Monday, July 18, 2016

District 9

"To everyone’s surprise, the ship didn’t come to a stop…over Manhattan or Washington or Chicago..but instead coasted to a halt directly over the city of Johannesburg.”

These opening words quickly establish that District 9 is going to be a much different film than other Science fiction alien movies that appear at the multiplex where the spaceship only stops over an American city. The shift to South Africa lays the groundwork for a film that explores complex issues related to politics, racism and is not content with being just another Sci-fi movie that is a battle between aliens and humans.

District 9 opens in a mockumentary fashion and interviews a few people who outline the early days of the alien arrival. The spaceship arrived back in 1982 and halted over Johannesburg. We learn that for 3 months the spaceship didn’t do anything, just remained suspended over the city. There was no first contact, no bright lights or any other events depicted in other Sci-fi films. It was humans who had to fly up to the spaceship and force entry. Once inside the spaceship, humans found malnourished aliens, creatures that were lean and starving. The appearance of the aliens as physically weak in District 9 is a deviation from conventional films. In other Sci-fi films and TV Shows, aliens are always shown to be strong and in some cases beautiful even if the aliens are arriving from a planet with no resources (food/water).

In District 9, once the aliens were extracted from the ship, they were placed in a camp named after the film’s title. The film them jumps to 2010, 28 years later, when it is decided that the aliens have to be relocated far away from the city centre. The contract for the alien relocation is given to Multi-National United (MNU) and Wikus (Sharlto Copley) goes along with a camera crew and the rest of the MNU team for a grand eviction event. Things don’t go as expected and Wikus becomes infected with alien fluid. This results in an alien mutation in him, a common theme in the Sci-fi genre, but with a twist. It turns out that the alien weapons can only be fired by the aliens because it requires their DNA. When Wikus gets infected, he can start firing the alien weapons that MNU had been unable to do for a long time. Naturally, he becomes a valuable commodity to MNU who want to conduct experiments on him. Wikus escapes but is a marked person and in the ultimate irony, he can only find a safe spot in District 9, the same slum-like camp where he was involved with the eviction of the aliens.

There are some action sequences in the film but the violence and action is nicely integrated in the story and the film doesn’t halt the overall narrative arc for a grand alien battle. The finale action scene takes place in the same slums that the rest of the film is shot in thereby making the action scenes an inevitable consequence of the hostility and tension brewing in the camp.

District 9 ensures that at each step, events are portrayed which reference other Science fiction films or tackle political and social problems. This is apparent in the opening 15 minutes of the film when a person being interviewed speaks the following words regarding the District 9 aliens or ‘prawns’ as they are called:

“They’re spending so much money to keep them here..when they could be spending it on other things. But at least—at least they’re keeping them separate from us.”

Such words have been spoken many times over the last 2 years, across Europe and North America. Politicians have used these words to further their campaign or garner support for their agenda. These words have referenced the refugees arriving in Europe and North America with the inference that the money spent on refugees could be spent on other things. Even though District 9 was released in 2009, these words make the film relevant to 2016.

“at least they’re keeping them separate from us.”

Segregation. This segregation is further emphasized by the signs that are visible in the film which indicate zones that are alien-free or locations where only humans are allowed. The setting of District 9 in South Africa and the film’s title makes this a direct reference to apartheid. In reality, there used to be a District six in Cape Town, where all the residents were forcibly removed during the apartheid era in the 1970s. Even though the film is directly rooted in South African history, the topic of segregation applies to many other societies from colonial times to present times. In modern society, there are battles, both in the real and virtual world, fought over the flood of refugees, immigrants and illegal aliens who cross the border without proper papers. Distrust of the foreigner is not a new concept and one that has existed for centuries. When the frustration with foreigners reaches a boiling point, riots, fights and wars take place. Similar events are shown in District 9 where daily riots, protests and fights between humans and aliens start taking place. This is what contributes to the decision resulting in the relocation of the aliens away from District 9. 

Along with the depiction of segregation, the film’s setting of the slums makes the content universal and applicable to other nations around the world. When refugees cross a border, they are placed in temporary camps, which is exactly what District 9 was meant to be. District 9 was a supposed to be a temporary holding place but just like in real life, the temporary camp ends up becoming a decades long stay. The problems that refugees face in camps around Asia and Africa, regarding social hierarchy and troubles with the locals, is exactly what District 9 covers in its representation of the everyday transactions that take place within the camp.

