Sunday, December 16, 2012

Climates (2006)

Nuri Bilge Ceylan is no ordinary director. This fact becomes evident from the very first few frames of his "Climates" (2006), a rather languidly paced, wonderfully minimalist piece of work. We come across an odd looking couple, a young woman, Bahar (Ebru Ceylan) and her visibly older partner (?) Isa (Nuri Bilge Ceylan). It is not clear if they are married or engaged or just living in. They are on a holiday somewhere and Isa is busy photographing some ruins, while Bahar looks on with odd stares. The ambient sounds of buzzing bees and chirping birds add to the mood of the lazy afternoon and the seemingly laid back attitude of the couple on screen. Only just before the title credits appear, there is a long take of Bahar staring right at you (although in the film it’s Isa she is looking at). And suddenly, tears start rolling down. Clearly, all is not well.

It is soon established that the couple are in a troubled relationship. They are out of love. Bahar seems trapped and suffocated in this relationship. This part is highlighted in a real neat dream sequence of a blurred image of Isa smothering Bahar with sand as she lies on the beach. And later, Isa, who is also aware of the distance between them, rehearses lines to convey that they should probably part ways. These two sequences and one awkward dinner table conversation with a friend quickly impress you. You instantly sit up and take notice. Perhaps you are watching yet another minimalist European masterwork.

If only the same sentiment stayed on after the first 50 odd minutes, after which it appears that Ceylan probably exhausted the greatest written scenes in his visibly unaccomplished script, which simply isn’t potent enough in the first place. The plot, if any, merely delves on Bahar and Isa’s break-up and Isa’s attempt to reconcile. That’s all you can really write about it. The deficient script wouldn’t matter much, if all of the handful of characters that appear on screen make up for the lack of substantial meat in the writing. But the focus is mostly only on Isa, while the other players, although introduced, appear in some important scenes, but aren’t much looked into. We only know them superficially.

For example, sometime later, we are introduced to Serap (Nazan Kirilmis), apparently an ex of Isa. Isa runs into Serap, old romance/lust rekindles, and he invites himself into her home, in spite of the fact that she is now carrying on with a friend of his! Serap and Isa stare at each other awkwardly for a long while and exchange small talk about their respective relationships. Serap smokes her cigarettes with elan, and in the moments of silence we can actually hear the sound of smoke being drawn in every puff till the cigarette burns out. Just Lovely! But suddenly something happens that makes you wonder what kind of man Isa really is!

This is further corroborated in a sequence in the snow-clad eastern Turkey, to where Isa travels to find his lost love, Bahar, in an attempt to win her back! How fickle can one get? He meets a friendly cabbie, who doesn’t ask much except to be sent a photograph he takes of him against a snowy landscape. Isa agrees and the cabbie writes down his address on a piece of paper. But later, very nonchalantly, he throws the piece of paper in an ash tray in a coffee shop! One wonders if the only character that carries so much weight in the script should come across as so unlikeable that you would hardly even care about him much.

"Climates" had potential to completely succeed only in scenes like these that highlight some behavioral traits of Ceylan’s characters, since plot-wise he didn’t have much to go on. More talent, though, is invested in capturing breathtakingly beautiful landscapes across Turkey in some of the finest cinematography this reviewer had the pleasure of coming across. Add to that, some of the greatest sound design, capturing ambient sounds that you simply fall in love with, and wonderfully natural acting that you can’t forget for a while.
The title, apart from the physical change of seasons we see on the screen, also alludes to the ups and downs in human relationships. But more so, it is symbolic of the fickleness of a human being, his shifting inclinations that change with time. "Climates" shows us in its subtle, simple narrative, how a man can break up, stray and then attempt to make up again! "Climates", thus succeeds on a considerable level, as a romantic mood piece. Only it ends up being a little too simple and a tad hollow for a film trying to bring out the complicated functioning of the human mind.

There certainly is sheer grace in the mechanics of "Climates", and Ceylan proves that he has the skill for the aesthetics. Only one wishes there was more heart in it too.

Score: 8/10

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

"Hiroshima Mon Amour" (1959), Alain Resnais' debut feature length project is a baffling film, one that is extremely difficult to even summarize in a synopsis!

We are (almost) introduced to two characters in a passionate clinch, their faces not shown, conversing with one another, although it is mostly a one-sided conversation. The woman keeps saying things about knowing, and seeing Hiroshima closely, while the man keeps interjecting and contradicting her. She insists that she has seen and remembers a lot about Hiroshima but he contradicts her again saying that she is "not endowed with memory"! The conversation happens against a strange background score, and shocking visuals, some of which is part of actual documentary footage of the irreparable damage done to human life and property during the tragic Hiroshima bombings of 1945. The woman continues to talk; although at this point of time we aren’t sure exactly which year it is set in, whether during the war or much after it!

The camera glides across corridors of hospitals, bombing sites, showcasing bodies of dead and deformed children, further moving into the homes of survivors who are rendered only half humans, losing hair rapidly, yet trying their best to survive despite being crippled and deformed for life! The visuals of the grisly aftermath keep getting displayed, as almost impassive voiceovers continue to narrate away for the first few minutes.

Soon we cut away from the nightmare-like tone of the initial few minutes and are shown the faces of the conversing couple. A French woman and a Japanese man have just spent the night together. The woman, an actress who hails from Nevers, France, is in Hiroshima to shoot for some scenes in a film she is starring in, while the Japanese man is an architect.

Believe it or not, the rest of the film is like one lengthy conversation with repeated ramblings, sometimes deadpan, sometimes over-emotional, between these two individuals who, after making love one night,  find that they are madly in love with each other! Some of the conversation seems random and meaningless, some quite forlorn, while most of it sheds light on the dark past of the woman, particularly revolving around her failed romance.

It is from this vague conversation that one can try and draw some inference as to the central idea of the film. Only on a broad level, it is safe to say, that juxtaposed against the tragedy at Hiroshima, a prominent theme in the film is that of undying love; the loss of loved one(s), and most importantly the memory of such love (or tragedy) that continues to haunt an individual.

In one bizarre scene, the lengthiest, perhaps, shot in a bar, the woman, who appears to be a rather fragile, emotionally wounded individual, has a few hours left with the man, before she returns to France. She reminisces in a drunken state, about her first love affair with a German soldier, who got killed. Only we aren’t really sure if it’s a dream she is narrating or a past, for she seems to be talking in present tense. There are a lot of flashback scenes interspersed, disturbing ones at that, describing how she was punished by confinement to a cellar and having her head shaved off! The woman gets hysterical, cries out loud, gets slapped by the man, then calms down again, constantly narrating the events, referring to the Japanese man as part of the story, although it is actually about the German soldier! During the time he keeps pouring drinks for her and listening to her story, the Japanese man keeps reiterating how much he is in love with her and would like to be with her!

It’s all befuddling but you do find yourself giving in to the strange but strikingly original narrative. There’s this soul-stirring background music score, top-notch cinematography, a partially great atmosphere, moody story-telling style, and the use of quick flash backs (a strong influence of the French New Wave). The acting is superlative all the way, by the two leads, most especially Emmanuelle Riva for her spellbinding performance, considering the camera mostly captures every expression on her face for a long time. And finally, there’s a sheer uniqueness about "Hiroshima Mon Amour" that makes it a film that deserves great admiration.

Only this this film is no "Last Year at Marienbad" (1961), that stupendous surrealist dreamscape of a film that Resnais followed this up with, and made use of some of the devices used in "Hiroshima Mon Amour" to a significantly greater effect.

Despite a well-written screenplay by Marguerite Duras, “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, nevertheless, oscillates between extremely surreal on one hand to extremely documentary-like real on the other, which lets it down slightly. It would've perhaps benefited more, had there been some consistency in its mood. Moreover, it certainly seems a tad long and repetitive even for its modest 90 min length and could've actually been much more accessible if cut short by at least 15 minutes.

Remarkable though; an essential film outing.

Score: 8/10

Friday, November 2, 2012

Oslo, August 31st (2011)

We begin with what appear to be snippets of scenes from some distant memories. Photographs and home video clips are flashed in a montage. There are voice-overs reminiscing some happy times, perhaps from someone’s childhood and growing up over the years.

But suddenly we cut to the central character, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), as he wakes up in bed and sits in stunned silence, looking sullen, very clearly getting that feeling of waking up to reality. Was that a dream? Had he just drifted away, overcome by nostalgia, back to the days of yore, in times which were very obviously happier?

