Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Black Moon (1975)

A lot of avant-garde filmmakers experimented with Lewis Carroll’s classic novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. Some features that come to mind are Jaromil Jires’ wonderful film, “Valerie and her Week of Wonders”, Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” and Jan Svankmajer’s “Alice”. Louis Malle’s surrealist experimental film “Black Moon” could very well fit into this category of the directors’ own interpretation of the novel giving it their own “free form”!

Written by Louis Malle in collaboration with Joyce Bunuel (Luis Bunuel's daughter-in-law!) and directed by Louis Malle, “Black Moon” is devoid of any central plot as such. Set against a post-apocalyptic backdrop of a “war between the sexes”, this film simply chronicles the weird happenings as experienced (or imagined?) by a teenage girl, Lily (Cathryn Harrison)  who has narrowly escaped being killed by men seemingly out to wipe out the entire women populace! Having been lucky to have escaped, she just speeds away in her car deep into the woods only to come across an isolated property, a huge manor house and its strange inhabitants. The house is dwelled in by a cantankerous, bed ridden old lady (Therese Giehse) with a weird fetish, who talks to animals, especially a big rat-like creature “Humphrey” in some language that’s gibberish, and every once in a while speaks on a radio kept by her bed. There is a brother-sister pair around the house to take care of stuff. They don’t speak a single word. They only hum some songs as they work around the property. Some snakes tucked away in unlocked drawers also share the space with them!

The most bizarre of all though, is the presence of about half a dozen naked children running around playing with a gigantic pig; they keep interrupting Lily’s path every time she chases a not-so-graceful Unicorn that seems to be a regular visitor around the property…..

Everything sounds very interesting for film lovers who love their films rife with surreal dreamscapes but frankly it doesn’t go much beyond this. The film surely holds our interest for most of its modest running time of about 95 minutes thanks to the splendid camerawork by the genius cinematographer Sven Nykvist and the rather awe-inspiring sound design. In a fabulous close-up of a crawling centipede, you can actually “hear” the little thing crawl on a surface! In another hilarious scene (repeated twice), amidst near dead silence, a pig sitting at a table, apparently guarding a large glass of milk kept at the center of the table, lets out a loud grunt every time Lily gulps milk from it!

These are just some of the really jaw-droppingly outlandish scenes in the film and there are a good number of them. There are some scenarios that are so absurd, they are comical and that’s a good thing, but after a while the same devices are recycled instead of bringing in some novelty factor. Once one gives in to the idea of absurdist fiction, then there are no limits to what one can do! But surrealism not being Malle’s forte, he leaves a little to be desired in his product. If a premise that automatically creates endless possibilities starts to get repetitive then there is a problem somewhere! Malle even tries to infuse some allegorical allusions to the Indian epic Ramayana (a particular episode involving “Jatayu”, the demi-god possessing the form of a vulture, who tries to save Sita from Raavana’s clutches!) but it doesn’t necessarily create a huge impact in the overall proceedings.

This is an English language film and Cathryn Harrison, portraying Lily clearly speaks in English. However Therese Giehse’s (Old Lady) speech sounds dubbed in English and her lip movement is ridiculously out of sync. It is unclear whether this was intentional or a technical glitch, a bad dubbing job or a bad lip-synching job! At times even Harrison’s dialog seems out of sync. Some of it sounds really dumb as well!

If one thinks from a certain angle, there certainly is an interpretation that gives the happenings on screen some meaning and a vaguely fitting explanation which could even reflect religious themes! I would not like to adhere to any theory or interpretation though. I think it is safe to assume that Louis Malle didn’t want to make a deeply thought-provoking or metaphorical film. He merely wanted to compile some dream-like visions into a motion picture laced with themes of civil war and futuristic dystopia and a teenager’s coming-of-age, and that’s fair enough. He wanted his film to be more a visual experience than a cerebral puzzle. Only Luis Bunuel or David Lynch could’ve done a much better job with the material at hand.

Score: 7/10.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Cavite (2005)

A couple of Filipino guys put together a brilliant idea and decided to make a film on it. Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon, two ambitious young men had the concept very much in place.

The idea revolves around an American Filipino named Adam, returning to his homeland in the Philippines only to become the target of a mysterious caller on a cell phone who has kidnapped his sister and mother and threatens to kill them if Adam doesn’t comply with certain demands of his. He is not allowed to hang up either. The caller has a task for Adam and Adam is supposed to see it through to its conclusion, failing which the consequences would be dire! Adam finds himself constantly stalked as he is made to travel all around Cavite city and explore its dark underbelly, in order to run the caller’s “errand”. Everywhere he goes he feels he is being watched and a lot of people seem to be “in on it”, as at every step, Adam finds something which enables him to move forward in his task. What’s more…the caller seems to know his every move! The plot thickens as Adam finds there is more to it than meets the eye. Why has he been chosen by the caller? Could it be some extremists who have involved him in something much more dangerous than he can handle?

So there you have it. Sounds great on paper, right? But does every great idea transform into a well-executed motion picture? Sadly not, and “Cavite” is testimony to this fact.

