Silenced -- An Expose of a Harrowing Social Injustice

                                             Hwang Dong-hyuk’s “Silenced” (“Dogani”, 2011) makes us speechless because of its unbridled depiction of sexual, physical and corporal abuse in a Korean school for the hearing-impaired. The film is based on the 2009 controversial online novel ‘Dogani’ by Cong Jee-young. The novel sparked uproar as this case of abuse was little known in South Korea. The movie caused a great public stir and sold over 3 million tickets in its domestic release, although the film-maker dealt with one of the most taboo issue within cinema. Reviewing a movie like “Silenced” is a bit different. It deals with an explosive topic, where our own emotional response masters over the critical one. Hwang Dong-hyuk’s bold attempt to raise the public awareness on a case of deep-rooted social injustice is commendable, but some of his visceral choices are forceful and refutable.

                                          Gong Yoo (Kang In-ho) is a single father with a sick daughter. He finds a job as art teacher at Ja-ae academy – a boarding school for hearing-impaired children – situated in a small town named ‘Muijin’, which is always in a cloak of fog. Leaving the daughter with his mother, Gong Yoo travels in a car to the town, while the film cuts away to show a young boy limping towards a dark railway tunnel (the boy stands in front of train and is killed). He encounters Seo Yoo-jin (Jeong Yu-mi), a social worker, after a roadkill incident. She drops him at the school, where he is introduced to eerie identical twins: Lee Kang-bok, the Headmaster and Kang-suk, the admin head.

                                         The admin head barefacedly exhorts money from Gong Yoo (50 million won) – a prerequisite for the employment -- in the name of ‘school investment fund’. After settling in, Gong yoo quickly realizes that there is something gravely wrong with some children. The recoil from his enthusiastic efforts to bond and he sees an emptiness in their eyes. He is shocked to see a fellow teacher, Park clobbering a student in front of all the indifferent faculties. One day he hears dreadful screams from the ladies toilet. The next day he catches an after-school instructor dunking a girl’s head -- Yeon-du (Kim Hyun-soo) – in a washing machine.

                                       Yeon-du passes out and she is admitted into a hospital by Gong yoo. He also calls for Seo Yoon-jin’s help. In the hospital Yeon-du conveys through sign language, the sexual and physical abuses she and other two students suffered in the hands of Headmaster, Admin Head and the teacher, Park. The children’s statements, narrated by Gong yoo, are recorded by the local human rights activist. The local police chief, who is one the pay-roll of Head master isn’t interested in the truth or the case. But, after media’s involvement, the three monstrous perpetrators are arrested. The next half of the film follows the court trial. The children fight for justice in a judicial system, which is as perverted as the minds of the perpetrators.

                                      “Silenced” is extremely painful to watch. Director Dong-hyuk doesn’t hold back, especially in the graphic re-enactment scenes. I felt the children’s sign language explanations about the horrific ordeal itself are enough to shook up a viewer, but the film-maker goes a bit far in portraying the children’s helplessness. Although, these graphic scenes are well edited, they are not absolutely necessary to convey a child’s trauma. Nonetheless, the director must be appraised for shedding sentimentality and perfectly using the silences. Metaphors abound in this movie, especially the opening fog sequence, which intimates the moral obscurity. In the final shot, we see Gong yoo, standing apart, and watching the hoarding of the fog-covered town. In the first scene, the protagonist wanders into that obscure town like the other teachers before him, who all turned a blind eye to get a permanent job in Seoul. The final scene shows that he has come clean by fighting for what’s right, despite all those series of hurdles (Yoo-jin’s letter to Gong yoo is read in the background: “the reason we are fighting so hard, is not to change the world, but instead not to let the world change us.”).


                               Director Dong-hyuk fittingly adopts many mainstream genre conventions to develop the eerie atmosphere for the story that eventually leads to an incendiary conclusion. The film is also about a society, where the rich uses their rights to wreak havoc over the misfortunate people. The public protest towards the climax and the following police brutality shows how the society’s have and have-not’s are handled. Dong-hyuk deeply criticizes Korean society (or for that matter, any money-minded society), where a judge gives a free pass to gruesome criminals for having done some good things (donating money) in the past; where people are ready to sell the truth for a promotion. Although, the subject matter is very bleak, the director tinges the film with some light moments whenever possible (the sunset scene in the beach, where the children walk with Goon yoo and Yoo-jin).

