To the Bone [2017] – A Compelling Unromanticized Portrayal of Eating Disorder




Anorexia is one of the persistently misunderstood and glamorized disorders. The ravages of this particular condition is often belittled or stereotyped in the worst possible manner. The glamorizing comes from using the term for eating disorder to all thin people which further equates it to physical agility and fitness. Then there’s the common stereotype of perceiving that eating disorders are only confined to the demographic of young wealthy Caucasian female. Part of the reason for this misrepresentation is because eating disorders don’t make any sense to most of us (though it’s an issue rampant in America, found among different ethnic groups. The approximate no. goes as high as 30 million).  The good thing about television writer Marti Noxon’s directorial debut To the Bone (2017) is that it dismisses the false beliefs related to the eating disorders (like bulimia and anorexia), before forging down the subdued narrative path to make an palpably optimistic movie. The script is loosely based on Noxon’s own experience during the 1980s whose first-hand knowledge of the disorder brings out unbridled empathy on the central character Ellen, assimilated by Lilly Collins – a truly haunting & career-best performance. Lilly has shown real compassion for the character as she has also talked about her own struggle with eating disorders.

Nevertheless, questions and alarms were raised about the actress, who suffered from eating disorder, starving off to play the central character (some medical professionals related it to ‘an actor with a history of serious drug abuse getting high repeatedly for a film role’). The trailer of the film did give off the feeling that it’s yet another ‘disease of the season’ movie. It set off controversies, including a ‘Change.org’ petition demanding the streaming giant Netflix to withdraw the film from public domain (Netflix bought the film for 8 million dollars after its acclaimed Sundance debut) for 'aggravating the stigma surrounding eating disorders’. Moreover, the lead character Ellen is a very rich young white female (so much for breaking the myths of anorexia!). Yet, the film is mostly opposite to the misgivings derived from the trailer or other editorial sources. While Marti Noxon’s protagonist hails from a background that confirms to typical personification of the disorder, Collins’ Ellen is a well-rounded character who truly serves as the doorway to make us comprehend emotional and physical turmoil of anorexics. In addition, Noxon leavens the narrative with warmth and humor without affecting its ring of unsettling truth.


‘To the Bone’ opens with an apt warning sign, since the film was deemed harmful enough to trigger painful memories for people with eating disorders. However, the film opens on a light-hearted note in a residential center to realize Ellen’s mercurial, frustratingly stubborn character nature. The scarily bony 20 year old Los Angeles girl with a penchant for art isn’t willing to admit that her eating disorder isn’t under control. For years, she has been in and out of residential centers and at times force fed through tube. Ellen can immediately come up with caloric information of any food. She frenetically does sit-ups in bed and floor, convinced that the meal will put her in the path towards obesity. As a result, there are bruises on her fragile back. At one point, Noxon scrutinizes Ellen’s physical features which are so distressing: bones stick out at different angles and hair grows in unusual places. We are informed that Ellen’s heading toward rock bottom that soon her body, running out of fat, will begin to digest muscle.


Ellen lives with her adorable half-sister Kelly (Liana Liberato), well-meaning chatterbox stepmother Susan (Carrie Preston) and an apathetic, unseen father. Ellen’s very sensitive and bit self-centered mother Judy (Lilli Taylor) has gone off to stay with her partner Olive (Brooke Smith). Ellen’s relationship with her family members is elegantly realized in these earlier sequences. Much of the conversation between them lingers around their bafflement for Ellen’s eating disorder. Susan truly wants to help Ellen, but she doesn’t know how, except for gleefully carrying a large cake with words ‘Eat up Ellen!’ The comic curiosity of the family members was, thankfully, not exaggerated for mere laughs. They are part of the society that equates anorexia with vanity and obstinacy. Yet, they somewhat demonstrate an empathetic will (especially Kelly) to help Ellen overcome her afflictions. Eventually, due to Susan’s determined stance Ellen agrees to check into a new unconventional treatment facility, under the care of renowned doctor William Beckham (Keanu Reeves). There’s considerable diversity in the depiction of people living in the house and among them Ellen gets real close to a charming ex-ballet dancer Luke (Alex Sharp). When subsequently the situation unearths fresh problems and dilemmas, the emotions surging to the surface are carefully handled.

