Thursday, February 14, 2013

Excision (2012)

From debutant American director Richard Bates Jr. comes this demented little indie horror-comedy, a macabre bed time story guaranteed to give you a good nightmare!

"Excision"(2012) begins with a rather stomach-churning dream sequence in which Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord) has a blood-soaked seizure as she profusely bleeds from various openings in her head and in the end vomits out blood as her doppelganger sits in front of her and appears to have a kind of orgasmic moment! Yes, this is just the beginning of a series of disgusting episodes that are to follow in this strange blend of the harrowing as well as the hilarious!

Pauline is the cliched cinematic representation of a mentally disturbed, socially inept, outcast teenager, a friendless girl labeled a freak! Sure, we’ve seen that kind of a character before haven’t we? What separates "Excision" from other films dealing with this type of persona is the fact that it is only Pauline herself that admits that she has a problem (specifically Borderline Personality Disorder) and begs to be sent to a proper psychiatrist, while neither her domineering mother Phyllis (Traci Lords), nor her clearly weak father Bob (Roger Bart), take her condition seriously. They send her instead, to a church parish Reverend William (John Waters), for some sermons that could probably help her out!

An aspiring surgeon, (or rather, a teen obsessed with performing a surgery of some kind) Pauline faces opposition from her parents, who probably know that she isn’t fit to be a surgeon at all! Only her repressed ambition to become a surgeon and her curiosity about STDs and necrophilia prompt her to make some rather unusual choices concerning loss of virginity and gives her nightmares (dreams?) of performing surgeries and having sex with brutally mangled dead bodies! In the midst of this, there’s her younger sister Grace (Ariel Winter), who is clearly more in control, but suffering from Cystic fibrosis! The desire to make amends and give her life some meaning, along with a heartfelt hope of curing her only sister makes Pauline take drastic steps of shocking proportions in the film’s most terrifying culmination….

"Excision" is a unique genre-bending work which provides the best of many worlds. To start with, it is a disturbing psychodrama about a troubled teen, but one which refrains from turning into a run-of-the-mill teen slasher horror and that’s a welcome relief. It plays out more like a psychological thriller that deals with this girl and how her quashed aspirations of becoming a surgeon manifest in the form of terrible dream sequences and extreme acts bordering on insanity! The film is at times downright repulsive, with its grotesque imagery and moments that make you squirm in your seats! Behold, the awesomely twisted nightmarish visions as seen by Pauline, a product of her obviously deteriorated state of mind, which are sure to please the gore-hounds and lovers of the surreal. And then again, it is also a family drama revolving around the lead character’s dysfunctional family.

Phyllis, the perfectionist mother who is extremely particular about the way things work around the house and about social discipline in general is complemented by the surprisingly quiet, submissive, father who may or may not have sexually abused Pauline in her childhood! Phyllis herself apparently has had a torrid childhood thanks to an extremely difficult mother, and hence wishes that her relationship with her daughters be far from the relationship she shared with her mother. Then there is Grace (Ariel Winter) who clearly cares about her older sister and is protective about her and vice versa. Only despite the seemingly well-intentioned chemistry there is something wrong in the daughters' upbringing, thus rendering their bonding rather half-baked.

Yet the parents always maintain that they only wish the best for their daughters now. There are some emotional one on one moments between family members but not ones that come off as traditionally melodramatic. These are moments laced with sardonic humour, and somewhere you know that the relationships are somehow unhealthy despite the family’s supposed attempts to let sanity prevail!

Richard Bates Jr. strikes a great balance between the darker and the funnier aspects of the film and this is where he succeeds the most! While he presents the more grisly parts of the film with a flavor that is sure to make the most hardened of horror buffs cringe in disgust, he also ensures that there is a genuinely lighter touch to uplift or appease the viewer and bring a smile on his face every once in a while!

There are some savagely comic moments strengthened by splendid performances, especially by Traci Lords who runs away with the best performance of the film. She is brilliant as the controlling mother who does show her soft side from time to time but one that always seems to lack any genuine warmth. This performance is followed by a rather scary looking AnnaLynne McCord's great act of the sociopath teen, further closely followed by Roger Bart who provides his sparse moments of deadpan comic brilliance! The straight-faced comedy works in the film's favor, considering it is primarily a work of psychological horror, yet none of the comic sequences seem misplaced or jarring and in fact make the film much more watchable. Veterans Malcolm McDowell, Ray Wise and John Waters appear in brief but fruitful roles in the context of the film and make their mark.

