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Friday, September 28, 2007

CIFF 2007 wrap-up & comments

Friday, Sept 28 -- Day 8 of 10 and I have to call it a day. And I only clocked in 12 movies. The reasons for this low total is my travel to Vancouver for VIFF. Still, I managed to see plenty of quality movies over this past week.

Rating (out of 10) of films seen during the festival:
4 months 3 weeks 2 days (Romania): 9
The Edge of Heaven (Germany/Turkey): 9
Black Butterfly (Peru): 9
The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories (Bulgaria): 9
Khadak (Belgium/Germany): 8.5
Saviour Square (Poland): 8.5
Persepolis (France): 8
Fresh Air (Hungary): 8
The True Legend of Tony Vilar (Italy): 7.5
Hunt Angels (Australia): 7.5
Two in One (Ukraine/Russia): 6.5
Jade Warrior (Finland/China/Holland/Estonia): 6



Previously viewed films that played at CIFF:

Drained (Brazil): 10
Time (South Korea): 8.5
Armin (Bosnia co-production): 8.5
Ahlaam (Iraq): 8
Mukhsin (Malaysia, screened for Pan-Asian film festival): 8
Vanaja (India): 8
The Bushmen's Secrets (South Africa): 8
Orange Revoluton (US/Ukraine): 7.5
Tambogrande (Peru): 7

Festival favourites: Combining films seen both during and before the festival.

Most unique film:

Drained -- Loved how Heitor Dhalia takes us on fascinating a journey through the bizarre life of Lourenco whose obsessive dark mind knows no limits. The brown tainted lens just adds to the film's earthy feel.

Best cinematic experience:

Khadak (Color of Water) -- It was a real pleasure watching this in the giant IMAX screen because that allows one to soak in all the beautiful visuals of Mongolia in this lavish production.

Most satisfying cinematic experience:

The Edge of Heaven
-- the final few shots in the movie are just perfect!

Daring cinema:

4 months 3 weeks 2 days -- This film certainly made me uncomfortable but at the same time I can't help admire the rawness with which Romanian life under communism is shown.

Most seductive film:

Black Butterfly -- The film shows how an ordinary woman has to resort to seduction and manipulation to destroy the web of lies that power hungry men weave

That's it for this year. A vintage year for films!!!

CIFF Notes, Days 6, 7 & 8

The Edge of Heaven (2007, Germany/Turkey, Director Fatih Akin): Rating 9/10

This was one of the films I was eagerly waiting for at CIFF and thankfully it delivers. Akin has crafted a film which focuses on the emotional ties between Germany and Turkey. At times, the screenplay is too neat and tidy with all the threads tied together; Akin has stripped the film of un-necessary baggage and only put in scenes which are relevant to his story. And the last 10 minutes are perfectly constructed and resonate with a poetic beauty.

Black Butterfly (2006, Peru, Director Francisco J. Lombardi): Rating 9/10

My first Lombardi film! I missed the mini Lombardi retrospective that CIFF had in 2003 so I made sure I would make this screening. The timing of this film is relevant. The film looks at the state of corruption that existed during Fujimoro's presidency in Peru. And considering that Fujimoro has been in the news recently, it makes this movie a worthy watch. The story is a fictional imagining of events surrounding the death of an honest judge within Peru's corrupt judicial system. The movie shows how the judge's fiancee goes about getting her revenge. The revenge unfolds in a seductive, juicy manner and makes for engaging cinema.

The True Legend of Tony Vilar (2006, Italy, Director Giuseppe Gagliardi): Rating 7.5/10

A charming mocumentary about a man's search for a legendary singer, Tony Vilar. Peppe (Peppe Voltarelli, also the film's co-writer) heads to Buenos Aires to find his distant cousin, Vilar, who made it big in Argentina. But he ends up in the labyrinth of La Boca and instead comes across fascinating Tango clubs and interesting characters. Less than 24 hours after arriving in Argentina, Peppe is led to New York where he ends up in Little Italy and even a bigger labyrinth. At this point, Peppe's journey becomes more interesting than his destination (Vilar) because he comes across such an assorted collection of characters that light up the screen. Overall, both Gagliardi and Voltarelli have done a good job in examining the complex and rich Italian diaspora in Argentina and New York.

Hunt Angels (2006, Australia, Director Alec Morgan): Rating 7.5/10

A smart fictional film which looks at the life of Rupert Kathner (played by Ben Mendelsohn), an Australian director obsessed with making ground breaking movies. But just like Ed Wood, Kathner seems to have more heart than skills in film-making. The film is structured like a documentary complete with archive footage, still photographs and shot in beautiful black and white. A funny film which shows how a good idea can still be made into movie with little budget.

