Inside Out – Yet another Profound Pixar Masterpiece

                                             For the past two decades, Pixar Animation studios (starting from “Toy Story” (1995)) have put together astounding visual feats with strong narratives that were funny, soul-stirring & profoundly beautiful. In their works, the core film-making members of the studio – John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Brad Bird – paid fitting tributes to every cinematic achievement, from the lovely little silent movies to the deeply artistic works of Anime master Hayao Miyazaki. However, the studio’s course of sustained excellence nearly came to a halt as it imparted us with average flicks with little originality. Pixar had gone into a slumber, after that genuine tear-jerker -- “Toy Story 3”. “Cars 2”, “Brave”, and “Monsters University” were all entertaining, but it certainly weren’t emotionally involving experience. And, after the announcement of sequels to “Finding Nemo”, “The Incredibles” & “Toy Story”, it felt that Pixar was also infected by the famous ‘franchise’ virus of Hollywood.  

                                          Later, when I saw the 1st trailer of “Inside Out”, which was touted to be directed by the maker of “Monsters Inc.” & Up”, it didn’t seem that much impressive. It appeared that “Inside Out” will turn a unique concept to include the beaten-down, conventional ideas of animated flicks. But, director Pete Docter has absolutely uprooted all our per-ordained thoughts by giving us a madly-inventive film that turns a ‘hard-to-grasp’ abstract concept into a grandly entertaining movie. “Inside Out” (2015) is not just the best of Pixar or of animated films; it’s an astonishingly great psychological thriller that puts a smile on all our faces. We have seen actors conveying their characters’ emotions through body language and voices, but here the emotions themselves are the central characters.

                                         Fear, Disgust, Joy, Sadness, and Anger – the five basic emotions that drive our behavior are the stars of the film and they are residing in control headquarters (brain) of a pre-teen girl named Riley. Joy is characterized as illuminating pixie of exuberance. She solely fights against other headquarter colleagues, to keep things up-beat for Riley. Sadness is a plump, blue-colored girl, who is unsure of her role in HQ and ruins every memory she touches. Fear is a purple, slender figure with nervous ticks. The green-colored Disgust forces Riley to be sarcastic & judgmental. And, the block-shaped, red-colored Anger is always on the lookout to charge up its fire. Outside the Central HQ is the vast mind-scape, which is sparsely populated with ‘personality islands’.

                                        The 11 year old Riley has had a joyful life with her two loving parents. Her childhood in Minnesota is occupied with best friends and ice hockey. So far, Riley has developed five personality islands: Hockey Island, Friendship Island, Family Island, Honesty Island, and Goofball Island (indicating her playfulness and sense of humor). These five islands are those that provide her emotional-stability. But, calamity strikes soon as Riley’s parents decide to move to San Francisco. Joy does her best to keep Riley engaged, but when every time Sadness touch Riley’s vital memory – depicted as a crystal marble – it becomes an unhappy one. Later, an accident plunges down Joy and Sadness (along with Riley’s core memories) into the furthest dark corners of the brain, leaving Fear, Disgust, and Anger to take control of HQ. Now, Joy & Sadness must find their way to HQ before Riley make mistakes that can’t be fixed.

                                        Like the montage sequence in “Up”, director Pete Docter fills “Inside Out” with delicate moments that makes grown men & women weep. On the outset, it is a very simple tale about a girl dealing with family relocation and losing her childhood friends. But, the director turns such a run-down premise into an epic fantasy that is full of inventive, high-concept thoughts. Only talented Pixar film-makers could create such a complex world and explain it with some brief & dazzling expositions. The level of inventiveness here is so high and the density of details is so dense that it is hard to marvel at every visual within a single viewing. Pete Docter takes us through abstarct psychological concepts of Sigmund Freud and into the surrealist interior mind-scapes of Dali, without ever losing the vision on dramatic clarity.

                                    If a genius creator has pitched the idea of “Inside Out” to some Hollywood Studio executive before the mid 90’s, he/she would be deemed insane. They might have asked ‘are you stupid to make a film solely based on a kid’s emotions?’ But, now the existence of “Inside Out” proves that there is still abundant hope & energy within the franchise-frenzy Hollywood. The stylized and innocent inner world of this animated feature has few parallels with toy world of Lasseter’s animation flick. Both films were about the creatures of micro-worlds trying to solve a bigger emotional crisis, by making an odd, epic journey.

                                  On paper, all of Pixar’s plot structures look cloying and pretentious (you could say that ‘Up’ is just about an old widower making an unbelievable trip to a South American Island). But, onscreen the studio’s film-makers imbue enough magic to bring out a huge emotional impact. The vivid, state-of-art images, Docter cooks up are remarkably poignant because every one of us knows what growing up means. We know why our childhood images are the best and purest and Riley’s age is the perfect & first time, when we humans experience the thing called ‘bittersweet’.  

