Oculus (2013) – Peeping into Antiquity

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Oculus stars Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites as Kaylie Russell and Tim Russell in a supernatural, psychological horror story that’s as much psychological as it’s supernatural. The movie covers two stages – when they’re 23 and 21, the present (2013), and when they’re 12 and 10, the past (2002).

As we’d realize later, a 10-year Tim is taken under custody for patricide. Just before that, however, he and Kaylie promise to destroy the artifact that they believe is the precursor to all these occurrences. When Tim returns home after 11 years, Kaylie and Tim give it one last try – to destroy the antic mirror that their father bought in an auction. The mirror, for them, is the cause behind countless homicides. Their family only plays a small part in the mayhem initiated by the possessed mirror. Their pact? To finish it off.

In Latin, oculus means eyes. In the movie, the people lured into demonic acts by the timeworn mirror find their eyes transformed into mirrors. It could symbolize that the mirror forces these people to divert their reflections and only realize the vision of the mirror itself, or quite simply – we could infer that our eyes mirror what we see, subjective reality, and we act based on those subjective instincts, for good or bad.

Mike Flanagan sits on the director’s chair again after Absentia (2011), yet, he’s mostly known for directing the well-received student movie, Ghosts of Hamilton Street (2003). In Oculus, Flanagan opts for a non-linear approach. Intercutting between two different time spans within the same house, we see a repeat of the tragedy that panned out 11 years ago in Kaylie and Tim’s quest to destroy the mirror and salvage the souls entrapped in it. As the movie progresses, the adults take precedence to the children forming a compelling revelation of ghostly destruction.

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Although the movie isn’t long, it does take a while to build the anticipation. The initial 45 minutes revolve around Kaylie reminding Tim of their childhood. These adults relive what happened 11 years ago and prepare themselves for what could happen today, 11 years later. Yet, tackling the mirror is tricky. The mirror has a shady, dangerous history and it works categorically by distorting their perception, destroying their rationality, and injecting an overriding sense of hopelessness in them.

Flanagan doesn’t go the traditional route with scares as much as he goes for atmospheric creepiness. With the mirror slowly possessing Marie and Alan, parents of Kaylie and Tim, (played by Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane), it coaxes them into becoming one with it – overruling them with a Them vs. the World mentality. Pointing to decay as its theme, the mirror first clasps its victims by decoying their inner desires, if it’s by seducing them, torturing them, or poisoning their minds, and after it gets hold of them – it unleashes the monster it has created to ensue destruction.

The story of Oculus isn’t as interesting as much as the presentation of a relatively overdone concept: possession. Fans of horrors may like it, or shun it, but it’s still interesting and didn’t turn me off. The movie is more discreet than outright scary. The scares are well timed and it tries to blend a movie like The Shining (1980), for example, and an outright slasher like Nightmare at Elm’s Street (1984) maintaining a dwindling mood throughout.

The pseudo-investigation that Kaylie and Tim carry out of the mystery is the best part of the movie. It keeps you guessing and doesn’t distract you. As Kaylie and Tim continue to dig deep, within themselves and of the peculiar manifestations, revisiting their escapades as children, the movie treads deeper into dread, which is quite interesting to watch.

For a standard medium-budget horror movie, Flanagan does a good job of trying to walk on a thin rope of tradition and not falling prey to its oddities. The elements are present, of course, with the script timed well into convention, and the plot points being similar to horrors of the past, yet the treatment makes the difference.

Oculus has decent performances by the cast. Karen Gillan is adept as Kaylie and her authority remains on show throughout the movie. She’s pretty to boot if off, and through her we actually get a character that is able to command and lure whenever she deems fit. The rest have done okay, even though they’re not as commanding as Karen is.

Oculus also looks good visually. It’s something you’d expect from traditional horror movies set inside modern Victorian-styled houses. The way makers play with hallucination, illusion, and reality is also worth noting, even though the ending is predictable and is subject to the conventional trap of horrors. It does leave the space open for sequels, but with that intention to boot, it’s quite difficult to appreciate the movie. Flanagan seems to have one eye on the future. That makes sense economically, but it gave the movie a defunct ending. Audiences would feel underwhelmed by the anti-climax and that drags the movie down. It did for me.

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Oculus had a high ceiling. It doesn’t quite get close to touching it, but it’s a decent watch. I doubt non-horror fans would appreciate it, or even majority of horror fanatics—a shame because the movie had so much potential.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) – It’s a Beautiful Day

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An existentialist road movie from the master of crime does sound strange. But when it’s from a visionary, it tends to work out as Alice would substantiate. Sandwiched between Mean Streets (1973) and the cult Taxi Driver (1976), Martin Scorsese tried his hands on a low-budget feminist drama about life by peeking through the journey of a single-mother, her displaced son, and their adventures trying to earn a living and a slice of fame through austerity and honesty.

After her alcoholic husband (Billy Bush) passes away one mournful morning, Alice (Ellen Burstyn) has no support system. She has nowhere to go, nothing to do. A generic homemaker, Alice has spent most of her life under guidance of her parents and later her husband. Her only skill, per se, is music. But she has to cope with a new life, especially with her nagging pre-teen son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter), her sole responsibility.

Alice decides to sell whatever’s left, keep the tidbits, and leave Socorro for Monterey to revive her singing career and presumably become the new Alice Fay. Yet, money doesn’t compromise and they’re forced to lodge in Phoenix. There she applies for jobs that require singing. For her, applying means knocking door-to-door offering her musical talent, but luck’s a hard bird to catch. With proper marketing, she does catch it, only for it to crumble down after her brief association with the suave, yet abusive husband of her next-door neighbor.

