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Friday, April 14, 2017

The Border Crossing

Desierto (2015, Mexico/France,  Jonás Cuarón)
Signs Preceding the End of the World, written by Yuri Herrera


For the last year, much of the news has been around illegal border crossings. This has not only been about borders in North America but around the world. However, the North American borders have gotten more attention due to the talk of building a wall costing billions of $$$. Buildings walls doesn’t come close to addressing the question for why people illegally cross the border in the first place. If the nations on both sides of the border were equal in every aspect, then there would no need for people to make illegal border crossings. Walls don’t highlight the financial burden people impose on their family to make such an illegal border crossing not to mention the physical and mental hardships associated with such a journey. Each border crossing is a gamble, a throw of the dice not knowing the outcome.

Jonás Cuarón’s Desierto depicts the dangers that come with such an illegal border crossing and what he has shown makes for grim viewing. The film gives ittle to no backstory about each character but it is evident that each person has their own reason for making the dangerous journey. Once the characters cross the border, the characters become prey to a man who drives a truck with a confederation flag. The man doesn’t believe in law and order and considers it his job to protect his nation’s border by killing as many border crossers as possible. The film was released back in 2015 but it is easy to know in real life which candidate this man would have voted for in 2016.

Desierto is a hunter-prey film with little dialogue and its most significant moments come when the camera pulls back to depict the vastness of the border, the vastness of the rugged landscape that is enough to defeat a person without any human intervention. It is in these moments of the border’s visual depiction that the film forms a bridge to the poetic depiction of the border crossing in Mexican author Yuri Herrera’s remarkable book Signs Preceding the End of the World. Herrera’s book is just over a hundred pages and moves at a fast breathless pace. The plot is creative and delightful but the book’s genius is how it abstracts elements related to the border crossing, both to the people making the journey and the objects they carry. In a few words, the book highlights the importance each person has with the objects they take:

“Rucksacks. What do people whose life stops here take with them? Makina could see their rucksacks crammed with time. Amulets, letters, sometimes a huapango violin, sometimes a jaranera harp. Jackets. People who left took jackets because they’d been told that if there was one thing they could be sure of over there, it was the freezing cold, even if it was desert all the way. They hid what little money they had in their underwear and stuck a knife in their back pocket. Photos, photos, photos. They carried photos like promises but by the time they came back they were in tatters.”

Desierto depicts this as well when Gael García Bernal’s character takes a teddy bear with him on his border crossing because it was something given to him by his son.
 
Herrera’s book also addresses how the border crossers are perceived. The following words are universal and could apply to countless people who make their dangerous journey across the border in search of a better life:

“We are to blame for this destruction, we who don’t speak your tongue and don’t know how to keep quiet either. We who didn’t come by boat, who dirty up your doorsteps with our dust, who break your barbed wire. We who came to take your jobs, who dream of wiping your shit, who long to work all hours. We who fill your shiny clean streets with the smell of food, who brought you violence you’d never known, who deliver your dope, who deserve to be chained by neck and feet. We who are happy to die for you, what else could we do? We, the ones who are waiting for who knows what. We, the dark, the short, the greasy, the shifty, the fat, the anemic. We the barbarians.”

Maybe one day people will figure it out. One day, people might understand why people illegally cross the border and work on a solution that eliminates the need for people to make that journey. This is not only a North American problem, but one that is found all over South America, Africa, Europe and Asia. Any place where one nation is economically better than its neighbour will lead to illegal border crossings.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The New Ozymandias

The beautiful game. Oh the cliches. The truth is that the game stopped being beautiful long ago. No, I take that back. The televised game stopped being beautiful long ago. The beautiful game still exists, far away from one that is shown on tv. The beautiful game can be found in streets around the world, dirt fields, bumpy/patchy open areas or any section of space that is transformed into a make-shift soccer field.

There is beauty in the movement, there is beauty in the passing, there is beauty in that perfect pass that is conceived in the mind but is yet to materialize. And finally, there is the ultimate beauty in a goal, the move that started it leading up to the ball ending up in the net. Joy for the team that scored and despair for the other. The ultimate emotional soap opera.

It is with these eyes that I once viewed the game, both on tv and on those streets far away from any cameras. But the game on the tv changed, slowly at first, and then rapidly. The movements became faster coupled almost with the fast pace of cash being poured into the game. Money does not always translate into wins even though the common perception is that the winning team is the one that spends the most. Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City banished that belief back in 2016 but that was a rare occurrence in the Premier League which seems to only distribute titles among a select few. 

They also say that money buys quality. But what is quality? In a 90 minute game, that quality only shows itself for 2-3 minutes and usually it manifests itself in a single goal. But a 1-0 win is still a win. And that is all that matters. A single goal.

4-5-1. The end of the beautiful televised game started with that. The suffocating formation used by two coaches to drain the game of any quality. 0-0 games. 90 minutes of 0-0. Nothing happened in those games. Now, 4-5-1 does not directly imply 0-0 but it is all in the execution. But two managers in England, one Portuguese, the other Spanish, used this formation in the most negative game killing manner possible. And then others followed. Then that formation eventually went away but the idea of game killers and negative players remained. Sure, 0-0 went away for the most part but somewhere along the way, attacking players, especially centre forwards started disappearing. The tradition centre forward is an endangered species in the game now. Most teams lust for a defensive midfielder in lieu for an attacking player.

