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Monday, July 30, 2007

Understanding Buenos Aires

Can one truly understand a city (or a country for that matter) without ever visiting it? Quite a few writers in the past have written about cities strictly from their imaginations. Kafka is just one example that comes to mind when he wrote about America despite never having visited the land of opportunity. In cinema, Lars von Trier has made two films out of his proposed American trilogy (Dogville and Manderlay) much to the anger of many North American critics who think he has really tarnished the U.S. I find myself in a similar position with regards to Buenos Aires -- imagining a city without ever visiting it.

The book:

Jorge Luis Borges. The doors open. Face to face with a Labyrinth. A matador lurks around the corner with a knife waiting for a kill. A glass tiger. A shadow. Another labyrinth opens up. This is the world that Borges created. A tower of Babel built around a Labyrinth of mirrors housed in Buenos Aires.

Futbol:

Boca Juniors , a soccer team rooted in Buenos Aires' Italian Community.

River Plate , Boca's eternal rivals yet the most successful team in the local league (32 titles won against Boca's 23). Located in the Núñez barrio, the northern edge of the banks of Rio de la Plata.

Other teams based in Buenos Aires -- San Lorenzo (rooted in the city's Spanish community), Lanus, Velez Sarsfield, Nueva Chicago, Argentinos Juniors (famous for having Diego Maradona and Riquelme plied their trades here), Banfield, Quilmes.

Each team rooted in a neighborhood. A path can be charted via each team and the city.

Disappearances:

The dirty past that won't just go away. The Official Story beautifully captured the emotional impact such disappearances had on its generation. The 2003 film Imagining Argentina (starring Antonio Banderas & Emma Thompson) also tackled the topic of people abducted from their homes by the military junta.

Labyrinth:

People get lost in a labyrinth and might vanish without a trace. The labyrinth does not have to be a physical structure but can be a mental state imposed by a government. The intelligent 1996 film, Moebius by R. Gustavo Mosquera tackled the issues of Labyrinth and disappearances in one smooth manner. The film focuses on a train that gets lost in the underground labyrinth of Buenos Aires train system. In fact, the ghost train isn't really lost -- it is just moving at a different speed on the Moebius like train tracks. The missing train also alludes to the issue of people who were kidnaped from their homes. The ghost train takes uses the same underground train tracks like the regular visible trains but can't be seen by anyone unless someone makes an effort to track it down. Likewise, the ghosts of the people who were lost in the streets of Buenos Aires lurk around the corner invisible from view. But the truth can be found if one hunts it down, a fact shown in Luis Puenzo's The Official Story.

The voice:

The well written novel The Tango Singer by Tomás Eloy Martínez attempts to understand the complex labyrinth like structure of Buenos Aires that exists in reality and the one that Borges created. The main story revolves around the main character's (Bruno Cadogan) quest to find Julio Martel, the city's best known Jazz singer. No matter what corner Bruno takes, he seems to miss Martel's voice. He can't seem to understand the pattern that Martel is making in trying to pick the locations of his concerts. The novel is brilliant when Martínez describes the city's structure. The story seems to drag a bit when Martínez dives into the past story of Martel's life and even the city for that matter. But each side story that Martínez tackles opens another door of the labyrinth.

In the end, a city as rich with history and complexity as Buenos Aires needs a visit. Until that happens, it is refreshing to know authors, film-makers and even soccer can help provide glimpses of the complicated puzzle that is Buenos Aires!

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Autobots, Transform...and be very very loud about it!!

Like most kids my age, I grew up on Transformers. The cartoons provided an endless dose of action and fun with the Autobots transforming and battling the evil Decepticons. Optimus Prime vs Megatron!! I had enjoyed the original Transformers movie as well when the Autobots went through a rough path losing two leaders in quick succession (first Optimus and then his replacement). But when I heard that Michael Bay was directing a Hollywood version, I was not the least bit excited. Why? Because Michael Bay does not just direct movies, he directs LOUD action movies which don't care for story or acting as much as they do for big explosions.

Transformers (2007, Director Michael Bay): Rating 7.5/10

As expected the film does have plenty of LOUD nonsense, horrible acting in parts (I just can't buy that Rachael Taylor's character can decode encrypted signals with her eyes closed) and contrived scenes (little girl asks bit mighty transformer if he is the tooth fairy while Spielberg pats Bay on the back for yet another introduction of a sentimental E.T like shot). Argh! But surprizingly when our ears drums are not being damaged, there is an actual story here. Also, the clever use of digital cameras for close-ups really adds to the film's past faced action sequences. The movie's first hour only gives us a tiny glimpse to some of the transformers that exist. Instead, that time is mostly spent on a teen romance story -- geek guy with geeky friend, jock stud, hot girl, fancy car. Once an hour has passed, Optimus Prime finally appears on the screen (I have to admit that I felt a tinge of nostalgia to see this red truck autobot). It was a great touch to include the original voice behind the powerful Autobot leader in the film.

In the end, as much as I didn't mind the film, I can't just ignore all the negatives:

1) The film has to inform viewers multiple times that Qatar is in the middle East. That was a great help as it will ensure that viewers won't confuse that with the other Qatar that exists in South America or the fake Qatar constructed in the American desert.
2) Apparently everyone around the world knows where the Nellis Air Base is, so there is no need to qualify its exact location.
3) A summer action movie won't be complete without the required hotties. In this case, we get two of them, one apparently brilliant signal analyzer and the other a whiz at cars. Un-huh! But thankfully, the film-makers allowed the signal analyzer to keep her clothes on.
4) Rachael Taylor plays an Aussie. Unless her character is an American citizen, there is no way she could have could clearance to enter the American Security bases. And if she got clearance, then she should have been with an American escort at all times. Ofcourse, I may not know about the rule that American army allows hot blonds of any nationality through without any security clearances.
5) A Micheal Bay film won't be complete without a love story. But amazingly, there is no kiss this time. As Mikaela and Sam (Megan Fox and Shia LaBeouf) approach each other, something holds them back from kissing. Maybe the same force that allowed Rachael Taylor to keep her clothes on?
6) The ending is a real anti-climax -- when Megatron finally emerges, his battle with Optimus prime does not last too long and the film ends too fast after a slow build-up.

Maybe age plays with memory a bit. Because as it stands, I much prefer the original animated transformer film as opposed to this very LOUD movie. In animation, you can actually focus on and admire the transformers themselves. Whereas, in the movie the fast cuts and close-ups really give a jarring effect while watching the transformers fight -- one can't focus on the robots themselves and is only able to get a quick glimpse of these amazing machines. As a result, the transformers look like a colorful heap of junk as opposed to the carefully defined creations that they really are. I can only dream if instead of this muddled mix, the film-makers had opted for a Ratatouille style animated flick. Sigh!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

A Taste of Western Europe


Switching gears for a bit to witness themes of love against culture and tradition, voyeurism, affairs, mafia crime & a tale of a boy genius.