                                  The subtle facial expressions we witness in Riley’s face are some of the best in computer-generated imagery. The bright primary colors imbue an astonishing look to the film. The terrains such as Imagination Land, Abstract Thought, Subconscious (“trouble-makers”), and Dream Productions (the setting reminds us of Docter’s “Monsters Inc.”) were all ingeniously designed. These settings itself holds some clever visual gags (like the sequence that explains how TV advertisements get stuck in our heads).  Apart from the pivotal characters, the most interesting one was ‘Bing Bong’ – Riley’s imaginary friend, who seems to be wandering around the recesses of memories. It is a character cloaked in ludicrous outfit but exerts enough emotional pull within its short space.

                                  “Inside Out” (94 minutes) is a witty film, filled with bedazzling images, that showcases how nostalgia and sense of loss is as much important as exuberance. With this soul-stirring meta-story, Pixar once again proves that it is at the top of its game.


In the Bedroom – An Excruciating Emotional Journey

                                         ‘A middle-class or a suburban family facing an unbearable tragic event’ is an often repeated story line in movies. Such modern tragic films try to latch onto the characters, bringing out their raw emotions. However, more often such works turn into melodramatic showpieces, where the film-maker and the actors work in tandem to manipulate the viewers’ emotions. Themes like grief and death would only get a skin-deep exploration as the script works its way to put our favorite actor in a most tear-jerking moment. Todd Field’s intimate and elegiac family drama “In the Bedroom” (2001) stands apart from such aforementioned works. The tragedy in the film was approached with psychological nuances and the powerfully understated performance (without any over-wrought close-ups) makes us genuinely feel the characters’ emotional trauma.

                                       Of course, the film’s title seems a bit dubious. It might make some viewers to expect a film on the adulterous affair of an estranged couple. Although the movie itself subtly hints at the meaning behind the title, revered movie critic Roger Ebert sums it up best in his review: “the title (In the Bedroom) refers not to sex but to the secrets, spoken, unspoken, and dreamed, that are shared at night when two people close the door after themselves”. Based on the short story (“Killings”) by Andre Dubus, “In the Bedroom” starts off like a feel-good romantic story, where a beautiful girl and boy run through tall grass & warm breeze, and passionately kiss on the ground.  But the girl, Natalie (Marisa Tomei) is at least a decade older than the boy, Frank (Nick Stahl), who has just finished his high school and spending his summertime as a part-time lobster-man.

                                        Natalie has two young sons and a not-yet-divorced, unstable husband, Richard (William Mapother). Frank lives with his doctor dad, Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson) and mom Ruth (Sissy Spacek), a high school music teacher. They all live in an idyllic & quiet Maine fishing town. Matt, in one of his fishing trips with Frank and Natalie’s son, Jason, states what happens when two male lobsters are caught in a trap with a female. However, Matt doesn’t inquire on Natalie’s husband lurking behind the lovers’ vicinity. Matt, the overly loving & lenient father doesn’t judge his son’s affair, even when he comes home with a bruise (after a fight with Richard). Ruth, however, disapproves the affair totally, and repeatedly doubts Frank’s answer that it is only a summertime fling. Frank truly loves Natalie and her sons, and secretly thinks about not going to college. Nevertheless, a tragedy suddenly strikes and leaves the characters to walk in daze with pent-up, incendiary emotions.

Spoilers Ahead

                                        Todd Field, who has played small roles in movies like “Twister”, “Eyes Wide Shut”, makes an outstanding directorial debut with “In the Bedroom”. Careful spectators couldn’t mask their surprise on how Field’s first attempt on direction remains subtle as well as intense. Field has co-written the script with Robert Festinger (he also makes his debut). The duo gradually constructs a revenge scenario, but never provides the viewers the much-expected emotional catharsis. It is unbelievable that such a confident film-maker and meditative script-writer had only worked in one film after this 2001 film (Field made “Little Children” in 2006; and Festinger wrote the script for “Trust”).

                                      Frank’s character is written as a budding & talented architect. In one earlier scene, he explains to Natalie about a architectural design that has intrigued him: a home design where a common room is constructed between adult and child bedrooms. Frank believes that with such a design, families would spill into the center (and forced to communicate). We don’t the reason behind Frank’s fascination with this type of architecture, but as we gradually grasp the design of Fowler’s house in the later part, we could understand Frank. After the tragic death of Frank, the awkwardly designed Fowler’s home helps in an indirect way to keep Matt and Ruth at a distance. Director Field silently and separately observes the estranged couple as they are trapped behind the house’ windows & doors. Matt and Ruth run around the house rarely exchanging words and glances, fearing that it would only lead to a fiery battle of emotions.

