Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Cruising (1980)

William Friedkin, the man behind such bad-ass gritty cop thrillers like “The French Connection” and “To Live and Die in L.A.” taps his penchant for police detective films with this highly controversial, yet half-baked Al Pacino starrer based on the novel of the same name. The title of the film is a play on words, referring to ‘cruising’ as in patrolling and also to its sexual connotation.

The film follows this strange case of floating body parts found in the Hudson river in New York city. The cops don’t know what to make of it but are somehow linking the act to that of a notorious serial killer who has off late been brutally murdering gay men after picking them up from shady gay S&M and leather nightclubs with names like ‘Ramrod’, ‘Cock Pit’ ( you get the drift..) somewhere in Greenwich village. He lurks in the shadows, wears aviator glasses, a leather peaked cap, a leather jacket. He cruises and picks up unsuspecting homosexual pleasure-seekers, takes them to some seedy motel or isolated areas, sings his signature song…”who’s here? I’m’re here” and proceeds to stab them repeatedly, in the process ensuring they don’t survive!

Captain Edelson (a limping Paul Sorvino) sends Officer Steve Burns (a curly-haired Al Pacino!) on a dangerous mission as an undercover agent to try and possibly attract the killer owing to being in the same age group and physical features somewhat matching those of the victims. An initially reluctant Burns accepts the job and sets out on his task. He rents an apartment in the locality, manages to make friends with the friendly next door neighbour Ted (Don Scardino) and also manages to rub Ted's gay partner Gregory (an early James Remar!) the wrong way! The investigation commences, but things aren’t that simple for Burns, as he sees himself getting sucked into the dark underbelly of this deviant segment of the gay world, replete with seedy hangouts where sweaty, sloshed gay men indulge in kinkiest of sexual activities whilst being dressed in leather and jockstraps! Burns is clearly uncomfortable, as he attempts to fit in, trying to avoid suspicion on account of having to turn down advances!

Who is this killer? Why is he targeting gay men? Is he a crazed homophobic, who despises the gay folk and is ought to teach them a lesson by wiping out as many as he can? Several leads are followed, several suspects are tailed, but is Burns able to find his man?

Right from its inception, “Cruising” was mired in controversy. There was widespread protest from the gay community as they tried to disrupt the filming following claims that the film represented the homosexual world in a bad light. Friedkin had to add a disclaimer to the original release of the film stating that it is set in a small segment of that world which is not meant to be a representative of the whole. There were also claims that the film is “anti-gay”. Apart from showing almost all of the gay men as fetishist slobs, part of the police force is depicted as homophobic, in the way they unleash their brutality and humiliate gay suspects to force a confession out. While the degrading representation of gay people could be one of the reasons why the film was lambasted by critics on its original release, the film suffers from other technical problems too. First, there is a lot of focus on depicting too much of the sleazy side of gay nightclubs and very little time developing the characters at hand. Apparently 40 minutes of footage was taken out from the film to bring down the certification from  an X rating to an R rating and it is just as well! One very important character who is also a suspect is just suddenly introduced; a couple of scenes thrown in here and there are supposed to do the character building and there’s a possible motivation depicted in a fleeting, haphazard manner, so much so that it simply fails to register and comes across as a rather dabbler job. The police procedural aspect of the film isn't very appealing either. Moreover, although there are cops exhibiting gray shades, most aren’t developed well and are quite forgettable, unlike in Friedkin’s aforementioned other films in which all the characters including the supporting ones have a lasting effect.

Then there is the problematic casting of Al Pacino. Apart from giving him that horrendous curly-haired look, the major problem is the failure on Pacino’s part to bring any kind of androgynous quality to his character, which, Friedkin had a problem with as well. Even if he is a straight undercover cop pretending to be gay, he has to do a darned good job of pretending, otherwise what’s the point! That would’ve added a versatile touch to his acting which is sorely missing. Apparently Richard Gere was Friedkin’s first choice for the role because he thought Gere would’ve delivered that kind of attribute to the character. Pacino’s Burns, though, walks, talks and acts like a tough guy in most of the scenes, thus, clearly standing out from the rest of the crowd. At one point, he smokes like Michael Corleone and in another scene he assumes the swagger of Tony Montana! It is surprising, then, that the others don’t recognize him to be an outsider. Maybe the curly hair was there just so that he could ‘look’ different. If only he acted differently as well. So, indeed, Pacino does well …but in the end he doesn’t go much beyond his usual self! Only in a couple of scenes we see the angst…the troubled, worried look on his face conveying that he is clearly not enjoying his job, as he confesses to Captain Edelson (“…not that I am afraid…it’s just that .. things are happening to me..”) and to his girlfriend Nance (Karen Allen, who, by the way, doesn’t serve any purpose in the film except for being in bed with Pacino). There is only one scene that makes it remotely clear that Burns doesn’t “want” Nance anymore. We don’t really know that until she says it out loud.

