Dear Frankie -- A Non-Manipulative Heart-Warmer

                                    The sweet life-affirming Scottish movie, “Dear Frankie” (2004) from director Shona Auerbach comes off with a plot that provides immense chances for forced sentimentality and to wring enough tears. But, our worst expectations from such a cutesy storyline don’t come true, as ‘Dear Frankie’ is a soulful portrait of wounded souls, who try to protect one another. If you can overlook the movie’s leisure pace, you would be enamored by this character study and performances that don’t look manufactured.

                                  Single mom, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) never stays in one place or town for very long. She lives with hearing impaired-son, Frankie Morrison (Jake McElhone) and her chain-smoking mother Nell (Mary Riggins). Lizzie is moving through Glasgow, changing schools and addresses, to stay away from her abusive husband, who seems to be fiercely searching for her. But, Lizzie has told her smart and intuitive son that his father away at sea, aboard a ship named ‘accra’. Lizzie writes elaborate letters to Frankie as if his father is writing to him.

                                    Frankie’s favorite subject is Geography because of his father’s travels and he collects all the stamps his father sends him in the letter. He also writes back, innocently sharing his life’s secrets and joys. Lizzie is keen to put a stop to this fantasy, but she feels that she can hear her son’s voice in those beautifully written letters. One day, Frankie’s bratty classmate shows him the newspaper clipping that the ship 'accra’ is due to arrive on their harbor town soon. The boy makes a bet to Frankie that his father wouldn’t visit him.

                                   Rather than revealing the truth, Lizzie stretches the lie and through the help of her fish shop owner Marie (Sharon Small), she finds a guy to act as Frankie’s father. It is intended as one-day experiment and Lizzie is ready to pay a fee. And, there enters the laconic and handsome guy (Gerard Butler), who not only dutifully responds to his duties as father-for-hire but also remains affectionate towards Lizzie. The fragile family is also chased by Frankie’s real dad, who seems to be dying.

                                   Screenwriter Andrea Gibb and director Auerbach never allows the touching and predictable story to descend into schmaltz. The film’s setting is similar to the many British kitchen-sink dramas, but it is emotionally more tender and imbues subtlety and is powered by well-constructed relationships. When we see a mesmerizing stranger like Gerard Butler play the father-for-hire character, we could easily guess that Lizzie would be pulled in, despite fears and self-righteousness. But, the affection between these two characters doesn’t happen all of a sudden. In one of the movie’s pleasantly inviting moments, Lizzie and the stranger stands on the verge on kissing, but the director doesn’t rush anything here. And, after that moment, the story takes a natural course rather than incorporating the stranger into the family, making a false-note ending.

                                   Apart from the leisurely paced direction, the movie works well because of uniformly superb performances. Jack McElhone is perfect as Frankie. He acts like a child who isn’t artificial. Unable to speak, he makes full use of facial expressions to communicate Frankie's range of feelings from loneliness to joy. Watch out for his wide-eyed, ever-smiling expression when he meets his father (the one hired by his mother). McElhone’s character is also etched very well, as we are never sure how much he intuitively knows about his mother's activities.

                                   Emily Mortimer gives a moving performance as a single mother, who neglects her own fulfillment and desires to shield her son from any troubles. The whole movie is about the lengths one loving mother will go to protect her son from a hard truth. So, the movie’s emotional vibrancy is directly attached to these two characters. Any lesser truths would have easily turned into a melodramatic fest. That said, “Dear Frankie” isn’t entirely free from melodrama or manipulation, but we can forgive those faults because it never loses sight of its characters or provides us a neatly-packaged resolution. Gerard Butler makes less use of his dashing looks and remains as a compassionate and responsive human being, whose character is well grounded in realism. The captivating locations in and around Glasgow also creates the fitful mood for the story.

                                  “Dear Frankie” (105 minutes) explores the challenges of single parenthood and also takes in broader themes such as resilience, loneliness and trust. It is occasionally soppy, but it remains endearing from beginning to end. 


The Grand Seduction -- A Charming Small-Town Dramedy

                                           Comedy-dramas set in picturesque small town are a delight to watch. You would have the urban outsider, who initially gawks at the small-town people’s eccentricities and eventually envies their serene life-style. You would have middle-aged men/women yearning for a richer, fast-paced life, and then we would also come across old, wise guys. Bill Foysth’s “Local Hero” (1983, starring Burt Lancaster), and “Waking Ned” are some of the small-town movies that gave us a rich cinematic experience. They follow a routine formula, but nonetheless, an entertaining formula. Don McKellar’s “The Grand Seduction” (2014) possesses all those ingredients necessary for such a remote-town comedy flick. The movie was a remake of French-Canadian production “Le Grande Seduction” (aka “Seducing Dr. Lewis”, 2003). The movie doesn’t have a ground-breaking or original storyline, but it has a winning cast that never fails to deliver the fun.

