August 1, 2014

Paprika -- A Wildly Inventive Post-Modernist Anime

                                           Japanese anime film-maker Satoshi Kon – director of “Perfect Blue” and “Tokyo Godfathers” – is famous for his philosophical digressions and masterful visuals. His movies offer a chaotic and less forgiving world than the universe of anime master Miyazaki. However, you could find unbridled beauty within those images. All his films are a form of dreams. “Paprika” (2006), the meta-thriller is his most dreamy trip, where the lines between dreams and reality blur. The film mixes several genres, borrowing ideas from the stories of Philip K. Dick and from movies like “Blade Runner”, “Until the End of the World” and other head-cracking anime.

                                        “Paprika’s” storyline is something you might have read or seen numerous times. It imagines the damage caused by an uncontrollable machine. But the journey into this labyrinthine of visuals is very challenging and at times disturbing.  The film also differs from Hollywood sci-fi thrillers because the lines between good and bad guys are unfathomable. The McGuffin in “Paprika” is the ‘DC Mini’ – a head-phone like device that allows recording a person’s dream. The story is set in the near future, where a psychiatric institute uses DC Mini as a therapeutic aid. The use of the device is not fully approved, but a female shrink Dr. Atsuko Chiba is using it on her patients to help them. She enters her patient’s subconscious mind through her sexy alter ego “Paprika”.

                                        Detective Konakawa, who experiences serious nightmares, gets help from Dr. Chiba through this dream therapy. Soon, the DC Mini’s are stolen from the office by people who are against this technology. They want to maintain the purity of dreams and so they use it with a malicious intent on the creators of this device. The mysterious villain traps his victims inside the torturous dreams as the victims fail to realize the difference between reality and dream. Konakawa helps out to find the missing gizmos as Paprika wanders through the dreams of adversaries to free the victims.

                                        Nolan’s thought provoking blockbuster movie “Inception” is inspired from anime like “Paprika”. At certain points, characters escape from dreams only to realize later that they are still trapped in other’s dream. A collective dream is shown in the film which threatens to totally obliterate the reality. In this collective dream flute-playing frogs, evil doll, home appliances and various machine parade through the streets of Tokyo. This collective dream might represent the collective subconscious of people, where everyone is a consumer or it can be seen as a critique of consumer culture. Though the storyline isn’t hard to follow, the visuals in the third act go bonkers as the disjointedness of dreams enters the adequacy of reality.

                                       Earlier in the film, Dr. Chiba says that REM cycles – recurring sleep state – first produces images like artsy short films and the later cycles produces epic blockbusters that moves faster. Satoshi Kon infuses both these types of imagery by echoing our mind’s eerie thought process. Throughout the film, Kon draws heavy parallels between our dreamy state and movie-watching state. He is also concerned about the way technology promises to bring closer, only to isolate from their closer ones.

                                      “Paprika” (90 minutes) pushes the virtues of anime and tackles a variety of subjects. This adult-oriented animation may put-off those who are reluctant to join the head trip, but its surrealistic imagining are absolutely wondrous. 


July 30, 2014

Silenced -- An Expose of a Harrowing Social Injustice

                                             Hwang Dong-hyuk’s “Silenced” (“Dogani”, 2011) makes us speechless because of its unbridled depiction of sexual, physical and corporal abuse in a Korean school for the hearing-impaired. The film is based on the 2009 controversial online novel ‘Dogani’ by Cong Jee-young. The novel sparked uproar as this case of abuse was little known in South Korea. The movie caused a great public stir and sold over 3 million tickets in its domestic release, although the film-maker dealt with one of the most taboo issue within cinema. Reviewing a movie like “Silenced” is a bit different. It deals with an explosive topic, where our own emotional response masters over the critical one. Hwang Dong-hyuk’s bold attempt to raise the public awareness on a case of deep-rooted social injustice is commendable, but some of his visceral choices are forceful and refutable.

