November 25, 2014

Predestination -- A Poignant, Strange Time-Travel Saga


                                              Time-Travel movies could be broadly categorized into two kinds: funny, adventurous ones where the protagonist travels back in time to change a particular event (“Back to the Future”, “Bill & Ted” Franchise); mind-bending, paradoxical ones that fills our mind with more questions than answers (“Primer”, “12 Monkeys”, “Timecrimes”). The Australian film-makers, the Spierig Brothers’ “Predestination” (2014) belong to the second kind that explores the heady paradoxes of time-travel. The film is based on Robert A. Heinlan’s 1959 short story “All You Zombies”. As twisted time-travel movies go, the big twists in this film was somehow easy to figure out, but what’s good about “Predestination” is that it doesn’t use its central idea to convert into a loud action movie. It decently builds up the characters and doesn’t stray much from its sci-fi roots.

                                            The movie starts with a temporal agent getting badly burned in an attempt to catch the “Fizzle Bomber”, who is responsible for the 1975 New York bomb blasts that have killed more than ten thousand people. The agent undergoes a reconstructive surgery and gets ready for his final mission. In this mission he is sent to early 1970’s to New York, where the mad bomber has started terrorizing the city. The agent works as a bartender (Ethan Hawke), and on that particular night strikes up a conversation with a androgynous male (Sarah Snook), who identifies himself as ‘the unmarried mother’, which is a byline the guy uses for writing ‘confessional stories’ in a popular magazine.


                                            The guy bets the bartender that he could have never heard anything as weird as the events in his life. The bartender bets an entire bottle of booze, and the guy starts telling his life story. ‘The unmarried mother’ began his life as a female and was left on the door step of an orphanage in 1945. She was named Jane. The young Jane constantly yearned for parental love and was often picked on by her peers. Jane has naturally developed a physical toughness, and excels in physics and maths. This makes her a natural candidate for a Space Corps program in the 1960’s. Jane meets the enigmatic Robertson (Noah Taylor), who sort of becomes her mentor.


                                          Nevertheless, Jane dreams of becoming an astronaut fizzles out after an unexpected seduction by a young man. But, the man abandons her and Jane gets pregnant. Complications arise for Jane during childbirth. As Jane was born with male and female internal reproductive capacities (intersex being) these complications compels her to adopt a 100 percent male identity – to John. It’s really a strange story and Jane/John wins the booze bottle, but what happens next is weirder.

                                          The Spierig Brothers (Peter & Michael) has elegantly set up the story. The bar story was a common tale of a girl’s loss and longing. But, the immersive storytelling method and Sarah Snook’s emotionally fragile performance makes the bar sequences, the heart and backbone of the film. Although the bigger and grander revelations in the movie’s third act convolute the proceedings, the careful initial establishment keeps us curiosity intact till the end. Deciphering what happened in the chronological manner may require second viewing, but it is head-spinning to ponder over the predestination paradox. The bootstrap paradox (presented in ‘Terminator’ movies), and other paradoxes in movies & books doesn’t treat time as a linear narrative. So, it will give only a headache to figure out, what happened the first time around (although you may eventually come up the fitting theory for the paradox).


                                          “Predestination” effectively explores the themes of identity, circularity (as said in the phrase “snake biting its own tail”), and destiny. It also meditates on the unalterable nature of time (past, present, and future). In twisted movies like this the characters just go through the motions, gasping and exclaiming at the required intervals. But, here the cast gives a livelier performance. Ethan Hawke is less flashy unlike the usual time cop characters and perfectly wears the cynical and haunted looks. Snook is brilliant as Jane/John. She imbues a hard edge to make her transformation plausible. It is captivating to look at her go through various emotions: pain, sensitivity, love, desire, longing and rage. The make-up effects for John are exceptional.

                                        “Predestination” (97 minutes) isn’t refreshingly original but incorporates clever twists, ideas and poignant performances to bestow us with a satisfying movie experience. Like a good time-travel flick it invites its viewers to analyze the sequences.

