October 17, 2014

Meet John Doe -- Frank Capra's Inspirational Populist Lesson

                                         Frank Capra was one of the fine Hollywood directors to have crafted the image of “American Everyman”. He has tried his hand in romance genre (“It Happened One Night”, 1934), political and social commentary movies (“Mr. Smith to Washington”, 1939; “It’s a Wonderful Life”, 1946), slapstick comedy (“Arsenic and Old Lace”, 1944), and even WWII propaganda films for the US government. But, through all those films he has brought us the honest and forthright protagonists – the common man, who believe in the basic goodness of people. Although his movies could be bashed as sentimental melodramas, one can’t deny the powerful ideas he weaved in those films which resonates more than ever in the contemporary era.

                                       “Meet John Doe” (1941) was the second collaboration between Capra, actor Gary Cooper, and writer Robert Riskin. The trio previously worked in the Oscar nominated “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936). “Meet John Doe” may not fit into the category of Capra’s ‘greatest films’, but as ever, his faith on American system and portrayal of timeless themes, gives an inherent charm to it. The film was based on the story written by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell (in 1922). The first shot of the film shows that a bronze plaque belonging to a newspaper office, named “Free Press” is being blasted off. The newspaper is brought by a wealthy industrialist Mr. D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) and the new plaque reads “The New Bulletin: A Streamlined Paper for a Streamlined Era”.

                                      The new management starts off by downsizing its employees. When a desperate journalist, Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) finds herself in the firing line, she cooks up a letter, written by a fictional John Doe, who threatens to commit suicide on Christmas Eve by throwing himself off from the top floor of City Hall. The fake letter by the non-existent John Doe protests against corruption and hypocrisy. The letter gets published and the reading public takes it as truth, donating money, offering home and jobs for the fictional character. When rivals accuse the newspaper of cheap publicity, the frantic editor brings Ann back on the job, and asks her to find the perfect common man to play “John Doe”.

                                     In an interview, they select the handsome and rugged John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), a homeless bush-league pitcher with a bad arm. To play the part, he is initially offered $50 and a promise to give enough money for an operation to fix his arm. With the help of Ann’s firebrand writings, John Doe protests against corrupt politics and for the poor people by staying inside a luxurious suite. The newspaper circulation hits the roof, and D.B. Norten invites Ann and also gives permission to take the ‘John Doe’ ploy further.

                                    After delivering an inspirational Live Radio speech (written by Ann), Willoughby becomes a national celebrity. People across US start to form ‘John Doe’ clubs to help the needy and to fight against corruption. And, for some sinister reasons, D.B. Norten sponsors all those clubs that seems to sprout in every corner of the country. What started off as a joke becomes a ‘national movement’, and gradually turns into a spider’s web for Willoughby and Ann.

                                    As usual, director Frank Capra expertly tells his story weaving comedy, serious drama, and political commentary. Capra mostly avoids cynicism when portraying about those clubs. He clearly depicts that the John Doe clubs didn’t stem from political anger but from benefaction. Through simple scenarios, the scriptwriter Riskin shows how politics could be transcended by some neighborly concern. Similar to movies like ‘Mr. Smith’ and 'Mr. Deeds’, Capra once again pits pure, naive common man against manipulative, greedy politician or businessman. The way Capra stereotypes these two polar opposite characters definitely has a childlike simplicity. Riskin’s clunky, happy ending also spoils the film a little, but despite these flaws, the movie’s profoundly discloses the timeless nature of the incisive group of fellows.

                                    The corporate television media or tea parties may not have been so popular in Capra’s era, but a viewer could easily draw parallels with our contemporary era. It’s been more tan seven decades since the movie’s release, and still the operations of bad institutions and governments haven’t changed much. It still likens to glue itself into any genuine people’s movement, only to use it for their own devious purposes. Corporate interests and political aspirants seem to fund their way into grass-roots organization, connecting their own profit-minded wagon into those rapid fire crusades.  Capra’s cast is uniformly excellent. As Norten, Edward Arnold brings a calm menace into his character that is very unsettling. Walter Brennan as ‘Colonel’ turns in an entertaining performance and remains as the story’s voice of truth. The charismatic Gary Cooper perfectly fills in the role of the shy, bewildered protagonist.

