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Monday, July 28, 2008

Lists...Numbers...Subjective vs Objective, Movies vs Films

I was surprized to learn from the Guardian blogs last week that The Dark Knight was now #1 in the imdb Top 250 film list.

I guess I had stayed hidden away from the world for just a week and whoooshhh a movie that had just opened was now top dog (or bat). I had expected the film to have a record opening weekend, which it did, but I did not count on it reaching the summit in the imdb list. I have no idea why I had that notion because there is no qualitative control on the list criteria as it is governed by user ratings & votes. And since more people are seeing summer Hollywood films and not enough classic films, more of them are going to cast their votes for their personal favourite. So in a way, eventually this imdb list might end up having a direct relationship with box office tally, which currently is driven by quantity of tickets sold and not quality of the film. Although sometimes quality films do rake in a nice ticket quantity.

I do remember one case where someone at imdb regulated the list. At the end of December 2007, Aamir Khan's touching film Taare Zameen Par made the list, coming in mid-way through the 250 titles as the film got a solid rating of over 8 from a few thousand users. But a day later, even though the rating of the film stayed the same, it was no longer in the list. This is when I noticed the words for the list criteria as:
"for the Top 250, only votes from regular voters are considered."

Hmmm. I guess someone figured out that many Bollywood film fans were giving high ratings for a movie that most of North America had not heard of, so that had to be corrected. Since then the film's rating has fallen to the current average of 7.9. Even though I loved Taare Zameen Par (it made my top list for 2007 films), I am not sure if it should be in the list but then again, I have the same feelings for some of the other titles present like American Gangster and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (it was a fun movie though). Thankfully 300 is not on the list but it is not far from making the list as it currently has a user rating of 7.9/10 from 178,634 votes.

Anyway, since I have not seen The Dark Knight yet so I cannot comment. Why have I not seen the movie? Its not that I have against bats. In fact, I adored Batman Begins and own quite a few of the comic books/graphic novels, including Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. However, this summer I have stayed away from all the studio films which means I have equally ignored men of iron, hellish creatures, lonely robots, drunk ego-heroes, bullet bending groups or even alien chasing believers. So ignoring a bat and a joker is being consistent.

ps: In a way, imdb's list might start reflecting a tally of what people are watching more while Metacritic's list will continue to reflect the critical film evaluations. But then again, that list is not perect as it only requires a minimum of 4 reviews to determine a score. Also, not all critics assign a number rating or grade to their review but Metacritic assigns one for them. Although they do give the option for the critic to contact them and correct the rating as per this scoring chart guide:

Now, if you are indeed the critic who wrote the review, and disagree with one of our scores, please let us know and we'll change it.

This does happen from time to time, and many of the critics included on this site (such as Ms. Dargis) do indeed check their reviews (as well as those of their colleagues) on metacritic.com.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

There was a good article in the Sunday NY times about the disappearance of hutongs, or the narrow alley-ways, in Beijing.

In tracing the history of the city, Nicolai Ouroussoff notes:

The current wave of demolitions was under way by the early 1990s as free-market changes gained momentum, and real estate speculators saw potential profit in redevelopment. It accelerated after Beijing’s bid to play host to the Olympics was accepted in 2001 and the city began a substantial slum-clearance program to prepare for foreign visitors.


But I love the following words which ring true not only for Beijing but any urban city around Asia, Africa or even parts of North America (yup, even Canada, which is considered a new country).

The sad truth, as any architectural historian knows, is that poverty is often good for preservation; poor people lack the resources to tear down and rebuild houses every generation. Once an affluent homeowner moves into a faded landmark, the first thing he or she does is bring in an army of restorers — or bulldozers. Preservationists, who tend to have limited economic clout, strike a Faustian bargain: better to save the basic architecture and let others worry about what goes on inside. Breaking the pattern without aggressive government intervention seems almost impossible.

Having never been to China, I am only familiar with these hutongs through memorable films such as Beijing Bicycle or Electric Shadows. The narrow alleys shown were a meeting place for a chance encounter or formed a background for a cycle race -- a young kid racing his bike through the alley only to stumble near the end.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Four Middle-Eastern Weddings

Marriages are a pretty complicated affair. The decision to spend one's life with another person can be quite a soul searching experience. After one crosses that hurdle, in some cultures the families form the next barrier. Although in some cases, the family issues override the relationship between two people. Still these two challenges form the crux of what a majority of wedding related Indian and American films deal with. But two recent Middle Eastern films, The Syrian Bride & Rana's Wedding, show that familial & relationship issues in marriages are much easier compared to physical check points and borders erected by political situations.

