Thursday, May 31, 2012

Monsieur Hire (1989)

He is a quiet man, Monsieur Hire (Michel Blanc). A balding, middle aged fellow, a misanthrope and a recluse, he doesn’t socialize much. None of the neighbours talk to him either; conversations die down and they start whispering as he passes by. A tailor by profession, Hire is particular about his appearance. He keeps some pet white rats at home. When one of the pet rats dies, he carefully wraps it in a piece of cloth and gives it a respectful water burial! He seems to be a good, honest man, but no one really knows much about him. Perhaps they don’t want to know. But they don’t miss a chance to sneak a curious peek at him like he is some alien being. When Hire realizes this, he promptly snaps back “Want a photograph?” Some neighbourhood kids make fun of him by throwing flour on him or making fun of him. He just brushes all of this off and holds no grudge against anyone. He just isn’t bothered; wants to be left alone, as always.

It is no surprise then, that when one young woman is found murdered in the vicinity, he automatically becomes the prime suspect. Blame it on the neighbourhood! And more so, because a taxi driver saw a figure somewhat matching Monsieur Hire’s description run towards the same block where Monsieur Hire resides. The police detective starts pursuing his suspect; there’s no evidence yet that can implicate Hire, but the detective is in hot pursuit.

Monsieur Hire seems unperturbed, though. There is nothing that can possibly connect him. He has just become an easy target because he is “not sociable; and people don’t like that”. So Hire goes about his daily, mundane, boring routine; amongst his pastimes and necessities is a visit to the bowling alley, he is a champion at the game and is well admired by onlookers who give him a round of applause for he never misses scoring a perfect strike, even when blindfolded. He acknowledges their adulation with a forced smile. He also spends time at a brothel once in a while to satisfy his sexual needs but seems to be getting increasingly weary of it. 

And then there’s Alice (Sandrine Bonnaire), his object of affection who stays in the neighbouring apartment complex. He spends most of his time standing in his window, simply observing Alice through her open window directly in front of his. She has never noticed; has in fact, always thought that Hire’s apartment was empty and therefore never felt the need to put up drapes! Hire observes Alice’s every move, as she dresses, undresses, eats, sleeps, and once in a while makes out with her no good fiancé Emile (Luc Thuillier). Hire also is a lover of music and plugs in the same record on his player, the soulful Quatuor en Sol Mineur Op. 25 de Brahms, every time he stands to watch Alice. Hire just wants to watch. He is in love, but he knows there isn’t much he can do about it. He just watches. It becomes apparent that Emile doesn’t seem to be serious about marrying Alice. Alice knows this, but she loves him. Everything changes one day when Alice finally gets a good look at the ghostly face that has been staring at her all this time....

Director Patrice Leconte’s effortless storytelling does a laudable job of building Hire’s character for the viewers in a considerably short time. Right from the first frame, as the body of the young woman is discovered, Leconte’s 1989 film “Monsieur Hire” has the power to grip! Sure, there is a murder. But solving the murder is least of film’s concerns. Who did the killing is secondary. The murder acts as a catalyst and alters the status quo. How this killing decides the fate of our two central characters; that forms the crux of this heartwrenching story.

In its modest running time of about 1 hour 17 minutes or so, there is not one wasted moment and we can instantly connect to the two lead characters, Hire and Alice. These characters are both very human. They have their secrets, they have their ambitions, they have their motivations and in the end they have their secret desires! And therefore, not everything is out in the open; not just as yet. There is a lot going on in these characters’ minds which we aren’t given a peek at. The voyeur in us doesn’t have the kind of luck Monsieur Hire has, as he gets to see Alice’s life like a Live reality show! But Leconte has a purpose. For deep within the layers of this deeply moving psychological drama lies the darkest of human traits; motivations that drive a person to take the step they take, that might shatter all beliefs, all the hope one has instilled in humanity. There are important lessons to be learnt. Oft-stated idioms “Don’t judge a book by its cover” are reinforced. Appearances are indeed deceiving. Your curmudgeonly, neglected next door neighbor could perhaps be an angel in disguise! But then there is the bigger question of trust and inherent cynicism that we social beings have to live with. How much can we know at face value? In the end, we are only human!

