August 28, 2014

Homicide -- A Bewildering Morality Play

                                        I became a fan of David Mamet’s writing and directing prowess, ever since I watched his foul-mouthed, perplexed drama “Glengarry Glen Ross” (1992). He takes a generic plot and turns it into something intricate with punchy dialogues. “Homicide” (1991) was one of Mamet’s lesser know ‘Grade-A’ work that is as compelling and complex as his prestigious “House of Games” (1987). ‘Homicide’ is a morality play which starts off as a police thriller. As in other Mamet’s films, the protagonist of ‘Homicide’ takes a journey of self-discovery while descending into life’s dark side.

                                       Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna) is a veteran homicide detective, who has great skills at hostage negotiation (they call him “The Orator”). He has twenty two citations for valor and volunteers to go first through a dangerous doorway. The movie starts off with a botched FBI mission, where a dangerous drug dealer (Ving Rhames) escapes killing a cop. Bobby and his partner/friend Tim Sullivan (William H. Macy) were assigned to catch the drug dealer and cop killer. Gold is defined by his specialized skills and gives very little thought to his Jewish identity except for when a annoyed police commissioner calls him a “kike”.

                                       On the way to catch the drug dealer, Bobby gets side-tracked as he stumbles onto a crime scene, which has handled poorly by two rookie cops. An elderly Jewish woman has been gunned down. She runs a corner store in the poor black neighborhood. People who gather near the crime scene say that the woman might have been killed because she had a fortune in the basement. But, Bobby isn’t interested on who or why the lady was killed. He just waits for other detectives to arrive so that he could go on to catch his drug dealer. While waiting, Bobby sees the old lady’s wealthy son and granddaughter (Rebecca Pidgeon). When Bobby returns to the precinct he comes to know that he has been taken off the case and assigned to investigate the murder of that old woman.

                                        It seems the old lady was mother of Dr. Klein (J.S. Block), an influential man amongst the Jewish leaders. The family has pulled strings to assign Gold to the case as he is Jew. Bobby Gold is very angry initially since he has been reassigned and when he is called by Klein’s, claiming that someone was shooting at their house from the nearby rooftop, he’s very skeptical. Bobby makes a call from Klein’s house and profanely talks about their wealth and anti-semitic paranoia. Only later he notices that his phone conversation has been overheard by the granddaughter. He feels guilt for his persecution and comes face-to-face with his own feelings about Jewish identity. From there, Bobby begins a journey that draws him into the shadowy corners of Chicago’s Zionist activists and white supremacists.

                                       The protagonists in a Mamet‘s movie more or less goes through the same experiences, although it is presented in a fascinating manner: Mamet’s heroes likes to talk. They speak in a profane language all their own, but at the same it is eloquent, as if it’s the poetry for tough-guys; Mamet’s heroes always get cheated by people they think they could rely on; and his heroes give up on people/friends, who have stood for them all their life. “Homicide’s” protagonist also has similar identity crisis, but things her are more gripping and complex because of the racial dynamics. Although there is no outright racial prejudice, the cops don’t see themselves as a united front. Sullivan’s ‘Irishness’ is joked about, Gold’s heritage is often dug up, and Gold uses the ‘N-word’ in a moment of anger, and there are also homophobic slurs. So, all these things play a significant role in Bobby Gold’s later violations.

                                       The phone call from the Klein’s house and a conversation with a Rabbi in the library triggers an internal debate within Gold that makes him to go frantically search for his heritage. The sudden change in tone at this point is well handled, although it has the dangers of devolving into a ridiculous conspiracy theory thriller. As a viewer, we initially find it hard to believe in Gold’s change in character. Within a matter of hours, he becomes an extremist ready to torch the shop of white supremacist, but Mantegna’s restrained finely brings out the other character that has slept within his mind (it is alluded that Gold has no family).  Mamet has thematically convinced us with the primary characters’ change, but still it is a bit psychologically unconvincing. However, this little flaw is washed off by the movie’s unsettling, film noir ending. It is a pessimistic as well as an ambitious ending. Bobby Gold is left alone, bruised internally and externally, and the devil (a prisoner) in ‘blue suit’ passes him, relishing at the fact that he has taught Gold, ‘the nature of evil.’

