Unread -- A Silent, Substantial Short FIlm

                            ‘Limited-time, simple concept, small budget and lively messages’ – Short films are an art form in its own right. Ever since the cinema’s inception, this popular mode has broken many conventional barriers. In this Smartphone, viral-marketing age, short films are more relevant than ever, conveying large information and big emotions. The recent plethora of short film competitions are slowly changing the face of Indian cinema, imparting different insights about our culturally diverse country. One such great initiative is the 'Large Short Films', which is sponsored by Royal Stag Mega Movies and backed by illustrious film-makers like Anurag Kashyap, Sudhir Mishra and Chakri Toleti. It provides a platform for short film-makers to gain the necessary recognition and exposure. Chakri Toleti’s “Unread” is the latest short film brought out by ‘Large Short Films.’ It pictures a minuscule portrait of a street urchin and the chance friendship he develops.

                           The 15 min long “Unread” remains silent (there are even inter-titles) and only speaks through emotions. It takes place in some grimy Indian city, where a large number of children are sleeping on the roadside. Although, no authentic surveys were undertaken, the number of street children in India may cross a million. Mani is one such boy – a victim of economic woes and poverty. A policeman (played by Tinu Anand), reminiscent of Chaplin’s classic “The Kid” fiercely wakes up these boys. But, unlike Chaplin’s policeman, this guy is an Indian, and so demands money to stay in the streets. Mani cleans wind-shields of cars to support himself and to pay all these local bullies. On one such occasion, he meets an innocuous little girl, who tries to help him get away from the grubby hands of the cop. Later, the hopeful boy gets a letter from that girl. Unable to read what’s in it, he hopes to find a compassionate soul to read him the kind message.

                          “Unread” incongruous setting shows us that for every Ambani’s and Tata’s, there are thousands of anonymous souls, living in the pavement, struggling to make ends meet, without dropping off hope in their heart. In short films, such as this, one should choose a poignant face for central characters so that we can empathize with them. Mani infuses empathy, but never pity, since he comes off as a determined boy. 

                          I think silent movies have stood the test of time because rather that gimmickry, it uses emotions that are universal. So, it is a commendable effort by Chakri Toleti to use this high-level artistic expression to marshal our emotions. The budding friendship is also depicted in an elegant manner, without any modern anticipation. Clarinetist Shankar Tucker’s music amasses poignancy to the story.

                          “Unread” reads through the simple, but arduous life of a street urchin, filled with warmth, joy, dream and hope. 



Animal Kingdom -- The Precipitous Downfall of an Animalistic Family

                                    Movies about criminal families (like “Godfather” or TV series “Sopranos") are all destined to give us naturalistic dramas, rich in psychology and a keen eye for details. Australian director David Michod’s debut feature film, “Animal Kingdom” (2010) belongs to that category, where the gruesome crimes and its ruthless perpetrators are never glamorized. It is about a family of vicious, dying families. ‘Animals’ – that’s the right word to describe these unhinged human beings. It is a tale, where everything is soaked with grimness, yet at the same time, we could find something poetic and beautiful.

                                  “Animal Kingdom” is set in blue-collar gangland of Melbourne. The film begins with dark sense of humor, as we see 17-year-old Joshua (James Frecheville) aka J, sitting on a couch, watching a game show on TV, while his mom has slumped near him. Few minutes later, a pair of medic arrives and tells to the boy, while he is looking at the television, that his mother has just overdosed on heroin. This banal or horrific scenario sets up the tome for what comes next. The orphaned Josh calls for grandmother ‘Smurf’ Cody’s (Jackie Weaver) help. Josh’s mother seems to have estranged from her mother because of that household of aggressive males. Janine affectionately takes her grandson and introduces him to three of her bank-robbing sons (by various fathers).

                                  Barry (Joel Edgerton) is the family friend and criminal partner, who has given up the crime life by settling with his family and has even, figured out the tropes of stock market; Uncle Darren (Luke Ford) introspective guy, who doesn’t talk much; tattooed Uncle Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is a speed dealer and at times tastes his own product; and Uncle Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) – the most dangerous one -- is on the run as several rogue cops want him dead. Joshua gets caught into this whirlwind by bringing his new girlfriend, Nicky (Laura Wheelright) to his new home. The Cody’s are advised to lay low by the lawyer, since the armed-robbery is going out of business. Furthermore, the family has bought as many cops as they could.

                               However, when Barry gets shot by trigger-happy cops in front of shopping mall, the Cody’s comes out strongly. Joshua is asked to steal a car, which is later is used to brutally murder two cops. Pope, Darren and Joshua are arrested for this act of revenge, and with no upholding evidence they soon get released. But, the guileless detective Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce) focuses on Josh (the weakest link), who thinks he may be able to turnaround J, and bring the whole family down. Pope also quickly understands that his nephew is their greatest vulnerability. Tension ratchets up, as Pope and his mother play an appalling endgame.

