Tyrannosaur [2011] – The Ravaged Souls’ Path to Redemption

                                          British actor Paddy Considine’s assured directorial debut “Tyrannosaur” (2011) isn’t about a carnivorous dinosaur, stomping people and swallowing them in one gulp. It is about humans possessed by uncontrolled rage, stomping the love within themselves and others in closer vicinity. The movie opens with its middle-aged, beaten-down, working-class British protagonist Joseph (Peter Mullan), coming out of the bookie’s office with a visible rage. His wife is dead, friends are dying and except for the dog Bluey, there’s no one left for him. And, so Joseph incurs his burning wrath on the faithful companion. He kicks it hardly and with a whimper, Bluey goes down. It is a brutal start, where the director signals us about the ‘Tryannosaur’ within the protagonist and that he is not an easy man to like.

                                        On a side note, I’d like to say that the brutal killing of dogs, in movies enrages more people than the murder of a man in the opening shot. In the later circumstance, we would patiently wait for the film-maker to realize the circumstances behind it, whereas in the former one, we would immediately pass a judgment on the on-screen personality. So, it’s a brave attempt for a first time film-maker to visualize a dog-killing scene. Of course, the matter-of-fact staging seems a tad sensational, but the director doesn’t use violence as an attractive side-show. Considine, in fact, moves quickly to organically invest considerable humanity to the protagonist. “Tyrannosaur” is not only a character study about a damaged individual, but also an exploration of dilapidated existence, where violence cuts across class boundaries. An environment of punishment and humiliation steering the people to explode with misdirected rage. Joseph’s friendly kid neighbor Samuel is a victim of domestic abuse on the hands of his mum’s boyfriend. The despicable boyfriend has a pit-bull, mostly chained to his wrist. Samuel and the pit-bull are innocent beings, waiting to face the brunt of a ‘tyrannosaur’s’ rage.

                                       A chance encounter makes Joseph to meet a local charity shop worker Hannah (Olivia Colman). For Joseph, the middle-aged housewife with her ‘do-good’ sermons represents financially stable suburban dwellers, diffusing spiritual assurances like handouts. As expected, Hannah’s mention of God and charity kicks off the anger. To Hannah’s “You’re a child of God”; Joseph replies “God ain’t my fucking daddy. My daddy was a cunt, but he knew he was a cunt. God still thinks he’s God. Nobody’s told him otherwise”. The lines tell us about the domestic abuses Joseph might have faced and the rage passed on by his daddy.Nevertheless, our protagonist is also plagued by regret (for not showing enough love to his dead wife), which may be important feeling to his path for redemption. Joseph is also very wrong in his judgment about Hannah. She, the embodiment of love, has a ‘tyrannosaur’ at home, in the form of abusive husband (Eddie Marsan). He does unspeakable acts in the night, while inebriated and later, kneels like a lap dog, alleging “I’m sorry. It’s not the real me”. The apologetic Joseph does return to Hannah’s shop and despite their ostensible differences, a friendly connection is bridged, although the omnipresent menace shapes their fate. 

                                        Paddy Considine, the actor best known for his lead roles in Shane Meadows' “Dead Man’s Shoes” and Jim Sheridan’s “In America”, has developed the story line of his 2007 short film “Dog Altogether”. As a director/writer, Considine takes a fine position in not showing too much of the violence on-screen. The implication of violence, in fact, distresses us more than the full frontal visual assault (however, the clear-cut showcase of horror at the end was little unbearable for me). Considine also remains sharp in setting the film’s mood right from the opening. Blunt force trauma faced by the characters is impeccably conveyed to us without ever resorting to cheap melodrama. The film-maker infuses enough empathy to understand Joseph and Hannah, but at the same he isn’t providing excuses for their behavior. When Joseph reveals the film’s strange title, relating the story of his wife, he’s honest about himself: “I thought it was funny. I was being a cunt”. And, although the source for Joseph’s rage is never clearly defined, that particular scene hints at the guilt over his treatment of wife, which may have subsequently kindled the self-hate (or else, it just could have come from abusive upbringing as Joseph kind of sees himself in kid neighbor Samuel). Special mention must go to the dialogues, especially the conversation between two central characters, devised with emotional closeness.

