Sunday, September 25, 2011

Past, Present, and Pretense

The American author F Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: ‘Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy’. Rachel Brener (played by Neta Garty), the protagonist in Assaf Bernstein’s debut feature Ha-Hov (2007), a Mossad agent, became a hero—to the Israeli Secret Service, in particular; and the people of Israel in general—way back in 1964, the moment she and her two fellow agents Zvi (Itay Tiran) and Ehud (Yehezkel Lazarov) emerged from an aircraft waving and smiling.  For the trio had brought to culmination a manhunt that had lasted fifteen long years by killing Maximilian Reiner (Edgar Selge) , alias ‘The Surgeon of Birkenau’, the biggest Nazi criminal apprehended by the state of Israel.

Thirty-three years later, the elderly Rachel (portrayed by veteran actress Gila Almagor, who played Eric Bana’s mother in Spielberg’s Munich [2005]), still very much a national hero, who has recently published her biography titled My Mission, receives the first minor jolt to her conscience when a member of a military troop to whom she is recounting her famous exploit asks her ‘How do you know you’re doing the right thing?’ 

This is because for over three decades now, Rachel has been harbouring a secret from the eyes of the world, much the same way she has been concealing a scar on her left cheek—a memento from the dreaded surgeon—with makeup. That deeply guarded secret now threatens to disrupt the veneer that she has so meticulously maintained since the moment she landed on Israeli soil alongside her two co-agents. Rachel suffers the second—more significant—jolt on the night of a party to celebrate the launch of her biography, when Zvi (Alex Peleg), now bound to a wheelchair, pays her a visit and hands her a newspaper clipping. The news report is about an octogenarian named Nikolai Bazorov, who is bedridden at a nursing home in a town not far from Kiev. Bazorov claims to be Maximilian Reiner.

It is quite apparent from the conversation between Rachel and Zvi that what is perceived by all and sundry to be their most famous accomplishment is nothing but a big, fat lie. To continue this charade, the truth about the claim made by Bazorov has to be found out. 

As the film effortlessly alternates between the 1960s and the 1990s, we find the younger versions of Rachel, Zvi, and Ehud in Berlin, preparing to set in motion the plan that has been entrusted on them. We find the ‘Surgeon of Birkenau’ is now an obstetrician. The same individual who had conducted unspeakable atrocities in the name of science on countless Jews and had sent them to their death is ironically running a clinic with his wife, where he aids in awakening lives growing inside wombs. 

While most Hollywood directors would have found it difficult not to give in to the temptation of showcasing at least some spying techniques and gadgetry, Bernstein eschews such gimmicks (except in one instance, involving a hidden camera) and builds up the tension, instead, through interactions and conversations, especially between Rachel and the ‘doctor’. In scenes reminiscent of Lewis Gilbert’s Operation Daybreak (1975), we find Rachel, Zvi, and Ehud getting acquainted with the former Nazi’s daily routine in order to determine where, when, and how they could bring their plan to fruition.

Even though the kidnapping takes place smoothly, unforeseen hitches arise in deporting Reiner back to Israel; and the trio is assigned the job to feed, shave, and keep constant vigil on their bound and gagged captive. But, soon enough they find out that even though years have passed since he committed his last ‘experiment’ on hapless Jews, Reiner still possesses a seething disdain towards the race. Moreover, the skilled surgeon has an uncanny knack of finding the raw nerve in each of the three Mossad agents; and is equally adept at manipulative mind games as he is with a speculum. As days pass by, and reasons beyond the control of Rachel, Zvi, and Ehud keep stalling Reiner’s deportation, their frustration begins to grow. Seizing this opportunity, the shrewd surgeon plays on his captors’ weaknesses, until the unthinkable happens.

Rachel has always held herself responsible for what happened on that fateful night. So, even though age is no longer by her side, she takes it upon herself to finish what she should have over three decades ago. But as she embarks on her journey to Ukraine, little does she know that life will yet again pull a surprise or two on her.

Winner of four Ophir Awards (the Israeli version of the Academy Awards), Ha-Hov’s basic storyline—that of a dreaded Nazi living amongst us—has already been touched upon by films like The Odessa File (1974), Marathon Man (1976), Tras el Cristal (1987), and Apt Pupil (1998), to name just a few. But Bernstein’s endeavour differentiates itself from these aforementioned films simply by offering a much broader perspective to the ‘identity’ factor. While other movies dealing with the same subject have focused primarily on unmasking a German war criminal, Bernstein has not only weaved in the dual identity element in each of his film’s primary characters, but has also depicted how horrific events during World War II continues to forge the identity of Israel as a nation. Being an Israeli himself adds that extra bit of authenticity in what he has depicted on celluloid. It also helps that none of his three chief characters exhibit even a semblance of ‘heroics’ that we are so accustomed to when watching a film involving ‘secret agents’. In fact, they are as human as they come—replete with all the usual frailties, faults, and failings.

