Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Take Shelter (2011)

Take Shelter” is a heart-rending story of Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), who resides with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and his little daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) who happens to be deaf. It all begins when Curtis has visions of a storm coming…in the form of dark clouds, whirlwinds, thunderous noises, and a strange looking rain, the water from which resembles motor oil! Some of these visions are extreme and apocalyptic, laden with immense paranoia. He sees himself and his family being stalked and attacked by faceless people….and that is when he realizes that something is amiss with his head. He has these nightmares almost every night, yet withholds them from his family, for he is concerned about them; doesn’t want them to feel insecure in the company of a mentally ill man of the house! More so, because apparently there has been a history of paranoid schizophrenia in the family; his mother had it too……! He just goes on with life, looks up books about mental illnesses and starts meeting a counselor at the free clinic.

But are these visions actually premonitions of a deadly storm to come (he describes them as “a feeling”, not “just dreams”)? Or are they merely hallucinations? Regardless, Curtis takes up the task of protecting his family…by building a fully equipped storm shelter underground…..

"Take Shelter” reminded me of Andrei Tarkovsky’s final masterpiece, “The Sacrifice” which also features the central character living in an isolated house with his wife, daughter and a son (who is mute!), and decides to carry out an ultimate sacrifice to save his family from the impending apocalypse by a nuclear holocaust. Only the similarities end right there and this film is in no way a rip-off.

Take Shelter”, on the outside, may appear like yet another psychological drama about a man suffering from Schizophrenia with all the essential clichés that usually infest such films. Writer-director Jeff Nichols proves this assumption wrong, however, and takes a whole new approach in which the protagonist senses early on that he has a problem and tries his level best to seem normal, so as to not affect his family that he loves so much and ensures that they don’t feel unprotected. The idea of delusions of doom clubbed with this fresh new twist work wonders for a tired premise of a schizophrenic protagonist and thus render “Take Shelter” one of the best films dealing with the subject. Nichols handles the story with finesse and takes utmost care to not let it slip into the triteness of melodrama. There is drama alright, but nothing that would seem overdone. Every little bit is realistically done; every scene is carefully thought out, every little character reaction is meticulously written, except for maybe a single scene. 

Some of Curtis’ visions are frightening and Nichols sure knows how to the scare the hell out his audiences! This film could serve to be a perfect blend of the ‘psychological thriller’ and ‘drama’ genres and has plenty of moments to please film lovers of both categories. On the technical front, the film excels in most departments, particularly cinematography, sound design and even special visual effects. Just behold those excellent scenes of the storm that could give any big budget disaster movie a run for their money. Or that chilling moment when Curtis and Hannah find themselves in the midst of some birds gone berserk in a frighteningly surreal sequence! 

The acting is marvelous all along…Jessica Chastain is brilliant as the caring wife distressed upon not knowing what exactly is going through her husband’s head, yet trying to manage the family and making some modest money by selling in a local flea market. The little daughter Hannah is superb as the deaf daughter. Even though she has precious little to do, she has a presence that is endearing! Robert Longstreet and Shea Whigham make an impression in their small acting parts in the roles of Jim and Dewart respectively. Which brings us to the lead performer, Michael Shannon. Now, his performance is definitely solid. Shannon practically lives the character and makes it his own. The realization, the helplessness, the anxiety, the sadness…all pulled off masterfully. Only I didn’t see anything significantly different from what I saw in “Revolutionary Road” in which he played a similar character. Only Curtis of “Take Shelter” is a little more compassionate than John Givings of “Revolutionary Road”, but essentially he seemed like the extension of the same person! Now this leads Shannon into an even greater danger of being type-casted, because even if he attempts something different, we are bound to see a mentally unstable character, and that’s not a good thing. One can just hope Shannon is more careful while choosing his next big role if he wants to show if he is versatile enough.

