Pages

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Copa America Film Festival, Group A

June 26, 2007: The Copa America started with Peru beating Uruguay 3-0 and the hosts Venezuela managing a surprise 2-2 tie with Bolivia. It is also time to compare the 11 films I have seen from the countries taking part in the tournament. I still have not found a film from Paraguay and my deadline is running out. Rules and format of the film competition are outlined in a previous entry .

Uruguay:

I was first introduced to Uruguay through soccer. When my interest in the game was developing, I quickly learned two things:

-- Uruguay won the first ever soccer World Cup beating Argentina in an exciting 4-2 game.

-- Uruguay won their second trophy in 1950 by beating Brazil 2-1 against all odds in front of 200,000 people packed in the Maracanã stadium.

Besides the two World Cups, Uruguay's only major achievement in the international game came by winning the 1928 Olympic gold medal. But when it comes to Copa America, Uruguay is the all time joint-top winner along with Argentina with 14 titles. However, their last title came in 1995 and it seems unlikely that the soccer team will achieve much in the near future given current problems.

The best soccer related contribution that Uruguay have made in the last decade is due to their genius author Eduardo Galeano. His book, Soccer in Sun and Shadow is one of the best books ever written about the global game. In the book, Galeano also cleverly combines political pieces of history while talking about the game's beauty. And then there is a single stroke of wit by the Uruguayan author -- starting from the 1966 tournament upto the 2002 tournament, he causally slips this line in his historical look at global events happening the same time as the soccer tournament: "Well-informed sources in Miami announced the imminent fall of Fidel Castro, it was a matter of hours."

This is the only identical line repeated in about 10 chapters of the book. It is not a very subtle inclusion but the fact that Galeano does not expand on this line any further and just repeats it as is makes for a hilarious take on the stupidity of the entire situation. Dry humour? Perhaps but absolutely funny.

Interestingly, it is a similar kind of dry wit that makes the Uruguayan film Whisky such a pleasure to watch. I had never watched any film from Uruguay before but the movie's deadpan humour was very familiar -- I really felt that I was watching another film from the Finnish film-maker Aki Kaurismäki. In Whisky, Jacobo plays an ordinary man who owns a sock factory. He follows the same dull routine everyday and is made fun of on his daily walk to work -- his local newspaper store owner never misses a chance to taunt Jacobo's soccer team's poor performance. When his slightly successful brother (Herman) from Brazil is coming for a visit, Jacobo has to show that his life is better than it seems. He asks once of his co-workers, Marta to play his wife. Herman also owns a sock factory in Brazil and uses modern machinery to earn more profits. Yet, both brothers are jealous of each other for various reasons and continue their invisible rivalry at all times. Despite not seeing each other for years, the two have nothing to talk about. So in order to pass the time, Jacobo takes Herman to a local soccer game. And when Herman once again starts giving business advice to his brother, the normally quiet Jacobo takes out his frustration by abusing the referee.

It was a real treat to see this movie. It achieves humour in the same style as Kaurismäki & Jim Jarmusch. As it stands, the Uruguay's soccer team might not do anything in Copa America. But this film is a strong candidate to win the Copa America Film Festival.

Peru:

History will show that Peru did make some waves in the World Cup for both the right and wrong reasons. The skills of Teófilo Cubillas certainly made Peru a team worth watching. But it is Peru's 6-0 loss to Argentina in the 1978 World Cup that has tainted their reputation. Argentina needed to beat Peru by four goals to reach the World Cup final and they scored the 6 goals with little opposition from the Peruvians. The game is a certain candidate for an example of match-fixing and also might point to the threat posed by Argentina's dictatorship in 1978 who wanted to use the soccer win to hide their crimes.

The current Peruvian team does have some talented players plying their trade in Europe. And it is the skills of these players that enabled Peru to dismantle Uruguay in the opening game of this year's Copa.

Días de Santiago is the second Peruvian film that I have seen & like the previous City of M its story centers around poverty and unemployment. In the intense & powerful Días de Santiago, we see a young discharged Army person struggling to find a job. Santiago fought and killed for his country but he is appalled to see the corruption around him. He is even more upset that his service counts for nothing and can't help him find work. While his ex-military friends plan a bank robbery to earn money, Santiago opts to make honest money by driving a taxi.

The film is shot in both colour and black & white. Initially, all of Santiago's inner monologues & thoughts are shown in black and white; the harsh reality around him is shown in all its colorful glory. However, as the movie progresses, Santiago's inner thoughts start to confuse with reality. It gets to a point that Santiago is speaking his mind freely to people without filtering his words for any political correctness. Right from the film's start, we know that Santiago is on edge; he is waiting to burst and destroy everything around him. His troubled and abusive family does not help in calming his nerves either. And then he snaps. But can he differentiate between thought and action?

