July 1, 2015

The Vanishing – An Inexorable and Psychologically Dense Thriller

                                              It could be said that irrationality is one of vital elements for creating terror on-screen. The existence of irrational behavior does frighten us. However, in most of horror genre flicks, the irrational acts are carried out by supernatural beings –Werewolf, vampires, alien monsters, ghosts etc. Then we also have the mad scientists, serial killers & slashers, who belong to our human race, but the dark overtones of those characters often, paint them as a human-faced monster. Dutch film-maker George Sluizer’s “The Vanishing" aka “Spoorloos” (1988) depicts irrational & obsessed behavior of two individuals and one among them is a dreadful killer. But, “Spoorloos” is neither a ‘jump-off-your-seat’ scary film nor a hair-rising thriller. The terror the film imbues on our mind is more psychological and philosophical. The evil is depicted in the movie is methodical, trained and even rehearsed.

                                            A typical film on sociopathic personalities shows the individual committing the brutal, murderous act (“How”), then some intelligent investigator uncovers the ‘why’ and finally the script zeroes-in on ‘who’. But, “The Vanishing” totally reverses this order. ‘Who’ is revealed earlier, whereas ‘why’ is gradually explained from the killer’s perspective. And ‘how’ isn’t as complex as a Keigo Hagashino novel (“Devotion of Suspect X”). So, the basic setup here is fairly simple and accessible (can be enjoyed at a superficial level) without any mind-bending mystery. At the same time those who want to dig deeper into the film’s subtle notes will find a lot of contemplative questions. “The Vanishing” was based on Tim Krabbe’s novel “The Golden Egg” (the novelist wrote the film’s screenplay) and opens with a young Dutch couple, Rex Hofman (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia Watger (Johanna ter Steege), embarking on their cycling holiday in France.

                                           It is suggested that this trip a major step in their relationship. Like any other couple, Rex and Saskia tell jokes, laugh and often say ‘love you’. Saskia talks about her recurring dream in which she is trapped in a golden egg, adrift in space. She says that in her recent dream she also saw Rex trapped in a golden egg, which is close to her. Later, the bickering starts when their car sputters to a stop in the middle of a long tunnel. But, soon Rex and Saskia are standing below a tree with smiles, burying two golden coins. Rex promises that he would never abandon her. The elated Saskia goes into a large gas station to buy drinks for the last leg of their trip. Rex waits, takes some photographs, and then waits for a long time. He shows Saskia’s photograph and asks if anyone has seen her. One says that she was talking to a man, while other guy says that she got into a car.

                                          Rex goes into the full panic mood and realizes that she has been kidnapped. The police ask him to wait at least till morning and are 100 percent that it is a domestic squabble. She might have got fed up and left him. But then, we know that’s not possible: Saskia seems to be truly in love with Rex; and there is a bespectacled middle-aged man with a fractured man scanning Saskia’s movements. We meet Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), the man who possibly abducted Saskia. But, he doesn’t look like a perpetrator. He lives in material comfort with his wife and two lovely daughters. It is soon evident that the methodical Raymond is planning to abduct a random young woman. We don’t know ‘why’, but after endless rehearsals and dull planning, we see Raymond standing on the gas station, looking at attractive Saskia.

Spoilers Ahead

                                        Donnadieu’s Rayomond is one of cinema’s rare self-satisfied sociopath with an unearthly calm. The most shocking thing about Raymond is not that he has a loving family, but the organized way he works to attain his evil achievement. Raymond neither bears any psychological bruises nor has hidden assortment of murderous weapons in his basement. His means for murder are a desolated guest house, chloroform, and a stopwatch. In the later part of the movie, we have an answer to why Raymond plans his evil deed in this manner. As a man of science, he just applies the same principle: he develops a basic idea, then ponders over it, and conducts incessant dry runs before acting upon. The tension and elation we see in Donnadieu’s face is a bit more disturbing than the ones we saw in the faces of Christian Bale (“American Psycho”) or Choi Min-sik (“I Saw the Devil”) because here, the perpetrator approaches the evil act as just another one of his intelligent pursuit. Unlike, other on-screen ruthless killers, Raymond isn’t acting out an impulse to do evil; he is just checking whether he is capable of doing such savage things.

