April 23, 2015

Riot in Cell Block 11 – A Hard-Hitting and Pertinent Prison Drama

                                         It is often said that a country’s social history can be fully apprehended by observing its prisons than watching over its other well-established institutions. If you think that this statement contains an iota of truth then America is a nation with an enormous societal problem. If you type in a simple question of ‘How many people are in jail in US?’ in Google, the answer would be that ‘716 people per 10,000 of the US population’ (as per Oct.2013 stats). US, which contains 5 percent of world’s population has 25 percent of world’s prisoners. Numbers of people behind bars in some of US states are higher than the prison populations of oppressive nations like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Mexico. These astounding stats become disturbing when it is proven that increased prison rates don’t help much to bring down the crime rates.

                                       Since the 1980’s, incarcerated citizens in America’s thriving prison-industrial complex have more than quadrupled. But, before this mass incarceration problem, American Penitentiaries confronted bloody prison riots, which sometimes turned into revolutionary upheavals. Although the Attica Correctional Facility uprising (situated in New York) demonstrated the inhumane conditions faced by inmates (it ended horrifically with the death of 10 hostages & 29 inmates), the widespread prison struggles began in the early 1950’s. Most of these struggles were apolitical and the demands were perennial ones like better food & better treatment. At least fifty major riots is said to have happened between 1950 and 1953. These riots were all mostly spontaneous uprising. The iron-handed approach by the prison & state administration only spawned more radical ideas inside the prison walls.

                                     Director Don Siegel’s (known for explosive action sequences & tight narration) earliest directorial effort “Riot in Cell Block 11” (1954) fictionally recreates one of those riots, happened six decades earlier. Since the American prison system has gotten worse over the years, the film’s message still remains timely and relevant. This was also the film which brought up a thematic template for Don Siegel, who chiseled his way up to make widely acclaimed works like “Dirty Harry”, “The Shootist” etc. “Riot in Cell Block 11” was produced by ‘Allied Artists Pictures’ only as a ‘B-movie’, but over the years it has gained the status of a cult classic (even included into Criterion Collection). The movie was shot on California’s Folsom Prison (used many of actual inmate population as extras), and opens like a docu-drama with newsreel footage of actual prison riots.

                                     The ‘cell block 11’ represents the solitary wing of the large state prison. The inmates of the wing are angered by violent security protocol, harsh living conditions. Most of all they hate the fact that there is no chance for rehabilitation, since no work is given to them and they aren’t allowed to learn new trade. The inmates sit in their cells idly, waiting for the time to pass. It is argued that this rudderless motion inside the prison walls only increases recidivism. Recidivism, known as habitual relapse into crime, is one of the biggest problems of US prison system (even now). The inmates of cell block 11 also doesn’t like the way the ‘nuts’ (used to describe sex offenders, dangerous delinquents etc) are not segregated from low risk offenders. 

                                   The situation reaches a boiling point, when square-jawed leader of block 11, James Dunn (Neville Brand) and his compatriots overpower the four guards. Dunn and his second-in-command ‘Crazy’ Mike Carnie (Leo Gordon) free all the inmates and secure the command of the block. Mike is itching to knife the guards, but Dunn doesn’t want to play that way, since he had started the riot for a reason. He seeks the help of gentle ex-military man called as ‘The Colonel’ (Robert Osterloh) to clearly draft their demands. Colonel rejects the offer initially since he is soon up for parole, but in order to curb Crazy Mike’s fierce tactics, Colonel accepts the offer. Meanwhile, Dunn demands for a press conference and to them he intones on the intolerable living conditions inside prison.

                                  Warden Reynolds (Emile Meyer) refers to the media about Dunn and Mike’s mental health, but partly sympathizes with the motivations behind the riot. Later, we learn that many of the prisoners’ demands have been proposed earlier by warden to the state governor for years. Commissioner Haskell (Frank Faylen), who arrives as governor’s emissary is a much less decent guy than the warden. He hates the proposition of giving into inmates’ demand because he believes that it might set a precedent for future prison riots. Haskell’s words become true as inmates of the other blocks also start a riot at the breakfast hall. Five other guards are caught and sent into ‘cell block 11’ (making the hostage total to 9). Dunn asks for governor’s sign to immediately approve their demands and a promise that there will be no charges against them.