Bolivia:

A month ago I had not seen any films from Bolivia. And now, I have seen three. Two from Rodrigo Bellott (Dependencia sexual & Who Killed the While Llama?) & American Visa. But it is Bellott's 2003 film that was my first choice for the Bolivian entry.

Sexual Dependency is an interesting look at 5 stories about teenage/youth sexual experiences in Bolivia and the USA. The stories are linked nicely in a surprizing manner. The film's opening scene focuses on an underwear billboard at a street intersection. The billboard poster, with one male model and two blondes, paints to an image of perfection. We then see separate teenagers who run into each other at that intersection and are gradually introduced to each of their lives. Each of them has a sexual experience that is not pleasant at all, whether it is a painful first time, a rape or abuse. The film tries to explore a modern generation's complications and confusions. We also see how a Bolivian stud gets completely lost in an alien and hostile American city. Each youngster realizes something about themselves and undergoes plenty of grief, all in the name of sex. And then when everything is shockingly reveled, we truly see how hollow that billboard was at the start of the film.

The film employs experimental camera angles, with split screens being the most common one. Unfortunately, the split camera angles does not add much in most scenes and seems like a distraction.

Venezuela:

Venezuela are the hosts for this year's Copa but no one is expecting them to do anything. In fact, they have only won one previous game in the Copa America's history and that was against Bolivia. They nearly managed a win on June 26, but Bolivia scored a late goal to tie the game up 2-2.

When it comes to movies, the previous Venezuelan films I have seen have only focused on the country's drug and crime situation. So it was refreshing to see a tender story in Oriana.

At the start of the film, we see forbidden love forming but a young rich girl and a servant boy. But with a click of the camera, that story vanishes. The movie then picks up a few decades in the future, when a grown up woman (Marie) returns to her family's abandoned estate in Venezuela. There she starts to uncover the story of her dead aunt and a hidden secret. The film is tenderly paced and grew on me as it went along. The emotional ending is not unexpected but has a haunting effect.

Final Group A Standings:


Uruguay wins the group and advances along with the Peruvian film. The Venezuelan entry is eliminated. But the Bolivian film has a very good chance to take one of the two third best spots.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Bollywood Break

Watching a handful of Bollywood films made for a good break between seeing Eastern European and South American films. It was also interesting to see what new trends were available from the Mumbai film machine. While there were films which showed plenty of promise and potential, the overall end product was infuriating.

Life in a Metro (2007, Director Anurag Basu): Rating 7.5/10

While I had the biggest hope from this film, it ended up being a major disappointment. Anurag tries to juggle multiple stories in the pulsating city of Mumbai but his stories are nothing but lukewarm. The stories are only preoccupied with love and sex -- who is getting it, who is not getting it and who is chasing it. From a strong cast of Konkona Sen Sharma, Irfan Khan, Dharmendra, Shilpa Shetty, Shiney Ahuja, Kay kay Menon & Kangana Ranaut, it is only Irfan Khan and Shilpa Shetty that shine. It is clear that effort is made to make Shilpa look simple and pretty in every frame. Her character's affair with Shiney's character had moments of tender seductiveness, while Irfan and Konkana put on the most humble love story. The rest of the stories artifically try to capture the modern beat of a fast paced society preoccupied with sex, money and power.

After four films it is becoming apparent that Kangana can't act. As much promise she showed in Woh Lamhe, she seems to be repeatedly playing a suicidal woman character. Anurag Basu directed her to fame in Gangster so he has decided to repeat some camera angles for this film as well. Unfortunately, they look fake and tired. And the most annoying aspect of the film are the annoying songs with the music band un-necessarily popping up in different street corner belting out tiresome melodies.

The biggest positive is Bobby Singh's beautiful cinematography. He has captured the beauty of the complex city in both night and day -- showing identical shots of certain streets fading from night time to morning look appealing. Also he has lit plenty of scenes effectively, especially the bedroom scene between Shilpa and Shiney -- Bobby uses bright neon red lights from outside to light up the room to frame the seductive scene.

Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd. (2007, Director Reema Kagti): Rating 6.5/10

Once Bollywood latches onto a trend, it keeps rehashing it for years on end. The current trend is showing multiple love stories in a single movie. While Life in a Metro & Salaam-E-Ishq tackled those differently, Honeymoon Travels.. is similar along the lines of Just Married in displaying multiple couples on a Honeymoon trip. Just Married focused on one main couple and had the other couple's stories as side interactions. Whereas Honeymoon Travels.. jumps in with 6 equal relationship tales.