Although the  history of cinema does present more than a few evidences to the contrary, it remains a fact that second-hand knowledge is often second-best to what has actually been experienced either at the personal level or as part of collective consciousness. And that is precisely why, the Hollywood remake of Ha-Hov, titled The Debt (2010) starring Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciarán Hinds might not only feel like an infructuous exercise, but one that will, in all probability, fail to touch a chord, because it runs the risk of also being labeled as ‘pretentious’.  

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Camera, Creatures, and Conflict

Every culture has its own mystical, mythical creatures. The English have their grindylow; the Irish their leprechaun; the Americans have bigfoot; the German their doppelgänger; the Greeks have their cyclops and gorgon; the Scandinavians their kraken; the Arabs have djinns; the Slavs have vampires; the Scots have the Loch Ness monster; the Jewish have their leviathan; the Japanese have oni; while we, the Hindus have our danavas, rakshasas, and icchadhaari nags.

In his second directorial venture, Trolljegeren a.k.a. TrollHunter (2010) the Norwegian director André Øvredal has brought to life a similar legendary creature from Nordic folklore—the troll, which is typically a hideous cave-dwelling being that is as old as the mountains and forests in which it dwells. 

Narrated in a found-footage format—a genre pioneered by Ruggero Deodato in his notorious Cannibal Holocaust (1980); that includes The Blair Witch Project (1999), Paranormal Activity (2007), REC (2007), Cloverfield (2008), and Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)—we are informed via a disclaimer at the beginning of the film that what we are about to see is an uncut version of almost five hours of footage found in two hard drives. Unlike most other examples of this particular genre, which jar the senses and leave behind a feeling of motion sickness due to the epileptic seizures that seem to grasp the camera in a stranglehold every now and then, the found-footage style actually works for Trolljegeren. This is simply because it treats the narrative style not as a gimmick, but as a visual representation of its basic premise—fairy tales.

After all, in our childhood, those stories were brought to life by someone else—our parents or even our grandparents—who read them to us. We saw in our mind’s eye what they described while narrating the awe-inducing worlds hidden within those pages. In Trolljegeren, we see what three college students: Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterus), Johanna (Johanna Mørck), and Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen) encountered while they accompanied Hans (Otto Jespersen), an unsung hero of Norway—a hunter whose identity and profession are both a national secret—in his perilous missions aboard his UV-floodlight equipped, armoured with iron spikes Land Rover.

It is a classic fairytale set up. Three characters, who depict our mind (Thomas, the reporter), eyes (Kalle, the cameraman), and our ears (Johanna, the sound recordist) befriend an intrepid hunter of mythical creatures and embark on the adventure of their lifetime. As the trio gradually eases their way into Hans’ life and livelihood, we, too, find ourselves warming up to this gruff, physically scarred man, and beginning to buy into his eccentricities.

We learn how Hans, an ex-Navy man, is the sole troll hunter in the whole of Norway—a job he has been silently carrying out for over three decades. We realise how officials from the country’s wildlife advisory board are involved in creating a smokescreen about trolls’ existence, by hoodwinking the general public in believing that it is bears or tornadoes that are uprooting trees and shifting boulders. Most importantly, we get an insight into these centuries-old creatures. While tracking trolls with remarkable names such as raglefant, tusseladd, and dovregubben, Thomas, Johanna and Kalle find out that some trolls have three heads, while others are giants; the best way to avoid being sniffed out by a troll is to rub one’s body with troll stink; they love to chew on old tyres, though their normal diet is rocks; they are nocturnal creatures, who can detect Christian blood from afar; and that ultraviolet rays are fatal to trolls—a burst of it and they are likely to turn to stone or simply explode. 

But such pedantic knowledge pale in comparison to the first-hand experience of coming face-to-face with a three-headed tusseladd. The initial fear of having a giant creature stomping towards the camera while uttering a blood-curdling roar soon makes way to the glee that follows the realisation that the bedtime stories one had listened in rapt attention to during our childhood were in fact true! We find this emotion writ large on Johanna’s face once Hans calcifies the monstrous creature using UV ray floodlights. Øvredal had, in fact, portended that the character who would be the first to embrace the fact that trolls could be around us had to be Johanna when he had focused on her playing with a stuffed tiger that looked like Hobbes. Surely, a girl who believes in a talking tiger would be more susceptible to a towering troll!