                                      At one point, the pent-up emotions bursts out, making the couples to lash out on each other. But Field & Festinger confines the verbal warfare more in the territory of Bergman (deep & contemplative) rather than use it to give the viewers an emotional comfort. The conflict and the distance between Matt & Ruth haven’t entirely vanished, but somehow they have learned to empathize with one another. Many viewers might be irked at the middle-section of the film, where no meaningful conversation happens. But, that is exactly Field’s point: words could never easily relieve our loss. The director repeatedly showcases the futile atmosphere surrounding the character (like buying groceries, watching non-stop chatter in TV) to make us feel the characters’ emotional emptiness. Apart from being subdued study of grief & loss, the film is also a fine examination of vengeance.

                                      Revenge scenario usually makes us to demand for the perpetrator’s blood. And, as Matt Fowler travels down that path (following Richard’s activities); we are with him (we want him to succeed). But, Field has perfectly devised these sequences in order to make us feel the ultimate hollowness behind vengeance. The director’s decision to keep Frank’s death off-screen helps to lend a layer to Richard’s generally smarmy & egotistical character, especially in those final scenes. The happy portrait of Richard & Natalie plus the children’s drawing pasted on the wall of Richard’s house adds some subjectivity to Richard’s character. So, in the end when Richard is shot in cold blood, we only feel that nothing is resolved or accomplished.

                                      Despite the visually brilliant direction and subtle writing, the film could have easily ended up being dull, if not for the potently effective performances from Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson. Spacek embodies all of Ruth’s imperfections and anguish. She perfectly displays the emotions of a women, who has lost control over her life and in turn holds on to rage. Wilkinson taps onto the tortured-self of Matt, who thinks that committing murder is the only way to stifle his grief. He is particularly great in those little moments, when Matt constantly comes across things that either reminds him of Frank or Richard.  

                                    “In the Bedroom” (131 minutes) is an emotionally complex and troubling study of human grief, without a hint of weepy melodrama. Its lack of closure would definitely make you brood on it for days. 


Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter – A Lonely Woman’s Onerous Dream

                                             Coen Brothers’ much heralded, stylish neo-noir, “Fargo” (1996) made a devious claim that incidents portrayed in the film are based on a true story (“The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987” says the opening title card). By falsely inserting the phrase ‘based on a true story’, the Coens’ tried to comment on how even narratives based on such phrases has little truth in it and to poke fun at a viewers’ gullibility on accepting every story as some form of fact. In November 2001, a Japanese woman named Takako Konishi was found dead in the snow fields near Detroit lakes, Minnesota. The media initiated rumors that the Tokyo office worker has embarked on a journey to find the money buried by actor Steve Buscemi’s character in the film “Fargo”, believing that the events are real.

                                           A 2003 documentary, titled “This is a True Story”, by American writer/director Paul Berczeller debunked the myth surrounding Konishi’s death. It was discovered that the depressed & jobless Japanese woman has committed suicide (after sending a suicide note to her parents) near Detroit lakes, and she had come to Minneapolis because it was a place she has once visited with her married American lover. American film-makers David and Nathan Zellner zeroes in on the urban legend behind Konishi’s death, and makes it a basis for a strangely beguiling adventure “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” (2015). Zellner brothers treat the silly, impulsive premise with great seriousness, and it mostly works, thanks to an enigmatic performance by Rinko Kikuchi (“Babel”, “Pacific Rim”) in the titular role. Despite the instantly sensational plot premise, “Kumiko” could be best described as a glacially-paced character study of a socially disoriented soul.

                                        The film-makers’ empathetic approach to the central character is visible in the ambiguous opening scene itself, where Kumiko dressed like ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ finds a battered VHS copy of “Fargo” inside a surrealistic seaside cave. After playing &re-playing the damaged copy several times, we could guess that she is intrigued by couple of sequences: the opening title card, which says that ‘events portrayed in the film are true’; and the denouement, where a million bucks is buried in the snow and the place marked with a window scraper. Kumiko, who loves to find treasures, believes that the buried money is a ticket out of her depressing & dissatisfying life. Kumiko is a deeply withdrawn, 29 year old office worker. She hates the patriarchal corporate setting. Her boss’ increasingly degrading requests tempts her to spit in his tea. Kumiko’s over-bearing mother taunts her with questions on phone, relating to promotion, marriage, and boyfriend.

                                         The woman’s only companion is a pet rabbit, named ‘Bunzo’. When both the familial and professional frustration reach a threshold point, Kumiko decides to embark on the treasure hunt. After stealing the company credit card, the naive woman flies over to Minnesota. The Mid-Western state’s featureless & extremely cold landscape hampers the trip, although the people she encounters help her in a general sense. A well-meaning local sheriff (David Zellner) after hearing Kumiko’s quest, points out the obvious: ‘It’s just a normal movie. Fake, like a story’. Nonetheless, Kumiko couldn’t be dissuaded as she feels that discovering the buried suitcase is her destiny.

