February 26, 2015

In the Valley of Elah – An Empathetic Look at the Residual Effects of War

                                                Paul Haggis is a fine American film-maker. He has written screenplays for critically acclaimed “Million Dollar Baby”, “Letters from Iwo Jima”. His sophomore directorial venture “Crash” (2004) reaped three Oscars (including Best Picture) and drawn mixed feelings among critics and American audiences. On one hand, Haggis’ “Crash” was hailed for interweaving a powerful message about racism, whereas the others accused Haggis for giving a short-sighted, blatant message on tolerance. Yeah, I too felt that Haggis often waves that message flag in front of our face, and his one-note characters also didn’t provide much nuance. In the recent years, Haggis has involved himself with pretty forgettable projects like “The Next Three Days”, “Third Person”. But, Haggis looked like a more mature film-maker with his psychological drama “In the Valley of Elah” (2007). Despite an Oscar-laden cast, it’s neither the regular award-baiting, ‘patriotic’ American movie nor a tawdry anti-war manifesto.

                                           “In the Valley of Elah” was based on American journalist and writer, Mark Boal’s factual article “Death and Dishonor”. Although the story outline resembles a murder mystery, it is a composite study on the psychological effects of war on the American soldiers. The movie’s subject also gains enough prominence because of the central, taciturn style of performance from Tommy Lee Jones. The film starts with Hank Deerfield (Lee Jones), a former military police, receiving a phone call from a military base in Mew Mexico. The caller informs him that his son, Mike (Jonathan Tucker) has gone AWOL after a tour of duty in Iraq. It’s distressing news for Hank because he didn’t even know that Mike is back from Iraq. Although Hank doesn’t seem like a very communicative dad, Mike seems to have regularly sent his dad e-mails or photographs.

                                            Hank leaves behind his distraught wife (Susan Sarandon) at home and drives to military base. On his journey, he sees the American flag hoisted upside down. He calls the janitor and says, “Do you know what it means when a flag flies upside down? It’s an international distress signal. It means we’re in a whole lot of trouble so come save our asses ‘cause we ain’t got a prayer in hell of saving it ourselves”. At that point, we could guess, at least Hank’s life is on the path of distress. Few days later, Hank receives news about his son, whose body was found in a field near the military base (stabbed 42 times), burned and dismembered. Although the local police finds the body, they are happy to give it to Army investigators when they come waving the words ‘jurisdictional authority’.

                                           The truth neither side gives a damn, except for detective and single mother Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), who is persecuted by her peers for being a female. As a mother she feels empathy towards Hank’s situation and finds enough clues to prove that the murder of Mike has happened in their jurisdiction. The military hands back the case, even though they seem to be concealing something. Emily and Hank trudges through red-herrings and misdirections to find the truth behind Mike’s death. In the tumultuous investigation, Hank also gets to know what war did to his son.

                                           There are investigative scenes that echo CSI episodes and there is an alleyway chase of a criminal that doesn’t belong to this movie, but to a large extent, Haggis has weaved the script with subtlety and hasn’t been manipulative in contriving the emotional scenes. When Hank speaking to his wife through phone about his son’s death, you don’t see her wailing and thrashing except when she says, “Both of my boys Hank! You could’ve left me one”. But, then you see a top-angle shot where the phone is on the ground, the table toppled, and there are items scattered around the place. So, here Haggis instead of walking us through the regular emotions of bereaved mother, he provides glimpses into the character’s past and their nature (“Living in this house, he never could’ve felt like a man if he hadn’t gone” (to army)). Haggis and Tommy Jones wonderfully stages the way in which Hank would handle his son’s death. As Hank knows the practices of military, he easily judges what news waits for him when he is a greeted by a soldier in his motel room. Such nuanced reactions are what make this a quiet engrossing film.

