Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Futbal & Cinema: Eastern Europe

In the next few weeks I will be undertaking an interesting experiment in studying Eastern European football & cinema. Of course, one can't easily lump the diverse and different Eastern European countries into one easy label -- nations such as Poland, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Romania, etc have their own unique cultures and identities. But if one looks closer, one can find some common ground in their soccer & cinema -- traditionally all these nations have been technically advanced, disciplined and tactically organized when it came to the game. And their cinema has delivered beautiful realistic films about the human condition. This may be too much of a general analysis but I do plan to dig beneath the surface.

To help in this experiment, these are the tools employed:

1) Reading Materials:

Behind the Curtain: Football in Eastern Europe, written by Jonathan Wilson

This is a well written book which looks at the history of football in various Eastern European countries along with reasons behind the present state of things.

Post new wave cinema in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe

This book examines the history of cinema in the different nations and charts how the political movements helped advance or block each country's cinema. The book is upto date only up to the late 1980's (it was published in 1989).

So far both the above books have been very useful. Each has tried to show how the communist rule and its subsequent collapse influenced soccer and cinema. I have found some overlap in both books which seems to enforce each others ideas.

In addition, I will be relaying on Double lives, second chances : the cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski by Annette Insdorf to help in getting an understanding of Kieslowski's work which I will be looking at in the Polish section.

2) Films:

One reason for picking Poland as a starting point was to finally watch Kieslowski's The Decalogue, a work that I have long overlooked. And as it turned out there was a Polish element in David Lynch's Inland Empire which I saw while in the middle of my Decalogue viewing so it seemed appropriate to kick things off with Poland.

Other nations whose films will be covered are Serbia, Hungary, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovenia and Croatia. For now, I will not be pursuing any films from Ukraine or Czech Republic. Ideally I would like to get something from Bulgaria but so far I have not found anything. And the only Romanian film that I have ever seen is The Death of Mr. Lazarescu which was my favourite film of 2006. But I don't think I will be able to see any more films from that country until the fall.

Let the viewing begin......

Following are links to the spotlight in 5 parts:

Part I -- Poland, Serbia, Romania, Hungary
Part II -- Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungary, Bulgaria
Part III -- Ukraine, Serbia, Hungary
part IV -- Serbia, Romania, Hungary, Georgia, Russia, Czech Republic
part V -- Bosnia-Herzegovina, Former Yugoslavia, Macedonia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Latvia

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The theatrical USA of von Trier

Manderlay (2005, Director Lars von Trier): Rating 7/10

This is the second installement of von Trier's USA Trilogy after 2003's Dogville. The same production style as Dogville is employed in that a theatrical set is used with chalk lines marking out different areas in an open set with no doors. Only this time around a minor special effect is used to mimic a sandstorm. While Dogville was an interesting 3 hour character study about how humans react to a stranger, Manderlay seems to be a forced effort. At a running time of 140 minutes, it is shorter than Dogville but feels twice as long.

The story continues off just after Dogville ended. Grace is en route through America after she has gotten the mob to kill all of Dogville's inhabitants. While she and her father are driving in Southern USA, she notices the use of slavery in the town of Manderlay. She is shocked to see such a situation because slavery was supposed to have been ended 60 years ago. Grace decides to stay in the town against her father's wishes because she believes she can make a difference and can lead the slaves to freedom. Just like in Dogville she goes through an adjusting phase but eventually earns the respect of the town folk. However, her trust is abused and she is taken advantage of sexually. She is angered and can't wait for her father to return so that she can destroy everyone in Manderlay. But unlike the first time around, she is on her own.

My biggest criticism of Dogville was the ending. I felt it was too easy for Grace to take her revenge by getting the mob to destroy the town. But after seeing Manderlay I understand von Trier's purpose in showing that. He wanted to show how there are some people who are keen to resort to violence to solve their problems rather than taking a different approach. This time around, Grace wants to destroy another town. However, a brief show of force convinces her father that Grace is capable to be left on her own. But that show of force was just a minor act of agression on her part. In the end, Grace is forced to flee the town running across the nation.