                                   “Tyrannosaur” isn’t without its flaws. One thing I felt the movie could have done better is in achieving the emotional complexity. The tentative friendship between Hannah and Joseph is handled with great restraint. Their amicability is characterized empathy and understanding rather than hints of romance. To achieve this amicability, Considine particularly uses the sequence, where the central characters go to a funeral. Later in the pub, music flows and in an intoxicated mode, Joseph and Hannah witness some joy or a feeling of togetherness. But, then that mutual feeling couldn’t be tangibly felt as much as the initial trauma and rage. The use of montage to exhibit the happiness doesn’t work in realizing the elation or the change. In few other moments, like in the ending sequences, to strive for emotional complexity, the director rushes through the narrative. The theme of redemption comes clearly through the ending, but what misses is the organic flow, prevalent in the earlier ones. Nevertheless, those flaws are overcome to an extent by the first-rate performances of Peter Mullan and Olivia Colman. Mullan powerfully conveys the ominous mood that always threatens to overturn his emotional balance. Colman, whose works often restricted to comedy, shines as fragile woman pushed to the brink. Her collapses and retreats are heart-wrenching to watch.


                                    “Tyrannosaur” (92 minutes) is a harrowing as well as a humanistic study about unrestrained anger and its damaging consequences. Its portrayal of violence may be difficult to stomach for few viewers, but it is worth watching for robust performances and searing honesty. 

Sweet Smell of Success [1957] – A Venomous Demi-God and a Tattered Soul

                                               The US Supreme Court’s decision on 1948 Anti-Trust case is one of the pivotal moments in American cinema that marked the beginning of the end for the prodigious Hollywood studio system. The verdict declared on 1948 found seven big studios of violating anti-trust law and this subsequently gave breathing space for independent producers to fairly compete with movies made from major studios (before the verdict the studios had total control over movie distribution and in blocking theaters). And, the witch hunt unfurled by House for Un-American Activities (HUAC) along with Hollywood blacklist stirred the independent film-makers to shed light on the taboo and dark subjects. Film historians’ note that the blistering satires, made in the late 1950’s, infused with thematic preoccupations of film noir, wouldn’t have been possible in the studio system. Alexander Mackendrick’s unrelentingly dark classic “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957) is one such acerbic examination of power, overweening ambition and the American Dream. The film has two of the best characters in the history of American cinema – JJ Hunsecker and Sidney Falco.

                                          “Sweet Smell of Success” is about a doomed man hopelessly trying to evade the monsters that lurks in the dingy corners. And, yes that narrative structure very much lands the film in noir territory, although the noir mode in “Sweet Smell of Success” is more caustic and cynical. The movie has no heroes/anti-heroes or femme fatales, for whom we root for, despite their damned status. It never masks its evil face, which is all about the dynamic, complex relationship between a manipulative egomaniac and a despicable sycophant. The narrative is clear-cut about its primary characters’ ambitions and there are no syrupy last minute redemption. There’s a Lars Von Trier quote that goes “There are more images in evil. Evil is based far more on the visual, whereas good has no good image at all”. It somehow rings true, especially while looking at the towering performances provided by Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis as the central dark figures. There are few emblems of innocence in the film, who are either relegated to supporting characters or less dynamic and uninteresting. 

                                        The plot is very simple, but the God (or devil) is in the details. A smarmy press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) makes a living by getting his small time clients into the columns penned by hideously famous JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). But, lately Hunsecker is ignoring Sidney’s clients in the column, since Sidney haven’t done what’s asked: to break-up the relationship between Hunsecker’s caged Sister Susie (Susan Harrison) and a righteous jazz musician Steve (Martin Milner). Until it is done, JJ has decided to turn Falco’s life into a living hell. The narrative tracks how these two mean individuals use their charmful venom to separate the lovers. To better understand the character nature of JJ Hunsecker, one has to comprehend a time in newspaper history, where few columnists and their opinions single-handedly molded the public opinion. Even within the unrestrained freedom given by today’s social media, we can witness few opinioniative individuals, conjuring baseless rumors to smear people they hate. Nevertheless, the power wielded by the likes of Hunsecker is colossal because they could reach between 6 million and 60 million readers, and could use that power to either make a man or bury him.

                                     JJ Hunsecker’s character was based on the real-life feared columnist Walter Winchell (similar to the way William Randolph Hearst influenced the character in “Citizen Kane”). A little slur in one of Winchell’s columns is said to have brought career suicides to many.  Winchell was a staunch supporter of Senator Joe McCarthy and safely kept his list of enemies. The man could call in favors from Edgar Hoover (first director of FBI) as well as from the underworld. “Sweet Smell of Success”, written by Clifford Odets (based on Ernest Lehman’s novelette – Lehman worked as press agent before turning into a screenwriter) distinctly sets up the complex relationship between Hunsecker and members of law and government. In the opening shots of “Sweet Smell of Success”, we see a delivery van cruising through neon-lit Broadway streets of New York and dumping the late night newspapers on the side walk of Times Square. It is a definitive opening that quickly moves on to showcase the alluring world of Manhattan at night and subsequently the comments on all-powerful nature of column writing pugilist JJ. Through Sidney’s fears, the stature of JJ is hyped up. Then, comes the impactful full-scale close up shot of JJ and the conversation that ensues makes all the hype worthful.