                                       “The Grand Seduction” was set on a picturesque, small harbor town named ‘Tickle Cove’, in Canada. The village once thrived in the fishing business, as men went in their boats very early to provide for the families. It was a mirthful sight for the young Murray, as he describes that “Life was a thing of beauty”. But, as years passed by the cods have all vanished, the young men settled in other towns, while the old/middle-aged ones resided in the town to collect their welfare checks. Murray French (Brendan Gleeson) feels depressed to live such a life, and is eager to do anything to revive their ‘Tickle Cove’.

                                       Murray’s wife is going to leave the town for a factory work in the city. The befuddled Murray’s only hope is a giant corporation’s plan to build petrochemical processing facility in their town. This could bring jobs and might bring back the young ones back from the city. However, the company insists that it will build its facility only if ‘Tickle Cove’ has a full-time doctor in residence. It’s hard to convince any doctor to live in their bedraggled town. In the night, the mayor of town silently shifts to city for a better job. Murray becomes the mayor and soon discovers a young plastic surgeon, Paul Lewis (Taylor Kitsch), busted by customs for possessing cocaine.

                                      A deal is worked out and Doctor Lewis is forced to perform community service in Tickle Cove, for a month. Now, Murray and his pals -- Simon (Gordon Pinsent) and the local banker Henry (Mark Critch) – has one month to convince the doctor, to make him stay for at least another five years. Lewis is a cricket enthusiast and a player. So, the hockey-loving townsfolk learn cricket, make bat out of paddles, and dresses out of screen clothes. They even replace their favorite hockey player’s picture in the pub, with that of Sachin Tendulkar. Murray asks the indifferent and young post-woman, (Liane Balaban) to flirt with the doctor. And, as the doctor sets foot on ‘Tickle Cove’, he is absolutely amazed and remains naive to the efforts by the townspeople to seduce him.  

                                      The deceptive methods by Murray and Simon provide good, chuckling moments. Although certain scenarios are far-fetched and ridiculous, it is essentially harmless and eventually leaves a feeling of warmth. The tinge of sadness and desperation that is associated with townspeople works in the favor of movie. Like in the Brit-comedy “The Full Monty” (1997), jobless working-class people work out a plan that seems absurd, although their near-economic future seems to depend on this absurd act. The strip-tease act in ‘Full Monty’ is here replace with the ‘doctor-tricking’ act. Both these scenarios only provide a false sense of hope, but these characters are happy to take that than living a hopeless, perplexed life. Murray knows that the oil executives would only bring toxicity to their village, but he is ready to choose that to enjoy the togetherness of the community.  

                                     The script by Ken Scott and Michael Dowse incorporates more schmaltziness as the movie progresses, although the beautiful lensing (by cinematographer Douglas Koch) of the village keeps us warm. Director McKellar must be really lucky to get such a wonderful cast. Brendan Gleeson is born to play such mischievous characters. He is well-assisted by veteran actor Gordon Pinsent ("Away From her”). Their elaborate hoaxes eat away at some of the movie’s flaws. Kitsch is much better in this film than in those big-budgeted Hollywood movies.

                                     “The Grand Seduction” (113 minutes) is an innocuous, formula comedy -- thanks to an excellent cast and breath-taking scenery -- that provides enough entertainment. 


Ilo Ilo -- An Empathetic Potrait of a Recession-Struck Family

                                      Singaporean film “Ilo Ilo” (2013) by first-time film-maker Anthony Chen boasts a premise that has repeatedly scrutinized in the recent times: the financial crisis and its impact on a middle-class family. Yet, there is something refreshing about this movie. It is a fairly straight-forward, character-driven drama, but unlike many recession era movies, it has a strong domestic focus. Although it might seem like a dry subject, director Chen has infused subtle humor and heart-breaking realism to keep us attentive.

                                       The movie is set in the late 90’s, when Southeast Asia faced one of big financial crisis. The unemployment and suicide rates went rising. The Singapore, we see in this film, isn’t the tourist’s paradise. Instead the hand-held camera that moves through tight spots immediately makes us feel for those families that reside within this concrete jungle. When the film starts, the ten year old Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) pulls up a prank at this teacher, and immediately ends up in the principal’s office. His pregnant mother Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann), who works as a secretary, is called to the school.