The final film in the trilogy is called Washington which might feature Grace ending up in the American capital and might be a fitting political end to a series that has featured topics of immigration (stranger coming to town) & slavery.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Deciphering Inland Empire

Inland Empire (2006, David Lynch): Rating 8/10

We see hazy images. Then two figures appear but their faces are blurred. They talk in some foreign language but the subtitles allude to the relationship between the man and the woman – customer and prostitute. The black and white film gives way to colour as the young prostitute awakes alone in a hotel room. She watches images flash on the tv in front of her – 3 adults in rabbit suits are engaged in mundane dialogue in a sitcom of sorts. Everytime when one of the women in the rabbit suit speaks some meaningless lines, one hears canned laughter from a non-existent audience.

We are thoroughly confused. But after a few more images, a narrative of sorts is finally formed – a linear story indicates that Laura Dern is playing a wealthy actress (Nikki) in anticipation of a big role. Her supposed neighbour tells Nikki that tomorrow she will get the role and what Nikki will be doing when she learns the news. And just like that, we jump a day advance in time. From that point on, we have left one time field and are moving in another time plane. It is about 30 minutes into the film that we learn the foreign language spoken at the start of the film is Polish and that is when things start to make sense. We might be able to link everything from the start of the film upto this point, but another time jump throws things into more confusion.

Worm holes, time travel, multiple characters, dreams, imagination, Lynch’s subconscious mind and Laura Dern’s magnificent face which stretches to whatever emotion is required of her. How does one begin to explain something that one does not understand? Put simply this movie feels like the essence of Mulholland Drive drugged with the time travel element from Lost Highway with a tiny dash of bizarre from Twin Peaks. It is complicated but never dull or boring. Yes it is inaccessible and makes Mulholland Drive look like a straight forward film. In Mulholland Drive drive, we could clearly draw a line between the dream and reality. But in Inland Empire we are dealing with multiple versions of dreams and reality which are further complicated by the aspect of time and space. Laura Dern appears to exist in both dream and real state in one space-time field (streets of Hollywood) while another version of her character appears in Poland working the streets. However, the young prostitute at the start of film might be the real character whose imagined life is being lived by Laura Dern.

Near the film’s end, the happy music and brightly lit images indicate that Laura Dern’s character is finally coming out of the wilderness back home. We also see two realities reduce to a single truth as Laura Dern’s character and the young prostitute merge into one. In addition, the film also starts unwinding from the different time planes back to a point of origin. But one can’t help wonder if there is single thread which connects all the images or we are dealing with separate abstract images? Given how the film was shot without a script, there is plenty of room for interpretation. A simple analysis I feel is that this is a movie which is like hyperlinks on the internet – we jump from one link to another and so on. Eventually, near the end of the movie, we are simply hitting the ‘back’ arrow on the browser and are returned to our starting page. Along the way, we find related links and stories but they are all different. Or the movie is reels projected across David Lynch’s mind acted out by Laura Dern whose face is a guide to what we should be looking for.

Either way, this is a tough film to judge. One can only react to it – like, dislike or confusion. There are plenty of scenes which demand a reaction, be it fear, tension, anger or even tranquility. I didn’t react with the same enthusiasm as I did for Mulholland Drive but overall I found Inland Empire to be an engaging and satisfying way to spend three hours. After the afternoon screening, it was strange to walk out into the sunlight and the dull real world!