                                       Obsession is one of the main themes in “Spoorloos”. Rex’s obsession is driven by his emotions (love), whole Raymonds’ is driven by his intellect. One could be considered good and the other evil, but the script from Tim Krabbe juxtaposes the obsessive behavior meticulously, which complicates the simple issues of evil and good. Rex isn’t a muscle-bound guy on the path of vengeance. He just wants to know about Saskia’s fate and wants to keep up that promise he made when he buried the coins. Earlier, in the movie, Rex abandons Saskia inside the tunnel to get gas for his car. She cries out his name to leave her in the dark, but Rex walks off with a little smile. Later, he says that “In the tunnel, when you called for me (as he was walking away), I felt that I loved you more than ever”. These words subtly suggests on Rex’s mindset and his never-ceasing obsession. On the other hand, for Raymond, his obsession is just a grand philosophical thought or another milestone to be achieved within the tedious middle-class life.

                                      The darkly comic and ironic twists moments are aplenty in “The Vanishing”. Rex says to his new girlfriend Lieneke that if, given the choice, he would assume Saskia is dead, and would give all to know what happened. Rex’s words takes on an ironic twist in the end, when he consciously chooses his own death. Throughout the film, Raymond gets new ideas and furthers upon his evil plan, whenever he is having a good time with his family. An act of heroism, a birthday party gift, and eventually the family photo resting on the dashboard of the car helps Raymond to attain his fixation.  

                                     Upon its release, Director George Sluizer’s visual motifs were said to be compared with best works of Alfred Hitchcock. Although Sluizer never became an established stylist like Hitchcock, he does imbue some wonderful & striking visual themes. Circular objects signifying Saskia’s dream about golden eggs constantly recur in the film. The dream suggests how the couples’ fates are linked. The adjoining golden coins under the tree reminisces Rex of that dream and makes him to take the most irrational decision. Saskia also says that in the dream they are in separate golden eggs, but not touching. The film’s final image showcases a newspaper report about Rex and Saskia, whose pictures are in ovals, side by side, not touching. The visual motifs sort of tell the viewer that Rex buried alive inside the coffin isn’t some clever twist ending, but only an inevitable one. The film-maker also subtly suggests on why Raymond has chosen this method of killing in one brief sequence with the traffic police. The shocking ending might have now lost its novelty by now, because Hollywood and other film fraternities have repeatedly used it in some deplorable escapist fares. But, “The Vanishing” is not a film like “Usual Suspects” or “The Prestige”, where knowing the ending just spoils the experience.  

                                        “The Vanishing” (107 minutes) is a darkly compelling study about human curiosity, obsession, and selfishness. It plunges into the mindset of a sociopathic personality without exhibiting the usual genre manipulations. 


June 29, 2015

Inside Out – Yet another Profound Pixar Masterpiece

                                             For the past two decades, Pixar Animation studios (starting from “Toy Story” (1995)) have put together astounding visual feats with strong narratives that were funny, soul-stirring & profoundly beautiful. In their works, the core film-making members of the studio – John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Brad Bird – paid fitting tributes to every cinematic achievement, from the lovely little silent movies to the deeply artistic works of Anime master Hayao Miyazaki. However, the studio’s course of sustained excellence nearly came to a halt as it imparted us with average flicks with little originality. Pixar had gone into a slumber, after that genuine tear-jerker -- “Toy Story 3”. “Cars 2”, “Brave”, and “Monsters University” were all entertaining, but it certainly weren’t emotionally involving experience. And, after the announcement of sequels to “Finding Nemo”, “The Incredibles” & “Toy Story”, it felt that Pixar was also infected by the famous ‘franchise’ virus of Hollywood.  

