Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Shree Krishnaparunthu aka The Holy Kite [dir. A. Vincent]

The "Krishna Eagle" referred to in the title of A. Vincent's horror drama Shree Krishnaparunthu (SKP) is a Brahminy Kite. The bird is seen as the representative of GarudaVishnu's celestial mount  in Hindu mythology. In the film it is the guardian deity for a family of respected shamans / white magic practitioners that use it for the benefit of the common people, curing them of possessions, snake-bites and other ills. The knowledge of the family is passed on to its male heirs. When the film begins, the old practitioner Padmanabhan (Jagannatha Varma) gets a premonition of his own death and decides to pass on the heritage to his nephew Kumaran (Mohanlal). The trouble is, Kumaran has till then led a wayward hedonistic life indulging in opium and women. Can he be trusted to take on the family mantle and continue with their righteous tradition?

Vincent was a rarity in Indian cinema, a film-maker that took the horror genre seriously. The stories he made were culturally rooted and given the sensibility of a Gothic melodrama, not reliant on jump scares or sleaze quotient to garner attention. In 1964 Vincent made his directorial debut with Bhargavi Nilayam (Bhargavi's House), in which a tenant encounters the spirit of a woman in the house he is occupying, and learns of how she was killed. In 1978 he helmed Vayanadan Thamban, an ambitious romantic horror. In that one the warlock Thamban (played by Kamalahaasan) turns to devil worship for eternal youth, in return for which he must periodically provide his master with virgin sacrifice. The narrative spans several generations, visually indicated by the changes in social and cultural milieu. Thamban is both a vampiric predator that honey-traps women for sacrifice while repeatedly escaping capture, and a man that battles with his own conscience over his actions.*

SKP is a sort of spiritual successor to Vayanadan Thamban, in that it is also a culturally rooted story in which the horror elements are tied in with the protagonist's moral compass. After Kumaran accepts the uncle's teaching he transforms into an austere, celibate priest with the power to heal the needy. He is powerful enough to tackle the menace of vengeful spirits like Lakshmikutty, who bears a deadly grudge against him, and the insidious attacks of a competing black magician who wishes to destroy the influence of the Garuda clan. Kumaran's powers hold sway so long as he is able to control his baser instincts.

Alas, that state of affirs does not remain. He starts to desire a young woman Bhanumathi, and when unable to contain his lust, visits the local prostitute. This marks the beginning of Kumaran's fall from grace. Over time, his righteousness is replaced by ego. Even after having failed to keep the mandatory celibacy, he refuses to relinquish the position of priest to any successor. The forces invoked by the white magic practiced in his clan become diminished, and to counter his failings, he turns to the practice of a darker sorcery with the worship of the boar-headed goddess Varthali/Varahi. While it initially serves his purpose, aiding him to do his miracles and protect the family from rivals, this has its own set of consequences. The film does not explicitly pit the various schools of magic as one-note good and evil (Varahi is a female offshoot of one of Vishnu's avatars) - but they represent different schools of thought with conflicting philosophies that cannot coexist. There is a strong grounding of polytheist mythology here, a refreshing contrast from the more simplistic God vs The Devil narrative of western horror films.

Kumaran's shaky moral core continues to blindside him, leading to both personal tragedy as well as the destruction of his entire clan. At the end there is a moment of redemption when Kumaran, burned in a fire after trying to make away with the sacred texts from the family shrine, expends his dying breaths initiating his innocent nephew into the original clan tradition.

SKP is trademark Vincent in both its virtues and its flaws. Its biggest triumph is the serious exploration of a specific folklore. Thanks to a combination of effective writing and a young Mohanlal's thespian talent, the grey shades of the protagonist are superbly layered, rendering him a credible character than a good/evil archetype. Vincent's creative eye is also able to give a distinct identity to his deities, demons and spirits, wholly away from the hackneyed spooks of hack horror-makers. But there are the issues of pacing and visual continuity as in his other films. Those expecting the spit and polish of Western horror ventures will find these flaws jarring (anyone familiar with low-budget genre Indian films will not).

But with all its flaws, SKP is a compelling moral fable that provides rich rewards to those seeking a genuine horror experience in a unique cultural setting. While I wish I could recommend it unreservedly to serious horror fans across the world, one barrier is that the film does not so far appear to be available in subtitled form, and while you can get a cursory idea from the visuals alone, viewers really need to have a working knowledge of Malayalam to grasp the intricacies of the plot. I was lucky in having a Malayalee friend who generously spared his time, and we paused the film multiple times to discuss both the dialog as well as the context of the cultural practices depicted, making it a truly enlightening experience for me. I do hope others get as lucky, because these films have too niche an audience to entertain the idea of any international label presenting them in translated form. That said, the full feature in the original language is available on Youtube, so you can try your luck:

* While Vincent's original version of Vayanadan Thamban is a classy Gothic, it was however heavily mutilated for its Hindi dubbed version titled Pyaasa Shaitan (Thirsty Devil) by camp icon Joginder Shelly, who has been described as India's answer to Ed Wood. After bagging the rights to Vincent's film Shelly randomly rammed  in inserts of himself as the devil, making faces at the camera, and tasteless sleaze material that only made for an incomprehensible experience.

Monday, September 5, 2022

Vikram [dir. Lokesh Kanagaraj]

Lokesh Kanagaraj’s 2019 adventure Kaithi (Prisoner), in which an ex-convict on the way to meet the daughter he hasn't seen for years is lassoed willy-nilly into rescuing a truckload of poisoned policemen while a battalion of armed thugs (hah!) assault a nearly empty police station, was an entertaining masala film. Despite its length it had focus and an organic build-up of scale. It made you empathize with the main characters so much even the exaggerations towards the end of the film could be taken in stride.

Vikram, while it has tenuous links to the former, is the other way round, so labored and top-heavy it is a disappointing follow-up. The natural flow and interlocking of scenes in Kaithi is replaced by a wobbly narrative struggling to do justice to the star lineup. It launches with full swagger, starting with a ‘mass’ song by ‘Ulaga NayaganKamalahaasan and then killing him off before the twist that everyone saw coming. There are very few Kamal scenes in which, unless you are a die-hard fan, he doesn’t come across as a twat (some, like the one where he is arguing his ideology are beyond insufferable). 

As a drug lord happily popping his own pills with a gang composed entirely of family members, ‘Makkal SelvanVijay Sethupati brings a certain wild energy and humor, but even he seems to be playing a set of Sethupati mannerisms than a consistent character. Fahad Faasil (no title for him yet) as a youngblood covert agent tracking Kamal is reduced to a mostly stereotype Dirty Harry mold. Truth be told, the lead performances are in the main a lot of posturing against obnoxious techno or guitar music. Don't even get me started on a much-hyped cameo appearance that's such rubbish, it made me want to punch the people that thought this was a good idea.

Believability has rarely been the strength of the masala genre, but the flow of the film did not carry me with enough verve to stop the questions coming to mind. Why do the foot soldiers of a multi-billion-rupee drug racket carry only kaththi-koduval (melee) weapons and basic shotguns that are easily neutralized by our heroes? How did Sethupati’s gang become the top drug mafia in the country while being gullible enough to let someone install several kilos of RDX across their entire lair, anyway?

