The End of the Tour [2015] – An Energetic & Meaningful Dual Character Study

                                               At an earlier point in James Ponsoldt’s probing character drama “The End of the Tour”, journalist David Lipsky states: “To Read David Foster Wallace was to feel your eyelids open”. Lipsky also describes Wallace’s legacy like this: “We think a thousand things at a time, and David found a way to get all that across in a way that's incredibly true and incredibly entertaining at the same time”. Those words would ring true if you ever start reading Wallace’s works. His immensely complex clauses and meticulous digressions remained inscrutable for me (I haven’t even finished his essay collections and so I think it would be futile to start reading his magnum opus “Infinite Jest”). But, Ponsoldt’s charming human drama urges me to delve more into Wallace’s stubbornly complex prose & mind.

                                           “The End of the Tour” (2015) isn’t a biopic on the genius writer. It is more or less about two intellectual men forming a tentative connection and talking about their own insecurity & identity along with divergent themes like American celebrity culture, pop consumerism, artist’s dilemma, etc. Despite the lengthy conversations, the script (written by Donald Marguiles based on Lipsky’s 2010 memoir “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself”) handles the themes deftly, making us to forge an emotional connection. The movie was based on Rolling Stone journalist Lipsky’s five-day road trip (back in 1996) with David Wallace, who is about to end his publicity tour for “Infinite Jest”. The film starts on 2008 as David Lipsky pulls out a cassette tape of his interview his Wallace after hearing the news about Wallace’s suicide. Then, the narrative jumps 12 years back to offer small fragments of David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), an ambitious New York intellectual, who has recently published his not-much heralded debut novel “The Art Fair” (in real life, however, ‘Art Fair’ is said to have made into Time Magazine’s “Best Books” for the year).

                                           Lipsky hears about the arrival of a great modern American writer named David Wallace (compared with the likes of Scott Fitzgerald, Salinger, and Hemingway) in his social circle. He immediately picks up “Infinite Jest” and when he is little into the book, Lipsky, the journalist, gets an idea to write a lengthy piece on the author, who is at the peak of his fame. The 30 year old Lipsky persuades his editor about the idea, since Rolling Stone has never written pieces on writers, and then travels to icy mid-western state Illinois to meet the secluded, socially awkward, bandanna-wearing, dog-loving literary legend (played by Jason Segel). Wallace initially seems little reticent and Lipsky does nothing to break the ice as he immediately puts forth a recorder. Nevertheless, the two men gradually start to exchange their perceptions over smoking, junk foods, TV shows, rock-star Alanis Morissette, lack of meaningful relationship, technology, self-doubt, etc. Lipsky also accompanies Wallace to Minneapolis for the publicity tour and witnesses the palpably human side of the author.

                                         “The End of the Tour” pretty much happens in an era, where technological advances haven’t fully consumed our attention. The lack of highly sophisticated gadgets, the presence of cassette tapes and real books makes the conversations riveting (because now it would seem hard for intellectuals to make a lengthy conversation without ever looking at their mobile screen). Although the events took place just a couple of decades before, the narrative feels like throwback to a wholly different world. Director Ponsoldt and writer Marguiles haven’t also turned the film into mind-wrestling game. Despite the array of contemplative questions, the script also departs to showcase the authors’ vulnerability and ironical behavior (‘Mall of America’ sequence was well conceived without becoming self-parody).  Ponsoldt and Marguiles also hint at the bond between two men, regardless of their contradictory ideas, but this alleged bond isn’t used to give us a gooey closure (I liked that little anxious moment towards the end where Lipsky tries to hug Wallace, while Wallace remains content with the handshake).  

                                           I don’t know much about Wallace’s personal life or haven’t watched his interviews, but still “The End of the Tour” doesn’t come across as a profound account on Wallace. It is mostly Lipsky’s subjective account on Wallace. We also equally learn about the insecurities of Lipsky. We can relate to Lipsky’s experience with Wallace since the movie makes us to think how we would react & feel when we meet our own idols. Lipsky admires as well as envies Wallace (by measuring his success against the genius writer) the same we would when we meet a renowned personality. Wallace is sometimes what Lipsky wants him to be, while at other times incredibly complicated. The conversations also become more interesting since Lipsky is there with a preconceived agenda. Ponsoldt perfectly brings in all these dilemmas and self-awareness into the narrative. The movie also weaves a wonderful message on how our restless pop-culture urges people to move toward simple-mindedness (“the technology’s just gonna get better and better and it’s just going to get easier and easier and more and more convenient and more and more pleasurable to sit alone, with images on a screen given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. And that’s fine, in low doses. But if it’s the basic main staple of your diet, you’re going to die. In a very meaningful way, you’re going to die”).

                                      James Ponsoldt, who has previously directed two spectacular character-driven movies (“Smashed”, “Spectacular Now”), is a huge Wallace fan and so he brings out the humanistic as well as the intelligence side with deftness. It is also nice to see the director not wallowing over the cliches of showcasing the authors’ process of writing or his drinking habits. Jason Segel is excellent as Wallace (this is his most true and breakout performance) as he immensely helps the film to reach its dramatic peaks. Segel has brought the emotional power to the complicated writer, who is trying to give voice to his inner doubts. The perpetual restlessness, media addiction and wise remarks of the author are disclosed with intimate detail.