To the Bone’s story line does place itself in the melodramatic young adult territory which may ultimately diffuse bland, life-affirming messages. Apart from the sarcastic opening scene and few later exchanges, the film side-steps such cliched thinking and instills a humane perspective on an oft-misunderstood disorder. There’s nothing formally fascinating about Marti Noxon’s style. But she deftly maintains the unsettling as well as mildly optimistic tone throughout the start to finish. Her direction of actors is pitch-perfect. And, except for the ‘big’ emotional scene when Ellen’s mom feeds her with a baby bottle (which is taken from the director’s personal life) Noxon doesn’t unnecessarily move the camera to contrive heightened dramatic effects. Writing is sound for the most part. The early casual lunch conversation between Ellen and Kelly plus the later bickering in family therapy session were efficiently written. The dialogues at few occasions desperately try to be quote-worthy, but there are also some clever exchanges. For example, when Susan leaves Ellen in the treatment home, she says ‘be good’ and after a little gap, she continues ‘not perfect, not too good’. It’s a good little line which indicates how some part of the eating disorder could be associated with destructive social pressure due to health and beauty concerns. Yet for all the solid nature of writing, one of its considerable flaw is the underdeveloped or one-dimensional characterization of the people at the treatment home. The emotional problems and the physical ailments the minor characters face differs and they are shown to have hailed from diverse background. Yet, they are written to be types or happen to be mere devices (except Luke) for moving forward the narrative (Short Term 12 – a different kind of Group Home movie was more profound and empathetic in handling the supporting characters).  


Despite the conventional framing and pacing, director Noxon’s treatment on a couple of aspects is really commendable. One is the characterization of Dr. Beckham. Played by Keanu Reeves, the character does seem to take Robin Williams’ (Goodwill Hunting) path providing pat messages. He looks like the perfect male savior or the caring father figure for the diseased young female. Similar line of thoughts goes for Ellen’s burgeoning friendship/romance with tender Luke (it’s a strange relationship which doesn’t mask their uncertainty and awkwardness). These characters aren’t treated as the givers of meaning to otherwise pessimistic thought-process of Ellen. The change, as the final brilliant dream sequence indicates, is possible only after scrutinizing her own vulnerability and by demonstrating compassion for herself. The revelation arrives at the point Ellen truly realizes her unhealthiness (seeing her own mangled self). Marti Noxon understands that there are no sunshine-and-rainbows ending for this kind of tale. It’s just a constant struggle whose pain may be assuaged by half-sister or Luke or Dr. Beckham, but the possibility of recovery solely rests with herself. This conviction is what makes To the Bone an honest and unsparing work, placing it alongside other good addiction or disorder recovery films. 

Trailer

 

To the Bone (107 minutes) delivers an unflinching yet humane perspective on the oft-pigeonholed eating disorder. Despite few missteps and conventional narrative set-up, film-maker Marti Noxon intends to spark a meaningful conversation on the matter rather than opt for strict Hollywoodization. 


Iron Island [2005] – A Powerful Socio-Political Allegory




A hulking mass of weathered oil tanker stands like a lone figure in the middle of the sea. From golden sunsets to sapphire-colored sea, the environment changes throughout day and night, emitting different shades of natural beauty. But the impoverished inhabitants who dwell inside this abandoned oil tanker lead a monotonous life, filled with poverty, punishment, and oppression. The deftly polarizing, ironical setting is the foremost interesting aspect of Iranian film-maker Mohammad Rasoulof’s second feature-film Iron Island (Jazireh ahani, 2005). Barring few scenes unfolding in the arid landscape, the majority of narrative takes place inside a decommissioned oil tanker, resting off the Persian Gulf Coast. Despite such a narrow focus for a narrative set-up, director Rasoulof gradually introduces us to wider and rich social tapestry of subjects living inside the rusty ship so that the ‘iron island’ becomes a microcosm of parochial nation-states. Iron Island could be viewed as political allegory about the tensions in Iran’s treatment of minorities (Sunni Arabs) and its destitute population. However, Mohammad Rasoulof avoids heightened drama for humanist observation to transcend the narrative into a potent allegory for the corruptible nature of absolute power.

