Wake in Fright – The Seminal & Horrifying Outback Classic

                                               Early in the Canadian film-maker Ted Kotcheff’s underrated Australian outback classic “Wake in Fright” (1971), the protagonist John Grant (Gary Bond), a haughty school teacher in the outback, dreams about his beautiful girlfriend Robyn swimming on the beach. She slowly emerges from the water and comes closer to John in a sexual manner as he places a beer between her breasts. The flush surroundings, sexual desire and a cold beer are all what John hopes for as he is making his Christmas holiday trip to Sydney. Sex and alcohol really consumes John in that holiday trip, but it turns out to be his life’s most nightmarish experience and also he doesn’t make it to Sydney to meet Robyn. “Wake in Fright” could be deemed as one of the exhausting movie experience a viewer could have; not because it is just a boring movie, but since pulls us into the heart of darkness and shows the meaning of hell through the unbridled exhibition of masculinity.

                                           “Wake in Fright” premiered at 1971 Cannes Film Festival and did well in the European art-house circuits. It wasn’t well received in America and in Australia the movie failed big since it was thought to have portrayed an insulting & abrasive view of the outback Ausralians. Although the movie gained the label ‘cult classic’, it was almost forgotten until it resurfaced in Cannes (shown under classics banner; after Antonoini’s “L’Avventura”, “Wake in Fright" was the only movie to be shown twice in Cannes) in 2009 after an impeccable digital restoration (thanks to a ten year quest by Australian producer & editor Anthony Buckley). It was circulated under the label ‘one of cinema’s long lost classics’ and now in the last five years, it has become one of the most talked about Australian film.

                                          “Wake in Fright” was made a year before the American classics “Deliverance” & “Straw Dogs”. Both the movies depicted the dark side of masculinity and its propensity for violence. It also portrayed how civilization could be replaced with mindless savagery even with the slightest provocation. Although these films imbued a balanced approach towards the frontier or outback people, it paved way to a lot of stereotypical exploitative American movies. “Wake in Fright” was based on the 1961 novel by prolific Australian novelist and journalist Kenneth Cook (script written by British writer Evan Jones). The story takes place in a fictional town named “Budanyabba”, which was actually based on Broken Hill in New South Wales – one of the most isolated inland towns in Australia. Director Ted Kotcheff has stated in interviews that he spent some time in Broken Hill (like the author) before filming.

                                            “Wake in Fright” actually observes its hyper-macho characters and never takes a moralist stance to condemn the people of outback. The narrative looked more disturbing than “Deliverance” because the protagonist is partly the reason for his downfall. John Grant is both a victim as well as a perpetrator. Kotcheff’s gets into the observational mode from his first expansive, overhead shot, where the camera pans 360 degrees to show the view of outback town “Tiboonda”. A rail-road track runs through the parched landscape and a small stage makes up for a station platform. Only two buildings are in our view, each placed parallel on either side of the tracks. One is the school building, where Grant is looking at his watch and the blank-faced children are waiting calmly. As the right time strikes off, the elated children run off to enjoy their Christmas holidays before courteously wishing their teacher. Grant slowly makes his way to the other building, a bar incorporated with lodges. He packs his suitcase, has a drink and takes the train.

                                           As he enters the train, a hospitable man offers him a beer, which Grant refuses. He has the aforementioned dream about Robyn on the train and later makes it to the town of “Bundanyabba” (shortly called as ‘Yabba’). The cab driver joyfully talks how great the town is. Grant checks into a seedy hotel. The charge for the room is $4 and $1 as deposit, to be returned after the check-out. Grant is looking forward for his morning flight to Sydney and in the night he goes for a drink in the town. A very hospitable sheriff Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty) buys him a beer, while Grant shares disdain for outback towns.  Grant feels superiority over the townsmen, who drink and play simple-minded games. He hates their ‘aggressive hospitality’. When Grant makes one of his snobby remarks, the mysterious ‘Doc’ Tydon (Donald Pleasance) says “its death to farm out here. It’s worse than death in the mines. You want them to sing opera as well?” Gradually, Grant lets the delirious spirit of Yabba to affect him. The drink keeps on coming and the superiority is stricken down by the vice of gambling. Grant loses all his money (except for that $1 dollar) and literally wakes up naked in his bed, the next morning. He is swept up by a maelstrom of a group of hard-drinking & hard-living guys and witnesses different forms of brutality.

