Transsiberian [2008] – An Entertaining Railroad Thriller

                                                   Denial of truth and trust issues are the recurring themes in American film-maker Brad Anderson’s movies. His protagonists often have something to hide: a dark past or a life-changing secret. In “Happy Accidents” (2000), the central character reveals to his lover that he is a time traveler from the year 2470. In “Session 9” (2001), the protagonist’s homicidal paranoia uncovers a dark secret. In “Machinist” (2004), Christian Bale’s insomniac, factory worker character starts to question his own sanity and seeks the truth about the bizarre things happening to him. In the mediocre, ‘Shutter Island-wannabe’ thriller “Stoneheart Asylum” (2014), once again the plot hinges on the dark past of its maniac hero. Of course, Brad Anderson neither scales profound depths to impeccably realize his themes nor his characters arise out of the confined genre formulas, but his films do provide fine entertainment (Anderson’s “Vanishing on 7th Street” (2010) and “The Call” (2013) are archaic genre piece, which didn’t interest me).  And, Anderson always tries to put his psychologically perplexed protagonist through different genres. In his less talked about and twist-filled thriller, “Transsiberian” (2008), the director concocts a train odyssey which is loaded with Hitchcockian overtones.

                                             Except for the last twenty minutes, “Transsiberian” remains as a dynamic thriller about human weakness and strengths, set against a beautiful, refreshing as well as a stark backdrop. The film opens in Vladivostok, Russia, where narcotics division detective Grinko (Ben Kingsley) investigates a drug-related homicide. The drugs and money from the safe of a small time drug dealer seems to be missing. Then, we are introduced to American couple, Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jesse (Emily Mortimer), who are in Beijing for a church-based mission. Roy looks like a gregarious and unbelievably upbeat guy, whereas Jesse is more introverted and happier to watch people through her camera lens (she takes fine photographs). Their mission in Beijing is over and the priest gives a sendoff speech that goes “ours is not a gray world. Under the bright light of truth, it is a world of clear contrasts”. Jesse doesn’t seem to believe in this, which tells us that there might be some dark truths within, entrenched in her psyche.  

                                         Roy, the train enthusiast, wants to have grand adventure with his wife, riding in the Transsiberian Express on a six day trip – from Beijing to Moscow. Jesse is happy for him, although not as jubilant as Roy, who hoots at the arrival of every station. Nevertheless, Jesse’s interest picks up when a younger couple arrive to their cabin. Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) is a charismatic, smooth-talking Spaniard who immediately gains Jesse’s attention. His much younger partner Abby (Kate Mara) wears heavy eyeliner and gives a vacant stare which obviously hints at a darker past. As Roy goes on making friends or at least grins at everyone he meets on the train, Carlos’ blatantly inviting foibles, in a way, appeases the bad girl within Jesse. At one point, Jesse and Abby have a conversation about their past mistakes, and Jesse admits her dilemma about starting a family with Roy (who has rescued her from those mistakes). Apart from prodding Jesse, Carlos too has a secret in the form of Russian nesting dolls. Soon, Roy gets separated from Jesse, and our conflicted heroine travels more into the darkness. Detective Grinko and his shady partner Kolzak (Thomas Kretschmann) are trying to follow the activities of these four to fulfill their own secret purpose.

                                         The basic premise of “Transsiberian” is mounted on an age-old Hollywood cliche: if you are an American tourist traveling through economically bedraggled nations, trust nobody. And in thrillers like this, coincidences always wait around the corner to diffuse new twists. Director/writer Anderson (co-writer Will Conroy) doesn’t transcend these pitfall elements, but he has delivered enough tension and developed the characters well (up to a point) that we don’t concentrate much on this inherent banality. A lot of dialogues in the movie are well-written and perfectly forwards the characters’ thoughts.  Tennesse Williams’ “Kill of all my demons, and my angels might die, too” and Grinko’s wisdom “With lies, you may go ahead in the world, but you may never go back” are some of the lines worthy of quoting. The significant aspect of Anderson’s script is how he brings out the thriller elements through Jesse’s characterization rather than through false ciphers. The truth about Carlos is pretty evident when he shows Jesse those dolls (at least for me), but unlike most thrillers, the writer is rounding up the primary characters’ emotional arc rather than throwing in fresh twists. And, for the large part the twists are natural, which were all little wasted by the unnecessary Hollywood heroics in the film’s last twenty minutes.