                                  “Sweet Smell of Success” possesses overwhelming lines of quotable dialogues and punch lines. Some may question the realism behind JJ spewing out punchlines at every moment & turn, but I felt the movie is all about the 'hype' and big, empty words. It is the element that drives news selling capability and one that keeps JJ smarter and quicker in forming opinions. In the diner scene that introduces JJ Hunsecker to viewers, the devilish punchlines builds up to an intense, threshold point that the senator sitting opposite to JJ says “Why is it everything you say sounds like a threat?” That entire sequence wonderfully sets up the character of Burt Lancaster, who despite his claims of friendship remains starkly unattached (may favorite lines in that conversation: “Match Me, Sidney”; “Everyone knows about Mr. Manny Davis, except Mrs. Manny”; “You’re dead son, bury yourself”). Later, in the Manhattan foot path, JJ inhales the petrol fumes and looks at the glitzy streets, clearly articulating “I love this dirty town” with a good insistence on the word ‘dirty’. The Manhattan mise en scene (composed of dive bars, backstage and jazz joints) plus the passive-aggressive assaults of JJ exhibits the idea of success in the city, which has twisted the meaning of loyalty and truth.

                                    The world occupied by Sidney and Hunsecker is full of fake virtues that the sweet talks are often juxtaposed with hissing threats. It shows how the insidiously powerful affects the moral scruples of their subordinates. Tony Curtis’ Sidney is somehow nagged by his conscience, but since he is stuck outside the power circle of JJ, he feels that only by becoming a victimizer one can embark into that circle. What’s disturbing about Sidney’s behavior is how much he believes in JJ’s cockeyed methodologies to attain economic stability plus the noble element of democracy – freedom of expression. The bustling aesthetic sense construed by director Alexander Mackendrick and masterful cinematographer James Wong Howe paints the night life in Manhattan with brash strokes (there’s lot of marvelous tracking shots), mixing up the beaming lights, noisy vehicle horns and jam-packed street corners. The static, interior shots perfectly pins the characters while they lambast at each other with words. The quiet intense performance of Burt Lancaster is the perfect example for actors or cinephiles interested in learning about ‘subtle menace’. Tony Curtis (often banished to do ‘pretty boy’ roles) flawlessly conveys the brutal energy of Falco, always remaining on the edge for every gossip or for a little ounce of hope.  


                                   “Sweet Smell of Success” (96 minutes) is a timeless classic that deals with labyrinthine ethical choices faced by people, who are guided by fear, greed and unbridled ambition. The immaculate sheen and the poisonous words of JJ Hunsecker would ring like a siren in our mind, long after the narrative fades to black. 

Anomalisa [2015] – The Insurmountable Anguish known as ‘Existence’


Spoilers Ahead…………..

                                          To perfectly describe Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s wistful, refreshing, existential stop-motion feature “Anomalisa” (2015), I have to borrow Mr. Kaufman’s words itself: “Sometimes there’s no lesson. That’s a lesson in itself”. Yeah, the movie is all about experiencing, just like life, where every now and then, we either witness something fascinating or just move through, contemplating on the humdrum of existence. In “Anomalisa”, we meet a unhappy central character Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a middle-aged customer service motivator, whose book “How May I Help You Help Them?” has generated lot of fans and also improved the rating of firms. His life has become so mundane and everyone he encounters has the same face and talks in the same monotonous voice (google ‘Fregoli Delusion’). Michael is en-route to Cincinnati, for a day to attend a conference as customer services expert.

                                          He stays at a posh hotel named ‘Fregoli’, calls his 'cold' wife in LA, who seems as disenchanted with life as Micheal is. He wants to re-invent himself or just want to get connected with someone. Old flame Bella comes to his mind (Michael dumper her 11 years earlier), who is living in the city and calls her up for a drink. Bella is depressed and soon storms out, when Michael awkwardly calls her to his room. Later, Michael witnesses a potential anomaly (or to be precise, he first hears) in the name of Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh). Lisa is no beauty, compared to her popular friend Emily. She is also a mousier, insecure sales rep, treating herself to attend the favorite author’s conference. After few martinis and apple mojitos, Lisa winds up in Michael’s room for a nightcap. What ensues is the long, most beautiful, heart-rending love scene. The little stumble, awkward laughter, inherent sadness and sincere intimacy feels stunningly closer to life. The encounter might make us ask ‘Can Lisa save Michael from his existential despair?’ But, trying to find answers for Michael’s neurological problems isn’t Mr. Kaufman’s intention. All he asks is to just experience the unexpectedly humanistic moments in our puppet protagonist’s life.