Spoilers Ahead

                                           Director Kotcheff and writer Evan Jones have made enough research to not make “Wake in Fright” into a one-sided outsider view of Australian outback. Although Yabba brings out Grant’s descent into madness, his own perception on money and easy life is shown as the triggering point for the downfall. Doc Tydon says “Discontent is the luxury of well-to-do” as Grant views the Yabba men as vile creatures. When Grant himself was stripped of luxury (the money), he just has no other choice than to surrender himself to the unchecked primitive instincts. Kotcheff and Jones are careful to never push Grant into life-threatening situation as the group of friends confront in Boorman’s “Deliverance”. The miners Dick and Joe plus Tydon’s antics are overly aggressive and domineering, but the situation never becomes that the men are deliberately torturing Grant to do things. Grant joyously gets into the social rituals because he has lost his luxury and his hope on the profession. The most disturbing thing about the film is not the indigestible way of living of these men, but Grant’s judgmental perception and his inability to relate to people devoid of opulence. Grant’s descent is in way a defeat of his educational life, which has only clouded his perceptions.

                                         Jones and Kotcheff repeatedly & subtly refer to this clouded perception of Grant. One of the earlier hints is his dream about Robyn. She is not a symbol of love, but only a symbol of carnality, which Grant wants to consume just as he wants to accumulate the easy money through gambling. The nightmarish experience the protagonist has might be condemned as too dark to be close to reality, although alcoholism has always been the biggest problem with isolated towns, all over the world. But, then Grant’s experiences are not diffused like assortment of vile elements. He always has the chance to say ‘enough’ and ask for some help (his pride refuses to borrow money). One of the laudable aspects of Jones’ script is the complex portrayal of Janette Hynes (Sylvia Kay) – the only characterized female player. The women in those towns weren’t allowed inside pubs or clubs. So, they basically trapped inside the confines of house, bringing in beers when their husband’s or father’s friends arrive to socialize. Janette’s desolate looks just becomes emblematic of the psychological agonies, endured by the townswomen. Her promiscuity is also viewed differently from Tydon without refraining to judgement.

                                       The characterization and the little quirks of mining men Dick (Jack Thompson) and Joe (Peter Whittle) keeps us intriguing. They aren’t the archetype villains for this movie. The duo are just living their routine life, but still everything from that hand squeezing to the jubilation over kangaroo killings would perfectly unhinge a viewer.  Director Ted Kotcheff, in an interview to ‘Senses of Cinema’ talks about how he planned to film a scene that shows Dick and Joe working in the mines. Kotcheff adds that if the scene in the mines were filmed it would have given more perception for viewers on why these men are acting crazy and drinking themselves to death (“It was the heat and dust and lack of women that was contributing to their behavior”). Nevertheless, the most talked about or the most shockingly visceral scene in “Wake in Fright” is the kangaroo hunting. Documentary footage of actual kangaroo hunting was seamlessly edited into the movie. We actually witness these genial creatures being brutally killed on camera and it takes some time to digest that fact. Producer’s note states that the documentary footage was included after consultations with animal rights organizations in both Australia and UK. The footage was expected to create contempt among general public for hunting kangaroos (the couple of kangaroos that’s confronted by Dick and Grant in the movie weren’t harmed).  

                                           One of the recurrent visual motifs in the film is the blinding or bright light. Light, which is always viewed as a symbol for clarity, is ironically used in the vital sequences, whenever Grant is about to take another step-down towards hell. The blinding light in the pub, before the coin toss, ruins him of his money & pride and later the spotlights during kangaroo hunting brings out Grant’s more animistic side. Despite the claims that “Wake in Fright” only showcases the darkly fanciful view of outback, the people are shown in a balanced manner. The movie starts with one of Grant’s student giving him a gift for Christmas. The sheriff is affable man, who could have helped out Grant if he had asked and so does Mr Hynes. The townspeople stand to attention when the Anzac war memorial, in remembrance of the town’s dead soldiers, is recited on the radio. The truck driver, who promises to take Grant to the ‘city’, didn’t charge him for the trip and has returned back Grant’s rifle (let’s also not forget the guy who drives Grant over ’50 miles of heat and dust’). These random acts of kindness may not cling to our memory like the actions of Dick, Joe, Janette and Tydon, but these innocent random people stops us – the sophisticated audiences – from making the easy judgments. May be the ambiguous message in the film is not to think that we are all superior over these men. It subtly asks us what you would do if you are put under the same circumstances as these men.

                                          “Wake in Fright” (114 minutes) is one of the most haunting and terrifying works of cinema about unchecked masculinity and isolated towns. The movie is frightful because the five decade old story line still seems to not have lost its relevance.  


Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – A Captivating Spin-off on the Apathetic YA Themes

                                           If you ignore the positive reviews of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (2015), generating among cinephiles and just read its plot, the immediate line of thought you would have is ‘just another teen cancer tear-jerker’ or a ‘narcissistic high-school movie’. The movie never circumvents the conventional scenes we think that are gonna be in such a ‘cancer flick’. There’s the perfectly calculated laid-back attitude and a typical understated characterizations of indie films. The eccentric animated sequences plus the characters’ movie fixation reminds us of Michael Gondry’s films, while that coy quirkiness and self-referential jokes makes us holler the name ‘Wes Anderson’. So, on terms of originality the film might not score a lot. But, still “Me and Earl and Dying Girl” offers an emotional pull that it is irresistible. As the narrative oscillates between enthusiasm and pathos, we get a feeling that there are more genuine moments in this contemporary American teenager movie than in a usual YA novel or flick.

                                         The coming-of-age was actually based on a YA novel written by Jesse Andrews (who has also sensibly adapted his novel), which pulled off the ‘Grand Jury Award’ at Sundance Film Festival. The subject of teen angst hits a nerve, the same way Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of being Wallflower” did. The movie starts with an indistinct Pittsburgh high school senior named Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) explaining to us his unfailing formula for surviving in high school. He has dedicated his school life to learn the codes of in-groups and has tried to never associate with a single group. He alleges that the school cafeteria as “a disputed territory; It was Crimea, Kashmir and Gaza Strip all rolled into one”. It’s clear that Greg’s survival tactics has neither earned him any friends nor given him the ability to be trustworthy.

                                      But, still Greg has one friend named Earl (RJ Cycler), with whom he hangs out in a self-indulgent history teacher’s office and at home. However, Greg likes the term ‘co-worker’ to describe rather than friend. As Earl explains in a latter scene, Greg has some serious trust &self-loathing issues that he hates to be friends with someone. They both are co-workers because the duo makes parodies/homages on classic art-house films, which they have started to watch from a very tender age, thanks to the influence of Greg’s well-meaning but aloof father (a tenured sociology professor, played by Nick Offerman). Greg’s mother (Connie Britton) is a little overly protective parent and often she likes to go through her son’s things. She also compels Greg to visit Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke), a schoolmate recently diagnosed with cancer.

                                     Greg calls Rachel and says some awkward things. She doesn’t want a pity visit. Later, Greg honestly says why he has visited to her house: “I’m actually here because my mom is making me”. But, we are informed early that this relationship isn’t going to take the usual romance route as “Day one of Doomed Friendship” title card pops-up. Despite being in a closed-in space, they do not warm up to each other. He makes some awkward jokes about death, masturbation and high-school cliques, while she calmly listens to his eccentricities. As expected a genuine friendship builds between the two, but it is more centered on Greg, who learns to not rejoice in solipsism.

                                      Even though the movie starts with a highly stylistic and self-aware setting, the narrative trajectory is very predictable. Jesse Andrews expresses a lot about the grown-up characters through Greg’s point-of-view, but they are more or less works like a cog in the machine rather than a separate entity. But, since the protagonist here wavers between ‘over-the-top’ humility and narcissistic attitude, his point of view on others doesn’t totally come off as stereotype. For example, about Earl, Greg simply introduces as “His house is short walk from mine, but in a tougher neighborhood; his dad is in Texas and his mom is a depressed shut-in”. It is all Greg could say about a guy with whom he had hanged-out since kindergarten. Earl’s stereotypical introduction isn’t the script’s negative aspect; it just makes us to see how limited Greg’s world-view is, in spite of being a bibliophile and cinephile. As the narrative progresses, we learn Earl isn’t a stereotypical character. In fact he talks more easily to Rachel and makes her feel less like a cancer victim than Greg. He also conveys the most soulful message to Rachel than any of the high school students and family members.  I also personally liked how Greg and Rachel’s relationship is portrayed in a way to makes us ponder on whether there is a romantic connection between them or not.

                                   Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon seems to have a penchant for sunlit shots. His previous feature film “The Town that Dreaded Sundown” was a typical, dull slasher flick, but the one commendable aspect was Alfonso’s impeccable frames. My favorite shot composition is the scene before the third act, where Rachel and Greg have a verbal dispute was splendidly filmed in a way that exposes both the person’s vulnerabilities and inner conflicts (although Rachel and Greg aren’t seeing face to face). The chief delight of “Dying Girl” is the hilarious little shorts on classic world cinema, created by Earl and Greg (“Eyes Wide Butt”, “Pooping Tom”, “Senior Citizen Kane”, etc). The scene where Greg imitates Werner Herzog, while applying for the college was one of the film’s funniest moment.