The mother and son flee again. This time, they reach Tucson. Lady luck strikes, Alice gets a job as a server at a fast food. It rolls smoothly there. She comes across peculiar characters, but hey–she’s working, she’s earning, and she has a wonderful son. Time rolls on for Alice until David (Kris Kristofferson) comes by. They fall in love, yadda, yadda. Again, Alice being the naïve country girl, she stumbles upon another setback, with her lover here. This time though, she doesn’t elope, but holds firm and continues her work.

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Alice is a bittersweet tale about the journey of a woman in an age when feminism was sharply rising. Scorsese picks an unassuming, simple woman to tell a story of a single-mother striving to survive, in a largely patriarchal society, with her son stuck within the four corners of a house. Perhaps, Scorsese added something of his own to the character of Tommy. By his own admission, Scorsese was an indoor child during his early days and spent much time watching TV and subconsciously learning the craft of filmmaking. There are good similarities between Martin Scorsese’s childhood and the childhood of Tommy, except he doesn’t live in nearby gangster town filled with mafias and wise guys. But, there are similarities…

Through this drama though, Scorsese previews the aftermath of tragedy for a housewife—who had no career of her own, not much in the name of property, and was all alone, with a young son, in a distant society. The story of Alice is about coping up and trying to create a niche for oneself. Alice and Tommy travel from here to there in search for a dignified life amidst strangers and demons. The purpose for Alice is to find work that would enable her and the son to live cozily, and would help her realize her childhood dream. In this small quest for dignity, they come across different people in different settings. Yet, they strive on together as candid buddies amid some amusing circumstances.

At the end, people do need support systems. All Alice is doing is seeking one—for her and for her son. And, Scorsese shows this with unwavering simplicity, a country charm, and unfiltered nobility. Alice doesn’t Live here Anymore is arguably the most underrated film from Scorsese, and throws a revealing reflection of what’s in store from the maverick filmmaker. It’s all easy to say that now 30 years after Alice, but for a select few, Roger Ebert comes to mind, they’d seen the legend of Scorsese before even Scorsese envisioned his role as an unparalleled storyteller.

Scorsese fans would no doubt love Alice for it’s unalike most Scorsese movies since then. It’s a refresher and I’d doubt many could guess that Alice came from Scorsese if they ignored the rolling titles, which serves Scorsese well. One of the criticisms against him have been lack of variety in his movies as opposed to Kubrick, Wilder, Spielberg, et al. Rather naïve to say that for people mistake his archetypical vision and stamp for lack of variety. He’s shown variety in plenty of movies, in diverse genres, Alice included.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a beauty. A gusty little story told with ease, the movie is warm, charming, and adorable just like the character of Alice. Ellen Burstyn carries the movie on her shoulders for which she deservedly won an Oscar for Best Actress, even though she’s known more for another classic, The Exorcist (1973). Other actors are in fine form, especially Diane Ladd as the foul-mouthed server, Flo.

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Alice comes across as a simple documentation of  life. For those who admire existentialist dramas, coming of age movies, or the lovely liberty of a second chance, or for film buffs, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a fine experience and a swift watch encompassing the spirit of life’s tangibility and exemplifying that if life throws lemons at you, just make lemonade. After all, you’re only as healthy as you feel, no?

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – Hymns of Celebration

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Some movies just make you go Awww. You end up forgetting real life and start appreciating the wonder of reel-life. Frank Capra’s epic, It’s a Wonderful Life, is one such movie.

Well reputed for its repeat value as a feel good Christmas drama, it holds a television record during holiday season for all the wrong reasons. A copyright booboo consequently enabled television stations to endless hours of free screening on TV. But, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Frank Capra’s melodrama as the failure to renew its copyright in 1975 arced as the sole reason It’s a Wonderful Life has become the quintessential Christmas carol. Not surprising at all, It’s a Wonderful Life is a sweetie that’s sappy and splendid – taking you to the land of fairytales again.

Capra had already won three Oscars by the time he co-wrote, directed, and produced It’s a Wonderful Life. Sadly, the movie bombed at the box-office. It was celebrated in the Oscars though—receiving five nominations, winning only one. A shame, but considering it clashed with William Wyler’s Best Years of our Lives, it’s not surprising, a bit saddening. Still the movie ranks today as one of the greatest films made—a personal favorite of Frank Capra and James Stewart, who stars in this sentimental drama as George Bailey.

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The movie spans 26 years starting 1919 when George was merely 12 years young and ending at around 1945, with George now happy and merry at 38. Incidentally, that was Stewart’s real age when he came about doing It’s a Wonderful Life. Considering that he plays an 18-year-old here, it’s amazing how Stewart doesn’t look that old for his role as young and enthusiastic, George Bailey. His youthfulness and enthusiasm never really fades—a trait that keeps George going despite his rough life amidst tough times. As they say, what a time to be alive!

For George and his virtuous wife, Mary Bailey (played by the charming, Donna Reed), this period starting from George’s early part-time work at a Pharmacist’s until his responsibilities as the Chairperson of Bailey Bros. Building and Loan Association—becomes a romantic period that sees them bloom, whither, and shine again making a jolly family of six. In these 26 years, they grow to cherish their smalltime Bedford Falls turning this small town into a haven. George spends his time serving his hometown, and keeping it off the sordid hands of slumlord, Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore) – saving the day many times for the hardworking and oppressed citizens of Bedford Falls.

Yet, one has to pose the question, what happens when this local messiah in flesh and blood faces trouble and finds himself in the corner? How can he go on protecting his fellas when he, himself, is done and dusted? That’s the catch, but have no fear friends for AS2, Angel Second Class, passionate admirer of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is here to save the day. His name is Clarence Odbody, played with jest by Henry Travers.