                                          Later, when I saw the 1st trailer of “Inside Out”, which was touted to be directed by the maker of “Monsters Inc.” & Up”, it didn’t seem that much impressive. It appeared that “Inside Out” will turn a unique concept to include the beaten-down, conventional ideas of animated flicks. But, director Pete Docter has absolutely uprooted all our per-ordained thoughts by giving us a madly-inventive film that turns a ‘hard-to-grasp’ abstract concept into a grandly entertaining movie. “Inside Out” (2015) is not just the best of Pixar or of animated films; it’s an astonishingly great psychological thriller that puts a smile on all our faces. We have seen actors conveying their characters’ emotions through body language and voices, but here the emotions themselves are the central characters.

                                         Fear, Disgust, Joy, Sadness, and Anger – the five basic emotions that drive our behavior are the stars of the film and they are residing in control headquarters (brain) of a pre-teen girl named Riley. Joy is characterized as illuminating pixie of exuberance. She solely fights against other headquarter colleagues, to keep things up-beat for Riley. Sadness is a plump, blue-colored girl, who is unsure of her role in HQ and ruins every memory she touches. Fear is a purple, slender figure with nervous ticks. The green-colored Disgust forces Riley to be sarcastic & judgmental. And, the block-shaped, red-colored Anger is always on the lookout to charge up its fire. Outside the Central HQ is the vast mind-scape, which is sparsely populated with ‘personality islands’.

                                        The 11 year old Riley has had a joyful life with her two loving parents. Her childhood in Minnesota is occupied with best friends and ice hockey. So far, Riley has developed five personality islands: Hockey Island, Friendship Island, Family Island, Honesty Island, and Goofball Island (indicating her playfulness and sense of humor). These five islands are those that provide her emotional-stability. But, calamity strikes soon as Riley’s parents decide to move to San Francisco. Joy does her best to keep Riley engaged, but when every time Sadness touch Riley’s vital memory – depicted as a crystal marble – it becomes an unhappy one. Later, an accident plunges down Joy and Sadness (along with Riley’s core memories) into the furthest dark corners of the brain, leaving Fear, Disgust, and Anger to take control of HQ. Now, Joy & Sadness must find their way to HQ before Riley make mistakes that can’t be fixed.

                                        Like the montage sequence in “Up”, director Pete Docter fills “Inside Out” with delicate moments that makes grown men & women weep. On the outset, it is a very simple tale about a girl dealing with family relocation and losing her childhood friends. But, the director turns such a run-down premise into an epic fantasy that is full of inventive, high-concept thoughts. Only talented Pixar film-makers could create such a complex world and explain it with some brief & dazzling expositions. The level of inventiveness here is so high and the density of details is so dense that it is hard to marvel at every visual within a single viewing. Pete Docter takes us through abstarct psychological concepts of Sigmund Freud and into the surrealist interior mind-scapes of Dali, without ever losing the vision on dramatic clarity.

                                    If a genius creator has pitched the idea of “Inside Out” to some Hollywood Studio executive before the mid 90’s, he/she would be deemed insane. They might have asked ‘are you stupid to make a film solely based on a kid’s emotions?’ But, now the existence of “Inside Out” proves that there is still abundant hope & energy within the franchise-frenzy Hollywood. The stylized and innocent inner world of this animated feature has few parallels with toy world of Lasseter’s animation flick. Both films were about the creatures of micro-worlds trying to solve a bigger emotional crisis, by making an odd, epic journey.

                                  On paper, all of Pixar’s plot structures look cloying and pretentious (you could say that ‘Up’ is just about an old widower making an unbelievable trip to a South American Island). But, onscreen the studio’s film-makers imbue enough magic to bring out a huge emotional impact. The vivid, state-of-art images, Docter cooks up are remarkably poignant because every one of us knows what growing up means. We know why our childhood images are the best and purest and Riley’s age is the perfect & first time, when we humans experience the thing called ‘bittersweet’.  