France:


Where Fig Trees Grow (2004, Director Yasmina Yahiaoui): Rating 7.5/10



Another in a line of French productions depicting life of North Africans settling into their new French life. The story is similar in parts to Inch'Allah Dimanche but that film dealt with the relationship and marriage issues in a serious tone. Where Fig Trees Grow adds a touch of humour while depicting how a barber balances his feelings for a local belly dancer and his wife. The barber enjoys his profession and secretly loves his belly dancing neighbour. But his life is complicated when his parents force him to get married to a sweet innocent woman because of family honor. The title comes from Rue des Figuiers (Fig Tree Road) where the characters live; as the film progresses, we witness the growth of love and understanding among the main characters. But then there are some characters who choose to not inhale the air surrounding them and are content in rooting themselves in a land far away.


Exterminating Angels (2006, Director Jean-Claude Brisseau): Rating 7/10



A darkened room, a couple sleeping. Two shadowy figures mumbling in the background. A radio transmitting messages over the air. Then a clue -- the two figures are fallen angels, doomed to follow instructions and induce human behaviour and desire by suggestions. Even wonder where those thoughts enter our brains? Well the fallen angels ofcourse!

While the radio transmitter element feels straight out of Jean Cocteau's brilliant film Orphée, the rest of Exterminating Angels feels like a mix of Brisseau's defense of his previous film, porn portrayed as art and voyeurism. One can't judge the film without taking each element into consideration:

Secret Things was an interesting take on power that sex can wield. In that film, two woman freely toy with men by teasing and arousing them. Both decide to use their sexuality to advance in the world. What they didn't count on was running into a ruthless man who could crush both of them in an instant. It was an interesting film that was not afraid to take risks with plenty of nudity and sexuality shots which fit in nicely with the film's structure. But a nasty lawsuit resulted from the film when an actress claimed that Brisseau exploited her to do certain risky scenes in public. Brisseau has taken this scandal and made a film that attempts to explain his reasons for wanting his actresses to do simulated sex scenes because that is the only way he can decide if he wants her for the role or not. Now, is this exploitation, voyeurism or just plain disturbing?

I am not very fond of films using extreme sex scenes and trying to pass them off as 'art'. And there are plenty of such scenes in Exterminating Angels especially the main scene with three women pleasuring each other while François (the film director playing Brisseau's alter ego) watches and films them. This is one of the best shots of the film as the fast past music and dim lighting really lend to the mood. But still, is there a need for this scene in the film, even though it looks enticing? In order to defuse any criticism, Brisseau has added such questions in the film with François' wife asking him the need for having such shots. Also, his wife tries to talk some sense into François by telling him that he is being used by the girls. François feels he can accurately understand sexuality by filming women pleasuring themselves; he wants to understand what goes on in their head as their bodies hit peaks of pleasure. But as his wife points out, he is not just a mere observer because he is directing the women -- he is telling them what to do and in most cases, the women are telling or showing him what he wants. Is that still a natural observation?

The dialogues in the film are mostly hollow and pointless. After a while, even the repeated scenes of women living out their fantasies in front of François get taxing. Still, there is some merit in this film even though it appears to be exploitative cinema.

Germany:


Summer 04 (2006, Director Stefan Krohmer): Rating 9/10



A wicked little German film which feels part Roman Polanski (A Knife in the Water), part Eric Rohmer (Claire's Knee), a touch of Lolita and even has a hint of the creepiness and awkwardness in Michael Haneke's Funny Games. A German family head out to the lake for a vacation. Along with the couple is their 16 year old son with his 12-13 year old girlfriend. While boating, the 13 year girl meets a much older stranger who clearly fancies her. That sets up an interesting dynamic within the family which gets even more complicated when the mother also starts taking an interesting in this stranger. The older man liking the young girl feels like Lolita and the key scenes on the boat contain the air of tension that Polanski's first film had. Powerfully acted by Martina Gedeck (The Lives of Other) as the wife and mother, this was a really engaging watch.

Italy:


Romanzo criminale (2005, Director Michele Placido): Rating 8/10



Based on the real life Roman gangs of the 1970's, Placido has carefully crafted an intense look at the rise and fall of the group that wanted to conquer Rome. Based on Giancarlo De Cataldo's novel, the film contains plenty of scenes familiar to mafia films -- the childhood friends getting into crime, drugs, gun fights, gang's family elements, mob vs police battles and the eventual decline. Also, thrown in is the love story with a prostitute which causes one of the gang member's wanting to get out of the gang, which leads to the often repeated dialogue that mafia is something one can't get out of. Despite all the familiar elements, it is still an interesting watch that is very well acted even though the movie feels quite long at 140 minutes.

Switzerland:


Vitus (2006, Director Fredi M. Murer): Rating 6/10



A run of the mill film about a genius child prodigy. As a six year old, Vitus has a gift for playing music which leads to his parents pushing him more and more. But Vitus has an interest in other things, like flying, which is helped by his grandfather who encourages him to do what his heart desires. As Vitus grows up, he discovers how to use his talents in other areas -- at 12 he understands the stock market which leads to a lively second hour where he is able to structure a company and share his riches with his grandfather. The first hour is much duller than the second hour where things take on a lighter tone because of how Vitus is able to manipulate and run a fake company.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Eastern Europe, part V

I am almost at the end of the Eastern European cinema & soccer spotlight. Plenty of themes have emerged from all the films but for this part, I will only focus on the mood evoked by the films in question.

Lightness showing shades of darkness:

Fuse (2003, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Director Pjer Zalica): Rating 8/10


The war between 1992 & 1994 has spawned plenty of films, mostly dealing with themes of war & rebuilding efforts - parents dealing with their dead sons, villages & towns dealing with unemployment and economy restructuring and shattered love stories. Fuse starts with a father trying to cope with the death of one of his sons in the war; he still does not believe his son has died and has conversations with his son's ghost (or himself as it turns out). There are plenty of tragic stories around the town of Tesanj as the locals attempt to move on. When the unexpected news arrives that the American president (Bill Clinton) will be visiting town, the town council look for ways to brush aside the corruption and ugliness in order to present a happy face. That means dealing with the local prostitution and crime ring along with trying to establish friendly relations with the neighbouring Serbian town. A U.N force is sent to ensure that the two towns can peacefully patrol the borders. Plenty of farcical situations are shown regarding how the two sets of patrol guards deal with each other, along with some painful truths about the war. It is to Zalica's credit that the humour is balanced with the tragedy in such a delicate manner. Like No Man's Land, the film also shows the difficulties that independent U.N forces can have in trying to understand the local situations.

Dealing with tragedy & darkness with some touches of lightness:

Pretty Village Pretty Flames (1996, Former Yugoslavia, Director Srdjan Dragojevic): Rating 7/10


Srdjan Dragojevic has crafted a powerful film that shows the insanity & cruelty of war. The film starts off with two childhood friends, Milan (a Serb) and Halil (a Muslim) overlooking the opening of a national unity tunnel in 1971. We follow these two friends story over the next few decades when the war places them on opposite sides of the tunnel, Milan inside with 6 other people who are cut off from their Serbian army and Halil outside the tunnel. The bulk of the film is spent inside the tunnel with Milan and the other people trying to survive the opposing forces bullets. The film moves forward and backwards in time, enabling us to get respite from the harrowing war scenes. In the film's future sequences, Milan is lying in a hospital bed trying to get his strength back and plot his final revenge. In the past sequences, we see the two childhood friends growing up. But the film does not spare us the evil of war showing close up footage of burning villages and the lengths people go to survive in harsh conditions. The moments of jokes and humour in the tunnel manage to take away from of the edge from the darkness that surrounds this film.

