July 28, 2015

Dead Ringer – An Underrated 60’s Thriller with Few Campy Twists

                                             The instant critical and commercial success of Robert Aldrich’s “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” (1962) more or less gave birth to a new sub-genre. “Baby Jane” was about two faded, sibling actresses (played by Bette Davis and Joan Crawford), residing in a decaying Hollywood mansion. The film tracks the downward spiral of Jane’s mental health as pent-up guilt and antagonisms take over. Despite being a psychological thriller, “Baby Jane” had quite a few thematic similarities to Billy Wilder’s ever-green classic “Sunset Blvd.” (1950). The incredible success of this film brought back many other older actresses to silver-screen for similar projects. Black comedy, revenge, and melodrama became the significant elements of these films, and colloquially the sub-genre was termed as ‘Psycho-biddy’.

                                           However, the interest for such thrillers (criminally insane women with a glamorous past) fizzled out in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Critics who were fed up with this kind of narrative nicknamed the genre “hag horror” & “hagsploitation". In 1964, Bette Davis re-united with director Robert Aldrich for “Hush ….Hush, Sweet Charlotte”, touted to be a follow-up for “Baby Jane”. Aldrich marvelously used the Southern Gothic atmosphere to concoct a superior thriller. In the same year, Bette Davis also starred in a much under-rated Hitchcockian thriller “Dead Ringer” (1964), directed by Paul Henreid (Victor Laszlo in “Casablanca”). After the success of “Baby Jane”, a Warner Bros. ad is said to have stated that “Nobody's as good as Bette when she's bad”. And, in “Dead Ringer” Davis is doubly menacing as she plays the role of identical twin sisters Edith and Margaret.

                                      The poster for “Dead Ringer” features Bette Davis’ eye merging with an image of a skull, although this isn’t a campy horror film. The acting and script are impressively subtle, when compared with similar thrillers of that era. Edith Phillips reunites with her estranged twin sister Margaret DeLorca at the funeral of Margaret’s wealthy husband, Frank, who is said to be died of heart-attack. Edith has come to the funeral because she has loved Frank and hates Margaret for seducing him away from her. Soon, Edith learns (through an information provided by family chauffeur) that eighteen years before, her sister has faked a pregnancy to get hold of Frank’s rich life-style. Edith owns a small cocktail lounge, and lives upstairs in a decrepit one-room apartment.

                                    Edith doesn’t make enough in her business to even pay rent for the place. She is loved by Sergeant Jim Hobbson (Karl Malden), but Edith is fed-up with her onerous life and is clearly disturbed by the past acts of deceitful Margaret. Instantly, Edith concocts a plan to steal back the life, she should have lived with Frank. She calls Margaret and states that she knows everything about her ‘pregnancy’. Margaret arrives in Edith’s place to smooth-out things. But, Edith has a suicide note ready, and kills Margaret. She assumes her wealthy sister’s identity and travels to the huge mansion. The large part of the narrative showcases how Edith tries to fool her twin sister’s patrician friends. Edith also gradually realizes that she is in a very complicated & dangerous situation and that she was happier in the former life.

                                     Director Paul Henreid was a television director and he made episodes of ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’. Considering the very low budget & rapid shooting phase, director Henreid has impeccably brought the brooding sense of dread, which is must for good psychological thrillers. Albert Beich’s script that is full of twists and turns has also aided in keeping the viewers engaged. The great part of suspense in “Dead Ringer” lies in the way Edith confronts people, whom Margaret knew intimately. She is afraid that the household staff might notice some changes in their employer’s demeanor. She has to remain detached as Sergeant Hobbson regrets that he hasn’t shown enough love to stop the suicide. But, Edith’s final bigger test lies with the arrival of despicable character, Tony Collins (Peter Lawford) and his relationship with deceased Margaret only make her to yearn for the old, simple life. The script also doesn’t paint the sisters plainly as good and bad.

                                      The plot does possess some campy moments, especially the way Edith stages her fake suicide. However, the film also doesn’t fully belong to the aforementioned ‘psycho-biddy’ genre, since there isn’t much blood and the thriller elements are more subtle rather being gruesome or shocking. Edith’s time inside the decaying mansion (playing board games and meeting for religious sermons) and her discoveries there puts us in a contemplative mindset rather than thrilling us, just for the sake of it. The end twists are a bit predictable, but Edith’s final decision and the way Davis carries her character makes it work on all levels. Of course, the film would have been reduced to a banal cinematic piece, if not for the sheer presence of Bette Davis. Through little alterations in mannerisms and voice, the veteran actress perfectly convinces us that Edith and Margaret are wholly different persons. Davis displays her versatile acting skills in an earlier scene, when the estranged twin sisters fight verbally.

