Sunday, July 21, 2019

In memory of Milorad Pavić

A long time ago, in a world before smartphones and social media, I was wandering through a bookstore when I came across an intriguing book “Dictionary of the Khazars” by Milorad Pavić. A gush of excitement at the discovery because he wrote two versions of the book, a male and female version, both identical with the exception of a single paragraph. I bought both versions and was delighted to have found the single different paragraph. I only bought one more book by Pavić but never came across any of his other books.

Today, out of the blue, I came across his book lying in the corner. I then decided to look-up if he wrote any other books or if he was still writing. Sadly, I found out that he passed away ten years ago in 2009. That explains why I never came across any new books. He did write many other books and I will have to find those other books, a task much easier nowadays than it was decades ago. I also have to re-read the Dictionary because I have forgotten many of the details. What I haven’t forgotten is the sheer sense of dizzying delight that followed when I read his book. It was a similar feeling when reading books by Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino or Haruki Murakami.

Here’s to you Mr. Pavić, thank you for making the world a better place with your words.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Allan Fish Online Film Festival

This is my entry for the 3rd Allan Fish Online Film Festival.


Hands Over the City (1963, Italy, directed by Francesco Rosi)

I have selected Francesco Rosi’s 1963 film Hands Over the City (Le Mani sulla città) because it is a film that feels contemporary despite being released almost 6 decades ago. Given the film’s topic of corruption and urban sprawl, it will always feel contemporary as long as politicians spend more time slinging mud at their rivals and lying to protect their crimes while letting innocent civilians suffer. The words “urban sprawl” are part of our everyday language yet it was Rosi’s film that gave an incisive look into how such a situation could occur. The city in Rosi’s film is his beloved Naples but as the film dives into the close connection between city planners, politicians, land developers and businessmen, it becomes evident that there is a universal aspect to the film.

The opening shots of Hands Over the City begin with a few aerial shots of Naples which highlight the city as a maze of buildings. After the opening minutes, we learn that it will get worse. That is because we are shown an informal meeting between a few businessmen who all want to profit from fast land development. The city council is about to propose expanding along the city's core, which makes sense from an urban development point of view. But these businessmen and land developers want to build outside the city because the land is cheap and they can earn more profits in the future. The businessmen can get away with this because one of the leading land developers is also on the city's board and he has a lot of friends on the council. The promise of fast money is enough to swing the votes in his direction.

There is a lot of money to go around when the city expands outside the core because there is more investment needed to provide necessary infrastructure such as water, electricity, parks, etc. The film shows that all the businessmen involved in such organizations have friends on the city council. Handshakes and promises are the two things that decide the city’s future. Land permits and architectural plans are passed in a matter of days as opposed to the normal waiting time of 6 months. One of the consequences of this quick development results in an apartment wall crashing down resulting in a few deaths.

An investigation is conducted to uncover the real reasons for this building's collapse. However, there is a lack of interest in the city council to determine why the building wall collapsed. Only one councilman accuses his fellow colleagues of having "dirty hands" regarding the land dealings. This results in one of the film's lasting images where all the councilmen shout "our hands are clean" and wave their 'clean' hands at the honest councilman.
As the investigation continues, it is apparent that the truth won't ever come out because behind each lie is a handshake and a promise. Watching this film, one can truly appreciate the complicated series of lies and promises that exists in each political party. Politicians today spend a lot of time lying to the media in order to prove their innocence even though there is plenty of evidence which implicates them. Their lies are akin to the “our hands are clean” image.

The film gives a fly-on-the-wall perspective to the audience and at times it feels like we are being led into a secret world about how politics really works. As per the production notes, Rosi got some of the city councilmen to play themselves in the movie. That adds a bit more to the realism of the heated council scenes. The core discussions and fighting between different sides can be extrapolated to our world and can explain why different political parties can never find a common ground and why some issues never get resolved.

Francesco Rosi returned to Naples in 1992 to film a documentary (Diario napoletano) to see how the city had developed compared to 1963’s Hands Over the City. The first part of the documentary takes place in a university class where Rosi is presenting the movie to students, some city planners, professors and architects. As it turns out, in some cases, things unfolded in Naples as per the movie's fictional situations and the sprawl got worse over the decades after the film was made. Some of the professors in the documentary offered solutions to improve things but it became clear that there is no over-night solution. When a city grows outward traffic congestion is one of the worst problems. Driving through the city, Rosi was able to truly get a feel for how bad the situation is. Unfortunately, Naples is not alone in this problem. The issue of urban sprawl is a problem impacting major cities across most continents. In this regard, Hands Over the City is still an essential and relevant film for our society. The dynamics of how each city chooses to expand may vary from the situation in the film but it is clear that plenty of the decisions made for new land development are driven by money. We can only guess at some of the real discussions that take place in a city but Rosi's film depicts some situations for us to ponder upon.

Cross-published here.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

The Beautiful game lives

March 5, 2019: Real Madrid 1 - 4 Ajax

Once upon a time, a team from Holland appeared out of nowhere and changed the way people thought of football. Ajax Amsterdam changed the global game and while the rest of the world was trying to understand their movement and tactics, Ajax quietly went silent. 

They emerged almost two decades later and once again injected new life into the global game. Then, when big money changed the game, Ajax went silent again.

In the last few years, there were signs that Ajax might be awakening. However, no one really noticed as all the headlines were hogged by agents/players/managers whose egos knew no bounds.

After tuesday's demolition of Real Madrid, Ajax are no longer in the shadows. No matter what else happens this season, their 4-1 win provided moments of delight and was a reminder that the beautiful game isn't dead after all. It was just taking a nap.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Best Films of 2018

2018 was an extremely strong year for world cinema due to many established auteurs releasing their films coupled with stellar works from emerging directors. Quite a few of these films made their debut at Cannes, which was the strongest in a decade. This year at Cannes there were films by Wang Bing, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Lee Chang-dong, Nandita Das, Asghar Farhadi, Bi Gan, Matteo Garrone, Jean-Luc Godard, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Nadine Labaki, Spike Lee, Sergey Loznitsa, Jafar Panahi, Pawel Pawlikowski, Alice Rohrwacher, Lars von Trier, Wim Wenders and Jia Zhang-ke. As a result, there is a big influence of the Cannes film festival on this list. 12 of the 20 films in this list premiered at Cannes including 7 out of the top 10 films. However, this end of the year list includes just a fraction of the worthy films that showed at Cannes and other film festivals in 2018. There are still more than a dozen essential 2018 films that I missed seeing and will likely spend the better part of 2019 catching up with.

Note: the Top 10 and Honourable mentions is restricted to only 2018 titles.

Top 10 films of 2018

1. Transit (Germany/France, Christian Petzold)

Christian Petzold’s masterful adaption of Anna Seghers’ 1942 book is a cinematic treat! With just a few tweaks, Petzold has ensured that there is a constant tension between the past and present in the film. This balance between past-present highlights how history repeats in cycles and shows that a book written almost 80 years ago speaks to today’s world situation. This is because throughout history there are always people or communities that are persecuted and forced to leave their homes. The film is further elevated by a haunting love story, one which references Casablanca with hints of Kafka and Beckett.

2. Burning (South Korea, Lee Chang-dong)

Burning, Lee Chang-dong’s cinematic return after a gap of 8 years, smartly transforms a Haruki Murakami short story into a seductive thriller that lingers in the memory long after the credits.

3. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (China, Bi Gan)

Bi Gan’s sumptuous film provides an emotional ride across space and time by mixing past, present and dreams.

4. The Wild Pear Tree (Turkey co-production, Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Ceylan has combined the visual strength of his previous films with a meaty narration resulting in a tour de force which covers topics ranging from literature, religion, romance, philosophy to politics.

5. An Elephant Sitting Still (China, Hu Bo)

Hu Bo’s first and only feature was one of the most emotionally devastating films of the year. Shortly before the film was completed, 29 year old Hu Bo committed suicide. He didn’t live to see the film’s World Premiere at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival where it was extremely hard to secure a ticket to see this almost 4 hour film. Such is the strength of Hu Bo’s artistry that the film’s length is never felt. Instead, one is drawn into the lives of the four characters in Northern China and invested in their fate.

6. Sir (India/France, Rohena Gera)

Rohena Gera’s astute film gets at the core of what we seek in relationships and what causes two people from radically different backgrounds to form a connection. The end result is one of the most charming films of the year lit by a vibrant performance by Tillotama Shome.

7. Fausto (Canada/Mexico, Andrea Bussmann)

Canadian director Andrea Bussmann creatively uses the text of Goethe’s Faust as a jumping point to explore myths, local legends and tales in Mexico’s Oaxaca coast. The decision to use low light for shooting many of the scenes results in a shape-shifting film that strips away the concept of time; the film could be set decades in the past or could be contemporary. The end result is exhilarating as the film shows a unique way to perceive history and cultures.

8. Donbass (Ukraine co-production, Sergey Loznitsa)

Sergey Loznitsa cleverly depicts how events in Ukraine are influenced by the overarching influence of Russia. An urgent film that also depicts how the media is being manipulated by politicians resulting in further blurring between real and fake news.

9. Ash is Purest White (China, Jia Zhang-ke)

 Jia Zhang-ke’s newest film is a perceptive depiction of the Chinese landscape, both social and economical, over the course of two decades.

10. Another Day of Life (Poland/Spain/Belgium/Germany/Hungary, Raúl de la Fuente and Damian Nenow)

Based on late journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book of the same name, Another Day of Life is a fascinating mix of documentary and animation that captures the energy of Kapuscinski’s book about the Angolan civil war.

Honourable Mentions (alphabetical order):

3 Faces (Iran, Jafar Panahi)
BlacKkKlansman (USA, Spike Lee)
Closing Time (Germany/Switzerland, Nicole Vögele)
Cold War (Poland/UK/France, Pawel Pawlikowski)
Dear Son (Tunisia/Belgium/France/Qatar, Mohamed Ben Attia)
Djon Africa (Portuga/Brazil/Cape Verde, João Miller Guerra and Filipa Reis)
The Image Book (Swtizerland/France, Jean-Luc Godard)
Grass (South Korea, Hong Sang-soo)
Roma (Mexico/USA, Alfonso Cuarón)
Season of the Devil (Philippines, Lav Diaz)

Notable 2016 and 2017 films seen in 2018 (alphabetical order):

Gabriel and the Mountain (2017, Brazil/France, Fellipe Barbosa)
The Great Buddha+ (2017, Taiwan, Huang Hsin-yao)
Hotel Salvation (2016, India, Shubhashish Bhutiani)
Machines (2016, India/Germany/Finland, Rahul Jain)
Phantom Thread (2017, USA/UK, Paul Thomas Anderson)
The Unknown Girl (2016, Belgium/France, Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne)
The Woman who Left (2016, Philippines, Lav Diaz)

Sunday, November 04, 2018

The Good Life Elsewhere

The Good Life Elsewhere written by Vladimir Lorchenkov, Published by New Vessel Press

Vladimir Lorchenkov’s darkly comedic and brilliant novel The Good Life Elsewhere is a perfect example of the phrase “The grass is always greener on the other side”. As such, it is an appropriate book for our times even though it was originally published in 2008 (in Russian) prior to the English language translation in 2014. In our current world, headlines mention people migrating from their country to another in massive numbers. Of course, politicians are using these headlines as a means to increase fear and gain votes. None of these politicians are bothering to ask why people are looking to come to their country. None of these politicians will ever bother to watch Pedro Pinho’s essential film The Nothing Factory (2017) which asked the vital question of what work means in modern society. The film showed the closing of factories in Europe as some of those factories moved eastwards due to the owners' need to increase their profit (ahem, capitalism). Yet, the owners may or may not realise that their move eastwards is only temporary even though that temporary time could be decades. One day, everyone will have enough of material X that these factories make. Then, no one on this planet will need X. What then? Who is thinking of how to ensure the workers have meaningful work or their skills are properly used? Not the factory owners and certainly not the politicians. The workers are then left to fend for themselves. Eventually, poverty and desperation force some of these workers to seek their life elsewhere and they dream of migrating to the promised land which is what Lorchenkov’s book accurately captures.

The promised land in Lorchenkov’s book is Italy, a country that becomes an obsession for Serafim Botezatu and his fellow residents from Larga, a village in Moldova. Italy, at all costs! The book goes on to describe some of those details in wicked delight even though that humour is built on top of tragedy and sadness, some of which include suicide, broken hearts and murder.

“Verily, the people were expecting a miracle. Once the Italian rulers beheld them, so said the people, two hundred thousand children, yearning for the embrace of their mothers and fathers, then the heart of Rome would surely expand and grant every Moldovan the right to work in Italy without a visa and to bring with him whichever of his loved ones he desired. And only the children, free of turpitude, could give the Moldovan people something to replace the Holy Sepulchre; only they could grant us our innermost dreams.

Only the children could deliver us the blessed land of Italy.”
— page 174, The Good Life Elsewhere

The book is specific with regards to Moldova and its situation with respect to neighbouring Romania and the rest of the European union but the sentiments are universal. In one instance, the book expands its scope and compares the plight of Moldovan migrants to Mexicans as two characters argue which migrants are harder to catch. Yet, many references to Moldovans could easily be replaced with other nationalities across Latin America/Africa/Asia or regions where people make the difficult and dangerous journey to another nation, legally or illegally, to seek a better life. What happens when they get there? Usually hardships, disappointments and tough jobs. To compound matters, there is always the distrust of the locals who easily jump to blaming the newcomers for taking jobs. Israel Adrián Caetano’s 1999 film Bolivia captures this rage perfectly. The following is the description of the film I wrote back in 2008, which coincidentally is the year of Lorchenkov’s original book publication.

An illegal Bolivian works in a local cafe/pub. Some of the local patrons include taxi drivers, including one who dislikes the Bolivian. Everything the Bolivian does is wrong. For example, when he brings a bottle of beer from the freezer, he is scolded for not bringing a cold bottle, even though he returns and brings a second bottle from the exact same freezer. When someone dislikes another person, no matter what the other person does is wrong. Simple fact of life. It is equally true in any part of the world. It appears to be only a matter of time when emotions will boil over and they eventually do. Beautifully shot in black and white, Bolivia gives a glimpse of the frictions that exist in daily life. While the Clashes are started by government decisions regarding employment and immigration, the prices are always paid by ordinary citizens. If a poor nation shares a border with a richer nation, then illegal border crossing will occur. But if the apparently rich nation does not have enough jobs for its own citizens, then anger is directed at the newly arrived persons. The newcomer is always blamed for the misfortunes of a nation. Amazingly, one can walk the streets of Canada or USA and hear similar sentiments. Bolivia is shot in Argentina but it may take place in any part of the world.

Newcomers get vilified in whichever nation they land in, even though most of them end up doing jobs that locals don’t want to do. Lorchenkov’s book even addresses this statement with a cold dash of realism. As two characters at the Italian Consulate in Romania discuss:

“What’s sickening is that Moldovans seem to think without them we’ll sink, because, as one cheeky laborer told me, there’ll be nobody to clean up our shit.”

“Thank you. I told him that nature doesn’t abide vacuums. Where there used to be two hundred thousand Moldovans, now there’ll be two hundred thousand Moroccans, Albanians, Serbs, Poles, or whoever else. There’s always somebody to clean up the shit. What’s your opinion?”

Some newcomers are more vilified than others yet history often forgets. The history of Canada and USA is packed with cases of newcomers that were once hated but now considered a fabric of their respective nation. The hate keeps shifting every few decades to a new group of migrants from another nation. The core problems as to why the migration takes place is never addressed by the nation whose citizens want to leave or by the nations who want to prevent those newcomers from entering.

Despite all the problems they face, the characters in the book, including Serafim, persist in their quest to make it to Italy after each failed attempt. For Italy is happiness. Their dreams of going to Italy has a very Beckettian flavour to it where the characters are often waiting for someone to take them to Italy or Italy is their “Godot”, for Italy will make everything better. The dark comedy in the book, especially the ending, has shades of Emir Kusturica’s Underground while some of the absurd sequences recall Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land and the mud of the village brings Béla Tarr’s cinema to mind.

The original came out in 2008, the English translation in 2014, yet the book is as relevant today in 2018 as when it was in those previous years. Given the way the world is going, the book will always be relevant and essential to each new generation.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Allan Fish Online Film Festival 2018

My contribution to the 2nd Allan Fish Online Festival.

Aristotle’s Plot (1996, France/UK/Zimbabwe, Jean-Pierre Bekolo)

I selected Cameroonian director Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s Aristotle’s Plot because at its core, this film is about that vital debate of commercial vs artistic cinema, the blockbusters of Hollywood vs a nation’s local cinema. The film also offers the chance to discover a unique voice from African Cinema. Jean-Pierre Bekolo is not a well known name even though his debut 1992 film Quartier Mozart gained some recognition on the film festival circuit. The energetic and humorous Quartier Mozart combined folklore with some jaw-dropping moments. Still, the debut could not have prepared for what Bekolo attempted next in 1996 with Aristotle’s Plot.

At a running time of just 68 minutes, Aristotle’s Plot packs a lot of ideas and memorable dialogues about the meaning of cinema. The story features two characters on opposing side of the cinematic debate, a local gangster who consumes only Hollywood action films and a struggling independent filmmaker who wants people to care about African cinema. The gangster goes by the name of Cinema because he claims “he has watched 10,000” films. His rival is a filmmaker named Essomba Tourneur (E.T for short) who prefers to be called a Cineaste. The difference in view between the two is shown early in the film after Cinema claims to have seen 10,000 films, E.T counters and asks “oh yes, but how many of them were African?”. To which Cinema replies “very few” before going on to add that he doesn’t think much of African films. That debate about the worth of African cinema is repeated on a few occasions and highlights that locals flock to Hollywood films but stay away from African cinema. Even a local policeman claims to have never seen a single African film but is aware of Hollywood stars.

Cinema and his gang hang out at Cinema Africa where they watch non-stop Hollywood action films. Inspired by those action films and characters, his gang members have names such as Bruce Lee, Cobra, Nikita, Schwarzenegger and Van Damme. E.T is dismayed that locals identify more with Hollywood than local culture or stories. With assistance from the police, E.T is able to wrestle Cinema Africa away from the gang and starts showing local African films. As it turns out, his showing of African films doesn’t find many interested people and one screening only has a single person turn-out. Upset at the loss of their Cinema Africa, Cinema and his gang have grand plans of creating their own new Cinema. However, they still long for those action films they used to see and attempt to regain their old Cinema Africa resulting in a final stand-off.

The entire film is one long running joke which doesn’t spare both commercial and artistic cinema; the film pokes fun at commercial cinema and its endless sequels or characters who can’t be killed and even takes a few jabs at the pace of events in some artistic films. As a result, there are many lasting images and dialogues which linger long in the memory. Perhaps, one of the most memorable images is watching E.T cart reels of his film in a shopping cart.

This brilliant yet simple image symbolizes the problems of making an independent film, where a director is forced to be a beggar in order to complete their work. The film also evokes Godard and is a bit early for its times. Back in 1996, Hollywood didn’t dominate multiplexes and box-offices around the world like it does today. The distance between Hollywood and local cinema has only increased in the last two decades since this film was released. The character of E.T is now a reality in a majority of nations where local filmmakers struggle to get their films seen.

The entire film can be seen here.

Cross-published on Wonders in the Dark.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Past, present and future

A trio of books that outline the past, present and possible future. Two fiction, one non-fiction. Perhaps, in the future, all will be considered non-fiction with the exception that the dates were incorrect in two of the books.

1. The Plot Against America (2004 book) by Philip Roth

It imagines an alternate history when FDR loses to Charles Lindbergh in the 1940 elections. Lindbergh is a good friend of Hitler and decides to keep America out of WWII, letting Germany and Japan take over the world. Right-wing and fascist sentiments increase in America because the president helps spread hatred in the county. There is even one incident which shows how American Nazis work with KKK to carry out an assassination.

Over the last decade, I picked this book up several times but never read it. I wish I had read it a decade ago because it is a completely different experience reading it now. Many aspects are chilling and accurate given what has happened in the last year.

2. American War (2017) by Omar El Akkad

Set decades into the future, where an American civil war between 2074-2095 separates the country. The southern states which insist on using old fashioned fossil fuels break off from the rest of the nation causing many Americans to live in refugees camps between newly formed borders between states.

The book leans heavily on the melodramatic side with images conjured out of post-apocalyptic worlds shown in "The Walking Dead" and other works such Cormac McCarthy's "The Road. Still, since Omar is a journalist by trade, there are some astute observances that are going to be viewed in a new light given recent events. The division he talks about is already there without the physical border separation.

3. The Age of Anger (2017) by Pankaj Mishra

Incredible in scope, Mishra outlines how recent right-wing ideas have roots that go back centuries. He focuses more on ancient European society but also looks Asia and America.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Best Films of 2017

Similar to 2016, global cinema in 2017 kept pace with current events and created works that reflected society. There were multiple films released in 2017 that covered the plight of refugees and the struggles they face (69 Minutes Of 86 Days, Aqerat, More, Human Flow, The Other Side of Hope, Reseba, Taste of Cement) while some films showed the harsh economic realities of our world (Félicité, The Florida Project, The Nothing Factory, Western). This year’s Cannes festival unveiled three timely films set in Russia that gave a glimpse into Russian society (A Gentle Creature, Closeness and Loveless). All three are very different films yet all look at the larger Russian society by highlighting the impact on a family/spouse when a male member is absent. In addition, there were new works from established master directors although Hong Sang-soo outpaced everyone else by releasing three films in one year, which is an accomplishment even by his prolific standards. Of the numerous worthy titles to choose from, this list is restricted to 17 films, all of which are 2017 titles.

1. Zama (Argentina co-production, Lucrecia Martel)

Lucrecia Martel’s long awaited cinematic return is a feast for the senses and brings a fresh perspective to the colonial life. Packed with delightful references to cinematic and literary characters ranging Godot to Kurtz to Aguirre and even the legendary Gabbar Singh. This is filmmaking of the highest order!

2. A Man of Integrity (Iran, Mohammad Rasoulof)

Rasoulof cleverly uses a single man’s struggles to depict larger issues around corruption and politics in society. The film is set in Iran but the story is universal.

3. Western (Germany/Bulgaria, Valeska Grisebach)

A smart variation of a traditional Western film genre that illustrates the east as the promised land for riches instead. The guns may be absent but horses and masculinity aren’t.

4. Life and Nothing More (Spain/USA, Antonio Méndez Esparza)

A remarkable and urgent film that gets at the core problems regarding racism in America. By using a single incident around a playground, the film shows the cycle of fear that leads to a violent reaction and subsequent excessive force by law officials.

5. Cocote (Dominican Republic co-production, Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias)

A creative blend of fiction and documentary which effortlessly mixes different film stocks (colour, black and white) and contains different camera styles, including an immersive 360-degree pan. The end result is a scrumptious film that hails the arrival of an exciting new voice in international cinema!

6. A Gentle Creature  (France, Sergei Loznitsa)

Loznitsa brings a sharp documentary eye in depicting the prison system in Russian society while layering the work with Kafkaesque notes, satire and even opera.

7. Closeness (Russia, Kantemir Balagov)

Based on a true story, Balagov nicely uses a 4:3 aspect ratio to box the screen in thereby showing the closeness and tension among different ethnicities in the Caucasus city of Nalchik.

8. Lover for a Day (France, Philippe Garrel)

A lovely mix of French New Wave and contemporary sensibilities.

9. The Nothing Factory (Portugal, Pedro Pinho)

Starts off as an absurd comedy, shifts gears to become a documentary and ends as a musical. The documentary portion of the film is brimming with ideas where the film looks at the end of capitalism and shutting down of factories across Europe. The film poses relevant questions about what work means in modern society.

10. Taste of Cement (Germany/Syria/Lebanon co-production, Ziad Kalthoum)

A poetic documentary that depicts the lives of Syrian workers who are working on high rise towers in Beirut. The documentary smartly interweaves the construction of the buildings in Beirut with the destruction of the workers’ homes back in Syria. The film also features some of the most inventive framing and camera movements of the year, including some dizzying views of Beirut.

Honourable mentions (alphabetical order):

Aqerat (Malaysia, Edmund Yeo)
Faces Places (France, JR/Agnès Varda)
Félicité (Senegal co-production, Alain Gomis)
Newton (India, Amit Masurkar)
On Body and Soul (Hungary, Ildikó Enyedi)
The Other Side of Hope (Finland, Aki Kaurismäki)
Wajib (Palestine co-production, Annemarie Jacir)

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017, UK/Ireland/USA, Yorgos Lanthimos)

There was constant murmur and whispers at many of the scenes during the first hour. Finally, a person behind me gave up the pretense and spoke loudly so that everyone in the cinema could hear: "I don't get this movie". You know what a lot of people don't get? The economy. So let's look at that.

Certain nations, including Greece, were negligent when it came to their economy. Some locals with no experience whispered that things would get bad but the experts and the men in power didn't listen. They continued to drink and make reckless decisions. Slowly, some parts of the economy became paralyzed. Different organs of society started to fail on a regular basis. The experts gathered in rooms, dressed in their suits, and discussed the problem. According to them, nothing was wrong and things would get better on their own. No one wanted to do open heart surgery. Nobody wanted to cut off the limbs, nobody want to start from scratch. So the experiment continued and still continues. It isn't only Greece but all across the world these financial experiments continue.

In a year of allegories in cinema, Yorgos Lanthimos has signed his entry.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 (2017, Denis Villeneuve)

Few quick thoughts.

1. Similar to SICARIO, the landscape shots in Villeneuve's film are their own narrative. This time, Roger Deakins' camera explores landscape with the eye of Edward Burtynsky. As a result, the ruins echo an older communist era with the words of 'Ozymandias' hovering over it.

2. The entire work is also garnished with touches of Tarkovsky and K's journey is akin to going through the desolate Zone. The communist ruins connect the dots further.

3. Nicely illustrates limits of our technology, from glitches in transmission to problems syncing up. Connections fail, images can't be rendered fast enough, data stores can be wiped. The reference to paper surviving isn't a coincidence.

4. Memories. Real vs Implanted. Manages to draw a line towards the dreams in Philip K. Dick's original book.

Monday, October 09, 2017


MOTHER! (2017,   Darren Aronofsky)

I looked at my watch and counted down the seconds because I knew what was coming. The TIFF press screening of Darren Aronofsky's MOTHER! was just over and I expected the usual tweets. Sure enough, right on cue, came tweets dismissing the film and calling it garbage. A few more angry tweets appeared. I waited and then as expected, a tweet praising the film. Less than 30 minutes later, a tweet came out referencing where the director called the movie about "climate change". Then another, "hey guys, there are Biblical references. Does that change things?".

In less than an hour, the whole range of reactions had taken place regarding the film. I smiled and headed off to my next screening. These reactions were normal for any Aronofsky movie and I was glad to see that nothing had changed.

The film references the Bible and even climate change but the scope is much bigger than that. The scope is the entire history of our planet, from creation to evolution to destruction, and then like a loop, starting all over again. The movie is about what we humans do to our planet, how we use religion to divide and fight, how wars take place, both world wars and civil ones, how organized gangs take out humans, how government organized disappearances take place, how we blindly believe in someone's words, how we end up consuming and destroying the very thing we claim to love.

Of course, such scope and the manner with which it is presented opens the door for plenty of ridicule and negative reaction. Yet, there are moments which make it hard to dismiss the work. For example, the segment of the unfolding of our planet's history is a roller coaster ride where the camera goes from room to room and documents all the horrors of our society in unflinching detail.

The film is all about allegories so here's another one.

A famous soccer player steps up to the penalty spot. The crowd is expecting a goal yet the player blasts the ball over the crossbar. Silence. Complete shock that how such a player could have blasted the ball so high and far from the goal. Years later, fans don't remember the goals that were scored but still talk about that one player who blasted the ball over. That miss ends up being more spectacular than the goals scored.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Cinema of Cool

Baby Driver (2017,  Edgar Wright)

Black Shades. Music. Fast cars. Heist. Cool gangsters. Smooth talkers. Attitude. More music. Extremely intelligent sounding dialogues. Money. A girl, always a girl. For a change, some coffee.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017, D.J. Caruso)

Neymar. Cool stunt, all for a soccer game. Extremely intelligent sounding dialogues. More cool stunts. Money. Lots of weapons. Exotic locales. For a change, an international cast, featuring Deepika Padukone, Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa. Of course, the father of coolness, Mr. Samuel L. Jackson is there as well.

The Fate of the Furious (2017,  F. Gary Gray)

Bigger cast, increasing with each film. Of course, fast cars. Exotic locales. Weapons. Loud explosions. Women and Men with attitude. Like last few films, all about a family.

John Wick 2 (2017,  Chad Stahelski)

Quality suits. Tailored expensive fabric. Cool lighting. Atmosphere. Weapons. Bullets, lot of bullets. Blood. Attitude. Money. Expensive tastes. Characters made to appear extremely intelligent. For extreme coolness, the presence of Morpheus to exchange some witty dialogue with Neo. For a change, it is Neo who offers the choice to Morpheus.

Four completely different movies yet all united by their ability to claim ample room in a multiplex. Of course, these four have to pounce on whatever space remains after the Super hero movies have come and gone.

All four vary in their quality. Baby Driver is the most refined of this group and has the acclaim of many critics while John Wick has its fans. The Fast and Furious movies have their admirers as well.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is also a refined film, albeit a video game/war movie hybrid.

All these films drip with style yet are hollow in their core. Once the layers of style are removed, there isn't any substance.

This is cinema now. It sure ain’t dead but these movies are certainly trying very hard to kill it.

The rich strange doctor

Doctor Strange (2016,  Scott Derrickson)
An arrogant rich man lives selfishly and feels he is invincible. One day, his reckless driving causes him to get into an accident. This accident does not cause him to do any soul-searching. Instead, he blames everyone else around him for not helping him. He has enough money to pay for his treatment but when his money runs out, he blames the health system. Then, he learns that he can be cured by Asian medicine. So he travels to exotic Nepal. There, he finds others like him. He never associates with the locals, nor eats with them. He is cured and in turn he learns how to travel around the world for free. He learns how to travel without going through airport security or sitting in an airplane. He also learns how to steal books from libraries.

He is given a gift for being selfish. Then, he is given a chance at redemption, to erase his entire selfish life by one act of goodness. He saves the world and is made an instant hero.

How does he repay the world? Does he help the poor and needy? Does he start a company to offer health services to those who need it?

Of course not! He opens a private service to help rich privileged super heroes like himself. His first job is to act as a mediator in a family despite between Thor and his brother.

Sunday, July 23, 2017


Dunkirk (70 mm, of course): deserted town. No civilians. Just soldiers. Why? Because a war is being fought. Money and resources poured into saving the land from the other. And then, more money to get soldiers back home and to feed them.

The film is an immersive experience that places the viewer in the chaos and noise of war but there are some moments which quietly highlight the logistics around war that are not as apparent in other war movies. These moments are the best aspect of the film as they emphasize that when WWII took place, nations and cities shut down. Daily lives were disrupted and resources were diverted towards the all consuming war. Regular industries were converted into making gears for war. However, these quiet moments won’t be praised. Instead, the accolades will be directed at the thrill ride that has been made, complete with a video game perspective, a ticking clock embedded in the soundtrack with a few edits meant to heighten the experience. Real lives were lost but now it is entertainment. In the IMAX cinema screening, people stuffed their face with popcorn, drank pop and took it all in.

Have we learned anything from history? Of course, not. And on it goes. Real wars continue, more horrific than the past. War movies get made. Their technical qualities improve, their point of view gets refined but no one actually cares for the lessons that lay between the cuts. No large scale war has taken place since WWII but many small scale wars have taken place and are continuing to do so. The machines that were put in place in WWII were never shut down but grew into different segments.

Sunday, June 04, 2017


For the most part, it was a lackluster European season. There were limited moments of beautiful fluid football provided by players of Monaco and Dortmund. Then there was the emerging talent of Dybala who weaved around the pitch as if opponents didn't exist. With these exceptions, everything was as normal. Season after season, it has been all the same.

Then yesterday something extraordinary happened. Mario Mandžukić scored a goal for the ages. Not Ronaldo, not Messi. Mandžukić initially appeared to have blocked himself into a corner, with no angle to shoot at. Then he produced a moment of magic. His goal made it 1-1, opened the game up and led to a thrilling first half.

Mandžukić's goal is being called one of the greatest in the Champions League. It is being compared to that brilliant 2002 volley but it does fall short of that 2002 goal, which was scored by Zinedine Zidane. Yesterday, Zidane the manager, not the player, led Madrid to victory.

Not much is said about Zidane the manager. That is because he doesn't say much. He lets the players shine and quietly stands on the side. In a way, it is refreshing to see that from a soccer manager. Many other managers have made the game about themselves yet Zidane quietly leads his team to success.

Sid Lowe’s article sums up Zidane’s achievements nicely.