Saturday, May 18, 2013

Killer Joe (2012)

Killer charm, Killer attitude, Killer instinct, "Killer Joe"! But it isn't just the eponymous character of "Killer Joe" (2012) that epitomizes everything that is killer, it is also this crackerjack of a dark comedy from old man William Friedkin who is back in terrific form with his recent masterwork that more than satisfies and earns him renewed respect from this reviewer!

Sure, the plot adapted from the Tracy Letts play is quite been there-done that noir kind of stuff; a plot reminiscent of early Coen Brothers flicks. But Friedkin still manages to make his film a cut above the rest in the crowd. A young punk Chris (Emile Hirsch) who owes some mean loan sharks a lot of money decides to get rid of his namesake mother Adele (Julia Adams) in the hopes of recovering $50,000 from her insurance, of which she has made her daughter Dottie (Juno Temple), the only beneficiary. And for doing this job he decides to hire 'Killer' Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) a cop who has a side business as a contract killer! It all seems too simple on paper, but dealing with the all-powerful Killer Joe is no mean feat! He has rules, and breaking them would mean knocking on death's door! What happens next is best left for the viewer to find out as the film's plot thickens, delivers relentless blows and knocks us out cold as we near its ultra-chaotic, explosive climax!

William Friedkin is in no mood to sugarcoat stuff. This is as brutal as it gets. There's stomach churning violence and some perverse sexuality with a rather unusual twist. Yet the film manages to induce loads of laughs, a nervous chuckle or two and makes sure the viewer has a satisfied smile on his/her face long after the film has ended. This is the kind of stuff that reminds one of Martin Scorsese's 90s flavor, particularly films like "Goodfellas" and "Casino" which showcased over-the-top violence and razor sharp dialog laced with laugh-out-loud hilarious dialog. Add to that the characters are mostly all loonies and weirdos right out of Bunuel's later surrealist works, with dialog that is either way too cleverly funny or absurdly comic and non sequitur. While the characters are all strange, they sometimes exhibit traits that make us connect with them and feel for them. It is these characters and their interactions that make the film much more enjoyable. Sure, some actions and decisions taken by the characters might raise a few eyebrows, but one look at these broken, trailer trash characters, and you would seriously not wonder so much. It is their fragility that makes them act that way. What takes place is far from unconvincing and we simply go along with it, waiting with bated breath as to where it would lead, despite some inherent predictabilities in the narrative.

"Killer Joe" is mostly a performance-driven film. The magnificent display of acting chops from the cast playing the characters is one of the stand-out facets of the film. Emile Hirsch is outstanding as the young lad who is in debt. His predicament inhibits his ability to think straight and his confusion is palpable. He also gets to mouth some of the choicest lines in the film. Thomas Haden Church with his ape-like facial hair and dumb gaze plays the stupid guy Ansel to the T. He trusts anyone and everyone and he seriously looks the part! 

The two leading ladies are even better. Gina Gershon who has always been a tremendous actress, unfortunately left behind among her peers owing to acting in mostly bad films, delivers one of the strongest performances in this film. She looks hot and plays the part of the manipulating, slutty step mother with conviction. A great performance indeed! 

And then there's Juno Temple. Words are not enough to describe this performance of an emotionally troubled young, coy virgin, who believes she was in true love in her third grade with a little fat kid. They never met in isolation, they never spoke about it, and therefore it was true love! In one of the film's funniest aspects she keeps reiterating that he was fat!  It is one funny as well as sad story in her life, that gives way to some developments in the story of the film. Temple is so amazingly natural, the facial expressions, the Southern accent (being an English actress), the mannerisms, everything! Your heart breaks when you see her sob upon realizing that her family is up to something and she'd been kept in the dark about it. Real gem of a performance there.