                                         In a way, director Brad Anderson must have known that his basic story is a cliche. He may have jokingly addressed this towards the ending. As Roy is shoved by Grinko for interrogation, he snivels “but we’re Americans!” It is a chuckle-worthy moment, where the director seems to say that we are in for a happy ending, however the stark the situation is for the American couples. The well-constructed suspense and psychological dilemmas are eventually overthrown to show the American bravado through a bothersome train stunt. Emily Mortimer as Jesse flawlessly digs into her flawed, nesting doll-like character, but few of Jesse’s actions in the end (to provide that final twist) simply annoy the viewers.  Despite wearing the cloak of train-based thriller, it is evident that Anderson wanted “Transsiberian” to be a morality tale about the devastating consequences that follow a person, who fails to take responsibility for their actions. Still, Jesse hiding a vital truth from Roy and imparting a truth on Abby (Abby finding ‘things’ at that crumbling, snow-covered church is too much of a happy ending) makes us question the characters’ prevailing morals. The directorial skills of Anderson don’t have such flaws as he brings a crackling vibrancy to the proceedings. Mr. Anderson, who had made similar train journey in his younger years, has really down well in shooting at real locations. His framing of the geography and journey adds a lot to the threatening mood and mystery. 



                                          “Transsiberian” (112 minutes) is a slow-burning thriller that is well characterized and engrossing enough to make us look past the obvious cliches. If it had avoided that awkward hand-wringing in the climax, it would have been a more impressive thriller. 

Rebels of the Neon God [1992] – A Masterful Study of Spiritual Suffocation in the Urban Space

                                                  Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang has told the story of one man, Hsiao-Kang (always played to perfection by Lee Kang-sheng) in his ten feature films. Deteriorating urban settings is his recurring cinematic landscape, while his characters remain silent & dislocated and seemed to have been relegated to fringes of society or fallen through the cracks of it. Tsai’s works (or the so-called narrative) contemplates upon the same themes like urban isolation, failure to communicate and failure to realize sexual desires. Tsai’s visual staple often includes water: heavily pours in the form of rain or trickles, splashes and gurgles through filthy sewers and flooded floors. Few minutes into his movie, you can clearly understand that Tsai isn’t so intent on telling a story. He is so fascinated in showcasing his lonesome characters’ small life experiences and sensations that we are often left to watch the silent souls perform their routine activities like eating, smoking, bathing, gazing, etc. And all the episodically visualized, unique work started back with his feature-film debut “Rebels of the Neon God” (“Qing shao nian nuo zha”, 1992). ‘Rebels…..’ is Tsai’s easily accessible film because there’s a semblance of a narrative and lot of camera movements. It’s also my opinion that the auteur’s work can be perfectly savored by watching life of Hsiao-Kang in chronological order – starting with ‘Rebels……’ (however, it is not necessary since his works also operates as stand-alone features).  

                                                 New York Times Critic A.O. Scott stated that “Rebels of the Neon God marks the start of one of the modern cinema’s great careers”. He couldn’t have been more right. Tsai’s study of Taipei teenagers snaking through arcade games, roller skate rinks, night markets, seedy motels and tutorial centers works as an impeccable rebuttal statement to romanticized coming-of-age movies, where pop-culture influences are often evoked to pay homages. In the debut-feature, Tsai deconstructs the references of pop-culture with a remarkable clarity that all the youthful proclivities seem to be the end result of perpetual isolation in urban landscapes. Tsai’s vision, of course, isn’t limited to youth; he also explores the soul-sucking side of globalization; futile future plans of older generation and their emotional confusion; and the universal frustration of not getting acknowledged (this themes is very much relevant now, because don’t we sometimes become crazy over few ‘likes’ and ‘unanswered messages’?).  

                                               The film opens with an image that seems to tell a lot about arduous city life. A pair of youngsters gets into phone booth to escape from the torrential downpour. But these guys are not fleeing from the deluge of desolated life; they are also surviving by breaking into the payphone to get loose changes. The troubled youths are Ah-Tze (Chen Chao-jung) and Ah-Bing (Jen Chang-bin), who seems to have no other interest beyond committing petty crimes and playing arcade games. They also try to be iconic cool guy by riding in macho motorbikes. When we first see Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) he stabs a cockroach with his compass point and then throws it out of his window. Alas, the cockroach seems to have surfaced on the other side of his glass window pane. Now, he tries to swat the cockroach and hits it so hard that the glass pane breaks, injuring his arm. He goes to bathroom to wash off the blood from his hands and mother asks Hsiao-Kang “Do you have nothing better to do with yourself?” These simple sequences might seem insignificant, but it pretty much points out the characters’ nature and the path they are going to traverse through.