                                    The mother’s reaction tells us that this isn’t first time she is getting a call from school regarding her son’s behavior. She is also worried about the fact that her firm is laying off workers at a faster rate. At school, she is made clear that Jiale would face expulsion if doesn’t clear up his act. Father Teck (Chen Tian Wen) also faces heavy challenge in his salesman job. Jiale’s obnoxious behavior has increased ever since the demise of his beloved grandfather. He’s doing all sorts of things to get his parents’ attention. To restore some peace in their household, the parents decide to hire a live-in maid. The new maid Teresa (Angeli Bayani) is from Philippines (from the ‘Ilo Ilo’ province), and has left her toddler son, back at home.

                                 She shares the room with Jiale, and the unruly child immediately begins to bully and defy her. Around this time, the father Teck is fired from his job, and loses everything in the stock market. He starts to work as a security guy in some warehouse. Hwee Leng starts to attend self-improvement lectures, held by a tricky entrepreneur.  However, Teresa brings some resilience to this vicious family atmosphere. He earns affection and respect from Jiale, and becomes ‘Auntie Terry’.   

                                 Director Chen hasn’t built his plot points through sentimentality. He takes us through the family’s everyday life – like showering, eating, doing laundry, working, picking the boy at school etc – and gradually vents out the secrets and lies that lies beneath the calm facade. All the little details and character interactions isn’t just realists; it is relatable. The characters we see in the movie are like us – far from perfection. They lie; they make bad decisions, and spoil themselves with a little dose of vanity. But, at the same time they find a way through their problems without breaking down. The director doesn’t make his characters to reiterate the word, ‘life is hard’, because we can easily sense it from their every-day life.

                                  If there is one character, we feel some kind of aggravation, and then it might be the mother’s (Hwee Leng). She demands Terry’s passport as soon as she enters the house, and talks to her in a voice to remind Terry that she occupies a lower rung in the social status. She never admonishes her son, when he reacts in an appalling manner against Terry. She wages a cold war with Terry when Jiale shows more affection towards the maid. She even disapproves the fact that her maid is a catholic. In another movie, the mother character would have been easily demonized by construing more bad behavior. But, Chen keeps us from passing a judgment on Hwee Leng, as in the end we begin to sympathize with her (especially after falling for the pitch of ‘get-rich quickly’ lectures). All the remaining three characters were also wonderfully realized. Terry’s isn’t portrayed as the messianic figure, who helps a family at troubled times.  

The Real 'Auntie Terry' with Director Anthony Chen (Left) and Christopher Chen (Right)

                               The movie is said to be based on Chen’s own childhood, who grew up with a Filipina maid. The mother’s pregnancy was included in the plot, when the actress, Yann fell pregnant before the shoot, persuading the director to rewrite her character. Director Chen perfectly captures the bitter-sweet nature that runs through middle-class life. Chen’s directorial style reminded me of the Taiwanese master Edward Yang’s movies. He not only showcases the division between poor and rich, in a globalized world, but also ponders over the arrogance and lordly attitude of the privileged. The scene where Jiale is flogged in the school auditorium, in front of students, might represent one of the horror tales we might have heard regarding Singapore’s law enforcement system.

                             “Ilo Ilo” (98 minutes) is a relatable family drama, told with empathy and resilience. It is a subtle and touching understatement on the tragedy of human condition. 


Frank -- What's Going On Inside 'That' Head?

                                        Late comedian and pop star Chris Sievey, one day popped up a giant papier mache mask on his head, became ‘Frank Sidebottom’, and tried to sing songs that were totally odd and eccentric from the regular ones. His music was said to be bit annoying and has only enjoyed an outsider status till his death. British film-maker Lenny Abrahamson’s “Frank” (2014) – the title character – wears such a giant head mask and is the leader of an unutterable avant-rock band called ‘Soronprfbs’. ‘Frank’ isn’t a biopic of Sievey, although the script (written by Jon Ronson) was loosely based on the writer’s brief stint as touring keyboard player with Sievey’s ‘Oh Blimey Big Band’. A-list Star Micheal Fassbender plays ‘Frank’, hiding himself behind that giant head mask, and the movie is an entirely different kind of beast; one that is bizarre, audacious and unpredictable.

                                       The film starts in the most amusing manner, as the aspiring musician Jon (Domnhall Gleeson) tries to come up with a song, while staring at different things in his dilapidated coastal town. He sings different deplorable, uninspired verses to himself, throughout the day (“Ladies have babies, that how it works….”; “Lady in the redcoat, what you doing with that bag…..”). Jon leads an uneventful life. He lives with his parents and has a boring desk job. However, his dream to become a musician comes true, when he meets the avant-garde rock band called ‘Soronprfbs’, whose keyboard player tries to drown himself in the beach. The band’s manager, Don (Scoot McNairy) immediately asks Jon to participate in the gig, that same night.