                              Using a 17 year old is an interesting dramatic device, as we observe the abominable family through his eyes. Frecheville is aptly casted in this role as he is watchful and wary of the proceedings, happening around him. He transforms from being an emotionless boy, watching a game show to a man with hard survival instincts. Jacki Weaver (the role got her an Oscar nomination) plays one of the most ferocious crime mothers on-screen. She performs her character with a greater subtlety. Weaver introduces herself as a doting grandmother and gradually reveals her manipulation and cold authority on her offspring and grandson. Her demand of the good-bye kisses tells them: ‘Do not cross me, ever.’

                             Despite Weaver’s presence, the film’s chilling role goes to Ben Mendelsohn’s Pope. This under-rated performance is so unnerving that it might make you hate his presence. Although Smurf is the root of all evil, perpetrated by this family, Pope’s bearings instill terror. He obsessively asks his brothers and nephew to open up and confide in him, not with intent to help them, but to develop a pretext for rage and violence. The two biggest names of the cast are Joel Edgerton and Guy Pearce, although ironically, they have small roles. Pearce as the unscrupulous detective is the film’s only moral presence. He plays Lecki in an ambiguous manner. His monologue on ‘bush’ makes us think: is he really concerned for J’s welfare or is he trying to lure ‘J’ to do his job – solving the murders. 

                            Michod’s shows what his movie is about in the first strange montage shots: showcasing a selection of security-video stills of bank robberies in progress. The shots detach us from the thrills of robbing a bank and proceeds on to look at the excruciating aftermath. “Crooks always come undone, one-way, or another” says Joshua and Michod makes this unraveling of crooks, a riveting experience. As in most the art house crime sagas, “Animal Kingdom” isn’t plot-driven. The fascination is in the subtle passages, where we get to know the perturbed personalities. Smurf vaguely dipping a tea-bag, while her sons are getting arrested in the backdrop; Leckie playing with his down-syndrome afflicted child; Pope’s venomous look on Nicky; and ‘J’ hugging his grandmother after splattering down Pope’s brain – these images conveys who these people are, without pages of dialogues.

                           The naturalistic style of “Animal Kingdom” (110 minutes) may not suit everybody. Nonetheless, it is a strong crime drama, which downplays all the typical Hollywood crime elements, and sinks into our consciousness. 


The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada -- An Redemptive Journey in an Unforgiving Terrain

                              Guillermo Arriaga pens scripts like constructing puzzles, where each pieces are meticulously distributed out. At first they seem like unimportant particles attached to the air, but those resolutely intriguing passages slowly attaches to one another in their own time. This fragmented style –which was previously used in “Amores Perros”, “21 Grams” – was deployed in Tommy Lee Jones’s soulful directorial debut, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” (2005). The tag ‘modern Western’ just served as a framework to outstandingly explore the themes of friendship, loyalty, sex, forgiveness and death.  The film gained both acting and writing awards in the Cannes Film Festival. It might generate great interest among those, who have a penchant for less dramatic, darkly comic tales.

                             Maverick American film-maker Sam Peckinpah ventured to South of America in his movies, “The Wild Bunch”, “Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia”, and “Pat Garett & Billy the Kid.” Those films are about characters, namely old-timers, who value friendship and loyalty over other wealth. They stubbornly cling to these values, even though the path might lead them to an imminent death. The principle character in Tommy Jones’ “Three Burials” belongs to that era of old-timers, who in order to fulfill a promise, embarks upon a reckless journey. The film opens on a rugged landscape of Texas, where a corpse of a man is found half-buried out in the middle of nowhere. The buried man is later identified as Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo), by his friend Pete Perkins (Tommy Jones), a ranch hand. Estrada seems to be an illegal immigrant, who has crossed the border to find a job to support the family.

                           In the jumbled-up flashbacks, we see Estrada forging a strong bond with Perkins. Pete’s doesn’t have much of a human connection, except for Estrada and Rachel (Melissa Leo) – the waitress and wayward wife of local restaurant owner. Rachel also has an affair with local Sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam). The death of Melquiades Estrada is accidental. The man, who was firing at a coyote, was mistakenly shot by a border patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper). Through the flashbacks, we get to Norton, who is a hot-headed and quick-tempered guy. He has married his high-school sweetheart, Lou Ann (January Jones). The uncommonly gorgeous Lou Ann hates Norton’s sullen mood and gets bored with this small town, and spends her day in the vacant diner, staring at other tables.