“Cavite” partially works solely due to its interesting premise. It is this premise that somewhat manages to engage the viewer, not the execution; because the execution simply doesn’t have much to talk about. Shot entirely on handheld camera that gets irritating after a while with its constantly wobbly and brownish yellow cinematography, the film captures mostly the squalid parts of the city where there are squatter camps and garbage dumps and hungry, naked children! Now such visuals should normally move the viewer but blame it on the handling, it fails to resonate with the viewer or evoke any kind of emotion, barring a few scenes which speak volumes of the inherent hypocrisy of terrorists who scream “Jihad” at the drop of a hat! Certain props used to scare or disturb us clearly appear fake and that is another big failure on the filmmakers’ part. The film feels slightly long even for its considerably short 80 minutes length, thanks to a lazy screenplay which just doesn’t reflect the sense of urgency or anxiety that is very much essential for the subject at hand. There are hardly any tense moments and the apart from the filmmaker, the person largely to be blamed for this is the lead actor, Ian Gamazon!

This is the kind of story that has to depend on the protagonist’s able shoulders, because ultimately, it is his predicament that is supposed to evoke sympathy in his favour and thus engage the viewer. Sadly our hero proves to be the weakest link as he fails to bring out the helplessness or the vexation that any guy in his shoes would feel. If someone is holding your mother and sister hostage and wants you to carry out a task that could get you in trouble, you should be one big bundle of nerves! But Gamazon almost casually goes through everything, trying to force some emotions on his face once a while and swearing out loud when he is unable to. Alas, it amounts to hardly anything and this is the film’s biggest failure. The actor just fails to connect with the audiences! Then how are we supposed to care about his outcome anyway. The background score is also very uninspired and incomplete; perhaps some attention to a good score could’ve provided some leverage to the film.

Some suspense built in the final half hour of the film raises our expectations and one wishes the makers hadn’t been slothful with the conclusion at least, but the film pretty much ends with a whimper. Add to that some done to death clichéd ramblings about how Muslims are targeted everywhere, thus forcing them to build terrorist outfits for “Jihad” all around the world and one particularly cringe-worthy scene about Adam’s American girlfriend “not wanting to have a Muslim baby” further mar any bright prospects for the film in the audiences’ favour.

“Cavite” is a solid idea that just barely makes it in getting successfully transferred to a gripping motion picture. It has its moments but as an overall product, it just about manages to stay afloat. Watch only if you must….

(Trivia :-)…But here’s an interesting fact. In 2008, Indian director Raj Kumar Gupta made “Aamir”, a Bollywood film which rips off the premise and most of the screenplay of “Cavite”.  Only the action is shifted to streets of Mumbai city instead of Cavite! “Aamir” is a better made film, is considerably gripping and has a much better actor (Rajeev Khandelwal) playing the central actor. However, nothing can change the fact that it is shameless and unethical rip-off of “Cavite”. One only wishes Gupta had officially purchased the rights instead of blatantly copying, thinking that no one would notice. Sad..

Score: 6/10.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Simon of the Desert (1965)

It is typical of every religion to preach that self-sacrifice is the path to find God. That giving up all the "pleasures" of the world will purify man. Wonder where those teachings came from, but it is quite a common trait, no matter what religion. Embrace asceticism, rid yourself of the so-called "worldly pleasures" or "sins" and achieve your spiritual or religious goals! The ultimate path to salvation is here!

The Catholic teachings are no different, and Luis Bunuel has always been highly critical of organized religion. He has dedicated so many of his films as tools to launch razor sharp, scathing attacks on these beliefs or the Church in general. 

Loosely based on the real life story of the 5th century ascetic Saint Simeon Stylites, who spent 39 years atop a column ,"Simon of the Desert" is no exception. Picture a bearded monk, Simon (Claudio Brook), devoting his life to ascetic ways. He has already spent six years, six weeks and six days atop a pillar in the middle of the desert, praying for spiritual purification. He has gained a good amount of followers; mostly peasants, some priests and other village folk who believe that he has been blessed with special powers. They come to him for help or deliver some food from time to time. He is offered a brand new, taller pillar as a token of their faith and respect for his sacrifice. Simon continues his act of good faith, keeps delivering sermons and can even seemingly perform miracles.....

Sounds like a serious, religious, deeply meaningful, preachy biography of a Saint? Not in the Luis Bunuel universe! Trust Bunuel to turn something that sounds very deep and heavy into a darkly humorous, absurd mock-fest that is unrelenting and uncompromising in its ways so much so as to scandalize half the audiences who could be believers!

So this whole God-fearing stuff takes a dramatic turn as some of the priests and peasants start getting critical of Simon and think it is all in vain. Simon is taken to be an arrogant man by some, and a few others think he is faking it. Simon himself begins to deem his actions futile on several occasions. What's more...the Devil shows up too, and tries to "tempt" Simon in his many ways by appearing in the form of a beautiful woman (Silvia Pinal) in an attempt to seduce Simon out of his saintly ways! Will Simon yield to the temptation? 