                                     The crowd is minimal, but the Jon is enamored by the band’s mysterious leader Frank. The songs consist of random words, sung without any harmonic intent. Frank wears a pumpkin-sized fake head, and never takes it off. He sips only liquid meals, and even his band mates haven’t seen him without the mask. The band members are also as odd as Frank: theremin player, Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is prone to sudden outbursts; a distant French bass player Baraque (Francois Civil); and the stark percussionist Nana (Carla Azar). Don, the band’s manager, has been a resident of psychiatric hospital, where he has met Frank. Don also has a thing for ‘mannequins’.

                                     Jon immediately jumps on board, when the band decides to camp at Ireland to write and record an album. Frank’s obsession to attain a new musical scale, wrings out many days. When money runs out, Jon contributes his ‘nest egg’. Jon is convinced about Frank’s musical talents. He believes Frank’s talents have come from mental illness and miserable childhood (“Miserable childhood, mental illness … How do I find that sort of inspiration?”). After 11 months, without composing a single song, Jon is devastated, but belief that this is the miserable childhood he never had, and that this might lead him to write and compose excellent songs.

                                   On the surface, “Frank”, might look like a light comedy, but at times it veers into the dark territory, where artist’s obsession leads to insanity. It is also a fine exploration of an artist’s grand vision that conflicts with his mediocre talents. The move takes on the myths surrounding pop singers. Jon believes that only mental illness or hard-won experience could give great talents that Frank boasts (conventional wisdom says: “great art is often created by troubled individuals”). He could never accept the fact Frank might be naturally good in writing songs. The movie is also about fame and the paradox it carries with itself. Jon blogs, and posts videos on ‘Youtube’, showcasing the band members’ eccentric antics. Slowly the fame, he envied reaches him through social media. He and his band is recognized, but only later it dawns on him that the fame haven’t made them out to be the  innovative musicians, but just as a band of freaks. 

                                 Fame is what changes Frank too, making him drastic. He wants people to like his songs and his band, but he isn’t able to handle the fame. This is where the movie asks that enigmatic question – what’s better for an eccentric, talented artist: to safely and satisfyingly work within a confined realm? Or tweak it a bit, giving the ‘likeable’ treatment, and in the process attain money and fame. The third act – the trip to America – seemed a bit conventional. It lacked unpredictability and the compelling nature of previous acts, but the ending was moving. It is also important to note that all the spiky songs (including the final one) were all performed live by the cast.

                                 The performances are all uniquely excellent. There is an irony in seeing an A-list star hiding behind a mask for most of the film’s running time. However, Fassbender works wonders with his sheer physical presence. His perfect body language showcases Frank as an unbridled energy source as well as a puppet, waiting to be moved by its master. Gyllenhaal gives an excellent performance as Clara that is both passive and dynamic. She is the only character, who seems to understand Frank and that he can’t survive in the mainstream world.

                                 “Frank” (95 minutes) isn’t a movie that caters to all tastes. It goes beyond being an eccentric comedy, as it profoundly examines the outsider or misunderstood art. 


Poster Credit -- The Sunday Dog Parade

The Fallen Idol -- A Powerless Child in a Hefty Adult World

                                          In our childhood, we might have felt the grandiosity of the adult world. Before losing all our innocence, we might come across the infallibility of our favorite persons (namely our parents). Truth and trust would be the words that might haunt a child, who tries to contemplate the adult world. British director Carol Reed’s subtle thriller “The Fallen Idol” (1948) gives such an insightful study about a child, whose ingenuousness is consumed by the burgeoning world views. The movie was based on 1935 short story “The Basement Room” by Graham Greene. The author has also written the screenplay and later went on to team up with Carol Reed for the classic film noir “The Third Man” (1949).  

                                       “The Fallen Idol” opens with a close-up shot of eight year old boy, Phile (Bobby Henrey). He sits at the staircase of top floor and watches his favorite butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson), who moves through that huge hall, trying to run the manor house. Phile’s enjoys a privileged life since he is the son of French ambassador to England. However, the boy spends much of his time on his own because his father is preoccupied with work and mother is in a hospital. As the film opens, ambassador embarks on a trip to bring his wife back to home. Phile, as usual, is left in the care of Baines and the condescending Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel).