Jeff Nichols has crafted a real fine film. This is only his second venture and he has already mastered the art. Some may complain that the film slows down at intervals, but it is the kind of screenplay that is best savored at a steady pace rather than in a hurried manner. In spite of the slow place, the film is engaging enough and never lets up, thanks to the fine acting and plenty of great moments to fill the running time of 120 minutes.

This is yet another example of a great film that was sadly overlooked by the Academy. I can just hope that this review and many others reach out to film lovers all around and they take notice of “Take Shelter”.

Score: 9/10.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

“You look like a ‘Marcy May’”, the creepy leader of a hippie cult, Patrick (John Hawkes) tells Martha (Elizabeth Olsen). That summarizes what the first three words in this tongue-twister of a title of this excellent film signify. As for ‘Marlene’, I would rather leave it for the viewer to find out. It’s an interesting little part that one would miss if not very attentive.

As a matter of fact, the whole film pretty much plays out steadily and engulfs your senses in its own sweet way, thanks to the terrific original screenplay and its treatment by debutant director Sean Durkin.

At the break of dawn, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, the much prettier and much cooler younger sister of the Olsen twins) flees from an isolated house inhabited by a number of people, somewhere in the Catskill mountains. She later gets in touch with her elder sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who takes her to her beautiful weekend home in Connecticut. Martha withholds what she’s been through from her sister. In a narrative that flashes back and forth we learn that Martha had been in the company of a strange cult led by Patrick (John Hawkes) who preaches some twisted philosophy which all the runaways under him blindly follow. Martha has also been a runaway, who disappeared from Lucy’s life for a couple of years or more. Lucy is happily married to Ted (Hugh Dancy). While the couple try their level best to accommodate Lucy’s returned sibling, despite her difficult attitude, it becomes increasingly apparent that living with Patrick’s hippie group has had a damaging effect on Martha’s psyche and she can’t seem to adjust to normal life again……..

For a debut feature length, Sean Durkin handles the film like a pro. He is obviously influenced by the minimalistic style of most European art films and it shows. As mentioned earlier, instead of resorting to conventional storytelling, Durkin feeds us a slow meal, little by little, steadily increasing the dose with each morsel as he unravels the chilling back-story of what actually happened and why it is not entirely unexpected why Martha is socially inept. There are surprises in store, but not in the way most modern films treat them…there are no lame gimmicks of jump-twists suddenly shown like trump cards towards the climax. Each surprise is delivered in parts; these parts, including some seriously disturbing moments, are sprinkled across the narrative and gently thrown at us unsuspecting audiences.

The constant flashing back and forth of the narrative could have tried the viewer’s patience had it not been for the very mature handling of this device with the help of some intelligent match cuts. The placement of scenes and buildup of the narrative couldn’t have been better. Durkin certainly knows how to tell a story. Scenes that are especially tense and brutal are handled with extra finesse. The sound design is another fine quality of this film and deserves accolades. It adds that extra flavor to an already brilliantly filmed sequence. It reminded me of David Lynch’s signature sound effects in many ways….

The acting is terrific…Elizabeth Olsen runs away with an unforgettable lead performance. She brings to life, this really distressed young girl in need of help, who you want to empathize with but are unable to decide whether she actually deserves kindness. And then there’s Sarah Paulson as Lucy, the caring sister who is desperately trying hard to get through to her younger sibling who just refuses to open out, as well as balancing her married life and plans to conceive. It is a great supporting act indeed! Ditto for Hugh Dancy who does a terrific job as Ted, the supportive husband, who makes a sincere attempt to put up with his wife’s little sister who gradually manages to get on his nerves; there are moments of some genuinely well-written drama between these three characters. And lastly there’s John Hawkes as the sleazy, creepy looking Patrick, a self-proclaimed “teacher and a leader” of the hippie group where our protagonist loses her way. His wicked smile and domineering ways and absurd views disgust and enrage you and make you despise him. This scorn on the audiences’ part is testimony to how great his performance ultimately is.

