Friday, August 31, 2012

The Temptation of St. Tony (2009)

There is a great temptation to write about "The Temptation of St. Tony" (2009), only it is imperative to find the right words to describe this strange film, so as to convey to the fullest, the kind of effect it had on yours truly. Estonian writer-director Veiko Õunpuu’s film is actually a homage of sorts. The title alludes to the myth about Anthony the Great, an Egyptian Saint who travelled to the desert and while on his pilgrimage, encountered some supernatural temptations by the demons, a subject that is popularly dubbed "The Temptation of St. Anthony" (, and adapted by many a great artists and authors in their visual arts and literary work respectively.

Ounpuu reimagines this lore in the contemporary setting, as experienced by a man, simply named, Tony (Taavi Eelmaa), who is a mid-level manager at a factory. Tony is living in a nice house, albeit in desolate surroundings, and is unhappily married to a woman (Tiina Tauraite), who is very vocal about her hate for Tony, is perhaps suffering from some psychological illness, and is unabashedly having an affair with a friend of Tony’s! 

A series of increasingly bizarre events start occurring in Tony’s life, with his father’s funeral as the starting point. Tony is seen carrying a huge cross while walking with the funeral procession, when a car, coming from a distance meets with an accident a few feet away from him. Tony stops for a second, looks at the car, appears confused, wondering if he should stop to help, but continues with the funeral procession anyway! Later one of the passengers in the car, all injured and blood-soaked from the accident, staggers back and somehow, manages to reach Tony. He is clearly in need of medical attention, but Tony isn’t doing anything; just looks on, while the injured person doesn’t ask for anything either, except to sit in Tony's luxurious Bentley for just a moment! After much reluctance, Tony relents. As the passenger gets inside the Bentley, he sobs, and later calls Tony a "good man"!

This absurdist scene is just the beginning of a spiral descent into madness, as the episodic narrative plunges into the depths of irrationality, but the underlying theme of this wildly hypnotic ride starts to take shape. Tony hits a dog on his way back home, attempts to bury it, in the woods, but doesn’t, because he comes across several severed human hands lying around! He tries to report it to the police but has to escape from there, owing to an outlandish episode concerning the interrogation officer! This is where Tony meets Nadezhda (Ravshana Kurkova) a girl Tony sets his heart on later, rescues her from the Police, who have her in their custody for some reason, not apparent at this point. But is Tony’s good deed devoid of any expectations?

At the center of all the randomness, is an existentialist philosophy about a person’s individual accountability, and Tony’s crisis of faith, not strictly related to God’s silence but related to the futility of the goodness! This is reinforced in an eerie scene in which Tony wanders into a deserted church, where a giant crucifix lies on the ground, rested against a wall. The only person in the church is an old priest, who mentions that it has "been long since he felt God’s presence", for he believes Tony reached the church seeking some kind of help. Tony, however, comes off as a skeptic, who poses a vague question, if there’s a "paradise…and all that" waiting at the end of a "good life"! The priest infers that, perhaps, Tony is seeking a reward for his morally upright ways. And if so is the case, is one really a good man if he does good deeds with expectations in mind? Or will the good deed matter only if done selflessly? The priest then mocks him; "You are nothing but a common merchant", he says, "with the soul of a common merchant", adding, "even your good intentions have to be paid for by someone"! This scene takes a chilling turn, when the priest recognizes Tony’s occupation without Tony ever mentioning it to him!

These questions about morality keep appearing throughout the film in some form or other to Tony, and are constantly brought up by people around him. Is it possible that the people he encounters are demons subjecting him to mental and physical torment? In a later scene, one other character, a dangerous man, Herr Meister (Sten Ljunggren), possibly the owner of a nightclub that looks like a ruin in hell, locks Tony in a cage and mentions to him that chivalry is driven by lust, again questioning the selflessness of Tony’s good deed of saving Nadezhda!

There is also a parallel theme which hints at an attack on capitalism and the stark contrast between the attitudes of the rich and the poor. While Tony and his colleagues/friends are sitting at the table in his grand house, having a lavish meal, discussing topics like "the age of the internet" and "wife swapping", a homeless person appears and stares inside through their glass door! A person at the table suggests that maybe the man needs a drink. Tony promptly picks up a bottle of liquor, goes out and hands it over to the man, only to find that he empties the bottle all over the ground, and simply adds the bottle to the numerous empty bottles he has been collecting, possibly to sell them and buy some food with the money!