                                  The subtle facial expressions we witness in Riley’s face are some of the best in computer-generated imagery. The bright primary colors imbue an astonishing look to the film. The terrains such as Imagination Land, Abstract Thought, Subconscious (“trouble-makers”), and Dream Productions (the setting reminds us of Docter’s “Monsters Inc.”) were all ingeniously designed. These settings itself holds some clever visual gags (like the sequence that explains how TV advertisements get stuck in our heads).  Apart from the pivotal characters, the most interesting one was ‘Bing Bong’ – Riley’s imaginary friend, who seems to be wandering around the recesses of memories. It is a character cloaked in ludicrous outfit but exerts enough emotional pull within its short space.

                                  “Inside Out” (94 minutes) is a witty film, filled with bedazzling images, that showcases how nostalgia and sense of loss is as much important as exuberance. With this soul-stirring meta-story, Pixar once again proves that it is at the top of its game.


June 17, 2015

In the Bedroom – An Excruciating Emotional Journey

                                         ‘A middle-class or a suburban family facing an unbearable tragic event’ is an often repeated story line in movies. Such modern tragic films try to latch onto the characters, bringing out their raw emotions. However, more often such works turn into melodramatic showpieces, where the film-maker and the actors work in tandem to manipulate the viewers’ emotions. Themes like grief and death would only get a skin-deep exploration as the script works its way to put our favorite actor in a most tear-jerking moment. Todd Field’s intimate and elegiac family drama “In the Bedroom” (2001) stands apart from such aforementioned works. The tragedy in the film was approached with psychological nuances and the powerfully understated performance (without any over-wrought close-ups) makes us genuinely feel the characters’ emotional trauma.

                                       Of course, the film’s title seems a bit dubious. It might make some viewers to expect a film on the adulterous affair of an estranged couple. Although the movie itself subtly hints at the meaning behind the title, revered movie critic Roger Ebert sums it up best in his review: “the title (In the Bedroom) refers not to sex but to the secrets, spoken, unspoken, and dreamed, that are shared at night when two people close the door after themselves”. Based on the short story (“Killings”) by Andre Dubus, “In the Bedroom” starts off like a feel-good romantic story, where a beautiful girl and boy run through tall grass & warm breeze, and passionately kiss on the ground.  But the girl, Natalie (Marisa Tomei) is at least a decade older than the boy, Frank (Nick Stahl), who has just finished his high school and spending his summertime as a part-time lobster-man.

                                        Natalie has two young sons and a not-yet-divorced, unstable husband, Richard (William Mapother). Frank lives with his doctor dad, Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson) and mom Ruth (Sissy Spacek), a high school music teacher. They all live in an idyllic & quiet Maine fishing town. Matt, in one of his fishing trips with Frank and Natalie’s son, Jason, states what happens when two male lobsters are caught in a trap with a female. However, Matt doesn’t inquire on Natalie’s husband lurking behind the lovers’ vicinity. Matt, the overly loving & lenient father doesn’t judge his son’s affair, even when he comes home with a bruise (after a fight with Richard). Ruth, however, disapproves the affair totally, and repeatedly doubts Frank’s answer that it is only a summertime fling. Frank truly loves Natalie and her sons, and secretly thinks about not going to college. Nevertheless, a tragedy suddenly strikes and leaves the characters to walk in daze with pent-up, incendiary emotions.

Spoilers Ahead

                                        Todd Field, who has played small roles in movies like “Twister”, “Eyes Wide Shut”, makes an outstanding directorial debut with “In the Bedroom”. Careful spectators couldn’t mask their surprise on how Field’s first attempt on direction remains subtle as well as intense. Field has co-written the script with Robert Festinger (he also makes his debut). The duo gradually constructs a revenge scenario, but never provides the viewers the much-expected emotional catharsis. It is unbelievable that such a confident film-maker and meditative script-writer had only worked in one film after this 2001 film (Field made “Little Children” in 2006; and Festinger wrote the script for “Trust”).