Darkness descends :

Mirage (2004, Macedonia, Director Svetozar Ristovski): Rating 10/10


Mirage starts off similar to Underground -- a gypsy band is led by a drunk man (in Underground it was two drunk men) through the streets at night time, causing disturbance and waking people up. That is where the similarity ends though. The rest of Mirage shows a universal theme about how society can shape a young person; the film could have been set in any city in the world, let alone Veles, Macedonia. The drunken man in the film is a father who is trying to cope with his work situation and the changing political landscape of Macedonia. His wife & young son Marko quietly endure everything, whereas his teenage daughter gives him a headache as she seeks to sleep with anyone of her desire. Both the teenage daughter and father take their frustrations out on Marko, the quiet 12 year old who endures his father's beating and his sister's verbal lashings. Marko is an innocent boy but we see how the bleak environment surrounding him shapes his behaviour. Marko is bullied at school by a bunch of thugs who have power to do anything because one of the bully's father is the local chief of police. The only initial hope in Marko's life is his writing -- his teacher mentions his poetry could win him a trip to Paris. That gives him some purpose to escape his life around him. And when Marko comes across a convict named Paris, he sees that as a sign that Paris, France will be his destiny. But in the end, both Paris and his teacher let him down -- in a painful scene, we see Marko being beaten up by the bullies outside his teacher's home and when the teacher arrives, he sees the bullies and gets away to let Marko be thrashed. Paris tells Marko to take care of himself and even shows him how to use a gun but when Marko really needs him, he leaves.

Everytime when Marko sees a glimmer of hope that things will improve, things get worse. We can slowly see the darkness increasing and the ending is a real kick in the gut. Marko gets his revenge but that is not the kind of justice one would have hoped for but it does prove that weakness can't survive in a society where force and might are prized. Not pleasant viewing but a well crafted film.

Iska's Journey (2007, Hungary, Director Csaba Bollók): Rating 8/10

Another film where a 12 year old sees their life go from bad to worse. This time, it is a young girl whose hopes of a decent future are completely shattered when the screen fades to black at the end. The film's start finds young Iska trying to earn whatever little money she can by collecting metal scrap at the junkyard. Her parents are of no help to her and are willing to nab any little money Iska makes. As a result, she is left to fend for herself gathering food at a mining cafeteria. When things start to get bad, she leaves home and finds herself at an orphanage where things aren't any better. Atleast she manages to make friends with a boy her age. There is a hint of love that develops between the two as they plan to take the train to the seaside. However, Iska has to wrap one final thing up before leaving with the boy. And this is where things take an unexpected turn for the worst. What happens next is nothing short of cruel and ensures we leave the film with no hope of Iska ever having a decent go at life. During the first half, I was reminded of the beautiful Polish film Jestem which I saw in part I of the Eastern European series. But the last 20 minutes of this 92 minute film is a prequel of sorts to events shown in Lukas Moodysson's 2002 film Lilja 4-ever.

Some form of lightness:

After so much darkness, a light humour film is more than welcome. And I managed to get three such films -- two Czech and one Latvian short film.

Wonder (2007, Czech Republic, Director Mirjam Landa): Rating 7/10

A light hearted comedy/musical which starts off with Micky fleeing a prison. The only thing that got him through prison was his love of Karin, a local theater artist. So the first thing Micky does after leaving prison is to go audition for Karin's latest musical production. Through a series of clever tricks, he gets to play a part in the play. Predictably, Karin falls for him and Micky manages to get on everyone's good sides. Some quirky characters present in this film, especially the high strung director who demands a perfect performance from all actors. The musical performances are enjoyable and make for a decent viewing despite the contrived and predictable story.

Holiday Makers (2007, Czech Republic, Director Jirí Vejdelek): Rating 8/10

This is a real riot from the opening few minutes when a group of people board a tourist bus headed for a beach vacation in Italy. I was reminded of the two recent Bollywood films Honeymoon Travels and Just Married which dealt with similar themes. But those Bollywood films only focused on married couples. Holiday Makers has better etched out characters and deals with couple and parental relationship issues. The two bus drivers are downright hilarious in their dead-pan manner -- both drivers are named Karel and are obsessed with little details. For example, they debate on how long they should give the passengers at a rest-room stop or are persistent that the passengers return the coffee cup handles otherwise no one would be able to enjoy their coffee.

Ready and Done (2007, 23 min, Latvia, Director Inese Klava): Rating 9/10

This short documentary provides plenty of dead-pan humour, just by placing a camera in a 60 year old elevator in a Latvian hospital. We get the unexpected reactions of the hospital staff and patients who enter the elevator to find a camera there. The camera captures the last few days of this aging elevator which is to be replaced by a brand new elevator. The new elevator is 'supposed' to be faster, easier to use and more efficient. Supposed is the key word as we find that new technology comes with more problems. Also, we get to meet lift operator whose job might be rendered obsolete by the new elevator.

Observing Life go by:

Theodore (2007, 29 min, Latvia, Director Laila Pakalnina): Rating 8/10

This mostly silent film shows life through the eyes of Theodore, an aging Latvian man who is on the last few years (or days) of his life. Theodore uses his bicycle to get around and heads down to drink some beers while watching life go by. We get to see the sights that Theodore does first hand and we clearly hear all the sounds around him, including the peaceful sound of his bicycle as it makes its way across the countryside.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The art of fine animation and exquisite dining

Like most kids I grew up on cartoons. But as I grew up, my touch with the wonderful world of animation weakened. 1994's Lion King was a pleasant surprize which returned me back to my early child hood days when I used to love watching Kimba the White Lion (note: back then I didn't bother thinking that Kimba and Simba were different, I thought they were the same.) After the success of that film, many more animation films hit mainstream Hollywood, notably the slick Pixar films. After enjoying the initial offerings such as Toy Story, the animation films became another cliche just like action films or teen romance films. I found the Hollywood animation films were all style with no substance -- a lot of the films were packed with references to pop culture and clever sounding dialogues but they were hollow & just empty chatter. And it seemed if Hollywood had its way, every single creature on the planet would have been in animation films talking about the universe and grooving to the latest musical trend.

But it was not all doom and gloom. The intelligent Waking Life released in 2001 showed that there are indeed some topics which could benefit from animation. Two years later, another smart animation film was released courtesy of France -- Les Triplettes de Belleville. And surprizingly in 2004, Hollywood released The Incredibles which was a wonderful film that proved that maybe, just maybe, slick animation films can exist. But after that, we returned to more pointless animation films. And when a few months ago, I first saw the trailer of Ratatouille, I threw my hands up in despair -- Hollywood was now getting a rat to talk and cook. But two things changed my anticipation about this film:

1) The blog Reel Fanatic had been enthusiastically talking about the film for a few months. Only through Keith's blog did I realize that Brad Bird who was behind The Iron Giant and The Incredibles also created Ratatouille.

2) The wonderful New York Times article about how a real chef, Thomas Kellar, was used to cook for the film really swung me the other way.

And the verdict for the film?

