Sunday, November 27, 2005

Cup Finals and Kitchen Stories

Cup Final (Directed by Eran Riklis): Rating 6.5/10

Ah Football! How it brings different people together! Cohen is all set to attend the 1982 World Cup Final in Spain. He has his game tickets and can’t wait to attend matches of favourite Italian national team. But his plans are ruined when Israel invades Lebanon. Since Cohen is in the military, he has no choice but to head to the border and sit around, hoping to not get killed. And things get worse for him as he is kidnapped by a bunch of freedom fighters (who are fighting for Palestine’s cause). These people take Cohen and his friend hostage and move around the country, hoping to use the two captured men as bargaining tools when they reach Beirut. It turns out that two of the freedom fighters have some Italian blood in them and support the Italian national team. Even though Cup Final is a contrived movie, it feels sincere. It has the innocence shown in The Cup which was a movie about two Buddhist monk kids who go to great lengths to see the 1998 World Cup Final. As Cohen and his captors easily move across a war ravaged land, they manage to catch snippets of the World Cup and the Italian national team’s progress. And as expected the movie ends just as Italy thrashed W. Germany 3-1 to win the World Cup.

Kitchen Stories (Directed by Bent Hamer): Rating 8/10

After watching Bent Hamer’s Factotum at the London Film Festival, I was keen to see this 2003 award winning film that made the Norwegian director a known name. Kitchen Stories is a simple yet touching work. In order to better improve the kitchen lives of house wives, the Swedish Home Research Institute decides to investigate the kitchen habits of single men. So they send out a bunch of researchers to Norway. Each researcher will study the habits of a single male host (who volunteered and are awarded a toy horse in return for their troubles). The researchers will live in a trailer outside the host’s home and be free to walk into the host’s home at any time; he will sit on a high chair in the host’s kitchen and make notes about the single male’s walking patters, kitchen usage, etc. One strict rule is that the researcher should never interact with the host and not disturb his life in any possible way. The results of the experiment will be in jeopardy if the researcher is found to be talking with the host. But is it truly possible to understand someone merely by observing them? Isn’t it necessary to talk to someone to understand what they want? Folke is meant to objectively study Isak but Isak is a very difficult person to observe – for example, Isak turns off the kitchen light when his researcher is making notes, he hangs his wet laundry in the kitchen so that he can’t be observed. But slowly but surely, the two men begin to understand each other despite hardly speaking. And here lies in the beauty of the movie. Why bog down a film with dialogue when expressions can speak so much? Eventually they talk to each other and the two lonely men form a bond with each other. I quite liked this tender story. And Hamer does add a touch of subtle humor in this movie – he shows how people behave, how the Swedes and Norwegians view each other, etc.

Pianos, Karmic Cycles and a Joint Security Area

The Beat that My Heart Skipped (Directed by Jacques Audiard): Rating 9/10

The only reason I went to see this movie was because of Romain Duris and I was not disappointed. Duris is quite good as the reluctant gangster. He plays Thomas, a real estate enforcer who is brought into the business by his dad. Thomas and his gang hunt for open real estate property, take it over and then sell it for redevelopment. Sometimes they have to be tough and kick people out, but it is all part of their shady business. One day, Thomas runs into his old Piano teacher. His teacher always felt Thomas had potential and was Thomas’s mother’s teacher. He wonders if Thomas is keeping up with his training and after Thomas replies in the affirmative, his teachers asks him to come for an audition. That gets Thomas motivated and he finds a new zest in life. The music moves him and he believes that is his one chance to escape his current way of life. So does Thomas succeed? Well the movie is very realistic in its approach and manages to show an ending which is alternate to the two obvious options – one where Thomas succeeds in music and the other where he fails and returns to his old way of life. It is an engaging movie for sure.