                                 Since the movie is totally concentrated on “Me” in the title, the protagonist’s self-centered antics might make you feel a little exhausted. The ending is kind of inevitable and Greg finally learning to appreciate other people’s depth and complexity is touched upon with a little melodrama or sentimentality. Nevertheless, a total absence of melodrama would have undone the movie experience for many who seek a simple YA tear-jerker.  The performances are just more than perfect. Thomas Mann and RJ Cycler (his debut feature) transcend the contrivances of their characters.  But, the best of the lot is Olivia Cooke as Rachel. She has a limited screen time than what we expect, but at no point she gives us a pity performance. Rachel is said to be Cooke’s first dramatic role (she has only been in sci-fi or horror movies) and she has pulled it off with the elegance of an established star.

                              “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (105 minutes) is a poignant tale of teenage friendship that renders how stupid it is to waste our life on self-absorption & self-loathing. Despite its last-act melodrama, you will feel that the tears shed are genuinely earned.  


My Mother – An Introspective Examination of an Agitated Film-Maker

                                              Nanni Moretti is one of the important Italian film-makers succeeding the great new-wave film-makers (Fellini, Antonoini, etc), who revolutionized world and Italian cinema. His early art-house comedies earned him the name “Italian Woody Allen”, although he had switched to making serious and wry films, especially after Palme d’Or winning “The Son’s Room” (2001). His satiric political movie on the controversial Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berluscoi (“The Caiman”) and the unusually funny Vatican tale (“We Have a Pope”) weren’t as critically appraised as his previous semi-autobiographical or his fantasia movies (I personally cherished both his bittersweet social critiques). Now, with “Mia Madre” (aka My Mother, 2015), Moretti once again returns to his autobiographical territory. Cinephiles might find this film less cathartic or touching than Moretti’s masterpiece “The Son’s Room”, even-though many of that movie’s themes are explored here too (death, self-doubt, etc).

                                            Moretti’s whimsical substance and considerable pathos in “My Mother” reminisces us of the works of Abbas Kiarostami rather than Woody Allen. In this nuanced and tranquil family drama, Moretti rises above that strictly auto-biographic nature to infuse some universal statements.”Mia Madre” may not be the Italian director’s best, but its one of his more mature & sublime works.  Moretti’s latest film is a about a anxious, self-absorbed woman filmmaker, whose mind is occupied by the imminent loss of her hospitalized mother. The obvious autobiographical angle comes from the truth that Moretti lost his mother during the filming of his last film “We have a Pope”. Despite the ‘My’ in the title, Moretti has chosen a woman to represent himself, perhaps to provide us with an extra creative dimension. Oddly, the woman film-maker has a compassionate sibling to lean on, who is played by Moretti himself. So, the director is referring to us that he is an amalgamation of both these characters – one racked by self-doubt, while the other blessed with some clear insights.

                                       “My Mother” commences on the shooting of a film, where the acclaimed film-maker Margherita (Margherita Buy) is making her latest social-realist drama. Her ex-lover Vittorio (Enrico Ianneillo) is one of the cast members and the crew is shooting few of the stand-in scenes, before the arrival of American star Barry Huggins (John Turturo). Margherita looks a bit distracted and at the end of the day, she goes to the hospital to visit her mother Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), a retired teacher of classical languages. Ada is cared for by her elder son Giovanni (Moretti), who has taken a long leave and has no intention to return to his mundane job (at an engineering firm). Margherita is swept up by the emotional turmoil of losing her mother as the doctor warns that Ada’s time might be short. Margherita has only recently moved out of the apartment of her lover Vittorio and is now staying at her mother’s house. Her teenage daughter Livia (Beatrice Mancini) and ex-husband are on a skiing trip.

                                      Guilt, fear and self-doubt racks the mind of Margherita as the impending death of her mother hovers around. Margherita’s stay at her mother’s house brings up haunted memories of the past. Her confrontation on mother’s mortality only brings nerve-wracking doubts about her own existence. The arrival of bothersome American actor Barry only escalates her insecurity. Ada is tired of being in the hospital and is increasingly uncertain of her own memories. Despite such a melodramatic core, Moretti isn’t up for doing a straight-forward, moving family drama. The script is mixed with sensitive euphemisms, splendid Meta shots and also a satiric look at film-making process.

                                     “My Mother” is mostly about a film-maker, who is increasingly unable to isolate her directorial persona from her private life. Margherita’s uncertainty and ignorance of her mother’s fate reflects with her self-doubt on the film set. Her improbably pertinent dreams symbolize the inability to express simple motions life grief and love. Moretti’s script alternates between hospital rooms to the factory set, observing how the unrest in one arena is causing the other. May be the clash between the director’s private and public life weren’t as perfectly amalgamated as one would expect it to be. The comic interludes or the slapstick nature of Margherita‘s film-making chore might have undone the intimate family drama elements. But, it is clear from the first that “My Mother” isn’t deep exploration about death or grief (like “The Son’s Room"). It is more like Moretti observing and admitting his own misdeeds with some self-irony.

