Thursday, November 28, 2013

Chinese Roulette (1976)

***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.***

The universe in German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder's bizarre psychological drama "Chinese Roulette" is rather unnerving. In a fantastic opening sequence, a woman and her daughter listen to Gustav Mahler's 8th Symphony while drolly exchanging deadpan stares and looking out the window. Only one word is uttered by the woman, Ariane Christ (Margit Cartensen) after she lights her cigarette…"Nice?" and soon after, a few others interrupt by joining in, and the ethereal music abruptly ends! The opening sequence is a kind of teaser to what's to follow in this strange Gothic thriller of sorts with some of the most ambiguous characters and character interactions one is likely to witness in a seemingly normal scheme of things in a story set in a normal world.

It is the home of wealthy business mogul Gerhard Christ (Alexander Allerson) who resides with his crippled daughter Angela (Andrea Schober) and his wife Ariane. Angela has a mute governess Traunitz (Macha Meril) to take care of her. Gerhard is off on a business trip (or is he?) and soon as he reaches the airport, instead of catching a flight, he rushes to welcome his lover Irene (Anna Karina) in a warm embrace!

Ensuring that his wife and daughter would be away somewhere else, Gerhard takes Irene to his plush mansion in an isolated location, looked after by a sinister looking Kast (Brigitte Mira) and her sexually ambivalent son Gabriel (Volker Spengler). But little do they know, there is a rather unpleasant surprise awaiting them in the form of Ariane and her lover Kolbe (Ulli Lommel), Gerhard's assistant who unbeknownst to them also land up at the same mansion for some private time together..! The situation reaches the most uncomfortable levels with the entry of Angela and Traunitz into the scene and a rather intriguing face-off ensues…

While one would expect the proceedings to take a melodramatic turn with confrontational scenes between the couple engaged in their own adulterous liaisons, Fassbinder surprises with a rather odd turn of events that guarantee an exceptional film viewing experience. It is rather unsettling how the two couples clearly caught with their pants down laugh it off and shake hands after the initial shock quickly settles down! They even sit together at a dinner table, exchange anecdotes, but a palpable sense of discomfort and tension fills the environment. The minimalist but taut screenplay keeps the viewer in anticipation of what's to come. How would this possibly end? How will the couple react after this initial display of stoicism to their partners' love affairs? The entry of Angela and Traunitz to the ménage a quatre makes things more complicated and add to the intrigue.

But it is not just the plot and the direction subsequently taken by it that is solely responsible for keeping the viewer hooked. It is the strangely fascinating characters, all with an air of mystery about them, all ambiguous to the core, and none that could warranty a full-fledged dissection for clarity! Of course, the intention isn't such. The ambiguity is the focal point here. The interactions are equally oddball with some delicious non sequiturs. This is the kind of family that looks happy on the outside but harbours dark secrets within and lives on assumptions!

So it is no surprise when Angela reveals the kind of feelings she has about the whole business of her parents being party to illicit relationships. We never get a sense of what kind of person each character really is but do know that there is much more to them than meets the eye. And hence Fassbinder repeatedly chooses a clever device of filming his characters from behind glass columns or in mirrors, giving off a fractured, distorted image of each person. Sometimes the angles chosen are such that faces seem to split or merge.

None of the characters are entirely likeable and all of them seem to share questionable relationships, even the most apparently innocuous twosome of the lot, Angela and her governess Traunitz! In a blink-and-miss tiny bit, a blind beggar appears at the door and later it is revealed that he wasn't blind at all, and then drives off in his car parked on the other side! This might seem rather vague and unrelated, but it fits well within the context of how appearances are deceptive and the entire world is living under some kind of illusion.

The setting of the film is such that makes it resemble a gothic ghost story. The huge mansion, rich paraphernalia and decoration, luxurious liquor cabinets, empty surroundings, a view from the window showcasing a refreshing green world, yet there is something inherently bleak about this whole atmosphere. In one scene, the camera pans from the idyllic surroundings and the greens and then stops by a rotting, maggot-infested head of a stag. This perhaps serves as a reminder that all things that seem beautiful eventually die an ugly death!