Ratatouille (2007, Directed by Brad Bird): Rating 10/10

The highest rating I can give for a film! This is an absolutely wonderful film that fully uses the power of animation to craft a heart-warming tender story. Even though the concept of a rat cooking fine food can only be done with animation, this film gives us plenty of other scenes which regular film just can't capture. The beautiful shots of the food, all the way from its cooking and preparation to serving can't be perfectly captured by regular features, digital or not. Because if a feature film only focuses on a food's plating and look, it won't be able to capture the assembly line madness that exists in a kitchen. And on the other hand, if a film shows us long shots about the chaos in the kitchen, then it won't be able to properly get close-ups of the food. Sure a tv show like Hell's Kitchen attempts to capture the kitchen's madness and fine cooking preparations but it never manages to give us the true beauty that food really deserves. In that sense, Ratatouille is able to use animation to adjust the lighting, zoom-ups, long shots, etc to make the food look as mouth-watering as it should.

The story shows that at the end of the day, the best food is that home cooked meal a person has -- the highest compliment we can give to a restaurant is that the dish tastes like mom used to make it. The film shows the difference between stuffing oneself with junk versus carefully choosing what we put in our mouths. Interestingly, I can extend that comparison to Hollywood's animation films as well. Most animation films are assembly line commercial fare with a generic bland taste suited to cater all age groups. But Ratatouille is a carefully prepared delight with exquisite tastes that should still satisfy all palates.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Dance, groove and love

First there was the song. The story came later followed by the film. That in a nutshell is the evolution of Bollywood. Not to be confused with Indian cinema, which developed rapidly throughout the country in a different songless manner. In the first few years, the songs were a beautiful companion to the Bollywood stories; the song knew its place and never dared take over the story, and likewise, the story knew of the song's existence and ensured that the songs never looked out of place in the movie. As a result, absolute vintage musical gems were produced thru the 40's upto 1960's. Everyone has their favourites from that era but Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor stand out as just two outstanding examples of film-makers who acted and directed memorable films such as Pyaasa, Kagaash ke Phool, Shree 420, Awaara, Barsaat, Mera Naam Joker.

The 1970's brought a change to the Bollywood landscape. While some classic Raj Kapoor films continued into that decade, a new breed of films landed on the market -- the 'angry man' action films lead by Amitabh Bachchan. Titles such as Sholay, Don, The Great Gambler , Trishul, Deewar, Kaala Pathar were some of Bachchan's biggest hits. While Amitabh's angry characters fought for the simple man, catchy dance numbers started the initial separation from the story. 'Item' numbers (or slut dance numbers as I like to call them) gained more in prominence and had nothing to do with the story -- it just so happened that our brave hero found himself at a party or a club where a woman was dancing her heart out; the dancer threw herself onto the hero who acknowledged her presence in his typical macho manner, had his way with her and went off to save the world. While this trend of 'item' numbers continued in the 80's, a new breed of parallel art cinema also entered Bollywood's language as well. These art films sometimes didn't have songs and focused more on story and character development.

Alas, the art film movement vanished by the start of the 1990's. In fact, even commercial Bollywood languished in the early 90's, existing in a lost phase -- there was no trend or tone to be gathered from the decade's first releases. All that changed in 1994 when Sooraj R. Barjatya released Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, a film with a marriage-love story theme but packed with 14 songs (much more than the existing average of 6-8). It was a huge box office hit and signaled to Bollywood that songs and marriage plot were in. The next few years saw nothing but love stories and marriage films with countless songs. By now, the songs had nothing to do with the story and in fact, a lot of films developed its songs first and then bothered crafting a story around the songs. Even Yash Chopra who directed story oriented films in the 1970's jumped on the band-wagon and along with his son, Aditya, started making these lovey-dovey song, dance stories.

Thankfully, the demand for something 'different' from the audiences gave a brief hope at the end of the 1990's and start of early 2000's as some directors attempted songless films with bold stories. After mixed success, most of these films disappeared to be replaced by complete foreign film remakes. While in the previous decades, Bollywood had only borrowed few elements from Hollywood and foreign cinema, the years from 2001 - present have seen full fledged remakes of stories from Hollywood to Europe to Eastern Asian cinema. And ofcourse, the songs are present there as well. Some directors attempted to carefully integrate the songs into the film, but most film-makers shot songs as a separate entity -- the story takes a break while the actors dance and continues after the 3-5 minute song. For the most part though, the story had a reason to exist with the song only serving to attract audience members to the theater. That is until now, when a film has been created where the songs dominate the film. There is a tiny story but it is squeezed in between songs that one hardly notices that the film even has a story. In the past, the story made compromises to let the song exist. However, this time, it is the song that is making a compromise to let the audience see a bit of the story.

The film in question is Shaad Ali's Jhoom Barabar Jhoom. This Yash and Aditya Chopra produced film starts and ends with a song danced by Amitabh Bachchan. In between the two songs, we get multiple love stories starring Abhishek Bachchan, Lara Dutta, Bobby Deol, Preity Zinta. After the initial song has ended, Rikki Thukrall (Abhishek) runs into Alvira Khan (Zinta). The two exchange their separate love stories with Rikki describing his love tale with Anaida (Lara) and Alvira mentioning her fairy tale love with Steve (Bobby). The narrated love stories come complete with songs, ofcourse. And then Rikki and Alvira imagine if both of them were not engaged to other people, what their love story would be like. Cue another song. Now, we have three love stories going on at the same time -- Rikki & Alvira's along with Rikki & Anaida plus Alvira and Steve. Thankfully, we are allowed a few moments of hilarious scenes in between the songs. Out of nowhere, the film's last 20 minutes stuffs us with an endless rendition of the title song, over and over again. The excuse we are given is that the actors are taking part in a dance competition but even by Bollywood's standards, the dance is plain awful -- the song is infectiously catchy but everything else around the song is a real waste. The only thing worthwhile about that song is in between the dance rounds, we see characters dressed in costumes from Bollywood hits of the past such as Mera Naam Joker, Bachchan's Shahenshah, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Mr. India, etc.

So what is one to make of this excuse of a movie? There is plenty to like in the film with Lara Dutta's fabulous acting as a prostitute and Abhishek's charming performance as Rikki. Ofcourse, Abhishek looks more and more like his father when he is freely acting. The only negative in terms of acting is Preity Zinta -- over the last few years, I can't determine if Zinta is to blame for playing her characters annoyingly or she is innocent and only gets annoying characters to play in films? The film is packed with some hilarious tender moments, especially between Abhishek and Piyush Mishra as the two wander around London. Also, there is a hilarious scene involving Rikki and Steve as they drive on a motorcycle while a musical clip from Sholay is played in the background -- that was a cute touch as that Sholay song featured both actor's fathers, Amitabh and Dharmendra. So the film is not afraid to showcase previous Bollywood films, but despite all the cuteness can't mask the fact that the story is only a placeholder until the next song comes along. Cue song and let the Jhooming begin.