Trailer



November 19, 2014

Brick -- A High School Neo-Noir


                                                Alienated protagonist, convoluted schemes, deadpan coolness, group of losers and goons, femme fatales, hard-boiled dialogues, and fast-paced logic were all the significant ingredients of ‘Film-Noir’ genre (the era of “Maltese Falcon", “The Big Sleep”, Humphrey Bogart, Raymond Chandler etc). Director Rian Johnson (“Looper”), in his debut indie film, “Brick” (2006) took that age old Film-Noir setting and lays it among the teenagers of a Californian school. ‘A high school noir’ may sound ridiculous and could be perceived as a gimmick or spoof, but “Brick” finely realizes the beauty of film-noir. It elegantly weaves a mystery with little clues and red herrings. However, you need to give some time for the film to settle as the cast of mostly unknown actors speak in a slang-laden dialogue that’s little hard to grasp.

                                             The film starts with Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a loner and slacker, discovering the corpse of his ex-girl friend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). A flashback establishes how Emily dumped Brendan to hang out with the school’s druggie crowd. Brendan stands apart from the crowd and is defined by his preference for eating lunch alone around the back of the school. He despises the drug crowd, Emily runs in, craving for a chance to save her. He gets such opportunity when Emily, two days before her death, in a state of panic calls Brendan and vaguely asks for his help. A little later she asks him to disregard the fuss. However, Brendan asks for the assistance of class geek Brain (Matt O’Leary) to understand his school’s criminal culture.


                                             Brain is a friendless, bespectacled nerd, who knows, hears and sees all the activities. Brendan, in his last meeting with Emily hears her utter some code words like ‘The Pin’ and ‘Brick’. Through the help of Brain he understands the meaning of those words, and after finding Emily’s corpse, Brendan hides it inside the storm-drain tunnel. Now, he wants to find the killer by himself and starts to climb into that criminal society by first punching at the knucklehead footballer Brad. Soon, he gets the attention of thugs and local drug lord. For the most part, adults and lawmen stay in the background.


                                             The movie tries very hard in finding the parallels for classic film-noir figures. The drug lord (Luke Haas) works in a wood-paneled room, situated in the basement of his parents’ house. He has a limp and a stylishly designed cane. When we first look at the guy, he looks like a mollycoddled school boy. He beats up Brendan and then negotiates with cookies and juice, served by his mother. Although this character is little preposterous and comic, director Johnson plays it straight and slowly establishes the inevitability of the character. Other archetype noir characters are: Tugger, the homicidal hired thug and Laura (Nora Zehetner), rich kid with smart mouth, who likes to turn her men into lapdogs.


                                            Visually, Rian Johnson perfectly replaces the old noir setting with that of high school atmosphere. The softly bright black-and-white is substituted by washed-out indie setting; the school corridors and playgrounds seems to represent the shady cities of film-noir, where cynics wander around. Johnson has also wonderfully employed some in-camera effects, especially in a dream sequence. In another stylistic shot, the camera marvelously creates an illusion of high-speeding car quickly approaching. Apart from various homages to classic Film-Noir (“Maltese Falcon”), some of the film’s moments are reminiscent of David Lynch: the initial shot of the corpse is evocative of “Twin Peaks”; the outline of drug lord’s face set amongst the dark setting; and the colorful, empty office of ‘the pin’. Gordon-Levitt gives a wonderful deadpan performance as Brendan, incorporating his character’s depth of feeling. The one vital thing that might go against the film is the ungraspable lingo. Thankfully, in the IMDb ‘FAQ’ section for ‘Brick’, number of slang words and its appropriate English meaning are listed.

                                          “Brick” (110 minutes) may not work for everybody, but it is a smart and fascinating experiment in style, maintained by a consistent plot. It has also served as perfect calling card for Gordon-Levitt and Rian Johnson (who is announced to be the director for ‘Star Wars: Episode VIII and IX’).

Trailer


November 17, 2014

The Babadook -- The Monster that Lurks Deep Within


                                            High quality horror movies always aim for something more than cheap twists and jump scares. For example, family disintegration and isolation seems to the subtext that lays bare at the heart of Kubrick’s “The Shining” (the movie also spawned various other interpretations that ties in Native Americans massacre to Apollo Landings); Tobe Hooper’s bloody chamber horror “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” appears to reverberate the traumas of Vietnam war, particularly the cultural schism America faced in the late 60’s and early 70’s; Spine-chilling Japanese horror films like “Ringu”, “Kairo” (aka Pulse) contemplated the techno-fear that accompanied the millennium. Australian movie “The Babadook” (2014) must at least share a small space in that long list of great horror flicks.