                                    Gong Yoo as the protagonist isn’t exceptional, but rightly conveys the emptiness through his eyes. The strongest performances come from the three children. Their emotional displays of pain, hope, despair, resilience and confusion are the driving force of the narrative. The scene where Yeon-du outsmarts the defense lawyer is the film’s most uplifting moment. “Silenced” is also one of those rare movies that made some difference in the society. The film created hysterical reactions among the movie-going public of South Korea. Many petitions were filed and protests sprung up asking the government to take action on the accused. A new bill (“Dogani” bill) was then passed by the South Korean government to impose tougher sentences on people who sexually abuse the disabled. The school which perpetrated all these horrific abuses was eventually shut down and the collective anger led to the case being re-opened and pulled back those monsters into the court. 

                                  “Silenced” (124 minutes) will haunt the viewer long after its affecting conclusion. It asks important and genuine questions about child abuse and legal process, where favoritism and corruption obstructs justice. 


Oculus -- A Distinct, Slow-Burn Horror Flick

                                      A copious amount of paranormal thrillers are produced in a year that is so predictable and rarely strays from the formula. Director Mike Flanagan’s “Oculus” (2014), although a derivative ghost story, conjures something truly haunting. It doesn’t exactly subvert the cliches of the genre, but it’s breath of fresh air, considering all those nauseating, shaky camera paranormal flicks. Expanding on his own award winning short, Flanagan uses a distinctive narrative to play tricks with the vagaries of perception and memory. The film is interested in real dramatic tension rather than forgettable jump scares.

                                  “Oculus” begins in a dream. The dreamer is Tim (BrentonThwaites), who is recounting the recurring dream to his psychiatrist. Tim is in a mental institution for a crime he committed 11 years ago. Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan), Tim’s sister grew up in a foster home after the death of her parents. Father Alan Russell (Rory Cochrane) tortured and killed mother Marie (Katee Sackhoff) in front of Kaylie and Tim. Tim shot his father. After his release from mental asylum, Kaylie seeks Tim’s help to destroy the ghastly thing in their old house – the “Lasser Glass”. Having been rehabilitated Tim wants to forget the whole thing and asks Kaylie to stop being delusional. But, they both go back to childhood home, where Kaylie has now set up a barrage of cameras and other state-of-art equipments to prove that there is an evil force, residing in the mirror.

                                   According to Kaylie’s meticulous research, the Lasser Glass has been around for centuries, even though she hasn’t traced its origin. The glass has driven all its owners to commit brutal homicides. Of course, they both just take a baseball bat or a golf club to shatter the mirror. But, it doesn’t work that way, because the mirror as a form of defense protection weaves elaborate hallucinations that twists the haunted’s perceptions. The narrative goes back and forth as we encounter flashbacks of what happened to the family a dozen years ago. As night wears on, the unfolding events remain uncertain to us as it is for the characters.

                                 The back story is just a run-of-the-mill story that we have encountered in numerous cheap horror movies. But, Flanagan gradually and cleverly repackages it as a base for the characters’ drifting states of consciousness. The dubious back story is used to create subjective horror elements, rather than the ‘boo’ moments. At the first act, Tim’s voice of reason asks to Kaylie that what if the mirror is just a mirror and all the supernatural theories is just a method to prove against her father’s cruelty. He also points to their parents’ marital problems, father’s affair. These initial questions by Tim reinforce a psychological foundation in the film, which gives us reason to believe that these evil manifestations might be generated by the characters’ manifestations. However, Flanagan in the third act totally avoids this psychological phenomenon and professes that the mirror is the source of evil.

                                   The mirror’s story might remind you any of Stephen King’s horror stories (Shining, 1408). The real and hallucination confusion is something Freddy Kreuger does to his victims. The booby trap, the array of ghost-hunting devices and using mirror as a conduit for evil forces are plot threads that are derived from various horror thrillers. But, Flanagan has remained original in designing the genuine, potent scares. Except for that shiny-eyed spirit, scare tactics mostly rely on subtle mind games, where Kaylie accidentally takes a big bite out of an electric bulb, thinking that it was an apple. There are no A-list actors in the cast, although the performances are uniformly remarkable. Thwaites offer enough incredulity to his character and Karen is different from a typical horror flick heroine.

                                  As I mentioned earlier, there are good number of clich├ęs: if you have seen many horror films, you could easily guess the fate of Kaylie’s bland boyfriend; you could guess who is gonna be the victim of a such a dangerous booby trap; and in modern-day ghost stories, you can never bet against the evil forces. However, “Oculus” (103 minutes) is a lot better than many movies that come with a label ‘horror’. It is unsettling and holds a viewers attention by keeping the suspense potent. 