                                      The thematically related film-making moments at times feel too contrived. It seems those episodes were designed to evoke a set of reactions from the central character. But, Margherita Buy (who plays the director) and John Turturo (his acting on a camera car was absolutely hilarious), playing the cliched role of American actor, elevate the contrived material to diffuse us with some grandstanding. Another element that seemed a bit under-developed is the relationship between Vittorio and Margherita. At one point, Vittorio says some acidic words about Margherita’s character nature. Since we are shown little about the lead character’s past, the accusations seem more like a bickering. The character of Ada, however, was very well written. The mother is satisfied with the life she has had (doted by her former students) and Moretti didn’t inject some fall sense of morbidity over her illness. To bring a little verisimilitude, director Moretti is said to have brought his mother’s things for the shoot.

                                     There are still plenty of great moments in the film to dwell on. In one scene, Livia irritably questions on the importance of learning Latin to her mother. Margherita’s vague answer to Livia is a joy to watch, because her insistence on Latin to Livia is one way to lament on Ada’s memory (Ada being the teacher of Latin). Once again in this scene Margherita is unable to express herself because of that resonant theme of uncertainty. Some bits of broad comedy pokes at Moretti’s profession, especially Marghterita’s attempts to push her actors into a more relaxed performance style (“I’d like to see the actor next to the character”), which only confuses them more. The ending was perfectly understated without betraying any loud emotions. 

                                     “My Mother” (108 minutes) is a nuanced and elegiac observation of a woman facing existential crisis. This restrained family drama from Italian auteur Nanni Moretti definitely demands a lot of patience and a reflective mood. 


The Harvest – A Maddeningly Mediocre Psychological Horror

                                              American film-maker John McNaughton gained prominence with his debut film “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”, which went on to attain the cult classic status. It was a dispassionate character study and one of ultra-realistic portrayals of serial-killer onscreen. It preceded avant-garde serial killer flicks like “Man Bites Dog” (1993) and was succeeded by Japanese master Immamura’s lacerating film “Vengeance is Mine” (1979). In his three decade career, McNaughton made other cult favorites like “Mad Dog and Glory”, “Normal Life” and “Wild Things”. His movie characters’ oddity and presence of disturbing psychological horror elements eluded him the commercial success and kept him away from bigger projects. McNaughton later went on to director TV movies & documentaries that didn’t grab anybody’s attention. With the Canadian independent movie “The Harvest” (2013), director McNaughton once again returned to the big screen. Although the film was sold as a horror movie, it is a engaging psychological thriller that leaves you with mixed feelings.

                                           “The Harvest” starts with a terrifying sequence of a little boy getting deadly injured on the baseball field. One minute the boy’s mother is cheering for him and the next minute he is being rushed into a hospital with pulse dropping. Later, a motherly doctor comes out of the operating saying that the boy is alright. It is a strange beginning since the boy’s injury has nothing to do with the movie’s premise, but the whole scene is conceived to make us think that the doctor Katherine (Samantha Morton) is a warm-hearted human being. The next scene is more symbolic, where a boy bound to his wheel-chair, in his lavishly designed room, watches out the window. He helplessly looks at a crow, devouring the corns that are growing near his window. The adolescent boy named Andy (Charlie Tahan) seems to be suffering from some kind of debilitating disease and was overly cared by his protective mother/doctor Katherine.

                                       Andy’s father Richard (Michael Shannon) has quit his job as a nurse to take care of the boy. Richard seems disturbed by the boy’s worsening health and only seeks solace by conversing with Sandra (Meadow Williams). They meet up in some random places, where Sandra gives few test drugs that might have heavy side-effects. Katherine rejects Andy’s demands to get fresh air and the boy also often looks tired due to increasing doses of drugs. Although the husband and wife repeatedly discuss about Andy’s illness, the details of his illness remain elusive. Meantime, a precocious teenager, May Ann (Natasha Calis) moves to her grandparent’s house, which is situated within a walking distance from Andy’s house. She has lost her parents in a recent accident and also displaced from all her friends. One day, wandering through the woods, she stumbles onto Andy’s house and is intrigued by the tired boy on wheel-chair.

                                        Maryann befriends Andy and persistently asks questions about his illness. Andy is elated by the girl’s presence (his first friend). But, Katherine is unbelievably cold towards Maryann. She slams the door on the girl’s face and even visits Maryann’s grandparents’ house, to ask them to leave her son alone. Richard warms a little to the teenagers’ friendship. Katherine’s repeated warnings only compel Maryann to bond with Andy. One of the teenagers’ secret meetings is foiled by Katherine’s sudden arrival. Although Maryann smartly hides herself from Andy’s mother, she is stuck within a dark room that leads to the basement. There she finds a horrible truth about Andy’s illness that puts everything into perspective.