Running on Karma (directed by Johnny To): Rating 7/10

The second half of the movie is not your typical Johnny To stuff but it works, somewhat. A beefed up male stripper is arrested by the cops. But as it turns out, this former martial arts monk has special powers – he can see people’s futures based on their karma, meaning he knows what will happen to someone based on that person’s former actions. The fake body suit on Andy Lau looks funny as first but after a while, you get used to it. The karmic angle to the second half of the flick is interesting enough but I wish the movie had gotten there earlier. Ofcourse, the required fights and chases are necessary in the first half. The transition between the two halves gives the feeling that Running on Karma is really two movies spliced together.

Joint Security Area (directed by Chan-wook Park): Rating 7.5/10

Long before there was the Revenge trilogy (OldBoy and the two Vengeance movies), Chan-wook Park actually worked on normal movies. Plain, simple stories with no chopping and cutting! This movie centers on a border check post between North and South Korea. A massacre has taken place and a neutral party consisting of Swiss and Swedish personnels is sent to investigate. It so happens that one of the Swiss investigators is a woman of Korean heritage who has never been to Korea before. As she works to peel the truth and tries to understand the accused and defender, she learns a little about her father as well. JSA is an interesting movie which highlights the absurdity of man made borders.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Green Butchers

The Green Butchers (written and directed by Anders Thomas Jensen): Rating 7/10

Dark Comedy. Really dark. The title immediately reminded me of an episode of the Twilight Zone and even of Delicatessen. And sure enough, I was not far off. But to the director’s credit, he has penned down interesting characters but the movie was too predictable as it wind down towards the end. Two frustrated assistants (Svend, Bjarne) in a Butcher job want to open their own shop. So after breaking the bank, they put everything on the line and manage to open their shop. But no one comes. And one day, when the previous employer shows up, Svend serves him something he shouldn’t have. He panicked -- he didn’t think his marinade was good enough so he felt he needed a secret meat. And the secret meat becomes a hit. With that comes the problem of morality and Bjarne tries to straighten out Svend but Svend does not listen. Instead he rationalizes his own actions and the secret carving continues. In the end, despite all the wrong doings, things end well. Might be difficult to stomach but not a bad movie. The movie won quite a few awards and had I not seen similar things previously, I might have thought more of it.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Hitch-hiking around a Galaxy, Saving a Planet, Observing Secret Things while killing Shadows

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (directed by Garth Jennings): Rating 7/10

I quite enjoyed the 5 original books. So I was bit skeptical when I saw the movie trailer. Hence, I avoided the movie for a while. But having seen the movie, I am impressed -- it was not as bad as I had thought it to be. The first 20 minutes were painful to get through but after that, I didn’t mind it as much. And it does a decent job of retaining key material from the books and making it into an easy flowing movie.

Overall, I was let down by the flat acting of the main characters, like Martin Freeman (of the Brit Comedy the Office) playing Arthur Dent. In fact, the best character in the movie is not a human at all – Alan Rickman is hilarious in being the voice of Marvin, the ever so depressive robot. For example, Marvin gets depressed when he learns the spaceship’s computer does not like him.

Save the Green Planet (written and directed by Jun-hwan Jeong): Rating 6.5/10

So much potential, so many smart ideas but in the end, this 2003 Korean movie falls down under the heavy weight of its own doing. It is hard to pin down as a single genre – dark comedy, thriller, sci-fi and a torture flick like Saw all rolled into one. A man claims a chairman of a leading company is an alien. Fine, we are willing to go with his claim. So he kidnaps the chairman with the help of his girlfriend. He tortures the chairman, but we don’t see any proof of alien being. Could the narrator be insane? This is when the dark comedy starts to cross boundaries and head into darker undertones. So far so good. A side story develops when detectives try to trace the whereabouts of the chairman – arrogant useless detective vs know-it-all outcast detective. And sure enough there is a young detective from the useless group who worships the know it all. They work together and come close to solving the case. But then the know-it-all goes missing. Hmm…When the movie ventures into needless torture and drags on and on, it loses all the potential it had built up. And then the ending is not a surprise either because there were only two possible endings. We are left guessing which it might be and there are clues to trick us either way but the fact the movie takes 2 hours in reaching its conclusion, we know how it will end. I was reminded in parts of 1996’s The Arrival. However, that movie was clear in its intention.