Political Boundaries

In The Syrian Bride, the border crossing causes quite a problem. The bride Mona (Clara Khoury), who is from Golan heights, is stuck along with her family in a no-man's land while her husband waits with his family on the other side. The border complications arise due to the ownership of Golan Heights. Israel occupied the area after the 1967 war and considers it part of their nation, while Syria still believes it is theirs. In the film, a few Israeli politicians come up with a new scheme to legalize their occupation. They decide to start stamping an Israeli exit visa for people crossing Golan Heights into Syria and use Mona as a guinea pig by stamping her passport. If the Syrian side accepts the stamped passport, then the practice will become a standard and deemed as official Syrian recognition of Golan Heights as Israeli territory. In order to help with Mona's passport clearance, a U.N observer moves across the border with Mona's passport. But Mona's passport is rejected on the Syrian side because the Syrian guard says that since Golan Heights is part of Syria, no visa is required to move within one country. So the neutral U.N observer tries to get the Israeli side to remove the visa. But since it is already late on Thursday evening, the ministers and politicians in both Israel and Syria have left for home. Finally, after a lot of debate, the U.N observer manages to get the Israeli side to use white-out to cover up the visa. When she goes to the Syrian side, the guard has left and is replaced by another man on shift. But the new guard is bothered by the big white-out mark in the passport and refuses to let Mona through. During this visa tangle, both families are getting stressed and frustrated, because so much hinges on the wedding as the groom is a high profile actor in Syria. While Mona's family are anxious by the waiting, the extra time they have with Mona are precious as well because once Mona crosses the border into Syria, she will never be able to return to see her family as they stay in the Israeli occupied Golan Heights.

Clara Khoury also plays the lead role in Rana's Wedding, a film where Israeli check points in occupied Palestine territory play a troublesome role in her wedding decisions. Rana gets a call from her father who wants her to get married from a chosen list or leave the country with him by 4 pm the same day. However, her father does not know about Rana's boyfriend. So Rana rushes to find her love who is on the other side of various checkpoints and wants him to marry her. But as she is rushing across checkpoints, she is wondering if she truly loves her boyfriend. She only has a few hours to map out her entire life and her task is not made easy because of the various hurdles in reaching her boyfriend. The camera gives us a glimpse of life in the ancient city of Jerusalem and how even the simplistic tasks become complicated under occupation. Rana's Wedding does justice to the beauty of Jerusalem and shows it in all its splendour.

To marry or not to marry

Just like as in Rana's Wedding, the lead character (Tariq played by Nabil Saber) in A New Day in Old Sana’a is unsure whether he should go ahead with his marriage. His indecision arises when early one morning he believes he sees his bride-to-be dancing in the wedding dress he gifted her. But as it turns out, the woman in the dress was someone else. So Tariq is troubled because he prefers to be with a free spirited woman like the one he saw in the wedding dress but he cannot ignore tradition in rejecting his chosen bride. Beautifully shot in the Yemeni city of Sana’a, the film is a light hearted look at love and myths that haunt the ancient city.

Beauty takes a stroll

There are 5 women debating their love and relationships in the sweet and sexy Lebanese co-production Caramel. Four of the women work in a beauty salon and their day is packed with gossip about their relationships and life in Beirut. The women also support each other and share a nice bond which comes in handy for situations when things get difficult. For example, Nisrine (Yasmine Elmasri) has a secret that may derail her wedding. Her fiancee is not aware that she is not a virgin, so she is afraid what will happen when he finds out but luckily her friends come to her aid. The best moments of the film surround the character of Layale played by the film director Nadine Labaki. Layale is having an affair with a married man and she struggles by constantly debating whether her lover will leave his wife or not. On the other hand a young police officer, who goes around the neighbourhood issuing traffic tickets, is smitten with Layale. It is a real treat to watch Layale wander the city or go about her daily routines because her beauty makes her such a charming character to observe.

Ratings out of 10:

  • The Syrian Bride (2004, co-production, Eran Riklis): 9
  • Rana's Wedding (2002, co-production, Hany Abu-Assad): 9
  • Caramel (2007, Lebanon co-production, Nadine Labaki): 8.5
  • A New Day in Old Sana’a (2005, UK/Yemen, Bader Ben Hirsi): 7.5
  • Tuesday, July 15, 2008

    Culture, Politics and Soccer

    When Simon Kuper's excellent book Football against the Enemy hit bookstores more than a decade ago, there wasn't any market for books analyzing a country or a culture from a soccer perspective. But the success of Kuper's book opened the market for books trying to understand the complicated political and social situation of a country via the beautiful game. Here are some of the more well known books in no particular order:

  • Le Foot Edited by Christov Ruhn: This collection of writings looking at French football is quite impressive with the pieces on Zidane (by Mounsi), Anelka and Wenger being personal favourites.

  • Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football by Phil Ball: Ball's beautiful writings on Spanish soccer can be found weekly on Soccernet.com. Morbo is a pleasure to read.