                                        On the outset, Kumiko’s quest is obviously absurd, but the film-makers never treat it in that manner. Instead, the character (in her tiny red-hooded form) comes off as a fairy-tale figure making a perilous journey, pursued by malignant forces. Zellner brothers tap into the allure of films, which builds scenarios to escape from our mundane lives. Entertainment in a kindles our desire and makes us to act like the person on-screen. But, then Kumiko’s obsession didn’t just born out of desire; its roots are entrenched in her alienation and depression. Zellners don’t give us any strong evidence on why Kumiko firmly embraces a particular fiction, ignoring the obvious truth. However, the woman’s conviction could be seen from a Herzogian perspective (Herzog’s “Stroszek” (1977) is also about a insane quest), where we can never understand why certain people do certain things. Those who impatiently wait for answers would hate this film deeply and a very predictable ending doesn’t work to the movie’s advantage. 

                                         There are few elements in “Kumiko” that works in sync with “Fargo”: parallels could be drawn between ill-fated natures of Kumiko & Macy’s Jerry Lundgaard; the sheriff’s clumsy, but genuine gestures puts in mind the Frances McDormand’s deputy character. Although depression is one of the plot’s central themes, the Zellners doesn’t miss out the chances to imbue dark & ironic comedy. The sheriff, in one scene, takes Kumiko to a Chinese restaurant and asks the owner to act as a translator; in another scene, the same Sheriff, who points out ‘Fargo is just a normal movie’, persuasively notes how the statue of Paul Bunyan’s (an American folklore on a giant lumberjack) Ox named ‘Babe’ isn’t anatomically correct, ever since a drunk shot off the statue’s privates.

                                        Rinko Kikuchi’s impressively dour performance redeems the film from just being a mishmash of cognitive themes. Regardless of the character’s nature, Kikuchi downcast journey earns sympathy from the viewers. The little character traits like thinking herself as a ’Spanish Conquistador’ or making notes & embroidering map locations adds a texture to the role rather than making us to simply view Kumiko as a woman in dire need of mental treatment. However, despite Kikuchi’s presence, the proceedings do become stale at some points. Immensely talented cinematographer Sean Porter’s delightful aesthetics helps us to overcome some of the digressing phases. In Tokyo, Porter captures Kumiko through crowded doorways, narrow aisle or library stacks to showcase her inclination towards a better destiny. The bright clothes of Kumiko are also not just used to impart catchy aesthetics. It sort of fits her character too, on how she remains as a contrasting figure amidst all the socially sane beings.

                                         “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” (104 minutes) is an ingeniously shot, little unsatisfying character study about a quixotic soul, disappeared between the line dividing fact and fiction. 


Kajaki – A Lacerating Depiction of Contemporary Warfare

                                                Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. A statistic provided by UN’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance state that nearly 100,000 mines are still awaiting removal. Although different combatants in Afghanistan have employed the use of land mines, a majority of landmines were planted by Soviet occupying forces between 1979 and 1989. Civilians –most importantly children -- are the chief victim of these landmines. The full extent of Afghan landmine problem still shrouded in mystery as most of the civilian deaths & deformities goes unreported.

                                              Movies have often used landmines as a narrative device that step-ups the tension quotient. Bahman Ghobadi’s “Turtles Can Fly” (2005) is one of the authentic, moving portrayals of how a mined war-zone would be. But, most of mainstream war films shun the authenticity about landmines to give us a sustained drama. British film-maker Paul Katis in his debut film “Kajaki” (2014) has re-constructed the grueling minefield incident of 2006, near Kajaki dam (situated in Afghan’s Hemland province). It is hailed as one of unflinchingly realistic portrayal of how mines work. The big relief is that unlike his American counterparts, director Katis doesn’t often throw in words like ‘bravery’, ‘epic heroism’, and ‘patriotism,’ and also doesn’t employ the use of slow-motion shots to imbue tension. It provides a painfully realistic cinematic experience without engaging in grand political statements.

                                          The movie is set on September 6, 2006, where a group of British soldiers stationed near the hydro-electric dam named ‘Kajaki’ carry on with their base-camp routine. Viewers expecting a battlefield thriller may get tired by the initial sequences, because of the authentic portrait of soldiers’ routine and due to the heavy use of military jargon. The soldiers are part of British Army’s 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment (3 Para). The unit’s sniper, Lance Corporal Stuart Hale (Benjamin O’ Mahony) on that fateful day, spots hostile Taliban forces, setting an illegal road block. An airstrike would cause lot of civilian causalities and so Hale takes along two other paratroopers to get a closer look at the hostile forces. As the trio walk through a dried-river bed, Hale sets off a landmine, blowing his left leg. Fellow soldiers scamper to come to aid Hale, but then find out that entire river-bed is a deadly minefield, where a single unchecked step could result in explosions. All the factors are beyond the soldiers’ control, since even a rescuing helicopter could trigger a lot of mines.