The film is near flawless, but for very minor problems with a couple of instances in the proceedings, which seemed a little forced and a tad unnecessary but not in a big way. 2011 has been a great year for cinema and “Martha Marcy May Marlene” belongs to the best of 2011. It is a masterstroke in film-making for Sean Durkin who seems to have the knack for making quality stuff and that makes him a fine young director to look out for. One wonders what the Academy were smoking ‘cause this film has failed to get any nomination at all! It is at times like these when I have to question the credibility of these “prestigious” Oscars Awards! Oh well….

Score: 9/10.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Teorema (1968)

Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Teorema" had me dumbfounded! It was one of those rare instances where I was initially unable to formulate a clear opinion of what I thought about it. For one, this minimalist picture from the controversial filmmaker has art-house written all over it. Yes, there is extreme minimalism, very little dialog (it seems the number of actual spoken words in the film is about 923!). This almost silent film is allegorical…rife with symbolism and religious connotations, and may not be a very interesting subject matter for those looking at mainstream cinema, that is for sure.

An arm-flapping herald (the idiomatic little birdie?) announces the arrival of a visitor. Terence Stamp is The Visitor, a mysterious stranger who once visits the mansion of a bourgeois family of four. The man of the house is Paolo, a rich businessman who owns a factory, and then there's his awkward son, a daughter, a beautiful wife who is sexually repressed and a scary-looking maid. In the next few days, this visitor has sexual encounters with each of the inhabitants of the house! In a way, he seduces them. And almost as suddenly as he appears, he soon takes leave of them, leaving them in a state like never before. All of these people he touched exhibit marked changes in their lives, of a different level altogether.

The consequences form the crux of this strange film and paves way for detailed discussion. What makes Pasolini's film so important is the daring concept that he presents to his viewers with a script set in the contemporary world. From what I understand, the visitor is supposed to be a God-send or an angel who influences the members of the house in one way or another. Why sexually, is a good question, but that depends on how you see it. Is it the touch of God, or the Devil's seduction? Perhaps it is symbolic of a 'close encounter with God'?

So what exactly does God do to these bourgeois individuals? Apparently he makes them see beyond their pretentious, cocooned lives. They all go through a self-realization phase, which they confess one by one to the visitor when it is time for him to leave. But he isn't there to see the changes. Are these changes always positive? Does being blessed always lead to happiness? Or is there another side to it? Pasolini, through his seemingly simple yet highly complex allegory poses these ambiguous questions, something which likely polarized his audiences, based on their religious beliefs. Being an atheist I wasn't particularly offended or overwhelmed with the subject, but I was definitely intrigued by how drastically different this film and its viewpoint is.

On the whole, "Teorema" appears to be a critique and a take-down of the bourgeoisie in the sense that this mysterious stranger exposes, or makes them see what's hidden beneath their affected existence. Apart from laying bare the son's homosexuality, there is at least one scene that hints that Paolo could be confused about his own sexuality as well. Popular theories suggest this is indicative of Pasolini's own struggle with homosexuality. Paolo's daughter confesses that she loved only her father and hasn't known other men or was afraid of them. She carries his photograph in her book in one earlier scene. Could there be a history of sexual abuse? Is the daughter conditioned to only love her father? This could directly be related to her mother's boredom stemming from a prolonged lack of healthy sex life.

Pasolini's atheism also comes into play here, as he challenges the conventional, accepted principles of religion and subverts the very idea of God, as not one that necessarily forgives or frees from sin. The visitor, in fact, liberates the individual, but the consequences of this liberation need not necessarily be uplifting. All of the family members, except the maid see the visitor's visit as some form of destruction; they talk about something in them being destroyed by his appearance and eventually his exit that leaves a void. Paolo says it most clearly in his final dialog with the visitor: "You certainly came here to destroy". 