                                      Frank’s character is written as a budding & talented architect. In one earlier scene, he explains to Natalie about a architectural design that has intrigued him: a home design where a common room is constructed between adult and child bedrooms. Frank believes that with such a design, families would spill into the center (and forced to communicate). We don’t the reason behind Frank’s fascination with this type of architecture, but as we gradually grasp the design of Fowler’s house in the later part, we could understand Frank. After the tragic death of Frank, the awkwardly designed Fowler’s home helps in an indirect way to keep Matt and Ruth at a distance. Director Field silently and separately observes the estranged couple as they are trapped behind the house’ windows & doors. Matt and Ruth run around the house rarely exchanging words and glances, fearing that it would only lead to a fiery battle of emotions.

                                      At one point, the pent-up emotions bursts out, making the couples to lash out on each other. But Field & Festinger confines the verbal warfare more in the territory of Bergman (deep & contemplative) rather than use it to give the viewers an emotional comfort. The conflict and the distance between Matt & Ruth haven’t entirely vanished, but somehow they have learned to empathize with one another. Many viewers might be irked at the middle-section of the film, where no meaningful conversation happens. But, that is exactly Field’s point: words could never easily relieve our loss. The director repeatedly showcases the futile atmosphere surrounding the character (like buying groceries, watching non-stop chatter in TV) to make us feel the characters’ emotional emptiness. Apart from being subdued study of grief & loss, the film is also a fine examination of vengeance.

                                      Revenge scenario usually makes us to demand for the perpetrator’s blood. And, as Matt Fowler travels down that path (following Richard’s activities); we are with him (we want him to succeed). But, Field has perfectly devised these sequences in order to make us feel the ultimate hollowness behind vengeance. The director’s decision to keep Frank’s death off-screen helps to lend a layer to Richard’s generally smarmy & egotistical character, especially in those final scenes. The happy portrait of Richard & Natalie plus the children’s drawing pasted on the wall of Richard’s house adds some subjectivity to Richard’s character. So, in the end when Richard is shot in cold blood, we only feel that nothing is resolved or accomplished.

                                      Despite the visually brilliant direction and subtle writing, the film could have easily ended up being dull, if not for the potently effective performances from Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson. Spacek embodies all of Ruth’s imperfections and anguish. She perfectly displays the emotions of a women, who has lost control over her life and in turn holds on to rage. Wilkinson taps onto the tortured-self of Matt, who thinks that committing murder is the only way to stifle his grief. He is particularly great in those little moments, when Matt constantly comes across things that either reminds him of Frank or Richard.  

                                    “In the Bedroom” (131 minutes) is an emotionally complex and troubling study of human grief, without a hint of weepy melodrama. Its lack of closure would definitely make you brood on it for days. 


June 12, 2015

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter – A Lonely Woman’s Onerous Dream

                                             Coen Brothers’ much heralded, stylish neo-noir, “Fargo” (1996) made a devious claim that incidents portrayed in the film are based on a true story (“The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987” says the opening title card). By falsely inserting the phrase ‘based on a true story’, the Coens’ tried to comment on how even narratives based on such phrases has little truth in it and to poke fun at a viewers’ gullibility on accepting every story as some form of fact. In November 2001, a Japanese woman named Takako Konishi was found dead in the snow fields near Detroit lakes, Minnesota. The media initiated rumors that the Tokyo office worker has embarked on a journey to find the money buried by actor Steve Buscemi’s character in the film “Fargo”, believing that the events are real.

                                           A 2003 documentary, titled “This is a True Story”, by American writer/director Paul Berczeller debunked the myth surrounding Konishi’s death. It was discovered that the depressed & jobless Japanese woman has committed suicide (after sending a suicide note to her parents) near Detroit lakes, and she had come to Minneapolis because it was a place she has once visited with her married American lover. American film-makers David and Nathan Zellner zeroes in on the urban legend behind Konishi’s death, and makes it a basis for a strangely beguiling adventure “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” (2015). Zellner brothers treat the silly, impulsive premise with great seriousness, and it mostly works, thanks to an enigmatic performance by Rinko Kikuchi (“Babel”, “Pacific Rim”) in the titular role. Despite the instantly sensational plot premise, “Kumiko” could be best described as a glacially-paced character study of a socially disoriented soul.