Mindless entertainment value: 7/10
Story & Screenplay: 4/10
Direction: 5/10
Music: 9/10
Acting: 8/10

The screenplay is dull for the first 20-30 minutes and since the film is set in London, annoying character compromises are made as per the recent trend in Bollywood showing love/friendship stories between Indian and Pakistani ex-pats continues. Why can't Bollywood show a story about people as opposed to bringing jingoism and religion into it everytime? If one blinks, one might miss two cameos from the stars of BBC's hit comedy The Kumars at No. 42.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Spies, Crime and those evil corporations

Spies:

The Listening (2006, Italy, Director Giacomo Martelli): Rating 8/10

Shhh...quiet. They are listening? Who? The government ofcourse. But how? Over the phone. But the phone is on the hook. It does not matter, they can still hear. Echelon & Tumbleweed.

Even though the movie starts inside the National Security Agency in Washington, this is an Italian production. So it is not surprizing half way through the film, the action shifts to the beautiful locales of Italy. Giacomo Martelli has created a fictional tale around real reports of Echelon, the spy network used by both UK & USA to spy on its citizens. But why would governments need to spy on their own people? For their safety ofcourse!

I enjoyed watching this film thinking how on earth such a slick production could be made independently and made to suffer trying to find a buyer for the North American market. Even though Hollywood has produced superior spy films, this film attempts to show a different side of the modern spy games that the super-powers are engaging in -- the power to use computers, networks, cell phones to listen in on people. The film stories of surveillance started as early as 1974 with Coppola's The Conversation and was beautifully revived last year with the German production The Lives of Others. Now a beautifully shot Italian production tries it hand at tackling such a topic.

The political games were complicated enough during the Cold war. But in modern times, they are further complicated with the additional layer of fake patriotism and talks of national security. As a result, honest people in the spy industry can be pushed aside lest they say something against the system. In that sense, the film shows an interesting situation where a company selling a security software can exert more power than the security agency itself. Is that unlikely? Ofcourse not! As a few more film examples will show below, modern corporations do have more power than governments in a lot of cases.

Chances are this film won't see life in a North American theater but hopefully it makes out on DVD here because it is better than majority of the commercial junk that exists out there. A worthy topic which has very good cinematography and production values, especially some of the picturesque shots of snow capped Italian mountains.

Crime:

El Aura (2006, Argentina, Director Fabián Bielinsky): Rating 8.5/10

It is shame that the world lost such a talented director as Fabián Bielinsky last year. Even though he has only directed two very good films, his unexpected death will be a real loss.

Nine Queens was a personal favourite of mine so I was eager to see his second effort. The Aura starts off by introducing us to a taxidermist, Esteban (played by Ricardo Darín). So far so good. But a few minutes into the film, Esteban describes how to rob a bank. Since the same actor Ricardo Darín appeared in Nine Queens as a con artist, we get the feeling that another con job is on the cards here. But to Bielinsky's credit, this is a delicate multi-layered film with the con serving as only one element. As it turns out, Esteban only fantasies about robbing banks. In real life, he has never used a gun and suffers from epilepsy.

A hunting trip with a friend goes wrong and leads to an unexpected killing. From there, a chance to take part in the perfect robbery presents itself to Esteban. His sharp mind puts all the pieces together and he is ready. But he forgets the very first thing he read about the robbery -- "the third man". A twist. Most of the film appears in a dream like trance state. Which is explained by Esteban's condition. Just before Esteban gets his epileptic attacks, he experiences a few liberating moments of calmness. He explains such a situation is called "El Aura" by the doctors -- his mind opens up and thoughts gush in, and then he collapses. A few moments later, he wakes up, shook up and dazed. So in that sense, it is appropriate that the entire film appears to take place in a higher plane, above the ground where a sort of lightness is present. On top of that, the sharp haunting eyes of a dog watching Esteban as he tries to hid his crime only add to the film's dark atmosphere.

Vanaja (2006, India, Director Rajnesh Domalpalli): Rating 8/10

This beautifully shot South Indian film centers around a hushed up crime. 15 year old Vanaja comes from a poor family. Through her father's help, she gets a job in the town's leading dance instructor's house. Also, as an added bonusVanaja gets to pick up a few tips to improve her dance. We see this young woman grow on screen. When we first meet Vanaja, she is an innocent girl. But gradually, we see her confidence grow. But just as things are looking good for her, she is raped by the dance instructor's son. The crime is hushed up and the pregnant Vanaja disappears until she has given birth. She returns back to society but is faced with a few difficult decisions.

The film has won plenty of awards at film festival and it is easy to see why. The colorful visuals backed by a very strong performance from young Mamatha Bhukya make this film stand out.

Evil Corporations:

The last few years have seen a glut of documentaries exposing the crimes and practices of corporations. In most cases, the various films end up covering the same ground as only a few global companies are involved in carving the world up. One common theme is the privatization of natural resources in South America. Bolivia is a frequently used example where the attempted privatization of water was foiled by the protests of the citizens. But other nations are not as fortunate. No mater how much they protest, the world is not listening and their cries go unanswered. There is one interesting fact that stands out from all these films -- in modern times, people in North America are unlikely to protest about corporations running amok. And in the odd case, even if the people protest, their efforts are not covered by the media and pushed under the carpet. So the only avenue to get the message out is via films, especially documentaries.

The Big Sellout (2007, Germany, Director Florian Opitz): Rating 9/10

A very polished documentary which makes a case for the pros and cons of privatization in 4 nations -- South Africa, Bolivia, England and Philippines. We see how the privatization of electricity is creating problems in South Africa and the shambles of health care in Philippines. The Bolivian water situation is shown but the most surprizing example is that of the British Railways. A carve up of the government owned British Railways let to 150 separate (yes 150) companies owing their own chunk of the trains. So is it a surprize to find so many problems in the train systems?

Even though each story is shown to be a separate segment at the start, gradually we can start seeing similar patterns in all these nations problems. But what can be done? The Bolivian example is surely a great hope to people around the world but is it just an isolated example? Will people prevail or will everything get a bar code stuck on it in the end? The current trend suggests the latter.

The Bushmen's Secrets (2006, South Africa, Director Rehad Desai): Rating 8/10

This is a truly refreshing documentary on a topic hardly seen on screen. A long time ago man survived on herbal and natural remedies. But then the drug companies took over and produced a pill to cure every problem. After enough problems and side-affects started to appear, people yearned for simple herbal solutions. So the new money making idea was for drug companies to mass produce and sell herbal solutions. And such a scheme meant stealing generation old tribal knowledge and patenting it as their own.

Rehad Desai travels to the Kalahari desert to see how the bushmen survive the desert like conditions. He is told of a plant, Hoodia, a cactus which is eaten by the bushmen because it suppresses their appetite and gives them nourishment to help in long treks across the hot barren land. Something that suppresses the appetite? Well here is clearly a giant billion dollar plant! So what happens next? Corporations descend in, steal the plant legally or illegally and start counting the money. Desai has done a creditable job with this film in showing the various aspects of marketing such drugs and also depicting how the local governments are to blame as well.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Eastern Europe, part IV

The Eastern Europe series continues to provide rich cinematic viewing. The previous collections involved only watching features but this selection has six documentaries and three features. When I started this experiment more than a month ago, I wanted to study Eastern European soccer and film together. But as the weeks have gone on, the soccer spotlight has fallen a bit short. Still, the films have made provided a good viewing point into past and current Eastern Europe.

Films:


Part I started with war and collapse of a nation. Other topics were touched upon in part II but part III ended with the army take-over of a city. Part IV picks up exactly from that theme.....

