Friday, January 19, 2007

Notes on recent films

District 13 (Director, Pierre Morel): Rating 7/10

Luc Besson is an industry in himself. Over the last two decades, he has been responsible for some very interesting films and characters (Léon to name one), which have led to other copy cat films and series spin offs (Le Femme Nikita). But in the last few years, he has been doing more writing and producing a series of action packed films. The genre films come garnished with some touches that only Besson could do. The fast paced action scenes are centered around a typical good-evil-revenge story yet the unique characters and sometimes a few twists make most Besson films fun to watch. The same could be said for District 13 -- it is fast paced, with a pinch of humour, contains unique situations and is overall enjoyable. The film is set in Paris 2010, a city that has still not learned how to deal with its differences. Following the riots in 2005, the film shows a scenario in the future where the French government erects walls and separates the neighborhoods into districts. People know which district to stay away from. The interesting aspect of the film is the angle where the government admits its failure and comes up with a wicked plan to ‘cleanse’ the problem. Given the current world situation, this evil solution is entirely possible. In fact, a few countries have tried it in the past. The film also clocks in just over 80 minutes, ensuring that the lean-thin story does not overstay its welcome.

The House of Sand (Director, Andrucha Waddington): Rating 10/10

I must be a sucker for Brazilian films. I sometimes get hooked emotionally and can’t get the film out of my system. Such happened with Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures, The Middle of the World and even Central Station. The simple stories of a journey combined with stunning landscapes seems to do me in. In the case of House of Sand the landscape could not be more poetic and isolated – white sanded desert surrounded by the ocean on one side. The rain fills the lagoons in the desert and threatens to erode away the houses standing on the sand. Ofcourse, when the wind kicks in, the sand becomes a force to deal with and it threatens to enter and take over a house. This battle of the house vs sand sounds like The Woman of the dunes but on the DVD interview, the director mentions he was inspired by a real life story of a Brazilian woman who tried to prevent the sand from taking over her house. And when she died, the sand moved in and swallowed up the house. In this film’s story, it too is women trying to fight with the sand.

The story opens in 1910, when a husband takes his pregnant wife, mother-in-law and a band of followers to live in the desolate white desert in Northern Brazil. However, through a series of incidents, the husband dies, the followers run away and the women are left to fend for themselves. Their first instinct is to get away but that proves to be a difficult task. When an opportunity to leave presents itself, the mother, Maria (Fernanda Montenegro) decides they should wait because her daughter Áurea (Fernanda Torres) will soon give birth. We next find the two women 8-9 years in the future, in 1919, the year of the Eclipse. Áurea has given birth to Maria who is now about 8 years old. Once again, Áurea carves an opportunity to escape but when returns home to fetch her mother and daughter, the sand has destructed their house leaving the mother dead. But young Maria has survived and the chance for escape goes. Eventually, Áurea grows old and at the start of World War II finds another chance to escape. This time however, she has found a reason to stay (love with Massu) and sends Maria off. Finally, Maria returns to find her mother in the year that man landed on the moon.

Besides the stunning landscape, the genius of this story is getting real life mother-daughter Fernanda Montenegro & Fernanda Torres to play multiple roles. Montenegro plays 3 roles – the mother, then she plays an older Áurea and finally she plays a 58 old year old Maria (Áurea’s daughter). Torres plays Áurea and a 28 year old Maria. This is a great move because it shows that no matter how much children are different from their parents, they reflect an aspect of their parents. In this case, the physical similarity is pitted against the stagnant desert and makes for a great character-study. In the end, when Maria returns and tells her mother, Áurea, that man has landed on the moon, Áurea asks what man has found on the moon. “Nothing” replies Maria, nothing except “sand”. We see a smile on an aging Áurea’s face and the camera than moves back to let us see the moon shining on the white desert, making the entire desert look like the moon’s surface. This really is a movie that if one is not in the mood for, they will not like. In fact, the first 10-15 minutes are probably the most dull but after that, the epic battle of sand vs humans takes over. Ofcourse, there is a raw sex scene thrown in the movie which changes the relationship between Áurea and her 8 year old daughter Maria and results in Maria growing up to be a wild passionate woman, willing to throw herself at anyone. In fact, it is that wild passionate side of Maria’s personality that gains her freedom from the desert.