Jade Warrior (2006, Finland co-production, Director Antti-Jussi Annila): Rating 6/10

The film is branded as the first Finnish Chinese martial arts film and that is enough to raise eyebrows. While there may be no ties between Finland and China, the movie makes a good attempt to link the two countries through an ancient Finnish legend. It was a surprize to see how well shot this movie was on such a low budget. But the screenplay leaves a lot to be desired.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

CIFF: notable film comments

I wanted to consolidate comments from my earlier posts regarding some note worthy films playing at CIFF this year. With the exception of Vanaja and Bushman's secrets, all the other films still have screenings over the next 4 days.

Drained (2006, Brazil, Heitor Dhalia): Rating 10/10

This is one of the most witty and original films I have seen this year. Credit for bringing these eccentric characters to life goes to Lourenço Mutarelli who wrote the novel and to Heitor Dhalia for bringing pitch perfect performances from his cast. The film can be described as a deadpan dark comedy but the main character Lourenco (Selton Mello) is much more dangerous than any character in a Jim Jarmusch or Aki Kaurismäki film.

By profession, Lourenco collects people's antiques. But it is never clear whether he sells these antiques or simply keeps them for his collection. He decides the value of each antique himself and if he likes the story behind the item, be buys it. His office (housed in a warehouse) is always lined up with people waiting to sell their item by pouring their heart out to Lourenco. But right from the film's start, Lourenco's mind is preoccupied with two things -- Garconete's behind (a waitress played by Paula Braun) and the foul smell that comes from his bathroom. It would be unfair to give away any more details but the unique characters and scenarios make Lourenco's life hell.

There are some audacious camera shots in the movie such as the opening sequence where the camera shamelessly glares at Garconete's behind -- we watch every swing as she gracefully heads to work. The film stands out from other Brazilian films because of its visual choices -- there are no bright colors saturating the screen but instead brownish colors are prominent. Also, there are no scenes of beaches or any other visual cues that could place this film in Brazil.

Time (2006, South Korea, Ki-duk Kim): Rating 8.5/10

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 the ugly human nature on display.

Armin (2007, Bosnia co-production, Ognjen Svilicic): Rating 8/10

This is a tender film about a Bosnian father and son who cross the border into Croatia for the son's film audition. This is a multi-layered film which not only showcases a relationship between father and son but also addresses issues about exile and scars of a war. The movie also highlights how even if some people want to get on with their lives, others are ready to exploit them to make award winning documentaries/films. Wonderful performances as well.

Ahlaam (2005, Iraq, Mohamed Al Daradji): Rating 8/10

This is a first, an Iraqi film! The story mainly takes place in 2003 during the American invasion and bombing of Baghdad. We see a few people in a mental hospital and with the aid of flashbacks, their tale is told. The flashbacks lead to 1998 when Iraq is bogged down by sanctions. Life is not that great, with people suffering from poverty. Ahlaam is on the verge of marriage, Hassan is having doubts about being in the army because he doesn’t believe in serving Saddam, Mehdi is troubled because he won’t be able to go for higher studies because of his father’s past. These are ordinary people suffering from enough problems already. And then, things get worse in 2003 when the American bombs fall.

Ahlaam is not a happy movie, it can’t be. Things gets worse for the main character as the film moves along. First her marriage is ruined because her fiancée is taken by the Iraqi police. She is pushed to the ground which subsequently damages her mind. But over the years, her mental situation gets worse. The American invasion causes the looters to move into the mental hospital she and her fiancée are in. She escapes, but only to an unsafe deserted Baghdad. Her fate is unresolved at the end, but it is clear, it can’t be hopeful.

There will be plenty of American movies based in Iraq over the coming years, but none will give voice to the Iraqi people. The truth is the Iraqi people suffered under Saddam and now without him, things are worse for them. The looting, the uncertainty, the lack of electricity, no water and a hostile world are all a few men's doing. This is their legacy yet the men in power will never admit their mistake. A country which was already backward would never have been a threat. And now it is more backward, except for the oil.

Mukhsin (2006, Malaysia, Yasmin Ahmad): Rating 8/10

Note: I pre-viewed this as part of the Calgary Pan-Asian Film festival back in Jan 2007.

I have to admit that I am starting to like Yasmin Ahmad’s refreshing approach to families and love stories. I adored her 2005 film Sepet which was just wonderful. Mukhsin is the third film in Ahman's trilogy about the character Orked. Sepet featured Orked's first teenage love, Gubra was about marriage and adulthood while Mukhsin rewinds the clock to the start of Orked's childhood. Plenty of tender moments and a touching cameo from the love-struck Sepet couple. And Orked's warm and effectionate family are all back!

Tambogrande: mangos, murder, mining (2006, Peru, 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.

Vanaja (2006, India, 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 bonus Vanaja 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.