What does work on some level is Burns’ reaction to her claim! He says something like “my is affecting me”. He is not supposed to tell her what his undercover operation is. So whether it is making him question his sexual preferences or whether it is taking a toll on his health is unclear. In one love-making scene between the two, midway in the film, Burns appears either disturbed or disgusted. This is where the complex trait of his character starts creeping in. It serves as a solid device for a film of this sort. There are a lot of clever scenes where Burns comes across as a rather vague individual…you don’t really know what he stands for! The equivocal nature of Pacino’s character is then the best part of this film.

There are still more positives, of course….”Cruising” isn’t a ‘bad’ film anyhow! There is also a very unsettling atmosphere in the film. New York by night appears at its grittiest best, reminding of Scorsese’s classics “Taxi Driver” and “Mean Streets”. A fair amount of suspense is built up to the climax and the final fifteen minutes including the deliciously ambiguous twist make the film stand apart from conventional cop thrillers. It is good to see Joe Spinell (Willi Cicci of ‘The Godfather’) in the role of a crooked cop, sharing screen space with his The Godfather co-actor, Pacino (He shared a scene with De Niro in “Taxi Driver”!). Some scenes in the nightclub and the murder scenes are genuinely disturbing and well directed.

“Cruising” is a film that had a lot of potential owing to a solid premise. But it only succeeds partially. If only it wasn’t such a half-hearted effort on the part of Friedkin, he would’ve had another fine Cop thriller feather in his cap to stand tall with his best films of the genre. Alas…

Score: 7/10.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Mr. Nobody (2009)


A drop of rain falls on a piece of paper and smudges the phone number (belonging to a girl named Anna) written on it. The number gets erased and so does any trace of Anna. The narrator of the story, Nemo Nobody, aged 118 explains to the journalist interviewing him, “Do you wanna know why I lost Anna? Because 2 months earlier, an unemployed Brazilian boiled an egg”!

Confounding? Not half as what this extremely cerebral film has to offer! Jaco Van Dormael, the Belgian filmmaker who didn’t make too many films in his career had earlier astonished us with his excellent “Toto Le Heros” (1991) ( about an old man recalling his tragic childhood and surviving with the sole goal of vengeance for his loss and often confusing reality with fantasy. “Mr. Nobody” provides for a heady cocktail of this earlier Dormael film and some other films, particularly “Donnie Darko”, “The Fountain” and “The Butterfly Effect”. Only “The Butterfly Effect” is more like an entertaining popcorn fantasy that doesn’t go deep into the Science of it, unlike “Donnie Darko”. “Mr. Nobody” is akin to “Donnie Darko”, but not plot-wise. Like “Donnie Darko”, it is one of those rare films that is a work of fiction built around existing scientific principles of Physics and Physical Cosmology.


The year is 2092. It is the age of ‘quasi-immortality’. Mortality is a thing of the past. So is sex! The 118 years old Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto, brilliant, but a tad hammy) is the last mortal on earth. He appears to be confused…..keeps telling a shrink with a painted face that he is 34! Later, tells a journalist (Daniel Mays) that he is “Mr. Nobody” and that he “doesn’t exist”! Upon probing by the journalist, Mr. Nobody starts narrating a strange tale of his supposed past right from his childhood (age 9) through his teen years (age 15) to his adulthood (age 34). But the story isn’t straightforward as it should be….there appear to be multiple threads; multiple lives, multiple realities…each with its own love interest for Nemo!

There’s one thread in which Nemo grows up with his mother who marries a man, whose daughter Anna becomes the object of Nemo’s affection. Then there is another in which Nemo grows up with his crippled father and becomes romantically involved with Elise, a girl who also has emotional problems! And then there is the third thread in which Nemo marries Jean, merely out of a whim! These stories branch out into sub-stories, involving one outlandish adventure on the Planet Mars where Nemo travels to scatter his wife’s ashes!! Or that freaky universe which appears to be dominated by argyle patterns and Nemo is guided by signs all around him! The journalist is confused, of course; doesn’t know what to believe! Yet Nemo jokes….”(in those days) Most of the time, nothing happened. Like a French movie”!!

So what really happened with Nemo? Did he live all those pasts? Are any of those stories real, or figments of his imagination? The fact as we know it, is that all time is irreversible. It moves in one direction. But does it really? Does Nemo have the power to alter the course of time…?


