Friday, June 15, 2007

Global Viewing

Spies -- Espionage. Men in hats. Trench coats. Secret codes. The chair.
Time -- Love. Beauty. Endless cycle. Death. Rebirth. Transformation.
Dreams -- Hope. Poverty. Corruption. Power.
Revolution -- Oppression. Opposition. Fight. Freedom.


Army of Shadows (1969, France, Director Jean-Pierre Melville): Rating 10/10

Men in trench coats wearing black hats moving silently through the night. A leak and a resistance personnel is arrested. Plans are formed to rescue him. Information, counter-information, lies and more plans. If there was a way to perfectly capture the danger and intrigue of a spy film, Jean-Pierre Melville did it. The posters show a man tied up on a chair. Yes that was how spies were tortured back then (or still are?). The chair is a lasting image. So is the darkness which highlights the clandestine movements involvement. The setting is World War II and the struggles of the French resistance to advance their cause. The lighting, atmosphere, acting, sound are all pitch-perfect, in tune. The tune being that of a captivating thriller which achieves moments of high tension with bare minimum action.

The Good Shepard (2006, Director Robert De Niro): Rating 8/10

Spies again, but this time on the other side of the ocean. How did the CIA start? Who were the men who lurked in the shadows quietly whispering instructions on the phone to carry out the operation? We get brief glimpses into a world constructed by men. A world where there is no room for emotions and the only currency is information. Money, power, friends, enemies all can change hands as long as it for the good of the nation. Each man has his weakness, be it family or even chocolates. And it is these flawed men who decide the good of a nation.

There are moments of beauty in this film, especially the initial scenes of Yale's "skull and bones" society, spying during World II and some of the father-son relationship scenes. Unfortunately, the movie is completely devoid of any emotion and moves coldly from scene to scene. Even though some of the scenes require a shout or a scream, the film muffles everything away. Nonetheless, still a worthy watch. And just like in Melville's film, a chair is also present in this movie. A Russian spy is tied up and beaten just to get the truth out. Even though the man may be telling the truth, he is beaten. Why? Because sometimes the only truth is the version the men in power want to hear. Anything else is a lie.


Time (2006, South Korea, Director Ki-duk Kim): Rating 8/10

Perfect beauty, the all demanding quest. Will perfection result in happiness and endless love? Even though the answer is obvious but humans still cling onto that dream. Such is the case with the main female character in Kim Ki-duk's latest film. At the start of the movie, we see a woman being cut open and transformed into a beautiful person thanks to the miracles of plastic surgery. The entire process is an ugly one and we are given a front row seat in the operation room to witness the surgery. But it takes about 6 months for the face to be fully healed. Until then, the woman has to cover herself and hide her scarred face from the public. After the surgery, the woman leaves the surgeon's office with her face covered carrying a picture of her old ugly self. A young sweet looking girl, Seh-hee, crashes into her and causes her picture to fall to the ground breaking the frame. See-hee is apologetic and runs to get the frame fixed. But the masked woman does not wait and leaves the scene. From then on, we get a look into See-hee's life. She is dating a handsome man, Ji-woo. Even though See-hee has him to herself, she can't help get jealous over his wandering eye -- everytime Ji-woo talks to a another woman, she gets angry. Unsure about her beauty, she goes to get her face altered. As part of her rebirth, she disappears from Ji-woo's life for 6 months ago.

The sudden disappearance of See-hee causes Ji-woo some grief. After a period of 6 months, the newly touched up See-hee surfaces. But Ji-woo does not recognize her. So she goes about enticing Ji-woo and tries to erase his memories of the old See-hee. But much to her dismay, Ji-woo is still in love with the old See-hee. She is stuck in a lose-lose situation, because if he can't love the new See-hee, then her transformation was a failure. And if he does love the new look See-hee, that confirms her old fears about him not wanting the sweet old self.

But things are not as straight forward as they seem. The concept of time is an important factor in the story. We are given clues from the start that we might not be getting the linear story we are seeing. Sure enough, a rift in time occurs when Ji-woo disappears himself in order to get revenge on See-hee -- he goes to get surgery done on his face as well in order to balance out See-hee's transformation.

In the past, Kim Ki-duk focussed on individual human flaws. Films like Bad Guy, The Bow, 3-Iron, Spring, Summer.. had a touch of spirituality to them as the movies explored human weakness. This time around, he dispenses with spirituality and takes a stand against a society which places beauty over all other values. When humans chase only beauty, they lose a sense of themselves and ultimately spiritual connection. In that regard, the film's most memorable elements are 'space' and 'cleanliness'. Everything is framed in such a manner to give each character the maximum space which only heightens their sense of isolation. And everything appears white and pristine, as if life is completely clean. But by showing the ugliness that hides beneath the surface, we also get a sense of how false and illusionary the appearances are.

This intense yet elegantly balanced film is probably Kim Ki-duk's most accessible film. And the on screen beauty balances out any of ugly human nature on display.