Even the action, Kanagaraj’s strong point in Kaithi, has the same jerky quality as the writing - If a director can't raise tension in a scene where our hero must get past a legion of baddies without disturbing a baby with a weak heart, there are some serious issues in the execution. The lone exception is a bike and car chase sequence somewhere near the mid-point which doles out some thrilling night-time action. The brandishing of the big guns in the climax seems like a rehash of Kaithi's Gatling gun sequence; it's flashier and louder, but still delivers diminishing returns. 

If anything, Vikram is proof that all this recent talk about Bollywood films failing compared to Southern ventures because people want "better content" is just BS. Put enough number of marquee names together, add a truckload of fan service, and you can still get away with it. If you want my advice, just watch Kaithi and chuck all this nonsense about a shared universe out the window.

Saturday, September 3, 2022

I Start Counting [dir. David Greene]

I Start Counting (1970) is basically a Hitchcockian plot by way of kitchen sink realism. Specifically Shadow of a Doubt (1943), in which a young girl suspects her charming uncle of being a murderer, seems to have been in the mind of novelist Audrey Lindop when she wrote the 1966 book that became this movie.

Early teen Wynne (Jenny Agutter) is a adopted Catholic girl in a working class family who have just shifted home, because their old neighborhood is slated to be razed. Despite the mother's warnings she repeatedly visits the abandoned old homestead, finding comfort in old memories. Wynne also has a huge crush on her almost 20-years older stepbrother George (Bryan Marshall). She fantasizes romantic scenes with George and follows him about like an attention-seeking puppy. Her attempts to please him are rewarded by remarks like "You're a funny little biscuit". Wynne's ardor is so dominant that when she becomes suspicious of George being the dreaded serial murderer of young women in the neighborhood, she works to destroy the evidence she finds. This causes some conflict with her Catholic conscience. The other major characters in Wynne's life include her rebellious drug-taking second brother (Gregory Philips) whose collection of newspaper clippings of the killings may be more than idle hobby, and the saucy best friend (Claire Sutcliffe) who may be competition for her crush's attentions.

I Start Counting is not bad as low-key suspense dramas go, and Jenny Agutter shows fine form as the conflicted teen, but I found it underwhelming. Unlike the sensational promise of the posters, there's a tame TV movie feel to it (it's shot on 16mm, I think, and has that grainy diffuse look). The emotions are very on the nose, and it doesn't really grip you or get under your skin the way a Hitchcock film could, when he aimed for that. Helmer David Greene leans on the working class style opting to tamp down the drama. Some visual motifs like the White Rabbit doll on Wynne's bed are interesting (a metaphor for her Alice-like journey through the strange Wonderland of adolescence?), but under-developed. There are no bravura suspense sequences of the level that Hitchcock would have concocted. Basil Kirchin's score is prominent and unusual in its incorporation of sitar and tabla with jazz elements, although sometimes it also distracted me from the on-screen proceedings instead of underlying the action.

A few remarks on the UK blu-ray release from the BFI:

Given the modest production origins, the 2K restoration video on the BFI blu-ray is good. There are, I assume unavoidable, source limitations of brightness and density fluctuations. Audio is generally clear with a bold edge to the score. Optional English SDH subtitles are provided, but they may be on the smaller side for some people. Of the extras, which are plentiful, I have so far only seen the Jenny Agutter interview, in which she talks about her experience of making the film (It was a happy shoot with an enthusiastic director and some very helpful co-actors).

Trivia: Phil Collins has a one-scene appearance as an ice-cream vendor whose entire dialog, when asked if he has Neapolitan Tutti Frutti, is "Eh?"

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

HIT - The First Case [dir. Sailesh Kolanu]

It might seem like I'm doing a bait and switch with the title of the new Rajkummar Rao film, when this is actually my opinion for the Telugu original starring Vishwak Sen, which came out in 2020. But it's not just the name that is carried over. Going by the trailer of the Hindi remake, even the content of the films seems so identical that, slight differences in actors aside, I suspect you would be having a photocopy experience.

Vikram (Sen / Rao), the lead character of HIT (which stands for Homicide Investigation Team), is the investigator you have seen in a thousand modern detective shows. He ticks the columns of being (a) a brilliant but morose anti-social chap with (b) past trauma that gives him nightmares / hallucinations and (c) is is tasked with a case that has personal ramifications and threatens to burst his bubble of sanity. Vikram is so pathologically obsessed with the job he refuses to give it up even when his therapist warns him that his 'vitals' are failing, but the moment he takes a sabbatical on the insistence of his forensic scientist girlfriend Neha (Ruhani Sharma / Sanya Malhotra), she goes missing. Her disappearance seems linked with that of a young girl Preethi, who vanished one day after her car broke down on the highway. To find Neha, Vikram plunges headlong into cracking Preeti's case (for some reason, even though Neha disappears directly after digging up forensic evidence on Preeti's abduction, no one else thinks of connecting the two matters). Meanwhile he repeatedly gets stress-triggering flashbacks of a past trauma in which he is unable to save a girl being killed. I won't spoil it for you, but the reveal of the mystery calls for some serious suspension of disbelief, and characters acting in a manner that far exceeds their motivations.

Even with the cliches and contrivances, HIT has its moments of interest. Vikram gets so caught up in tracking down Neha he doesn't care about risking the lives of suspects. His superior officer (Bhanuchander / Dalip Tahil) uses him like a gifted bloodhound and indulges his eccentricities (though a botched narc test crosses even his line). There is an intriguing sequence of events early in the film showing Preeti's encounter with a disheveled cop Ibrahim (Murali Sharma / Milind Gunaji) who offers to drop her after her vehicle breakdown, and when she goes missing makes some forays towards tracking her, but a chain of circumstances lead to his ignominious suspension and the overlooking of crucial evidence till Vikram picks up on him later. At least in the Telugu version, the writing is solid in this segment and Murali Sharma's under-playing is a joy to watch. I actually wish the film had been more about this guy because...

For me, the lead character was a cold fish. I think a good deal of this has to do with Vishwak Sen's acting so perhaps the Hindi version fares better. True, Vikram is supposed be psychologically fatigued, but there is zero emotional  register in Sen's performance. Even in the writing the relationship between Vikram and Neha is a vacuum. Given that he refuses to share his past trauma with her, and doesn't seem one for cheery small talk, one wonders what apart from their work draws them together. That seems a bigger mystery than the one tackled in the film.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

Cabaret aka India Cabaret [dir. Mira Nair]

"No one at home knows that I dance", says Rekha, the main face of Mira Nair's 1985 documentary Cabaret. Rekha is a veteran strip club dancer. She had been once married, but walked away when the husband started to oppress her, even "rent" her out to friends. After her parents refused to take her back, she decided to make her own life and chose the striptease as her career. Outside the club, Rekha is indistinguishable from the typical Indian middle-class hausfrau, adorned demurely in a sari and the traditional bindi as she goes about her household chores or haggles with the vegetable vendor. But when in the crowded anteroom with her co-workers she dons pancake and mascara, and the suggestive outfit that will come off in the course of her performance, she becomes the night's wet dream for the roomful of men around her.