The film opens in a dark cavity of the old ship as a young man named Ahmad (Hossein Farzi-Zadeh) carries a love letter to a young girl’s tiny living quarters. Next day, when the ship’s benevolent Dictator Captain Nemat (Ali Nassirian) –a old man with piercing eyes and gray mustache -- boards the ship (from his motorboat), he sees Ahmad and the girl’s brother fighting off each other. The Captain warns Ahmad to forget the girl and that he is an unworthy suitor. Later, the Captain brings a new family to the ship and introduces them (& viewers) to the rich social life flowing within the rust-bucket of a ship. There’s make-shift apartment blocks, workstations for boys and men to salvage the metallic parts and oil from the ship, a small classroom whose resident schoolteacher is convinced that the ship is slowly sinking. At every turn, Nemat is stopped by the residents demanding flour, medicine or to take care of the plumbing and electrical problems. The Captain smoothly speaks in different set of dialectics, noting down all the expenses in his account book. He sees a silver-lining in everything, partly because he has to hide the immediate chaos waiting for these poor residents. The tanker’s owner has sold the ship, which means that the people have to leave the floating island. It’s only a matter of time before their struggle for survival turns much bleaker.


In March 2010, Jafar Panahi, Mohammad Rasoulof and 17 other Iranian directors were arrested for allegedly making a film in support of pro-reform Green Movement. In December the same year, the two film-makers were sentenced to six years in prison and awarded 20 year film-making ban (including a ban on talking to foreign press and travel ban). After the international outcry, the Iranian authorities lessened their sentences, although the film-makers’ activities were closely scrutinized. Mohammad Rasoulof may not be an instantly recognizable name among cinephiles compared with Mohsen Makhmalbaf or Panahi. But he is definitely a great Iranian film-maker, who profoundly deals with sociopolitical crisis, plaguing the contemporary Muslim world or the so-called third world countries. Rasoulof is adept at mixing his allegories with a humanist narrative so that it easily passes off the establishment’s censors and remains less controversial. After a brief period of exile, Mr. Rasoulof returned back to Iran, fervently dealing with social themes by using a subdued, lyrical visual language (his 2013 film Manuscripts Don’t Burn is a excellent slow-burn political drama; the director's latest film Dregs won Un Certain Regard Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival).    


The biggest strength of Iron Island is Captain Nemat’s characterization and Ali Nasirian’s performance in the chief role (his acting credits go back to Darius Mehrjui’s 1969 masterpiece The Cow). The captain is as enigmatic and multi-faceted like the authoritative-gentlemanly ruler of a country. He treats young rebellious guy Ahmad as a surrogate son. Yet, when his authority is threatened, the Captain exacts cruel punishment on Ahmad in front of the public eyes (just like a twisted despot). Rasoulof maintains an ambiguity in the Captain’s actions. He looks both as a masterful manipulator and merciful protector. The director’s decision to avoid passing judgment on Captain Nemat keeps away didactic resolutions and allows viewers to bring their own interpretations. Mohammad Rasoulof's total command over the visual texture unearths powerful emotions within us. He often juxtaposes the image of lone ship, standing under bright skies with the bleak, rusted interiors of the ship, echoing the invisible nature of these poor people in the social stratification ladder. The slow-motion photography is used to great effects in the scene young men pushing down half-filled barrels of oil into the ocean and jump inside, swimming alongside the barrels to the shore. 