Spoilers Ahead

                                          The title and central theme runs around the story of David taking down (with slingshot) Goliath in the valley of Elah. But, here the tactics of the king by sending a little boy David into battle is questioned. The Davids represent the inexperienced, young American soldiers fighting American’s government devised ‘war on terror’. The Goliath here is not the Iraqis, but the government itself which creates such hostile situation and pushes the soldiers to bring a false sense of peace. Half-way through the movie, Hank tells the David/Goliath story to Emily’s son and we could easily draw comparisons to the present situation. But, once again Haggis doesn’t harshly wave the allegory into our faces. If there is one overly dramatic gesture, then it must be Hank’s final action, which is sort of a political sermon, but apart from that the film remains thoroughly effective.

                                        The performances mostly stay true to the characterizations. Eventually, Hank doesn’t preach that ‘war is hell’ because as a military man he wouldn’t denounce what he had done in his past years. He is only bereaved by the way soldiers’ psyches are scarred. The movie could be perfectly called as a subtle exploration of war-induced trauma (although the word is never mentioned) rather than an ‘anti-Iraqi War story’. Trauma hovers around the soldiers’ eyes in each of their interactions, and that itself provides a clue to Mike’s death. For those, who view the film as a murder/mystery, the final twist may seem very simple, but I felt it was formulated impeccably. You are confused why Mike would be pissed off and fight with his fellow soldier (and meet his death), when the guy says ‘what a good driver Mike is’. Later, you get to know what the ‘driver’ comment really means, and why Mike is enraged. These subtle enlightening moments plus the whole mystery is built to ask ‘why’; not ‘who’. It’s an onerous question because no one, including the killers, is depicted as a monster. So, unlike the ‘so-called’ patriotic progaganda films like “Black Hawk Down”, “The Kingdom”, “Lone Survivor”, or the recent “American Sniper”, Haggis remains apolitical.

                                        The movie’s powerhouse themes would have withered away quickly if not for Tommy Jones’ unforgettable performance (he was aced in the Oscars by Daniel Day Lewis’ towering performance in “There will be Blood”). The quiet, reserved, and emotionally scarred character is quite with in the range of Tommy’s roles, but he infuses a lot of nuances into ex-M.P. Hank, especially in the way he shines his shoes in the morning or the way he follows his instincts. Charlize Theron as the pestered detective plays her role with enough depth. She remains empathetic to Hank’s plight rather than being pitiful.

                                     “In the Valley of Elah” (121 minutes) is a compassionate and thoughtful look at the ravages of war on the soldiers’ psyche. It doesn’t come off with the regular American patriotic or anti-war sermons. 


February 25, 2015

Affliction – The Scarred Psyches of Father and Son

                                            The main-stream cinema of film industries all over the world has always hailed the idea of macho man, thrashing the villains and keeping the woman in their place. Tough-talking male is a character we men always like to see on-screen, and their uncontrollable fury gives us some comfort and entertainment. But, male anger isn’t something that always works its way to retain justice.  The macho men’s idea of ‘Being a real men’ could also be destructive. It could make us fearful spectacle even among our loved ones. The belligerent masculinity could cut through generations, sowing the seeds of violence, and guaranteeing perpetual cycle of intolerance. In the world of cinema, writer & director Paul Schrader is one the most important personality to showcase the destructive & dark side of male anger.

                                        Schrader’s script for the much-heralded “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” tracks the harrowing experiences of men, who are undone by their own wrath. His directorial ventures like “American Gigolo”, “Hardcore”, “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” smartly explored the male dominance in the society and the abuses it spawns. With “Affliction” (1997), Schrader took the coarser themes of inter-generational violence and alcoholism. The movie is based on a 1989 novel by Russell Banks, and after watching it you could feel that this is the best conjunction of material, director, and actor.

                                     “Affliction” is set on an afflicted, eternally cold, economically depressed town of New Hampshire. The story begins on a Halloween eve as the town’s sheriff Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) takes his frustrated daughter, Jill (Brigid Tierney), in a costume for the town’s children parade. Wade’s recent bitter divorce from Lillian (Mary Beth Hurt) has only given him limited visits with his daughter. But, Jill hates to visit her father’s town. She excessively whines and calls her mother and step-father to pick her up. Wade too isn’t a great father as he leaves his daughter to takes a trip, smoking joint with his younger friend, Jack Hewitt (Jim True).