                                       The chief problem with “The Harvest” is its mediocre script (written by Stephen Lancellotti), which lacks tension or psychological power-play in the second-half of the movie. All the tension during the first-half on sun-lit house seems to have emanated from the dark secrets held in basement, but once that secret comes to light, the tension drops down to a poor levels. It had all the markings of being a great psychological thriller, but the writer’s hesitation to put his central characters through anguish nearly ruins the film. Although Maryann gets the facts wrong the first time she is in the basement, viewers could easily guess ‘who is who’. But, the script sluggishly evolves from then on and thinks in the end that it is throwing us a chilling twist.  We could overlook few of the inane & illogical decisions of the teen character, but what troubled me are the characteristics of Maryann’s grandfather (played by veteran actor Peter Fonda). He seems to be a more caring guy; looking at an opportunity to bond with his grand-daughter. But, when an opportunity presents itself, he not only rejects her story, he also gives some mawkish message like “Follow your heart”.

                                       The script seems to be a blend of Grimm’s fairy tales and Stephen King novels. The writing aims to deliver an ironical message about overprotective parenthood and misplaced sense of love. If these themes were explored deeply, it could have been as great as the classic French thriller “Eyes without a Face” (also about a doctor parent, going to great lengths to save his damaged child). Director McNaughton has tried his best to keep the tension in the narrative and he succeeds till the mid-point. He builds the dread similar to that of King’s novel and stays away from diffusing jump scare moments. There are few pacing issues but it can be overlooked, since this is the film-maker’s first film in a decade. The movie has one of the best casts one could ever dream for an indie project.  Samantha Morton gradually escalates her craziness to Kathy Bates level (“Misery”), but never given a menacing sequence to satiate her intense presence. Michel Shannon, despite his towering physical presence, adeptly plays the vulnerable & distressed character of Richard. The young actors Tahan and Calis are excellent. They subtly express the teenage solidarity without a single false note of sentimentality. The production designs are strikingly elaborate (Andy’s room itself gradually develops into a vital character).

                                        “The Harvest” (104 minutes) has an interesting premise for a psychological horror/thriller. Its third-act cliches and illogical contrivances nearly derail our interest in the film, but still it is better than a conventional, rusty horror flick. 

P.S. -- Don't watch the movie's trailer because I think it gives away a lot.

The Hedgehog – A Charismatic Tale of Three Misfits

                                               At the beginning of French film-maker Mona Acache’s directorial debut, “The Hedgehog” (2009), we see a bespectacled 11 year old girl in a dark room, holding a torch in one hand and talking to her ever-present companion, a video camera. She states how rich her Parisian family is but doesn’t want to ‘head for the fishbowl, a world where adults bang like flies on the glass’.  The girl‘s choice of words and metaphorical statements strongly suggest that she is a mature & intelligent girl. Nevertheless, the 11 year old finishes her brief speech by stating that the ‘fishbowl is definitely not for her’ and that she is going to end her life on 12th birthday. Despite the onerous declaration by this pre-teen, something suggests us (may be the 11 year old reminds us of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s capricious character) that the film is going to be whimsical rather than a lamentable drama. Actually, “The Hedgehog” diffuses both the elements: a whimsical melodrama. It is deplorably contrived at few junctures and remarkably touching at others.

                                             The movie is based on the best selling novel, “The Elegance of Hedgehog”, by French philosophy professor and novelist Muriel Barbery. Although, there might have been many changes between the novel and its adaptation, we can see that existentialism is one of the chief themes of the story. Paloma Josse (Garance Le Guillermic), the precocious girl we met in the first scene, is in fact burdened by her fairly standard, unremarkable rich life. She hates to exist in this world as an adult. Paloma’s father Paul (Wladimir Yordanoff) is a minister, who is either in a command mode or busy mode. Mother Solange (Anne Brochet) has been on therapy and takes anti-depressants for the last 10 years. She talks a lot with her plants than with Paloma and thinks that the little girl is the only ‘oddball’ in the family. Paloma has an elder sister, who is confronting her own teen angst and wants nothing to do with the 11 year old’s ruminations on life.

                                          Paloma’s favorite pastime is to hide herself within the apartment complex and to observe her family’s (recorded by a video camera) bourgeois absurdism. If the little girl is literally trying to hide from existence, the apartment building’s 54 year old janitor Renee Michel (Josiane Balasko) has perfected her skills in the aspect of concealing. In both the figurative and literal sense, Michel isn’t often noticed. But that doesn’t mean that Michel is an unremarkable woman. Paloma relates Renee’s characteristics to that of a hedgehog – sharp-tongued & unkempt on the outside, but with a sensitive soul on the inside. The janitor’s sensitive side is evoked by the arrival of a wealthy & elegant Japanese widower, Mr Kakoru Ozu (Togo Igawa). Despite the class differences, they both share the taste of seeking solace amidst the books & classic films. Paloma is also nudged into these outsiders’ world and her fascination about these people gradually changes her perspective on life.

