In the Valley of Elah – An Empathetic Look at the Residual Effects of War

                                                Paul Haggis is a fine American film-maker. He has written screenplays for critically acclaimed “Million Dollar Baby”, “Letters from Iwo Jima”. His sophomore directorial venture “Crash” (2004) reaped three Oscars (including Best Picture) and drawn mixed feelings among critics and American audiences. On one hand, Haggis’ “Crash” was hailed for interweaving a powerful message about racism, whereas the others accused Haggis for giving a short-sighted, blatant message on tolerance. Yeah, I too felt that Haggis often waves that message flag in front of our face, and his one-note characters also didn’t provide much nuance. In the recent years, Haggis has involved himself with pretty forgettable projects like “The Next Three Days”, “Third Person”. But, Haggis looked like a more mature film-maker with his psychological drama “In the Valley of Elah” (2007). Despite an Oscar-laden cast, it’s neither the regular award-baiting, ‘patriotic’ American movie nor a tawdry anti-war manifesto.

                                           “In the Valley of Elah” was based on American journalist and writer, Mark Boal’s factual article “Death and Dishonor”. Although the story outline resembles a murder mystery, it is a composite study on the psychological effects of war on the American soldiers. The movie’s subject also gains enough prominence because of the central, taciturn style of performance from Tommy Lee Jones. The film starts with Hank Deerfield (Lee Jones), a former military police, receiving a phone call from a military base in Mew Mexico. The caller informs him that his son, Mike (Jonathan Tucker) has gone AWOL after a tour of duty in Iraq. It’s distressing news for Hank because he didn’t even know that Mike is back from Iraq. Although Hank doesn’t seem like a very communicative dad, Mike seems to have regularly sent his dad e-mails or photographs.

                                            Hank leaves behind his distraught wife (Susan Sarandon) at home and drives to military base. On his journey, he sees the American flag hoisted upside down. He calls the janitor and says, “Do you know what it means when a flag flies upside down? It’s an international distress signal. It means we’re in a whole lot of trouble so come save our asses ‘cause we ain’t got a prayer in hell of saving it ourselves”. At that point, we could guess, at least Hank’s life is on the path of distress. Few days later, Hank receives news about his son, whose body was found in a field near the military base (stabbed 42 times), burned and dismembered. Although the local police finds the body, they are happy to give it to Army investigators when they come waving the words ‘jurisdictional authority’.

                                           The truth neither side gives a damn, except for detective and single mother Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), who is persecuted by her peers for being a female. As a mother she feels empathy towards Hank’s situation and finds enough clues to prove that the murder of Mike has happened in their jurisdiction. The military hands back the case, even though they seem to be concealing something. Emily and Hank trudges through red-herrings and misdirections to find the truth behind Mike’s death. In the tumultuous investigation, Hank also gets to know what war did to his son.

                                           There are investigative scenes that echo CSI episodes and there is an alleyway chase of a criminal that doesn’t belong to this movie, but to a large extent, Haggis has weaved the script with subtlety and hasn’t been manipulative in contriving the emotional scenes. When Hank speaking to his wife through phone about his son’s death, you don’t see her wailing and thrashing except when she says, “Both of my boys Hank! You could’ve left me one”. But, then you see a top-angle shot where the phone is on the ground, the table toppled, and there are items scattered around the place. So, here Haggis instead of walking us through the regular emotions of bereaved mother, he provides glimpses into the character’s past and their nature (“Living in this house, he never could’ve felt like a man if he hadn’t gone” (to army)). Haggis and Tommy Jones wonderfully stages the way in which Hank would handle his son’s death. As Hank knows the practices of military, he easily judges what news waits for him when he is a greeted by a soldier in his motel room. Such nuanced reactions are what make this a quiet engrossing film.

Spoilers Ahead

                                          The title and central theme runs around the story of David taking down (with slingshot) Goliath in the valley of Elah. But, here the tactics of the king by sending a little boy David into battle is questioned. The Davids represent the inexperienced, young American soldiers fighting American’s government devised ‘war on terror’. The Goliath here is not the Iraqis, but the government itself which creates such hostile situation and pushes the soldiers to bring a false sense of peace. Half-way through the movie, Hank tells the David/Goliath story to Emily’s son and we could easily draw comparisons to the present situation. But, once again Haggis doesn’t harshly wave the allegory into our faces. If there is one overly dramatic gesture, then it must be Hank’s final action, which is sort of a political sermon, but apart from that the film remains thoroughly effective.