Down by Law -- An Invigorating American Independent Cinema

                                          From “Stranger than Paradise” (1984) to “Only Lovers Left Alive” (2013), unconventional American film-maker Jim Jarmusch’ films have characters that drifts to different places, only to discover that every place looks the same. They encounter clock-work failures, besotted with irony, in an ever-changing futile backdrop. Nothing big happens in a Jarmusch movie, but his oeuvre gives us a window to observe the eccentricities of human behavior. Jarmusch has fully developed all his stylistic imprints in his third movie, “Down by Law” (1986). In this minimalist neo-noir comedy, the characters live in the moment, without any big plans for the future. The camera stays static and when it moves there are long, slow tracking shots. Those who are familiar and those who love the director’s restrained sense of cool, “Down by Law” might seem as a poetry; for others, it might be maddening.

                                    The movie starts with a sidelong tracking shot, taking us through the deserted streets of New Orleans and occasionally observes few peoples, whose eyes look as vacant as the streets. In a low-rent district New Orleans called ‘Crescent City’, we first meet a pimp named Jack (John Lurie), who conducts his business in a less aggressive manner. Then, we observe an aspiring deejay Zack (Tom Waits), who is too much of a drifter. His girl friend Laurette (Ellen Barkin) in a rage of frustration kicks him into the street. Both of them are conned by foes, who toss them deals that are too good to be true. These ignorant and bored men are framed for crimes they didn’t commit: Jack for child molestation and Zack for a murder. 

                                  Jack and Zack wind up in the same cell in Orleans Parish Prison, where they remain indolent and mutually ignore one another. Zack marks days on the wall with thick chalk lines, and when hate wells up inside him, he fights it off with Jack. The setting gets more claustrophobic with the addition of a third cellmate named Bob (Roberto Benigini), an Italian immigrant with a limited grasp of English language. Of the trio, Bob is the one to have actually committed a crime. He murdered his assailant with a billiard ball. He quotes Robert Frost’s poems in Italian and is fond of Walt Whitman. The optimistic and cheerful Bob also knows about an escape route.

                                Narrative wise, “Down by Law” could show familiarity with “We’re No Angels”, “Escape from Alcatraz” etc, but tonally this movie stands apart from the common herd. Jim Jarmusch once said, “I’m interested in comedy in a new kind of context. Not just linguistic jokes or sight gags. But humor based on small life details.” Jarmusch achieves that kind of humor in this film. The stream of artificial scenarios creates laughs that emerge from deep within the activities of characters. We chuckle because we know how they are inside and so the gags arise from our own interpretations. The script and the acting mutually benefits from one another. Jarmusch usually writes script by having a preconceived idea about who the actor should be. So, the laid-back hippiness and cheerfulness perfectly fits the actors.

                               Waits, in his first movie role, plays a lovable loser. Lurie is a small-timer, full of bravado. They are unambitious Americans, who love to stray in the decaying industrial urban centers. They don’t believe in anything, when an angel-like Bob comes in to free the jail birds. In a Hollywood mainstream movie, only the opposite occurs: an optimistic American saves a constrained European or Asian. Jarmusch has perfectly used Benigini’s liveliness. As Bob, Benigini makes us forget all those contemptible performances. The arrival of his character opens up the cramped prison space. His chatty demeanor and comic timing are very sincere and endearing. Watch him delivering that humorous monologue about a rabbit-killing mother.

                               None of the plot threads in “Down by Law” is believable. One moment Bob is discussing about an escape route. The next moment, they climb down a rope, joyously running through the sewers. The law is never even close to them, although they circle around the swamps. In the woodlands of Louisiana, the trio stumble across an Italian restaurant ran by a comely Italian girl Nicoletta. The charming and naive girl becomes excited by Roberto's sunny confessions and asks him to stay with her. All these events are too good to believe, but the way it evolves feels very natural rather than scripted. The film also averts from the usual noir expectations – no gunshots, no last minute deaths. The immaculate black-and-white compositions of cinematographer Robert Muller (“Paris, Texas”, 1984) offers a provocative experience.

                                The multi-layered “Down by Law” (105 minutes) must be watched for its use of film language (definitely not as a prison-break drama). Along with Benigini’s bittersweet performance, the movie will slowly grow up on you. 