A strong cast of Ranvir Shorey, Boman Irani, Shabana Azmi, Kay Kay Menon is never really given enough screen time to really shine. The only one who steals the show is Raima Sen whose perfect expressions are mesmerizing; also her character is the only who truly undergoes a major transformation. There are moments of brilliance in the film, especially with some of the flashback stories shot in black and white. While the film does a great job of incorporating a sci-fi super hero story in the mix, it cuts it too short to make a lasting impression.

Ek Chalis Ki Last Local (2007, Director Sanjay M. Kanduri): Rating 7/10

What a night Nilesh (Abhay Deol) has. He misses the last 1:40 am train, meets a pretty girl, accidentally kills a gangster, wins plenty of rounds in gambling, comes across millions in cash and then almost loses it all. Along the way, he is almost raped and even killed -- all in a span of 2 hour 30 minutes! But poor dialogue and stereo-typical characters ruin this film. The only positive is Abhay Deol who has this refreshingly innocent look which is convincing and works well for his character.

Kya Love Story Hai (2007, Director Lovely Singh): Rating 4.5/10

This love story has nothing new to offer. The story is set in South Africa which means the film-makers can include a few stereotypical South African characters and make fun of them. The acting is awful and the screenplay is non-existent. The only good thing is the catchy Kareena Kapoor song at the start of the film. It goes downhill from there. Tusshar Kapoor is a nice likeable actor and makes watching this film bearable in parts.

Salaam Namaste (2005, Director Siddharth Anand): Rating 5.5/10

Boy meets girl,boy moves in with girl, they fall in love and have sex. She gets pregnant and then complications start. While there are moments of humour in the film thanks to the cool acting of Saif Ali Khan & Arshad Warsi, overall this is an overly melodramatic flick. Virtually every dialogue is over the top and a majority of the scenes are forced to induce humour.

Neal 'N' Nikki (2005, Director Arjun Sablok): Rating 3/10

Seriously bad cinema!! Uday Chopra still can't act and newcomer Tanisha has nothing to offer except shots of her over-exposed body -- even when she wears a dress or a Sari, the director has ensured that we can still see everything through her thin clothing. The film gives the impression that every woman in Vancouver is dying to have sex and willing to throw herself at the first idiot, which happens to be Neal (Uday). Mercifully, the film is just over 90 minutes and not the usual 2-3 hour Bollywood film.

Shakalaka Boom Boom (2007, Director Suneel Darshan): Rating 3.5/10

A movie about talented music composers should atleast feature extraordinary music. Besides a decent catchy title track, the rest of the music is plain bad even by Bollywood standards. The acting is laughable and the story is plain silly.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Eastern Europe, part III

Part I -- Collapse, Part II -- Immigration and displacement and now Part III starts off with rebuilding....

Democracy and Rebuilding:

Part of a nation's rebuilding involves fresh elections and getting a new leader in power -- democracy is seen as the magic solution to cure all problems. But democracy can be ripe for corruption if a few people are not kept in check.

Orange Revolution (USA, 2006, Director Steve York): Rating 7.5/10


This insightful documentary gives us a behind the scenes look at what really happened with the Ukrainian elections in 2004. When the final results didn't tally with exit polls, something appeared to be wrong. And then when word got out that votes were stolen and tampered with, the people were outraged. But can people change the course of a robbed election? It seems that such was the case in Ukraine after more than a million marched the streets of Kiev to strike a change.

Unfortunately, the current political situation in Ukraine is no better. What looked like the right option in 2004 didn't turn out to be so good. But atleast, history will record that for once the people made a difference. And interestingly, one citizen in the film points towards the American elections and that George Bush was not asked to give back his presidency after records of incorrect votes were found. So in that regard, it is a pleasure to watch Katy Chevigny's 2007 US doc Election Day about the 2004 American Elections. By simply placing the camera around various election booths and by following a few poll monitors, we can decide for ourselves if the American voters are being influenced indirectly. Both documentaries are American but amazingly, it is the Eastern European nation where people's choice prevails despite a complete blockade of free press and media.

Everyday Life:

Do you Remember Dolly Bell? (1981, Serbia, Director Emir Kusturica): Rating 8.5/10


An absorbing coming of age love story set against the backdrop of Sarajevo. A young man falls for his friend's supposed girlfriend and tries to save her when she is forced into prostitution. But the young man's life is further complicated by his father's illness and lingering political ideologies which hover over their household. Another gem from Kusturica!
Camera Buff (1979, Poland, Director Krzysztof Kieslowski): Rating 9.5/1
A brilliant film about the infectious love of film-making! Filip buys a camera to capture the birth of his new baby. However, the 8 mm changes his life more than the baby does. Filip is asked to film an office party because he is the only one with a camera. When his amateur film about the party gets an award at a film festival, he is encouraged to film "everything that moves". But Filip learns that filmmaking can be a very complicated and political process. A beautiful film that looks at the power of film to create and to destroy lives. Vintage cinema.....