The tangled commercial web of profits

Spider Man 3 (2007, Director Sam Raimi): Rating 5/10

They did it, they finally did it. It took them 3 tries but the studios finally turned one of the most introspective comic book heroes into a joke. And in doing so, they realized my fears from 5 years ago. Against all opinion, I didn't watch the first two Spider Man films in the theater. The trailers for the first film didn't impress me and I couldn't get over how they chose Tobey Maguire as the lead -- I was afraid they would ruin the Spider Man character that I loved so much. But thankfully common sense prevailed and in 2005, I rented the second film. I absolutely loved it (gave it a rating of 10/10) and went back and saw the first one as well. I even enjoyed the first one (rating of 8/10) but in both films, I highlighted the negative aspect as Kirsten Dunst -- terrible acting and well, just painfully annoying.

And then when I found out that the third movie would have Venom, I was excited. I always felt that the best Spider Man story involved Venom -- it was the ultimate test of Peter's inner strength. However, the trailers made me change my mind again. Too many villains and more focus on special effects. So with some hesitation, I walked into the third film. And sure enough, all the fears I had came true -- Tobey was made to look out of sorts, Dunst was terrible as usual, the story was pathetic, too many plot elements and not enough time dedicated to study Venom. And the only reason I think Sandman was selected because of the cool special effects. Otherwise, the film could have done without him.

Also, there are some many contrived elements in the film like the brain dead cheering crowds and Spidey flying past the American flag on his way to rescue MJ. The film is shown to be in the year 2005 yet there is not a single person with a digital camera or cell-phone camera to take a picture of Spidey as he is jumping mask-less across the city. The film includes musical themes from the old (bad) Spider Man cartoon. I think that is appropriate as this does feel like a B-movie. But my rant is just that, a rant. It does not matter. This movie has made plenty of money and the studios will create more pathetic efforts and keep making more money. Do they really care? It seems that every 2-3 years, all the sequel movies are getting dumbed down even further for a younger audience. The Matrix was an intelligent film released back in 1999. But when 4 years later the second and third films were released, they were converted into brain dead studio films or in the case of the second one, a hollow film with enough rambling to make it look intelligent for teenage boys. Likewise, the first Pirates film was fun but the second was unwatchable. I am sure all the big movies this summer will make tons of movies and as a result more and more stupid sequels will be made until the future of Mike Judge's Idiocracy is fully realized, a movie that didn't make it out to the theaters.

Training Day (2001, Director Antoine Fuqua): Rating 7.5/10

Good cop, bad cop. A question of ethics and morality. Just when the good and bad are clearly defined, a grayish meter is shown which indicates that in order to fight crime, pure good can't survive against pure evil. And then suddenly, the tables are turned again and we do realize the gray scale was an illusion -- it is pure evil vs good. Seconds before good is wiped out for sure, a previous act of goodness saves him. Even though this act might feel like a contrived element, it could be seen as an example of the power of Karma -- if one commits even one act of good, it will lead to a favourable outcome. In most cases, it takes decades for Karma to act but since everything in this film is squeezed into one action packed day, even Karma has to act fast. In end, the film is powered by Denzel Washington's stellar performance. The background music is very good as it eludes to the danger lurking around the corner. But the movie is longer than it should be (almost 2 hours) and contains some typical cop movie elements (good cop that can't be killed).

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Taiwanese Cinema, take two

It has been over a year since I first shed a spotlight on Taiwanese Cinema. Back then I wanted to focus on Hou Hsiao-hsien & Tsai Ming-liang, two acclaimed directors whose work had been unknown to me. In the end I discovered the accolades were indeed worthy -- both HHH and Tsai are two of the best film directors in the world right now. This time around I decided to visit works by these directors along with another bright name in Taiwanese cinema -- Edward Yang. Yang along with Hou is considered part of the first New Wave of Taiwanese cinema. I will start with his award-winning 2000 film Yi Yi and attempt to work backwards to his early collaborations with Hou.
But for starters, the 1992 debut effort from Tsai Ming-liang:

