Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Eyes on the prize

So, did I mention that I got nominated for a Rondo Award? Oh, I did? Well, um... did I mention that the deadline for voting is this Sunday? Well, it is. So, even if you're not going to vote for me (which I'm not saying you should, even though I've become certain that one of those snazzy little Rondo Hatton busts is exactly the thing to turn my life around and quiet this ravenous black hole within me that constantly cries out for stupid stuff like love and acceptance), you should get over to the Rondo Award site and make your voice heard. There are many, many deserving nominees to consider, not the least among them the 28 other blogs that were nominated along with mine in the "Best Blog of 2011" category, all of whom are arguably more qualified to receive the award than I am. And if you think that's false modesty: welcome to 4DK. You have a lot of catching up to do.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Kshay, aka Corrode (India, 2011)

You may have noticed (or not, whatever) that I don’t typically review first run films. It’s not that I don’t get asked to, though. It’s just that, often, those who are doing the asking haven’t actually taken the time to read my blog to see what kind of films I actually write about before proffering their backyard-shot gore porn epic or whatever. (And, honestly, why would they? It’s a wonder I can get through a simple line edit without wishing a gypsy curse on my own eyeballs.) Happily, this was not the case with Kshay, which is not only in a foreign language and arguably a genre film, but also an Indian film. And gosh knows I’ve written about a whole lot of those.

It also should be noted that Kshay (English title: Corrode) is an independent Indian film. Granted, that may seem like a vague distinction, given that many Indian films are technically independent productions. But in this case, I mean "independent" in the sense that a yank like myself would understand it: in that Kshay is a small-scale, personal film, made outside the commercial mainstream, with the kind of financing that doesn’t require that 50 corporate logos be displayed before its credits. In one happy departure from my stereotypical notions about indie cinema, it does not feature any godawful strummy indie rock on the soundtrack.

The subject of Kshay is obsession, which is fitting, given that, for first time filmmaker Karan Gour, making it was a four year process that involved him not only writing and directing, but also editing, doing sound design and co-composing the score. (And while all of that multitasking no doubt went a long way toward cutting costs, it should also be said that Gour wears all of those aforementioned hats very well.) It tells the story of Chhaya (Rasika Dugal) and Arvind (Alekh Sangal) a young working class couple living in a modest apartment in Bombay. Chhaya displays an artistic bent that presumably chafes with her role as a stay-at-home wife. She is also, when we meet her, distraught over the difficulty she and Arvind are having conceiving.

One day, all of these pressures seemingly come to bear when Chhaya develops a fixation upon a statue of the goddess Lakshmi that she sees for sale in a local shop. The statue’s 15000 Rs price tag puts it well outside of what Chhaya and Arvind can afford on Arvind’s construction worker salary, but Arvind nonetheless says that he will do his best to put some money away for it -- until his employment situation takes a downturn and renders that an impossibility. Chhaya is still unable to let go of the idea of owning the statue -- increasingly seeing it as a panacea that she imagines will set right all that is off-balance in her life -- and begins to obsessively scheme for ways to scrape the money together. This she does to the increasing detriment of both her connection to reality and those around her, until Arvind’s temporary departure in pursuit of a job opportunity sets the stage for a final catastrophic break.

Kshay is a film that wears it’s influences on its sleeve, and the fact that those influences are both well chosen and seminal makes me feel somewhat less obnoxious for name checking them here. For one, Gour’s method of depicting Chhaya’s deteriorating mental state through her physical surroundings -- making her tiny apartment’s shadowy nooks and crannies increasingly seem like fleshy openings into some kind of malignant inner world -- seems like all but an homage to David Lynch’s early features. Kshay’s claustrophobic black and white cinematography and oppressive sound design go even further in establishing that connection, though I think that the bio-ickiness of the visual effects used also amounts to a Cronenberg shout-out. On the other hand, the narrative template, tracing the incremental build up of a female character’s dementia until it blossoms catastrophically during a prolonged period of isolation, seems a clear echo of Polanski’s Repulsion (something of a touchstone film of late, it seems).