Bunuel takes only about 45 minutes to drive his point across and does it with his masterful touch. Accompanied by Gabriel Figueroa's beautiful camerawork, Bunuel makes unpredictable transitions from realism to surrealism to hilarious absurdism all in the miniscule time frame that was available to him. Apparently Gustavo Alatriste, the producer could no longer fund the film for some reasons and that is how Bunuel was forced to abruptly end the film (with a bizarre ending that has been criticized in several write-ups, but do not be does have its place..and its own charm based on the interpretation), while in reality he wished to add more material to the film. Whatever the reasons, the end result is a highly original, savagely funny and one of the most eccentric works of cinema from the twisted mind of Luis Bunuel. 

Pay especially careful attention to certain scenes in which Simon mutters random religious ramblings on seeing some ordinary creatures like an insect (that has absolutely no idea of what is going on!) and later tries to do the same with an inanimate object but gives up! Or the scene in which Simon performs a miracle and gives a cripple a new pair of hands...and the eventual consequence of it! Or that brutally funny scene in which some of the priests don't seem to know the meaning of a particular Biblical reference. Every scene drips a lot of really clever writing....and there is no question that this is an exemplary work of genius from the great director. 

Bunuel's pick of actors add to the amazing experience with their superb performances, especially Claudio Brook, Silvia Pinal and the midget Jesus Fernandez.

"Simon of the Desert" is the kind of film that leaves you wanting more. Another 45 minutes of running time perhaps?

Check out this not waste anymore time.

Score: 10/10.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Bug (2006)

Poor Michael Shannon! Imagine having to play the same role time and again and turning something as exciting as acting into a mundane routine. In William Friedkin’s colossal misfire of a psychological thriller, Shannon portrays yet another nutcase (who goes by the name of Peter Evans), this time a ‘delusional paranoid schizophrenic’…but a bigger one compared to his recent “Take Shelter”. But that isn’t the least of our worries. He is also a violent crackpot, a total madcap who inflicts cuts and wounds on himself!

What’s more..he has great convincing power, whereby he is capable of making a complete fool out of a seemingly sane but depressed Agnes (Ashley Judd). Friedkin takes us audiences to be complete dimwits too, what with Agnes’ lesbian friend R.C. who ‘just met’ Peter introduces him to Agnes and brings him to Agnes’ motel room for a night of alcohol and cocaine binging! Now it is just one meeting but after some sob stories and a surprisingly quick bonding later, Agnes and Peter end up having sex! One unconvincing situation after the other and we get to the focal point…..the bug infestation! Peter suddenly starts finding bugs everywhere…on him, around him, and keeps slapping himself once in a while in an attempt to kill these bugs….Agnes can’t see anything, but Peter, the great convincer that he is manages to convince Agnes that the room is infested with bugs.

And to add to it there’s a bizarre conspiracy theory of the US army using Peter as a guinea pig to conduct some ghastly experiments which include planting bug egg-sacs in his tooth! By the time the senile old Friedkin starts bombarding all this nonsense on his audiences, we are already awaiting the end of the film, simply because we are just not interested in the madness anymore. And Shannon, being Shannon and a pro at acting like a psychotic weirdo, has a ball doing it, with extra gusto this time...convulsing, swatting invisible bugs all over his body, inflicting injuries, twitching his face, slapping it once in a while, hollering at the top of his voice concocting one theory after another as to what actually is happening with him and Agnes! Judd joins in, with an initially stellar performance which unfortunately takes a free fall in the second half of the film, in which both Judd and Shannon seem to be vying for the trophy of the most ridiculously over-the-top and unintentionally comic performance of all time! A nervous wreck that she becomes, she also mouths off loud lines in resonance with Shannon’s insane ramblings about implanted computer chips and manufactured zombies, human guinea pigs and androids posing as humans …… feel like reaching for the stop button already! At one point of time I literally felt like getting a bug spray and dousing Shannon and Judd in it to free them from their misery!

Add to that Friedkin’s non-serious attitude thanks to which he throws so much of logic right out the window….I mean, it’s a Motel room that’s been turned into a tin foil house decorated with bug zappers! Where are the Motel authorities for Christ sakes?! Agnes is supposed to be great friends with R.C. but she trusts Peter over R.C. and slaps R.C. out of her room! A lot more incredibly brainless situations abound. Throw in some couple more stupid scenes and a subplot revolving around Agnes’ estranged abusive ex-hubby Jerry (Harry Connick Jr) who acts like a tough guy wife-beater in one scene, yet foolishly gets his hand stapled in the other….. and voila! You got the perfect schlock in the name of a “disturbing psychological horror”.

But that’s not all! Friedkin gets even more ambitious…and tries to do a Hitchcock here, and needless to say, fails miserably in creating any sort of locked-in, claustrophobic atmosphere, which just comes across as a cheap imitation. Shyamalan did a much better job in “Signs”. There are but a few tense moments which are far between and can’t do much to save the film as a whole. There’s also Judd’s fine acting until she turns into a hysterical comedian  joining in the cacophony of Shannon’s jitter-‘bug’ maniacal clown. Both of them devise a ‘great’ plan to save the world from the bug infection, one that’s supposed to affect us deeply; but we find that we have almost given up by the third act…..

Score: 3/10.