Friday, July 20, 2012

Cypher (2002)

Director Vincenzo Natali’s earlier “Cube” (1997) was a fascinating film, and that was reason enough to give “Cypher” (2002) a look.

“Cypher” makes a very intriguing start; a man named Morgan Sullivan (Jeremy Northam) is being interviewed by Digicorp’s head of security and is being put through some neurological tests. He is being hired for corporate espionage and will soon be sent on missions to various conventions to secretly transmit corporate presentations for the benefit of Digicorp. He is given a new identity; that of Jack Thursby and his first assignment begins. It all seems fine in the beginning and Digicorp seems to be pleased with Sullivan’s job. A chance encounter at the convention with a mysterious but beautiful stranger Rita (Lucy Liu) brings forth startling revelations and Sullivan finds that he could be caught in a deadly web of deceit amidst an ongoing cutthroat corporate war!

Revealing more would take out whatever fun there is in watching “Cypher” for it is entirely a plot-driven film and it is the turns in the plot that keep it going.

A terrific beginning doesn’t always guarantee picture perfect masterpieces and “Cypher” proves just that. Further down, beneath the highly enticing exterior of brilliantly sleek cinematography, surreal camerawork and a background score that creates a sense of dread, there is great ambition that unfortunately succumbs under its own weight and finds itself settling into the comfort zone of a ‘been there-done that’ thriller which incorporates the essential ingredients of a typical edge-of-the-seat action/thriller.

After a promising start, the film picks up a decent amount of momentum and does build tension to a considerable extent, enough to keep you hooked throughout, in its maze of twists and turns, that sometimes catch you unawares and sometimes come across as predictable. Certain twists are just too convenient for their own good, but you find yourself excusing them as you become increasingly curious to learn where it’s all going to lead. There are hi-tech contraptions and otherworldly gadgets, a glass-eyed evil looking man who has to be an antagonist by design, odd shaped choppers and underground vaults in isolated locations, to access which, you have to use some fast capsule-shaped elevators that go some several hundred feet beneath the ground! The filmmakers play with your mind. An ‘alien’ angle, perhaps; or just a futuristic vision of corporate security measures!? It is a very interesting representation, although an exaggerated one; maybe the intention was to make a statement about the future of the contest in the corporate world!

Brian King’s screenplay and the director’s vision of it, definitely draws a whole lot of inspiration from past masters. Some of the set design and the overall mood of the film quickly bring to mind, Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982). Some of the thematic elements also remind you of John Frankenheimer ‘s masterpiece, “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962). Only those were ground-breaking films for their times and “Cypher” doesn’t particularly create anything strikingly innovative. The oft-used gimmick of too many twists in the final act raise entirely new questions in an already befuddling narrative, making us rewind and think of the numerous holes that the film may have managed to riddle itself with. Employment of fast cut editing for showing some visions in the protagonists mind that may be distant memories or just random nightmares tends to strain the eyes. “Mission Impossible”-like athletic stunts and nick of time narrow escapes put a dent in the film’s grave atmosphere and transport the viewer to the world of popcorn cinema for those brief moments!

Nonetheless, a very sincere and convincing lead performance by the underrated Jeremy Northam and a steady pace that doesn’t let up, make for an engaging and entertaining sci-fi noir thriller. Do not expect anything earth-shattering; then perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to check “Cypher” out when you have nothing better to do.

Score: 7/10

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Nobody Else But You (2011)

“Nobody Else But You” (A.K.A. “Poupoupidou”) perhaps attempts to ‘put a spell on you’, as the title credits roll with Martine Langevin (Sophie Quinton), better known as Candice Lecoeur to the world in this film, dressed in sheer white, croons the song (“I put a spell on you”) rather seductively, as fleeting, extreme close-ups of her appear (and disappear) on the screen.

The opening shot more or less hints at the fact that we aren’t really going to see or feel much of the enigmatic Candice, who’s at the center of this mystery that initially gives us an impression of being a tragedy of epic proportions. But alas! Initial appearances deceive, as the film quickly dilutes into a pedestrian detective suspense-thriller that in fact borrows elements (with a just excuse too) from the life story of and conspiracy theories surrounding the life and death of famous actress and sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe!

The story is narrated in the voice of Candice in a post-mortal tone, speaking from beyond the grave, as if writing in a diary, as she’s always been, through her teenage years. We are introduced to David Rousseau (Jean-Paul Rouve, nuanced), a down-on-his-luck author suffering from a writer’s block. Although he has written quite a few books of detective fiction, he can’t seem to find a plot to pen his new novel. His publisher is after him to get something up soon or move on. David has travelled to the small, snow-clad town of Mouthe to collect some inheritance a relative left him. He stumbles upon a scene in an area where the body of blonde young girl found buried in the snow is being carried away. It is that of a starlet by the name of Martine, who took up the screen name of Candice Lecoeur, who has only been famous locally and is the face of the local cheese brand, as she has appeared in the commercials of the same. The police have closed the case as that of suicide as she was found with a bottle of pills in her hand, but David’s detective-fiction infested mind predictably suspects foul play!

