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?"