                                       “Homicide” (101 minutes) starts off like a police procedural, but works into ideas and themes that finally offer us a portrait of humankind, unable to see past its self-made racial divides. It shows how segmentation and hatred could easily claim a person’s integrity.


August 26, 2014

The Pledge -- A Haunting, Oblique Thriller

                                           Sean Penn’s “The Pledge” (2001) opens in a dry scorched landscape, where a man talks to himself, as if he is gripped by madness. The birds’ cacophonous sounds and the man’s ravings hint us that this film is going to have bleak mood and a morally ambiguous plot structure. “The Pledge” was based on 1958 novel by Swiss mystery writer Friedrich Durrenmatt. The novel was adapted in the same year (known as “It Happened in Broad Day Light”) by Hungarian director Ladislao Vajda. Sean Penn and his script writers Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski has set the story in wintry Nevada, US. The film’s primary character was done by Jack Nicholson (one of his most underrated performances).

                                         The movie opens with a retirement party for Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson). He is a first-class detective and respected by his colleagues. During the party, news comes about the discovery of a dreadful murder:  A 8 year old girl’s body has been found in the snow-bound mountainside. The little girl, Ginny has been sexually assaulted and murdered in a brutal manner. Jerry wants to accompany the detectives, even though he is about to be retired in six hours. Jerry visits the child’s parents to tell them about sad news. He is confronted by child’s mother (Patricia Clarkson), who asks Jerry to swear on a cross -- made by their murdered little girl – that he would find the killer.

                                        Soon, the police have a man in custody, who was seen in the crime scene. The accused man, a mentally-challenged Indian (Benecio Del Toro) has previously committed sexual assaults. The young lead detective (Aaron Eckhart) gets in the investigative room and soon coerces out a confession from the guy. While celebrating for solving Ginny’s murder, the accused Indian commits suicide by taking over a cop’s gun. Ginny’s case is closed. However, Jerry isn’t convinced. He thinks a serial killer is at work. He cancels his fishing trip and goes on to question the town folks where Ginny lived.

                                       A picture drawn by Ginny totally convinces Jerry that the killer is definitely not an Indian. He also pieces together information about two other little girls in nearby towns (one disappeared and other murdered brutally like Ginny). All the three little girls are in the same age group, has blonde hair and wore red dress when they faced this hideous monster. However, Jerry’s former boss (Sam Shepard) is reluctant to re-open the case. So, Jerry moves to right in the middle of the triangulation of locations where the three girls were murdered. He buys a service station to stay busy. He later befriends a local waitress (Robin Wright) and her little blonde-haired daughter Chrissy (Pauline Roberts).

                                     “The Pledge” although starts like a generic detective thriller, it isn’t. It is a character study and a psychological thriller. The film starts with a familiar storyline – a veteran detective dealing with a brutal murder, but from then on the film unravels as a character-driven thriller rather than a ‘whodunit’ mystery. The script is a low-key study in obsession, dread and paranoia. The characterizations are etched out with greater restraint and subtlety. The dark subtexts to Jerry’s actions are unraveled in a subtle manner. He keeps the blond-haired Chrissy as bait, even though he seems to care for the girl. Jerry plays father-figure, but when the girl wants to buy a red dress, he encourages her to do so. Jerry’s relationship with Chrissy and her mother is constructed slowly and perfectly. The film’s moral ambiguity starts from here as the viewers will constantly ask themselves: does he love Chrissy like a daughter or is he just risking her life to silently lure the killer?

                                       The ending is bold and distressing as it doesn’t give us any easy answers and a neat wrap-up. The climax might frustrate a lot of viewers but it is lot better than cheap finishes in murder mysteries and it makes us understand to the fullest extent about Jerry’s inherent character flaw. Cinematographer Chris Menges’ subdued, grayish wintry look and the scorched rural-based looks are all visually poetic. Penn’s movies (from “Indian Runner” to “Into the Wild”) always like to play out the themes of vengeance and obsession. In ‘Pledge’ he never allows the narrative to meander and gives us little details and actions that may not look much on their own, but adds up in a significant way towards the end. With a trademark devilish squint and deep-set of eyes, Jack Nicholson as Jerry gives us a subtle performance that is deeply felt. Nicholson gradually brings out the aspects of a lawman that is utterly driven by instincts. Great numbers of prominent Hollywood actors appear for few minutes of screen time, including Vanessa Redgrave, Harry Dean Stanton, Mickey Rourke, Helen Mirren, Benecio Del Toro, and Lois Smith.
                                        “The Pledge” (124 minutes) is a haunting thriller that is more ambiguous and enigmatic than the usual Hollywood police procedural. The film boasts an excellent performance from Nicholson and a tragic mood which refuses to wash way quickly. 


