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Monday, October 29, 2007

October Film Wrap-up

October was supposed to be a relaxed month in terms of film viewing after all the film festival movies that I saw between Sept 20-Oct 4. But as it turned out, the third week of October ended up being pretty crazy in terms of film viewings -- 15 movies in 5 days with 7 movies watched in one day. I certainly had no intentions of putting myself through this ordeal but things ended up that way. While I talked about some of those 15 movies in previous posts, the following six were left out.

  • The Son (2002, Belgium/France, Directors Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne): Rating 9.5/10
  • Fists in the Pocket (1965, Italy, Director Marco Bellocchio): Rating 8.5/10
  • Japón (2002, Mexico/Germany/Netherlands/Spain, Director Carlos Reygadas): Rating 8/10
  • Chocolat (1988, France/West Germany/Cameroon, Director Claire Denis): Rating 8/10
  • Transylvania (2006, France, Director Tony Gatlif): Rating 7.5/10
  • Electra, My Love (1970, Hungary, Director Miklós Jancsó)

    Revenge and pain: There is something so simple but brilliant about the Dardenne brothers films. The verite style allows one to focus on only the relevant details and shut everything else out. The Son is another highly infectious movie to watch, although the topic of revenge is handled quite differently from other films.

    Family problems: Fists in the Pocket is Marco Bellocchio's dark and un-relentless film which looks at the complicated relationships within a religious Italian family. It is not a surprize that this film caused such a sensation in Italy back in 1965 because the movie shows absolute cruelty and no remorse in how a man plots to kill his family. But the movie is not just about murder but includes topics of incest and religious defiance. And to think this was Bellocchio's debut feature!

    A Journey:

    Carlos Reygadas's Japón is a simple tale of a man's journey across the Mexican landscape. The man is tired of the city life and just wants to escape the noise and chaos. But he finds that he still can't shut off his desires despite being away from civilization. The best thing about this movie is the imaginative camera angles, especially during the final sequence when the camera slowly turns around 360 degrees and allows us to fully soak in every surrounding detail.

    I have a huge admiration for Tony Gatlif and his depiction of journey tales spiced with gypsy music. Both Exils (2004) and Gadjo dilo (1997) were such movies and as it turns out even Transylvania contains such elements. In fact, both Transylvania and Gadjo dilo have a lot in common. In Gadjo dilo, Stéphane (Romain Duris) heads to Romania to track a gypsy singer he once heard on a cassette. In Transylvania, a pregnant woman (Zingarina played by Asia Argento) heads to Romania as well to find a gypsy singer who is the father of her child. In both films, the main characters find themselves enchanted with the Romanian way of life and find happiness only when they give themselves up fully to a different culture.

    Exile in Africa: I do believe that some movies lose their luster when viewed in a different decade than when they were made. Claire Denis's Chocolat is a decent movie but watching it in 2007 hardly has any impact as opposed to maybe watching it back in 1988. The movie is set in Cameroon on the eve of World War II and shows the daily relations and tensions between the French and the local Africans. The movie handles some issues in a very careful and subtle manner, especially regarding the inter-racial sexual tension and the brewing revolution. There are plenty of beautiful camera movements but over the years plenty of movies have depicted Africa in a better manner.

    A staged greek play: I was really eager to watch Miklós Jancsó's Electra, My Love. But unfortunately, I didn't enjoy this Greek tragedy too much. Even though the sets are impressive and certain aspects of how the camera freely flows from one set of characters to another are interesting, I was not a fan of this effort.
  • Sunday, October 28, 2007

    Alejandro Jodorowsky

    Surrealist images of Alejandro Jodorowsky

    In the giant cinematic world, it is easy to miss works by a certain director if one starts their film viewing at a later stage. If one started their film viewing from the 60's through to the 70's, then chances are they could have caught onto the new cinematic trends that were emerging then. But if someone (like myself) started their journey in the 90's, then one is always playing catch-up. Because in that case one has to not only keep pace with the existing cinema around the world but has to dip back into the past to see how the current cinema evolved. So it is not a surprize that I had completely missed the works of Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Chilean film-maker credited with kick-starting midnight cinema with his 1970 work, El Topo. I have viewed plenty of mid-night screenings over the last few years but I had remarkably never heard of Jodorowsky until recently, when his works were re-issued on DVD.

