Saturday, February 12, 2011

Audition – Memoirs of a wire-saw wielding geisha

A still from Audition

Okay. I need to get this off my chest; or my back. And I need to do it now. It’s been a few days since I saw Audition – the Japanese shocker from Takashi Miike, a director whose body of work I came to know about, having read up on Eli Roth. Yes, Eli is the director of the gorno (gore porno) hit Hostel. My first impression of this post millennial psychological thriller – it’s unnerving.

Why?

Because the introductory commentary on the DVD has its director informing us, “If you feel sick while watching the movie, you can pause the film and watch it tomorrow.” As an afterthought, he adds, “I hope you enjoy the film.”

But that wasn’t the reason I was left feeling breathless.

I’ll tell you what managed to get me into that state, without of course, giving away the ending or revealing crucial plot points. Palpitation set in primarily due to a strange sequence towards the end of the film that features immaculate, almost exemplary sound design. It just so happens that your stomach might not allow you to get that far. That’s because a constantly churning belly is hard to lug around, especially when the journey involves terrifyingly bizarre sequences, the likes of which I haven’t seen since God knows how long.

Let’s get a few things out of the way first. There are no supernatural forces at work in Audition. So much so, it’s the ordinariness of the premise that makes it all the more terrifying. There aren’t too many boo sequences. But I can admit without any embarrassment, there were times I tried viewing my screen from the corner of my eye, to lower the risk of sudden spooks. Needless to say, I failed miserably as the scary bits were not scattered all over the film as is common with most mainstream horror flicks. The spooks in Audition were there to stay.

The plot line to this romantic thriller is wafer thin. Recently widowed producer scouts for a new wife by conducting fake auditions for a film that will never be made. Stumbles upon a dainty little damsel who he thinks, might qualify as the woman of his dreams. Bad news – she does qualify, but as a cheerleader, flashing pompoms of his nightmares. As the film proceeds, you get to know that the lady is not all she appears to be. There is an ominous presence in the film that is introduced to audiences early on. Believe me when I say this, creepy doesn’t even begin describing how this scene plays out in the movie.

But then, you as the viewer will realise something special from the very beginning. For a change, you actually empathise with the protagonist in a horror film. He is not just another expendable, ready to be tossed off mercilessly as a casualty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. You will experience a genuine sense of loss as he converses with his young son in a language filled only with gazes and eye contact, after the schoolgoer arrives a tad too late to find his mother breathe her last on the hospital deathbed. His gift never finds its way to her hands. And you feel sorrier for the same.

Similarly interspersed are moments of sincere emotional resonance, like when you find the father giving a thumbs up to his teenaged son, now all grown up, who has just brought his girlfriend home for the first time. The interaction between the girl and the boy's father will play out once again, but you might be in for a surprise when it does so, the second time, owing to the pure mindbending allusions it brings with it.

Another confession I have to make is concerning the nine winks I stole during the course of the film. There is a sense of deliberate pacing throughout the first three quarters of the film. And my eyes, which were trained to absorb MTV style, hip-hop montages found such sedentary compositions with minimal dialogue and extended takes, a direct assault on the visual senses. In fact, horror aficionados vouch for the fact that the first one and a half hours of Audition, is purely a buildup for the last 15 minutes. Which, many might like to describe as ‘nothing much happens for most of the movie.’

I’d like to leave you with some food for thought. During a particularly intense scene in the film, referred to in the director’s commentary, Miike makes a remark asking audiences to pay attention to the sound effects accompanying the visuals, which are quite frankly, hard to digest. There is an almost unbridled sense of glee in the filmmaker’s tone as he draws our attention to the sound effects, like it was the result of several man-hours of carefully planned filmmaking. You can bet your life on it. It is. And it’s also why you might not find yourselves in a position to get that far, at least with respect to watching the film, let alone return for second servings.

Or as Miike says, "You can always watch it tomorrow."

This post is an entry to the Reel-Life Bloggers contest organized by wogma.com and reviewgang.com

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

127 Hours - A pound of flesh for every hour...

James Franco in 127 Hours
Before reading any further, I must warn those who haven’t yet seen the film - you might wanna walk away, no questions asked. Although, there aren't any spoilers in this review, I'd prefer if you'd watch the film and come back, to find echoes of your cinematic journey resonating on these pages. However, if you insist on hanging on, you're most welcome.

As for the rest of you, who’ve survived the experience, this should bring back more memories than one – some of them sweet, some not so. But most of you would agree on one thing – that you’d think twice, before using a phrase like ‘I’d give my right arm for it’. I mean, really? Would you? What are the things in world that would compel you to forsake your arm? And I am not talking about merely forsaking. I am talking about forsaking in the sacrificial sense. What is the worth of an arm? How big should something be in order for you to give your arm away, just so you can own the so-called big thing? Would you do it for love? Or would you do it for money? Or maybe, would you do it just for a shot at being alive?

Questions like these and more are sure to have hounded Aron Ralston,  the mountaineer, whose real-life survival story inspired 127 Hours, Danny Boyle’s latest, fat-free, no-frills, lean-meat-of-a-movie offering. I know, the first and almost perpetually lingering question is (for most audiences, at least), whether it’s a worthy follow-up from the man, who gave the world Slumdog Millionaire. I personally would find myself at a loss for words if the question were posed to me. That’s partly because Danny’s oeuvre is far and varied and his influences multi-hued. His perceptions about life, death, spirituality and beyond cannot be straitjacketed into a quantifiable categorical mold.