"Excision" brings to mind several older such thrillers based on deranged female leads, especially Lucky McKee's excellent "May" (2002) and on some level, the Australian shocker "The Loved Ones" (2009). Inspirations and similarities apart, "Excision" holds its own as a bloody revolting yet memorable little horror comedy. The screenplay however does take a dip somewhat when it comes to being engaging and seems slightly longer than its 80 minutes length. Moreover, some of the film's best sequences, a couple of dream sequences are cut extremely short and disappear before they make a bigger impact. Despite a few pacing issues, "Excision" is a film that is sure to stick with you for a long long time.  Go ahead and indulge...if you have the stomach for such stuff.

Score: 8/10

Monday, February 4, 2013

No Smoking (2007)

Maverick Indian filmmaker Anurag Kashyap ventures into surrealist territory with his ambitious but strange little film titled "No Smoking". This film was unanimously panned by critics and audiences alike upon its initial release in 2007 (much to Kashyap's dismay who has called it his favorite amongst all his directorial ventures). That certainly doesn't come as a surprise in a country that thrives on trademark Bollywood potboilers full of song and dance and essentially a mix of genres of slapstick comedy, romance and action. With "No Smoking", Kashyap pushes all boundaries and and presents to an unprepared audience, this Kafkaesque nightmare, partly inspired by films of David Lynch and some other filmmakers who don't mind messing with their audience's minds!

The story revolves around a central premise directly lifted from the Stephen King short story "Quitters Inc." (,_Inc.). A man named K (John Abraham) is an arrogant, self-centered, narcissistic, filthy rich tycoon spoiled sick by his chain-smoking habit. He smokes practically everywhere, in his plush bathroom tub, in his bedroom, all over his house, his office and even the elevator in the building as he rudely asks a poor old woman who requests him to stop smoking, to take the stairs! 

His wife Anjali (Ayesha Takia), sick and tired of his habit and refusal to quit plans on divorcing him. But so arrogant is K, that he throws attitude standing in front of the mirror, talking to his reflection: "Nobody..tells me..what to do!" ("Taxi Driver" anyone?). An old pal Abbas Tyrewala (Ranvir Shorey) who seems ill at ease and visibly troubled, runs into K and mentions that he had successfully kicked the butt, thanks to Shri Shri Prakash Guru Ghantal Baba Bangali Sealdah Wale (Paresh Rawal), a god-man at the helm of a rehabilitation center simply called Prayogshala (The Laboratory).

After an initial reluctance and after his wife actually leaves the house, K agrees to pay Baba Bangali a visit. And this is where things start to slip into a nightmarish universe. This Prayogshala is unlike anything you may have seen. It has a call center/customer care run by women clad in veils. Several levels beneath the floor of a ramshackle shanty, strangely equipped with a single hi-tech gizmo, a palm-print identification device, lies the Prayogshala inhabited by the sinister Baba Bangali and his strange looking team of men and women assistants.

K soon realizes that once you get inside the Laboratory, you can’t get out on your own free will. Baba Bangali will always be watching you. Baba Bangali’s method of curing the addict involves the mechanics of fear. The addict is threatened with dire consequences to himself or a loved one, every time he/she succumbs to the vice! 

As it turns out Baba Bangali keeps the entire record of the addict’s history of smoking and the knowledge of people close to him in VHS tapes archived in an old dusty library..! A twisted complex maze of a journey now commences; K’s De-addiction program, one that would defy rationale and threaten to change K’s life as he knows it, forever!

Anurag Kashyap astonishes from the initial few frames and does it with aplomb, kicking off the proceedings with a bizarre dream sequence set amidst snow-clad landscapes in Siberia. At the culmination of this dream, as the soldier prepares to shoot K, the latter asks him for matches to light his cigarette! Kashyap holds our attention for almost three-fourths of the film despite the far-fetched nature of the plot. There are some spectacularly quirky traits of the director in the film-making which is perhaps the first of its kind in Indian cinema. We see some comic strip like speech/thought balloons appearing on screen to indicate a character's thoughts in sequences where there is no dialog.