District 9 also highlights a relevant point regarding the impact on new generations raised in a temporary camp. In the film, an alien child is born and raised in the camp. The alien child asks his father what their planet is like and wants to go home even though he has never seen his home planet. This scene and the alien child’s questions are rooted in reality. Hundreds of children are born in refugee camps far away from their home nation and never get a chance to return to their homeland. As a result, an entire generation (or two) of people have no concept of understanding their roots and have to depend on stories or the rare picture of their homeland. In District 9, a hologram stands in for a photo of the planet the aliens left behind.

District 9 also tackles the concept of genocide. One key element that leads to genocide is when one group of people dehumanizes another group and considers the other group unworthy of living. In District 9, that concept is shown at face value as the tall, skinny and underfed aliens are the object of hatred of their neighbours. The sentiments of the people who live around District 9 indicates that if the South African government does not act to move the aliens, then something far more dangerous would likely take place. This act of potential violence against the aliens is also a twist on the regular Hollywood alien film template. In Hollywood films, aliens are portrayed as evil and go about wanting to exterminate humans on a large scale. District 9 shows that if aliens did land on earth, then it would be humans who would do more harm to the aliens than the other way around. Given the carnage humans have inflicted on each other over the last few decades, it is entirely believable that humans would be far more evil when dealing with aliens.

No alien film would be complete without a reference to Area 51 and District 9 manages to provide a smart variation on that element. The basis of many past sci-fi movies was that aliens were kept in Area 51 and government/military personnel used alien technology to develop weapons. District 9 picks up on this idea and expands it to illustrate private military contractors (MNU) wanting to harness the power of advanced alien weapons. Given the rise of private military contractors around the world, the film is properly updated.

Over the last few decades, Sci-fi movies have been reduced to spaceships, aliens, and lots of combats and explosions. However, the Sci-fi genre has always been richer than that. It is a genre that is alive with imagination, bursts with intelligent ideas and highlights the limitless possibilities that the human mind could tap into. Unlike other genres, Sci-fi films are never shy to stitch social issues, politics and human nature, in their framework. Even when Sci-fi films are set in an alternate universe or a far-away future, the stories are a reflection of either present society or the past. Sci-fi films hold a mirror up to our contemporary society and show us how humans treat each other, or mistreat as the case may be. In some cases, Sci-fi films extrapolate the future based on humanity’s current path.

District 9 embodies all of the above elements. The film shows an alternate future yet what it depicts is a reflection of our contemporary society and even our past. It is bold enough to incorporate topics of racism, segregation, genocide, poverty, refugees and border crossing. District 9 is a rare thing; it is an intelligent Science fiction alien film with plenty of political and social observations packaged under the guise of a summer multiplex film.

Note: this is cross-published on Wonders in the Dark website as part of their Top 100 Sci-fi films countdown.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Nicolas Winding Refn

Release Versions of Nicolas Winding Refn's films

NWR 1.5: brutal, violent on a much larger scale. VALHALLA RISING was the only film released as part of this upgrade.

NWR 2.0: DRIVE ushered in a new stylish wave for NWR, one that built on the violent, dark tones of his past films. 

This brings us to THE NEON DEMON. Still, too early to tell if this is NWR 2.5 or a brand new 3.0. THE NEON DEMON contains the stylistic flourishes of NWR 2.0 but the whole work is packed with Lynchian references. In fact, on one level, THE NEON DEMON is a reworking of MULHOLLAND DR. with the movie industry from David Lynch’s film replaced with the cannibalistic fashion world in NWR’s film. On another level, THE NEON DEMON is a continuation of MULHOLLAND DR. because of Jena Malone’s casting as Ruby. The character of Ruby bears a resemblance to Naomi Watts’ Betty from MULHOLLAND DR. but is not a starry eyed prey like Betty at the start of Lynch’s film. Instead,  the fashion world has transformed Ruby into a predator. One can imagine a similar fate could have taken place with Betty if events had proceeded in a linear manner.