                                        The aforementioned plot description may not do justice to the amazing aural and visual experience “Anomalisa” provides. The stop-motion animation seems to be the right choice, since the puppets aren’t perfect (similar to the characters in the film) like the chiseled bodies of computer-animated figures. So, there’s some organic flow in these inorganic things. And the mere presence of puppets makes us think about the word ‘manipulation’, which in turn easily allows us to connect with inherent existential themes. Kaufman and Johnson’s eye for detail in visualizing the characters’ physical interactions – the little tics, nervous stutters and awkward pauses – are all painfully realized and psychologically well-grounded. The director duo deserves applaud for tenderly handling the sex scene – the central moment of the film. It is not designed as a visual joke as in ‘Team America’. The scene is very much part of the story and the sense of genuine intimacy the directors diffuse in that encounter are nothing short of amazing. 

                                        Cinema often trains audience to view normal people (with fats) having sex, on-screen as a gross act. Their vulnerable feelings and awkward motions of their bodies are usually played for laughs. Kaufman and Johnson rather than heightening up that scene as a comedic experience keeps it authentic and grounded. The scene includes intimate kisses, cunnilingus and penetration, but there’s also little clumsy moments (like Lisa hitting her head on the headboard of bed and chucking, while undressing). It doesn’t become a struggle between two naked bodies, but a perpetual conflict between one’s desires and insecurities. And, since we don’t see full-bodied actors acting out sex on-screen, we somehow get drawn in and everything feels real (or weirdly erotic). The little doubts we might have had about the stop-motion aesthetic gets washed away with that brilliantly concocted sequence (this challenging scene actually said to have taken three months worth of testing and researches).  Of course, Kaufman’s ingeniousness isn’t pertained to realizing this boundary-pushing setup. The meaty part of “Anomalisa” is in Kaufman’s usual philosophical excursions and in raising intellectually honest questions.

Directors Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman (right)

                                         Charlie Kaufman, one of the most inventive minds in American cinema, tends to explore intellectuals, artists or celebrities’ alienation from fellow human beings and their arduous attempt in restoring hope and joy. With his directorial debut “Synecdoche, New York” (2008), Kaufman constructed an enigmatic large scale real, where the endless worlds relapsed to bestow inevitable nightmares. “Synecdoche, New York” was compared to the works of cinematic master Alain Resnais and literary masters Kafka, Arthur Miller, but it also had its fair share of detractors. The movie received a standing ovation in Cannes, but only a lukewarm response from commercial perspective. The commercial failure didn’t allow Kaufman to realize his other idiosyncratic ideas, and so with “Anomalisa” he has worked on a lower-scale, both in terms of cost and entangled imagination. Nevertheless, within that reduced scale, poses profound questions about our lives’ inherent misery. Kaufman doesn’t treat this sadness with cynicism or black humor; he rather strives for tenderness and flawless whimsicality.

                                          There’s no direct reference to Michael’s psychological problems (‘fregoli delusion’) in the script (in ‘Synecdoche’, there’s a reference to ‘Cotard Syndrome’). May be Kaufman didn’t want to put a simple, medical tag on Michael’s problems. While subjectively viewing the experiences of a man, who shut himself from the world, we are gradually suggested that we all may be like the puppet protagonist. Traversing around our mundane life with no visible emotions and waiting to be impacted by a face or voice that somehow feels alive; that may bring cure to our existential slumber. Does creating an honest, reflective art makes the artist to get alienated from other persons? Does that kind of art brings hope only to those encounter or witness it? It is a significant theme that runs in Kaufman’s mind from “Adaptation”. The strange thing about alienation in our contemporary culture is that it doesn’t rise from disconnection. In this digital, social-media era, the problem isn’t staying connected, but it is the in-authenticity of our interactions with fellow humans that advances our alienation. Lisa, the anomaly, tends to provide the much-needed authenticity for Michael, but as sun glares brightly in the morning, the doubt sets off once again. In the excellent, lamentable breakfast scene (at the end), while Michael sees Lisa’s little imperfections, the sun glows on Michael’s face as if veil has been lifted. Alas, the light isn’t a ray of hope, but only brings home the point that he may end up alone in this indifferent world. So, is Kaufman saying that there is no possibility of hope and love? Maybe not. May be, the closing scene with Lisa writing to Michael about true romance, suggests us that he is an anomaly (it as an important scene, since it is the only time we don’t see Michael’s perspective). With a strong change in perspective, may be Michael could discover all the unbridled beauty and happiness in this world (but considering the way Michael reacts to his family, it would be a hard task).


