Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Holy Motors (2012)

***NOTE: The following analysis/review may contain MILD SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film, but not to the extent of taking anything away from the film viewing experience as such .***

Something like "Holy Motors" comes once in a blue moon and hits you like a thunderbolt that threatens to change your life forever. How? It makes you taste blood and reinforces your belief in great cinema. It makes a huge percentage of other films you may have revered seem pale in comparison. It makes you believe that inventive vision and great craft are still alive! 

"Holy Motors" begins with a scene filmed on the film's maker himself! Leos Carax, known in credits only as Le Dormeur, opens up a secret door with a key that is fused to his finger (a middle finger, no less! Symbolism?)! The door then leads to a packed old movie hall, with a film playing, while the entire audience appears to be dead or asleep or in a trance-like state. Only a couple of dogs and a small baby are seen wandering about! Sounds bizarre? Well, this magnificent and enigmatic beginning is…..only the beginning! 

We cut to an entirely different setup now. A freaky looking man, Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant), who seems to be a prolific businessman climbs aboard his stretch limo driven by Celine (Edith Scob). He asks Celine about his appointments for the day, and they appear in some file kept next to Oscar. He flips through the file and what follows next is nothing short of a sudden transportation into an entirely new dimension of unreason!  Prima facie, what these appointments consist of, are some unusual tasks or jobs, presumably acting jobs for Oscar, as he changes his makeup and costume every time he sets out of his limo to fulfill a particular appointment! So while in one such appointment he becomes an old homeless woman standing on the street begging for alms, in the next he is a motion capture artist putting on a strange costume for some animated screen action, probably for a video game or an erotic animation film! In yet another scenario (or is it his reality?) he is a father of a teenage girl, trying to exercise his power on her.

As the scenarios in Oscar's appointments start to get increasingly weird and even become a matter of life and death, you start wondering what his job is really all about! Further on, some hints are sprinkled as to what it could all mean. But in the end, Leos Carax is another one of those filmmakers who don't believe in wrapping everything up neatly in a nice package. In the classic tradition of surrealist filmmakers like David Lynch, he leaves you flummoxed but not at the cost of not making any sense at all. Leos Carax's film is an intellectually stimulating futuristic road trip of sorts, in which the hero keeps moving on in a seemingly never-ending journey of shifting identities. It literally appears as if Oscar is being transported from one universe to another, ceasing to exist in one life, and moving on to the next. What is he doing all of that for? Who are his employers? Is he being forced to perform these duties? Is there some greater force controlling Oscar's moves? 

The only other human connection that we see is in the form of Celine. But who is she really? Perhaps a personal secretary appointed by Oscar's employers.  Someone sent to overlook Oscar's activities to make sure he is on the right track. Or could she be there to prevent him from escaping this loop that he has found himself in? It is not entirely clear. There are a whole lot of different interpretations that can be drawn from the attack of all the mind-bending and sometimes macabre images Carax throws at us!

There could be various ways to look at it, but it wouldn’t be very wrong to say that "Holy Motors" paints a rather scary picture of the future of entertainment. Perhaps it is hinting at an idea of cinema and reality TV blending together to give entertainment an entirely new meaning. Perhaps it is Carax's exaggerated portrayal of how actors become slaves to showbiz and are willing to go to any levels to get those hits and stay one-up. Then again, it could be a vividly imagined scenario of real life seamlessly merging with reel life for an actor, as he forgets his real existence, and starts living his various roles. On a more abstract level, could it be that "Holy Motors" is a depiction of Oscar's own personal hell? Maybe a depiction of an actor doomed to live this kind of vagabond existence from which there is no escape. And that the man at the helm of Oscar's journey of madness is the man we see in the beginning, Le Dormeur, showcasing Oscar's act to his zombified audiences! But given Carax's eccentricity, chances are, it could also hint at his own isolation and eventual return to the world of cinema (this is Carax's first feature film in thirteen years) depicted in a dream-like vision, or a symbolic representation that the audience with an appetite for some real cinema no longer exists or is dead...!

Regardless of whether there is any deeper meaning to the narrative or not,  it is not particularly essential to dissect the film. A patient viewer can still indulge in this freewheeling adventure by completely submitting to whatever Carax has to offer and come out immensely satisfied. And just when you think that you’ve seen it all and that it can't get any weirder, Carax takes the film towards its shockingly unreal culmination that is sure to make you levitate from your seat and applaud the filmmaker for his radically bohemian vision.

