Housebound – Genuine Laughs within a Generic Horror Premise

                                             It is hard to make a good horror comedy or haunted house movie nowadays, and most of the times it is hard for viewers to sit through those particular types of movies. It’s difficult for a film-maker to circumvent the cliches, and almost impossible to rejuvenate this genre of films. Sometimes, horror comedies made outside US seems to get the ingredients right. For example, take “Shaun of the Dead”, where the comedy isn’t painfully unfunny and there is also a palpable sense of tension. The debut feature from New Zealand film-maker Gerard Johnstone, “Housebound” (2014) for the most part achieves this balance between horror and comedy.  Although, the horror here is predictable to a certain extent, the casting of two expressive ladies in the primary roles makes it a delirious fun.

                                          The film opens with our protagonist Kylie (Morgana O’Reilly) trying to rob an ATM with a sledgehammer, but gets herself caught. A permanent sneer is constantly glued to her face because of the frustration that she can’t leave her run-down house and run-down town. Kylie’s previous record of substance abuse and anger management issues puts her under house arrest for eight months with an ankle bracelet monitoring her movements. When we hear Kylie’s mother, Miriam (Rima Te Wiata) talk we lean why Kylie thinks this is a cruel punishment. Another person in the household is Graeme (Ross Harper), Kylie’s step-dad, who is the polar opposite of Miriam.

                                         The court-ordered psychiatrist, Dennis’ (Cameron Rhodes) patronizing comments also doesn’t help Kylie. Miriam, the fast-talker often calls late at night to paranormal radio show and tells tales about how her house is haunted. Kylie makes fun of her mother’s tales until a trip down to the basement where her skepticism vanishes.  The authorities think that either she is having trouble separating reality from imagination or she is bringing up ghost to escape the house. Surprisingly for Kylie, the guard who monitors her detention, Amos (Glen-Paul Waru), believes her as he seems too obsessed with supernatural theories.

                                       “Housebound” uses many of horror genre’s familiar beats:  a horrific back-story, where a teenager is murdered brutally in the house; a shirtless old guy skinning possums with an evil look; the protagonist stabbing the wrong person under panic; unnecessary jump-scares. But, what makes ‘Housebound’ entertaining is the way Gerard Johnstone explores his characters. Rather than forcing in plot points within the first 45 minutes, he develops the character and the central mother-daughter relationship. The comedic conversations flow smoother only because of this development. For the first few minutes, we could feel that the story is dragging itself down to the inevitable path, but soon present us with a scenario, grander than we could possibly imagine.

                                        Director Johnstone builds every scene to either deliver a gag line or a scare, and at every turn he keeps us guessing that whether a build-up will result in shock or laugh. Humor for the most part is improved perfectly by the presence of well-cast actors. Morgana keeps Kylie interesting. Her characters’ cynical attitude and prolonged eccentrics could have easily frustrated the viewer, but she keeps everything under control. As Miriam, Rime Te Wiata adds a lot to the comedic mileage. Her interactions with O’Reilly not only generates genuine laugh, but also brings out her sweet maternal side. I felt that the third act is a bit too long. In order to give a finale filled with laughs and blood, the Johnstone begins to stay too long. A little trimming and a sharp focus in this part would have made this film more effective.  
                                      “Housebound” (106 minutes) will definitely entertain horror fans, who’d like to have a formulaic premise with funnier twists. A stronger balance between horror and humor would have made this an excellent film. 


A Most Wanted Man -- A Textured, Slow-Burning Spy Thriller

                                            Reading a John le Carre's espionage novel is like watching in real time, the workings of wild life photographer. We all might understand the great end result produced by those two different professionals. But, possessing immense patience to watch them carry through their work is wholly another matter. Unlike James Bond or any other rollicking spy agent, the protagonists of le Carre fiction wears a drab expression that says ‘I have seen everything’. Le Carre’s heroes and villains work inside colorless offices behind cluttered desks. The guys sporting guns and special equipments would also be there in his stories, but they only come off as a minion, who is just a little piece of a larger puzzle.  To the eyes of uninitiated, it might seem nothing much happens in a John le Carre spy novel, but if you dwell in with enough patience, you might feel lots of things are happening and some far exceeding to grasp.

