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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best Films of 2009

I saw plenty of excellent films in 2009 and I cannot restrict my list to 10 or even 20 films. My short list has 57 titles that I enjoyed in varying aspects so I have decided to break things up into three categories to reflect a subjective ordering -- Gold (Favourites), Silver (Honorable Mention), Bronze (Worthy viewing). All the films in each category are listed in order of viewing and are 2009 released films or older films that only saw the light of day in my city this year (such as Zidane and Wendy and Lucy).

Gold -- 23 titles

Zidane (France, Douglas Gordon/Philippe Parreno)
Wendy and Lucy (USA, Kelly Reichardt)
Birdsong (Spain, Albert Serra)
Call If You Need Me (Malaysia, James Lee)
Buick Riviera (Croatia, Goran Rusinovic)
Be Calm and Count to Seven (Iran, Ramtin Lavafipour)
Border (Armenia/Holland, Harutyun Khachatryan)
Everyone Else (Germany, Maren Ade)
Milk (Turkey, Semih Kaplanoglu)
Karaoke (Malaysia, Chris Chong Chan Fui)
Ain’t No Tomorrows (Japan, Yuki Tanada)
The Storm (Turkey, Kazim Öz)
The Hurt Locker (USA, Kathryn Bigelow)
District 9 (South Africa/New Zealand, Neill Blomkamp)
Katalin Varga (Romania co-production, Peter Strickland)
Police, Adjective (Romania, Corneliu Porumboiu)
The Happiest Girl in the World (Romania co-production, Radu Jude)
I Killed My Mother (Canada, Xavier Dolan)
Breathless (South Korea, Yang Ik-June)
The Prophet (France, Jacques Audiard)
The Class (France, Laurent Cantet)
In the Loop (UK, Armando Iannucci)
The Limits of Control (USA, Jim Jarmusch)

Silver -- 21 titles

The International (USA/Germany/UK, Tom Tykwer)
Che, part two (USA, Steven Soderbergh)
The Blessing (Denmark, Heidi Maria Faisst)
Can go Through Skin (Holland, Esther Rots)
My Only Sunshine (Turkey co-production, Reha Erdem)
This Longing (Malaysia, Azharr Rudin)
Fujian Blue (China, Weng Shou Ming)
Lulu & Jimi (Germany/France, Oskar Roehler)
Daytime Drinking (Korea, Young-Seok Noh)
Vacation (Japan, Hajime Kadoi)
Independencia (Philippines, Raya Martin)
Mid-August Lunch (Italy, Gianni Di Gregorio)
Still Walking (Japan, Hirokazu Koreeda)
Fish Eyes (Korea/China, Zheng Wei)
Rough Cut (Korea, Hun Jang)
Revache (Austria, Goetz Spielmann)
Wrong Rosary (Turkey, Mahmut Fazil Coskun)
Man on Wire (UK/USA, James Marsh)
Firaaq (India, Nandita Das)
The Damned United (UK/USA, Tom Hooper)
35 Shots of Rum (France, Claire Denis)

Bronze -- 13 titles

Dev D (India, Anurag Kashyup)
Gulaal (India, Anurag Kashyup)
Pontypool (Canada, Bruce McDonald)
Guidance (Sweden, Johan Jonason)
Amreeka (USA/Canada, Cherien Dabis)
Genova (UK, Michael Winterbottom)
Mary and Max (Australia, Adam Elliot)
Public Enemies (USA, Michael Mann)
The White Ribbon (Germany co-production, Michael Haneke)
The Last Lullaby (USA, Jeffrey Goodman)
Cooking History (Slovakia co-production, Peter Kerekes)
Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis (France, Dany Boon)
Tulpan (Kazakhstan co-production,Sergei Dvortsevoy)

2009: Overview

Another film watching year is in the books! My final total of 338 films seen in 2009 is lower than the 445 films seen in 2008 and 385 in 2007. However, the quality of films I saw in 2009 was much higher than that of the previous two years. With the exception of a few films (soon to be outlined in a best of 2009 post), a majority of the best films I saw in 2009 came courtesy of the film festival circuit, routed via Sundance, Rotterdam, Cannes and eventually landing in CIFF. For me, the importance of Film Festivals cannot be emphasized enough and going into a new decade film festivals continue to be the only venue for most of the cinephiles around the world to peer into the existing beautiful cinematic universe. This is because the multiplexes are dominated with the usual gimmicky Hollywood [insert Bollywood or other local commercial offering] works and as a result, non-commercial films struggle to be seen. The number of art house venues cannot possibly show every worthy foreign/independent work and distributors only have a limited budget to grab a majority of these titles for DVD releases. Thankfully there are plenty of online/print film magazines/blogs which shed a light on the relevant cinema that exists but their film write-ups are still limited to a few titles from a select few film festivals. The onus is still on the cinephile to chase down titles on their own and try to discover works that others have missed. The good think is that there is plenty of potential to find new cinematic gems. For example, I was alerted to the lineup of films at The International Film Festival of Kerala thanks to Brown Country. Not only have I not seen any of the 14 competition films, I have not heard/read about them anywhere. So there remains a huge chance to find real gems in that list. How many of these 14 films will make the rounds around the world, via film festivals or DVD? Very few. What about the rest? They will sadly disappear as it often happens every year where sometimes worthy works go unnoticed because an important distributor/critic/film programmer did not get a chance to see the film. The fate of the Indian films in the IFFK list is even more bleak. Atleast Harishchandra’s Factory will get a wider release by UTV in January 2010 but the others might be inaccessible not only to international audiences but even to the people of India.

The Real Game Changer -- availability, not format

There has been a lot of talk this year about the new possibilities regarding 3D cinema. The buzz words around 3D now even apply to TV as 3D-TV should be available sometime in 2010 (very pricey though) and in 2009, one could have seen some 3D episodes of some TV series (one episode of the amazing Chuck comes to mind). Sure the experience of watching a film in rich 3D is rewarding but that experience only applies to a limited Hollywood selection and those films would have been easily available anyway in 2D and DVD anyway. On the other hand, I think something that allows cinephiles access to films from around the world is the real game changer. The current film festival calendar is broken and the film distribution network is not adequate enough to get films shown to people. For example, Cannes takes place in May and people in North America have to wait until TIFF premiers a select few Cannes titles in September before other film festivals can then start to show those films over the next few months (or a year as the case maybe). Then it is a further 6-8 months before a few of those titles would make it out to the art house/independent screens the following summer. And then the DVD release of those films could take another 6-8 months, meaning almost 2 years could have passed since a film’s Cannes premier before the film makes it to DVD in North America. This timeline applies to the few select award winning/big name Cannes films whereas the DVD release of other Cannes films could take even longer or never happen in some cases. That is not acceptable, especially when in an age where people talk about the speed and efficiency of data.

There has to be a major rethink about how fast film festival titles are made accessible to people. Here are my two cents to speed the process up:

1) The major film festivals with a distribution network (such as Sundance, Rotterdam, Cannes) should also broadcast films over the internet on a pay per view basis.
2) The festivals should provide a method to upload films via satellite to designated film theaters around the world.

Neither idea seems far fetched but the internet option might be more doable and recently The Auteurs tried something out with the Sao Paulo film festival where people from around Brazil could watch a selection of works shown at the Sao Paulo festival. I just think this model should be extended to allow international audiences to view films from the major film festivals. One argument why such a model cannot be opened up for people around the world has to do with a film’s international rights. But if a film does not have an international distributor, then I think it is better if the film is seen rather than wait 2-3 years for a future release or worse have the film never see life outside of the festival circuit. Overall, both options would benefit everyone -- the festival could get some extra revenue, the filmmakers can get a bigger audience for their works, cinephiles can finally have choices of what they watch, various film programmers can quickly decide what films they want to book for their festivals or cinematheque and prospective distributors can assess films without flying around the world to the various film festivals.

Will anything change in 2010? I don’t think so but I do hope that things will be better so that people can access quality cinema a bit more easily.