Like a seasoned storyteller, the two-film-old Øvredal, and his co-writer Håvard S Johansen are both aware that the spine of any story, fairy tale or otherwise, is conflict. While the clash between man and beast is evident in the title of the film itself—with a reference to the adverse effect of global warming on flora, fauna, and wildlife thrown in for good measure—there are other, more subtle, allusions, as well. Hans reveals he hates his job, not so much because the pay is meagre and he has to work nights, but because he regrets having to massacre pregnant, and even young trolls, who can barely walk. At a more broad level, the perpetual discord between fantasy and reality—and our preponderance to find a ‘natural solution’ to everything—is brought to the fore when Øvredal offers a faux-scientific explanation to why trolls cannot stand sunlight and any other source of ultraviolet radiation. It is as if sunlight is a metaphor for the light of knowledge and rationality that turns these walking mythical creatures into immobile rubbles of stone. And therein lies a similarity with us. While for humans it is ashes to ashes and dust to dust, these concrete-eating creatures return to stone.

In keeping with the fairy tale flavour, Øvredal has also peppered his film with humour. It is impossible to keep a straight face when a ghillie suit attired Hans burst out of the jungle screaming ‘Trolls!’ or when a Polish guy expresses in broken English his desire not to ask questions because it might lead to problems he would love to avoid by uttering, ‘Why problem make when you know problem have you don’t want to make?’ Perhaps, the best example of humour occurs at the fag end of the film. In sync with the essence of Trolljegeren, which mixes fantasy with reality, Øvredal takes an actual footage of a press conference by the Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, where he had mentioned the word ‘troll’. Though the context was different—the politician was actually referring to an oilfield beyond the Norwegian coast, which has the same name as the mythical creature—the innovative editing does elicit smiles. 

As a filmmaking fraternity, the Nordic industry has been experiencing a second coming of late. In 2009, Norway burst into the limelight with the Nazi zombie flick Død Snø, or Dead Snow. A year later, the Finns turned the concept of Santa Claus on its head with the superlative Rare Exports. Now, with Trolljegeren, Øvredal has succeeded in something that has for a long time been the realm of directors like Spielberg—reliving our childhood, revisiting our infantile fantasies, and reaffirming our belief in them. 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Vérité, Viewer, and Violence

Even though the option of shooting in colour was available as far back as 1908, throughout the history of cinema, filmmakers have reverted to black-and-white for myriad reasons. Hitchcock opted for it in Psycho (1960) because he believed the graphic violence depicted in the film would be too gory in colour. However, some critics believe the reasons were more practical than aesthetic—for instance, the difference between chocolate syrup (which was used in the much-celebrated shower scene) and blood is easily discernible in colour footage. There are still others, who are of the opinion the real reason behind shooting Psycho in monochrome was a tight budget. Ironically, it is colour that played a part in Scorsese deciding to film the gritty Raging Bull (1980) in black-and-white. It is said that when the British film director Michael Powell pointed out an anachronism—the boxing gloves being used was of the wrong tint—Scorsese chose to forsake hues altogether. Spielberg, on the other hand, followed the same logic as Hitchcock, while filming his Holocaust saga Schindler’s List (1993) in black-and-white. Evoking a sense of nostalgia might have contributed, too. 

Aestheticity and authenticity aside, if there ever was a movie that needed to be made in monochrome, it, arguably, is the Belgian cult favourite Man Bites Dog (originally Cest arrivé près de chezvous, or It Happened in your Neighbourhood). Directed by three rookie filmmakers—Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, and Benoît Poelvoorde; who co-wrote the screenplay and also co-starred in the production, while working on a shoestring budget—it brings to the fore the darkest side of human nature and makes an incisive statement on our obsession with televised tragedy, all the while lacing the bitter message with a generous dollop of black humour.

Shot in cinema vérité style— Rémy, André, Benoît, and quite a few secondary characters retain their original first names in the film, to add to the authenticity—there is however, a subtle falsehood in the opening credit sequence. From the perspective of a train rushing through a tunnel, we are given a glimpse of light at the end. Unfortunately, those who will be able to withstand the audacious affront and stinging satire interwoven in almost every frame of this 93-minute-long exploration of voyeurism, there will be no metaphorical light once the film is over.

For, as Man Bites Dog—the title is derived from a journalistic aphorism of what constitutes news—progresses along its runtime, we, the viewer, are slowly but steadily pushed deeper and deeper into the murky world of Benoît, a serial killer, who is the subject of a documentary being produced by Rémy and his crew. No matter how improbable it might seem, in Benoît, we find a character who steals the thunder from the immensely infamous Hannibal Lecter, who had made his first appearance on celluloid just a year earlier. While Lecter was really terrifying, Benoît and his atrocities are terrifyingly real. 