Later, Tony is asked to fire all the workers at his factory immediately, and shut it down! Instantly a lot of workers are rendered jobless! One of them is, incidentally, Nadezhda’s father! In a superb scene, Nadezhda invites Tony over for a cup of tea. Tony is more interested in how clean the cup is, tries to clean it a little bit, takes the cup to his mouth to sip the tea, but in the end doesn’t drink it at all!

This angle of the narrative takes a savagely funny turn in the scene of the men who arrive at Tony’s place to put up a fence, that apparently, Tony never asked for! The men are taken aback and take their disbelief of Tony’s denial of having sought their services so far as to slam back at him; "maybe you are trying to suggest that we do not exist!” It is a genius job of writing!

It is episodes like these, and more, that make "The Temptation of St. Tony" a mesmerizing film, not to mention the nods to various past and present masters of surrealism, like Luis Bunuel, David Lynch and Federico Fellini. The bravura sound design and dream-like imagery are in fact,  definitely Lynch inspired! Even the lead actor, Taavi Eelmaa, looks and behaves in a manner which makes him seem like a lost sibling of Henry (Jack Nance) from David Lynch’s "Eraserhead"! The breathtaking, crisp, black and white cinematography by Mart Taniel (that reminds of the later works of Bela Tarr) and the awe-inspiring original music by Ulo Krigul, give this film a feel that is capable of putting the viewer into a trance. As it nears its bizarre, but "satisfying" (albeit in a twisted sense) climax, in fact, even a seemingly ordinary (but not quite) sequence benumbs the mind, with its jaw-dropping intensity, purely because of the goose-bump inducing crescendo that the score builds up to! With its underlying themes of morality and faith, Õunpuu also pays a tribute to the spiritual cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman. More Tarr and Tarkovsky influence is seen in long takes accompanied by meditative music in the background in some scenes, especially the one in the derelict church.

Thus, Õunpuu isn’t really breaking new grounds with "The Temptation of St. Tony", in terms of style and execution; he is obviously inspired. But any filmmaker of today, who has what it takes to even attempt to come close to the greatness of the aforementioned legendary auteurs, deserves respect! And what’s more, despite some obvious thematic influences, using the ancient myth of St. Anthony’s temptations, as source material, and interpreting it in a contemporary setting, is no mean feat. "The Temptation of St. Tony" is a mind-numbing audio-visual experience. For maximum effect, watch alone, and use a pair of headphones!

Score: 10/10

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

After the Wedding (2006)

“After the Wedding” (2006) begins on the streets of Mumbai, India, where several orphaned, homeless children are queuing up for food, courtesy ‘Anand Orphanage and School’, assisted by Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen) who has taken up the cause. He teaches in the school attached to the orphanage, and is a favorite with the children there. The initial scenes make one wonder if this is yet another ‘poverty porn’ focusing only on the dirty underbelly of India and projecting it to be a country worse than it actually is (Think “Slumdog Millionaire”). But any negativity formed in the beginning is quickly quashed with what follows.

The orphanage is clearly falling short of funds. A silver lining is seen, as some tycoon in Denmark, by the name of Jorgen Hansson (Rolf Lassgård), has agreed to offer a huge sum of money as donation to the orphanage, but only on the condition that Jacob travel to Denmark personally, meet with Jorgen and then return with the necessary funds and paperwork. This tiny detail offered in the beginning, highlights the whimsical nature of the wealthy businessman’s offer, and immediately hints at a catch, so we begin to brace ourselves for an early twist. Any surprise quotient, then, is automatically reduced to half.

Jacob travels to Denmark, leaving behind his shanty life, albeit promising one of the orphan boys, Pramod (Neeral Mulchandani), who he has brought up and loves like his son, that he would be back in a week. Once in Denmark, Jacob is given red carpet treatment; a personal airport pickup, a luxury suite in a posh hotel, and later a meeting with the man himself; who takes a look at the project put together by Jacob (a videotape detailing the activities of the orphanage), but seems to be more interested in having a drink with him. Jorgen turns off the tape halfway, leaving Jacob stumped and disappointed, but proceeds to invite Jacob to the upcoming wedding of his daughter Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen). The unsuspecting Jacob accepts the invitation and shows up at Jorgen’s plush mansion, the venue of the wedding.

But a series of startling discoveries at the wedding and after it, make this visit to Denmark, a life-changing experience for Jacob…..

