Thursday, February 20, 2014

They Live (1988)

"I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum". A revisiting of John Carpenter's cult classic "They Live" (1988) is as joyful as the gusto with which Roddy Piper's character of John Nada mouths these lines. And sure enough the beefed up jock protagonist and his buddy Frank (Keith David) kick some major ass in the film!

For all those familiar with the John Carpenter breed of cinema, "They Live" is as good as it gets in the 80s! A repetitive score with a thick bass and harmonica composed by the filmmaker himself fills the air as the quintessential body builder backpacker drifter hero (Roddy Piper, the star of Wrestlemania!) complete with long blonde hair and denim threads makes his entry on the streets of L.A. Soon he gets a job as a construction worker, befriends another muscle man Frank (Keith David, always excellent), and then pretty soon senses something fishy while walking around the camp for homeless labourers where he is put up.

It is a matter of time before he stumbles upon a startling discovery, a box full of sunglasses, that make the wearer see the real world, in which the members of the ruling class, law enforcers, and big corporate honchos, TV show hosts are all actually ugly aliens, their faces resembling those of decomposing corpses, disguised as humans....or as Nada describes in one epic scene "Formaldehyde-face"! 

Upon wearing the glasses one can see the true face of the world; all mass media including banners, hoardings, TV channels, magazines are actually the sources of subliminal messages that ask hypnotized citizens to obey, consume and conform to authority. The world is all black and white while the real, all colour happy world is an illusion! 

Turns out the aliens have a masterplan that thrives on exploiting the working class. But a group is onto their plan, and they are, little by little, creating an army, a resistance movement that's on a mission to put an end to the alien menace.

"They Live" provides a clever twist to the apocalyptic tales Carpenter has churned out before. It has a super fantastic concept at its center and while Carpenter doesn't fully flesh it out like one would expect, he delivers a sumptuous blend of horror, sci-fi, comedy, satire and even Ed Wood Jr. style B-film aesthetics in the form of devices like tub-shaped flying saucers and teleporting devices in the form of wrist watches! 

So expect a good amount of well written scenes, including a familiar device of a priest's ominous, prophetic ramblings about an impending doom, and oft interrupted TV signals that are replaced with warning messages about them

And those who miss the good old fist fights, there is an almost five minute long fist fight sequence between the two heroes following an argument about wearing sunglasses! This part may be a little trying but it is fun nevertheless. 

The initial discovery part of the whole alien conspiracy is the best part of the film, and it is followed by the crackdown which although heart-thumping and action packed is filled with typical action movie cliches. Nonetheless, a substantial amount of twists and turns are thrown in to keep one on the edge, and there's a good bit of humour to ensure comedic entertainment. 

Sample these awesome lines:

Nada: "I am giving you a choice: either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can."
Frank: "Not this year!"

While the above description may give the viewer an impression that this is a superficial sci-fi action comedy film, rest assured, the undertones that the film's concept comes with will leave you surprised! "They Live" is a solid slab of subversive cinema that revels in its eighties aesthetics (including a macho hero and fitting soundtrack for such a persona), and deliberate campiness and yet delivers a strong allegorical story that takes jibes at consumerism, the capitalist economy and the ruling class. 

All those at the authoritative positions are deemed as masked individuals blinding the working class and exploiting them through subtle mind control. Covering one's eyes with the special glasses in fact, makes the blind see reality! Find also a blink-and-miss self reference to John Carpenter himself in a scene that takes a veiled dig at Siskel and Ebert.

Performances are mostly middling. While Piper makes for a good commanding presence, his acting and dialog delivery leave a lot to be desired despite getting to mouth some of the best lines. Meg Foster appears with her famous eyes, makeup accentuated, and wears but one expression throughout the film. It is Keith David that shines in his bit part as usual!

There are few films that will guarantee a fun-filled ninety minutes without insulting the viewers' intelligence. "They Live" is one of them. It provides an eclectic mix of various genres and also has an extremely interesting and original concept at its center. Rediscover this film now! This is a surefire entertainer for the entire family.

Score: 8/10


Friday, February 14, 2014

Borgman (2013)

This disturbing little Dutch sleeper creeps up quite surreptitiously and affects your mind to numbing effects much like the eponymous lead character of this flabbergasting film does to his hapless victims.

In a rather strange and almost surreal opening sequence we see a bearded vagrant by the name of Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) being hunted and chased out of his underground lair by two men, a dog and a priest with a shotgun! There are a couple more drifters as we find out. 

Obviously there is an answer to why the priest is hunting Camiel down, but director Alex Van Warmerdam is a sly genius who will never give you straight answers to this shocking beginning. He will only start unleashing his series of clues, as the main plot unfolds when Camiel escapes from the dense woods into a nice bourgeois locality, like a beast thrown out from his comfort zone, and into the urban lands. 