To be frank, if our introduction to Benoît had been under different circumstances—within moments of appearing on screen, he drags a woman from the passageway of a moving train into his coupe and kills her with childish glee—we would have loved to hang around with him. After all, he does give the impression of a friendly guy with a goofy grin, who seems to know his F sharp from F natural; is equally at ease with topics that range from pioneering architects like Antoni Gaudi, Victor Horta, and Frank Lloyd Wright to expressionist painters such as Bernard Buffet and musicians like Charles Trenet; recites poetry impromptu; has an in-depth idea about the mating rituals of pigeons; can regale us by making any part of his body move on its own; and has an informed opinion on almost everything under the sun: from construction materials, man-woman relations, to movies starring the French actor Philippe Noiret.

Unlike most other serial-killer films that use the ploy of a mental malady like multiple personality disorder or at least offers a back story to explain the murderous trait being exhibited on screen, Man Bites Dog eschews any such ploys and makes it quite apparent that what we see in Benoît is what we get. Moreover, in contrast to others of his ilk, Benoît, a homophobic, xenophobic, racist individual who can ooze class in one moment and be utterly crass the other, is a compulsive exhibitionist, who grabs every opportunity that comes his way to reveal the tricks of his trade (for instance, the varied methods of ballasting a corpse to ensure that the body sinks and does not float when dumped into a stream) and basks in the warm glow of a sense of pride he feels in showing off as he smothers, shoots, and suffocates his ever-growing list of unfortunate victims.

One would be tempted to brand such an individual as a lunatic. But the manner in which he improvises his modus operandi (scaring an elderly woman to death by screaming at her, and thereby ‘saving one bullet’); the keen sense of observation he displays (realising that the aforementioned victim was a cardiac patient because he had immediately noticed a box of Sedocar: a drug for heart patients, in the room); the logic he provides behind going for the small fry (‘I work small and reap big’); and the unambiguous clarity he shows by asking the sound operator to bring the microphone closer so that the crunch of a neck being broken can be recorded on tape reveal that he clearly enjoys what he does and does not deny any sense of responsibility for his actions. 

While the portrayal of dastardly dealers of death on film are a dime a dozen, what elevates Man Bites Dog above the usual fare of serial killer flicks is that it makes the media—via the film crew following Benoît wherever he goes—and, as a corollary, us, the viewer, complicit in his actions. While we identify with the reluctance and trepidation that Rémy (the director of the documentary), André (the cameraman), and Patrick (the sound recordist) show when Benoît invites them for a seaside dinner after having mercilessly snuffed out another life, we also find us scurrying in our minds for the answer to a quiz question that Benoît poses to Rémy later on in the film.

As the participation of the director and his crew members gradually increases from shining the spotlight in a dark alley and changing over to the zoom lens to help Benoît locate another victim, to getting actively involved in the gangrape of a woman in front of her naked and terrified husband; to our utter horror, we discover that we, too, have been stripped of our sense of morality as we keep staring at the screen.

Winner of the International Critics’ Award at Cannes in 1992, Man Bites Dog asked several significant questions almost two decades ago that are all the more pertinent in today’s day and age of round-the-clock news channels and reality TV: What exactly is the definition of news? In their misplaced enthusiasm in getting the next ‘scoop’, is the media acting as a partner in crime? And, most importantly, are we, the viewer, influencing media or is it the other way round? 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Dinner, Drinks, and Dread

As moviegoers, each one of us has our own dipstick for chaffing out films that are great from those that grate on our nerves. In my case, it is a simple matter of whether I am thinking ‘How will this end?’ as a film nears its dénouement or ‘When will this end?’ In other words, what I am watching has to be engaging enough to keep me guessing till its climax and well into it. Speaking of which, there is another hallmark for a memorable film, in my opinion.  It either ends exactly where I thought it would (for example, Hitchcock’s Notorious [1946]) or it throws a curveball and floors me completely (for instance, Scream of Fear [1961]; The Ninth Configuration [1980]; Dead of Night [1945] among many others). What makes Nick Tomnay’s maiden feature film The Perfect Host (2010)—which he edited and wrote as well—based on his own short The Host (2001), tick is that it manages to tick all the right boxes.

The one-line descriptor for the film on IMDB: ‘A criminal on the run cons his way into the wrong dinner party where the host is anything but ordinary’, and the accompanying poster do both a service and a disservice to this unknown little gem. They give away the spine on which the story hinges. The trailer on YouTube is even worse. While viewing it, it will not take long for the discerning eye to spot a ‘twist’ in the tale.

Thankfully, The Perfect Host does not get affected by these inadvertent revelations primarily because it is not a one-trick pony. Like an offering from a gourmet chef, the film is multi-layered, with tantalising surprises galore.