                          Norton hides the body (burial no. 1) and the sleazy sheriff digs it out and buries it quickly (burial no.2) to stop any investigations on the killing of an illegal immigrant. But, Pete is not the guy who would leave his friend to rot in unmarked grave. He has promised earlier to Estrada that, he would bury in his home town and pass the news to his family. Taking Estrada’s family photo, Perkins kidnaps Mike and forces him to first dig up the body, hoists it on his horse and takes along Mike for a journey, beyond the river in a Mexican town called Jimenez (burial no.3). Norton’s fate hangs in balance, while he recognizes the stupidity and severity of his own horrible act.

                           Jones’ acute direction and Arriaga’s script gives the journey a full-bodied dimensionality. The traditional journey in Western film has always served as a metaphor for the divide between civilization and the wilderness, but in “Three Burials”, the journey is wholly meant for Norton’s redemption. The hot-tempered, self-possessed Norton disregards everyone but himself (his sex scene with wife, Lou Ann is the film’s most heart-breaking as well as bleakly funny scene), but in the end, he seems to be the weakest of the characters and truly begs for the forgiveness. So, in the end, it’s not just about three burials of Estrada, but also about the rebirth of Mike Norton. Arriaga also uses the narrative as a critique on American treatment of illegal immigrants.

                           Comic absurdity is rampantly spread throughout the scene: particularly, in the scene, when Pete’s attends to Melquiades’ rapidly deteriorating corpse, by partially burning it to kill the devouring ants and later gently brushes the corpse’ hair, which falls in clumps. One particular sequence conveyed the harsh realities of this landscape: not the snake bite, Norton endures; it contains the impactful cameo of Levon Helm (a 70’s rock legend), who plays the role of blind hermit. The visually challenged 70+ man has no one. His son might have died. All day, this old man only hears a Mexican radio station, not because he understands the language, but for the ecstatic voices. When Norton and Perkins arrive he gives them food and shelter, and later pleads to Pete to help him by end his life, since he finds suicide as ungodly act. This eloquent sequence will definitely stay with you.

                            Chris Menges, the Oscar winning cinematographer gives an overtly epic feel while, at the same time concentrates on the characters and their dilemmas. The sun-baked, rocky mountainous terrain seems to be the expression for the character’s tortured inner lives. Although Jones’ style makes us remember the iconoclastic works of Peckinpah, John Huston, Budd Boetticher and John Sayles, he gives the movie, a life of its own beyond that of mere tribute. As an actor, Tommy Jones’ performance might seem simple and direct, but he always hides strong and complex emotions beating just beneath the surface, mainly to base the story in a definitive reality. Barry Pepper also turns in an exemplary performance as he tries to placate the mood swings of his erratic kidnapper.

                           “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” keeps us intrigued till the last as we don’t have no idea of which direction it is heading. It is an unforgettable meditation on friendship, forgiveness and loyalty, and is bolstered by note-perfect performances. 


13 Best Train Movies

                                  It was late December, in 1895. A group of people watched a train, on screen. The train was seen coming at a long distance. Gradually, the train arrives in the platform, making the people watching it on-screen to comprehend with terror, since they thought the train might burst out of the screen. This celebrated fifty second silent film marked the glorious journey of cinema. Ever since then, the filmmakers have ceaselessly used train imagery for a variety of purposes. Trains – an exalting symbol of modern times – have provided stories of romance, whodunit mysteries and action. Who could forget the tension mounting around the arrival of a train in Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon A Time in West” or the famous, darkly comic train robbery scene in “The Wild Bunch”? Or Edwin S. Porter's eleven minute The Great Train Robbery (1903), one of our foremost narrative film. This list I have compiled consists of some good and great movies, whose plot revolves around a train. These films, set in a train, offer a host of amusing possibilities. I may have missed out some good movies. If so, please mention it in the comments section.

Snowpiercer (2013)

Korean auteur’s Bong Joon-Ho’s adaptation of the French Graphic novel “La Transperceneige” is high-end sci-fi, where the survivors of a self-inflicted ice age are cramped inside a state-of-the-art luxury train. The crowded vessel functions as an elaborate microcosm of our society itself complete with all the top-down class distinctions, rendered from tip to tail. Though there are some logical and continuity errors, the direction is expertly done, making us contemplate man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, and whether human race is worth trying to save at all.  

Source Code (2011)

Duncan Jones’ small-scale mind-bender has Jake Gyllenhaal playing a decorated Capt. Colter Stevens, whose last mission was in Afghanistan. To his surprise, he wakes up in a commuter train, bound for Chicago. Bewildered Stevens, tries to gauge the situation by chatting with the passengers. Later, he finds out that he must replay eight minutes of time in order to find the identity of the bomber. The bomb couldn’t be defused in any of the scenarios, and like the train on the tracks, he must continue to reach the final destination. 