As the money poured in, only a few teams were left competing at the top. The European Cup was once a tournament where a team could emerge from the shadows and steal a win. But slowly, the big clubs wanted to be there all the time. And so the Champions League was born. Teams who finished 2nd to 4th in their domestic league wanted to be there all the time. Such is the case of Arsenal.

For Arsène Wenger, going from an unbeaten championship season to 4th became the norm. The Arsenal board told Wenger that he had to ensure 4th every year until the new stadium debt was paid off. Prior to this requirement by the board, Wenger proclaimed that Arsenal could dominate English soccer like Ferguson’s Man Utd. Clearly, Ferguson didn’t take that well because he stayed in the game long enough to ensure no one could ever match his trophy haul. Ferguson delayed his retirement and found new ways to keep bouncing back and winning titles. Man Utd and Ferguson were Wenger’s rivals but after 2004, Wenger found a new rival in the foreign money coming into the league. Wenger was irritated by the new money that flowed into the English League and that likely reminded him of the bribery that took place in the French League back in the early 1990’s. The influx of money meant that Wenger changed his ways. His goal changed to be only 4th by spending as little money as possible. In doing so, Wenger forget his own target of dominating the league and winning league titles.

It has been 13 years since Arsenal last won the league. It has also been 13 years since this blog was started, with the first entry coming five days before Arsenal finished the 2003-04 season unbeaten.

So much has changed in this blog over that time, the structure, look, and content. My love for this blog has not changed in that period but the frequency of posting has gone down. That has not been by choice but by circumstances. Many posts have been written in my mind or my computer but never made it on the website. A perfect example is this post has been written in my mind many times over the last 7 years yet never actually posted.

It was January 2010 after Arsenal lost 3-1 at home to Man Utd that I uttered that Arsenal would never win anything under Wenger again. In a way, I was proven wrong as two F.A Cup titles arrived in 2014 and 2015 but the league has stayed elusive. Back on that day, Man Utd raced to a 3-0 lead and for once, there were no excuses for Wenger to hide behind. Until that game, Wenger could always blame other factors for his team falling short, such as an incorrect ref decision, a nasty foul, a bad pitch. Yet, on that day, Man Utd didn’t need to foul Arsenal, they didn’t need Rooney to dive for a penalty, they didn’t need a waterlogged pitch. On that day, Man Utd showed the tactical difference between the two teams. That game highlighted that Wenger had fallen well short of Ferguson and there was no catching up.

I uttered these words to other fans but was told to shut up. The belief in Wenger was strong back in 2010. Those fans said that it was only a matter of time before Wenger would lead Arsenal to glory again. That glory has not arrived. Instead, painful defeats have arrived at such a regular frequency that it is no longer a surprise. 

There is no fun in watching Bayern win 5-1 over Arsenal every time. Of course, there is no fun in watching Bayern play anytime, anywhere. Certain members of Bayern Munich’s establishment like to think their values are above the crazy spending of the English League. Yet, Bayern have poached many players from Dortmund. If Bayern had any values, why would they buy players from their rivals and keep strengthening at the expense of their opponents? As far as on-field play goes, a player such as Lewandowski can score at will. But, he also dives when needed. There lies the problem. Talented players who don’t need to dive continue to cheat all the time. It is now a part of the game. But it should never be part of the game. Divers can be punished afterwards, even if their name is Ronaldo, Messi, Lewandowski, Neymar, Rooney.

There is also no fun in watching La Liga where Ronaldo and Messi are always in constant battle to score more goals than each other. Real Madrid and Barcelona dominate the headlines and are so big that every player in every league says one thing “It is my dream to play for [Real Madrid/Barcelona”. The interviews are all the same. New players come and go, coaches are fired or forced out, goals are scored frequently, titles are won and the cycle continues.

Real Madrid, Barcelona represent the need to win titles at all costs while Arsenal are the opposite and represent a team that never wants to win titles at any costs. Neither situation is healthy. Yet, that is how things are. The Arsenal board and owner don’t care what happens. Wenger doesn’t care about winning and is intent on staying, like a dictator from one of those countries you read about in the news. Of course, this is how the cycle works. The man who transformed Arsenal from a boring football team into an exciting force is now also the man who has overseen its decay. He has tarnished his legacy and the bright future that he once oversaw for Arsenal is now in ruins.

I can finally say what I have wanted to say for a long time. Arsène Wenger and his stubborn ways have slowly destroyed my love for the televised game. He should have left 7 years ago, 3 years ago, 2 years ago. Yet, he wants to continue at Arsenal for another 2 years. He should not be allowed the luxury of that decision. He should not even be given another day at Arsenal.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Abbas Kiarostami


Cinema lost a leading voice when Abbas Kiarostami passed away in 2016. Mr. Kiarostami was one of the genuine greats of cinema. Anyone who started exploring global cinema was bound to come across one of his films at some point in their film paths. The one difference would be that each person would have discovered Mr. Kiarostami via a different film. Many in the west likely first came across his work with the 1990 film CLOSE-UP and others likely found his work after his brilliant film TASTE OF CHERRY won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes film festival in 1997.