The tone is set quite appetisingly, in one of the early sequences of the film, when John Taylor (Clayne Crawford), a career criminal on the run from the law after robbing a bank enters a departmental store to buy some medication for his heavily bleeding foot. At that precise moment, there occurs a stick up in the store by a revolver-wielding woman. In a darkly comic scene, when the thief asks the store owner to put all the cash in his register in a bag, the Chinese man asks ‘Paper or plastic?’ The woman settles for the latter—an obviously wrong choice, thereby auguring an incorrect decision that John will be making a few minutes later. Another important foreboding is weaved into the same sequence when John manages to outwit the robber, by pulling a gun on her, instead; followed by the store owner sticking a pistol at John’s face. Tables are turned, as they will continue to be, on quite a few occasions henceforth. 

Desperately seeking a safe haven, armed with a lie, John manages to get inside the impressive house of Warwick Wilson (David Hyde Pierce, whose claim to fame is portraying Dr Niles Crane in the TV series Frasier). Warwick is an affable guy and a cleanliness freak with a curious gait, who is alone at home, busy preparing dinner for four of his old friends—Roman (Tyrees Allen), Rupert (Cooper Barnes), Chelsea (Annie Campbell), and Monica (Indira G Wilson)—when the doorbell rings.

Offering John an unlimited supply from his stock of red wine, while admitting ‘I’m a bit of a white man myself; red’s a bit heavy for my constitution’, Warwick ushers his guest in, in a manner in sync with the title of the film. But as times passes by, both John and we, the viewer, will learn that even though red wine is not to his taste, the colour red is something Warwick definitely fancies.

A film that effectively turns the ‘home invasion’ genre on its head—and is reminiscent of the Anurag Kashyap-penned, Ramgopal Varma-directed superlative Kaun (1999), sans Urmila Matondkar’s histrionics—The Perfect Host is one of those rare films that encourages us to listen carefully. For it peppers the dialogues—major chunk of the film is nothing but a tête-à-tête between Warwick and John—with clues. These clues pertain to both what is about to happen (‘Cleaning up your nasty mess’) as well as an insight into both their characters (‘You’re my guest and I’m glad you’re here, but you only got yourself to blame’). The essence of a dark comedy, laid down during the departmental store scene, is also kept intact with such classic lines (delivered to perfection by Pierce) as Warwick exclaiming ‘You can’t kill me, I’m having a dinner party’ while being threatened by John at knifepoint. 

While deftly handling the minimalist setting of his film, Tomnay displays that he is equally adept at visual metaphor. In one scene, to hide John from the eyes of a prying neighbour, Warwick puts a mask on his guest—a mask of the creature from Jack Arnold’s cult-classic Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). As the masked John tries in vain to communicate with the lady, while being restrained by Warwick, we realise how the concept and depiction of the ‘monster’ has changed in the past six-odd decades. At the same time, we also marvel at Tomnay’s mastery in portraying how the face our next door neighbour wears can be a mask in itself.

It will be thoroughly unfair to review The Perfect Host without showering accolades on David Hyde Pierce’s performance. It is indeed difficult to point out, after Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), another character on film who elicited so much dread while dancing.

At the same time, one does need to acknowledge that the film itself is not ‘perfect’. The barrage of twists that are infused into the last quarter of its 93-minute duration might appear to be an exercise in overkill for some. The prolonged flashback sequences, dealing with Taylor and his fiancée Simone (Megahn Perry) can also be labeled as mostly redundant. 

However, what makes this under-seen, under-appreciated effort that flew under the radar a laudable one is that it relies largely on an intelligent interplay between two characters. It is a venture that reminds us and restores our faith in the fact that—in this age of CGI and ‘Bayhem’—there was a reason movies were labeled ‘talkies’ long time ago.

And for serving that sole purpose, if for nothing else, this is one host one would like to raise a toast to.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Illusion, Infatuation, and Ineptitude

From the opening sequence—an animated one—of his second feature film L’autre Monde (Black Heaven), where white snow flakes shower down from a jet black sky, French director-screenwriter Gilles Marchand makes it quite apparent that his film will deal with duality. As if to drive home the point, a platinum blonde appears on screen, dressed in black, whose strands of hair are in stark contrast to the dark cityscape. From intra-sequence contrast, the director then deftly segues to the next scene—set in a warm, sunny seashore in the south of France; as opposed to the cold, gloomy setting of the preceding one.

It is here that we meet the young protagonist of the film, Gaspard (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), his fiancée Marion (Pauline Etienne), and his two friends: Yann (Pierre Niney) and Ludo (Ali Marhyar). Frolicking in the sea, while jumping into the clear blue water, little do Gaspard and Marion know that soon they will find themselves knee-deep in murky waters. Inside a pool locker, the duo finds a cellphone. Their curiosity gets piqued when they pick up a call from the curiously named ‘Dragon’ and also take a look at a number of images stored inside the cellphone of a heavily mascara-ed blonde named Sam (Louise Bourgoin).