                                             “Anomalisa” (90 minutes) genuinely deals with our feelings of isolation, lassitude, and frustration that evolves and matures from societal constructs. It also gently explores the humans’ desire for love and connection. 

Syndromes and a Century [2006] – A Playful, Enigmatic and Transcendental Cinematic Gem

                                             Cinema has the powerful ability to orchestrate worldly or temporal experiences, subsequently allowing us to make sense of our own past experiences (also experience something we had never any knowledge about). Cinema can fulfill our yearning for spiritual knowledge (like meditation) in this modernized world. It can serve as a bridge between a simple individual and wide spectrum of society, imparting the transcendent view about the world we live in. But, not all the film-makers have spiritual concern for their viewers, while weaving images. Film-makers like Bergman, Antonoini, Terrence Malick and Tarkovsky treated film-making as an astounding experiment in memory. The memories interwoven in those masters’ frames aren’t like rushing through photo albums; they gradually allow us to invest our mind and heart into moments and memories of the characters. All that we require to assimilate those masters’ works is an openness of heart and mind plus an attention to visuals that may bestow us the transcendent experience. Thailand's provocative film-maker Apichatpong Weerasethakul is one such spiritually concerned film-maker, whose works distinctively explores human memories and feelings.

                                          All of Weerasethakul’s movies are abstract pieces, constructed around a thin narrative structure that is virtually impossible to be confined within a synopsis. His 2006 “Syndromes and a Century” (aka ‘Sang Sattawat’) is said to be exploration of the directors’ childhood memories about his doctor parents. The ensuing tale is split into tow halves, set in two different hospital settings (village/city) with several key characters, sequences or even dialogues repeated in both halves. The first half revolves around young, country doctor Toey (mother figure) and her lovesick suitor Toa. In the second-half, the subject is Dr. Nohng (father), working in a more contemporary city hospital. Dr. Toey conducting a psychological profile of Dr.Nohng (from Army) serves as the bookend for both halves. While Nohng disappears in the background in first-half, it is Dr. Toey who disappears from narrative after the interview, in the second-half. In the rural setting, there’s also an interesting vignette involving a young dentist & part-time singer Dr. Ple and a young monk, who once harbored the desire to be a DJ. There’s a possibility of a friendship or brotherhood between those two, but when the same people meet in the same dental procedure in the second-half, nothing happens. In the vast, indifferent city hospital, Dr. Ple is fully absorbed by the mechanics of his work, while the young monk is irritated by the whole non-communicative procedure.

                                           The word ‘dreamlike logic’ has become cliched because those words are evoked whenever a narrative tries to be little less realistic. In “Syndromes and Century” those words resonate strongly, since the characters are identified from their fragmented memories and moods. Their stories or life events blend, blurs or linked together to tell something fascinating about the whole of human race. In the film, director Weerasethakul tries to explore our attitudes towards life and fellow human beings with regard to locations & atmosphere. In the first, he deals with a idyllic rural place, where Weerasethakul born and grew up in his formative years, whereas in the second part, the action takes place in a bustling, technologically trumping big city, where the director stays now. Nevertheless, this film isn’t blatantly devised as a city vs village debate. If you view the movie’s flow as a string of beautiful musical notes, then that gracefulness is maintained in both the settings. The breezy and subtly humorous exchange between the dentist and the monk that happened in the rural hospital gets lost by the constrained mental attitude in the big city. But, what we still see in the illuminated corridors of the modern hospital is all the same kind of humans with their own foibles and quirks.  A hospitalized youth to feign boredom plays tennis in the corridor; a prosthetic limb technician keeps a bottle hidden at the prosthetic leg to soothe herself before going to a television interview.