Adding to the idiosyncrasies are some flashback sequences filmed in some crude black and white cinematography, with equally old tunes playing in the background and an accompanying sitcom-like laugh track in some darkly hilarious flashbacks, a la "Natural Born Killers". The dark humour infused within is extremely clever and there are some subtle jabs at older Bollywood films as well. The best thing about these oddities is that they work remarkably well in the black comedy context of the film and add a special touch to the proceedings, almost never found in Indian cinema.

There are some even darker comic moments in sequences between Paresh Rawal and John Abraham in the first visit to the Prayogshala, also involving the meek little midget assistant (Chaurasiya, played by Zahir) of Rawal. Kashyap's use of surrealism and seemingly irrational situations is actually a sign of some great symbolism-heavy, intelligent writing. There is a lot of spiritual meaning to be deciphered from the jargon used in the film about sin, redemption, forgiveness, and freeing of the soul from the root of all evil!

There are other themes running about too, those of a personal freedom and the thwarting of it by a greater power; perhaps the dominance of society and censorship on artistic freedom? In a rather brilliant piece of writing, Rawal's character tells K that his fee from the huge amount of money being charged is only INR Re. 1, which he accepts only in cash! In the film’s terrifying culmination, some light is thrown on what this Re. 1 is actually intended for. "No Smoking" is filled with sequences which are an absolute delight for lovers of surrealist films. There are moments that will make one respect Kashyap’s panache for writing and his commendable imagination and creativity.

Sadly, where Kashyap disappoints slightly, is in his own handling of his brilliant script. Apart from most deftly executed sequences including the aforementioned, eccentric but unique touches, sometimes Kashyap loses his way and behaves rather clumsily with some of the material, especially in the last act. There were some sequences which could’ve been better filmed or at least better edited to save it from spiraling down to the nadir of incoherency! It is considerably clear what Kashyap is trying to say as a whole, and it is very much appropriate that he chooses not to spoon-feed the viewer. But if you have chosen to let the images speak instead of blatant words of explanation, then it is imperative that it be done with a kind of finesse to make the images rich or substantial enough for the viewer to derive a satisfying theory or multiple ones at that, in a manner convincing enough, if you sit down to dissect each scene.

And this shift to incoherence is so abrupt, that Kashyap seems to be in a hurry to transport the viewer to the shockingly unreal climax in a flash, even forgetting that the viewer needs to go there in a steadily paced fashion in order to grasp what he is trying to communicate. Kashyap, also, unfortunately resorts to an unnecessary cabaret performance filmed on Jesse Randhawa, that heavily slackens the pace and kills the urgency of the narrative! In fact, most of the scenes after this have some irritatingly misfit, jarring songs accompanying them, most with lyrics related to smoking that are sometimes quite funny to hear, and that really mar the quality of these sequences. One particularly shocking sequence involving the protagonist’s brother comes off as rather flippant and unintentionally comic thanks to the horribly misplaced song in the background! A better choice of ambient accompanying score or sound design could’ve rendered these sequences much more effective.

Technically the film excels, especially in the sound design, art direction and the cinematography department. John Abraham shines in a performance of a character tailor-made for him. He fits the arrogant K to the T, even in some demanding sequences. This is arguably his greatest performance so far. The plump Ayesha Takia who doubles up as K’s wife Anjali and also his buxom, Barbie-doll secretary (curve-enhancing wardrobe, gaudy lip gloss, spectacles, the works!), doesn't really get much to do except make sad faces while watching Steven Spielberg's holocaust drama "Schindler’s List" and putting heavy makeup on! Paresh Rawal chews the scenery in whatever few scenes he has and gets to mouth some of the best lines in the film. Special mention must be made of Ranvir Shorey for his fantastic performance, albeit in a tiny role, as K’s paranoid friend Abbas.

"No Smoking" is a solid effort from one of the few Indian filmmakers who dare to embark on a path devoid of conventionalism. As far as the handing is concerned, unfortunately, it falters somewhat. But the idea that is "No Smoking" is far too extraordinary to nitpick based on minor flaws of the craft. A few mistakes notwithstanding, Kashyap has made an important film, and I wish he and other Indian filmmakers take cue and make more films like these.

Score: A solid 8/10