September 18, 2014

Frank -- What's Going On Inside 'That' Head?

                                        Late comedian and pop star Chris Sievey, one day popped up a giant papier mache mask on his head, became ‘Frank Sidebottom’, and tried to sing songs that were totally odd and eccentric from the regular ones. His music was said to be bit annoying and has only enjoyed an outsider status till his death. British film-maker Lenny Abrahamson’s “Frank” (2014) – the title character – wears such a giant head mask and is the leader of an unutterable avant-rock band called ‘Soronprfbs’. ‘Frank’ isn’t a biopic of Sievey, although the script (written by Jon Ronson) was loosely based on the writer’s brief stint as touring keyboard player with Sievey’s ‘Oh Blimey Big Band’. A-list Star Micheal Fassbender plays ‘Frank’, hiding himself behind that giant head mask, and the movie is an entirely different kind of beast; one that is bizarre, audacious and unpredictable.

                                       The film starts in the most amusing manner, as the aspiring musician Jon (Domnhall Gleeson) tries to come up with a song, while staring at different things in his dilapidated coastal town. He sings different deplorable, uninspired verses to himself, throughout the day (“Ladies have babies, that how it works….”; “Lady in the redcoat, what you doing with that bag…..”). Jon leads an uneventful life. He lives with his parents and has a boring desk job. However, his dream to become a musician comes true, when he meets the avant-garde rock band called ‘Soronprfbs’, whose keyboard player tries to drown himself in the beach. The band’s manager, Don (Scoot McNairy) immediately asks Jon to participate in the gig, that same night.

                                     The crowd is minimal, but the Jon is enamored by the band’s mysterious leader Frank. The songs consist of random words, sung without any harmonic intent. Frank wears a pumpkin-sized fake head, and never takes it off. He sips only liquid meals, and even his band mates haven’t seen him without the mask. The band members are also as odd as Frank: theremin player, Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is prone to sudden outbursts; a distant French bass player Baraque (Francois Civil); and the stark percussionist Nana (Carla Azar). Don, the band’s manager, has been a resident of psychiatric hospital, where he has met Frank. Don also has a thing for ‘mannequins’.

                                     Jon immediately jumps on board, when the band decides to camp at Ireland to write and record an album. Frank’s obsession to attain a new musical scale, wrings out many days. When money runs out, Jon contributes his ‘nest egg’. Jon is convinced about Frank’s musical talents. He believes Frank’s talents have come from mental illness and miserable childhood (“Miserable childhood, mental illness … How do I find that sort of inspiration?”). After 11 months, without composing a single song, Jon is devastated, but belief that this is the miserable childhood he never had, and that this might lead him to write and compose excellent songs.

                                   On the surface, “Frank”, might look like a light comedy, but at times it veers into the dark territory, where artist’s obsession leads to insanity. It is also a fine exploration of an artist’s grand vision that conflicts with his mediocre talents. The move takes on the myths surrounding pop singers. Jon believes that only mental illness or hard-won experience could give great talents that Frank boasts (conventional wisdom says: “great art is often created by troubled individuals”). He could never accept the fact Frank might be naturally good in writing songs. The movie is also about fame and the paradox it carries with itself. Jon blogs, and posts videos on ‘Youtube’, showcasing the band members’ eccentric antics. Slowly the fame, he envied reaches him through social media. He and his band is recognized, but only later it dawns on him that the fame haven’t made them out to be the  innovative musicians, but just as a band of freaks. 

                                 Fame is what changes Frank too, making him drastic. He wants people to like his songs and his band, but he isn’t able to handle the fame. This is where the movie asks that enigmatic question – what’s better for an eccentric, talented artist: to safely and satisfyingly work within a confined realm? Or tweak it a bit, giving the ‘likeable’ treatment, and in the process attain money and fame. The third act – the trip to America – seemed a bit conventional. It lacked unpredictability and the compelling nature of previous acts, but the ending was moving. It is also important to note that all the spiky songs (including the final one) were all performed live by the cast.