  Down by Law -- IMDb                                         

Ten Best American Political Drama

                                   American politics have given us number of dramas one could wish for. From sex scandals to mass conspiracies to secret alliances, the post World War II American political world has steeped in lot of controversies. The Hollywood film-makers in these decades have brought out dark surface of the political machinery. There have also been inspirational tales, where men persistently stood by their ideals and stormed against the back-stabbers and manipulators. Whatever the type of tale it is, we feel like that we are getting a forbidden glimpse. The movies presented in the list give such political insights, although they are a little less on the suspense side. These films have managed to paint everyone in shades of grey, and mostly have avoided the Hollywood pitfall of over dramatization. 

The Ides of March (2011)

George Clooney’s gripping political drama, with few twists and turns, shows how loyalty and integrity acts as a booby trap in the political game, where treacheries constantly change one’s perception. The film weaves a clear cut view about the democratic politics and the sacrifices involved in winning elections. Ryan Gosling plays Stephen Myers, an idealist and strong believer of Governor Mike Morris (played by Clooney). Soon, Myers gets involved in a dangerous politics game of sex and betrayal, when Mike’s dark side comes to light. Top notch actors and smart dialogues are the movie’s strength.

Frost/Nixon (2008)

Ron Howard’s brisk and intense drama presents a complex view on one of America’s controversial politician. This film is based on the interview between David Frost and disgraced President Richard Nixon. The interview was mostly set to coax out a confession from Nixon’s mouth about Watergate scandal. Although the original interview ran hours and hours, Howard has cleverly packaged into a 2 hour movie that works about on every level. Frank Langella, rather than imitating Nixon and turning him into a caricature, he creates his own version of Nixon, which is as hypnotic as Anthony Hopkins’ Nixon. 

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)

Mike Nichols’ ‘based on a true story’, incisive political drama follows Texan Congressman Charlie Wilson in the early 80’s, who with a help of a socialite and out of control CIA man, covertly funds the Afghan resistance to fight against the Soviets. Apart from expressing indignation on the plight of Afghan refugees, Wilson spends his time with women and booze. Although the film is sanitized, it smartly looks at the geo-politics thinking of the American politicians. Tom Hanks may not be the perfect choice to play Wilson, but he gives an ingratiating performance and his fiery conversation with Hoffman is a delight to watch. 

 Thirteen Days (2000)

Roger Donaldson’s engaging politics power play displays the tensest moments in the cold war and in John Kennedy’s presidency. Bolstered by taut script and wonderful performances from Bruce Greenwood and Kevin Costner, the film makes us realize the tension and fear unfurled in the American capital state. Although the film is a glorification of JFK’s leadership, it doesn’t feel manipulative or nauseating. It’s also a fine character study that explores social psychological and political tensions surrounding the Cuban missile crisis. 

The Contender (2000)

Rod Lurie’s provocative political drama is about the character assassination politics, which took a dig into the Clinton administration. Jeff Bridges plays the genial president Jack Hathaway, who faces serious opposition when he is about to appoint the first woman vice-president. The young female candidate (played by Joan Allen) is chagrined by conservatively minded Senator (Gary Oldman), whose committee delves into the sexual misgivings of her past. Although the film’s third act, especially the patriotic speech, is very less convincing, it is worth watching for the brilliant and nuanced performances of Oldman and Bridges. 

Nixon (1995)

Oliver Stone’s 190 minute take on much disliked American President/politician is a flawed yet invigorating character study. Stone mesmerizingly crafts together flashbacks and newsreels convey a real sense of empathy towards this most infamous U.S. President. Although Nixon’s conversations and subconscious rambling are contrived for dramatic purposes, it makes us remember Shakespeare’s principal characters Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear, who were all destroyed by an inherent fatal flaw. Anthony Hopkins’ outstanding performance is the backbone of the film. There are several memorable scenes, especially the one at Lincoln memorial, where Nixon is confronted by student protestors.

The Candidate (1972)

Michael Ritchie’s contemplative look at the political machinery has now really become prophetic in its warning message. Robert Redford plays an idealistic young lawyer, who is involved in a political campaign, but hates to play the media games. However, when the desire for power gradually creeps up on him, he is lead to make a fatal compromise. This film carefully studies the seductive nature of power. The clear-eyed and unsentimental political look never blames the degradations of power to a certain individual. This film has stood the test of time and could even be found in the present moral dilemma in politics brought about by the role of major corporate Medias. 