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Clarence’s favorite novel, Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer knits a mawkish metaphor in Wonderful Life. Like Tom, George’s overriding guilt of saving the day and undoing the wrong forms the basis and very like Tom and his pal, Huck, George is also an adventurer at heart wanting to visit Europe, Asia, and the Caribbean. Of course, this remains unfulfilled for he has to grow up at a young age and takeover as the Chairman of his father and uncle’s association. Not to let his people down and to ensure that Potter is kept at hand’s reach, George reluctantly agrees and once he does, his adventures only begin within the confines of this small town.

It’s a Wonderful Life might be longer than it appears for today’s viewers. At over 2 hours, the movie is slow taking its time as it skims over 26 years. Not to say it’s boring, which it isn’t, it can feel a bit tedious at times, but the splendor we see on screen, Capra’s tight direction, and the droll life and times of the Bailey couple keep it refreshing and amusing. It’s one of those movies you’d enjoy in a cold night wrapped around warm blankets with your family, which is also why It’s a Wonderful Life has become a nostalgic fair.

For people who’ve grown up reading and watching fairytales, it’s a wonderful throwback to those times, and only augments one’s deep-rooted desire for fantasy, goodness, and the celebration that’s life. And for Capra, celebration it was. After returning from his time away during the Second World War, Capra envisioned a movie that would celebrate life amidst the gory world he’d witnessed. James Stewart was on the same boat. Together, they created magic – delivering a movie that has become reminiscent with celebration and the joy of living. It’s a mad, mad, mad world—and Capra uses his wit and humor to tell a story of innate divinity behind the madness that appears.

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Under the mask of fantasy though, Capra uses this film to shed light on the manipulation of proprietors, capitalistic powers, and the chi of commercialization. He throws light on all these issues loosely, but doesn’t go into details as Wonderful Life isn’t really about life’s negativity, it’s about optimism, about human endeavor, and the value of individual lives. What’s important for Capra is to put these into effect and make this world one wonderful place – appreciating the wonder of life.

When George finds himself in the all-new Bedford thanks to Clarence, the movie takes a sharp noir turn, with low-key lighting, degenerative locales, and power-hungry maniacs ravaging the city, now renamed Pottersville. In the scene when the never-born, never-here George Bailey visits his dilapidated house, Capra throws sharp shadows in George’s face, and creates a depleted environment. Even if it’s for a tiny portion of the movie, we get a feel of a genuine film noir and the sad part – it could be the actual representation of an increasingly commercial America in the post-war scenario.

Nonetheless, we don’t suffer too much in such a noir-ish setting as Capra brings us right back into his fantasy. Perhaps he was clinging on to those values that made him the Frank Capra, and perhaps that’s why we all love him and his movies.

Looking back, It’s a Wonderful Life is the zenith’s of Capra’s career. How ironic that it led to his downfall, whilst being perhaps his best effort and one of the most glorious films ever made. Capra went on to direct five more movies after Wonderful Life. While they’re impressive in their own ways, none match the joie de vivre of It’s a Wonderful Life.

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It’s a Wonderful Life is heart-warming. Filled with Capra-ian ebullience, it highlights all the wonderful aspects of life, love, and the world. There may be few bad apples, but not all apples are the same. One just needs to realize the goodness in people, and strive to accept life a celebratory journey than a power-driven game. Maybe a bit too utopian, but a man (read person) doesn’t get into a situation like this always, right?

I’ll leave you with a quote from Capra when asked about the legacy of the movie:

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen. The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

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Ah, it is a wonderful life.

In the Mouth of Madness (1994) – In Bedlam

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The trampled Lovecraft and his insane stories…

John Carpenter pays homage to HP Lovecraft and his extraterrestrial sagas with In the Mouth of Madness. The name itself is inspired from Lovecraft’s own, At the Mountain of Madness. It takes extra liberty from Lovecraft’s most popular story, The Call of Cthulhu and other similar stories. Consequently, In the Mouth of Madness contains elements typified by Lovecraft—insanity, unknowable powers, inconceivable horror, extraterrestrial powers enslaving humans, and of course—the dampening, sickening degeneration of people thanks to the unknown.

When filmmakers pay tribute to their favorite authors, especially in horrors, they walk on a thin rope. Roger Corman, with his favorite actor Vincent Price, did a fine job of respecting Edgar Allan Poe’s classic stories and poems in the 60s. They’re generally popular as B-grade classics. Vincent Price (one of my personal favorites) always made these movies appear larger with his inimitable persona and a piercing voice. Roger Corman is a handy director too—not avant-garde, but he’s okay.

In cases when other filmmakers have adapted horror classics, there have been instances of inventiveness. The Innocents (Henry James, adapted by Clayton), The Haunting (Shirley Jackson, adapted by Wise), Rosemary’s Baby (Ira Levin, adapted by Polanski), The Exorcist (William Blatty, adapted by Friedkin), The Shining (Stephen King, adapted by Kubrick), and of course Misery (Stephen King, adapted by Reiner) are some of the most brilliant examples of a movie propelling the book into folklore.

In the case of Madness, Carpenter, whilst being a phenomenal presenter of violence and destruction, just doesn’t seem to bring his A-game. You can’t doubt Carpenter for the brilliant visuals here, but the story itself is loopy, pretentious, and Lovecraft’s obscurity is misguided, even though authentic. Take even The Fly (both versions – Newmann and Cronenburg); both movies use the story by George Langelaan to present a discreet view of powers in imprudent hands. The unknowable matches well with the unknown, and such a combo terrorizes viewers. In terrorizing them, the makers are honest.