The Bushmen's Secrets (2006, South Africa, 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.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

CIFF Notes, Days 3, 4 & 5

The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories

2007, Bulgaria, Director Andrey Paounov

As the title suggests, the documentary is about a town's problems with mosquitos. And the town in question is Belene, located in Northern Bulgaria by the Danube river. Andrey Paounov does an excellent job in capturing the essence of the town just by starting off from the mosquitos and expanding it to document fascinating stories of extraordinary people. The first hour of the documentary is made up of stunning abstract shots of everyday objects mixed with multiple stories. We don't spend too much time on each person or story to begin with and that makes for an engaging film as we get to sample the vibrant personality of the people in Belene. Also, Paounov lets the camera linger on a person a few extra seconds after they have finished their story -- this has a powerful effect of etching more realism to each person, sort of like what is done at the end of The Motorcycle Diaries with the black and white photo portraits. The story does drift off slightly after the hour mark but the film manages to end on a poetic and graceful note.

Overall, jut a wonderful film with some stunning visuals.

Rating 9/10
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Persepolis

2007, France, Directors/writers: Vincent Paronnaud & Marjane Satrapi

This award winning graphic novel film does a great job of presenting a tale of darkness in a light hearted manner that makes it a very accessible watch. No complaints with any of the wonderful voices (Chiara Mastroianni) and technical aspects of the film but I feel the story might have been more eye-opening 10 years ago. But nowadays with plenty of books and articles in circulation about life in Iran after the revolution, Persepolis ends up just confirming those other repressive stories and adding a few more personal touches about the change of life from the Shah's period to post-revolution.

Rating 8/10
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Two in One

2007, Ukraine/Russia, Director Kira Muratova

One of the wonders of any film festival is discovering a hidden gem or a new director. Even a few hours before its screening time of 8:45 pm, Two in One was not on my radar. I was debating between either Guy Maddin's Brand Upon The Brain or the Norwegian film Sons . But as chance turned out, I decided to look up the film Two in One. And I found this article where Jonathan Rosenbaum called Kira Muratova "the greatest living Russian filmmaker". Wow! How on earth did I never hear of her? After that it was an easy decision to take the effort for watching this film!!

Going into the movie, I knew that this would be a challenge. And so it turned out to be. Two different stories (in structure) but related together. The first 40 minutes hover around the confusion and discussions which take place when a corpse is discovered on stage a day before a play is to open. The actors decide that the sold out show must go on and the police should not be informed lest their play gets halted. This leads to plenty of absurd situations and brings out the true personalities of some eccentric characters.

After the 40 minute mark, the actual play starts. First the camera shows the narrator introducing the audience to the play. The camera then goes behind the set to show the story that the theatrical audience can't see but we the cinematic audience can observe. The camera does return to the stage on a few occasions before fully diving into the story of an interesting love triangle involving a father, his daughter and her friend. Incest is implied but the father has his heart set on his daughter's friend. What follows is unique and bizarre and the only cinematic equivalent I can think of the father may occupy the same time-space as characters in the Czech film Lunacy.

The digitally shot film captures the rich set and characters sharply. And the set design is beautiful. But this film does appear to be an acquired taste. The slow pace with the choice of some bold shots will either repulse completely or it might soak in enough slow pleasure.

Rating: 6.5/10
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Fresh Air

2006, Hungary, Directors/writers: Ágnes Kocsis & Andrea Roberti

A charming dead-pan comedy about a single mother and her teenage daughter. The film starts off by looking at the mother's life and her efforts to find a date. But after the first 20 minutes or so, the story focuses on the daughter and her turbulent relationship with the mother. The film manages to show plenty of complex issues (first love, loneliness, coming-of-age, poverty) in such a cool and relaxed manner with the character's actions and expressions carrying the story in an effortless manner.

Rating 8/10

Saturday, September 22, 2007

CIFF Notes, Day 1 & 2

Since I spent a good portion of the summer watching Eastern European movies, it was appropriate that I started the first day of CIFF with two films from Romania and Poland. Both films were uncompromising, gritty and had a few moments which would make anyone squirm and feel uneasy. Cinéma vérité at its best!

4 Months 3 Weeks 2 days (2007, Romania, Director Cristian Mungiu): Rating 9/10

This is not as easy movie to watch. And the uneasiness comes from the extended discussions and scenes regarding abortion. None of the complications regarding such a decision are removed and we are given a front row seat in the hotel room where the core of the film's scenes take place. When things get a bit too uneasy, a little breather is given when the camera leaves the hotel room. But even though the camera shifts to house party, the film still presents a realistic dose of life in modern day Romania where some city folk look down upon the villagers and the country life style. And finally, the camera returns to the hotel room to give the most unnerving scene of the film.

The title may refer to the abortion decision of a character but that topic is just a springboard to peer into other aspects of life in 1987 Romania, a time when the communist rule kept people on edge.