                                        The performances mostly stay true to the characterizations. Eventually, Hank doesn’t preach that ‘war is hell’ because as a military man he wouldn’t denounce what he had done in his past years. He is only bereaved by the way soldiers’ psyches are scarred. The movie could be perfectly called as a subtle exploration of war-induced trauma (although the word is never mentioned) rather than an ‘anti-Iraqi War story’. Trauma hovers around the soldiers’ eyes in each of their interactions, and that itself provides a clue to Mike’s death. For those, who view the film as a murder/mystery, the final twist may seem very simple, but I felt it was formulated impeccably. You are confused why Mike would be pissed off and fight with his fellow soldier (and meet his death), when the guy says ‘what a good driver Mike is’. Later, you get to know what the ‘driver’ comment really means, and why Mike is enraged. These subtle enlightening moments plus the whole mystery is built to ask ‘why’; not ‘who’. It’s an onerous question because no one, including the killers, is depicted as a monster. So, unlike the ‘so-called’ patriotic progaganda films like “Black Hawk Down”, “The Kingdom”, “Lone Survivor”, or the recent “American Sniper”, Haggis remains apolitical.

                                        The movie’s powerhouse themes would have withered away quickly if not for Tommy Jones’ unforgettable performance (he was aced in the Oscars by Daniel Day Lewis’ towering performance in “There will be Blood”). The quiet, reserved, and emotionally scarred character is quite with in the range of Tommy’s roles, but he infuses a lot of nuances into ex-M.P. Hank, especially in the way he shines his shoes in the morning or the way he follows his instincts. Charlize Theron as the pestered detective plays her role with enough depth. She remains empathetic to Hank’s plight rather than being pitiful.

                                     “In the Valley of Elah” (121 minutes) is a compassionate and thoughtful look at the ravages of war on the soldiers’ psyche. It doesn’t come off with the regular American patriotic or anti-war sermons. 


Affliction – The Scarred Psyches of Father and Son

                                            The main-stream cinema of film industries all over the world has always hailed the idea of macho man, thrashing the villains and keeping the woman in their place. Tough-talking male is a character we men always like to see on-screen, and their uncontrollable fury gives us some comfort and entertainment. But, male anger isn’t something that always works its way to retain justice.  The macho men’s idea of ‘Being a real men’ could also be destructive. It could make us fearful spectacle even among our loved ones. The belligerent masculinity could cut through generations, sowing the seeds of violence, and guaranteeing perpetual cycle of intolerance. In the world of cinema, writer & director Paul Schrader is one the most important personality to showcase the destructive & dark side of male anger.

                                        Schrader’s script for the much-heralded “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” tracks the harrowing experiences of men, who are undone by their own wrath. His directorial ventures like “American Gigolo”, “Hardcore”, “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” smartly explored the male dominance in the society and the abuses it spawns. With “Affliction” (1997), Schrader took the coarser themes of inter-generational violence and alcoholism. The movie is based on a 1989 novel by Russell Banks, and after watching it you could feel that this is the best conjunction of material, director, and actor.

                                     “Affliction” is set on an afflicted, eternally cold, economically depressed town of New Hampshire. The story begins on a Halloween eve as the town’s sheriff Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) takes his frustrated daughter, Jill (Brigid Tierney), in a costume for the town’s children parade. Wade’s recent bitter divorce from Lillian (Mary Beth Hurt) has only given him limited visits with his daughter. But, Jill hates to visit her father’s town. She excessively whines and calls her mother and step-father to pick her up. Wade too isn’t a great father as he leaves his daughter to takes a trip, smoking joint with his younger friend, Jack Hewitt (Jim True).

                                     Rage is the vital emotion Wade feels more than any other thing. This rage may stem from the job opportunities he has: a low-level police job plus a tiring plowing job for the local business man and land owner, Gordon La rivierre (Holmes Osborne). Since the previous evening with his daughter has ended badly, the rage has only been inflamed. Wade is now intent on suing his wife for custody. But, why does this rage brood over Wade. We get some answer from the local diner as the guys there harp about alcoholic bully Glen Whitehouse (James Coburn) and his tactics to terrify his family. The younger Wade bared a lot of his father Glen’s onslaughts as he attempted to shield his mother and younger brother, Rolfe. Wade haven’t grown up like the brute his father was, but the abuses he endured has affected his adult relationships and trust settings.

                                    The waitress girlfriend Margie (Sissy Spacek) is the only soul who provides some solace for Wade. Wade’s emotional downward spiral moves further when a deer hunting accident kills a Massachusetts bigwig, Evan Twombley. The guide, Jack Hewitt’s account of the accident raises some serious doubts in the mind of Wade that the accident might really be a murder. He confides his murder theory with Brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), and Rolfe provides further evidence to strengthen the murder theory. Wade also happens to watch a meeting between Gordon La rivierre and Mel Gordon, son-in-law of Evan Twombley. He discovers that the two ‘Gordons’ have secretly bought lands all over the town for a major development. Meanwhile, Wade’s silent mother passes away, and his father bullying nature escalates further after the death. Wade gets increasingly paranoid in his murder investigation and deteriorates his relationship with Margie and daughter Jill. In all his defeat and damage, his father hovers around smiling at him.