THE NEON DEMON is a modern day grim fairytale about a girl making her way through a dangerous neon and concrete jungle. The girl encounters many predators, both male and female, who want to consume as much beauty as they can by whatever means, even if it means rape. But this fairytale isn't restricted just to the predators on screen but instead points to the predators that exist in contemporary society who lust after beauty.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Messi's miss is Portugal's gain

Stats don't always tell the whole story. Sometimes, instinct is a key factor in predicting the outcome of games. When Messi blasted his penalty kick over the crossbar in the Copa America 2016 final, I knew that decided the outcome of three nations. That kick decided the fate of Argentina, Chile and ....Portugal. Because when Messi missed his kick and his chance at a major trophy, I knew Ronaldo would lead Portugal to the Euro 2016 final and would score from the penalty spot in the final. The first part has come true. Now, I await the second. 

Portugal has had a rich footballing history from the genius of Eusebio to the talented golden generation of Luis Figo. But all those talented teams failed to land a major title. Their best chance came in Euro 2004 when they lost the final 1-0 in front of their home fans against a defensive Greek team. It felt unfair that a talented team of attacking players lost to one of the worst teams in the history of the Euros.

Now, as it turns out, Portugal have reached the Euro 2016 final by abandoning their attacking football of the past and gone with a more Greek like approach. That should not be a surprise as their Portuguese coach Fernando Santos spent a few years managing the Greek team until 2014. Portuguese fans don't care how their team wins because their wait for a title has been a lifetime.

Maybe the ultimate irony would be Portugal beating France 1-0 reversing their Greek tragedy. If that happens, Portugal can thank Messi first and then Ronaldo.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Top Science Fiction Films

Wonders In the Dark is going to be starting a Top 50 Science Fiction films countdown this summer. The following is my ballot for the top 50, which ended up being a difficult decision considering the huge number of stellar science fiction films that have been made over the last few decades.

Top 50 Sci-Fi Films

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
2. Stalker (1979, Andrei Tarkovsky)
3. Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott)
4. World on a Wire (1973, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
5. Ikarie XB 1 (1963, Jindrich Polák)
6. Dark City (1998, Alex Proyas)
7. Solaris (1972, Andrei Tarkovsky)
8. Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang)
9. Brazil (1985, Terry Gilliam)
10. Children of Men (2006, Alfonso Cuarón)

11. Under the Skin (2013, Jonathan Glazer)
12. Videodrome (1983, David Cronenberg)
13. La Jetée (1962, Chris Marker)
14. Gattaca (1997, Andrew Niccol)
15. The Matrix (1999, the Wachowskis)
16. They Live (1988, John Carpenter)
17. Enemy (2013, Denis Villeneuve)
18. District 9 (2009, Neill Blomkamp)
19. Donnie Darko (2001, Richard Kelly)
20. Abre los ojos / Open Your Eyes (1997, Alejandro Amenábar)

21. Interstellar (2014, Christopher Nolan)
22. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978, Philip Kaufman)
23. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, Steven Spielberg)
24. 12 Monkeys (1995, Terry Gilliam)
25. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982, Nicholas Meyer)
26. The Host (2006, Joon-ho Bong)
27. Akira (1988, Katsuhiro Ôtomo)
28. Alphaville (1965, Jean-Luc Godard)
29. 2046 (2004, Wong Kar-Wai)
30. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Michel Gondry)

31. The Box (2009, Richard Kelly)
32. Inception (2010, Christopher Nolan)
33. Ghost in the Shell (1995, Mamoru Oshii)
34. Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977, George Lucas)
35. The Fly (1986, David Cronenberg)
36. Moon (2009, Duncan Jones)
37. Primer (2004, Shane Carruth)
38. Wall-E (2008, Andrew Stanton)
39. Paprika (2006, Satoshi Kon)
40. A Clockwork Orange (1971, Stanley Kubrick)

41. The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976, Nicolas Roeg)
42. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Siegel)
43. Fahrenheit 451 (1966, François Truffaut)
44. The Fountain (2006, Darren Aronofsky)
45. Fantastic Planet (1973, René Laloux)
46. Scanners (1981, David Cronenberg)
47. Alien (1979, Ridley Scott)
48. Timecrimes (2007, Nacho Vigalondo)
49. Godzilla (1954, Ishirô Honda)
50. 1984 (1984, Michael Radford)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Euro 2016 Films

All the 11 films of the Euro 2016 Book + Film Spotlight have now been viewed and the top 3 are selected.