Unstoppable (2010)

Tony Scott’s pure thrill ride, “Unstoppable” has the best high-octane train sequences, which are shot without reverting to computer-generated trickery. Inspired from a real-life incident, Denzel Washington and Chris Pine play the conductor and engineer of a locomotive, who are on a mission to stop a runaway train, travelling at 80 miles per hour. Scott’s hyper-kinetic visual style is as relentless as the train itself, giving us an exhilarating ride. The big challenge is to give the impression that this was a train, running at a much faster rate than what they are capturing in real life.

Tickets (2005)

“Tickets” united three auteurs of modern cinema – Abbas Kiarostami, Ermanno Olmi and Ken Loach – for three different narratives set in the reality of one train heading south from Vienna to Rome. There is not a strong narrative force and the segments are wildly uneven, but the myriad situations that one may observe when travelling by train is what stitch the stories loosely together. The Train is portrayed as a metaphor for the self-discovery of these passengers. The film takes about class division and various other issues, but never wedges it into our head like in a message movie. 

Train of Life (1998)

Radu Mihaileanu's meandering comic train journey uses Holocaust as the backdrop and subjected to the same sort of criticism that was leveled at “Life is Beautiful”, for trivializing a horrific period in recent history. But, the director goes to great pains to emphasize the tragedy of the Holocaust, although he does so in a somewhat unconventional manner. The film is set in European village, where the people horrible rumors about trains to death camps. And so, the town's Jewish community develops an elaborate plan to escape to Russia in a dilapidated train they've made over to look like a concentration camp transport.

Zentropa (1991)

Lars Von Trier’s final segment of the “Europa” trilogy opens by the clickety-clack of train moving along the rail-road tracks and a somber narration by faceless voice. The convoluted story’s protagonist is a young, na├»ve American comes to Europe in the aftermath of World War II, and his uncle finds him a job as a train conductor on the Zentropa line. The various characters that drift inside the train could be taken as a metaphor for the post-war Germany hurtling toward an unknown future. He transforms the train journey into some form of historical abstraction. 

Runaway Train (1985)

Andrei Konchalovsky's is one of the action genre movie (original screenplay devised by the Japenese master, Akira Kurosawa) that have achieved a level of tautness without compromising the characterization and intelligence of the plot. The story follows two escaped cons, who become the accidental passengers on a four-engine work train that run out of control through the Alaskan wilderness. Through the characters we see a microcosm of humanity at its most base and noble. For a movie, that was released nearly three decades before, “Runaway Train” has excellent visceral thrills, some of which can’t be attained even in modern CG action fantasies. 

Taking of Pelham 123 (1974)

Joseph Sargent’s smart thriller belongs to the urban paranoia movies of the 1970’s. The simplest plot brings up a group of criminals, who take a New York subway train hostage and make a brutal demand. Like Gene Hackman in “The French Connection” (1971), this urban thriller has Walter Matthau as the protagonist, who first slumps and later blends in. The film catches the frantic mood of NYC, which is said to be the most crime-ridden subway system in the world. Despite a facile screenplay, ‘Pelham’ still remains fascinating. 

Murder on Orient Express (1974)

Based on Agatha’s Christie 1934 novel, this Sidney Lumet production is bestowed with a knockout performance from Albert Finney as Hercules Poirot. Martin Balsam, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, and Sean Connery – the cast is full of such great names. A ruthless American millionaire is mysteriously murdered inside the ‘Orient Express.’ As it takes time to dig the train out of a huge Balkan snowdrift, level headed detective puts everyone under the scanner to solve the mystery.  Amidst repeated cuts to exterior train shots, Poirot follows clue by clue to figure out the intellectual riddle. 

The Train (1965)

John Frankenheimer’s black-and-white spy thriller is set during the last days of World War II and pays a fitting homage to the French resistance. Burt Lancaster plays the central role of Station master, who plots to hold up a French art train, which has become bigger than the war for a fanatic German colonel.  The thrilling scenario of riding the train through the marshaling yards, amidst the air-raid and the ingenious episode of changing the names of station-boards are all finely wrought. Although, the movie has aged fifty, the bustling trains and bang up special effects, makes it more entertaining watch, even for today’s standards.  

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Hitchcock’s morally ambiguous masterpiece puts a charming tennis player Guy Haines and psychotic Bruno Walker in a train. Their chance meeting and the following conversation makes Bruno propose to Haines that he will dispose of Guy’s unfaithful; in return, Guy must finish off Bruno’s old meddling father. Although the train sequences are very few, Hitchcock plays on the fear of trains as a foreboding means of transportation. Despite the luxuriousness inside a coach, he shows that the passengers are trapped in an unfamiliar location with others among which there may be ruthless human beings.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Hitchcock’s entertaining pre-USA production brings up Britain's dilemma in the build-up to the impending war with Germany. The story is about the disappearance of seemingly harmless Miss Froy, who is seen travelling in a transcontinental train by Miss Iris. Iris encounters a group of other passengers, who were all sure that there was no Miss Froy. She enlists fellow English passengers to figure out the sinister plans behind an old lady’s disappearance. Through the characters aboard a central European train, Hitchcock combines humor with a genuine sense of menace. The master of confined spaces also terrifically uses the train's compartments and corridors to generate suspense. 