                                    Paul Schrader’s adapted script teases us of a mystery/thriller sub-plot. However, it is mostly a character study, and what’s uncovered is not the townsmen conspiracy, but the inner demons of Wade Whitehouse. The murder/hunting accident is of irrelevance here as it is only a tool to further explore the boorish behavior of the protagonist. Wade’s investigation into the death of Evan Twombley earlier promises some kind of redemption for him. But his psychological speculations mixed with alcohol-fueled bitterness only keep him away from the truth. Then there’s also Wade’s (bad) role model – his father. Glen proudly exclaims, “You’re my blood! You’re a piece of my own heart!” -- not in a soothing manner, but only when Wade bloodies his daughter’s nose. Glen is at peace when sees his rage has been passed onto his son. Schrader’s direction is crystalline and he rightly maintains a meditative space from his abusive/abused hero. 

                                  James Coburn’s irredeemable, heinous portrayal of Glen Whitehouse is a sheer horror to watch. Although he is there in few numbers of scenes, the sheer evilness of the character could be strongly felt in the way he casts a shadow over Wade’s behavior. Both Coburn and Nick Nolte have been wasted in conventional action pictures. Here, Nolte wonderfully brings out the delicacy and hurt of his character. He is trapped in an uncompassionate family, and the society has built an unchangeable perception on him. He perfectly conveys the whipped boy mind-set within his adult body. You could feel his desperation when he tries and fails to connect with his aloof daughter. The only problem I had with the film is the inclusion of a voice-over (of Rolfe), and a final, elaborate explanation of the movie’s core theme (“Our lives, Wade’s and mine, describe the lives of the boys and men for thousands of years: Boys who were beaten by their fathers, who capacity for love and trust was crippled almost at birth………..”)

                                “Affliction” (106 minutes) is a powerful portrait of the vicious circle of male violence. If you could bear with the excruciating downward spiral of the central character, then a lot of intriguing questions will be waiting for you. 


On Golden Pond – An Elegiac and Elegant Portrait On Aging

                                            As one grows old in age, he/she might often hear the saying: ‘Old is Gold’, which refers that age and the experience that comes with it is really precious. But, old age also brings its share of discrimination, inadequacy and fear of death. In this modern world, a human being is deemed ‘active’ based upon his memory wellness and his ability to learn new things. However, as age stacks upon us, our achievements in life wouldn’t seem much in front of our failures and weakness. The emotional anxiety and mental imbalance kindles the old people’s resentment, which they hold for themselves. Old age is really a challenge and movies have mostly stayed away from showing the distressing issues of old age. Since, cinema itself is often viewed as a tool of entertainment for young people, it fails to elucidate how hard it is for elderly people to make peace with the past. Mark Rydell’s “On Golden Pond” (1981) -- based upon Ernest Thompson’s 1978 play -- is one of the cinematic exceptions that offer an engaging as well as ethereal portrait of an elderly couple.

                                      “On Golden Pond” contains a streak of sentimental interludes and may not be as contemplative as Haneke’s “Amour”, but it does offer rare glimpse about the positive and negative attributes of old age. The movie starts with the 79 year old Norman Thayer (Henry Fonda) and his wife, Ethel Thayer (Katharine Hepburn) arriving at their picturesque lakeside cabin in New England. Financially they are well off and most importantly, they are thoroughly in love with each other. Norman is a cantankerous person, who often gives surly replies to divert others' attention from his dementia. He still studies the classified ads in newspapers and teases his wife about getting a new job. The failing memory bothers him more than the looming thoughts about death.

                                        Ethel Thayer is the portrait of sweetness and grace. She wants to savor their time together and likes to call Norman ‘old poop’. She also likes to sit in the sun near the lake, and talk to the loons. Norman’s crankiness melts a little when he comes in contact with Ethel’s elating nature. However, Norman’s agonistical nature spurts when his daughter, Chelsea (Jane Fonda) shows up at the cabin for his 80th birthday. She has brought her new dentist boyfriend Bill Ray (Dabney Coleman) and his 13 year old son Bill Ray Jr. (Doug McKeon). As soon as Norman welcomes Chelsea, we could feel that they have never gotten along together. Norman is jubilant enough to make fun of Bill Ray. When Bill asks to sleep in the same room with Chelsea, Norman asks: “Would you like the room where I first violated her mother”.