                                          Mona Achache’s adapted screenplay imbues both the high and low points of a best-seller. If the movie’s whimsical nature occupies the high-end of the spectrum, the suggested mawkishness & neat resolutions occupies the low-end of the spectrum. Although the plot is about three eccentric & independent characters, who cherish their private lives and the meaning that’s derived through creativity and art, the script includes few of those manipulative & contrived emotions or elements. Of course these plot formalities are outmatched at many circumstances by the whimsical elements and astounding performances.  In one of her creative endeavors, Paloma fills a glass with water and films her sister through the filled glass, demonstrating how limited the elder girl’s thoughts are (“archetype of the fish in the bowl theory; obsessed by the need to be less neurotic than her mother”).

                                      Paloma also makes some of the ponderous and chuckle-worthy observations. She corrects her father’s friend about the differences between ‘go’ and ‘chess’ and says sentences like “Only psychiatry rivals religion for love of suffering” at the dinner table. Such reflective words not only suggest matured thought process of Paloma, but also subtly depicts her inner pain, especially when the parents brush-off those words as that of an ‘oddball’. Unlike her mother, Paloma doesn’t cry to demonstrate misery, but through her stoicism, we could experience the rejection and loneliness she is facing. The book and Achache’s script seems to be diffused with literary, cinematic & musical references. Those who have great interest in books & old movies might be immediately affirmed with the movie’s wavelength. These names or references make the bibliophiles & cinephiles within us to feel a kinship with the three central characters. However, that doesn’t mean that you need to be familiarized with names like Tolstoy and Ozu to relate to the film’s themes (Paloma in fact seems to have the characteristics of the kids in Ozu’s films.

                                      Renee is another tough nut, who openly states that she is unsociable. But, the idea of connecting takes both of them to an elated level. Ozu’s magical presence makes these two characters to gradually crossover their cynicism. The friendship between Ozu and Paloma is pushed through believable limit. Paloma meets Ozu on the elevator and he asks about her interest in learning Japanese. Paloma says few words in Japanese, and Mr. Ozu instead of just marveling at her, corrects her pronunciation. Paloma for the first time might have felt that she has been taken seriously by a human. For the first time, she is constructively criticized rather than treated like a keyed toy. So, a friendship naturally ensues. The same kind of believable slow progression happens in the friendship between Ozu and Renee. Of course there are moments, where the events feel less like a naturalistic drama.

                                    The abrupt, melodramatic climax gives us this unnaturalistic feeling. I felt that the closure didn’t have the emotional and intellectual honesty that drove away the rest of the movie. Class difference is one of the movie’s vital themes, but there weren’t explicit references to this and the theme didn’t narrow the characters’ actions. Of the performers, Balasko as Renee gives the most complete and soulful performance. She wonderfully expresses her terrifying as well as elated feeling, brought out by the friendship with Ozu and Paloma. Igawa’s elegance and insights reminds us of Morgan Freeman and his confidence is certainly infectious. Le Guillermic despite her character’s nature doesn’t come off as self-indulgent young brat. Her smartness doesn’t annoy us like that of the American movie kids.

                                  “The Hedgehog” (95 minutes) is a moving, bittersweet tale of a demoralized pre-teen developing a deep appreciation of life. It is a sublime drama punctuated by few contrived plot turns. 


A Wolf at the Door – An Amorous Turmoil that Huffs and Puffs a Family

                                                 Brazilian writer/director Fernando Coimbra’s feature-film debut “A Wolf at the Door” (2013) opens on a scorching day, where Brazil’s iconic ‘Christ the Redeemer’ statue hovers like a mirage. Then, we see a shot of rattling trains running through the seamy city surroundings. These two opening shots establish that the film isn’t going to depict any alluring visions about Brazil. The blistering heat refers to the conflicts between the characters we are yet to familiarize with, which are going to reach a boiling point. The opening montage sequences ends up with a shot of a public telephone that’s shown as if it would ring anytime. This final shot is vital to the movie’s alleged thriller framework because we learn after few minutes into the movie that a child is kidnapped, although there are no ransom calls from a payphone demanding money.