Michel Blanc instantly makes an impression; his pale, round face, although deadpan most of the times, speaks volumes at its most vulnerable. Sandrine Bonnaire does justice to the kind of unreserved character she is playing.

There is a strong chance that no matter how surrounded you are by people, you will end up feeling all alone when you reach the film’s shattering climax. “Monsiure Hire” is a melancholic character study of a lonesome man who falls in love. But at what price?

Score: 9/10



Monday, May 28, 2012

Possession (1981)

In one scene in Andrzej Zulawski’s “cult” horror thriller, “Possession” (1981), Sam Neill’s character Mark tells Isabelle Adjani’s character Anna, “I think of you as an animal, or a woman possessed…”! It wouldn’t be entirely inappropriate to say that this is true of almost all the characters in this substandard mess of a horror film cum “intense” drama, for all the primary characters behave like mentally deranged morons or appear stoned whenever they are on screen.

We begin with a creepy background score during the title credits when Mark (Sam Neill, at his very worst) arrives from “far away”, back to his son Bob (Michael Hogben) and wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani). Their first meeting after a seemingly huge gap seems awkward; all is clearly not well with their marriage. Later there is some vague talk between the couple, trying to explain the lack of intimacy. “There is always someone else, when these things happen”, Mark insinuates that Anna is being unfaithful. She denies in the beginning, but later admits to having an affair. A shattered Mark soon finds out that it is a man named Heinrich (Heinz Bennet), an Anthony Hopkins lookalike, sexually ambiguous character. But Heinrich and his mother both admit that they haven’t seen Anna for “weeks”! The mystery deepens and there could be something/someone else contributing to Anna’s continuous absence and increasingly erratic behavior. Mark hires a private detective Zimmerman (Shaun Lawton) to follow Anna and very soon a bizarre secret is unearthed, which is somehow linked to a mysterious tentacled monster..…

“Possession” begins on an alarmingly wrong note. The horrible dialog and the actors’ over-the-top dialog delivery are largely to blame. A serious conversation seems very dramatic, awkward and fake and therein lies the biggest problem with this film. Senseless ramblings and non sequiturs abound! The lead characters are going through a bitter married relationship, yet one fails to connect to them or feel any sympathy, thanks to the abysmally bad acting, especially by Sam Neill! He is horrendous here, and while Neill’s later performances are quite good, he is simply unbearable in this early acting venture of his. Then there is Isabelle Adjani who can emote very well in some scenes, but again, falls flat while delivering some vital lines of dialog. And when she isn’t doing that, she is mostly convulsing hysterically and trying hard to be the scream queen of the century. There is so much of cacophony, fighting and yelling, bickering and beating about throughout the film that it eventually gets on the nerves! It is just too jarring, shrill and unintentionally comic at times to be taken any seriously! A lookalike (a doppelganger?) of Anna shows up as a green-eyed, more quiet Helen (Adjani again) who is a teacher to Bob. It is with this role that Adjani gets to have a breather for a change, because otherwise it must’ve been a hell of a tiring shoot for her, shredding her vocal cords off and throwing herself all over the set!

The film’s plot has an ambiguous nature. A lot of vague information is exchanged; fleeting mentions of “pink socks”, “faith”, “chance” and “divinity”. The happenings in the film aren’t supposed to be taken in the literal sense. There is supposed to be some deeply allegorical meaning within, pertaining to marriage and divorce and finding God and happiness; yet any kind of interest to find a deeper meaning is overshadowed, thanks to the god-awful script and the embarrassing situations Zulawski puts his actors into. Imagine making all of them act like they do, it boggles the mind. 

Heinz Bennet is another such actor whose Heinrich character seems to be perpetually stoned and delivers lines of dialog as if he is delivering a sermon, rehearsed too! A couple more characters like Margit Gluckmeister (Margit Cartensen), Anna’s best friend, and a detective (Carl Duering) sent to find out Anna’s whereabouts, do their bits in being the jesters in this circus of madness. Caricature-like characterization, to a great extent, and a substantial lack of suspense mar any prospects the film otherwise had owing to its intricate plot which is again, mostly incoherent in the preliminary viewing but makes some weird sense after a bit of analysis.