Which brings us to the leading man, Matthew McConaughey, the star of this enterprise with his godly performance as Joe 'Killer' Cooper. The handsome actor exudes a suave charm with his smooth-talking ways, his kindly mannerisms, his genuine affection and almost in the same breath turns into a fire-breathing, violent, maniacal monster and subjects his audiences to a shock treatment of another kind! One of the finest lead performances of recent times, this is quite possibly McConaughey's career best performance.

Making a unique motion picture out of a done-to-death story is one of the major achievements of "Killer Joe". It is the wonderful script and its unapologetic nature, the interesting motley of characters portrayed with strong performances, a strange mix of vile as well as funny events especially towards the insane, jaw-dropping climax full of madness and mayhem, not to mention the gorgeous cinematography, are primarily responsible for making "Killer Joe" an absolute winner. 

At the ripe age of 75 William FRIEDkin has given Fried Chicken an entirely new meaning and delivered a near-masterpiece! Do not miss "Killer Joe"! It is wicked fun...finger-lickin' good! 

Score: 9/10


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Don't Tell (La Bestia Nel Cuore) (2005)

Cristina Comencini's "Don’t Tell" (2005) (aka "The Beast in the Heart" aka "La bestia nel cuore") was nominated for an Oscar at the 78th Academy awards! One wonders if there were very few quality films made that year, what with Paul Haggis' strictly average "Crash" (2005) being named the "Best Picture"! This isn't to say "Don’t Tell" is awful, but it certainly is not worthy of appearing in the final five shortlist. Cristina Comencini who also wrote the screenplay based on her own novel probably got a little confused on what to include in the film version and what not to.

Sabina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) is a dubbing artist for movies, while her boyfriend Franco (Alessio Boni) is a struggling actor who would rather do serious stuff like theater or good films, but is forced to act in a very cheesy TV show. Sabina is haunted by nightmares of something bad happening to her when she was a child; perhaps sexual abuse at the hands of her father! Only she has no real memory of her childhood and sometimes her best friend, a blind lesbian Emilia (Stefania Rocca) tells her stories of the old days, but they all seem to indicate that hers was a normal childhood. In an attempt to seek more answers to such deviant nightmares, Sabina decides to take leave for a considerable while to visit her estranged older brother Daniele (Luigi Lo Cascio), now a professor in a university in the USA. Daniele is happily married to an American woman Anne (Lucy Akhurst) and is blessed with two sons. In the end several answers are provided, which don’t come across as very earth shattering, thanks to a clear lack of focus on the storytelling and an unnecessary digression into territories that are meaningless as far as the context of the film is concerned!

Almost for the entire first hour and more, it is somewhat difficult to put your finger on the actual plot of Comencini's sorrowful tale. The supporting characters seem to divert our attention to them with their subplots that are sometimes interesting but not at the cost of losing our way from the primary story that seems to be Sabina's! There's a whole lot of different angles as to the feelings and emotions of the multitude of characters. This includes Emilia's secret (?) attraction to her closest friend Sabina. One wonders if perhaps she is as close as she is to Sabina out of her romantic attraction for her! Then there's Sabina's older colleague Maria (Angela Finocchiaro) whose 50-something husband dumps her for a young girl who happens to be Maria's daughter's friend, no less! Not to mention, Franco's associations from his TV show shooting, the comely Anita (Francesca Inaudi) who, not surprisingly, falls for Franco and the comical director Negri (Giuseppe Battiston) who strikes an instant friendship with Franco!

Comencini goofs up spending way too much time on the events in the lives of these supporting characters so much so that one feels there's  a connection to the main thread of the story, but sadly there isn't! In an entirely unnecessary subplot, Emilia and the bi-curious Maria get involved with each other in a romantic affair that seems very hollow and superficial to begin with, thanks to Maria’s character providing a lot of comic relief, and rendering her feelings for Emilia far from genuine. Also unnecessary and rather predictable is how Franco gets seduced by the visibly attractive Anita, despite his immense love for Sabina. It all eventually leads us to a rather contrived climax that takes place after a substantial time leap when all relationships portrayed thus far somehow attain a closure; or do they!?