                                           Hsiao-Kang is a very silent student, enrolled for a course at a tutorial school and drives a small scooter. His working class parents (father, a taxi driver) are so bothered by their son’s minimal social skills and lack of ambition. Mother visits a local priestess, who has told that Hsiao-Kang might be reincarnation of legendary god Norcha (the god who had troubled relationship with his father). Ah-Tze lives in a bedraggled apartment with his older brother (whose face we never see), where he often tries to plug up the leaking drain. He masturbates to the sound of his brother having sex with a girl named Ah-kuei (Wang Yu-wen). Soon, Ah-kuei joins the thieiving duo in their nighttime journey through malls, restaurants and arcade. While riding in the taxi with his father, Hsiao-Kang sees Ah-tze and Ah-kuei on the cool motorbike. For the young tutorial-course-studying guy, Ah-tze seems to be the cool, independent guy with a girlfriend. Later, at a traffic signal, due to minor altercation Ah-tze vandalizes the taxi of Hsiao Kang’s father. Now, the silent boy decides to become vengeful god 'Norcha' and wreak havoc upon the motorbike dude. Of course, this simple pursuit is delicately realized through neo-realistic grit and artistic panache.

                                          Film-maker Tsai pays homage to Nicolas Ray’s classic teenager movie “Rebel without a Cause” (Hsiao-Kang looks at James Deen poster hanging at video arcade store), but “Rebels of Neon God” is something more than a genre piece. He subtly showcases the contrasts between two youths, although he isn’t so intent on making both his characters sympathetic. The motivation behind Hsiao-kang’s unnerving aggression is never clearly explained (does he feel jealous over Ah-kuei?) nor the shaky familial background or the socioeconomic condition of Ah-tze. As Tsai tells in an interview: “I am not passionate about ‘storytelling’. I approach movies more in the prosaic, poetic way”. And, there’s a lot of poetry and profound metaphors beneath what looks like a simple despair of youths. All of the standout moments in Tsai’s works are visual. A cigarette butt, beer can and a sandal float in the leaked drain, inside Ah-tze’s apartment’, and gradually the water recede, leaving those objects at the same space. I can’t exactly figure out the liquid metaphor here, but it appears to symbolize the daily lives of those three youngsters, filled with pop-culture excesses. Another excellent visual moment happens when Ah-tze kisses Ah-kuei in an unrefined manner at the sleazy motel sofa. On the TV next to them, a woman artfully embraces a man in a commercial, which acutely broods upon the contrast between romanticized and real images. If at times the film-makers’ characters tend to speak up their thoughts, it may be to realize (unusual) sexual thoughts (Ah-ping asks Ah-tze to seat Ak-kuei between them at the movie screening to ‘enjoy smelling her’) or pleasures. 

                                           The ‘no-cause’ journey of the movie’s rebels is a bit different from Nicolas Ray’s 1955 classic. Although the film’s title may refer to Hsiao-kang mother’s belief in the reincarnated mythological god ‘Norcha’, the titular god is evoked through the glowing images of neon light arcades. Tsai makes us observe the pious worship of these neon figures by youngsters in public spaces. Those spaces become everyone’s springboard to unload fantasy-driven violence. Gradually, the emptiness perpetuated by the Western Culture’s digitized objects becomes the central point. The fantasy violence of the games is mixed with ancient beliefs in Hsiao-kang’s quest for revenge. As always, the inspired real action or the unreal, button-pressing games, both never fills the void haunting them. Take the scene, when Hsiao-kang hoots and dances at his hotel bed in underwear after fulfilling his revenge. He eventually hits his head, falls on the bed and slowly the sullen look returns. Tsai consistently employs long shots to see nothing romantic about the actions of Hsiao-kang or Ah-tze. Film-makers often tend to see masculinity and violence through a romanticized lens or depict its aftermath on others. But, in Tsai’s works, small acts of violence and showcase of masculinity hollows out the perpetrator as much as the victim. This adamant approach to characterization and visuals may slightly veer Tsai’s films towards parody or pomposity, although there’s enough naturalistic context and thoughtful aesthetics to nullify such tiny imperfections. 



                                         “Rebels of the Neon God” (102 minutes) is a subtle, profound and distanced observation of urban alienation, broken love and youthful malaise. The delicacy with which the modern cinematic master Tsai Ming-liang mounts his visuals demands a patient and contemplative mindset from cinephiles. 