                                     “Meet John Doe” (122 minutes) is a must watch for Frank Capra fans and lovers of black-and-white classics. It is elevated by an entertaining cast and widely resonating political & social themes. 


October 8, 2014

Undertow -- A Dark Fable Set in the American Rural South

                                           Film-maker David Gordon Green takes us to bewildering American landscapes that doesn’t exists within the confines of the great American dream. Harried men, dilapidated towns, broken-down machinery, and the economic destitution makes one wonder about the hardships endured in the deep American South. Green along with Jeff Nichols (“Shotgun Stories”, “Mud”) was one of the few American directors, who don’t reduce the characters to usual southern archetypes (as portrayed in mainstream Hollywood). Although these lands contain uncut lawns and industrial wastes, there is some beauty to it. And as Green allows his actors to improvise you could find an uncommon naturalism imbued with poetic undertones. Gordon Green has lost his ways when he becomes the ‘director-for-hire’ in movies like “Pineapple Express” or “Your Highness”, but he makes effective character studies when he evokes Southern countryside ("George Washington", "All the Real Girls", "Undertow", "Joe").

                                       “Undertow” (2004) was Gordon Green third feature film and the story transpires in rural Georgia. The plot structure easily makes us to draw comparisons on Charles Laughton’s classic “Night of the Hunter” (1955). Chris (Jamie Bell) is a rebellious teenager, who always acts against his father’s wishes. He hates to work in his father’s (Dermot Mulroney) hot, dirty pig farm. Chris loves his younger brother Tim (Devon Alan), who plays in the mud and is often plagued by stomach-ache. Chris seems to have done everything to break from familial shackles. When the movie starts he is chased by his girl friend’s gun-toting father. He steps on a board and nail, and eventually ends up in the care of police.

                                        John, father of Chris and Tim, is an introverted man, who has moved to the countryside after the death of his wife. John likes the isolation as much as Chris hates it. One day everything changes, when John’s younger brother, Deel (Josh Lucas) arrives to their house. Deel has been released on parole and seems to have some darker motivations. Initially, Deel fills the ‘favorite uncle’ role by taking Chris for a drive and by bonding with him. However, he bears a grudge against his brother for two vital reasons. When Deel’s nasty streak is eventually revealed, the two siblings run for their life through the dusty back roads and murky river banks.

                                      Although “Undertow” couldn't be deemed as a phenomenal flick like “Night of the Hunter”, it is shot with a similar exquisiteness. If Laughton’s film was diffused with unique expressionistic shots, Green’s movie is repleted with excellent lush cinematography. Cinematographer Tim Orr looks for little beauties within destitute, animosity-filled land. The panoramic tracking shots magnify the character’s distress and bring sympathy to the beat-down working class people.  At times, the film resembles Terrence Malick’s evocative shots, especially the shots of twinkling sunlight through giant trees (the film was co-produced by Malick). Green directs with his trademark transitional fades and his setting evokes the 70’s thrillers.

                                     Green always attends to little character details and brings out intense performances even from unprofessional actors. “Undertow” has some sort of conventional storyline, unlike other Green’s movies. The director doesn’t conjure up enough sense of dread to categorize it into a ‘thriller’, because he is more interested in developing personalities than suspense; clear narrative paves way to atmosphere. And so in bringing up that palpable sense of enfolding surroundings, he clearly succeeds. Overblown talks about demons, hell, and luck would surely frustrate standard thriller-genre fans. But, it would be well-suited for those in pensive mood and those who care about the traditional three-act plot structure.