The General (1926)

Slapstick genius Buster Keaton’s hilarious civil war comedy incorporates the best train-based acrobatics in movies (even for today’s standards). The tragicomic Keaton plays a train engineer, whose beloved train engine gets stolen by Union spies. He bravely and uproariously pursues ii single-handedly, going straight into the enemy lines. The marvelous scenes, where Buster dodges the Union men’s attempt to derail him are cleverly filmed. He saves the best for the last – the climatic single shot, where the soldiers take up the train on a burning bridge. It’s not just one of the best locomotive movies; it’s also one of the greatest comedies ever produced. 

Other Notable Films: Shanghai Express (1932), Transsiberean (2008), Von Ryan’s Express (1968), The First Great Train Robbery (1979), The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953).

Shahid-- One Man's Moral Fight against Injustice

                                    In Indian cinema, biopics are not handled genuinely. The sensitive issues are traded off for over-the-top dramatics and songs. When dealing with controversial or sore themes, an Indian film-maker should have courageousness to fend off threats, and sometimes even bombs. A small political movement can get offended by some words and may ‘cry’ for a ban. Even if a film passes all these hurdles, there is an issue of censorship. The Indian censor board would stamp an ‘A’ certificate on films showcasing the theme of communal violence, whereas it distributes ‘U’ certificate like fliers, for all those gleefully violent masala movies. Our audiences too easily get bored to sit through movies that portray agonies of noble souls. So, an Indian director, who wants to make an earnest biopic about a controversial man can’t leave much room for error. That is why Hansal Mehta’s “Shahid” (2013) surprises us. It is about a middle-class hero, who justly fights against the gross injustice of a stagnant system.

                                  When I read about the assassination of the lawyer/activist, Shahid Azmi, I thought: A selfless man, who conquered his own inner demons, was slain for believing in justice and human rights. However, Hansal Mehta has stayed away from the ‘saga-of-great-man’ cliches and has tried to keep us emotionally attached to the central character. The story begins in 1993 in the aftermath of Babri Majid demolition. Shahid (Raj Kumar Yadav), a spirited young man, studying for his second-year college exams, go for an evening saunter. He witnesses the brutal attack by mobs on his impoverished Muslim neighborhood. After the Mumbai riots, in a fit of anger, goes to Kashmir for militant training. He flees from the harsh terrorist facility and returns home, only to be arrested by local police. Blamed for being an incendiary, Shahid is tortured by lawmen and later gets deployed to Tihar Jail.

                                 The incarceration, although dispiriting, makes Shahid to mingle with two wise men. He focuses his mind on attaining a law degree. After serving a seven year jail term in Tihar (without any evidence for his terrorist involvement) Shahid gets released. He has no hateful thoughts and most importantly learns that ‘to change the system, you have to be a part of it.’ After quickly awakening to the fact that lawyers are as corrupted as anyone, he opens starts his own practice and takes on the cases of ordinary citizens who were plucked off the streets and locked up simply because of their names. There is also a brief romantic stint, where Shahid falls for a lovely client, Mariam (Prabhleen Sandhu). She is a divorcee and has a child. He marries her and his family reluctantly agrees. In the court-room, Shahid fights corruption, exposing prejudice and trumped-up evidence, and also brushes away the death threats.

                                The primary victory of this biopic lies in the earnest performance of Raj Kumar Yadav (aka Rajkummar Rao). The enthusiastic boy-scout looks draws us get into the skin of his character. He charms us, when he tries to be comfortable with his lady-love and his silent looks after receiving death threats will give a heartrending feeling. Raj Kumar also brings out the middle-class angst. Kay Kay Menon does an excellent cameo role and Prabhleen Sandhu brings out an unpolished charm as Shahid’s wife. The script, written by trio of writers (Sameer Gautam Singh, Apurva Asrani and Hansal Mehta) never loses its grip on the subject and keeps it as real as they could. The un-dramatic verbal jousts in the court-room were very well written and the court-room itself, with its slightly shabby spaces, plastic chairs and rickety fans, remains closer to reality. Judge walking out, while defense and prosecution lawyers, keep on bickering and Shahid pointing out that a clean map could hardly have been in the pocket of blood-soaked pants for two days, are some of the excellent scenes that keeps us glued to the screen.