 Advise & Consent (1962)

Otto Preminger’s brutal expose of American political process (based on the best-selling novel) is also one of the first American movies to have homosexual subplot in the proceedings. The array of talented actors gathered by Preminger is absolutely stunning. The film is centered on the appointment of Robert Leffingwell as secretary of state. The long, arduous process that takes for the appointment makes rival veteran politicians to play the power games. Although, the plot might seem simple, it is far more complicated and carries too many surprises. The excellent ensemble consists of Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton, Walter Pidgeon, and Burgess Meredith. This film possesses a look of genuineness (especially the senate hearing room) that no other political movie has. 

All the King’s Men (1949)

Robert Rossen’s blistering political drama, based on the Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer novel, chronicles the rise and fall of Southern demagogue Willie Stark. Stark starts with a burning sense of purpose, but eventually fizzle out because of his uncontrollable greed for power. The dirty tricks or ploys employed in the movie aren’t outdated as we have experienced more dark things. The novel was condensed to make up for a straightforward screenplay, which proved to be a good thing, especially after considering Steven Zallian’s script for the 2006 remake. The remake that took a non-linear approach suffered from poor focus and uncertainty. Crawford’s transitioning performance as Willie earned him an Oscar. 

Mr. Smith goes to Washington (1939)

Frank Capra’s classic depression era drama is a statement about American ideals, which must be revisited often to know how much the ideals have dangerously evolved. James Stewart gives a thundering performance as a young senator, who tries to expose corruption and withhold true American ideals. However, his fight against graft is constantly threatened by the grinding political machine. Capra, democrat and a humorist, has profoundly laid the morals and filled it with real emotions, where none of the exchanges become heavy-handed. The patriotic appeal is there, but there are no preachments. 

Zero Theorem -- An Uneven Sci-Fi with Intriguing Ideas

                                      For the past two decades, wackily imaginative film-maker Terry Gilliam is going through a tough phase. His famous dream project “The Man who Killed Do Quixote” ran into several tribulations and from then on never made it to a green light. Gilliam’s movies, after the start of the 21st century, became increasingly muddled and at times unwatchable (“Brothers Grimm”, “Tideland” and “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”). Although these movies had a great cast, it eventually became a tedious exercise. Fortunately, Gilliam’s latest “The Zero Theorem” (2013) instills some faith as it possesses some of his stylistic hallmarks. “Zero Theorem” is definitely not a superior return to form as the ideas remain half-cooked, but this mid-level return to form is admirably ambitious and quite enjoyable.

                                   The movie is set in the distant, tech-obsessed future similar to Gilliam’s “Brazil” and “Twelve Monkeys”. It starts with a very bald naked man, sitting in his home – an abandoned church – in front of console, crunching entities and eagerly waiting for a phone call. The bald naked man is Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a depressed number-cruncher. Qohen has lost the ability to taste, feel and hates to go outside for work. Qohen works for a vast corporation named ‘ManCorp’ He repeatedly asks his supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) to allow him to work at home. Qohen also believes that the phone call will explain the meaning of his distressing existence.  

                                Qohen is eventually allowed to work at home, but in exchange, his boss Mr. Management (Matt Damon) challenges him to solve a complicated, mysterious equation called ‘Zero Theorem.’ Many others have gone crazy by trying to prove this theorem. After working for a year, Qohen finds it hard to prove the theorem and comes close to become insane. But, he is redeemed by a charming, seductive employee Bainsley (Melanie Thierry). She pops around and persuades him to wear a virtual reality suit to join with her in an erotic online encounter. The boss sends his quirky teenage son Bob (Lucas Hedges) to help Qohen to get back on schedule.

                               Director Gilliam, as always, takes the contemporary technological absurdities to construct a excitingly ridiculous yet horrific future. The high-decibel talking street signs; the candy colored streets littered with weirdly dressed people; the slot-machine like work station; people listening to iPad-like device in a party; a virtual reality sex site – all these visions, although doesn’t possess the brilliance of “Brazil”, it has some ragged charm. All the initial eccentricities don’t help the viewer to settle fully into the film. However, when Qohen retreats into his church/home, things settle down and themes about religion, love and free will are delicately laid. The majority of the film had to be filmed in a set because of budgetary reasons, which eventually has worked in favor of Gilliam.

                           “Zero Theorem” mostly deals with fear of death and humans’ nihilistic attitude. Although, Gilliam haven’t expanded on his wonderful ideas (especially the ending was very abrupt), he has boiled down basic philosophical questions about human existence into relatable series of sequences. Christoph Waltz as Qohen exhibits the mannerisms of a bullied kid – always expecting a beating. He transforms from being a madman to a warm person, who even stops referring himself in third person. The supporting is equally strong, especially Hedges, who provides quite a relief from the clogged ideas.