                                        In aesthetic terms, especially after considering its limited budget, “Kajaki” was a well-made piece of work, which sometimes even exceeds the craftsmanship of American propaganda films on ‘war on terror’. This film would be compared with Katheryn Bigelow’s Academy-Award “The Hurt Locker” (2008) mainly because both these works declines to take any ethical stance on the conflict, people are involved. The script by Tom Williams exclusively focuses on the ground-level experience of soldiers, whom despite their painstaking training, come across new horrors. The screenwriter tries to genuinely show how a real soldier would talk. So, the first 30 minutes is mostly incomprehensible and the soldiers’ regional British accents exhaust us more.

                                        Williams and director Katis also take pains to depict how the chain of command between soldiers worked clearly amidst such unbearable chaos. Although the dialogues in the later part would have been subjected to heavy dramatization, they come off touching (especially the ‘Happy Birthday’ song) and keep us on the edge to learn about their fate. The belivable use of humor does bring down the insurmountable tension of the proceedings. Viewers who recoil from gory & clear images of detached limbs must keep themselves away from this film. The physical effects of each painful explosion, however, aren’t used in an exploitative manner or to generate a shock-effect. David Elliott (who played mark) and Stanley (played Tug) are the two most impressing performers of the ensemble as their tangible commitment somehow reincarnates the bravery of the real soldiers.

                                        “Kajaki” (108 minutes) is an unflinching and incredibly moving account of modern warfare that is devoid of jingoism and pro-military agenda. It avoids the glib romanticism of the recent American warfare films like “Lone Survivor”, “Fury”, “American Sniper” etc


It Follows – A Spooky Thriller on Teen Sexuality and Paranoia

                                               We always fear what we don’t know or understand. Horror thrillers catch up on that basic strand and build up a monstrous creature or an apparition, which taunts the protagonists and obliterates ignorant by-standers. But, at some point in the story, the film-maker chooses to provide weird mythologies or back-stories for the creature or ghost to reassure the audience that everything will be resolved in the end. Nevertheless, the moment we get to know about something terrifying, its insidious purpose too comes within a perceivable framework. David Robert Mitchell’s “It Allows” (2014) possesses a relentless, malign entity at its center, although the director never explains what it is. The film blends art-house sensibilities into classic horror genre, which may disappoint viewers expecting a disturbing, but a conventional horror flick.

                                             The movie starts off with a great, creepy prologue sequence, where a young girl runs out of her house with a dreadful look and keeps an eye on the center of road. We couldn’t what she is afraid of, but the girl quickly gets into a car and runs off to the beach, where she meets grisly fate. Then we see our main protagonist Jay (Maika Monroe), a 19 year old blonde college coed, who lives in her suburban home with a younger teenage sister Kelly (Lili Seppe) and a widowed mother. We rarely see the mother, who seems to have no real engagement with her daughters’ lives. Jay’s two friends Yara (Olivia Lucardi) and lovelorn Paul (Keir Gilchrist) always spend time at her house. Jay is dating an attractive & mysterious guy Hugh (Jake Weary), who points to a girl in a yellow dress, whom Jay couldn’t see. Later, Jay’s first sexual experience with Hugh ends up in the worst way possible as he chloroforms her and ties her to a wheelchair in an abandoned building. But, Hugh intention isn’t to hurt Jay, but to explain & warn about what’s waiting her.

                                           He says that he had sex with Jay to pass onto her a supernatural spirit – simply called as ‘IT’ – which has been haunting him. Hugh explains that from now on, Jay would see strange people walking towards her at a slow pace, with an intention to kill her. The ‘IT’ can appear at anytime, at any form (sometimes it could even take the form of someone she know). Hugh’s advises her to pass it along (by having sex with someone else); to never enter into a place that has one exit; and to never let ‘it’ touch you. If Jay doesn’t pass the curse, then it would kill her and return to haunt Hugh. Jay is dropped in front of her house in underwear and her friends think that she has been raped. She tells the police that sex was consensual, but for some reasons Hugh have skipped town, and Hugh is not even the guy’s name. From then on, only Jay sees the ‘IT’ in terrifying forms, although can outrun it as long as she’s outdoors or in a room with more than two doors. However, she is traumatized by IT’s shapes and thinks about passing it on to a friend. Jay’s sister and friends stand by her, although they don’t fully believe in her visions.

