Thursday, December 28, 2006

End of 2006 Blitz

India, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and U.A.E (still to visit later today) -- 8 countries, 14 cities, 29 days. No I was not in the amazing race but essentially I spent a month away from work and movies. In between the 5-6 movies seen out of a dazzling collection of 120 on my 2 Emirates flights out of London (Dec 1) and Dubai (Dec 2) and the 3 commerical films seen in the last week in Bangkok, KL & Delhi, I had gone almost 19 days without having seen a single minute of any movie. And you know, I didn't miss it one bit. Normally, movie withdrawl would have set in. But when one is awake at 5:20 am in the morning standing in front of the imposing Angkor Wat temples which are still shrouded in darkness, the thought of seeing a film does not register really. And a movie is the farthest thing from one'e mind while carefully trying to navigate through Saigon's poetic motorcyle packed streets.

Ok, I admit I realized the pure beauty of Jia Zhang Ke's Still Life while wandering through South East Asia. I now rate that film even higher that I had originally done. But other than a few such reflections, the lack of movies was not a problem. Ofcourse, good food, challenging venues and excellent local Asian literature kept me occupied. But as I made my way near the end of the trip, the metropolitan cities of Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and New Delhi offered plenty of films to choose from and that too in interesting theatrical venues. The Paragon theatre at Bangkok has to be the best theatre I have ever sat in my life and how I wished that theatre was the venue for the countless festival movies I have seen over the past 3 years. Watching the commerical sugar-coated The Holiday was not the greatest choice but that was the only reasonable selection given my time restrictions -- I had to select a movie which didn't end after the last trains because I was in no mood to bargain my way back to the hotel with the tuk-tuk's or taxis.

The visually stunning but disappointing The Curse of the Golden Flower was once again the only choice available at KLCC theatre located on the same buildings as the stylish Petronas Towers. It was amusing to watch such a beautiful failure of a film, a movie that had tons of style but zero substance. And finally, a Bollywood movie had to been seen in New Delhi. But once again, there was only one option available in Priyadarshan's Bhagam Bhag which was hugely disappointing. Not really worth the price of a ticket but still I had to pick one movie eand this was the only one which I knew I could sit through till the end.

Now, hopefully I can get to finish the year in style with a few more selections from the jam packed Emirates on-flight library (yes it is available for us working folk sitting in Economy class) which has a mix of Indie, classics, Hollywood, Bollywood, Arab cinema, Japanese, Chinese and some South East Asian films as well.

I also plan to come up with a best of the year selection list. But unlike other years, I didn't get to see a comprehensive list of 2006 films. I spent a lot more time previewing and selection movie titles for 2 film festivals this year and quite a few of selections were films made in 2005 and which were still available for the festival circuit. So technically, these films don't count as 2006.

Anyway, I was quite fortunate to sample a few tasty international cinematic delicacies this year. And the added flavour of the Asian trip was a fitting way to end the year. 11 months of constant film watching followed by one month of rest, relaxation and contemplation....What a year!

Thursday, November 30, 2006

End of November wrap-up

Seven films ended this month’s movie watching. No specific criteria was used to pick the films but just an assorted collection of English and Foreign movies. Not a bad set in the end.

Roja (1992, directed by Mani Ratnam):

It took me almost 14 years to get around to watch this film. However, this was one of those movies that I knew so much about despite not having seen it. I had heard the songs, watched the music videos and had seen quite a few enough movie clips that I didn’t feel a need to see it. But I was repeatedly reminded that this movie had to be seen. I am glad for all those reminders because this is indeed a movie that has to be seen. When this film first came out, not many in Northern India had heard of A.R Rahman, Santosh Sivan, P.K Mishra or even Mani Ratnam. But Roja changed all that. Rahman’s music has truly reached the far corners of the world, past the Indian borders; P.K Mishra’s offbeat lyrics have generated a lot of musical hits; Santosh Sivan’s cinematography has garnered a few awards for him on the global scene and he also tried his venture at film directing both for independent and commercial films. And Mani Ratnam went onto make Bombay which truly shone the spotlight on him in Indian cinema.