The Fountain (2006, Director Darren Aronofsky): Rating 7/10

Time, Space, Science, Myth and belief. It is easy to admire the visual beauty of Aronofsky's feature but does it matter really? Despite carefully balancing fiction, myth and science into a concise feature, this meditative look at immortality and death feels as a wasted effort.

Izzi is dying of brain tumor and her husband is furiously working on a cure for her. But despite his best efforts, time claims his wife. He won't accept her death and works on trying to rescue her soul. As part of this journey, he has to finish her novel about the Spanish quest for the tree of life deep located deep within ancient Mayan culture. Yet the husband's journey feels like an empty contrived quest. In the DVD extras, Aronofsky indicates how the original production ran into complications and was initially shut-down. Then due to budget restrictions, the script was hashed and narrowed to fit a frame of an independent film. Which explains why the movie feels like a short story stretched slowly into a feature film length.

Acidente (2006, Brazil, Director Cao Guimarães, Pablo Lobato): Rating 7/10

This visually stunning documentary proves that beauty can be found in stillness. The filmmakers travel through 20 poetically named cities in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais and capture everyday events. Long, interrupted camera shots document the unexpected beauty of everyday life. However, the minimalist & experimental approach gets tiring and frustrating over the 72 minute long length. Still a film that might be appreciated in limited doses in film festivals around the world.


On the Wings of Dreams (2007, Bangladesh, Director Golam Rabbany Biplob): Rating 9/10

This charming film illustrates how simple lives can be tranformed by the lure of money. When a simple and poor family comes across some foreign currency, they start dreaming of a better life. With those dreams come stressful complications and behaviour changes. Loved ones become estranged and strangers become desirable companions. Simple but relevant cinema!

American Visa (2006, Bolivia/Mexico, Director Juan Carlos Valdivia): Rating 6.5/10

This co-production shows how dreams of the promised land make an educated, intelligent person lose all reason and commit crimes! Mario Alvarez wants to leave his teacher's job in Bolivia and settle in the US with his son. But he does not want to officially immigrate to the US. His plan is to get a tourist visa and then become an illegal alien. When his visa application is rejected, he becomes desperate and willing to go to any lengths to secure his ticket out of Bolivia. Things get complicated when he comes across a stripper who falls in love with him.

The acting is good and La Paz is beautifully captured on camera. But the story is flawed and needless dramatic scores are scattered throughout the movie. Still, a decent watch.

Deserto Feliz (2006, Brazil, Director Paulo Caldas): Rating 7/10

Sao Paulo -- Crime, prostitution, poverty and dreams. Dreams of a better life away from the cramped residential flats. Despite an array of smart camera angles, this is another in a long line of Brazilian films rehashing the same topics of prostitution.


Hellfighters (2007, USA, Director Jon Frankel): Rating 8.5/10

An insightful and powerful documentary about the struggles and hopes of Harlem's first ever high school football team. The film takes an objective look at the team's season and shows how both internal and external forces only add to the team's woes.

The Fists of a Nation (2007, Panama, Director Pituka Ortega-Heilbron): Rating 8/10

When a nation is constantly oppressed and its people have no hope of freedom, sports can play an important part in giving these people renewed belief. When people hear of Panama, they only think of the "canal". But the canal's ownership (prior to the 1999) with the US was a constant thorn in the people's eyes. No matter how hard they tried, Panama could not rid themselves of the American powers. So it was with relief that the nation was overjoyed when local boxing newcomer Roberto Duran took on the American boxing star Sugar Ray Leonard and defeated him. The boxing match had consequences more important than a mere sport and Roberto's powerful punches lifted the spirits of an entire nation. The film shows Roberto's rise and eventual decline of power while also highlighting important political moments in Panama's history.

Tambogrande: mangos, murder, mining (2006, Peru, Director Ernesto Cabellos & Stephanie Boyd): Rating 7/10

North American corporations are busy carving up South America and stealing those countries natural resources. If it were not for a few documentaries, most of these crimes would go by un-noticed. Tambogrande joins a list of previous such eye-opening films and highlights land crimes in the Tambogrande region of Peru where a Canadian company wants to start a mining pit. The region's history, the people's struggles, the political corruption that exists and the power of money are all documented. The film also shows that if people are not willing to stand up and fight for their rights, they will get rolled over. Sometimes, just sometimes, ordinary people can actually make a difference against big money.

House-warming party (2006, Brazil, Directors Toni Venturi and Pablo Georgieff): Rating 8/10

A hard hitting look at the housing problem in Sao Paulo. The title refers to an activist group's idea about taking over empty vacant buildings in order to draw attention to their cause. Eventually after the police and media arrive, the group peacefully leave the building. Through this simple act, they have managed to get the government to provide some housing to the countless people living in slums while hundreds of buildings lie unoccupied and used. However, many more people live in substandard conditions. What do the people dream about? A house of their own with enough food to eat. But unless the people fight, they won't ever get their dream to come true because the rich don't care and the government does not have time.

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