Of course, not everything in Kshay is quite so crystalline as its line of influence. And, while I enjoyed the film, I have to admit that it left me with a few questions. For instance, I wasn’t sure if the airborne chunk of pavement that beans Chhaya immediately before she first sees the statue was meant to be the trigger for her obsessive episode (I hope not), or if it was just that the resulting wound came to symbolize for her the deeper spiritual one that she believed would be healed once she owned the statue (preferable). I also felt a little alienated by later scenes that seemed to suggest that Chhaya’s madness was objectively starting to infect those around her. Still, it must be said that I’m guilty of consuming almost exclusively those Indian films that fall within the mainstream, and that those are notoriously hostile to ambiguity in any form. As such, I found it more than a little refreshing to watch a film that began with a likeable and attractive young Indian couple and ended with me being not quite sure what I’d seen.

All in all, Kshay is a fine addition to the long tradition of films depicting women slowly losing their marbles. While it’s normally tempting to view such a film as a commentary on the culture in which it takes place, there is an intimacy and particularity to Kshay that makes me feel I can take a pass on that. What I will say instead is that actress Rasika Dugal -- whose slight filmography includes a prominent role in the Ram Gopal Varma horror film Agyaat -- does a very laudable job of shouldering the burden that the film places on her, which is very nearly the burden of carrying the entire film itself. I’ll also say that the obsessive penny counting that Chhaya does while trying to scrimp the cash together for her prized object does not seem all that far removed from the type of obsessive-by-necessity penny counting that couples like Chhaya and Arvind, scraping by from paycheck-to-paycheck and month-to-month, must do on a daily basis in real life. Many are the connections between people that have been eaten away by such mundane worries. And, as anyone who’s been through it knows, that shit really can drive you crazy.

[NOTE: For those of you who live in Los Angeles, or who will be in Los Angeles in mid-April, or who simply have a lot of disposable income and would like to travel to Los Angeles on a whim, Kshay will be screening on April 14th at the ArcLight Theater in Hollywood as part of the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.]

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin (USSR, 1965)

As I’ve mentioned before, most of the Soviet sci-fi films I’ve covered on 4DK eventually saw release of some kind in the United States, albeit in abridged or bastardized form. This was not the case, however, with The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin, most likely because, being an earthbound story set in 1925, it lacked any of the type of special effects sequences that Roger Corman could wrap a low budget space opera around. This is a shame really, because the film is a fantastically well made and entertaining pulp adventure, one that -- anti-capitalist sentiments notwithdtanding -- I’m sure would have translated easily to any culture that counted ten year old boys among its inhabitants.

Engineer Garin was based on the 1927 novel The Garin Death Ray by Aleksei N. Tolstoy. A distant relation of Leo Tolstoy, Aleksei was a popular author of primarily science and historical fiction whose earlier novel Aelita had formed the basis for the prototypical soviet sci-fi film Aelita: Queen of Mars. The Garin Death Ray proved to be one of his most successful works, and was especially popular among school aged boys. A number of filmmakers harbored hopes of adapting it to the screen over the years, but Soviet authorities, put off by the novel’s depiction of a Russian technician who sells his revolutionary laser beam invention to the West and then flees the country, were not eager to provide the funding. (By the way, Wikipedia informs that such an invention would be a paraboloid, rather than a hyperboloid, and I would love to see a debate over that point spring up in the comments section.)

Cinematographer-turned-director Aleksandr Gintsburg and screenwriter Iosif Manevich felt they had found a way around their superiors’ problems with the material when they proposed that their version of Garin be mounted as a children’s film, and authorities indeed allowed them to start production, under the aegis of Gorky Studios’ Children and Youth wing, with relatively little of the scrutiny that would have been paid to a more widely targeted film. All of which is not to say that Gintsburg and Manevich didn't tow the party line; in this telling of the tale it is clear that the threat comes less from the death ray itself, but from the potential for its destructive power, as a result of its sale to private interests in the West, to become subject to the caprices of capital.