                              There are also few age-old Bollywood staples in the script, like the comic interludes, motherly love, and marital tensions, but these are cleverly minted. One thing that would have made this film more excellent is the vivid portrayal of Shahid’s stay in Kashmir. "Banish the fear of death from your heart” – are the usual ramblings we hear from the militants, in Indian films. So, if Mehta could have clearly explored Shahid’s militant stint, it might have induced debates about the Kashmir struggles. Nonetheless, “Shahid” doesn’t undermine the isolation politics subtext. Mehta wants this film to be a humanistic drama rather than political drama, but at the same time, he doesn’t shy away from showcasing the deep-rooted, pervasive anti-Muslim prejudices inside the Indian Justice system. In one of his fitful bursts, Shahid questions, “Is Zaheer punished because his name is Zaheer? Not Matthew, Donald, Suresh or more.”  The question truthfully resonates, as the government or court is yet to punish the real big-wigs of a terrorist organization, whom are celebrating the death tolls in some far away land.

                               There are few, usual biopic problems, but considering the naturalism Mehta employed for the majority of the film, those things can be overlooked. “Shahid’s” deeply resonating content and performances elevates the proceedings. In a country, where its icons are mostly wealthy, self-made gods, this middle-class hero’s story is a blessing. 


Enemy -- An Enigmatic Puzzle with an Unsettling Imagery

                                  Canadian film-maker Dennis Villeneuve (“Polytechnique”, “Incendies”, and "Prisoners") has a penchant for dark tales, filled with dour characters. He moves his films in a clammy atmosphere, where the viewers are pulled into a state of imbalance. His latest psycho-sexual thriller, “Enemy” (2014) – based on the 2002 novel by Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago – is one of those head-scratching movies that evokes the feeling of watching a feature from David Cronenberg or Lynch. The film was shot, in 2012, before Villeneuve’s major-studio suburban serial-killer thriller “Prisoners” (2013), but got delayed to release. However, “Enemy” has won leading five prizes at the recent Canadian Screen Awards. On the surface, it is a mysterious doppelganger move, but the enigmatic screenplay and ungraspable ending (at least after watching it for first time) makes ‘Enemy’ not for all. The mystery here is encrypted inside symbolism, which can either make you praise it as a cinematic puzzle or curse it as an illogical drill.

                                 The film opens in a ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ like strip joint, where a bearded man joins other gentlemen and pensively watches over the live sex. Later, a nude woman walks in with a silver serving dish and reveals a fat spider. In the next scene, beneath the dark, sickly skies of Toronto, Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal), a history professor, is taking classes to inattentive students about the dictatorships (about ancient Rome) and recounts how history repeats itself. Adam lives in a shoebox apartment and regularly engages himself in a joyless sex with his girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent). He takes the same class about how history repeats itself and gyrates along the same dull existence. One day, a colleague suggests him a rom-com and Adam rents the film. The low-budget film doesn’t provide him any relief, but at one point Adam gets transfixed at the screen. He sees an extra actor, who looks exactly like him. He connects to the internet and gets the other guy’s personal history.

                               The guy’s name is Anthony St. Claire. Next day, he goes to the talent agency and picks up a package that is addressed to Anthony. Adam drives to his apartment and calls him. Anthony’s pregnant-wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) answers it and recognizes Adam’s voice as her husband’s. Later, when Anthony picks up the phone, he isn’t pleased to hear what Adam says. Anthony’s bristling talk in the phone makes Helen to ask whether he is having an affair. He brushes it off as if it’s an absurd question. On her own, Helen tracks down Adam and is shocked at the resemblance. Adam and Anthony finally meet one another in an inn and finds out they look alike in every physical regard, right down to the scars. "Maybe we're brothers," says Anthony. Adam asks advice from his mother (Isabella Rossellini). She vows that he is her only son. When Anthony starts to stalk Adam and his girlfriend things turn more enigmatic and gives us the feeling of a terrible dream.

                               Like “Prisoners”, this film also moves in the same humorless torpor, which may not attract many viewers. But, there are brighter moments for those who cherish darkness – like the spellbinding first sequence that may or may not be a dream. Scripted by Javier Gullon, the film slowly progresses from being an uneasy puzzlement to outright horror. Villeneuve and Gullon have said to have changed many things from the original novel, imparting a fresh, flexible spin. The script expects us suspends all our logical beliefs and metaphorical viewpoint. It allegorically touches upon the themes of identity, adultery, and ineffectual male aggression.

                               Villeneuve uses the impassive irrationality of David Lynch; Anthony’s subjective perversity evokes the style of Polanski; the psycho-sexual themes resonates the panache of Canadian auteur Cronenberg; and the mistaken identity is the forte of suspense master, Alfred Hitchcock. Incorporating all these different styles, Villeneuve, with a use of minimal dialogue, brings up a conundrum that gets lodged into the corner of our brain, asking us many questions. He uses hazy lighting and the camera movements are slow and inexorable. There is also no visual differentiation between Adam and Anthony as both of them are drenched in darkness. Cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc’s sickly yellow color palette is reminiscent of Lars von Trier's The Element of Crime.”