  • Brilliant Orange by David Winner: A hilarious and insightful account into the Dutch psyche and football.

  • Tor! The Story of German Football by Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger

  • Futebol: Soccer the Brazilian Way by Alex Bellos: Bellos does an excellent job of capturing the beauty and chaos that haunts Brazilian football.

  • The Italian Job by Gianluca Vialli, Gabriele Marcotti: A very insightful book that looks at the tactical and cultural differences between English and Italian soccer.

  • Baghdad FC: Iraq's football story by Simon Freeman: Despite the number of books out there on Iraq, this provides an intelligent look at Iraqi life and culture via soccer. And since most of the books on Iraq are looking at things from an American perspective, it is refreshing to see things with a combination of British and Iraqi voice.


  • Goalless : The Story of a Unique Footballing Nation by Boria Majumdar and Kausik Bandyopadhyay. India has the third oldest soccer tournament in the World (The Durand Cup) aside from the English and Scottish F.A Cup dating back to 1888. And in keeping with the other rules of the British occupation, in the initial days of football in India, Indians were not allowed to even kick the ball as the game was only reserved for the British soldiers and elite. But that changed when a young boy, Nagendra Prasad, kicked a ball back to the British soldiers in 1877. He is hailed as the "father of Indian football" and his story appears to have inspired a crucial scene in the film Lagaan when a young boy returns a cricket ball to the British soldiers. Nagendra Prasad's simple act seems to have raised the interest of the game in India but the big breakthrough for Indian football came in 1911 when Mohun Bagan beat a British team and that victory is attributed as being the first spark in the quest for Indian independence. I always wanted to find a book which talked about Indian football and thankfully I got my hands on this book. Even though some parts of the book are a bit dry, it sheds light on plenty of relevant topics regarding how soccer helped fuel the dreams of freedom from the British and how the game created regional and religious divisions among the people. Also, there is mention about India's absence from the 1950 World Cup. India qualified for the World Cup in Brazil but opted out. I grew up reading that it was because the Indians wanted to play bare-feet that they were refused entry. But as the book shows, the reason might also be financial as there was not enough money available to send the team to Brazil. Playing the game bare-footed sounds strange today but the more I think about it, the more I feel that there is something truly pure about playing the game without any shoes. Maybe in the early days, the first Indians to have played the game were onto something.


  • Forza Italia by Paddy Agnew: I was looking forward to reading this book and it does not disappoint. I remember reading Agnew's articles on Italian soccer in World Soccer for most of the 90's and for the longest time, he was my sole English source for Italian soccer. The book is a look at Paddy's life covering Italian football, including the challenges he and his wife faced adjusting to their Italian life plus the frenzy that takes place in Serie A football.

  • Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football by Jonathan Wilson: This is a very interesting read which not only gives a nice historical perspective to some Eastern European nations but also shows how politics in the region influenced soccer and how soccer in turn was used to push a specific political agenda through such as the division of Yugoslavia. I enjoy reading Wilson's soccer articles in the Guardian as he covers Eastern Europe very well.


  • And in a few weeks, another book will be added to the above list.

  • When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone by James Montague: The title of this book on Middle East soccer is a twist on the popular soccer magazine, When Saturday Comes. Before the English Premier League was formed, all top flight English soccer games kicked off on Saturday afternoon @ 1500 GMT. But now thanks to satellite tv, a good number of Premier League games take place on Sunday, with some on Monday night as well. Still, the magazine When Saturday Comes continues to thrive with insightful articles. But in the Middle East, Friday is the holiday as opposed to Sat or Sun. Hence the title. There was a recent piece by James Montague in the Guardian regarding Kurdistan's soccer team.
  • Sunday, July 13, 2008

    Spotlight on France: ratings

    Final ratings of all the 17 films seen.

    Ratings out of 10:

  • Play Time (1967, Jacques Tati): 10

  • Elevator to the Gallows (1958, Louis Malle): 10

  • The Wages of Fear (1953, Henri - Georges Clouzot): 10



  • Rififi (1955, Jules Dassin): 9

  • OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006, Michel Hazanavicius): 9



  • Murmurs of the Heart (1971, France, Louis Malle): 8.5

  • Mon Uncle (1957, Jacques Tati): 8.5

  • Brief Crossing (2001, Catherine Breillat): 8.5



  • Coeurs (2006, Alain Resnais): 8

  • Au revoir les enfants (1987, France, Louis Malle): 8

  • The Valet (2006, Francis Veber): 8



  • La Belle et la bête (1946, Jean Cocteau): 7.5

  • Lacombe Lucien (1974, Louis Malle): 7.5

  • M.Hulot's holiday (1953, Jacques Tati): 7.5



  • Sheitan (2006, Kim Chapiron): 6.5

  • Romance (1999, Catherine Breillat): 6.5

  • Anatomy of Hell (2004, Catherine Breillat): 5
  • Saturday, July 12, 2008

    Fear the city when Ms. 45 takes on The Driller Killer

    A dark open ended alley with a green garbage dumpster half-way through. On the streets on either side of the alley, people wander by en route to their daily lives unaware of the battle that is taking place within the alley between two tormented souls.