                                    “The End of the Tour” (106 minutes) is a reflective and engrossing conversational drama which might join the ranks of “My Dinner with Andre”, “Mind Walk” or the “Before Trilogy”. The movie inspires us to tackle David Wallace’s books. 


Loreak aka Flowers [2014] – That Tricky Thing Called Love!

                                           It is a tricky thing to depict the love felt by a world-weary, middle-aged married woman towards a person other than her husband. On-screen, the love is quickly transmuted to lust and soon the narrative contrives a full-blown affair waiting to annihilate the woman’s familial bonds. But, ‘love’ isn’t just a stepping stone to reach the destination called ‘lust’. Rarely do we come across films that deal with love of a middle-aged married woman without introducing sexual affair in the second act. Jose Mari Goenaga and Jon Garano’s minimalist Basque language movie “Loreak” (“Flowers”, 2014) is the rare, mature work that deals with the slippery feeling love imbues on us. It shows how source of love could emanate from strange things and how love changes one’s perception of others. “Loreak” is also an exploration of loss (death) and lack of communication. Its glacial pace, melancholia and unresolved ending makes it a film for grown-ups and for those vexed by watching inane romantic flicks.  

                                       “Loreak” commences with forty plus Ane (Nagore Aranbaru) hearing from the doctor that her menopause has started early. The doctor says there would be few changes like weight gaining and a feeling of melancholia. Ane, an office worker at a construction site, talks little to her husband Ander (Egoitz Lasa), who is glued to the TV screen. She literally has no friends at all to talk about loneliness & grief. But, unexpectedly Ane starts receiving bouquet of flowers every Thursday from an anonymous person. Inquiry at a local flower shop confirms the fact that the one sending flowers is a man. Ane feels pleased by the attention she receives through flowers and starts waiting every week for the courier guy to deliver. Ane places those resplendent flowers in the middle of house, which infuriates her husband. Later, she conceals those flowers and takes them to her office.

                                       The narrative then jumps off to show us the life of toll booth attendant Lourdes (Itziar Ituno), who is married to a crane operator Benat (Josean Bengoetxea). Benat, who works in the same construction site as Ane, spends his day in the crane looking at workers & other things through his binocular. Lourdes has a boy named Mikel from previous marriage, and she is agitated by her mother-in law Tere’s (Itziar Aizpuru) disapproving attitude. The two women are silently fighting over for influence over Benat, while he tries his best to retain harmony between them. Unfortunately, Benat dies in a car accident. His loss makes the two women in his life to confront their feelings they had for him. Ane is also impacted by Benat’s death as she comes across hints that point out Benat might be the anonymous bouquet sender.

                                       For an average moviegoer, “Loreak” might seem like a work where nothing much happens. Of course, it has a very simple story and devoid of any dramatic twists or sentiments. But, the subtle questions the movie raises on love & loss and the manner in which characters are mystified by loss warrants a deep reflection. At one point, Tere says “People don’t die, right until we forget them”. Benat definitely lives in the memory of three women even after his death, although he was ignored & berated when he was full of life. Directors Jose Mari Goenaga and Jon Garano points out the perpetual irony of how our perception of a deceased person varies from the perception we had when they were alive. The film-makers explore the basic restless human nature in search of love and the silent rage one feels when the loved ones die suddenly.   

                                      Through the lives of three women, the narrative showcases assortment of emotions like grief, despair, love & hope, but these emotions doesn’t work its way to bring about dramatic, unrealistic changes in the characters’ lives. For Ane, the flowers seem to infuse little color into her drab existence. For Tere, the flowers are the means to cherish the memory of her son, while the same flowers for Lourdes fetches grief and doubt. Despite the obvious symbolization of flowers, its importance changes from the way it is perceived by the characters. The flowers of “Loreak” apart from a being symbol of love transcends into a symbol for death. In one brilliant, symbolical sequence, the image of frozen body of Benat, under the covers (Benat arranged for his body to be donated to medical school) is juxtaposed with the image of drops of dew clinging around the flowers.

                                      Love is portrayed in its original amorphous state in the film. It has tangible presence between husband and wife; mother and son; a woman and secret admirer, but this isn’t the kind of love whose role is determined easily. Love isn’t used to spew out melodrama or to provide grievous twists. It rather connects three fragmented personalities in a way unexpected by viewers. Nevertheless, this linking up love transcends its quality as the ever changing time and environment factors kick in. In the end, grief, love and memories are won over by all consuming force called ‘time’, although the film-makers try to instill some hope through that final image of flowers. Garano and Goenaga’s long takes and precise compositions reward the attentive viewers.

                                        In the hands of some other film-maker the tension between the characters might have been used to deteriorate the sense of authenticity. At times, the symbolization seems more than necessary (especially the lamb accident scene), but for the most part the restrained direction eloquently observes things. The performances enhance the impact of the subtle script. The emotions portrayed by three central female characters transcend language barriers. Aranboru excellently brings out Ane’s confused state of love (her melancholic smile tells a lot). Itziar Aizpuru and Itziar Ituno as Tere & Lourdes pretty much play a cliched roles, although the dignity and strength they brought makes their characters three-dimensional beings. The scene where Tere, affected by dementia, and Lourdes converse in the end was brilliantly staged and acted which genuinely earns viewers’ tears.