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The honesty is lacking from John Carpenter in the third installment of his Apocalypse Trilogy. The first two are The Thing (1982) and Prince of Darkness (1987). There’s a major point when the entire movie could have been thrown to water, if only the powers to-be acted in best interests of the society. If Sutter Cane’s (Jürgen Prochnow) book was notorious in driving his readers insane, why doesn’t anybody just ban the book, or abolish it? If that works against freedom of expression, well, we don’t have the right to drive people crazy thanks to freedom of expression.

Sure, if all of what John Trent (Sam Neill) experienced was sheer hallucination, which it was—the movie fails again in its ploy to pretend as a hopeful psychological thriller along the lines of The Innocents (1961, a bona-fide classic). With such an intriguing plot—books of a bestselling horror writer driving his readers crazy—Carpenter fails to hit the mark, big time. Poor writing and ineffective treatment would be the reasons. It could have been a masterpiece as a psychological thriller, or a surreal drama, yet the monstrous horror on screen allows few chills, but ultimately fails to invoke any sense of connection with the characters or the story.

Viewers will realize that sanity is fragile, and at any given moment, we could lose it. Sure, that’s a nice start, but what next? Carpenter sends us to the allegorical town of Hobb’s End just to manifest his brilliance as a master scarecrow—scaring us with disgusting beings (Lovecraftian elements) and presenting a redundant drama on the possibility of people ardently believing in the myths present in horror books.

Horror writers do have a knack of deluding themselves with what they write. Stephen Kind openly admitted how he had nearly lost himself while writing The Shining. Here, the writer Sutter Cane seems to lose his own grip of reality, but how is that supposed to make sense when the character he bases the book on, John Trent, himself is lost in a hallucinatory whirlpool?

We get it – they’re all insane and end up believing in what they read and write. Cane is taken over by the monsters he creates and Trent by the monsters he reads in those books. But it’s not just stimulating, let alone enjoying or thought provoking. When you look at Carpenter’s previous classics, especially Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982), it’s amazing how he loses the plot here.

What makes this even worse is how Carpenter toys with themes of duality and phenomenology in his chaotic world. Trent experiences the world, as it is, through Cane’s books and by the end, he starts seeing the world that way. If there’s a positive in the underbelly of Madness, Carpenter highlights the line between reading a book (or, watching a movie) and being obsessed with it. And that’s the sad part because the premise is so damn good, the movie could have been foundational.

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In the Mouth for Madness can be scary at times. Carpenter masterfully creates an uneasy atmosphere and his control over the visual elements is excellent. Yet, that’s where it ends. With a weak script (written by Michael De Luca) and formulaic execution, Madness is just madness from Carpenter. It’s one of those movies that you either love or hate. I didn’t like it, but I know a handful that would, so all is not lost.

Madness is twisted and sickening and that’s about it to say. Maybe it doesn’t help that I don’t find the works of Lovecraft intriguing either, but hey – at least you could try.

Teorema (1968) – The Theory of Everything

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Pier Paolo Pasolini is a renaissance man in its truest form. Philosopher, poet, novelist, political activist, and a filmmaker, his works are more popular for their political ideologies than for well-weaved narrations. With his roots firmly set on communism, Pasolini told stories from the lens of a Neorealist showing the grave lives of the poor, the proletariats, while underlying the vanity of the lives of the bourgeois. Teorema, or Theorem, is exactly as the name suggests—it formulizes the way of life in Italian society years after the Second World War.

When a strange man (Terrence Stamp) visits the house of a discreet bourgeois, he emanates bizarre vibes seducing the father, the mother, the son, the daughter, and the maid. They find him irresistible and are unable to understand this enigmatic being, yet they’re all attracted to him. In return, this Visitor “grants them their wish” and seduces them one-by-one: the maid, son, mother, father, and daughter.

One morning, he leaves abruptly, and after he leaves, their lives spiral out of control as they seek redemption through their own actions, which doesn’t appear forthcoming for this elite family. There are various interpretations as to who this Visitor could be; whether it is God, or the Devil itself—but that’s not the main point. Whoever this Visitor is, he seduced all of them; everybody (except the maid) confided to him, and ultimately—he transformed their lives, for better or worse.

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Paolo (Massimo Girotti), the father, finds no purpose in living. He renounces his material possessions and strips naked before entering the barren desert—a symbol that recurs throughout the movie.

Lucia (played by famed Italian actor, Silvana Mangano), the mother, realizes that she’s lived a life with no meaning. She has no special skills. She’s merely a passive spectator, without any silver lining. After the Visitor leaves, she wanders around trying to search for this seductive creature and ends up seducing young men who look like him.

Pietro (Andrés Soublette), through his homosexual encounter with the Visitor, loses his innocence and engages in his passion, painting, through which he tries to find the image of this ripple-less man.

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Odetta (Anne Wiazemsky), the daughter, who once negated herself and avoided men, finds herself in love with the Visitor. She tries to live in his memory, but finds herself unable to, thereby, entering a catatonic state.

Finally, Emilia (Laura Betti, playing the maid)—out of all, she was the only one who didn’t confide in the Visitor. She leaves the house, goes to a rural locale, and attains, what we’d call, a state of Nirvana before immolating herself, as she no longer feels the need to burden the world. The Hindus would call this Samadhi.

Teorema is a strange, minimalist movie. With little dialogs and recurrent symbols of bareness in the desert, the clouds drifting above, it symbolizes the nakedness of the bourgeoisie life. It points towards the eventuality of change—an initiation that is beginning to surface the layers of European society. Many theorists argue that Teorema highlights the inability of the elites to live a sacred life in harmony with existence. As a result, they’re unable to attain liberation—unlike the maid who attained Moksha. Yet, the film goes much deeper in its psychological portrayal of the vainness of people who live inside mansions and “own the poor.”