August 22, 2014

Gomorrah -- A Powerful Alternative to Romanticized Mob Movies

                                        Movie medium have always exhibited a fascination towards organized crime. The gangster genre achieved prominence in Hollywood in the early thirties with movies like “Public Enemy” (1931), “Scarface” (1932) etc. The genre reached an exalted state with Coppola’s “The Godfather”. Although Coppola, Scorsese (“Mean Streets”, “Goodfellas”, “Casino”) and many other top directors chucked out the romanticized visions to give us more pointed criticisms, the characters (in those films) were made so colorful and the violent scenes were excellently choreographed that it sometimes made us to overlook the sharp observations. There is no doubt that “Godfather”, “Scarface”, and “City of God” are all classic works of cinema, but we are little enchanted by the activities of anti-heroes ‘Michael Corleone’ and ‘Tony Montana’. Matteo Garrone’s Italian crime drama “Gomorrah” (2008) doesn’t have any of those glamorized visions of mob. The title of the film refers to both the ancient biblical city of sin and ‘Camorra’ gang of Naples, Italy – the ruthless crime syndicate which hasn’t gained much attention in cinema.

                                     “Gomorrah” was based on controversial book by journalist Roberto Saviano. After its publication in 2006, Saviano got death threats for ‘Camorra’ crime family for detailed exposition of their activities, and later he was permanently placed under police protection. The Sicilian branch of Italian mafia got extended to America and gained prominence in Puzo’s novels, whereas the Camorra clan mostly works in and around Naples. It consists of 100 or so organized gangs that are constantly at each others throats. The plot loosely intertwines five story-lines, where the individuals’ lives are touched by the Camorra gang. The film opens in the blue glow of tanning salon, where four men are brutally shot. Who and Why? We don’t know but we could feel that it’s just another mob death that has been going on for generations.

                                     The film takes place in the Scampi quarter in Naples suburb. The suburb -- one of the world’s largest open-air drug markets -- is the best example for disastrous urban planning, where there is neither light nor space for the inhabitants. The narrow alleys when looked from the top might resemble a honey-comb maze, and the crooked residential buildings resemble the ancient Aztec Pyramid. The five story-lines concentrated in the plot are: a 13 year old boy (Salvatore Abruzzese) joins the local gang for excitement and money, but only later realizes the consequences; a soft-hearted money runner for the gang, who grows increasingly wary about his job; a talented tailor who works in Camorra controlled dressmaking factory, secretly teaches his competitors (Chinese) too; two trigger-happy young boys, who wants to form their own gang; and a smooth-talking businessman (part of Camorra Gang), who with the help of a junior executive dumps barrels of toxic waste near the residence of under-privileged.

                                    The movie starts on a bit of false note because the hyper-stylized violence in the opening sequence doesn’t fit into the tone of the story. May be the sequence was conjured to lure upon the viewers. The end credits lists various ills done by Camorra gang (including 4,000 murders in the 30 years), but had this been displayed at the start of film, it could have assisted us to understand the incidents and characters. Repeated viewings are a good option and it can help you to comprehend the story-lines. First time around, I was severely disappointed with “Gomorrah” since I expected a “City of God” or “Scarface” like gangster saga. But, subsequent viewings helped me to connect the dots and to understand its grim world-view. It later captivated me, since I liked the lack of flamboyant excesses of a traditional mob movie.

                                    “Gomorrah” can be best experienced if the viewer doesn’t concentrate too much on the plot (like what or why is it happening) and rather follow the characters’ movement. Corruption, murder, money and drugs are at the forefront like any other gangster cinema, but we don’t get the detailed explanations about this crime enterprise. The powerful and rich heads of the gang hide under shadows of mid-level bosses, who don’t live a large life like ‘Tony Montana’. The film reminds me of David Simon’s hard-hitting TV series “The Wire” and Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” (2000). Like ‘Wire’ the film shows how teenage drug dealers guarding their corners is interconnected with the cash counting mid-level bosses to high-level, million-dollar waste disposing businessmen.