                                   “Dead Ringer” (115 minutes) might have a timeworn plot, but a good script and formidable Bette Davis reins in the psychological implications of impersonation. It is an engaging, old-fashioned Hollywood thriller. 


July 24, 2015

Pretty Poison – Dark Deeds in a Insipid Small Town

                                                 The overwhelming critical and commercial success of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960) made Anthony Perkins (played Norman Bates) as the go-to-guy for playing disturbed young man in Hollywood. He just got typecast for the rest of his career. Tuesday Weld (“The Cincinnati Kid”, “Thief”, “Once Upon a Time in America”) has started her acting career as a child and later in her teenage years and early 20’s was repeatedly chosen over to play the role of a nymphet. By the 1960’s, she was tired of being typecasted like Perkins. They both were casted to play the central characters in Noel Black’s “Pretty Poison” (1968), which was based Stephen Geller’s novel, “She Let him Continue”. The movie posters boasted tag lines like: “Illusions can be Deadly”; “A shook-up story of the up-tight generation”, with Anthony Perkins’ baleful look. Nevertheless, the film manages to flip-flop a viewers’ expectations.

                                            “Pretty Poison” is an oddity and the events portrayed in it might have shocking for that era. The subsequent imitation of the movie or novel’s plot with other unsavory couples would now make us easily guess the trajectory Noel Black’s film travels, but still it holds up well due to engrossing eccentric performances of Perkins and Tuesday Weld. Although the movie was never a main-stream hit, it has gained a sizable cult following, over the years. The film starts with Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) just getting released from mental institution. Dennis’ crime isn’t explained at the time, but he seems to be smart guy with a lot of fantasies. His probation officer Mr. Azanaeur (John Randolph) tells him about a job in lumber factory and warns Dennis: “These fantasies of yours can be dangerous. Now, you lay off that stuff! Believe me; you're going out into a very real and very tough world. It's got no place at all for fantasies.”

                                            But Dennis the daydreamer couldn’t think about life without broad fantasies. Before long, we see Dennis working as a quality-control guy at a lumber mill, in a small Massachusetts town. He watches over a pretty high school girl, going on about her majorette routine. In the chemical plant, he curiously watches and photographs the out-flowing pipes that pour chemical wastes into local waterways. He is listening to Russian broadcasts from his trailer’s short-wave radio. Later, when Dennis meets the same pretty high senior, we get to know what kind of fantasy he is playing on. The girl named Sue Ann Stephanek (Tuesday Weld) lives with her disapproving single mother (Beverly Garland) and seems to have no friends. She believes Dennis when he says that he is CIA agent, working undercover to uncover a communist plot in the small town.

                                         Dennis promises to let her in on his undercover playacting, and Sue Ann is very happy to watch and learn from federal agent. The odd couples also have secret trysts in a place known as ‘make-out valley’. They do make out as Dennis piles lie upon lie, while believes it with a sparking smile. In the mean time, the probation officer threatens Dennis to throw back into institution as he is not neither attending his call nor reporting to him. Eventually, Dennis drafts Sue Ann to join him on his dream mission to sabotage the chemical plant’s waste-pouring pipes. While on the mission, a night watchmen with a gun under his belt, catches Dennis. He is stunned, mulling over the prospect of once again living inside a cell, but suddenly witnesses Sue Ann hitting the watchman at the back of his head with a wrench. She remains gleeful while doing this deed, and innocently asks if the agency would cover her for this. Gradually, from then on, Dennis becomes a mere participant in his own fantasy.

                                         The late 1960’s were the time when morally unpleasing, violent couples made their presence in screen. In 1967 Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” (with Warren Betty and Faye Dunaway) was made and became one of the most controversial crime film of the era (Roger Ebert described it as “Milestone in the history of American Cinema”). Movies like “Kalifornia”, “True Romance”, and “Natural Born Killers” drew inspiration from the exploits of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Although “Pretty Poison” doesn’t have a broad scope or robust script like the 1967 movie, it possesses the same kind of quirky chemistry between the central characters that lends an edgy movie experience.  The late 60’s were the time, when American cinema was going through a transitional period. A load of eccentric independent features arrived, expanding the horizons of realism, violence & sex in American cinema. “Pretty Poison” was just wedged between “Bonnie and Clyde” and what touted to be as an anti-Bonnie and Clyde film, “The Honeymoon Killers”, released in 1969 (it was also the year “Midnight Cowboy", an X-rated film, won Oscar for best picture).   