Here’s wishing to a Happy New Year and more film watching :)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Ethical Red Button

The Box (2009, USA, Richard Kelly): 8/10

When I was a young kid, I remember staying up late to watch episodes of the Twilight Zone. I have forgotten most of the episodes but the episode based on the "Button, Button" short story stayed with me. The episode ended on a chilling note and I can still remember the ethical dilemma the couple faced while sitting in front of a simple box with a button in the center. When I first heard about Richard Kelly’s film adaptation, I was intrigued about how this short story could be extended into a feature. Given Richard Kelly’s previous two features, I had a feeling that The Box would certainly be fresh and innovative. Sure enough, I was not let down as The Box is indeed one of the most though provoking films to come out of the normally stale and cliched Hollywood film industry.

**** Some spoilers ****

The short story ended with the idea that the young couple could die next when the box would be given to someone the couple didn’t know. The feature picks on up this idea and shows that the box follows a closed loop where death will next take place in the household that last pressed the button. Since there are multiple such boxes doing the rounds in America, a scenario is setup where various paths of life/death will be made. On a macro level, the boxes also seem to serve as an elaborate game theory model where pressing a button also triggers codes for a possible global game of destruction. The game theory angle is never mentioned but can be inferred at the continuously changing world map listing the various US combat command centers around the world. Does the map change everytime someone presses the button? Possibly, because in one instance the deliverer of the box, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), mentions the game will stop when enough people decide to not press the button. The game theory angle could have been the perfect explanation for the film had there not been the additional layers of an alien invasion, government conspiracy and religious implications thrown in the mix. Not to mention the mind control element and portals used to give people a glimpse of the after life or to transfer them from one location to another. I am unable to find a unified theory to explain everything in the movie but that did not diminish my enjoyment of the film. Two other films came to mind while watching The Box -- David Twohy’s 1996 feature The Arrival regarding the radio communication with aliens and the ending of John Carpenter’s 1987 feature Prince of Darkness. The ending of Prince of Darkness showed that someone from the future was sending messages at a frequency which was picked up by the people in the church only in their dreams, meaning only when the people fell asleep were they able to get the same dream, which turned out to be an encoded message. In The Box, people’s mind is controlled via a frequency which renders them into zombies and in turn transmits the images they see back to a central source.

The Box requires an investment from the audience to think ahead and to piece things together. Given the poor reviews the film has received, it is clear that most people were not willing to invest their time in this film and slammed it. The same reaction was given to Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky, a film which was much less complicated than The Box and even to Anurag Kashyap’s No Smoking, a film which was jam packed with intelligent ideas. If The Box was instead an animated film, then some people might have accepted what they saw on screen. I can’t remember many people complaining too much about how an elderly man could spend a single night to blow up enough helium filled balloons to uproot his house in Up. No one seemed to further question how a young boy could then navigate this flying house in the movie correctly to South America with just a compass? A cartoon allows one to easily digest any deviation from reality whereas a flesh and blood feature allows very little room for imagination. Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko became a cult hit on video and DVD and I certainly hope The Box does find an audience on DVD. While the film may not be on the same level as Donnie Darko, The Box certainly needs to be seen and not dismissed lightly.



 

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Champions League, Round of 16

A fascinating round of 16 draw for the Champions League was made on Friday, Dec 18:

Lyon vs Real Madrid
AC Milan vs Manchester United
FC Porto vs Arsenal
Bayern Munich vs Fiorentina
VfB Stuttgart vs FC Barcelona
Olympiacos vs Bordeaux
Inter Milan vs Chelsea
CSKA Moscow vs Sevilla

The words emotional rivalry come to mind regarding the Inter vs Chelsea match-up. Jose Mourinho was a favourite of the Chelsea players and fans and it was because of Jose that Chelsea finally won the league title after a gap of 50 years. So his return to Stamford Bridge will certainly be an interesting event and another fascinating element to this tie is that Jose's opponent will be Carlo Ancelotti, the once successful player and manager of AC Milan, Inter's bitter rivals.

Milan lock horns with Man Utd again and it will be interesting to see if David Beckham will lineup against Man Utd. If everyone at Man Utd is fit, then they should progress against Milan but if Milan spend wisely in the January transfer window, then they might provide Man Utd a challenge.

It seems no Champions League season would be complete if Porto didn't face either Chelsea or Arsenal. This time since Porto already met Chelsea in the group stages, it is appropriate that they face Arsenal in the two legged affair. Arsenal will struggle as usual in their away trip to Portugal similar to their last two visits to Porto (a 2-0 loss and a 0-0 tie). However, Arsenal's last two home results against Porto were 4-0 and 2-0 wins. Given Arsenal's injury problems, it is hard to know what shape the Arsenal team will be in February. If Arsenal are to progress, then they will need an away goal in Portugal and have to keep a clean sheet at home. For Porto, a 1-0 win at home will be more than enough as they are capable of grinding out a 0-0 or 1-1 result in London.

What to make of Lyon vs Madrid? Once upon a time, Lyon thrashed Madrid 3-0 and 2-0 in back to back seasons (2006, 2007) and managed 1-1, 2-2 ties in their away results. Ofcourse, those were seasons that Lyon should have won the Champions League but for one reason or another, Lyon always struggled in the knock out round. Along with Arsenal, Lyon are the other European team that has had enough talent to merit a Champions League title but the European Cup is not won on the strength of a squad on a piece of paper. Lyon's best years in the Champions League appear to be a distant memory and it is hard to see this squad avoid getting brushed aside by Madrid.

Barca should be able to see off Stuttgart comfortably while the CSKA Moscow vs Sevilla game should be an open tie that sees two former UEFA Cup Champions lock horns. Bayern should progress against Fiorentina but sometimes with the German side it is better to flip a coin instead as it is hard to know which team will show up. Also, it is uncertain if Luca Toni will get to face his former team. Olympiacos vs Bordeaux gives the French Champions an excellent chance to progress while Zico's team have to win their home leg in Greece if they are to have any chance of upsetting Bordeaux.

The two big game changing variables between now and February would be if any of the 16 teams strengthen their squads in January and whether any of the team's African stars come back injured from the African Cup of Nations.

Still, some mouth-watering ties await.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Pedro Costa, finally....

Criterion has finally announced the date for the Pedro Costa Box Set: March 30, 2010.



So that means my 3.5+ year search for Costa's films can finally end.

2006: The search started around the same time that Mark Peranson asked his Cinema Scope readers to "Vote for Pedro", Costa that is.

2007: The Pedro Costa film series traveled through North America but only touched down in two Canadian Cities (Toronto & Vancouver). I had planned on going to the Vancouver one but the plan fell through.

2008: Cinema Scope announced that they would give away copies of Costa's Colossal Youth for new and existing subscribers. Unfortunately, nothing come of that.

2009: Rumours of Criterion releasing Costa's films began to surface. Then a glimmer of hope arrived courtesy of Second Run DVD in the UK who released Costa's first feature O Sangue in the fall. Shortly after, Criterion announced that Costa's Fontainhas trilogy would be released in "Early 2010".

And now, there is a date. Finally!!!!!!!

This also means that I can finally choose a Costa film to represent Portugal in my 2010 Movie World Cup. Although, if I had this information a few weeks ago, I surely would have had a more involved dialogue with my mystery caller, whose identity still lurks in the shadows.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Follow the silence...

Back in 1999, on a rainy sunday night, I got my first text message on a cellphone. The cellphones back then were a lot bulkier than the current models and on this particular night, that large cellphone stood motionless on my coffee table until the arrival of that text message. The sudden vibration of the cellphone disturbed the quietness in the room and the words of that first ever text message simply read:

“Follow the white rabbit”.

Ha. It was obviously a joke by a friend who knew I had recently seen The Matrix. Since there was no phone number associated with the message, I had to resort to a guessing game of sorts. As the days went by, I could not find any trace of this mystery person. Eventually, a few weeks later it turned out to be someone unexpected who sent the message from the cellphone company’s internet page.

Now almost a decade later, another mysterious person got in touch with me. The phone number was unlisted when I picked up the phone.

Silence.

“Hello”

Silence.

I said hello once again and was about to hang up when I heard some static on the other end of the line. Then finally a voice.

“I have what you want.”

“Hello..who is this?”

“It does not matter. I have the Costa.”

“Sorry, I am not sure what you mean. Who are you?”