                                 The performances are all uniquely excellent. There is an irony in seeing an A-list star hiding behind a mask for most of the film’s running time. However, Fassbender works wonders with his sheer physical presence. His perfect body language showcases Frank as an unbridled energy source as well as a puppet, waiting to be moved by its master. Gyllenhaal gives an excellent performance as Clara that is both passive and dynamic. She is the only character, who seems to understand Frank and that he can’t survive in the mainstream world.

                                 “Frank” (95 minutes) isn’t a movie that caters to all tastes. It goes beyond being an eccentric comedy, as it profoundly examines the outsider or misunderstood art. 


September 16, 2014

The Fallen Idol -- A Powerless Child in a Hefty Adult World

                                          In our childhood, we might have felt the grandiosity of the adult world. Before losing all our innocence, we might come across the infallibility of our favorite persons (namely our parents). Truth and trust would be the words that might haunt a child, who tries to contemplate the adult world. British director Carol Reed’s subtle thriller “The Fallen Idol” (1948) gives such an insightful study about a child, whose ingenuousness is consumed by the burgeoning world views. The movie was based on 1935 short story “The Basement Room” by Graham Greene. The author has also written the screenplay and later went on to team up with Carol Reed for the classic film noir “The Third Man” (1949).  

                                       “The Fallen Idol” opens with a close-up shot of eight year old boy, Phile (Bobby Henrey). He sits at the staircase of top floor and watches his favorite butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson), who moves through that huge hall, trying to run the manor house. Phile’s enjoys a privileged life since he is the son of French ambassador to England. However, the boy spends much of his time on his own because his father is preoccupied with work and mother is in a hospital. As the film opens, ambassador embarks on a trip to bring his wife back to home. Phile, as usual, is left in the care of Baines and the condescending Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel).

                                      Phile idolizes Baines. He is like a father figure and also provides entertainment, tells grand adventure stories, and the significant thing is that Baines listens to the child. Apart from Baines, Phile’s most favorite companion is MacGregor, a pet snake, whom he hides behind a loose brick on a second-floor balcony. Mrs. Baines is the exact opposite of Baines. She is a bully who shows her anger on the boy and husband. Mrs. Baines punishes Phile to stay in his room for the whole afternoon. But, Phile after seeing Baines, from the balcony, taking a walk into the park, he goes after him.

                                      Phile runs through the park and streets and finally finds him a café. Baines happens to be with Julie (Michele Morgan), a pretty young embassy secretary, who seems to be conversing and crying. Baines says that Julie is his niece, and Phile doesn’t care as long as Baines buys him sweets. On returning to the house, Phile is asked not to tell anyone about their meeting with Julie. Baines says it’s a secret only they could share. However, when that little secret is wheedled out of helpless Phile by Mrs. Baines, things take a turn. Phile is gradually pulled into the world of scheming adults. The secrets only bring out catastrophe and Phile witnesses a horrible incident.  

                                    Graham Greene has initially deemed the story as unfilmable. However, Reed and Greene later partnered in to bring a tantalizing psychological study of a child, thrown amongst infidelity and murder. The themes explored in this movie were later structured wonderfully in some great movies like “The Spirit of Beehive”, “Cria Cuervos”, “Pans Labyrinth”, but the one thing that separates those movies from “Fallen Idol” is its slackened, farcical ending. In fact, the unhappy ending in the original story was changed. Although, Phile happily reunites with his parents, the ending is laced with sarcasm, as we don’t know how the child will then on look at the adults.

                                     The joy of watching “The Fallen Idol” lays in the questions the movie raises about children. When Phile enters into café after watching Baines and Julie in the window, both of them carry on their lover’s chat, slightly ignoring the child’s presence. As a viewer, this scene makes us wonder about how much the child understood about this adult situation. Phile definitely grasps the mood (as Julie is crying, feeling bad about these secret meetings), and so when Baines introduces as her niece, Phile later replies: "Funny isn't it that Julie worked in the embassy, and all the time she was your niece”.