Writer-Director Susanne Bier’s screenplay shows great promise, at least in the first half, thanks to the periodic revelations. Some dark secrets are revealed at regular intervals, and thus the pace is well maintained ‘til then, although the film revolves only around four major characters. There are great moments of power-packed drama, sometimes intense, sometimes warm, sometimes awkward; mostly the uncomfortable encounters between characters are very naturally captured; it couldn’t get more real than that. The director knows exactly how the characters would emote under the circumstances, and thanks to the terrific actors, it’s all well done and earnestly acted. The cinematography is somewhat grainy, mostly devoid of the usage of special lighting, and is shot on a handheld camera, reminiscent of the style of the Dogme 95 movement first initiated by Lars Von Trier. It is no surprise that the filming of the entire wedding sequence very much reminds of that in Von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves”.

It is the extreme close-ups of eyes, lips, hands, and even some facial hair that come across as an eyesore. There are way too many close-ups that just weren’t required and suit neither the genre, nor the subject matter. In fact they take away from the scenes somewhat, by not showing us the visage of the actor during a scene, when his/her reaction or emotion is vital to the scene. It is in the latter half, that the drama begins to shed the subtlety, when the most important twist of the story is revealed, and the film dips into mawkish melodrama giving rise to histrionics and gawky over-sentimentality! The major twist is itself a cliché and a bankable ingredient for a weepy soap opera. But there are other events that follow, and at such timings, that you can’t help but think that the screenplay is taking an emotionally manipulative direction, by forcing some events that just weren’t necessary, but used merely because they, somehow, serve as good excuses to make the proceedings sappier!

That said, it is indeed noteworthy, how almost all the characters are very well written; they have a lot of depth and more importantly, the initial impression that is created about them, takes a drastic turn in some key events, and we are forced to see them in a different light. Of course, the convincing dynamics of the characters, are owing to the choice of actors that are immensely talented. Mads Mikkelsen brings a range of emotions to the otherwise stoic Jacob who is taken aback when he first learns of the shattering truth that hits like a bolt of lightning. Ditto for the mixed emotions and the inevitable awkwardness he displays, later, in one of the best directed scenes of the film. Rolf Lassgård is brilliant as the drunk, but loving father and business tycoon, whose real intentions, and hence the kind of person he is, becomes clear only later. Stine Fischer Christensen is cute and does a commendable job as the daughter Anna who gets a double whammy of deceit. And then we have Sidse Babett Knudsen as Helene, who finds herself in an extraordinary situation, by a twist of fate, following a seemingly strange coincidence, and a past that refuses to let go. It is a classy performance indeed.

What “After the Wedding” needed was a steady grip and restrained tone, that it maintains in the first half of the film, despite the plot contrivances, after which it nosedives into unnecessary melodrama and starts to come undone. Too bad, really!

Score: 7/10

Friday, August 17, 2012

Young Adult (2011)

Written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman (their second collaboration after 2007’s Oscar winning “Juno”), “Young Adult” (2011) tells the story of Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a divorced, lonesome author in her mid-30s, who ghost-writes for a series of young adult books titled Waverly Prep. The series is about to be cancelled and the publisher is hounding her to finish the final book. Mavis has her little dog Dolce for company in her apartment in “Mini Apple” Minneapolis. Mavis seems to have run out of ideas (her books aren’t selling well these days either, as is clear from one later scene). She binge drinks, goes out on not-so-exciting dates and tries to prepare the draft for her novel. A chance email sent out by Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), an old school-mate, carrying a picture of her new-born baby, who happens to be from her marriage to Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), Mavis’ ex-boyfriend from high school days, suddenly shakes her up from this mundane scheme of things. Initially deeming it to be a “slap in the face”, she then believes that it’s a sign that she and Buddy were meant to be together. She travels to her hometown Mercury, with the sole intention of catching up with Buddy, and if possible, rekindling her long lost romance!

Sounds pretty lame so far right? Maybe so, but this lighthearted drama glides along with a steady progression with some wonderfully written scenes, well-acted at that, and humour derived from quite natural situations.

A very trivial scene, like the receptionist at an inn registering Mavis’ name while checking her in, saying her name out loud in a croaky voice, and the expression on Mavis’ face as she does that, makes for a genuinely funny moment! Ditto for the straight-faced denial of Mavis when asked if she has a dog in the bag despite it visibly shaking and Dolce’s stifled yelping from inside it, clearly audible! And later upon learning that pets are indeed allowed, still maintaining that she does have a dog, but in the vehicle!  The film is rife with such subtle humour. At times we get all out comical situations, and at other times, we get light moments that make us chuckle and at the same time evoke sympathy for the person at the center of it!