In the next few minutes we learn that Anders is a recovering drug addict in a rehabilitation program. He gets a day’s leave from his rehab home to go on the outside and try his luck with a job interview. Anders has been clean for over 10 months now, and hasn’t touched a drug or alcohol ever since. It is no mean feat, as some say, very few people manage to make it to the other side. The film then follows Anders as he spends this day in Oslo, the city he grew up in, catching up with old friends, fixing a meeting with his sister, and amongst other things, trying his hand at getting a position as an editorial assistant at a local publication.

Not through explicit depictions, but through some conversations between characters, we come to know that Anders has had a very disturbing recent past as an addict. His addiction had taken a huge toll on his love life, family life, social life, almost about everything! Completely blinded by it, he is financially drained out, and now, apparently, his parents are forced to sell their family house.

At the outset Anders seems to be doing pretty well with his rehabilitation, being genuinely abstinent for almost a year. It is not unknown that coming out of the drug habit is a herculean task. But can life go back to complete normalcy after one is out of it? Not in all cases…

Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier's "Oslo, August 31st", using Anders as a medium, tries to focus on this very aspect of recovering. Substance abuse not only destroys a person physically; it also hampers the person psychologically, doing irreparable damage to that one thing that contributes significantly to mending anything under the sun, and getting life back on track; that thing called hope!

The trip to Oslo turns out to be a wake-up call, rather than a pleasure trip. Anders is now 34. He sees that his buddy Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner, in a naturalistic, superb, performance) is now happily married, has two kids, living a normal life. Other friends too, have moved on and settled down. In one of the best scenes, in a lengthy conversation between the two buddies, Anders reveals his true feelings. He feels left behind. He feels he has lost precious years of his life. It is an irreversible reality that Anders has to face. And he is too scared of this fact. He certainly cannot start from scratch. His views are full of pessimism, and no matter how much Thomas tries to make him feel better, and tries convincing that things are not as bad as they seem, Anders seems to think otherwise, and even harbors suicidal thoughts! In an attempt to ease Anders’ worries, Thomas even goes to the extent of bringing out details of his own life, stressing upon the fact that him and his wife have gradually slipped into this humdrum family life, and that it isn’t as happening as Anders might think it is.

One can’t help but feel Anders’ anguish. Anders Danielsen Lie, with his superlative, heartbreaking performance, makes it all the more believable, as we feel at one with Anders and can instantly relate to him. The filming is minimalist, the acting: amazingly natural, the camerawork: life-like, and there is usage of a hand-held camera for the most part making us viewers feel that it’s actually us, following Anders with a camera, as he covers his itinerary in Oslo…it is that real!

The buddies part, with Thomas hoping for the best, and with the promise of meeting Anders in a party, later in the evening,  at another couple’s place, their common friends.

The job interview gives Anders a ray of hope, as it kicks off well, but a question posed by the interviewer, about a time gap seen in the CV, makes Anders mad and it ends in a disaster, just like he predicts (or wants?). Anders’ case is very understandable. He probably belongs to that category of people who like to wallow in pity and have long lost the patience to do anything about it. Or as Thomas even exclaims once, seeing his attitude, "Be a loser. If that’s what you want". Although one would like to think that the defeatist attitude, perhaps, stems from the shattered confidence.

With "Oslo, August 31st", which is only his second feature-length film, Joachim Trier has delivered a masterpiece. Rarely does one come across such a restrained, yet frighteningly real and intimate study of a drug addict coming out of the habit. It’s a deeply human drama; a crushing portrait of a troubled young man, a representative of all youngsters out there who are a little more adventurous than they should be. By the end of the first half, we are just too well acquainted with Anders. So much so, that during all the events that take place in the latter half of the film, we feel genuine concern and really wish things would get back on track for him, despite the obvious lag the addiction has introduced in his life. And therefore, we sincerely wish that he wouldn’t pick up that glass of wine at a party he visits later. We wish he wouldn’t follow some friends who decide to go to a rave party.

We keep wishing, for we still have our hopes intact. Only deep within, we are aware of the devastating truth, that Anders has lost his.

Score: 10/10

Monday, October 29, 2012

Night Train (Pociag) (1959)

A bird’s-eye view of a crowded train station. A haunting, almost chilling jazz score with sensuous female vocals. Crisp black and white cinematography. You can’t help but get the feel of a high quality noir film right from the first frame. The myriad human beings look like small creatures scurrying in all directions. It’s a seemingly normal view at a train station. Soon, as the view draws closer, we get a glimpse of some of the primary players in this strangely ambiguous psychological drama.

A dapper looking man with sunglasses, Jerzy (Leon Niemczyk) enters the train compartment without a ticket (saying that he forgot everything at home) and insists on buying his way into the train, and also the neighbouring berths ‘cause he wants to alone. He seems to be tensed, possibly just wants to go away some place, hardly smiles, and smokes a lot of cigarettes. A beautiful young blonde, Marta (Lucyna Winnicka) makes an appearance. She has a certain sadness in her eyes. She obviously has something to hide and is probably on the run from something. A younger man (Zbigniew Cybulski), hot on her pursuit, enters ticket-less and proceeds to constantly stalk her, every chance he gets. As luck would have it, some sort of technical error leads to Marta and Jerzy ending up in the same coupe of two berths. Both of them are visibly disconcerted by this, but eventually give in, and are forced to spend the night in the company of each other, owing to lack of any other option.

It’s the holidays and the train is practically overflowing, as passengers crowd the corridors. They are a motley crew of individuals with varied behavioral traits and their own quirks. There are a group of ogling men who lustfully eye practically every woman that passes by. There’s a flirtatious, married woman (Teresa Szmigielówna) trying to seek the attention of Jerzy every chance she gets, even at the momentary halts at the intermediate stations. For a while we can only hear her husband’s voice, who seems to be a lawyer, and for some reason, seems to be a very boring companion! There’s a young sailor who quietly stares in admiration at a pretty young thing, throughout the train journey. And then there’s an man, an insomniac who cannot sleep in the bunk beds because they remind him of his concentration camp days, so he spends his time reading in the corridor.

Amidst all the chaos, there is some gossip about the latest news of a man who killed his wife and fled! A lot of conversations, exchanges of glances, vague ramblings later, the journey turns into an eventful one for all the passengers. The train suddenly stops at an unknown location, where official authorities board the train, for they have information that there is a wanted killer on board! Which of these ensemble of characters is the person they are looking for? There are suddenly grapevines, as doubt and tension fill the environment, and the characters we are by now familiar with, begin to exhibit a gradual transformation of sorts….

Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s "Night Train" (Original title: Pociag) is not much about its plot. It is, in fact, a very realistic study of how a given group of people would behave and make judgments based on whatever little information they have. Passengers on a train are mostly strangers to each other. But a lot is judged (or misjudged) based on their overall demeanor, body language, personality, and what-not. It is a strikingly natural aspect of any human being and "Night Train" brings it out like no other! The lead characters are both strangers to each other, and in that one night together, they seem to assume quite a few things about each other. So do the other passengers. Where the director plays a winning hand, is at his tactful handling of the screenplay by keeping things deliberately ambiguous for the most part, playing a clever trick on the audience, by keeping them guessing constantly, as they start framing their initial mental perceptions about the various characters. The viewer, then, becomes a passenger himself, the kind of curious bystander who makes enquiries in hushed whispers, despite knowing that its none of his/her business. Or the kind that pushes the others aside to be amongst the first to know more and gossip about it; or the kind of person who starts judging based on initial impressions.

So what is the reality of all these characters then? We are given a hint of it much later, although not everything is declared explicitly. Kawalerowicz’s ploy lies in keeping almost everything under wraps until the final half hour when some subtle twists almost sharpen the blurs, but not entirely! It is also during this time that we learn how a society as a whole, goes up in arms, against anything deemed wrong in the conventional sense. Somewhere amidst all the chaos, we, as individuals of society are also shown the mirror. It is alarming how people can turn their backs on you and stop at nothing to malign or blacklist you, just as quickly as they can turn you into a hero!

Kawalerowicz’s film has some extraordinary camerawork (apparently most of the train corridor scenes were shot on a set; it is almost impossible to make out), which has its highly realistic effect on the viewer (the suffocating feeling of trying to squeeze through a narrow, crowded passageway). It also has some great performances, especially by the two leads, Leon Niemczyk and Lucyna Winnicka, and there’s some riveting drama and mesmerizing score to go along. But "Night Train" goes way beyond its very enticing exterior of a claustrophobic, tense noir, a supposed nod to Hitchcock's thrillers. It makes a very important statement on societal dynamics.