Trumbo [2015] – A Rousing Look at Hollywood’s Dark Past

                                                 On screen, Hollywood likes to showcase its heroes standing up against injustice, although the industry’s notorious off-screen injustices had rarely been a talking point. The story of Hollywood blacklist haven’t been addressed much in American cinema and if so, the dark period of McCarthyism is confined to the court-walls, where the footage of prominent celebrities being asked ‘Are you now or have ever been a …..?’ is shown. Jay Roach’s “Trumbo” (2015) offers a fine perspective on the alleged ‘Red Menace’ inside Hollywood. Even though the director Jay Roach had been known for films like “Meet the Parents” & “Austin Powers”, he is restrained and earnest in this particular portrayal of the mid 1940’s to early 1960’s Hollywood.

                                               After the surrender of fascist powers at the end of WW II, democratic America and communist Soviet Union whipped up the political climate by making it to be a contest for ideals. Immediately, the ideals that were were received or tolerated in the name of democracy became UN-American. The House of UN-American Activities Committee started their investigation on alleged dark clouds of communism and gained nation-wide attention by inquiring upon famous actors, screenwriters and film-makers. In “Trumbo”, a committee spokesperson declares “Movies are the most powerful influence ever created” and with such statements, the creative liberty of honest writers were scanned over invisible ‘red menace’. The public hearings involving the era’s greatest celebrities paved way to marvelous political theater, but the blacklisted writers and other film personalities went through decades of unemployment and banishment. Novelist and screen writer Dalton Trumbo (1905-76) is one of the significant and defiant screenwriters of that period, who despite all the agitation faced, never wavered from his belief in free speech.  

                                              The first time we see Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) on-screen he is sitting and thinking at his favorite place: a bathtub with a half-smoked cigarette. Once he gets an idea, he whirls into frenzy by clicking into the typewriter. In the early 1940’s Trumbo had been the most acclaimed and highest-paid screenwriter, who is always involved with Oscar-winning hit films. He was busy writing poetic dialogues for Edward G. Robinson’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) gangster pics and signing up contracts with MGM. Trumbo had been a member of the American communist party and with the brewing Cold War, he was instantly identified as Communist sympathizer. The alleged Red Terror in Hollywood is shown to be personified by columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and famous star John Wayne (David James Elliott). When Trumbo and his screenwriter buddies refuse to testify before the UN-American activities committee, they are blacklisted (known as ‘Hollywood 10’), their contracts nullified and eventually sent to prison.

                                           Trumbo’s family is composed of a loving and supportive wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and three kids – the strongest and challenging of them is the eldest Nikola (Elle Fanning). Upon his release, Trumbo starting using pseudonyms to crank out cheap scripts for King Brothers’ (John Goodman & Stephen Root) low-budget flicks. He also secretly sells his screenplays to studio writers, which are made to movies like “Roman Holiday” (1953) and “The Brave One” (1957) and even fetched screen-writing Oscars. Trumbo’s streak of egotism, desperate steps to stay afloat financially, combined with contradictory virtue of selflessness does temporarily break him up from wife and kids (fueled by booze & pills). However, his patient struggle to end the blacklist gets under limelight as Kirk Douglas (for Spartacus) and Otto Preminger (Exodus) promptly & publicly credits him for his amazing script writing talent.

                                         Bryan Cranston’s elegant and witty performance as Trumbo serves as the anchor point for narrative, which was otherwise riddled with biopic bromides. The actor finely brings out the inherent contradiction to Trumbo’s nature: lectures like a radical and lives like an autocrat; an elitist writing for the masses. But, Cranston never makes this conflicting force of Trumbo to make him a cynical figure. He adopts the screenwriter’s rough, deep manner of speech, although it never becomes a mere impersonation. From the performances perspective, apart from Cranston, “Trumbo” offers a whole lot of scene-stealing presences. Part of the delight in those performances is seeing actors playing well-known personalities like John Wayne, Robinson, Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas. Some of the actors playing such renowned persons don’t look like them, but there are reasonable facsimiles to make it feel authentic. The best of all famous personality cameos belongs to Christian Berkel’s overbearing Preminger (and let’s also not forget the baseball bat bashing sequence of Goodman).

                                            Director Roach had done well with the evocation of vintage Hollywood and mixes quite a few old news reels (featuring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, etc) to a good effect. But, both Roach and screenwriter John McNamara is often caught between the efforts to broaden their canvas and detailing the events of Trumbo’s life. So, the occasional phony biopic elements are pushed up to concentrate on the central character, while losing its focus on other significant players. When Arlen Hird (a composite character of many real-life screenwriters, played by Louis C.K.) asks Trumbo, “Do you have to say everything like its going to be chiseled in rock?”, we are hinted at how writers are so invested in their cause that they neglect a lot of things around them. However, neither Arlen Hird nor his contemplative question is never profoundly dealt with. Instead, we get a typical familial tribulation which is resolved with a simple, sentimental sequence.  Despite such little bumpy turns, the heart of “Trumbo” is at the right place and so we get a potent sense of how heroic the screenwriters really were in those oppressive times (the final inspirational speech diffuses a poignant feeling). And, for those who learn or approach historical moments through cinema, “Trumbo” perfectly entertains as well as enlightens. 