                                       Basque-language Spanish drama “Loreak” (100 minutes) is an intricate and engrossing exploration of alienation, love and loss. The absence of dramatization and the presence of obscure ideas, a bleak environment might equally irk and reward movie-buffs. 


Beasts of No Nation – The Collective Nightmare of Cursed Children

                                                 California born Japanese-American film-maker Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation” (2015) opens in some unnamed West African nation, the frames occupied by dilapidated shacks, military outposts and dirt roads, which sort of makes us think ‘oh, not another English language film about African civil wars!’ However, the West African milieu doesn’t cut to silhouette of a White American/British aid worker. We see a jubilant group of small boys walking with an old TV set frame and trying to sell it to people as ‘Imagination TV’. The boys humorously enact soap operas & reality-shows to the men seeing through the frame. An empathetic Nigerian soldier buys off the TV frame and gives away few food parcels to the boy named Agu (Abraham Attah). Later this imaginative boy goes through gruesome experiences that are beyond imagination – his as well as ours.

                                                “Beasts of No Nation” is a film that raises lot of red flags on a movie buff’s mind: It is a film about West African child soldiers made by non-African film-maker; the movie’s cast includes the name of accomplish actor like ‘Idris Elba’; and it starts off with the voice-over of the boy protagonist saying, “Our country is at War”……….”I’m a good boy from a good family”. So the initial setting feels like a conceit. That it is going be another insensitive story about a war-torn African nation with some White savior hovering around an aid camp or UN premises. But, the film keeps on surprising the viewers in constructing an uncompromising nightmare, where the only White faces we see is that of UN workers inside a truck taking pictures of the gun-toting children and traveling in the opposite direction.

                                               On a visceral level, “Beasts of No Nation” could be considered as one of the great works of the year, but its script, based on 2005 Uzodinma Iweala’s novel does get struck in a quagmire, where we feel that movie misses some specifics to become the truly memorable war movie. Fukunaga had maintained ambiguity regarding the backstory of the war to make it a more universal story about the plight of child soldiers. It is great that the writer & director have opted to showcase the broad emotional damage, endured by a child fighter, but I felt that the movie is devoid of a unique perspective to label it as ‘great’. The initial sequences are straightforward & simple as we are introduced about the endearing family of Agu.

                                               The sun beautifully shines upon Agu as he has fun with his friends, despite the threat of a war. But since some agreement is broken and the military is about to enter Agu’s town, the elders decide to send away woman and children. The men are asked to stay for protecting their land. However, Agu’s father, brother and other townsmen are rounded up and shot to death. Agu runs into the bush to be found by a warring rebel faction, led by a paternalistic and inherently evil ‘Commanadant’ (Idris Elba). He takes in Agu to train him to be a warrior. And when Agu becomes a fighter he only sees and does more gruesome things. The prospect of getting reunited with mother only gets dimmer for Agu. The sun still shines upon Agu, and this brightness makes the blood shed more nauseating. The light in Agu’s eyes is eventually replaced with an emptiness experienced by a traumatized soldier.

                                             In the middle part of “Beasts of No Nation”, a young boy calls Agu and gives him some brown-brown and a morale booster. Then, Agu’s consciousness gets disoriented as he steps through various bloody fields and sits among another session of Commandant’s lecture. The viewers are able to feel through Agu’s eyes how he loses the sense of time and place. A little later, the visuals itself begin to change color: plants and other surroundings takes on blood-red hue; sky and Earth are painted in sickly gray. Agu seems to have crossed a threshold point that needs some adjusting. Gradually, the color changes and Agu has survived the transformation, and now comes a bloodcurdling, fluid tracking-shot, where the by himself commits the atrocious acts. Such directorial and cinematographic flourish (Fukunaga is also the film’s DoP) is what makes the impact more gruesome and maintains the atmosphere of heightened tension. Some of the violent sequences do threaten to become too exploitative (like the scene where an engineering student’s bald head is cut down with a machete), but most of ‘horrors of war’ scenes imbues the traumatic experience.

                                             By avoiding the details on who is attacking on whom or for why places the viewers in the same confused state as that of Agu. Director Fukunaga while maintaining a brilliant visual style in these sequence, never forgets to tap into the degrading sense of humanism. Fukunaga plays with light right from the start as the film opens in a sun drenched school ground. The recurrent visual motif of a bright sun always hovers around whenever Agu’s emotional state transforms for the worst. In a earlier scene, when Agu and his family is hiding in a dark room, sun shines through the bullet holes; when the panicked members of the room open the door, sun light drenches them as much as the bullets. Fukunaga’s repeated shots of sun could be equated to that of a silently observing God, while the brightly-lit fire (the fire of burned villages; or the heavy fire of artillery) seems to be an all-consuming dark force.