    On one end of the alley stands Ms. 45 a.k.a Zoë Tamerlis, a shy mute girl. During her day job, Zoë works in a New York fashion office. Her life was changed when one night she was pulled into an alley way and raped. When she got home, an awaiting burglar attempted to rape her again. In self-defense, she managed to kill the burglar. But not knowing what to do with the burglar's body, she cut it up in pieces and went about New York depositing the various pieces in random locations, like in a garbage bin or a train station locker. On one occasion, when she left a body part in a brown bag near the street side, a man ran after her to return the bag. Terrified of the approaching man, Zoë accidently shot him, using the burglar's gun. At first she was horrified of the gun but gradually, she became comfortable in using the gun to dispatch the city of filthy men. She even started dressing provocatively to lure her victims before she shot them.

    On the other end of the alley way is The Driller Killer a.k.a Reno Miller, an artist who only wants peace and quiet to finish his commissioned painting. But others around him let have no rest. He is already frustrated when his masterpiece is ridiculed but he truly loses control when a band keeps practicing their loud music in a neighbouring apartment at odd hours of the night. Reno's inner demon takes over and he embarks on a killing spree with a drill.

    If the two characters had to face off against each other, it is clear that Zoë would win as she would easily take out Reno long before he ran towards her with his drill. On the other hand, if Zoë were to face off against One Eye (Christina Lindberg from the Swedish film Thriller: a Cruel Picture), Zoë would easily lose as One Eye could take Zoë out with her shotgun. The killing sequences at the end of Thriller:A Cruel Picture and Ms. 45 are quite similar as both women go around killing a crowd of people in slow-motion, and every scream is amplified. Since the Swedish film came out in 1974, 7 years before Ms. 45 was released, it is possible that the character One Eye had an indirect hand in the birth of Ms. 45.

    Abel Ferrara made his feature directorial debut in 1979 with The Driller Killer and followed that in 1981 with Ms. 45. Even though the titular characters in both films start their killing sprees via different circumstances, they eventually start enjoying their murders. The random nature of their murders create fear in the city, so it is not a surprise that Ferrara's third feature in 1984 was titled Fear City where a man believes he is cleaning the city by targeting prostitutes as his victims. In his attempts to kill the prostitutes, the murderer in Fear City follows similar motives with the characters of Ms. 45 and The Driller Killer in that all three believe they are doing the city good by killing unwanted people. Ms. 45 starts off by only killing men, especially those that she thinks prey on women while The Driller Killer starts off by killing homeless people. Eventually both of them start killing anyone that gets in their way but at the beginning they only target a certain section of the city.

    Note: In The Driller Killer Ferrara plays the title character while in Ms. 45 he is the rapist that alters Zoë's life.
    Ratings out of 10:
  • The Driller Killer (1979, USA, Abel Ferrara): 4.5

  • Ms. 45 (1981, USA, Abel Ferrara): 5

  • Fear City (1984, USA, Abel Ferrara): 5

  • Thriller a cruel picture (1974, Sweden, Bo Arne Vibenius): 6
  • Wednesday, July 09, 2008

    Hal Hartley Films

    It was hard to resist.

    Fay Grim

    A spy film with Parker Posey in a long black trench coat? Too good to pass up! But who was Hal Hartley and why had I never heard of him?

    20 minutes into Fay Grim, I began to have doubts about my pick. The characters Fay Grim (played by Ms. Posey), her brother Simon (James Urbaniak) and the CIA agent (Jeff Goldblum) appeared to be straight out of a stage play, delivering dialogues in a quirky manner. I was not sure where this film was going.

    But I am very glad I stayed with the film because Fay Grim is one of the most refreshing films I have seen in a long while, although there are plenty of things that require getting used to. The first challenge is getting dropped into a film which is the sequel to Henry Fool made almost a decade ago and not knowing the history of the characters. But the biggest challenge was getting used to the filming style, which included the slanted camera shots. The entire film is shot in a skewed manner and while this style works to perfection in some sequences, it does not in others scenes. Still, what is remarkable about the film is how a simple story is elevated to a global tale of espionage, which involves the CIA, KGB, French Secret Service, Israeli spies, British agents, Arab informers and even some free lance terrorists.
    Fay Grim

    The overall end result is watching a precise dance between Fay Grim and the international assortment of spies. The tilted camera only allows the relevant details to filter into each frame. Never before has a film filmed in Paris and Istanbul allowed so little of the street side or a foreign city in each frame. This tactic works in Fay Grim as the real interest lies in observing the characters and listening to their words as opposed to caring for which location they are in. And the characters are quite interesting indeed. The core of the story involves the "confessions" written by Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan). Henry does not make an appearance until the final third of the film, but he does not need to because he already laid the foundations for Fay Grim in the 1997 film Henry Fool.