                                     Rage is the vital emotion Wade feels more than any other thing. This rage may stem from the job opportunities he has: a low-level police job plus a tiring plowing job for the local business man and land owner, Gordon La rivierre (Holmes Osborne). Since the previous evening with his daughter has ended badly, the rage has only been inflamed. Wade is now intent on suing his wife for custody. But, why does this rage brood over Wade. We get some answer from the local diner as the guys there harp about alcoholic bully Glen Whitehouse (James Coburn) and his tactics to terrify his family. The younger Wade bared a lot of his father Glen’s onslaughts as he attempted to shield his mother and younger brother, Rolfe. Wade haven’t grown up like the brute his father was, but the abuses he endured has affected his adult relationships and trust settings.

                                    The waitress girlfriend Margie (Sissy Spacek) is the only soul who provides some solace for Wade. Wade’s emotional downward spiral moves further when a deer hunting accident kills a Massachusetts bigwig, Evan Twombley. The guide, Jack Hewitt’s account of the accident raises some serious doubts in the mind of Wade that the accident might really be a murder. He confides his murder theory with Brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), and Rolfe provides further evidence to strengthen the murder theory. Wade also happens to watch a meeting between Gordon La rivierre and Mel Gordon, son-in-law of Evan Twombley. He discovers that the two ‘Gordons’ have secretly bought lands all over the town for a major development. Meanwhile, Wade’s silent mother passes away, and his father bullying nature escalates further after the death. Wade gets increasingly paranoid in his murder investigation and deteriorates his relationship with Margie and daughter Jill. In all his defeat and damage, his father hovers around smiling at him.

                                    Paul Schrader’s adapted script teases us of a mystery/thriller sub-plot. However, it is mostly a character study, and what’s uncovered is not the townsmen conspiracy, but the inner demons of Wade Whitehouse. The murder/hunting accident is of irrelevance here as it is only a tool to further explore the boorish behavior of the protagonist. Wade’s investigation into the death of Evan Twombley earlier promises some kind of redemption for him. But his psychological speculations mixed with alcohol-fueled bitterness only keep him away from the truth. Then there’s also Wade’s (bad) role model – his father. Glen proudly exclaims, “You’re my blood! You’re a piece of my own heart!” -- not in a soothing manner, but only when Wade bloodies his daughter’s nose. Glen is at peace when sees his rage has been passed onto his son. Schrader’s direction is crystalline and he rightly maintains a meditative space from his abusive/abused hero. 

                                  James Coburn’s irredeemable, heinous portrayal of Glen Whitehouse is a sheer horror to watch. Although he is there in few numbers of scenes, the sheer evilness of the character could be strongly felt in the way he casts a shadow over Wade’s behavior. Both Coburn and Nick Nolte have been wasted in conventional action pictures. Here, Nolte wonderfully brings out the delicacy and hurt of his character. He is trapped in an uncompassionate family, and the society has built an unchangeable perception on him. He perfectly conveys the whipped boy mind-set within his adult body. You could feel his desperation when he tries and fails to connect with his aloof daughter. The only problem I had with the film is the inclusion of a voice-over (of Rolfe), and a final, elaborate explanation of the movie’s core theme (“Our lives, Wade’s and mine, describe the lives of the boys and men for thousands of years: Boys who were beaten by their fathers, who capacity for love and trust was crippled almost at birth………..”)

                                “Affliction” (106 minutes) is a powerful portrait of the vicious circle of male violence. If you could bear with the excruciating downward spiral of the central character, then a lot of intriguing questions will be waiting for you. 