Deciding to play detective, Gaspard and Marion arrive at the place where Dragon had decided to meet Sam. They keep following the mysterious couple only to lose them at a quarry and rediscover them sometime later, trying to—what appears to be—carry out a suicide pact. While rescuing Sam, Gaspard also finds a DV camera, which, he surreptitiously slides into his pocket. 

At home, while watching the video recording, Gaspard finds himself slowly getting enamoured by the beguiling blonde, Sam. He also learns of an online game called ‘Black Hole’, which seems to hold the answers to a lot of questions about Sam, Dragon, and their partially botched suicide ceremony.  

After picking up the basics at a gaming zone, Gaspard buys a copy of ‘Black Hole’. Taking advantage of the anonymity that any such game provides, he decides to create an avatar for himself, named Gordon, which is diametrically opposite to him in real life. Slowly, but gradually, as he delves deeper into the virtual world of ‘Black Hole’ he starts picking up the tricks—how to survive and how to fight. A chance encounter with another character leads him to ‘Heaven’—a tall building that unsurprisingly touches the sky and is guarded by an all-seeing eye.

In the real world, by a quirk of fate, Gaspard meets Sam once again, only to find that she is called Audrey and has an over-protective brother named Vincent (Melvil Poupaud). In a perilous drag-racing sequence, involving an inebriated Ludo, Gaspard gets a glimpse of the violent streak in Vincent. Meanwhile, he is hopelessly attracted towards Audrey. Sourcing her out in ‘Black Hole’ he finds her avatar Sam is a singer. Under the guise of Gordon, he interacts more and more with Sam in the virtual world, who explains to him its ways. Gaspard is told that when a character dies in the ‘Black Hole’ s/he goes to a place called ‘purgatory’, from where it is extremely difficult to return but for which Sam has a particular fondness.

As Gaspard’s avatar finds himself bewitched by Sam, in real life he becomes more and more distant from both Marion and his two other friends. He even connives in the cyber universe to ensure that Audrey gets closer to him in the real world. Blinded by Sam’s lure, he is ignorant that there exists a truly dark side to the ‘Black Hole’. It is a game that its players use to have a fatal influence on other players in real life. 

L’autre Monde had all the ingredients to be a true ‘breakout’ film (it was screened at the breakout selection of the midnight section of Cannes in 2010). But towards the latter half, the film simply falls apart. What could have been a searing indictment of the isolation, anonymity, and deceit that are so often associated with the gaming culture ends up being a hackneyed effort at intermixing real life with virtual reality. It fails equally in treading new ground when it comes to depicting our age-old fascination with the unknown and the unattainable.

While both Marchand and his co screenwriter Dominik Moll should share the blame for allowing a promising storyline to peter off into triteness, a part of the fault also lies with the actors. Like the game itself—which bears an uncanny resemblance to ‘Afterlife’ and has a visual aesthetic reminiscent of ‘Tron’—the major characters are all good to look at but have very little substance. Louise Bourgoin’s character had the potential of cementing its place in the film firmament as a neo femme fatale. Unfortunately, the similarities only remained superficial. Similarly, even though it would have been easier for us to sympathise with the jilted Marion, some of the lines she mouths (a particular gem was: ‘There are two kinds of people. Some are nice, others aren’t’!) make one balk.

The biggest culprit has to be Leprince-Ringuet. Where Gaspard should have been multi-dimensional as a character, Leprince-Ringuet paints him in really broad strokes, much like the way Gaspard uses a paintbrush on the walls of his apartment’s hallway.

Like any online game, the success of a film that deals with one, should also hinge on its replayability. That is obviously not true for L’autre Monde. Even more ironical is the fact that as a film dealing with duality, it succeeds in making the virtual space of ‘Black Hole’ more real than the flesh-and-blood characters that inhabit its real world.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Fear, Fiends, and Family

In Wes Craven’s Scream (1996)—a simultaneous satire of and salute to the then-fledgling horror genre—a character prided himself of knowing all the unwritten rules of horror films. One of those principles should definitely be ‘Scare the audience precisely when they are feeling safe’. And if there is one place where every individual feels secure, it has to be his/her home. After all, there is even an idiom in English: ‘as safe as houses’.

The ‘home invasion’ sub-genre of horror films subverts this saying. While most haunted house films’ basic premise lies in the living violating the estate of the dead; in ‘home invasion’ films, the act of trespassing invariably occurs on the property of the living, and that, too, by the living. Also, more often than not, such films bring to the fore the latent beast within us all. It is as if to imply that a sense of territoriality is not a characteristic merely of animals, but of man, as well.

Each one of us, to some degree or the other, harbours a fear of burglars. There is even a scientific term for it: scelerophobia. But in ‘home invasion’ films, it is not a family’s jewels, which are at stake. In fact, the stakes are way higher. In Miguel Ángel Vivas’ second feature Secuestrados (2010) a.k.a Kidnapped; it is an entire family of three that is at peril.