                                         Despite stumbling into moments of didacticism, “Trumbo” (124 minutes) remains as the compelling and lively account of Hollywood’s blacklist era. The mixture of heroism, idealism and self-obsession Cranston brings to his titular character is a reason enough to watch the film. 

Smoke [1995] – An Amiable & Quirky Character-Based Movie

                                             Aren’t our lives like smoke that dissipates, leaving bittersweet aftertaste on the memories of those we love/loved or got acquainted with?  In that way, great movies could also be compared with smoke, leaving traces of pleasure to savor for all our lives. Similarly, Wayne Wang’s “Smoke” (1995) posesses the unhurried pace of a good life and uses the hook of a narrative to ponder over the mysteries of human condition, which subsequently leaves a strange and fascinating after taste in our mind & heart.  “You’ll never get it if you don’t slow down, friend” says a central character in the film and that pretty much comes off like a warning to those expecting a hastened drama with nicely dressed-up resolutions. “Smoke” is an episodic, contemplative and amazingly vibrant movie about strange coincidences and inexplicable changes.

                                           Written by novelist Paul Auster and set in the early 90’s Brooklyn, the film follows a formula used in Robert Altman’s “Shortcuts” (1993). However, the tangible emotions injected into the script by deft direction and an excellent ensemble doesn’t make it a derivation. The inherent gentle nature of the film also brings to our mind the movies of masterful film-makers Yasujiro Ozu & Wim Wenders. In “Smoke”, the central place that brings together the seemingly random characters is a cigar store, situated at a corner of the Brooklyn neighborhood, managed for 14 years by Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel). Auggie is natural born story teller and loves to converse with his customers, while selling them quality cigars. Paul Benjamin (William Hurt) works as a storyteller. He is a novelist, whose life is filled with despair after the death of his beloved wife in a random shoot-out. In an earlier sequence, Auggie shows his good, friendly customer Paul his life’s work: a massive collection of photographs neatly stacked in albums, and all are taken outside his shop at the same time (8:00 am), every day for the past 14 years.

                                         Paul hurries through the album, saying ‘it’s all the same’. Auggie replies that aforementioned, beautiful line “You’ll never get it, if you don’t slow down”. Now, Paul slows down and sees his dead wife, walking to work, in one of the photographs. He cries over and something is changed within him in that little moment and strange meeting. Paul is also saved from a traffic accident by a 17 year old drifter Thomas aka Rashid Cole (Harold Perrineau). He offers the young man a lemonade and that if Rashid wants, he can stay at his place for a day or two. Rashid is one the quest to track down his father, Cyrus Cole (Forest Whitaker), who was long presumed to be dead. He finds his father running a run-down garage and asks for work. When Cyrus asks for Rashid’s name, he says ‘Paul Benjamin’. One day, out of the blue, Auggie’s ex-girlfriend (Stockard Channing) meets him at the shop to seek his help to save her drug-addict daughter (Ashley Judd), who may be Auggie’s daughter too. Describing the character nature or lives of these people with words, may not make us to forge an emotional bond with them, but the adorable low-key performances along with a humanistic script really offers a touching experience.

                                         Much of the dramatic events in the characters’ life happens off-screen or seems to have happened in the past, and so there’s no plot to speak of. Like when Paul slows down and appreciates Auggie’s collections for what it is, we would accept the movie’s beauty by not searching for narrative trajectory. Of course, not all of the situations or characters keep on giving us the resplendent feeling. There are quite a few contrived, melodramatic or idling sequences, but for the most part of running time, the events aren’t forced or remain totally unnatural. Director Wayne Wang and Paul Auster had worked in harmony to bring out their unified vision in realizing each of the simple sequences. If the excellent cast brings the extraordinary emotional catharsis in the many occasions, it is Wang and Auster, who makes us to genuinely feel for characters and to relate with their pains & dilemmas.