Much like any home invasion film, a la Michael Haneke's sadistic "Funny Games" (1997), this rather smooth-talking wanderer gains entry into the home of the beautiful Marina (Hadewych Minis) and her TV producer husband Richard (Jeroen Perceval). Marina seems to empathize with Borgman from the word go and offers him a chance to bathe, gives him food and shelter for a while after her husband showers violent blows on him, but only to protect her honour, no less! 

Little does anyone know, though, that this one gesture of kindliness is only the first nail in the coffin for this nice looking upper class family with three beautiful children, and that their guest has no intentions of leaving. He has a sinister masterplan up his sleeve to weave a deadly web and irreversibly impact their lives psychologically. By this point, some readers may think this is Alex Van Warmerdam's rendition of "Teorema", that excellent 1968 Pier Paolo Pasolini film. But well, prepare to be surprised, and find out that this is not a rip off by a long shot, as the story takes unpredictable turns and in fact has you on the edge about not only what would happen next, but also have you screaming out loud "What on earth is really happening?" 

"Borgman" (2013) is as original as they come and it is here to cement its status as a new cult thriller that subtly fuses the classic aesthetic of European art-house minimalism with more extreme genres like psychological dramas and supernatural elements. Yet what is served in the end is an allegorical mind-bender that has its roots in Christian mythology!

There are chances that initially the viewer may be taken quite aback regarding the happenings on screen. The first half an hour may simply seem indigestible to some much like earlier home invasion films. But then the plot thickens and nothing seems as ordinary as on the surface. There are dreams and nightmares that seem all too real.

There appears to be some kind of psychological manipulation leading to mood swings and hostility. And before we know it, an 'X' marks a spot almost miraculously! No spoilers, but there are indeed forces other than the real and tangible ones at work here, when the mysterious, mangy stray dogs appear, much to our amazement. There also appears to be some sort of chemical treatment at work.

If all of this sounds utterly vague, then it is just as well. That is a bit part of what you are in for, as normal events take turns that lead to almost unreal events. It makes little sense as to Borgman's motivations and his sense of purpose. But underneath this complex exterior is yet another attack on the upper class ego and an arrogance that is born out of the affluent lifestyle. Pride cometh before a fall they say, and this proverb would fit very well within the context of the film. But the distinction between good and evil is blurred here, given the aforementioned mythological angle.

So those well versed with the religious texts can immediately read into the names and connect with the more larger themes, bolstered by the biblical quote in the beginning "And they descended upon the earth to strengthen their ranks". So could "Borgman" be an allegory of Camael, one of the seven archangels who supposedly led the forces that expelled Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden ( The point in question not entirely farfetched, for Camiel is later appointed as a gardener with the family in their plush abode (a symbolic garden of Eden)! Coincidence? Perhaps, depending on how you look at it.

And therein lies one of the key aspects that make "Borgman" a marvelous cinematic puzzle-box and a true winner; the inherent ambiguity of it all. The viewer only gets to see bits and pieces of what actually happens. There are no clear answers. But clues are thrown about in a manner that would give way to multiple interpretations. It is up to the viewers to discern in a way that fits their sense of reasoning.

For an ambitious film that boasts of such an intriguing and complex plot, Warmerdam exercises tremendous restraint and refrains from making a big hullabaloo about anything at all. It ends as calmly as it starts but the audiences are left with anything but a sense of calm, for they are subjected to something so downright challenging, it is difficult to not have your brain cells rapidly stimulated in trying to work out what just happened to you through this cinematic offering.

"Borgman" is a masterpiece; a brilliantly acted, bone-chilling, haunting piece of cinema that is bold, disturbing and ultimately rewarding yet has been criminally overlooked in the recent lot of European cinema. It really needs to come out in the open. Do yourself a favour and watch this film! Now!

Score: 10/10

Monday, February 10, 2014

Murmur of the Heart (Le Souffle Au Coeur) (1971)

Director Louis Malle looks back on his own growing up years, specifically his teens and comes up with a splendid semi-autobiographical coming-of-age account that is "Murmur of the Heart" (1971). One wonders if it has anything to do with the fact that the film is French, but Malle's handling of some downright scandalous and eyebrow-raising episodes in the film is so delicate and lighthearted, it simply has to be seen to be believed!

It is the 1950s, and 14 year old Laurent Chevalier (Benoît Ferreux) is having a jolly time growing up in his bourgeois family of a well-to-do but curmudgeon father (Daniel Gélin), a Gynecologist by profession and his much younger, comely mother of Italian descent, Clara (Lea Massari). Laurent has two older brothers who keep bullying him and taking his case, but all in a playful way of course. The brothers bond well, the father mostly neglects Laurent, but Clara clearly has him for a favorite. 