And the music turns to chaos:

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Hungary, Directors: Béla Tarr / Agnes Hranitzky): Rating 8/10


Once again, music is a theme that closes the Eastern European cinematic look. A town's beautiful harmonical balance is disturbed when a mysterious circus arrives in town -- the presence of a giant whale and a character called "the prince" causes unrest and anxiety in the town. An evil force takes over and ordinary people riot causing havoc. The army is called in and special "lists" are made to capture certain people.

The gorgeous rich black and white visuals combined with long takes makes for an absorbing foray into a bizarre world crafted by Béla Tarr. Plenty of political under-tones can be found in this film which presents a look at how people can take advantages of certain situations and assume power. But are the ones in power the crazy ones or the people causing the riots? In that sense, the film's ending has shades of the Czech film Lunacy which raised an interesting question about whether the insane people are not the ones in the hospital but the ones in charge of running the asylum.

The beautiful music is over. Discord tunes fill the air waves. And once again, after a long period of peace, chaos returns.....

Genius has left the country....

Sigh. What a friday!! June 22, 2007. The day when a year long rumour was hours from becoming a reality -- Thierry Henry was on the verge of being snapped up by Barcelona.

And today, it was official. The greatest player in the modern game has now left Arsenal for the passionate theatre of Nou Camp.

Here's to Thierry Henry, the passionate artist who wore his heart on his sleeve. He crafted goals out of nothing and was never afraid to show his emotion. Yes, he sulked at times and even let his head drop on the odd occasion but then in an instant, he burst forward to rip defenses apart and claim victory for the Gunners. It was refreshing to see him take a stand for what he believed in and even challenging the incompetent decisions that existed around him.

The following are just a sample of some brilliant Henry pics on Soccernet (Getty Images).

The first is from that legendary 2002 season when Henry led Arsenal to an amazing league and cup double:


This is the picture after Henry scored the only goal to beat Real Madrid in Spain. Vintage Henry...


And now the new era starts. Henry in Barcelona.....

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.

Spies:

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:

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.

Dreams:

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.

Revolution:

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.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Eastern Europe, part II

6 new films with 3 being co-productions. Here are the films in no particular order:


One of the major themes of part I of Eastern European cinema was the break down or collapse of a nation. Part II picks up from that theme and looks at issues of population displacement which result from a nation's economic breakdown.

Exile:

Officially when a nation is at war, only a select few are fighting for the cause; most ordinary citizens are caught in the cross-fire. And when everyday life becomes unbearable, some citizens are forced to make the difficult choice of leaving their homeland. If the thought of leaving is a tough decision, then the act is even harder. That's because there are only limited means by which a person can leave their country - illegal border crossing, a legal immigration, a temporary visa or a refugee status.

a) Illegal Border crossings:

The engaging film Spare Parts shows the perils of illegal border crossings. The film is shown from the perspective of two men who earn a living out of driving people across the Slovenian border. Slovenia shares a border with Italy and Croatia and as a result, acts as a perfect medium for such transfers. The border crossers are leaving their homes in Bosnia, Macedonia, Albania, Iran, Africa in the hopes of a better life in Italy or "Europe" as they refer to the promise land.

Whether it is a border crossing in Europe, Africa or North America, the means are the same. A network of contacts is setup, there is a transporter who delivers the people, a pick-up man on the the other side with lots of money changing hands. The movie tries to give a human face to the transporters and the people paying a fortune just to get to the other side. We see how a young driver is initiated into the business, how he is trained and eventually matures into being his own boss. But before the young driver is fully qualified, he is disgusted at the idea and even tries to quit. We see how ordinary humans are humiliated and forced to sell themselves just to get some food while in transit. And we even learn how some of these poor souls might end up being "spare parts" when they reach the Italian border -- the human beings transported are only needed for kidney or other body parts and have no value themselves.

What is more cruel? The horrors these people have to face just to cross the border or the circumstances that force normal educated humans to take such risks?

b) Legal Border crossings:

Once upon a time, Eastern European soccer players were not allowed to leave their country for Western European soccer teams. In some cases, age restrictions were placed. For example, in Bulgaria prior to 1990, soccer players could only leave after the age of 28. By then, most players would have lost the chance to play abroad. But all that changed after the collapse of the Berlin wall and break-up of the Eastern bloc of nations. The new political changes ensured that soccer players could leave freely. If soccer players could leave for better opportunities, then why not the regular office workers, doctors, engineers or other professionals?