Nation & city under siege:

Emir Kusturica's Underground had this memorable line: "A war is not a war until a brother kills a brother". Well in Kusturica's When Father was away on business, it is not a brother but a brother-in law who turns on his family. But one can argue such a situation is bound to happen in a state when people are kept under constant watch and citizens are encouraged to put the good of the nation before individual freedom. While this political situation is considered evil, in soccer it is such a situation that works wonders for a team -- if all players work hard for a team and put their own egos aside, sometimes a team can achieve victory. So if something works in soccer, then why can't it work in society? The difference is that in soccer, if a person goes against the system, he is not tortured and put in prison.(unfortunately, Iraq is an exception where soccer players were put in prison and beaten after bad results. A topic for another time...)

So what happens when a man is put in prison for something he said? It sets a horrible example for others and keeps the fear machine working. As the film's title points out, the kids of such a father are told that their beloved dad is away on business while he is locked away in a prison. Only when the kids are older do they understand what their father had to go through. As it turns out, the father was arrested by his brother-in law but it was the father's girlfriend who tipped off the brother-in law. So when the father returns to society, he seeks out the ex-girlfriend for revenge. And revenge ends up being a passionate animal like love making session. While the fucking is going on, the innocent son, who was kicking a soccer ball, catches a glimpse of his father with another woman. He leaves the soccer ball on one side and instead watches the other game. What is going through his mind? We will never find out but the goal has been scored and the soccer ball & the woman lay harmlessly on the ground. Waiting to be touched again...one day...

A peaceful city. Then war and destruction. Death is at every corner as buildings are destroyed. Slowly, the city tries to rebuild and finds some joy when some of the enemies are sentenced for their crimes. Sergei Loznitsa does a remarkable job in putting together a film from Soviet government archives of the siege of Leningrad. Blockade has no dialogues but is actual archive footage between 1941-1944 which shows how the city is shattered. Loznitsa has recorded a new sound-track which is remarkably in sync with the images shown on screen. This film proves that sometimes scripted film can't even close to the drama that everyday life offers. But it is amazing that someone was actually capturing all these images back in 1941?

The beautiful Hungarian film Happy New Life never really tells us which city is under watch but in the film's fictional world, we learn that young kids were taken from their homes and then experimented upon. After more than decade, these kids are released into society as adults. Who are these kids? What was their childhood like? These people will never know and they struggle with modern life. We come across such an adult who tries to find about his past. But all he gets are a few pieces of paper which tell him nothing. So he is forced to resort to his own ways to dig up his past. He goes about his regular life but each day is painful for him and he is constantly on the verge of living and dying. Amazingly shot, this vintage film lets the images paint as a picture of a suffering victim who is trying to cope with life after his government took away his innocence. An official selection for TIFF 2007 and hopefully it makes out for CIFF and VIFF as well.

Sometimes only a portion of a nation can is clamped down upon while the rest of the country goes about their life as usual. In Balkan Champion Réka Kincses shows the political struggles that her ethnic Hungarian father faced in Transylvania. The current geographical map shows that Transylvania belongs to Romania but it was once part of Hungary. So understandably, the region is populated by plenty of ethnic Hungarian people whose rights were not recognized by the Romanian government. Kincses tried to fight for his people but the political games forced him into exile. Réka does a wonderful job of digging into the past and tries to understand the reasons for her father's problems. This is an emotional film that shows the suffering that the family also had to undergo as a result of the father's political battles.

Suffering:

A nation's political situation is not the only cause for a individual's suffering. Circumstances sometimes deal an unlucky hand to some people. The powerful Czech doc Marcela brutally shows the destruction and suffering of Marcela. Her life has been captured by tv for over 25 years and we see it go from good to terrible. In 1980, everything was good for Marcela -- she was newly married with the love of her life. But a year after the birth of her first child, her marriage starts to fall apart and she gets a divorce. A few years later, the reunion of Marcela and Jiří takes place (once again captured on camera) but that ends again. We see this woman change over time and find her getting sucked into deeper depression. The hammer blow comes when tragedy strikes her daughter, plunging Marcela into utter darkness. But she survives her attempted suicide attempts and continues to carry on when the camera leaves her in 2006.

This is another example of the power that documentaries have over scripted features. Although watching such raw footage of a person's collapse is not pleasant viewing but it is still worthy cinema because it can show how easy it is to get sucked into an endless cycle of misery. One can see the film and acknowledge the problem but can everyone be strong enough to fight their inner demons?

The Romanian dark comedy A Roof Overhead shows the suffering two women go through in a mental hospital. Their suffering is almost matched by the constant stress that the doctors have to go through daily while working in the under-staffed and under-funded hospital. So in order to alleviate the funding problem, a lot of the patients are discharged. So the two women find themselves free in society. However, they find more problems in their everyday life. On a suggestion by one of them, the two head to the country side to live in an inherited house. But the country house is no longer a luxury place; it does not even have a roof (hence the title). We come across plenty of colorful and eccentric characters in the country-side. An often hilarious film with a tinge of sadness tucked away. The movie feels similar to The Oak, another film which managed to capture the raw spirit of the Romanian life. And yes, the gypsy music is also present.

The well shot Romanian film Village of Socks shows how poverty & unemployment effects life in a small Romanian village. Thankfully, some of the village women are able to make money thanks to sock making to generate some income. At times the topic might be dry but this is a polished film that captures some precious shots of everyday life.

Beauty & everyday life:

Miss Universe 1929 chronicles the life and times of Austria's only Miss Universe. The film uses rare raw footage and old photographs to show a love story of Lisl Goldarbeiter, Austria's shining beauty. Even though there are plenty of repeated shots and dull moments, the film has some merit when it highlights everyday life as the World War disrupts a country.

I first heard about Georgia thanks to Shota Arveladze & Kaka Kaladze, two acclaimed soccer players. But it is Kaka's story that made plenty of headlines. In 2001, his brother was kidnaped in Georgia and a huge ransom was demanded. Despite his parents paying the ransom, the brother was not returned. It is believed that his brother's dead body was found in 2005. What can one infer from this? Even a powerful soccer player, a national hero, can't use all the political and financial resourced to get his brother back. So what of the ordinary citizen?

So I was glad to get the chance to watch Akhmeteli 4, a documentary which shows everyday life of the residents in the director's former apartment building. Artchil returns back home to Tbilisi after more than a decade to see how things have changed. A simple film which manages to show how everyday citizens are going about their lives. We even see the locals betting on Western European soccer scores. It is amazing to see how much knowledge the locals have of Western soccer while most of Western Europe hardly knows anything about Eastern soccer. But I am sure that knowledge will improve in upcoming years as Eastern European soccer players are becoming very important to the big European soccer leagues. In the meantime, the betting will go on -- will Chelsea win by 2 goals, with the Dutch team avoid defeat this week? The bets are placed in Eastern Europe, the games are played in the West, and maybe, just some money makes it to the winner in the East. So as to continue the circle of betting in between shots of coffee and alcohol.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Copa America Film Festival, Final & Third Place

The Final soccer match in Copa America 2007 won't take place until Sunday July 15 but I am wrapping up the Copa Film festival a week earlier.