    I decided to start my film journey before El Topo hoping to ease into Jodorowsky's style but as it turns out, my first choice of his 1968 film Fando and Lis was not an easy introduction. The opening images of Fando and Lis point to the surrealist film that awaits.

    A woman singing in a junk yard. A piano literally on fire.


    But these images are quite normal compared to what else unfolds in the film. The story centers around the two lead characters and their travels across a desolate and shattered land to search for the magical city of Tar. Lis is confined to a wheelchair, so Fando decides to carry her as they navigate the tricky mountainous paths to find the city which will cure all their problems. The two come across plenty of strange characters and situations but the characters around Fando and Lis are not all real. Flash backs of Fando's childhood are shown and they indicate that his nightmares are instead playing out in front of his eyes, as opposed to any real physical threat. Still, the surreal images continue as Fando tries to quieten his inner demons and desires, even by torturing the helpless Lis. Jodorowsky is not afraid to go all out with his nightmarish imagery and does not soften the plight of the two characters at all.

    Desert: Bandits and Rogues:

    The mountains in Fando and Lis give way to the beautiful deserts of Mexico in El Topo, a Western outlaw film not afraid to depict blood and the evil nature of men. The title character refers to a bandit who rides the desert with his 7 year old son, dispatching outlaws and bringing justice to the people.


    On one such journey, El Topo rescues a few priests and finds a new lover. He leaves his son with the priests while he goes out to destroy all the 4 supreme masters in the desert to gain ultimate power. But El Topo does not play fair and defeats the masters with deceit.

    So it is not a surprize to find that El Topo gets double-crossed and left for dead.

    At this point, one can say the film's second act starts with a newer and wiser El Topo emerging. He has been looked after by the cave people, men and women who hide beneath the earth living far from the corrupt and dangerous city above ground. But El Topo wants to return the people back to civilization. However, his new found values of peace come under severe challenge in a land where crime and corruption reign.

    The film is not just a spaghetti western but is packed with religions undertones -- messages of Buddhism and Christianity are both mixed in varying degrees througout the film. And there are plenty of gory or offensive scenes in the film which allude to the film's popularity as a cult viewing. There are plenty of fascinating images scattered througout the film such as the surroundings of the 4 masters. The images of dead sheep lying as El Topo takes on the master is just one example.



    Ratings:
    Fando and Lis (1968): 6.5/10
    El Topo (1970): 7.5/10

    Saturday, October 20, 2007

    Spotlight on Turkey



    pics from Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul

    Turkey has always fascinated me ever since I first learned of the nation via history books -- Constantinople was always an interesting city given its geographical location as being a link city between Europe and Asia. And it is nice to see that present day Istanbul still occupies a measure of that charm. But Turkey is more than just Istanbul. Even though looking at Turkish soccer and cinema, one can be forgiven for not looking beyond Istanbul as the league soccer is dominated by the three teams from Turkey's largest city (Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe & Beşiktaş) and most movies shot in Turkey feature the required shots of the gorgeous Bosphorus river and the impressive Hagi Sophia. I can't any remember any features shot exclusively in Turkey's capital, Ankara.

    In political terms, Istanbul may be responsible for all future decisions but it is events in the country-side and other Turkish cities that may force a change. Orhan Pamuk's engaging book, Snow, may be a work of fiction but recent political events have mimicked the novel's tale and show that what happens outside of Istanbul can't be discounted if Turkey is to move ahead.

    In that regards, my idea to feature a spotlight on Turkey was to find topics/themes that looked at life both inside and outside of Istanbul.

    Migrations:

    One moves to a big city in the hopes of a better future. As it happens often, such a change is difficult to navigate -- the big city is not very welcoming and offers very little in terms of housing and jobs. A person can struggle to find their feet.