                                         The story behind the conception and making of “Beasts of No Nation” itself seems to be a grim one. Fukunage has written the script for ‘Beasts’ along with his illegal immigrant drama “Sin Nombre”, but the lack of ‘white savior’ character and absence of Hollywood dramatics made studios to pass up the project. Even when the film moved to shooting stages, Fukunaga’s crew have experienced diseases, gone through bureaucratic blows (filmed in Ghana) and near-death experiences. Despite the hardships, the movie didn’t make much in the theaters, although it might reach wider audience base, thanks to the purchase by internet streaming media ‘Netflix’. As in “Sin Nombre” or the TV series “True Detective”, Fukunaga is at his best when he conveys the cult-like ceremonies or when he depicts chaos through those surrealistic tracking-shots. Apart from the stable, maneuvering shots (in the trench, mansion or when Commandant leads his minors’ battalion through the combat-ready streets), Fukunaga wonderfully conveys the movement of time through subtle shots (for example, the scene when Commandant waits in the lobby to meet Supreme Commander).   

                                            It is a bold decision to cast a well-known actor like Idris Elba in a significant role (one of the producers too). Elba starts by bringing out his usual brand of magnetic charisma and gradually transforms into a dreadful father figure and as a man blinded by power. Non-professional actor Abraham Attah’s entrenching performance reminds us of young Florya’s experiences in Elem Kilmov’s scathing Russian World War II movie “Come and See” (1985). Attah’s eyes convey how the light is extinguished from his life. The way he delivers those final words to Amy would make even veteran actors envious (“I am like old man and she's like small girl…….you will think that I am sort of beast or devil”).

                                           American film-maker Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation” (137 minutes) is an unflinching take on child soldiers that thankfully lacks emotionally insincere Hollywood elements. Despite few narrative pitfalls, the film immensely succeeds on a visceral level, imparting a tough-to-watch observation.


The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser – Herzog’s Restrained & Timeless Cinematic Expression

                                                  Kaspar Hauser is one of the most debated individual, whose name immediately provokes both exaggerated accolades and ridicules. This wild-child (alleged) of Germany has inspired a lot of literary works (including many non-fiction works) and a number of documentaries & films. Modern pioneers of medical field are still trying to figure out the origins of Kaspar, while historians have fervently worked in trying to prove or disprove Kaspar’s stories. German auteur film-maker Werner Herzog’s 1974 quasi-biographical film on Kaspar Hauser titled “Jeder fur sich und Gott gogen alle” (in English it means, “Every Man for Himself and God against All”) doesn’t try to unfurl the facts about the wild-child or boy, but it mostly works as a heartrending examination on human nature. The movie was of course known by its international title “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser” and despite the cynical nature of the original German title, the film encapsulates diverse subject matters and proves to be tricky to categorize.

                                              Herzog’s story inherently believes in Hauser’s alleged origins and mostly omits the viewpoint of Kaspar’s detractors. The director instead offers a profoundly moving account of a society’s failure in recognizing a man for what he is. As usual, Herzog amalgamates his own brand of nihilism with dark humor. Although the film is about human absurdity and the ambiguity of emotions, Herzog imbues images of nature’s overpowering beauty and astoundingly captivates human innocence that stops us from using the words ‘distressing’ or ‘dark’. Addressed by critics as ‘Expressionist Biographical film’, “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser” commences with the beautiful images of a hazed over man in rowboat, a glowing face of a woman, an ominous tower and a elderly woman rubbing clothes against a washboard. A quavered music plays in the background as a foreword chronicles the appearance of mysterious Kaspar Hauser in a Nuremberg Town Square, in 1828 Germany. The foreword is cut to an awe-inspiring static shot of a windy grain field and a meditative question appears on screen “Don’t you hear that horrible screaming around you? That screaming, men call silence”.

                                            We see a 16 or 17 year Kaspar (Bruno S) chained up like a circus animal in a dungeon shack. Kaspar plays with his wooden horse, which seems to be the only tool of interaction. Then a mysterious man appears who tries to teach him to write & speak. The man releases Kaspar from captivity and instructs him the words ‘I want to be a gallant rider like my father was’. The feral boy was left in a town square, clutching an introductory note. His weird demeanor and inability to converse kindles the townspeople curiosity. The local law and medical officers make a thorough examination of Kaspar and places him in a jail cell. Kaspar learns a little of human moral values when he is placed under the care of a serene family and later also gets to experience the cruel side, when the townsfolk enters him into a freak-show. Kaspar is later adopted by kind & wealthy professor Daumer (Walter Landengast). Under the care of Daumer, Kaspar learns to write and read fluently and also develops a penchant for music. He also takes an unusual viewpoint in explaining the things he sees. Kaspar’s is increasingly agitated as his purest individuality is tried to be confined within the preconceived societal or religious values or trappings.  

                                           Kaspar’s caretakers and historians allude that the boy was a pathological liar and that the wounds gained by Kaspar due to various assassination attempts were only self-inflicted (to arouse pity or to suppress the quarrels he had with Mr. Daumer). The theory about self-inflicted wounds and the rumors about Kaspar being the ‘Prince of Baden’ weren’t entirely proven, but Herzog doesn’t waste time on disproving or approving theories or for that matter, he isn’t attempting to depict a historically accurate version of Kaspar Hauser. Herzog is more interested in exploring how a feral boy, with no previous connection with human or earthly things, would see the world or the trappings created by humans in the name of society and religion. While, the international title seems to insist the work as an expose on this mysterious boy, the enigma in the narrative is played out through the eyes of Kaspar Hauser. The people of 1828 Germany might be curious to place Kaspar’s appearance in context, but at the same time Kaspar itself is trying to adjudicate the weird behaviors of the social animals and the mechanism of overpowering nature.