But what of Roja? Somewhere in between the songs and the love story lies a beautiful political debate about a topic that the world ignored until 2001. Terrorism, Freedom fighters, militants and insurgents were terms that have existed for the longest time but the West (especially America) chose to not openly use such terms because it had no need to. Ethnic cleansing and proxy wars were conducted in Kashmir in the 1990’s with the aid of the Taliban but it went under the radar so to speak. While Roja got plenty of respect in India, no one really cared for it outside the country. An Indian plane was hijacked on the eve of 2000 and the hijackers demanded to be flown to Khandhar where they fled to safety after killing an innocent person on board. What did the world do? Nothing! India was left to clean up the mess while the rest of the world got drunk and celebrated the new century. And then more than a year later, 2 buildings fell and everything changed. Did everything change? Did terrorists not exist in Kashmir before that? Did a corrupt regime not support and train young "freedom fighters" to kill innocent people? The same corrupt regime became an ally in the "war on terror" after 2001 (or as Borat calls it "war of terror"). But I am getting off-tangent here. This film also contains another topic that the West will start exploring more via films in the upcoming years – kidnapping of innocent victims to demand release of terrorist prisoners. Roja shows how militants (freedom fighters, terrorists, whatever they are called) kidnap an innocent person (engineer) and use him as a bargaining chip to get their leader released in exchange. Back in 1993, it might have seemed unrealistic that the Indian government would release a terrorist in order to save an innocent person’s life but that is exactly what happened on the eve of 2000 when the families of the kidnapped plane victims urged the government to release the terrorists in exchange for their loved films.

What makes Roja incredibly interesting is that the film attempts to have a dialogue on the topic of jihad and whether violence is justified or not. An interesting scenario added in the film occurs when young kashmiri youth crossing the border into Pakistan to get training in the terrorist camps are gunned down by the Pakistani army by mistake. Was it really a mistake? Or was it another instance of the double-sided political game being played? The film ends on a note of slight optimism, but unfortunately, optimism is something not found when it comes to the Kashmir debate nowadays. One can’t change the course of events – proxy wars once started can’t be un-stopped. But atleast this film will stand as being one of the first few movies (since the 1990’s) to tackle a very common topic nowadays, although the effort slants a bit towards the commercial.

Note: the film suffers from poor dubbing. In order to make this film more accessible to the Indian market, it was dubbed in Hindi and leads to mangled dialogues in some scenes.

Premonition (2004, directed by Norio Tsuruta): Rating 6/10

Watching Japanese horror films post Ring and Ju-On is a mixed experience One tries to watch a different story yet one can’t help shake the sense of familiarity that exists in most frames. The same techniques, the impending doom that is about to unfold and a terrified face waiting to greet its victim. In this film, a newspaper has the ability to predict people’s death. The newspaper merely serves as a warning but if someone acts on the headlines and tries to change the future, they will end up in an infinite cycle of their worst nightmares.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon (directed by Niels Mueller): Rating 9/10

This is Sean Penn’s film. He is an almost every frame and carries this film with his fine acting of a troubled person stuck in a corrupt and insane world.

Remember me, my love (2003, directed by Gabriele Muccino): Rating 8.5/10

A family of four yet each person is their own island. The father hates his career and life; the mother aspires to be an actor and wishes she never game up on her dreams after marriage; the teenage son is frustrated with not getting the girl he loves and the 18 year old daughter is willing to do anything to get on tv. A soap opera in one sense but yet, I was drawn to this film. Plenty of scenes capture the perfect loneliness that a family can go through and no matter what age a person is at, they still long for that innocent happiness they once knew they could have had.

Take the Lead (directed by Liz Friedlander): Rating 7.5/10

The trailers made this film look like two clichés in one – a high-school dance story combined with the element of an inspirational teacher helping troubled high school kids. But the trailers were wrong. The teacher is not a paid member of staff, he is someone from the community who volunteers his time to help the kids. The film is a fictional story based on the real life work of Pierre Dulaine (played by Antonio Banderas in the film) who believed that teaching ballroom dancing to kids will give them dignity and teach them how to respect other people. The film was fun to watch, even though it felt clichéd at times.