And then there is the “creature” (no spoilers there; the creature and its special effects creator, Carlo Rambaldi are already announced in the title credits); a slimy octopus-like monster that appears in some 3-4 scenes. But unlike other B-horror films in which such creatures usually slither around, attacking people, this creature just sits there, which is a welcome relief. Its origin and purpose of existence become clearer as the blood-soaked climax of the film approaches.

There are a few redeeming qualities in “Possession”, like the aforementioned, deliberately equivocal plot that offers some good food for thought and room for multiple interpretations, and a couple disturbing moments, like the scene in the subway when Anna experiences a violent seizure of sorts like she is possessed by an unseen power…a terrific display of an uninhibited and energetic performance in that one scene wins Adjani all the points she deserves (and only she deserves points, if at all) in this otherwise doomed venture.

Score: 5/10.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Skin I Live In (2011)

Pedro Almodovar’s latest offering is a bizarre, complex thriller which could also be the first of its kind for the talented Spanish filmmaker. Almodovar essentially combines the soap operatic elements of his earlier films like “Broken Embraces” replete with characters with dark secrets, tragedies of the past that can’t let go, severed blood ties, trauma, etc with a touch of Michael Crichton-ish medical thriller elements! Nonetheless, the outcome is a surprisingly original film to grace this reviewer’s movie watch-list in a long, long time!

In Toledo, Spain, Plastic surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) has had a brilliant breakthrough in creating an artificial skin tougher than normal human skin. It is the kind of skin that is resistant to mosquito bites and burns. We learn later, that an incident of the past has made this research of his almost an obsession for him.  While Ledgard claims that he has been experimenting with athymic mice, it becomes clear that his guinea pig is actually human, a beautiful girl, Vera (Elena Anaya) who has been confined to a private chamber in his secluded estate where he resides with his elderly maid servant, Marilia (Marisa Paredes) who has been with the Ledgards since Robert was a child. Vera is monitored through various Closed-circuit TVs by Robert and it seems that she has been there for a long time now. She is provided food and supplies through a dumbwaiter but is never allowed out of her room. This place also serves as a center for research and operations hence there is limited or no access to outsiders, barring some of Robert’s professional colleagues for specified purposes only. Life goes on and this status quo is disturbed one day, when Marilia’s long estranged son Zeca (Roberto Alamo) suddenly shows up at their door ….

Loosely based on Thierry Jonquet’s novel, “Tarantula”, Almodovar’s screenplay is magnificent in the manner in which he slowly unfolds the various layers of his twisted story, divulging information to his audiences only as required, in a carefully constructed non-linear narrative. What starts out like a conventional thriller in the first half, gradually melds into a nuanced drama laced with tragedy and subtle emotions. Instead of relying on jump twist endings that sometimes seem forced, Almodovar, in the film’s runtime of 120 minutes, progressively ‘builds’ the story, by in fact, peeling the ‘skin’ off the package and unraveling the mystery within, little by little. In some back stories and subplots we are introduced to some more characters and it is at this point that the film actually gets its Pedro Almodovar feel! One may feel that the director is going off-track with these random introductions, but do not be fooled, for trust Almodovar to stay focused and not digress from the plot at any cost! There are absolutely no wasted moments or scenes as ultimately it all falls into place beautifully! Not all the characters are fully developed but those who do matter the most are, to a considerable extent; if not through elaborately written scenes, definitely through some back stories provided in flashback monologues.

“The Skin I Live in” is also an actors’ film. Antonio Banderas in a never before seen avatar is a revelation; so amazing is his presence, he pulls off a challenging lead role with finesse as the dynamics of his character are revealed to the audience as the story moves forward. Ditto for Elena Anaya who has already established her status as a solid actress in the Spanish film world. It’s a spectacular performance, the greatness of which is more evident in the latter half of the film. The supporting actors are not far behind, with some noteworthy performances by actors Blanca Suarez, Jan Cornet and Almodovar regular Marisa Paredes as the loyal maid servant Marilia, tormented by a dark secret of her own!

“The Skin I Live In” is a riveting thriller…an almost Shakespearean tragedy with a macabre twist. Pedro Almodovar made one of the finest films of his career and also one of the best films of 2011. It is likely to stay in your mind for a long time after it is over… the kind of film that can get under your ‘skin’... literally!

Score: 10/10.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Blind Beast (1969)

There are sometimes films which are depraved for the sake of being depraved. There is some seriously disturbing stuff happening on the screen but the progression of the narrative to reach that extreme stage seems so contrived that you ultimately end up somewhat dissatisfied in the end!

Based on Rampo Edogawa’s story, Yasuzo Masumura’s “Blind Beast” (1969) falls in this category. Michio (Eiji Funakoshi) is a blind sculptor (blind since birth) who has, over the years, developed the “sense of touch” to the fullest to satisfy or please himself. All other senses like sound, smell and sight are of no use to him because they aren’t the real deal and "sight" he has never known! He has come to learn a lot about how things may look and has developed his own understanding of the forms of various objects around him. Most notably he has become obsessed with the female body as he finds it the most beautiful creation and feeling up the female body parts gives him the most pleasure(!). He has a studio built out of a warehouse and it contains a lot of sculptures of the female body and the individual parts as he has perceived them using his sense of touch! And now he has made "pioneering the art of touch" his life's mission! "An art form for the blind, by the blind" as he describes it!

Enter beautiful model Aki (Mako Midori), stories of whose beautiful body Michio has heard! A desire to feel up Aki’s exquisite anatomy and to use her as a model for his latest sculpture drives Michio into kidnapping her with the help of his mother and holding her captive in his studio. Aki tries her best to flee but is overpowered by the blind sculptor and his mother. Amidst the labyrinth of giant female body parts including eyes, lips, nose, breasts, hands, legs, he starts building a sculpture, feeling up a reluctant Aki once in a while and then moulding his clay accordingly!

Aki starts thinking up ways to escape and even makes several attempts to trick the mother-son duo into letting her go. But a dramatic change of events turns this kidnap drama into a strange tale of macabre fetishism, as the kidnapped starts identifying with her captor and finds herself embracing his perverse ways…..

“Blind Beast” surely has the power to grip from its very first frame. The initial few sequences after the kidnapping are very well filmed and give a distinctly eerie and claustrophobic feel as Aki fumbles and stumbles in the surreal studio full of sculpted body parts. It is also commendable that the film doesn’t follow the oft-trodden path that kidnap dramas usually take. The final half hour takes an entirely different direction and that’s a good thing. What isn’t very appealing, however, is the abrupt manner in which that direction is taken! The jump or transition is somewhat half-baked. It is not entirely unusual for kidnap dramas to portray their victims as utterly stupid and clumsy idiots whose repeated attempts to escape always predictably fail, because if the escape really happens, then there is nothing left to film! “Blind Beast”’s Aki is no different, as in spite of some clever tricks she plays to fool the mother-son duo whilst trying to escape, she always manages to bungle up in the end. That’s not all, what’s more frustrating is how she even gets overpowered by a completely blind man and sometimes even misses some blatantly obvious chances of getting the better of him….all for the sake of movie continuity perhaps?

It also doesn’t help that the otherwise efficient blind person who is very adept at sensing a presence from their smell, footsteps and breathing sounds, lacks consistency and behaves in the clunkiest manner at times. Towards the third act, as the film gets to its focal point in a bizarre twist to the proceedings, we, the audiences wonder…how did things even get so far? It just doesn’t quite cut it.

But for all its worth, “Blind Beast” is a watchable film and manages to disturb the viewer in the final act, with terrific performances from the two leads Mako Midori and Eiji Funakoshi. One wonders though, whether this film was an excuse for the filmmaker and the lead actor to simply to feed their nasty appetite of fondling their lead woman, because moments when she ISN’T groped in this film are few and far between!

Score: 7/10.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

A small town. A drunk room; a rather dreary bar with two big lights hanging from the ceiling. Village simpletons falling all over the floor with an overdose of drinks. “You tubs of beer”..the bartender calls them! At closing time, a wide-eyed, gaunt, but seemingly popular young man walks in. He is Janos Valuska (Lars Rudolph). He uses the drunks at the bar as props and demonstrates the Solar Eclipse and the effects of this phenomenon on the behavior of the mortal beings of the earth. The scene lasts for the first 10-12 minutes and ends with a melancholic, haunting score by Mihaly Vig. This single scene is so beautiful, it sets the tone for what’s to come.