                                      Phile idolizes Baines. He is like a father figure and also provides entertainment, tells grand adventure stories, and the significant thing is that Baines listens to the child. Apart from Baines, Phile’s most favorite companion is MacGregor, a pet snake, whom he hides behind a loose brick on a second-floor balcony. Mrs. Baines is the exact opposite of Baines. She is a bully who shows her anger on the boy and husband. Mrs. Baines punishes Phile to stay in his room for the whole afternoon. But, Phile after seeing Baines, from the balcony, taking a walk into the park, he goes after him.

                                      Phile runs through the park and streets and finally finds him a café. Baines happens to be with Julie (Michele Morgan), a pretty young embassy secretary, who seems to be conversing and crying. Baines says that Julie is his niece, and Phile doesn’t care as long as Baines buys him sweets. On returning to the house, Phile is asked not to tell anyone about their meeting with Julie. Baines says it’s a secret only they could share. However, when that little secret is wheedled out of helpless Phile by Mrs. Baines, things take a turn. Phile is gradually pulled into the world of scheming adults. The secrets only bring out catastrophe and Phile witnesses a horrible incident.  

                                    Graham Greene has initially deemed the story as unfilmable. However, Reed and Greene later partnered in to bring a tantalizing psychological study of a child, thrown amongst infidelity and murder. The themes explored in this movie were later structured wonderfully in some great movies like “The Spirit of Beehive”, “Cria Cuervos”, “Pans Labyrinth”, but the one thing that separates those movies from “Fallen Idol” is its slackened, farcical ending. In fact, the unhappy ending in the original story was changed. Although, Phile happily reunites with his parents, the ending is laced with sarcasm, as we don’t know how the child will then on look at the adults.

                                     The joy of watching “The Fallen Idol” lays in the questions the movie raises about children. When Phile enters into café after watching Baines and Julie in the window, both of them carry on their lover’s chat, slightly ignoring the child’s presence. As a viewer, this scene makes us wonder about how much the child understood about this adult situation. Phile definitely grasps the mood (as Julie is crying, feeling bad about these secret meetings), and so when Baines introduces as her niece, Phile later replies: "Funny isn't it that Julie worked in the embassy, and all the time she was your niece”.

                                       Reed and his cinematographer’s (Georges Perinal) elegant and stylized angels, set at the embassy, makes that place as one of the characters in film, hiding cold truths within its walls. The sharp high-angle and low-angle shots plus the shots of the staircases contribute a lot in maintaining the sense of danger. Initially, Phile watches the adults from the top staircase, and they all seem small compared to the vast space inside the house. Over the course of the movie, the space around Phile closes in, giving him a disturbing and burgeoning point of view on the adult’s world. The film also boasts some excellent editing, especially in the sequence when Baines and his wife argue on the staircase landing, as Phile runs down the fire escape, watching various stages in the couple’s quarrel.  Director Reed excellently constructs a performance out of Bobby Henrey. The child is a non-professional and perfectly behaves like a real nine-year old. He is annoying as well as sweet.

                                      “The Fallen Idol” (95 minutes) is steeped in wit and compassion to showcase the moral ambiguity, prevalent in human relationships. The incisive direction and the deep-focus cinematography gives us a pleasurable movie experience. 


Cure -- A Detective's Maddening Quest

                                              Japanese film-maker Kiyoshi Kurosawa is best known for his unsettling films with metaphysical plot structures. His movies have a bleak austerity, and the characters remain alienated. “Cure” (1997) was one of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s best movies, which highly concentrates on atmosphere rather than the central mystery. Although the movie comes under the ‘Serial-killer’ genre, it doesn’t possess the great cat-and-mouse game, we saw in Hollywood movies like “Seven” or “Silence of the Lambs”.  Its plot structure is quite different and finishes at a point without giving us neatly packaged answers. “Cure” is Kurosawa’s take on ‘identity’ in an inhibited society. The film’s details are placed in an intricate manner and might baffle the passive viewers.

                                          The movie beings in a well-lit hospital room and a woman sit astride, reading the story of ‘Bluebeard’. In the next sequence, a prostitute is clubbed to death in a hotel. Detective Takabe (Koji Yakusho) and psychologist Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki) investigate the crime scene and confirm the fact that it is another homicide, where the victims have a massive ‘X’ carved into their torso/neck. However, the perpetrators are caught in every case, and they don’t remember the gruesome act of murder. In fact, Takabe finds the killer of prostitute in an air-shaft, cowering naked. All the perpetrators seem to be ordinary citizens, who fall suddenly under the grip of some weird compulsion.