Cabaret has a special resonance for me. In the 80's when I was a kid, there was a restaurant-bar  called Meghraj a stone's throw from my place; many a weekend, we would head there for family dinners. The main restaurant, a well-lighted family-friendly place with (as I recall) teal and white interiors, was on the ground floor. But a set of stairs led to another floor, whence came the sound of music from behind closed doors. While I never had the opportunity to verify, it was known to be a strip bar. Sometime just before the 90's, the place shut down amid rumors of criminal activity. It was never redeveloped as anything else, suggesting that the property remains under a cloud. 

Nair's film enters the Meghraj dance bar when it was still a flourishing concern with a regular strip show. Swaying their hips to live Western music (and trendy Bollywood numbers), the fleshy, heavily made-up dancers slowly cast aside their clothing and shimmy among the clientele, encouraging them to buy more drinks. They walk the tightrope between exuding the come-hither attitude with their movements and expressions, yet keeping a sufficient barrier for their own safety from the not always happy-to-just-stare men. They receive propositions for private encounters that ask for more than dancing; on camera the proprietor declares that he plays no role in such affairs, whether they accept or not is up to the individual women.

Some of the customers are also interviewed: They acknowledge that they enjoy watching the women drop their clothes, and assert that those who protest the loudest are in secret the biggest patrons. One of them says, "Men want to do whatever their heart pleases, but they want their own family women to be Sati-Savitris [pious]" When asked what sort of woman he would prefer to marry, he responds with a grin, "Of course, a Sati-Savitri."

Nair also explores the daytime lives of the women. Some live together in cramped rooms and the neighbors can be unduly curious, even hostile. They are shown as homely people who want to just peacefully get along in society, and to make enough money to better their lives and of their families, many of whom are not aware of their profession. One of them argues that this line is better than being a secretary somewhere because a girl makes far less money in an office and gets groped even there. Some like Rekha are smart enough to buy property and invest their earnings while the going is good, because they know theirs is not a long-term career. Rekha is also interesting in terms of being an independent strong-minded woman that will marry only on her own terms, not out of gratitude to some savior. Towards the end of the docu, she agrees to marry a suitor she has kept hanging for years on end to test the loyalty of his affections.

The film also enters the home of one of the regular customers, a Gujarati businessman with an extended family. His wife with a wry smile deplores her husband's habit of staying long hours in the dance bars, while she must look after his family; he laughs her off patronizingly. Nair and editor Barry Alexander Brown (who later worked for Spike Lee) splice together an interesting mirroring between this 'respectable' housewife discussing her mentally imprisoned state and Rekha's more empowered stance.

The tone of Cabaret is inquisitive, but not sordid. In Rekha's amicable parting of ways with the profession, it ends with an admiring salute to the spirit of at least those women who have learned to survive the ups and downs of the profession and manage to retain control of their self-worth.

The complete documentary is up on Youtube (It is also included as a bonus feature on the Criterion Blu-ray/DVD release of Monsoon Wedding and the BFI Blu-ray of Salaam Bombay!):

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Visa to Canton [dir. Michael Carreras]

"The name's Benton...Don Benton." That doesn't really have the same ring, does it? 

I was regarding Visa to Canton (US title Passport to China) as a charming low-rent James Bond knockoff from from Britain's Hammer Studios till I realized it was actually made two years before the first Bond film, Dr. No. Of course, Ian Fleming's famous superspy was already 8 books old in print, after his literary birth in 1953's Casino Royale. The debut novel in turn had an Americanized TV adaptation a year later, featuring a thuggish "Jimmy Bond" (Barry Nelson); incidentally, the suave hero of Visa to Canton (VtC) is an American. 

Our hero Benton (Richard Baseheart, prefiguring Roger Moore's portrayal of 007) is a WW2 flying hero turned travel agency hotshot based in Hong Kong. Of course this being a Hammer production, all principal photography was done at their Bray Studios in Berkshire, and the few glimpses of actual Hong Kong in the film are either second unit work or stock photography. Benton is the "can do" man whose assured manner and silver tongue smooth over all obstacles. Apparently, his PR skills are so good the CIA wants to recruit him for a secret mission involving a downed aircraft on the Chinese mainland. Benton turns them down, but changes his mind once he realizes that the mission involves the rescue of a relative, in fact the pilot grandson of his adopted Chinese family (yep, you read that).

In a Bond film, this infiltration would have been a significant early action set-piece. But Michael Carreras' talent for spectacle and Hammer's budget are modest. There are no difficulties for Benton's crew in the search, and the Chinese soldiers they encounter are so inept and lackadaisical, even in a slow-moving motorized canoe, they easily escape their pursuers.

But there's more in store. The rescued pilot (Burt Kwouk) stands accused of having helped in the capture of a CIA informant who was a passenger on the downed flight. Benton decides to go into China again and find the truth to save the honor of his Chinese family. In this adventure, he comes up against lovely Lola (Lisa Gastoni), the informant who carries in her head vital information about a super-weapon, and the Russian origin smiling viper Ivano Kang (Eric Pohlmann, channeling Sydney Greenstreet from The Maltese Falcon).

These elements generate the most potent Bond-like atmosphere. Lola's sultry posing in Benton's hotel bedroom is an almost archetype Bond girl appearance. Kang's oily menace is echoed in many of Bond's supervillains and he has a notable Henchman in India-born Milton Reid (who later memorably tangled with Bond himself in The Spy Who Loved Me). Composer Edwin Astley's brassy score is a precursor to Monty Norman and John Barry's work on the Bond movies. This is not to say those films aped VtC; Fleming's novels already dictated their style. But Hammer's film did set a precedent for that spy adventure template on the screen. It even ends with a "possible next mission" coda (but not with a kiss). 

There are some now-cringy bits, like Caucasian actors done up as Chinese speaking pidgin English, but VtC is still more egalitarian than other "exotic East" movies (including Hammer's Terror of the Tongs, which had been constructed around the same time and using the same production material to share costs). At least the film does not uniformly paint Asians as slit-eyed evildoers. Benton is a grateful part of the Chinese family that sheltered him in difficult times and sees them on equal terms. The thrills are modest but the film has a likable smoothness. If VtC had more spectacle, more vim, more chutzpah, it could have made a bigger impact on audiences, perhaps even offset the dominance of Bond as cinema's premier globe trotting spy.

Monday, August 15, 2022

Mumbai Police [dir. Roshan Andrews]

2013's Mumbai Police has, up to a point, a decent mystery plot about a cop who lapses into amnesia in an accident just moments after informing a colleague that he has cracked a murder case. Now without those memories, he has to re-solve the case.

Antony 'Tony' Moses - played by Malayalam cinema's action hero Prithviraj Sukumaran - is the cop. At the beginning of the film, we see him tell someone on the phone "I've got the culprit". Moments later, a falling refrigerator from a van ahead forces him to veer and his car overturns. When Tony awakes, he has no recollection of who he is. Only his senior officer and friend Farhan (Rahman), who was on the other end of that call, is dealing with him. Farhan informs Tony that he was on the trail of the killer of their mutual friend Aryan Jacob (Jayasurya), a cop shot dead on the very stage he received a gallantry award.