Final: Uruguay (Whisky) vs USA (North by Northwest)

This is surely a worthy final. Just like in the semi-final between Argentina and USA, both films are completely differently paced -- Whisky uses minimal action and hardly any background music but it invokes plenty of humour and emotion. North by Northwest on the other hand guides its audience down a path of mystery and intrigue by having appropriate background music to create the desired emotion. Both feats are hard to achieve (emotion without showing much and emotion with a heap of action) but I have to give a slight edge to Whisky because of its uniqueness -- there have been enough spy movies in the last few decades and Hitchcock's film came in 1959 after more than a decade of femme fatale, film noir and spy movies. On the other hand, there aren't too many dead-pan style films around. Moreover, watching such a film is a rewarding experience as one never really knows what action a character will take. So we are only able to fully understand a character by watching them carefully in the film.

Total points for Whisky: 3 (Acting, Story, Direction)
Total Points for North by Northwest: 2 (Cinematography & Production Values)

Final Score: Uruguay wins 3-2 over USA

So the Uruguayan film wins the first ever Copa America film festival. It was a truly enjoyable experience to watch films from different South American countries (plus Mexico & USA) and compare them. While Brazil and Argentina produce a healthy dosage of films in South America, it is refreshing to see other South American countries making some creditable efforts as well. But when it comes to soccer, Brazil and Argentina are still miles ahead of other South American nations. And there are no signs of that trend changing for the next few years either.

And finally a consolation match for 3rd place:

Mexico (El compadre Mendoza) vs Argentina (The Official Story)

The cinematography and production values of neither film really stood but the Mexican film managed to seamlessly integrate a lot of extras and set props (revolutionaries) despite being made in 1934. The real strength of the Argentinian film is the combination of action, story and direction; The Official Story has scored no points for cinematography and production values in any of the 3 second round matches.

Total points for El compadre Mendoza: 3 (Story, Cinematography, Production Values)
Total points for The Official Story: 3 (Acting, Story, Direction)

Final Score: Mexico wins on penalties after 3-3 tie

I have to give a slight win to the Mexican film as I throughly enjoyed watching the characters trying to maintain a slim line between friendship and betrayal.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Copa America Film Festival, Semi-Final

On Sat, July 7 in the soccer tournament Uruguay demolished the hosts Venezuela 4-1 while Brazil ran riot over Chile in a 6-1 win. Brazil's wealth of talent finally shone. In terms of the film festival, the Brazilian film lost in the Quarters, while the Uruguayan film marches on powerfully. The film semi-finals are indeed rich with 4 very good films competing against each other.

Semi-Final 1: Uruguay (Whisky) vs Mexico (El compadre Mendoza)

Once again, the film from Uruguay wins easily.

Total points for Whisky: 5 (scores point in all categories)
Total points for El compadre Mendoza: 1 (Story)

Final Score: Uruguay 5 -1 Mexico

Semi-Final 2: Argentina (The Official Story) vs USA (North by Northwest)

This is a tough one. Both films are completely different genres (political drama vs Hitchcock's spy thriller) and play at different pace. The Official Story slowly develops and only hammers the emotional punch near the end. Whereas, North by Northwest immediately jumps into action and offers only a few moments of respite in a very action packed scenario.

Total points for The Official Story: 2 (Acting, Story)
Total Points for North by Northwest: 4 (Story, Direction, Cinematography & Production Values)

Final score: USA wins 4-2 over Argentina

Copa America Film Festival, Quarter-Final results

The 5 areas where the films are scored at:

Acting, Story, Direction, Cinematography and Production Values

Quarter Final 1: Uruguay (Whisky) vs Colombia (Los niños invisibles)

This is not really a fair contest. Even though Los niños invisibles is a good coming of age film, it really is no match up for the polished dead-pan comedy Whisky.

Final Score: Uruguay 5 -0 Colombia

Quarter Final 2: Mexico (El compadre Mendoza) vs Bolivia (Dependencia sexual)

In terms of acting, both films are very good, so they score 1 point each. Even though the story of the Mexican film is simpler and linear than the multiple plots in the Bolivian film, I have to give the edge to the Mexican film for having a better story.

The direction of the Mexican film is slightly superior but the fancy cinematography & good usage of sync sound earn full points for Dependencia sexual.

Total points for El compadre Mendoza: 3 (Acting, Story & Direction)
Total points for Dependencia sexual: 3 (Acting, Cinematography & Production Values)

So the only way a 3-3 tie can be broken is by a penalty-shootout, which involves a subjective vote on my part. At the end of the day, I have to give the win to the Mexican film as its story of friendship, politics and betrayal is more naturally developed and has an easier flow to it.

Final Score: Mexico wins on penalties after 3-3 tie

Quarter Final 3: Brazil (The Man Who Copied) vs Argentina (The Official Story)

This is a tough comparison. The Man Who Copied has a lighter and more commercial feel to it than the emotionally powerful The Official Story which is made not to entertain people but to raise awareness and even to heal certain wounds in Argentina's dark history. Here goes the comparison:

Total points for Brazil: 2 (Cinematography, Production Values)
Total points for Argentina: 3 (Acting, Story, Direction)

Final score: The Argentinian film wins the contest 3-2.

I have to admit that despite all its flaws The Man Who Copied is an enjoyable film but The Official Story has more substance to it.

Quarter Final 4: USA (North by Northwest) vs Peru (Días de Santiago)

Am I committing a crime here by daring to compare a classic film from Hitchcock against an entry from a Peruvian director only making his third film? Not really. Because in soccer, the mighty and powerful teams have to play the little minnows to advance in tournaments. Similarly, such uneven match-ups have to take place in this film tournament as well.

Total Points for North by Northwest: 5 (superior on all counts)
Total points for Days of Santiago : 2 (Acting, Cinematography)

Final score: USA 5-2 Peru

The acting is top-notch in the Peruvian film along with good blend of black & white + coloured visuals. I especially liked the fact that black and white was used to depict the main character's inner thoughts with colour used to show the reality around him. But despite having a good story, one can make a point that such a story has been done before. In fact, the character of Santiago is a poorer cousin of Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver). And the fact that both characters drive a taxi also helps provide an extra resemblance.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Copa America Film Festival, First Round Standings & Quarter-Finals Draw

Final First Round Standings:

Group A:

Group B:

Group C:

Both the films from Colombia and Bolivia are joint third after the group standings. But I have to pick the Bolivian film as the best third place team because it took more risks and had more of a bold experiment than the simple & sweet Colombian entry.

As per the tournament schedule, the draw for the Quarter Finals is:


As it turns out, not a single match-up is the same in the soccer and film draw. Although, a lot of similar teams occupy the same position. Interestingly, the films from Brazil and Argentina clash very early and that promises to be a close tie.

Copa America Film Festival, Group C

Both Paraguay and Argentina started off in fine form in this group, with each team scoring 8 goals in their first two games -- Paraguay beat Colombia 5-0 and USA 3-1, with Argentina securing 4-1 and 4-2 results against the US and Colombia. Argentina won the group beating Paraguay 1-0 and Colombia took third spot beating the Americans by the same score.

As it turns out, things were a bit different in the film standings. Of the 4 countries, Colombia managed the same position in both the Copa and film tournament -- 3rd spot.