                                       The crimes also don’t have any motive. Detective Takabe bears the pressure of solving these strings of senseless murders.  Takabe is married to a woman, who is mentally unstable and tries hard to keep up with her. A wandering, enigmatic, and amnesiac man (Masato Hagiwara) in the beach asks a guy, ‘where is he’? The guy tells the name of the place, but the drifter forgets everything within 30 seconds. The good-natured guy, a teacher who married his high-school sweet-heart, takes him to his house, and finds out from the jacket that the drifter’s name is ‘Mamiya’. The drifter flicks up his lighter and starts asking the good-natured guy some questions. The next day, the wife of the guy lays dead with an ‘X’ carved on her stomach and her husband tries to commit suicide. The drifter is nowhere to be found.

                                       Takabe investigates the teacher and the guy says that he remembers killing his wife, but doesn’t know why and totally forgets about the strange drifter. Soon, similar types of gruesome crimes happen at a faster rate (a police man kills his colleague; a general practitioner tears out a guy’s face using surgeon’s wife). Eventually, all these crimes are linked to the presence of a ‘strange hypnotist’. Takabe finds out that the stranger might be a former medical student, obsessed with mesmerism and hypnotism. However, the strange guy throws off all forms of verbal communication by persistently asking series of irritating questions. Takabe wants to find the answers to the mystery, and may be in those answers he could find the ‘cure’ for his distressed personal and professional life. 

                                      “Cure” isn’t a thriller that travels from point A to B, by marvelously positioning a mystery and neatly answering it the end. If watched attentively, the film will stalk, creep and will submerge inside us, asking many puzzling questions. The film starts off like a usual police-procedural fashion, where the detective and his side-kick psychiatrist ponder over the crimes’ patterns. However, we come across the killer, very earlier, and we pretty much know how he does it. The only question remains at that point is ‘why’, which is what takes us through a psychological maze, leaving us stranded in the middle. Even in the end we don’t have answers, but we can form our own theories to say that this is what Kurosawa intended. So, the generic elements of thriller are only there to draw us in, and once you are in, the story become ambiguous, where the director doesn’t spell everything out (similar to David Lynch in “Mulholland Drive”).

                                      The triumphant part of Kurosawa’s direction lies in creating the ambient atmosphere, where everything from a gramophone to a humming washing machine sounds eerily. The pacing is very relaxed, but the director imbues certain uneasiness that makes us not to look away or blink our eyes. Although it was filmed on a paltry sum, the images are far better than a generic Hollywood thriller. He creates great impact in the killing scenes by keeping a distanced, dispassionate distance, without making a cut. These shocking scenes increase our dread, whenever ‘Mamiya’ comes across other’s lives asking: “Who are you”?  

                                    Kurosawa’s themes and offerings could be considered as bleak and pessimistic. In this film, the themes is that ‘cure’ is possible for human soul only when he removes him from inhibitions and stays ‘free’ to do what he wanted to. Sadly, that cure seems to be gruesome murders – the persons, who keep the perpetrators from staying ‘free’. Mamiya seems to affect everyone in the close vicinity, with his concept of ‘freeing’. Takabe seems to the only who resists Mamiya’s manipulations, except for that scene, when Takabe imagines that his wife has hanged herself.

                               Kurosawa also likes to ponder over the behavior of Japanese men. Like in Shohei Immamura movies, the protagonist or any men in a Kurosawa film seem to repress their genuine emotions or true thoughts. Most of the men in his films don’t seem to know what their ‘self’ is. Takabe isn’t sure who he really is or doesn’t know what he should cling with – be a talented detective (societal responsibility) or a caring husband (personal responsibility). In another simple scene at the dry-cleaners, while Takabe is standing, an owner mutters angrily in the background, but when he emerges and faces the customers, he interacts as if he is the polite man on earth. These are small intricate details, which don’t help us to solve the mystery, but clears on what Kurosawa intended to give us. The ending leaves us our head scratching, contemplating the various possibilities from then on.  

                                    “Cure” (112 minutes) is an ambiguous thriller that chucks out all the conventional story-telling language of this genre. It takes the idea of mind control to a frightening notion, one that has hefty amount of emotional weight. 


Kontroll -- A Metaphorical Ride into the Metros

                                       In movies, metros or tube systems are usually shown to establish the mundane lifestyle of a character. The same system is used to distill a fine action/adventure sequence, where the hero chases the villain or when the hero saves lives from the mitts of a deadly monster, living underground. US born Hungarian director Nimrod Antal’s “Kontroll” (Control, 2003) is about existentialism as well as has some good low-key action sequences, but the only difference is that , the movie is fully set in this neon-lighted underworld, where the subway system becomes a character in itself, than just being a mere backdrop. “Kontroll” is an allegorical journey (allegory of what? you would definitely come up with various theories in the end) that is more concerned with the atmosphere. It possesses a mystery at its center, and instead of answering the mystery, it only throws more questions (beguiling ones) at us.

                                    The movie starts with a disclaimer of sorts, where a public transit official of Budapest reads from a clipboard that the movie might cause some unfavorable impression on subway employees. However, the same man reads that the film-maker’s intentions are only ‘symbolic’ and that the film’s themes are universal. I certainly don’t know the reality within Budapest Public Transit System, but Antal evocatively creates a setting with an intimate realism, which looks like a netherworld with its own rituals and culture. In this world, the ticket collectors (or ‘controllers’) are the cursed beings. They are not the clean, uniformed ones we usually see in films. These controllers are identified by a red-and-black armbands, and apart from collecting tickets, they also collect the citizens’ contempt.

                                    The controllers’ primary task is to maintain order in the metros and to make sure than nobody gets a free ride. Although on the outset it looks like an easy job, after looking at the drunks, weirdos and thugs, their task seems to be formidable. The movie centers on Bulcsu (Sandor Csanyi), the head of one of the ticket inspection squad. He seems to be hiding from his past life. He lives 24 hours inside the underworld, where he constantly fights off with other rival gangs of ticket inspectors. Bulcsu team has four unkempt, eccentric men: cynical, chain-smoking. Mucsi; a lanky, sort-tempered narcoleptic, Muki; a geeky new-comer, Tibi; and the short, blusterous Lecso.

                                    These ragtag guys often engage themselves in absurd duels with riders, who hate any kind of authority. A pimp offers one of his girls, but refuses to buy a ticket; a tourists laughs off at ticket inspectors, hiding behind language barrier; sexual harassment shouts a woman, when asked for the ticket; a guy threatens with a syringe; and a woman puts even puts a curse on one of the inspector by blowing powder in his face. Amidst all this, Bulcsu’s team is constantly badgered by Bootsie – prankster and a fast runner, who likes to spray foam on inspectors’ faces. In such a crazy world, there is a sinister force – a mysterious black-hooded guy, who shoves passengers in front of oncoming trains. Bulcsu, at last finds his solace after meeting with a beautiful bear-suited young girl, Sfozi (Eszter Bella). Her angelic presence could be described as ‘light at the end of the tunnel.’

                                      The articulate camerawork and fluid shots reminds us of “Run Lola Run” (1998), whereas the high-strung depiction of urban psychology is reminiscent of Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976). The disaffected characterization of Csanyi as the Bulcsu resembles the ones played by young Al Pacino (of ‘Serpico’ days), whom similarly outruns various kind of demons that lurks around every corner. Unlike Luc Besson (in“Subway”) or Joseph Sargent’s (in “Talking of Pelham One Two Three”), Antal efficiently imbues a layer of metaphysics into the plot’s mix of action, suspense, and romance. There are hectic foot chase as well as interludes, where Bulcsu (both symbolically and vertaibly) explores the subway’s depths. However, it is a sad fact that director Antal, after “Kontroll”, has only made generic average thriller fares like “Predators” (2010), “Vacancy”, and “Armored”.

                                      The metro system really forms a cumulative impact upon the viewer. When we see the trains coming in and out, its doors closing and opening in empty and filled stations, we feel a metaphorical significance. The subway becomes the symbol for a battered city, where its ceaseless, repeating pattern of actions makes the citizens weary of their lives. The deadpan answers of denizens to ticket inspectors might be reminiscent of Eastern European brand of sarcasm, but the people’s scorn for authority is universal (as if the scorn is the only thing that is keeping them alive). It is also important to note that the ‘controllers’ are shown as belligerent with the characteristics of bullies. However, the cause for belligerence is quoted earlier, in the film by a wise, chain-smoking guy: “If you’re surrounded by aggressive people, you run a risk of also becoming one – it’s like a vicious circle.”
                                   “Kontroll” could be viewed as an allegory for hell, where a girl dressed like fairy saves our protagonist or it could be just ruminations on human existence, as in one scene, Bulcsu comes across a cement wall at the end of subway, which might harshly symbolize our life’s limitations. We never know about the real identity of Bulcsu and the serial-killer. There are theories that bring out a “Fight Club” like vibe to this mystery, but this open-endedness about the identities is what makes the film a compelling and grimy fable.

                                   “Kontroll” (110 minutes) is a darkly comic existential drama with serpentine surprises. It is about persistent human beings, who lead an exhaustible life in a place where the sun don’t shine. 


