May 18, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road – A Vividly Captured Energizing Mayhem

                                            Australian film-maker George Miller’s name was often mentioned with his contemporaries like Peter Weir, Gillian Armstrong, and Bruce Beresford for taking Australian films to international audiences (the critics called “Australian New Wave” film-makers). Although, “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (1975), “My Brilliant Career” (1976) or “Breaker Morant” (1980) gained numerous awards & acclaim in the international film festival circuits, it was Miller’s “Mad Max” (1979), which got affiliated to global main-stream audiences. The relentless post-apocalyptic setting, the bizarre cars & maniacal gangs, lone gunslinger protagonist, and the sweeping action made “Mad Max” a pop cult craze in the early 1980’s. But, like George Romero, Miller too didn’t go beyond the ‘Max’ movies to carve an exciting career with great outputs. Although, he enjoyed directorial success with movies like “Babe: Pig in the City”, “Happy Feet”, his grand vision seems to have burnt out with those cult action flicks.

                                        It didn’t seem like exciting news, when I heard Miller was re-booting “Mad Max” (despite the fact that the trailer was stirring enough) for the contemporary generation, since we know how must of the re-boots messes up the original setting. But, the septuagenarian Aussie has comeback strongly with an exalted vision and undiminished fervor. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) is the kind of action epic that sets new benchmark for high-octane mayhem stunts.   Of course, the vehicles here are more complex than the characters and the storyline, but this boiled-down-to-essentials approach wonderful works here. Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), a former cop and post-apocalyptic road warrior, in a voice-over, states how the civilizations collapsed into a hellish landscape, ruled by raging crazies. He describes himself as ‘a man who runs from both living and the dead’ before eating a live two-headed lizard.

                                        Max is often haunted by his dead child, whom he failed to save. His much cherished vehicle is pursued by a group of bald berserkers. He is taken as a prisoner into the citadel, which is ruled by a disfigured dictator ‘Immortan Joe’ (Hugh Keays-Bryne). Apart from gasoline and water, blood is also a precious commodity for the ruler of ‘citadel’. Blood is the primary source for Immortan’s albumen-colored, diseased young male soldiers called as ‘War Boys’. Max becomes a ‘blood bag’ as he is literally connected to the eccentric war boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a one-armed warrior woman & one of Immortan Joe’s trusted operative, takes the treasured 18-wheeler War Rig for a routine gas run to neighboring, rival towns.

                                       But, Furiosa takes a different path – a path to redemption – and accompanied with her are five of Immortan Joe’s very precious things – beautiful & healthy young slave wives of the tyrant. The girls called as ‘breeders’ are kept alive for the sole pleasure of Joe to remake human race in his own image. Max, the blood bag, is unwittingly thrown into the pursuit for Furiosa. Max, who doesn’t care about anything other than his survival, takes sides with Furiosa and helps the women to reach their destination as the ‘War Rig’ was chased by weirdly & innovatively designed monster-trucks.

                                        The film starts with Max facing away from the camera, looking at the apocalyptic wasteland, and like this opening image, Max most of the times stays in the background, providing center stage for Theron’s Furiosa. He literally and figuratively kept aside of the driver seat. He isn’t portrayed as the usual gunslinger, who guides these damsels in distress. In fact, Furiosa seems to be better marksmen (woman) than Max. Tom Hardy plays Max in a low-key manner, echoing his subliminal performance in the recent “Locke” – a different kind of vehicle-bound thriller. Hardy’s Max is far darker in tone than Gibson’s partly playful one. If you feel that Hardy lacks the kickassness that defines the gunslinger archetype, then there’s no worry because that aspect is filled in by Charlize Theron. Furiosa seems to have the looks & guts of Weaver’s Ripley (“Alien” franchise) & Renee Jeanne Falconetti (“Passion of Joan of Arc”). Although Furiosa is an elemental character in an explosive action film, Theron brings impressive gravity to the character to make the proceedings engaging enough.

                                        The great part of “Fury Road” is the Gothic & begrimed imagery. The painstaking details conjured by the production designer – from intricately designed tattoos to spikes on the wheels to the skull motifs – everything is a joy to behold. Apart from the unbelievable vehicle designs & stunts, impregnable advantage of this movie is that we could clearly the action going on screen. It is something which we couldn’t say for “Transfomers” franchise or for even some movies in the “Marvel” or “X-Men” franchise. Miller has seamless integrated practical stunt works with the CGI, which makes the stunts visible and also gives enough space for audience to heave a sigh. Despite the grim setting, Miller does provide some comic relief with the character of Nux. Hoult plays Nux to perfection especially when he exuberantly says “Oh, what a day! What a lovely day”. The thee-way fight between chained Nux & Max and Furiosa reminds as of a perfectly orchestrated slap-stick comedy.

                                    Miller’s feminist perspective message doesn’t seem to be thrown as an afterthought – as the new cool thing to have. The traces of healthy culture like books or music (piano) could only be seen in this wasteland inside the wives’ chamber (where there’s also protest slogan “We’re Not Things”). Even Max, who sort of comes across like a chauvinistic hunk, eventually surrenders to a female sentinel.  The final pileup of metals & bodies in the canyon comes across like the eradication of self-centered male ego. Of course, nothing is subtle here, similar to that flamboyant war drummers & red-dressed electronic guitarist. But, isn’t it ridiculous to expect subtle messages (even messages) in a loud-action movie.   

                                  “Mad Max: Fury Road” (120 minutes) is a delirious, incredible, eye-boggling crowd-pleaser. It is more entertaining than the recent installments of “Fast & Furious” and “Avengers” franchise. 


May 15, 2015

White God – An Allegorical Revenge Fantasy

                                                   Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo is said to have visited a dog shelter, after the rumors about a piece of legislation, which would tax owners of dogs with mixed races more than those of pure breeds. The legislation, of course, was scorned and dropped at early stages, but the discussion and the ensued visit to dog pound, inspired director Mundruczo to make “White God” (2014), a sociopolitical allegory on canine madness. The movie brought the Hungarian film-maker to spotlight as he won ‘Un Certain Regard’ Prize at Cannes Festival , who for years have been working on small-scale dramas that ponders over the human experience.

                                               Kornel Mundruczo dedicated his film to the late maverick Hungarian director Miklos Jancso. Jancso (“The Round-Up, The Red and the White”), who was known for conjuring, critically acclaimed parables of oppression & war, might have loved this mixed-genre allegory, although “White God” doesn’t possess the uniqueness his work had. The story of the film is something you might have already heard or read: the emotional connection between a young girl and her pet. Comedy dramas like “Lassie” and adventurous thrillers like “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, and numerous Disney fables contemplated on such relationships. Unfurling a part of the narrative from dog’s point of view is also not something new, as we had seen it in plenty of schmaltzy, talking pets’ movies (both live-action & animation). Samuel Fuller’s “White Dog” and Hitchcock’s “The Birds” were also elusive allegories that used transformation of genial creatures to convey a sociopolitical message.

                                            So, “White God” doesn’t score much on originality, but as a cinematic experience, the film offers a lot. The technical accomplishment of featuring 274 dogs, without the use of CGI is impressive and pair of canine protagonists consistently emotes as well as their human counterparts.  The movie starts with a prologue of sorts, where a young girl on a bike journeys through deserted streets of Budapest, only to be chased by hundreds of feral dogs. The 13 year old girl’s name is Lili (Zsofia Psotta) and her best friend is a mutt named ‘Hagen’. Lili’s mother is about to attend a conference in Australia for three months, and so, Lili and Hagen are dropped off in the care of estranged, authoritarian father Daniel (Sandor Zsoter). Lili’s father is a sour-faced former academician, who is now working as a meat inspector.

                                         Lili’s dad, Daniel hates Hagen and refuses to pay heavy tax that has been levied against mixed dogs. Fearing that her father might send Hagen to a dog pound, she takes it to her music school (where she plays the trumpet) and even tries to run away. Before long, Daniel finds Lili and she is forced to tearfully bid farewell to Hagen, who is abandoned on the motorway. Later, Lili is determined to track-down her pet friend, while Hagen roams around the city with his homeless friends to find food. Hagen comes across various types of human abusers, who all give him a scary aggressive persona. His natural & gentle instincts are dried out, when he is trained by a lowlife to become a fighting dog. But, too much discrimination pushes Hagen to start a canine revolution, seeking the blood of their abusers.