…. Spoilers Ahead (those who haven’t experienced “Enemy”must skip the following paragraphs)...

                              The title”Enemy” may refer to the figurative quote: "You are your own worst enemy.” So, I believe Adam and Anthony is same person. But, who is real? And who is the mirror image? I think Anthony is the real person. He was once happily married to her, but has tarnished the relationship by some brief affairs. Anthony lives in a nice condo, whereas Adam lives in a dingy place. How could, Anthony – a small time actor -- who hasn’t even visited the talent agency offices for six months, could afford to live in such an apartment? Anthony takes the name of Adam (for more mysterious reason) and works as a history teacher. Helen may not have known her husband’s new identity. So, she looks shocked when he treats her like a stranger in front of the college. In the next scene, when she returns home from college and after telling about the encounter with Adam, Helen asks her husband, “What’s happening?” To which he answers, ‘I don’t know’, but Helen insists that “I think you know.” I think this interaction and the look on Helen’s face tells us that she knows Adam and her husband is the same person, but she doesn’t know why?

                             After Adam and Anthony’s meeting in “Breezeway Inn”, Adam – the professor – meets his mother. After assuring him that he is her only son, she finally says, “I think you should quit that fantasy of being a third-rate movie actor.” At some other point, she says that, “You have enough trouble sticking with one woman, don’t you.”  All this might touch upon the fact that there is only Anthony, who is working as history professor in the name of Adam. But, still what about the Mary character and the ending where Adam and Anthony change their places? I think there might have been a Mary like woman in Anthony’s past life. In the scene, where Anthony angrily cuts off the phone call from ‘Adam’, Helen asks who is on the phone. When he says, ‘it’s the same guy’, she doesn’t believe him and inquires, “Are you seeing her?”

                           Adam never talks with Mary in all those sexual encounters. They meet in an apartment, where aside from a bed everything is furnished. So, their affair is true, but we don’t know whether it is happening in real time. I think the things unfolded after the second meeting between Adam and Anthony (in Adam’s apartment) aren’t real – especially Anthony’s brief sojourn with Mary and the fatal accident. Anthony bundles up all his dark sexual thoughts and sends him on a journey with his now/previous mistress. In that way, he kills the unreal mistress along with his perversity. The final scene, where the news mentions about a fatal accident, could be of somebody else, because no detail is revealed. All this explanations, finally brings us to the importance of spider and the first scene.

                             The ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ like sexual gathering might be a secret cult with few selected members. All the members watching the sex show doesn’t seem to be enjoying it. They are watching it morbidly as if contemplating some meaning. The bearded man -- as we could see is Anthony (not his alter ego, because he wears the marriage ring in the fingers) – also seem ghoulish. Is this whole first scene real? Towards the end, the security guard in Anthony’s apartment says, “I’d love to go back. I heard that they have changed the locks and set out new keys.” And in the very final scene, Anthony/Adam tears up the cover, he picked up from the talent agency office, and looks surprised to see a key.

                             It makes us think that there really is a sex club and that the security guard is talking about gaining some kind of access to this club. The spider is a metaphorical reference to Anthony’s fear and perverseness. So, Anthony creates two extremes of himself: one is honest and quiet, but wooden in sex, while the other is arrogant and adulterous. He successfully kills the adulterous one in his mind and rejuvenates himself as Adam. According to Vedic philosophy, spider is referred for hiding the ultimate reality with the veils of illusion (thanks to Wikipedia). One hour into the movie, we could see a giant spider hovering over the city. So, it could be taken that Anthony/Adam’s illusion (the spider) have grown much bigger. After the accident, the broken windshield takes the form of a spider’s web, which might again confirm the illusory nature of that scene. The spider could also refer Anthony/Adam’s sexual obsession. If you see it that way, you can see that the spider is killed with that accident. However, the spider (lust) returns – this time taking a huge form -- as he takes the key and says to his wife, “Helen did you plan on doing something tonight, because I think I have to go out.” As a history professor, he always says, “History repeats itself” and so yeah, he takes the key and his personal history repeats. I think I am not very clear about the spider’s presence in the story, and there might be other good interpretations too. 

                             “Enemy” (90 minutes) metaphorically inquires into the modern masculinity and intimate relationships through a thriller framework. It gives importance to atmosphere and characters over the plot. If you don’t care about tailor-made results for a mysterious situation, then this film might reward you.  