“Young Adult” refrains from over-usage of excessively dramatic moments. There are, maybe, only a couple of those, including one scene when Mavis gets drunk and creates a scene at Buddy’s baby’s naming ceremony. The lack of excessive drama works in the film’s favour. It is in the rather restrained scenes that the real heart of the film lies. Like the instance when Mavis forms a strange bond with fat boy Matt (Patton Oswalt), a nobody, an old schoolmate of Mavis that she fails to recognize instantly. As much as she cannot stand Matt and rebuffs him when she wants to be alone with Buddy when they finally make contact, she finds that he is the only listener she has, and visits him from time to time, gets drunk on the Bourbon he distills in his own garage and continues talking to him. Matt has a tragedy of his own; he’s been a victim of bullying and has been physically assaulted during high school days, leaving him slightly crippled for life. He has always been in awe of Mavis and of course, welcomes her with open arms when she reaches out to him. In a way this also hints at Mavis’ selfishness.

A lack of maturity and tolerance level is seen on Mavis’ part, later in a scene when her mother runs into her and brings her home. A discussion at the table hints that Mavis’ ex-husband was actually a nice guy. Maybe it is Mavis that acted irresponsibly and led to the end of her marriage. She later calls her parents “horrible” and exclaims that she's been through a lot! Mavis is obviously not a very likeable person, yet something about her makes the audiences connect with her. All this and her inability to move on from her high school romance with Buddy makes it clear that Mavis is stuck in a time warp. Despite her age, she is still an adolescent at heart. And hence the title!

The tiny bits, like an awkward conversation with Beth in which Mavis reveals certain intimate details of Buddy when they went around in high school; the parts in which Mavis picks up lines from random conversations between gossiping girls passing by, that help her device catchphrases for her novel; the scene during the gig, at which Beth is the drummer, and Mavis tries to get close to Buddy, or that conversation of Mavis with Sandra (Collette Wolfe) that ends on a bitingly funny note are further testimony to some fine writing on Diablo Cody’s part.

But what adds the depth to all this well thought out writing and direction, is the amazingly flawless performance of Charlize Theron. It is simply awesome to watch the super talented lady at work here. She understands Mavis extremely well and delivers a splendid performance, with her range of expressions and mannerisms befitting a troubled mind such as Mavis’! It is an extraordinary performance that sadly got overlooked by the Academy while putting together the nominees in the Best Actress in a Leading Role category.

A close second in the acting department is of course, Patton Oswalt. He quite comfortably slips into Matt’s shoes and delivers a solid performance with an ease that is commendable.

“Young Adult” is a welcome relief from other similar films that touch upon such subjects and usually become easy preys to clichés and unwarranted exaggerations, marred by feeble-minded writing in the name of comedy. What we get here instead, is quite a refined piece of work, a fine character study laced with the right dose of dark humour; one, that might seem wafer-thin when it comes to its premise but manages to entertain, thanks to the crisp, clever writing, naturalistic characterization, brilliant acting and a modest length of 90 minutes that just breezes by.

Score: 8/10

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Third Part of the Night (1971)

There's a lot that can be written about Polish filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski's debut feature film, "The Third Part of the Night". Not merely because it's a highly complex, genre-bending work of art that deals with guilt, redemption, psychosis, death and decay in the backdrop of World War II, likened in a very cleverly allegorical manner, to the apocalypse no less, but also because the roots of this great piece of cinema are firmly embedded in Zulawski's memories of his own troubled childhood, and the stories penned down by his father, detailing his personal, traumatic experience of survival in a war-stricken environment. This connection of his to the narrative, makes "The Third Part of the Night" a rather personal film for Zulawski, as he puts his heart and soul into its making, thus, ensuring that his work manages to grab the viewers by their jugular and shove their faces into this dark, depressing world! Perhaps he feels this is the only way to make his viewers feel the horrors that the characters in this film live with.

Set during the time of the German invasion of Poland, Zulawski's film tells the story of Michal (Leszek Teleszynski) a man just recovering from some illness who helplessly watches his son, mother and wife Helena (Malgorzata Braunek), get massacred by some German soldiers in their isolated home in the country. A guilt-ridden and grief-stricken Michal returns to town to join an old 'resistance' group he used to be a part of. However, things go awry yet again, but as luck would have it, he finds himself saved from the clutches of the Germans when they mistakenly shoot and take into custody another man in Michal's place! Michal then lands up in this man's house, and helps his wife Marta who bears a striking resemblance to Helena, to deliver her child. Michal finds it difficult to believe it to be a mere coincidence that Marta resembles Helena, and sees it as his chance at redemption. Michal takes it upon himself to take care of Marta and the child, while also taking up the 'loathsome' but 'best he can get' job of feeding lice to produce vaccines in return for legal status and regular supply of food. But is there really hope for Michal and the other oppressed individuals around him? Or is salvation a distant dream?