Spoilers Ahead

                                         Director David Robert Mitchell debut film “The Myth of American Sleepover” (2010), a realistic & sensitive coming-of-age tale, which managed to be screened under ‘Cannes Critics Week’. “It Follows” also played over in Critics Week Committee and some critics even called it a find of the festival. The movie has to be hailed for providing a visceral ride that scores full marks on atmosphere. The constant fear of IT is explored psychologically and so for the most part jump scares are avoided. Instead, what we have are suspenseful long shots & slow tracking shots (by cinematographer Mike Gioulakis), where we closely look at every human walking towards the camera. Take the scene, where Jay and her male neighbor Greg enter the school to collect information on ‘Hugh’. From the hallway, the camera circles the premise (with an unnerving music on the background) and from a distance observes all those present. The shot is set in such a manner where we are on look out for strange characters that are traveling towards the building. Although, nothing terrifying happens in that scene, Mitchell keeps us on the edge in some mundane information-gathering sequence.

                                        My favorite one was when Jay wakes up in a hospital after having an accident. She looks at her mother and friends (all of them sleeping) and sees the open door of the room. Since the room has only one door, she dreadfully looks at the hallway. With tears rolling from the eyes, Jay heaves a sigh, when some person passes across the room. This constant sense of paranoia and dread felt by the primary character is what makes the film stand out from the usual uncanny horror premise. Unlike a studio horror film, Mitchell opts for grotesqueness as a scare tactic rather than gore or blood. It Follows’ atmosphere could be compared to Micheal Haneke’s works (especially “Cache”), although it isn’t as emotionally deep as the auteur’s works. But, if Mitchell keeps his uncanny style, he could very well turn attain a revered auteur status one day.

                                      The scenes also some times blacks out, leaving it to us to guess what happened. The boat guys sequence is one such example. We see jay getting into the water and later she her driving the car, crying with a wet hair. But, we are forced to make our own decision on what happened.  Mitchell takes the simple plot element in most of 70’s slasher thrillers from Wes Craven or John Carpenter, where teens (especially the girl) are punished for their promiscuous behavior (they easily become the first victims of the killer). He adds layers to the plot element, allowing us to make different metaphorical readings. It’s hard to pin-point on what ‘IT’ is. Is the film a metaphorical treatment of STD or teenage sex? (Mitchell, however, remains non-judgmental about teenage sex) Or is it about a congealed force of evil in an isolated urban society (parents who are responsible for these teenagers are kept away). Repeated viewings may offer some answers, especially on the constantly repeated water symbolism.

                                    The other big question on viewers’ mind would be ‘on what period is the movie is set?’ The TV’s, the electrical appliances and the characters reminds us of the era when John Carpenter made his best horror films, but that clam-shell e-book reader (Yara’s), the dilapidated urban districts and the dresses the teens wear looks contemporary (Mitchell intentionally messes up the time period just like he keeps us in the dark about the monster).  Despite all the fascinating visual approaches, “It Follows” didn’t satisfy me because of its over-the-top literal-minded setting and those sequences totally lacked a truly frightening moment.

                                      “It Follows” (100 minutes) is a spooky, atmospheric horror thriller with a purposeful subtext. The film-maker’s choice to keep the horror element inexplicable and ambiguous may definitely irk the fans of conventional horror films.  


It Follows -- IMDb 

Rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content including graphic nudity, and language 

Kaaka Muttai aka The Crow’s Egg – A Non-Preachy, Enlivening Film on Economic Divide

                                           An average Indian film-goer in often sees an art film with some kind of apprehension. Even a viewer expecting something different wants the ideas to perfectly fit within the confines of a commercial cinema. On the other hand, some of Indian films do try to convey the much-needed social messages. But, then most of the times these films turn out to be a loud, well-intentioned nonsense, where the characters are just painted in black-and-white, and they also find it hard to escape from the sing-and-dance or the melodramatic routine of our cinema. Director Manikandan’s debut feature-film “Kaaka Muttai” (2014) breaks the notion that award-winning films is always for the critics. It also shows how a charming little film could be made within stark surroundings without ever being sentimental. “Kaaka Muttai” is a brilliant, rare crowd-pleasing art-house film that blends harsh realism with captivating fiction.

                                         The film revolves around a pair of mischievous young brothers, living in Chennai’s shantytown with their hard-working mother and a caring grandmother (the boys’ father is serving time in prison). The boy’s addresses themselves with weird nicknames: Periya (big) Kaaka Muttai (Vignesh) and Chinna (small) Kaaka Muttai (Ramesh), which refers to their favorite pastime of eating crow’s egg (for nutrition), straight from the bird’s nest. The boys pretty much spend their time on salvaging coal (they earn 3 rupees for picking up 1 kilo) from the nearby railway tracks. In the leisure time, they imagine themselves attaining a better life. Like all children, the boys beg their mother for things they couldn’t afford to buy. Meanwhile, the boys’ favorite hang-out spot is overtaken (the tree with the crow’s nest is cut-down) by pizza franchise owner with the help of shady MLA & real-estate developers.