Armed with only what information Farhan can share with him and his own instincts, Tony must start again at square one. In a script contrivance, Farhan asks Tony to conceal his amnesia from everyone, including their own colleagues in the force. This leads to some awkward moments for our protagonist. Also, it would seem that there are people bent on thwarting Tony's investigation, even if it means killing him.

Prithviraj is not the most versatile actor, but fits a certain badass hero / arrogant anti-hero niche. In this lead part, he gets a little more depth than the typical masala movie he is known for. A series of flashbacks makes us privy to the events prior to the amnesia loss, and we get an interesting contrast in Tony's nature before and after the accident, almost a different person in several aspects. The bulk of the film is a police procedural in which Privithraj follows up various threads - and associated red herrings - before the solution dawns upon him.

Without spoilers, the resolution of the mystery is where the film completely threw my suspension of disbelief. It makes a mockery of how amnesia affects a person's basic identity and is executed with zero sensitivity, making me want to clout the writers (credited as Bobby and Sanjay) and director that came up with this rubbish. It also relies on an offensively contrived series of circumstances that undo the - rah-rah moments notwithstanding - layered build-up of the investigation that had been depicted till that moment. Put simply, it's a lame and disappointing conclusion that leaves a bad aftertaste after a promising beginning.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

RRR [dir. S Rajamouli]

It is, I suppose, a curse of the pan-India movie paradigm that even the titles must be generic for the sake of universality. So they either use proper nouns, words that mean the same across multiple Indian languages, or, as in the case of Eega wunderkid Rajamouli's latest project RRR, reduce the title to an acronym that expands differently in different tongues. That said, with RRR I wonder if the bulk of the audience is even bothered to be acquainted with the expanded forms in the different releases. It might as well be just an echo of the manly growls that permeate this picture.

And there are manly growls galore. Each of the film's two male leads - Ram Charan and NTR Jr - gets a massive introduction sequence in which they are established as forces of nature. Rajamouli distinguishes his heroes with fire and water motifs respectively, even announcing these in on-screen titles, just in case anyone in the audience missed the metaphor. The film drips with so much machismo, it was a missed marketing opportunity that they didn't have promotional 'mandles'.

While RRR is making waves both in India and outside for its exaggerated action set-pieces and equally exaggerated bromance between the lead stars, it is by no means a novel concept. Bollywood masala mogul Manmohan Desai's Mard in 1985 showcased Amitabh Bachchan and Dara Singh knocking the stuffing out of British colonials with fisticuffs and the aid of a trained horse and dog. RRR's bad people, Governor Buxton (Ray Stevenson) and his wife (Alison Doody, the only woman in the film who makes an impact), would certainly be at home with the caricature British villains from Mard. Stevenson admonishes his troops for wasting expensive British-made bullets on lowly brown natives, while Doody complains about the lack of blood spurts in a public lashing. I imagine the spirit of Bob Christo would heartily approve of these doings. For some reason they're not mindful of a niece (Olivia Morris) that hangs about with said lowly brown natives and brings them for tea and dance dates to the gubernatorial palace.

Continuing with the Mard comparisons, RRR does not match up to that film's cheerful ludicrousness. Mard had cheesy S&M leather outfits, Mission Impossible type latex mask disguises, a baddie literally bleeding out starved Indian laborers while wearing a Hammer Dracula style hooded cape. But one really can't hope for that level of reckless imagination now.

As some measure of recompense, RRR boasts of a level of polish in the execution of its set-pieces that the technologically-slipshod-even-for-the-80's Mard could not claim. An applause-worthy level of detail is given to each of the film's action sequences, which are meticulously designed and painstakingly executed - Ram Charan fighting his way back and forth through a whole mob of protesters, him and NTR Jr forming a Goro-like fighting combo, the wild animal assault on the Governor's mansion. Right up to the ridiculously explosive climax, the film speaks purely in hyperbole. There are even some epic emotional moments like when NTR's character is getting whipped by Ram and breaks out into a patriotic song - say what you will, these guys put in their all.

But anytime the film moves away from them or the baddies, it stumbles massively. Alia Bhat barely registers as Ram's love interest, and Ajay Devgan as his father sucks the life out of every scene he is in, purely by being his Ajay Devgan self. Taking them out of the picture would have cut a fourth of the massive runtime and kept it fresher.

I certainly enjoyed individual portions of RRR, but Eega / Naan Ee / Eecha / Makkhi is still the one Rajamouli film I consider worth revisiting.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Malayan Kunju [dir. Sajimon]

There is little to give by way of plot synopsis for the Mahesh Narayanan produced Malayan Kunju (Child of the Malayan tribe). In the story set in the verdant idyll of Idukki, protagonist Anil Kumar aka Anikuttan (Fahadh Faasil) is the local go-to for any electronics / gizmo repair (in an early scene he uses window hinges to repair a broken laptop hinge). Anikuttan is also a casteist curmudgeon with a (what else?) painful past event that defines his current outlook. It takes another crisis to break down his reserve and unearth his suppressed humanity.

When reduced to bare outline, Malayan Kunju (MK) is a simple story of redemption through trial. Of course, a simple story is by no means a bad thing. Some of the most entertaining films have two-line (or less) plots. Take Neil Marshall's survival thriller The Descent - A gaggle of spunky spelunkers brave a hitherto unmapped cave and must survive both perilous natural obstacles and an unexpected predator. The trick lies in being sincere to that premise and yet add sufficient layers to render it interesting for the running time.This reference to Marshall's film is not an idle one, since the thrills in MK bring to mind the claustrophobic sternum-squeezing atmosphere of the former. 

The entire pre-interval portion of MK is used to define Anikuttan and his surroundings, and in a series of non-linear sequences, sketch out the tragedy that haunts his world-view. It is a large amount of build-up,  even incorporating a couple of song numbers (AR Rahman), but the characterization is not rich enough to justify the time spent, and the significance of scenes like the boar hunt escaped me. A fair portion of the first half therefore comes across as the disjointed padding out of a leaner, more taut adventure, and the emotional angle is, like Rahman’s overbearing background score, on the nose without being memorable.

The best parts of the film occur once Faasil's character literally lands in the calamity that he must overcome to survive. Without spoiling too much, it is a gripping and visceral journey, masterfully captured by the production crew and performed by the actor with complete involvement. In comparison to the diffuse prologue, this part of the film held my attention so completely, it seemed to end too soon. How I wish more of MK could have been this one-man survival drama.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Raudra [dir. Ravindra Shivaji]

Raudra (roughly translating as scary or horrible), which I stumbled upon on Amazon Prime, seems to have been birthed by the success of the Marathi culture inspired Tumbbad. While that film was a near masterpiece of modern Indian mystery-horror, presenting a fantastic fable of human greed with incredible visual and textural detail, Raudra sadly does not match up.

It is not made explicit, but the story seems to be set sometime in post-independence India (possible the 60's or 70's) in a remote Maharashtrian village. Trambak (Rahul Patil) enters the village as a census taker and arrangements are made for his accommodation at the crumbling vada (mansion) owned by the acerbic Nanasaheb (Deepak Damle). Nanasaheb is a dominating figure both at home to his wife and daughter, and for the villagers. Daughter Mrunmayee (Urmila Jagtap) is young and pretty, and sick of her father's oppression. She seems to find in Trambak a sympathetic ear for her complaints, perhaps even an escape route from her current existence.