Pasolini uses deep spaces and extreme wide shots to fortify his stance of emptiness. He shows how the world is ultimately open and free to all, and no matter how much we stuff our lives with material possessions; at the end, everybody engulfs into this planet. Everything is without meaning, yet in this meaninglessness – there is divinity.

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In the outskirts of Milan, the poor sympathize with Emilia. In the metro, the rich can’t handle the vibrations of the heart, the purity of the soul, and through nurture—more so than Nature—these people are conditioned in living behind the veil of materialism. When vanity of matter is exposed, they have nothing to hold themselves. They fail to march on and embrace a life of spiritual substance because their souls are as hard and lifeless as their concrete foundation failing to realize that the only thing permanent is change itself.

In the context of the narrative, the Visitor appears to be the self-regulating mechanism of society—theorized into a symbol and well put in account by Pasolini. He, or it, is the subtle element within society that keeps it evolving. Only here, sexuality is the trigger, however, when one analyzes sexuality; it’s also the first path to liberation, of transformation, and towards creation of the new. The Visitor, comes from nowhere, and converts these people—constructing a new avatar within them. This renewed self is much more conscious and intelligent than their previous sleeping selves. But the impressions of their hardcore minds try to reject this rejuvenated self for they are left in a limbo, neither here nor there.

When these transformed beings, fresh as new, look at the world from their new gained perspective, the old starts wearing off; the new starts seeming too wild, too intimidating, and perhaps too wonderful for them to ever comprehend. Their defense mechanism kicks in. Those who could leave behind their traces are left transformed (Emilia) and those who couldn’t, run insane (Paolo), or into a perennial cul-de-sac (Lucia).

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Behind the wonderful visuals and paradoxical story, Teorema, in essence, pays homage to Freud’s psychoanalysis and Marx’s dialectical materialism. Sexuality remains in the subtext throughout the movie. Viewed as a positive force, Emilia in this case, is born again. To those who consider it a passion of the body, the guilt haunts them and to undo one vice, they falter into a series of vices.

Ultimately, though, the theory of oppressor vs. oppressed forms the main text of the film. Whom are they oppressing? Who is oppressing whom? What is matter? What good is materialism? How to evolve from this material state into something far more ethereal—is it even possible? Teorema tries answering these questions, but leaves much to the discretion of the viewer.

Pasolini’s views run throughout the movie. His ideologies of anti-consumerism, communism, and renunciation ultimately form an arc that catapults Teorema as a discourse on society than a feature film. Pasolini isn’t concerned with how the movie progresses. He wants people to talk about the movie after it’s over. And, he’s succeeded because Teorema starts where the story ends. He only gives us the beginning. The middle and the end are entirely up to us.

All of this makes Teorema a peculiar movie that’s a hybrid of documentary, pure montage, and narrative cinema. It’s stimulating and opens the gate to issues surrounding Italy and most of Europe two decades after the Second World War. The movie provokes people into thinking about societal tendencies, about life, and about phenomenology as very few movies have, before or after. And that’s where the movie manages to stump us, with its uncommitted observation of the microcosmic reality present in our society.

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Watch Teorema when you have the time. Sex is treated pure, in its primeval sense, leading to creation of the new, consequently, giving birth to originality, whilst providing a continuum to the inherent virtue of humans. It’s a cathartic movie leaving you with many questions, few answers – and that’s the romance of this splendid movie. It doesn’t say a lot, but the little it does—encompasses the grand theories of an individual’s place in an ever-changing reality.

Phantom of the Paradise (1974) – When the Phantom Meets Dorian Gray in a Faustian Affair

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The ever notorious Brian De Palma builds his gothic drama on the foundation of three classic novels—Gaston Leroux’ Phantom of the Opera, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the German legend, Faust, popularized by Goethe and Christopher Marlowe. As it goes, De Palma does the seemingly impossible by creating a perfect transmutation of three novels featuring the devil, the man who sold his soul to the devil in a Faustian trade-off, and the unlikely musical genius, the Phantom.

Despite borrowing the premises from these classics, De Palma manages to present a shrilling satire on the booming entertainment industry of the 70s—revealing the private lives and behaviors of music artists and recording studio executives. The overarching dominance of corporates over art serves as the central theme. That’s only the beginning though as Phantom of the Paradise treads over mayhem and chaos—disorganization and catastrophe.

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In this devilish drama, De Palma uses his archetypical violence in telling a story of a naïve music composer, Winslow Leach (played by William Finley), who is robbed and destroyed by the executive of Death Records, Swan (Paul Williams)—only to come back as the devil’s double. Jessica Harper stars as Phoenix, the unrequited lover of the Phantom, but De Palma doesn’t spare her either. Her life spirals down to chaos as her fame increases, as people go crazy over her sultry voice and girl-next-door avatar. Leave it to the Phantom to save her though. He secretly writes songs for her. She gives them life and that’s all the Phantom wants. Nevertheless, we have a villain in the perplexing Swan—who does things his way or the highway, and when the Devil himself faces off against the Devil’s Double, we’re in De Palma territory.

Phantom of the Paradise is content-driven and includes themes from the trio of novels, yet also manages to give a commentary on fandom, the entertainment business, monopoly of recording studios, degeneration of artists, frantic stampedes, and the manufacturing of music stars to meet the needs and demands of these studios. Musicians-cum-artists may create magic, but the magic is all in the hands of these moguls who retain it and reuse it as they deem fit, as it fits their agenda.