David makes every attempt to gather clues, even going so far as to break into the morgue to take a closer look at her body, and also breaking into her now empty house to sniff out clues that could lead him to unlock the cause of Candice’s mysterious death. But for some strange reason, the authorities keep discouraging him and deem it an open and shut case of suicide following depression. Only the assistant police officer Bruno (Guillaume Gouix) who is also curious to know more, for his own reasons, is supportive of David and sees him as a means to find some answers, by not strictly adhering to the law.

And so the investigation continues, with David doing the snooping around, and Bruno helping him out every way he can using his police power, in order to find the whole truth behind Candice’s death. David hopes to find some substance, to possibly revive his dead creativity by writing about Candice’s death and the ensuing investigations! But the mystery thickens, as David unearths that Candice firmly believed herself to be the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe herself, and that, in an eerie coincidence, the events in her life very closely paralleled those of the late Hollywood star…..!

The Marilyn Monroe connection is probably the only aspect that distinguishes “Nobody Else But You” from a conventional murder mystery cum detective story, but unfortunately, this angle is handled with an almost sarcastic triviality by the filmmakers, somewhat undoing what could’ve been a meaty thriller mirroring a real life tragedy. In the aforementioned voiceovers which are excerpts from the writings in Candice’s diary, one gets the impression that Candice has had a life of sadness and loneliness but there isn’t enough material to support this, apart from some fleeting yet blatant references to the personal relationships of Marilyn Monroe. The mood shifts from occasionally melancholic to sardonically comic. Maybe it is the modest length, but one wishes enough time was spent on footage of the woman in question, Candice. But the narrative proceeds in a rather clunky manner, and we get to see very little of Candice, as a result, yielding a half-baked character that doesn’t develop well, because the focus is mostly on David’s deductions, which sadly aren’t earth-shattering enough. Candice’s belief of being the reincarnation of Monroe and David’s findings which bear a striking resemblance to the happenings in Monroe’s life are treated in a rather non-serious fashion. The investigations see a gradual climb, but David stumbles upon clues in a convenient and casual manner and we are led to a culmination that is somewhat underwhelming. The ‘big secret’ is just not potent enough to make us sit up and take notice. To make matters worse, the film explores a number of clichés like the motel receptionist falling for David and he playing the reluctant object of affection, the very one-dimensional uncooperative police chief (Olivier Rabourdin), and the oft-used predictable device of attempts to sabotage David’s investigations by causing “accidents”, endangering his life, amongst other things.

Despite the predictabilities, the film somehow stays afloat and ends up being watchable, even though the narrative is mostly focused on David instead of Candice who we would’ve loved to see and know more about. The cinematography is marvelous. Snow-covered landscapes never looked this beautiful since “Fargo”! There is also a peculiar aspect of the number ‘5’ appearing in the frame in various scenes involving David. Like, the number of David’s motel room is '5', so is the number of the bowling alley where he plays later. This could be easily missed, but it gives an additional surreal quality to the narrative. The significance of it is not explored in detail but it’s an interesting little facet.

Jean-Paul Rouve’s performance is subtle and very likeable. His straight-faced humorous outlook smoothly shifts to a lot more somber and back with ease. The same can’t be said about his partner-in-investigations, supporting actor Guillaume Gouix who is mostly wooden. Sophie Quinton is an awesome lady and with whatever scope she gets she pulls her part off convincingly as the starlet who thinks she is Marilyn Monroe reborn, but she can’t hold a candle to the definitive charisma of the effervescent yesteryear blonde beauty. Maybe more screen time and a meatier, better written character at hand and Quinton would probably have made a bigger impression than she does here.

Writer-director Gérald Hustache-Mathieu’s “Nobody Else But You” just about makes it but also gives us the feeling that this was an opportunity not fully exploited. It is like an underdone meal, one which had your favorite ingredients, but was taken out too quickly from the oven! There was so much one could do with the plot at hand…!

Score: 6.5/10.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Amer (2009)

There's a large mansion; a spooky looking old house, complete with furniture and wall hangings reminiscent of those old gothic horror stories. An old man is lying dead, perhaps embalmed, in one of the rooms. In extreme close-ups, weird camera angles and imaginative POV shots, we see the world through the eyes of a little girl, Ana (Cassandra Foret), who scampers about the house while her domineering mother (Bianca Maria D'Amato, dressed in mourning black) scolds a faceless old caretaker, Graziella, about some dead sparrow. But it isn't entirely clear what she is being sounded off for, for the dialog is mostly sparse. Ana appears to be scared of Graziella and turns away just as her face threatens to turn in her direction! We hear some muffled conversation from across the rooms. 