However, Abbas Kiarostami was making films long before that. He started off by directing short films and documentaries from the 1970’s onwards. While these earlier works may have been unknown for most of the 1990’s, they started surfacing in the mid 2000’s. These earlier works are extremely valuable in showing he approached his cinema. Early in his career, he worked at the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Adults. This is probably why he is one of those rare directors whose films showed children with genuine warmth, compassion and honesty. In his early short films, children and animals played a big part. In fact, his first ever short film THE BREAD AND ALLEY, a 12 minute short made in 1970 features a boy and a dog.

Right from his first short film, he showed an ability to re-imagine a different way of shooting a scene. He wanted events to flow naturally and the camera to capture reality as it unfolded. The 12 minute short film shows traces of a neo-realist cinema but also an aspect that would come to define his film making style in the 1990’s, a style where the line between fiction and documentary is blurred.

He often used non-actors in his films and at times, it was hard to distinguish real life from fiction in his films. He often had audience guessing on what is real and what is manufactured. The placement of the camera played a big part in this technique and even then, Kiarostami didn’t follow conventional ways. He would mount his camera inside a car such as he did in TEN or have a camera facing an audience watching a film in a movie theatre like in SHIRIN. Except, things were not as what they seem. In SHIRIN, the audience is watching a movie that does not exist and the film is not shot inside a real movie theatre.

In Cinema Scope Issue No. 68, Quintín has noted that Abbas Kiarostami "was trained as a painter and a photographer". This training clearly played a big part in the beautiful landscape and visuals found in many of his films which take place outside the city in stunning Iranian countryside.

Mr. Kiarostami was able to realize his vision while living and working in his home country of Iran. As a result, in a way, he helped put Iranian cinema on the map and was a key part of the new wave of Iranian directors that emerged from the 1990’s onwards.

What is remarkable is that he continued making films in Iran despite the changing political landscape. He was born in 1940 and lived through many of the different political forces that have shaped Iran. Yet, despite the government changes, he was able to continue pushing the boundaries of cinema and art. His films often got to the core of meaning of art and life in general.

Like a true artist, he continued exploring new ways to expand his filmmaking. In 2010, he directed CERTIFIED COPY, shot entirely in Italy, his first film shot outside of Iran. In 2012, he made LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE shot in Japan and in once again in a different language. These two films marked a new and exciting point in his career. In an interview, Mr. Kiarostami said that many people around the world understood his films via subtitles. So he wanted to understand his own films via subtitles and that explains why these 2 films were shot in a different language.

He was next supposed to work in film set in China. Sadly, that was not to be. It is clear that he had a lot to offer to cinema.

The 2016 short film TAKE ME HOME, shot in Southern Italy, playfully manages to incorporate elements from his cinema. Like his earlier films, there is a little boy and there are some animals. The artistic beauty he found in landscapes are to be found in this film. And the concept of fiction vs reality is also seen. The short appear to be following a soccer ball in a natural manner. However, there is a very clear visual indicator in the film which lets us know what he is really up to. This short was released along with the documentary 76 MINUTES and 15 SECONDS WITH ABBAS KIAROSTAMI, directed by Mr. Kiarostami’s long time collaborator Seifollah Samadian. In this documentary, we get a true sense of how Mr. Kiarostami conceived his shots, how his training as a painter and photographer played a big part in his films. For those who are familiar with his films, it brings a new perspective to view his films. For those who are not familiar with his work, it provides an excellent starting point to see an artist at work.

As it turns out, TAKE ME HOME won’t be the last film of Mr. Kiarostami. Later this year, we will see his final film project getting a release. That film will be the movie event of the year!

Note: both TAKE ME HOME and the documentary 76 MINUTES AND 15 SECONDS were shown by the Calgary Cinematheque as part of a special tribute to Mr. Kiarostami.

Monday, February 27, 2017

THE HUMAN SURGE

THE HUMAN SURGE (2016, Eduardo Williams, Argentina/Brazil/Portugal)


Eduardo Williams’ stunning debut feature takes us on a remarkable journey around the globe, spanning three continents. THE HUMAN SURGE is structured in three parts starting off in Argentina (Buenos Aires) before moving to Mozambique (Maputo) and finishing its whirlwind global tour in the Philippine province of Bohol. In each of its three segments, the film depicts young people who are either trying to make ends meet by taking on different jobs or those who are in between jobs. Technology plays a key part in these different jobs and that also nicely ties in with the film's theme of exploring the impact of the internet and computers in our modern world. The film depicts an entire global cycle of jobs from manufacturing of computer parts all the way to how people use computers and the internet to earn money.

The internet and its wired/wireless network allows people to easily communicate around the world, thereby shrinking our planet. Williams has smartly used this network connectivity and shrinking of the world to depict jaw-dropping original cinematic transitions between the three parts. He has even managed to plug nature and its picturesque landscapes into our wired world. The end result is a film that is never short on movement, as it follows its characters through a network of paths, ranging from almost invisible paths to rugged larger-than-life trails.

Each path and subsequent journey is crafted with its own unique visual technique. The Argentine segment is filmed using 16 mm, while the images in Mozambique are filmed with an inventive mix of a Blackmagic pocket camera and 16mm, and a RED camera captures the tiniest details of the lovely Philippine environment. As a result, each segment has its own distinguishing colour palette and texture which matches the rhythm of the story. In keeping pace with its characters and the story, the camera is never static but hovers and wanders around its characters. In some sequences, the camera is freed from the confines of space and time thereby achieving movements that defy belief.