Argentina:

Along with Brazil, Argentina are considered one of the best soccer teams in the world. Over the past few decades, they have produced quality players who have shown great flair and genius in front of goal. In fact, Argentina were quite a team from early days of soccer in the late 1920's and 1930's -- they reached the final of the first world cup losing 4-2 to Uruguay. But despite all their talent, there is a shade of darkness that lurks behind their success. Both the Argentinian world cup wins are tainted with accusations of cheating.

In 1978, Argentina hosted the tournament and won a pulsating final, 3-1 against a very good Dutch team. Mario Kempes may have been the hero for Argentina that tournament but it was the manner that the host team got to the final that still leaves a bad taste. Argentina had to beat Peru by 4 goals in the final game to reach the final ahead of Brazil. Peru hardly put up a fight and rolled over 6-0 to Argentina. Was there a bribe involved? Or were Peru scared of Argentina's dictatorship? No only well ever truly know.

In 1986, Argentina showed nothing but skill in all their games, except for a second of cheating in their quarter-final game against England. Argentina beat the English 2-1 thanks to two goals from Diego Maradona -- the second goal is still truly one of the best world cup goals of all time but the first is a shameful account of the worst this game has to offer. Maradona clearly punched the ball into the net but the referee didn't see that and awarded the goal. The second goal proved Argentina's superiority and even made the first incident seem worse -- such a good side didn't need to cheat but they did. And over the years, you can still find some incidents of cheating occurring despite the wealth of talent that the country has.

The 1978 world cup also helped mask the real problem of the Argentina's political situation. The dictatorship freely went about doing whatever they pleased and kidnaped anyone who opposed them. The "disapperances" of innocent people is something well documented now with new stories emerging every year as to what went on. Luis Puenzo's powerful & emotional film The Official Story weaves a story about such shadowy political acts. A couple adopt a little child. But where did the child come from? The husband does not want the wife to find out lest they lose the child. She can't resist and probes deeper. The truth threatens to tear them apart -- the child was one of those "disappeared" babies that was born when her mother was taken away. The film probes into a dark past of Argentina's history -- it scratches the surface to find the secrets and scars conveniently tucked away. And to think that while people were being taken away, the world was watching a soccer game?

Colombia:

Colombia is another South American country that is only mentioned in North American media when some crime has occurred -- we only hear and read of their drug and crime rate. But a nation is more than what a few corrupt people do with it. So in that sense, it was refreshing to see a cute film about innocent children from Colombia. Los niños invisibles is about that precious age when kids believe in magic and are still forming their view of the world. We get to see the children's first feelings of love, infatuation and see them lie for the first time. The film's title refers to three children's plan to use a secret formula to become invisible. Just a sweet harmless film.

Paraguay:

Cinema is not Paraguay's major export. Maybe that will change in the future? It was really impossible to find a film from this landlocked country. 2006's Paraguayan Hammock was my best bet but the film is not out on DVD yet.

USA:

The Americans sent a young team to Copa America. So it was not surprizing that the team lost all three games, but atleast the youngsters put up a fight and gained some valuable experience for the future. While the soccer team might have been inexperienced, I picked an American entry from one of the most experienced film-makers. Alfred Hitchcock is considered a genius and his films are dissected and studied endlessly. Even though Hitchcock directed more than 60 films, only a handful of his films are mentioned more than others -- Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho, The Man Who Knew too Much and North by Northwest. Even though I had not seen this 1959 film, I had seen a few of its scenes in trailers over the years -- the plane heading down sharply towards Cary Grant and the chase scene over Mt.Rushmore.

This is a classic spy film. From the first frame, the action starts. Fast, fast...confusion. 30 minutes go by, and we are given a clue as to what the mystery is about. Phew. Relax. Now, it seems the rest of the film will be an easy relaxing watch. But no, another twist. Chase. Run. Then another clue and we can breathe easy again. But the action picks up again...finally, when we have all the clues, a long chase sequence ends the film.

I was not a big fan of the action scene in the end but as it turned out, Hitchcock wanted to make a film with a chase sequence on Mt. Rushmore. So if that scene didn't exist, then this movie might not have existed either! But I am a big fan of that plane scene -- how the plane heads menacingly towards Cary Grant is well filmed. Ofcourse, the background music is pitch perfect as usual, touching all the right emotions.

Final Group Standings:

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Copa America Film Festival, Group B

Day Two of the Copa America had a huge upset -- Brazil 0 - 2 Mexico. Ofcourse, Chile's comeback to beat Ecuador 3-2 was news worthy but everytime Brazil loses a game, no matter at what level, it is considered a shock.

Brazil:

Brazil always has an abundance of talented soccer players at all age levels. In fact, the Brazilian soccer team is often spoiled for choices. Likewise, I found too many film choices for the Brazilian entry. But in the end, my choice was a film that I had wanted to see since I missed it at the film festival last year. And it was a good choice.

The Man Who Copied is an entertaining film that contains all the symbols one has come to associate with modern Brazilian movies -- poverty, crime, bank robbery, Rio & its postcard picturesque shots. Still the film is charming once the narrative overdosed first 25 minutes are over. As the title alludes to, the film is about a photocopier. André has a boring job photocopying documents all day long. But he manages to keep some sanity by photocopying book pages for his personal collection. And he rounds off his days by spying on Silvia, the cute girl who lives across the street. But love does not come cheap. André needs money for his future love, so he & an accomplice hatch up a scheme to mint money using his copy machine. A few twists manage to mesh his love story with his crime streak leading towards a cool finish.

Brazilian football is easy on the eyes -- slow movement accompanied with a string of beautiful passes, a few step-overs, jigs, fakes, dribbles and then an explosive drive to round off the game. Similarly, this is an easy going film that slowly gets into its groove, picks up speed, throws in a few twists to catch us off guard and then ties up all the loose ends.

Mexico:

Viva la revolution! Mexican folklore is rich with tales of revolution and fights against injustice. While El Violin (2006) was a recent black and white masterpiece about a revolution, it is refreshing to find a gem from the 1930's. El compadre Mendoza had a different take on the revolution -- it shows a wealthy person who can make or break a revolution. Rosalío supports both the government and Zapata's revolutionaries. But the tight political game that Rosalío plays has a price -- in this case it is his family's life that is at stake. An absorbing watch!

Chile:

Andrés lives a solitary life repressing his desires and needs; most of his time is spent looking after his grandmother. In order to better take care of his grandmother, he hires Estela. But the young Estela raises suppressed desires in Andrés. It turns out that his religious upbringing is to blame for him starving his body of carnal sins. And Estela is too tempting to pass up. On the other hand, Estela is new to the city and goes through her own self discovery. Coronación also gives us glimpses of the class differences that exist in Chile while handling a story of love, desire and crime.

The film may have gotten plenty of awards but at 140 minutes, it is too long and nothing to rave about.

Ecuador:

In the late 1990's Ecuador made the news in North America only for its kidnapings and crime. So it was not surprizing to find that crime and corruption formed the backdrop for the first ever film that I saw from Ecuador. The film's title comes from a popular hit song and hence music is the other major component of this movie. A forced love story is also thrown in for good measure. Poor acting and average camera work really make this a strained watch.

Final Group B Standings: