Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Butterfly Effect (2004)

Chaos Theory: “It has been said that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly's wing can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway around the world.”

We all have sometimes spoken about “turning back the clock”, or changing that one event in our life; like taking a left turn instead of the right turn….getting into school A and not school B…and perhaps things would’ve turned out differently for us! There have certainly been times in our lives when such a thought has always crossed our minds…”What if? Oh..what could’ve been!”

“The Butterfly Effect” makes an attempt to play this thought out on the big screen with its initially complex narrative.

Some people have called “The Butterfly Effect” “similar to Donnie Darko”, because of its theme revolving around time travel and a troubled teen. While this 2004 American thriller, starring Ashton Kutcher (who most people love to hate), isn’t anywhere close to “Donnie Darko” in terms of sheer originality of story-telling and its unforgettable characters, it isn’t as worthless as most critics have made it out to be.

 Lenny, Evan, Kayleigh (Evan’s childhood sweetheart) and her psychologically troubled brother Tommy are the recurring characters in the film shown at various stages in their lives in their growing-up years. Evan (who ultimately grows up to be Kutcher) has a gift...only he does not realize that until much later. For starters, he is a problem child and seems to have some kind of a medical condition whereby he ‘blacks out’ and of course, does not remember what happened during the black-out period. Only the people around him know that the events that occurred during the black-out period were of a very grave nature and some that may have brought about irreversible changes.

After several disturbing episodes in their childhood the kids grow up…the present era shows Evan (Kutcher) studying in high school but apparently has almost no contact with his aforementioned childhood buddies. It has been 7 years and Evan hasn’t had a blackout! And as he reminisces old times through his journals he has been maintaining, he realizes what his gift is! The episodes during the moments in which he blacked out and had no memory of, suddenly appear to him as he seems to have been transported back in time. Evan then realizes, he has the ability to go back to the past and manipulate or “re-write” these important events from his past, which could alter the future completely for him and his friends! However, things aren’t as hunky dory as they seem, and Evan’s attempts to change things aren’t entirely without their side-effects. Evan tries to use his skills repeatedly to his advantage only to realize he isn’t God and that no matter how hard he tries, something has to go wrong…..

Now I must admit I was in awe of this picture when I first saw it, but after delving into it and giving it a re-watch my opinion slightly changed. “The Butterfly Effect” was primarily panned because it is difficult to digest how a person can go back in time and change events simply upon reading some journal notes! Secondly it seems the “effect” seems to influence only Evan and his friends’ eventual outcomes, while the rest of the world remains status quo! This refers to some of the recurring characters in Evan’s life as well. And after a certain point of time, the proceedings turn far too contrived just to take the screenplay to its conclusion, especially in a scene in which Evan ends up in prison!

That said, In spite of the aforementioned holes in the narrative, this film manages to grip you from the start with its deftly shot frames and taut pacing. The initial episodes from Evan’s childhood are somewhat disturbing for any child to handle and one can instantly gather why some children turn out the way they do. The scenes in the University, replete with the Fraternities and the Sororities much resemble a typical college romance film but not for long as the narrative twists and turns several times along the way! There are quite a few surprises in store, and plenty of interesting ones at that. 

The background score by Michael Suby is excellent and as far as the acting is concerned, some known faces like Eric Stoltz, Elden Henson and Amy Smart appear and do a decent job. But it is Ashton Kutcher’s film all the way as he delivers what could be the best performance I’ve ever seen from him! Yes…no matter how much you like to bash him, he is really good in this, if not great, and it is nice to see him do a serious role rather than the usual slapstick buffoonery he resorts to.

Barring some holes and inconsistencies in the concept presented in “The Butterfly Effect”, the film written and directed by Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber is an enjoyable thriller that succeeded in showing me a good time. I sure do hope it has the same effect on you folks!

Score: 8/10.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Unknown Woman (2006)

I wonder if Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore, the man behind the highly acclaimed Oscar winning film “Cinema Paradiso” (1988), takes some kind of twisted pleasure in depicting his lead women being brutally attacked physically. I mean it happened in his “Malena” (2000) which starred the most womanly woman on earth, Monica Bellucci. Of course, I watched that film for all the wrong reasons and ended up feeling turned off after the scene in which they all gang-assault the beautiful creature that is Monica and leave her wounded, bruised, naked, ugly and unattended! Something similar happens in many scenes in his film “La sconosciuta (The Unknown Woman)”, a somewhat confused mixture of an emotional family melodrama + mystery + thriller, but one that works to a considerable degree!