    Such is the case of Yusuf in Nuri Bilge Ceylan's poetic 2002 film Distant. He comes to Istanbul in search of a job and stays with his cousin, Mahmut. But Yusuf struggles to find a job, although he is not very enthusiastic about trying to find work anyhow. The movie touches upon the topic of loneliness as that is what a big city can induce in a person.



    Both Mahmut and Yusuf can't communicate their feelings. In fact, Mahmut goes to great lengths to hide his real interests and alienate Yusuf. There are some amazingly realistic scenes where Mahmut wants Yusuf to leave the room so that he can watch tv in peace.

    And this gorgeous film features the only cinematic shots I have seen of Istanbul covered in snow.


    ---------------------------
    In Yesim Ustaoglu's 1999 feature Journey to the Sun Mehmet also heads to the city in order to find work.



    But over there, he is mistaken as a terrorist and put in jail. When he is released from jail, he finds himself a marked man and can't resume his normal life. He returns home to find a giant "X" on the door. His room-mates urge him to leave as they don't want to stay with such a person.


    Even when Mehmet heads to a motel with his girlfriend, the symbol follows him.


    ***Spoiler notes:*** Tired of the big city, Mehmet heads out to the country-side to his only real friend's (Berzan) house. But Berzan is a kurd and political events lead to his death. In order to fulfill Berzan's last wishes, Mehmet takes Berzan's body back to his home village of Zorduc. But Mehmet is shocked to find the village flooded (aside: these images of a flooded village reminded me of Jia Zhang Ke's Still Life).



    The political mark:

    The topic of the Kurdish issue make this a relevant movie given current events in Turkey. The movie shows how Kurds are treated as second class citizens and have to live a marked life. One of the film's most striking sequence is when Mehmet is getting closer to the Kurdish region of Turkey. He comes across villages in ruins but his eyes can't miss the red "X" sign on the shattered walls. So it does not matter if it is a village or a city, the sign of the outsider can't let a person live in peace.



    Hamams:

    Hamams form a well known Turkish symbol and a thing to do during a visit. Ferzan Ozpetek's 1997 feature Hamam centers around the charm and exotic pull that a traditional Hamam holds for Francesco, an Italian man of Turkish origin. Francesco only returns back to Istanbul to sell his dead aunt's assets and properties, one of which was a shut down Hamam. But Francesco finds love & peace amid the Hamam and the Turkish air starts to breathe new life into him.

    Music:

    Music plays an important part of any culture's identity. Turkey has always had a rich musical background thanks to its location between Asia and Europe. Fatih Akin's well made documentary Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul shows the modern sounds that echo throughout Istanbul from classical music to Turkish rap, hip-hop and fusion music. Even though the music in Istanbul is a central focus, the documentary reaches out to give a glimpse of the music that resonates throughout the nation. And the film also gives an insight into how the struggles that Kurdish culture had in trying to keep their music alive.

    Everyday life:

    Reha Erdem's calm and peaceful film Times and Winds showcases the everyday life in a small Turkish village. Life in the village is shown through the passage of the changing seasons and through the different time shifts in a day such as morning, afternoon and evening.

    Old traditions:

    As Turkey moves towards modernity, conflict will arise because of old traditions. Abdullah Oguz's emotional film Bliss showcases the struggle a military man has to go through to acknowledge his love for a village woman against tradition and his father's wishes. The movie also features the memorable lines "Every Turk is born a soldier" and shows the military side of Turkish life.

    A magical romantic tale:

    One can find the seeds of Edge of Heaven in Fatih Akin's 2000 film In July. Like Edge of Heaven, In July starts in Germany and ends in Turkey and features overlapping romantic tales. While Edge of Heaven had a serious tone to the film, In July is a magical romantic story. All the coincidences in the script can be forgiven if one buys into the film's portrayal of emotional victory of love winning over any rational explanations. The story feels a bit like Paulo Coelho's amazing journey tale The Alchemist. In July also features the romantic appeal that Turkey has to outsiders.