Director Rasoulof also offer symbolic touches through simple objects like a tied-up kite, chalk molded in bullet casings, metallic junk and battery-powered TVs. The director uses certain members of the impoverished community to provide beautiful visionary touches. For example, the old man constantly peers over the horizon looking for an unspecified thing and a smart boy who catches fish in the ship’s flooded parts and then tosses them back into the ocean. These two minor characters (along with other unknown members of the vessel) stands-in for the strong will of the exploited people, who keep on surviving despite the looming, hopeless situation. The final ambiguous shots of the minorities and poor trudging on the dry landscape remains as an elegiac poem for all the minorities and oppressed of the world, constantly kept in a state of migration. 

Trailer

 

Iron Island (90 minutes) is a must watch Iranian cinema for its potent commentary on the nature of totalitarian power and subjugation of people, according to religious and social status. The utter lack of sentimental pitfalls turns this film into a haunting and unforgettable social critique. 

★★★★ 

 

Take Off [2017] – An Engrossing Rescue Drama with a Big Heart




In Mahesh Narayanan’s riveting war-zone drama Take Off (2017), there’s a small character yet one who plays an important role in the narrative arc. He is a Saudi-based Malayalam businessman (named Jayamohan) who may possess the power to hold unofficial talks and free the devastated Indian nurses stranded in a Iraq hospital, at the mercy of IS terrorists. When the Indian Ambassador for Iraq approaches him for help, the millionaire businessman turns him away. But later at different points, he sees the nurses’ predicament over the news and hears their wail through a satellite phone call. What he sees and hears eventually tugs his heart enough to make the vital move. The scenes may seem out of place at some other language movies (especially European or American). The rich man (who deserves all due credit for his involvement) is clearly explained what’s at stake and yet he only allows himself to be swayed by emotions. That’s something very Indian. Although they often say ‘Indians wear the heart at their sleeves’, the sleeves need to be tugged at sometimes to act as per the demands of heart. In fact, Take Off is a movie full of heart. It’s a story of heroic women and men who attain that status without picking up any weapons. It delicately balances the know-how of the rescue operation with acts of humanity that’s not just born out under the covers of idealism.

Take Off is based on the 2014 rescue of 46 Indian nurses who were trapped in IS-held Mosul, Iraq. On a broader viewpoint, it’s a significant diplomatic victory in Indian history. But when observed little closer from the ground, there hails the intricate events and people with different temperament who led to the monumental rescue. Some of the freed nurses said in media that IS militants didn’t harm them and even treated them with dignity. Director Mahesh Narayanan reduces the number from 46 to 19 and shapes the drama according to cinematic essentials. Yet, the momentous element is that doesn’t turn the film into a one-woman show (as Akshay Kumar starrer did in Airlift –based on 1990 rescue of Indians from Kuwait). It touches upon the complexities involved in such an operation and even the small characters are well-fleshed out rather than being disposable narrative devices.


I am not a big fan of films that treat wars and bloody ethnic conflicts as a mere spectacle (a form of pop-corn entertainment). Indian films, particularly, strip off the complexities of a violent clash and reduce it into story of good vs evil or hero vs villain. Mani Ratnam’s technically magnificent and thematically annoying films like Roja (1992) & Bombay (1995) are perfect examples of this Indian film trend. Similarly Take Off’s protagonist Sameera (Parvathi), a nurse, is ailed by personal & economic problems to grab the chance to work in conflict-ridden Iraq. The pay is four times higher than their current salary. Sameera could pay off all her family’s debts. But she also wants get away to fend off depression. She has divorced from her husband Faizal who lives in UAE. Their eight year old son Ibru is unaware that his parents had been divorced. Sameera faces harassment in the working place and is stifled by patriarchal restrictions at home (which were the reason for her divorce since she is seen as too independent to fulfill the role of a wife). The new job may give her the coveted economical freedom and may lead her to the reunion with son Ibru.