There is a shroud of ambiguity over Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr’s “Werckmeister Harmonies” (co-directed by Ágnes Hranitzky). There is communication that is very vague. Things are spoken about something bad that happened before and something terrible that’s perhaps about to happen. And in some towns, they say it has already begun. Is it the advent of the apocalypse?

At the center of this mystery is a stuffed giant whale, a part of a “circus” that has arrived in town. This circus also features the enigmatic “Prince”. With the coming of the whale and the Prince there is suddenly a ‘lack of harmony’ within the quietude of the town. Foreigners have started encroaching. There are stories that they have started rioting and looting. The whale is perhaps the reason. Most people seem to regard the whale as an abomination. Only Janos sees it as a bounty of nature, a miracle of God…Janos is clearly an optimist. Or is it the Prince who is behind all the turbulence? There are all kinds of stories. The dead whale and the Prince are somehow responsible for creating ripples in the otherwise still waters of the quiet little town. They have already spread their wings on other parts of the country. But are all these just urban legends?

One of the main characters, György Eszter (Peter Fitz), speaks about how the musical intervals and harmonies as we know them over the centuries are “false” and the result of a huge scandal brought about by a certain Andreas Werckmeister. The title alludes to the harmonies or lack thereof owing to some funny business brought about by Werckmeister as a result of an “unhinged arrogance” that wished to take possession of the natural harmonies of the Gods! This one scene and the philosophy within has a strong connection with the overall theme of the film…lack of harmony and how it is brought about!

Eszter’s former wife Aunt Tunde (Hanna Schygulla) has an agenda of her own…she is out to initiate a “clean town” project with the help of her current lover, the Police Chief, for which she needs her former husband’s help. “Our Janos” (as he is referred to by all townsfolk who like him) is entrusted the task of convincing Eszter to use his command and popularity to get support of the movement. Eszter reluctantly agrees. “I've paid for it and I may pay for it all my life”, he says. But what exactly? Tarr doesn’t think that is important. We never get to know. He clearly loves ambiguity.

Tarr also loves extremely long takes, stark Black and White cinematography (beautiful at that), a somber mood, melancholic score, a languorous pace, bleak imagery and an overall sense of doom and despair. There are long philosophical monologues which are almost poetic and need to be heard at least twice to grasp. There is a distinct “meditative” feel to the proceedings. It is not difficult to spot the heavy Andrei Tarkovsky influence here, just as in other films of his. But Tarr’s pictures are less abstract than those of the great Russian filmmaker. “Werckmeister Harmonies” is mostly materialism heavy but there certainly is some symbolism embedded in the narrative. The “Prince” who travels with the whale, for example, is a mysterious faceless creature who seems to have immense powers. A clock that was dead for years started ticking again as he went past! And he apparently also incites rioting. He doesn’t believe in any greater power or authority either. Is he then the “Prince of darkness” with a thirst for destruction?

Tarr demonstrates his ability to create a powerful impact through the marriage of visuals and sound. On one hand there is the scene in which Vig’s soulful music accompanies, like Janos appreciating the whale and being awestruck by its enormity. And then there is the scene in a newspaper factory. Long monologues and ambient sounds serve as a background to Janos’ mundane activities being filmed, and later the camera slowly pans to the person delivering the monologue! Then, of the several long tracking shots, a particular shot of Janos and Eszter walking adjacent to each other in an almost synchronized march of their feet (with only the sound of their feet and a lunch box providing the sound…carrying on for a good 2-3 minutes!) can’t help but bring a smile on your face. Apparently, for one other scene, in which a lot of people are marching together to reach a destination, Tarr was asked why the scene is that long. Tarr simply answered “that’s how long it took to get there!”