Saviour Square (2006, Poland, Directors Joanna Kos & Krzysztof Krauze):

This award winning Polish film is based on a real life story about a mother's attempts to take her own life along with that of her young two sons. The film gives a background story to her life as she reached that difficult decision. The directors makes a smart decision in stripping any dialogue during some of the most difficult scenes (wife abuse, suicide attempt, court case) and only having background music. This allows the powerful images to speak for themselves without any of the scenes feeling over-dramatized.

When it comes to the couple's problem, the film is similar to Béla Tarr's The Prefab People. In fact, the scene where the husband is leaving home while his wife is begging him to stay is reminiscent of Tarr's film. But this story adds a complicated layer by including the mother-in law and a housing scam which results in the couple forced out of their savings. The issues depicted are relevant to any country around the world -- a woman's turbulent relationship with her mother-in law & a husband's reluctance to help with house-work is common to almost all cultures all the world.

Rating 8/10

Day 2, Sept 22:

Khadak (Belgium/Germany, 2006, Directors Peter Brosens & Jessica Hope Woodworth):

There is a hypnotic poetry to this tale set in the picturesque locales of Mongolia. The story revolves around a family of nomadic shepherds who are forced to relocate to the city because of a plague harming their animals. Packed with stunning images, the equally engaging soundtrack meshes a shaman magical tale along with a political depiction of Mongolian life. Silence dominates the film but near the end when a beautiful orchestra music fills the screen, the effect is mesmerizing. The majority of the film is spliced with abstract images which are connected to the film's magical tale of a young shepherd learning about his spiritual destiny. It was a real pleasure to watch this on a giant IMAX screen and be sucked into a stunning world where magic melted the boundaries of reality.

Rating 8.5/10

Friday, September 21, 2007

Two weeks, Two Film Festivals

The air is chilly with a touch of frost and some rain. The sun sets well before 8 pm and the leaves are turning yellow. Yes, it must be fall and that means film festival time!

Prior to 2006, that only meant the Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF). But last year I got a taste of Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) a few days after CIFF was over. It was an exhilarating experience, so I decided to head to VIFF again. But this time, I will have no break in between both festivals. In fact, even before CIFF is over, I will be in Vancouver. That means 14 straight days of film festival viewings!

Since this will be my longest stretch of film festival viewings, I am unsure what shape I will be in after it is all over. Plenty of enticing titles on hand for both festivals and I am still unsure about some of my choices. But it should be fun....

Monday, September 17, 2007

Brazilian Cinema

Spotlight on Brazilian Cinema, overview

The mention of Brazil often brings sighs and expressions of pleasure. Prior to 2002, the images associated with Brazil circled around soccer, samba, beaches (especially Copacabana), sex, carnivale, Sugar Loaf mountain & the Jesus statue. Then 2002 brought City of God and thoughts of crime, poverty and favelas were added to common place Brazilian images. But there is so much more to Brazil than all these images. So my goal in shedding a spotlight on Brazilian cinema was to move beyond the cliches and examine films which did justice to Brazil's rich locales and fascinating history.

The Beginning:

When does Brazil's official history start? Well as in the case with many 'discovered' countries history begins when the newly arrived colonials first touch shore. The fact that people lived on a country for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived means nothing. The clock only starts when the European scribes first start describing the land.

And once the land is found, it has to be inhabited and for that workers are needed. This is where slavery comes in. Brazil's fate was forever changed by the dual events of slavery and Portuguese colonizers. Carlos Diegues' film Quilombo looks at the friction that resulted from these events and how the locals, slaves and Europeans clashed for power.

Freedom, Immigration and a new era:

Each Brazilian region developed differently depending on its location and the inhabitants that lived there. Sergio Bianchi's Chronically Unfeasible does a good job in showcasing the various regions of Brazil and the frictions that exist between residents of the North East, Southern and Northern parts of the country. But besides Europeans immigrating to Brazil, there was plenty of internal migration.

Urban Movements:

One moves to the city in hope of a better life. But as it turns often out, the city is not ready to accept everyone with open arms. Some are forced into prostitution like the main character in Deserto Feliz and some are forced into crime to make a living like in Hector Babenco's powerful film Pixote.

The need for a better life:

But even if one finds work, housing may not be easy to find. This is where favelas help to fill the housing gap. However, not everyone is willing to live without an address. Some are willing to fight for their right to a better life. The engaging documentary House warming party shows the tactics some Sao Paulo residents are forced to undertake for their housing needs.

And in some cases, it is love that forces one to seek a better life. In Cafuné a boy from a favela falls in love with a middle class girl. But in order to better provide for his new love and child, the boy has to leave his neighbourhood behind. In The Man Who Copied André's (Lázaro Ramos) love for Sílvia forces him to use his honest day job into a get-rich fast scheme to better provide for her.

Samba, Love, Carnivale:

A little music goes a long way to cheer a wearied soul up. And if the music is accompanied by the soothing voice of Noel Rosa, then all the problems just drift away. The Samba Poet portrays the life of Rosa, a famous musician whose life was cruelly cut short by illness.