Technically brilliant in all areas, "Holy Motors" maintains an oneiric feel throughout. There are some highly imaginative, fantastical visuals and some great music too. At one point the film almost turns into a musical, perhaps to simply mystify the viewer or to bend genres randomly. Either way, it brings out the whimsicality of Carax (in a positive way, of course) who just wants to go all out with his material. With each new appointment, comes a new episode in Oscar's life, each episode more eventful than the last. The proceedings are maddening, but not frustrating. As a matter of fact, you find yourself giving in to the delirious perplexity and can't help but be hooked to the screen in a raised anticipation of what’s to follow.

Denis Lavant who carries the film over his able shoulders delivers the performance of a lifetime, donning several different roles and very comfortably disappearing into each of the diverse personae he assumes. Kylie Minogue, Michel Piccoli and Eva Mendes appear in brief but very important roles and make their mark. Edith Scob is apt for the character of Celine. Watch out for that scene in which there's a nod to her most famous film appearance.

Despite the long hiatus from feature-length cinema, Leos Carax has returned with a bang and delivered a landmark film, a highly captivating, daringly original, modern avant-garde masterpiece that would make Luis Bunuel proud. "Holy Motors" is sure to go down in history as one of the most important films ever made.

Score: 10/10

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

There's something awfully sinister about the Berberian Sound Studio. Walking through those eerily empty corridors and upon hearing some piercing screams coming from one of the recording studios, our gentlemanly but seemingly meek protagonist Gilderoy (Toby Jones) already seems ill at ease.

Nothing really happens at the outset, but from the first few frames, merely with the help of ambient sound, an enigmatic background score, a visibly disconcerted central character and a rather unwelcoming and rude desk secretary Elena (Tonia Sotiropoulou), writer-director Peter Strickland already establishes a sense of foreboding. This quality of sufficiently dislocating a viewer from a state of composure via cinematic effects is what this excellent new British film, "Berberian Sound Studio" is all about.

It's the 1970s, as is evident from the paraphernalia lying around the front desk. The aforementioned Gilderoy is supposedly a highly revered Sound Engineer and Foley Artist, called upon by a famous but smug Italian director Santini (Antonio Mancino) to provide his services for his next, a horror slasher film of the giallo genre! Now anyone familiar with this genre knows that these sort of films are those crude, low-budget pictures high on the gore quotient, rife with ghastly images of torture, violence, blood splatter and sometimes sexual violence! Poor old Gilderoy, used to working on family friendly nature documentaries, is obviously taken aback!

Already somewhat apprehensive about the assignment, Gilderoy meets some more strange people in the studio, including the initially over-friendly but later rather condescending, foul-mouthed producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) who clearly seems to have a disrespect for women, especially those in the industry. And then there's the flamboyant, ever-smiling director Santini who walks around with his dog, spreading cheer all around, but has a dark side to him..! It is only Silvia (Fatma Mohamed) who seems to take some genuine liking to Gilderoy and ominously hints that there's something fishy about the business in the studio!

As his job on the film begins, Gilderoy grows increasingly unnerved, thanks to the language barrier, a very different work culture, and more importantly, the frightening nature of his work that starts to take a toll on his frail psyche as he finds himself losing touch with reality and disappearing into an otherworldly nightmare...

"Berberian Sound Studio" is a very clever film. It can be classified as a psychological thriller that's a homage to the Italian giallo films and also the films of the 70s with an emphasis on analogue sound and magnetic tapes. It isn't a horror film per se, but it showcases the mechanics of the making of such cinema. It highlights the very essence of scare tactics that filmmakers usually employ. A lot of time is spent on giving us an educative tour of sound production in cinema. So while we don't actually see the film that Gilderoy is working on, we only see him create the sound for some barbaric acts that are part of this film! While we don't actually see any bloodletting or graphic violence happening, we still cringe in disgust, as some squishy melons are smashed to create an effect of a body falling from a height! We visualize terrible things just as some hard watermelons are chopped incessantly with a butcher's knife to sound like a human body being chopped or beheaded, and cabbages are stabbed to produce a realistic sound for a body being subjected to a knife attack multiple times! We shudder at the thought of even imagining anything as some tomato juice is blended to create the effect of a chainsaw at work and leaves from radishes are uprooted from the root to make us believe that some women on screen said to be witches are being subjected to torture by having their hair uprooted from their scalp!