“You wanted to see the Pedro Costa films? Well I have them, all of them.”

By now, I was going through the short list of people who knew about my desire to trace down Pedro Costa’s films.

“Yes. I want to see them,”

“Good. Meet me at.....”

“How will I recognize you?”

“You don’t have to. I will approach you.”

I was certain this was a new prank from of my friends. So I went along.

However, I could not make it out to the location on the specified date & time. I tried but the icy roads coupled with the snow storm in the city made it almost impossible for me to make it. I was stuck in traffic for 1.5 hours and after seeing a dozen accidents on the roads, I decided it would be safer for me to head back home. The next day, after making a few inquiries, I could not get any verification about this mystery person.

Two weeks have now gone by. The weather is still brutally cold and more importantly, I have still not heard back from this mysterious person again.

For the record, I have already seen three Pedro Costa films -- Casa de Lava, Where Does your Hidden Smile Lie? & O Sangue. I am waiting for Criterion’s Fontainhas Trilogy due in 2010 which will check off three more Costa features off my list. So I am not that worried about missing that date with the mysterious person.

On the other hand, mystery person, if you are reading this, I would really appreciate it if you could dig up a film from North Korea, Honduras, Slovakia (Czech Republic will not do), Slovenia (besides Spare Parts which I have seen and love), Ghana and Nigeria.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Spotlight on Iran

When it comes to Iranian cinema, the names of Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf loom large. However, there are many more names which have captured the attention of festival audiences over the last decade such as Jafar Panahi, Majid Majidi and Bahman Ghobadi. I recently realized that all the Iranian films I had seen were post 1990, even though there are many worthy cinematic works available pre-1990. This was a similar situation to the one I found myself in last year with regards to South Korean cinema when I had not seen anything from South Korea prior to 1990. I was able to rectify the pre-1990 South Korean cinema gap this year thanks to the Auteurs availability of Kim Ki-young’s Housemaid. So it was time to throw the net out and grab some pre-1990 Iranian films along with other works. In that regard, I came up with the following list of 10 films for a spotlight:

The Cow (1969, Dariush Mehrjui)
The Cyclist (1987, Mohsen Makhmalbaf)
The Suitors (1989, Ghasem Ebrahimian)
Close-up (1990, Abbas Kiarostami)
Gabbeh (1996, Mohsen Makhmalbaf)
The Mirror (1997, Jafar Panahi)
The Pear Tree (1998, Dariush Mehrjui)
Delbaran (2001, Abolfazl Jalili)
The Fish Fall in Love (2005, Ali Raffi)
It’s Winter (2006, Rafi Pitts)

All the films were engaging but if I had to pick out one favourite, it would have to be Rafi Pitts beautiful It’s Winter. The shots of a character against the snowy background in It’s Winter did not remind me of any Iranian film I had seen but made me think of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s fascinating Distant.

One interesting aspect about The Fish Fall in Love is that the camera lovingly lingers a big longer on the food, be it stuffed fish, rice or kebabs. I cannot remember seeing food being the focus in any other Iranian film so it was nice to see how the restaurant scenes were incorporated around the framework of two love stories.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Clean Hands

So this week, the British government announced a tax on bankers bonuses. The bankers are not happy, ofcourse. After all, the bankers have worked hard to play with other people’s money and get rich. Why should the bankers be punished for others mistakes? It is not the bankers problem that the government lent billions of dollars to banks to bail them out. As far as the bankers are concerned, their hands are clean.


The entire financial problem is not the bankers fault but caused by the general public. Yup, it is the general public that have ruined things. How? By two ways:

1) Giving banks their money
2) Borrowing too much from banks

The public duly give their money to banks. Why? Because it is “better” than keeping it under a mattress. The banks turn around and give the people close to 0% interest on their deposited money (sorry, 0.01% is as good as zero). On top of that, banks charge people fees for accessing their own money. So what do the people do in return? Nothing!!! They still keep their money in the banks. Stupid people. The banks then have no choice but to take reckless risks with the people’s money. When the banks run into trouble, they do not have to worry because the government will rush in to save the day and use taxpayers money to keep the banks on their feet. Hooray!!

People are supposed to be smart about their money. If they go to a bank for a $100,000 loan and the bank in turn approves them for a $500,000 loan, the people should know better than to accept the money. Who is to blame here? These people for accepting the money or the banks for approving their loans? The people ofcourse!! The banks seriously do not have time to do proper checks on each person’s financial history and only lend the correct money to each person. If the banks did that, then they would be crushing these people’s “American dream”. The banks don’t want to be the bad guys but want to be liked by the people. Moreover, how can the bankers ever have time to treat each customer like an individual. For that, the bankers would have to..gasp...work atleast 8 hours a day. Seriously! How can bankers be expected to work 8 hours like those average miserable non-banker public. Yuck! Bankers should not have to come into work before 10 am and they have to leave by 4 pm.

The bankers hands are clean.

Yup.

They do not have to get their hands dirty by building a bridge or operating on a patient. No sir! A few clicks of the keyboard and playing with other people’s money is not a dirty job. It is the cleanest job there is.

Moreover, since when was it bad to make money? I mean, even Hollywood heaps praises on characters who are greedy such as Gordon Gekko (Wall Street) and Daniel Plainview (There Will be Blood). Does Hollywood ever give a trophy to a character who plays a slacker? Nope. Modern society has been built using loans and human progress has been fueled by money. So why is being greedy bad all of a sudden?

In a year or two, this “greed is bad” phase will pass. The banks are not going anywhere after all. Where else will people put their money? The bankers will always be rich and their hands will always be clean.

Noe: image from Francesco Rosi's brilliant film Le Mani sulla città (Hands on the City)

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Damned Job

The Damned United (2009, UK/USA, Tom Hooper): 9/10

Just a few of the things a modern soccer manager has to satisfy:



And even if all the above are met, there is still no guarantee that a soccer manager would be able to keep his job.

Case 1: A manager wins all the trophies by playing 1-0 negative football and the owners/board of directors are happy with all the trophies.


However, if some sections of the fans and media are not happy with the negative football and they have a huge say in the club’s operations, then the manager would not be in the job too long.

Case 2: A manager ensures his team plays the most beautiful football but fails to win many trophies.



Some fans would be happy but others would want the manager to be fired. However, if the board of directors are satisfied, then the manager would survive.

Case 3: A manager wins trophies by playing beautiful football but does not get along with the board of directors.

In this case, the manager would not last long in the job. The example of Real Madrid comes to mind because at Madrid, the board of directors are never shy to fire a manager days after he had landed a major trophy. Heck, at Madrid, they are known to fire managers even when the team is top of the league and in an excellent position to win the title (example, the 1991-92 season).

Until this year, if one had to understand a soccer manager’s tough position, then one could only piece things together by reading multiple books, newspaper/magazine articles and watching the odd tv interview. But with the release of The Damned United fans of the game finally have a film that gives a glimpse into the multiple pulls that a soccer manager has to withstand in his day to day job. Even if one is not a soccer fan, then there is still plenty to enjoy in this accessible and polished film that mixes the real life case of Brian Clough’s turbulent 44 days of employment at Leeds United with a sprinkling of fiction.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Gossip + Misinformation = Information

In the Loop (2009, UK, Armando Iannucci): 10/10

Journalists only run stories they have verified from multiple sources.
Governments make decisions based on concrete evidence.

Ha!






































































The last few years have shown that gossip combined with misinformation tactics, used to great effect in the Cold War era, have rewritten the rules on how stories are published and how high level decisions are made. The hazy “truth” is complicated by the fact that there are now several 24 hour news channels who have to fill their air time by pointless analysis. For example, if a president coughs at a global meeting, numerous pundits are wheeled in to analyze the ramifications of that cough. The following morning, newspapers run the same stories about how the cough showed weakness and could signal the downfall of the president.

Armando Iannucci’s witty and hilarious In the Loop may be officially called fiction but no one seeing the film can fail to draw the connections with a certain invasion back in 2003. To Iannucci’s credit, the film does not really have any bad guys but portrays people trying to do their jobs. Ofcourse, there are some people who are better at their jobs than others, there are some who crack under pressure and some who are looking to advance their careers. Watching all these people collide with one another makes for a fascinating cinematic experience.