Ana seems to be curious about something; a locket of some sort that lies in the hands of the dead old man. Strange things happen in the next few minutes, as you are subjected to more close-ups of keyholes and evidently nonhuman eyeballs looking through them, the relentless sound of footsteps, the wheezing, and the doors banging while Ana continues to curiously seek the locket; it all culminates in one scene in which Ana sees her mother having sex with a man (who may or may not be her father). Witnessing this scene triggers a chemical reaction in Ana's brain, as she wanders off into another state and the camera takes the form of the Ana's mind and projects images that shift between vivid colors. The scene echoes in her head repeatedly as it does on the screen in a rather lurid fashion. What she sees indeed has had a huge impact on her wee mind.  

Writer-director duo Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani managed to grab this viewer's attention in the first twenty odd minutes into the film. It is a rather clever cinematic device that justifies the over-indulgent use of close range shots, sometimes grainy, sometimes blurry vision and the continuous shifting of loud colours, for these images are a reflection of Ana's psyche! Ditto for the outstanding sound design that demands attention from your aural senses in a manner that will make you feel like you are very much part of the scene that is playing out for real but perceived in an exaggerated fashion by Ana's mind. The squishing sound, as Ana steps on the dead sparrow makes you cringe. So does the sickening sound of a finger breaking off from the dead body....! 

Cut to a few years later, a teenage Ana (Charlotte Eugène Guibeaud), dressed in a short summer frock, walks closely with her mother, who still appears dominating, or is, perhaps protecting her from the prying eyes of lustful men, while she herself loosens a button of her dress when she sees a car approaching! The setting is quite bright and cheerful compared to the bleak first half hour. A small insect crawls up Ana's body and the camera captures the insect's every move as it traverses Ana's thighs. Voyeuristic? Lewd? Maybe, but the intention is very much such. This is a girl in her adolescence, just discovering her sexuality. And yet again, the camera takes the form of Ana's senses and feelings, as it continues to have its powerful effect on us by making us feel what Ana feels. More bizarre camerawork follows, as the focus zooms in on dripping sweat, Ana's frock slightly being blown up by the wind, and some strands of her own long hair that are held between her full, red lips.....! 

In one clever scene a very important point is conveyed. A group of biker men are eyeing Ana's virginal beauty, an act that evokes feelings like never before in Ana, but her curiosity and that unique feeling of sinful pleasure is thwarted by her mother's sudden slap on her face as she realizes that her daughter is drifting away!  

Moving on, an adult Ana (Marie Bos) returns to her hometown and takes a cab ride to the aforementioned mansion in which she grew up. The taxi ride is a strangely surreal sequence, as Ana asks the cab driver, who she suspects is checking her out from the rear-view mirror, to roll her windows down. She seems to feel an orgasmic pleasure as the wind rubs against her body and her dress starts tearing up at the seams; it is a terrific piece of direction indeed, that puts forth the question, has Ana been living under the shadow of her over-protective mother far too long and not been given the freedom to explore her sexuality in a natural manner? Is Ana terrified of the staring eyes or any kind of look that men give her, thanks to some incidents from the past that we have been given a hint of? Watch out for that subtle but important scene in which, Ana, back in the mansion, cuts out the eyes from the portraits of men that hang around the house! Is there a strange black figure lurking around the house, spying on her? Or is it a figment of her imagination; her immense fear of being watched all the time, taking a terrifying, malevolent form? 

"Amer", a Belgian-French shoe-string budget production, challenges the audience with its mystifying imagery and also manages to enthrall with its stylistic storytelling technique. There is almost no dialog and the film mostly relies on visuals and sound to convey meaning. "Amer" is said to be a homage to the Italian 'giallo' films. But frankly, that influence comes much later in the third act of the film. The eroticism is there, but it is devoid of any explicit sex or nudity. There is sensuality, alright, but it plays out more like a teaser, as it tantalizes the viewer's imagination with the brilliant work of the lens and the sound. Gore and violence, particularly copious amounts of blood spilling and the appearance of a black-gloved hand with a knife, which are essential characteristics of the giallo genre also appear at the very end in a startlingly gruesome final act, until which they are mostly absent. The poster artwork alludes to classic Italian giallo as well , but it is indeed remarkable to find that this film very smoothly blends elements of art-house cinema with the giallo genre, with a premise that revolves around psycho-sexuality! The brilliant background score is akin to what was used in giallo films and some of the soundtrack is apparently directly used from some older films.