I Can’t Sleep(1994, directed by Claire Denis): Rating 9/10

This film deserves a longer write-up. Every frame contains enough action to give us an insight into the complicated racial & cosmopolitan Parisian life. Two brothers, one a struggling musician and the other a transvestite dancer, a newly arrived Lithuanian citizen and a series of murders! Yet Denis knows what to show and what we need to understand ourselves. Everything is not laid out for us but we have to decipher what is going on. And that is what makes this such a rich watching experience.

Little Jerusalem (directed by Karin Albou): Rating 8.5/10

Paris again, but a completely world from the one Denis focused on. This one deals with questions of philosophy, religion and the morality of sexual relations from a Jewish point of view. The philosophy is European (Kant’s need for routines) and the main character is caught between her love for philosophy and her need to live within her religious boundaries.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Fast Food, Borat & Bond

Fast-Food Nation (directed by Richard Linklater): Rating 7/10

It is a bad sign when a free advance screening of a movie is not even close to half sold out. And that was the surprising scene on Tuesday, Nov 14 at the advance screening of Linklater’s latest flick. Why did the crowds stay away? The big multiplexes in my city didn’t even bother booking this film and the city’s art-house theatre was left to carry the burden of being the only theatre to open this movie on Friday, Nov 17th. So is this film that bad? Ofcourse not! It is definitely worth seeing just for the different ideas portrayed.

Linklater and Eric Schlosser have crafted a fictional story meant to show a slice of the hierarchy involved in the fast food chain. The lowest rung starts from the illegal workers (Catalina Sandino Moreno and Wilmer Valderrama) who come over from Mexico to work in the lowest paid jobs in the meat industry. We also meet the transporter and guide who help in the border crossing. Next up, is the meat packaging plant where people work in dismal conditions to service the stomachs of a hungry nation – cutting, dicing & chopping the animals herded in from the cattle range. We are also introduced to a cattle ranger (Kris Kristofferson) who provides his animals for the plant and even get a glimpse at the sly broker (Bruce Willis in an amusing cameo) between the plant and the rancher. The small town fast food chain and its young disillusioned teenage staff are shown along with the manager trying to sell the job as a career to the kids. The other kids (what is Avril Lavigne doing here?) who don’t work at the fast food chains but want to take action against an oppressive system are also given some air time. And there is even place for the one who got away -- Ethan Hawke plays a person who was lucky enough to leave the small town in search of a better life; he duly returns to tell his niece to follow her dream and eventually leave the town. And no film would be complete without the distinguished executives of the fast food chain. Greg Kinnear plays the marketing head in charge of coming up with the slogan and ideas for the next big burger.

This is a movie in fragments with multiple short-stories and each story having its own style different from the other segments. Overall, the film can be seen as a combination of satire, a political statement, serious drama, mocu-mentary and a coming of age film. I read in an interview that Linklater wanted to model the story after Traffic and you can see that in the overall film structure. However, Traffic had a consistent feel to every segment whereas Fast-Food Nation feels like different episodes put together. For example, take the Ethan Hawke segment. While his presence is refreshing in comparison to some of the other film segments, his character seems out of place. Hawke’s character seems to have flown straight out of the pages of other Linklater films such as Waking Life, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset where his character pretends to have pseudo-intelligent babble. What exactly is he doing in this movie? Just there as a favor to the director? Bruce Willis is fun to watch and he spouts some very interesting words but he is just a tiny fraction of the story. As are many other cameos and roles. I still believe all these different items could have worked together only if the movie had more energy to it. Every frame feels tired and exhausted. Eating fast-food does not fill one with much energy, so if the idea was to mimic the staleness of fast-food on celluloid, then the movie has accomplished its goal. But the problem is we have already seen how an absorbing movie can be made about fast-food -- Super Size Me may have been a documentary but it was far more interesting to watch than a fictional small town tale with global implications.

The film starts and ends with the Mexican border crossing, with the story going full circle as a younger generation of workers is shown to be entering the nation. Greg Kinnear’s character also starts and ends the movie, even though he disappears half-way through the film. Nothing wrong with that as his character has merely served his purpose and no longer needs to be there. One note about the killing assembly line at the film’s end. I am glad that Linklater put that scene in the movie. Even though the scene might not change anything regarding fast-food, it might make some people think about where their food really comes from. I find it amusing to see people getting shocked and disgusted at animals being slaughtered but no-one utters a peep when humans are tortured and mutilated both in real life and on screen.