For a movie that says so much, Phantom of the Paradise is a breezy ride, which is nothing short of sensational considering the gravity of the themes De Palma explores and the novels he bases this fantastic story on. Paradise contains all of De Palma’s idiosyncrasies as a filmmaker. There’s love, sex, violence, treachery, betrayal, sacrifice, and redemption—making this film a thesis on De Palma and his thrilling style.

Then, there’s overindulgence (Swan) and there’s under-indulgence (The Phantom). On one side, we have the power of control. On the other side, we have the virtue of a genius. In the middle is the struggling singer, Phoenix, in oblivion to all of this—trying to create a path to musical glory. Along the way, she loses track, but her omnipresent guardian angel is always there for her, looking out for her—trying to rescue her from the dirty business and attempting to introduce her to the sound of music.

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De Palma’s Carrie (1976), Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987), and Mission Impossible (1996) might be more popular than Paradise, but with no qualms, one can safely assert that Phantom of the Paradise is his seminal classic. It’s brutal, gory, and tragic, with some unforgettable scenes shown with a bittersweet touch. It tells a fascinating story of polarities, yet it’s very entertaining. In questioning the underbelly of the music business of the 70s, De Palma not only informs, he entertains. He makes this a joyous watch defying stereotypes. Considering that Paradise is a musical tragedy, the mere fact that it’s warm despite being cold, it’s fun whilst being sad makes this an exemplary piece of art.

What makes Paradise worth it is the fairytale-like presentation. De Palma executes this grave movie with light undertones and sets a fanatical mood. Whatever you see is light-hearted. The gory scenes are shot comically. They’re powerful, but filtered. The villain is what you’d expect from a Disney cartoon—smooth, yet with his own quirks. The Phantom, the unlikely hero, is like Popeye who’s a go-lucky guy that reaches another plane when he smells the air of music, when anybody questions is ingenuity, when people try to plagiarize his compositions, or when they set their evil eyes on his ladylove. His life and his music are only for the Phantom, and more importantly, Phoenix.

None of the actors in this movie really outgrew Paradise. William Finley stars with bravura and naivety as the unlikely Phantom. Jessica Harper steals the show. Three years later, she’d star in Dario Argento’s tour de force, Suspiria—one of the finest horrors ever made, but it’s sad to see that she never reached her true potential as an actor. Paul Williams, a real life musician, probably climbed his highest peak with Paradise. He’s brilliant as the suave, cunning, and quirky Swan—a role, it appears, designed for him.

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Complimented by terrific performances, a brilliant script, and De Palma’s unwavering artistry, Phantom of the Paradise is total non-stop action. Taking you to De Palma’s frenzied world, it clutches onto you and doesn’t let go. A fine addition to New Hollywood of the 70s, Paradise is a mixture of love and hatred forming an untouchable pact that carries the film’s legacy until today. The scar-faced Phantom in a match against the Devil, dressed to kill, all equipped to blow you out – a feat, mission impossible to topple.

Sadanga (2015) – Six Angles of Torture

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Right from the onset, Sadanga takes you to a world of craziness. A story about a man from the plains, it’s supposed to be a treatise on his life grappling with crime and politics. But nothing works in this wanna-be “neo-noir” flick—a movie that’s more about scenes put together in a poor edit than a story about the dirt of Kathmandu.

Sadanga is about Kalu Yadav, played by Saugat Malla, who seems to have given his best in preparing for this role, but somewhere you have to ask—why does this character have to be from a small village in Madhesh and not from any other part of Nepal. There is no proper logic backing this decision. A decision I admired when I first heard about it and the sole reason my footsteps romanced the floor of the theater.

The creators of this drama have chosen whim over rational in assigning the archetypical role to Saugat Malla ignoring that the story doesn’t demand such a character. In fact, the story doesn’t demand anything – neither your attention, nor your hard-earned money, and definitely not your time. Saugat Malla is loud in his portrayal, but what is even more loud is subtext and stereotypical representation of every character in the film—marked by poor performances and clichés that would cajole you to leave the premises right in the middle, for it is intolerable and the intolerability begins from the first sequence itself.

The ultimate sin, therefore, is the lack of story, or no story. Sadanga feels like a twisted series of misinterpreted pastiches than a movie. To call it a movie would be comical because it’s a succession (or, lack thereof) of shots and sequences put together that is invariably worsened by the lousy performances of Priyanka Karki as the Femme Fatale, Bijaya Lama, the ace entrepreneur who seems to be in a perennial state of throat cancer (no offense) throughout the movie. Not to forget the farce put up by Anup Baral as the DSP, and of course, the cream of the crop, Sauram Raj Tuladhar—who shows just why being a model doesn’t equate to being an actor. A wood’s job is to glorify the jungles but not dance around the wolves. The man is hopeless in his role.

Unfortunately, unlike some invariably bad movies, Sadanga doesn’t have any positives. The cinematography is inconveniently phony, and for the dough spent on the production design, one has to ask again—for the umpteenth time—why can’t Nepali filmmakers ever seem to do something right?

Rare instances apart, the whole state of cinema in this glorious nation seems to be held in a perpetual stalemate—led by farcical premises, poor plotting, lack of well-presented stories, and awful performances most of the time. The lack of education in film is astounding for a city, Kathmandu, where filmmaking and studies seem to be rising by the day.

Sadanga is an exhibition about how not to make a movie. The photography, lighting, and editing are amateurish. The dialogs are hopeless and one would presume most of Saugat’s dialogs were written just to show off his abilities to camouflage into characters, which again isn’t that impressive. Perhaps if the screenwriter read any basic book on screenwriting or even watched a film with eyes set on the story progression, maybe, just maybe, we’d have a presentable movie in front of us.