The ominous aura in "Chinese Roulette" is intensified with lyrical combinations of imagery and poetry like in the instance Angela starts quoting the works of Rimbaud or when Gabriel is reading from his manuscript while the foursome look visibly perturbed. The drama rife with hypnotic imagery and an eclectic score as a fitting accompaniment, is enhanced by clever dialog and brilliant all-round acting. It would be unfair to single out a particular actor when all of them deliver to the fullest, yet Brigitte Mira as Kast and Margit Carstensen as Ariane leave a bigger impression with their stupendous acts.  On the able shoulders of these fine actors, "Chinese Roulette" builds to a startling climax with a titular game of Chinese Roulette in the third act that promises to be a game-changing event, literally! And with an ending more equivocal than the characters, Fassbinder throws a curve ball, yet leaves us with a content smile of having seen something thought-provoking and extraordinary.

Score: 9/10


Monday, November 18, 2013

The Hunt (Jagten) (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.***

Thomas Vinterberg's "The Hunt" (2012) is set in a small Danish village, a self-sufficient universe where the population is sparse, and all the townsfolk seem to know each other pretty well. It is a quaint little neighbourhood, where the state of affairs is calmer and quieter than the serene and picturesque surroundings that these individuals are graced with. It is the kind of small town where people have grown up together, known each other for years and hence share a very strong bond. The village then, is like a family in itself.

The protagonist, Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is one such member of this community, a well-respected, friendly, trusted individual, who is separated from his wife but is happy that his teenaged son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm) would be joining him soon. A former teacher at school, he is now working in a nursery for kids with Grethe (Susse Wold). The amicable Lucas is quite popular with the kids. He actually becomes one of them, has fun and frolics around with them. He clearly enjoys his job and the healthy interaction with the children. What’s more, his beautiful colleague Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport) expresses a strong interest in him and life seems to be going great guns for Lucas.

Little does he know though, that his life is about to be turned upside down, when one of the kids, a young girl Klara (Annika Wedderkopp, in a stupendous performance), who also happens to be his best friend Theo's (Thomas Bo Larsen) daughter makes a rather vague statement about Lucas that hints at sexual abuse, over his minor, but justified snub!

Vinterberg's film paints a rather scary, but accurate picture of the cataclysmic effects of a tiny lie, especially if it comes from a child. For the uninitiated, it may seem a bit too far-fetched and contrived when Grethe, the nursery supervisor instantly believes Klara's obviously vague story and gets help from a child psychologist who throws Klara off balance with his leading and uncomfortable questions. 

Only it is common knowledge that there is a widespread belief that a child can never lie, especially about inappropriate conduct from an adult! Apparently, there is no way a child can make up all those things, for its fragile little mind is simply not capable. But is that really the truth? What of those mischievous teens or even some parents who are careless with what they say or do in front of their kids? We are shown early on, how Klara's vulnerable little mind is polluted with her brother's flippant act of exposing her to porn, even if for a split second! Klara's lie contains fragments of that careless but affecting exposure to something that a child of her age isn't ready for. What's worse is, even if later, she retracts her statement, it is considered as denial from fear of having said or done something awful!

Vinterberg hits the bull's eye when it comes to child psychology and the adults' seemingly inadequate ways of understanding this psychology! Klara clearly doesn't realize the gravity of her implication or the magnitude of the possible devastation her accusation is capable of giving way to. But given her innocence and difficulty in comprehending these matters, there is no way one could possibly reason with her. The situation, of course, goes out of hand, all hell breaks loose, and Lucas gradually becomes a victim of mass hysteria. All his trusted friends and loyalists turn their backs on him. He becomes an outcast, with even Theo refusing to believe him.

Vinterberg very precisely portrays how a lack of clarity can mushroom into grapevines stemming from frivolous assumptions. And hence, even though Klara initially makes broken and unclear statements, the sane adults do the job of filling the gaps and forming their own sordid stories of Lucas' non-existent evil deeds. Other children follow suit and possibly out of confusion or because of words being put into their mouths, make similar accusations! In such a state, Lucas is left to fend for himself, with only his son Marcus and one friend Bruun (Lars Ranthe) standing by his side to help him.