                                          Beneath the oddball nature of Kaspar and absurdity of human conduct, Herzog diffuses an apparent layer through which humanity shines. Kaspar’s tears as he holds the infant (“Mother…I am so far away from everything”); his panic stricken reaction on seeing a chicken; and his moving response on hearing the music are some of the poignant sequences in the film. Renowned critic Roger Ebert calls the film "a lyrical movie about the least lyrical of men” and we could see what he means through some of these sequences. It would be futile for a viewer to approach “Enigma of Kaspar Hauser” as a narrative about the famous historical character. Herzog’s movie tries to offer an assortment of human behavior and splendid images to reflect or illuminate the mystery that lies inside each of us. The story of a desert caravan lead by a blind tribe leader is more about Kaspar trying to figure out the mystery of human condition rather than other way around. Herzog shows how mankind hates ambiguity and its absurdity to approach everything with logic. The professor’s logical question and the final autopsy sequence, followed by the elated reaction of the old man (“What a wonderful, precise report this will make”), portrays how the underlying beauty of things are ruined by simple facts.

                                         Kaspar is the perfect Herzog protagonist. Like all his documentary and feature film characters, Kaspar dreams about escape, only when he is placed into an enormous space, but confined by what’s called as  ‘civilization’. Herzog’s visualizes Kaspar’s perplexing thoughts about humans and nature through the obscure, foggy images. His confusing thoughts, however, makes up for some of the film’s excellent humorous reflections. Kaspar’s question to the female house-keeper, “What are women good for?”; his bewildering response about the tower space; the first time he comes across the word ‘emptiness’; and the way he muses “My coming to this world must be a terrible fall”, are my favorite contemplative comical moments. There is also the trademark Herzog sequences of cold philosophical inquiry, but somehow Bruno’s blank-faced vulnerability transcends this coldness.

                                      Herzog never approaches acting in a conventional sense. He doesn’t search for a Daniel Day Lewis, but instead casts performers, who inherently embody the essential part of the central character. Bruno S, a street performer was in real life locked away for 23 years in various mental institutions. Herzog states that Bruno was never insane, although he was little bull-headed and has the stubbornness of a child. So, Bruno isn’t really wearing a performance mask to portray Kaspar. The simplicity, vulnerability and the way he looks at the camera side-wards belongs to Bruno as much as to Kaspar. His reactions to the flame, the line-reading recital, and the manner he reacts after the stabbing are few of Bruno’s wondrous moments, which no other great professional actor couldn’t have imparted easily.

                                       Werner Herzog’s “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser” (109 minutes) is about a man trying to understand the niggling misfortunes of human existence. It depicts a virtuous individual emotionally touched by the beauty of nature and music, and untouched by degrading human traits such as cynicism, hatred, etc. 


“I Walked with a Zombie” [1943] – A Walk amidst an Ominous Atmosphere

                                                   Between 1942 and 1946, RKO Pictures – one of the ‘Big Five Studios’ of Hollywood Golden Age – produced a string of horror films, whose story-line had the elements of a cheesy pulp fiction. Russian born American producer & screenwriter Val Lewton oversaw these productions (named as head of RKO’s horror unit) and each of the films were made within a budget of $150,000. The studio made sure that the films had a limited running time of 75 minutes or less. The studio-heads also provided the simple, inelegant titles. Lewton’s work is to concoct cheap chillers that turn up huge profits. Lewton immediately hired Jacques Tourneur as director and the duo made “Cat People” in 1942, which earned $4 million (made on budget of $134,000). The next year, the producer-director combination gave two more critical and commercial hits – “I Walked with a Zombie” & “Leopard Man”. Before Lewton was kicked out of the studio in 1946, he gave directing opportunities to Robert Wise (who in his long career directed classics like “West Side Story”, “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, “The Sound of Music”) and Mark Robson (who in his 45 year old career gave us films like “The Seventh Victim”, “Isle of the Dead”, “Von Ryan’s Express”, etc).

                                           “Cat People” (1942) was hailed as one of the great minimalist horror flick (the movie is included in Roger Ebert’s “Great Films”), whose influence is said to have hovered over horror masterpieces like “Jaws”, “Alien”, etc. Tourneur’s “I Walked with a Zombie” (1943) might not have evoked the strong dreamlike power of its predecessor “Cat People”, but it is one of the most significant chillers of the era, which deftly used an ethereal & dark atmosphere as a horror element. Although the film credits Inez Wallace’s story (the script is credited to Curt Siodmak, although Lewton wrote final drafts for his films), it heavily borrows from Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’, Daphne du Maurier’ ‘Rebecca’ & Jean Rhys’ “Wide Sargasso Sea”. But these are just passing allusions, because at a 68 minute running time, the studio only wanted a cheap sensationalist visceral film rather than a deep exploration. “I Walked with a Zombie” is in many ways the B-movie it wants to be and it may seem too out-dated for the contemporary viewers, but this film has a lot of sensibilities & great atmosphere, which many of the modern CGI-riddled Hollywood movies lack.