    Henry Fool starts off when Henry rents a basement from Simon, who works as a garbage man. Henry encourages Simon to write in order to let his feelings out. But Simon's writings cause a stir. While some view it as soulful poetry, others call it pornographic. Shockingly, Simon's mother slits her wrists after she reads her son's work.

    Simon manages to get published and raise the profile of the Grim family. On the other hand, Henry's diaries ("confessions"), are deemed worthless. Even Simon cannot see the merit in Henry's work. But the true value in Henry's writing is established in Fay Grim when it turns out the books contain espionage information which could be quite harmful if they fall into the wrong hands.

    At the center of Hartley's wonderful universe are the three fascinating characters of Fay, Simon and Henry. But the trio are surrounded by an equally impressive assortment of characters. Overall, Hartley's two films stand perfectly well on their own, but when put together, they form a fascinating and unique story.

    Earlier work:

    There are plenty of Hal Hartley films out there. I decided to visit just one of them, his 1994 film Amateur, to see if it shared some similarities with Henry Fool.

    Amateur also features a mysterious man, Thomas (Martin Donovan), who survives an attempt on his life but cannot remember his past. Thomas runs into Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) who agrees to help him. A parallel story of Thomas's wife, Sofia, involves her trying to extract money from a porn film gangster. In one thread, we see Thomas go about his new life casually while on the other thread, we get to hear about Thomas' dark past from Sofia.

    Even though there are some interesting elements in Amateur, including a cameo from Parker Posey, it is not as engaging as the adventures of Henry Fool.

    Note: It was different to see Isabelle Huppert in a completely English speaking role.
    Ratings out of 10
  • Fay Grim (2007): 8.5

  • Henry Fool (1998): 8

  • Amateur (1994): 6.5
  • Monday, July 07, 2008

    A few weeks ago, the Guardian’s Paul Julian Smith took a bizarre stand with his article titled The curse of Almodovar. This is how he started his article:

    The Spanish film industry churns out up to 100 features a year. Of these we in the UK get to see perhaps four or five. And as far as famous Spanish directors go - well, there's really just the one: Pedro Almodóvar, currently in Lanzarote shooting his 17th feature.

    For the great majority of films that don't come trailing the seductive slogan "Un film de Almodóvar", foreign distribution is a tough sell. Ironically, it seems, one super-sized name can capsize a national film industry by monopolising international interest.

    This is why the London Spanish Film Festival, which comes to an end this Friday at the Cine Lumiere, is important. Along with Manchester's longer established Viva festival, it gives a flavour of what lies beyond planet Pedro.


    What a strange way to promote a Spanish film festival. Thankfully, Pedro Almodóvar responded:

    It is deeply unfair, and also rather silly, to blame me for an absence of Spanish films at UK cinemas. It is unfair towards me and reality. The reality is, according to figures published by the UK Film Council (Research and Statistics Bulletin, October 2007), that 96.3% of box office earnings between January and August 2007 went to English-language films. And 1.3% was the grand total taken by films in other languages from continental Europe.

    These are the hard facts, Mr Smith! A 1.3% market share for cinema from Greece, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Belgium ... Spain. The UK market leaves no room for the British public to discover films being made in other languages. Do you seriously believe I can be held accountable for that!?


    While the film website editor, Catherine Shoard, acknowledged "We never intended to abuse Mr Almodóvar or to blame him for the lack of distribution of Spanish films in the UK", she still chose to defend the article:

    By writing that "one supersized name can capsize a national film industry by monopolising international interest" it seems to me implicit that we're not accusing Mr Almodóvar of purposefully acting to suppress other Spanish filmmakers, simply that his name is better known in Britain than that of any other Spanish director, and that distributors have understandably chosen to exploit this fact.

    The only crime I believe the article accused Mr Almodóvar of was excellence. If the piece had a target, it was intended to be UK audiences for a degree of insularity and UK distributors for a level of timidity.


    I disagree with Catherine Shoard's defense. If an article is titled The curse of Almodovar and starts off the way it does in Paul Julian Smith's piece, then I can only take it as blaming Almodóvar for laziness on part of distributors and even theatre owners. On the other hand, if Paul Julian Smith truly wanted to showcase the "excellence" of Almodóvar, then the piece would have had a different title (something like Looking for the next Almodóvar) and flavour.