Mads Mikkelsen portrays the angst of a broken man with a restrained but superlative performance. The anxiety shows on his face, but the awareness of his innocence keeps his spirit intact and he tries not to react in a way that would destroy his chances at exoneration. His character reactions are as realistic as they get except in one tiny bit in a church mass. Noteworthy is the scene in which he is thrown out of a grocery store with physical violence. Lucas never raises a finger when hit. "You can’t hit someone like that", he keeps saying. After all, he still behaves like a civilized individual while the so-called morally upright men, the self-proclaimed upholders of a virtuous society around him resort to fists! It is only when they refuse to let him take his groceries that he finally decides to use the physical strength that he possesses.

"The Hunt" showcases Thomas Vinterberg's firm command on the narrative in a film that is well-written and well-shot. Apart from being a tense, gripping drama, Vinterberg's film is a remarkable study of herd mentality and how unwarranted rumours can permanently destroy an innocent man's immaculate reputation. It is also a very important wakeup call and a cautionary tale of sorts for parents. You can never be too careful with children, but what you expose your children to, even unknowingly and how they perceive it is an extremely delicate matter and needs a lot of investment of thought.

The immensely satisfying culmination hints at one of two things. No matter how innocent a man is in the eyes of the law, some individuals will always believe that he is guilty and that he got away with his crime. Thus, he will never be completely vindicated. Or perhaps, it means, that it doesn't matter that the incident is far behind, or that life has moved on and people have grown up and accepted him in the society again. The psychological damage is irreversible and the trauma lives on. The man will always be watching over his shoulder, with a feeling of being hunted for the rest of his life!

Score: 9/10


Monday, November 11, 2013

The Good Road (2013)

***NOTE: The following analysis/review may contain MILD SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film.***

First things first. Writer director Gyan Correa, with his Gujarati language film "The Good Road" (2013) does one thing right. He makes a sincere attempt to make an honest-to-goodness Indian film. This is as Indian as it gets when it comes to modern cinema. No pseudo western wannabe stuff here. No glamour. No big filthy rich kids all resembling Greek Gods and Goddesses, going out on foreign holidays, the kind an average Indian can never even dream of affording. No song and dance, no musical montages, no sugarcoating, no goofy nonsense.

It is rather, a long trip down the rustic landscapes of the countryside in the Indian state of Gujarat. The titular good road, is the seemingly endless highway on which our primary characters traverse their possibly life changing and lesson learning journeys.

A couple from Mumbai on a holiday to Gujarat lose their son on the highway during a brief halt. A strapped for cash trucker and his young apprentice are up to something illegal, possibly to pull off an insurance scam. A little girl who's set out alone to seek her grandmother finds herself in the midst of a sleazy world of child prostitution!

It is a great idea on paper, at least, to make for a fine road movie with multiple story threads. Alas, Gyan Correa squanders the potential and fails to make the best of an interesting idea, eventually delivering a script so half-baked and ludicrous, it is impossible to take any of the developments seriously. The couple played by familiar faces Ajay Gehi and Sonali Kulkarni seem so indifferent to their son's presence (or lack thereof), that they don't find out that their son has stepped out of the vehicle at a dhaba (a highway eatery), until they have traveled several hundred kilometers ahead, leaving their son behind! Gyan Correa probably wanted to portray the modern Indian couple's inherent neglect for their children, but this is a bit too far-fetched to digest. Wonder why a farcical premise such as that used in "Home Alone" (1990) has to make its way into a tale that is trying to be serious and realistic.

While this is just one of the instances of the mediocrity of the script, there are several others that stand out. This includes the most unconvincing character reactions to situations at hand. The lost son of the couple strikes a bond with the truckers and seems completely at ease. The calm and complete lack of any kind of panic on the child's visage is simply unforgivable! If such events will have you staring with disbelief, there are also some gaping inconsistencies in the proceedings. The local policeman asks one of the parents to stay at the police station while the son is found. The mother decides to stay back, while the father accompanies a constable on his bike to the original location of their halt which now suddenly seems to be way too far away, taking forever to reach! And the mother, while asked to stay back, decides to venture off on her own across the Rann of Kutch to find her son on the suggestion of some locals!