                                          As I said earlier, Tourneur-Lewton didn’t have the time or money to make a staggering opening shot that dwells on the concept or mood of the film. So, they just jump into to the main plot, which is about a young & little naive Canadian nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) accepting her job offer to take care of the wife of a plantation owner in the Caribbean islands. Later, as Betsy makes her trip on the boat, she ruminates on the calm sea, warm wind & on the effervescent sky. A voice cuts short her thoughts and states how putrescence & death hovers all over their surroundings. The voice, which belongs to Mr. Paul Holland (Tom Conway), the plantation owner, says “beauty of nature only serves to disguise death and decay”. May be Paul’s statement on beauty was really about his sick wife, whom Betsy had arrive to take care of. 

                                          As Betsy travels to Paul’s house, from the ship, in a coach, she chats up with a native man, who says how his ancestors’ were brought to the islands, chained to the bottom of slave boats. The happy-go-lucky Betsy comments “They brought you to a beautiful place, didn’t they?”. Her naive statement was equally dismaying as Paul’s earlier one in the boat. Both these conversations happen within the movie’s first five minutes. The rest of the film is about how these two people figuratively meet at a mid-way point, casting off their respective unbridled darkness and nonsensical blitheness. Of course there is a significant plot element involving Jessica (Christine Gordon), Paul’s wife, whose ailment had turned her into a zombie (not the flesh-eating Romero version; she is just deprived of liveliness). Jessica’s ailment is pertained as an indirect consequence for her affair with Paul’s acerbated half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison). Betsy as usual falls for Paul and vows to restore his wife’s health (as an act of love) by seeking all means, including the local belief, voodoo.

                                           Director Jacques Tourneur’s elegant use of light and shadows reminds us of the German expressionist cinema (“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, 1919). Most modern day directors insist on a perfect atmosphere to unfold the plot. Tourneur may not have had ample time to explore the distinct character traits, but he was one of the first Hollywood film-makers to use portray the thematic motifs through the deftly laid dark atmosphere. Unlike most of the Hollywood B-movies of the era, which included monsters, vampires or werewolves, Tourneur-Lewton’s works examined real-world fears – like the fear of unknown or some ancient ritual. So, the power of suggestion and the poetic sense of darkness bestow a great effect to the simple plot. One of the much talked about eerie sequence in “I Walked with a Zombie” was Jessica and Betsy’s walk through the sugarcane fields. Tourneur didn’t use any music for this sequence as we could only hear the wind rustling through the fields. Even the sudden, shocking appearance of the skeletal male figure seems to be a part of the mysterious atmosphere rather than jump-scare tactic.

                                           The character introductions are pretty much a stereotypical depiction, but the uncredited Lewton and Siodmak gradually stop these characters from becoming a caricature. There are enough dialogues to unmask a character’s naivety or their insincere attitude. There is no clear-cut protagonist or antagonist as every character (including Mrs. Rand) seems to have a lighter or darker side that opposes their external characteristics. There is also enough narrative ambiguity, especially towards the ending. Is Jessica’s ailment really a punishment of the ancient Gods? Did she face her fate as designed by the dancing voodoo priest or is it her lover’s decision to free her from pain and suffering? Such little obscure narrative elements are what make us to place ‘Zombie’ above other deplorable B-pictures of major Hollywood studios. Lewton & Tourneur must also be commended for their respectful portrayals of non-white characters (which is very rare in those times). The characters might condemn the locals’ rituals as archaic, but the narrative doesn’t pass a easy judgement and never shows the black-skinned people as the sole threatening force.  

                                        Despite its B-picture origins, “I Walked with a Zombie” (68 minutes) is a rare perceptive & atmospheric film of quiet horror. Modern horror audience may not find the film interesting, but it might provide an intriguing experience for a cinephile. 


Patrick Brice’s ‘Ax-Swinger’ & ‘Swinger’

                                            A majority of found-footage genre flicks are a trick that makes us watching the most tedious, uneventful affair. Found footage horror are the worst because a few jump scares and a person running with his camera into the woods pretty much makes up for the story-line. Of the camera crew-following, feature films mockumentary sub-genre because of its facetious or satirical nature. Another sub-genre that creates equal revulsion like found-footage movies is dramedies on romantic relationships. Both the mentioned sub-genres follow a predictable trajectory and the character motivations are easily judged. American independent film-maker Patrick Brice embarked into film-making career by making two features on these detested sub-genres. “Creep” (2014) is about a naive young man, Aaron (Patrick Brice) responding to a Craigslist ad from a creep named Josef (Mark Duplass), while “The Overnight” (2015) is an embarrassment sex comedy about a conservative couple (Adam Scott & Taylor Schilling), who had recently moved up to LA with their young kid, takes over an invitation of a over-the-top weird couple (Jason Schwartzmann & Judith Godreche).

                                       Despite the limitations of such sub-genres, Patrick Brice’s two films unsettle and somehow entertain us. The movies imbue certain familiar elements of the respective genres, but still go on to circumvent the audiences’ expectations. Most importantly, it tests on the viewers’ limitations. Be it the swinging prosthetic penis in “The Overnight” or the sick rape story in “Creep”, Brice takes us into unexpected, blistering territories and tests whether we could watch it in silence. Within this very limited framework, the writer/director creates an incredible amount of tension. I wouldn’t say that these films have set a benchmark for found-footage horror or sex dramedy, but it is an unpredictably entertaining experimental main-stream cinema.