However, by the time Gintsburg and Manevich had completed filming on The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin, Soviet physicists Aleksandr Prokhorov and Nikolai Basov had won the Nobel Prize for discoveries related to real life laser beams. And government officials, now eager to tout Tolstoy’s prescience in foreseeing such discoveries, suddenly became a lot more hands-on with the project, insisting that some of the more juvenile elements -- including a wraparound segment involving two modern boys marveling over a laser-pierced coin -- be excised in order not to undermine the serious nature of the work. Gintsburg and Manevich, of course, complied; though it is perhaps their earlier efforts that nonetheless make some of Garin come across like an especially sophisticated Tin Tin adventure.

The much lauded Russian stage and screen actor Evgeni Evstigneez provides Garin with its compelling center by way of his dimensional portrayal of the titular engineer. As Shelga, the dogged Soviet agent on Garin’s tail, Vsevolod Safonov perhaps makes for a more conventional protagonist, but he is nonetheless dwarfed by the gravitas of the movie's star. As played by Evstigneez, Garin is a brilliant master criminal on the one hand and, on the other, a principled misanthrope in pursuit of his own utopian, if flawed, vision -- essentially a combination in equal parts of Doctor Mabuse and Captain Nemo. The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin mirrors this duality in its structure, dedicating its first half to shadowy intrigues played out in a claustrophobic noir landscape and its second to a broad horizon adventure complete with globe-spanning chases, spectacular battles at sea, and a memorable escape from Siberia by dirigible.

Despite it being putatively a childrens film, I must confess that my adult mind was baffled by some of the convolutions of Engineer Garin’s plot, which involves quite a few characters, most of whom seem to harbor some pretty fluid allegiances (not to mention the fact that Garin employs a series of doubles throughout the first half of the film in order to throw off his pursuers -- and perhaps the audience as well). But, in essence, I think it boils down to this: Brilliant engineer Petr Petrovich Garin appropriates the laser device conceptualized by one Professor Mantsev and flees with it to Paris, where he temporarily throws his lot in with Rolling (Mikhail Astangov), a craven Western industrialist who works behind the scenes to bump Garin off and steal the laser for himself. After various attempts to capture him by the Soviet agent Shelga, Rolling’s spies, and a pair of detectives who seem to be representing the interests of whichever side is paying the most at the moment, Garin escapes with his lover Zoya (Natalya Klimova, giving a silent film femme fatale performance that somehow feels so wonderfully right) to his fantastically appointed private island.

On the island, Garin has set up a massive mining operation, wherein, using the laser, he plans to access a nearly inexhaustible supply of gold located deep within the bowels of the Earth. This he will in turn use to destabilize the world’s economy and, of course, make himself the master of all -- a plan that the assembled fat cats of the world, dazzled by the idea of limitless gold, welcome enthusiastically, as demonstrated in a scene where a crowd of them cheers Garin on at a Nuremberg-style rally while waving signs reading "GOLD". Of course, the world's more sober elements,  less easily distracted by shiny things, object, but quickly find that their many battleships are no match for the destructive power of Garin’s laser.

As lensed by cinematographer Aleksandr Rybin and designed by Yevgeni Galej, The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin is undeniably a handsomely crafted and imaginatively visualized film, not only rich in composition and fluid camerawork, but also delightful in the way it combines the sensibilities of both its own time and that of Tolstoy’s novel. The dense atmospherics and breathless cutthroat antics of the first half call to mind at once the serials of Louis Feuillade and the more contemporary German Krimi, while the second has a look that seamlessly blends deco and mod era futurism (all of which is bolstered by a score by composer M. Vainberg that is tense, angular, and aggressively modern). This last is especially true of the scenes involving Garin’s island fortress, which were shot combining miniatures with footage shot at the newly completed All Russia Exhibition Center metro station, and during which the film achieves a sort of steam punk James Bond aesthetic long before that would be a thing. Along with the impressive effects sequences depicting the attack on the island by sea and Garin’s destruction of a sprawling refinery owned by one of Rolling's competitors, all of the above exemplify the high technical standards that made Soviet fantasy films so ripe for pilfering by penny pinching Western producers.