Zulawski takes the memoirs penned by his father and converts them into a horrifying visual experience, giving us apocalyptic images, random, pessimistic ramblings bordering on insanity, perhaps due to the impact on the characters’ senses, seeing the horrors around them. Sample this:

“Oh, God, who does not lead us. Oh, God, who allows the fragile to be killed and who elevates blind hatred. Oh, God, who allows cruelty to be propagated and people to torment each other. Oh, God, who elevates the most evil ones and puts the whip into their hands. Oh, merciless God, have no mercy upon us.” 

That’s actually an excerpt from a prayer said by Michal’s father (Jerzy Golinski) after the aforementioned three family members are mercilessly killed. It is a sharp, negative reaction to a situation that seems to be clearly out of hand. Or maybe it is the director’s own view that God and prayers never helped anyone! Michal is the only character who seems to be any hopeful about the future. Is it a coincidence then, that he is named after the archangel St. Michael, who, in the Book of Revelations, leads God’s armies against Satan’s forces? Maybe not, what with verses from The Book of Revelations sprinkled in generous doses in the film, hinting that perhaps these verses represent prophecies and indeed ‘Saint Michal’ will deliver all from evil! In a surreal sequence, a man wearing a mask appears to Michal and Michal confesses to him something to the effect that he is experiencing a crisis of faith to which the man retorts “You must ask God only silent questions!” and hands over a Bible in which he has marked quotations pertaining to a prophecy which Michal reads out. It is not difficult to connect the marked quotations to the context of the film. But just moments after the ‘prophecy’ is read out, the masked man meets his eventual fate which perhaps the prophecy had failed to predict!

The lice-feeding to produce vaccines against Typhoid is a very important aspect of the film. This part is also taken from Zulawski’s father’s real life experiences. In extreme close-up, the process of deriving vaccines from the countless blood-sucking tiny creatures is shown in minute detail! The stress on this process is to highlight how the lice depend on their feeders and vice versa, for survival! It is a very pertinent symbolism used in the film to a very powerful effect. We can only derive from the vague narrative that offers clues, but never makes anything explicitly clear, that it is the lice that are in a way acting as catalysts for the chemical reactions that occur in the characters of the film. For one, it affects them physically and they are perpetually running a sort of fever. Along with the physical irritation to the skin, there is an effect on the mind that is presumably leading to mental degradation and hallucinatory symptoms. This effect is presented in the oddball mannerisms of some characters and how they react or behave in certain situations. 

Especially, it is Michal’s state of mind that raises a lot of questions. Is Marta being a lookalike of Helena in his mind? At least twice, his sister Klara (Anna Milewska) who is a nun in a nearby convent points out to him that Marta doesn’t look anything like Helena! Further hints come in the form of some extraordinary shots in which Michal’s reality, dreams and memories from the past coexist in a single scene. Whenever Michal gets any close to Marta, his dead son sneaks up on him and watches with remorseful eyes. Later, Marta and her supposed ‘double’, Helena appear in the same scene! It is a masterstroke of writing that succeeds in making clear, the muddled state of Michal’s mind! A conversation between the lice feeders at the table, hints at the tendency to adhere to something imaginary when all hope is lost! This conversation comes up rather abruptly in a discussion about the futility of literature, but throws light on real life stories of some writers who sought a kind of support in their own non-existent creations in their final days!

The cinematography is aptly bleak and there's an eerie look to some of the dark and dreary landscapes captured. Although Zulawski uses long takes, he doesn’t always stick to steady shots. To enhance the confusion and the urgency of the situation, he mostly uses handheld camera that follows his protagonist as it tracks his every move in a hurried manner in some of the film’s most suspenseful scenes. Special mention must be made of the deliberately long child birth scene, which is mostly off-screen (but for a split second detail) but has an extra powerful effect, solely based on the facial expressions of the two lead actors in the two most brilliant performances in the film! It couldn’t get more real than this, although the actual event is mostly confined to off-screen! 

Towards the final act, the film attempts culmination with Michal’s attempts to save Marta’s husband from the Germans’ clutches in a startling crescendo of sorts when Michal’s world grows increasingly bizarre and threatens to come full circle! Or does it?