                                   “Creep” and “The Overnight” belong to two opposing genres, but still there are many themes that the movies share. The dreadful feeling of inviting a stranger into one’s life is one of the recurring themes. Young people in both the films seem to be devoid of intuition. They don’t know where to set up the boundaries and how much one is allowed to reveal about themselves to a stranger. While Mark Duplass’ creep character Josef creates enough trust (especially with that cancer story), Jason Schwartzman’s wealthy hippie character Kurt, don’t have an ounce of reliability. Nevertheless, these primary characters confirm and detract from our expectations. The trust issue is raised every time the narrative changes its trajectory. Adam Scott’s Alex & Taylor Schilling’s Emily in “The Overnight” are often confronted with a question of ‘Do I trust these people?’ or ‘believe their words?’ Patrick Brice’s naive, trusting character Aaron in “Creep” in a way looks like a few years younger version of Adam’s equally naive Alex in “Overnight” (of course Aaron could have become like Alex if he had just looked back while sitting on the park bench).

                                       If you had read the plot of both the movies before watching it, then Schwartzmann’s ‘Kurt’ and Duplass’ ‘Josef’ seems to exhibit their intentions in the first time we see them. They seem like the guy who might just bring havoc on their counterparts – conservative young people. But, what’s good about these preordained characters is the way there is a layer of reliability attached to them. They are not caricatures who pursue their alleged intentions with a single-mind. Kurt and Josef open up to us and their counterparts (Alex, Emily & Aaron) to create a dependable quality. At point, we seem to proven totally wrong about these preconceived intentions. Viewers might think that they are trained to think in such a manner. But, then the narrative takes a twist and goes for the usual route and later some unconventional element is diffused. This kind of zig-zagging of character intentions might irk some viewers, raising questions of plausibility (regarding character decisions), but considering the movie’s limited running time and its genre, the plausibility issues aren’t a big bother.

                                     Loneliness and lack of worldliness is some other elements that seem to plague the characters of “Creep” and “The Overnight”. Alex & Emily put up with the increasingly weird antics of yuppie couple to eradicate loneliness and to attain the sense of belonging. Aaron is easily manipulated with little gestures to unworldly decisions. Aaron is the proverbial good guy like Alex and their respective fates are decided by the genre these characters are occupying. “Creep” and “The Overnight” is sprinkled with darkly comic moments, like dancing for children song with ‘peach-fuzz’ mask; or Alex & Emily’s reaction on watching the home-made breast pumping videos.

                                     Experienced actors in both the movies help immensely to elevate Brice’s material. The performances are mostly on-the-set improvisations by the actors, and so the responses and reactions of the characters don’t ring false. The oddball comic skill of Schwartzmann and Taylor Schilling’s perfect horrified reactions are the best in “Overnight”. Mark Duplass in “Creep” brazenly mixes the alpha-male jocularity with the deep-rooted psychosis. Writer/director Patrick Brice did a commendable job, in terms of narrative in “Overnight”, whereas his camera placements are the good thing about “Creep”. Unlike most of the found-footage flicks, Brice’s work offers enough justification on why the camera’s on or why the camera is turned off. As I said earlier, these movies aren’t without flaws. There might be plenty based upon the viewers’ POV, but one glaring flaw I thought was the characterization of Josef in “Creep”. It is good that this guys’ action are unpredictable, but Josef is oddly portrayed as both sociopath and psychopath. The epilogue shot in “Creep” also overly stretches the line of belief.

                                      Patrick Brice’s “Creep” (77 minutes) and “The Overnight” (79 minutes) creates enough tension and are amply laced with black humor to make it a worthwhile movie experience (please remember that these films hail from the most worn-out sub-genre in the whole of cinematic medium). 


Creep -- IMDb 

The Overnight -- IMDb 

Mr. Holmes – A Super Sleuth’s Rendezvous with the Confounding Human Emotions

                                               “Death, grieving, mourning, they are all commonplace. Logic is rare, and so…I dwell on logic” says a 93 year old Sherlock Holmes, with failing memory, to a young boy full of life in Bill Condon’s elegant character study “Mr. Holmes” (2015). Nevertheless, this film is about the celebrated detective coming to terms with those ‘commonplace’, humane feelings. Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective character is one of the most durable and easily adaptable characters in theatrical, cinematic & literary medium. More than dozens of actors have played Sherlock and contemporary authors keep on speculating on the detective’s later year adventures (“Beekeeper’s Apprentice” series by Laurie R. King). Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind” is one of those Sherlock spin-offs with a touch of melancholia. Mr. Holmes growing old isn’t entirely a fresh idea for now, but Cullin’s novel isn’t a detective story, unlike the voguish modern versions.