The end result is a film that takes us on a breathtaking journey of our non-stop, constantly shifting world. Winner of the Golden Leopard award in the Filmmakers of the present category at the Locarno Film Festival, THE HUMAN SURGE signals the arrival of a talented new director.


Essential reading about the film:

2. Max Nelson in Film Comment

HOMO SAPIENS

HOMO SAPIENS (2016, Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Austria/Switzerland/Germany)

In 2006, ruins were a tiny portion of Jia Zhang-ke's STILL LIFE and Pedro Costa's COLOSSAL YOUTH. But a decade later, they are the main focus of HOMO SAPIENS, an absolutely stunning documentary from Nikolaus Geyrhalter.

The film is a haunting and beautiful glimpse of our world without humans. We see real locations that are either abandoned or in a state of ruin. The film lets the everyday sounds filter in, sometimes the noisy waves or winds or in some cases birds flying in and out of the spaces. The end result is mesmerizing, engaging and contemplative. The film provides us enough moments to see our world with new eyes, complete with its waste and needless objects. It also gives a snapshot of what would happen if people had to leave a location immediately and what they would leave behind.

At times, the images evoke the Zone in STALKER and SATANTANGO. In this regard, we are given a view into the ultimate apocalyptic event without the usage of any special effects.

One of the best films of 2016!


Friday, December 30, 2016

Best Films of 2016

At times, it was hard to think of films in 2016 given the shifting political winds around the world. Thankfully, global cinema was in step with the changes and some films predicted the anger and shift to the right. Naturally, most of these films were only found at various international film festivals, cinematheques and arthouses. Hopefully, some of these titles start getting distribution in 2017 and find a larger audience.

Note: for the sake of an even comparison, only 2016 titles are considered for this list.

Baker’s Dozen of Top 2016 films

1. Take Me Home (Iran, Abbas Kiarostami)


Cinema lost a leading voice when Abbas Kiarostami passed away in 2016. The artistic beauty with which he crafted his films can be found in Take Me Home, a lovely short  film about a soccer ball’s journey. The short is beautiful, packs warm emotions and plays with the concept of reality. A precious final gift from one of cinema’s greatest directors!

2. Aquarius (Brazil/France, Kleber Mendonça Filho)


Even though the film is localized to a Brazilian apartment building, the events echo our current world of rapid development where the past is always in danger of being demolished for a shiny new future.

3. The Student (Russia, Kirill Serebrennikov)


The Student brilliantly portrays the recent changing political sentiment in Europe and USA. The film uses the radicalization of a lonely shy white male to underline that hateful ideas that may seem harmless at first can result in grave consequences if unchecked and allowed to spread.

4. Shin Godzilla (Japan, Hideaki Anno/Shinji Higuchi)


A film of immense beauty and fierce intelligence about creation, evolution, destruction, logistics and problem solving.

5. Nocturama (France/Germany/Belgium, Bertrand Bonello)


A tense razor sharp film that is stripped of any specific ideology but is completely aware of our contemporary world.

6. Nightlife (Slovenia/Republic of Macedonia/Bosnia and Herzegovina, Damjan Kozole)


This Slovenian co-production cleverly uses a single incident to depict how private events can quickly end up becoming public scandals. The film style has shades of the Romanian New Wave.

7. Silence (USA/Mexico/Taiwan, Martin Scorsese)


At its core, this is a film about imposing one's will on others. On a macro-level, this is a clash of civilizations/religions. But this idea of imposing ideas onto another takes place on micro-levels as well, from every day beliefs about sports, politics and even the weather. On a micro-level, these ideas may seem harmless and can be ignored. But this need to impose one's way can take on serious consequences on a macro-level. Throughout history, men (always men, which is why no female leads are in the film) have tried to convert others, to conquer other's soul, minds. Men did this because they believed their way was the only way. So they went about with extreme measures and tortured, killed until the others accepted.

Silence is not an easy film to watch and needs time to digest. But it is one of most significant and relevant films of the year!

8. Neruda (Chile/Argentina/France/Spain/USA, Pablo Larraín)


Creatively uses the poetry of Neruda to create a fictional framework which questions the reality and myth surrounding Neruda’s escape. Infused with humour and a scrumptious touch of noir.

9. Yourself and Yours ( South Korea, Hong Sang-soo)


In the films of Hong Sang-soo, characters open up their feelings and transform when alcohol is present. That point is hammered home in Yourself and Yours where the main character morphs into a completely different person as soon as a fresh pint of beer is served. The end result is a dizzying delightful work!

10. The Ornithologist (Portugal/France/Brazil, João Pedro Rodrigues)


A hypnotic journey which is an innovative mix of a fable and myth that seamlessly shifts through multiple cinematic genres.

11. In the Last Days of the City (Egypt/Germany/UK/UAE, Tamer El Said)
       tied with
      Clash (Egypt/France, Mohamed Diab)

Two completely different Egyptian films set in different eras but the two films end up having a dialogue with each other.