                                          First time director Jennifer Kent has drawn out the spooky premise from her own 2006 short film “Monster”. “The Babadook” doesn’t entirely subvert the cliches of the genre, but features well-developed characters and a robust subtext. It heavily draws influences from horror classics like “A Haunting” and “The Shining”, but at the same time, it’s fittingly unpredictable. The movie’s protagonist Amelia (Essie Davis) has experienced one horrific event in her life which occasionally visits her in the form of nightmare. Seven years before, on the way to hospital to deliver her first child, Amelia’s husband is brutally killed in a car accident.


                                           Amelia’s six year old son (approaching his seventh birthday), Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is emotionally explosive and a high-strung child. He could be the most love-some child and the most unimaginably irritative child. Amelia has her hands full between dealing with her ‘problem’ child and her dispiriting job. The worn-down single mother’s stress and anxiety is further kindled by Sam’s recent ingenuity. He is convinced that a monster is hiding in his room and constructs different weapons to encounter the monster. Amelia’s only solace could be her well-to-do younger sister, but the sister isn’t interested with Amelia’s troubles or mental state and intensely dislikes Sam.


                                           Amidst this volatile situation, a large, red-colored, illustrated book mysteriously appears on Samuel’s bookshelf. Titled as “The Babadook”, the book is about a top-hatted weird creature, which raps three times on your door and asks to be invited in (at your own risk). The Gothic pictures in the book are distressful and induce a strange effect on both the mother and child. Amelia sets the book aside, but the damage is already done as she starts to hear creaky sounds and loud knocks.

                                           The pop-ups and moving parts of the book are wonderfully created by artist Alex Juhasz. The titular character itself seems to be a nod for expressionistic style images (at one point, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” plays on the TV) Director Jennifer Kent uses deftly chosen images, which resembles the intricately detailed visual designs of early Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton movies. Kent displays the characters’ state of mourning through the atmosphere, which is painted in shades of black and grey. In movies like “The Shining” or “Amityville Horror”, family men are possessed by ghost or super-natural being, which directs them to do dark deeds. “Babadook” more or less has the same plot, but approaches it from a women’s point of view, bringing forth the darker side of the relationship between a single mother and child. 


*************************  Spoilers Ahead ******************************

                                            The narrative strand share many horror elements from recent flicks like “Insidious”, “Sinister”, and “Mama”, but the strong character basis elates the movie from being a jump-scare presenter. The lingering sense of dread is heightened a bit by the film’s ambiguous and a little weird ending. It also brings forth the question of “What is Babadook?” Although, “Babadook” could be seen as a straight-forward monster movie, it provides strong subtext that it represents mental illness and depression.

                                              In the birthday party of Amelia’s niece, she converses with her sister’s friends saying that previously (before her husband’s death) she wrote articles about kid stuff in magazines. Although writing and drawing those bleak images is not the same thing, I feel that it is sort of thrown as an indicator about the book’s origin. In another scene, Amelia burns the book and goes to police station to complain that someone is stalking them. The policeman asks about the book, and closely looks at her fingers. We could see grey-black marks on her fingers, which could either be the result of her burning the book or from using pencils to draw those extra pages, found in the book.  Even though, Sam is perpetually terrified about ‘Babadook’, Amelia is the only one who sees the monster. All these moments signal that the monster is just in Amelia’s head – an insidious being born from the depressed, sleep-deprived mind.


                                               Amelia never openly talks about her husbands’ death and she has no one to talk to. The trauma of that accident seems to be awake even in when she is sleeping. The only adult with whom she can share her problems (sister) is too self-centric. Grief and loneliness aren’t just the root cause of Amelia’s depression. She is torn between the affection and hate for her child. She is a caring mother, but on a subconscious level Amelia feels that the birth of Sam commenced her grief-stricken life.  The inherent hate at one level joins with depression to spawn the monster ‘Babdook’ (a user in the ‘IMDb board cleverly pointed out that the title is a anagram for ‘a bad book’).  