                                        Apichatpong Weerasethakul subtly denotes at the striking balance between the tradition and technology in the rural hospital. An old monk tells Dr. Toey about his ailments after eating poultry meat, and the nightmares he has, where vengeful chickens are on the prowl. As Toey calmly listens and replies with a cure, the old monk gives a plant root to the doctor, assuring that it will treat various ailments plus remove ‘bad inconsequential thoughts’. Later, we see young Toey using the root in her tea. The scene, shot in the most simplistic manner, effortlessly shows the blurred lines between healer and the healed. One has the solution for physical ailment, while the other for spiritual ailment. The same exchange happens in the city hospital, where Dr. Toey is replaced by an old man, who never seems to take the plant roots seriously (or seen using it). Elsewhere, the director makes us question the images seen or stories told on-screen.  A young hopelessly in love with Dr. Toey professes his love to her and the clueless doctor tells him a story about her encounter with a ‘wild orchard’ farmer. What’s the significance of that story and what does the 'solar eclipse' tale mean? I couldn’t figure out entirely, but there’s something fascinating or magnetic about those sequences that I didn’t much care about the exact meaning. 

                                          Buddhist spiritual ideas, mainly its idea of resurrection and Thai myths & folklore, play a vital role in shaping Weerasethakaul’s works. But, the elusive hints about the film-makers’ themes constantly widens and escapes as the movie progresses. There are lot of digressions (and all of those are beautiful) and one good way to see the movie is to simply lose ourselves in the images and organically allow the ideas to take hold. Nevertheless, the director isn’t trying hard to be deliberately wacky or cater only to his ‘cult’ viewers. In fact, “Syndromes and a Century” is a fine example of relaxed film-making, breaking through cinema’s normalities with a magical quality. The film’s atmosphere drenched in hypnotic surrealism seems to be the very definition of ‘prerogative of art’. Towards the end, the calm surrealism lends a sinister feeling, while the camera gradually cruises through the hospital’s basement and settles on a steam room extractor pipe, pulling off the dust and smoke. The Lynchian image of the pipe, whose aperture seems to resemble that of solar eclipse, earlier seen in one of the revelatory sequences. Are those smokes and dusts getting sucked in, is like our lives and memories, intertwining and eventually disappearing from existence? What does that genuinely distressing image mean? Again hard to pinpoint, but I was taken aback by the image’s diabolical beauty.

                                           Apichatpong Weerasethakaul does take cinema as a very serious art form, but that doesn’t mean his characters are all always enunciating somber reflections on life. There’s a playful and gentle touches in the film that gives a sense of euphoria in the end. Doctor Nohng, working in the city hospital, is visited by his girlfriend, an office woman very much interested in moving to her company’s newly built industrial complex. She shows Nohng the immense rows of construction towers and cranes in an attempt to persuade or arouse him to move to that place with her. It is hard to judge from Nohng’s expressions whether he intends to shift to the dispiriting industrial complex, but he does get immediately aroused when the girl passionately kisses him and emits a smile while controlling the erection. A kiss triggers a sense of happiness in the doctor, which the phallic towers failed to generate. May be, Weerasethakaul’s collective cinematic memory is all about exploring humans’ elation, experienced through seemingly insignificant gestures and things. And, it is true that all these words of mine could tell nothing at all. These are just mere words, remembering the refined memories attached to experiencing the film. But, to fully realize the power of the film, one has to simply ignore the inconsequential words and plunge into the distinct visuals.


                                           “Syndromes and a Century” (105 minutes) is a pure art-house film, leaving no room for mainstream sensibilities. Its director Weerasethakaul’s intoxicating, contemplative, astute images must be savored by all serious movie-lovers.

Bad Day at Black Rock [1955] – A Taut & Incisive Moral Fable

                                              Paul Thomas Anderson once stated that he learned a lot about direction from listening to director John Sturges’ commentary track on the thriller classic “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955). Such is the directorial craft of Mr. Sturges, who delivered action classics like “The Magnificent Seven”, “The Great Escape” and precisely achieves what he wants to, without making a lot of fuss. Known for his workmanlike resoluteness and evocative wide-screen aesthetics, John Sturges often chose stories involving tough men (not necessarily muscular) in desperate situations. “Bad Day at Black Rock” is one of his under-appreciated, self-conscious genre film, which amalgamates film noir tropes with that of Western. Shot in CinemaScope, the movie open and ends with a wide-shot of a dismal small town (Black Rock) and its rail-road station. In both the shots, we may only see the desolate structures amidst expansive emptiness. But, thanks to the enigmatic arrival of Mr. John Macready, the town’s timid inhabitants go through an internal change, purging their guilt-ridden subconscious.

