan shark over borrowed money Sibi goes into hiding, taking on the assignment of developing a remote jungle property as a tourist destination. With no electricity, no mobile network and no people apart from caretaker Balan (Kochu Preman, a wonderful character actor) and the occasional local, Sibi is entirely out of his element, his inner hustler stifled in this removed, almost alien environment. His luck appears to change when he meets the spunky Sameera (Mamta Mohandas) a self-professed "jungle junkie". He also comes to hear of the legend of a treasure hidden in the forest hundreds of years ago. Sibi grows obsessed with the idea of finding this treasure, even when the locals warn him that no one that went after the it came back whole. More than the monetary value, it becomes a sort of Holy Grail, a justification of his inner spirit. With Sameera and a couple of locals he puts together a small expedition that both literally and figuratively goes deep into the wilderness. What happens in the course of this quest and whether Sibi fulfils his dream of finding the treasure and becoming the big wheel he always dreamed of being forms the rest of the film.

This part of the film evokes the classics of master film-maker Werner Herzog such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, being like them about obsessed men with who plod in the face of an alien impassive nature with the idea of claiming it for their own. The treatment is less raw and relentless than what Herzog would have gone for, the makers aiming to keep one foot on the commercial acceptability boat with mostly glamorous natural vistas and unnecessary lashings of background music supplementing the forest soundscape.* But you can see the intent, and even though the expedition segment and its unraveling impact on the protagonist should have been given more breathing time (it occupies less than a fourth of the total running time), it makes an impact; a hallucinatory experience late in the film is a marvel of character exploration. I also loved that Sibi and Sameera are not forced upon us as a romantic pair. She goes along on the expedition because she likes Sibi's zeal and hustle, but also realizes that he is hopelessly unprepared for the hazards of the jungle. Mamta exudes the required pragmatism and warmth of the character, and provides an able counterfoil to Sibi. Of course the film ultimately belongs to Faasil and he keeps the audience with him from beginning to end.

Without going into spoilers, I was initially put off by the end, which seemed to me a pat commercial compromise, but thinking back, who's to say it is not another example of the fluid traversal between dream and reality in Sibi's mind? Recommended as one of the most interesting Indian movies I've seen this year.

* There are also a few songs composed by Vishal Bharadwaj, which are decent but I was very distracted during the Rekha B. sung Dhoore dhoore on account of her horrible diction.