There is quite an unrestrained and casual atmosphere in the family. The older sons have rather frank talks with their little brother who claims he is not little anymore. They play around, frolic in bed, discuss and brag about their manhood, and while their parents are away, very openly indulge in booze, smokes and make-out sessions with their friends, even in the presence of their portly, kindly maid Augusta (Ave Ninchi). 

The first half of the film is mostly a chronicling of such events and Laurent's bizarre encounters. Be it his attempts at losing his virginity, at a brothel no less, with the help of his brothers that leads to disastrous results, or the awkward confession session with the hypocritical school priest (Michael Lonsdale) who feels up Laurent's thighs while explaining to him about sin and the vileness of the bodily desires of man! This part does come off as a tad stereotypical. Not all priests have to hit on their choir boys, but it fits well within the context and at a stage when the boys' curiosity about sexual matters is out through the roof.

Malle writes scenes and creates situations which may seem shocking to the prudish, more specifically in the second half which was a subject of some controversy upon the film's release. There are overtones of Laurent's incestuous attraction to his beautiful mother. It is not a lustful attraction per se, but an admiration developed from the warm affection constantly showered by her and of course, the comparatively less age difference between the young mother and her sons. 

It hardly comes off as a lascivious urge, but in fact, only curiosity that makes him watch observantly as his mother takes a bath. Naysayers and conservative folks may be in denial, however, one can't help but think how realistic the events surrounding the boy's psychological development are. In the scheme of things it is completely believable that Laurent, who is the apple of his mother's eye, is constantly showered with exuberant hugs and kisses that perhaps a boy his age may experience differently. The two are in fact, more buddies than a mother-son pair.

Laurent does insist at one point that she should stop treating him like a six year old! So does Father Henri in one scene as he suggests that it is about time his mother started treating him like an adult, given his intelligence. Now whether he says it out of jealousy or genuine concern is another ambiguity quite cleverly thrown in by Malle! It doesn't help matters that Clara has a husband much older, and she does have some flirtatious ways around younger men and is having an affair too, which never comes to light. And that is a good thing, for Malle steers clear of the unnecessary cliches that come with such a revelation and its aftermath in the family. Clara's affair is kept in the background, and all it does is it strengthens the route that eventually leads to the culmination that may have seemed cheap but ends up being tender and affectionate.

It is quite wondrous an achievement the way Malle pulls some of these scenes off. The undercurrents of a fleeting, homosexual attraction experienced by one of the boys toward Laurent and his momentary reciprocation during the boys' camping trip is difficult to miss, yet not taken to levels even remotely explicit. It just comes across as a casual fondness and brushed aside by Laurent as just that, when the boy asks if he could sleep next to him. In fact, the film lends a breezy, comic touch to some of the more bold content thereby ensuring that it makes for a light, entertaining cinematic experience.

Malle's film is an extremely well-balanced and mature examination of a teenaged boy experiencing his sexual awakening. It can also be regarded in part as a satire on the bourgeois lifestyle. A lot of the film's great scenes like the spinach fight are snippets from Malle's own life and they add a nice, warm touch to the film. You may not see many other films in which a mother discusses her adulterous affair with her son and the son listens and empathizes with his mother's boyfriend troubles! Or even find instances in which some older boys ask to get introduced to the protagonist's hot mother, while the son ends up feeling jealous of his mother's growing closeness to them!

None of this, however, seems so earth-shattering given the progression and the manner in which Malle gets us acquainted to his characters. This is where the filmmaker's true genius is revealed. He builds a strong foundation and gradually adds layers in a way that the audiences lap up each succeeding episode with a nonchalance that would otherwise not exist!

Of course, one of the major aspects that makes all this work are the two lead performances. Lea Massari and debutant Benoît Ferreux make the film. It is their fantastic acts that render the special touch that bolster's Malle's film and make it the unique masterwork that it is. Malle is a revered filmmaker and "Murmur of the Heart" is certainly one of the major reasons why he is held in such high esteem.

Score: 10/10

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Rhino Season (Fasle Kargadan) (2012)

Exiled Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi returns with "Rhino Season", a new film made in Turkey, loosely based on the true incident of a poet unjustly imprisoned for almost 30 years for writing supposedly subversive poems. He was released at the end of that long a period, only to learn that he had been declared dead to his family years ago!

Those are the only similarities however, as far as the connections to the actual incident are concerned. The protagonist in Ghobadi's film is a victim of something much more than political influences. Upon being released from prison, the Kurdish-Iranian poet in the film, Sahel (Behrouz Vossoughi) learns that his wife Mina (Monica Bellucci) is remarried and migrated to Turkey. 