    Yes distributors are lazy not only in the UK but elsewhere around the world in not picking up enough worthy foreign titles or showcasing new directors. But who is to blame more? A film-maker for making great movies, audiences or distributors? One can blame film-makers for making garbage movies but blaming talented film-makers is quite silly. Blaming audiences completely is also an incorrect stand. I am tired of reading excuses from distributors in North America that they are only giving what audiences want; they incorrectly state that audiences only want big blockbuster Hollywood films and do not want foreign/indie films. This is the same nonsense that has been used by Bollywood for decades to completely erode any cinematic value on Indian screens. While a certain section of audiences might only prefer commercial films, another section might be interested in seeing a different brand of films, regardless of where they are from. But since none of these foreign movies ever make it to their cinema screen, then how would they see it? Almodóvar's success does illustrate that the market can respond positively to an international film-maker. More than a decade ago, most of Almodóvar's films were restricted to film festivals. But when people saw the quality of his work, distributors jumped on board and his films started playing in art house theatres around the world. Now distributors freely pick his films up like they would with other commercial fare without thinking, because they know he can deliver. The difference is Almodóvar's films are excellent while most of the other commercial cinema is still stuck in clichéd and formula driven tales.

    Almodóvar is a prime example of a film-maker that emerged from a film festival circuit into a broader arena. Shouldn't distributors be looking for the next big film-maker on their own? But as it is often repeated, film making and distribution is a business. Distributors are hesitant to change their money making business model. So how would this business model change? This is where I believe film festivals still play a big part, no matter what some film critics and magazines say every year. Film festivals can give voice to emerging film-makers from different parts of the world and can be a platform to properly highlight the range of cinematic works that exist. And films that garner enough attention at festivals are grabbed for distribution. But for the last 2-3 years, an article shows up on a website or even in a film magazine talking about the irrelevance of film festivals. Now, what these critics are attacking is the quality of films shown at some film festivals. That problem is down to the specific festival (and the programmers) decisions in picking a narrow range of films, or even some commercial titles. But trying to dismiss film festivals in general is incorrect. Yes some festivals may be headed in an incorrect direction but for a majority of film fans around the world, film festivals are still an important way (or only way in some cases) to see some foreign films. As it stands, there are only few cities around the world (like New York, London, Toronto, Vancouver) that have theaters that showcase some quality international titles. But in a majority of other cities, even if the independent or art-house cinema picks up a foreign or an indie title, it is because the film did well at a film festival or got an award elsewhere.

    In the end, Paul Julian Smith should have focused on the wider problem of film distribution. But to use Pedro’s name like that is unbelievable. Unless Mr. Paul Julian Smith was looking for attention because how many people can say that Pedro Almodóvar responded to their writing?

    Sunday, July 06, 2008

    Director Profile: Raoul Ruiz, part 0.11

    Even though I had heard of him, until recently I had not seen a single film from Raoul Ruiz. Of the almost 100 films he has directed, the only four that were the most accessible were: Klimt (2006), Comédie de l'innocence (2000), Time Regained (1999), and Three Crowns of a Sailor (1983). I decided to start with Three Crowns.. and Comédie de l'innocence.

    Of the two films, it was Three Crowns of a Sailor that made the most impression. The structure of the film is a fascinating story-within-a-story. We start off on one level, then we dive into another story, which burrows down to another level. Each story is a hyper-link into another fascinating tale, which leads to another adventure. As the title indicates, a sailor is at the center of all the tales.

    There is something fascinating about various port cities. The culture that exists on ports is entirely different from the nation that a port is located in. Most ports are transition points -- people and goods are either leaving or arriving. Everything is in a state of flux. And if one spends too much time at a port, then time could appear to be suspended. Of course, these locations are a breeding ground for some very interesting characters. One is sure to find someone who has been everywhere and seen it all, ready to impart his wisdom. And that is the case with the main character in Three Crowns of a Sailor; he is someone who has plenty of stories to tell. All he wants in return is three danish crowns. Why? Let's just say that he needs the three crowns for more reasons other than just financial debt.

    The tales that the sailor spins are a combination of myth, fantasy and pure delight. The concept of the film reminded of the structure contained in The Saragossa Manuscript (multiple level of stories & dreams) or the labyrinths contained in a Borges story. The film is completely alive and it is hard to remove one's eye even for a single second. Visually, the film is a real treat -- scenes are either in rich black and white or in tangy color; the camera angles are very inventive. At different points, the camera is on the ground looking up at the characters, or perched on the shoulder of the sailor looking at the strange ship crew or even placed sideways so that we only see the sailor's side profile as he goes about his ways. The end result is a fascinating film that I wished would never end. But a movie like this can never end really. The film could very well be just a tiny component of an infinite loop that keeps on spinning.

    Comedy of Innocence contains elements of memory and ghosts, two things found in abundance in Three Crowns.... But it is a much linear film about a returning spirit taking over a 9 year old boy.