                                      Next day, Chelsea informs that she is going to leave Bill Ray Jr. with them, as she and Bill Sr. is going for a month-long vacation in Europe. The boy feels that he has been rejected and been remanded with these inactive people. Initially, Norman cuts through the boy’s veneer and the couple takes him under their wings, teaching him how to fish. Despite, Norman’s martinet nature he develops a strong bond with Bill Jr., and Ethel remains calm and reassuring as always.

                                     “On Golden Pond” surely packs in certain amount of saccharine qualities, but it doesn’t get drenched in mawkishness. It is subtle and genuinely moving at key moments, especially in the final ‘near-death’ scene. The primary characters in this scene have a heart-trending conversation about mortality (it’s no wonder that Ethel Thayer’s words, “Listen to me, mister. You're my knight in shining armor. Don't forget it. You're going to get back on that horse and I'm going to be right behind you, holding on tight and away we're going to go, go, go!” is named as one of 100 top quotations in American cinema).  The film’s power to move its viewers to tears wouldn’t have been possible, if not for the rich performances from Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn.

                                     Fonda, in his final screen role, is both heart-breaking and mirthful. He perfectly showcases aging people’s tendency to withdraw and their slightly domineering nature. Also, look out for that poignant moment, when Henry Fonda gets teary-eyed, when his daughter touches him after a reconciliation of sorts. That moment was so simple, but the emotions displayed were very genuine. Contrary to Fonda’s character, Hepburn finely displays that bright spark of life. Her energetic, ever caring, and optimistic nature shows us that aging could also be enjoyable if approached from the right perspective. Ethel’s nature would remind us of our own grandmothers, whose existence saved those grandfathers from being a recluse. If you had to point out a vital flaw, I would say that there could have been little depth in the relationship between Norman and Chelsea. We don’t definitely feel for Jane Fonda’s character, since her conflict with the father is tritely defined with words ‘inferiority’ and ‘neglect’.

                                    “On Golden Pond” (109 minutes) is a simple, uplifting movie about an elderly couple. Despite a few melodramatic tones, the masterful performances stay perfectly in tune with the film’s emotional core. 


Marshland -- In the Murky Waters of Spanish History

                                           Alberto Rodriguez’s atmospheric thriller “Marshland” (‘La Isla Minima’, 2014) opens with stunning aerial shots of the convoluted landscape of Guadalquivir wetlands (a major watercourse of Southern Spain), which somehow resembles the intricate structure of human brain cell. When the camera comes to the ground level, we can estimate that the eye-popping landscape really do have some intricate sociopolitical structure like that of the brain cells. There is something unique about the small towns in the wetlands as fields of rice is cultivated in land criss-crossed by waterways and roads, but there’s civil unrest in the towns like the rest of Spain. The year is 1980 -- one of the decisive years in the Spanish history.

                                        In 1939, Spain emerged from the civil war, carrying acerbic economic problems. Francisco Franco won the civil war, leaving at least half a million dead, and by seeking help from the Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Franco embraced dictatorship and dumped all his political and ideological enemies into concentration camps, forced labors. Although, Spain had the fastest economic growth in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, the transition to democracy seemed possible only after Franco’s death in 1975. However, the oil crisis of the 1970’s once again heavily hit Spain’s economy. In 1980, Spain’s unemployment rate surged to a breaking point, causing civil unrest. In that 1980, two detectives – Juan (Javier Gutierrez) and Pedro (Raul Arevalo) – travel from Madrid to the Deep South town to investigate the mysterious disappearance of two teenage sisters after the local festivities.

                                      A crucifix on the cops’ hotel room features cut-out photos of Hitler and Franco, which indicates the nation oscillating between dictatorship and democracy. Pedro is a rookie, who has left his pregnant wife in Madrid. Juan is a hardened, old-school cop, who might have worked as a henchman in the Franco regime. The villagers watch the detectives with suspicion. Since the harvest season is coming forth, the farmers view the city detectives as a bad omen. Moreover, the two disappeared girls seem to have a bad reputation.  The girls’ father remains aloof, while the mother’s face shows all the signs of abuse. When her husband’s back is turned, she hands over to Juan, a semi-burned negative strip with pornographic images of the girls. Later, the bodies of the sisters are found naked and mutilated in a ditch. The girls’ father has enough reasons to suspect the local drug mafia, but the detectives find out that two other girls have also disappeared, and a striking pattern emerges between all these girls’ disappearance.