The Bosnian co-production Armin shows how a father takes his teenage son across the border to Croatia for a movie audition. The father is quite proud of his son's acting and musical abilities and he is sure that his son will get the film part. The duo are from a small Bosnian village and are initially awed (the son more than the father) at the standard of life in Zagreb. But eventually, the two not only understand each other better but maintain their integrity before returning back home. Armin is a tender film that beautifully looks at the relationship between father and son while also highlighting the pride people have in their roots. In one scene, the father finds himself in the hotel lobby with a Turkish man who is watching a German soccer game on tv. The man is watching VFB Stuttgart play. The father points that everyone in his town only likes Bayern Munich. Why? Because of Hasan Salihamidzic, ofcourse! Hasan is probably the most famous Bosnian soccer player plying in his trade in one of the biggest clubs in Europe. Interestingly enough, Hasan was on the last flight that left Sarajevo (1992) the night before the newly formed nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina was forced into war. Hasan did return back to Bosnia via illegal border crossings before finally making a move to Germany. Even in Exile, he represents a symbol of joy and hope for his people back home.

Although Béla Tarr's The Prefab People is about a couple's relationship problems, it too features the concept of leaving one's home to earn a living abroad. In the movie, the husband wants to work on a two year contract in Romania because he will earn more money. The wife does not want him to leave because she needs him to help with their two children. But the husband points out that if he does not leave, then they won't be able to afford the basic luxuries of life (car, washing machine). The husband assures the wife that he will only go for two years but will return back. But in many other cases, people leave their home, wanting to return but decades go by and they are caught up in their everyday life. Yet, they can't ground themselves in their new adopted home because mentally they are rooted elsewhere. The German co-production Das Fräulein shows three women in different stages of Exile in Germany -- Ana is a young Bosnian girl who is convinced she is only in Germany for a temporary time; Mila is a Croatian woman who has been living for decades in Germany but is still reluctant to call it home and Ruza is a Serbian woman who has tried very hard to erase all memories of her past life and emotionless goes about running her restaurant. The three women's interactions with each other change each person and help them to get a better appreciation of life. Coolly shot in blue and green visuals, Das Fräulein is a simple movie about what happens to people when their lives are unexpectedly halted and they are forced to start afresh in an alien land.

The Return:

Naturally, sometimes after a period of exile, a person does make a return.

In La Traductrice Marina lives happily with her daughter Ira in Geneva. But things were not always good for Marina. More than a decade ago, she fled Moscow with her then 7 year old Ira because life in Russia was too dangerous. The romantic exile period is over when Ira becomes a translator for a Russian mafia boss arrested in Geneva. Ira got the job thanks to a family friend, who has his own reasons for hiring her. During the course of the trial, Ira learns some truths about her past and eventually travels to Moscow to unravel the mystery. In the end, Ira is smart enough to handle the truth her mother was protecting her from and mature enough to make the right decisions.

Home is where the heart is...

War and jobs are not the only reasons people leave their homes. Sometimes, people leave their home just to escape from a relationship or their family.

The Prefab people begins with the husband walking out on his wife and kid. She is upset at him wanting to leave her just like and take off. As it is, he does no work around the house and does not help his wife in any chores. He just wants to spend time with his friends, read the paper, watch tv and drink. Eventually, the two of them patch up and go on. And then a job opportunity in Romania comes up. That coupled with his unhappiness is enough reason for the husband to leave again.

The Bulgarian film Christmas Tree Upside Down is a collection of 6 different shorts forcibly held together by a loose common thread. The first short titled The Calf begins with a Bulgarian woman returning after life in New York. Even though she come back home, she can't help recall about the good life abroad. So if it was so good there, then why did she leave? Simple answer -- she needed to get away from her husband.

In the second short, Wooden Angel, a young girl runs away from her home because she is unmarried & 5 months pregnant. The family wants nothing to do with the baby so she arrives in the city hoping for a change. In another of the shorts, we are introduced to a family of gypsies. These people have no fixed home and move from one locale to another. They speak in a language that none of the locals understand and even the audience is left in the dark to their words (there are no subtitles for their dialogues). Yet, they find comfort in each other as they drift from village to city. Singing and dancing....

And the music plays on....