                                    Considering the recent surging oppression of impoverished immigrants and homeless people in the European countries, the dogs in the film definitely seems like a stand-in for those discriminated human bunch. The economic inequality, however, could be seen beyond the European or Hungarian context. Even if the dog metaphor and its related social commentary don’t enamor you, the astounding orchestration of the dogs, without the glossy CGI fakery, will surely lend an engaging experience.  More than 250 dogs from Hungarian shelters were coached by a team, overseen by America trainer Teresa Miller. Director Mundruzo has created an interesting camera framework as he (and DP Marcell Rev) has built specific rigs to view the world from dog’s eye perspective. The decision to not employ the use of CG made the film crew to shoot nearly 200 hours of footage with the dogs. So, the editor must have had a grueling time to craft the performances of the canines in order to bring it on screen.  

                                       Nevertheless, animal-lovers would definitely flinch at the simulated violent sequences of dog fights. Many of the violent & ferocious moments make you ask, ‘how they trained the dogs to do that?’ The sequences where the vicious gambler trains Hagen is almost unbearable to watch. He whips & drugs Hagen to push it into a state of perpetual paranoid aggression. The clever camera angles & editing in these scenes conveys the animal’s pain without elaborately depicting the beatings.  Director Mundruczo also adds subtle satirical notes, especially in the scene, where the students’ orchestra performance, watched by bourgeois populace, is interrupted by dogs glaring down from the box seats of the concert hall. If there is a flaw in “White God” it is in the way it walks through different genres – from social realism to melodrama to horror – without getting the right tonal changes. However, the ambiguous ending appeared to be perfect: it could be a message of despair or hope (whichever way you want to take it).

                                  White God” (117 minutes) is a cautionary parable with an overly familiar plot and core message. But, its technical achievement and a culturally specific narrative engage us throughout. 


April 23, 2015

Riot in Cell Block 11 – A Hard-Hitting and Pertinent Prison Drama

                                         It is often said that a country’s social history can be fully apprehended by observing its prisons than watching over its other well-established institutions. If you think that this statement contains an iota of truth then America is a nation with an enormous societal problem. If you type in a simple question of ‘How many people are in jail in US?’ in Google, the answer would be that ‘716 people per 10,000 of the US population’ (as per Oct.2013 stats). US, which contains 5 percent of world’s population has 25 percent of world’s prisoners. Numbers of people behind bars in some of US states are higher than the prison populations of oppressive nations like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Mexico. These astounding stats become disturbing when it is proven that increased prison rates don’t help much to bring down the crime rates.

                                       Since the 1980’s, incarcerated citizens in America’s thriving prison-industrial complex have more than quadrupled. But, before this mass incarceration problem, American Penitentiaries confronted bloody prison riots, which sometimes turned into revolutionary upheavals. Although the Attica Correctional Facility uprising (situated in New York) demonstrated the inhumane conditions faced by inmates (it ended horrifically with the death of 10 hostages & 29 inmates), the widespread prison struggles began in the early 1950’s. Most of these struggles were apolitical and the demands were perennial ones like better food & better treatment. At least fifty major riots is said to have happened between 1950 and 1953. These riots were all mostly spontaneous uprising. The iron-handed approach by the prison & state administration only spawned more radical ideas inside the prison walls.

                                     Director Don Siegel’s (known for explosive action sequences & tight narration) earliest directorial effort “Riot in Cell Block 11” (1954) fictionally recreates one of those riots, happened six decades earlier. Since the American prison system has gotten worse over the years, the film’s message still remains timely and relevant. This was also the film which brought up a thematic template for Don Siegel, who chiseled his way up to make widely acclaimed works like “Dirty Harry”, “The Shootist” etc. “Riot in Cell Block 11” was produced by ‘Allied Artists Pictures’ only as a ‘B-movie’, but over the years it has gained the status of a cult classic (even included into Criterion Collection). The movie was shot on California’s Folsom Prison (used many of actual inmate population as extras), and opens like a docu-drama with newsreel footage of actual prison riots.

                                     The ‘cell block 11’ represents the solitary wing of the large state prison. The inmates of the wing are angered by violent security protocol, harsh living conditions. Most of all they hate the fact that there is no chance for rehabilitation, since no work is given to them and they aren’t allowed to learn new trade. The inmates sit in their cells idly, waiting for the time to pass. It is argued that this rudderless motion inside the prison walls only increases recidivism. Recidivism, known as habitual relapse into crime, is one of the biggest problems of US prison system (even now). The inmates of cell block 11 also doesn’t like the way the ‘nuts’ (used to describe sex offenders, dangerous delinquents etc) are not segregated from low risk offenders. 