                                         Two stories serve as bookend in “Smoke’s” narrative. The one at the opening is told by Paul to Auggie about a  English man, who had tried to weigh the smoke from a cigarette; and the story at end is told by Auggie to Paul, which is a Christmas story involving a thief, a old blind grandmother, a missing wallet and a stolen camera. And, if the first is about elusive nature of life and the things we miss in life (but can’t say what it is), then the last one (delivered in a brilliant monologue by Keitel) is about mysteries of chance meeting or the necessary lies we tell ourselves to make something out of life. Whatever, these two stories are about it celebrates the power of storytelling. In some manner, the stories told by the characters might be neat concoction of lies, but still they reveal some deeper truths about the human condition. Paul Auster’s script ruminates on how our past experiences and thoughts like smoke becomes immaterial wisps, floating around us. It also talks about the impermanent nature of human lives. Auggie’s camera is fixed at a place and captures people day-to-day. It may seem nothing on a outward glance, but a closer look reveals a lot. The photographs become a witness of life moving by before our very own eyes. Eventually, “Smoke” is about celebrating the little moments and small coincidences, which may bring out huge changes in our lives.


                                         “Smoke” (108 minutes) is a subtle and finely textured study of a community and its people. It emphasizes on the significance of story telling and the strength of being connected with fellow human beings. 

The Shrinking World and Ever-Expanding ‘Rooms’

Spoilers ahead……….

                                                  Irish Canadian author Emma Donoghue’s novel “Room” is about a five year old boy with the name Jack, being held captive with his mother in a small room, a 10’* 10’ garden shed. Donoghue got the idea for ‘Room’ from the ‘Fritzl’ case in Austria. A man named ‘Josef Fritzl’ was discovered to have kept his daughter in his house’ cellar for nearly 24 years. However, the writer’s intention was not to showcase the vivid details of the case or to deal with aspects of sexual abuse. She rather unfolds the story from a 5 five year old boy's view. And gradually within the hostage story, we find universal themes of motherly love and the power of relationship between a mother and her child. The novel wasn’t also about how they escape from captivity; it takes further steps to show how they take on freedom that more or less confines them to fresh rooms. 

                                                 It is very tricky to adapt a novel that was entirely narrated in first person perspective, to a film. In the book, despite Jack’s innocent narrative we get a glimpse of 'ma' to grasp that everything isn’t as great as Jack says. But, still Ma is kept at a distance, which isn’t possible in a movie. Voice-overs could be done for the 5 year old boy, although Ma has got be in all the frames. She can’t be sketch of Jack’s viewpoint. Within the frames, the ‘room’ belongs to Ma as much it belongs to Jack. In writing the script for the movie, Donoghue perfectly understands this and along with excellent direction and editing, the world or the ‘room’ is organically realized without literalizing everything. Since camera is the default point-of-view for characters, we often see Jack overhearing conversations and glimpsing through slats in the closet, etc. It is a perspective that is an obvious cliche in movies, but director Lenny Abrahamson gets more subtle with his approach in the second part of ‘Room’, when Jack sees world from a vantage point. 

                                                  Donoghue wisely keeps the genuine childlike, filtered POV voice-overs to mark significant occasions, especially to show the horrors and pains experienced by ‘Ma’. Donoghue, the scriptwriter, must also be commended for not shifting the perspective to Joy; or for not trying to achieve an emotional arc for Jack. Opting for either of these elements would have made the film more sappy and saccharine. The editing in the ‘room’ sequences is impeccable. If we closely observe, we could see how Jack doesn’t get weary when days transform to night or vice-versa because his whole word is the room (and kids bounce back easily), whereas new days and nights wears upon ma, since she don’t know how much she could take. So, these little film-making tricks along with stupendous central performances (especially by Jacob Tremblay) doesn’t spoil the movie experience of those who read the novel and it may have imbued a great experience for those seeing it for the first time. 

                                                Obviously, there are quiet a few problems in the movie. It is easy to predict the outcome of mother and son’s plight in both the book & movie. But, since we shared more of Jack’s private world in the book, we can perfectly understand his initial dilemmas and subsequent anxieties. And, although the situation would only end in one way, Donoghue wringed enough tension out of the escape plan. Abrahamson’s “Room” somehow missed to built that tension (however, it is understandable). And, yes many incidents are left out here and there in the movie, which on the whole doesn’t damage the novel’s soul (in the book, I immensely liked the endearing Jack’s trip to the mall). If you had loved a story in its novel form, then it would be little hard for a movie adaptation to satisfy you (“Life of Pi” and “The Martian” are few of the recent movies that didn’t work for me as much as the novels). But “Room”, the movie, excels in three aspects: in not sensationalizing or wallowing in the misery of its characters; in contemplating the banality of a huge world alongside the complexity of a little room; and for being a universal (may be not-so-subtle) tale about parenting.