In the Last Days of the City is a poetic love letter to a Cairo that no longer exists. The film consists entirely of footage shot in 2009-10 and there are many scenes which may have seemed harmless back in 2010 but take on a much different meaning after the 2011 Egyptian revolution. In the Last Days of the City shows a time when people could roam the streets of Cairo freely and openly discuss political ideas. The freedom of the camera’s movement in Tamer El Said’s film is in stark contrast to Clash which is set in a confined space in the back of a police van.


Mohamed Diab’s powerful film depicts the division in Egyptian society that came to a boil in 2013. The confined space in Clash creates a powerful immersive experience and mirrors the state of society in 2013 in contrast to In the Last Days of the City.

13. Fences (USA, Denzel Washington)


A film that will always be timely due to the discussions about a racial past and also due to the honest practical conversations about relationships. The dialogues articulate what a relationship means and outlines the every day dollar value associated with decisions that people make. These dialogues won't apply to the 1% but for the 99%.

Honourable mentions (alphabetical order):

Elle (France/Germany/Belgium, Paul Verhoeven)
Hell or High Water (USA, David Mackenzie)
The Human Surge (Argentina/Brazil/Portugal, Eduardo Williams)
It’s Not the Time of My Life (Hungary, Szabolcs Hajdu)
Life after Life (China, Zhang Hanyi)
Mother (Estonia, Kadri Kõusaar)
Old Stone (Canada/China, Johnny Ma)

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Cinema of Lav Diaz

From What is Before (2014)
Lav Diaz’s cinema exists on the opposite end of the spectrum to the commercial cinema of rapid cuts and short takes. A one minute scene in these commercial movies consists of multiple cuts thereby eliminating the notion of real time. While these short take movies eliminate real time, they embody the sentiments of constantly scrolling social media where events take place in a blink of an eye. For some, these quick cut movies constitute exciting cinema. But it is a cinema whose purpose is to overload the senses and prevent any time for thinking or contemplation. Therefore, it is refreshing to find that a filmmaker like Lav Diaz exists whose films allow each scene to develop for as long as possible. A four hour film by Lav Diaz is considered a short film because many of his films are in the 9-10 hour range, with the longest film clocking in around 10.5 hours.

The films of Lav Diaz have been regulars at international film festivals but seeing them outside of a film festival used to be a quest in itself. For a long time, I was on this quest to see his films. Thankfully, my personal quest for seeing his films ended in 2013 when mubi.com showed CENTURY OF BIRTHING. Shortly after that, NORTE got a proper DVD release. I managed to see a few more of his films once again thanks to mubi.com

After those mubi screenings, a traveling retrospective of his films took place at various Cinematheques and arthouses. This led to a lot more coverage of his films and proper film criticism that examined his works beyond the headlines about long takes and running time. It appeared to a matter of time before his films would get wider circulation.

Well, that time is upon us now.

mubi.com is doing an entire year long retrospective of his works online, releasing one film per month. So far, Lav Diaz’s staggering EVOLUTION OF A FILIPINO FAMILY has shown and currently HEREMIAS (BOOK ONE: THE LEGEND OF THE LIZARD PRINCESS) is showing.

Here is some reading about his films to accompany the film viewing experience:








Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Shin Godzilla

SHIN GODZILLA (2016, Japan, Hideaki AnnoShinji Higuchi)

SHIN GODZILLA is a film of immense beauty and fierce intelligence about creation, evolution and destruction. A film that is operatic in its movement, contemplative in its stillness/silence and meditative in its depiction of politics, economics and science.


Even though it is about Gojira, the film cleverly uses Gojira as a lens to demonstrate human logistics and problem solving. How fast can humans mobilize and come up with a solution? How fast can humans ingest data and find a pattern?


The film also shows the political side of humans when decisions are made to crush a nation only for self-preservation.

The movie is rooted in Japanese identity and the film shows how Japan has been impacted since WWII but the film is also universal in depicting how outside governments and institutions can impact a nation. In this regard, some moments in the film point towards how outside influence has drastically altered the face of the Middle East and even Latin America.


One of the best films of the year!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

IKARIE XB 1


Jindrich Polák’s IKARIE XB 1 (1963) is one of the most significant Science fiction films ever made yet it is also relatively unknown even though its fingerprints can be found on numerous Sci-fi works such as Gene Roddenberry’s STAR TREK series (1966), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) and even INTERSTELLAR (2014). In many ways, IKARIE XB 1 laid the template for future sci-fi works, especially regarding the interior spaceship design and multi-national crew, elements that are associated with STAR TREK. Michael Brooke has noted in his IKARIE XB 1 essay that both Gene Roddenberry and Stanley Kubrick had viewed Polák’s film while researching for their works. However, there appears to be more than simple set design that is borrowed from IKARIE XB 1. The camera movements and shots in IKARIE XB 1 around the spaceship command centre/bridge, corridors/hallways and outside the ship have been used in many other films over the decades. In addition, the depiction of crew dynamics and psychology of some crew members is another memorable aspect of IKARIE XB 1, although credit for that can be attributed in part to Stanislaw Lem. 

The names of Pavel Jurácek, Jindrich Polák are listed in the screenplay credits of IKARIE XB 1 but the movie is based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem as noted by Allan Fish in his memorable 2015 essay. Lem’s novel ‘Solaris’ is his more famous film adaptation but ‘The Magellan Nebula’ adapted into IKARIE XB 1 deserves worthy praise for exploring the dynamics of a multi-racial/multi-national crew consisting of both sexes and different age groups. Stanislaw Lem is known for his Science fiction writing but he also wrote non-fiction which brimmed with ideas about technology, artificial intelligence (although Lem called it “Intellectronics”), virtual reality (Lem called it “Phantomology”) and man’s place in the universe. Therefore, it is not a surprise that his work helped lay the groundwork for future Sci-fi films which showed machines/computers taking control and humans ultimately losing their mind on board a spaceship. The latter is something shown in IKARIE XB-1, although it takes place long after the music and dancing has stopped, long after all communication has ceased.

IKARIE XB 1 takes place in 2163, two centuries after the film was released in 1963. A multi-national crew is en route to find life in the Alpha Centauri solar system. We meet a captain whose thoughts and concerns are conveyed to us via a voice-over narration (if you listen carefully, you can see the birth of a future Captain Kirk here). The camera moves around the command centre depicting each crew member on their panel, a shot repeated many times in STAR TREK. Initially, we see the crew enjoying themselves, working out in a large gym with enough space for the members to practise gymnastics and even shower together (shown without the nudity of STARSHIP TROOPERS). One character (MacDonald, played by Radovan Lukavský) is shown talking with his wife back home on earth via a giant screen about what it will be like to be reunited with her and their unborn daughter who will be 15 years old when the ship returns to Earth (the father-daughter age gap dynamic is explored further in INTERSTELLAR).

The celebration and crew discussions are suddenly halted when a deserted alien ship is discovered, a story arc explored by numerous films over the years. Although, in the case of IKARIE XB 1, the alien ship turns out to be an old human exploration vessel from 1987. All the crew of the 1987 ship are found dead but their bodies are frozen in the last action they were doing before they met their end. The discovery of the old crew ship sets in motion events which cause confusion and some anxiety in the lives of the Ikarie crew members. In addition, radiation from a nearby dark star threatens their lives leading to one crew member, Michal (Otto Lackovic), losing his wits and demanding to go back to earth. The mental breakdown of a character is now a common element found in many Sci-fi films, an element that leads to either horror or plenty of blood. But in the case of IKARIE XB 1, there isn’t any horror or gory finale related to Michal’s breakdown. Instead, the film ends on a hugely positive note and indicates a new dawn lies in store for the crew.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that a Czech film like IKARIE XB 1 laid the foundations for many Sci-fi films set in outer space. After all, it was Karel Čapek’s 1920 Czech play that coined the word ‘robot’, a term that is now forever part and parcel of the Sci-fi genre and even our real world. In a similar manner, Jindrich Polák’s IKARIE XB 1 is a film that is a huge part of the existing Sci-fi genre and contains elements that have been used in many variations in a huge number of memorable Sci-fi films.

Note: cross-published on Wonders in the Dark as part of the Sci-fi countdown.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Calgary International Film Festival 2016


The Calgary International Film Festival’s World Cinema Series provides a snapshot of some of the best contemporary international directors working today in a diverse range of genres. The 26 films in this series cover an entire spectrum of genres – action, adventure, comedy, coming-of-age, crime, drama, fantasy, historical fiction, horror, magic realism, mystery, neo-noir, political, romance, road journey, thriller and science fiction.  There is no Western genre but one of the films pays a delicious tribute to it with a soulful finale (sorry, no spoilers). This series covers six continents, leaving only Antarctica out in the cold, and offers a unique chance to travel the world without leaving the comfort of Calgary! 

Works from many nations are returning to CIFF with two nations making their CIFF debut. MOTHER (Estonia) and BARAKAH MEETS BARAKAH (Saudi Arabia) are the first films from their respective nations to ever feature at CIFF. In addition, IN THE LAST DAYS OF THE CITY marks a welcome return for Egypt as it has been more than a decade since an Egyptian film played at CIFF. In addition, there are special returns for two directors, Maren Ade and Park Chan-wook. Maren Ade came to Calgary back in 2009 when her powerful film EVERYONE ELSE competed in the Mavericks category. Now, CIFF is proud to feature her film TONI ERDMANN, which was a critical favourite at Cannes this year, and a front-runner for the Palme D’Or. Park Chan-wook’s SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE showed at the Globe during a midnight slot as part of CIFF 2003. That year, the Korean New Wave of Cinema was just about to take off and Park Chan-wook’s SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE and subsequent feature OLDBOY played an integral part in helping put Korean cinema back on the international map in the coming decade. This year, he returns with THE HANDMAIDEN, a film that shows him at the top of his directorial powers. Each film in the World Cinema Series stands on its own in offering a different perspective of cinematic techniques and styles but there are some common elements which bind the works within each region.

Latin American Cinema is lovingly covered by five films at CIFF 2016: BLEAK STREET (Mexico), KILL ME PLEASE (Brazil/Argentina), NERUDA (Chile), ROAD TO LA PAZ (Argentina) and ROSA CHUMBE (Peru). With the exception of NERUDA, the remaining four films give the viewer a multi-layered perspective of contemporary Latin American life and range from a realistic view of street life to middle-class households and a peek at residents living in high-rises. BLEAK STREET is based on a true story, and allows the viewer to see a gritty side of Mexico by depicting events through the intersection of two mini-luchadores and two prostitutes. KILL ME PLEASE is a fascinating mesh of coming-of-age and horror but is also a smart commentary on the new spaces being developed in Brazil. The entire film is set in Barra da Tijuca, a neighbourhood in the West zone of Rio de Janeiro, where new developments were completed in time for the Rio Olympics. Even though the film is set in Rio, there isn’t a beach in sight as the film explores how the new spaces impact the younger generation whose lives are shaped more online. ROAD TO LA PAZ  and ROSA CHUMBE are two completely different films, but are linked together by the soulful journey their main characters undergo. Finally, NERUDA takes us back to the late 1940’s when Pablo Neruda had to leave Chile due to his political affiliations. The film is a blend of fiction and history but it also illustrates the role politics has played in shaping Latin America.

European Cinema is comprehensively covered with a dozen films representing directors hailing from the northern, eastern, western and southern parts of Europe: ADULT LIFE SKILLS (UK), ALOYS (Switzerland/France), AMERICAN HONEY (UK/USA), ETERNAL SUMMER (Sweden), THE MIRACLE OF TEKIR (Romania/Switzerland), MOTHER (Estonia), THE OPEN (France/Belgium/UK), PERSONAL SHOPPER (France), THE STUDENT (Russia), SUNTAN (Greece), TONI ERDMANN (Germany/Austria) and TRESPASS AGAINST US (UK). All of these films are fully developed character-driven stories that are richly shaped by their surroundings. The films may be rooted in a specific country or a location but their messages are universal. This is illustrated perfectly by THE STUDENT (pictured above), a film which shows how differing ideologies can shatter an established system. The film is set in Russia but the messages in the film perfectly explain the current divisive political sentiments in Europe, USA and the rest of the world. AMERICAN HONEY is set in USA but directed by award-winning British filmmaker Andrea Arnold and exhibits how a European cinematic sensibility can be transported to another continent altogether.

Asia is covered from the Middle East to Japan with seven exciting features: BARAKAH MEETS BARAKAH (Saudi Arabia), THE HANDMAIDEN (South Korea), HARMONIUM (Japan), ISLAND CITY (India), OLD STONE (Canada/China), ONE WEEK AND A DAY (Israel), and A VERY ORDINARY CITIZEN (Iran). Six of these Asian films are rooted in contemporary times while Park Chan-wook’s stylish thriller THE HANDMAIDEN (pictured above) is set in the 1930s. Park Chan-wook has gone on an opposite path to Andrea Arnold. With AMERICAN HONEY, Arnold transported her British style to America. On the other hand, Park Chan-wook has adopted a Welsh novel (Sarah Walter’s Fingersmith) to 1930s Korea. The remaining six Asian films explore the rules, codes, rituals and family life dynamics found in many Asian countries with treatments ranging from humour to jaw-dropping and nail-biting scenarios. In A VERY ORDINARY CITIZEN, director Majid Barzegar and co-writer Jafar Panahi have creatively shown how romance causes an 80-year-old man’s routine to be altered. Romance also leads to the breaking of protocol in BARAKAH MEETS BARAKAH and ISLAND CITY but these films use humour to show their characters journey. The Canadian/Chinese co-production OLD STONE uses a potent mix of neo-noir and cinéma vérité to show how one character’s disobeying bureaucratic rules throws his life into chaos and alienates him from his family. This concept of alienation in a family is also brilliantly covered by ISLAND CITY, ONE WEEK AND A DAY and HARMONIUM; these films show that underneath the surface, a family consists of individuals who lead lives unknown to the other members.

Finally, the multi-award-winning films GIRL ASLEEP (Australia) and IN THE LAST DAYS OF THE CITY (Egypt) powerfully stand-in for their respective continents. The diverse style of films in CIFF’s World Cinema Series has something for everyone, including multiple tantalizing itineraries for a cinematic journey around the world. One proposed itinerary could allow one to start off the morning with freshly baked Sangak/bread in Tehran (A VERY ORDINARY CITIZEN), then join a religious procession in Lima (ROSA CHUMBE), go investigating in the Swiss countryside (ALOYS), head out on a road trip (AMERICAN HONEY, ETERNAL SUMMER, ROAD TO LA PAZ), stop for some shopping in Mumbai (ISLAND CITY), relax on a Greek beach (SUNTAN), rejuvenate with some sacred mud from the Danube (THE MIRACLE OF TEKIR), enjoy a nice Japanese family dinner (HARMONIUM) and stay out all night with close friends watching the sun come up in Cairo (IN THE LAST DAYS OF THE CITY). 

In modern times, technology may have brought the world closer, but understanding the world and other cultures is still an elusive concept. This is where International Cinema plays a crucial role as it gives a peek into other cultures and ways of life. In this regard, Calgary International Film Festival’s World Cinema Series allows the audience to explore the world without having to buy an expensive plane ticket.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Best Films of 2015

Ten months into 2015, I was able to have a better handle on the best films of 2014. Similarly, almost 8 months into 2016, I have a better picture of the best films of 2015. Therefore, another correction is due.