                                  Despite being known as a ‘b-movie’ dealing with a vital social issue, Don Siegel doesn’t resort to preachy messages or heavy-handed melodrama, which was widely present in the movies of that era. Of course, Siegel’s primary goal is entertainment, but that didn’t stop him from taking a grittier & layered approach. Although the director was famous for his hands-on action sequences, here he directs it as an ensemble piece. He frames much of the action in long shots and despite the removed perspective, he was able lend empathy to both opposing factions. Some of the sequences in ‘Cell Block 11’ has also reflected in Siegel’s other works. In one scene, when a large prison population breaks from dining hall, they happily ransack the canteen, tool-shed etc. Siegel observe these activities of wayward men, suddenly set free from an oppressive environment, in an intimate fashion, and later this became one of his recurring thematic subjects.

                                   The script was written by Richard Collins, who was previously black-listed for four years for his involvement with the communist party in the 1930’s. The contemplative script served as a mirror to reflect society’s pressing problems. 'Cell Block 11’ casts out excessive grandstanding similar to the other famous ‘social problem’ flicks of the era  --“The Gentleman’s Agreement” (antisemitism), “Home of the Brave” (racism), “The Man with the Golden Arm” (drug addiction). Collins even at the breakneck speed of narrative never fails to acknowledge the inherent contradictions with in the ‘prison reform’ scenario. By not coloring many of the characters with shades of black & white, Collins effectively incorporates the valid themes associated with imprisonment.

                                  An imprisoned guard in one scene claims that he is never mistreated any of the inmates or played favorites, to which ‘The Colonel’ replies, “Yeah, you treat us all the same like cons. We all fight for our identity and you help to destroy that”. The guard immediately replies, ‘that’s not me; that’s the prison system’.   Such brimming conflicting viewpoints are populated throughout the film, and these balanced arguments make us to look at the economic & ethical issues involved in locking away these offenders.  Emile Meyer’s warden was one of the brilliantly etched characters in the film. Unlike the sadistic prison wardens portrayed in cinema, Reynolds looks at the problem with an appreciable depth. He knows that mistreatment of inmates would only lead to more resentment. His idea of better treatment of prisoners is approached with a sociopolitical angle rather than as a bland humanitarian approach.  There is a sort of resolution & imbued hope in the climax, but it is not in the vein of Hollywood ‘happy ending’.

                                   “Riot in Cell Block 11” (80 minutes) is an effective indictment of the dehumanizing effects of American prison system. No answers seem to have been found for the lacerating questions raised by this six-decade old movie. 


April 22, 2015

Bunny Lake Is Missing – An Eerie Mystery with a Half-Baked Denouement

                                                 In his five decade career, Austrian-American film-maker Otto Preminger brought up fine works like “Laura” (1944), “Where the Sidewalk Ends”, “Anatomy of Murder”, “The Man with Golden Arm”, “Advise & Consent” (1962) etc. He was best known for his liberal thoughts and for constantly challenging censors by busting Old Hollywood taboos. Although, Preminger was hailed as a director ahead of his time, he found it difficult to stay on top as the cinematic landscape went through a rapid change in the 1960’s. In the mid 1960’s, he took a break from making star-studded dramas & sprawling epics (“Exodus”, “The Cardinal”) and went on to direct a little mystery/thriller, “Bunny Lake is Missing” (1965). Although, the movie suffered from a wacky end twist, it is one of rare Preminger work after 60’s to gain critics’ attention (but it was said to be a big commercial failure).

                                              Preminger, after “Bunny Lake”, made eccentric comedies (“Skidoo”, “Such Good Friends”), light-hearted dramas (“Hurry Sundown”, “Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon”), and even a spy thriller (“The Human Factor”), but these works neither acquired wide critical acclaim nor commercial success (Preminger retired from film-making in 1979). “Bunny Lake’s” lack of robust psychological undertones didn’t elevate it to the status, enjoyed by other classics of the era (like “Psycho” or “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”). However, its storyline is echoed in modern conventional, gimmicky Hollywood thrillers like “Flight Plan”, “The Forgotten” etc.