Apart from going about his census task in the most halfhearted manner accompanied by buffoonish local aide Bando (Anil Padvankar), Trambak seems quite interested in the regional legends, and it becomes apparent early on that this is not mere idle curiosity. He is in quest of an old temple he claims to be of a family deity. Mrunmayee posits that the information he seeks may be available in an ancient book of records carefully guarded by her father, and volunteers to steal the book for him. Even after stealing the book, they have to contend with solving the riddles contained in it to decode the location of the temple, which is said to house an ancient treasure.

While promising in outline, Raudra disappoints hugely in execution. Writer-Director Ravindra Shivaji's screenplay is lackluster and contains glaring exposition lapses. The MacGuffin of Nanasaheb's book is a clumsy one - given his innate craftiness, it seems unlikely that for so many years before Trambak's arrival he would not have made similar deductions. Worse, the film is unable to set and sustain a pace. Instead of a carefully constructed ebb and flow as Trambak follows up various clues, we get a jerky stop-start narrative.  Characters are drawn with far too few shades to render them interesting. Mrunmayee could have been an layered personality, but as portrayed here (both by the writing and Jagtap's unskilled performance) is rather shallow.

Technically also, Raudra is a mixed bag. The decaying vada is an apt setting  and there are some atmospheric shots (Swapnil Kedare). But several other parts of the film appear prosaic and the music - both songs and BGM - overbearing. Apart from a nicely intimidating Deepak Damle, the cast is not particularly impressive. The film is just not able to sustain a specific mood, essential for this kind of story. The worst is saved for the climax. I really don't know what they were thinking here. Perhaps they wanted to make an impact with its abruptness, but it feels as though they stopped there on account of a total deficiency of ideas on how to finish off the story.

Looking up the entry for this film on IMDB, I find a very favorable rating and almost uniformly gushy user reviews (LINK), but my own experience left me quite cold.

Friday, June 10, 2022

Zombies of Mora Tau [dir. Edward L. Cahn]

Of B-movie maven Sam Katzman, Charles Schneer said that he "Knew everything there was to know about making a movie. He was a very enterprising fellow, and was enormously intuitive. But, he was a very tough taskmaster and a real skinflint... all his input was negative. He never contributed anything positive. I would suggest an idea, and he would knock it down. I would argue with him, but I never got very far. He wouldn't say: 'Do this instead of that.' He would only say: 'Don't do this'.

Katzman was a power player in the low-budget movie business that produced movies for a number of studios  constantly feeding product to small theaters across the United States. Sometime in the mid-50's he targeted the teenage and adolescent crowd with science fiction tinged horror fodder like Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) and The Werewolf (1956). While not exceptional cinema, they were quite decent as low-budget entertainment, capturing a certain zeitgeist of the atomic era. 1957's Zombies of Mora Tau is another interesting yet not entirely successful entry from Katzman's stable. It differs in some important aspects from previous zombie movies like White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie, and in some ways presages George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead as well as the Italian Zombo-calypse movies.

Zombies of Mora Tau begins with a bang when the automobile the leading damsel is being chauffeured in runs over a figure standing on the road. The scene is supposedly set in Africa where the lady is going to stay with her grandmother, but there are almost no cultural landmarks and not a single native African to give credence to that claim. Anyhoo, despite her protests the otherwise kindly driver refuses to stop after the "accident", remarking that he did not hit a man but "One of THEM!". When she finally reaches her grandmother's home, she finds that gramma (Marjorie Eaton) has similar notions, and that the stories she'd heard as a kid about the "dead but not dead" are actually serious beliefs among her folk.

In parallel, a ship expedition with a drunk captain (Joel Ashley), his saucy wife (Allison Hayes) and a hunky diver (Gregg Palmer) plans to explore the wreck of a 19th century sunken ship to recover a casket of uncut diamonds. But when they near the site of the wreck, they get some uninvited boarders who don't seem too troubled about getting shot or drowning. The survivors jump ship and take shelter at Grandma Eaton's place where she tells them about the undead sailors cursed to forever guard the booty of diamonds against anyone that came to take them. Of course, they think gran's off her head even if what they have seen can't be explained away.

Moonlight shenanigans ensue - damsels are carried off, zombies rise from their coffins, and our leading cast must fight for their lives. While the zombies are created by a curse, they are not under the direct control of any witch-doctor or mad scientist unlike previous movies, and more importantly, they have the ability to convert other humans to zombies to add to their number (how is not clarified - it seems to involve some ritual in their crypt, not just a chomp of flesh). This brings them closer to the zombies in NotLD than White Zombie. We also see sequences of them attacking the divers underwater (done with a gauzy filter and projected bubbles) prefiguring the memorable Zombie vs Shark scene from Lucio Fulci's Zombie Flesh Eaters.

While there are fascinating elements in the script, Edward L. Cahn's direction is pedestrian. Marjorie Eaton's performance plays to the rafters, more Old Dark House than the subtlety called for. Visually too, there are not many striking moments - a Val Lewton protege or a Mario Bava could have worked wonders with the material. That said the film is only around 70 min long and doesn't allow much time for one's interest to flag.

A few words on the blu-ray from Arrow Video's set of Sam Katzman movies:

Video-wise, this is a very decent HD transfer for a vintage low-budget movie with good contrast for the numerous nighttime scenes. The mono audio is clear if limited in immersion. Supplements include a Kat Ellinger commentary on the film (which was pretty decent, although she is a lot kinder to the film than I felt) and a Josh Hurtado video piece on genre transformation in Katzman's films.

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

KGF: Chapter 2 [dir. Prashanth Neel]

For my views on the first chapter of KGF, please click HERE.

KGF-2 is a continuation of the old-school swagger from the first installment, but taken a few notches higher. Rocky (Yash) is still the uber-badass, dealing out sneering one-liners and sledgehammer fists in equal measure. He now controls the titular gold fields, but in his "More gold! MORE GOLD!" attitude seems to opt for a far less smart plan than the original owners had - I would imagine that part of the perceived value of gold is the fact that it's hard to mine and is made available to the market in limited quantities. Rocky's business sense resembles the guy that slit the belly of the goose laying the (ha!) golden eggs.

But this is not a movie one criticizes for its lack of business sense, or for that matter any other sense. This is a movie where our gangsta hero can:

  • Barge in unannounced into the Prime Minister's working chambers and swag at her, while she hisses ineffectively like Lalita Pawar in Ek Din Bahu Ka.
  • Have a blooming helicopter hovering above his lawn for a spot of breeze on a warm day.
  • Single-handedly assault a police station - no wait, that's a branch office of the CBI - with a tripod-mounted belt-fed large caliber machine gun to recover a single gold biscuit because dammit, that's HIS property.

The large supporting cast is (dur!) cast in that same mold of exaggerated sentiment. Someone actually says with a straight face that the character Sanjay Dutt plays was inspired by Viking culture, and he turns up in the soul-sapping heat draped in chain-mail and leather, and a braid that must take some serious grooming. And beards, beards still rule. Raveena Tandon's PM character would have probably posed a bigger challenge if she sported one. Everyone speaks their lines like theater actors anxious to ensure that their voices carried to the last row.