                                       There are several wonderful little moments in the movie. One that immediately comes to mind is when the two siblings, on the run, wander through the junkyard and take time to model their secret hideout place after a space ship. They also plant silly warning materials around their habitat to warn them of Deel’s presence. Some of the plot’s clunky dialogues and faulty coincidences can be overlooked because of such perceptive moments. Jamie Bell perfectly dons the role of Southern reckless teenager (he is actually a British actor). Sad-faced Alan is nicely matched with Bell and they bring towering strength to the proceedings. Josh Lucas is terrifying without ever going over the top.

                                       “Undertow” (108 minutes) conveys simple relationship between two siblings with authenticity, unique style and wisdom. Although it isn’t Director Gordon Green’s best (or for that matter, Green is yet to give us his ‘the best’), it poetically blends character study with formal thrills. 


October 6, 2014

Elling -- A Sensible Comedy about Societal Misfits

                                          Petter Naess’ Oscar-nominated, Norwegian light-hearted comedy “Elling” (2001) opens with the authorities discovering a sensitive middle-aged guy, who has hidden in a closet after his mother’s death. The middle-aged guy named ‘Elling’ (Per Christian Ellefsen) has been a momma’s boy throughout his life and has seen very little of the outside world. He is well-versed in telling stories and reading books, but harbors prominent fears about society which puts him in an insane asylum. This initial setting alone is enough to paint a dark portrait about the exigencies of a wider world. But, this movie takes a different approach as it imbues an unsentimental feel-good texture to the storyline. It has an upbeat tone and works within the bounds of commercial cinema. At the same time, it never sinks into the lowly comic depths often evidenced in mainstream Hollywood cinema.

                                      Elling is paired with a giant-like fellow named Kjell Bjarne (Sven Nordin). Bjarne is obsessed with the idea of sex and in a tense state he fiercely bangs his head against the wall. Elling, initially hates Bjarne as his asylum roommate, but over the course of two years they become pals. At the end of two years, the two guys are installed in an apartment in Oslo. They are deemed ready to rejoin the society and placed under the care of social worker Frank (Jorgen Langhelle). Now, they have to try to adjust to the routines of normal world.

                                     Living in a ‘normal world’ means going to shopping and striking new friendships. But, for Elling even answering telephones looks like an onerous task. He is frightened by the frenzied activities on the roads, as his two enemies accompany him (“I have always had two enemies, dizziness and anxiety”). When Bjarne escorts him across the street to a restaurant, it becomes quite an achievement. From then on, things gradually turn up for the better. Bjarne falls in love with a single pregnant woman Reidun (Marit Pia Jacobsen), who lives in the upstairs flat. Elling suddenly discovers a hidden talent of poetry (names himself as “Sauerkraut Poet”) and strikes a friendship with a reclusive elderly poet (Per Christensen).  

                                    Elling comments that while many people aren’t afraid to travel to South Pole, he is terrified to cross the restaurant floor to reach the restroom. But, once he conquered that fear by walking to that restroom, he immediately starts conquering another dear – calling from a phone. Through Elling, we are shown that seizing simple individual fears is the only way to move forward in life. In a typical comedy genre movie, the same odd-ball nature of the titular character would be used to poke fun at him, where he would react ridiculously in commonplaces (for example “Dumb and Dumber”). But, though “Elling” is a light-hearted comedy, it tries to address issues from the perspective of the character.

                                  The relationship between Elling and Bjarne is moving, without any added syrupy sentimentality. Unlike a cliched ‘mental-impairment’ movie, “Elling” doesn’t offer us a sane guardian angel, who guides those eccentric guys to lead a ‘normal’ life. Here, the two main characters itself complement one another, possessing an attribute which the other lacks. They become co-dependent helping each other’s mental ailments. The movie was based novel by Ingvar Ambjornsen and director Petter Naess has earlier reworked the novel into a stage play. Director Naess elegantly walks the thin line between comedy and tragedy, without letting off the chance to observe darkly funny moments. Ellefsen and Sven Nordin reprise the primary characters from their earlier stage production. Their awkward ego-centric expressions are a pleasure to watch.

                                    “Elling” (85 minutes) is a deftly managed comedy drama that celebrates a friendship between two wallflowers. It finds humor in these eccentric men’s misadventures, but stays away from making fun of them. 