At the conclusion of Engineer Garin, the efforts of Shelga and a plucky youngster named Ivan put a predictable end to Garin’s scheme. And even though the fact that Garin is here a representative not only of classic monomaniacal villainy, but also the evils of capitalism itself, preordains such an outcome, I couldn't help feeling a little sad that he didn’t get away with it. This is due, I think, as much to Evgeni Evstigneez’s charismatic portrayal of him as it is to my unreformed Western mindset. But it also may simply be a matter of me grieving the fact that The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin had to end at all. For with its end came the awareness that I am indeed a grown man, and not the wide eyed grade schooler that watching it momentarily reduced me to.

[Forward to 2:00 to see the hyperboloid in action.]

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Friday's best pop song ever

Sihirbazlar Kralı Mandrake Kiling'in Peşinde, aka Mandrake vs. Kilink (Turkey, 1967)

[It's time yet again for Tars Tarkas and I to play dueling reviews! Please check out his site for an alternate take on Mandrake vs. Kilink.]

It's a bitter irony -- though perhaps not coincidental -- that, in the wake of the sad passing of Onar Films' Bill Barounis, we are seeing another small wave of Turkish pulp films that were previously considered lost popping up among collectors. Despite its ragged condition, it's hard for me to doubt that Mandrake vs. Kilink would have eventually gotten the loving Onar treatment from Barounis and been given a proper DVD release. As is, we must be grateful for what we can have, and I indeed owe Tars Tarkas a debt of thanks for tracking this one down. (By the way, note that Mandrake vs. Kilink is just a convenient simplification of the original Turkish title, which translates to something like Mandrake, The King of Illusions - Kilink's Pursuit.)

For Kilink, a Turkish appropriation of the skeleton suited Italian fumetti antihero Killing, 1967 was something of a boom year on Turkish cinema screens, which were flooded with his various exploits following the success of his debut that year in Kilink Istanbul'da. It also seems that, by the time of Mandrake vs. Kilink, adapting Kilink had become anybody's game, as neither Yilmaz Atadeniz nor Yildiram Gencer -- the director and star, respectively, of the first three Kilink entries -- are involved. Instead, the film is in the hands of illustrator-turned-director Oksal Pekmezoglu, who handles things with the same rough edged expediency and convulsive flashes of unexpected artistry that we've come to expect from Turkish pop cinema of this era. As for Kilink himself, he here spends a lot of his screen time sans mask, so we get a lot of opportunities to have a good look at the handsome devil who is playing him, although I have no idea who among the listed cast he might be.

Mandrake vs. Kilink sees Kilink up to his usual sleazy tricks, this time running a combination sex slavery/blackmail operation that involves him forcing young innocents into prostitution and then secretly filming their assignations with wealthy men. I must say, though, that this may be the roughest Kilink we've seen yet. Sexualized torture and gruesome killings are rife, and it seems like no member of the cast escapes being stripped down and flogged at some point, with Kilink even undergoing the treatment voluntarily. In an extra grizzly touch, each of Kilink's minions has the letter "K" bloodily carved somewhere on his body, in the case of his cadaverous right hand man Mustafa in prominent view on his right cheek.

But, of course, this is not all Kilink's show. For, as its title indicates, Mandrake vs. Kilink has at the top of its agenda the breathing of cinematic life into Lee Falk's venerable comic strip hero Mandrake The Magician. Like Falk's other creation, The Phantom, and fellow King Features comic strip property Flash Gordon -- both of whom also made it to the screen during Turkish cinema's 1960s superhero boom -- Mandrake achieved popularity in Turkey via his appearances in a series of comic magazines. Such American properties were typically "localized" for Turkish consumption, giving them a more homegrown appearance, which might explain why Mandrake's hulking African sidekick Lothar is here called Abdullah. Whatever the case, the filmmakers' efforts to transfer Lothar/Abdullah to the big screen in all his racial dubiousness, using a Turkish actor in full black body paint, indicates a faithfulness to the source material that may not in all cases have been that well advised.