Right from the start, it’s made clear that Sameera’s colleague Shaheed (Kunchacko Boban) is in love with her. She keeps a hardened face to discourage his courting attempts. But Shaheed is not the typical celebrated stalker of Indian/Malayalam cinema. He sensibly proposes his love and he seems like the right guy to support and encourage Sameera. When an uncle dismisses Sameera’s plans saying women shouldn’t travel alone to foreign countries, she eventually decides to marry Shaheed. It’s a marriage born out of necessity but slowly they discover love. Sameera, however, becomes worried when she gets pregnant. She dreads over Ibru’s reactions as he is about to visit her in Iraq during his vacation. Caught in all the web of personal problems, Sameera comprehends much more threatening troubles when the group of nurses land in Iraq. They are stationed in a hospital in Tikrit and the condition worsens day by day. Shaheed goes separately on a relief mission after the arrival of Ibru. The ensuing meaty part of the film chronicles the elaborate rescue operation led by Manoj (Fahadh Faasil), the Indian Ambassador to Iraq.   


As I mentioned similar to Bombay, Take Off’s first-half starts with personal battles and second-half paves way to the real overpowering battle. But the central character and her conflicts are more sensibly written to keep us hooked as we wait for narrative shift to Iraq. Moreover, the horrors of human disgrace are kept at the forefront in the Iraqi portions. Director/writer Mahesh Narayanan (script co-written by P.V. Shajikumar) doesn’t spew out loud messages to terrorists. He doesn’t use the uplifting real event as a springboard to enlace jingoistic notions. Most importantly, the strict lines between good and evil are blurred at times to show how ignorance and apathy plagues the alleged ‘good’ side and how humanity brings different perspective to the alleged ‘evil’ side. Of course, it doesn’t mean that the script is entirely devoid of blunt approach. But such deft characterization and agreeable realization of the shocking conflict remains fairly good for Indian rescue or war-zone drama. Time and again, good Malayalam films communicate with our heart without resorting to melodramatic conventions. Parvathy’s gritty performance as Sameera reflects this. She effortlessly expresses Sameera’s despair and dilemmas. The character isn’t written and Parvathy doesn’t play it as the proverbial ‘idealistic’ character. She has a fine knowledge on when to go for emotional upheaval and when to keep it subtle. Apart from Fahad Fasil fantastic supporting performance, special mention must be made about the film’s production design. It’s a great achievement considering its small budget and adds to the atmospheric dread, finely wrought by director Mahesh.  

Trailer


Bound by crushing restrictions and frustrating powerlessness, Take Off (139 minutes) is a journey of a woman winning over the internal and external conflicts with a great display of integrity and compassion. Thanks to Parvathy’s outstanding performance and Mahesh Narayanan fascinating directorial debut, the film takes off with ease.   

★★★½ 

 

Citizen X [1995] – A Captivating Tale about the Hunt for a Serial Killer




The drastic effects of the failed economic, social, and political climate in the Soviet Union after mid 1960s are often dubbed as ‘Era of Stagnation’. Since Leonid Brezhnev’s governance (1964-82) led Soviet Union to this period of disillusionment, the term ‘Brezhnevian Stagnation’ is also used. After Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Cherneko and Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power, but the systemic flaw remained as a constant, threatening factor. Eventually, the long, slow death of Soviet Union happened in December 1991. Nevertheless, none of the experts around the world anticipated the collapse of Soviet Union. And so from the political and cultural perspective, West was intrigued to study the decade before USSR’s collapse. Weighing in the gruesome last years of USSR, the story of Andrei Chikatilo becomes one of the perfect representation of the pluralistic ignorance prevalent in the 80s Russian society. 

On 22 December 1978, 32 year old Ukrainian Andrei Chikatilo stabbed 9 year old Yelena Zakotnova to death. By the time Chikatilo stood inside an iron cage facing the courtroom trial in 1992, he killed 52 persons (it’s speculated that he killed more than 100 people and most of his victims were not found and were under the age of 17). For each of the murder, he was awarded death sentences. Chikatilo, the factory worker, committed most of his gruesome act with a kitchen knife and a rope, which he often carried in his bag. He often stabbed his victims more than dozen times, sometimes mutilating their sexual organs and even removing their eyes. By 1982, the leading investigator of the case Victor Burakov confirmed that it’s serial killing and informed to his superiors about the pattern of killing. But, the investigation was hampered by lack of forensic techniques and man power. 