                                         Le Carre’s “A Most Wanted Man” is definitely not in the league of “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”. It’s an above average novel, but considered as the British author’s important work since he harped into the contours of the post 9/11 state of emergency.  Director Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of “A Most Wanted Man” stays true to the routines of le Carre material (although this isn’t the best adaptation of his works) and in the future might seen as the last quality film from revered actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died of drug overdose on February 2014. As always, there are lot of characters, hidden agendas, and themes here, for the viewers to process and digest.

                                       The story takes place in Hamburg, Germany. After 9/11, the intelligence community in the city is on high alert as Mohammad Atta, one of the Al-Qaeda plotters of 9/11, worked from the port city, Hamburg. The police and peace-keepers are already on the move to make showy arrests and to reassure the public that everything is under control. Chief of German anti-terrorist squad in Hamburg, Gunther Bachman (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is very keen to see that no new terrorist cell operates on his watch, in his city. In that setting, a bearded young refugee named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) literally washes up on the shores of Hamburg.

                                     Issa is a Chechen and a suspected Islamic militant. Soon, Bachman’s anti-terror unit stalks this illegal immigrant and finds that he is residing in the house of a Turkish mother and son. Issa has arrived to Hamburg to locate a banker (Willem Dafoe), bearing the key to a fortune. Issa is helped by a human rights group lawyer, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), who works to find a safe haven for bewildered refugees.  Do-gooder lawyer, Annabel is soon brought in for interrogation by Bachman, and Issa becomes a bait for bringing in a big fish named Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), whose charities is suspected to be funneling money to terrorist organizations. And, you could feel that something sinister is going to happen when there is CIA operative (Robin Wright) watching over the proceedings. 

                                   “I head an anti-terror unit that not many people know about and even less like”. As Gunther, Hoffman utters these words and every other ones with a very convincing voice and bearing. Only great actors can showcase the inner workings of their mind without uttering a word. Hoffman possesses that gift for silence as he easily conveys what his character feels through the camera’s stillness. If you have read Le Carre’s espionage fiction, you could easily predict that despair is waiting for us in the final pages, and it becomes more fascinating (and also dismaying) to watch this despair through the eyes of Hoffman. As always Hoffman doesn’t give us showy performance to win awards. His greatness lies in the underplaying and in those slightest reactions and modulations.

                                    Hoffman and screenwriter Andrew Bovell somewhat turns the film into a one-man show. Bored, middle-aged Banker Tommy Brue’s awakening and the relationship between Annabel and Issa took the center stage in the novel, whereas here the writer has jettisoned the wounded romanticism to put forth Bachman front and center. It’s not bad to concentrate fully on the hard-hearted procedural of contemporary espionage, but since the focus is on Bachman, the ending only causes numbness rather than shock. However, one plot point that was made better in the movie was the relationship between Bachman and his trusted aide, Irna Frey, played by German actress Nina Hoss. She attends to him like a wife or mother, and he looks at her with a mixture of fond and pain, suggesting that there are hidden feelings beneath the layer of companionship.

                                   Corbijn’s shots and Benoit Delhomme’s lensing wonderfully highlights dark corners and sharp edges of Hamburg, as if the city was plunged into a perpetual gloom. The grand and grimy background never lets you forget that act of terrors are waiting upon the corners. Corbijn, like his last film “The American”, once again proceeds with care, giving time for the viewer to soak into the story’s mysteries.

                                  “A Most Wanted Man” (122 minutes) is a quietly gripping thriller that ponders over the sinistral workings of the intelligence-gathering world. It also serves as the bittersweet reminder of Philips Seymour Hoffman’s prodigious acting talents.