Friday, December 04, 2009

2010 World Cup Draw

So the countdown to the 2010 World Cup can now officially start after today’s draw.

Group A: South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France
Group B: Argentina, Nigeria, Korea Republic, Greece
Group C: England, USA, Algeria, Slovenia
Group D: Germany, Australia, Serbia, Ghana
Group E: Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Cameroon
Group F: Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia
Group G: Brazil, Korea DPR, Côte d'Ivoire, Portugal
Group H: Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile


The hosts, South Africa, are probably not thrilled as all the other teams in their group are stronger than them.  On paper, Mexico, Uruguay and France are all better than South Africa but the home support might give the South Africans a boost.  Also, the French team has a 50% chance of crashing out because their coach is still Raymond Domenech.

Group C appears to be a joke with all 4 teams probably glad that they got each other.  England may be delighted but Algeria, USA and Slovenia are also probably thrilled that they avoided some of the bigger teams.

Group H is too easy for Spain while Argentina and Italy won’t be too worried.  Brazil on the other hand will have their hands full with Ivory Coast and Portugal.  The Ivory Coast have once again gotten a tough group after they were paired with Holland, Serbia and Argentina back in 2006.

The Dutch have a decent group with Denmark, Japan and Cameroon while the Germans will get an average test with Serbia, Ghana and Australia.

Overall, with the exception of Algeria, all the other African teams have gotten some tough assignments.  Also, excluding Group G, this is a very light weight draw which means that the best games will only take place once the group stages are decided.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Man sitting on a chair looks at a goat....

One can now easily find copies of Jon Ronson’s book The Men Who Stare At Goats in Canadian bookstores but that was not the case 4 years ago.  In 2005, there was no movie deal and the book was largely unknown in North America.  I had not heard of the book when I first came across it in a London bookstore.  I found the title amusing and picked up the book.  After reading a few pages, I was still not sure what to make of it but I decided to take a chance on it.  It turned out to be money well spent as Jon Ronson’s book was a quick and delightful read.  Ofcourse, the most surprizing aspect about the book was that it was supposed to be true.  The topic of psychic soldiers was something one would have found in The X-Files or things that one believed would take place in Area 51 but here was a book giving names and details. Hmmm.

Another jaw dropping aspect about the book were the segments which were tied to the Iraq war, such as using the "I love You" Barney song as a torture technique. As part of this method, the Iraqi prisoners were locked away in a shipping container and strobe lights were used in conjunction with the words of the purple dinosaur repeated over a period of 24 hours.   Jon Ronson’s book was the first account I had read about such a torture technique but in the last few years other sources (books, newspaper articles) have talked about this and other torture methods meant to break prisoners.

I still have to see the movie but going by the trailers it looks to have ensured maximum humour by incorporating some of these bizarre and strange aspects from the book.  Going back to the title, it is about a master sergeant who stopped a goat’s heart from beating just by concentrating.  When I mentioned this to a friend, he referred me to the following video about fainting goats.


Now, this video does raise an interesting question. Was the original goat in the book a fainting one? Did that goat fake death? Or maybe the goat dropped dead out of boredom?  Ofcourse, all it took was one dead goat for a legend to be born :)

Here are some quotes from the book:

Glenn leant forward in his chair. 'You've gone from the front door to the back door. How many chairs are in my house?'

There was a silence.

'You probably can't tell me how many chairs are in my house,' said Glenn.

I started to look around.

'A super soldier wouldn't need to look,' he said. 'He would just know.'

'A super soldier?' I asked.

'A super soldier,' said Glenn. 'A Jedi Warrior. He would know where all the lights are. He would know where all the power outlets are. Most people are poor observers. They haven't got a clue about what's really happening around them.'

'What's a Jedi Warrior?' I asked.

'You're looking at one,' said Glenn.

In the mid-1980s, he told me, Special Forces undertook a secret initiative, codenamed Project Jedi, to create super soldiers - soldiers with super powers. One such power was the ability to walk into a room and instantly be aware of every detail; that was level one.

'What was the level about that?' I asked.

'Level two,' he said. 'Intuition. Is there some way we can develop you so you make correct decisions? Somebody runs up to you and says, "There's a fork in the road. Do we turn left or do we turn right?" And you go' -Glenn snapped his fingers - 'We go right!"'

'What was the level about that?' I asked.

'Invisibility,' said Glenn.

'Actual invisibility', I asked.

'At first,' said Glenn. 'But after a while we adapted it to just finding a way of not being seen.'

'In what way?' I asked.

'By understanding the linkage between observation and reality, you learn to dance with invisibility,' said Glenn. 'If you're not observed, you are invisible. You only exist if someone sees you.'

'So, like camouflage?' I asked.

'No,' signed Glenn.

'How good are you at invisibility?' I asked.

'Well,' said Glenn, 'I've got red hair and blue eyes, so people tend to remember me. But I get by. I'm alive today.'

'What was the level about invisibility?' I asked.

'Uh,' said Glenn. He paused for a moment. Then he said, 'We had a master sergeant who could stop the heart of a goat.'

There was a silence. Glenn raised an eyebrow.

'Just by...'I said.

'Just by wanting the goat's heart to stop,' said Glenn.


Quotes from Pages 14-15, 2004 Picador edition.

'A Warrior Monk,' said Jim, 'is someone who has the presence of a monk, the service and the dedication of the monk and the absolute skill and precision of the warrior.'

Quote from Page 44, 2004 Picador edition.

"The Bucha Effect"

It all began in the 1950s, Sid told me, when helicopters started falling out of the sky, just crashing for no apparent reason, and the pilots who survived couldn't explain it. They had just been flying around as normal and then suddenly they felt nauseous and dizzy and debilitated and they lost control of their helicopters and they went down.

So a Dr Bucha was called in to solve the mystery.

'What Dr Bucha found,' said Sid, 'was that the rotor-blades were strobing the sunlight and when it reached the approximation of human brainwave frequence it was interfering with the brain's ability to send correct information to the rest of the body.'

As a result of Dr Bucha's findings, new safety measures were introduced, such as tinted glass and helmet visors and so on.

'Believe me,' said Sid Heal, 'there are easier ways of doing sleep deprivation than going to all those great lengths. Barney music? Flashing lights? Sleep deprivation may be a part of it, but it's got to have some deeper hidden effect. My guess is that this is the Bucha effect. My guess is that they're going for the amygdala.'

Quotes from Pages 157-158, 2004 Picador edition.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Spotlight on the Arab World

1948 and the question of land...


Tick Tock. 1948. Silence. A minute later, chaos. Many Palestinians left, or were forced to leave, their homes in 1948 with the hopes of returning one day but their ownership documents are meaningless because legally now their homes belong to someone else. So what happens when all the surviving members of 1948 are gone? Annemarie Jacir provides one answer to that question in Salt of the Sea by showing an example of a third generation exile who keeps the memories of pre-1948 alive. In the film, Soraya leaves her home in Brooklyn to visit her grandfather’s land and retrieve his money. However, the bank can no longer hand over the money because in their eyes that old Palestinian branch no longer exists. So Soraya decides to rob the bank along with two accomplices. What follows is a road movie but in this case, the road passes through non-existent towns and streets because the old Palestinian towns are either renamed or in ruins. What remains of the original towns? Only their memories. After the original generation of 1948 has perished, only memories will remain about streets, houses and the smell of oranges.

Border and Checkpoints

In both The Syrian Bride & Rana's Wedding, a woman’s marriage plans are strained due to the presence of border and checkpoints respectively.

 In The Syrian Bride, the border in question is between Syria and Israel (Golan Heights) while it is the various checkpoints dividing the Palestinian landscape that cause a problem in Rana’s Wedding. Interestingly, in both movies the bride is played by Clara Khoury. Completing the border/marriage trilogy is Randa Chahal Sabag’s The Kite which shows a girl’s relationship effected by the border between Israel and Lebanon.


Three different films but all tied together by images of a female foiled by man made borders. The following image of a bride in a white dress heading towards the border in The Kite can be found in The Syrian Bride as well.