Guru (Director, Mani Ratnam): Rating 8.5/10

Little more than 12 hours after I finished seeing House of Sand, I saw Mani Ratnam’s latest flick, the much anticipated Guru. The good thing is this Bollywood film does meet the expectations in some regards and even exceeds it in a way. When it comes to acting, no one could have expected such a fine performance from Abhishek Bachchan. This is clearly his film and he owns every frame. At the peak of his character, Guru’s, powerful speech, Abhishek’s voice sounds like his father’s. That is inevitable but one can’t help but think that it is Amitabh himself delivering those dialogues. Besides Abhishek, the rest of the cast rise to the occasion as well - -Aishwarya Rai has given one of her best performances in years, Madhavan has a short but strong role and Mithun is a real delight. Mithun Chakraborty is certainly aging gracefully and his tender yet principled role is an ideal foil to Guru’s cold ruthless capitalist ways.

A.R Rahman’s music is soothing, the visual are stunning (Istanbul and India look just beautiful). But my problem with this film is the same as I had with Rang De Basanti. There is something which still holds back certain Bollywood films from greatness. Both these films contain an underlying message that is misguided and feels wrong. In both films, the main character(s) are shown to be heroes yet they are misguided but the movie still glorifies them. In Rang De Basanti the youth clearly have the wrong idea but the story only fuels their naivety. Guru on the other hand is shown to be a clever businessman but he bends the rules too frequently. In return, he blames the government. Yet, he could have met the government’s needs while still expanding his company to reap profits. But I suppose the argument is that no company can ever grow at such a rapid pace without breaking some law – be it moral, ethical or even environmental. Even the judges in Guru can’t make their mind up if Guru is a thug or a genius. In my opinion, Guru is a capitalist thug. So should I slam the movie for that reason? Not really. But I have to take some points off for the needless Turkish cabaret song at the start of the film with Mallika Sherawat. Mallika can’t belly dance, in fact her extras did a far superior job than her. But the problem is the majority of the Indian male public does not care for her dancing ability and will be preoccupied with her other assests. Still, her cameo is one of the film’s weakest elements.

Dhoom 2 (did someone really direct this?): Rating 5/10

If the movie only had Abhiskek, Hrithik and Aishwarya in it and a few badly choreographed motorcycle and action scenes were removed, then this film would have been much better. Uday Chopra can’t act and is a waste in any film. Ofcourse, he had to be in this movie because he was in the first film and his brother is the film’s producer. He takes away enough negative points from this cocktail mix of Hollywood films.

Woh Lahme (Director, Mohit Suri): Rating 8/10

I am not sure how much of this film is based on fact and how much is fiction. Aspects are based on Mahesh Bhatt’s relationship with the once legendary Parveen Babi, but where is the line between fact and fiction? It is clear that some scenes in the film are about Mahesh wishing he had done more to help Parveen. It really was a sad fate to learn that the once hot starlet died a lonely death last year, with a full 2 days passing by before anyone knew of her death. Mohit Suri has done a great job of translating Mahesh’s tender story and giving it a powerful treatment. Both Kangana Ranaut & Shiney Ahuja are very good, with Kangana giving a tender performance of an actresses struggling to deal with her inner demons. While Maine Gandhi ko Nahin Mera dealt with a similar topic, Woh Lahme gives a horrific in the face view of what it is like to be trapped in a tormented mind. And on top of that, this film contains one of the best Bollywood songs I have heard in years – ‘Mujhe Pyar Hai’ and its remixed version are just too good to turn away from.

Zatracení, The Damned (Director, Dan Svátek): Rating 4.5/10

Nothing to praise about this low budget Czech film about an innocent prey caught smuggling heroin out of Thailand. The only redeeming aspect is the film within film aspect where a character tries to save his half-brother by putting together archive footage of his brother’s time in Thailand. The acting is substandard and even though the footage idea is interesting, it gets dull after a while.

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