A little dancing coupled with music does wonders for the human spirit. Marcel Camus's vibrant Black Orpheus captures all the magic of Carnivale while also showing a different take on the tragic Orfeu love story.

Lust, Desire & Sex:

Desire can be a very dangerous thing, especially if it is two friends who desire the same woman. Sérgio Machado's Lower City serves up steamy sex while also showing raw emotions that result when three people are trapped in a lustful triangle.

Baixio das Bestas is hot, humid, raw and dangerous. On the surface not much happens in the small Brazilian town. But underneath the surface, the men's desire result in plenty of damage.

Heitor Dhalia's wicked dark comedy Drained introduces us to Lourenco, a man whose desires and obsessions are certainly off the wall. Sure his desire for a woman is common but it is his thirst for other people's antiques and the stories associated with the objects that give this movie a very unique flavour (or smell -- a reference which is apparent only after seeing the movie).

A time for rest and reflection:

When all is said and done, everyone needs to rest, even God. In Carlos Diegues' film Deus É Brasileiro God wants to go on a vacation because he is tired of man's problems.

The picturesque documentary Acidente shows us snatches of everyday Brazilian life in small towns. The film's relaxed pacing combined with the poetic Brazilian town names makes for a soothing travelogue of everyday life in Brazil.

But what about futbol?:

As it turns out I could not find a candidate for a film that highlighted Brazilian soccer. Only The Man who Copied had a tiny soccer related segment in a sequence where André dreams of scoring a winning goal to become the local hero. But no matter. I found the perfect substitute in Ruy Castro's engaging book Garrincha. Besides recounting the life of a footballing genius who was probably a better player than Pele, this fascinating book gives an insight into the struggles of native Brazilian life with the new colonial masters and the harsh life of the sugar plantations. After reading such a book, any film about Brazil seems to pale in comparison!!

Conclusion: This was a truly enjoyable experience. I was able to find films (and a book) which managed to satisfy all the themes I wanted to explore regarding Brazil. And now the search for more Brazilian cinematic works can start again.....

Notes:

To start off, I only had 8 films in my spotlight but as summer went along, I was able to add a few more films. In the end, I managed to watch 15 films in total (13 features and 2 docs).

Features: Quilombo, Madame Satã, God is Brazilian, Drained, Baixio das Bestas, The Samba Poet, Lower City, Pixote, Chronically Unfeasible, Black Orpheus, The Man Who Copied, Deserto Feliz, Cafuné.

Docs: Acidente, House-warming party

More detailed notes can be found in the 4 parts of the spotlight:
part I, part II, part III, part IV

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Brazilian Cinema

Spotlight on Brazilian Cinema, part four

Here are the final two films on the Brazilian spotlight:

Quilombo (1984, Director Carlos Diegues): Rating 7.5/10

Diegues' study of slavery in 17th century Brazil would qualify as a cinematic equivalent of literature's "magic realism" -- we get a heavy dose of harsh reality sprinkled with magical elements in the story's retelling. The title refers to the free slave settlements that existed in Brazil, especially Palmares (just outside Recife). These settlements were free to govern themselves but were often the target of other settlements or colonizers who wanted to enslave the people. And there is no better person than Carlos Diegues to shed a light on this slice of Brazilian history. One of the original members of Brazil's Cinema Novo movement, Diegues is not shy to depict the shrewd and hostile political tussles that existed with these quilombo's.

Herzog & Diegues: Werner Herzog's brilliant Cobra Verde may be set in Africa but it starts out in the sugar plantations of Brazil. And there is where Herzog's depictions of Brazilian slavery shares similar scenarios with the opening moments of Quilombo. But the powerful leader of the quilombo, Ganga Zumba, would be no match for the eccentric Francisco Manoel da Silva (Klaus Kinski) in Herzog's film. But then again, which cinematic character can match anything portrayed by Kinski?

Madame Satã (2002, Director Karim Ainouz): Rating 7/10


There is only reality in this Brazilian film which looks at the life of João Francisco dos Santos (or better known as Madame Satã), a transvestite performer who was not afraid to stand up for his rights. The real strength of the film is Lázaro Ramos' fearless & intense performance in bringing to life the dual role of João & Madame Satã. The cinematography is good but that is not a surprize when Walter Carvalho is behind the lens.

The multiple talents of Lázaro Ramos

It is a real treat to watch Lázaro in a film. In just a three year spell, he has played a diverse set of roles where he can equally lust after a woman or a man, can play an honest employee or a seasoned criminal. In Lower City, his eyes easily depicted the intensity of his desire for Alice Braga's character whereas in Madame Satã he plays a character not afraid to tempt men into the bedroom with equal intensity. He can be the innocent everyday man like in The Man Who Copied or can be a criminal within the fiery prison of Carandiru.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Bangkok, Tehran & France

I finally caught up with three films I missed at film festivals over the last 2 years. In 2005, I opted to not see the late show of Citizen Dog at the London International Film Festival after I was saturated with a packed day of films on the festival's final day. And in 2006, I skipped Offside and The Page Turner for lesser known films confident that these two films would eventually find distribution in North America. So the wait is finally over...