    On my part, I need to find more of Ruiz's film that touch upon the mythical territory that Three Crowns.. did. Three Crowns of a Sailor is one of the most satisfying films I have seen this year.

    Other reading material:
  • Acquarello discusses a few of Raúl Ruiz's films & book.

  • Girish brings together a collection of links and words about Mr. Ruiz

  • A Sight and Sound interview
  • Saturday, July 05, 2008

    Another love story hits town

    The newest "fresh love story" from Bollywood was released on Friday -- Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na (Whether you know it or not).


    Aamir Khan's nephew Imran Khan makes his full debut in a film that on surface contains a rehashed Bollywood story about best friends falling in love. But the film has been getting really good buzz and I am looking forward to seeing it. Also A.R Rahman's music is just refresing with the Aditi... song a pleasant summer breeze.

    And then there is the fun song and video Pappu can't dance.

    Friday, July 04, 2008

    1 Guy, 3 women, beautiful locales...

    And that is Bollywood in a nutshell. If Hollywood has its summer blockbusters, then Bollywood won't be the same without its big banner films, complete with romantic stories in picturesque locations.

    And Ranbir Kapoor's new film trailer, Bachna Ae Haseeno, does show the best sides of Venice and the Australian beaches. I truly love the first trailer, partly because of the smart remix of the classic old Indian song Bachna Ae Haseeno and the spliced images of the beaches, Venice and ahem, the film cast. Can the film live up to the trailer? For now, I just want to enjoy this short clip and not worry about the film's fortunes.

    Quick summary of Trailer 1:
    A guy. Hot sun. Beach. Snow. Solo Traveler, facing the sun and ready to go out in the world. Women. Let the chase begin. A girl in a soccer net. A fling here. A fling there. Another beach. And then there is always Venice, eternal love? Nah. Onto the next fling.



    Trailer 2:


    Having seen enough Bollywood films and judging by the trailer (and the title), this is how the characters appear to stack up:
    1) Ranbir Kapoor -- clearly playing a free spirit who can't stop falling for women in general. His character effortlessly flirts with women so much so that it is second nature to him.
    2) Minissha Lamba -- playing the cute and sweet girl next door. The scenes where she is swinging in the soccer net and running through the market are probably for a song where she is expressing her new found feelings of love for Ranbir's character.
    3) Bipasha Basu -- as usual playing the sultry woman who guys cheat on their loved ones with. She may even be married and Ranbir's character is taking risks with this one.
    4) Deepika Padukone -- hard to tell. So I am guessing she must either fall in between the two other women or she could be the one playing the guy?

    We know how these films end right? The guy goes for the sweet innocent love so Bipasha's character ending with Ranbir's character is out of the question. But what if a fourth woman shows up at the end? I guess the ending is one I might have to wait to find out.

    Thursday, July 03, 2008

    When failure is an option...

    History will show that on July 3, 2008 the French Soccer Federation decided that they were more than happy with keeping their national soccer team in a state of disarray. The Federation voted 18-1 in favor of keeping the current French soccer manager, Raymond Domenech, and as a result have ensured that no creativity or innovation will ever dare to invade the French soccer team. I suppose there is nothing wrong in this decision. Not every nation should aspire to greatness in soccer. Nowhere does it mandate that any country should try to play beautiful and flowing football, even if that nation has some of the best soccer players on the planet.

    C'est la vie.

    Once upon a time there used to be a really good soccer team from France.....and I mean once upon a long long time ago…..

    notes: my catalog of Mr. Raymond's failures are painfully listed in the Euro 2008 Anatomy of failure section and in a note about his marriage proposal.

    Tuesday, July 01, 2008

    Three Explosive Women

    Question: What do the films Day Night Day Night, The Terrorist and Dil Se have in common?

    Answer: All three have female leads who are on a mission to blow themselves up for their cause.

    Motives and Organizations:

    Neither film clearly spells out the exact reasons and organizations the women are seeking to kill themselves for, with Day Night Day Night being the most vague of the three movies. In Santosh Sivan's The Terrorist we can guess the identity of the group which is training the terrorists because the setting of Southern India & the bombing method evokes memories of how Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a woman suicide bomber in 1991. Whereas in Mani Ratnam's Dil Se, a few background scenes gave the cause to be related to conflicts in North Eastern India.

    Story:

  • Day Night Day Night

  • : The story is more interested with the character's last day before she heads to New York for her mission. We never meet the people who are directing her for this mission and even though a few of her accomplices come to meet her, they are hidden behind masks. For some reason, everyone in the film is so friendly when talking with the female suicide bomber, who is extremely polite herself in answering questions regarding the mission's execution. She is completely relaxed to go on her mission and only when she reaches New York does she show signs of weakness and nervousness. In one scene, she phones her family but does not have courage to speak on the phone. This is the only film of the three where the girl attempts to query God when she finds herself afraid and weak to carry on with her mission.