                                       Reed and his cinematographer’s (Georges Perinal) elegant and stylized angels, set at the embassy, makes that place as one of the characters in film, hiding cold truths within its walls. The sharp high-angle and low-angle shots plus the shots of the staircases contribute a lot in maintaining the sense of danger. Initially, Phile watches the adults from the top staircase, and they all seem small compared to the vast space inside the house. Over the course of the movie, the space around Phile closes in, giving him a disturbing and burgeoning point of view on the adult’s world. The film also boasts some excellent editing, especially in the sequence when Baines and his wife argue on the staircase landing, as Phile runs down the fire escape, watching various stages in the couple’s quarrel.  Director Reed excellently constructs a performance out of Bobby Henrey. The child is a non-professional and perfectly behaves like a real nine-year old. He is annoying as well as sweet.

                                      “The Fallen Idol” (95 minutes) is steeped in wit and compassion to showcase the moral ambiguity, prevalent in human relationships. The incisive direction and the deep-focus cinematography gives us a pleasurable movie experience. 


September 12, 2014

Cure -- A Detective's Maddening Quest

                                              Japanese film-maker Kiyoshi Kurosawa is best known for his unsettling films with metaphysical plot structures. His movies have a bleak austerity, and the characters remain alienated. “Cure” (1997) was one of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s best movies, which highly concentrates on atmosphere rather than the central mystery. Although the movie comes under the ‘Serial-killer’ genre, it doesn’t possess the great cat-and-mouse game, we saw in Hollywood movies like “Seven” or “Silence of the Lambs”.  Its plot structure is quite different and finishes at a point without giving us neatly packaged answers. “Cure” is Kurosawa’s take on ‘identity’ in an inhibited society. The film’s details are placed in an intricate manner and might baffle the passive viewers.

                                          The movie beings in a well-lit hospital room and a woman sit astride, reading the story of ‘Bluebeard’. In the next sequence, a prostitute is clubbed to death in a hotel. Detective Takabe (Koji Yakusho) and psychologist Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki) investigate the crime scene and confirm the fact that it is another homicide, where the victims have a massive ‘X’ carved into their torso/neck. However, the perpetrators are caught in every case, and they don’t remember the gruesome act of murder. In fact, Takabe finds the killer of prostitute in an air-shaft, cowering naked. All the perpetrators seem to be ordinary citizens, who fall suddenly under the grip of some weird compulsion.

                                       The crimes also don’t have any motive. Detective Takabe bears the pressure of solving these strings of senseless murders.  Takabe is married to a woman, who is mentally unstable and tries hard to keep up with her. A wandering, enigmatic, and amnesiac man (Masato Hagiwara) in the beach asks a guy, ‘where is he’? The guy tells the name of the place, but the drifter forgets everything within 30 seconds. The good-natured guy, a teacher who married his high-school sweet-heart, takes him to his house, and finds out from the jacket that the drifter’s name is ‘Mamiya’. The drifter flicks up his lighter and starts asking the good-natured guy some questions. The next day, the wife of the guy lays dead with an ‘X’ carved on her stomach and her husband tries to commit suicide. The drifter is nowhere to be found.

                                       Takabe investigates the teacher and the guy says that he remembers killing his wife, but doesn’t know why and totally forgets about the strange drifter. Soon, similar types of gruesome crimes happen at a faster rate (a police man kills his colleague; a general practitioner tears out a guy’s face using surgeon’s wife). Eventually, all these crimes are linked to the presence of a ‘strange hypnotist’. Takabe finds out that the stranger might be a former medical student, obsessed with mesmerism and hypnotism. However, the strange guy throws off all forms of verbal communication by persistently asking series of irritating questions. Takabe wants to find the answers to the mystery, and may be in those answers he could find the ‘cure’ for his distressed personal and professional life. 