With such huge suspension of disbelief expected on part of the viewer, it is impossible to appreciate the script or connect with the characters and the film in general, apart from a few facets that manage to somewhat satisfy. It is the little girl Poonam and her story that shines brightest. Her endearing presence adds an extra charm to her tale and the mire she lands herself in makes us feel for this one character. She is just too sweet and innocent to even realize what she has gotten herself into, until in one disturbing as well as heartbreaking scene, it is spelled out to her in the coldest manner, amid foul-mouthed underage girls selling their skin! While this story piques our interest the most, Correa chooses to leave it on the backburner and doesn't do much with it, as much as he does with the other two stories. Poonam's story doesn't build in a way it should've, with a more substantial background. Nor does it have a particularly intriguing aftermath either.

The acting leaves a lot to be desired too. Shamji Dhana Kerasia as the poker-faced trucker Pappu recites lines of dialog like he is appearing for an oral examination! Keval Katrodia as Aditya, the son, just utters some dialog of annoyance and breaks into a patriotic song very old for any boy of his age to even know. Established Marathi film and Bollywood actress Sonali Kulkarni is underutilized and Ajay Gehi doesn't really do anything to make things any better. It is only the discombobulated face of little Poonam Kesar Singh that haunts you. That innocence and sweetness defines her performance. Although an ordinary face in the crowd, it is Poonam that stays with you the most. Another ordinary face that breathes some good life into his performance is Priyank Upadhyay as Pappu's assistant.

"The Good Road" has a good heart. It also has some fine cinematography by Amitabha Singh that captures rural Gujarat in a very appealing manner, despite giving it the look of a documentary shot on location in the state of Gujarat. The long, calm and empty road underneath the brightly shining sun gives you a feel of relaxation akin to a siesta on a hot summer afternoon under a tree in a swinging hammock. The score sometimes switches from the diegetic sounds to lilting Gujarati folk music. Unfortunately, the pluses aren't enough to salvage the film as a whole. The film could've, however, majorly benefited from a stronger script devoid of the holes and contrivances, and able, convincing performances. Earth-shattering events that give way to contrivances aren't always a necessity in a script. Sometimes, there is a greater advantage in keeping it simple. Gyan Correa misses a golden opportunity of making a genuine Indian road movie of sorts, with an aptly earthy feel as well as earthy, real characters. Too bad for that.

Score: 5/10

Monday, November 4, 2013

Guilty of Romance (2011)

Sion Sono completes his "Hate Trilogy" with yet another brutal onslaught of sex, murder and madness with his 2011 film, "Guilty of Romance". Only this time, Sono decides to borrow elements from Luis Bunuel's classic "Belle De Jour" (1967), strips it of all its ingenious storytelling and subtlety, throws in a grisly murder mystery and copious amounts of sex along with poetic ramblings and some Kafka! Does Sono make the best of all the elements in this final installment?

We open with a rather familiar murder scene one rainy night with Det. Yoshida (Miki Mizuno) being called in to a crime scene where there are two bodies found, which are part human, part mannequin! The severed members of the corpses are replaced with their mannequin counterparts and sewn together! The bodies are found in some shady location in the love-hotel district, which is a haven for lovers looking for a short sexual romp.

As the mystery of the ugly crime unfolds, a parallel narrative flashes back to the story of Izumi played by the gorgeous Megumi Kagurazaka, a sexually repressed, insomniac, submissive wife of a famous novelist Yukio Kikuchi (Kanji Tsuda), who suffers from a strange kind of OCD. He wants his indoor slippers placed in an exact position by his bed and at the door, for instance, and expects his wife to do the needful each time, failing which she may be subject to a scolding, just like that one instance when she places the wrong soap in the bathroom! Every time he leaves his house, the two exchange a fixed set of words. "Off I go then" followed by her peep, "Have a nice day".