Meet John Doe -- Frank Capra's Inspirational Populist Lesson

                                         Frank Capra was one of the fine Hollywood directors to have crafted the image of “American Everyman”. He has tried his hand in romance genre (“It Happened One Night”, 1934), political and social commentary movies (“Mr. Smith to Washington”, 1939; “It’s a Wonderful Life”, 1946), slapstick comedy (“Arsenic and Old Lace”, 1944), and even WWII propaganda films for the US government. But, through all those films he has brought us the honest and forthright protagonists – the common man, who believe in the basic goodness of people. Although his movies could be bashed as sentimental melodramas, one can’t deny the powerful ideas he weaved in those films which resonates more than ever in the contemporary era.

                                       “Meet John Doe” (1941) was the second collaboration between Capra, actor Gary Cooper, and writer Robert Riskin. The trio previously worked in the Oscar nominated “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936). “Meet John Doe” may not fit into the category of Capra’s ‘greatest films’, but as ever, his faith on American system and portrayal of timeless themes, gives an inherent charm to it. The film was based on the story written by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell (in 1922). The first shot of the film shows that a bronze plaque belonging to a newspaper office, named “Free Press” is being blasted off. The newspaper is brought by a wealthy industrialist Mr. D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) and the new plaque reads “The New Bulletin: A Streamlined Paper for a Streamlined Era”.

                                      The new management starts off by downsizing its employees. When a desperate journalist, Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) finds herself in the firing line, she cooks up a letter, written by a fictional John Doe, who threatens to commit suicide on Christmas Eve by throwing himself off from the top floor of City Hall. The fake letter by the non-existent John Doe protests against corruption and hypocrisy. The letter gets published and the reading public takes it as truth, donating money, offering home and jobs for the fictional character. When rivals accuse the newspaper of cheap publicity, the frantic editor brings Ann back on the job, and asks her to find the perfect common man to play “John Doe”.

                                     In an interview, they select the handsome and rugged John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), a homeless bush-league pitcher with a bad arm. To play the part, he is initially offered $50 and a promise to give enough money for an operation to fix his arm. With the help of Ann’s firebrand writings, John Doe protests against corrupt politics and for the poor people by staying inside a luxurious suite. The newspaper circulation hits the roof, and D.B. Norten invites Ann and also gives permission to take the ‘John Doe’ ploy further.

                                    After delivering an inspirational Live Radio speech (written by Ann), Willoughby becomes a national celebrity. People across US start to form ‘John Doe’ clubs to help the needy and to fight against corruption. And, for some sinister reasons, D.B. Norten sponsors all those clubs that seems to sprout in every corner of the country. What started off as a joke becomes a ‘national movement’, and gradually turns into a spider’s web for Willoughby and Ann.

                                    As usual, director Frank Capra expertly tells his story weaving comedy, serious drama, and political commentary. Capra mostly avoids cynicism when portraying about those clubs. He clearly depicts that the John Doe clubs didn’t stem from political anger but from benefaction. Through simple scenarios, the scriptwriter Riskin shows how politics could be transcended by some neighborly concern. Similar to movies like ‘Mr. Smith’ and 'Mr. Deeds’, Capra once again pits pure, naive common man against manipulative, greedy politician or businessman. The way Capra stereotypes these two polar opposite characters definitely has a childlike simplicity. Riskin’s clunky, happy ending also spoils the film a little, but despite these flaws, the movie’s profoundly discloses the timeless nature of the incisive group of fellows.

                                    The corporate television media or tea parties may not have been so popular in Capra’s era, but a viewer could easily draw parallels with our contemporary era. It’s been more tan seven decades since the movie’s release, and still the operations of bad institutions and governments haven’t changed much. It still likens to glue itself into any genuine people’s movement, only to use it for their own devious purposes. Corporate interests and political aspirants seem to fund their way into grass-roots organization, connecting their own profit-minded wagon into those rapid fire crusades.  Capra’s cast is uniformly excellent. As Norten, Edward Arnold brings a calm menace into his character that is very unsettling. Walter Brennan as ‘Colonel’ turns in an entertaining performance and remains as the story’s voice of truth. The charismatic Gary Cooper perfectly fills in the role of the shy, bewildered protagonist.