                                    The raw beauty of the landscape (impeccably shot by Alex Catalan) is often juxtaposed with the town’s deep mistrust and unrest. Although these microcosmic shots resemble David Lynch’s works, director Alberto Rodriguez has mostly placed his narrative within the David Finch territory, unveiling a morbid atmosphere. It’s ironic that most of the girls want to escape the rich landscapes, fearing the clutches of unreformed masculinity. The town’s communal atmosphere itself plays a vital role in stopping the cops from catching the killer as corruption and power of the previous repressive regime is still fighting against the alleged democracy.

                                     The intense, uneasy relationship between Pedro and Juan evokes the “True Detective” TV series, although this one looks little cliched in the end. Juan’s character is well-etched out, subtly indicating his haunting past. His calm assurance and quick answers are as disquieting as the serene swamplands. The sequences involving Juan and a psychic fisher woman looked a bit hokey. Director Rodriguez has deftly filmed the action sequences, especially the nighttime car chase on a difficult terrain. The script (by Rafael Cobos and Rodriguez) perfecly brings together the sociopolitical elements within the thriller format. But, if you have read or watched enough crime/thrillers, the twist would seem fairly predictable. The drug-business sub plot only serves to distract the viewers. Since more attention is given on atmosphere, there are certain stereotype characters like that of a disillusioned journalist, who wants to become the next ‘Truman Capote’ and local factory owner.

                                    “Marshland” (105 minutes) may not be the edge-of-the-seat investigative thriller, but it must be watched for its political nuance and stunning, eerie atmosphere. The film recently swept 10 ‘Goya awards’ (Spanish equivalent of the Oscars).  


What We Do in the Shadows – A Buoyant Comedy on Blood-Suckers

                                                Parodies, spoofs, and comic faux-documentaries have the power to satirize the cultural dominance of mainstream or popular cinema. It has to be creative enough to profoundly look at the follies of such generic presentation. But, most of the times the parodies itself become something generic and preposterous. Most importantly, they abundantly lack the narrative cohesion and never cares for viewers’ emotional integrity. It goes on chucking out offensive and repulsive jokes, which is supposed to seem adorable. Except for few rare, impactful works like “This is Spinal Tap”, “Best in Show”, most of the films are miserable failures. Fortunately, the recent New Zealand mock-doc “What We Do in the Shadows” (2014) circumvents most of the troubles of the genre, presenting an energizing and comic take on the Vampire lore.

                                            Written and directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, the vampire faux-documentary follows a group of old-fashioned vampires, living in modern-day Wellington. The ages of vampires range from 183 to 8,000. The genial Viago (Waititi) speaks to the camera, explaining how vampires like to flat together in remote countries like New Zealand rather than living in their old-creepy castles. He introduces us the other vampires in the house: Vladislav, a medieval count and a ladies man, aptly called as ‘Poker’ (reminiscing both his torture/sexual techniques); Deacon, who likes hang upside down in his closet, and a slobbish bad boy; and ‘sweet Petyr’, the scary, 8,000 year old, Nosferatu-like vampire, who hates to socialize with others. Viago is a hopeless romantic, who shipped himself to New Zealand to follow a young man, but gets rejected.

                                            The movie empathetically renders the small inconveniences and humiliations faced by these creatures of old world. Since they got be invited into any human place, the vampires rarely get into best night clubs. They can visit the only vampire bar in the town, which is more lifeless. Their waning sexual appeal and mystical powers are a huge concern. The vampires can’t see themselves on mirrors, so they rely on each other for fashion tips. In the weekly meeting, Viago mutteringly complains there are a lot of bloody dishes to wash. However, a sense of vitality is brought to the vampires’ lives, when they change a mortal Nick into vampire. Nick brings in his mortal friend, Stu, who is an IT guy, and familiarizes the vampires with all of latest technological innovations. Viago gets back in touch with old servant; Vlad does his ‘dark bidding’ in Facebook and eBay (the vampires also want to see sunrise on YouTube). As they get reacquaint with old lovers and friends, the vampires also promise not to eat Stu and to protect him (especially from erstwhile enemy ‘Werewolves’).

                                          “What we do in the Shadows” portrays the vampires like a man-children, who not only stopped aging, but their immaturity has also attained an arrested development. They are perfect examples for the phrase ‘fish out of water’ as they are so clueless about every modern trend from fashion to technology. Its central themes ponder about aging gracefully and the values of friendship. The movie also shows how we model ourselves based on the pop culture, as the vampire fashion themselves based on films like “Blade”, “Lost Boys”, Nosferatu”. The fictional vampires also bring out the anxiety faced by social-media generation in proving their influence.