Internal problems
Sometimes one’s problems are not created by a border but by friction within a nation’s boundaries. The two Algerian films Barakat and Rachida show how the consequences of internal struggle can effect the daily lives of people.









In Barakat it is civil war while in Rachida it is terrorism that causes fear in the population. In both films, women are the main characters who overcome their fear and find new strength to carry on.  Interestingly, both films are also tied in another way -- the lead actress of Barakat is Rachida Brakni and her first name forms the title and character name of the other film.


Youth and life on the streets



The Moroccan film Ali Zaoua packs quite a punch in depicting the life of streets kids in Casablanca. While it is heart breaking to see young kids miss their childhood and head straight into an adult life of gangs and crime, credit must be given to director Nabil Ayouch for balancing the harsh street realities with a fantasy tale. The fantasy tale, which forms the basis of the title character’s quest to find an elusive land with two suns, lends a sprinkling of hope to the film. Such is the strength of Ali Zaoua’s belief that his friends go to great lengths to fulfill his wish and in turn give their lives a purpose as well.

All about the girl and some falafel...


The soothing lyrics of Yasmine Hamdan’s "Lili s’en fout" liven up the opening moments of Michel Kammoun’s charming and enjoyable Falafel. Whenever Hamdan’s voice comes on, we find the main character of Tou in a happy state. Tou has valid reason to be happy, especially when he learns that Yasmin will be at the party that he plans to attend. The night is progressing the way Tou planned but a series of incidents turn things on their head. After an altercation in a parking lot, a man strikes Tou’s face with a gun and leaves his face scarred. But the scar is more than skin deep and the violent incident eats away at Tou and he wants revenge. He manages to get a gun illegally and despite advice from his friends to cool down, he is determined to use his gun. However, he is saved in the most unlikely way thanks to the mystical powers of a rebel falafel. Yes, a falafel. It is true. Anything can happen in a magical night in Beirut.

What a Wonderful World

It is indeed a wonderful world. Every frame of Faouzi Bensaïdi ‘s What a Wonderful World is poetic and beautiful. Even though the wonderful individual parts of the film do not add up to a coherent whole, it is hard to resist the charms of this unique film. What a Wonderful World is a mesmerizing mix of a French comedy (references to Jacques Tati), a Spy spoof, a musical and a love story.


Films seen as part of this spotlight and in order of preference:

Salt of the Sea (2007, Palestine co-production, Annemarie Jacir)
What a Wonderful World (2007, France/Morocco, Faouzi Bensaïdi)
Ali Zaoua (2000, Morocco co-production, Nabil Ayouch)
Falafel (2004, Lebanon/France, Michel Kammoun)
Rachida (2002, Algeria/France, Yamina Bachir)
Enough! (2006, Algeria, Djamila Sahraoui)
The Kite (2003, Lebanon co-production, Randa Chahal Sabag)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

2010 Movie World Cup

In 2006, I conducted a personal movie World Cup to go along with the FIFA soccer tournament. The entire experiment of comparing films from the various countries turned out to be quite enjoyable and I repeated similar movie/soccer spotlights for the 2007 Copa America and Euro 2008. Now that all the 32 spots for the 2010 World Cup are filled, it is time to plan for another version of a movie World Cup. The format for the movie World Cup will be once again the same as the soccer tournament, meaning that I will divide films from the 32 countries into the same groups as the soccer tournament. The World Cup draw will take place on Dec 4, so the film groupings will have to wait until then.

In the meantime, I want to start thinking of finding titles from all the countries. Last time around, I watched the movies at the same time as the soccer tournament. That was a bit hectic, so this time I will start watching the movies as early as December and limit my viewing to only a few films per month. My target is to finish watching all the films by June 25, 2010, to coincide with the last day of all the group matches in the soccer World Cup. Another reason to start watching the movies this early on is to ensure I will have enough time to get as many movies from all the countries involved. In 2006, I could only find films from 22 of the 32 countries in the soccer tournament. I really want to get as close to 32 films as possible, although I have a feeling that getting a film from North Korea might prove to be a real challenge.

Here are the 32 countries:

Africa:
South Africa (hosts), Cameroon, Nigeria, Algeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast

Asia:
Australia, Japan, South Korea, North Korea

Europe:
Denmark, Portugal, Switzerland, Greece, Slovakia, Slovenia, Germany, Spain, England, Serbia, France, Italy, Holland

North, Central America and Caribbean:
USA, Mexico, Honduras

Oceania:
New Zealand

South America:
Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay

[Update, Mar 2010]

Rules

The group stages & second round games will follow a similar format to the soccer world cup as all 32 films will be divided into 8 groups of 4 films each with the top two films advancing into the second round. The 16 films in the second round will go through knock out head-to-head matches and be narrowed down to a two film final.

The films will be placed in the same groups as the soccer world cup groups and have the same second round draw as the soccer tournament as well.

Group A: South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France
Group B: Argentina, Nigeria, Korea Republic, Greece
Group C: England, USA, Algeria, Slovenia
Group D: Germany, Australia, Serbia, Ghana
Group E: Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Cameroon
Group F: Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia
Group G: Brazil, Korea DPR, Côte d'Ivoire, Portugal
Group H: Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile


Group Stage Points

In the world cup the maximum points a team can get from playing their 3 group games is 9. So 9 points is set as the maximum total that a film can achieve. There will be 5 categories used to reach this total for fiction films:

Direction, Acting, Cinematography, Story - 2 points each
Production Values - 1 point

There are quite a few documentaries in the mix and I decided to break the total for those into 3 categories:

Direction, Structure (which includes story and editing), Cinematography - 3 points each

Group Stage Tie Break and Second Round Criteria

Four years ago, it was easy to have this criteria because I did not have any documentaries but this time around trying to pick a winner based on fiction vs documentary is not so straight forward. So to keep things simple, a head-to-head match-up will only feature three categories - Direction, Structure (story and editing) & Cinematography.

In case, two films have the same number of points in the group stages, then a winner will be chosen based on this head to head match-up. The same head to head match-up criteria will also be used in the round of 16, quarter-finals, semi-finals, 3rd place and final.

If film A is better than a film B in a category, then film A will get 1 point and film B will get 0. In this situation, a maximum score can be 3-0.

If both film A and film B are equal in a category, then they each get 1 point. This could lead to a situation where two films will be tied 3-3. In that case, the winning film will be decided by a subjective vote, which I equate to a penalty shoot-out.

Selection Criteria

#1: Choose a previously unseen feature film solely from the country, meaning no co-productions.

There is no restriction on the film’s production year or the type, meaning the film could be silent, art, commercial, genre, avant-garde or documentary.

The problem is that it is not easy to locate films which will satisfy criteria #1. So I will go down the list of these four fall back options until a film is found.

#2: Choose a previously unseen feature which is a co-production of the World Cup country.

#3: Choose a previously unseen short film from the country.

#4: Re-watch an older film from the country.

#5: Pick a film which is about the country in question or is shot principally in the country.

If I end up at #5, then I am basically grasping at straws. So the #5 selection ensures some sort of representation for the country in question.  For example, if I cannot find a film from Nigeria, then I will resort to using the Canadian documentary Nollywood Babylon which is about Nigeria’s film industry.  Also, if I cannot find a North Korean film, I will re-watch the German documentary Comrades in Dreams which features a story about cinema in North Korea.

The unwritten rule is to ensure some sort of balance among the selections.  In 2006, I had no documentaries and only had narrative fiction features, so this time around I want to mix things up.  Also, I am not going to rush to select films but have multiple films in consideration before making a final choice.  The following is a wish list of sorts which is color coded to indicate the film’s status.

Green: Film has been selected
Orange: Film is in consideration and is available.
Red: Film is in consideration but is not available.



Note: An updated film list can be found here

The following is maintained as an archive of the original first cut:



England: Of Time and the City (Terence Davies)

Mexico: In the Pit (Juan Carlos Rulfo)

South Africa: U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha (Mark Dornford-May)

Japan: Human Condition (Masaki Kobayashi)

Argentina: Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso)

Portugal: I really want a Pedro Costa film.  The question is if the Criterion DVD of Colossal Youth or In Vanda’s Room will be released before the summer of 2010.