                                     “Meet John Doe” (122 minutes) is a must watch for Frank Capra fans and lovers of black-and-white classics. It is elevated by an entertaining cast and widely resonating political & social themes. 


Undertow -- A Dark Fable Set in the American Rural South

                                           Film-maker David Gordon Green takes us to bewildering American landscapes that doesn’t exists within the confines of the great American dream. Harried men, dilapidated towns, broken-down machinery, and the economic destitution makes one wonder about the hardships endured in the deep American South. Green along with Jeff Nichols (“Shotgun Stories”, “Mud”) was one of the few American directors, who don’t reduce the characters to usual southern archetypes (as portrayed in mainstream Hollywood). Although these lands contain uncut lawns and industrial wastes, there is some beauty to it. And as Green allows his actors to improvise you could find an uncommon naturalism imbued with poetic undertones. Gordon Green has lost his ways when he becomes the ‘director-for-hire’ in movies like “Pineapple Express” or “Your Highness”, but he makes effective character studies when he evokes Southern countryside ("George Washington", "All the Real Girls", "Undertow", "Joe").

                                       “Undertow” (2004) was Gordon Green third feature film and the story transpires in rural Georgia. The plot structure easily makes us to draw comparisons on Charles Laughton’s classic “Night of the Hunter” (1955). Chris (Jamie Bell) is a rebellious teenager, who always acts against his father’s wishes. He hates to work in his father’s (Dermot Mulroney) hot, dirty pig farm. Chris loves his younger brother Tim (Devon Alan), who plays in the mud and is often plagued by stomach-ache. Chris seems to have done everything to break from familial shackles. When the movie starts he is chased by his girl friend’s gun-toting father. He steps on a board and nail, and eventually ends up in the care of police.

                                        John, father of Chris and Tim, is an introverted man, who has moved to the countryside after the death of his wife. John likes the isolation as much as Chris hates it. One day everything changes, when John’s younger brother, Deel (Josh Lucas) arrives to their house. Deel has been released on parole and seems to have some darker motivations. Initially, Deel fills the ‘favorite uncle’ role by taking Chris for a drive and by bonding with him. However, he bears a grudge against his brother for two vital reasons. When Deel’s nasty streak is eventually revealed, the two siblings run for their life through the dusty back roads and murky river banks.

                                      Although “Undertow” couldn't be deemed as a phenomenal flick like “Night of the Hunter”, it is shot with a similar exquisiteness. If Laughton’s film was diffused with unique expressionistic shots, Green’s movie is repleted with excellent lush cinematography. Cinematographer Tim Orr looks for little beauties within destitute, animosity-filled land. The panoramic tracking shots magnify the character’s distress and bring sympathy to the beat-down working class people.  At times, the film resembles Terrence Malick’s evocative shots, especially the shots of twinkling sunlight through giant trees (the film was co-produced by Malick). Green directs with his trademark transitional fades and his setting evokes the 70’s thrillers.

                                     Green always attends to little character details and brings out intense performances even from unprofessional actors. “Undertow” has some sort of conventional storyline, unlike other Green’s movies. The director doesn’t conjure up enough sense of dread to categorize it into a ‘thriller’, because he is more interested in developing personalities than suspense; clear narrative paves way to atmosphere. And so in bringing up that palpable sense of enfolding surroundings, he clearly succeeds. Overblown talks about demons, hell, and luck would surely frustrate standard thriller-genre fans. But, it would be well-suited for those in pensive mood and those who care about the traditional three-act plot structure.

                                       There are several wonderful little moments in the movie. One that immediately comes to mind is when the two siblings, on the run, wander through the junkyard and take time to model their secret hideout place after a space ship. They also plant silly warning materials around their habitat to warn them of Deel’s presence. Some of the plot’s clunky dialogues and faulty coincidences can be overlooked because of such perceptive moments. Jamie Bell perfectly dons the role of Southern reckless teenager (he is actually a British actor). Sad-faced Alan is nicely matched with Bell and they bring towering strength to the proceedings. Josh Lucas is terrifying without ever going over the top.