Rebels of the Neon God: Rating 9.5/10

One movie is never enough to give an insight into a director’s arsenal but sometimes it provides a tiny glimpse into what he has to offer. However, in order to make a full assessment, it is essential to watch all of a director's work from the start. Most of the times watching a director's work in chronological sequence is a luxury. We often see a movie by a director and if we like it, we pursue his/her older works. Such was the case with me. I jumped aboard Tsai Ming-liang's cinematic journey midway in 2001 with What Time is it there. That time his hero, Kang Hsiao (played by Lee Kang-sheng) was trying to make a living selling watches. His father had passed away and his mother was trying to get the father's spirit to return. In 2005, Kang was trying to make a living working as porn actor in The Wayward Cloud. But Kang's story started with Rebels of the Neon God and has continued for another 14 years. And in 2006, Kang returned to Tsai's birth land Malaysia in I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, a film I can't wait to see. This effort was the first time Tsai turned the lens back on his native country and away from Taipei.

It is hard to believe that Rebels of the Neon God was Tsai's first full length feature because it is such a well developed film. The story involves Kang Hsiao and his efforts to drop out of high school and spend hours in the arcade. One day while he is in father's taxi, a young man on a motorcyle smashes his dad's mirror. Kang follows the motorcyle guy and his girlfriend around and eventually takes his revenge in a simple yet cruel manner. The film is amazingly shot with not much dialogue yet one does need too many words to understand Kang's emotions and feelings. Each shot is framed & lit so well that we can sit back and peacefully observe Kang's teenage angst, curiousity & even boredom.

Because I have seen The Wayward Cloud, I couldn't help read too much into a harmless scene around the 16 minute mark in Rebels... In this scene, Kang and his father buy and eat watermelon from a roadside vendor. Kang's father gives his son a few extra pieces and tells him to eat them all. 13 years later in the The Wayward Cloud Kang is still eating watermelons but this time the watermelon is used as a prop in the porn movie.

So far, I have enjoyed each Tsai Ming-liang and Lee Kang-sheng collaboration seperately but watching all them one after another will be a real treat. But I have to make that journey, one movie at a time...

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

From an epic to a disaster..

Colour me Kubrick (2005, Director Brian Cook): Rating 4.5/10

John Malkovich plays Alan Conway, a real life person who went around conning people into believing he was Stanley Kubrick. Conway somehow convinced plenty of people that he was the famous director and was able to get free drinks and hotel rooms paid. Along the way, he made false promises to people, crushed their fragile egos and broke their hearts. Is that all he did? Well if this film is any indication, that's all there is to the story. So this utterly boring & muddled film recycles the same con over and over after the first 10 minutes -- only the victims change along with Conway's accent. The film is too confused to decide if it wants to be a full blown farce, a character study or even a mocumentary. The music from Clockwork Orange and 2001 is thrown in for good measure but it amounts to nothing. Even at 1 hour 21 minutes, it feels too long and boring. Painful watching!!!

Monday, May 07, 2007

An Epic to top all epics...

The Mahabharata (1989, Director Peter Brook): Rating 9/10

There is no story like the The Mahabharata!! The poem’s incredible length is well know (longer than the two Greek epics The Iliad and The Odyssey combined). But it is the well known characters and immense knowledge that stands out from this epic work -- the tales of Arjun, Krishna, Draupadi, the family feud of Pandavs vs Kauravs and the message of the Bhagavad Gita are known to every Indian. But how many people outside of India know about this tale? The Greek classics and The Bible are still know around the world but works such as The Ramayana and The Mahabharata are largely ignored. Even though this story about family rivalry and the lessons about war are applicable to any culture around the world. But until this multi-nation collaboration, this work would have been restricted to India alone.