                                             Young American single mom Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) has just moved to London with her daughter Bunny Lake aka Felicia, where she plans to live with her journalist brother Steven (Keir Dullea). Before the movers bring her stuff, Ann takes her 4 year old daughter to the new school ‘The Little People’s Garden’. We haven’t caught a glimpse of Bunny, but we see Ann shutting the door of ‘First Day’ room with her child inside. She searches the school premise for teachers or the woman to whom she spoke on phone to inform about her daughter, but no seems to be around, except for some distant singing of children. Ann eventually comes across sulking cook and she asks her to take care of ‘Bunny’ in the ‘First Day’ room. She hurriedly leaves the school anticipating the movers.

                                             After taking care of the business at home, Ann returns to the school to pick up Bunny, but she’s nowhere to be found. It takes some time for the school management to take the disappearance issue seriously. The worst thing is nobody remembers seeing a child named Bunny. Ann immediately calls her brother Steven. They search through the apartment-house like school, which has a labyrinthine of large cupboards. Eventually Ann and Steven summon the police, and a gentle superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) takes charge of the missing/kidnapping case. The experienced Newhouse investigates all the parties involved and picks up little frayed threads from people’s response. Gradually, Newhouse doubts at the existence of a girl named ‘Bunny’. Ann and Steve couldn’t find single person in London to about Bunny’s existence. And, the strangest of all is that Bunny’s things (including passport) in the new apartment house seem to have vanished into thin air.

                                         The impressive real locations and the polished, nostalgic black & white cinematography (by Denys Coop) are one of the strongest points for the movie. The spooky dollhouse hallways and the creepy interior decorations in the apartment render a perfect disorienting atmosphere for the mystery. The eccentricities and the creepiness seem to extend to most of the character sketches. The bizarre face masks look right at home as we see the snarky, lecherous landlord (Noel Coward). Coward is the uncanniest highlight of the film, especially in that scene when he funnily attempts to seduce the perplexed Ann. Ada Ford is another bizarre character, who lives upstairs in the school and record audiotapes of children, reciting their nightmares. Although the malicious potential of these characters only serves as red herrings, the actors who perform them make it as engaging as they could.

                                         It does look weird that Ann doesn’t say goodbye to Bunny as she leaves the school (or may be she did off-screen), but little details like this adds authenticity to the non-existent theory. Yet, Lynley, no-so-hysterical performance as Ann restore some belief in the viewer that may be Bunny is real. It is hard to believe that a mother doesn’t think of ways to prove the existence of her little daughter, but that credibility issue is kept on-cover to an extent by the top British star Laurence Olivier’s elegant performance. As Newhouse, Olivier takes the investigation to far ends of both the possibilities. His character only redoubles the efforts taken, whenever the investigation hits a wall. The movies’s flaws could be attributed to some of blatant red herrings (Steven planting the seeds of doubt against his sister Ann) and the mildly enjoyable ‘insanity’ twist in the end. The constantly moving camera and the wavering expressions of Lynley in the denouement are compelling, but not the denudation of mystery itself. The final resolution not only looked weak & unconvincing, it also used mental illness in a most gimmicky way possible.

                                         The plot trajectory of “Bunny Lake Is Missing” (107 minutes) is used to death by many average, B-grade thrillers, but the superior performances and director Preminger’s graceful execution, makes it a good flick for all mystery-lovers.


April 16, 2015

The Golden Dream – A Stinging Drama about Vulnerable Migrants

                                               American Independent film-maker, Gregory Nava’s epic work of social realism “El Norte” (1983) was one of the earliest films to track down the cold economic realities, faced by impoverished people of Latin American nations, situated close to the border of everyone’s dream nation – America. The film set in Guatemala showcased the country’s oppressive political machine, which forces the natives to make a dangerous journey across American borders. Using some dramatic contrivances, Gregory Nava then depicts how the illegal immigrants’ life faces more trials and tribulations in the land of dreams. Although, there had been many movies made on the plight of immigrants (“Frozen River”, “Journey of Hope”, “The Promise”, “Dirty Pretty Things” etc), “El Norte” remains my favorite film on this subject because of its poetic imagery that accompanies the distressing reality. The journey of Rosa and Enrique in “El Norte” is as mythical as it is geographical. Diego Quemada-Diez’s promising debut feature “The Golden Dream” (“La Jaula de oro”, 2013), although doesn’t possess the powerful visuals of “El Norte” or Majid Majidi’s “Baran” (about illegal Afghan refugees in Iran), covers a similar kind of journey, made by young Guatemalans.