                                    Director Noel Black includes the typical zooms and few seconds flash-back sequences in “Pretty Poison”, which were the much utilized techniques of that era, although Noel doesn’t film violence in a brutal and pitiless manner, unlike other killer flicks of 60’s. The scenic small town atmosphere and the cynical minor characters of the town somehow seem to have anticipated Lynch’s portrayal of such towns. However, the film wouldn’t have worked if not for the casting of Tuesday Weld. She easily comes off as a white-bread American girl, but her transformation into a blood-lust girl with no troubled conscience is thoroughly convincing. The script is designed to gradually reveal the inversion of Sue Ann’s Dennis’ roles and Weld elegantly takes charge of that driver’s seat.
                                        Anthony Perkins’ superior smirks and smart answers were a joy to watch. He also perfectly displays the confusing emotions as his fantasy and bravado, gives way to spiraling panic situations. There is a little misogynistic message in the end about how beautiful, clean-cut girls end up being the most poisonous and screw up the lives of naive, innocent men. May be we could attribute this message to the jaded cynicism of the American 60’s or as an unforgivable imperfection or look it as a continuation of the movie’s dark central joke. Whatever it is, “Pretty Poison” (89 minutes) worth a watch for its psychological implications and engaging central characters. 


July 22, 2015

‘X + Y’ aka ‘A Brilliant Young Mind’ – A Compelling Prodigy Drama with few Formulaic Designs

                                            Jeffrey Blitz’s 2002 documentary “Spellbound” was follows eight kids, hailing from different socioeconomic areas with USA, preparing to get into the National Spelling Bee Championship. It is the kind of subject that makes up for a gooey reality-show. But, then Blitz turned kids’ intense preparation into a sublime, suspenseful experience. British film-maker Morgan Matthews’ 2007 BBC documentary “Beautiful Young Minds” was another amazing work that follows a group of young mathematicians, hoping to represent Britain in the International Mathematical Olympiad. The documentary, not just chronicles the back or mind-breaking math camps, but also provides to look into the students’ emotions and feelings, whose intelligence has earned them named like ‘freaks’ and ‘nerds’ in their respective schools (some are diagnosed with Asperger’s). Matthews’ has now made his feature-film debut with a satisfying drama “X + Y” aka “A Brilliant Young Mind” (2014), exploring the same subject he did in his documentary.  

                                              The film’s mathematical prodigy is Nathan Ellis (played by Asa Butterfield), a Yorkshire high-school kid, diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. The protagonist’s characteristics would immediately make cinephiles to think about “Rain Man”, “Goodwill Hunting” & “A Beautiful Mind”. But the central performances and skilful direction makes such comparisons inapt. While, most of the main-stream cinema views Asperger’s syndrome and autism through an outsider’s eye, Matthews earnestly tries to make us feel what the protagonist is feeling (Belgian-Dutch drama “Ben X” also took a similar approach). The film opens with Nathan, getting diagnosed in early childhood with a neuro-development disorder which also bestows him a fascination for number, colors and patterns.

                                             Nathan doesn’t like to be touched; he doesn’t tolerate change and refuses to eat his favorite prawn balls, if it isn’t served in prime numbers. His mom (Sally Hawkins) and dad (Martin McCann) spend every possible minute with Nathan. The boy, aged five, gradually develops a strong bond with this playful father, but one day a car accident takes away his father. Nathan withdraws further into his shell, spending his childhood by solving algebra problems. He has figured out that his mother isn’t as smart as he is and so apart from few basic lines, he never talks much to her. Nathan, however, gets a lonely mentor at school, Martin Humphreys (Rafe Spall).

                                             The teacher was once a competitor in International Mathematics Olympiad, but Multiple-Sclerosis disease, self-loathing and marijuana habit has reduced him to be a high-school teacher. Martin quickly realizes Nathan’s abilities and nurtures the boy’s mathematical skills. When Nathan reaches the high school stage, he qualifies for the Mathematics Olympiad’s try-outs, which is to be held in a math-camp in Taiwan. He leaves behind his distressed mother, under the supervision of Richard (Eddie Marsan), Martin’s teacher. On his trip, Nathan meets Zhang Mei (Jo Yang) of the Chinese team and a fellow team-member, Luke (Jake Davies) and both of them make a significant impression in Nathan’s life, making him to question about his own emotions and feelings.
                                          In films like this, there will always be a commercial necessity to showcase some kind of positive note of the syndrome (like the casino sequence in “Rain Man”) and a downside to elicit polarizing emotions from the audiences. Thankfully, the film doesn’t try to use Nathan’s mathematical abilities to provide such brief jubilant chapters. However, the film does try to be blatant tear-jerker towards the end, introducing the same worn-down sentimental trajectory. The central theme of “X + Y” is that love or genuine emotion couldn’t be figured out with an equation or easy solution, although James Graham’s script is a little cheesy, imbuing certain formulaic conventions. The sappiness might have kept the film from entering into the higher echelons of prodigy dramas, but the script does offer some well observed insights (not just on autism) and possesses well-rounded characters.