Borat (Directed by Larry Charles): Rating -- Very Nice!

“Hello, my name Borat” By now, everyone has heard of Borat but not everyone likes him. But Borat probably does not give a goat’s ass if people don’t like him. His goal is not to be liked but simply to get a reaction from people. And his movie does just that. There is some slapstick comedy in the film but most of the humour is derived from little movement. In fact, the genius lies in Sacha Baron Cohen merely staying still and uttering just a few well chosen words. In other cases, a mere attempt to kiss or shake hands with men is enough to produce the desired effect. What is offensive to one person is humour to another! I have read how Borat offends “everyone”. Now that statement is true in the film’s context but in a larger context, it is not totally correct. Borat has carefully chosen the people he wants to offend and only targets a narrow category. I wish he had targeted more political people but maybe those were items that were left out on the editing table and are on the DVD instead? One of the funniest political sequences is the rodeo scene when he changes one word without the crowd fully understanding it (and even if they did catch the mistake, they might have attributed it to his bad English). Borat says that his nation supports the American president’s “war of terror” and the crowd applauds loudly. This was in Texas so it is clear the crowd were applauding the president’s agenda not Borat’s message.

Yes, this is a funny movie. But I am surprized to see how high the North American critics have rated this film. Normally, they question the logistics of each film scene but I have not seen that done for this movie. Maybe this movie is critic proof because there is no real story for the film but just scenes which serve as mere excuses for gags and laughs. The short length of the movie (84 min) also ensures that the humour comes fast and before the jokes get boring, the film ends gracefully.

Casino Royale (Directed by Martin Campbell): Rating 8/10

Yup, Bond is back! But with a new star, comes a new look and attitude. The classy look is replaced by a raw &rugged style. This is the start of the story so appropriately the new Bond is not up to speed regarding etiquette and diplomacy. He is reckless and even when he has been beaten fairly, he can’t accept defeat. For example, at the start of the movie, Bond is beaten for agility and pace by Sebastien Foucan’s character. Bond understands he can’t match his opponent’s flexible movements so he opts for effective, intelligent techniques and even brute force. But despite his best effort, he fails to catch his opponent. Instead of keeping quiet, he storms into the embassy and blows the entire place up. This gets him in trouble but that only galvanizes him into more action.

The film is written by 3 writers and at times it shows. The first segment is all action, the middle part the casino and gambling stage of the film and the last 30 minutes is sappy romance where Bond is at his most vulnerable. Paul Haggis in one of the writers and I am sure he had something to with exploring Bond & Vesper’s loneliness (such characters could find a tiny cameo inMillion Dollar Baby and Crash). But also, there is a tiny tip to Shakespeare as Vesper complains she can’t get rid of the blood from her hand (Lady Macbeth and foreshadowing both in one go?). A torture scene born from the remains of the chair sequence in Pulp Fiction and dark atmosphere of Saw is needless present but also contains fresh humour keeping in character with Daniel Craig’s brash attitude.

This is a different film from the previous Bond series where Pierce Brosnan played a charming Bond who didn’t get involved in physical violence. Daniel Craig is more suited to playing the tough guy who prefers to get his hands dirty and is willing to punch his way through trouble. And Bond has to deal with two women who are more than a match for him. Bond’s attitude is appropriately dealt by M’s razor sharp words (Judi Dench is perfect again) and Eva Green is a delightful edition as a Bond girl who is more brain than brawn. But the film’s long running time (2 hours, 20 min or so) adds a lot of un-necessary scenes which should have been left out on the editing table.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Soccer Film Festival

Since I have been busy programming movies for other film festivals this year, it was appropriate that my birthday gift was a personal film festival!! This wonderful surprise gift involved movies with soccer based themes. Instead of naming the wonderful individuals behind this gift, I will call them festival programmers :)