Chile: This is turning out to be a fascinating wish-list. Currently, I am keen on these three films in order of preference:

Historias de fútbol (Andrés Wood)
The Maid (Sebastián Silva)
Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain)

I had enjoyed Andrés Wood Machuca as part of my South American spotlight so I am looking forward to tracking down his football related Historias de fútbol.

Paraguay: Paraguayan Hammock (Paz Encina)

Not much choice in terms of picking a film from Paraguay as this is the country's only feature in the last 3 decades.

France: The following two are in consideration

Sans soleil (Chris Marker)
35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis) 

Spain: The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice)

I have not seen any of the three features that Erice has made so looking forward to seeing his 1973 film.

Italy: Il Divo (Paolo Sorrentino)

This is a co-production but I am leaning towards this feature.

USA: There is no shortage of choices or availability of films from the US which is why this is such a difficult selection. Currently, these two films from two very different eras are up for selection:

Ballast (2008, Lance Hammer)
Scarface (1932, Howard Hawks)

Update: Ballast gets the nod ahead of the 1932 black and white Scarface

Brazil: I may have to hold off on this because some potential Brazilian entries might be released in the early part of 2010. For now, the following is a desired selection and if it is available on DVD first, then I will select it:

Garapa (2009, José Padilha)

What makes this selection interesting is that it is a black and white Brazilian documentary which ends up being at odds with the normally brightly color infused Brazilian cinema that one finds on the film festival circuits.
Another option for Brazil: Margarette's Feast (Renato Falcao)

Greece: Dogtooth (2009, Giorgos Lanthimos)

Honduras: Amor y frijoles (2009, Mathew Kodath/Hernan Pereira) , El Porvier (Oscar Estrada)

Uruguay: Gigante (2009, Adrián Biniez), The Dog Pound (2006, Manolo Nieto)

Serbia: Maradona (2008, Emir Kusturica)

South Korea: Beautiful (2008, Jae-Hong Jeon)

Note: The option of Kusturica's Maradona does violate the selection criteria rules because the film is a Spanish/French co-production that is filmed primarily in Argentina. However, the reason I am willing to make this exception is that Kusturica is a Serbian film-maker and has shot a segment of the film in Serbia. Also, the inclusion of a film about Maradona in a movie world cup appears to make perfect sense.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Eastern Europe 3, Greece 2

Buick Riviera (2008, Croatia, Goran Rusinovic)

Goran Rusinovic’s brilliant film illustrates how hatred can persist through generations and lay dormant until one day it is unleashed into a full fledged war. On the surface, the film appears to be about two strangers whose chance encounter leads to volatile consequences but it is clear that the film is about more than just two people. The two characters give us one example of how hatred can suddenly flare out of a seemingly harmless situation and result in bloody revenge. In this regard, the film can explain why fighting broke out in the former Yugoslavia or why other cultures/tribes are in a race to destroy each other. The simple answer can be that people just don’t like each other. But why? Why don’t people like each other? Query this question and often the answers are the simplest things. An unreturned smile can immediately label someone as an enemy. And sometimes, ofcourse, a nice smile can cause distrust. Add all these little things up and you build a catalogue of distrust and hatred, eventually leading to horrific consequences.

Buick Riviera starts off in the snowy American mid-west. After Hasan’s car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, he is fortunate to get a lift from Vuko. The two exchange jokes and things are quite pleasant especially after they discover they are both from the same land. But Vuko’s constants remarks about Muslim behavior anger Hasan and he counters about Vuko’s Serb identity. Immediately, hatred and distrust flare up. Hasan heads home and things appear to have ended. But Vuko shows up at Hasan’s door, determined to buy Hasan’s beloved broken car (the Buick Riviera). The car becomes a ground for asserting each other’s control over the other -- Hasan needs to preserve his car while Vuko wants it at all costs. Watching the duo’s confrontation with confusion is Hasan’s American wife, Angela, who does not understand what is going on. Still, her character is essential because she serves as a moderator who oversees a critical scene in Hasan’s and Vuko’s battle at the dinner table. The camera work is brilliant in this dinner table scene where Angela is seated at the head of the table, equidistant from Hasan and Vuko who are across from each other. However, the camera’s perspective is altered in moments to make it like look that Angela is siding with Vuko in some debates. In this regards, the camera perspective portrays Hasan’s inner feelings of how he feels he is on the verge of losing everything. Memories of bloodshed in his former land come to Hasan’s mind and he is determined to fight back harder.

A fascinating film and one of the year’s best!

Link: Sarajevo 2008 write-up.

Border (2009, Armenia/Holland, Harutyun Khachatryan)

A dialogue-less picture which lets the powerful images speak for themselves. The film shows that if people can’t trust an animal from the other side of the border, then how can they ever get along with humans from across the border. At the film’s start, a buffalo is found injured near the border. The people from across the border tend to the buffalo and bring it over on their side. However, the village people and even the farm animals treat the buffalo with suspicion. Seasons pass and the buffalo appears to be assimilated with the people’s daily activities. Still when something does go wrong, it is the buffalo that is blamed.

The buffalo ends up being a symbol of a refugee, a stranger who finds himself in a different community and tries to adapt. A few subtle images highlight the strains of the border on everyday life and the distrust that exists of those on the other side. Even the buffalo appears to feel the strain of that border and yearns to break free of the human created border.

The director has called the film a blend of documentary and “live-action film” but the film’s keen observances of everyday life erase the boundary between documentary and fiction. This film does not feel like scripted cinema at all but is a rich work where an animal is used to expose humanity's many faults, especially intolerance of a stranger.

Link: Official website

Delta (2008, Hungary, Kornél Mundruczó)

A special thanks is given to Béla Tarr at the start of Kornél Mundruczó’s Delta. It is easy to see why that is the case because Delta incorporates a few touches from Tarr’s masterpiece Satantango and The Outsider. While Tarr’s films are in black and white, Delta is in color and this sets the film’s mood and atmosphere apart from Tarr’s work. Also, there are some scenes in Delta that evoke Lisandro Alonso’s Los Muertos and Theo Angelopoulos’ The Weeping Meadow. Overall, Delta is a visually sharp film and a real cinematic treat.

Dogtooth (2009, Greece, Giorgos Lanthimos)
Original title: Kynodontas

This Un Certain Regard winner is part Lars von Trier, part Ulrich Seidl with a touch of the absurd. The story goes from dark humour to shock in an instant with its depiction of family abuse and incest. The film may be hard to like but it is equally difficult to ignore this work. There is plenty to chew on in this film, especially regarding the consequences of a controlled environment that the father imposes on his family. The father creates a closed environment where he controls every aspect of the household from what the children see on tv to what they learn. However, his closely guarded world is threatened when the introduction of an outside element into the house changes the equation drastically. In essence, the film forms a twisted case study of the butterfly effect.

Strella (2009, Greece, Panos H. Koutras)

After Yiorgos is released from prison, he encounters Strella, a transvestite, in a hotel. The two sleep with each other but complications arise after their encounter. What follows has roots in Greek mythology but the film takes things to another extreme by adding a wicked twist. It is hard to talk about the film without giving the twist away but without the twist, there is really nothing to talk about. Still, the film manages to pack an emotional punch.

Trailer for Dogtooth

Thursday, October 29, 2009

(East + South East) Asia Spotlight

Ten films covering four countries:

China -- Fujian Blue, Fish Eyes
South Korea -- Rough Cut, Daytime Drinking, My Love Yurie
Malaysia -- Call If You Need Me, Karaoke, This Longing
Philippines -- Independencia, Adela

Call If You Need Me, Karaoke, Daytime Drinking, Rough Cut and Fish Eyes were mentioned previously in CIFF previews I & III. These five films are included here with shorter comments.

So in order of preference:

Call If You Need Me (2009, Malaysia, James Lee)

A visually sharp film that combines the style of diverse film-makers such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and Quentin Tarantino while still retaining a unique Malaysian flavour. Hou Hsiao-Hsien elevated a gangster film to an art form with Goodbye South Goodbye and James Lee does a very job in carrying on that tradition. Call If You Need Me is about gangsters and kidnappings but there isn’t a single gun or drop of blood to be found on screen. All the violence is kept out of the frame and we are instead shown events that precede or succeed a violent act. Because there is no violence shown on screen, we can instead focus on the characters and their day to day lives, including their love interests and their choice of food and drugs.