A LOT of questions pop up while watching this film which is almost impossible to grasp in the first sitting. While Dormael drops plenty of clues in the form of dialog and explanations of various scientific theories in order to enable us to understand what he is getting at, it is still quite a task to put together this difficult film! We can gather some hints in the first viewing, but a second viewing can shed some more light on certain things we may easily miss in the first viewing! The 34 year old Nemo (in one of his many pasts!) is a scientist and an anchor for a TV show and is seen explaining  to an audience, the principles of Entropy, The arrow of time, The Butterfly Effect, the Innate fear, The Big Bang, The Big Crunch and a lot of other theories that the film’s plot is based upon! We are supposed to infer our own interpretation of the film by tying these theories to whatever happens in Nemo’s life! This device reminds one of “Donnie Darko” (The Director’s Cut) where some intertiles from a text are interspersed in the narrative to hint at what exactly was happening in the film! There are at least a couple of mentions of The Butterfly Effect (the theory, not the film!) in “Chaos Theory” which is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions; where a small change at one place in a nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state (Source: Wikipedia). To further stress on this effect, there is also an example given in the form of an incident in one of Nemo’s pasts….the aforementioned incident which appears in the first line of this review!

But this film isn’t really about time travel and altering the past seeking a better future. On a broad level, I think it is about choice and NOT making it! When faced with a choice, as long as you “don’t choose”, there are infinite possibilities, infinite universes which have their own ends…the theories of Big Bang and Big Crunch are transported to a personal and emotional level in a unique fictional narrative that is unparalleled, the similarities with “Donnie Darko” and “The Butterfly Effect” notwithstanding! A Chess move is quoted to give an example, the ‘Zugzwang’: “The only viable move…is NOT to move”! The film also follows a tree-structure with ‘branched’ narratives representing the multiple threads, further branching out into sub-branches of multiple choices (or lack thereof…of making any!).

But ultimately amidst all the scientific mumbo-jumbo, this film has a heart….and literally so, as it explores the protagonist’s emotional ups and downs…the trauma of the separation of the parents, having to “choose” who to live with; the teenage romance(s), the heartbreaks, the desire for a good family life, kids, the works; these emotions come into play across narratives too. It is the emotional thread that binds all the branches together, and the manifestation of this is seen in some scenes in which Nemo appears to have memories of another reality in his “current reality”! So what is it exactly? Does Jaco Van Dormael even know what he has filmed? He obviously does. It is not all random as it seems, that is certain. But is there a single thread that connects the dots neatly and gives us a comprehensible structure? Or is Van Dormael only interested in playing tricks? For as you dig deeper, you find out there is not just one thread that connects the dots! There are still more! Just like the branched structure of the narrative itself!

The complex theme is only complemented by Jaco Van Dormael’s penchant for quality filmmaking. His varying use of colour as it reflects the mood in each of the narratives of the “lives” of Nemo is especially commendable. And so is the beautiful music score, the choice and placement of songs in the key scenes in the narrative which give the film its distinct mood. The bizarre, dream-like imagery with the accompanying sound design is a treat for lovers of surrealism and there is a lot for film buffs who are suckers for teenage romance too! There is very little room for character development, thanks to a narrative that keeps shifting between timelines and universes and characters, but that is no reason to complain. The ensemble cast, including Jared Leto, Toby Regbo, Diane Kruger, Juno Temple, Sarah Polley, Daniel Mays, Rhys Ifans and Natasha Little all do their jobs well, especially Leto who has a mighty challenging task of playing several roles (well…almost!). He goes all out, yet slightly hams as the old, decrepit Nemo in some scenes. One really wishes there was more of Sarah Polley and Diane Kruger. Sadly, both get very little screen time, although Polley nails it with her 'Borderline personality disorder' performance. Juno Temple and Toby Regbo as the teenaged Anna and Nemo respectively make their doomed lovers angle of the story more watchable.


“Mr. Nobody” is a film that will not go down well with most people. It is a kind of film that is at a very big risk of being written off as “pretentious” and “self-indulgent”! Others may care less just because it is a little too heavy on the head! But it is also a film that is intellectually stimulating. It makes for some great food for thought and analyzing the story and then re-watching it makes it a more exciting experience. Additionally, it is a mind-expanding film that will make you aware of so many things around you if you are averse to reading about such material otherwise. It will make you rethink the ideas of space, time and reality as you know it!

My advice? Take up the challenge. Watch “Mr. Nobody”!

Score: 9/10.