At the film's outset, Mandrake (Guven Erte) arrives in the Turkish city of Izmir on the same flight as a beautiful Indian princess played by Mine Mutlu. Typical of these Turkish personifications of more straitlaced Western characters, Turkish Mandrake is a bit of a horndog, and as such immediately starts putting the moves on the Princess. However, his pickup artistry might not be on par with his magician skills, as this somehow involves him pranking the Princess by stealing her priceless and irreplaceable crown. This turns out to be a bad idea not just for the expected reasons, but also because Kilink breaks into Mandrake's room overnight and steals it. This leaves Mandrake and Abdullah -- with the help of a second, seldom seen female minion named Bircan (Hilal Esen) -- honor bound to track the arch villain down. And Mandrake, being Turkish Mandrake, is well familiar with Kilink's evil exploits, frequently spitting out the miscreant's name with balled fist aimed to the skies.

In his subsequent confrontations with Kilink and his goons, Mandrake proves to be a remarkably good sport, usually falling back upon simple fisticuffs before eventually revealing awesome supernatural powers that render him completely invincible to harm or capture. At one point, he turns Kilink into a dog just for shits and giggles, and, at another, dematerializes Abdullah and himself from their bonds, though, oddly, not before they have both been subjected to a bare-chested flogging at the hands of Kilink's dungeon master. (Admittedly, this may have been an instance of Mandrake using hypnotic suggestion to make the villains mistake two of their own for Abdullah and himself, but the choppiness of the print left that unclear to me.) Mandrake is, of course, something of an ill-fitting hero for Turkish pulp cinema, given its reliance on near constant fist fights, so such an approach is understandable. It should also be noted that the filmmakers find an opportunity to have Mandrake and Abdullah tear around on motorcycles, performing pointless acrobatics on their seats while stolen James Bond music plays on the soundtrack.

As I indicated above, director Pekmezoglu takes the typical, bluntly utilitarian approach to filming Mandrake vs. Kilink, but also catches us off guard with the occasional flash of stylistic ambition. For instance, the sequence in which a scantily clad woman flees down a darkened street as Kilink bears down upon her in his car is strikingly reminiscent of the opening shot in Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly. But this aside, what is undoubtedly the most surprising moment in Mandrake vs. Kilink is the Bollywood style musical number that occurs at its midpoint, during which Abdullah and one of the Princess's handmaidens sunnily lip synch to a Hindi film song while Mandrake and the Princess have a romantic frolic on the beach. (I'm not sure from which Indian film this song was lifted, but I have no doubt that Memsaab or Beth Loves Bollywood will, once I get around to asking them.) This bit just serves as further proof that, for the Turkish Z movie industry of the 60s, not only did anything go, but any corner of world popular culture was ripe for pilfering.

The cut of Mandrake vs. Kilink that I watched came in at a slight 56 minutes, and the frequent jagged jump cuts in the middle of scenes indicated that a substantial portion of it was missing. Still, there was enough of what remained that was either enjoyable or jaw-dropping to make a meal of it. As with most such Turkish films, you might not like everything that the movie has to offer, but where else are you going to see a Depression era American comic strip hero take on an S&M tinged villain from 1960s Italian foto-comics -- and this against a backdrop of Bollywood item numbers, slam bang Saturday matinee style action, and the type of egregious minstrelsy that one would have thought had been banished from world cinema at least twenty years previous? Once again, Turkish cinema proves that, while it may not do it best, there's certainly no one who does it quite the same.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Kiss and Kill (Hong Kong, 1967)

Though, for Western fans, the parsing out has been more of a trickle than a deluge, it looks like, if we all eat right and exercise, we just might live long enough to see all of those many Shaw Brothers films in the Celestial vaults that have yet to see DVD release. However, to those of you for whom that is the only reason you’ve been clinging to this mortal coil, I must warn that, thanks to the Shaws’ easy relationship with formula, you may be able to look forward to some thrills, but perhaps few surprises. Still, that doesn’t mean that life doesn’t offer some other very attractive incentives to stick around. For instance there’s -- oh, we’ve already lost a few, haven’t we?