Strickland's wise decision of not showing us what happens on screen and simply guiding us with the narration of some scenes and providing us the sound effects for the same leaves room for a lot of imagination, and that makes the whole experience even scarier. He shows us how sound plays a very important role in a horror film or any film that sets out to disturb its audiences. Thus, this film relies a lot on its sound design, one of the film's greatest assets, to put forth this point convincingly. There are some great visuals to behold, blended together with some fine sonic effects. There is a lot of attention to detail, specifically pertaining to the processes in the sound production department. Strickland's use of lighting is noteworthy, especially in the scenes shot in the vocal recording booths, or during the power cuts, or what seems to be Gilderoy's transition into a nightmare. Some finer moments like how Massimo and Massimo (Pal Toth and Jozeph Cseres), the two sound artists go on to consume the melons that they chop for the sound, and promptly offer some to Gilderoy are sure to make you smile rather nervously!

Often deemed Lynchian, "Berberian Sound Studio" indeed does seem heavily inspired by the works of David Lynch. It is not just the meticulous sound design that is so evidently similar to that employed by David Lynch, but also the themes that reflect some of Lynch's recent work. Apart from the mystifying oddities of the screenplay, a la "Lost Highway", there are similarities to be found with "Mulholland Drive", specifically in the narrative aspects focusing on the dark side of the glamourous world of film-making and the morally corrupt brass who exploit their artists. Additionally worth noting is the repeated flashing of the red sign that reads "Silenzio"! There is also a reference to "Inland Empire" as there are similarities to be found with John Carpenter's highly underrated psychological horror "In the Mouth of Madness" in one terrifying scene towards the third act. The idea of a jittery, disturbed central character who slips away into a nightmarish situation is also similar to Lynch's "Eraserhead".

Film inspirations apart, "Berberian Sound Studio" has its own power of messing with the viewer's mind with its surreal, unsettling atmosphere, some intelligently written scenes which are outrageously bizarre, definitely capable of inducing a nervous chuckle and successfully disturbing the viewer through its modest 90 minutes length. Beneath its thriller exterior, there is a dark wit to be found in its subtle satirical notes. It is also brilliantly acted, especially by the lead actor Toby Jones who runs away with a classy performance. Peter Strickland is a director to look out for, for with "Berberian Sound Studio", which is only his second film, he has surely delivered a masterpiece.

For maximum effect, watch alone, with a pair of headphones on.

Score: 10/10

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Compliance (2012)

***NOTE: The following analysis/review may contain MILD SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film, but not to the extent of making the film viewing experience any lesser.

In 1961, Yale University Psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of social psychology experiments, collectively termed The Milgram Experiment.  These experiments tested the willingness of the participants to submit to a person of authority by obeying him/her and perform certain acts even if they went against their moral conscience. The purpose of the experiment was specifically to answer a question about the existence of a sense of morality in some Nazi SS Officers who carried out the Holocaust. The point that was being driven at was, that a majority of these officers were only following orders, and it had nothing to do with their own moral beliefs about the ghastly deeds in question.

Something similar was done much later, only this was no official experiment. It was a series of prank calls made to fast food chains and departmental stores over a few years in the early 2000s! The caller posing to be an authoritative figure, like a policeman, called up mostly fast food restaurants in small towns across the USA and convinced the store managers/floor managers to conduct strip searches of their young female employees, under the pretext of seeking their help to carry out a bigger police investigation! One of these cases went so far as to turn into a lewd circus of humiliation, involving three to four other members, one of them not even employed with the restaurant! All this, thanks to the very smooth-talking caller and a dimwitted store manager who felt she was helping the police! This shocking event happened at a McDonald’s restaurant in Mount Washington, Kentucky. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strip_search_prank_call_scam#Mount_Washington.2C_Kentucky.2C_incident).
Writer-Director Craig Zobel’s 2012 disturbing thriller, "Compliance" is based on this event. Sandra (Ann Dowd, terrific; the best performance in the film), a middle-aged manager of Chickwich, a local fast food chain, is having a bad day at work. It’s Friday and there was already an incidence of a freezer door being left open the night before, leading to spoiled goods worth $1500! Already upset and somewhat tensed about facing the regional manager about this, she instructs her employees to be on their toes and make do with whatever limited urgent stock of Bacon and pickles they ordered. Business continues as usual, until one phone call made to the back office changes everything!