                                           The film opens with a series of stylistic, dynamic long shots of a train cruising through sweeping vistas of the desert. The train slows down while approaching a dilapidated, dusty strip of a town and we see some of the couple dozen inhabitants of the town, watching with anxiety. The year is 1945 and for the past four years, there were no visitors that led to halting of the train at ‘Black Rock’. A headstrong, one-armed stranger, who goes by the name John Macreddy (Spencer Tracy), dressed in a black suit (aka city clothes), descends from the train and as he stands alone in the middle of the dusty track, the visual crisply conveys his isolation plus the trouble he is going to face. The small community is gripped with fear & guilt, and wherever Macreedy turns for help he is rejected and at worst, beleaguered. Although the town has semblance of law in the form of drunken sheriff, it is mostly run by bigwig rancher Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) and his henchmen, Hector (Lee Marvin) and Coley (Ernest Borgnine).

                                           Macreedy is just visiting the town for a day to meet a Japanese farmer named Komoko, who is staying in a place called ‘Adobe Flats’. After facing much hassle for just mentioning the name of farmer, Macreedy rents a jeep and visits the Japanese man’s place, which is actually burnt to the ground. He also apprehends that the farmer had met with a gruesome fate. Macreedy, with his missing left hand and black-suit, is often positioned in spacial contrast to Smith and his cohorts. He doesn’t show any unrealistic, macho bravado and is in fact terrified of getting trapped in the town, after learning the secret about Komoko. Nevertheless, his patience and crystallized reasoning digs at the apathy of town’s nominally ‘good’ persons like Doc (Walter Brennan) and young man Pete.

                                        Millard Kaufman and Don McGuire’s script, based on Howard Breslin’s short story (“Bad Time at Honda”) directly tackles the less talked about internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, after the incident of Pearl Harbor. Between 110,000 and 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcefully relocated to the camps in interior of US nation. Reno Smith referring the Japanese as ‘mad dogs’ and his own failure to get enlisted alludes to US war time policies. Nevertheless, Smith’s actions against Komako aren’t viewed as a jingoistic act; it is rather pertained to mankind’s fundamental flaws – greed & jealousy. The narrative structure that tracks one good man standing against band of hooligans, and appealing to passive stance of ‘good’ persons, immediately makes the film look like a companion piece to Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon” (1952). Like ‘Black Rock’, the town of ‘Hadleyville’ (in “High Noon”) was also infected by collective fear and both Macreedy, Kane (played by Gary Cooper) are isolated hero figures, often seen walking through empty streets and rejected by apathetic beings.  While both films have a robust ending, supporting individualism, “Black Rock” withholds a hopeful closure, where simple reasoning wins over hypocrisy and hatred.

                                         There are also quite a few obvious symbolism strewn across the plot – for example, Macreedy trying to escape the town by Doc’s broken-down hearse (a desperate last attempt). The surface plot of one virtuous man fighting against bigotry is also viewed as an allegorical indictment of the Hollywood Blacklist era. The town’s nominally good, but submissive people may refer to the actions of people, who adhered to baseless fear concocted by House of Un-American Activities Committee. Smith sees the intruder Macreedy as ‘carrier of smallpox’; as a threatening force to their ‘way of life’, which actually revels in prejudice, racism and cowardice. The script also refuses to transform Macreedy into a martyr (he may be want to bring out the truth, but at the same time he is desperate enough to survive) and Spencer Tracy with his trademark calmness and witty remarks perfectly embodies his characters’ righteous attitude as well as the inherent fear. Film scholar Dana Polan also points out the story’s reversal of the stereotype of evil coming from big city to spoil a town in Old West.

                                             Director Sturges craftily mounts the tension with some excellent action-set piece (the car chase and final shootout in the canyon) and without disturbing the allegorical surface. His staging is absolutely amazing in the ‘diner’ scene, where Borgnine’s Coley gets his ass kicked by Macreedy’s karate chops. The encounter may not seem realistic, but Sturges has allowed the tension to reach a threshold point in the sequence and so the result is enjoyable to witness. If one has to point out the flaws, then it has to be some of the caricatured characters especially that of Anne Francis’ glamed-up character Liz. But, despite few minor missteps, the strong presence of Tracy and the excellent visual framework of Sturges subtly impart the profound thematic struggles.


                                            “Bad Day at Black Rock” (81 minutes) is an intense drama, whose marvelous visual energy elegantly entwines with the though-provoking political & allegorical layers. 