February 19, 2015

On Golden Pond – An Elegiac and Elegant Portrait On Aging

                                            As one grows old in age, he/she might often hear the saying: ‘Old is Gold’, which refers that age and the experience that comes with it is really precious. But, old age also brings its share of discrimination, inadequacy and fear of death. In this modern world, a human being is deemed ‘active’ based upon his memory wellness and his ability to learn new things. However, as age stacks upon us, our achievements in life wouldn’t seem much in front of our failures and weakness. The emotional anxiety and mental imbalance kindles the old people’s resentment, which they hold for themselves. Old age is really a challenge and movies have mostly stayed away from showing the distressing issues of old age. Since, cinema itself is often viewed as a tool of entertainment for young people, it fails to elucidate how hard it is for elderly people to make peace with the past. Mark Rydell’s “On Golden Pond” (1981) -- based upon Ernest Thompson’s 1978 play -- is one of the cinematic exceptions that offer an engaging as well as ethereal portrait of an elderly couple.

                                      “On Golden Pond” contains a streak of sentimental interludes and may not be as contemplative as Haneke’s “Amour”, but it does offer rare glimpse about the positive and negative attributes of old age. The movie starts with the 79 year old Norman Thayer (Henry Fonda) and his wife, Ethel Thayer (Katharine Hepburn) arriving at their picturesque lakeside cabin in New England. Financially they are well off and most importantly, they are thoroughly in love with each other. Norman is a cantankerous person, who often gives surly replies to divert others' attention from his dementia. He still studies the classified ads in newspapers and teases his wife about getting a new job. The failing memory bothers him more than the looming thoughts about death.

                                        Ethel Thayer is the portrait of sweetness and grace. She wants to savor their time together and likes to call Norman ‘old poop’. She also likes to sit in the sun near the lake, and talk to the loons. Norman’s crankiness melts a little when he comes in contact with Ethel’s elating nature. However, Norman’s agonistical nature spurts when his daughter, Chelsea (Jane Fonda) shows up at the cabin for his 80th birthday. She has brought her new dentist boyfriend Bill Ray (Dabney Coleman) and his 13 year old son Bill Ray Jr. (Doug McKeon). As soon as Norman welcomes Chelsea, we could feel that they have never gotten along together. Norman is jubilant enough to make fun of Bill Ray. When Bill asks to sleep in the same room with Chelsea, Norman asks: “Would you like the room where I first violated her mother”.

                                      Next day, Chelsea informs that she is going to leave Bill Ray Jr. with them, as she and Bill Sr. is going for a month-long vacation in Europe. The boy feels that he has been rejected and been remanded with these inactive people. Initially, Norman cuts through the boy’s veneer and the couple takes him under their wings, teaching him how to fish. Despite, Norman’s martinet nature he develops a strong bond with Bill Jr., and Ethel remains calm and reassuring as always.

                                     “On Golden Pond” surely packs in certain amount of saccharine qualities, but it doesn’t get drenched in mawkishness. It is subtle and genuinely moving at key moments, especially in the final ‘near-death’ scene. The primary characters in this scene have a heart-trending conversation about mortality (it’s no wonder that Ethel Thayer’s words, “Listen to me, mister. You're my knight in shining armor. Don't forget it. You're going to get back on that horse and I'm going to be right behind you, holding on tight and away we're going to go, go, go!” is named as one of 100 top quotations in American cinema).  The film’s power to move its viewers to tears wouldn’t have been possible, if not for the rich performances from Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn.

                                     Fonda, in his final screen role, is both heart-breaking and mirthful. He perfectly showcases aging people’s tendency to withdraw and their slightly domineering nature. Also, look out for that poignant moment, when Henry Fonda gets teary-eyed, when his daughter touches him after a reconciliation of sorts. That moment was so simple, but the emotions displayed were very genuine. Contrary to Fonda’s character, Hepburn finely displays that bright spark of life. Her energetic, ever caring, and optimistic nature shows us that aging could also be enjoyable if approached from the right perspective. Ethel’s nature would remind us of our own grandmothers, whose existence saved those grandfathers from being a recluse. If you had to point out a vital flaw, I would say that there could have been little depth in the relationship between Norman and Chelsea. We don’t definitely feel for Jane Fonda’s character, since her conflict with the father is tritely defined with words ‘inferiority’ and ‘neglect’.

                                    “On Golden Pond” (109 minutes) is a simple, uplifting movie about an elderly couple. Despite a few melodramatic tones, the masterful performances stay perfectly in tune with the film’s emotional core. 