  • The Terrorist

  • : The story starts off at the training ground where Malli (Ayesha Dharker) is getting her education in killing people. She is picked to be a human bomber and we follow her as she heads to a village before she will get the call to kill the 'minister'. Along the way, she befriends a little boy and gets better acquainted with a family in the village.

  • Dil Se

  • : A love story which seeks to pierce through the surface and understand what true love is about, including the seven stages of love.

    Character(s) in focus:

  • Day Night Day Night

  • : The movie stays completely focused on the female suicide bomber at all times with her accomplices hidden behind masks.

  • The Terrorist

  • : Even though the center of attention is Malli, the film includes brief screen time for a little boy she befriends, a tiny cameo for a militant boy she has a fling with, an older grandmother in a coma along with Malli's trainers (without masks).

  • Dil Se

  • : Manisha Koirala plays the suicide bomber but since Shah Rukh Khan is present in the movie, the camera clings to him quite a bit. On top of that, most people will remember this film as the debut of Preity Zinta whose bubbly character lights up the screen.

    Locales:

  • Day Night Day Night

  • : Concrete jungle -- a chaotic New York city with the skyscrapers, bright lights and throng of tourists. Also there are plenty of food places for the female character to spend her last few dollars on and also to lessen her stress. A candy apple, two pretzels and a single slice of tomato are the items she feeds on. Incidentally, she gets charged 0.65 cents for a slice of tomato.

  • The Terrorist

  • : Lush Jungle -- the forests of Southern India form both the training ground for terrorists and serve as a beautiful cinematic backdrop. Since Santosh Sivan is one of the best cinematographers in Indian cinema, the background is perfect for him to capture prize shots of lotuses, dew drops on leaves, calm waters and the enchanting forests. On top of that, Sivan uses the environment as symbology to depict certain incidents in the film. For example, a lotus flower sinking in the water foreshadows the coming death of an innocent child.

  • Dil Se

  • : The entire Indian subcontinent is a backdrop for this rich musical. From the heart pounding train song of Chaiyya Chaiyya shot in Ooty (Southern India), to the Indian deserts in Western India to Kashmir in the North with key scenes taking place in the capital New Delhi. Santosh Sivan is the cinematographer of this film which was released a year before his directorial venture The Terrorist.

    Background score and music:

  • Day Night Day Night

  • : Shot with a digital camera, we do not get any background score but only the sounds that echo around the character, be it in her hotel room or in the traffic jammed city.

  • The Terrorist

  • : There is a background score which attempts to raise tension and give clues about the oncoming danger but for me, the film's images were far more memorable and powerful than the music.

  • Dil Se

  • : This film's music and songs have been some of the best to come out of Bollywood in the last decade. Of course, with lyrics by Gulzar and music by A.R Rehman, the songs were sure to leave a lasting impression. But the videos do justice to the poetic lyrics. The most popular song was Chaiyya Chayyia which featured soulful vocals provided by Sukhwinder Singh & Sapna Awasti. Also the memorable video with a dazzling Malaika on top of a train has played countless times on Indian channels around the World.


    Note: Spike Less used Chaiyya Chayyia in the opening credits of Inside Man.

    Even though I love Chaiyya Chayyia, the song that cast a spell on me was E Ajnabi (O Stranger). I can remember quite a few rain soaked nights that I heard this song on.



    Overall impressions & comments:

    Even though I thought highly of the cinematography in The Terrorist, I was not impressed by how the character's decision process was simplified; Malli's decision to take her life was difficult but the emotional hooks used to ease her choice were not to my liking. In fact, I felt the emotional hooks (grandmother in a coma to name one) were typical of most Bollywood films and had no place in a much superior film structure that Sivan was trying to construct.

    Although there are no easy emotional hooks in Day Night Day Night, the overall friendly tone of the film's first half seemed a bit odd to me. I can understand the intent of Day Night Day Night was to remove any political agenda and only focus on the female character but the film appears to be too light weight and more of an experiment to make a meaningful film compared to a film like Paradise Now, which was completely gripping and engaging.

    My most memorable moments of Dil Se center around the songs and a few collected scenes involving the chance encounters between Shah Rukh Khan and Manisha Koirala's characters. The film was supposed to usher in a new wave of Indian film making as it was the first collaboration of heavy weights such as Mani Ratnam, Shekhar Kapur and Ram Gopal Varma. The three directors were supposed to work on more films together but after the box office failure of Dil Se, no other projects between the three took place and they all went on to more fame with their separate paths -- Kapur with Elizabeth; RGV with Satya, Company and other Mumbai underworld films; Mani Ratnam with A Peck on the Cheek, Yuva and Guru.