Man from Reno [2015] – A Smart, Small-Scale Atmospheric Thriller

                                            Neo-noirs and mystery thrillers are defined by their tropes, which may make the film-maker and writer to take a box-ticking approach (like doomed protagonist, femme fatales, seedy motels and typical Macguffins). Of course, there’s nothing wrong with rehashing these familiar genre tropes, but a successful mystery or neo-noir must have something engaging more than out-of-nowhere twists. It needs an expansive set of characters, entrancing atmosphere or at least combinations of characters that we haven’t seen before to make even the mundane narrative trajectory to stay afresh. American indie film-maker Dave Boyle’s slow burn thriller “Man from Reno” (2015) tries its best to provide us something more than the bare-bones structure of the genre. It may not have succeeded to become a heavy-weight, on-screen mystery, but it does have couple of irresistible characters and a fine atmosphere to engross us throughout the running time.

                                            The film opens on a foggy highway, where Sheriff Paul Del Moral (Pepe Serna) of the fictional San Marco County sights an abandoned car in the middle of the road. Obviously, the foggy setting seems like a stand in for profound mystery. The Sheriff soon runs down a running man in the crushing fog. The run-down, Japanese man survives and is placed in a hospital, although his identity remains a mystery. In a parallel narrative, a Tokyo-based mystery writer Aki (Ayako Fujitani)arrives at San Francisco bay to do a book tour. She’s has a kind of emotional breakdown, while pushing her latest best-seller (mystery novels has a central Sherlock Holmes like character named Inspector Takabe) and goes in hiding. Back at the hotel, a handsome Japanese tourist Akira (Kazui Kitamura), who is said to be from Reno, recognizes Aki and surprises her with his knowledge about literature (he easily catches a Mark Twain dropped into the conversation by Aki).

                                            Aki takes on Akira’s amorous advances and in the next day, the man from Reno mysteriously disappears, leaving his suitcase. The suitcases most notable items are matchbook with telephone number and a lettuce. Back in San Marco County, Sheriff Paul finds a dead Japanese man in the marsh and the one admitted to hospital has vanished. The ensuing murder investigation confirms the identity of dead man as Akira. After the Reno guy’s disappearance, author Aki receives strange men at her hotel door: an 'injured' man named Hitoshi; and a couple of thugs demanding for the ‘thing’ that isn’t in the left-behind suitcase. The parallel narratives, of course, entwines at a point as Paul and Aki tries to solve the nefarious mystery. Their path is strewn with typical Macguffins and red-herrings: a tabloid photographer, endangered species, stolen identities, a corrupted millionaire and wrongly pronounced/understood words. However, its resolutions are fairly unpredictable.

                                         Similar to pulp novels, there’s an over-complicated plot and at times I felt there’s too many twists for its own good, but the film’s engagement factor lies in the way the primary characters remain flawed and how director Boyle has treated the atmosphere & distinct public spaces of San Francisco as more than a background prop. In one early scene, while meeting her college mates, Aki tries to be Inspector Takabe (aka Holmes) by trying to guess a stranger’s background from his accent and attire. She gets most of the things wrong and immediately this genius writer is brought to a human level rather than being turned into a super detective. It is this vulnerability and absurd curiosity that drives the twists in the narrative. Most of the revelations don’t occur due to precise deduction; the characters just accidentally stumble into it. Instead of diffusing beautiful shots of Golden Gate Bridge and cable cars, Dave Boyle keeps his narrative to unfold in places (like alleyways and renowned book shops), where a running away Japanese writer would really move through. But, even within those simple public spaces, the director is able to create an atmosphere of foreboding and paranoia.

                                      Writers Boyle, Joel Clarke and Michael Lerman amply concentrate on the theme of ‘identity’ and its evil twin ‘deception’. Aki is in constant doubt about her identity. She wants to escape from her own persona. We the viewers are teased to see the identity of Inspector Takabe on Sheriff Paul Del Moral. Even the little seen photographer and the millionaire want something that may bring them fresh identity. But, where they all fail in attaining the different identity, it is only the ‘Man from Reno’ who accomplishes varying, unique characteristics through deception. Aki too employs deception in the scene with her college friends, but she miserably fails when compared to the so-called Akira. Dislocation too remains as a perpetual element for nearly every character. The writers have also included undercurrents of dark humor that questions the characters’ far-fetched imagination (especially when Aki admits to Del Moral “He knew I couldn’t resist a phone number in matchbook!”). The performances are uniformly excellent, especially character actor Serna (who was chain-sawed in Brian De Palma’s “Scarface”) in his rare lead role. He slightly evokes Tommy Lee Jones' character in “No Country for Old Men”, although Serna perfectly finds a coherent personality to keep it from being banal.


                                     “Man from Reno” (111 minutes), despite few bumpy plot points, is a gripping, offbeat mystery/thriller. We might be raising quite a lot practical questions after the film’s central mystery is resolved, although the singular mood and meticulous direction keeps us engrossed during the running time.