“Werckmeister Harmonies”, like any other Bela Tarr film, is surely not for the impatient viewer. It is for that segment of film lovers who love their films grave; and who don’t mind the scenes playing out real time, with the editing process being allowed to take the back seat as long as the final product delivers. Suffice to say, Tarr manages to engulf the viewer under his spell and guarantees a hypnotic audiovisual experience, one that culminates into a powerful ending that leaves a lasting impact….

Score: 10/10.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Week End (1967)

When was the last time you had a hell lot of fun while watching a film? And we aren’t even talking escapist, commercial popcorn flicks or sitcoms! Far from it. We’re talking about an avant-garde surrealist film, highly disturbing yet darkly humorous at the same time….in French New Wave style!

Jean-Luc Godard’s “Weekend” (sometimes written “Week End”) will guarantee a delightfully macabre ride through hell, as a husband and wife cheating on each other decide to ride to the country to secure inheritance from the parents of the wife, by possibly murdering her father! Sounds crazy? Not half as crazy as what ensues next as their journey turns into an outlandish odyssey through a nightmare full of traffic jams and gruesome car accidents and terrorists and hippies and cannibals!

What “Weekend” is about is difficult to pen. Perhaps it is about Godard’s bizarre vision of the apocalypse; of a bleak future that’s going to see the end of civilization as we know it; a world in which people will turn on one another and start raping and looting and killing and eating each other! A world in which the bourgeois society will bear the brunt of its own materialistic trappings…when people will become so insensitive, they will even steal stuff off of dead bodies rather nonchalantly!

Or perhaps “Weekend” is merely a black comedy built around everything Godard personally hated and wanted to make fun of, through the medium he knows best…cinema! And he pulls it off like there’s no tomorrow! Sometimes he also resorts to self-parody! And for that, he uses some insane yet subtle absurdist humour. Blink and you may miss some of the gems and golden lines uttered in this film. Sample this: Roland (Jean Yanne) abandons (or loses) his car and starts out on foot with his wife Corinne (Mireille Darc ). On the way there are numerous mangled bodies, victims of car accidents and the remains of their vehicles lying around, but they are just casually ignored! Roland tries to ask directions to another character in the film, gets some loony response in return and comments “What a rotten film! All we meet are crazy people!”

Godard, an eccentric auteur that he is, makes sure he frustrates his audiences as well as keeps them hooked with his bravura writing. Usage of intertitles isn’t uncommon in a Godard film, but in “Weekend” they take on a new, entirely free form, get sprinkled arbitrarily between scenes, interrupting randomly yet trying to say something about the scene at hand. But they don’t always take a serious form; sometimes some of the dialog uttered takes the form of intertitles, sometimes Godard tries to be funny by adding title cards like “A film found on scrap heap” to describe this motion picture! At other times we see some sharp political jibes.

Then there are the typical Godard idiosyncrasies including a background score that sometimes drowns the dialog and appears out of nowhere and disappears just as suddenly as it appeared; some deliberate repetitions of scenes and dialogs as if it’s some editing flaw! And let’s not forget the over 8 minutes long tracking shot of a traffic jam accompanied by blaring car horns in the background and car drivers cursing each other in the foreground! This shot ends in an ironic fashion that reveals the cause of the jam! The film takes dramatic turns with one bizarre event after another, subjecting us to a savagely funny ride, with senseless political speeches, oddball camerawork and ultimately  an allegorical, chaotic finale…..the aim was clearly to alarm the viewer and leave him/her in a jaw-dropped state!

There are notable movie references....although it is difficult to say in one case; a “Persona”-esque (Ingmar Bergman, 1966) monologue of Corinne narrating a particularly wild sexual adventure, and in a nod to Luis Bunuel, perhaps, a title card that reads “The Exterminating Angel” (1962). Speaking of Bunuel, it is not difficult to find some creative similarities between “Weekend” and Bunuel’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”. Nonetheless, this could be a first film of its kind for Godard (it is a significant departure compared to his earlier 60s works) and he makes sure he leaves no stone unturned in delivering a masterwork. “Weekend” could very well have been rechristened “Week End” (as it is known in some countries) owing to the fact that this was Godard’s final film of his most celebrated cinematic period.

Highly imaginative, but pure Madness; Godard’s “Weekend” = Luis Bunuel on steroids!


Score: 10/10 (Hands down!)