They say that "Amer" will appeal to fans of Mario Bava and Dario Argento. But Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani have given us a very intelligent and disturbingly spectacular film, that will find its audiences not only amongst giallo fans, but also amongst lovers of surrealist films, gothic horror and psychological thrillers as well. This, is pure cinema....true art!

Score: 10/10  


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Confessions (2010)

What drives a wronged person to revenge? What initiates a thirst for retribution? It is when the powers that be fail to deliver a fair judgement; when the hunger for getting even remains unsatisfied; when one is convinced that justice has not been done and decides that they just can’t remain helpless, mute spectators to the wrongdoing inflicted upon them or their loved ones.

But to what extent should one go? How much is enough? Is death the ultimate penalty? Not at all! What is more potent then? A fate worse than death, perhaps; something that could make life a living hell for the perpetrator!

Japanese filmmaker Tetsuya Nakashima's "Confessions" (2010), which tells a rather twisted tale of one such act of revenge, begins on a rather random note with a somewhat disoriented scene in a noisy classroom full of boisterous and mischievous thirteen year olds on the final day of class before school closes for the Spring break. A young teacher, Miss Moriguchi (Takako Matsu), says that it will be her last day in school and is delivering a long monologue which occasionally gets drowned in the accompanying continuous drone in the background score. The viewer suffers distraction too, with the camera cutting to the shots of some students playing mischief, hitting each other with a baseball, and chattering away, hardly paying attention to their teacher, while she continues addressing the class. The whole class (and so does the viewer) suddenly starts paying attention when she begins to make some startling revelations about what happened with her little daughter Manami.

She reveals that her daughter was killed in an incident which was considered to be drowning by accident and was soon dismissed. But in reality, two boys present in the class at the time, were responsible for the daughter’s death. She further adds that she is aware that the laws for juveniles are too soft and the boys would escape severe punishment. The students are taken aback at these sudden shocking confessions and are further subjected to a deadly surprise when Miss Moriguchi reveals her diabolical plan for exacting revenge and establishes that she has already set the ball rolling as they speak ….!

It’s a fantastic twist that catches us unawares in this one scene in the beginning but it also raises a whole lot of questions immediately. What next? Is this it? This almost seems to be a closure to the story. A girl killed, culprits revealed, and the mother takes her revenge! That kind of wraps it up, doesn’t it?! But not so soon. Writer-director Tetsuya Nakashima has more in store for us! The meaning of the title "Confessions" now starts taking shape. For this is not merely about the confessions of the mother, Ms. Moriguchi! It is also about those of others who are somehow tied to the incident in question.

In a rather intricately layered and engaging screenplay, Nakashima shifts focus from one viewpoint to the other. A motley of characters, people connected to the incident make their own confessions in voice-overs that narrate their side of the story. Nakashima presents us one picture in the initial few frames, from which we form an image of a particular character. Yet later, he forces us to see the same picture in a different light, a completely different perspective that makes us rethink our initial judgment of the character. It is a classic representation of the other side of truth and how appearances can be deceptive. It is about how it is awfully difficult to distinguish the right from the wrong, the good from the bad, because in the end, it is all a matter of perspective. One could stop at what seems to be the absolute truth. But dig beneath, and there could be more that could turn a fact on its head!

"Confessions" is a fascinating play on the viewer's judgment and overall impression about a person or a happening; an impression that doesn’t seem to attain stability and finds itself shifting in the labyrinth of these strange episodes happening in each person’s life. Nakashima also succeeds in putting the viewer in a hypnotic trance with his stylistic approach of beautiful cinematography that is gorgeous and bleak at the same time, a haunting soundtrack that plays with the senses along with a very prominent drone that fills the atmosphere, and slow-motion camerawork that more or less occupies most of the running time of the film, rendering a spacey, dream-like mood. One might wonder if more style means less substance, but so is not the case, as there is enough meat to balance the style and a perfect equilibrium is achieved in the overall construction of the film. Thankfully, graphic, gory violence, which is a characteristic of most Asian revenge dramas is kept to a minimum and is not exaggerated. There is more reliance on the trance-like atmosphere rather than the gore.

"Confessions" boasts of an intriguing script and commendable performances, especially from Takako Matsu and youngsters Yukito Nishii and Ai Hashimoto. The film does falter slightly though, from some overdone and contorted scenes drawing dangerously close to being gimmicky, tacky special effects towards the end and just too many twists crammed in the final act, some of which aren’t as shocking or compelling as some better ones that appear midway through the film. Hardly any reason to sideline it though; for this is surely one of the better thrillers from recent times that you’ll have the pleasure of viewing.

Score: 8/10