                                              For most of us, the world is a big room whose scope is getting shrinked with new innovations and technologies, and yet we all have/had these rooms which mean the world to us. For Jack, the world is room and room is the world. Ma uses TV as a linguistic coach; teaches him reading and writing (in the book, there is said to be five children books in the ‘room’); and exercises to prepare him for a day he will enter the outer world for real. But, in caring for the child within the limited world, she has lied/saved him the cruel truth of the world/room. All of our parents and we, to our children have/will tell things that in turn creates our vision of a world. And, at gradual stages, they/we re-explain the so-called ‘truths’ to fit into our current world vision or condition. “Room” takes that basic experience of parenting to create mother/son relationship entrenched in a dispirited world/room, which for Jack isn’t that bad at all. Towards the end of the film, during a little conversation with his grandma about ‘room’, Jack says “sometimes, I miss it”, for which Grandma asks ‘wasn’t it awfully small?’ Jack replies “It went every direction, all the way to the end. It never finished. And ‘ma’ was always there” These are one of the most genuine and beautiful words in the film, which implies our general desire to be in an enclosed place with our loved ones – the little place which becomes our perfect shared universe. The sense of expansion and love, the ‘room’ diffused on Jack is something he misses in the real, yet enclosed world (and, this only irks Joy aka ‘Ma’ because all she wants to do is forget is that room/world). Alas, we all must break free from our little universes/space (however good it is) to search for fresh experiences. Jack gets that truth in the end. With a sense of optimism and ‘Joy’, he says ‘goodbye’ to the objects in previous world/room (which now looks ‘shrinked’ for him), and like all of us, he might traverse through little world/rooms to live what’s called as real life.

                                                  Movies and literature generally tend to infuse copious amount of sentimentality in designing the parent-child relationship. Donoghue script as well as the book isn’t totally free of sentimentality, but it never be accused of being banal. The asymmetric nature of parent-child bond is finely etched out in both the forms. Ma is always worrying for Jack in the ‘room’ and that feeling isn’t reciprocated by Jack. As a child, we might have known or understood our parents, but we learn to love them as time stretches. The sense of love Jack shows in the ‘room’ (which arises from dependency too) and outside the ‘room’ essentially differs. In the outside, the symbiotic relationship between the two takes up a more emotional perspective, because in that world ‘Ma’ needs ‘Jack’ more than ever. The non-cutesy portrayal of Jacob Tremblay’s Jack is luminous source for keeping away ‘Ma’ from sinking into despair. And, vitally all these gleaming and contemplative elements in the film wouldn’t have had much of an impact if not for the acute direction, which apart from showing few tightening of a lip or stricken side-way glances, never tries to manipulate our emotions.

                                                  “Room” (2015) celebrates our amazing capacity to take care of each other. With love and hope we can create a world out of a small room. And, ‘love’ is definitely worth surviving for. 

Blind [2014] – An Oddly Beautiful and Optimistic Film

                                               Norwegian scriptwriter Eskil Vogt’s directorial debut “Blind” (2014) explores the tragedy and panic induced by sudden blindness. Yeah, the description might make you evaluate this film as a melodramatic tale of affliction. No, it’s not that kind of movie. Of course, the characters within the movie's frames are afflicted, but the mechanics of storytelling and aesthetic sense are constructed in a way that never gives us a feeling of watching a melodrama. How do you represent blindness through cinematic means? How can one ever learn about inner lives and imaginations of a person who had lost their vision? The film-makers could obviously open or cut with black screen to indicate the character’s blindness and then fill the black frames with sounds & voices, which is how the common cinematic language to exhibit loss of vision works. But, why should a film-maker, while taking up a subjective approach to portray visual impairment on screen, takes away that particular person’s visual imaginations and fantasy? “Blind” is all about feeling & witnessing the mental image of a woman who had recently lost her eyesight.

                                            On one hand, it respectfully deals with the subject of blindness, while on the other hand, it works as an exploration of our loneliness and inner fantasies (which could be cruel and dirty as well). The movie opens with Ingrid (Ellen Dorrit Petersen), a woman in her thirties, narrating to us the daily challenges and fears she faces due to her affliction. When Ingrid’s husband Morten (Henrik Rafaelsen) leaves to work, she retreats to a window in her nondescript, sparsely furnished Oslo apartment. She listens to music, sips tea and waits till her husband arrives back from work. During those long periods, Ingrid only has her thoughts to entertain. In the opening frames, Ingrid tells us that she has to keep her imagination and memory fresh by visualizing peoples, places and little details (“It’s not important what’s real if I can visualize it clearly” says Ingrid). It is a harmless exercise to keep away the boredom, since Ingrid doesn’t seem to have no intention to go out. She keeps on thinking that her husband often sneaks inside from work to watch her sitting near the window. And, just like that her imaginations run wild.