Though we never really get to learn what he does for a living or his surname, it is quite obvious that Jaime (Fernando Cayo, who starred in Juan Antonio Bayona’s superb El Orfanato [2007], and will be seen very soon in Pedro Almodovar’s latest offering The Skin I Live In) is doing very well for himself. Along with his wife Marta (Ana Wagener) and teenage daughter Isa (Manuela Vellés), he has just shifted into an impressive house, replete with their own swimming pool, located within a gated community.

To celebrate the first dinner together as a family at their new residence, Marta has arranged for a bottle of champagne. But Isa has other ideas. Like most other eighteen-year olds, rather than spending time with her parents, she would prefer, instead, to go to a party with her boyfriend César. Moreover, as Jaime realises, Isa is having trouble adjusting to her new surroundings, which she labels as a ‘graveyard’—a term that, unknown to her, portends to what is about to follow.

During the first quarter of an hour of this 85-minute film, we observe an almost incessant argument between Marta and Isa. Marta is, we get to learn, quite fond of César. But just for that particular day, she would rather have her daughter stay with her than go out with her fiancé. When her initial cajoling and coaxing fail to have any effect on the adamant Isa, Marta sternly puts her foot down; even insisting that Jaime would side with her in this argument. However, to her utter chagrin, Jaime approves of Isa’s idea, and therein begins another squabble—this time between husband and wife.

In other words, we witness a mother trying to gather her family together for one ‘special’ dinner, and failing miserably to get across to her rebellious daughter. Her husband, on the other hand, is a lot more concerned with whether a gum boil is making its reappearance inside his mouth than playing peacemaker. Little did Jaime know that very soon he will have a lot more to be concerned about. Nor was Marta aware that her wish of Isa forsaking the party for the sake of her family will come true, but in a manner she could never have imagined.

As the couple find themselves drained out at the end of a really long day, and try to figure out apparently mundane but important issues like how to persuade the plumbers to ensure continuous supply of hot water in the bathroom or getting the Internet up and running soon, three Albanian men, with their faces hidden behind ski masks force their way into the house.

Now huddled on a sofa than at a dining table, the family members are forced to hand over all their debit cards and reveal the ATM PIN of each. When Jaime tries to outwit the leader of the burglars— when asked to reveal the whereabouts of his cell phone—we realise the masked intruders cannot be outsmarted easily. They put a plastic bag around Marta’s head and try to suffocate her as a warning to Jaime not to try such tricks again. If the opening sequence of the film was any indication, we know, but Jaime does not, that the trio are not amateurs—but pros in the act of breaking into houses and breaking the spirit of their residents.

‘I like to have things easy’ reveals the leader to Jaime. But, inevitably, things get complicated—both for the robbers and for the family. Complications arise when one of the three criminals, in a fit of rage, decides to disobey his boss’ orders. The goings-on get even murkier when a security guard arrives at the doorstep, acting on the neighbours’ complaints of hearing screams emerging from Jaime’s house. As the initial plan of the burglars begins to get completely messed up, Secuestrados builds up to a climax that is both depressing and disconcerting.

Forty-four years ago, Terence Young had a sinister and cold-blooded Alan Arkin and two other thugs terrorise a visually impaired Audrey Hepburn in her apartment in Wait until Dark, thereby sowing the seeds for a new tenet: ‘Home is where the hurt is’. Since then, this horror sub-genre has been visited by a number of famous directors (Sam Peckinpah: Straw Dogs [1971]; Michael Haneke: Funny Games [1997 and 2007]; and David Fincher: Panic Room [2002]). As they subvert one of mankind’s basic beliefs—that of the home being safe—these films are often unapologetically brutal. Cases in point are Angst (1983), a German film whose camerawork has had a profound impact on the notorious Argentine filmmaker Gaspar Noé; Hard Candy (2005), where Ellen Page went on a rampage; the Romanian film Ils (2006) and its Hollywood remake The Strangers (2008)—both of which had a brilliant twist in the tail; and the French film Á l’intérieur (2007) that pushed the envelope quite far when it comes to gore and violence.
There are shades of almost all these films in Secuestrados. The hooded intruders of Ils, the saving the honour aspect of Straw Dogs, the element of brutality towards an older woman of Angst, the mother-daughter relation of Panic Room, and the cowering bloodied image of a female from Á l’intérieur. Even an infamous scene from Noé’s Irreversible (2002) makes an appearance. While the ‘breaking the fourth wall’ element of Funny Games is missing, Vivas has tried to break new grounds in the subgenre by having only a dozen shots in the film, and by introducing interesting techniques like split screens to depict simultaneous action.

With Hollywood deciding to (yet again) unnecessarily remake Straw Dogs; it seems we no longer need to visit a haunted house to be scared. Because horror is making a lot of house calls these days.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Cops, Crime, and Clairvoyance

The annals of world cinema are replete with examples of teaming ups between an actor and a director. From F W Murnau and Emile Jannings, Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, Ingmar Bergman and Max von Sydow, Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood, John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat, Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski, John Ford and John Wayne, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney; to our very own Satyajit Ray and Soumitra Chatterjee, Manmohan Desai/Prakash Mehra and Amitabh Bachchan, and Karan Johar and Shahrukh Khan—the list is always a work in progress. Equally rare are instances of director duos, who are not siblings. Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai from Hong Kong belong to that sparsely populated elite club of collaborating directors, who are filmically, and not fraternally, connected to one another.

Another interesting aspect of the To-Wai collaboration—as many as eleven out of the seventeen films that Wai has directed till date have To as co-director—is that more often than not, the films have had a supernatural element woven into the plot. Cases in point are: My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (2002), in which a young woman develops the ability to see ghosts after a car accident and Running on Karma (2003), where a monk-turned-bodybuilder finds he has the power to look into people’s lives.

As the opening credits of San Taam (2007) a.k.a Mad Detective—their latest outing together—start rolling, with all the letters appearing in an angular manner, we get the first impression that what is about to follow will be anything but straightforward. That feeling is fortified when we are introduced to the titular character, an inspector of West Kowloon’s District Crime Division, Chan Kwai Bun (portrayed by Lau Ching-Wan—a favourite of Johnnie To, who has featured in several of the director’s films, including A Hero Never Dies [1998]; Where a Good Man Goes [1999]; and Running out of Time [1999]).

Many films have a character who acts as a proxy or surrogate for the audience (Ariadne in Nolan’s Inception, for instance). In San Taam, inspector Ho Ka-On (played by Andy On), a new joinee in Bun's department, acts as the audience’s eyes and ears. It is via him that we are introduced to the oddball Bun, who, we are told is in the middle of an investigation that involves cracking the case of a student’s body being found inside a suitcase. To the utter dismay of both us and Ho, Bun climbs into a suitcase and requests the greenhorn detective to zip it and push it down the stairs. As soon as the suitcase reaches the end of the staircase, out emerges Bun, screaming ‘The ice-cream shop owner is the killer’, as if struck by an epiphany!

Flashes of newspaper headlines make it amply clear to us that irrespective of how zany and unorthodox his methods are Bun has an excellent record in solving criminal cases. But unlike other times, when his colleagues actually requested him to put his uncanny knack for the unconventional to use, the department decided he had gone too far the day he offered a farewell present to the retiring chief that—for want of a better term—can only be called ‘Van Gogh-ish’.

Five years pass by. Banished from the force, one day, the loon from Kowloon finds a visitor at his doorstep. It is none other than Ho. Initially reluctant to even speak with Ho, Bun’s interest gets piqued when Ho tells him that even though he had worked with him for only two days, he considers Bun to be his idol. In fact, when Ho’s gun developed a defect, he was given a new one—Bun’s. And it is a gun that forms an integral part of a case that Ho is now in charge of—a case in which he wants Bun’s help.

The extent to which Bun’s nickname suits him becomes apparent once he revisits the department that he was once the pride of. During the briefing session on the case for which his assistance has been sought, both Ho and us get to learn that Bun has a special ability—that of seeing the inner demons of a person.

It is here that To and Wai have displayed their finesse as filmmakers. What Bun sees in a person is different aspects of the same self, but as separate individuals—can even be of different sex—each with distinct nature and objectives. While this preposterous plot point is taken with more than a pinch of salt by both Ho and us, gradually, as the film progresses, we warm up both to this suited-booted-sans-socks oddity and his frequent ‘visions’.

And just when we find ourselves at ease with Bun’s philosophy (‘Apply emotions to investigate, not logic’) and the methods behind his madness (which includes using his index finger as a pistol as he recreates each crime scene, a request to be buried alive, and ordering the same dishes again and again at a restaurant), like master storytellers, To and Wai plant a seed of doubt in our minds. We are left to wonder if Ho’s quirkiness is nothing but evidence of a mind in complete disarray.

While some of us might point out ‘The more complicated the story, the better for us’—a line spoken by a character in San Taam as a description of the film itself; especially in the context of the convoluted climax that is equal parts The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and Enter the Dragon (1973), the film is a success in the sense that it makes us question where exactly sanity ends and insanity begins—a point brought to the fore by the translation of the film’s title. The literal English translation of San Taam is ‘godly detective’, while the international title is ‘mad detective’ proving once again that there is indeed a very thin line between being a seer and being sneered at.