                           “The Zero Theorem” (105 minutes) is not a robust return to form for Terry Gilliam, but it is his most stylistic and layered film in the last two decades. His dark dystopian vision manages to express something powerful and thought-provoking. 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes -- Mesmerizing Apes and Boring Humans

                                    Matt Reeves “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (2014) starts with a tight close-up of Caesar’s furious eyes, and as the camera slowly zooms out we see army of hyper-intelligent simians, readily waiting for their master’s command to jump on a herd of deer. In the last shot, thousands of befuddled apes stand in front of Caesar, and the camera zooms into his caring eyes, as he contemplates his tribe’s future, who are about to face an unwanted war. Those expressive eyes in these two shots pay a fitting tribute to the “performance-capture” technology and to Andy Serkis, who has brought an impressive artistry to this process. Each facial and physical gesture of Caesar, bestowed by Serkis, never makes us think that we are watching a digital creation. Plot wise, this sequel doesn’t offer any big ideas and it is fairly predictable, but as long as Caesar is on-screen, there is no problem.

                                  The original 1968 “Planet of the Apes” is a wonderful allegory of xenophobia and about our fears of nuclear annihilation or end of world. The ‘Dawn’ also delivers an allegory about racism, where few stupid and violent xenophobes bury the lives and efforts of good ones. However, I don’t feel that this is the ‘Dark Knight’ of sequels or superior to its predecessor. May be I feel this way because of the stretched inconclusive ending or underwritten human roles. There were lots of Hollywood bland elements in the origin story (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”), but it resurrected the story of apes, after that awful remake by Tim Burton. The ‘Dawn’ comes close, but doesn’t deliver the popcorn greatness of ‘Rise’.

                                   The film starts ten years after the standoff on the Golden Gate Bridge. In these 10 years, Caesar – the visionary ape – has brought his tribe together. The escaped chimps, gorillas, and orangutans are living peaceably Caesar’ rule as the group is slowly honing its intellectual ability. A circus Orangutan is now a teacher; gorillas act as perimeter guard. Caesar’s endeavor to develop a just ape society is stricken by two things: a pocked Bonobo ape, Koba (Toby Kebbell) vows to make war on humans, who tortured him as a laboratory animal; a trigger-happy man, who wants to finish off the savage animals. The human crew, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) comes into apes’ territory to restart a dam and bring power back to the ruined metropolis. The few human survivors of Simian flu are led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). The mission to restore power, however, powers up a inter-species warfare.

                                The boiler plate dialogues, heavy-handed anti-gun and inter-species tolerance themes are just an addition to the pseudo-intellectual charm. For that matter, ‘Rise’ also possessed such charms, but the all-ape havoc in the final minutes didn’t gave us a chance ponder on such things. ‘Dawn’ also has battle scenes, where a chimp, on horseback, fires two assault rifles, but this time we are not rooting for neither apes nor humans. ‘Who to root for?’ – That dilemma is deliberately made up; as Caesar learns murder and treachery are part of both the civilized societies. However, this question keeps us a bit away from enjoying the film on a pure action level.   

                              Clarke, Keri Russell and Gary Oldman struggle with their under-written roles (a problem recently faced by “Godzilla”). An irony could be found in the way these big-budget, CGI Hollywood movies are made. The human behavior, their characteristics looks like something conjured by a machine, whereas the computer-generated, melancholy gazes of apes look so real (than flesh-and-blood men). The CG and the motion-capture suited actors are a delight to watch. Serkis and Toby Kebbell’s performances redeem the film, whenever it lurches into mundane proceedings. The Shakespearean splendor of Serkis is what saves it from being tedious. The scenes where Koba fools a couple of gun-tottering humans and the one, where Caesar leads thousands of apes to human colony were all excellently visualized.

                           “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (130 minutes) isn’t a photocopied sequel like “Transformers”. Although it falls short of greatness, it moves the story in new directions. I just hope that the human elements would be honed well in the inevitable next film. 


Departures -- A Life-Affirming Movie about Death

                                     Yojiro Takita’s touching Japanese drama, “Departures” was the surprise winner of the 2008 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, trouncing the critical favorites such as “Waltz with Bashir” and “The Class”. This emotional art-house movie has enough eloquent moments to compensate for its sickly sweet sentimentality, and it also was a smash hit with moviegoers of all ages in Japan. “Departures” tells the story of a sensitive young cellist, who finds fulfillment in life by caring for the dead.