For all its negativity, madness and hysteria, Zulawski’s film is an unforgettable, emotional journey that succeeds in conveying to the audience, his vision of doom and destruction, not with the help of violent visuals of the war (those are merely just touched upon), but by giving us a morbid, inside look in the minds of the individuals who live in constant fear and make their best attempt at survival from the atrocities that they could very well have to face sooner or later. 

Score: 10/10

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Trust (2010)

Advanced technology and the infinite doorways opened by the ever expanding universe of “online chat” have worked wonders for humankind. For one, this expansion has actually led to a contraction. The world is getting smaller by the minute, what with instant texting/communication being possible across two sides of the globe at the click of a button! Since its inception it has seen a steady growth in terms of usability and convenience. Only every boon brings with it, a curse; its dark flipside thanks to the immensely huge gamut of mindsets or mentalities of the human mind.

So while we have a reason to rejoice, with the age of the internet creating stronger bonds, we also have an added responsibility of keeping the monsters at bay! The monsters that are created when technology falls in the wrong hands; the hands of those countless teenagers who are at their most vulnerable and make internet chatting their way of life; get so deeply involved, they start trusting their ‘online friends’ more and tend to disregard their real flesh-and-blood relationships! And of course, the other hands of the actual monsters; the sexual predators, waiting to prey upon innocent young minds to make them their next victim after carefully grooming them and successfully and irreversibly altering their mindsets to frightening extremes….!

David Schwimmer, the star of the popular sitcom “Friends” directs “Trust”, an intense drama revolving around one such vulnerable and innocent teenager, emotionally lured into the ruthless world of online communication. Only the girl in question, 14-year-old Annie (Liana Liberato) is far too innocent and practically starts living in this world. From the countless members in chat rooms, she seems to have befriended ‘Charlie’, a 16-year-old guy from California, a volleyball player at his school who has managed to win her favor by offering her valuable volleyball advice, since she is aspiring to make it to the school team. And she finally does make the team, thinking it is this guy’s advice that helped her! Their chatting relationship grows, moves on to the phone.

Fuelled by the desire to be one-up among her peers, the desire to be accepted or recognized amongst some obnoxiously fake, trend-conscious schoolmates and the constant rebuking of the same by her loving but protective parents Will and Lynn Cameron (Clive Owen and Catherine Keener respectively) who insist she should “be herself” rather than put on a sham personality like some other wasted girls in school, finds an instant connection with Charlie who apparently is the “only one who understands her”!

But as days go by, Charlie makes newer confessions about his age; saying that he is 20, and later that he is 25. While Annie is upset that he lies to her, she finds herself growing increasingly attached to him. The time comes, to finally meet the guy face to face. Unfortunately it also means coming face to face with the shattering truth about the guy Annie has put her entire trust into. The guy is nice and gentlemanly, but he is actually in his mid-30s! But it is too late before Annie realizes he is actually a sick paedophile whose only intention behind all the sweet talk and support was to get her into a motel room and have his way with her; the intention which ultimately reaches its chilling consequence in one of the film’s most disturbing scenes!

Schwimmer himself is a director of a Rape Treatment Center which is actively involved in helping rape victims, in particular the victims of child rape and date rape. It is no surprise then, that he handles this rather sensitive subject of statutory rape with an original touch. There is no doubt that the man knows his characters, including the family of the victim, very well and brings out the angst that anyone in their place would feel quite accurately, barring a few minor exceptions. The way Annie lets herself get moulded like putty in Charlie’s hands and the way she becomes infatuated is devastatingly real; it is a sad reality which ultimately ends in heartbreak in most cases, but there has been nary a change in the situation and a number of young girls are losing their sleep over it! So is the helpless situation of her parents who don’t really want to imprison their child in the shackles of “rules” but are also not aware of where to draw a line when it comes to giving her freedom. They are blissfully unaware of her daughter’s tryst with this mysterious stranger, and never had any idea it had gone any step further beyond harmless chatting. 

Andy Bellin and Robert Festinger write a screenplay rich with some clever scenes that do a mighty good job of giving an insight into Annie’s psyche torn apart by the situation. On one hand, she thinks her parents are overdoing it by “making a federal case out of it..literally” (just as the FBI steps in to investigate) and that she simply had consensual sex with a nice and gentle man. But this is clearly not what she actually feels in her heart. It is evidently the thirst for social acceptance speaking, for she even cites the examples of her school mates who have “slept with half the football team”! Only later in a subdued confession, to her counselor, Gail (Viola Davis), about the happening in the motel room, Annie mentions that when the act began, she slowly felt distanced from it; as if she wasn’t really a part of it, but was watching the scene from a distance. It is only when Gail explains to her the interpretation of that feeling, that a first hint of doubt appears in Annie’s mind and she suddenly walks out on her, dismissing the conversation!