What is especially tepid is the manner in which some important revelations are made during Sabina’s visit to Daniele's place. In a spectacularly acted but slightly melodramatic scene, Daniele pours his heart out to Sabina about what really happened when they were kids. The final conclusion to Daniele’s story ends up like a fizzled out firecracker when it should actually hit us and have a cathartic effect. This, coupled with some more comical scenes towards the end, juxtaposed against a visibly disturbing climactic scene in a train compartment, tend to leave the viewer slightly unaffected due to the rather trivial and non-serious handling. Comencini's central plot had potential and a little more serious cinematic handling of the material could've given "Don’t Tell" an edge and an intensity that it lacks for the kind of subject it deals with. Blame it on the storytelling but we simply fail to connect with the characters as much as we actually should in this kind of a film.

However, Comencini almost gets it right in constructing a watchable film, that nevertheless manages to hold our attention thanks to some fine moments of drama, even if as an overall product, the film fails to achieve its goals and puts up a façade of profundity. "Don’t Tell" also boasts of some remarkably convincing performances. The best performance, hands down, belongs to Giovanna Mezzogiorno with her uninhibited, genuine display of emotions. Also remarkable is Stefania Rocca's blind act as well as Angela Finocchiaro's performance with a touch of humour. Luigi Lo Cascio makes a strong impression in his brief appearance as well.

A noteworthy aspect that stands out is the filming of the silent dream sequences in which we can see the actors move their lips but cannot hear dialog; perhaps an indicator of them being distant, fading, or unclear memories. These scenes and the startlingly surreal visions Sabina has during the aforementioned train compartment sequence are well executed. If only this consistency was retained in the rest of the narrative, "Don’t Tell" would be a much better film. Someone like Pedro Almodovar who has a knack for telling stories laced with soap operatic elements would've done a significantly better job. But in Comencini's hands, the film, despite a powerful central theme, while trying to be disturbing and ambitious, ends up looking like a mini soap opera, replete with mawkish sentimentality and a fake schmaltzy background score to top it up ! A fairly engaging mini soap opera at that, but nothing more.

Score: 7/10

Friday, May 3, 2013

Harakiri (Seppuku) (1962)

When it came to the Japanese Samurai culture, this humble reviewer, like many others, has hitherto been feeding on some epic cinema that has always glorified the Samurai clan. The Samurai have most often come across as these larger than life, valiant warriors, steadfast individuals, heroes who live and die by their Samurai Bushido code and show no mercy on the battlefield. And then comes along Masaki Kobayashi’s masterpiece, which completely turns this belief on its head. The other side of this magnificent figure that we have come to idolize is unveiled in a most brutal, gut-wrenching piece of cinema that is "Harakiri" (AKA "Seppuku") (1962).

The title refers to the Japanese ritual in which a Samurai commits suicide by disemboweling himself with the stab of his own blade/weapon. This was a practice adopted by the Samurai in order to die with full honor, either to save themselves from falling into the hands of the enemy in case of certain defeat, or as a means of redemption from a shame brought upon them, or as a capital punishment for unforgiveable offenses!

It all begins one day in the summer of 1630 (era: Feudal Japan), when a wandering, destitute ex-warrior (Ronin), Tsugumo Hanshiro (Tatsuya Nakadai) arrives at the doorstep of the estate of the Iyi Clan, in order to die by Seppuku, rather than live in poverty. Those were the peaceful times, when the warriors had nothing left to do but earn a meager livelihood doing menial jobs. Tsugumo meets with the Hon. Elder, Saito Kageyu (Rentaro Mikuni) of the Iyi clan, who tells him the story of the fate of another hapless ronin, Chijiwa Motome (Akira Ishihama), from the same clan as Tsugumo, who had come to them with the same intentions not very long ago. In those days, there were stories of some shamed Samurai feigning their wish to perform Seppuku, hoping to be offered some pittance or alms and being asked to move on. There had been known cases of the sort that brought disgrace to the revered Samurai reputation. The Iyi clan, with a determination to change this trend, had set an example of Chijiwa, who had shown some visible cowardice when actually asked to perform the ritual rather than offered alms. Despite Chijiwa’s pleas to be given more time, he was forced by the men of Iyi clan to stand by his word and die by Seppuku, with his fake bamboo blades no less, for cowardliness is unforgiveable for a Samurai!