                                   The situation reaches a boiling point, when square-jawed leader of block 11, James Dunn (Neville Brand) and his compatriots overpower the four guards. Dunn and his second-in-command ‘Crazy’ Mike Carnie (Leo Gordon) free all the inmates and secure the command of the block. Mike is itching to knife the guards, but Dunn doesn’t want to play that way, since he had started the riot for a reason. He seeks the help of gentle ex-military man called as ‘The Colonel’ (Robert Osterloh) to clearly draft their demands. Colonel rejects the offer initially since he is soon up for parole, but in order to curb Crazy Mike’s fierce tactics, Colonel accepts the offer. Meanwhile, Dunn demands for a press conference and to them he intones on the intolerable living conditions inside prison.

                                  Warden Reynolds (Emile Meyer) refers to the media about Dunn and Mike’s mental health, but partly sympathizes with the motivations behind the riot. Later, we learn that many of the prisoners’ demands have been proposed earlier by warden to the state governor for years. Commissioner Haskell (Frank Faylen), who arrives as governor’s emissary is a much less decent guy than the warden. He hates the proposition of giving into inmates’ demand because he believes that it might set a precedent for future prison riots. Haskell’s words become true as inmates of the other blocks also start a riot at the breakfast hall. Five other guards are caught and sent into ‘cell block 11’ (making the hostage total to 9). Dunn asks for governor’s sign to immediately approve their demands and a promise that there will be no charges against them.

                                  Despite being known as a ‘b-movie’ dealing with a vital social issue, Don Siegel doesn’t resort to preachy messages or heavy-handed melodrama, which was widely present in the movies of that era. Of course, Siegel’s primary goal is entertainment, but that didn’t stop him from taking a grittier & layered approach. Although the director was famous for his hands-on action sequences, here he directs it as an ensemble piece. He frames much of the action in long shots and despite the removed perspective, he was able lend empathy to both opposing factions. Some of the sequences in ‘Cell Block 11’ has also reflected in Siegel’s other works. In one scene, when a large prison population breaks from dining hall, they happily ransack the canteen, tool-shed etc. Siegel observe these activities of wayward men, suddenly set free from an oppressive environment, in an intimate fashion, and later this became one of his recurring thematic subjects.

                                   The script was written by Richard Collins, who was previously black-listed for four years for his involvement with the communist party in the 1930’s. The contemplative script served as a mirror to reflect society’s pressing problems. 'Cell Block 11’ casts out excessive grandstanding similar to the other famous ‘social problem’ flicks of the era  --“The Gentleman’s Agreement” (antisemitism), “Home of the Brave” (racism), “The Man with the Golden Arm” (drug addiction). Collins even at the breakneck speed of narrative never fails to acknowledge the inherent contradictions with in the ‘prison reform’ scenario. By not coloring many of the characters with shades of black & white, Collins effectively incorporates the valid themes associated with imprisonment.

                                  An imprisoned guard in one scene claims that he is never mistreated any of the inmates or played favorites, to which ‘The Colonel’ replies, “Yeah, you treat us all the same like cons. We all fight for our identity and you help to destroy that”. The guard immediately replies, ‘that’s not me; that’s the prison system’.   Such brimming conflicting viewpoints are populated throughout the film, and these balanced arguments make us to look at the economic & ethical issues involved in locking away these offenders.  Emile Meyer’s warden was one of the brilliantly etched characters in the film. Unlike the sadistic prison wardens portrayed in cinema, Reynolds looks at the problem with an appreciable depth. He knows that mistreatment of inmates would only lead to more resentment. His idea of better treatment of prisoners is approached with a sociopolitical angle rather than as a bland humanitarian approach.  There is a sort of resolution & imbued hope in the climax, but it is not in the vein of Hollywood ‘happy ending’.

                                   “Riot in Cell Block 11” (80 minutes) is an effective indictment of the dehumanizing effects of American prison system. No answers seem to have been found for the lacerating questions raised by this six-decade old movie. 


April 22, 2015

Bunny Lake Is Missing – An Eerie Mystery with a Half-Baked Denouement

                                                 In his five decade career, Austrian-American film-maker Otto Preminger brought up fine works like “Laura” (1944), “Where the Sidewalk Ends”, “Anatomy of Murder”, “The Man with Golden Arm”, “Advise & Consent” (1962) etc. He was best known for his liberal thoughts and for constantly challenging censors by busting Old Hollywood taboos. Although, Preminger was hailed as a director ahead of his time, he found it difficult to stay on top as the cinematic landscape went through a rapid change in the 1960’s. In the mid 1960’s, he took a break from making star-studded dramas & sprawling epics (“Exodus”, “The Cardinal”) and went on to direct a little mystery/thriller, “Bunny Lake is Missing” (1965). Although, the movie suffered from a wacky end twist, it is one of rare Preminger work after 60’s to gain critics’ attention (but it was said to be a big commercial failure).