Life goes on, until, with the approval of the weird husband, Izumi takes up a job at a local supermarket selling hot sausages. She is later discovered by a lady who is impressed with her drop dead gorgeous anatomy and offers her a modeling job. It is not strictly a modeling job as we later learn. The modeling is just a façade, beneath the innocuous exterior of which, possibly lies a seedy world of pornography. 

In no time, the meek, shy housewife experiences a sexual awakening, gives consent to all the exploitation at the modeling agency, and turns into a wild sexpot who soon offers herself to her supermarket customers for some bodily pleasure! Izumi is now all happy and radiant, with her newfound secret life, while at home the same old mundane routine with the hubby continues! Soon, another woman named Mitsuko (Makoto Togashi), who's also leading a double life, meets Izumi and introduces her to a world in the darkest, most morally depraved corners of the city. Izumi follows her mentor Mitsuko, as she begins to get drawn in by her twisted philosophy only to discover some bitter truths about her existence.

It all sounds fairly interesting on paper, but unfortunately, "Guilty of Romance", not only has a misleading title, but it also suffers from a lack of focus, especially in the latter half. What starts as an interesting psychological drama focusing on a sexually repressed woman and her transgression to a new awakening, a la "Belle De Jour", turns into a sickening exercise in gratuitous sex and nudity that rambles on and refuses to go to any great distances except hover around its own maze of contrivance and ultimately loses its way. Sono, being a former poet, adds some poetic and philosophical touch about words and language; like words have no meaning until they are flesh! Mitusko's other ramblings dwell upon the importance of the body and how it has value. Nothing comes free! That helps as a driving force in establishing how prostitution is a respectable profession! 

Sono keeps us wondering as to where the film is really headed. He successfully engages the viewer in trying to connect the dots of multiple threads of the story, waiting in anticipation, as Izumi's world moves from nude modeling to prostitution. Literary references to Kafka's "The Castle" as something unattainable are added to the mix of the journeys of Mitsuko and Izumi. Sadly, it doesn't really shape up into something substantial and satisfying as it should have. There definitely seems to be something missing here.

Sono's storytelling style that is usually episodic takes us to the last chapter, the End of Story, to a culmination that brings in some additional characters and new twists to the story, including a resolution of the aforementioned murder mystery. But these twists, while could be considerably disturbing for first timers, and although arrived at with some fine edge and a pulse-like war-drum score, aren't half as surprising or exciting for audiences familiar with Asian horror/thrillers. As a matter of fact they border on the brink of manipulation and hence an inherent pretense shows in the deadly twist of a forced act of violence in a rather clumsy way to wrap up the proceedings!

Despite all its narrative flaws, Sono's "Guilty of Romance" does deserve points for his filmmaking finesse, nevertheless, and also for his excellent sense of atmospherics. A string score evoking melancholy and a sense of tragedy complements the neon lit seedy underbelly of Shibuya, Tokyo. The special makeup effects pertaining to the crime scene are realistically done to the extent of being nauseating! And there is a special sexualized homage to Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" (1976), one of the turning points of the film.

Megumi Kagurazaka does her best and delivers a daring performance, but one can't help but think how exploitative it was in her unabashed skin show and sex scenes. After a point her periodic humping gets somewhat tiring! Kanji Tsuda delivers an aptly deadpan act as the uninterested, weirdo novelist. But the performance that shines the most is of Makoto Togashi. Her transformation from a university lecturer by day to a ravishing seductress by night (offering herself to her students too!) is nothing short of brilliant! Those eyes and voice do a roundabout in an almost scary fashion, as if like a woman possessed!

Sono reduced the film length by approximately 30 minutes from the original cut which is apparently available only in Japan right now. Due to a lack of good subtitles for a rip of the longer version, this reviewer had to resort to viewing the more accessible abridged international cut, which is also the version Sono himself prefers. Apparently, there is a parallel story about detective Yoshida as well, in the longer cut. Whether the international cut improves upon or ruins the original Japanese cut remains to be seen. But as long as this version is concerned, Sono's filmmaking talent is very much in place but the script leaves a lot to be desired. With someone like Sion Sono, one would expect something called as a "Hate Trilogy" to climax with a bang. Too bad, though, that it had to end with a mild thump instead.

Score: 7/10