Citizen Dog
(Thailand, 2004, Director Wisit Sasanatieng)

: Rating 8/10

Thai director Wisit follows up his colorful 2000 film Tears of the Black Tiger with another inventive color saturated adventure. The core of Citizen Dog is a tender love story between two simple minded people (Pod & Jin). But around these two unique characters are several eccentric characters with Yod (Pod's finger buddy), Kong (the dead motorcyclist) & Muan (self declared Chinese princess) to name a few. There are plenty of surrealist images in the film along with over the top hilarious scenarios -- gut busting ghosts, a grandmother reincarnated as a gecko, a smoking alcoholic teddy bear, an 8 year old obsessed with shoot em up arcade games, a comic book soap opera couple that comes to life and a mysterious Italian white book.

For the first hour, the film turns up one surprize after the other. But after 60 minutes or so, the movie falls flat and all the cuteness just seems like a drag. Still, the breath-taking visuals make it a worthy trip. The calm soothing narration of Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (Last Life in the Universe and the recent Ploy) gave the movie an earthly fable like feel. The musical numbers are funny at first but are tiring near the end. In cinematic terms, the closest comparison to Jin's character is probably Amélie as both females are quirky and unique in their own way.

Offside
(Iran, 2006, Director Jafar Panahi)

: Rating 7.5/10

Jafar Panahi makes interesting films that look deep beneath the surface of Iranian society. His last movie, Crimson Gold, was a perfect film that highlighted class differences in Tehran by focusing on the story of two pizza delivery men. In Offside, he tries to look at female soccer fans who are not allowed to watch games in the stadium along with the men. The interesting story idea asks plenty of questions about women's status in a male dominated society but the film is not as strong as his previous efforts. A lot of the scenes feel contrived and forced, missing the natural smoothness from Panahi's previous works.

Still there are plenty of magical moments in the film -- the nervous expression on one of the girl's face as she tries to sneak into the stadium, the passion with which the guard narrates a running commentary for the girls who are held in custody & the moment when we finally see the beautiful green soccer field is mesmerizing. The best part of the film is the last 15-20 minutes where the camera highlights the emotions and expressions of fans who are delighted at Iran's qualification for the 200 World Cup -- there is very little dialogue and we can see unscripted human emotion on display.

The Page Turner (France, 2006, Denis Dercourt): Rating 9/10

It is stressful for a young child to perform in front of 5 judges but the task becomes more difficult when one of the judges does not give the performance their full attention. This is what happens to young Mélanie when Ariane, a judge & respected pianist, signs a fan's autograph in the middle of Mélanie's audition. Prior to the interruption, Mélanie was hitting all the right notes but she goes completely off key after Ariane's distraction.

Years later, a grown up Mélanie conspires to take revenge against Ariane. The film's title refers to the role that Mélanie occupies in her revenge but the full extent of her plans are truly chilling. Her precise expressions give an idea as to what Mélanie is thinking as she sizes up every situation to fit within the framework of her overall scheme. Both Déborah François & Julie Richalet (junior Mélanie) give pitch perfect performances in their portrayal of the quiet yet calculative Mélanie.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Paris and Philippines


2 Days in Paris (2007, written and directed by Julie Delpy): Rating 8.5/10

A breezy enjoyable film modeled along the same lines of Richard Linklater's Before Sunset. Delpy's character, Marion, is relatively similar to the role of Celine in both Before Sunset and Before Sunrise -- both Marion and Celine are independent and not afraid to speak their mind. In fact, both characters do plenty of talking which ensures that the male counterpart does not get a word in. One pleasant difference is that the film shows Marion's family and that adds plenty of humorous scenarios. Adam Goldberg is perfectly cast for this film as he brings enough sarcasm and wit to his character (Jack) to balance Marion's quick tongue. Even though Jack shares some of the same political beliefs as Ethan Hawke's character from the two Linklater films, he is more equipped to handle Delpy's character. The two Linklater films focused on the sweet dreamy romantic side of the couple whereas 2 Days in Paris deals with some of the more complicated relationship issues. Now, even though we never truly find out about Celine's past in either Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, there is nothing to deny that her past could be what is portrayed by Marion in 2 Days in Paris.

Overall, a pleasant and smart film!!

Cavite (2005, written and directed by Neill Dela Llana, Ian Gamazon): Rating 8/10

Hot, humid, shaky digital camera following a running character, fade to black. Explosion. Terrorism.