                                            Comedian, writer, and director Taika Waititi made the critically acclaimed and commercially successful movie “Boy” (2010), which was a heart-breaking, coming-of-age story. Jemaine Clement was one of the guy to create “The Flight of the Concords”, a fake documentary TV series that took on the international music world in New York. The direction from both these guys unites the deadpan comedy and subtle irony, never missing out to keep the emotional integrity on check. The duo also doesn’t shy away from showing the horror elements of the vampire lives, since they feast on innocents. Of course there are some juvenile comedies and the women are almost non-existent, but it does bring in a certain new perspective or energy to the vampire sub-genre. At 86 minutes, the film’s pace never flags down or runs out of steam.

                                           “What We Do in the Shadows” (2014) is an entertaining parody/mockumentary on the vampire lore, which is far better than most of the Hollywood, big-budget, offensive comedies. 


In Cold Blood – A True-Crime Classic

                                            Director, writer and producer Richard Brooks (1912-1992) is known for making feisty, unsentimental stories (“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, “Blackboard Jungle”, Elmer Gantry”) with macho leading men. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, Brooks worked within the Hollywood studio system, but from the mid 1960’s, he ventured to make independent movies. He adapted and directed the classic Joseph Conrad novel “Lord Jim” in 1965 and later made a entertaining western “The Professionals” (1966) with Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, and Claudia Cardinale. However, the high-point of his relatively independent career is the adaptation of Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel “In Cold Blood” (1967).

                                          Published in 1965, “In Cold Blood” is lauded as one of the best true-crime books ever written.  The book intimately details the real life, horrific quadruple homicide of a Kansas family, the investigation that lead to catching the killers – Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, the subsequent trial and the execution of the killers. Capote got unprecedented access to the killers; conducted on-site interviews with victims’ neighbors; and compiled nearly 8,000 pages of notes. Although, Capote was accused of inaccuracies (in the depiction of murder), his book delved into the underbelly of American society and raised some contemplative questions about crime and punishment.

Clutter Farmhouse
                                       When Capote selected Richard Brooks to adapt his book, Brooks hastened the film-making process by choosing not to cast Hollywood stars for the role of Dick and Perry. He also conducted his own research (owing to his journalistic background), filmed in actual locations, and stubbornly clinged to the idea of shooting the film in black-and-white, because Brook thought B and W was a more frightening medium (you could feel the truth in it when you watch the murder sequence). The phenomenal cinematography, music, and editing seamlessly conjoined to give a more-matured docu-drama feel.

                                        The movie takes us back to November 15, 1959 as the ex-con Perry Smith (Robert Blake) enters Kansas City, violating his parole. He is met on the bus station by the slick and aloof Dick Hicock (Scott Wilson). The duo is about to drive nearly 400 miles to break into a remote farm house, owned by Herb Clutter. Dick has gathered information from his former inmate about a safe in the Clutter’s place that’s supposed to have $10,000. He calls it a perfect score – ‘a cinch’. The nervous Perry, who dreams of becoming a singer and believes in a map that leads to gold treasure in Mexico, isn’t entirely convinced, but he doesn’t fiercely contradict on Dick’s plan too.

                                        The Clutter’s have four members in the family – Herb Clutter, his wife, a teenage son and daughter. The next morning, the neighbors found the Clutter’s brutally murdered. The local residents, police, and media couldn’t fathom why someone would murder such a harmless family. The neighbors says that there are no safe in the house (calls it a ‘Kansas Myth'), and the Clutter’s is said to have written checks even for a hair-cut. The only missing things are: $43, a pair of binoculars, and a radio. Except for the bloodied boot-print, the police seem to have no clue about the killers (no finger prints or shell casings). The middle part minutely details the investigation that leads to catching the killers, and later the proceedings become more morbid as Brooks shows us each elements that put Dick and Perry on the end of a rope.

                                      Director Brooks meticulously constructs the initial setting by using brilliant rhyming edits and expository flashbacks: A gas station attendant, looking at Dick’s shot-gun comments that it’s a ‘perfect day for hunting pheasants’, to which Dick replies, ‘Them birds don’t know it, but this is their last day on Earth’, and immediately it cuts to introduce us the family members of Clutters; As the killers are approaching their destination, Herb Clutter signs an insurance, and the agent says, “New York Life wishes you a very long and healthy life”. Some feel that this rhyming cuts are a cheap way to make us feel for the family as they are about to face a terrible fate. One might ask that is it necessary to spend more time to show the lovely nature of Clutters, instead of getting on with the murder at the very start itself. Although, in real life there wouldn’t be a place for such rhythmic moments, these sequences wonderfully reflects on the sad irony behind the events. The harmless nature of Clutter family also flashes before our eyes, whenever the viewers are made to empathize with killer’s abusive past.