Then there is the very important scene when an emotionally drained Will is questioned by his boss Al (Noah Emmerich) as to why his work was suffering. Will finally confesses that his daughter was sexually assaulted. Al is initially shocked but to Will’s utter disbelief, Al heaves a sigh of relief and seems to relax as soon as he comes to know that Annie “wasn’t attacked”. “It could’ve been much worse”, Al says, while a dumbfounded Will continues to stare at him! Goes to show the difference in mindset or the apathy or simply the ignorance when it comes to Statutory rape (with consent by a minor) against a forced attack!

While “Trust” succeeds, for the most part, in providing a considerably gripping picture of how the incident has an impact on the family relationships and behavior, there are other parts where the script falters and gives birth to some blatantly obvious holes. An FBI agent, Doug Tate (Jason Clarke), brought in to handle the case comes across as totally clumsy. How else does he then, after telling Will Cameron that he has the entire chat transcript from Annie’s computer that is ‘top secret’ right now as far the case’s progress is concerned, and refuses to share it with Will, manage to carelessly leave his briefcase containing all these transcript files for Will to easily flick them off him!? And apparently their man has already sexually assaulted three other minors in the past year or so. He shows the photos of past victims to Annie to find if she “knew them from somewhere” (although they are all from different states), a camp or something, because he feels there is a pattern or a common link! It doesn’t make any sense!

And if the man has been absconding for more than a year why hasn’t a sketch expert been called in to get an approximate face description of the guy? After all, three other girls could testify and an ID check could be done based on a best facial description, or at least a manhunt could be launched. And whatever happened to CCTV cameras in the mall that Annie met him in? Why weren’t they used? Why doesn’t Annie’s supposed best friend Brittany (Zoe Levin), who spots Annie in the mall with an elderly stranger, and even senses something amiss, run after her to get to the bottom of it?

Such obvious questions come to mind but are never answered. Instead, Doug Tate makes use of an essential ‘thriller’ ingredient; an arrangement to trap him via a ruse by trying to get him to talk for a duration long enough to know his whereabouts! Maybe tracking down the perpetrator wasn’t the real agenda of the film and that’s fine, but then why show even a half-baked attempt at finding him?

A lot of other holes and some melodramatic plot points render “Trust” a slightly hurried and amateurish job. Like Will becoming excessively obsessed with the whole thing, makes finding the guy and killing him his personal mission! All the lurid visuals of his daughter being assaulted make him angrier with each passing day! At one time, he even bashes up an innocent man at a volleyball game, thinking he is the assaulter! It is a part a tad unconvincing for an otherwise tangible character.

The acting is excellent for the most part especially by Liana Liberato, who is an epitome of an innocent teen trying to mix with her peers and trying hard to be in the game, although appearing confused at times, not knowing the difference between right and wrong. At the same time, when the disturbing reality of what happened to her finally dawns upon her, she lets out a cry of helplessness in a heartbreaking breakdown scene. It is a solid, uninhibited performance indeed.

While hers is a realistic portrayal though, one wonders why introduce a character (albeit minor) like Serena (Zanny Laird), who is so visibly fake and vulgar, mouthing off lewd dialog with her hammy grimacing, and looks like some cardboard-cutout straight from the American Pie movies!

A word about Clive Owen, who, delivers convincingly in most of the film suffers from a problem faced by many actors in the business. When it comes to extreme emoting like sobbing or breaking down, he comes off as a little forced and awkward in his delivery. This is where the otherwise dependable actor somewhat disappoints.

Catherine Keener is in top form, though, as the supportive mother who would rather engage herself in healing the daughter’s wounds rather than concentrate on tracking down the perpetrator.

By the third act it pretty much becomes clear where the film is headed as far as its conclusion is concerned and it is just fine. It shouldn’t have ended any other way. Despite the obvious flaws that create some road blocks, “Trust” deserves to be seen, solely for its daringly original script, and its sensitive handling in the primary context, its well-written, likeable characters that you can identify with, some terrific acting and a satisfying culmination.

Score: 7.5/10.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936)

It was the latter half of the 19th century. The year was 1860, ten years before the French Third Republic came into being. Medical Science hadn’t made the kind of advancements that it saw later, and disease and death were in abundance. It was a well-known fact that thirty percent of women died in childbirth due to Puerperal fever, better known as childbed fever, accounting for about twenty thousand annual deaths in the city alone!