                                              Sam’s fear for monster is derived from the lack of father figure and in his attempt to step up in order to protect his mother. The simple weapons he designs are not just to face the monster, but also to shield his mother. He could sense what’s wrong with his mother, but as a six year old he could only attribute to an unseen creature. Towards the end, Sam ties up Amelia and says that the 'babadook' won’t let her love him, and that she has get it out immediately. It’s a template scene that could be seen in a number of possession movies, but here the word 'babadook' could be easily replaced with clinical depression. In the end, Amelia faces the monster and removes its mask. We don’t see the monsters’ face, as it runs quickly into the basement and shuts the door. It is early referenced that Amelia’s memories about her husband (the ones she refuses to think or face) are stored in the basement. Amelia casting out the monster into the basement represents that she had sent the ill feelings where it belongs to. However, the weirdest scene in the film has to be Amelia feeding worms to the monster in the basement (like feeding a dog). Mental illness or depressive disorder can’t be annihilated like a disease, but can be efficiently managed.

                                               The final basement scene shows that Amelia has brought the things (or monster) under her control, although there is no permanent eradication. In the final scene, before entering into the basement, Sam asks his mother ‘may I begin to see it?’ She replies: ‘One day when you’re bigger’. The exchange implies that when is grown up, he could wrestle those monsters.  This final scene may appear a little whacky, but I felt subtly conveys answer to the question, ‘what is babadook?’


                                                Despite such metaphors and subtle storytelling methods, the movie surely has some flaws. The vital one is the proceedings in the middle part. The director’s signature lacks in this part as he movie begins to mimic “Shining”. Amelia cries out to Sam: “I just wanna smash your head against the prick wall”. It is a fine nod to Nicholson’s Jack Torrance. Unlike the earlier nod to George Melies, these horror classic influences fully occupy the screen, imparting us with a feeling that the story is traveling into very familiar territory. If this part perfectly balanced the horror elements and film’s subtext, it could have become the horror classic, it deserved to be. The middle act also doesn’t prepare the audience for the ambiguous elements that are thrown throughout the final act.

                                             Considering the recent horror genre performances, the film boasts some great acting from Essie Davis as the emotionally fragile single mother. Her hysterical transformation eludes certain script imbalances. The hyper-active Wiseman makes an impressive debut as Sam. At the start, he resembles the irritating child you see in a PG comedy, but gradually and distinctly expresses the trauma of his character.

                                             “The Babadook” (93 minutes) is a part horror-thriller and part psychological-drama. It provides some original scares, a finely crafted monster and also peers into the silent destructive forces of human psyche. 

Trailer


November 13, 2014

The Homesman -- An Unnerving Vision of the Old West


                                             Hollywood actor Tommy Lee Jones, known for his serious and somber roles, made his directorial debut with the neo-western “Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” (2005). The film was highly praised at its Cannes premiere, winning best actor award for Jones and script writer award for Guillermo Arriaga (“Babel”). Jones’ first directorial outing looked at life in contemporary American west from an unaccustomed angle. “Three Burials” is under-rated and never achieved commercial success. Perhaps that might be the reason for Jones directing only one TV movie, “The Sunset Limited” – a moderate adaptation of Corman McCarthy’s play. Now he is back with another gritty story, “The Homesman” (2014), set on the frontier western.  


                                           For “The Homesman”, Jones has adapted Glendon Swarthout’s serious and lyrical novel. Old western tales is one of the significant parts of the American cultural narrative. The old western frontier had thriving outlaws and scalding temperature, but it still promised a new life for an innocuous American family. However, in most of the male-centric or cowboy-centric western movies, women merely serve as a footnote. They are either portrayed as angels or as sluts. We have seen how men surrender themselves to the bleak atmosphere of Old west to provide for their family, whereas women stay in their kitchen and cuddle the husband, whenever he is in despair. But, how much did the women sacrifice in Old West in order to pursue opportunity in a sparsely settled area? Jones’ “The Homesman” provides that rare glimpse. It shows how the old western frontier consumed women’s spirit and mind. The film is little uneven and may not achieve the critical acclaim of “Three Burials”, but it is still a fascinating picture.