A hidden gem, a winner all the way!

Score: 9/10

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Strange Circus (2005)

Asian horror has established its own brand over the last decade. A lot of Korean and Japanese horror productions are known for their extremely lurid content that leaves nothing to imagination. One can’t help but admit that the writer/directors responsible for crafting these terrifying films push the boundaries of their imagination and go all out in penning down material for their films.

Only the effort taken in writing scripts of this sort is slowly beginning to shape into a formula of sorts, with Asian horror becoming synonymous with a set of keywords representing the ingredients of a perfect Asian horror recipe: blurred lines between reality and illusion, repressed guilt, psychological trauma, family tragedy, rape, incest, grisly acts of vengeance, over-the-top, gory acts of violence, wildly perverse fetishes and finally a lengthy revelation in the form of a "twist" that turns the story over its head, being the most prominent ingredients in any dish cooked in the hellish kitchen of Asian horror cinema!

This Japanese offering, "Strange Circus" (2005), lives up to its name and churns out a highly macabre and disturbing dish for us viewers as it shoves our heads right into the twisted world of a 12 year old girl, Mitsuko.

Mitsuko is the daughter of Gozo (Hiroshi Ôguchi), a horny old, perverted principal of some grotesque-looking school; the kind that looks like something straight out of someone’s wet nightmare. Gozo has animalistic sex with his wife, Sayuri (Masumi Miyazaki) and is seen by Mitsuko, in the act one night, which triggers off a chain of gross-out events. Gozo gets a different kind of high, knowing Mitsuko saw them! He then proceeds to make her watch, from within a huge cello case, through a peephole, as he has more sex with his wife! By this time he has started raping Mitsuko too! It is only a  matter of time, before Sayuri discovers the shocking truth of what Gozo is doing to their daughter! But, wait...this is not going to turn into a conventional drama of the mother trying to protect her daughter! What happens is all the more bizarre! Sayuri is engulfed with jealous rage over the fact that she has to share her husband with her daughter, and starts becoming abusive towards Mitsuko, finding the most trivial of excuses to start thrashing her!

A circus indeed, this, and all these players, the animals; some wild and some meek! Just when you think the narrative couldn’t take any direction different from here, the story apparently takes a leap forward, or it makes a sudden transition of sorts, and we are shown that all these happenings are being written down as novels, starring a character named Mitsuko, by a wheel-chaired writer by the name of Taeko (Masumi Miyazaki again)! So what are we to believe now? Has this all been a work of fiction? Or is Taeko the grown-up Mitsuko, surviving her father’s torment and penning down her autobiography in these novels? And what about the mysterious Yuji (Issei Ishida), the effeminate assistant of the publishers who claims to be Taeko’s fan?

Writer-director Shion Sono doesn’t leave any stone unturned in disgusting his viewer! What we see is far from pleasing; in fact it is sickening, not just the monstrous deeds of Gozo, but also the claustrophobic atmosphere created. It successfully manages to suffocate, as we find ourselves gasping for a breath of fresh air at the end of the first 40 minutes! Gozo and his family live in a mansion-like home, which still seems like a locked up house, devoid of any contact with the outside world! A school is shown, but is it only in Mitsuko’s head? How else does one explain the nightmarish sets of corridors made out of vivid, blood-soaked walls, the principal’s dark cabin that has a pornographic clip playing from a projector, complete with soundtrack, that eventually becomes the venue for Gozo’s first sexual encounter with his daughter; a large TV screen, that only displays a close-up image of the eyes of Gozo, which is dragged inside the classroom as he delivers some speeches for his students and faculty! Maybe the whole school/Principal thing is just symbolic of how Gozo has the power over everything; in this case the only world Mitsuko knows, that’s her small family? It doesn’t take one long to figure out that certain surreal scenes are an exaggerated manifestation of Mitsuko’s (?) oppressed psyche; like the recurring motif of a garish circus with the cross-dressing MC and the ferris wheel that makes a creaking sound that’s deafening to Mitsuko!