                                   The movie starts with an encoffination ceremony, where Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) gently washes and dresses down the corpse, in the presence of the bereaved family. Daigo has always had an ambition to become a world-class cellist. He has been playing the instrument from his childhood. He works with a Tokyo Orchestra, which is suddenly disbanded because of the lack of audience. Now, in his thirties, Daigo decides to return to his dead mother's house, situated in a beautiful rural hometown. Daigo’s pliant wife, Mika (Ryoko Hisosue) cheerfully supports him.

                                  While pursuing for a new career, Daigo comes across an ad in the newspaper, which offers, “working with departures”. He arrives at the office, thinking that he is going to apply for a job in travel agency. But, to his dismay, Daigo learns there was a misprint in the ad. It must have been “The departed”. The cagey but caring owner, Sasaki (Tsutumo Yamazaki) says their business is ‘encoffinment’. They will be hired by undertakers to ceremonially wash and dress the deceased for their final journey. ‘It’s a niche market’ adds the lively secretary. Daigo is ready to run away from the place, but the boss thrust money into Daigo’s hands and suggests that he ought to try the job and decide for himself.

                                 Daigo makes Mika believe that he got the job of tourist guide. Initially, he knows that he can’t stomach this job because Daigo have never seen a corpse (didn’t even attend his mother funeral). In the first day, he accompanies Sasaki to a theater, where Sasaki explains the steps of encoffinment to a TV crew. Daigo acts as the corpse. The next assignment takes them to a house, where the woman was laying dead for several days. Gradually, Daigo begins to finds some deeper meaning in these old rituals. He is oddly moved by the stories of the dead and by the gratitude of the mourning relatives. However, when Mika finds the tape, she returns to her family in Tokyo, and Daigo increasingly thinks about his father who abandoned him when he was a child.   

                                  In one scene, Daigo’s friend, Yamashita hassles and treats him as an untouchable. After discovering the truth, Mika calls him ‘unclean’ and asks him to take a ‘normal job'. Daigo replies, “Death is normal”. Like, in India, dealing with dead bodies was not just regarded as ‘unclean’. The caste system limited the job to particular people, and although it might be said that these caste division were things of the past, the prejudices only dies slowly. Still there is wide spread discrimination against people preparing bodies and these discrimination always extend to their families too. So, Director Takita and screenwriter Kundo Koyama have tried to make the viewers to empathize with Daigo, in order to make social statement. Many slapstick humorous moments, which looked distinctly odd, are mainly added for the purpose of engaging the viewers. Takita subverts our emotional expectations and veers it away, whenever the story could turn maudlin or offensive. There are quite a lot predictable elements in the film: The fate of Daigo’s abandoned father; the relationship between Daigo and Sasaki; Daigo’s friend, Yamashita hates him for his job and also has a old loving mother. We all know where these plot strands would end, but the graceful way these scenes unfold definitely resonates with us.

                                 Couple of scenes stayed with me, earning the lump in the throat in a fair and square manner: Yamashita’s expressions as he watches the cremation of his mother, while Hirata (Takashi Sasano) – the worker at crematorium and a friend of Yamashita’s mother – contemplates over his emotionally difficult work; the other one was when Daigo energetically and soulfully plays the Cello. The cello pieces are heartbreakingly scored by Joe Hisaishi – Hayao Miyazaki’s favorite, regular composer. The liveliest performance in the movie belongs to Yamazaki. His energizing expressions save the movie from rank sentimentality and his relationship with Daigo forms as the heart of the film.

                               “Departures” (130 minutes) successfully deals with ‘Death’ -- a very hard theme to tackle in films, and that too for over two hours. It is sweetly old-fashioned and its high-minded intent is never lost through sentimentality. 


Calvary -- Contemplates the Modern Religious Disillusion

                                       The McDonagh brothers, with two films apiece have become one of the interesting Irish directors. Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths” were darkly funny, clever tales. John Michael McDonagh made his debut with an entertaining comedy “The Guard”, although it was a bit of a shaggy dog story. But, his recent film “Calvary” (2014) has taken everyone by surprise, since the trailer only promised another rollicking comedy, set in small Irish town. However, the movie is much darker than what was promised. It explores how difficult it is to retain faith in a world that seems to be filled with world-weary, unethical or corrupt men/women. The persistent of faith was a theme that was wonderfully inquired, previously by one of the masterful film-maker Robert Bresson. In fact, John McDonagh, himself has described his feature as “basically Bresson’s ‘Diary of a Country Priest’ with a few jokes thrown in”.