Spoilers Ahead

                                         Matthews’ experience as documentary film-maker has allowed him to not just concentrate on Nathan, but also on a group of interesting people. Luke is the most-bullied by his team-mates for being immodest and little odd. But, the bullying of Luke is portrayed in a complex manner as the bully, Isaac (Alex Lawther) isn’t a bad guy or a bad winner; Isaac just can’t stand Luke’s ramblings. There is a brilliant scene in the middle, the one where, after failing in the qualifying exam, Luke verbally jousts with Isaac and lets out his feelings. Nathan is just a mere spectator of this conversation, but his distressed face shows that he could understand Luke’s hardened feelings. Nathan, for the first time, understands the expression ‘putting yourself in others’ shoes’.  In another brilliant scene, Luke with blood marks on his hand, talks to a rattled Nathan about how the world would see them, if they are only autistic and not a genius (“It’s all right being weird, as long as you’re gifted. But, if you’re not gifted, then that just leaves weird”). Even the piano-playing, whiz girl Rebecca, who has a very limited time, seems to have fully developed character arc.

                                        Two budding love stories are prominently showcased in the plot: one between Nathan and Zhang Mei; the other between Nathan’s mother and redemption-seeking maths teacher. Both the romances are sweetly handled, although Nathans’ didn’t make a great impact. May be because the Jo Yang, who played Mei, was trying too much to be cute, or else the script just corners her to play such a one-dimensional role. Nevertheless, the mother-son relationship brings up the genuine tear-jerking moment of the film. Sally Hawkins, as the under-appreciated mother with an ever-smiling face, bestows us with another one of her brilliant performances (she was as good as Toni Collette in “Black Balloon”, which was also about a family coping with their autistic son) . It was a spellbinding moment, when she tries to explain what emotional pain is to Nathan through the language of mathematics, and gradually the mother and son embrace one-another, may be for the first time (“When somebody says they love you it means they see something in you they think is worth something... It adds value to you…”). For Asa Butterfield, “X + Y” is the kind of film that would bring him more challenging roles in the future. He infuses his character with enough sensitivity & grace and subtly expresses Nathan’s loneliness and desire to be with the one he loves.

                                        “X+Y” (107 minutes) is a poignant, captivating British drama about an autistic math whiz, experiencing life’s profundities. It seems contrived and sentimental at times, but the splendid performances provide us with an emotionally satisfying move experience. 


July 20, 2015

“The Confession & State of Siege” – Costa Gavras’ Underrated Gems

                                                The European film-maker Costa-Gavras spent his 20’s in France (after moving from his native Greece in 1951), where a spellbinding cinephile culture and an active leftist politics flourished. Gavras participated in both these movements, and later in the 1960’s amalgamated his passion for arts & cinema with his commitment to expose human-right abuses & abuse of power. In 1969, Gavras gave us “Z”, an emotionally infuriating, thinly fictionalized expose of the political crimes, committed under Greece’s dictatorship. “Z” concocted a perfect framework for modern political thrillers. The wide degree of accolades, the movie received influenced a whole lot of directors around the world to showcase political & ideological injustice within a thriller format.

                                             Although Gavras embraced left-wing politics, there are no simple white and black depictions in his works; he always likes to travel within the complex gray range. “Z” was about brave truth-seekers, fighting against a might right-wing dictatorship, but he surprised all his left-leaning friends by making “The Confession” (aka “L’aveu”) in 1970, which is a condemnation of Stalinist extremists in Czechoslovakia). Gavras was inspired to construct the narrative based on the life of a Czech bureaucrat & Vice-Minister, Artur London, who was arrested by his own party in 1951, and subsequently tortured to confess on a coup he never planned. With “The Confession” and “Z”, Gavras explored the abuse of power and action on both sides of the political spectrum, and then dwelled into the volatile Latin American politics of the late 1960's with “State of Siege” (aka “Etat de Siege”, 1972).