Alas, that’s not the case and of course, the discredit goes to the captain of the ship, the Director, Suraj Sunuwar—who’s also the screenwriter here—for having taken a massive gamble of gambling with the sensibilities of the audiences in creating a horrible product violating the abstract rights of humans to proper films and stories.

Avoid.

Rear Window (1954) – Peeping Tom

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Rear Window looks into a close-knit neighborhood—diverse people engaged in personal endeavors, occupied by trifles, and immersed in living.

When ace photographer L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart) is bound to the confines of a wheelchair after an accident, he has to ease into a temporary cast and remain indoors to heal and recuperate. In those long, boring days, he passes time by surveying the activities of his neighbors, observing their lives, and empathizing with their conditions. He’s the poster child of Peeping Tom and loves, notoriously, to peep into the lives of people irrelevant to his.

One night, deep awake, Jeff notices something bizarre from his window. A married man stuffs something in his briefcase and goes out of the house many-a-time. Next day, he finds the wife missing and suspecting this man for murder of his wife, James begins a couch-based investigation – using his binocular, long-focus lens, phone, camera, and his sophisticated girlfriend, Lisa Fremont, played by the dignified Grace Kelly. But, James has a major problem: he doesn’t have rock solid proof against the man. His girlfriend and personal nurse (played by Thelma Ritter) do seem to buy his story. Is that enough though?

Based on a short story by Cornell WoolrichRear Window is a suspenseful crime drama. It’s cramped into the flat of Jeff, with the movie revolving around this bubbly community. A ballerina living opposite to Jeff, a musician to his right, a loony woman a floor below the mysterious couple and of course—the point of attention, the man accused of murdering his sickly wife, living beside the odd couple; these people have their own untold stories and a unique life – amusing and revealing for the temporarily invalid photojournalist.

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Viewers observe the life of a ballerina living in practice, indulging in food, and becoming a prey to man-hunters. The couple upstairs lead their own isolated life, but their tiny dog connects them to the rest of the society. In the same manner, the newly married neighborhood romantics enjoy and engage in amorous activities until they start growing sick of one another. The woman below, who’s lonely and oh so seeking a life partner, finds no respite, whereas the musician—sick and tired of solitude—seeks to find the perfect hymn to instill his life with melody. Not to ignore the couple that most intrigues Jeff, the sickly wife bed-ridden and the husband tired and exhausted, could he have been the one to eliminate this perceptual thorn from his life?

Rear Window opens up a world, a microcosmic reality within society, and tells of the different tales people would witness if only they observed. All you need is to peep around, listen not hear, watch not look, and contemplate not analyze on people’s lives around you to reach an enlightening climax and gain profundity on people and society.

Jeff evolves from the drifter he was initially to a responsible man with a sense of duty when the film climaxes. For Lisa, the elegant socialite, she stands very much different to Jeff’s rogue ways. Yet, love bonds them together – romance sparks a light above their heads. She evolves from the sophisticated Lisa Fermont to the adaptable woman who’d gain from the best experiences of both worlds.

Masked as a thriller, Rear Window is actually a satire, a social drama on the various elements of life. Only when we stand to observe can we really relive life and only when we’re held together by a cast in a predicament unchangeable—can we excel and evolve. It is the law of nature.

The movie is slow at times, but very profound. With minimalistic locations and a tight, claustrophobic charm, Real Window is a movie celebrating reflection. The movie came out 60 years ago; it’s amazing how it hasn’t aged a bit and stands the test of time, unlike many other Alfred Hitchcock classics. The storytelling is crisp, the performances natural, and the world as it is.

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One of Hitchcock’s great films, Rear Window is similar to Dial M for Murder that coincidentally came out later that year, but is shot with a different lens—told by a different narrator. It’s up there with Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960),and The Birds (1963), and has its own unique stamp as one of Hitchcock’s finest thrillers for Rear Window isn’t merely about a crime; it’s about crime and punishment, about actions and consequences, about cause and effects.

If you’re an admirer of Hitchcock’s vision, Rear Window is just what you need to peep into. It tells a lot about Hitchcock and through him—about those around us.

Housebound (2014) – The Phantom of the House

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An eccentric teenager, a divorced Mom living with her boyfriend, a ghost breathing under them, and a madcap of events turning the tides—home detention, after all, blows.

In Housebound, viewers are attuned to a truculent teenager, Kylie Bucknell (Morgana O’Reilly), after the court sentences her to 8 months of home detention for an attempted bank robbery. Kylie has to return to the place where she grew up and live with her affectionate mother (Rima Te Wiata)—Kylie not quite reciprocating. When she realizes that the house is haunted, through her mother, she thinks her mom’s gone crazy, but soon begins to realize that a ghost in indeed in the premises.

Viewers tend to shun horror-comedies for its whimsical plot and poor execution. Some have excelled, Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) or the original Fright Night (1985), whilst some have taken forms of amusing satires like the Scream series, or even a Cabin in the Woods (2012). Housebound falls in those categories where the director gets the mixture of horror and comedy right and viewers get to watch a cross-blended genre film that’s entertaining as well as freaky.

Gerard Johnstone cited quite a few yesteryear horror classics as his inspiration for Housebound. Movies like Ghostbusters (1984), The Changeling (1980), and The Legend of Hell House (1973) to be precise. Yet, Housebound most famously resembles Gaston Leroux’s classic novel The Phantom of the Opera originally published in 1909/10. Minus the love saga, the suspense of Housebound is quite similar to the mystery in the novel, only this time—a private home is the stage for infamy and terror.