A new updated Best of 2015 list would look like this:

1. The Treasure (Romania/France, Corneliu Porumboiu)
2. The Pearl Button (Chile/France/Spain/Switzerland, Patricio Guzmán)
3. Kaili Blues (China, Gan Bi)
4. Aligarh (India, Hansal Mehta)
5. Embrace of the Serpent (Colombia co-production, Ciro Guerra)
6. El Movimiento (Argentina/South Korea, Benjamín Naishtat)
7. Blood of my Blood (Italy/France/Switzerland, Marco Bellocchio)
8. Right Now, Wrong Then (South Korea, Hong Sang-soo)
9. 45 Years (UK, Andrew Haigh)
10. Masaan (India/France, Neeraj Ghaywan)

I do expect some further changes in the next few months as I still have to catch up with some 2015 titles. However, it is clear that 2015 was a far stronger and richer year in film that I had originally thought.

Monday, August 01, 2016

The Truman Show


Many ideas in Science fiction films may appear far fetched when the film is first released yet over time, some of those ideas end up becoming far more believable due to technological advances or changes in our society. For example, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY depicted computer devices which allowed one to read information from around the world, including newspaper articles. Such a device may have seemed unbelievable back in 1968 when the film was released but now laptops and the internet are commonplace. Similarly, the immense popularity of a reality tv show as presented in THE TRUMAN SHOW didn’t seem that plausible back in 1998 even though there were a few examples of such shows that already existed when the film was released such as MTV’s THE REAL WORLD. However, THE TRUMAN SHOW appeared to take the idea of a reality show too far. The film depicted a young baby born and raised entirely in front of the world via a 24 hour non-stop television show created by Christof (Ed Harris). 1.7 million people witnessed the birth of Truman Burbank and the audience kept climbing as Truman grew up into an adult (Jim Carrey). Truman lives and works entirely in the world’s largest constructed TV set, a fictional town called Seahaven, where all the other inhabitants are actors and extras employed with the sole purpose of assisting Truman as he goes about his ‘real’ life. When the film first came out, it appeared unrealistic that people would devote hundreds of hours watching Truman do mundane everyday tasks. But now in 2016, THE TRUMAN SHOW appears to have foreseen our current television landscape which is populated by hundreds of reality tv shows which depict ordinary people going about their daily activities or in some cases, taking part in a contest on a constructed set. On top of that, the rise of social media and smartphones has allowed far more reality to be presented non-stop either as entertainment or a form of news. Today, reality is always available, in one shape or form.

THE TRUMAN SHOW is directed by Peter Weir but the story is written by Andrew Niccol who is no stranger to Science fiction. Andrew Niccol wrote and directed GATTACA (1997), one of the best Sci-fi films ever made. Yet, both films could not be more different. On the surface, GATTACA is easily identifiable as a Sci-fi film due to its futuristic tone, visuals and story. While, THE TRUMAN SHOW appears to be a variation on conventional scripted television shows as there are no commercial breaks and the main star is not an actor. However, scratching beneath the surface shows that THE TRUMAN SHOW shares ideas with another Sci-fi film about reality vs illusion.

“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill -- the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill -- you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

The above words spoken by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) in THE MATRIX are the direct opposite of the choice that Christof (Ed Harris) gives Truman Burbank in THE TRUMAN SHOW.

In THE MATRIX, Morpheus wanted to open Neo’s (Keanu Reeves) eyes to the reality, he wanted Neo to see the bits and bytes for what they really were. Morpheus didn’t want Neo to stay asleep. On the other hand, Christof doesn’t want Truman to wake up from his slumber. He doesn’t want Truman to even reach towards the red pill. When Truman is finally on the verge of truly waking up, Christof tells Truman: “There’s no more truth out there than there is in the world I created for you.”

These words clearly highlight the difference between Morpheus and Christof. Morpheus never proclaimed to be a God, nor did he envision himself as a creator of a world. Whereas, Christof always envisioned himself as the creator of Truman’s world. Christof oversaw every aspect of Truman’s life, right from his selection for the game show as a baby. He witnessed Truman’s first steps, first day of school and when Truman lost his first tooth. Christof controlled all aspects of Truman’s life, such as deciding where Truman went. For example, when Truman had ideas about leaving Seahaven, Christof placed obstacles in his path like a barking dog on the pier or a teacher squashing Truman’s hopes of sailing around the world to discover new places. Christof even decided when to get rid of Truman’s father on the TV show. And after a 22 year absence, he orchestrated the reunion of Truman with his father, complete with musical cues to heighten the emotional moment for a television audience.

Christof created Truman’s world and it was entirely to his advantage to ensure that Truman continued to believe in the illusion of the fake world of Seahaven. The manufactured Seahaven was Christof’s reality as well and he wanted to exist in it as long as possible. Early on in the film, Meryl Burbank (Laura Linney) who plays Truman’s wife says that there is no difference between her private and public life and that the TV show is her life. In that regard, she along with Christof continue to take the blue pill everyday. The film shows a few characters who tried to tear the fabric of the TV show but were taken away. Natascha McElhone’s character of Sylvia tried to tell Truman about the red pill but she was removed from the TV show. Instead, she is forced to continue her struggle to free Truman in the real world which lies outside of Christof’s closed off world. Christof is convinced that Truman will never wake up and mentions that “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.” These words have a resonance with the concept of reality that Morpheus talks about in THE MATRIX and have roots in Buddhism, where people accept the illusionary nature of the world before them. However, Truman does wake up. And when he is about to enter the real world, his signs off with his trademark TV show words: “In case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening and good night.” With those words, Truman finally unplugs himself from Christof’s Matrix.