In 1988, B.R Chopra & Ravi Chopra’s tv series Mahabharat was a huge success in India. When the tv series was on, the streets were empty; you would be hard pressed to find a soul not in front of a tv. Yet this work was in Hindi and acted by Indian actors, so it was limited to Indian audiences. But Peter Brook’s approach is unique. He has assembled an international cast from a plethora of nations -- India, Japan, Italy, Senegal, Algeria, England, Germany, France, Poland, U.S, to name a few. All the actors speak in English with their original accents. As a result, this removes the work from an Indian namespace and makes it accessible to a universal audience. Brook’s has filmed Jean-Claude Carrière’s adaptation into a staggering 5 hour 25 minute film. The work covers all the major elements of the story and cleverly integrates the writer, Vyasa, into the story as well. That is similar to having Homer show up in a film adaptation of The Odyssey. The different actors enhance the film with their own accent and acting style, as a result, the film is never dull. Truly an epic viewing!!!

Himalaya (1999, Director Eric Valli): Rating 8/10

This is a visually stunning tale about traditions and the cultural way of life in the Dolpo area of Nepal. On the surface the story is about the salt trade but at the core, it is a tale about the clash of cultural ideals – old traditions vs new ideas. To film this against the difficult terrain of the majestic mountains is an immense achievement. On top of that, the film crew have managed to capture the beautiful landscape with all the sights and sounds. The story is good but the visuals are the real attraction of this film.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Brazilian Cinema

Spotlight on Brazilian Cinema, part two

Lower City (2005, Director Sérgio Machado, co-writer Karim Ainouz): Rating 7.5/10

I am fast becoming a fan of Karim Ainouz's writing style. Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures was my favourite film of 2005 and even though Behind the Sun(2001) was flawed, it had moments of rich emotion. The trailers for Lower City seemed to make clear what the film was about -- two friends are shown to fall for the same woman, plenty of raw sex and some scenes of robbery and physical violence. And true to the trailers, the film is exactly what it appears. The first sex scene arrives at the 3 minute mark of the film. At the start of the film, we see Karinna (Alice Braga) dressing up and heading downstairs to a local shop. There she asks the shop-keeper if she knows anyone who can give her a ride out of town. Two young men (Deco played by Lázaro Ramos and Naldinho played by Wagner Moura) standing in the corner tell her that they can give her a lift on their boat. While negotiating the price with her, they eye her up and down and say that she can pay the rest by you know what. She understands and a minute or so later, Naldinho is having his way with her on the boat. And right after him, Deco steps up to score. Right from the outset, Karinna is smart enough to understand that she will come in between these childhood friends and that the two will eventually kill each other over her. To her credit, she tries to get away but is always drawn towards them. Very little words are spoken in this duration and none need to be -- the pictures tell it all.

Pixote (1981, Director Hector Babenco): Rating 9/10

Half-way through watching this film, I felt it reminded me of Carandiru, the 2003 gritty Brazilian prison drama film. As it turns out, Babenco directed both these films so the similarity was understandable. In a sense, Carandiru is an extension of the work that Babenco started with Pixote. In this 1981 film, he focuses on the poor Brazilian youth of São Paulo. He shows that how sometimes these kids are grabbed by the police on the slightest pretext and housed in reformatories. All these kids are less 18 years of age and that is the key. Because if the kids are under 18, no matter what crime they commit, they won't be thrown in prison but sent to a reformatory. So certain people abuse this loop hole by getting the children to commit drug trafficking, theft and even murder.

Pixote is not an easy film to watch. It is not afraid to show the disgusting side of crime and poverty that most films often cover-up. While watching this movie, it is easy to understand how some of the kinds will land up in the jails in Carandiru. The main character of Pixote is a 10 year old boy who gradually loses his innocence as the film progresses. This film was made long before the recent Brazilian youth crime films and it predicts the horror that is shown in City of God, Bus 174 and Carandiru.

After two films, onto a book.........

Garrincha, written by Ruy Castro

Plenty of non-soccer fans have heard of Pele but how many have heard of Garrincha? Plenty of myths surround Garrincha and his ability. I often heard he was better than Pele and the limited black and white footage I saw of his goals and moves seemed to confirm that. But it was a truly eye-opening experience to read this fascinating book by Ruy Castro. Castro has done an amazing amount of research for this book and honestly, it is truly one of the best books I have read in a very long time!