                                       “Undertow” (108 minutes) conveys simple relationship between two siblings with authenticity, unique style and wisdom. Although it isn’t Director Gordon Green’s best (or for that matter, Green is yet to give us his ‘the best’), it poetically blends character study with formal thrills. 


Elling -- A Sensible Comedy about Societal Misfits

                                          Petter Naess’ Oscar-nominated, Norwegian light-hearted comedy “Elling” (2001) opens with the authorities discovering a sensitive middle-aged guy, who has hidden in a closet after his mother’s death. The middle-aged guy named ‘Elling’ (Per Christian Ellefsen) has been a momma’s boy throughout his life and has seen very little of the outside world. He is well-versed in telling stories and reading books, but harbors prominent fears about society which puts him in an insane asylum. This initial setting alone is enough to paint a dark portrait about the exigencies of a wider world. But, this movie takes a different approach as it imbues an unsentimental feel-good texture to the storyline. It has an upbeat tone and works within the bounds of commercial cinema. At the same time, it never sinks into the lowly comic depths often evidenced in mainstream Hollywood cinema.

                                      Elling is paired with a giant-like fellow named Kjell Bjarne (Sven Nordin). Bjarne is obsessed with the idea of sex and in a tense state he fiercely bangs his head against the wall. Elling, initially hates Bjarne as his asylum roommate, but over the course of two years they become pals. At the end of two years, the two guys are installed in an apartment in Oslo. They are deemed ready to rejoin the society and placed under the care of social worker Frank (Jorgen Langhelle). Now, they have to try to adjust to the routines of normal world.

                                     Living in a ‘normal world’ means going to shopping and striking new friendships. But, for Elling even answering telephones looks like an onerous task. He is frightened by the frenzied activities on the roads, as his two enemies accompany him (“I have always had two enemies, dizziness and anxiety”). When Bjarne escorts him across the street to a restaurant, it becomes quite an achievement. From then on, things gradually turn up for the better. Bjarne falls in love with a single pregnant woman Reidun (Marit Pia Jacobsen), who lives in the upstairs flat. Elling suddenly discovers a hidden talent of poetry (names himself as “Sauerkraut Poet”) and strikes a friendship with a reclusive elderly poet (Per Christensen).  

                                    Elling comments that while many people aren’t afraid to travel to South Pole, he is terrified to cross the restaurant floor to reach the restroom. But, once he conquered that fear by walking to that restroom, he immediately starts conquering another dear – calling from a phone. Through Elling, we are shown that seizing simple individual fears is the only way to move forward in life. In a typical comedy genre movie, the same odd-ball nature of the titular character would be used to poke fun at him, where he would react ridiculously in commonplaces (for example “Dumb and Dumber”). But, though “Elling” is a light-hearted comedy, it tries to address issues from the perspective of the character.

                                  The relationship between Elling and Bjarne is moving, without any added syrupy sentimentality. Unlike a cliched ‘mental-impairment’ movie, “Elling” doesn’t offer us a sane guardian angel, who guides those eccentric guys to lead a ‘normal’ life. Here, the two main characters itself complement one another, possessing an attribute which the other lacks. They become co-dependent helping each other’s mental ailments. The movie was based novel by Ingvar Ambjornsen and director Petter Naess has earlier reworked the novel into a stage play. Director Naess elegantly walks the thin line between comedy and tragedy, without letting off the chance to observe darkly funny moments. Ellefsen and Sven Nordin reprise the primary characters from their earlier stage production. Their awkward ego-centric expressions are a pleasure to watch.

                                    “Elling” (85 minutes) is a deftly managed comedy drama that celebrates a friendship between two wallflowers. It finds humor in these eccentric men’s misadventures, but stays away from making fun of them.