September 30, 2014

Dear Frankie -- A Non-Manipulative Heart-Warmer

                                    The sweet life-affirming Scottish movie, “Dear Frankie” (2004) from director Shona Auerbach comes off with a plot that provides immense chances for forced sentimentality and to wring enough tears. But, our worst expectations from such a cutesy storyline don’t come true, as ‘Dear Frankie’ is a soulful portrait of wounded souls, who try to protect one another. If you can overlook the movie’s leisure pace, you would be enamored by this character study and performances that don’t look manufactured.

                                  Single mom, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) never stays in one place or town for very long. She lives with hearing impaired-son, Frankie Morrison (Jake McElhone) and her chain-smoking mother Nell (Mary Riggins). Lizzie is moving through Glasgow, changing schools and addresses, to stay away from her abusive husband, who seems to be fiercely searching for her. But, Lizzie has told her smart and intuitive son that his father away at sea, aboard a ship named ‘accra’. Lizzie writes elaborate letters to Frankie as if his father is writing to him.

                                    Frankie’s favorite subject is Geography because of his father’s travels and he collects all the stamps his father sends him in the letter. He also writes back, innocently sharing his life’s secrets and joys. Lizzie is keen to put a stop to this fantasy, but she feels that she can hear her son’s voice in those beautifully written letters. One day, Frankie’s bratty classmate shows him the newspaper clipping that the ship 'accra’ is due to arrive on their harbor town soon. The boy makes a bet to Frankie that his father wouldn’t visit him.

                                   Rather than revealing the truth, Lizzie stretches the lie and through the help of her fish shop owner Marie (Sharon Small), she finds a guy to act as Frankie’s father. It is intended as one-day experiment and Lizzie is ready to pay a fee. And, there enters the laconic and handsome guy (Gerard Butler), who not only dutifully responds to his duties as father-for-hire but also remains affectionate towards Lizzie. The fragile family is also chased by Frankie’s real dad, who seems to be dying.

                                   Screenwriter Andrea Gibb and director Auerbach never allows the touching and predictable story to descend into schmaltz. The film’s setting is similar to the many British kitchen-sink dramas, but it is emotionally more tender and imbues subtlety and is powered by well-constructed relationships. When we see a mesmerizing stranger like Gerard Butler play the father-for-hire character, we could easily guess that Lizzie would be pulled in, despite fears and self-righteousness. But, the affection between these two characters doesn’t happen all of a sudden. In one of the movie’s pleasantly inviting moments, Lizzie and the stranger stands on the verge on kissing, but the director doesn’t rush anything here. And, after that moment, the story takes a natural course rather than incorporating the stranger into the family, making a false-note ending.

                                   Apart from the leisurely paced direction, the movie works well because of uniformly superb performances. Jack McElhone is perfect as Frankie. He acts like a child who isn’t artificial. Unable to speak, he makes full use of facial expressions to communicate Frankie's range of feelings from loneliness to joy. Watch out for his wide-eyed, ever-smiling expression when he meets his father (the one hired by his mother). McElhone’s character is also etched very well, as we are never sure how much he intuitively knows about his mother's activities.

                                   Emily Mortimer gives a moving performance as a single mother, who neglects her own fulfillment and desires to shield her son from any troubles. The whole movie is about the lengths one loving mother will go to protect her son from a hard truth. So, the movie’s emotional vibrancy is directly attached to these two characters. Any lesser truths would have easily turned into a melodramatic fest. That said, “Dear Frankie” isn’t entirely free from melodrama or manipulation, but we can forgive those faults because it never loses sight of its characters or provides us a neatly-packaged resolution. Gerard Butler makes less use of his dashing looks and remains as a compassionate and responsive human being, whose character is well grounded in realism. The captivating locations in and around Glasgow also creates the fitful mood for the story.

                                  “Dear Frankie” (105 minutes) explores the challenges of single parenthood and also takes in broader themes such as resilience, loneliness and trust. It is occasionally soppy, but it remains endearing from beginning to end.