This is again not a criticism, it is inherent to the film's design. The canvas feels genuinely big, and while the brush strokes are broad, they are also unabashedly virile, with some epic visual moments. You can see that writer-director Prashant Neel wants to pay a Tarantino-like homage to the glory days of Macho Indian Cinema, and when it works, it works really well. On the whole I liked this a good deal more than the sum total of Bahubali.

What I would criticize is the déjà vu occurring over the course of this two-part narrative (with the imminent warning of a third installment). The danger of painting in broad strokes is always that there's not sufficient layer or detailing for the characters. While individual scenes are calculated to raise whoops and whistles (I'm sure this would have been a riot in the cinema hall), there is choppy flow and a lack of connective tissue between scenes - A lengthy symphony cannot be composed solely of overtures, you need to also think of the quieter moments.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Mundane History [dir. Anocha Suwichakornpong]

The work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul casts a long shadow on Thai arthouse cinema, and Anocha Suwichakornpong's 2009 debut feature Mundane History certainly owes some debt of inspiration to him.
The film is centered around Ake (Phakpoom Surapongsanuruk), a youth paralyzed from waist down, and Pun (Arkaney Cherkam), the male nurse employed to take care of him at home. The other significant characters are Ake's father, who is considerate yet distant from his son, and the family members / domestic staff.
Ake has the simmering frustration of a youth whose entire way of life has been snatched away, reducing him to someone that needs help with his most basic needs. He also feels emasculated by his inability to sense any sexual pleasure, as demonstrated in the scene where he masturbates in the bath to no effect (a scene which was probably instrumental in earning the film the Thai censor board's strictest age rating 20+). This makes him taciturn and indifferent / rude to the people around.
Pun at the beginning of his employment feels lost. He is a friendly, open-hearted person and the hushed sombre atmosphere of the house wears him down - he confides to an acquaintance on the phone that he finds it "soulless". But as he diligently works with Ake and shares his own thoughts with his patient, a bond develops between the two young men - they are of the same generation and find common ground in their interests. Pun provides Ake a companionship and affection his own father seems afraid to show.
Mundane History is presented in subtle non-linear fashion where at different points back and forth in time we see the outlook of Ake and Pun, and their interaction with each other. This non-linearity is not an essential device for telling the story, but does prevent it from following a cliched path, and more importantly, allows for time lapses where more can be left to the viewers' imagination.
It is not clarified what mishap led to Ake's paralysis, or at what point the estrangement between father and son occurred - was it caused by Ake's accident and subsequent disability, or whether it predated that? Beyond a point, the film is less interested in the emotional drama (the tone is tamped down throughout, neither anger nor joy are given showcases), and becomes more of an overarching poetic reflection on the rhythm of life (even incorporating the depiction of a caesarean section birth). I didn't find this meshing as organic and magical as in my favorite Apichatpong film Uncle Boonmee Recalls His Past Lives, but it is done well enough and does not overstay its welcome.

A few words on the Second Run DVD:

The DVD came out in 2012 and gives a decent though not particularly stunning presentation. Most of the film is shot in a naturalistic manner with lots of static camera settings, that are not necessarily the most picturesque. There is noise, especially in darker scenes, but I would assume that to be endemic to the source material. Audio comes in Dolby 2.0 and 5.1 options, the latter slightly expanding the ambient sound field for the world around Ake, and giving more body to the occasional music score. Extras include a conversation with the director discussing the film's genesis, making and its reception, and a previous short film by her called Graceland, which is visually more striking but with a sketchier narrative. As customary with Second Run, the release includes a booklet with an essay.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Kaun Pravin Tambe? [dir. Jayprad Desai]

So I saw Iqbal Part 2. Oh wait, it's called something else, but Shreyas Talpade is playing another underdog trying to make it in cricket. This is the story of a real life guy called Pravin Tambe, a club cricketer in Mumbai who persevered in honing his game in all his spare time even though he was not selected for any national level tournament up to his 40's, which in most sports is when people start to talk about retirement. He finally got to play in the Indian Players' League, where he made enough of a splash to garner notice and have a movie made about his life.

Kaun Pravin Tambe? (KPT?) does not have the production value of an '83 (reviewed HERE) or the M.S. Dhoni biopic, and the scope is a lot smaller. There are some nice Sai Paranjpe style touches in depicting the Tambe family's lower middle class life in a chawl type society - when Pravin and his brother get married together, they have to draw lots to see who gets the 'bridal suite'. The film also looks at Pravin's struggle to keep up various jobs while he still tries to sneak in some play time - In one instance he is strung along with promises of making a company cricket team to work for cheap by an employer who has no actual intention of actually doing so.

The film also highlights how the sport outside of the more glamorous tournaments often offers meager incentive for the players. Talpade has some fine scenes in which he expresses his character's despondence, and the talented Anjali Patil (Newton) does the best she can as the spouse who loves her husband but is also frustrated with what she feels is his lack of prioritization towards his family.

But even when KPT? eschews the usual patriotic jingo of Indian sports movies (likely because Tambe never played for the country as a whole), the script is still formulaic and most of the characters are etched in very broad strokes. Parambrata Chatterjee as the sneering sports journalist Sanyal is handed a one-note part that does not do the actor sufficient justice - I know that Sanyal's scorn towards Tambe is driven by his envy, but there should have been a more nuanced portrayal instead of making him a stock villain till short of the end. Also, the background score (credited to a Sai-Piyush) is near-constant and unsubtle.

But if you like cricket in general or the idea of a Readers' Digest type slightly saccharine inspiring story, I thought KPT? was better than those bigger-budget cricket movies.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Nightmare Alley [dir. Edmund Goulding]

It is no surprise to hear that 1947’s Nightmare Alley, the first adaptation of William Gresham’s novel was a passion project for its leading man Tyrone Power. Tired of being the Hollywood heartthrob in swashbucklers and light romances, and having seen a darker side of life in WW2, Power for looking for something meaty to sink his acting teeth into, and found the decidedly anti-heroic part of the fast-talking born hustler Stanton Carlisle right up his (ha!) alley. Of course, it was not a simple matter to bag the part. Fox Studios’ head honcho Daryl F. Zanuck was against the idea of one of his top movie leads risking his box-office charisma with such an unsympathetic part. Tyrone’s persuasion and a bit of script doctoring to tone down the hard-boiled cynicism of the source story finally got his okay and the result was a remarkable film that straddles noir and even a little bit of horror.

When we first meet Stanton he is assisting at a small-time carnival sideshow where Zeena (Joan Blondell) and her alcoholic husband Pete (Ian Keith) do a psychic act powered by a secret code between them. While Zeena still loves her decrepit spouse she is not wholly immune to Stanton’s charms. An accident (or is it?) leads to Pete’s death and Zeena shares the secret code with Stanton who becomes her partner in the act. He in turn shares it with his child-woman lover Molly (Coleen Gray). Shortly after Stanton and Molly quit the carnival and tour as a stage psychic act in high-end clubs where a blindfolded Stanton amazes guests with his ability to guess their questions and answer them correctly. During this period, Stanton encounters the icy psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), who first challenges him, but later becomes his accomplice in carrying out a larger-scale swindle with a rich man’s spiritual beliefs. Of course, Stanton’s karma catches up, and his elaborate schemes come crashing down upon him.