    Overall ratings:

  • Distant (2002, Nuri Bilge Ceylan): Rating 9.5/10
  • Bliss (2007, Greece/Turkey, Abdullah Oguz): Rating 9.5/10
  • Times and Winds (2006, Reha Erdem): Rating 9/10
  • Journey to the Sun (1999, Yesim Ustaoglu): Rating 8.5/10
  • Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul (2005, Fatih Akin): Rating 8.5/10
  • In July (2000, Fatih Akin): Rating 8/10
  • Hamam (1997, Ferzan Ozpetek): Rating 7.5/10
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  • Thursday, October 18, 2007

    Bugs, Fast Cars & Mysterious Objects

    Bug (2006, Director William Friedkin): Rating 9/10

    Bug is a fascinating character study into a fragmented mind. Even though this is a topic that has been covered many times before, Bug takes a different approach. Other films about a fragmented mind such as Spider, Maine Gandhi ko Nahin Mara (I didn't kill Gandhi) or Woh Lamhe (Those Moments) looked at how an individual self destructed and collapsed. But Bug looks at how a fractured mind can influence other people -- as bugs can multiple and spread diseases, so can a person's poisonous ideas.

    The movie is based on a stage play and that is evident by the tight quarters and the dialogue. In terms of acting, Ashley Judd has put in a riveting performance. We see her character, Agnes, go through a complete range of emotions. At the film's start Agnes is already on edge and a bit vulnerable. But as the film progresses, her character truly implodes.

    Even though this is not an easy movie to watch nor is it happy, it makes for an engaging viewing. Credit for that must go to Friedkin, who has ensured that the camera only moves to what we need to see. While the majority of the movie is inside a motel room, there are moments when the camera hovers beautifully over the motel giving a sense of the isolation that Agnes and Peter (Michael Shannon in a very good performance) find themselves in.
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    Grand Prix (1966, Director John Frankenheimer): Rating 9/10

    The true test of a great film is if it lasts the passage of time. In that regards, Grand Prix, a movie about the dangerous and complicated world of Formula-One racing, is still fresh and relevant almost four decades later. In fact, almost all of the scenarios regarding the racing sequences have occurred in one form or the other over the last year or so in the current Formula-One season.

    I am not a full fledged Formula-One or car racing fan but I do admire the diverse personalities of the racers that exist. Since it is such a dangerous sport, a specific kind of characteristic is required to race these cars. In fact, just by looking at a particular car being driven, one can tell who the driver is based on their off the track manners.

    Grand Prix gives us 4 very different characters as the rival racers:

    -- We get the tough, no-nonsense Pete Aron (James Garner), a former American World Champion with plenty of racing experience.
    -- Then we have the British driver, Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford), who is driving to erase the ghost of his dead brother who was killed during a Grand Prix race.
    -- The French driver, Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand), is the ultimate realist (or even existentialist), a driver who questions the meaning of driving and even life itself.
    -- Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato), the Italian, loves to drive fast cars and changes lovers frequently; he believes he is "immortal" and nothing can touch him.

    Besides these interesting characters, the film also gives us a look at the different women in these men's lives. The entire relationship aspect gives this movie plenty of depth and makes it more than just a racing movie. Also of note is the calm and intelligent role for Toshirô Mifune (Seven Samurai to name just one of the many classic films) as the car owner who gives a second chance to Pete Aron.

    The biggest strength of this movie are the breath-taking racing scenes. It is hard to believe how the film-makers managed to pull this off back in 1966. Using multiple cameras was not a common thing back then but they used almost 12 cameras at one point. We get helicopter shots, side road shots and footage from cameras mounted on cars. What is amazing is that the film crew managed to get real Formula-One and Formula-three cars with actual recorded sounds of F-1 gear changes and raced on the Grand Prix tracks for the film shoots. Such a thing would not be possible nowadays with restrictions from the different car companies. In the DVD interviews, James Garner mentioned that they were able to race their cars on the Monaco Grand Prix 15 minutes before the actual Formula-One race.

    The Races -- Monaco & Monza:




    The deadly oval track at Monza:




    The women: Forced to go through agony at every race.



    Post-race: The crowds are gone and the hero walks alone.