                                          Gong Yoo (Kang In-ho) is a single father with a sick daughter. He finds a job as art teacher at Ja-ae academy – a boarding school for hearing-impaired children – situated in a small town named ‘Muijin’, which is always in a cloak of fog. Leaving the daughter with his mother, Gong Yoo travels in a car to the town, while the film cuts away to show a young boy limping towards a dark railway tunnel (the boy stands in front of train and is killed). He encounters Seo Yoo-jin (Jeong Yu-mi), a social worker, after a roadkill incident. She drops him at the school, where he is introduced to eerie identical twins: Lee Kang-bok, the Headmaster and Kang-suk, the admin head.

                                         The admin head barefacedly exhorts money from Gong Yoo (50 million won) – a prerequisite for the employment -- in the name of ‘school investment fund’. After settling in, Gong yoo quickly realizes that there is something gravely wrong with some children. The recoil from his enthusiastic efforts to bond and he sees an emptiness in their eyes. He is shocked to see a fellow teacher, Park clobbering a student in front of all the indifferent faculties. One day he hears dreadful screams from the ladies toilet. The next day he catches an after-school instructor dunking a girl’s head -- Yeon-du (Kim Hyun-soo) – in a washing machine.

                                       Yeon-du passes out and she is admitted into a hospital by Gong yoo. He also calls for Seo Yoon-jin’s help. In the hospital Yeon-du conveys through sign language, the sexual and physical abuses she and other two students suffered in the hands of Headmaster, Admin Head and the teacher, Park. The children’s statements, narrated by Gong yoo, are recorded by the local human rights activist. The local police chief, who is one the pay-roll of Head master isn’t interested in the truth or the case. But, after media’s involvement, the three monstrous perpetrators are arrested. The next half of the film follows the court trial. The children fight for justice in a judicial system, which is as perverted as the minds of the perpetrators.

                                      “Silenced” is extremely painful to watch. Director Dong-hyuk doesn’t hold back, especially in the graphic re-enactment scenes. I felt the children’s sign language explanations about the horrific ordeal itself are enough to shook up a viewer, but the film-maker goes a bit far in portraying the children’s helplessness. Although, these graphic scenes are well edited, they are not absolutely necessary to convey a child’s trauma. Nonetheless, the director must be appraised for shedding sentimentality and perfectly using the silences. Metaphors abound in this movie, especially the opening fog sequence, which intimates the moral obscurity. In the final shot, we see Gong yoo, standing apart, and watching the hoarding of the fog-covered town. In the first scene, the protagonist wanders into that obscure town like the other teachers before him, who all turned a blind eye to get a permanent job in Seoul. The final scene shows that he has come clean by fighting for what’s right, despite all those series of hurdles (Yoo-jin’s letter to Gong yoo is read in the background: “the reason we are fighting so hard, is not to change the world, but instead not to let the world change us.”).


                               Director Dong-hyuk fittingly adopts many mainstream genre conventions to develop the eerie atmosphere for the story that eventually leads to an incendiary conclusion. The film is also about a society, where the rich uses their rights to wreak havoc over the misfortunate people. The public protest towards the climax and the following police brutality shows how the society’s have and have-not’s are handled. Dong-hyuk deeply criticizes Korean society (or for that matter, any money-minded society), where a judge gives a free pass to gruesome criminals for having done some good things (donating money) in the past; where people are ready to sell the truth for a promotion. Although, the subject matter is very bleak, the director tinges the film with some light moments whenever possible (the sunset scene in the beach, where the children walk with Goon yoo and Yoo-jin).

                                    Kang In-ho as the protagonist isn’t exceptional, but rightly conveys the emptiness through his eyes. It is surprising to see Kang taking a role in a very serious film, whose career is punctuated by romance and comedy movies. The strongest performances come from the three children. Their emotional displays of pain, hope, despair, resilience and confusion are the driving force of the narrative. The scene where Yeon-du outsmarts the defense lawyer is the film’s most uplifting moment.

                                 “Silenced” is also one of those rare movies that made some difference in the society. The film created hysterical reactions among the movie-going public of South Korea. Many petitions were filed and protests sprung up asking the government to take action on the accused. A new bill (“Dogani” bill) was then passed by the South Korean government to impose tougher sentences on people who sexually abuse the disabled. The school which perpetrated all these horrific abuses was eventually shut down and the collective anger led to the case being re-opened and pulled back those monsters into the court. 