The film begins with some women clad in masks and lingerie being subjected to bodily examination via a small peep-hole by an unknown person. One of them is ultimately “chosen”…...but looks like all of this was from a distant memory as we cut to the present..a beautiful curly-haired woman, Irena (Kseniya Rappoport) from Ukraine travels to Northern Italy and starts looking for a job as a domestic help. But it looks like she is interested only in one household in a particular area. She gets acquainted to a couple of people there and finds out about Valeria Adacher (Claudia Gerini) , who has an adorable but fragile little daughter Tea, a victim of a “rare disease”! Irena makes deliberate attempts and succeeds in getting hired as a maid in that house, and gradually gets close to the family and especially, Tea. Every opportunity she gets she begins snooping around the house, looking for something which isn’t initially clear. In the midst of all this, we are given a glimpse of what could be her horrific past in a series of flashbacks interspersed with clever match-cuts in the narrative of the present. The story thus unfolds, gradually unlocking the mystery of Irena, the ‘unknown woman’, and her interest in the Adacher household.

"The Unknown Woman” had potential, no doubt. It had the chance to be a masterpiece of the mystery genre with its intriguing storyline and gripping suspense in the narrative. The film suffers from the “excess” syndrome which mostly plagues a majority of Hollywood thrillers. So while the background score is awesome and crafted by the great Ennio Morricone, there are times when the score goes overboard with the tempo rising to an excess in some of the scenes where the crescendo isn’t even required. There is some racy ‘speed’ music in some scenes playing while some flashback scenes literally “flash” in front of our eyes like some flip book being rapidly turned in a random order! And there are so many such scenes that at some point I felt it was far enough as it became an eyesore. Those scenes, mind you, also depict some of the important happenings in Irena’s life, and hence, a detailed, restrained treatment to these scenes would’ve done them a lot of good instead of such gimmicky camerawork. The cinematography is otherwise superb though, with some beautiful colours clearly distinguishing the past and the present scenes.

But coming back to “excess”,..there is an excess of violence too..especially violence inflicted on women…even children for that matter!

So while we have Irena herself being mauled by unseen men on the street corner till her face turns to pulp, and being stripped and hung upside down and beaten, we are also shown little Tea being beaten up by bullies. We see her fall down, hurt herself, and bleed painfully….I mean showing women being battered is one thing…why should little children be tortured on screen! I am usually not averse to seeing violence on screen, but I thought Giuseppe Tornatore particularly overdoes it when it comes to women; this was also evident in his “Malena”.

The story itself is quite layered, and some twists do catch you unawares. The film per se boasts of riveting suspense, but somehow the handling of some crucial scenes wasn’t deft enough, perhaps. I mean just too many secrets are revealed suddenly and then you are trying to piece it all together, at the same time analyzing if the conclusion is convincing enough. The most impressive part of the film was the match-cut interspersing of the past and the present scenes as mentioned before and the terrific acting from Russian actress Kseniya Rappoport who runs away with all the laurels for her arresting performance as Irena. You know you are watching a professional at work as she carries her composed, confident self in the scenes in the present, yet displays a persona laced with tender traits of motherly love juxtaposed against the helplessness in the face of grave abuse and pain in her past.

Also impressive is sweet little Clara Dossena who plays the role of Valeria’s daughter Tea. It is certainly a task getting some good acting done from children as young as Clara..but Tornatore gets an extremely fine performance out of her and it is indeed a real treat to watch the little one display her cute acting chops.

But while we have such realistic characters on one side, we have a cardboard cut-out “villain” who is made to even look wicked..a fat, bald, mean looking guy with eyebrows shaved, who constantly wheezes as he mouths some inherently menacing dialog!

As the ending credits rolled I had mixed feelings about the film. The kind of material that was available with Tornatore could’ve been moulded into something much bigger with better handling, perhaps at the hands of a better director. Unfortunately what we have is a film reduced to an ordinary thriller which is just about decent. That said, “The Unknown Woman” is a film worth taking a look at for its moderate goodness….when you have nothing better to do on a rainy weekend.