An interesting look at kidnappings, political struggles and terrorism in the backstreets of Philippines. The guerilla style of film-making works in this case as it enables to give a closer look at the chaotic situation that the main character (Adam) finds himself in -- his family is kidnapped and he is forced to commit terrorist acts in order to save them. The film also shows how terrorism can thrive in areas stricken by poverty and plagued by shaky political situations.

Notes: the opening 15 minutes reminded me of John Terros' Todo todo teros, Saw and Phone Booth. As the main character (Adam) is wandering around the streets of Philippines, the scenes from Jeffrey Jeturian's The Bet Collector came to mind.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Cocteau + Melville = ......

Les Enfants Terribles (1950, Director Jean-Pierre Melville, Novel by Jean Cocteau)

Normally only a director's name is above a film. But when the writer is Jean Cocteau, then that can't be ignored. So if one puts the two talented names on a DVD cover, can one assume a masterpiece? Yes that can be expected if the two filmmakers were on top of their game. But as it turns out, this film was made in 1950 almost two decades before Jean-Pierre Melville developed his impressive style with Le Samouraï (1967) & L'Armée des ombres (1969). So the only style that exists in the film is that of Cocteau from his Orphée trilogy. But Cocteau didn't complete his 1950 masterpiece until Les Enfants Terribles came out, so safe to say this film was a testing ground for what lay ahead with Orphée.

Both Orphée & Les Enfants Terribles share the following elements -- Cocteau's hypnotic voice over narration, lead actor Edouard Dermithe, a sleep walking scene and identical lighting over Dermithe's head in his sleepy sequences. Cocteau's voice and the sleep-walking scenes provide a poetic and dreamy aspect to Les Enfants Terribles. Unfortunately, the story about a sister's incestuous feeling towards her brother is not that engaging, even though a hint of unrequited love from Orphée is added near the film's end.

Rating 7/10

A Cronenberg double

"The television screen has become a retina of the mind's eye"
-- Professor Brian O'Blivion, Videodrome

I have to thank Michael Guillen from The Evening Class for inciting me to visit some of David Cronenberg's older films. Michael's review of Eastern Promises talked about the importance of skin in Cronenberg's films. Expanding on his words, I realized the human body takes center stage in all of Cronenberg's works. Ofcourse, horror films are driven by fear of the mind which eventually results in the physical body getting harmed. But Cronenberg has never made traditional horror films. His films have always scratched beneath the surface and in most cases, shattered the surface.

The human body:

--Videodrome (1983): Evolution of the human body.
--The Fly (1986): Physical transformation of the body.
--Dead Ringers (1988): Two bodies sharing one emotional spirit.
--M. Butterfly (1993): Hidden secrets of the human flesh.
--Crash (1996): Torture of the body for pleasure.
--eXistenZ (1999): Virtual mind games.

After eXistenZ Cronenberg started examining deep within the human psyche.

Spider (2002) was about a fragmented mind. A History of Violence examined the darkness that exists within the human soul. But the two sex scenes in A History of Violence examined the physical body -- the first is a tender scene where the body is acceptable to love whereas the second scene is of a violent animal instinct which renders the female body (Maria Bello's character) lifeless.

While I await Eastern Promises, here are two earlier films:

Videodrome: Rating 8.5/10

"Long live the new flesh".
I often wondered what attracted Cronenberg to direct Crash. As it turns out, the answer is apparent during the first 30 minutes of Videodrome. Max's (James Woods) girlfriend (Nikki) finds pleasure in the body's torture -- she wants Max to mutilate her. Even though Nikki's requests involved a needle, it is easy to see how that idea can be extrapolated to car crashes.

Nikki's ideas are fueled by the images that Renn has seen on tv regarding a show (Videodrome) which tortures people. But videodrome is not just another television show. This is where Renn's reality starts to dissolve and his hallucinations start to open up to a new world. While there are problems with how the story meshes reality and hallucinations together, the film was a few decades ahead of its time. It is refreshing to watch this story in 2007 and see how accurately the movie predicated some of the elements regarding reality tv shows, psychic driving and mind control. And the film also lays the path for Cronenberg's 1999 film, eXistenZ, a film which questioned traditional reality.

Dead Ringers: Rating 9.5/10

A chilling and engaging film about twin brothers who are emotionally bound together. Jeremy Irons plays Beverly & Elliot Mantle, two brilliant brothers who have revolutionized the field of gynecology. The two have completely separate personalities with Elliot being a womanizer and Beverly being an introvert. Beverly is the genius while Elliot takes all the credit. But despite their differences, the two can't live without each other.