                                         The fashionable ‘Pizza Spot’ is opened by a star actor and the boys are obsessed with the pizza that is served to him. The TV advertisements make them crave for the oleaginous dish, which is priced at Rs. 299. The boys whose daily wages amount to Rs. 10, engage in various little chicaneries to reach their distant dream (one hilarious shenanigan involves ferrying neighborhood drunkards, who are way too drunkard to reach home). But, earning three-hundred rupees doesn’t seem to be enough as the pizzeria’s watchman doesn’t even allow the boys to enter the premise, citing their slum background. From this point onwards, the film not only becomes an allegorical representation of the vast class differences, but also reveals how a section of people prey off a system that literally and figuratively leaves little room for the slum dwellers.

Spoilers Ahead

                                      For the most part, director Manikandan with his depiction of urban poverty doesn’t try to manipulate our emotions. He goes for hope rather than despair, but at the same time he does it without taking the easy cinematic route. Manikandan has also written the script, evoked sensible performances from the cast & fulfilled the role of cinematographer. Unlike many other Tamil directors, Manikandan doesn’t stamp his message with overcooked plot elements. He employs certain characters and uses few situations for comic relief, but then it doesn’t look extraneous. Manikandan’s camera & writing remains as a mere observer rather than trying to be an imposer. May be that’s why all the opportunists we come across in the movie’s second-half looks like well established characters, who reminisces someone we have encountered in the society, rather than caricature.

                                         There are many small moments that try to capture the beauty inside sordid surroundings: Chinna Kakka Muttai holds up a torn 10 rupee note and the sun shines through it; the slow motion imagery of a pizza commercial and boys’ look, who view it like a dish prepared in heaven; the grandmother’s preparation of a make-believe pizza; and the final reaction of the boys when they got over their euphoria. Such vignettes along with subtle characterizations make it breath of fresh air. Indian films that usually deal with slum-dwellers would often comprise dialogues that speak volumes on the poor people’s dignity & self-respect. However, Manikandan showcases that the central characters are dignified ones without including it on lines spoken: the mother avoids the money she could get by participating in a false protest; she refuses the opportunistic MLA’s offer for tea; she’s peeved when her boys are humiliated; the elder boy chucks out the pizza dream only when his dignity was preyed upon, in front of other slum-kids (also note that the elder boy also backs out in his attempt to steal a cellphone).  

                                     Lack or loss of identity & desire seems to be the main theme of “Kaaka Muttai”. We never know the boys by their real name and their cramped houses don’t have any door no. or address. The quest for identity is kindled more when desire kicks in. They learn not only money is important to buy your object of desire, but also a new identity. When the boys come up with a new identity (through fresh clothes) they are still singled out, and ironically by a man, who belongs to their own class. However, this inclination to achieve things doesn’t just occupy the minds of the protagonists. A finely clothed upper-middle class boy desires for roadside panipuri. A small-time thug as well as a local politician desire for easy money; media desire to create ruckus over a cellphone video. Although, the latter desires by adults is what makes the society, dangerous opportunistic. A TV isn’t just a machine that brings entertainment; it tunes our minds to desire for things we don’t need. The ironies just keep on coming in ‘Kaaka Muttai’. Look how the media cameraman shoos away the kids, whose story the channel is covering on and remember chinna Kaaka Muttai’s final words after tasting his first pizza.

                                    “Kaaka Muttai” (99 minutes) isn’t a glossy children flick that confirms to the standards of Bollywood or Kollywood. It is a lesson for Tamil/Indian film-makers on how social issue movies could be made without vociferously preaching messages. 


Bronson – A Vicious and Stylistic Wonder

                                               Nicolas Winding Refn is one of the divisive and maverick contemporary film-maker. You will either hate or love his work (there is no middle ground). At the age of 26, Refn was accepted into the prestigious National Film School in Denmark. But, he opted to “Pusher” (1996), a de-glamorized portrayal of a small-time Copenhagen gangster. The movie was huge hit in Denmark, but in 2003 his career almost came to an end because of the utter failure of “Fear X” (2003), a psychological thriller. He then came back strongly with extremely violent sequels to “Pusher” (the human carcass disposal scene is engraved in my mind). However, these films didn’t possess the stylistic wonder, which now defines Refn’s works. With “Bronson” (2008) portrayed the heightened kind of violence by taking a heavily stylized approach. The violence and destruction in Refn’s films, from then on, could be best described with words like ‘weirdly beautiful’ or ‘whimsical’. Refn with “Bronson” carved out a fresh cinematic ground, where energizing visuals and jaw-dropping central performance took precedence over the traditional story-telling devices.