Perhaps the above reason is why so much of Shaw’s long M.I.A. spy caper Kiss and Kill seems so cozily familiar. The studio took a fairly uniform approach to its mining of the James Bond craze and, in Kiss and Kill, that’s evidenced not only through a distinct house look, style and sound, but also the personnel involved. The film was directed by Japanese import Takumi Furukawa, who, under the pseudonym Daai Go-Mei, directed the earlier reviewed The Black Falcon during the same year (Takumi also worked for Nikkatsu, where he directed the initial film in the phenomenally popular “Sun Tribe” cycle, Season of the Sun, as well as the nihilistic crime drama Cruel Gun Story).

Continuing the happy associations, we have in front of the camera Paul Chang Chung, the actor whom, out of all the male stars to headline Shaw’s secret agent thrillers, seems to have been the one the studio most aggressively promoted as Hong Kong’s answer to Sean Connery. Chang’s suave-ish take on the unflappable superspy archetype graces not only the aforementioned The Black Falcon, but also the previous year’s The Golden Buddha and the yet unseen (by me) Umetsugu Inoue joint Operation Lipstick. Also no stranger to Shaw’s Bondian treadmill is actress Tina Chin Fei, who, in addition to her appearance here, also starred in the fabulous Temptress of a Thousand Faces, as well as Lo Wei’s Summons to Death. And to round things out, we also have a supporting cast rife with recognizable spy film faces, including reliable bad guy Tang Ti and the giant Siu Gam, who essentially reprises his role as a towering henchman from The Black Falcon.

All of which is not to say that Kiss and Kill doesn’t distinguish itself in some ways. From its cheesecake-laden opening titles to its rapid fire action set pieces to its pervasive tongue-in-cheek tone, it is, for starters, perhaps the most Bondian of all Shaw’s Bond-alikes. Furukawa’s lensing goes a long way toward establishing this, making up for the film lacking the globe-spanning scope of the 007 adventures with a richness of visual scope, exploiting to the fullest both Shaw’s typical widescreen process and saturated color schemes while also providing a lush depth of composition. It’s a look that is somehow distinctly Japanese (you’d think at times you were watching a Toho film of the era), giving the film a classy, modernist sheen that contrasts with the comic book flatness typically seen in, for example, Lo Wei’s many spy efforts.

While the version of the film I watched lacked subtitles, its elements were generic enough for me to follow along with a minimum of mental strain. As our macguffin, we have that old standby, the death ray, which in the opening scene is shown blowing to smithareens a toy jet straight out of a Gamera movie. And in pursuit of that death ray -- in competition with Chang’s good guy secret agent -- is the nefarious lady spy played by Chin Fei, who is not above stripping down to her granny panties to throw our hero off the scent. Chin Fei is part of a criminal organization whose food chain is topped by Tang Ti’s super villain, who is in turn in cahoots with a Caucasian who looks like a cross between a bellman and a soviet general. This latter character has a lair whose identifying insignia prominently features a bear, suggesting that this may have been one time when the normally politics-averse Shaw Studio decided to cast its villain within a recognizable geopolitical context, however noncommittally.

Chang’s search for the death ray eventually puts him on the trail of a mysterious woman played by Diana Chang Chung-Wen. A clue in the form of one of those conveniently discarded business cards that are often so helpful in these movies leads in turn to a truly fantastic nightclub sequence, and then, of course, to a big fist fight. Many fist fights, car chases and narrow escapes follow, leading to a climax in the villain’s subterranean lair that finds the four protagonists -- which now include the turncoat Chin Fei –- suspended side-by-side above an acid pit, all amusingly wearing the sheepish expressions of school kids who have been caught playing hooky.

Kiss and Kill is a film that does an awful lot of good-natured winking at its audience, and there are times at which its tone threatens to veer from the sardonic into the downright farcical. One lengthy episode involves Chang and his partner -- a borderline comic relief character played by Ngai Ping-Ngo -- going undercover as a married couple, with Ngai dragging it up as the wife. Nonetheless, Furukawa manages to maintain an impressive level of consistency, assuredly steering the film away both from being too violent or mean-spirited on the one hand or from falling too far into slapstick territory on the other. What Kiss and Kill ends up being instead is something agreeably breezy and lightweight, an entertainment as buoyant and fun as the twangy surf rock that accompanies so many of its onscreen brawls. Sure, we’ve seen a lot of it before, but among that there’s a lot that bears repeating.