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. (See Un-kvlt's impressions of the sequel HERE)

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.

Saturday, April 2, 2022

Lady in White [dir. Frank LaLoggia]

Before The Sixth Sense (1999), in which 11 year old Haley Joel Osment talked to ghosts, there was Lady in White (1988) where 11 year old Lukas Haas talked to ghosts. And there is a 11 year gap between these two films, talk about coincidence.

Of course this is where most of the similarities end. The Sixth Sense was a deliberately tamped down, brooding journey while Lady in White is steeped in the cheeriness of 80's Hollywood.  Where M. Night Shyamalan's film immersed you in its atmosphere by being perversely restrained, Lady in White smacks you in the face with archetypes so broad they appear manufactured.

The film is set in early 60's still innocent America where Lukas Haas' Frankie is a small town schoolboy and the youngest child in an Italian-American family. This is of course the sort of small town where everyone is a neighbor, all shops are adorned with the names of their proprietors and the church is full on Sundays. This is also the Italian-American family where first gen migrants grandpa and grandma constantly bicker at each other in Italian (there's a running joke about grandpa sneaking smokes), widowed dad dotes on his sons and saying "damned" or "bloody" is considered unacceptable swearing.

When Frankie is locked inside the cloakroom after school as a prank on Halloween, he sees the ghost of a young girl playing out her death. There is also a shadowy intruder that comes to retrieve something from the grate in the room, and when he comes across Frankie, he attempts to strangle the boy. After being revived by his father, Frankie comes to hear of a series of child killings over the years; he also discovers that the first victim Melissa is the ghost he saw in the cloakroom. In due course, Frankie discovers that the spectral Melissa's search for her mother is related to the dreaded "lady in white" that lives in the cottage adjoining the seaside cliffs. He decides to help Melissa "find" her mother and unravel the mystery of her (and the other children's) death.

A lot of Lady in White's charm is tied in to its lead star Lukas Haas, who thankfully embodies the combination of innocence and tenacity of his character without coming across as precocious. Under LaLoggia's careful direction of Haas, you can believe Frankie's bond of affection his family, his penchant for imagination (early in the film he is called on to tell a spooky story in class for Halloween) and his desire to do good by Melissa.

But for me, the film does not succeed as a whole. The script is packed with too many horror film cliches and subtlety is sorely lacking. The tone of Lady in White is wobbly - the juvenile comedy interludes with the grandparents and the general squeaky-clean treatment would have made for a family-friendly PG affair, but after a point, the film suddenly shows us a rather graphic shooting and some intense child endangerment scenes. The identity of the killer is all too obvious, but the manner in which Frankie discovers it is unconvincing. Worse, the dependence on dated and awkward optical effects to depict the supernatural phenomena becomes a distraction, especially during the climax which looks amateurish.

Given the positive reviews I had seen from reliable sources - including Roger Ebert and Richard Scheib [Moria Reviews] I was hoping to be a good deal more charmed by this ghost story than I eventually was. But it does have its engaging bits, Lukas Haas being the most prominent of them.

Friday, April 1, 2022

Dawson City: Frozen Time [dir. Bill Morrison]

Sometime towards the end of the 19th century, a little town in the Canadian Yukon territory shone brightly for a brief spell as a gold-mining hub. In its salad days, the town had bulged with an ecosystem of tens of thousands of gold-hunters and others that lived off the prospecting boom. But it wasn't long before that shine dimmed and the population dwindled to barely a couple of thousand.

During the first three decades of the 20th century, Dawson city also experienced the magic of the cinema by way of film reels - including features, shorts and newsreels - that reached there after traveling a long way through America. After exhibition, these were generally dumped in Dawson because it was not viable for them to be sent back all that distance once their screening value was over. The film stock primarily used in this era was nitrate based, a flammable material which quite often spontaneously combusted, leading to major fires in movie houses and places of storage. After being shunted between different locations, the reels that were not disposed of by burning or throwing into the river were buried under the local ice rink. They were rediscovered in the late 70's and sent to Canadian and American film archives for preservation.

Bill Morrison's documentary starts with the story of the excavation that led to the discovery of these films, but the bulk of Frozen Time is a history of Dawson City itself, visually depicted by a marvelous splicing together of clips from all those reels that were originally buried there. The excerpt from Charlie Chaplin's original release of The Gold Rush, showing a serpentine queue of prospectors trudging up the snowy hills, is the most easily recognizable. Obviously the attempt is to have the feel of a silent film, with those vintage clips super-imposed with explanatory titles that tie them together into a heart-felt ode to this once vibrant settlement. The marks of damage and decay in the celluloid sources become a part of the film's artistic grammar, emphasizing the transience of human experience. The concept is terrific and one must give kudos to the film-makers who have sequenced images from so many different films and sources to provide a coherent and poetic journey.

If I have one complaint, it is that the film at 2 hours is quite long for an image-focused experience. A certain amount of repetition comes in - I realize it was a deliberate way of showing how fires from nitrate film and other materials were a constant and accepted hazard of life in those days, but when you see the 5th or 6th time a movie house or other building burns down set to a new age drone score, it starts to get a little old. It was the primary reason for me to split the viewing into two sessions.

While I did not love it as much as I hoped I would, Frozen Time is still an admirable painstakingly executed artistic effort that deserves to be seen.