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    Mysterious Object at Noon (2000, Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul): Rating 8/10

    Even though this is only the second Weerasethakul film I have seen, I can't help admire his easy flowing style. Tropical Malady (2004) was such a hauntingly beautiful film with one of the best cinematic moments I have seen in recent years (the shot of the tiger, staring, no glaring at us, the audience, was both scary and yet majestic). In Mysterious Object.. you can see Weerasethakul develop his style. Apichatpong started the film with a loose script but packed it with plenty of improvisations along the way. Weerasethakul held auditions for the movie and cast non-actors. Instead of feeding them lines, he asked the non-actors to narrate a story to the camera for many of the scenes. He then found a way to link these simple stories with mythical and even a sci-fi thread as he traveled deep into the Thai country side, away from the buzzing cities. When a movie is free flowing as this, how do you end it? Simple. You end the movie when the camera breaks down! Weerasethakul mentions in the DVD interview that the final scene is when their old camera finally gave way. And in reality, the camera could not have ended at a better time. The movie was close to hitting a dead wall with nothing more to reveal and just then, the lights go out.

    Monday, October 15, 2007

    The Cinema of Tsai Ming-liang

    Back in the summer, I wrapped up a spotlight on Taiwan with an extended look at Tsai Ming-liang's films. At that point, I was missing two features & one short film from his Lee Kang-sheng collaborations -- The Hole (1998), I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (2006) and his debut short feature Youngsters (1991). I was lucky enough to find his 1998 feature (The Hole) recently.

    Lee Kang-sheng has played the same lead character of Hsiao-kang in all Tsai Ming-liang films I have seen (Goodbye, Dragon Inn was an exception but Lee Kang-sheng only had a small cameo) . So when I started watching the The Hole I believed I was watching the same character Hsiao-kang. But one crucial scene changed my mind. Tien Miao plays Hsiao-kang's father in all movies but when he appears in The Hole, Lee Kang-sheng's character does not recognize him. Tien Miao has only a few minutes screen time before he disappears. In that sense both The Hole & Goodbye, Dragon Inn stand apart from the other Tsai Ming-liang & Lee Kang-sheng films because the same character is not examined.

    The Hole (1998): Rating 8/10

    On the eve of the year 2000, Taiwan is getting pounded by heavy rainfall. Most apartments are suffering from leaky ceilings. A plumber comes to a man's (Lee Kang-sheng who is credited in the movie as just "the man upstairs") apartment to check for leaks. But the plumber makes a big hole in the man's living room.

    One night, the man from upstairs returns home terribly drunk. After he stumbles in his apartment, he throws up over the hole.




    The results of his drunken exploits find their way to the apartment below. Needless to say, the woman living downstairs is not amused. "The woman downstairs" is played by Kuei-Mei Yang, another familiar face found in Tsai Ming-liang films.

    Both the man upstairs and woman downstairs are lonely. Eventually, the two find a common bond with each other. The hole which initially is cause of dispute between the two, ends up being a salvation for both.



    Musical numbers:

    This is the first Tsai Ming-liang film where musical numbers make an appearance. Such musical dances showed up in The Wayward Cloud as well but they got a start here. The numbers provide some humour and respite away from the bleakness of the character's situations. The dance songs are shown from the woman's perspective as her feelings are mirrored in the song lyrics.



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    At VIFF, I caught the Tsai Ming-liang produced & Lee Kang-sheng directed film Help Me Eros. Even though the character (Ah Jie) played by Lee Kang-sheng is different, one can still find some similarities with the one he portrayed in all the other Tsai Ming-liang movies. Loneliness is the one trait that stands out. No matter which movie Lee Kang-sheng is found in, his character is always lonely and constantly looking for a companion. In all the films, his character strives to establish a bond with another person and tries to maintain that relationship.

    In Help Me Eros, his character of Ah Jie finds a connection with someone on the internet. That virtual communication helps him express some of his pent up inner feelings. On the other hand, he is able to satisfy his sexual urges with a trio of women. But despite these two avenues of internet and sex orgies, Ah Jie's loner personality prevails and alienates the women who want to reach out to him.