Real-Life Dick Hicock (left) and Perry Smith

                                     It’s a great decision on the part of director Brooks to not show the killings until the last act in the film. Up to that point, despite the Perry off-screen killings, we hold little empathy for the past he endured. Brooks hints at Perry’s trauma through certain images and later finely elaborates on the events that caused the trauma. Perry nervously watches a group of nuns as he waits at the bus-station to make a call. Few scenes later, Brooks expands on the reason behind Perry’s anxious look at the nuns.  When Dick has a fling with a ‘senorita’, Perry thinks back about the time, when he and his siblings watched their mom’s depraved and dad’s abusive behavior. All this builds up a empathetic profile for Perry, but our thoughts shatter to pieces as Brooks elaborately depicts the gruesome murder (without showing any blood or gore).

                                    In the murder sequence, we see Perry’s rage when Dick tries to molest Nancy Clutter (“I despise people who can’t control themselves”), yet within a heart-beat he is consumed by an antipathy that leads him to kill people, who are tied and defenseless. Movie-lovers on IMDb boards and many critics state that the antipathy Perry felt was not towards Herb (although there is a shot of Perry’s father holding a shot-gun), but Dick himself. The movie and the book itself clearly elucidates that the murder wouldn’t have occurred if not for the combination of Perry and Dick. Although, the Perry pulled the trigger, Dick aroused time-bomb like psychological nature of Perry. This also makes Perry the most complex character than Dick. Dick, with less psychological problems, comes off as a common thief, who wouldn’t have had the guts to kill the people, but he is the guy who exploited the dark-side of Perry. In the end, Capote and Brooks by providing all the little details about the perpetrators’ past, doesn’t try to excuse the murders or blames the society that spawned them. They condemn Perry’s inhumane action by vividly observing his extent of humanity.

                                     If you have to deliberately point out a flaw, it must be the inclusion of Capote-like figure. In terms of mannerisms or voice, the reporter doesn’t look a least bit like Capote. There’s also little forced dialogues in the end, which sort of came off like a sermon from liberalists. For example, a guy asks to Capote-esque reporter, after seeing the hangman, “Has he got a name?” to which the reporter replies, “We, the people”. However, the movie is also replete with many extraordinarily complex dialogues as Perry says after describing the murder: “It doesn't make sense. I mean what happened. It had nothing to do with the Clutters. They never hurt me. They just happened to be there. I thought Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman... I thought so right up to the time I cut his throat”. Capote’s book and Brooks’ adaptation eventually raises the most important question based upon this statement. The author demands to know how punishment (by hanging) itself could make sense, when the crime itself didn’t make any sense. The reporter wryly observes that there will be new laws and fresh incrimination, but the same thing would happen in some other part.

                                      The performances wouldn’t have been as gritty and realistic, if it’s not played by a couple of relatively unknown actors (of that time). As Perry, Robert Blake gave a startling performance. His piercing eyes convey the characters’ contrasting childish and psychotic nature. “In Cold Blood” was shot by one of the best cinematographers ever, Mr. Conrad Hill. Hall’s scope composition, use of shadows and use of width and spaces deserves a detailed shot-by-shot study. The pivotal shot that often springs to my mind happens, towards the end of the film, as Perry recounts the final confrontation with his abusive father by standing in front of a rain-spattered window, inside the prison cell. Perry seems to be shedding tears, but it’s just rain water dripping on the window. In the 1992 documentary “Visions of Light”, Conrad Hall explained that this vital shot was indeed a lucky accident as the fan Hall used to cool the hot interior set blew the ‘rainwater’ against the window to create such an effect.

                                      “In Cold Blood” (134 minutes) is one of the most perturbing and thought-provoking masterpieces of the crime genre. The outdated production values and the stagey supporting performances don’t blemish this movie’s significance. 


Topsy-Turvy – A Quirky and Enlightening Study On Artists’ Creative Process

                                               British auteur Mike Leigh is at his best, when he opts to make character-driven stories in a fresh and unpredictable setting. His tragicomedy masterpieces like “Naked” (1993) and “Secrets and Lies” (1996) explored the downcast lives of working class people with hopefulness and with a potent dose of politics (although not as strong as you find in Ken Loach’ movies). But, Leigh’s oeuvre took a different turn when he left the contemporary proletariat and chose to make character studies on the upper-class, 19th century lyricist and composer – William Schwenk Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. The much-respected duo in “Topsy-Turvy” (1999) dominated the London Theater from 1871 to 1886, writing nearly 14 highly prasied operettas. The movie’s title refers to Gilbert’s light-hearted comic stories (called as Topsy-turvydom) that fiercely rely on a contrivance of some kind.   