Stanton almost has a streak of self-destructiveness in how he trapezes from one con game to another, raising the stakes each time, with nothing by way of a safety net. The only constants in his outlook are his uneasiness / dissatisfaction with his current situation and almost feverish eagerness to set up a bigger, riskier scheme. Tyrone Power’s performance brilliantly reflects this, eschewing any easy sentimentality for this equal parts fascinating and frightening character; even the occasional depiction of a softer side works to add more dimension to Stanton and not have him be a stock villain.

Aside from Stanton himself, the film is pegged upon its female characters – Zeena, Molly and Lilith. While Zeena’s psychic is a con-game, she still has scruples (Hers is only a stage act, not a swindle). Interestingly she is a firm believer in the tarot, and her predictions with the cards foreshadow the film’s tragic events. Molly represents an unquestioning love, but even she is shocked by how far Stanton is willing to go in terms of snagging his prey. Lilith on the other hand turns out to be Stanton’s equal in ruthlessness. As a psychiatrist she surreptitiously records her clients’ sessions and provides Stanton with intimate details that enable him to “hook them”. It is hinted that she makes romantic advances to Stanton which he brushes away, and perhaps this is in her head as she betrays him once the roulette wheel starts to spin away from his grasp. As much as the script, Helen Walker’s performance brings the character chillingly alive from her first appearance to her final scene in which she almost gleefully reduces Stanton to a paranoid wreck. It is tragic that Walker’s movie career was short-lived on account of off-screen misfortunes (A history of alcoholism, and a driving accident in which a war veteran she had given a lift to was killed led to hostility from the public and disregard from the studios).

As originally intended, the film runs a tragic arc in which Stanton becomes the thing he is most pitying of. Zanuck’s insistence on a more redemptive coda does soften the impact, not in a manner that blemishes the film significantly. Even for the picky folks there is a point slightly before the official end which serves as a perfect bitter-edged conclusion to this terrific drama.

A few words on the Criterion blu-ray presentation of the film:

The video comes from a 4k digital restoration that was sourced off a 35mm print element. It looks handsome, nicely reflecting the shadowy cinematography (Lee Garmes). There are instances where some black areas appear flat, and textures somewhat soft, but grain is also evident, indicating that the softness is not the result of undue digital tinkering. The mono LPCM track adequately presents the film’s soundscape, with strong support to the dramatic score (Cyril Mockridge), which brings to my mind some of James Bernard’s throbbing music for Hammer Studios. Extras are significant, including an audio commentary by noir experts Ursini and Silver, a half-hour video essay by the erudite critic Imogen Sara Smith, a very fascinating history of the carnival sideshow by an actual performer-turned-historian Todd Robbins, and a relatively recent interview with Coleen Gray. There is a leaflet with an essay and even a handful of tarot cards representing the film's characters.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

KGF: Chapter 1 [dir. Prashanth Neel]

Thankfully this un-kvlt blog was never designed to be a trend capturer, or there would be the question of why a 4-year old movie that created a certain splash on release is only being reviewed now. Of course the immediate reason is that I was prompted to finally see it by the glowing reviews of the "bigger, badder" second installment that has made its way to the cinemas now.

The buzzword in the film industry these days is Pan-India, a product that will work over the entire country, across multiple languages and movie-goer demographics. It first gained traction with S. Rajamouli's ostentatiously mounted 2-parter Bahubali. The 500 crore + India grosses for a film that featured no prominent Bollywood acting talent showed a massive nationwide appetite for its mixture of simplistic old-fashioned narrative and gaudy spectacle, as though the population as a whole was saying that these Fahadh Faasil and Ayushmann Khurana middle-of-the-road ventures are okay to consume as OTT fodder, but when it comes to actually putting money down at the cinemas, give us the archetype larger-than-life movie centered around the HERO that worships his mother, romances the pretty girl and takes on a legion of bad guys while everyone around dutifully drops their jaws in awe.

There is nothing inherently wrong with that sentiment. Some of India's most beloved and enduring films were forged in the smithy of HERO cinema, and movie icons like Amitabh Bachchan, Rajinikant, Subhash Ghai built their careers upon this shrine. More recent entries like the first Dabangg (2010) or 2019's whimsical Avane Srimannarayana pay homage to the formula even as they cannily poke fun at it.  Sincerity of spirit and consistency of tone is what separates the creative gems from the derivative dross.

At least in its first installment, KGF (Kolar Gold Fields) falls somewhere in the middle. What it wants to be is an epic-scope saga of a warrior hero fulfilling his destiny. Born on the same day as the discovery of gold ore in the Kolar region sometime in the 60's, Raja Krishnappa Bairya is orphaned young after the death of a destitute mother who implores him to become a big man at least by his death so he can afford a proper funeral. Like every other Indian movie hero faced with a similar proposition he takes to a life of crime and becomes a high-profile hit-man called Rocky (Yash, already hailed in the credits as 'Rocking Star'). Stealth and subtlety are not the strong points of this assassin who could give Daniel Craig in Casino Royale a complex for sheer swagger. As the supporting characters in the film repeatedly proclaim (this film believes in 'show AND tell'), Rocky can veni-vidi-vici his way through all opposition. Lucky for him then that even the opposition lacks all stealth and subtlety. What he and them have in plenty is beards, such thick bushy affairs that it's hard to believe they are not compensating for something.

By linking its hero to the titular location, KGF provides tangible context to his fate, and Yash's deep-seeing stare suggests a formidable implacability of purpose. A focused narrative that went from his introduction to his being set on the path of his destiny would have made for a solid machismo-worshiping adrenaline rush. But like Gangs of Wasseypur's first installment, KGF-1 decides to temporarily abandon the quest to make time for a romance detour. Until then Yash had impressed as a stoic juggernaut capable of overcoming huge odds with a flick of his slick locks (he seems to be dependent on quick edits and multiple camera angles for his action scenes). But with the entry of the whatsername girl who borrows her fashion sense from Rati Agnihotri in Star, Rocky is reduced to a pedestrian eve-teaser with such genius exchanges as: "How dare you?" "How fair you!" Around a third of the film is wasted on this no-sizzle-all-fizzle-wet-dog-luurrv-angle which has no relevance to the story other than that blockbuster cinema is required to have a romance. There is also the immensely clumsy device of the tale being told by a journalist (Anant Nag slumming it) to a sneering TV anchor after having supposedly written a bare-all book that is being banned by a scared government. 

Things get better when KGF finally moves to its main location of the much-heralded gold fields, run with an iron hand by the villains. Rocky infiltrates the setting as a captured worker (Of course, none of the henchmen notice this beefy bouncer type walking tall among the rows of reedy cowed-down slaves). During this period of laying low he observes the exploitation of the workers in the illegal mine. The setting reminds me of the bandit stronghold in Avane Srimannarayana and the secret gold mine in The Mask of Zorro. Like all criminal protagonists in mainstream Indian cinema, Rocky's steely exterior hides a heart of gold and in carrying out his mission of assassinating the current master of the gold fields, he is also facilitating their release. Chapter 1 concludes at a pivotal point, foreshadowing the arrival of fresh adversaries and challenges that await our hero.