At times, the sex, rape, talk of sex and libido seems a bit too gratuitous and tasteless. It’s all over the place, to the extent of being hilarious too! More than 70% of the time Gozo is on screen, he is screwing someone in various positions! Even in one sad scene, a wheel-chaired Mitsuko walks in on him when he is surrounded by hookers and he is having sex with one of them in the living room! The effeminate Yuji is an important character, but there’s something unsettling about his sexually ambiguous ways! It also gets irksome after a while when Taeko who has taken a liking to Yuji starts mimicking him repeatedly whenever he says "yes" in response!

There are hints dropped all along though, as to where the film is heading! People familiar with some other Asian horror may even be able to see what’s to come, but others will surely be in for a huge surprise during the big revelation that unfolds over almost the final 20 minutes, in a ghastly climax of severed limbs and chainsaws and deafening, hysterical outbursts! It is a culmination that will either seem "mind-blowing" or will seem like the makers are cheating the audiences; nonetheless it doesn’t take away from the fact, that it sure does catch us off guard after a considerably gripping build-up of suspense. The gorgeous cinematography aptly captures the imaginative and colorful sets and the tone of the film is set in a manner so as to be disconcerting. Despite all the shrieking and wildly over-the-top acting, it is Masumi Miyazaki that runs away with the laurels. She surely deserves the acting accolades. It is a daring performance by an actress who is as beautiful as she is talented.

This is one circus you don’t want to take your kids or family to. And it is definitely not meant for the squeamish. Take a trip….if you dare!

Score: 8/10

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Cremator (1969)

Think extreme close-ups of various zoo animals and human beings in bleak, black and white. Think a creepy, ominous score playing in the background, and a clear, deep baritone voice narrating in a manner that sounds like a hypnotist’s humdrum drone, trying to put the audience in a trance!

It is an enticing beginning to this spellbinding film from the Czech New Wave, "The Cremator" (1969). The aforementioned voice belongs to the eponymous character, a man named Karl Kopfrkingl, who looks like an overgrown cherub, with his ever smiling, chubby face. This highly well-mannered, polite gentleman, is happily residing in 1930s Czechoslovakia with his family, a son Mili (Milos Vognic), daughter Zina (Jana Stehnová) and a beautiful wife (Vlasta Chramostová) who he lovingly calls Lakme or Angel! He loves his family very much. He is also passionate about music. He mostly loves classical, operatic music that gives him the most immense pleasure and he loses himself in it. He works at a local crematorium and loves his job; perhaps loves it a little too much for his own good!

What else can one say about a man so obsessed with death, funerals and cremation, that when he invites guests to a party, he interrupts the music for a bit to talk about his ideologies about death, reincarnation, and his belief that cremation is better than burial, for it takes only 75 minutes to cremate a body to ashes, thus ensuring a quick liberation of the soul of the deceased and an expedited reincarnation! He is a big follower of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan book of the dead. At his party, he quotes from this book, justifying the advantages of cremation! What’s more, he goes on to urge his guests, much to their shock and awe, to make sure that they arrange for themselves to be cremated rather than buried, when they pass away! An apparently steadfast teetotaler and nonsmoker, he promptly goes on to pull out cigars from his guests’ mouths, with a smiling face, even giving them some valuable advice like, "when you die, there is no smoking or drinking for all eternity"! This is the kind of man who experiences a different kind of high at the mere mention of a funeral hall! And then it is no surprise, he doesn’t call his crematorium, a crematorium; rather he likes to call it the "temple of death"! When a new employee joins under him in the crematorium, he tells him with a smile, "you will get your chance to see it happen through this little window, during some nice cremation"! We are shown how, in a carnival, while Kopfrkingl’s family is interested in acrobatics and other merry sights, Kopfrkingl himself is more enthusiastic about a waxworks horror show revolving around murder and suicide!

A lot of other quirky traits of this strange man slowly come into view. It’s a hilarious portrayal of a morbid persona, perhaps a bit over the top too. But it makes for very interesting viewing, how this man keeps reveling in anything related to demise! So far we aren’t really sure where the film is headed, for most of the first half deals with character introductions and their idiosyncrasies.