Score: 7/10

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Red Beard (1965)

Perhaps the most important reason “Red Beard” is remembered is because this was Akira Kurosawa’s last film starring Toshiro Mifune before they had a fall-out! I would like to remember it another way though…as one of the most unconventional films in the great director’s impressive filmography.

“Red Beard” isn’t really a single story or plot…it is about a young intern Dr. Noboru Yasumoto (Yūzō Kayama) educated in Nagasaki, sent for his post-graduate medical training in a rural charity clinic. The director of this clinic is Dr. Kyojō Niide (Toshiro Mifune) also known as “Akahige”(the “Red Beard”), who on the surface appears tyrannical and a steadfast individual who dictates certain “rules” around the hospital. Yasumoto is supposed to work under Niide and serve in the clinic but he is immediately disappointed with the kind of environment he finds himself in. There aren’t enough funds to support the infrastructure in the clinic and patients are kept in pathetic conditions. There is poverty, disease and death all around and Yasumoto finds himself trapped in the stricken atmosphere and wishes to leave immediately.

When he finds he won’t be able to leave for a while, a miffed Yasumoto comes to believe there is nothing he can possibly gain from working in that environment and is certain that Niide has a vested interest in him for his advanced notes from his Nagasaki medical education. Yasumoto becomes a silent rebel and starts his non-cooperation movement by refusing to wear his uniform, drinking “Sake” in the clinic when it has been prohibited by Niide, among other things.

The film then chronicles Yasumoto’s tenure at the clinic, the various individuals he comes across, patients as well as staff, several unexpected episodes that ultimately make him more compassionate and enable him to come to terms with the situation.

Throughout its sprawling 185 mins length, “Red Beard”, for the most part is a depressing film. A few very interesting characters are shown, each one, mostly a tragic figure, supported by an even more tragic back story as to why he/she has ultimately reached the state of misery he/she is in!

So there is this ailing yet extremely good-hearted patient Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki) who in spite of being seriously ill himself goes out, does some odd jobs and earns money to buy himself and some of his fellow-patients their much needed medicines which seem to fall short in the already impoverished clinic. Then there is Rokusuke(Kamatari Fujiwara), an old man dying of cancer who refuses to say anything! A wonderful scene in the film comes to mind in which Niide asks Yasumoto to sit next to Rokusuke as he dies, for “there is nothing as solemn as a man’s final moments”!

There are other characters like The “Mantis” Madwoman (Kyoko Kagawa) a supposed murderess with a history of abuse, and the teenage prostitute, Otoyo (Terumi Niki) rescued by Niide and Yasumoto from a local brothel, who finally finds a “decent” life in Niide’s clinic! In fact, Otoyo’s story dominates the entire second half of the film, clubbed with the heart-rending story of a little boy named Chobo.

“Red Beard” is a unique film, especially for Kurosawa, no doubt. It could be the only one of its kind amongst all the pictures Kurosawa made. So while the film isn’t really plot-driven, it is an intense study of various characters and an account of the impact of the various challenges in their lives on them. The film moves at a considerably moderate to slow pace, but that helps us sink in, be at one with the environment of the film and relate to the characters. The film is extremely engaging, but there are times when the long length seems to be a deterrent especially when some of back stories take too long to unfold as the audience waits in patience for the back story to reach its conclusion. Some of these scenes also lead to some unnecessary melodrama. But these minor quibbles in no way bring the film down in terms of the overall quality of this passionate picture.

Toshiro Mifune’s towering performance is unfortunately given limited screen time while Yuzo Kayama gets to do more scenes in this one. Apparently one of the scriptwriters Hideo Oguni told Kurosawa that Mifune’s performance had been “all wrong” in the film, which supposedly led Kurosawa, for the first time, to doubt Mifune’s abilities, which ultimately led to the rift, partly due to Mifune’s own misgivings about the project and how it was taking a toll on his other projects. Whatever the back story of the Mifune-Kurosawa rift, it is indeed sad that this prolific partnership had to end. That said, this remains one of the most restrained, accomplished and memorable performances by Toshiro Mifune. While he plays a calm, yet stern individual, he gets to re-live his action-hero persona in a brief fight sequence.

Then there is the “real” lead actor, Yuzo Kayama who impresses with his superb performance. It is sheer pleasure watching the initial arrogance turn into tender compassion as the film progresses.