Going by the reviews I've read, I am hoping that KGF-2 has more of the good stuff and less of the awkward rubbish that hobbles the first part. My overall recommendation will depend on how that turns out.

Monday, April 11, 2022

Bheeshma Parvam [dir. Amal Neerad]

Bheeshma Parvam is not as infuriatingly dumb as Mohanlal-Prithviraj's Lucifer, but there's a lot to be desired for in this umpteenth desi take on The Godfather series. Mammooty plays the Michael Corleone character, who is even called Michael. Most of the other male members of his family take their names from the apostles. There may be some biblical significance to this, I am not qualified to comment ...or it's just another instance of what director-producer Amal Neerad thinks is cool. Because really, Bheeshma Parvam is less a movie and more a collection of visual and narrative elements Neerad fetishizes over.

The plot is so boilerplate predictable I am not even going to bother giving an outline, and will move directly onto talking about the style and quality of the film-making. Slow motion is utilized indiscriminately and loses all sense of style. The camera zooms into and pans over late 1980's period detail (cigarette packs, soft drink bottles, magazine covers, posters) for no reason other than that Amal Neerad wants to show you how much he worked on the production design. Charles Chaplin once deplored the tendency of film-makers to depict a scene "from the point of view of a piece of coal in the fireplace". Under Neerad's direction, Anend Chandran's camera looks at a character from the inside of an oven or from two car windows away. Emotional moments are negated by a visual sensibility more concerned with period paraphernalia than its characters.

Inversely the writing is singularly devoid of detail and texture. The good characters are good in a bland way, while the evil guys are evil without redemption. This is tragic, since the core idea of internecine struggle in a powerful family had a lot of potential given the acting talent on hand here. But the script rarely rises to their level. Shoubin Shahir and Srinath Bhasi manage to make a limited impact. For me the best scene was when Shoubin breaks down after a character's death, and it would have been great to see a metamorphosis of his character post that event. But, apart from the opportunity to participate in some well-choreographed action towards the end, he is converted to a glorified lackey making homoerotic lapdog eyes while Mammooty holds court. As for the superstar himself, the lack of nuance in the part is reflected in the actor's sleepwalking performance. It may be a commercial blockbuster, but from the point of an actor's prestige this was an offer he should have refused.

A few words about my OTT (Hotstar) viewing:
I understand the film was released in cinemas with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack. On Hotstar streamed through Chromecast, I only got Prologic II, and the balance was all out of whack - sound FX and BGM were annoyingly loud at normal dialog volume.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Piccadilly [dir. EA Dupont]

I became interested in 1929's Piccadilly after seeing Chinese-American star Anna May Wong do a pivotal role in the Douglas Fairbanks' 1924 version of Thief of Bagdad in which I thought her slinky spy a much better match for the hero than the milksop princess. Here Wong plays Shosho, a pretty young girl that goes from dancing in the scullery distracting the kitchen staff to becoming the star dancer of the titular Piccadilly club run by impresario Valentine Vilmot. Of course, her ambitions go beyond Mr. Vilmot's club, she must conquer the man as well. And if that means cutting out his current flame Mabel from his love life after displacing her as the main attraction in the club, well, that's just tough for Mabel.

Piccadilly has some pretty good things going for it. For one, I was surprised to see a movie of that vintage showing its Chinese-British characters in a non-archetype way - they are not rendered as ponytail wearing, traditionally garbed laundry-operating chopstick users. They are also not shown as subservient to the white characters (except for money, but that's a universal trait).

The movie is a great showcase for Wong too - although you never get to see the super-racy avatar the poster tempts you with, her glamorous presence and commanding attitude get center-stage. It was lovely to also see her in a pre-glam avatar as the young ingenue who is confident in her ability to mesmerize men. Jameson Thomas as the club owner who is smitten by her and Gilda Gray as the rival dancer who finds her position eroded away by Wong's magic form the other angles of a contentious triangle in which love, lust and ambition collide. The great Charles Laughton has a one-scene appearance as a disgruntled drunk patron who makes a scene about dirty dishes early in the film.

The race angle is hinted at indirectly, like in that powerful scene when Wong and Thomas go out to a pub and are rattled by the sight of a black man being thrown out for dancing with a white woman (she was the initiator). But rather than explore it more deeply, the film shrinks back into the safety of a conventional melodrama with a bunged in murder. 

E.A. Dupont's direction has a reasonable amount of visual style - I like the opening credits which are presented as bus hoardings, and there are some interesting tracking shots and camera angles. But I wonder how much more ravishing it might have come across if a G.W. Pabst (Pandora's Box) had helmed the same material (or a better script that took the race bull by the horns).

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Kids Return [dir. Takeshi Kitano]

Unlike the violent cop dramas he is most famous for, Kids Return is one of Takeshi Kitano's quieter films. The story focuses on Masaru (Ken Kaneko) and Shinji (Masanobu Ando), a pair of delinquents who are fast friends - together they cut class, play pranks on their stuffy teachers, try to sneak into adult movies, even shake down their classmates for money. In their relationship Masaru is the boss and Shinji the happy acolyte. When Masaru is beaten up by someone as comeuppance for their shakedowns, he decides to take up boxing to get his revenge and drags a reluctant Shinji along. But Shinji takes to the sport far better while Masaru drops out, instead enlisting with the local Yakuza boss.

A more conventional narrative would show Shinji achieving Rocky-style underdog glory (and that pumping Joe Hisaishi score is quite cheer-worthy) while Masaru smashes into a bad end, possibly even juxtaposing the one winning a big match as the other gets gunned down. But Kitano is not judgmental in that way. While Shinji is making his mark in the boxing arena, he is still hungry for the companionship he shared with Masaru in which he was happy to 'follow the leader'.  This leads to circumstances that threaten his success story. Simultaneously, Masaru's being used to bossing his friend around leads him to make impulsive decisions not compatible with his stature in the Yakuza world.

Shinji and Masaru are the fulcrum of Kids Return, but the film periodically also looks at their friends. In doing so it captures a spectrum of Japanese youth, who are either consumed by mediocrity and convention, or are punished for arrogance / lack of diligence. The film suggests that whether it's school, career or life, if you are not focused on the things you are part of, you eventually get discarded / replaced. The tone is not tragic but contemplative and with a strong streak of Kitano's deadpan humor; this is a harder path to take because the film runs the risk of appearing distant. But apart from maybe the occasional feeling that it could have tried to be less episodic and less expansive in its comment on an entire generation, this is an intelligent, sturdy observational drama from an obviously gifted storyteller.

Here's a taste of Joe Hisaishi's musical magic in this movie:

For those interested, a few impressions of the blu-ray from Third Window Films:

Kids Return is not the most glam looking Kitano film, but it's shot well enough (especially love some of the continuous tracking shots when Masaru and Shinji are training), and the transfer on the blu-ray does not disappoint. While "only" stereo (DTS-HDMA), the audio has excellent punch, and presence, both for sound FX and the toe-tapping score. In terms of extras, the disc includes a 20min making of with lots of BTS footage of the filming and an audio commentary by Japanese film scholar Aaron Gerow.