Starting 11

France: Dheepan (2015, Jacques Audiard)
Belgium: Two Days, One Night (2014, Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne)
Croatia: The High Sun (2015, Dalibor Matanic)
England: The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (2015, Ben Rivers)
Germany: Phoenix (2014, Christian Petzold)
Italy: Lost and Beautiful (2015, Pietro Marcello)
Romania: Aferim! (2015, Radu Jude)
Russia: The Fool (2014, Yuriy Bykov)
Slovakia: Koza (2015, Ivan Ostrochovský)
Sweden: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014, Roy Andersson)
Ukraine: Maidan (2014, Sergey Loznitsa)

Top 3 films

1. The Fool (2014, Russia, Yuriy Bykov)

Yuriy Bykov cleverly uses a building’s collapse to explore larger moral and ethical issues around society. The closed door meetings between city officials show how corruption can take root in a society and impact citizens in their day to day existence. Even though the film is set in Russia, its topic is applicable to any city and shows how easy it is for those in power to cross the morality line.

2. Two Days, One Night (2014, Belgium, Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne)

Even by the high standard of the Dardenne brothers, TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT is a staggering achievement. The film depicts moral and ethical questions that are always present when money is involved. And in Marion Cotillard, the brothers have found a perfect face to convey the range of emotions from desperation to despair and even a touch of hope.

3. The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (2015, England, Ben Rivers)

This film’s long title, multi-layered structure and core story draws inspiration from Paul Bowles’ writing. The structure of the film is a nod to what Bowles managed in ‘A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard’ where Bowles found a common thread to link 4 completely different stories together. In the SKY TREMBLES, Ben Rivers has constructed a film which links together multiple works including a short story, a short film, some documentary footage and an art installation. All these works are seamlessly stitched together in a linear manner.

Rivers’ has managed this by alternating one aspect of Paul Bowles’ short story ‘A Distant Episode’. In the short story, the main character is a professor. In the film, the main character is a film director. This change allows Ben Rivers to find a common thread to link the different elements. This is because at the start of THE SKY TREMBLES, we see the filmmaker Oliver Laxe, scouting for locations in Morocco and attempting to complete a gruelling film shoot. The scenes we see are actual footage from Laxe's second feature MIMOSAS. And then at some point in THE SKY TREMBLES, Oliver Laxe stops shooting his film and steps into Paul Bowles story. What then follows is a series of remarkable events.

Final verdict on 11 films

Overall, a rich and diverse collection which highlights some of the best European cinema made over the last two years. Unfortunately, due to the timeline of the spotlight, there are no pure 2016 films but many of the 2015 films have had a cinematic release in 2016 or will do so in the upcoming months.

Top 5 Books

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Around the World in 5 Films

Around the World in 5 Films

THE TREASURE will complete Calgary Cinematheque’s cinematic journey across 5 continents in just 5 films. All 5 films are part of the Cinematheque’s Contemporary World Cinema series which kicked off with the Brazilian film SHE COMES BACK ON THURSDAY before traveling to North America with Alex Ross Perry’s QUEEN OF EARTH. Africa was the next stop as British director Ben Rivers’ THE SKY TREMBLES AND THE EARTH IS AFRAID AND THE TWO EYES ARE NOT BROTHERS focused on the beautiful and rugged Moroccan landscape. Asia was next as Hong Sang-soo’s RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN touched down in South Korea. Finally, the 2015/16 season will conclude with a European stop as Corneliu Porumboiu’s THE TREASURE takes us on an incredible hunt to uncover some precious Romanian treasure.

The 5 films in the 2015/16 Contemporary World Cinema series contain a mix of films from rising masters and established auteurs. The first film in the series, SHE COMES BACK ON THURSDAY, marked the feature film debut of André Novais Oliveira who has already established a signature style with just three short films and one feature. This style features a remarkable blending of documentary and fiction. In SHE COMES BACK ON THURSDAY, André Novais Oliveira acts in the film along with his parents and brother and all four use their real names in the film. However, the four of them are not playing themselves but instead are acting within the framework of fiction. Still, SHE COMES BACK ON THURSDAY is constructed like a documentary, giving attention to tiny details about life and relationships. The close bond between the family members results in scenes which flow effortlessly allowing audience an intimate look at the characters. The everyday sounds that are allowed to flow in the frames recalls Kleber Mendonça Filho’s NEIGHBORING SOUNDS but André Novais Oliveira has crafted his own unique path by opting to show a different side of Brazil from other Brazilian films. The setting of the film in the suburbs of Belo Horizonte showcases a Brazil that is not seen in cinema along with characters that don’t make an appearance in Brazilian films. Finally, the selection of the lovely music makes SHE COMES BACK ON THURSDAY a beautiful poetic film about life, love, death and everything in between.