Karaoke (2009, Malaysia, Chris Chong Chan Fui)

This beautifully shot film attains a level of beauty normally associated with the cinema of Thai film-maker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, especially Tropical Malady. While the images are mesmerizing, one must also pay careful attention to all the sounds that can be heard. The lyrics of the Karaoke videos are also important as they provide a clue to the film’s three act structure.

This Longing (2008, Malaysia, Azharr Rudin)
Original title: Punggok rindukan bulan

The minimalist style of This Longing will frustrate some viewers but patient viewers will be rewarded with moments of beauty spread throughout the film. There are two stories here which are loosely tied and both show the gradual decline of an apartment complex in Johor Baru which is slated for destruction. The 90 minute long first segment is about the relationship between a young boy (Sidi) and his father. The second segment (about 30 minutes) features a completely different character, Riza, who returns home to have another look at the place where she grew up. After she arrives, Riza finds that the complex is almost empty as most of the residents have been relocated. Her walks through the same halls that Sidi passed through makes one question all the scenes in the first segment and whether Sidi and a younger Riza had crossed paths.

This Longing blurs the line between documentary and fiction not only because of its style but also because it was shot in a real apartment complex which was about to be destroyed. Seeing the cranes crunching away at the building at the film’s end (without any background sound) lends a haunting perspective to the story.

Fish Eyes (2009, Korea/China, Zheng Wei)

Zheng Wei makes an impressive debut with this well shot film that does not burden the screen with needless dialogue. The minimalist style works to perfection here as we witness the everyday events of a father and his son. Their daily routines are altered when a mysteriously girl shows up. While the father cares for the girl, the son sees the girl as someone who can be used to gain an advantage with the local gang.

Fujian Blue (2007, China, Weng Shou Ming)

The film takes place in the Fujian province and observes a slice of the human trafficking operation. On one hand we witness the methods of the local gangs seeking to profit from people wanting to leave China and on the other, we see the reasons for these people’s departure. Leaving one’s country illegally isn't easy and not without danger, but it isn't any easier to carve out a respectable living at home when crime and poverty are close-by. In this aspect, the film shares sentiments of Italian films set in the port cities during the 30's-50's when Italians sought to leave for America.

The vibrant look of Fujian Blue makes for a very calm watching experience despite the negative characters and situations on display. Overall, a worthy debut film and it is easy to see why it won the 2007 VIFF Dragons and Tigers award.

Independencia (2009, Philippines co-production, Raya Martin)

Raya Martin has certainly carved a unique style for this film with the studio sets, black and white film mixed with some staged newsreel shots. The controlled set environment allows Martin to play with the lightning (example, a studio light serves as the shining sun) and sound, thereby providing some of the film's best moments. The story spanning two generations is set against the backdrop of the island's historical aspects between the departure of the Spanish and the arrival of the Americans, with the American involvement in the Philippines growing steadily during the course of the film. The film's title proclaims Independence but that is an elusive concept as depicted by the film. Even at the film's end, we get a clue to impending blood shed that will take place on the islands when two foreign countries (America and Japan) will go to war.

It took me two viewings to appreciate the beauty of Independencia but I still missed out on some of the symbolism on the second viewing. When I saw the film the first time, the controlled set surroundings didn't produce a natural reaction in me because I could not bounce any emotional resonance off the stage settings. Only after the news reel appeared around the 30 minute mark, did I being to appreciate the film's humour and pokes at history. The second viewing was far more rewarding and allowed me to observe things with a different perspective.

Independencia could form an interesting double-bill with Kon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain. While Independencia ends with the Japanese yet to arrive on the Philippines, Fires on the Plain shows the American and Japanese soldiers locked in brutal war on the islands. Atleast, in Independencia we see the local Filipinos but the locals are hard to come by in Ichikawa's masterful work.

Daytime Drinking (2008, Korea, Noh Young-seok)

A delightful film that provides plenty of laughs with its sincere tale of love, friends, alcohol and good food. When I was not busy laughing, I was craving hot ramen noodles with cold beer just like the characters in the film.

Rough Cut (2008, Korea, Hun Jang)

Rough Cut is a fascinating no holds barred action film that puts a new spin on the traditional gangster genre. Some aspects of the film within a film story are similar to the extraordinary Korean film Dirty Carnival but Rough Cut has gone in a far more gritty direction with good effect. Kim Ki-duk's screenplay is different from anything he done before, and that includes the gangster film Bad Guy that he directed early in his career.

Adela (2008, Philippines, Adolfo Alix Jr.)

The film resides on quite an emotional and powerful performance from the 85 year old actress Anita Linda. The usage of the slum location adds to the film's realism and invites a glimpse into the character's lives. In this regard, the film is similar to other recent fascinating Filipino films set in real slum/shanty town locales such as The Bet Collector (directed by Jeffrey Jeturian) and Foster Child, Slingshot (Brillante Mendoza).

My Love Yurie (2008, South Korea, Ko Eun-Ki)

Donga falls for his neighbour Yurie but he can't have her because of one tiny problem -- Yurie’s father is the devil! To complicate things, Yurie's father forces his daughter into prostitution, something which further torments Donga. Desperate to gain Yurie's love, Donga has no choice but to make a deal with the devil. After the deal is made, Donga is happy but his happiness has restrictions because a deal with the devil always has consequences.

The film has a creative take on Goethe's Faust tale and the interesting set-up of two houses in the middle of nowhere is a great idea as it gives the film a timeless look. After a very good opening, the film goes off track around the point when Donga makes a deal with Yurie's father. As part of the deal, Yurie's father gives Donga a picture book which shows his future with Yurie. The scenes that follow do not sit in the film's previously developed ideas of the purity of love that Donga wants and the devilish nature of the trade that Yurie is involved in thanks to her father. Instead, these picture book scenes halt the film's flow and grind the story to a halt.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Two brothers and two fateful penalty shots



Rudo y Cursi (2009, Mexico/USA, Carlos Cuarón)

Ah. The beautiful game. It unites and can equally divide.

Two brothers, one a goal keeper and the other a striker. Mortal enemies on the field because of their opposing roles. One’s happiness depends on the other’s misery -- if a striker scores, then he is the hero yet if the goalkeeper blocks the shot, then the goalie comes out on top. An agent, Batuta (Guillermo Francella), is impressed with both brothers but he can only pick one, so he leaves it up to the brothers to decide who gets selected. Beto (Diego Luna), the goalkeeper, opts for a penalty shot to decide their fates.

As the two brothers run towards the goal, Beto indicates to Tato (Gael García Bernal) where he should shoot the ball.

“Shoot to the right”

“Let me block it. Shoot to the right.”

“Okay.”

Tato steps up and sends the ball perfectly to his right while his brother dives the other way. Batuta is impressed and asks Tato to meet him the next day. But Beto is upset.

“I said aim right! Why’d you shoot the other way?”

“I aimed right!”

“I meant the other right!”

“What other right?”

“My right, asshole!”

“You should have said to aim that way!”

The rivalry that was already present between the brothers intensifies. Tato takes a step towards healing that rivalry. After Tato makes it big, he forces Batuta to give his brother a chance. Sure enough, Beto is given his chance and manages to make his mark. However, the two brothers are plagued with problems off the field -- Tato throws his riches away on a fine looking gold digger named Maya while Beto gambles everything away.

Oddly, the brothers handle their off-field problems differently. While Beto’s gambling debt puts his life in danger, he still manages to shine on the field, keeping clean-sheet after clean-sheet. On the other hand, Tato’s goals dry up completely and he reaches breaking point when he learns that Maya is cheating on him.

Tato is on the verge of being sent to the second division and has one more game to salvage his career, while Beto is given one more chance to pay off his debts. Both brother’s get their chance to turn their lives around in the same game when they square off against each other.

It is clear how fate will decide the outcome.

A penalty shot. If a penalty shot kick-started their soccer careers, then it is appropriate that the two brothers face off again from 12 yards to decide the outcome of the rest of their lives.

Rudo y Cursi may feel like a Hollywood film in its treatment but the film redeems itself in the penalty shot near the end where the ironic fates of soccer and life in general are respected. The ending can only be written by someone who understands that, in soccer, games can end just as they start.

Note: The calm and soothing narration provided by the character of Batuta evoke the sentiments of Eduardo Galeano from Soccer in Sun and Shadow where Galeano poetically conveyed the beauty of the game.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Nordic Spotlight

Denmark leads the pack with 3 entries followed by one each from Sweden and Finland.

The Blessing (2009, Denmark, Heidi Maria Faisst)
Original title: Velsignelsen

This impressive debut feature tackles a topic I have never seen on film -- the day to day challenges that takes place for a couple after their baby is born. Most movies only go as far as showing the child birth process and focus their energies on packing in as many jokes and incorrect information leading up to the birth (example: unlike in most movies, a woman's water breaking does not mean that the baby will be delivered right away). So it is refreshing to see a movie that realistically portrays the complications and stress that takes place from not only from feeding the baby but handling the familial relationships that surround the arrival of a newborn. The young mother shown in the film suffers from post-partum depression and her situation is complicated by the fact that she is unable to feed her baby while having a strained relationship with her own mother. The husband does not understand the wife's situation and when he is away on a business trip, she slips further into misery and depression.

The film does an excellent job in depicting things as they are without spelling anything out. For example, the words "post-partum depression" are never mentioned nor are reasons given as to why the baby is crying (unable to drink milk). Any stoppages for explanations would have ruined the film's flow and one can imagine how such a script churned through a Hollywood studio would look quite dramatic and formulaic.

The film got a jury prize at the Göteborg festival.

An interview with Heidi Maria Faisst.

Guidance (2009, Sweden, Johan Jonason)

Just when Ylva is losing hope in finding a treatment for husband’s worsening depression, a young man approaches her to offer a radical treatment to cure her husband Roy. She convinces Roy to try this new treatment in a bid not to only cure him but to save their marriage. The treatment involves Roy to break contact with the outside world and as a result he finds himself stuck in a farmhouse located in the middle of nowhere where this young therapist goes about imparting his version of holistic treatment. But as it turns out, the young man is in more need of spiritual help than Roy.

This fascinating film shares the core sentiment of Todd Hayne's Safe in poking fun at so called spiritual teachers and does so with varying shades of ironic, dry and dark humour. The Dogma 95 style treatment gives the film a realistic feel and allows the audience to draw their own conclusions of either horror or absurdity.

Little Soldier (2008, Denmark, Annette K. Olesen)
Original title: Lille soldat

This rugged film tackles many brutal issues ranging from prostitution to human trafficking to the lingering scars of war. After Lotte (Trine Dyrholm) returns to Denmark drained from her war experience, her father offers her a job as a car driver for his escort business. The escort service needs a strong driver who isn't afraid to deal with hostile clients and Lotte fits the bill perfectly. That is until, she starts to sympathize with the conditions of the women in the sex trade, especially Lily (Lorna Brown). Lotte's background as a soldier and the cold relationship with her father certainly brings a new and sobering perspective to the prostitution trade run in some European countries.

Three Wise Men (2008, Finland, Mika Kaurismäki)
Original title: Kolme viisasta miestä

Mika Kaurismäki presents an interesting portrayal of the three main character's collective misfortunes and failures. A person is expected to gain wisdom with age, so goes the saying. While the film's three males have certainly aged, they are still grappling to gain any wisdom. Through the course of the film, their characters evolve and become a bit wiser, although with some pain and tears. The film does start to run out of steam near the end but is still engaging, albeit packed with plenty of misery.

The Escape (2009, Denmark, Kathrine Windfeld)
Original title: Flugten

Quite a relevant story about Afghanistan, journalism and political decisions about refugees. The film is about a Danish journalist Rikki (Iben Hjejle, High Fidelity and The Boss of it All) who escapes from the Taliban and reaches back to Denmark where she is proclaimed a hero. A colleague suspects something and sets about to dig up the real story because he believes the saying that no one escapes from the Taliban. But the truth isn't clear cut and things get murky soon enough. The film does take plenty of short cuts in portraying the story but still there are some worthy debating points in the film, especially regarding war criminals and refugees.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A new festival hits town..

This weekend marks the launch of the inaugural Calgary Arab Film Festival. In the last few years, quite a few different film festivals have started in this city but a festival focusing on Arab cinema was long overdue. Some people keep complaining that the city has too many film festivals but I disagree. In fact, I think the city has too few film festivals. The Calgary International Film Festival can't always cover the entire global cinematic spectrum, so it is essential that there are other festivals spread throughout the year that do justice to the multiple regions/genres of cinema that exist.

Regarding CAFF, I am impressed with the line-up for a first time film festival and clearly some planning and effort went into it. Also, the festival has spread their schedule out wisely by having a manageable total of 6 features + 2 documentaries.

Out of the 6 features, I have seen two films (Barakat and What a Wonderful World) already this past summer. So I restricted myself to only two films for the festival. On Saturday night, I caught Falafel and on Sunday night, I plan to watch Salt of this Sea, a film that I have wanted to see for more than a year.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Spotlight on Japan

A very healthy haul of 5, listed once again in order of preference:

Ain't No Tomorrows (2008, directed by Yuki Tanada)
Original title: Oretachi ni asu wa naissu

This is an excellent film that depicts the coming of age tale of a few teenagers with unflinching honesty. Considering that plenty of films mishandle the changing complex behaviour associated with a teen's sexual awakening, it is refreshing to see a film that does not shy away from handling the issues head on. The honesty of the film (along with the sexual conquests) feels a bit like Larry Clark's Kids but this film stands on its own.

Vacation (2008, directed by Hajime Kadoi)
Original title: Kyûka

Even though it deals with the grim topic of a prisoner's execution by hanging, the film maintains a poetic balance by depicting the story from the point of view of the prison guard who volunteers to work during the execution. As per Japanese law, a guard who works during the execution shift gets a one week vacation but there are clearly emotional repercussions associated with such a vacation. There are plenty of dialog-less shots in the movie where the actors expressions beautifully convey the sense of agony and pain their characters are facing. Also, the film is clearly meticulously researched regarding the Japanese prison system and the process involved with an execution.

Still Walking (2008, directed by Hirokazu Koreeda)
Original title: Aruitemo aruitemo

The style, shots and set design of Still Walking immediately bring the works of Yasujiro Ozu to mind. But that similarity ends as soon as the characters in Still Walking open their mouths. In most of Ozu's films, even though there was disagreement and resentment between the characters (be it children vs parents or vice-versa), the hatred was not out in the open. But in Hirokazu Koreeda's film, the knives are fully out as the family addresses each other with heavy doses of sarcasm and harshness. Given the tragic circumstances of the family gathering, the hatred is understandable because it is another form of failed expectations the family has of each other. Overall, a fascinating film that depicts the characters with a sense of beauty that Ozu would have been proud of.

Achilles and the Tortoise (2008, director Takeshi Kitano)
Original title: Akiresu to kame

Takeshi Kitano presents a light hearted spin on the Achilles and Tortoise tale by adapting it to the subjective world of art. The fact that Kitano has used his real life paintings in the film certainly suggest an autobiographical angle to the film. The only negative aspect is that the second half of the film repeatedly hammers home the same point over and over again by showing the (expected) rejection of the young artist's works.

Note: The art school segments echo the sentiments of Terry Zwigoff's Art School Confidential.

All Around Us (2008, directed by Ryosuke Hashiguchi)
Original title: Gururi no koto

A good film that manages to integrate the two strands of the main couple's relationship problems and the court room stories nicely. Just like Vacation, All Around Us balances a grim topic with a touch of beauty. The husband is a courtroom artist covering the cases of brutal killings but since the camera focusses on him and his art work, the impact of the crimes is lessened and the confessions of the criminals turn into background noise. This tactic allows us to see the husband's work just as a routine job and something that comes in the way of his marriage. The one negative about the film is there are plenty of repetitive situations, especially the court room parade of killers. Still, there is plenty to admire in this film.



David Bordwell discusses Still Walking and All Around Us near the bottom of this VIFF 2008 post.