Most importantly, the superiors weren’t interested in publicizing the killings, since they firmly believed serial killing is a ‘western phenomenon’. They blamed homosexuals, gypsies, mental patients, and violent gangs. Of course, this is the era when Russian state media reported about drugs on the streets of USA, but maintained that their society is crime-free. The stagnancy in the upper echelons of bureaucracy led to more killings and deliberately deviated investigation techniques. Chris Gerolmo’s 1995 TV movie (aired in HBO) Citizen X chronicles the hunt for the Russian serial killer from Mr. Burakov’s perspective. It is based on Robert Cullen’s non-fiction book The Killer Department. 

Citizen X is a fairly good presentation of the case, despite the moderate production values and limited running time to stage the humongous 8 year span of investigation. The TV movie doesn't have any unique visual language, but the premise and fine cast keep us intrigued throughout. Stephen Rea (The Crying Game, V for Vendetta) plays Viktor Burakov, the passionate forensic expert/detective who finds it hard to move alongside apathetic bureaucrats. Donald Sutherland plays the righteous as well as the crafty colonel Fetisov, while Jeffrey DeMunn did the role of vulnerable yet cold-blooded killer Chikatilo. Max Von Sydow made cameo as psychiatrist Buchanovsky – the man who has played a crucial role in constructing the killer’s profile. 


In the initial parts of the narrative, Stephen Rea’s performance wasn’t very engaging. Part of the blame rests on the script, which got through the facts rather than realize inner life of the central character Burakov. What’s at stake is explained in words, but there’s no real emotional engagement with Burakov’s resolve. However, gradually the performance gets better. The screen space Rea shares with Donald Sutherland brings few interesting scenes. Mr. Sutherland pulls off his surefooted colonel character with aplomb. And, Stephen Rea was at his best when he’s given the chance to explore Burakov’s mental breakdown. Fetisov at a later point reads an FBI guy’s report, in which he states that they used to reassign the duties of lawmen working on serial-killing cases every 18 months. Burakov headed the gruesome investigation (cornered by all bureaucrats) for nearly a decade, rarely taking a holiday. The immense emotional burden the character carries is gradually well developed by Rea. 

In one sequence, we could hear the sound of electrichka train, while Burakov goes through the same routine to hunt down the killer, yielding no results and unearthing more bodies. This was one of few well-staged scenes (the other memorable one was introduction of Chikatilo through the shot of a passing train) to showcase the grinding nature of the job. Electrichka are electrical passenger trains which mostly ran through Soviet suburban and rural units. Andrei Chikatilo eyed young, lonely runaways, loiters and workers to just sit and speak with them. Eventually, he lured them to nearby woods. The killing scenes are mostly filled with top angle shots of killer stabbing or close-up shot of stabbed person’s face. It’s a bit dramatic for today’s standards and this never achieves the hard-hitting effect created in Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (about an unsolved serial killing case in the totalitarian Korea). 


Citizen X makes a compelling crime/drama by chronicling the search for the monster and also by exposing the inefficient bureaucracy of Soviet Union. The film succeeds little better in depicting hunt for the murderer. There’s lack of complexity in the inquiry of inept bureaucracy. It personifies evil within the system through two-dimensional angry-faced high official Bondarchuk. But still we got to remember that it’s a 100 minute film trying to deftly maneuver between sea of real-life details. For better understanding about the case, there are various other intricate articles and books. Tom Rob Smith’s recent novel Child 44 was partly based on Chikatilo case. In the novel, the killings are shifted to the dreadful period after Stalin’s death. The speculation that Chikatilo’s brother was kidnapped and cannibalized (during the worst famine in Ukraine) was used as a starting point for the novel. The novel took a good look at the menace of Stalinism, although it followed many conventions of a Hollywood movie (it had a very dull movie adaptation). Compared to Child 44, Citizen X is a far better serial killer thriller. It’s also doubles up as an engaging examination of a man’s steely determination to conquer the evil. 

★★★½ 

Trailer