The second and third films in the series contained works from Alex Ross Perry and Ben Rivers, two exciting and talented filmmakers who have carved their own place in world cinema with just a handful of features.

Alex Ross Perry has not settled for an easy path in his filmmaking journey and has tried to push the boundaries with his films while staying true to independent filmmaking roots. His previous films don’t prepare one for QUEEN OF EARTH which is far darker than his other works. However, there is a very smart progression compared to his previous two films, in terms of the depiction of relationships and also usage of dialogue. In THE COLOR WHEEL, Perry examined relationships between two siblings, neither of whom appear to have any friends. In LISTEN UP PHILLIP, Perry showed the relationship between two people who are dating. With QUEEN OF EARTH, he looks at a relationship between two friends, something he has not examined before. Also, this film has much less dialogue than his previous movies. THE COLOR WHEEL is a dialogue-driven film while LISTEN UP PHILLIP has plenty of voice over narration which lets viewers listen in to the character’s internal thoughts. However, in QUEEN OF EARTH, the dialogue is limited and audience don’t get to listen to the voices in the characters’ heads. Instead, audience have to understand their state of mind by their expressions and body language. This combined with the film’s score and the cinematography gives the film an intense horror/psychological drama feel.

Ben Rivers’ THE SKY TREMBLES AND THE EARTH IS AFRAID AND THE TWO EYES ARE NOT BROTHERS is a fascinating multi-layered structure that draws inspiration from Paul Bowles’ writing. The structure of the film is a nod to what Bowles managed in A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard where Bowles found a common thread to link 4 completely different stories together. In the SKY TREMBLES, Ben Rivers has constructed a film which links together multiple works including a short story, a short film, some documentary footage and an art installation. All these works are seamlessly stitched together in a linear manner. Rivers has managed this by alternating one aspect of Paul Bowles’ short story A Distant Episode. In the short story, the main character is a professor. In the film, the main character is a film director. This change allows Ben Rivers to find a common thread to link the different elements. This is because at the start of THE SKY TREMBLES, we see the filmmaker Oliver Laxe, scouting for locations in Morocco and attempting to complete a gruelling film shoot. Laxe is a real filmmaker and the scenes we see are actual footage from his upcoming second feature. And then at some point in THE SKY TREMBLES, Oliver Laxe stops shooting his film and steps into Paul Bowles’ story, resulting in a series of remarkable events.

The final two films in the Contemporary World Cinema series are by Hong Sang-soo and Corneliu Porumboiu, two established auteurs who are among the best Contemporary world film directors working right now.

Love and relationships are two common elements found in Hong Sang-soo’s films with food and alcohol being vital to his film’s flow. Characters often gather at a social gathering where lots of food and alcohol is to be found. Alcohol is a key ingredient in his films, particularly the drink of soju which serves as lubricant in allowing the character’s true feelings to be revealed in a natural manner. In his last few films, Hong Sang-soo has used repetition as a powerful device. He has either shown the same event from different perspectives or repeated the same segment with slight variations. All these elements are found in RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN which is divided into 2 films, shown from different perspectives and with slight variations. Each film has its own title with the first film called ‘RIGHT THEN, WRONG NOW’ while the second film is ‘RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN’. The alternate titles and the unfolding of events allow audience to select which film they prefer, and in a way, the audience selection also shows the manner in which they prefer to live their own lives.

Corneliu Porumboiu has directed five feature films, one of them being a documentary, yet all are stellar films that have garnered critical acclaim and multiple awards. Porumboiu announced his arrival on the world stage a decade ago when his feature film debut 12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST won 2 awards at Cannes 2006. That debut contained two elements that have become part of his signature usage, history and humour. Porumboiu has found a unique way to examine Romania’s history with a brilliant usage of humour. In Porumboiu’s hands, scenes which contain characters reading from a dictionary, filling forms at a police station or watching TV become riveting scenes which are infused with humour and provide valuable insight into human nature. Porumboiu has been adding layers to his films since his debut and is constantly looking for new ways to expand the frame of cinema. This is highlighted by THE TREASURE which contains his signature elements of humour and examination of Romanian history but is also a twist on a fable, while providing a key commentary on the modern financial crisis. In just a single effortless sequence, Porumboiu shows some individual decisions that were at the core of the financial crisis. However, Corneliu Porumboiu uses that scene to kick-start a sequence of events resulting in an entertaining cinematic experience.