                                      “Cure” isn’t a thriller that travels from point A to B, by marvelously positioning a mystery and neatly answering it the end. If watched attentively, the film will stalk, creep and will submerge inside us, asking many puzzling questions. The film starts off like a usual police-procedural fashion, where the detective and his side-kick psychiatrist ponder over the crimes’ patterns. However, we come across the killer, very earlier, and we pretty much know how he does it. The only question remains at that point is ‘why’, which is what takes us through a psychological maze, leaving us stranded in the middle. Even in the end we don’t have answers, but we can form our own theories to say that this is what Kurosawa intended. So, the generic elements of thriller are only there to draw us in, and once you are in, the story become ambiguous, where the director doesn’t spell everything out (similar to David Lynch in “Mulholland Drive”).

                                      The triumphant part of Kurosawa’s direction lies in creating the ambient atmosphere, where everything from a gramophone to a humming washing machine sounds eerily. The pacing is very relaxed, but the director imbues certain uneasiness that makes us not to look away or blink our eyes. Although it was filmed on a paltry sum, the images are far better than a generic Hollywood thriller. He creates great impact in the killing scenes by keeping a distanced, dispassionate distance, without making a cut. These shocking scenes increase our dread, whenever ‘Mamiya’ comes across other’s lives asking: “Who are you”?  

                                    Kurosawa’s themes and offerings could be considered as bleak and pessimistic. In this film, the themes is that ‘cure’ is possible for human soul only when he removes him from inhibitions and stays ‘free’ to do what he wanted to. Sadly, that cure seems to be gruesome murders – the persons, who keep the perpetrators from staying ‘free’. Mamiya seems to affect everyone in the close vicinity, with his concept of ‘freeing’. Takabe seems to the only who resists Mamiya’s manipulations, except for that scene, when Takabe imagines that his wife has hanged herself.

                               Kurosawa also likes to ponder over the behavior of Japanese men. Like in Shohei Immamura movies, the protagonist or any men in a Kurosawa film seem to repress their genuine emotions or true thoughts. Most of the men in his films don’t seem to know what their ‘self’ is. Takabe isn’t sure who he really is or doesn’t know what he should cling with – be a talented detective (societal responsibility) or a caring husband (personal responsibility). In another simple scene at the dry-cleaners, while Takabe is standing, an owner mutters angrily in the background, but when he emerges and faces the customers, he interacts as if he is the polite man on earth. These are small intricate details, which don’t help us to solve the mystery, but clears on what Kurosawa intended to give us. The ending leaves us our head scratching, contemplating the various possibilities from then on.  

                                    “Cure” (112 minutes) is an ambiguous thriller that chucks out all the conventional story-telling language of this genre. It takes the idea of mind control to a frightening notion, one that has hefty amount of emotional weight. 


September 10, 2014

Kontroll -- A Metaphorical Ride into the Metros

                                       In movies, metros or tube systems are usually shown to establish the mundane lifestyle of a character. The same system is used to distill a fine action/adventure sequence, where the hero chases the villain or when the hero saves lives from the mitts of a deadly monster, living underground. US born Hungarian director Nimrod Antal’s “Kontroll” (Control, 2003) is about existentialism as well as has some good low-key action sequences, but the only difference is that , the movie is fully set in this neon-lighted underworld, where the subway system becomes a character in itself, than just being a mere backdrop. “Kontroll” is an allegorical journey (allegory of what? you would definitely come up with various theories in the end) that is more concerned with the atmosphere. It possesses a mystery at its center, and instead of answering the mystery, it only throws more questions (beguiling ones) at us.

                                    The movie starts with a disclaimer of sorts, where a public transit official of Budapest reads from a clipboard that the movie might cause some unfavorable impression on subway employees. However, the same man reads that the film-maker’s intentions are only ‘symbolic’ and that the film’s themes are universal. I certainly don’t know the reality within Budapest Public Transit System, but Antal evocatively creates a setting with an intimate realism, which looks like a netherworld with its own rituals and culture. In this world, the ticket collectors (or ‘controllers’) are the cursed beings. They are not the clean, uniformed ones we usually see in films. These controllers are identified by a red-and-black armbands, and apart from collecting tickets, they also collect the citizens’ contempt.