Once again, the gypsy music is in the air. Both The Prefab people & Christmas Tree Upside Down start with infectious gypsy band music. The Bulgarian film starts with a Christmas tree being chopped down. The tree is to be transported across the country to the capital Sofia. Along the way, we are shown 6 shorts -- The Calf, Wooden Angel, Socrates, The Sailboat, The Boar & the Drum. The title of each short represents an ornament that will be put on the tree in the end. The interlude between each short is connected by vibrant gypsy music which informs us when the next segment is about to start. In the end, the tree is set-up with fireworks lighting up the sky.

Fade to black. Cue gypsy music........

Friday, June 08, 2007

Ocean gets knocked Up

Okay, Danny Ocean does not get knocked up. He simply manages to knock his enemies down, yet again.

Ocean's Thirteen (2007, Directed by Steven Soderbergh): Rating 7.5/10

Dec 17, 2001. That was the day when I saw Ocean's Eleven. I still remember the date because of how things unfolded that evening. I was not having a good day when I decided to escape the chilly winter winds to watch the film. I throughly enjoyed watching the movie and felt a little bit better when I left the cinema. An hour later, I got some very good news -- my first ever film criticism article was published online. A bad day ended on a great note. Date & film stored in memory!

As much as I loved the first film, I didn't want to rush to see Ocean's Twelve. I happened to be in Madrid when the second film was released in December 2004. A giant billboard of the film greeted visitors to one of Madrid's busiest shopping districts. I must have crossed the billboard several times in my few days stay there and I was still not inclined to see the movie. But that changed. After a wild New Year's in Madrid's main square, I spent New Year's day relaxing and lounging around Madrid. On Saturday evening (Jan 1, 2005), I decided to catch Alejandro Amenábar's The Sea Inside at one of the theaters. But as I had expected, not a single theater had English subtitles for the Spanish film. Then to my surprize I discovered that all the major theaters were playing Hollywood films dubbed in Spanish! But my guidebook and a few locals informed me that there existed a few theaters which had the Hollywood films in original English but with Spanish subtitles. I finally found one such cinema off the main roads and decided to try my luck with the second installment of Danny Ocean's adventures. Except when I went up to buy the ticket, I told the cute Spanish girl at the box office that I wanted a ticket for Ocean's Eleven. She smiled and gave me the correct ticket for Ocean's Twelve.

I have to say that if I had not seen the second film in Europe, I would not have enjoyed it as much. The film started off with amazing music from the Gotan Project followed by a few European stop-overs. And you could hear laughter when a reference to Madrid's Prado museum was made in the movie. It was fun watching my first ever film in an European cinema, even though it was a Hollywood film.

Now since the third film returns back to Las Vegas where the first film was set, it was appropriate that I returned back to the same cinema where I started my love affair with this classy series. So it is good to see that Ocean's Thirteen still has the cool look and feel from the first film. Familiar elements such as the clever dialogues, peaceful visuals (blue and orange), Rusty (Brad Pitt) casually eating or holding a coffee cup while talking intelligently, the gang taking smart pokes at their rivals (or towards each other) are all there. The movie is plain fun to watch. But is there a point in even trying to ensure if there are any plot mistakes? Because everything is all smoke and mirrors. We are given just enough to get our interest, a little sophistication is thrown in to make the crime look impossible and then casually, everything goes smoothly according to plan.

It is seriously fun to watch characters with so much disposable income that they can plan a revenge robbery for 6+ months in a town where everyone knows everyone and all the criminals try to behave in a gentlemanly fashion. And if someone does not act appropriately, an honor revenge has to be performed! No police, no guns, no bullets, no blood but just smooth talk, some wine, a little seduction and a smart smile. Walk in and causally stroll out with the money. Nothing to it. All so easy. Want a $36 million drill? No problem! Want to start a revolution in a dice-making factory in Mexico? Once again, no problem!

At the end of a day, the three films are a guilty pleasure. Cool, relaxed fun. The style of the first film was a refreshing change from the usual gun happy heist films. But this relaxed style and clever dialogue seemed a little bit over-smart and over the top in parts of Ocean's Thirteen; it all felt like a cliche, something one expected from the characters. The same pattern appears in other directors and films as well -- what at first seems revolutionary gets tired after repeated usage. A little change does not hurt every now and then. Which is what the second film attempted with mixed results. So what now? Will Danny Ocean be back? I have to admit I wouldn't mind another adventure.

Knocked Up (2006, Director Judd Apatow): Rating 8/10

Boy sees girl. Girl takes a liking to boy. After a lot of drinks, the two have a one-night stand which results in pregnancy. What happens next? Things get complicated. The jokes get limited, the stress and frustration grow. But it is to the credit of the filmmakers that the drama does not choke the tender comedy out. The film carefully balances relationship issues plus the stresses of pregnancy in a smooth easy manner. The anger is handled delicately while giving the two lead characters, Ben & Alison, (Seth Rogen & Katherine Heigl) enough freedom to act their feelings out; it is nice to see that neither male or female is made to look like a villain.