The 5 films of the Cinematheque’s Contemporary World Cinema series made their international debut at various film festivals in 2015. All are among some of the best films of 2015 but these films are competing in an ever-decreasing cinematic space. The regular theatrical release schedule in most North American cities continues to be dominated by commercial studio films while independent Canadian and foreign cinema struggles to get screen time. If a city does not have a Film Festival, a Cinematheque or an Arthouse cinema, there will be few chances to see independent and foreign films in a cinema. This is where the Calgary Cinematheque’s Contemporary World Cinema series is vital as it showcases some of the best films from around the world, works that would normally be never seen in this city. After just two seasons, the Calgary Cinematheque’s Contemporary World Cinema series has depicted smart works by directors from Brazil, Canada, Iran, Mexico, Philippines, Romania, South Korea, Taiwan, UK and USA. There are many more talented auteurs from around the world to be discovered, some of whom will be featured in next season’s Contemporary World series.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Euro 2016 Films

As part of the Euro 2016 Book + Film Spotlight, the following 11 films were selected.

France: Dheepan (2015, Jacques Audiard)
Belgium: The Brand New Testament (2015, Jaco Van Dormael)
Croatia: The High Sun (2015, Dalibor Matanic)
England: 45 Years (2015, Andrew Haigh)
Germany: Phoenix (2014, Christian Petzold)
Italy: Lost and Beautiful (2015, Pietro Marcello)
Romania: Aferim! (2015, Radu Jude)
Russia: The Fool (2014, Yuriy Bykov)
Slovakia: Koza (2015, Ivan Ostrochovský)
Sweden: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014, Roy Andersson)
Ukraine: Maidan (2014, Sergey Loznitsa)
It turns out that the films from Belgium and England may not be released prior to the viewing deadline of June 1. Therefore, two substitute films have to be selected as back-ups. In addition, if Loznitsa’s The Event (2015) is available, it will be selected over his 2014 film Maidan.

May 1 is going to be the new deadline for the availability of The Brand New Testament,
45 Years and The Event. If these films are not available by then, then the following 11 film list will be used for the Euro 2016 Film competition.

Projected Starting 11

France: Dheepan (2015, Jacques Audiard)
Belgium: Two Days, One Night (2014, Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne)
Croatia: The High Sun (2015, Dalibor Matanic)
England: The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (2015, Ben Rivers)
Germany: Phoenix (2014, Christian Petzold)
Italy: Lost and Beautiful (2015, Pietro Marcello)
Romania: Aferim! (2015, Radu Jude)
Russia: The Fool (2014, Yuriy Bykov)
Slovakia: Koza (2015, Ivan Ostrochovský)
Sweden: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014, Roy Andersson)
Ukraine: Maidan (2014, Sergey Loznitsa)

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Clean Hands

It is not a surprise to learn that FIFA’s new president is named in the Panama papers. Infantino’s situation regarding awarding contracts in order to sell TV rights at higher profits is similar to what Francesco Rosi’s brilliant 1963 film HANDS OVER THE CITY covered. Rosi’s film showed how in Naples, city council men and private developers were corrupt and worked together to artificially increase the price of land in order to make profit, thereby creating urban sprawl in the process. In the film when the evidence is brought forward about the corruption of the city council, all the council men raise their hands and shout “our hands are clean”. Such scenes will be repeated in upcoming days as the new FIFA members show their clean hands.

On the flip side, N.W Refn’s DRIVE is that rare film where we meet a character who does not hide his dirty hands. When Gosling’s Driver meets Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), Driver does not extend his hand because he has grease on them.

Driver says: “my hands are a little dirty”

To which Bernie replies: "so are mine"

There will be no such honesty forthcoming regarding FIFA/UEFA. In a few days, the whole story will be forgotten. Everyone will be asked to move on while behind closed doors, those men will continue business as usual. Extend one hand, collect money.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Euro 2016 Spotlight

When the Euro 2016 Book + Film Spotlight kicked off in Dec 2015, the goal was to finish watching all the 11 films and finish reading all 15 books by June 1, 2016. As things stand, there are still 2 films left to view but all 15 books have been read, 2 months ahead of schedule.

This is a rare thing where all the books for a spotlight have been read this far ahead of the end date. But unlike the past, this time around I planned a schedule for the book reading and tried to follow it strictly. Since there were some heavyweight book titles, my goal was to leave these 4 books last as I felt these were the ones that required ample time to finish:

Hungary: Sátántangó (László Krasznahorkai, 272 pages)
France: Life A User’s Manual (Georges Perec, 500 pages)
Austria: The Man Without Qualities (Robert Musil, 1130 pages)
Ireland: Ulysses (James Joyce, 704 pages)

It proved to the right call as reading these 4 books took up the most collective time.

To recap, all the 15 books as per country:

Albania: The General of the Dead Army (Ismail Kadare)
Austria: The Man Without Qualities (Robert Musil)
Czech Republic: The Other City (Michal Ajvaz)
France: Life A User’s Manual (Georges Perec), The Prone Gunman (Jean-Patrick Manchette)
Hungary: Sátántangó (László Krasznahorkai)
Iceland: The Blue Fox (Sjón)
Ireland: Ulysses (James Joyce)
Northern Ireland: The International (Glenn Patterson)
Poland: The Elephant (Slawomir Mrozek)
Portugal: The Book of Disquiet (Fernando Pessoa)
Spain: Mazurka for Two Dead Men (Camilo José Cela)
Switzerland: The End of All Men (C.F. Ramuz)
Turkey: The Black Book (Orhan Pamuk)
Wales: A Book of Wales, an Anthology (selected by Meic Stephens)

Top 5 books

It proved to be a rewarding experience to read all 15 books and I truly cherished these titles. The only disappointment ended up being Pamuk's The Black Book and that is likely because I read this book after having read a few of his other titles.

For now, here are my top 5 books, without any comments. Notes and thoughts on the books will be included once the film viewing is complete.

1. Sátántangó (Hungary, László Krasznahorkai)
2. The General of the Dead Army (Albania, Ismail Kadare)
3. The Book of Disquiet (Portugal, Fernando Pessoa)
4. The Man Without Qualities (Austria, Robert Musil)
5. Life A User’s Manual (France, Georges Perec)

Honorable mention: The Other City (Czech Republic, Michal Ajvaz)

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Spaghetti Westerns

Spaghetti Westerns: Bounty Hunters, Bullets and Blood Money
by Sachin Gandhi

The Calgary Cinematheque is pleased to present a six film spotlight on Spaghetti Westerns, a sub-genre of Westerns. Spaghetti Westerns have had a long road to recognition in the film world. The films were looked upon unfavourably when they first came out. American critics looked down upon these films and considered them fake and used the term “Spaghetti Westerns” in a negative manner to differentiate these Cinecittà Studios (Rome) productions from traditional Westerns. However, over the decades, the sub-genre has been closely studied and its filmmaking virtues have been acknowledged. The films may have been spawned from Westerns but they developed their own visual language, soundtracks, distinct characters, themes and iconography.  These unique characteristics of the sub-genre have in turn influenced diverse filmmakers over the decades. In fact, one can draw a line from Spaghetti Westerns to the cinema of John Woo, Johnnie To, Takashi Miike, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriquez. Also, Spaghetti Westerns injected new life into traditional Westerns which were falling out of fashion in the late 1950’s. As a result, Spaghetti Westerns have created a unique and influential place in cinematic history. The Calgary Cinematheque has selected films that give a taste of the sub-genre, depicting its relevant themes and symbols while showcasing some of Spaghetti Western’s famous directors/writers/actors. Even though there were as many as 500 Spaghetti Westerns made between 1964-73, the sub-genre is still mostly associated with Sergio Leone whose A Fistful of Dollars (1964) is the first Spaghetti Western. The Calgary Cinematheque has included films from two other famous Sergios’, Corbucci and Sollima, while the selections range from the lone wolf (Django) looking for revenge (Death Rides a Horse) and money (The Bounty Killer) to political films (Compañeros, A Bullet for the General). The selected films also cover the gambit of characters from bounty hunters (The Bounty Killer, The Big Gundown), a gun-carrying priest (Klaus Kinski in A Bullet for the General), corrupt general, double crossing gunmen to crazed machine gun toting characters.