A voice claiming to be Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) asks to speak with Sandra and informs her that there’s a person with him, reporting a theft by one of the employees at ChickWich, a young, blonde girl. He also claims that he has the regional manager on the other line and wants to get to the bottom of the matter on the phone if possible, and get it over with sooner. Sandra, believing the girl in question to be Becky (Dreama Walker), as she fits the description, brings her in. Mentioning that there was no officer to run over to the restaurant right now, Officer Daniels smooth talks Sandra and convinces her that she would do a great favor to the police by helping out. After an initial search for the stolen money in Becky’s pockets and purse, Sandra is instructed to strip search the girl, and if necessary, hinted to carry out a body cavity search! And this is where things start to get uglier. The caller asks a lot of questions, some uncomfortable ones, reaffirms that he is the authority, the law, and it is Sandra’s and the other staff’s duty to comply! He also adds that there is a bigger investigation going on, and if either Becky or Sandra refuse to cooperate, he may have to detain her or both of them in police custody for questioning!

What begins as a preliminary check to look for money turns into an ordeal of humiliation and harassment that continues over the next few hours, with involvement from others, including Sandra’s fiancé, Van (Bill Camp, in a neatly restrained, ambiguous performance), participating in the revolting act which, indeed, turns into an abasing sexual assault, all at the behest of the caller who calls himself the authority!

Though not a very easy film to watch, Zobel gives us a highly effective, claustrophobic nail-biter; a kind of film that is capable of having a strong psychological effect on the viewer. It proves to be Zobel’s own experiment with the audiences to find how they react as mute spectators to the on-goings in the film! What kind of a reaction is this film capable of invoking? I am sure there may have been several walkouts, some others may have scoffed at the implausibility of the events, still others must have felt sickened, yet sat through it anyway! There were a few times I felt like yelling "How dumb is this! Verify if that man is indeed a police officer! No policeman would ask you to do that! Why aren’t you personally calling the regional manager?" My own reaction was that of seething rage, frustration and helplessness. It was simply difficult to fathom  that something like this could happen! And then that paves the way for jotting down several character actions and reactions which could go down as inherent technical flaws or holes that demand a lot of suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer! Why give in to the caller’s demands? Why not just let yourself get arrested, come face to face with the complainant and get the matter sorted out? Why even perform the deeds? Can they just not pretend? The caller can’t see them anyway. Why does Sandra not call the regional manager herself to corroborate the officer’s claim that he is on the other line? Why does Sandra leave her middle-aged, drunk fiancé alone with Becky and ask him to obey the officer’s orders? And finally, why does he in turn, comply? Did he not have the sanity that the woman he was engaged to, lacked? Maybe it was his own loyalty being put to the test by the twisted mind of the caller! Maybe he was already a man, sick in the head, being seduced by a golden chance of being an authority by himself and getting to do forbidden things to a comely young girl half his age…

A lot many questions keep hammering you until you face the fact that such behavior is very much possible, if not always probable! At this juncture we would probably put ourselves in their shoes. What would we have done in a similar situation? Majority of the answers would be "anything but that"! Frankly, that’s easier said than done, with a police officer being put on hold, threatening to detain one of you in custody for not co-operating with the law! Maybe some of us would risk it, and eventually save ourselves a lot of trouble. But this is exactly where diverse human traits come into play! Not all of us are risk takers are we?

Then we recall Milgram’s experiment! Milgram did find some success, wherein the subjects obeyed the experimenter, regardless of their personal view on the act in question! At least the subjects in Milgram’s experiments knew they were a part of an experiment, but still went along, when prodded! It is reported that in Milgram’s first set of experiments, he had more than 50% subjects who complied! But the characters in this film are only meek individuals trying to make a living. They merely wanted to get the situation out of the way as quickly as possible and avoid a long police procedure! Blame it on lack of common sense or lack of intelligence. Or in other cases, the fear of the law or simply the itch for dominance and power! No matter how ridiculous and twisted the demands of the caller got, the people in question, barring a couple, always obeyed! Did they do wrong?

Nonetheless, the inevitable aftermath of the incident followed; people were fired, others went into therapy, and the perpetrator, an ordinary family man got arrested (and later acquitted!). But at what cost? An unfortunate incident, a harmless prank turning into a lifetime of shame!

Barring the rather cold, wooden performance of Dreama Walker, as Becky, the victim, "Compliance" is a remarkable low-budget indie thriller that is worth your time. If for nothing else, do watch it as an lesson in awareness. It could happen to you…!

Score: 8/10