Sunday, September 17, 2006

Global Cinematic Duels, Part II

The idea of pitting different movies from a country/region against each other was quite enjoyable so here’s a second and final installment for this year atleast. If a country had 2 or more movies, then I decided the country could compete separately. If a country only had one movie, then I paired that country with the nearest region, with the pairing based more on culturally and cinematic grouping as opposed to geographically. For example, I combined the sole Mexican film in the list with South America under a ‘Latin America’ category as opposed to having the Mexican movie under North America.

China + Hong Kong: Butterfly (Yan Yan Mak, 2004), Blind Shaft (Yang Li, 2003, also co-production with China and Germany), Fear of Intimacy (Hong Kong, Vincent Chui, 2004)

Butterfly is a refreshing love story, although not a conventional one. A young girl develops a crush on her teacher. Even though the teacher is a married woman with a child, she reflects on her youth when she had a fling with another girl. That relationship ended unhappily and her repressed feelings from that fling finds another outlet via the present situation with the young student. The movie is shot partly in Macao and just like a lot of movies shot in that exotic Island, Butterfly contains some sensual elements which just enhance this film. Well worth the watch! Rating 8.5/10

Blind Shaft came out of nowhere and blind-sided me. I had never heard of this movie when I discovered this tucked away in the video store. But oh what a movie! The opening shot shows men working in a darkened coal-mine. While three men take a break, they pass the time with meaningless conversations. And without any warning, one of the men is killed by the other two. As it turns out, the purpose of the killing was money. The two men go around scamming mine owners by pretending that one of their relatives or brother is killed in the mine and as result, the mine owner is forced to pay some money to keep them quiet, lest they make it public. When the two men find another prey, this time a young16 year old kid, one of the men starts having second thoughts (ethics and morality). How the movie ends is a surprise but not totally unexpected. This is a very watchable movie that is well paced and takes time to lay the characters out. Rating 9.5/10

Fear of Intimacy starts off interestingly but then gradually loses steam. A busy photographer does not have time for his girlfriend and is constantly leaving her. One day, when he rushes for an assignment, she leaves him for good. The story then picks up 5 years later when the photographer now works as paparazzi stalking and taking pictures of celebrities and rich people. A young woman becomes his partner and a quiet relationship begins to take shape. Things take a twist when he discovers his girlfriend from 5 years ago, but she seems to be involved with a shady character who might be involvement in a rich woman’s murder. Nothing great, but not a bad film either!
Rating 6.5/10

Overall Rating: 24.5/30 = 8.17

France: Sex is Comedy (Catherine Breillat, 2002), Unleashed (aka Danny the Day, co-production with UK and USA, Directed by Louis Leterrier)

The two movies can be summarized as Sex and Violence! Sex is Comedy is unlike Catherine Breillat’s other shocking sex filled films but the idea behind this movie came from her film Fat Girl . She uses the same young actress from that movie and tries to show how much works goes in filming sex scenes for a movie. While the final product might seem passionate and erotic, in reality the scenes could not be more boring and dull to shoot. A light hearted movie that does get dull very soon because after the first 30 minutes the viewer gets the point that the complains/fuss of actors can be a real hindrance to the final product. Rating 7.5/10

Luc Besson has really developed his own system of action thrillers which form a middle road in between the big budget Hollywood productions and the lavish Asian martial films. Most of Besson’s films atleast have a well defined story which revolves around a plot of revenge and clear cut good/bad guys. Every now and then, Besson scripts unique scenes to spice up the tried out action/thriller genre. This time around, the main character, Danny (Jet Li) is a trained fighter who is merely a slave to his master (Bob Hoskins). When his master removes Danny’s collar, he is ready to kill at will. But one day, Danny finds reprieve in the form of music via a blind piano tuner (Morgan Freeman). The soothing music triggers long buried memories in Danny which lead him on a different path. The story of revenge from this point on feels like earlier Besson films but it is not that bad, although it feels dull in parts.
Rating 6.5/10

Overall Rating: 14/20 = 7.0

India: Lage Raho Munna Bhai (sweetly directed by Rajkumar Hirani), Fanaa (mis-directed by Kunal Kohli)

Two hyped up Bollywood movies but two completely different outcomes!