Secret Things (written and directed by Jean-Claude Brisseau): Rating 9/10

Either you like it or you don’t. And I for one really liked this movie. The movie stars off with a naked woman on a couch. She goes on to pleasure herself. Are we the audience a voyeur into her private life? As the camera moves along, we realize that she is doing a stage show and there are other voyeurs around. Phew, we are safe to watch. For the time being atleast! The narrator, Sandrine, works behind the bar and introduces the naked woman as Nathalie. That night both women lose their jobs. Sandrine has no money and no place to stay, so Nathalie asks her to move in. The two of them become friends and based on Nathalie’s advice come up with a plan to get jobs and move up in the corporate world. The plan is to use their sexuality to manipulate the men into getting better jobs. It is a game. But what these women don’t realize is that no matter how manipulative and deceitful women can be, there is always a man who is more manipulative and corrupt than women. The two women meet their match in Christophe, a man who loves to uses his money to abuse his power. On top of that, Christophe does not blink when he crushes women or tramples on their soul. Is he the devil? Some scenes might indicate that. When the corporate game becomes complicated, I felt this was a modern version of Dangerous Liaisons with a twist ofcourse. Just a really well done movie! It was almost perfect but I felt some of the symbolism didn’t translate as well as the director might have hoped for (is the mysterious shadowy figure death? If so, then what is the reason behind some of the shot selections? Why was the shadowy figure in the stairs that night?).

Shadow Kill (written and directed by Adoor Gopalakrishnan): Rating 8/10

Who is to pay for the sins of a hanged man? The people who sent him to the gallows or the executioner who pulls the lever? In the case of this movie, unfortunately, the hangman has to bear the sins of every hanging. At the start of the movie the executioner, Kaliyappan, is miserable. He can’t shake off the fact that the last person he hung was innocent. He drinks more to ease his pain. He wants to escape from his job but it is not easy. The King has appointed him and the Maharaja grants the executioner a lot of benefits. On top of that, there is the divine benefit from his job – the rope used to hang a man is burned and the ash is used to cure the village sick. Kaliyappan’s son wants to follow in the steps of Gandhi and is against hanging (the movie timeline is early 1940’s). His daughter has just come of age and will soon be a burden on the aging old man. As the time for another execution draws near, Kaliyappan drinks more. His body is burning with fever yet has to carry on with his job. He has to stay up for the night before the hanging but he can’t seem to do so. So the policemen at the jail tell him a story. And interestingly, the story is about a young girl who was raped and murdered. This is the final straw for Kaliyappan – his past guilt combined with thoughts of his family cause him to envision the narrated story from a different perspective.

As in other movies from Kerala, the lush green and the peaceful elements are captured on film. Which make it a striking contrast to the agony going through the hangman’s mind and soul. Not a bad movie. Interesting in some of the ironic ideas shown. I hope to see some of Adoor’s earlier movies. His previous works such as Rat Trap have won quite a few awards.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

BFI’s 49th Annual London Film Festival

3 very different movies and yet all of them tied together by a single thread. I reveal that thread at the end of this posting. So here goes -- an American movie made by Norwegian funding, a Brazilian movie and a Mexican Independent film.

Factotum (directed by Bent Hamer): Rating 8/10

Matt Dillon plays Henry Chinaski, a character penned by Charles Bukowski. Whether the character is Bukowski’s alter ego is another matter altogether. Chinaski is a struggling writer. In between his struggles, he drifts from job to job, drinking, gambling, screwing, smoking and drinking even more along the way. Bent Hamer has done a good job of capturing Chinaski’s carefree character. In the first 10 minutes or so, I didn’t buy Matt Dillon’s acting. I thought he was faking it all. But then gradually he settled into his role more (or maybe I got used to seeing him play the character). There is some humour in the movie but at times the movie simply drifts along. Which is the way it is supposed to be! How else can you show such a character? You can’t make it completely dark nor can you make it complete fluff. You have to balance the two moods and Hamer has done that. The movie is shot nicely and the desolate American landscape fits perfectly within the movie. Marisa Tomei has a tiny insignificant role but it is Lili Taylor who has the major role as playing Chinaski’s on-off love interest. Overall, I liked the movie. And Bent Hamer seems like a very humble person and he was very sincere in talking about this project took place and the troubles he had getting funding.

Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures (directed by Marcelo Gomez): Rating 10/10

If there was a perfect afternoon movie, then this was it. In fact, this was such a cool relaxing movie that I forgot a planet existed outside of the theatre. This road movie is easily one of my favourite movies of the year! The story can’t be any more simpler – a German (Johann) resident has moved to Brazil and makes a living by driving across the vast Brazilian countryside selling Aspirin, a new medicine as per the film's setting in 1942. It would have been difficult for Johann to sell aspirin to people used to rejecting change but he comes up with a clever sales tactic of using the alluring cinematic medium to make his sales. Cinema, Asprins.. has shades of Giuseppe Tornatore’s Starmaker in this aspect. In Starmaker, the salesman was a cheat but in Gomez's film, Johann is not a cheat even though his methods portray him like a mercenary. Along the way, Johann picks up a local (Ranulpho) who wishes to leave his village life behind and head to Rio. The two become good friends and Ranulpho travels along with Johann by helping out as his assistant. But then the World war that Johann escaped from finds its way to Brazil and Johann has a difficult choice to make – to return to Europe or continue his free spirited way. The movie shows how different people’s idea of freedom varies and what makes one person happy can be torture for another.

The cinematography is beautiful. The over-exposed film really conveys the heat and brutality of the scorching sun. Brazil, a country which seems to go on forever as per Johann! Maybe I needed to see this movie in London during my own personal traveling journey to enjoy it. Who knows how I would have reacted if I had to see this movie in a crappy beat up art house theatre sitting in a broken seat with no leg or arm room? The Motorcycle Diaries was sold as something that it was not and I have a feeling some things in that movie were changed to sell it even more. But Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures is pure, raw and emotional. I truly loved it!!!!!!!!

Sangre (written and directed by Amat Escalante): Rating 6/10

Yes this is real cinema, as real as it gets. In fact, it is so real that you are left wondering why on earth you wasted a beautiful London night in the National Film Theatre watching this flick. Yes the venue was perfect, by the River Thames, near the bridge where trains left for Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. Café’s, bookstores, fancy restaurants, a theatre next door and cinema showing fine movies. Well, almost fine! Ok, maybe I am being harsh on this movie. This is a festival movie after all. The camera asks us to observe the dull boring life of a couple. The wife works in a Sushi place in Mexico. The husband counts the number of visitors entering through the building doors. They go home, watch soap operas, have sex when the wife commands the husband do so, eat junk food, tacos, or whatever else is in their fridge. The camera lets us watch everything. At times, you wonder if we are being shown too much.

Right from the opening shot, we learn who is the boss in the house – in the first shot, the husband wakes up with blood on his forehead. As usual his wife, or more precisely his second wife, has hit him on the head again. The husband is so scared of her that he can’t ask his daughter from the first marriage to come stay with them. Needless to say, he has to hide his meetings with his daughter from his new wife. But it is clear that the daughter needs parental help. The father does not know how to react. And then something goes wrong. And it is at this point, that the movie goes off the rail as well. Would an average person have handled the situation as the father does in the movie? Who knows!

The camera work is perfect really. You truly feel you are in the room with the couple, or you are at the garbage dump when the city’s waste comes tumbling down as the tiny beetle car is parked in the foreground. However, in the end, I left the theatre untouched and unimpressed. In fact, I was so exhausted after sitting through this movie that I skipped out my final movie of the night, Citizen Dog.