And indeed, the result isn't positive for either of them. It is only the maid, a non-bourgeois, working class person who is able to achieve grace in a positive, otherworldly manner, while the others march towards a psychological or a moral deterioration, one way or another. Given that Pasolini was strongly critical of consumerism, the hint that Paolo eventually turns over his factory to the workers bolsters the theory that the visitor's influence ultimately benefits the proletariat and shatters the comfortable cocoon of the bourgeoisie, negatively impacting their existence. This connects directly to the opening scene of the journalist who seeks answers to the meaning of this move; asking strange, perhaps sarcastic questions as to whether this means an end to the class struggle, and whether all of humanity would eventually become part of the bourgeoisie! Could the visitor then, be a force sent to equalize things and obliterate the class divide?

Pasolini's technique of story-telling is poetic. It is almost like he deliberately chose the visual style as exists in the film to give it a meditative form. Long takes, solitude, mostly gentle atmosphere, intermittent random scenes of a vast empty desert, similarly recurring sounds of church bell gongs, the presence of a radiant light just before the visitor appears, all tactfully done! The visuals are also enchanting, the cinematography is beautiful, with the colours changing from sepia (in the beginning during the introduction of the characters, perhaps to show their ordinary lives?) to vividly colourful (a marked change with the introduction of the visitor?). It is then, mostly on the technical front and the handling of the film with its layered theme that makes "Teorema" most watchable.

Where it falters is mostly in the acting department. There is some very tepid acting from the actors playing the son and the daughter. I don't know if it was intentional but the daughter, Odetta (Anne Wiazemsky) who also appeared in Robert Bresson's "Au Hasard Balthazar" delivers what could be one of the most wooden acting performances I've seen. At one point it even becomes slightly apparent that she is reading her lines from cue cards! The son, Pietro, played by Andrés José Cruz Soublette also seems somewhat awkward, but maybe his acting reflects his character who behaves like that owing to being a closeted homosexual. Stamp, in an interview years later, said that Pasolini made his actors recite their lines in English, and that they did not know the script. The director later went on to dub the dialog in Italian! It is possible that the acting suffers because of this eccentric decision, the motivation behind which would only be known to Pasolini.

The finest acting then comes from Terence Stamp, even though he doesn't have much to do except give mysterious smiles once in a while and appear compassionate! A close second best actor in the film is the beautiful Silvana Magnano, the lady of the house. Her Lucia's perplexed state of mind is wonderfully portrayed by the actress. Also impressive is Laura Betti as Emilia, the maid. Laura looks and acts the weird Emilia quite earnestly.

So why is the film titled "Teorema" anyway?("Teorema" means "Theorem")  There are views that the structure of the film itself and the psychological transformation of all characters follow a single formulaic pattern. The film doesn't boast of great acting, neither is it an intimate character portrait. Despite the shortcomings, there is something about "Teorema" that is strangely effective. The mystifying subject matter, its quirky treatment and a whole lot of ambiguity that stems from keeping the mystery intact is what makes "Teorema" extremely interesting. While the visuals and the characters haunt your memory long after the film is over, the happenings in the narrative will give you something to ponder about for days on end and trigger endless debates. It is the kind of film that one may love or hate or just mildly appreciate, but certainly cannot ignore.

Score: 9/10.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Drive (2011)

When you finally get your hands on a film that has managed to win laurels from all around you, you know your expectations are high. “Drive” was one of the year’s biggest Oscar snubs for unknown reasons, being nominated (deservedly too) in the sole category of “Best Achievement in Sound Editing”. That is just one of the many great qualities of this film though. 

The protagonist (Ryan Gosling) is a silent, brooding tough guy known only as the “Driver” or “kid” as some of them call him. He is a part time mechanic in a garage, a part time stuntman for some action films and also moonlights as a driver on hire for driving getaway cars for robbers/hoods who want to pull off a heist and also have a quick means of escape. Circumstance gets him involved with a cute looking Irene (Carey Mulligan) who has a little kid for her to take care of and a husband (Oscar Isaac) doing time in prison. No points for guessing that there is instant bonding between the Driver and Irene and her kid. The Driver takes care of them for a while…takes them on joyrides, gives company to the kid and the mother once in a while, among other things. But beyond this cliché of an accessory to crime possessing a heart of gold reserved for the cute married woman with a kid there is a lot going on between the driver’s friend and employer, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), and a mobster named Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and his partner, a Jewish gangster by the name of Nino (Ron Perlman). The plot thickens when certain events connect the Driver directly with this pair of gangsters and also Irene’s husband Standard who suddenly returns…..