                                        The film is set in the harsh Nebraska territory of 1850. Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), who is in her early 30’s lives alone in a thriving farm. However, she is not considered as an ideal marriage material by the men. Mary is well-educated, resourceful, and a little tough. He suggests marriage to eligible men folk of her town like making a business proposition. Although, men enjoy her food and drinks, they plainly reject her marriage proposals, claiming that she is ‘too bossy’. One day, the town’s local preacher Dowd (John Lithgow) tells her awful news about three women in the frontier, who have gone insane. The three women – (Grace Summer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter) couldn’t endure the cycle of hardship, poverty, desolation and child death. Few very shocking scenes showcase how madness has consumed these women.




                                        Mary Bee volunteers to take these women in a wagon to Iowa, where a churchwoman has accepted to take care of them. Mary bee takes the job only when the women’s husband fails to step up. The men are either baffled by their situation or eager to get rid of their wives. But, Mary can’t ride alone with three insane women for a six-week journey. That’s when she finds George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), an alcoholic, old army deserter. Mary saves Briggs from being lynched and offers $300 to aid her in this terrible trip. The duo mutually resent each other and encounter dangerous Native American tribes, bandits, and various other hardships.



***************  Spoilers ahead *********************



                                         “The Homesman” starts off in the style of old frontier movies like "3: 10 to Yuma”, and John Ford movies, but also possesses the grimness and an offbeat structure. Although, Jones is portrayed as selfish, old man, the story on the outset, somewhat resembles “The African Queen” (1951). The old classic depicted an odd romance between odd couples with opposite temperaments. However, Jones only touches on this romanticism and mostly focuses on the bleakness of the women’s situation. Rather than pushing towards an unlikely love story, Jones digs deeper into each characters’ frailties (something director Kelly Reichdart with “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010)).




                                           The movie has plenty of tonal swings. It is brutally shocking, depressing, darkly humorous, sentimental, and also takes metaphorical turns. Jones and his co-screen writers Wesley Oliver and Kieran Fitzgerald wander gracefully from episode to episode without a sense of urgency. Mary Bee’s death, happens half-way into the third act, may seem like a move to stir the movie’s dramatic proceedings and as means to promote Jones as the protagonist. But, Mary’s suicide only further explores the rough life lead by women in the 1850’s western frontier. Our society would happily utter the word ‘self made-man’. But in the case of Mary Bee, a self made-woman, it remains as a curse. She is a strong woman with immense wealth, but, when it comes to marriage men seem to prefer young naive, obedient girl from the East. All of Mary Bee’s hardships and achievements are only viewed as a weakness by the patriarchal society. Although her success seems to be only thing keeping her out of the wagon, it doesn’t matter much. She is as imprisoned as the women, chained inside the wagon. When she is harshly refused and humiliated by Briggs, it takes her beyond the breaking point. We also get a hint (especially the ‘grave robbery’ scene) that how the journey itself casts a dark spell over her.




                                        The sudden change of examining women’s life in the old west from Swank’s to Jones’s point of view is another huge shift, but it is fairly effective and also packs a punch. The shift also shows how men cope with their loneliness and depression. Briggs gets the $300 dollars, buys a new suit and gets into a high-stakes poker game in a respectable bar. But, he is rejected harshly (on the basis of class). Now, when we see him in the final scene, he is dealing with the pain in his heart by getting back to his old-self. He wildly drinks, sings and dances in a boat along with other roughneck male revelers, and traveling to West to make a possible fortune. But, Mary Bee and three insane women, who just wanted gentleness and love; who all couldn’t deal with suppressed pain remains forgotten. We view the final image of rowdy merrymakers from a distance (emotionally and visually), because by now, we know that these men are pursuing wealth at the cost of women’s sanity.



                                        As Mary Bee, Swank plays a meatiest role after a long time. She keeps her character’s emotions under a tight check and gracefully shows the blistering pain through those eyes. Jones performance is mildly amusing as well as turns poignant in the end. The odd chemistry between the pair places the film at the mid-point of a bleak drama and a buddy-comedy. Rodrigo Prieto’s precise cinematography provides both meditative and gorgeous images.




                                       “The Homesman” (122 minutes) might be compared with Jones’ “Three Burials” and declared as ‘unruly’ and ‘a misfire’, but it was a thoroughly satisfying movie experience. It is a movie that doesn’t sugar-coat its themes, and possesses devastating images that can’t be mentally carried away. 

Trailer


The Homesman -- IMDb 

Rated R for violence, sexual content, some disturbing behavior and nudity