                                             Despite receiving a special award in Cannes 2013 (for its ensemble cast), “The Golden Dream” didn’t get  much attention like the festival smash hits “Sin Nombre” and “Maria Full of Grace”. It may be so because “The Golden Dream” is imbued with overly familiar character sketches and unlike those festival hits, it lacked the thriller elements to reach a wider audience. But, the sense of verisimilitude Quemada-Diez brings to this film makes it a more compelling and eye-opening movie experience. The director has basically filmed in the exact locations of the harrowing journey made by Guatemalans, and in the end credits is said to have thanked at least 600 migrants for allowing the film crew to join their travels.

                                            The movie starts with a young girl walking into run-down public bathroom. She looks at herself in the mirror and cuts her hair down, puts a tape over her breasts, and puts on a baseball cap. A young boy leaves his shack with a bag and visits his friend, working on a garbage site. The three – Juan (Brandon Lopez), Samuel (Carlos Chajon) and Sara (Karen Martinez) – then start their journey to ‘the North’. Along their journey they meet a young indigenous Guatemalan, Chauk (Rodolfo Dominiguez), who doesn’t speak a single word of Spanish, but seems to be more resourceful than the three. Juan remains hostile to the native as Sara gets fascinated and tries to converse with him.

                                           Their travel seems to be filled with climbing aboard moving freight trains. Thousands of people travels like this, on top of the trains with sun on their faces. Missionaries, strangers give food & water to those who make the journey, and the local farmers make use of their labor since it would be very cheap. But, for the most part, our young heroes and others get lured by diabolical human creatures, either through words or by force. An entire legal and illegal economy seems to have built around the journey of these migrants. Gradually, the trials faced by the teenagers to cross the border reflect as an examination of one of our planet’s greatest delusion.  

                                           As per US Homeland Security stats, at least 20,000 Guatemalans illegally cross the American border every year. But, what the stats fail to show is the number of people whose journey gets terminated by manifolds of hazards, like scammers, gangster-slavers, corrupt officials, and government vigilante execution squads. Despite all these pitfalls, people of these Latin American nations make the trip because their own corporate-owned governments don’t care about income inequality or poverty.  ‘The American Dream’ also hasn’t lost its shine, despite its past & present history in regards to immigrants’ exploitation. It is still widely believed (thanks to its corporate media & Hollywood propaganda machine) that you can achieve anything by working hard in US soil. The dream is entrenched firmly in the minds of these indigenous people even so it means leaving their friends & families.

                                           Of course, America is a land of opportunities (you couldn’t say the same about Russia), but equally it is a land of illusions. In the film, Chauk repeatedly dreams about snow falling, which as per his beliefs seems to represent a better future. The director uses this dream at the juncture of every new chapter in the story or after a brutal event. Eventually, the director shows us the snow-falling reality, but this shot of realized dream (or illusion) only cast a heavy burden on our hearts. The final in the slaughterhouse is one of the most heart-breaking scenes in the film, which shows how these impoverished, uneducated, illegal immigrants could only serve as trivial cogs in the giant capitalist machine rather than being an irreplaceable unit. It portrays how these marginal humans are sold an illusion; not a dream.

                                       Director Quemada-Diez is concerned in bringing credible images, although it lacks a lyrical nature. He also finely mixes the moments of pure happiness with those of that foreboding evil ones. The dialogues are little bland and the warm friendship between Sara and Chauk, characterized by vocabulary lesson seems a bit staged. However, the performances of non-professional actors make us empathize with their plight. Brandon Lopez as Juan subtly expresses the burden of responsibility and Karen Martinez (as Sara) plays with a natural warmth and caution, similar to Paulina Gaitan in “Sin Nombre”. Her warmheartedness rattles our mind as we think about her brutal fate.

                                      “The Golden Dream” (113 minutes) is an engrossing dramatization about the plight of illegal immigrants (of Central America), who were punished for being poor and for showing temerity to escape their deprived conditions. 