Jeremy Irons has given such an amazing performance in this film! Very early on, you can tell the twins apart because Irons' perfect expressions enable us to identify which twin is Beverly and which is Elliot. And even if one brother is pretending to be the other in the film, we can easily pick it out because of Irons's. A lot of work has gone into the technical details of the movie to ensure the editing is smooth regarding all the scenes with the twins.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Jacques Becker Spotlight

It is always a delightful experience to discover a masterpiece from an unknown director. Even though I have read many a book or an article on the French New Wave Cinema, I had never heard of Jacques Becker or his film Le Trou. All I knew from the DVD cover was that the film is about a prison break and I decided to try my luck. As it turns out, that is all one needs to know about the film because Becker gives us plenty of information as the film moves along.

Le Trou (1960): Rating 10/10

The film is about a prison break involving 5 prisoners. Initially, there are only 4 prisoners in the cell. Their plans are temporarily put on hold when a 5th person, Claude Gaspar is transferred to their cell. Only when Claude is taken into confidence do the escape plans start again.


It would be criminal to give away any details about the film as the sheer joy is in watching things unfold. The process of discovering the minor details is so throughly developed that the audience is made to feel like the sixth person inside the prison cell. What makes Le Trou an engaging experience is how the camera only focuses on the relevant details and how Becker uses long takes to show certain sequences.

For example, the following two pictures are about how the prison guards open and examine all the packages that the prisoner gets. In these two pictures, the guard breaks open the sausage
and cuts the cheese block into tiny pieces.

His hands move in a cold precise manner. The camera only focuses on his hands as he goes about his business and at no point does the camera bother to show us the expressions of the guard or even the prisoner because we know how each would feel about this -- the guard has to do his job while the prisoner has no choice.

All the important details about the prison escape are filmed in long un-interrupted takes. This way, we can get a feel about how much work is really put into what the prisoners are doing. Even when the edits are made, they are made at appropriate points so as to give a smooth progression of time. And there are plenty of important little details in how everyday objects are made tools in assisting the escape.

For example, a tiny piece of glass is attached to a tooth brush to make a tiny periscope which can be used to stick out of the prison peep-hole to see if the guard is coming or not.

In order to tell the passage of time, the prisoners put together a sand clock which they create by using everyday objects found in the prison.

Just like Robert Bresson's 1959 masterpiece Pickpocket calmly showed us the process involved in lifting people's pockets, Le Trou spends time in meticulously showing how these 5 characters attempted their master-plan. And like in Bresson's film, the camera in Le Trou spends enough time on each character that we can quickly gather each prisoner's personality.

Mobsters:

While Le Trou showed us criminals serving time, both Casque d'or and Touchez pas au grisbi spend time in the world of mobsters. Some of these mobsters have spent time in prison and maybe even stayed in cells across from the criminals shown in Le Trou. Before the long arm of the law catches up with the criminals in these two films, the well dressed thugs go about extracting revenge in their own ways.

Casque d'or (1952): Rating 8/10

A bunch of gangsters are parading around with their women. One of the gangsters, Raymond, recognizes an old friend (Georges Manda) and invites him over to their table. Georges eyes Marie and the two of them go for a dance. But Marie is Roland's girlfriend and he is not amused. Roland has a brief tussle with Georges before Georges heads his way. But Georges can't just walk away. He has feelings for Marie and tries to win her. Things are not that simple because Marie's lover (Roland) works for Félix Leca, the local mobster. While Luca also has feelings for Marie, he decides that if Georges can defeat Roland in a knife fight, he can walk away freely with Marie.

This crucial fight sequence is filmed in a raw & engaging manner. The two men square off...

Luca is ready to toss the knife

The knife flies threw the air...

A gritty fight that ends quickly with Georges dispatching Roland.

But Luca is not a man of his word and never gives up his desire for Marie. The film's final sequence shows how Georges values loyalty and friendship over love. Casque d'or starts off slowly but is most interesting after the knife fight.

Touchez pas au grisbi (1954): Rating 9/10

The film features a topic which has been portrayed by Hollywood countless times since 1954 -- a mobster wants to pull off one last job and then retire. Max (Jean Gabin) is such a person and at the film's start, he has already pulled off a major job with his close friend, Riton.

Only Max and Riton keep the knowledge about the robbery to themselves. However, secrets about wealth can't be hidden for long and shortly afterwards both Max and his friend are targets.

Max catches a person tailing him and takes him to a friend's house for interrogation. This beautifully filmed scene is reminiscent of Melville's Army of Shadows but Melville didn't make his masterpiece until 1969.



The topic of loyalty and friendship once again takes center stage in this film as both these aspects serve as the powerful currency among mobsters. Max only works with those people he has had a long working relationship with. Even though he knows Riton has a weakness for women and can't keep his mouth shut, he continues to confide in him because of his long friendship.

New Discovery: A week ago I had never heard of Jacques Becker. And after seeing three films with one being a master-piece, I can't help ask, why is his name not taken in the same wavelength as other French masters such as Bresson and Melville. One can clearly see an inspiration of Becker in Melville's work.