Common Element

So what is the common element in all 3 movies? The concept that a certain Chelsea manager would call ‘voyeur’. The papers in London contained the stupid childish words of Jose Mourinho who called Arsenal’s manager a ‘voyeur’ just because he thought Wenger liked watching another football team play, or as Mourinho said, ‘Wenger likes watching other people’. Well Jose since you know it all, would you call me a ‘Voyeur’ for watching these 3 movies? Because these 3 movies lets us watch the lives of other people as they go about their daily business. That is what I thought while watching the festival. Heck all these movies are about watching the intimate aspects of other people’s life. What is art for one person is something disgusting for another! Anyway, I should not talk any further about that manager lest I be accused of being obsessed with him and his money backed team.

In the end, it was a truly memorable occasion to attend this festival. A truly professional and well run festival with classy venues!

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

And now for something completely different...

Dreams. What are they? Well I can tell you what they are based on what happened last week. Picture this…, books, movies, music, food, beer and sweet rain.

On a cold snowy Tuesday night, a young man gets on a plane. The plane can’t take off because of all the snow. After the plane is de-iced, it takes off for a magical land.

On a rainy Wednesday afternoon, the plane lands in the magic land. The young man has enough time to get off the plane, get to his hotel, take a shower, navigate the train system and reach paradise in the evening. What is paradise? I will tell you. It is Highbury, home of Arsenal Football club. A dream? Yes indeed.

Who would have thought that one day I would be able to watch my cherished football team play not one but two games. Dreams indeed! Sure it rained during the games, but so what? They won both games. I had perfect seats and could even be seen on tv during the telecast of one of the games (only in freeze frame, slow mode).

Would this be the ultimate dream? Yes it would have been enough. But there’s more…seriously, how can there be more?

In between the two games, the young man (err that’s me in case if it was not obvious) was fortunate enough to attend the last day of BFI’s 49th Annual London Film Festival (Thursday, Nov 3). I could have seen 4 movies but I opted for 3. Classy venues, classy festival!

1) 1:30 show at Odeon West in Leicester Square of Factotum. This Bent Hamer directed movie is based on a collection of Charles Bukowski’s stories. Matt Dillon stars as jack of all trades (or lack of any trades) – Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter ego. Not a bad flick. It accomplishes what it sets out to show, even though it is slow at times. The director was in attendance and he talked about how he got this movie funded (no major studios wanted to touch this movie, big surprise there), how Dillon was selected, etc.

After the movie I had a 30 minute gap before attending the next show in the upper theatre.

2) 3:30 show of Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures. This was my favourite movie of all three and easily one of my fav movies I have seen this year. I loved it. I will write more about this movie later. This was one of those movies that really make movies worth watching.

3) 6:30 pm show of Sangre at the National Film Theatre. This Mexican independent movie is probably more over-rated than anything. Sure it is pure cinema verite but really nothing special. After watching this movie, I decided to skip the late night show of the Thai movie, Citizen Dog.

Now before the movies, I had enough time to browse at the biggest bookstore in Europe – Waterstones at Piccadilly. I have visited this place before and it is just amazing. One could easily spend hours and hours. And even spend more buying books. Scary thought. And on Thu night, I was able to visit and spend a few hours in one of the best music stores out there – Virgin Music Store at Piccadilly.

On Friday, as if I was not having enough fun, I got to take a tour of the Arsenal football club. After which I visited Brick Lane and surfed for perfect Bangladeshi cuisine. I reached a bit too early for dinner but I was still able to find a near perfect Chicken Biryani dish.

On Saturday, I got to see another game and on top of that spend a beautiful night out in Leicester Square. I fell in love with this place back in 1999 and it still has that same magic. As an added bonus, I attended the opening weekend show of De battre mon coeur s'est arête (The Beat That my Heart Skipped). This award winning movie at the Berlin Film Festival has gotten rave reviews. But the real reason I wanted to see this movie was because of Romain Duris. He was perfect in Exils and is quite good here. I liked the movie overall but don’t think it is as perfect as it is made out to be. Nonetheless it is a good movie. Also, it is supposed to be a remake of the American movie, Fingers – something which I have not seen yet.

Anyway, it was a perfect 5 day trip. Dreams......... :)