An unperturbed Hanshiro hears Hon. Elder out and assures him that he has no such intentions of chickening out. Hanshiro seems quite determined too as his cold, zombie-like demeanor speaks volumes of his unshakeable will. But just as the ceremony is about to begin, Hanshiro makes a rather unusual request that changes the shape of things to come and how!

Masaki Kobayashi’s treatment of the story is commendable. His masterful storytelling of Shinobu Hashimoto’s intricately constructed screenplay launches an emotional attack on the viewer. And it isn’t a sudden, but a deliberately paced, tortuous attack that grabs you by the guts, slowly soaks you in a cauldron of tragedy, and leaves you out, emotionally drained! Right from the first frame, Kobayashi takes complete charge and successfully keeps us transfixed, so that we get fully involved in the proceedings. He taps the non-linear narrative in the most effective way so as to play with the viewer’s emotions and judging powers. The great deceiver that he is, he first makes us adhere to one side and then resorts to game-changing moves that make us regret our initial thought process by exposing the façade that shrouds reality!

You watch in awe as the story takes some unwelcome turns, all of them powerful enough to jab you where it hurts. What happens on screen is not always pleasant. There is doom lurking about in every corner of Kobayashi’s universe, but it is a necessity in order to put forth the bold statement that is being made via this film about how pride and honour blind the very essence of humanity! Is pride worth more than a human being? How far should one go to protect the honour of something governed by a code that is dictated by man himself? What some other masters like Akira Kurosawa showed us was the heroism of the Samurai. What Kobayashi shows us is that these heroes are, in the end, mortal human beings. In the face of death and disease, even the toughest warrior can be forced to succumb. But does that render him disgraced? In one powerful scene, Tsugumo curses the possession of his blade and denounces it as a worthless symbol! This is not just about the Samurai. It is about any religion/cult/sect in general, and the bodies that govern them. Principles, norms, codes of conduct carry no meaning when it comes to a human being stripped down to his most basic need of survival!

The black and white cinematography, combined with Kobayashi’s use of slow, calculated, gliding camera movements across closed spaces and long hallways, makes the viewer feel like a spirit floating around, being part of the heartrending story that unfolds. The rather strange, traditional but eerie background score further enhances this feeling. Every frame oozes an extraordinary brilliance. The duel in the windy landscapes of the plains of Gojin-in is surreal, beautifully shot and simply awe-inspiring! 

There’s not a single wasted moment here, right up to the jaw-dropping, explosive finale. The climax is also reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa's magnificent "Throne of Blood" (1957) and one can’t help but think that Brian De Palma has taken considerable inspiration to craft the bloody climatic mayhem in his "Scarface" (1983) from this film! And how can a film like this make its mark without sound, believable performances! Kobayashi leaves nothing for naysayers to nitpick on. The performances are all applause-worthy, with Tatsuya Nakadai ruling the roost in one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema that is, quite shockingly, hardly talked about. The magnificent actor displays a whole gamut of emotions, sometimes reminding us of his cold, ruthless act in "The Sword of Doom" (1966) and then doing an about turn and displaying an utterly human side of him! Those eyes and that voice carry a weight that is palpable! 

It is rare to come across films so vast as this, not in its length, but in its spirit. It is rare to have a winning combination of both a partially minimal style as well as loads of substance. "Harakiri" (1962) is a phenomenal, intense film that exposes the hypocrisy of the Feudal Japanese clan system in its naked entirety; a shattering film experience that will leave you overwhelmed and paralyzed long after it has ended.

Score: 10/10