Rated R for some strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language

Do the Right Thing -- An Entertaining and Politically Charged Study about Racism

                                The true happenings in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were well documented in many Hollywood movies. But, the racial divide or tension that existed and still does after the 1960’s was not given much thought by American film-makers. However, there were some exceptional films (for e.g., “Killer of Sheep”) about African-Americans, who were not stereotyped for entertainment purposes. Spike Lee, the quintessential African-American film-maker’s third movie, “Do the Right Thing” was one such towering achievement that takes look at the racial divide of urban American in the late 1980’s. Now twenty five years later, the movie hasn’t aged one bit, and still packs a punch. Lee did a rare thing by using cinema as a means for direct social commentary among his people, and he dealt with racial and societal issues, unlike many White directors.

                              The film chronicles the single day happenings in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. It starts with Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L.Jackson) – a local disc jockey – playing songs and providing commentary on the going-ins in the locality. It is one of the hottest days in summer. The protagonist of the story is Mookie (Spike Lee), an African-American pizza delivery guy, who works for Sal (Danny Aiello), an American-Italian. Sal, who runs his shop for 25 years, is happy about serving pizzas in a black neighborhood. Sal wants to get along with everyone and doesn’t show any of his racial prejudices. But, his sons – angry Pino (John Turturo) and dull-minded Vito (Richard Edson) aren’t thrilled to be working there. Pino can’t put up with the contemptuous comments of the local people and often calls them ‘animals’ or ‘niggers.’ Vito gets along with Mookie and doesn’t care about all these racial things.

                             Mookie stays with his sister and can’t hold a job. He is also an irresponsible father, leaving his girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez) and little boy to live with her mother. Sal often complains about Mookie’s ways of slowing the pizza delivery – he wears a Jackie Robinson shirt and gets busy with ‘brother talk.’ The other neighbors on the block are: the elderly statesman called ‘Da Mayor’ (Ossie Davis), an alcoholic but wise man; Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), who sits in front of her house and watch over the street all day long; Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), who wanders the neighborhood with a ridiculously large and loud boom box; eccentric Buggin’ out (Giancarlo Esposito); and stuttering Smiley (Roger Guneveru Smith), selling photos of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

                              Also in the mix are the three jobless, middle-aged men named ML, Sweet Dick Willie and Coconut Sid. The trio talks about everything from politics to global warming and at the same time wonder, how the Koreans have managed set up a shop in their neighborhood. All the little racial provocations sour high, when the sun sets. Buggin’ points at the Sal’s Italian-American wall of fame and asks, “How come you got no brothers up on the wall here?” Buggin’ out -- the guy who takes offence out of everything -- sets off the climatic showdown against Sal.

                            The film’s themes are volatile and political, but Spike Lee opts for some humor rather than making it a full-fledged serious drama. Lee uses the summer heat as one of the character. All the characters represent wide range of viewpoints within the African-American community: from the conciliatory (mayor) to reactionary young men (Buggin’ out). Lee doesn’t do the mistake of turning any character as an ‘all-bad’ one. Despite Sal’s outburst towards the end, we can feel sympathy for the man. Pino, who fiercely hates blacks seems to love African-American movie and sports stars. Through the three bums, Lee challenges the black community to get off from the somber mood and to create their own business opportunities.

                             Lee never tells us ‘what’s the right thing?’ or ‘who has done the right thing.’ It is great that he hasn’t given us any easy answers. Da Mayor in a casual exchange asks Mookie to ‘do the right thing.’ In the end, when riot ensues after the killing of Radio Raheem by law officers, Mookie throws a trash can on the window of Sal’s and as a result everyone follows suit. He has done the wrong thing, but was provoked by people, who are supposed to enforce the law. He wants to rise up against the injustice done against his friend, but the sad thing is, instead of rising against those responsible, he and his men have decided to rise against the closest white guy available. This scenario was simply explained by the slightly contradicting end quotes by Malcolm X and King. Both quotes says that violence is wrong, but Malcolm alludes that when you are wronged by the people who claim to be upholders of the law, then that law ceases to be law. Da Mayor is the only guy, who tries to defuse the situation, but he can’t instill common sense amidst the thuggery of Buggin’ Out.

                             As an end note, there is an announcement from the government that they will conduct investigations on  property destruction. It taciturnly asks why should law must be focused on property and overlooks the murderous actions of police? Director Lee was criticized for leaving upon the drug problems on under-class black community. Lee said that adding the drug issue into this film would cloud the race issue. Besides, Lee has later dealt with the drug problems of the community in his movies, “Clockers” and “Jungle Fever.” The camerawork by Ernest Dickerson was outstanding, especially the impression he creates about the unrelenting heat. Spike Lee, intelligently, casts him as Mookie, since we would think that he was going to preach us about the right thing, but the character does exactly the opposite thing, underlining the fact that there is no heroism here.

                            Racism is one of the pervasive issues that exist throughout the world. The racial ills we encounter in Bedford-Stuy for two hours touches upon the hatred that is seething beneath the surface in cities or neighborhood across any country. “Do the Right Thing” tackles the prejudiced viewpoints with as much humanity and reality.