The overall story might not be anything new but it is still entertaining to watch. Also it is a positive to see good screen time given to other characters. Each character is quirky and has his/her unique personality. When each character is acting insane or stupid, either Ben or Allison is always present in the frame. This prevents the sidekicks from being seen as mere stereotypes or caricatures but instead we see them as individuals whose interactions are essential to the personality of Ben and Alison. A lot of interesting characters but my two favourites were Paul Rudd's character Pete (a husband who is getting suffocated in his marriage and finds creative ways to keep his sanity) and the jealous employee/superior in Alison's office who tries to be nice but you can clearly see her malicious feelings.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Copa America Film Festival

While juggling the Eastern European Cinema spotlight, I will also have a Copa America film festival to coincide with the 2007 Copa America soccer tournament starting on June 26. The soccer tournament has 12 competing countries (10 South American nations + Mexico & USA) so I will a total of 12 films, one movie for each country.

The Rules

First Round:


The scoring is a bit more complicated from the Quarter Finals up to the Final.

Second Round:


The Films & Groups:
Group A:

Group B:

Group C:


I didn't have a specific criteria or genre for the film picks. In the cases of Uruguay, Ecuador & Bolivia I didn't have much of a choice because I could only find one film from those countries. Unfortunately, I still don't have a film from Paraguay. My best bet would be the 2006 film Paraguayan Hammock but so far I can't find any trace of the film. I will set July 5th to be the final cut-off date to find a film from Paraguay because that is the date when the group stages end in Copa America.

Overall, I am thrilled with all the picks. The entries cover a diverse range with a Mexican revolution film from 1934, a classic Hitchcock flick, political charged movies, film festival award winners and a couple of commercial hits. It will be fun to pit these different films against each other.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Eastern Europe, part I

The films, in order of viewing:









The beginning

What came first -- soccer or cinema? The answer from both a historical and personal perspective is soccer. There are recorded instances of soccer played in a professional and organized manner before the 1880's whereas, the first cinematic work is attributed to the Lumière brothers shorts in 1895. On a personal term, I had kicked a ball and played a crude form of soccer before I ever discovered movies. So it is not a surprize then that I first learned of Eastern Europe from soccer. While watching highlights of previous World Cups, I was first introduced to the magical Hungarian team of 1954, the strength of the Polish squad from 1982, the technical brilliance of the Soviets, the high-scoring Yugoslavian team of 1974 (a 9-0 rout over Zaire) & the dazzling skill of Romania's Gheorghe Hagi. The goals & the moves became part of my memory.

Memories:

Over time, our memories fragment. We can only recall certain events from the past. Sometimes, we can't even remember the past but only certain feelings an event caused in us. In the olden times, people told stories to keep the past alive. With the advent of video camera, people used them to record the images from their day to day lives. At the start of Lucian Pintilie's energetic madcap film The Oak we find Nela (played by Maia Morgenstern) doing just that. As her father is lying dead next to her, Nela is looking at old video footage of an apparent happy past with her father in communist Romania. It turns out her memories of her father were not in keeping with the truth. So she undertakes a journey of discovery & truth across the crumbling Romanian landscape while keeping her father's ashes in a coffee jar next to her. She comes across bizarre situations, is almost raped but finds a savior & friend in a kind doctor, Mitica (Razvan Vasilescu). Mitica is trapped in an absurd corrupt world and fights to keep his hospital running despite the ensuing madness around him. Watching his character, one can understand the insanity of the medical system in Cristi Puiu's brilliant film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. In the end, both Nela and Mitica are outcasts in a crumbling nation -- a country which is finally lifting the veils of communism and is trying to rebuild itself. But before the rebuilding can take place, chaos and corruption run amok.

Collapse & break-up of a nation:

Soccer is a team sport and anyone who has ever played it knows that one person can't win the game alone. Even though at times, the headlines declares one person to be a hero but over a 90 minute game it takes a united effort to get a result. So it is essential that all 11 players work together. If a team is divided into various factions, then it is unlikely the team will succeed. A national soccer team is compromised of players who come from different regional clubs. More often that not, when it comes to the game, players get on with the job & ignore any regional problems. Sure sometimes, they might not pass the ball to a certain player but over a 90 minute period, things appear fine. The regional problems happen off field when the coaches are inclined to pick only some players from a certain region (the problem was common in the former Yugoslavia and Soviet republic where players were only picked from a select few clubs). And if a nation is on the verge of conflict, then a tiny spark can ignite the hatred and a team can easily be divided as nations are.