                                            Although “Topsy-Turvy” looks at the Victorian era, wealthy opera architects, Leigh imbues the movie with his trademark sense of humor and creates humane characters that are likeable as well as flawed. The story opens in 1884, when things aren’t looking good for the Gilbert & Sullivan duo as their production “Princess Ida” witnessed a big flop. The sickly Sullivan (Allan Corduner) – the genius composer -- wants to create something grand and original. He is tired of using his full music potential to compose routine, catchy tunes for Gilbert’s stories of ‘Topsy-turvydom’.  Gilbert remains sour about the critics’ complaints that he re-hashes his own old formulas (which are always about characters getting transformed by magic potions).

                                        He also couldn’t contemplate why Sullivan is refusing to compose for his next musical, which as usual is about alchemy. The impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte (Ron Cook) struggles to keep the renowned partnership and asks Gilbert to write some serious opera. Gilbert’s mind-set is reinvigorated when his abiding wife Kitty (Leslie Manville) coerces him to accompany her to a Japanese cultural exhibit. The tea-house rituals, samurai swords, and kimono-clad Japanese women enamor Gilbert to depart from his usual routine and come up with a powerful tale of ‘Mikado’. The vital part of the movie intimately details the preparations that went around this outlandish, innocuous opera. The professional and personal struggles of those involved on-stage and off-stage are brought to life vividly.

                                      The director and script-writer Mike Leigh, as usual, has walked a deft line between the comedy-drama lines. His obvious devotion to this odd material is surprising, especially after considering his previous works that portrays the turmoil in modern British life. The meticulous details he infuses into each characters makes ‘Topsy-Turvy’ different from other stiff, Victorian-era dramas. The witty dialogues keenly observe the life on 19th century London. The period’s new contraptions like telephone and ink pen leads to some amusing observations. When D’Oyly hands over a pen and says, “It’s a reservoir pen. It has its own ink”, to which Sullivan exclaims, “Good gracious me! Whatever will they think of next”? Gilbert’s father character appears for a single scene, when Gilbert shouts through the telephone, receiving a coded message. The father wryly observes this theatricality: “One might as well open the window and shout down the street”. In that small sequence, we also get to know the estranged relationship between Gilbert and his parents.

Director Mike Leigh (Left)

                                    Leigh doesn’t try etching a portrait of just Gilbert & Sullivan. He also concentrates on load of characters that inhabits the parts of the play. The dressing room gossips, business negotiations, Sullivan’s R & R in a brothel; and the fragile nature of actors convey the desires, flaws, contradictions, and pain of all the characters involved in the movie. Leigh’s camera even cuts to a chorus girl in the backstage, ambitiously mouthing the lead's lines. Leigh comes into the central plot of ‘Mikado’, until almost an hour into its running time, but the script doesn’t feel drawn-out. Apart from the wonderful droll dialogues, there are also dark, graphic glimpses about the life of stage heroes. Similar to Robert Altman’s works (“Nashville”), in “Topsy-Turvy”, Leigh perfectly brings out the involved players’ emotional undercurrents rather than fine-tuning the humor out of somber moments.  

                                   The lack of a polished script doesn’t endanger the movie’s flow because of Leigh’s uncommon method of involving passionate actors in the creative process of forming the script. The character study literally stops at time to observe the entire musical number staged on-screen. Initially, this show-stopping numbers may seem unnecessary, but as we accompany ourselves to this rhythm, we get to understand a lot about the central characters through these musicals than the regular narrative. The circumscribed improvisation by the cast involved also makes the performances less schematic (which ironically contradicts Gilbert’s own famous remark: “every performance is a contrivance by its nature”).

                                  Allan Corduner and Broadbent turn the operetta duos into a complicated, fascinating people. Their performances make it clear why these two obstinate men, who aspired for greatness, needed each other for support and immense success. Broadbent’s dour-faced, sanctimonious dialogue deliveries are a delight to watch (especially when he describes his mother:"the vicious woman who bore me into this ridiculous world. No one respects her more than I do and I can't stand the woman!”). Leigh’s favorite actor Timothy Spall turns in a poignant performance in the small role of Robert Temple. Lesley Manville, who played Gilbert’s wife ‘Kitty’, could be singled out among the load of good supporting performances. She wondrously conveys the pains of being a life-partner to a self-centered artist in a scene, towards the end (Kitty to Gilbert:"I should rather like to be an actor, upon the stage. Wouldn’t it be wondrous if perfectly commonplace people gave each other a round of applause at the end of the day? Well done, Kitty, well done!”).

                                  “Topsy-Turvy” (154 minutes) is not just a character study about upper-class people, who inhabited the ancient, London theatrical world. It touchingly reflects the shortcomings and follies of human nature. You could feel the universality of the film’s theme, especially when Gilbert gruffly observes, “There’s something inherently disappointing about success”.