                                  “Silenced” (124 minutes) will haunt the viewer long after its affecting conclusion. It asks important and genuine questions about child abuse and legal process, where favoritism and corruption obstructs justice. 


July 25, 2014

Oculus -- A Distinct, Slow-Burn Horror Flick

                                      A copious amount of paranormal thrillers are produced in a year that is so predictable and rarely strays from the formula. Director Mike Flanagan’s “Oculus” (2014), although a derivative ghost story, conjures something truly haunting. It doesn’t exactly subvert the cliches of the genre, but it’s breath of fresh air, considering all those nauseating, shaky camera paranormal flicks. Expanding on his own award winning short, Flanagan uses a distinctive narrative to play tricks with the vagaries of perception and memory. The film is interested in real dramatic tension rather than forgettable jump scares.

                                  “Oculus” begins in a dream. The dreamer is Tim (BrentonThwaites), who is recounting the recurring dream to his psychiatrist. Tim is in a mental institution for a crime he committed 11 years ago. Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan), Tim’s sister grew up in a foster home after the death of her parents. Father Alan Russell (Rory Cochrane) tortured and killed mother Marie (Katee Sackhoff) in front of Kaylie and Tim. Tim shot his father. After his release from mental asylum, Kaylie seeks Tim’s help to destroy the ghastly thing in their old house – the “Lasser Glass”. Having been rehabilitated Tim wants to forget the whole thing and asks Kaylie to stop being delusional. But, they both go back to childhood home, where Kaylie has now set up a barrage of cameras and other state-of-art equipments to prove that there is an evil force, residing in the mirror.

                                   According to Kaylie’s meticulous research, the Lasser Glass has been around for centuries, even though she hasn’t traced its origin. The glass has driven all its owners to commit brutal homicides. Of course, they both just take a baseball bat or a golf club to shatter the mirror. But, it doesn’t work that way, because the mirror as a form of defense protection weaves elaborate hallucinations that twists the haunted’s perceptions. The narrative goes back and forth as we encounter flashbacks of what happened to the family a dozen years ago. As night wears on, the unfolding events remain uncertain to us as it is for the characters.

                                 The back story is just a run-of-the-mill story that we have encountered in numerous cheap horror movies. But, Flanagan gradually and cleverly repackages it as a base for the characters’ drifting states of consciousness. The dubious back story is used to create subjective horror elements, rather than the ‘boo’ moments. At the first act, Tim’s voice of reason asks to Kaylie that what if the mirror is just a mirror and all the supernatural theories is just a method to prove against her father’s cruelty. He also points to their parents’ marital problems, father’s affair. These initial questions by Tim reinforce a psychological foundation in the film, which gives us reason to believe that these evil manifestations might be generated by the characters’ manifestations. However, Flanagan in the third act totally avoids this psychological phenomenon and professes that the mirror is the source of evil.

                                   The mirror’s story might remind you any of Stephen King’s horror stories (Shining, 1408). The real and hallucination confusion is something Freddy Kreuger does to his victims. The booby trap, the array of ghost-hunting devices and using mirror as a conduit for evil forces are plot threads that are derived from various horror thrillers. But, Flanagan has remained original in designing the genuine, potent scares. Except for that shiny-eyed spirit, scare tactics mostly rely on subtle mind games, where Kaylie accidentally takes a big bite out of an electric bulb, thinking that it was an apple. There are no A-list actors in the cast, although the performances are uniformly remarkable. Thwaites offer enough incredulity to his character and Karen is different from a typical horror flick heroine.

                                  As I mentioned earlier, there are good number of clich├ęs: if you have seen many horror films, you could easily guess the fate of Kaylie’s bland boyfriend; you could guess who is gonna be the victim of a such a dangerous booby trap; and in modern-day ghost stories, you can never bet against the evil forces. However, “Oculus” (103 minutes) is a lot better than many movies that come with a label ‘horror’. It is unsettling and holds a viewers attention by keeping the suspense potent. 