“Red Beard” may not match the brilliance of his masterpiece “Seven Samurai”, but it certainly does not deserve to be pushed into oblivion, for it certainly is one of Kurosawa’s finest but underrated works!

Score: 9/10

Monday, July 4, 2011

Memories of Murder (2003)

When you are watching a South Korean film, expect the unexpected! I mean literally….trust them to turn a seemingly conventional plot line into a really twisted one and take us viewers completely by surprise. “Memories of Murder”, a mesmerizing crime drama by filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho is a riveting mystery centering around the true story of the Hwaseong serial murders that occurred in Hwaseong in South Korea between 1986 and 1991.

It all begins one lazy day when the body of a young woman is discovered in a ditch, bound and possibly raped before the killing. Local detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) is in charge of the case, but just like the town he resides in, his attitude is laid back and nothing of this sort had ever happened in that part of town. Clearly overwhelmed by the incident that is quickly followed by another corpse of a woman murdered under seemingly similar circumstances, Park goes all out in investigating. He really tries but seems to reach dead ends with no witnesses and the handful of clues leading nowhere. Forensic technology was almost non-existent in that part of the globe in those days and determining substantial information solely from the examination of the body was quite difficult.

With the media going berserk, the pressure mounting from all over and the lethargic handling of the case leads to a detective from Seoul, Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang Kyung) being sent to assist Det. Park. Now both these men predictably clash in their methods of investigation (not entirely a new plot device to any such story) but that is hardly the crux of the story. With things getting more and more difficult, Park begins to adopt twisted ways of collecting evidence, “creating” suspects (one of whom is a mentally challenged boy) out of the remotest of things connecting them to the murder, getting confessions out of them and trying to close the vexing case any which way! And this is where Seo Tae-Yoon comes in, and keeps proving Park wrong, in the meantime, carrying out his own investigation.

A few more corpses follow and the detectives lose their sleep solving what could be one of the most challenging cases they may have faced and it almost seems as if they are chasing a shadow....but little by little they do know that the killer isn’t far away…

“Memories of Murder” is one of the finest detective-crime stories I’ve seen in a long long time. It also reminded me of two David Fincher films “Seven” and “Zodiac” both of which dealt with extremely trying serial killer cases which were some rather tough nuts to crack. However, where “Memories of Murder” differs is in its approach to story-telling is that it does not rely on Hollywood gimmicks of any sort and tells it as raw as it should be. It doesn’t have the pretty faces of Brad Pitt or Jake Gyllenhaal trying to solve some romanticized cryptic puzzles left behind by the killer. A lot of unpredictable twists and turns and generous amounts of red herrings are thrown in. The viewer feels the angst, relentless frustration and exasperation these guys feel while attempting to solve the murders as all their clues, attempts to find a pattern, the leads and eventual trails keep meeting their dead ends. At the same time there is the disgust and the growing anger over how the killer manages to prey on yet another victim right under their noses and seems to escape their nets! And what ghastly ways to commit the crime! This is the kind of killer who gags his victims, rapes them and stuffs articles found on them into their vagina…!! 

Yes indeed..”Memories of Murder” is a disturbing film. A lot of things and happenings you see in this film aren’t pleasant to watch. As a matter of fact, the filmmaker manages to evoke a feeling of disgust that comes from the graphically descriptive dialog between the characters narrating the nature of the crime, not from the visuals of the scenes, as there aren’t any particularly graphic scenes depicting the actual crime and most of the violence is off screen.

Technically “Memories of Murder” excels in nearly all departments. The stunning cinematography by Kim Hyung-ku is breathtaking as his camera captures some of the most marvelous locations of the Korean countryside and a rainy night in a desolate area never looked more terrifying! Ditto for the beautiful music score by Tarō Iwashiro which truly reflects the emotion and the mood of some of the key scenes. Acting by the two leads, Song Kang-ho and Kim Sang Kyung is applause-worthy! Song Kang-ho, especially impresses us most, as the incapable detective, desperate in his attempts to get the case over and done with.

The film ultimately belongs to writer-director Bong Joon-Ho, though, who turns a run-of-the-mill, “two detectives on the trail of a serial killer” subject into a  disturbing yet quite refreshing and rewarding movie experience, with an ending so powerful it just refuses to let go! This one’s really worth your while, folks!

Highly recommended!

Score: 9/10.