Man on the Train -- An Atypical 'Mismatched Buddy' Movie

                                         In the 1951 Hitchcock classic “Strangers on a Train”, two men with opposite temperaments form a dangerous alliance that shatters their life forever. Hitchcock’s identity-switching theme from this movie is taken by French auteur Patrice Leconte and turns on its head to give us a wonderful character study about two incompatible individuals, who forge strong (and unlikely) bond of friendship. Leconte’s “Man on the Train” (2002) possesses a plot that is used in many average Hollywood entries. It belongs to ‘buddy picture’ genre, except that the relationship is very subtle and less artificial. Leconte, the veteran French film-maker, who made intriguing movies like “Hairdresser’s Husband”, “Ridicule”, “The Girl on the Bridge”, and "Monsieur Hire”, imbues enough sardonic wit into the proceedings, primarily to plunder through the cantankerous cliches the movie could have had.

                                      The movie starts with a man on a train, who gets off in a dull, less populous French town. The man named Milan (Johnny Hallyday) arrives to the town in November, when the hotels are closed due to lack of tourists. Although Milan is a Frenchman, he looks like an American Cowboy, who has come straight from the old Wild West. He wears a forlorn expression in his eyes and a fringed leather jacket. Milan’s profession is the one, the old cowboys loved to do. He robs banks. In fact he decided to visit this town to meet old acquaintances and to rob the insecure, local bank.

                                      The ‘Clint Eastwood’ like drifter bumps into Mr. Manesquier (Jean Rochefort) in the local under stocked drug store. The chatty and friendly fellow Manesquier takes Milan to his rundown Victorian estate for a glass of water. Manesquier is a retired poetry teacher, who has lived alone in the huge mansion since his death of mother, 15 years before. Milan finds that the town’s only hotel is closed and so quarters in the huge home, and Manesquier is only too happy because he finally has a companion to talk. Milan is going to stay in the town till Saturday – the date fixed for bank robbery. In the same day, Manesquier will go to hospital for a triple bypass surgery.

                                     A genuine friendship gradually unfolds – they get drunk, tell stories, recite poems, and sit on the terrace gazing at the stars -- between two old individuals, even though at one point Manesquier guesses what is Milan’s profession. Both of the old guys, who have reached the end of line in life, discover in each other an aspect of life, which they wish they might have known. The ex-teacher, who has lived a predictable life, yearns for adventure and excitement, whereas the drifter desires the comfort and stability of a home.

                                    Claude Klotz’s clever script sports through cliches and elegantly creates two contradictory archetypes, who might have had no tolerance for each other, had they met few decades earlier. The dialogues aren’t stodgy, and the two primary characters don’t judge each other. The ending might seem a little corny and overdone, but I liked the note of transcendence that happens within the imagination of two characters. May be Leconte and writer Klotz believe in the idea that a man’s destiny is fixed, no matter what. The movie features a delicious moment, where the retired teacher, slips into the jacket of his friend, and poses in the mirror, pretending to be a western hero. Similarly, the bank robber borrows slippers from the teacher (it’s the first time he wears the slippers) and finds a new comfort in wearing them. Such little transitional moments makes it a unique character study.

Director Leconte and Johnny Hallyday

                                     Director Leconte uses plenty of visual cues to present the script’s themes. He is interested in the old-school approach, where human interest, subtle cinematography and sensitive performance take precedence over the blindly entertaining fantasies. In one scene, the doctor who in the next day, going to perform the bypass surgery on Manesquier and Milan’s friend who came up with the robbery plan meet each other. They are sitting inside their car, in the crossroads, waiting for the signal to turn green. This scene sort of brings two men to stare at each other – the men who are about to change Mansequier and Milan’s immediate fate. These little visual motifs are what ultimately give us a haunting and satisfying movie experience.

                                    The key to great character-pieces lies in the performance. And, in this film, both the leads are excellent. Veteran actor Rochefort perfectly brings out the portrait of a fussy, aging Gallic character. Stone-faced Johnny Hallyday, an iconic French pop singer in the 60’s, with his haggard looks, truly commands all the scenes he is in, with the attributes of an old western hero. The significant part in their performances is that they don’t eclipse each others acting style. They play their parts with honest conviction and easily make us to feel an intangible line that has brought these two polar characters together. 

                                    “Man on the Train” (85 minutes) perfectly taps into the emotional current of the ‘mismatched buddy’ genre by avoiding the regular unsavory, ridiculous tropes. It subtly brings out the yearning in the lives of two men past their prime.