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When Kylie discovers about the murder of a teenage girl decades ago, she’s convinced of something sinister doing the rounds. This also compels her to believe her mom’s version of the story, the living dead lurking in the corners of the house. Simmered with collisions with the House Ghost, Kylie begins to unravel the mystery behind this house and of the ghost that lives with them. What she discovers is hilariously spooky, and the consequent events chuck this movie as a witty, deceptive, and charming horror comedy from the land of the Kiwis.

The quirky characters add an extra dimension that makes Housebound a joyous little tale that could occur anywhere in the world. Not only is it relatable; how often have we seen the eccentric teenage daughter who thinks she’s the bomb, or the mother helplessly loving her rude and profane daughter, and amidst all of this—a third party enjoying the moolah, only for manifestations to bring them together to fight against the common enemy? Add a pinch of action, a dash of suspense, and pour the rubles of hilarity over them; you have a clever entertainer, a droll story, and a beautiful execution of an artifact that’s warm and cold, distant, yet near.

Morgana O’Reilly stuns you with her performance as the electric teenager. The story successfully layers her transformation from an outright pain to a considerate learner, who grows more composed, more deliberate, and more realistic as these circumstances pledge to goad her down. In all of this chaos, her presence of mind stands out—all the time—through which she realizes the importance of being rational, whilst understanding the depth of relationships, the value of acceptance. Looking at it that way, behind the horror and the comic relief, there are themes of overcoming odds and coming of age in Housebound. For Kylie, for her mother, and for her half-father, and last but definitely not the least, for the House Ghost.

Housebound is multi-layered in its themes. You have coming of age on one hand, acceptance on the other, fate at one side, revenge on the other, bonding on one step, and moving forward on the next. Gerard Johnstone embraces these elements crisply and what he does best is entertain viewers while doing so, which is what Housebound is for all the drama and chaos. It’s enjoying and a breezy watch of less than 2 hours. Time just slips by and for the flaws present in the movie, there are quite a few, the balance of horror and comedy, of people and events makes you ignore them and enjoy the movie for what it is.

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Surrounded by idiosyncratic performances and cushioned by an ironic atmosphere, Housebound might be a small-scale movie in comparison; however, the story, performances, and the technical aspects would delude you from the assumption. That in itself is a major honor. Housebound is humorous, spooky, peculiar, and one gem of a horror movie that has its dosages of gore and fright, but is ultimately a movie about warmth, love, and togetherness.

Dial M for Murder (1954) – Textbook Plan

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Based on a stage play, Dial M for Murder is like a play exclusively screened for the curtain. Much of the action revolves around the house of Mr. and Mrs. Wendice. The movie rarely treads out of the house amidst murder, deceit, and treachery—making excellent use of spatial elements. Frederick Knott penned the screenplay that is adapted from his own play.

When ex-tennis player Tony (Ray Milland) finds out about his wife’s affair with common friend, Mark Haliiday (Robert Cummings), he chalks up a petrifying plan to kill his wife and inherit her property. Blackmailing one of his old college friends (Anthony Dawson), Tony envisions a foolproof plan of getting rid of his wife, Margot (played by the classy Grace Kelly). But things do not go as planned for poor Tony after which he improvises another plan to eliminate his wife. In a moment of sheer epiphany, Tony uses the gnarls of law to send his wife into a sentence, thereby, inheriting her estate and taking his willful revenge.

Just like Tony’s plan, Dial M for Murder is a well-planned, meticulous, and an intelligent movie. It builds on the underlying psychologies of the characters and clutches viewers in the home-centric drama of Mr. and Mrs. Wendice. Dial M is quite similar to Rear Window (1954) as both movies appear claustrophobic and entangle in mysteries surrounding wives. While Rear Window is more passionate less tactical, Dial M, on the other hand, is more tactical, less about passion.

What’s unique in Dial M is the mise-en-scene environment. If we ignore the camera movement, Dial M almost feels like a stage play. It has a well-drawn set—the Wendice Apartment—and 95% of the action occur within the confines of this cozy-looking home. Yet, extending beyond this space, the mind does go off for a saunter and Hitchcock does, what he does best—create riveting tension and build towards an imploring climax.

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Despite the themes of deceit and greed, Dial M remains classy. Tony Wendice is a man of elegance. Margot Wendice is a woman of virtue and charm. Mark Haliiday is an empathizer, a detective fiction novelist and journalist—he’s aware of most murder mysteries and the intricacies of planning a perfect murder. His profession does have a major role to convey during the latter sequences of the film—rounding off his character with sincerity.

The star of the show, of course, is Ray Milland for his smooth reprisal as Tony Wendice—the silent assassin who has his way with words, manners, and etiquette. He can think on the spur and can generate ideas with ease. It was almost the perfect get-away, but as they say with crime and punishment—the criminal always leaves behind a trace.

Grace Kelly is her usual elegant self as in most Hitchcockian thrillers. As a free spirit, as the vocal woman, and as the companion of Tony, or the secret lover of Mark, she is on her game—with vivacity and a powerful screen presence. The rest carry off their roles smoothly. Robert Cummings does not have much scope due to the nature of his role, but does a fine job. John Williams, as Chief Inspector Hubbard, is somber yet penetrating and decisive, and he steals the show.

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Dial M for Murder is trademark Hitchcock. It’s jumpy and intriguing despite being a notch below other Hitchcock classics. It can get a bit slow at times, but Hitchcock’s mastery as a storyteller is enough to carry it off to an edgy climax—keeping viewers anticipated and enthralled for most parts. Not to ignore the brilliant extension of time and space, of mise-en-scene elements, and of subtleties only a master could transport with minimalism.