Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Return (2003)

Sometimes some seemingly ordinary situations in the lives of common people can serve as premises of highly extraordinary films such as Andrei Zvyagintsev’s 2003 film, “The Return (Vozvrashcheniye)”.

Somewhere in a remote part of Russia, two boys, Andrei (Vladimir Garin) and his younger brother Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov) reside with their mother and granny. Everything seems fine and the brothers share a fine brotherly chemistry. The status quo is suddenly disturbed when the boys’ father (Konstantin Lavronenko) who’d been gone for an estimated period of 12 long years returns home. Where he had been and whence he had returned isn’t disclosed by their mother when they inquisitively question her. ”He just came back”, she replies and leaves it at that! The boys begin to wonder why he returned after that long a time and discuss all sorts of theories. They even dig up an old photograph of the whole family taken when Ivan was a baby to convince themselves that the man who has returned is indeed their father!

At (apparently) their mother’s request, the boys’ father takes them out on a fishing trip the next day. Now, considering that these kids have absolutely no emotional attachment (not surprisingly) whatsoever with this man who says he is their father, it becomes a pretty challenging task to suddenly obey him as he tries to exercise his right over them as a father would. The whole exercise seems to be clearly awkward for the father as well, who also doesn’t seem to exhibit any real connection with the kids. While the older Andrei tries his level best to adjust to his newly returned father’s whims, the younger Ivan takes a rebellious stand and refuses to comply with his father’s authoritative demeanor. 

Ivan’s attitude towards his father grows more negative as he begins to suspect his father may be involved in something and has returned only for selfish reasons! What starts off as a fun, adventurous fishing trip and a perfect means of bonding with a long absconding father, turns out to be an ultimate test of endurance that would change the brothers’ lives forever….. 

“The Return” manages to grip you from its very first frame. Each scene is intelligently written and drives home important facets of each character; right from that first scene in which some neighbourhood boys are showing off their guts by jumping in a nearby lake from a considerable height. Young Ivan who is scared of heights just sits there and cries as other kids call him “chicken” and move along. It is a pivotal scene, the importance of which, one will only realize later in the film.

There are moments of subtle brilliance all throughout the film like one scene in which, as the father parks his truck near a diner, he ogles at a couple of young ladies passing by through the rearview mirror. The look on Ivan’s face is priceless as he catches his father in the act. “The Return” is full of such fine moments and more which are best left for the viewer to find out. 

“The Return” succeeds with flying colours in the primary departments of Screenplay, Direction, Cinematography and Acting. It is amazing how effortlessly the events unfold on screen and how deftly director Andrei Zvyagintsev handles some of the most challenging scenes in the film. Ten on ten points go out to Mikhail Krichman for his brilliant cinematography. Behold how his camera lovingly captures some of the most picturesque shots of the rain-drenched Russian countryside with colours and clarity one can only dream of! Acting is bravura all throughout but the real hero of the film is the youngest actor Ivan Dobronravov who impresses the most with his outstanding performance. Watch the lad deliver an affecting performance with such ease, it is extremely difficult to even believe that a camera was there and he actually rehearsed all those scenes! 

“The Return” may end on a note that may be a tad underwhelming to some for its abruptness as some plot details are withheld and left for the viewer to interpret. But perhaps that is beyond the point. The scope of the film is only clear long after we reach the ending credits, and in the end, after some pondering, we realize that the conclusion is befitting indeed!

9/10 for this Russian gem. Films like “The Return” are hard to come by. Embrace it with open arms!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Don't Look Back (2009)

Marina de Van’s 2009 French thriller “Don’t Look Back” actually had potential! If only the promise shown in the first half of the movie had lived up till the end, “Don’t Look Back” could have been a solid example of a must-see, psychological thriller. But alas! So is not the case!

Jeanne (Sophie Marceau), a writer by profession lives in a plush apartment with her two children and husband Teo (Andrea Di Stefano). A strange encounter with a little girl triggers a string of events that seem to be visible only to Jeanne. These events particularly involve “changes”. By changes, we do not mean changes in someone’s behavior or circumstances.

These are physical changes…we are talking a complete metamorphosis; as she sees the arrangement of furniture in her house changing…she sees even some of the interiors in the house changing..and little by little the changes frighteningly start to happen in the physical appearances of her children, her husband and her own self……Jeanne knows what she is seeing isn’t imagination, yet as everything around her, including her own appearance change in a way that they start to look like different people altogether, others around her insist that this is the way it has always been! Even when she sees her own video recordings she sees the ‘other’ woman in the footage that actually belongs to her! Baffled, as Jeanne is, just like us shocked viewers, her ‘changed’ self, the new Jeanne (Monica Bellucci) tries to find some answers to this situation, using only one old photograph she finds in her mother’s place, as a clue…

For the first half, the film keeps us glued to our seats with its highly innovative and outlandish plot and its use of some interesting special effects. Yes..we must talk special effects here, as at one point, when the change is “in progress”, you actually see a lady that is a “mix” of Sophie Marceau and Monica Bellucci…of course, this woman isn’t a pleasant sight to watch, as half her features resemble those of Bellucci and the other half look like those belonging to Marceau (gasp!)!. This is not a perfect half-n-half either…it is a strange “blend”, as this partly ‘changed’ woman has the eyes of Monica Bellucci, the mouth of Sophie Marceau, a nose that is part Bellucci - part Marceau, and so on! It is this aspect of the effects that I particularly was in awe of. It was done so well…likewise the other characters, but their changes aren’t shown to be as realistic as those seen in the central character. 