July 23, 2014

Down by Law -- An Invigorating American Independent Cinema

                                          From “Stranger than Paradise” (1984) to “Only Lovers Left Alive” (2013), unconventional American film-maker Jim Jarmusch’ films have characters that drifts to different places, only to discover that every place looks the same. They encounter clock-work failures, besotted with irony, in an ever-changing futile backdrop. Nothing big happens in a Jarmusch movie, but his oeuvre gives us a window to observe the eccentricities of human behavior. Jarmusch has fully developed all his stylistic imprints in his third movie, “Down by Law” (1986). In this minimalist neo-noir comedy, the characters live in the moment, without any big plans for the future. The camera stays static and when it moves there are long, slow tracking shots. Those who are familiar and those who love the director’s restrained sense of cool, “Down by Law” might seem as a poetry; for others, it might be maddening.

                                    The movie starts with a sidelong tracking shot, taking us through the deserted streets of New Orleans and occasionally observes few peoples, whose eyes look as vacant as the streets. In a low-rent district New Orleans called ‘Crescent City’, we first meet a pimp named Jack (John Lurie), who conducts his business in a less aggressive manner. Then, we observe an aspiring deejay Zack (Tom Waits), who is too much of a drifter. His girl friend Laurette (Ellen Barkin) in a rage of frustration kicks him into the street. Both of them are conned by foes, who toss them deals that are too good to be true. These ignorant and bored men are framed for crimes they didn’t commit: Jack for child molestation and Zack for a murder. 

                                  Jack and Zack wind up in the same cell in Orleans Parish Prison, where they remain indolent and mutually ignore one another. Zack marks days on the wall with thick chalk lines, and when hate wells up inside him, he fights it off with Jack. The setting gets more claustrophobic with the addition of a third cellmate named Bob (Roberto Benigini), an Italian immigrant with a limited grasp of English language. Of the trio, Bob is the one to have actually committed a crime. He murdered his assailant with a billiard ball. He quotes Robert Frost’s poems in Italian and is fond of Walt Whitman. The optimistic and cheerful Bob also knows about an escape route.

                                Narrative wise, “Down by Law” could show familiarity with “We’re No Angels”, “Escape from Alcatraz” etc, but tonally this movie stands apart from the common herd. Jim Jarmusch once said, “I’m interested in comedy in a new kind of context. Not just linguistic jokes or sight gags. But humor based on small life details.” Jarmusch achieves that kind of humor in this film. The stream of artificial scenarios creates laughs that emerge from deep within the activities of characters. We chuckle because we know how they are inside and so the gags arise from our own interpretations. The script and the acting mutually benefits from one another. Jarmusch usually writes script by having a preconceived idea about who the actor should be. So, the laid-back hippiness and cheerfulness perfectly fits the actors.

                               Waits, in his first movie role, plays a lovable loser. Lurie is a small-timer, full of bravado. They are unambitious Americans, who love to stray in the decaying industrial urban centers. They don’t believe in anything, when an angel-like Bob comes in to free the jail birds. In a Hollywood mainstream movie, only the opposite occurs: an optimistic American saves a constrained European or Asian. Jarmusch has perfectly used Benigini’s liveliness. As Bob, Benigini makes us forget all those contemptible performances. The arrival of his character opens up the cramped prison space. His chatty demeanor and comic timing are very sincere and endearing. Watch him delivering that humorous monologue about a rabbit-killing mother.

                               None of the plot threads in “Down by Law” is believable. One moment Bob is discussing about an escape route. The next moment, they climb down a rope, joyously running through the sewers. The law is never even close to them, although they circle around the swamps. In the woodlands of Louisiana, the trio stumble across an Italian restaurant ran by a comely Italian girl Nicoletta. The charming and naive girl becomes excited by Roberto's sunny confessions and asks him to stay with her. All these events are too good to believe, but the way it evolves feels very natural rather than scripted. The film also averts from the usual noir expectations – no gunshots, no last minute deaths. The immaculate black-and-white compositions of cinematographer Robert Muller (“Paris, Texas”, 1984) offers a provocative experience.

                                The multi-layered “Down by Law” (105 minutes) must be watched for its use of film language (definitely not as a prison-break drama). Along with Benigini’s bittersweet performance, the movie will slowly grow up on you. 



  Down by Law -- IMDb