A grey, wrinkled Sahel, quiet and brooding, looks Mina up, and spends most of his time loitering about her house on a cliff, but never gathers the courage to approach her. Perhaps he is afraid of disrupting her present life, for as far as her knowledge, he's been dead a long time ago and she has spent years crying over his empty grave. Perhaps he just wants to wait for the right moment. Most of the film carries on in silence and reciting of poetic musings, as Sahel lights his cigarette, broods some more, observes, and reminisces the dark past that sheds light on the events that led to his incarceration.

A series of flashbacks reveal that Mina in fact belonged to a rich family in the Shah regime. Her chauffeur Akbar (Yilmaz Erdogan) was obsessively in love (lust?) with her. He faces the ire of his employers, when once, in a rather stupid move, he declares his love for Mina. Humiliated and acrimonious, he uses the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979 to his advantage, thereby getting Sahel imprisoned for 30 years and Mina for 10! Years of unimaginable torture and rape in prison follow, and when Mina is finally released, Akbar still continues his pursuit of her; so desperate is his desire for her! And this, after also participating in some heinous acts of violating her in prison as well!

All this sounds too melodramatic on paper. In the end, for all its art-house trappings and breathtaking, striking beauty of some of the most wonderful imagery captured on celluloid, the plot of Ghobadi's film somewhat resembles that centering around a vengeful, psychotic, obsessive lover, a premise done to death in several Hollywood thrillers! 

While one cannot overlook the cliché ridden, contrived plot, it is not the sole element driving Ghobadi's heart-work. There's a lot else to look out for; other aspects that work in the film's favor, making it a work of art to give some benefit to. For one, "Rhino Season" is a deeply personal experience for its filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi who had to leave Iran and go into a forced exile in 2009 after being threatened by some Iranian intelligence agents. His work was deemed subversive too.

The lead actor Behrouz Vossoughi had left Iran way back in 1979 and settled in the U.S.A. and has never worked in films ever since. Both these men have faced tumultuous times and have had to leave everything behind in the country they loved, much against their own will. Artists have had to face censorship from some extreme forms of government the world over. Ghobadi's case was no exception, neither was that of the aforementioned poet, whose case inspired him to make this film. After a phase of depression, Ghobadi knew that he just had to make a film again to keep going. This emotional sentiment reflects in the very mood of the film, as Ghobadi's film is a melancholy in motion.

Via some sublime, poetic verses and ethereal imagery achieved through stupendous camerawork, and some of the finest cinematography to grace celluloid (credit:  Turaj Aslani), Ghobadi weaves pure magic. The images look like mobile painting on a canvas, with accentuated lighting effects. 

The use of slow motion especially in the dream sequences or the scenes which reflect the mood or state of mind of the protagonist render a trance-like, hypnotic feel. You almost feel like you are floating! The genius editing with which these surreal sequences are melded with the real ones, is noteworthy. Of course, the accompanying haunting score and poetry recitals supplement these wonderful images. It further corroborates the fact that an image speaks a thousand words. Cinema is the most powerful medium to convey emotions. "Rhino Season" is no exception, as every frame is dipped in such awe-inspiring beauty, it is difficult to take your eyes off the screen. 

You can't miss some symbolism-heavy visuals, notable ones with animals in them. A photograph of a perpetrator is thrown among leeches. In one of the film's best scenes, turtles fall out of the sky. In a follow up scene, one turtle that falls on its back, manages to flip itself straight, and moves on. A horse shoves its head into the window of a car, and many more. 

Some of these visuals are of course, references to past Ghobadi films. Aside from the enticing, visually arresting frames, there are events in the film that are far from pleasant. Yet, without resorting to gratuitous on-screen violence or brutality (most of the atrocities are off-screen or shot in a technique so as not to be in-your-face), the images that follow are evocative of a somberness. It is not surprising considering how emotionally drenched Ghobadi himself was during the filming process.

And of course, the mood wouldn't be as effectively put across if not for the tremendous performance of veteran actor Vossoughi who returns to screen after years of absence. He has hardly a word or two of dialog but it is his face that does all the talking here. Ditto for the gorgeous Monica Bellucci who delivers with an offbeat turn as the oppressed Iranian woman, again, relies on silence and subtle gestures for a memorable performance.

The film perhaps would've worked better without those terrible plot contrivances that plague the narrative in the last third; there are always these huge coincidences that mar the credibility of a story. They aren't really necessary but the film wouldn't have that stamp of a colossal tragedy on it, which nevertheless seems somewhat forced here. Without these developments, the film would still be just as effective as a sad account of the catastrophe of a man who loses his youth and his love, all due to petty jealousies of a man who couldn't stomach his good fortune. Without the plot shortcomings, the film would go greater distances as an exemplary work of  cinema that stands tall owing to its lyrical storytelling. Nevertheless, the latter facet still triumphs, and for this reason alone, "Rhino Season" deserves to be watched.

Score: 8/10