                                    In “Gomorrah” there are no favorite characters to root for and the documentary-like camera work may put off most viewers. But, that exactly seems to be the idea of director Garrone. He doesn’t wants us give the camaraderie feeling about organized crime. There are also no neat resolutions and easy answers. Writer Saviano says “It's not the movie world that scans the criminal world for the most interesting behavior. The exact opposite is true”. These words are detailed in one story line, where two young guys play at being ‘Tony Montana’ and in the next scene lives their fantasy by robbing African crack-dealers.

                                  Strip clubs, weirdly structured real estate buildings, sweat shops and toxic wastes dumped quarries – the Italy we see in “Gomorrah” looks like a snake pit. However, the unflinching view of the ugly mob seems universal as every city in this world has its own version of ‘Camorra’. It clearly depicts how lawlessness and corruption itself becomes a powerful ‘system’, which pervades positive growth at every level. 


August 20, 2014

Starred Up -- An Unflinching and Soulful Prison Survival Drama

                                            David MacKenzie’s “Starred Up” (2013) opens with a young man, entering the confines of a prison. He is strip-checked, given new clothes and shown into his cell. Immediately after entering the cell, he melts a toothbrush and sticks a razor blade on one end, and then unscrews the tube light to hide his new weapon. This wordless opening scene makes you feel that it’s going to be one hell of a gritty prison drama like “Carandiru”, “Hunger”, “A Prophet” and “Shawshank Redemption” (without the redemption part). Such instincts don’t go wrong as the movie displays the grimness of prison life with an unflinching eye. The film hits at all the usual themes of prison drama – brawling, police corruption, sexual tension – but it does it all with a naturalism.

                                       “Starred Up” is the term given to the process by which loathsome young offenders are moved early to adult prison. 19 year old Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) is escorted through assorted prison hallways and arrives at a solo cell in high-risk section. The little yellow room with little furnishings and high window conveys a nauseating feeling, but Eric seems to be used to it as he has spent most of his life in some state institution. Soon after his arrival, Eric nearly kills one of the black inmates and beats up the prison guards. Prison therapist Oliver (Rupert Friend) attempts to rehabilitate Eric, but he is met with strong resistance.

                                     The only person who is able to control Eric is Neville (Ben Mendolsohn), Eric’s father who has been incarcerated for life. Neville is higher up in the prison gang and he displays unique methods to reduce Eric into a beseeching small boy. He asks him to join in Oliver’s class, where the prison’s tough cases go through anger management. While Oliver attempts to reform Eric, corrupted and dangerous elements like the warden (Sam Spruell) wants to ‘warehouse him’ or else finish him off by making it look like a suicide.

                                   The heavily accented British slang tinged with prison code words is really hard to follow, but director David MacKenzie have kept language in the secondary place as the story dynamics are played out perfectly in obvious physical terms. Every prison film has its own surrogate father-son relationship, but here it is given with a twist as the relationship becomes biological. The father-son bonding also doesn’t happen in a conventional manner as both the characters feel an embarrassment to recognize the relationship. It seems only feeling the father-son share is anger. The script is written by Jonathan Asser, who has his own work experiences as a prison therapist. So, there is authenticity in the way the therapy sessions unfold as all the alpha-males go through their emotions. The fictional therapist Oliver is shown as a guy who has his own set of anger problems. He seems to be infected by the prisoner’s problems, while trying to instill some hope.

                                   The father/son bond wavers into some scenes of melodrama (becomes a little sentimental), but for the most part it is naturalistic and soulful. The graphic violence doesn’t look exploitative. O’Connell gives a robust performance as the volatile and scary Eric. His on-screen behavior is too raw to categorize it as acting. Although O’ Connell isn’t physically intimidating like Tom Hardy in “Bronson”, he certainly looks dangerous especially in the way his character fights back without thinking about consequences. Tremendous Australian actor Mendelsohn is equally belligerent as his character tries to regain parental respect in a clumsy manner.

                                   Prisons are designed to deter the violence in society. “Starred Up” shows how hard it is to discourage violence and abuse, and instill hope inside prisons. The powerful performances and gritty script makes up for the flaws of this predictable story.