                                            “Bronson” is a visionary biopic of Micheal Gordon Peterson aka Charles Bronson, who is known as ‘the most violent prisoner in Britain’. However, Refn defies every convention and jumps every pitfall, into which a film-maker might fall under in order to make a prison drama. Michael Peterson, born on 1952, has always liked a bit of ultraviolence. He enjoyed fighting as a teenager and got involved in various petty crimes. He moved through several numbers of jobs and at the age of 22 (1974), he took his sawed-off shot gun to steal 26.18 euro from a local post-office. He was caught and sentenced for seven years. Inside the prison, Bronson loved to brawl against prison officers and fellow convicts. He was transferred through 120 prisons and spent most of that time in solitary confinement. Upon his release in 1988, Peterson pursued a career in bare knuckle boxing, where his promoter dubbed him ‘Charles Bronson’, after the macho American star. But, he spent only 69 days outside as a robbery once again landed him back inside. His constant hostage-taking incidents and belligerent behavior, inside the prison has confined him to a solitary cell (for four decades; in 2014 he has changed his name to Charles Salvador and wishes to distance himself from his past reputation).   

                                          Refn’s crimson-red opening sequence establishes what an unbridled beast Bronson (played by Tom Hardy) is as he is pacing side to side inside his cage, charging up for the upcoming onslaught with the prison officers. Refn isn’t looking to take an empathetic approach, by depicting his childhood and the causes for his violent behavior. He just abruptly immerses his viewers into the manic rage of his central character. The brutal set-pieces are inter-cut with to-the-camera narration, in which against a black backdrop, Bronson is on a stage explaining his ego-maniacal worldview to an audience. These slipping-through-the-mind sequences come between each spurts of Bronson’s mad acts, showcasing how Bronson orchestrated his own destructive behavior.  In these sequences, Bronson fancies himself as a vaudevillian, which works very well since his erratic conduct itself is born from a desire to be famous (to occupy the center position of a stage).  

                                        Director Refn on a public discussion forum stated how he and Tom Hardy despised each other during their first meeting to talk about ‘Bronson’. Refn even considered Guy Pearce and Jason Statham for the role, but then Hardy bulked up, obviously not wanting to leave this prize role. “Bronson” wouldn’t have been the same feral, powerhouse feature, if not for Hardy’s performance. Although he ‘bares all’ in front of camera in various sequences, he has worn the suit of wrath & rage throughout the film. The way Hardy explains his exploits & philosophies deviates from the general idea of Peterson being a dumb, insane animal. Although Hardy never goes for empathy or tries to hide the malevolence, he perfectly exhibits how Bronson is totally powerless to his violent impulses.

                                     Nicolas Refn, although lionizes Bronson’s exploits, never feature him as a martry or isn’t trying to make a treatise on British Penal Code. It definitely isn’t a contemplation on cause & effects of punishment. As critic Roger Ebert rightly declares: “It is 92 minutes of rage, acted by Tom Hardy”. Refn just lets Hardy go to showcase his genius acting, while at the same conjures up some brilliant imagery to lend wild charisma to the proceedings. The splendid symmetrical camerawork (by cinematographer Larry Smith), low-level compositions, and tantalizing tracking shots immediately make us to recite ‘Kubrickian’. The blending of classical music during the brutal beat-downs also reminds of us the influential auteur. The protagonist’s black humor, anti-social rants, and the prison imagery likens to Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”, although in ‘Bronson’ there is no rehabilitating techniques.


                                    The use of color palettes (muted ones to show the decaying prison and the crimson red during the clashes) in the film definitely needs a detailed studying and could be comprehended with repeated viewings. But, what enamored me is the way director Refn, through brief moments, demonstrates how psychologically Peterson aka Bronson will forever remain in captivity. After getting released in 1988, Bronson is picked up by his parents in a car, and after reaching home, he struggles to open the locked door of the car; in other sequence he couldn’t open a closed gate, and furthermore Bronson comes across many closed doors even on the outside. A video essay I came across in Vimeo (titled ‘Bronson: Psychology and Symbolism’) pin-points, how Refn subtly fills his frames, throughout the film, with horizontal and vertical lines to convey the feeling that Bronson always remains in a cage (literally & figuratively).


                                  My favorite part in the film is the final stretch when Bronson during a phase of passivity discovers art (painting) and displays great progress. He maintains a good relationship with the instructor and enjoys his time in the prison art room. However, when the prison warden itself acknowledges this slight rehabilitation, Bronson is bedazzed. He is a man whose actions from adulthood have brought him the much-desired tangible results. But, the reaction of everyone to his art remains impalpable to him and so he lapses back to his old-self, taking the instructor as a hostage and eventually is beaten senseless by the guards. It once again highlights or confirms Bronson’s distorted idea of being a hero.

                                        “Bronson” (92 minutes) is a surrealistic and stylized theatrical treatment on the life of an imprisoned backslider. Like all of Nicolas Winding Refn’s work, this film too would bring out balanced reactions of repugnance and enchantment. 


Rated R for violent and disturbing content, graphic nudity, sexuality and language

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