Based on a novel by Ladislav Fuks, "The Cremator" is set against the backdrop of the time when the Nazi forces were spreading their wings over Czechoslovakia. The crux of the narrative lies in how this darkly comic character portrait is connected to the situation of war. It is filmmaking at its best, as director Juraj Herz uses cinematic devices that give shape to the central character’s demented state of mind and his twisted beliefs. Experience the madness with visuals that are a product of trippy, hallucinogenic camerawork full of fisheye lens shots and close-up shots that tend to make you giddy; a sound design that makes you feel like there are voices in your head, playing tricks on you; a befitting, opera-like, haunting score, the quality of which enhances when clubbed with some disturbing events they accompany. It is a breathtaking marriage of sound and visuals that is designed to mess with your mind long after the film is over! Perhaps it is the director’s own experiment in hypnosis that he performs through the medium of cinema!

A theme of doubles and doppelgangers seems to be prominent in the film. In one scene we see a pair of identical twins having a meal at a table. At another point of time, Kopfrkingl desires to tell his friend about a girl who was born with two heads and four pairs of limbs! In a hallucination, a ghostly double of Kopfrkingl himself appears as a Buddhist monk. And then there’s the prostitute Dagmar, who bears a striking resemblance to Kopfrkingl’s wife Lakme (both roles are played by the same actress, Vlasta Chramostová)!

As the film progresses, it gets increasingly phantasmagorical with its recurring motifs and characters that constantly cross Kopfrkingl's path. There’s the beautiful young girl and her boyfriend who keep popping up; even meet to make out at a cemetery! Then there’s a couple; a hysterical, paranoid woman with a hat and her irritated husband, who happen to bump into Kopfrkingl almost everywhere he goes! An enigmatic pale woman (Helena Anýzová) keeps appearing as well; but it is not clear whether she is a real person or Kopfrkingl's hallucination, or an apparition! He seems to know her though, for in one scene he stops short of saying who she reminded him of! It is not explicit whether anyone else acknowledges her presence either.

It is towards the third act that the film takes an unexpected turn of shocking proportions and builds to a hair-raising climax. It boggles the mind how, merely an idea suggested can terrify, as opposed to some modern so-called horror flicks that claim to be "scary", based merely, on cheap thrills. Juraj Herz’s "The Cremator" is a masterpiece; a refreshingly original film, with a bravura, unforgettable lead performance by Rudolf Hrušínský. It is utterly sad that films like these get lost in the depths of obscurity.

Score: 10/10

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Woman (2011)

The eponymous character in "The Woman" is apparently the last survivor of a cannibalistic, feral tribe. This Tarzan-like jungle woman lives in a cave, roams around the woods in tiny rags, hunts animals with her dagger for food, and bathes in a little stream running across the woods. In a long drawn sequence, with drone-like sound effects, a daily routine of hers is shown along with a dream vision of a baby and a wild dog!

Needless to say, she is totally unclean, has a horridly dirty mouth, but teeth that bite like an alligator! In one of her bathing routines, she is spotted by a successful country lawyer, Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers), through the scope of his hunting rifle, during one of his hunting trips in the woods. One wonders why this cave woman was never spotted before in all these years! Perhaps she has been a nomad all along, but didn’t anyone ever discover her before, and hand her over to the authorities or provide help? No answers are provided for this implausibility.

Chris is immediately turned on by her beautiful body and animalistic body language and the mood suddenly shifts from dark and menacing to that of a light-hearted teeny bopper film, as some happy alternative pop-rock music starts playing, as Chris watches, like some curious teenager, his tongue almost sticking out, as the woman bathes and moves about in slow motion!

He promptly kidnaps her, brings her home and restrains her in his cellar! As it turns out, Chris has a family; a meek, but scary-looking wife Belle (Angela Bettis), two daughters, Darlin and Peggy (Shyla Molhusen and Lauren Ashley Carter respectively), the latter being a teenager, and an adolescent, aspiring basketball player, son, Brian (Zach Rand). But Chris himself comes across as a psychopath; a man who slaps his wife, mouths some cryptic ramblings, smirks wickedly and mumbles his dialog in a fashion that beats Harrison Ford in "Bladerunner"! This is the kind of character who drips wickedness from the first instance you set eyes on him.

Chris introduces his family to the woman and sets up tasks for each of the family members as a daily routine, as steps towards "civilizing" the woman! A totally lame explanation given, considering, shackling a woman up in the cellar like a circus animal and forcibly training her is hardly civilized behavior. The family members appear disturbed, but comply anyway. Over the next few days, Chris, and later his son, subject the hapless woman to inhuman treatment, force feeding her, dressing and undressing her at gunpoint, and also raping and molesting her, while she continues to remain shackled, all under the guise of turning her from an animal into a human!