Having said that let me cut straight to the chase. The film blasts off full steam with a storytelling device, I have seen Danny use very sparsely in his movies. At least, that’s my interpretation, if memory serves me right. A triple-layer split screen with a smattering of colors so bright, it’s almost sumptuous – an overhead view of a stadium brimming over with testosterone-fueled fans roaring with passion. Enter protagonist Aron Ralston played by a cheery James Franco, an engineer from Utah, for whom mountaineering is a passion bigger than anything, and everything else in the world. Less than two minutes into the film and he sets on his journey for yet another rock climbing adventure.

Set to the keys of a pulsating soundtrack, Aron blazes away from his home in his pickup truck in the dead of the night, passing by prominent road signs (read branding, considering the comparatively low budget of the film). Soon, he’s dirt biking his way into the canyons, but not before spectacularly crashing at one juncture. As opposed to most people, who would cringe at the impact, Aron, entirely in his element, flips out his camera and clicks a self-portrait, to serve him for posterity. On the way, he also encounters two lovely ladies, mountaineers in their own right, who learn a lesson or two about free falling, skinny dips in the canyons.

Having bid them goodbye, Aron continues his onward journey, trespassing precarious terrain, in the recesses of the canyons. It’s here that Aron encounters what he refers to as his ‘Oops’ moment. As fate would have it, while navigating a particularly narrow precipice, deep in the mountains, a boulder decides to descend on him. Fortunately, instead of crushing him to death, it chooses to pin him down by jamming itself between two mountain walls with his right arm inconveniently sandwiched between a rock and a really hard place – another rock face, actually.

Oops?

Danny decides this is just the right time to show us the title of the film. And with good reason too.
For, this is where the film really starts.

It didn’t dawn on me until much later after the film, as to what Danny had set out to accomplish. No doubt, it is a hard task – to make a movie about a protagonist, trapped by a boulder with absolutely no way to climb out. But what lifts this human drama out of the ordinary is a breathtaking performance by James Franco, who is ably aided by the technical and artistic wizardry of Danny and his team. What strikes you more than anything else is Aron’s resilience and his inherent epiphany - that what just happened, could not have happened any other way. He is flamboyant, even in his fall and tries to find humor in the situation that he has gotten himself into – with help from a video camera and the subsequent tapings, no less.

What’s even more beguiling is that almost the entire film is shot from Aron’s point of view. At no time, are we left to the mercy of ruminations, courtesy secondary characters. This ensures we are willing and equal participants in Aron’s journey, whether we can take it or not. 

Keen followers of Danny’s work would notice the usual directorial flourishes that have been carried over from his previous works. Shooting within a tight and claustrophobic set, the director induces a sense of unease. Few shots were reminiscent of his highly underrated sci-fi spectacle Sunshine, which required Cillian Murphy to don a solar-mission spacesuit, replete with a gold-plated helmet and overalls. While that movie explored inter-personal conflict set in the vast expanse of outer space and was a trippy figment of imagination, Aron’s tale is a real-life story, which makes the apprehensions of the protagonist even more palpable, and sometimes, plain unbearable.

We are witness to confessions of his indiscretions, his irresponsibility, his loves, his fears, his shortcomings, all of which plays inside his mind. And it’s these memories that inspire him to do whatever it takes to emerge victorious and alive.

A certain shot that did catch my fancy was one featuring Aron struggling to ingest the final few drops of water from his canister during his ordeal. The camera literally travels into the canister, a cool UV blue-lit chamber lined with little droplets, which marked a stark contrast to the infamously grimy, foreign particle-laden syringe of heroine that the protagonist of Trainspotting, Mark Renton (played by Ewan McGregor) forces through his veins in the latter film. There are several split screen scenes in 127 Hours, some of them, which I didn’t consider necessary. But, I believe, they might have served the purpose of offering a lot more to look at, considering that the narrative was sparse at best.

The soundtrack, a revelation by AR Rahman, is at several junctures, transcendent. Some tracks are so rife with life that you are pushed to the brink of an auditory explosion of happiness. Pay attention to a particular ‘groupie’ scene and a rain sequence. The soundtrack in these segments rises to a crescendo, which supplements the story brilliantly. Personally, I was in awe of the sound design, which recreated echoes and silences on a pitch perfect note. The cinematography is laudable on several fronts – from endowing a sense of realism to the proceedings to capturing the untamed vistas of Utah in a grandiose and color-rich format. Many of the light-and-shadow games are too beautiful to explain in words.

Of course, all this exposition would barely serve its purpose if I weren’t to delve on Aron’s liberation. You can take my word for it - it is hard on the eyes and even harder on the heart. And, it’s meant to be. But just think about it. If it’s traumatizing enough for you to simply sit through a cinematic recreation of it, how hard would it have been for Aron to bring himself to do it? The scene in question is uncompromisingly graphic and does not flinch from showing what the audiences were expecting from the word go (although I flinched on several occasions). Coupled with amplified sound effects, you can expect a visceral assault on the senses.

In my case, even before the closing credits began appearing, I found myself questioning what would have I done? A friend said she might have just given up. Another buddy said he’d go the Aron way. No matter how I spun it around in my head, I couldn’t answer that question. I even tried arguing with my friend that we’d never embark on something as adventurous as what Aron had, in order to be confronted with a peril as life-threatening as this. It was at this point that she mirrored Aron’s epiphany and quoted him saying, “That rock was waiting for me – all my life. In fact, it was waiting for me even before I was born.”  

We all have a rock in waiting – for us.

This post is an entry to the Reel-Life Bloggers contest organized by wogma.com and reviewgang.com