                                               “A Wolf at the Door” is a trenchant examination of adultery – its initial allure and the dangerous consequences. At its outset, the plot might seem akin to “Fatal Attraction” (1987). It even starts off like a Hollywood police procedural, but this Brazilian movie veers more into Michael Haneke territory or into the dominion of a Greek Tragedy than an American commercial flick. Sylvia (Fabiula Nascimento), the housewife after going through her routine works goes to pick her little daughter from the neighborhood kindergarten. The teacher/owner greets her and says you have just missed her. When Sylvia furiously asks how she could let out the child before her arrival, the teacher claims that Sylvia herself called her to say that a neighbor named ‘Sheila’ would come to collect the girl. Sylvia, of course, never called the teacher. She goes to the police stating that it must be some kind of mistake because they are just a middle-class family with little money.

                                            The teacher asserts that the child knew the alleged neighbor because she saw the child running gleefully to ‘Sheila’. Sylvia’s husband Bernardo (Milhelm Cortaz), who works at a bus depot, is called for and he immediately places his suspicion on a woman named Rosa (Leandra Leal). Bernardo has had an affair with the 25 year old Rosa and he also says to the police that Rosa has demanded to meet him that day at 7 pm in the train station. When Rosa doesn’t show up at the station, the police go to her home and bring in investigation. Initially, she denies any involvement, but after the teacher’s positive identification, Rosa accepts that she picked up the child, but only due to the threatening commands of ‘Betty’. Rosa tells the police that Betty is the girlfriend of Sylvia’s secret lover and that she has given the child to Betty.

                                         The initial portions of “A Wolf at the Door” immediately brought to mind Anurag Kashyap’s “Ugly” (which might have been filmed at the same time as this movie). Although both the movies provide an incisive commentary on adultery, egotism and parental negligence (children in these movies were used as pawns by the adult characters), Fernando Coimbra doesn’t take up with Kashyap’s black comedy approach. After the initial promise of a thriller, Coimbra’s film at a certain point starts moving like a straightforward drama with a shocking final. The encounters between Rosa and Bernardo hinges on the framework of an erotic drama. However, these erotic sequences have no tenderness or affection. The animistic copulation reminisces us of the works from Paul Verheoven or Nicolas Roeg. The anxiety of cheating consumes Bernardo more than Rosa’s beauty.

Spoilers Ahead

                                          The dangerous possessiveness, bickering and haunting suspicions are the typical elements that hovers around infidelity drama. But, these elements have become time worn because it was used by countless soap operas and crummy novels. Nevertheless, if “Wolf at the Door” keeps us hooked till the end, it is because of director Coimbra’s unconventional sense of composition and due to the brilliant performances. The director is more interested in surveying the surroundings than simply move the narrative forward in a ceremonious manner. When Rosa visits Sylvia at her home, the shot is placed at a point so that we could observe the environment rather than the mundane conversation. Rosa’s impoverished home life and constricted relationship with her parents is depicted as subtly as possible and showcased the reason for her to cling to the naive romantic ideas. The camera for the most part remains motionless and these shots provide a lacerating effect, whenever a literal or psychological beating ensues.

                                          Apart from the ending sequences, the most agitating confrontation in the film happens when Bernardo beats  Rosa for meeting up with his wife. Just when we think that he is going to kiss Rosa, Bernardo gets rough and compels her to repeat the words: "I want you to fuck me for the rest of my life”. When she obliges with his command, he simply says: “Well, too bad” and leaves the room. The sequence is very much similar to emotional rape perpetrated by Willem Dafoe character in David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart”, but here we see Bernardo return to the room and reconciling with Rosa. This scene probably exhibits the explosive symbiotic relationship, for which the final stop could only be hell. Those who have expected a thematically & narrative-wise twisty thriller in the vein of “Prisoners” might be severely disappointed. Coimbra uses the word ‘thriller’ to lure us for presenting the inner turmoil of an unloved woman, who wants to override the social sanctions.

                                        Eventually, this film could also be seen as a different version of ‘Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf’ folktale. Although, a wolf is a metaphor to indicate a family unit threatened by an outside force, the identity of the wolf in the film is a bit elusive. Rosa’s devastating final act makes her the titular wolf, but it is hard to forget the tactics of cruel Bernardo. It is also ironic how the family, especially Sylvia, has welcomed the wolf with open arms. Leandra Leal gives a sympathetic and enervating performance as Rosa. She vividly exhibits her characters’ sexual passion, romantic aspirations and outbursts. There’s not a single contrived reaction in Leal’s angst-filled portrayal of Rosa. Milhelm Cortaz gives a raw performance as Bernardo, unlike the Hollywood movie adulterers.

                                      “A Wolf at the Door” (101 minutes) may not possess big twists for thriller aficionados, but those who have no qualms over looking through darkest inlets of human nature might be in for a intense movie experience. It is a punch-to-the-gut psychological study of a fragile woman.