                                    The controllers’ primary task is to maintain order in the metros and to make sure than nobody gets a free ride. Although on the outset it looks like an easy job, after looking at the drunks, weirdos and thugs, their task seems to be formidable. The movie centers on Bulcsu (Sandor Csanyi), the head of one of the ticket inspection squad. He seems to be hiding from his past life. He lives 24 hours inside the underworld, where he constantly fights off with other rival gangs of ticket inspectors. Bulcsu team has four unkempt, eccentric men: cynical, chain-smoking. Mucsi; a lanky, sort-tempered narcoleptic, Muki; a geeky new-comer, Tibi; and the short, blusterous Lecso.

                                    These ragtag guys often engage themselves in absurd duels with riders, who hate any kind of authority. A pimp offers one of his girls, but refuses to buy a ticket; a tourists laughs off at ticket inspectors, hiding behind language barrier; sexual harassment shouts a woman, when asked for the ticket; a guy threatens with a syringe; and a woman puts even puts a curse on one of the inspector by blowing powder in his face. Amidst all this, Bulcsu’s team is constantly badgered by Bootsie – prankster and a fast runner, who likes to spray foam on inspectors’ faces. In such a crazy world, there is a sinister force – a mysterious black-hooded guy, who shoves passengers in front of oncoming trains. Bulcsu, at last finds his solace after meeting with a beautiful bear-suited young girl, Sfozi (Eszter Bella). Her angelic presence could be described as ‘light at the end of the tunnel.’

                                      The articulate camerawork and fluid shots reminds us of “Run Lola Run” (1998), whereas the high-strung depiction of urban psychology is reminiscent of Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976). The disaffected characterization of Csanyi as the Bulcsu resembles the ones played by young Al Pacino (of ‘Serpico’ days), whom similarly outruns various kind of demons that lurks around every corner. Unlike Luc Besson (in“Subway”) or Joseph Sargent’s (in “Talking of Pelham One Two Three”), Antal efficiently imbues a layer of metaphysics into the plot’s mix of action, suspense, and romance. There are hectic foot chase as well as interludes, where Bulcsu (both symbolically and vertaibly) explores the subway’s depths. However, it is a sad fact that director Antal, after “Kontroll”, has only made generic average thriller fares like “Predators” (2010), “Vacancy”, and “Armored”.

                                      The metro system really forms a cumulative impact upon the viewer. When we see the trains coming in and out, its doors closing and opening in empty and filled stations, we feel a metaphorical significance. The subway becomes the symbol for a battered city, where its ceaseless, repeating pattern of actions makes the citizens weary of their lives. The deadpan answers of denizens to ticket inspectors might be reminiscent of Eastern European brand of sarcasm, but the people’s scorn for authority is universal (as if the scorn is the only thing that is keeping them alive). It is also important to note that the ‘controllers’ are shown as belligerent with the characteristics of bullies. However, the cause for belligerence is quoted earlier, in the film by a wise, chain-smoking guy: “If you’re surrounded by aggressive people, you run a risk of also becoming one – it’s like a vicious circle.”
                                   “Kontroll” could be viewed as an allegory for hell, where a girl dressed like fairy saves our protagonist or it could be just ruminations on human existence, as in one scene, Bulcsu comes across a cement wall at the end of subway, which might harshly symbolize our life’s limitations. We never know about the real identity of Bulcsu and the serial-killer. There are theories that bring out a “Fight Club” like vibe to this mystery, but this open-endedness about the identities is what makes the film a compelling and grimy fable.

                                   “Kontroll” (110 minutes) is a darkly comic existential drama with serpentine surprises. It is about persistent human beings, who lead an exhaustible life in a place where the sun don’t shine.