                                          The story cuts to life of Einar (Marius Kolbenstvedt), narrated by Ingrid, a lonely porn-obsessed guy. He follows beautiful woman with long hairs. There is a sense of empathy in the way Einar’s life is narrated so that he can’t be labeled as ‘creep’. Einar is fascinated by his neighbor Elin (Vera Vitali), a pretty single mother. Elin’s plight is also explained by the narrator, who seem to be as lonely and frustrated as Einar and Ingrid. Soon, Ingrid’s mounting anxiety about depending on her husband reaches a threshold point, which appears to reshape the autonomous lives of Einar and Elin. The premise at first might look like a typical non-linear story, although “Blind” more or less goes through Charlie Kaufman or Michael Gondry territory.

                                         Director Eskil Vogt had previously dealt with the subject of urban loneliness in his script for Joachim Trier’s excellent drug-addiction drama “Oslo, August 31”. With “Blind” he takes on theme of solitude further by accommodating an irrepressible condition like blindness. But, unlike ‘Oslo’, the characters and their actions in ‘Blind’ don’t move in a strictly scripted environment. Director/writer Vogt relies more on fantasies and wild imaginations in this film to explore the subconscious of his central subject. On the outset, this is a simple tale of a woman’s personal journey, facing the inner demons and accepting the disability. But, the way Vogt delves into deepest desires & pains of Ingrid with mischievous manipulation and meta-approach keeps us captivating till the end. Vogt brings out a marvelous tone of claustrophobia, which is bit hard to shake off. The director employs beautiful close-ups to capture Ingrid’s reaction and to create a unique subjectivity. Instead of making the woman living in darkness, Vogt constantly shows us her mental image and how she is constantly imagining her surroundings. The intricacy the film-maker brings with his visuals and characterization could better be explained with few spoilers.

Spoilers Ahead

                                          Two contradictory fears afflict Ingrid’s persona: the fear of being alone without a husband or a family; and the fear of bearing responsibility for a child. And, as she forms the fictional spirit of Elin, she sends both these fears into the character in equal measures. Elin is socially awkward (uses bad combinations of dress and make-ups), suffers humiliations by men and is left alone. The current childlessness factor makes Ingrid to oscillate between choosing a boy and a girl (Kim) for Elin. Ingrid also transforms Elin to be the woman who is secretly dating her husband Morten. And, at that point, she inflicts cruel things on Elin: making her blind; one-night stand turns into pregnancy; her privacy is compromised by a loud text-message reader. The same morbid thought of fumbling for connection is dealt with Ingrid’s imaginary Einar. ‘Will I ever be able to touch a person? Would the isolation bring my life to a halt?’ – These are the questions that haunt Ingrid in forming Einar, but the significant aspect of this character is infusing the sexual thoughts (including dirty fetishism). And, it is actually rare to see a woman on-screen, realizing her sexual thoughts.

                                        Despite the thought that has gone into the characterization of these three central personalities, two aspects make it a perfectly realized movie: the robust emotional foundation; and the inventive visual cues that blur the line between reality and imagination (the film warrants a second time viewing just for these visuals). There’s humor in the way coffee shop mysteriously turns into a bus and vice-versa. However, these visual elements don’t become distracting and moreover provides some excellent tranquil & ponderous moments. In the scene, when Ingrid wants to arouse her husband in bed, she imagines him, eagerly waiting and smiling at her. But, in reality he is just checking his mails in the lap-top, ignorant of those smiles. It is one of the film’s heartbreaking scenes that show how Ingrid’s mental images often mis-matches with reality. Later, when she says in a pleading tone to her husband, “When I smile at you, I don’t know that you see it”, we can’t stop from thinking about how Mr. Vogt have intelligently brought us into the interior life of visually impaired woman.

                                      Yet, “Blind” isn’t only about the state of blindness. It works as a scrutiny on human perceptions, on our loneliness, on how weird, dirty things boil inside us, on how our online culture diffuses lot of things to see, but only little to feel. It could also be about our relentless pursuit to search for some solace that isn’t really there. Within its nesting-doll narrative, the film reflects on how self-acceptance is more vital than self-pity. The situations exhibited here might be so unique, but some of the fears Ingrid faces are startlingly universal. All the performances don’t disappoint us even in the slightest moments. As Ingrid, Petersen flawlessly brings out wicked sense of humor and genuine anxiety.

                                       “Blind” (95 minutes) offers an impactful and empathetic visual presentation to explore the inner world of a woman who can no longer see. The questions and the emotions the film lays out are absolutely universal.