That’s not all! While the youngest member of the family (Darlin) remains oblivious to the goings-on, Belle and Peggy are visibly disturbed, while there’s some other matter that also appears to be troubling Peggy. Her teacher (Carlee Baker) notices the change in her behavior and wonders what to do about it, while the primary characters, the family members continue to walk and talk like zombies throughout this bastardization of the horror genre. But what is bothersome is the inherent misogyny in the writing, and Jack Ketchum seems to revel in writing about women being brutally victimized. "The Woman", in fact, reminds of Jack Ketchum’s earlier film adaptation, "The Girl Next Door" (2007), based on the real life incident of the torture and murder of Sylvia Likens during the 60s. That film was a more blatant torture porn show, depicting a series of brutal acts, unleashed on a teenaged girl, by a woman, her kids and the neighbouring kids, while keeping her restrained in a cellar!

"The Woman" almost treads similar ground, except it pretends to carry a "feminist" message. The only problem is, merely adding an uplifting ending can’t make up for the various, unforgivable atrocities that almost all the women in this gruesome tale are subjected to. Sample this: Chris and his son, both rape and molest the cave woman, while she is still restrained, and the son even tortures her by piercing her nipple with a pair of pliers!! Other primary women characters in the film are collectively subjected to heinous acts like underage sexual abuse, brutal beating, slapping, punching in the stomach, verbal abuse, dragging around the lawn with hands tied, having their face eaten up, even being fed to the dogs! In the final act, in what seems to be served as comic relief, albeit in a macabre and bad taste, you even get to see one woman behaving like a dog!

If you have a writer that takes delight in creating situations that involve his female characters being subjected to atrocities, an able director usually does a good job of showcasing it, in a way that it gets under your skin. But Lucky McKee who gave us the wonderful "May" (2002) earlier, also starring Angela Bettis, misfires this time around with his shoddy writing (he has co-written the script with Ketchum) and substandard directing. One may argue, that director Lucky McKee, succeeds in emotionally draining the viewer out. While he tries, he doesn’t entirely succeed, for our focus keeps shifting to how badly some scenes are directed, hence rather than get emotionally gutted with the happenings on screen, we are distracted by the poor execution. 

Firstly, The soundtrack to the film is all wrong. Throughout the film there is background music that is completely out of sync with the nature of the scene being depicted on screen. Most of the music used is alternative or pop-rock that’s a total misfit and completely ruins any chance of building tension in some of the film’s more intense scenes. In fact, it near about drowns out some of the dialog in some seemingly ordinary, but important scenes, like the conversation between Peggy’s teacher and her male colleague, where a background score simply wasn’t necessary! Secondly, the film is almost devoid of any suspense, and you practically know how a scene is going to play out. Most of the shock value, then comes from the gore and the torture scenes! Such terrible handling, along with implausible situations, over-the-top characterization, and a hurried, unconvincing and unsatisfying climax, (albeit one that has enough "meat" to satiate the gore-hounds) bring the film down to the ground!

There is almost nothing that works in the favor of McKee’s obnoxious film, apart from a commendable performance by Bettis; and yet she isn’t half as great as she was in her earlier "May". Lauren Ashley Carter as Peggy, doesn’t do much, except sulk and sob helplessly, while Pollyanna McIntosh hunts dogs, gets manhandled by the male characters, gets exhausted, while still maintaining a considerably menacing look on her face and growls, hisses and bites once in a while! One also wonders how a woman who has lived so far from civilization all her life, manages to maintain a completely clean-shaven upper lip, armpits and legs!

Zach Rand as Brian is completely wooden. Sean Bridgers delivers an irksome lead performance as he grimaces and mumbles his lines as if chewing gum! His lines are much clearer when he is hurling abuses at the women!

With this grisly, but flawed and completely pointless mess called  "The Woman", what we get is yet another gory midnight horror, with lots of blood-and flesh-splatter and gruesome acts, but almost devoid of suspense or anything remotely exciting. In the end, it is simply akin to an exploitative grindhouse flick, with torture and misogynistic tendencies at its center. It is films like these, that are ruining the horror genre beyond redemption.

Score: 4/10