Initially, 7 movies were programmed to be screened over two days. But the astute festival programmers discovered that I had seen three of the films (Football Factory, Cup Final, The Goalkeeper’s anxiety at the penalty kick). So two more films (Fever Pitch, The Miracle at Bern) were added to expand the list to 6 films and stretch the film festival to 4 days. The programmers knew very little about soccer when they programmed this for me but their picks were very impressive. In fact, not only were different genres (drama, comedy, action) covered, but each movie showed how soccer ties in with the fabric of a society. On top of that, the selections covered all rungs of football, right from a boy kicking a ball for the first time to amateur & professional players leading up to the World Cup, the highest aspiration for football players. The three countries spotlighted by all the seven films were England, Germany (albeit West Germany) & Scotland.

This was a truly wonderful gift for which I am eternally grateful and I can safely say, I enjoyed every single film. So instead of rating each film, I will simply state its relevance to the beautiful game.

Day One: Wednesday, Nov 8, 2006

Fever Pitch (1997, directed by David Evans, based on Nick Hornby’s book)

It was appropriate the festival kicked off with this film. This is the original movie based on Nick Hornby’s wonderful book about an Arsenal fan. I had seen this movie a few years ago but back then I had not visited Highbury (Arsenal’s legendary old stadium). The book and film ends at the exact match when I first watched an Arsenal game – May 26, 1989 when Arsenal did the impossible and won the championship on the last day of the season against an unbeatable Liverpool team at Anfield. That game won me over and I became an Arsenal fan for good. Since then, I have exhibited some of the neurotic behaviour that Hornby (and his alter ego in the film, Colin Firth) went through while supporting Arsenal. In fact, most soccer fans (not only Arsenal fans) probably fall into the categories shown in the film – optimistic and always pessimistic. The optimistic ones always believe their team will win, no matter who the opposition. And the pessimistic believe that their team is capable of always screwing up even when their opposition is a non-league team.

This movie shows what it means to be a soccer fan and serves to highlight the difficulties men have in trying to make women understand what this game means. Plenty of soccer relevance in this film as the film shows school football, a frustrated coach, soccer vs women debates, amateur & professional football and the crazy life of a soccer fan. Also, the movie covers the dangers of all standing sections in English stadiums in the past, something which may have added to the flavour of the game in the old days but also led to some grave consequences (racism, abuse, death and fights). The all-seating arrangements that exist nowadays have made for more family-friendly game viewing. I sat in Highbury’s North end for my games in 2005, the same North end that was standing room only as shown in the film prior to 1990.

Day Two: Thursday, Nov 9, 2006

The Miracle of Bern (2003, directed by Sönke Wortmann)

A pleasant surprise! What made this viewing more enjoyable is the fact that I saw this movie after having read the wonderful book Tor! The story of German Football which lend validity to the film’s story of the 1954 World Cup. The book starts out on the morning of the 1954 World Cup final. When the first rain drops came down on a bright sunny day, the West German captain Fritz Walter knew his team would win the World Cup. This was because as the The Miracle of Bern shows the West German coach Sepp Herberger predicted that if the weather was sunny, then Hungary would win but if it rained, then the West Germans would take the Cup because a soggy pitch was Fritz Walter’s domain. And so it was….History will show that West Germany beat Hungary 3-2 to win their first every World Cup. But what was the real story behind that improbably victory? The Hungarian team of 1954 was one of the greatest teams in the history of this game yet they lost on a soggy rainy pitch to the West Germans despite thrashing them 8-3 earlier in the World Cup and leading 2-0 in the final. How could that have happened?

The film introduces a fictional element by showing part of the World Cup through the eyes of 11 year old Matthias who is on good terms with Helmut Rahn, the terrific winger who scored the winning goal in that 1954 final. Matthias looks up to Rahn as a father figure because Matthias has never met his own father. That is until Matthias’s father, Richard, returns after having spent 11 years in a Russian prison following the end of World War II. Richard is bitter from the war and is hostile towards Matthias since he never knew of his existence (he got no letters from home informing him of Matthias’ birth just after he left for Russia). Richard can no longer work in the coal mines and takes his anger out on his family. He even prevents Matthias from watching the World Cup games. Eventually, Richard comes around and teaches his son to improve his game and tries to drive him to the World Cup final because as it turns out, Matthias is Helmut Rahn’s lucky mascot (this is the film’s melodramatic fairy-tale element).