February 17, 2015

Marshland -- In the Murky Waters of Spanish History

                                           Alberto Rodriguez’s atmospheric thriller “Marshland” (‘La Isla Minima’, 2014) opens with stunning aerial shots of the convoluted landscape of Guadalquivir wetlands (a major watercourse of Southern Spain), which somehow resembles the intricate structure of human brain cell. When the camera comes to the ground level, we can estimate that the eye-popping landscape really do have some intricate sociopolitical structure like that of the brain cells. There is something unique about the small towns in the wetlands as fields of rice is cultivated in land criss-crossed by waterways and roads, but there’s civil unrest in the towns like the rest of Spain. The year is 1980 -- one of the decisive years in the Spanish history.

                                        In 1939, Spain emerged from the civil war, carrying acerbic economic problems. Francisco Franco won the civil war, leaving at least half a million dead, and by seeking help from the Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Franco embraced dictatorship and dumped all his political and ideological enemies into concentration camps, forced labors. Although, Spain had the fastest economic growth in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, the transition to democracy seemed possible only after Franco’s death in 1975. However, the oil crisis of the 1970’s once again heavily hit Spain’s economy. In 1980, Spain’s unemployment rate surged to a breaking point, causing civil unrest. In that 1980, two detectives – Juan (Javier Gutierrez) and Pedro (Raul Arevalo) – travel from Madrid to the Deep South town to investigate the mysterious disappearance of two teenage sisters after the local festivities.

                                      A crucifix on the cops’ hotel room features cut-out photos of Hitler and Franco, which indicates the nation oscillating between dictatorship and democracy. Pedro is a rookie, who has left his pregnant wife in Madrid. Juan is a hardened, old-school cop, who might have worked as a henchman in the Franco regime. The villagers watch the detectives with suspicion. Since the harvest season is coming forth, the farmers view the city detectives as a bad omen. Moreover, the two disappeared girls seem to have a bad reputation.  The girls’ father remains aloof, while the mother’s face shows all the signs of abuse. When her husband’s back is turned, she hands over to Juan, a semi-burned negative strip with pornographic images of the girls. Later, the bodies of the sisters are found naked and mutilated in a ditch. The girls’ father has enough reasons to suspect the local drug mafia, but the detectives find out that two other girls have also disappeared, and a striking pattern emerges between all these girls’ disappearance.

                                    The raw beauty of the landscape (impeccably shot by Alex Catalan) is often juxtaposed with the town’s deep mistrust and unrest. Although these microcosmic shots resemble David Lynch’s works, director Alberto Rodriguez has mostly placed his narrative within the David Finch territory, unveiling a morbid atmosphere. It’s ironic that most of the girls want to escape the rich landscapes, fearing the clutches of unreformed masculinity. The town’s communal atmosphere itself plays a vital role in stopping the cops from catching the killer as corruption and power of the previous repressive regime is still fighting against the alleged democracy.

                                     The intense, uneasy relationship between Pedro and Juan evokes the “True Detective” TV series, although this one looks little cliched in the end. Juan’s character is well-etched out, subtly indicating his haunting past. His calm assurance and quick answers are as disquieting as the serene swamplands. The sequences involving Juan and a psychic fisher woman looked a bit hokey. Director Rodriguez has deftly filmed the action sequences, especially the nighttime car chase on a difficult terrain. The script (by Rafael Cobos and Rodriguez) perfecly brings together the sociopolitical elements within the thriller format. But, if you have read or watched enough crime/thrillers, the twist would seem fairly predictable. The drug-business sub plot only serves to distract the viewers. Since more attention is given on atmosphere, there are certain stereotype characters like that of a disillusioned journalist, who wants to become the next ‘Truman Capote’ and local factory owner.

                                    “Marshland” (105 minutes) may not be the edge-of-the-seat investigative thriller, but it must be watched for its political nuance and stunning, eerie atmosphere. The film recently swept 10 ‘Goya awards’ (Spanish equivalent of the Oscars).