                                        The film-makers’ empathetic approach to the central character is visible in the ambiguous opening scene itself, where Kumiko dressed like ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ finds a battered VHS copy of “Fargo” inside a surrealistic seaside cave. After playing &re-playing the damaged copy several times, we could guess that she is intrigued by couple of sequences: the opening title card, which says that ‘events portrayed in the film are true’; and the denouement, where a million bucks is buried in the snow and the place marked with a window scraper. Kumiko, who loves to find treasures, believes that the buried money is a ticket out of her depressing & dissatisfying life. Kumiko is a deeply withdrawn, 29 year old office worker. She hates the patriarchal corporate setting. Her boss’ increasingly degrading requests tempts her to spit in his tea. Kumiko’s over-bearing mother taunts her with questions on phone, relating to promotion, marriage, and boyfriend.

                                         The woman’s only companion is a pet rabbit, named ‘Bunzo’. When both the familial and professional frustration reach a threshold point, Kumiko decides to embark on the treasure hunt. After stealing the company credit card, the naive woman flies over to Minnesota. The Mid-Western state’s featureless & extremely cold landscape hampers the trip, although the people she encounters help her in a general sense. A well-meaning local sheriff (David Zellner) after hearing Kumiko’s quest, points out the obvious: ‘It’s just a normal movie. Fake, like a story’. Nonetheless, Kumiko couldn’t be dissuaded as she feels that discovering the buried suitcase is her destiny.

                                        On the outset, Kumiko’s quest is obviously absurd, but the film-makers never treat it in that manner. Instead, the character (in her tiny red-hooded form) comes off as a fairy-tale figure making a perilous journey, pursued by malignant forces. Zellner brothers tap into the allure of films, which builds scenarios to escape from our mundane lives. Entertainment in a kindles our desire and makes us to act like the person on-screen. But, then Kumiko’s obsession didn’t just born out of desire; its roots are entrenched in her alienation and depression. Zellners don’t give us any strong evidence on why Kumiko firmly embraces a particular fiction, ignoring the obvious truth. However, the woman’s conviction could be seen from a Herzogian perspective (Herzog’s “Stroszek” (1977) is also about a insane quest), where we can never understand why certain people do certain things. Those who impatiently wait for answers would hate this film deeply and a very predictable ending doesn’t work to the movie’s advantage. 

                                         There are few elements in “Kumiko” that works in sync with “Fargo”: parallels could be drawn between ill-fated natures of Kumiko & Macy’s Jerry Lundgaard; the sheriff’s clumsy, but genuine gestures puts in mind the Frances McDormand’s deputy character. Although depression is one of the plot’s central themes, the Zellners doesn’t miss out the chances to imbue dark & ironic comedy. The sheriff, in one scene, takes Kumiko to a Chinese restaurant and asks the owner to act as a translator; in another scene, the same Sheriff, who points out ‘Fargo is just a normal movie’, persuasively notes how the statue of Paul Bunyan’s (an American folklore on a giant lumberjack) Ox named ‘Babe’ isn’t anatomically correct, ever since a drunk shot off the statue’s privates.

                                        Rinko Kikuchi’s impressively dour performance redeems the film from just being a mishmash of cognitive themes. Regardless of the character’s nature, Kikuchi downcast journey earns sympathy from the viewers. The little character traits like thinking herself as a ’Spanish Conquistador’ or making notes & embroidering map locations adds a texture to the role rather than making us to simply view Kumiko as a woman in dire need of mental treatment. However, despite Kikuchi’s presence, the proceedings do become stale at some points. Immensely talented cinematographer Sean Porter’s delightful aesthetics helps us to overcome some of the digressing phases. In Tokyo, Porter captures Kumiko through crowded doorways, narrow aisle or library stacks to showcase her inclination towards a better destiny. The bright clothes of Kumiko are also not just used to impart catchy aesthetics. It sort of fits her character too, on how she remains as a contrasting figure amidst all the socially sane beings.

                                         “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” (104 minutes) is an ingeniously shot, little unsatisfying character study about a quixotic soul, disappeared between the line dividing fact and fiction.