                                    The movie starts in the darkness of a confession box as Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) hears: “I first tasted semen when I was 7 years old” from the other side. The unseen man goes on to explain how he has repeatedly raped by a priest over the course of five years. The unseen man also says that there is no point in killing the bad priest (the pedophile has also died) and so he has decided to kill a good priest aka Father James, since it would be much more shocking. The man gives Father James a week to put his affairs in order, before taking the fall on next Sunday. Father is left shaken, but uncertain about how he should deal this matter. At first, he thinks that he knows the identity of the killer, but certain confrontations make him unsure.

                                  The coastal village Irish community is populated by people bursting with resentment at the church. They treat Father James like a mortal enemy. Father at least wants to tend to his flock in the remaining seven days. He meets a butcher (Chris O’Dowd), who is suspected of beating his wife, Veronica (Orla O'Rourke). The butcher points the finger at his wife’s immigrant lover (Isaach De Bankole). The butcher also adds in a relieving manner that he is happy about his wife finding a lover, because now he is free from her pestering.

                                 Then the priest meets a variety of eccentric, tormented characters: a sinister police chief (Gary Lydon), who sarcastically comments about the church; a impish doctor (Aidan Gillen), a atheist, who only sees extreme suffering at the local hospital; a wealthy, corrupted banker Fitzgerald  (Dylan Moran), whose riches have only brought sorrow; a sex-starved young man (Killian Scott), who wants to join the army to feed his violent impulses; and a old American writer (M. Emmet Walsh), who demands a Walther PPK from the priest, in order to end life on his own terms. The intensity heightens when Father James’ trouble daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) appears after a failed suicide attempt. We get to know about Father James’ past life. He is a widower, who has adopted priesthood, abandoning his own daughter. He is also a heavy drinker and brawler, and struggles to restrain his personal demons.

                                “Calvary” is not ‘who is gonna do it’ thriller. It is a moving drama about religious faith. The father isn’t determined to save his life or to find out the identity of wannabe killer. At every chance and at every confrontation he tries to make at least a little difference to these people’s troubled lives. McDonagh’s wise cracking dialogue repeatedly discloses smart one-liners, but at the same time you could detect the righteous anger, which transforms the movie from being a foul-mouthed comedy to a devastating passion play. The script doesn’t categorize the characters into ‘saints’ and ‘sinners’. They are just portrayed as human beings, encrusted with loneliness and superiority. Some might complain that most of the characters are one dimensional, with only one personality trait. But, I felt the characters were deliberately written like that, especially considering the limited time frame of the film. Also, McDonagh, through these characters has only tried to bring out the contemporary problems faced by church: sexual abuse, sexual dysfunction, greed and anachronism.

                                There are lots of ‘easy to decode’ biblical references in McDonagh’s script. The movie – and the priest’s desolate journey – takes place over seven days; the title comes from the small hill outside Jerusalem where Jesus was slain; Father James takes the fall for the sins of bad priests and corrupted men. In my opinion, two scenes stood out – one for its tenderness and other for its toughness: the beach side conversation between Father James and his daughter, who was still angry at him for his abandonment of her; the story of a deaf, dumb and blind child, which the doctor tells to priest. It was a cruel metaphor aimed at the priest to tell how he is trapped inside the idea of religion.
                                Brendan Gleeson’s Father James character was etched out in a complex manner than the other ones. Masterful surrealistic director Luis Bunuel has constantly excoriated Catholicism and its priests in his movies. McDonagh takes such route, but in the end he makes us feel for Father James. He infuses grace and poignancy into the character and Gleeson never hits a false note. Gleeson marvelously chokes-up his emotions as he takes a mental beating in most of the scenes. The bitter questions that hang over the film couldn’t have been vividly brought to life by another leading actor.    

                                Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary” makes clear how the Church’s countless abuses will continue to take out more human lives. He seriously inquires on faith and what it means to certain kinds of person, without ever condemning religion, on the whole. 

“You still have good priests who are being vilified just by the clothes they wear. That paranoia is there and it will always be there. But that doesn’t take away the fact that there are individuals trying to do good work. The reason they go into the priesthood is because they want to help other human beings.”
                                                                        --- Director John Michael McDonagh [in an Interview]