Excessive violence, bullets, blood and dynamite, that were central to Spaghetti Westerns, also set them apart from traditional Westerns. In addition, the camera shots, background score, themes and symbols were distinct as well. For example, in Westerns, heroes and villains were clearly identified by the colours of their hats. Heroes wore a white hat while the villains a black hat. However, in Spaghetti Westerns, the main characters displayed no moral compass and were never afraid to kill, either for gold, revenge or political cause. As a result, these main characters were not pure heroes but anti-heroes who rode in the grey middle line away from concepts of pure goodness and honesty. These anti-heroes often donned black apparel (Django, Sabata) in the form of a black hat, poncho or vest. The Spaghetti Western characters also appeared rugged, unshaven and sunburnt, in complete contrast to the clean looking, well dressed heroes of traditional westerns. This look was in keeping with the harsh landscape the Spaghetti characters found themselves in. Their sunburnt faces perfectly illustrated the heat-packed land they traveled through and their unkempt look, with dirty clothing, represented the lack of time to clean themselves as they were either being hunted or were on the hunt. Such naturalistic looks for the characters were not a coincidence in Spaghetti Westerns but instead owe inspiration to Italian neo-realist cinema. Admittedly, Spaghetti Westerns created their own meta-world apart from Westerns or Italian life. However, elements of reality did creep in the story lines such as the aspect of a family clan (a nod towards Southern Italian families), political references (corrupt rulers/generals) or religious symbols peppered throughout the films, such as the cross, church, and priests (some of them famously turned killers).

In terms of major plots, Spaghetti Westerns can be considered to fall into three camps -- bounty hunter films, revenge tales and political stories. Sergio Leone’s films focused on the bounty hunter, in the quest for money, which was an end goal in itself. The second major plot revolved around revenge killing, to avenge a family or loved one’s murder. These revenge killings were often depicted with savage violence, an eye for an eye taken to its bloody conclusion. In the later phase of the sub-genre, political plots were incorporated in the stories resulting in films which featured a revolution and liberation of people from an oppressive ruler/general/family clan. These films were identified as Zapata Westerns and their stories took the side of the oppressed against the hierarchy, thereby resonating with the common man. This also helps explain the popularity of Spaghetti Westerns with the masses who flocked to see the films in their heyday.

The Calgary Cinematheque Spotlight has selected works which expand on these different themes and symbols of the sub-genre. Corbucci’s Django stars Franco Nero, a vital actor of the sub-genre, dressed in all black carrying that well-known coffin behind him. Django exemplified the violent world that later became commonplace in the sub-genre. Eugenio Martín’s The Bounty Killer shows a savage world where killing is normal because that is the means by which bounty hunters earn their living. Corbucci’s Compañeros is his take on the Zapata Western and impressively brings together Franco Nero with Jack Palance and Fernando Rey (known for his work in Luis Buñuel’s films and The French Connection). Clint Eastwood is a renowned association with Spaghetti Westerns but Lee Van Cleef is not far behind. Lee Van Cleef made small appearances in many Westerns (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, High Noon) but caught the eye in Leone’s For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly before he went onto carve his own name in the sub-genre. Two of Lee Van Cleef’s memorable films Death Rides a Horse and The Big Gundown are part of this Spotlight. The Big Gundown is also famously associated with director Sergio Sollima and writer Franco Solinas. Solinas made his name as a writer in Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers and Francesco Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano, two landmark films that are firmly rooted in political violence. Solinas was able to transfer this political depiction into the four Spaghetti Westerns he wrote, two of which are shown as part of the Cinematheque Spotlight. The Big Gundown is the first Spaghetti Western that Solinas worked on and he built on top of this film’s Mexican aspect by crafting a fully developed Zapata Western in A Bullet for the General, an essential film that shows how the sub-genre incorporated political elements within its framework.

This Spotlight features something for all films fans. For seasoned film lovers, there is a chance to discover some new Spaghetti Western films and see them in rare formats, such as Death Rides a Horse in 35 mm. For newcomers, this spotlight is the perfect way to be introduced to the sub-genre and experience the origins of many contemporary films.