The story is best left for the viewer to unravel but rest assured, this film goes far beyond the plot. Firstly, it serves as a rather intimate character portrait of the protagonist whose roots are unknown, who seems like a rather cold and distant individual, a socially inept loner who exhibits least remorse when it comes to doing something not particularly ethical, yet one who also possesses a heart of gold…for those who deserve it of course. Others get a taste of his ultra-violent side! All of the scenes revolving around the Driver are very well-written and capable of giving us a satisfying picture of this mysterious individual and also manage to catch us by surprise at several instances. Particularly noteworthy is one scene in an elevator (excellent scene, brilliantly acted) and some subtly clever scenes like the one when Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is sharing a light moment when he and Irene met for the first time, with his son and with the driver. The expressions on the faces of both Irene and the Driver are priceless! Or that scene when the Driver and Irene’s son are watching something on TV and the son calls the shark a “bad guy”. “There are no good sharks?”, The Driver asks. Superb moments all!

Moreover, the film excels in almost all technical aspects with flying colours. The sound design and editing as mentioned earlier is top-notch; one of the standout aspects of the film. The cinematography is beautiful;  there are sometimes long slo-mo takes clubbed with a hypnotic background score that give the film a dream-like, meditative quality, oozing oodles of atmosphere. Also well-done is the electro-pop soundtrack and the placement of songs, especially the title piece (“Nightcall”) that sounds like the distinctly 80s synthpop. Some have called the film ‘slow‘ but thanks to Nicolas Winding Refn’s command on the handling, his product is one of the most engrossing films I’ve seen in a long time. It is also refreshing to see that despite this being a film that has heists and car chases, it is made to look more like an art-house picture that slowly establishes itself and gradually builds up the viewer’s mood rather than looking like a quick-cut-edited pop-corn actioner. The only thing that connects this film to the latter category are the somewhat unreal instances where our hero dodges near-fatal situations and magically survives (mostly without a scratch!) near-death experiences like dangerous car stunts and chases, sudden shotgun surprises, lone attacks in foreign territories and stab wounds! The violence is gory (also unrealistic at times), perhaps to please the gorehounds and action film buffs alike!

Now, for the performances. Albert Brooks who is perhaps the best of all the supporting actors; does a marvelous job as the soft-spoken yet crooked gangster Bernie Rose. Ron Perlman, an often overlooked actor is outstanding as the scary looking Jewish mobster Nino. Carey Mulligan looks cute and is a brilliant performer as well. She has a very expressive face and uses it very aptly in some of the film’s best scenes. Your heart goes all out to see her take care of the kid alone and really wish something good would happen to her.

Ryan Gosling exudes coolness with a capital C with uber-confidence in the more restrained scenes of his, where he conveys a lot through his face which shifts between a brooding, intense look to a deadpan stare and then to a goofy smile, especially when he is with Irene or her kid. However, it is during the times when it is required of him to emote or exhibit outbursts that the actor feels a little ill at ease and seems to lack the spontaneity. Therefore the way he delivers some lines or the act that he displays seems a tad forced. This renders his performance somewhat inconsistent and that is where the actor loses points in an otherwise fine job of acting.

Winding Refn has said that the film is a tribute to Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, “Taxi Driver”. And one can instantly recognize the homage from some situations in the picture and also the overall persona of the protagonist. (And is it just a coincidence that Albert Brooks appears in that film as well as this?) While this film cannot possibly equal the Robert De Niro starrer, it is a splendid work of art on its own merits. A definite must-see and must-own.

Score: 9/10.