Nonetheless, it is when Jeanne (Monica Bellucci) finds an old photograph that she believes will give her some answers to the spooky happenings, that the film starts descending the downward spiral! What could’ve been a truly awesome Kafkaesque or even Lynchian thriller, succumbs to the “trying to wrap everything in a neat package” syndrome, as the writers actually start dishing out some “realistic” answers pertaining to the “real world” to a plot built around surrealism! And not surprisingly, this approach actually does the film a lot of disservice, as the conclusion seems so contrived and unconvincing, that it renders the rest of the happenings illogical and more incoherent even from the perspective of the “unreal” world! Real world justifications (especially lame ones) for unreal happenings just don’t hold water…and perhaps Marina de Van forgot this little fact!

The two lovely ladies do their job quite well and their astonishment at the bizarre things happening to them is convincingly portrayed. The filmmaking itself is atmospheric and visually brilliant until things start to steadily march towards their tepid conclusion. “Don’t Look Back” can certainly be looked at once, because it is something you may not have seen before. After that one watch, however, it is simply not worth looking back at, even if you hope to find answers to certain things you may have missed…cause you won’t!

Score: 7/10

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Affliction (1997)

Domestic violence is disturbing, indeed! Especially when the head of the family, like a husband or a father turns out to be an abusive alcoholic who flies off the handle every once in a while and turns violent at the slightest of provocation! It is unimaginable what impact that might have on young minds, children of the person in question…how do the people at the receiving end of this affliction turn out?

Screenwriter/Director Paul Schrader’s surprisingly less known 1997 film “Affliction” touches upon a situation like this and chronicles the happenings in the life of one such “victim” as a seemingly unrelated incident in the small town he resides in ultimately results in a personal crisis of sorts for him.

Rolfe Whitehouse’s (Willem Dafoe) voiceover narration chronicles the events (from his own perspective) leading up to the disappearance of his older brother Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte). Wade is a police officer and part time security in-charge in a quiet little town. However, he seems to have troubles of his own..he is preparing to fight for the custody of his daughter Jill who’s currently with his ex-wife. He is also haunted by the memories of his traumatic childhood in the shadow of his abusive, perpetually drunk father Glen (James Coburn). He also feels for his mother who has had to suffer for years living with a man like that. His younger brother, Rolfe, on the other hand has managed to escape that world and move out, become a successful teacher in Boston University and live a good life.

Life seems to be decent enough for Wade, with his good friend and newfound romantic interest, Margie Fogg (Sissy Spacek) who works at a local diner. Unbeknownst to him, though, some of his father’s violent streak seems to have rubbed off on Wade…which doesn’t manifest until much later after a hunting accident. Wade suspects that the hunting “accident” which took the life of a rich man by the name of Twombley, is actually murder, with some of his friends and colleagues involved in it. The incident is quickly followed by Wade’s mother’s demise which puts his father’s responsibility on him, adding to his woes, as Glen seems to show no signs of improvement with age, and makes life difficult for him as well as Margie. Wade finds himself struggling to stay afloat, trying to keep his job, stay in the good books of his daughter Jill, retain Margie’s affection, and somehow keep his father at bay…..but how much can one handle?!

Affliction” is, on one hand, a murder mystery and on the other, a profound character sketch detailing the difficult Glen Whitehouse and his son Wade who seems to be coming dangerously close to treading his father's ugly footsteps. The driving force of “Affliction” is some deftly crafted moments that manage to disturb you as you are left with no choice but to try and fathom how men could resort to such terrible behavior and what makes them so difficult to handle. None of the episodes come across as forced or unrealistic, at that, as these are the traits of real people. One can’t deny the existence of such traits in individuals belonging to perfectly normal families. Why does Glen drink so much? How does Glen feel absolutely no remorse after hitting women and children and relentlessly spewing abuses? And what makes the ones at the receiving end so tolerant? There are some highly intense moments in this bleak picture that make for some great drama, like the brawl during Wade’s mom’s funeral or Wade’s outburst when he suspects his friends/colleagues being involved in the “accident” of Twombley. The intensity clubbed with some powerhouse performances make for a great viewing. 

While James Coburn bagged the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his remarkable act as the grumpy old irritable father, Nick Nolte emerges a clear winner with his Oscar nominated, volatile performance as Wade, who is doing his best in his attempts at not being like his father and trying hold together his life that is steadily unraveling. It is a performance to watch out for, although one can’t deny that there were times when he seemed to be a tad Jack Nicholson-ish in his acting! That in no way takes any credibility out though, as your heart goes out to the hapless Wade, who’s clearly a victim of circumstance!

Others like Willem Dafoe, Holmes Osborne and Sissy Spacek appear very briefly. Dafoe’s voice appears more than his physical presence itself, which is a pity, but maybe the screenplay demanded Nolte’s character’s presence much more than anyone else’s!

Paul Schrader, a name not unknown to fans of Martin Scorsese classics such as “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull”, pens a powerful screenplay based on the novel by Russell Banks and directs the same with the finesse of a master,  although Paul Schrader, the director, seems to be under-recognized amongst film lovers.
Do check out “Affliction”. It is a fine work of cinema that certainly is essential viewing for film lovers who like their dramas laden with intensity.

Score: 8/10