Yet there was a grave ignorance of monumental proportions, even as one man, a chemist dared to think differently. He urged medical practitioners to boil their instruments; or in modern parlance, ‘sterilize’ them, before using on patients in addition to thoroughly washing their hands with a disinfectant before working on patients. He firmly believed that more than half the deaths were caused due to lack of hygiene and the transmission of ‘germs’ from objects such as the doctor’s instruments!

Not surprisingly, the man was laughed at, and written off to be a charlatan, a quack! After all, what would a chemist know, that the doctors couldn’t see! But the man had seen it all. He had first discovered what causes wine to go sour. His relentless experimentation in his laboratory had helped him discover that microorganisms were the major cause of disease (while the doctors still firmly believed that these organisms were a result of disease rather than the cause!).

The man was Louis Pasteur. And the technique he gave to the world was pasteurization!

William Dieterle’s 1936 biographical film “The Story of Louis Pasteur”, at its modest 85 minutes length, is a tad short to even qualify for a proper biographical film. It begins on a rather startling note with the scene of a doctor being shot by a silhouetted gunman. One wonders if they've taken cinematic liberties to such an extent as to make the lead actor Paul Muni feel at home owing to his crime film beginnings! It is later learnt that Pasteur is indirectly responsible for the murder of the doctor, for reasons best left for the viewer to find out! It's a rather silly beginning, one the film could've easily done without. "The Story of Louis Pasteur" does take a few minutes to attain a grip on its narrative which eventually does make for very engaging drama.

It is astonishing how a simple film revolving around a man and his microscope has been made into something so riveting, that you can’t take your eyes off, once it picks up steam. The primary focus is on Pasteur’s taxing attempts to prove to the then Emperor Napolean III, his findings about the microscopic creatures and their connection to disease, and later, post the advent of the Third republic, his diligent attempts at developing the first successful vaccines for deadly diseases like Anthrax and Rabies. Of course, there is resistance to his claims and discoveries, more specifically from Pasteur’s most vocal critic, Dr. Charbonnet (Fritz Leiber). As the audience, our hearts go all out to Pasteur and we find ourselves rooting for the industrious scientist. We watch with bated breath and find ourselves praying for him to succeed in his experiments, even when we are well aware of the eventual outcome. We feel the triumph felt by Pasteur when he weeps tears of joy upon tasting victory!

But Pasteur didn’t succeed instantly. There were numerous failed attempts and broken test tubes and dead ends from whence he found new directions. The entire medical fraternity turned against him but he stood his ground and ended up having the last laugh anyway! But the path to victory wasn’t easy for him, and “The Story of Louis Pasteur” succeeds in conveying to us, this particular facet of Pasteur’s dedication to science. It is heartening to watch Pasteur and his loyal team of scientists toil away in the laboratory attached to his house, as his devoted wife Marie (Josephine Hutchinson) cooks supper for the entire team and also stands by her husband through thick and thin. It is awe-inspiring to see him stumble upon clues almost by accident that lead him to make some of the most startling discoveries known to mankind now. It is also slightly scary to see him succumb to a suggestion of using an untested vaccine on a little boy who is supposedly at death’s door anyway!

The film may appear somewhat dated with regard to the set design and slightly poor production values. But that is hardly a hindrance, thanks to the gripping script and taut editing. There are some subplots in the film, that weren’t entirely necessary, though; that of a romance between Pasteur’s daughter Annette (Anita Louise) and the young Dr. Martel (Donald Woods) who wins Pasteur’s favor earlier in the film. It seems to be there merely to dramatize the proceedings. Ditto for the climactic twist of fate in the final few minutes when Annette is on the brink of delivering a baby. The events in those last few minutes seem contrived to the extent of being melodramatic, although, by then you are so in love with the protagonist that you don’t care for the minor hiccups. Because mostly, apart from the solid performance of Fritz Leiber, it is the magnificent Paul Muni that holds our attention.

The under-appreciated Paul Muni, in his Oscar winning performance of the steadfast scientist, manages to render this film much more watchable than it actually is. It is his earnest act that ultimately salvages even the weakest scene. His final speech, just minutes before “The End” flashes on the screen, as he struggles with a walking stick, thanks to being in a recovery phase from a paralytic stroke, is nothing short of inspiring! Paul Muni should be reason enough for anyone to look up “The Story of Louis Pasteur”. They don’t make ‘em like him anymore!

Score: 8/10