The Golden Dream aka La jaula de oro -- IMDb 

April 14, 2015

Neighboring Sounds – An Unfeigned Socio-Economic Class Study

                                            Brazil is one of world’s largest nation (fifth), both in terms of population and geographical area. And, like every other nation, our perception of Brazil is dualistic: Its untouched wilderness, rich football tradition and rhythmic annual carnival represent the happier side, while its trash heaps, favelas, rampant corruption, and drug wars showcases the irrefutable bleaker side (as seen in films like “Pixote”, “City of God” etc). But, Brazil isn’t comprised of these black & white visions. It is a country like China or India, enjoying an economic boom from the early 90’s, and this modernization has brought up an increasingly prosperous middle & upper-middle class populations. Movies (of all the countries) often fail to observe these people, mostly because their uneventful life doesn’t afford much for a dramatic narrative.

                                           The so-called economic boom has bestowed us with tower blocks, LED TV’s, smartphone, & other every state-of-the-art gadgets we yearn to possess.  But, what has remained in these places of high-rise residential buildings? Did those places have a haunting past? What do we (middle-class people) feel about this moderately wealthy mundane existence? Does this comfortable, compound-like urban environment enrich our spirit, like our social status? Brazilian film-maker Kleber Mendenco Filho’s debut feature-film “Neighboring Sounds” (aka “O Som ao Redor”, 2012) is based upon these questions (& many other ponderous ones), which could be termed as a ‘blistering social study’ on the class of people living in high-rise concrete buildings. Set in the Brazil’s rapidly developing coastal city, Recife (director’s home town) the film offers a realistic slice-of-life and almost avoids all the trappings of a dramatic narrative.

                                         In “Neighboring Sounds”, we audience assume the position of James Stewart in “Rear Window”, although there isn’t a thrilling mystery to unearth. Yeah, it is all about intimately observing different kinds of people, but it is more in the Michael Haneke territory rather than Alfred Hitchcock’s. Filho’s slyly funny introduction of characters evokes American master Robert Altman, while the jaundiced bourgeois’ viewpoint of the characters makes us think of the old surrealist master Luis Bunuel. It tells something unique about the haunting past behind Brazil’s contemporary, ever-renovating culture, and also imparts a universal truth about the human condition in an industrialized world. The movie opens with photo archives of Brazil’s oppressive sugar plantation days, and cuts to a tracking shot of a skating girl, who waltzes her way through parking lot to a little playground, which sort of resembles the prison yard.  Eerie background music, a constant rattle of construction work, and chatting maids drowns the elated voice of the playing children.

                                     White-bearded Senhor Francisco (W.J. Solha) with the looks of a genial pastor is the man who owns most of the neighborhood land on which these modern tower blocks are raised. His family has bought all this land with the money from sugar plantation, which has a violent and oppressive past. Francisco has become a millionaire by selling his single-block houses for building these compact condos. Most of his descendants live in the neighborhood. One of his grandsons, Joao (Gustav Jahn) has recently returned from Germany and now works as a property agent for his grandfather. When we first see him, he jubilantly wakes up in his own plush condo with a girl he hooked up with in a friend’s party. The girl, Sofia (Irma Brown) grew up in the neighborhood before the houses went vertical. Francisco’s other grandson, Dinho (Yuri Holanda) is a spoiled rich kid (Joao’s cousin), who likes to steal CD players from car, just for kicks. The neighborhood being a wealthy enclave heavily emphasize on security from impoverished invaders.

                                     A small band of black-vested, private professional guards arrive to apartment blocks selling patrol services to the crime-conscious people. The security group is lead by a fawning, self-styled man, Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos), who seems to have a sinister agenda. There’s also assemblage of dark-skinned men & women, who serve their well-off masters, but the relationship between them is mostly familial or collegial. These characters vary from the maternal long-time family maid Maria to a water deliveryman, who is also the neighborhood’s dope dealer. He often sells drugs to a bored housewife Bia (Maeve Jinkings) with two very observant children. She uses vacuum cleaner to conceal her pot habit and finds sexual gratification through the vibration washing machine. Bia also resorts to various methods to silence the consantly barking dog in an adjacent courtyard. We aren’t given any back-story for these narratively unrelated characters because the main agenda here is to make us experience this suffocating, noisy environment packed with little urban tensions.