                                             “Mr. Holmes”, based on Cullin’s “A Slight Trick of Mind”, shrewdly performs the difficult task of touching upon the traditional motifs of the famous sleuth, while also travels inward to confront the puzzle-solver’s own emotions.  We all know that Conan Doyle’s super-sleuth is the epitome of rationality, but Bill Condon’s movie works its way to showcase how the man's coveted rationality fails or disables him to solve an enigma or a problem. The film starts with very old Holmes (Ian McKellen) arriving at his farmhouse, governed by a brusque housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her effervescent young boy, Roger (Milo Parker). The year is 1947 and Mr Holmes has returned from a tired journey to Japan, in search of ‘prickly ash’. For nearly three decades, Holmes has been a beekeeper and has written a monograph on “The Value of Royal Jelly”. Thanks to Sherlock’s lack of refinement, the farmhouse has seen a succession of exasperated housekeepers.

                                            The latest domestic help, Mrs. Munro isn’t also looking to stay long with the old detective. She already has an offer from hotel owners in Portsmouth. But, her son Roger, whose father was killed in the war, is intrigued by the deduction skills of Holmes and by the recollection of the detective's last case. Of course, the elderly sleuth couldn’t write the story, not just because he has written about his cases (the writings were all taken care of Mr.Watson and the doctor is blamed for having diffusing his own fictional ideas), but because Holmes couldn’t simply remember what happened (and he doesn’t want to leave the world with a ‘sense of completion’). ‘The Royal Jelly’, which is now replaced with ‘Prickly Ash’, is the means to kindle his memory, but the real inspiration comes from Roger. The boy’s innocence and marvelous energy pushes Holmes to journey inward. And, the 30 year old comes back in little pieces. Holmes’ last case, as explained in series of brief flashbacks, is about a young mysterious & melancholic wife Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan) and her alleged fixation on glass harmonica.

                                         As in the tradition of spin-offs, Jefrrey Hatcher’s adapted screenplay is filled with revised, cool details. The long gone Dr. Watson is said to have made fictions or created a legend on the detective’s exploits (who of course is itself a fictional character). 221B is portrayed as fake address (once again conceived by Watson) to keep off the general public. Holmes isn’t also as eccentric as his literary counterpart and he was never fixated on the deerstalker hat or the pipe. The script also enhances some of the familiar characteristics of Holmes to generate a bit more poignancy. Holmes loves or endures solitude; he doesn’t have time for nostalgia or grief; and uses people as they seem fit (Holmes’ famous misanthropic view). 

                                          “Mr. Holmes” weaves three different story elements -- rendezvous in Japan; friendly relationship with Roger; and the mystery of final case – to explore Holmes’ prickling conscience and how he comes to terms with it, by showcasing real emotions and by concocting a soothing, make-believe story. Of course, Holmes approaches each of the experiences with his trademark cynicism. Holmes’ especially sees Roger as a means to take care of his dying bees. But, gradually Holmes accumulates knowledge from the boy that replaces cynicism with hope and makes him understand grief and yearning. He not only learns about his base human emotions, but also learns to respect others’ grief & desire. There are few rough edges in the way director Bill Condon weaves these series of elements. The way Holmes attains the sense of completion may seem a little contrived, but these are all little blemishes in an otherwise well-made character study.

                                          A lot of viewers might be irked by the fact that “Mr. Holmes” is a character study with no chilling central mystery. As Holmes grasps inside his mind to solve the enigma of Ann, the viewer might be led to think there is indeed a complicated puzzle at the center. However, Ann’s elusive conversation with Holmes simply reiterates the fact that the film isn’t a procedural thriller. Ann’s story is about a woman who desperately wants her feelings to be understood.  Her husband Thomas places the blame for Ann’s grief on an eccentric outsider. Holmes approaches Ann with his usual style of rationality, thinking there might be other grave intentions for Ann’s deception. But, there’s no complex, bad intention involved. Ann thinks at least this ‘rational man’ could understand her. However, Holmes patronizing reply (“You have a husband who loves you. Go home to him”) only makes Ann to choose the already made-up decision. Holmes’ coming to terms with Ann’s fate enables him to understand that sometimes lies and genuine display of emotions (like grief which Holmes thinks as a weakness) could really save people from misery. He also learns how clear-cut rationality isn’t always a problem-solver.

                                        The bee vs wasp analogy doesn’t seem to be simple good vs evil struggle. The wipe-out of wasps more or less signals the banishment of Holmes’ unbridled cynical attitude. Or is it a confirmation of Holmes’ belief that ‘Queen, drone, workers’ hierarchy (of bees) is the perfect way of life than the anarchist, self-destructive behavior (of wasps). Whatever it is, it is a great sight to see Holmes in the end, a man who fully embraces the British way of life, to encompass a little of multiculturalism (as he does the stone-placing funeral ritual of the Japanese).  Director Bill Condon and veteran actor Ian MacKellen previously collaborated for the semi-fictitious last days of the director James Whale titled “Gods and Monsters” (1998). Condon has adapted the same understated, character driven nature of his previous collaboration with McKellen to “Mr Holmes”. There is nothing ostentatious about the direction, although at times the melodrama gives us a ‘made-for-TV’ feeling. McKellen’s performance takes in all the baggage of his characters’ solitude, offering up poignancy and mature wisdom.

                                        “Mr. Holmes” (105 minutes) lays bare the less explored sides of the much revered Conan Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes.  Those who seek a thrilling mystery must be forewarned, since this is a character study of a highly intellectual man disclosing the frailties of his mortal life.