                                           "Etat de Siege" was a fictionalized account of the kidnapping and killing of American official Dan Mitrone in Uruguay (the script was written by Franco Solinas --"Battle of Algiers", "Burn!"). The American account might tell that Mitrone was a decent family man (with seven children) trying to help the officials of a conflicted nation, and brutally killed by the leftists. The other side of account showcases that Mitrone was working for Agency for International Development (USAID), which is simply a cover to teach the Uruguayan law officers on how to use torture against their countries’ dissidents. “State of Siege” had the most balanced approach, when compared to Gavras’ previous works, as the narrative depicted its characters’ trip into the moral middle-ground. Unlike “Z” and like “The Confession”, this film doesn’t lend itself to suspense and action. While Gavras’ previous two films provided some kind of appealing resolution, “State of Siege” portrayed the futility of the conflict, where there are no mutually exclusive possibility.

Interrogation & torture of Anton Ludwik in "The Confession"

                                      Prominent French actor Yves Montand played the primary character in all these three films. His Anton Ludwik in “The Confession” and Philip Michael Santore in “State of Siege” are staunch believers of polarizing political ideals. The two men’s political ideals, however never wavers, even in the prospect of facing brutal torture and death. Montand gives a complex performance in both these films, as a man who believes that his ordeal would soon be over and that he could talk his way through the problem. “The Confession” and “State of Siege” doesn’t much to offer in the form of narrative tension, since earlier or in the middle, we get to know what’s happened to the primary character. There are no last minute expositions or hidden ulterior motives. Costa Gavras is aware of the fact that the political strife in both the films is ideologically muddled, and so he only concentrates on a group of men, who carry out their respective ideology with genuine belief.

Interrogation of Michael Santore in "State of Siege"

                                          The interrogation scenes in both the films is more about forcing the protagonists to confess to their activities rather than trying to obtain valuable information. However, the outcome and way the viewers feel towards these interrogations are totally different. Anton is a victim of gross injustice. The way he is tortured and the final court proceedings forces us to use the term ‘Kafkaesque’. If Anton is caught within a web of lies, Santore is confined within a chamber of truth. Santore’s despicable activities are gradually revealed and there is no question and what he has done. But, still Montand’s fully realized portrayal of the unofficial American diplomat doesn’t turn him into a monster. On a thematic perspective, both the films aren’t trying to bestow us with a dissertation on the conflict; it simply tries to deconstruct the ideological conflict that is only often viewed from a journalistic viewpoint.

Costa-Gavras (left) and Yves Montand

                                         On the outset, “The Confession” and “State of Siege” is outside forces’ intervention on a country’s internal affairs. The intervention sort of brings out the dark side of communism and capitalism. Despite Gavras’ political leanings, these films are just a cry against the inhumanity that resides within both these systems. “The Confession” was deemed as ‘an anti-communist screed’ in many leftist circles, while “State of Siege” agitated both sides of the political divide: one side thought that Gavras’ was little forgiving towards the American foreign policy, whereas the other side felt that Gavras’ has humanized a Latin American terrorist organization (“Tupamaros”). However, the film-maker is gutsy enough to simply look at both sides, without judging. The depiction of Tupamaros in “State of Siege” is the most conflicted as they do not like violence, but only uses it to achieve their goals (rationalizing killing in the name of liberation).

                                        Anton and Michael Santore also seem to be aware of the conflicted situation of their captors’ position. Anton says, “If I have committed these crimes, why appeal to my loyalty? And if I am a good communist, then why I am here?” Santore states to his captor: “If you kill me, it will be an act of cruelty and powerlessness and if you don’t kill me, it will be a sign of weakness.” From an aesthetic point of view, both the films collage various moments to inquire upon the psychology of the characters. The interior sequences sort of resembled and psychological confinement (especially in “L’aveu”) reminisced of sequences in Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Army of Shadows” (1969). The meticulously chosen subjective-camera techniques lend a documentary-like realism and allow the viewers to understand the characters’ ordeals. The lack of heightened dramatics, and the presence of subjective shots (there are also no grand orchestral scores) help us to understand that the periodical outbursts of the characters aren’t the film’s sole perspective. In “State of Siege”, Santore says to Hugo, the rebel/terrorist: “You want to destroy the foundation of our society, the fundamental values of our Christian civilization, and the very existence of the free world." At a earlier point, Hugo states to Santore: “Be it drinking beer, swallowing aspirin, brushing teeth, cooking food in an aluminum pan, turning on a radio, shaving, using refrigerator, or heating a room, every citizen in my country contributes daily to the development of your economy.”

                                         “The Confession” (139 minutes) and “State of Siege” (130 minutes) thoroughly explores the corrupt institutions within two polarizing political ideals, without ever being didactic. It potently depicts the never-ending circularity of political power conflicts.