                                              Preminger, after “Bunny Lake”, made eccentric comedies (“Skidoo”, “Such Good Friends”), light-hearted dramas (“Hurry Sundown”, “Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon”), and even a spy thriller (“The Human Factor”), but these works neither acquired wide critical acclaim nor commercial success (Preminger retired from film-making in 1979). “Bunny Lake’s” lack of robust psychological undertones didn’t elevate it to the status, enjoyed by other classics of the era (like “Psycho” or “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”). However, its storyline is echoed in modern conventional, gimmicky Hollywood thrillers like “Flight Plan”, “The Forgotten” etc.

                                             Young American single mom Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) has just moved to London with her daughter Bunny Lake aka Felicia, where she plans to live with her journalist brother Steven (Keir Dullea). Before the movers bring her stuff, Ann takes her 4 year old daughter to the new school ‘The Little People’s Garden’. We haven’t caught a glimpse of Bunny, but we see Ann shutting the door of ‘First Day’ room with her child inside. She searches the school premise for teachers or the woman to whom she spoke on phone to inform about her daughter, but no seems to be around, except for some distant singing of children. Ann eventually comes across sulking cook and she asks her to take care of ‘Bunny’ in the ‘First Day’ room. She hurriedly leaves the school anticipating the movers.

                                             After taking care of the business at home, Ann returns to the school to pick up Bunny, but she’s nowhere to be found. It takes some time for the school management to take the disappearance issue seriously. The worst thing is nobody remembers seeing a child named Bunny. Ann immediately calls her brother Steven. They search through the apartment-house like school, which has a labyrinthine of large cupboards. Eventually Ann and Steven summon the police, and a gentle superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) takes charge of the missing/kidnapping case. The experienced Newhouse investigates all the parties involved and picks up little frayed threads from people’s response. Gradually, Newhouse doubts at the existence of a girl named ‘Bunny’. Ann and Steve couldn’t find single person in London to about Bunny’s existence. And, the strangest of all is that Bunny’s things (including passport) in the new apartment house seem to have vanished into thin air.

                                         The impressive real locations and the polished, nostalgic black & white cinematography (by Denys Coop) are one of the strongest points for the movie. The spooky dollhouse hallways and the creepy interior decorations in the apartment render a perfect disorienting atmosphere for the mystery. The eccentricities and the creepiness seem to extend to most of the character sketches. The bizarre face masks look right at home as we see the snarky, lecherous landlord (Noel Coward). Coward is the uncanniest highlight of the film, especially in that scene when he funnily attempts to seduce the perplexed Ann. Ada Ford is another bizarre character, who lives upstairs in the school and record audiotapes of children, reciting their nightmares. Although the malicious potential of these characters only serves as red herrings, the actors who perform them make it as engaging as they could.

                                         It does look weird that Ann doesn’t say goodbye to Bunny as she leaves the school (or may be she did off-screen), but little details like this adds authenticity to the non-existent theory. Yet, Lynley, no-so-hysterical performance as Ann restore some belief in the viewer that may be Bunny is real. It is hard to believe that a mother doesn’t think of ways to prove the existence of her little daughter, but that credibility issue is kept on-cover to an extent by the top British star Laurence Olivier’s elegant performance. As Newhouse, Olivier takes the investigation to far ends of both the possibilities. His character only redoubles the efforts taken, whenever the investigation hits a wall. The movies’s flaws could be attributed to some of blatant red herrings (Steven planting the seeds of doubt against his sister Ann) and the mildly enjoyable ‘insanity’ twist in the end. The constantly moving camera and the wavering expressions of Lynley in the denouement are compelling, but not the denudation of mystery itself. The final resolution not only looked weak & unconvincing, it also used mental illness in a most gimmicky way possible.

                                         The plot trajectory of “Bunny Lake Is Missing” (107 minutes) is used to death by many average, B-grade thrillers, but the superior performances and director Preminger’s graceful execution, makes it a good flick for all mystery-lovers.