Lage Raho Munna Bhai is refreshing flick that is very rare in commercial cinema while Fanaa is just another run of the mill patriotic trash that has plagued Bollywood for more than a decade or so. Fanaa may be technically good (with some stunning Kashmiri visuals) and even has some touching performances from Kajol and Rishi Kapoor but overall, it has too many loop holes and an awful miscast role for Tabu (why on earth do directors/producers keep picking her even though it is obvious she can not deliver dialogues?). Lage Raho… is not a sequel to the original Munna Bhai film but simply a different story with the same loving lead characters. I have to say that the character of Circuit (played amazingly well by Arshad Warsi) is one of the best characters to ever grace the Indian celluloid screen – the loyal street savvy tapori has been played countless times over the decades but never this well and this good!

Lago Raho…Rating 9/10; Fanaa….Rating 5.5/10

Overall Rating: 14.5/20 = 7.25

Japan: The Great Yokai War (Takashi Miike), All about Lily Chou-Chou (Shunji Iwai)

There was a time that I tried to watch every new Takashi Miike movie. But I quickly found out that was a difficult and frustrating task -- difficult because Miike directed and acted in several films each year; frustrating because his films are very inconsistent, with a brilliant film followed by a complete dud. Needless to say, I was still looking forward to The Great Yokai War which was hyped up quite a bit. It is not disappointing but it is nothing great either. It mixes fantasy, myth, sci-fi and action elements with robots, gremlins, humans, furry creatures, power sword wielding characters occupying equal screen time. A little boy uncovers a magical world where the battle of good vs evil is taking place and finds himself center stage in the fight for the planet’s fate.
Rating 6.5/10

All about Lily Chou-Chou has an interesting story but nothing not seen before – alienated youth finds solace in a fan chat room about the popular pop singer Chou-Chou. However, a series of incidents lead to a fan getting killed and the alienated youth finds himself lonely and more confused about what to do. After a while, the online web poetry gets tedious and the movie drags on longer than it should. Rating 6.5/10

Overall Rating: 13/20 = 6.50

Latin America: Caballos salvajes (1995, directed by Marcelo Piñeyro, Argentina), Ciudad de M (2000, Directed by Felipe Degregori, Peru), Sin destino (2002, Leopoldo Laborde, Mexico)

Caballos salvajes is a charming bank heist/outlaw/road trip movie. And like most Argentine movies, it has its own peaceful rhythm. Rating 9/10

City of M is a well crafted low budget with shades of Waiting of Godot . M can’t find a job but then again, he has no college education. Desperate to get work, M and his friends hatch plots to become rich fast. Eventually, three of them agree to smuggle drugs to America. All they have to do is wait for the ‘Bolivian’ who will give them the goods and help their dreams come true. The waiting part feels like the Godot play and at this point, I felt the movie might end. But the ‘Bolivian’ does show up and even though we don’t see his face, he gives them the goods. Since it is a low budget movie, I never expected the three to leave Peru so the events that follow after the three get the goods are not unexpected. Rating 8/10

Shot mostly in stark black and white, Sin destino is a film about street life. Fran is a 15 year-old boy who gets by prostituting himself for money. Via flashbacks, we are shows how a 9 year old Fran was introduced into this life by an elder man, Sebastian. Just when Fran is finally starting to fall for women, Sebastian enters his life again. Conflicted between his real desires and need for money, Fran ends up on a destructive path which leads him to destroy everything in sight. And when he is done, Fran reverts back to being a child again, attempting to regain the innocence that was taken away from him. The movie is influenced by Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados and even has a common thread via the role of Sebastian, who acted in Buñuel's 1950 film. Interestingly, the only time there is color in the movie is when Fran’s fantasies & nightmares are shown which indicate the hellish state of Fran’s fragile mind (no matter how pleasant the start of the fantasy is, it eventually turns ugly). Rating 7.5/10

Overall Rating: 24.5/30 = 8.17

Russia & former Soviet-republics: I am Cuba (1964, Mikheil Kalatozishvili, Former soviet-Union/Cuba co-production), Night Watch (2004, Timur Bekmambetov)