"A war is not a war until a brother has killed a brother" -- this is a memorable quote from Emir Kusturica's vibrant and pulsating film Underground which shows the break-up and collapse of Yugoslavia. Underground is divided into three stages -- The War (second world war), the Cold War and The War (1990 onwards). The film is seen from the eyes of two friends, Marko and Blacky. They start out fighting for a common cause but eventually go their separate ways -- Marko ends up being a profiteer working the black market for weapons and Blacky becomes the war hero fighting for his nation's independence. Backed by surrealist images and colorful characters (like the smart monkey who can handle a tank), this is a fascinating journey through a nation's mistakes and eventual decline. The film starts and ends with infectious music which lends a light mood to the dark tragedies that unfold. The final scene of the film involves all the main characters on a piece of land that breaks away from its surroundings and becomes an isolated island floating off. That is what literally happened to Yugoslavia, a nation that split apart and resulted in independent countries each with their own soccer teams. Even as the island is floating away, the music keeps on playing and Marko is still dancing. Marko's urge to dance no matter how gloomy his situation is an image that is hard to erase.

Isolation:

Once upon a time, I was fascinated by the powerful Red Star Belgrade team. They had some of the best players in the world and could play wonderful football. But all that changed when they reached the 1991 European Cup final against Marseille, another team which played vibrant football. For whatever reasons, both teams played the most boring final in history, ending 0-0 with Red Star winning on penalties. I thought the team was united. But as Jonathan Wilson points out in Behind the Curtain one member of the team, the brilliant Robert Prosinečki, might have found himself on the outside. While his team-mates were mostly Serbian, Prosinečki was Croatian. When Yugoslavia dissolved as a country, Prosinečki went to play for Croatia while his former team-mates started for Serbia.

Isolation can occur for various reasons -- society can ignore certain members because of religion, race or whatever reason they can come up with. Sometimes, a simple reason such a person's attitude is cause enough for isolation. András, the lead character in Béla Tarr's film The Outsider finds himself at odds with his local Hungarian society. András is a 20 something youngster who loves music, drifts from job to job, does not want to be committed in a relationship. What's wrong with that? Everything!! Especially if the society around you wants people to work for the common national good, then one person's indifference won't be tolerated. In Tarr's Budapest, men meet in cafes after a long day's hard work and discuss politics. If people in a factory are too efficient, they are asked to adhere to the normal working pace so that everyone gets paid the same. That is equivalent to asking a fast soccer player to slow down to keep in sync with his team's slow passes. Such a system can work for some people but for others, it is a problem. The only positive in András's life is the love for his music which keeps him happy.

The 11 year old boy in the Polish film Jestem is made an outsider to society because of circumstances. His mother does not have time for him as she is busy sleeping around and smoking away. As a result, the boy is left to fend for himself and live on the streets. No matter how hard he tries, he can't escape the taunts and insults of other boys. Forced to hide, he finds refuge in an abandoned ship across from a rich family's home. Even though the material is bleak with sad music haunting the screen, Jestem (I Am) is a beautifully shot film which echoes like a modern day Dickens novel set in Poland.

Music:

People need some distraction to balance the stress and nonsense of everyday life. Music serves as such a relaxation for some. András is able to find some harmony in his life by balancing his love for classical music with the new emerging Western music being ushered in Budapest clubs. Whenever the infectious music comes on in Kusturica's film Undergound, the characters forget their worries and let loose, dancing away their pain. In a similar manner, the bleak Romanian country side in the film The Oak is a little easier to navigate after some drinks and gypsy music.

Sins and a human life:

You can give them music, drink, soccer, love, art but still humans are not happy. They commit sins and despite knowing the consequences, can't help but being vain. So what is one to do? One can pass judgment or one can quietly observe their follies. The latter is the case with Kieslowski's 10 films of The Decalogue. All the films are set in the same Polish apartment complex with characters from one film appearing in another. The films range from dark to light, with the first film being one of the most tragic and the 10th film being the lightest. There is something for everyone's cinematic tastes to be found here with stories ranging from parental relationships, husband-wife affairs, coming of age story, incest, capital punishment, war crimes and obsessive hobbies.

There is no one-to-one relationship with one commandment in each film as sometimes multiple commandments are broken in one movie. But what is clear is the underlying issue of ethics and morality. In each film the characters are faced with choices -- they can act either according to their needs or to what society tells them to do. How they try to cope with their desires, urges and feelings while living in a regulated society forms a theme of most of the films.

The 10 films may be set in Poland but they are stripped of any national details and can be set in any nation around the world. As a result, The Decalogue is the most universal work of all the films seen and the one least likely to be studied as part of a nation's state.