The cliched phrase of "truth is sometimes stranger than fiction" seemed to apply to Garrincha. Right from his birth, he defied belief. He was born with two defective legs -- both legs were bent, one outward and the other inward. On top of that, one leg was shorter than the other (by one inch) and he even had a hip problem. Doctors didn't give him much chance to walk, let alone run. But run he did and he became one of the best dribblers the game has known. Unfortunately, that is where the romantic side of his life ends. Everything else about him is so tragic and miserable that you feel no fiction writer could make this stuff up.

-- Garrincha had a weakness for alcohol and woman. He count not resist either and while he was not drunk, he was screwing (or doing both together). In fact, sex was the only exercise he used to keep himself fit. He never went to gym and played the game however he felt it. He is believed to have fathered atleast 14 recorded children with 5 different women.
-- He was naive and simple-minded and other people took advantage of that. He was constantly under-paid by his club and later in life, he was sucked dry by a greedy lawyer who tried to steal any money that Garrincha earned.
-- Throughout his career, friends and people tried to get him back on his feet by creating jobs for him. But the lure of alcohol always was stronger.
-- A man who led Brazil to two World Cup trophies died in a manner one does not associate with such heroes. On the other hand, Pele's fame went from strength to strength. Both were heroes to the world in that 1958 World Cup but Pele went to become a global icon, while Garrincha disappeared into the dust of the earth.
-- By the end of his life, he was depending on organizations and even the Brazilian football federation on keeping him alive and paying his hospital bills.

One can argue that the pattern of Garrincha's destruction is the same followed by other people who found over-night wealth and blew it all away. But Garrincha's case is different. He didn't care for money. And when he played, he didn't want to be a hero and score the most goals. For him dribbling was his only joy. His team-mates often got mad at him for not passing the ball enough, but they didn't realize that for him playing tricks with the ball was the highest form of pleasure.

But no matter how many mistakes he made and how many affairs he had, some people were always ready to forgive him. In fact, people blamed his marriage problems on the other woman who was hated more than Garrincha. Part of the love that people had for him might be attributed to his poor background. Castro does a good job in starting the book at a point when the local natives were tortured and abused by the colonials. The start of the book feels like something out of the Brazil that Werner Herzog showed in Cobra Verde -- plantation owners who exploited the locals.

This book highlights all the cliches and myths one associates with the images of Brazil -- futbol, sex, poverty, politics, corruption, carnival. But more than the cliches, this is a engaging look at the life of a flawed man. Full credit for the wonder that this book is goes to Ruy Castro and the English translator, Andrew Downie.

Full title: Garrincha, the triumph and tragedy of Brazil's forgotten footballing hero

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Brazilian Genius

Milan is a long way from São Paulo. But on a rainy Wednesday night, it was the man from São Paulo who showed his class and led the Italian team to a Champions League final in Athens against Liverpool.

For the last few years, Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite (or Kaká) has been one of the best players in the world. However, his intelligent play and clever positioning has often been dwarfed by the tricks and jigs of Ronaldinho. Ronaldinho may have finally scored his bicycle kick goal for Barcelona this year but he is clearly a shadow of his former self. Instead, Kaká has added a spark of genius into an aging Milan team badly in need of inspiration. His two goals against Manchester United last week were perfect examples of his immense talent -- the first was a precise shot placed at the end of a pacy clever run and the second was pure genius, where Kaká made a goal out of nothing. He headed, flicked and headed the ball again past a stagnant Manchester defense to score with such ease. And on Wednesday night, he scored again with a precise left shot but this time he volleyed the ball into the bottom corner of the net.

The above picture is a beautiful shot. I have no idea who took it but I found it on Soccernet's photo gallery . Kaká always looks up to the heavens after he scores a goal but the lighting in this shot makes it more special. Because it appears this time that the heavenly light seems to be shining back down on him. Poetic!