                                      It would have been easy to turn the premise of “Neighboring Sounds” into a heavy-handed social diatribe, but charged with an atmosphere of impending danger the movie & its characters keep on building, eventually leaving it to us to extract a pattern of meaning from this privileged enclave. And, for a thoughtful viewer, there really are a lot of subtle ideas & symbols waiting to be derived. In one scene, Joao shows an apartment to a women and her daughter. She comments that the place ‘looks like a factory’ and later bargains on hearing how its previous owner committed suicide by throwing herself from the balcony. Joao firmly replies, “The place isn’t haunted”. But, director/writer Filho constructs each scene to prove how their privileged world is haunted. The scene where Joao goes to his family’s old house near the sugar plantation with Sofia and Grandfather Francisco moves eerily as if some vengeful ghost of the past is lurking around the corner. The sequence even ends with a vignette that belongs to a ghost flick. We never exactly know what devastating event happened in those places, but we are hinted that the alienation of the present has its roots in the sinful past.

                                    Filho’s shots often view the marginal people from a moderate distance (the viewpoint of well-off apartment dwellers) as if they themselves are ghost of their oppressed ancestors. The privileged class although remain more dependent on these impoverished people they still see their class of people as a security. In a surrealistic scene, Bia’s observant little girl has a nightmare about onslaught of poor invaders, jumping inside the gates of their enclosed neighborhood. This haunting dream that comes out of nowhere, shows us how this child who learns Mandarin and English to seek a bright future, is taught to fear her own fellow, less-privileged countrymen, living in the crowded favela.

                                     Filho, through the relationship between Sofia and Joao, tries to show how the relationships are seen in the globalized society. They both see it as a transient way of getting pleasure, and so when Francisco, in his farm, keeps on asking about questions of marriage to the couple, they try to avoid it. Even the sex between them hangs like a memory of the past rather than a real thing. However, the reason for them breaking up seems to have a deeper meaning, which might be related to Sofia’s visit to the farm and her old house. Sophia visits her old house, which is about to be demolished. In her old room, she sees the stars in the ceiling. She might have felt a rush of nostalgia, but the alienated past also parts way to look at her own rootlessness and obsolescence. The stars in ceiling are shown to have remained all these years, despite being whitewashed. This image once again confirms to the movie’s central theme of how the tragic past hangs in the air despite being covered up.

                                  Filho’s uses masterful and insinuating sound design at times to convey the characters’ point of view. The great instances for such perfect use of sound could be found in the opening sequence; or when Bia stands closely to her shaking dryer; or when a trio of characters stand beneath a raging waterfall. A projection of unease is constantly created through the sound of grinding machinery, even though the neighborhood looks like a sunny paradise. Although there isn’t a heavy, violent pay-off on-screen, Filho keeps on ratcheting tension through little suggestive details.

                                  Director Filho’s acute observations and metaphorical depictions often reminisce of Haneke’s “Cache”, but the ending shows that the films are a bit opposite. “Cache” starts off like a conventional thriller and ends up as a political allegory and a treatise on urban dread, but “Neighboring Sounds” doesn’t boast semblance of a narrative right from the start, but comes up with a strange twist in the end, rounding up certain elements of the plot. Still, “Neighboring Sounds” remains grippingly open-ended and leaves a lot of disquieting questions on its wake.  

                                    The revelatory portrait of this Brazilian neighborhood could also be transported to the rich suburbs of Mumbai, Singapore, Beijing, or Tokyo, but Filho does add little flavors to relate the story to the history of Recife city. This Brazilian city is said to have higher homicidal killings than any other Latin American city. The city is known for its secret group of off-duty and former police officers who are dedicated to executing undesirable elements – street kids & other petty criminals. In this context, the film’s recurring insistence on security has a vital relevance. In a scene, old Francisco goes for the beach to swim, which has boards warning about ‘shark attacks’ (Francisco comes out unscathed). As per the official stats, 18 people’s lives were lost in the last two decades to shark attacks in Recife, but at least 3,000 people are being killed each year in various murders. Filho might be poking fun at his home city, which perceives shark as a threat than the violence perpetrated by humans.

                                     The elegantly crafted “Neighboring Sounds” (130 minutes) explores the quotidian life of people in a privileged neighborhood, without trying to hammer in an elaborate message. The film may not offer solace to those who expect narrative or tidy resolution in movies, but there is abundance of metaphors, symbols & impeccable framing to make a movie-lover happy.