I am Cuba is vintage cinema and ranks alongside Battle of Algiers and Z as one of the best examples of great cinema that once existed! The film gives us a ring-side seat to a changing Cuban landscape and shows different stories about the rich, the poor and the revolutionaries. We see how the rich dance their life away in a haze of music and alcohol, how the poor farmers have to struggle at every step, how a revolution starts, how a revolution can be crushed and the creation of a legend! Amazing stuff. Rating 9.5/10

Night Watch is a completely unique and original film but does contain traces of Blade , Matrix, Ghostbusters and other sci-fi/fantasy adventure films. As per the well crafted story, there has been an endless battle between good and evil but so far the balance has been maintained. However, the ‘one’ will come one day and the balance will never be the same. The manner in how the story unfolds is very interesting (curses, spells, vampires + flashy special effects). The film is a slap-in the face for all the North American distributors who complain that foreign cinema is not entertaining enough! The second movie in this trilogy was released in Russia this year, with the third film will be out next year but will be in English. Rating 9/10

Overall Rating: 18.5/20 = 9.25

Thailand: Ong-bak (Prachya Pinkaew, 2003), 69 (Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 1999)

I finally got around to seeing Ong-bak and it is nothing special, although the fights are amazing. Safe to say the story is paper-thin and the film is a mere excuse to see Tony Jaa in action with his Muay Thai moves. Rating 6.5/10

69 is a well crafted dark comedy/thriller. A boss can’t decide which of his employees to lay off, so he makes the women pick numbers. One of the three laid off employees has the number 9. As it turns out, she lives in apartment 6, but the number 6 is not properly attached to her door and constantly swings around to become a 9. One day, she hears three knocks on her door and when she goes out in the hallway, she finds a box. Upon opening the box, she finds bundles of money notes. What to do? She decides to keep the money. And when the gangsters come to get their box, a struggle ensues and she manages to kill both the men. From then on, no matter what she does, the body count just seems to keep increasing. Dark yet tinged with some unexpected humour throughout!
Rating 9/10

Overall Rating: 15.5/20 = 7.75

USA: Walk the Line (James Mangold, 2005), Fun with Dick and Jane (Dean Parisot, 2005), The Squid and the Whale(Noah Baumbach, 2005), Miami Vice (Michael Mann), The Illusionist (Neil Burger)

Yes the performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon are very good in Walk the Line but so what? The movie story is something rehashed in Hollywood countless times – a nobody becomes famous, struggles with fame and dives into drug/alcohol, messes his life until he gets a second chance to turn it around. Yawn! And if the main character is based on a real-life character, well then you have an award winning movie! Rating 7.5/10

Fun with Dick and Jane is a comic look at present day corporate fraud, although the movie is set decades before Enron and the other greedy companies were caught red-handed. Jim Carrey is good in a role that requires him to go from slapstick to the dead-pan Truman character. Alec Baldwin is the usual cool & sly person who cheats others and gets away with it (almost...). In a funny tribute, the end credits give thanks to all the corporations caught in money-fraud schemes. Rating 6.5/10

I can finally see what the hype around The Squid and the Whale is about. It is indeed a very good movie and well worth all the praise it has received. A fighting writer couple’s marriage is shown and how it affects their two sons with each son siding with one parent. Amazing performances all around especially the two kids. Also, an interesting case-study on how easily kids can be influenced especially by parents they worship. Rating 9.5/10

Miami Vice was an unexpected surprise for two reasons – one it is actually a good movie and second (more importantly) is the seductive role of Gong Li. I had no idea she was in this movie and in the end if it were not for character’s affair with Sonny (Colin Farrell), this movie would not have been this good. There is no real story per se, (two undercover cops have to bust a drug ring) and most of the dialogues make no sense or are kept to single sentences. So it is up to the visuals to set the mood and with most Michael Mann films, the atmosphere gives a sense of cool with blue being the prominent colour in the background. In the end, the movie is about the characters and their lives. The fact that they happen to be undercover cops is just a technicality. Overall, the movie feels like a sibling of Mann’s Heat. Rating 8.5/10

Magic or simply an Illusion? A mere trick of the hands or genuine dark powers? The Illusionist is an intriguing thriller which has an innocent love story as its focal point. The production visuals are very good with Paul Giamatti stealing the show with an amazing and precise performance. Rating 9/10

Overall Rating: 41/50 = 8.20

Yet another surprise winner: A film from the former Soviet Union + a modern Russian flick take top prize with 2 solid entries!!!!!