One of the neatest elements of the film is that instead of using archival footage, the filmmakers re-shot the 1954 final with similar replica jerseys and moves which led to all the goals. The movie is melodramatic and we know what the outcome will be, yet the movie’s emotional elements won me over. It shows the power of soccer to unite and bring people closer together, especially a father and a son. In that respect, this movie is similar to Fever Pitch which illustrated how the father introduced his son to the game. Miracle.. also has that dreamy quality that children undergo while trying to emulate their stars during street football games. From a historical point of view, the film also sheds light to Herberger’s famous quote “The ball is round. The game lasts ninety minutes. This much is fact. Everything else is theory.” We learn from the movie that these might not have been Herberger’s words and that he may have gotten them from the cleaning lady at the hotel. Fact or fiction?

Mean Machine (2001, directed by Barry Skolnick)

This was a remake of the original Hollywood film, The Longest Yard. Since I had not seen that film, I was able to enjoy this British prison soccer film without knowing the story. Ofcourse, it is easy to predict this film’s story from the outset but it still makes for fun watching. A large reason for that is Vinnie Jones who is perfectly cast for this role. Before appearing as a gangster in Guy Ritchie films, Vinnie Jones was best known for being a tough no-nonsense professional defender who made headlines (for all the right & wrong reasons) with teams such as Wimbledon and Chelsea. In the film, he plays an ex-professional footballer who is jailed for drunk driving. However, the reception he gets is chilly because he once infamously betrayed his English team by taking a bet to give away a penalty against the Germans (here is the German team again). What makes this story angle interesting and realistic is that in real life, one of Vinnie’s ex-team mates was charged for taking a bet to throw away a game.

Jones has the right look and attitude for this part and makes this an enjoyable watch. The film is packed with clichéd characters but the one who outdoes them all is Jason Statham’s character of ‘Monk’. Monk is locked up in solitary confinement because he killed 32 people by hand. He is crazy and unpredictable. Which is why he ends up being the prison soccer team’s goalkeeper! That is a true soccer joke as most real life goal-keepers are known to be either eccentric (Rene Higuita of Columbia), temperamental (Arsenal’s Jens Lehmann), bossy (Oliver Kahn) or plain philosophical (Albert Camus claimed to have learned more about life from being a goal-keeper). The big soccer match in the film is between the prison guards and the in-mates. No prizes for guessing who wins the game. But the game is not pretty football; it is tough and gritty (anti-Arsenal brand, or pro-Blackburn and pro-Bolton brand).

A lot of negative sides of the present day game are covered in this film – soccer gambling, cheating, bribing, irresponsive behavior from professional players (quite a few make the headlines nowadays for drunk driving), and negative on-field tactics. On the positive side, the film shows that a game of footie, no matter which location, can still give hope to people even if the audience is trapped in a jail cell, an office, a pub or a stadium.

Half-way through the festival

The next three films covered Scotland and soccer was only used as a sprinkling in these movies but it was an important part. It was a very good decision to program these three movies together as they had quite a few similar elements and gave a sharp picture of Scottish life.

Day Three: Friday, Nov 10, 2006

My Name is Joe (1998, directed by Ken Loach)

Soccer only truly features at the start of this film when Joe (played superbly by Peter Mullan) drives his soccer team for another amateur game. His team are plain terrible. In fact, they have only won one game in their entire history. But the lads have fun playing the game. It helps them forget their pain and suffering, be it poverty, domestic issues or even addictions. The team calls themselves West Germany (the German angle is evident here as well) and model themselves on the 1974 winning team. They can’t afford new soccer kits so half-way through the film, they steal a box full of shiny new yellow Brazilian jerseys. This petty crime lights up their faces and they find a new zest in continuing their losing streak..

What makes the limited soccer scenes so important is that they convey some of the reasons why men are drawn towards the game. Sometimes, the game offers an escape, just like any addiction. The game gives a chance for the men to bond, hang out, act childish and shut the rest of the world out (which includes their family as well). Besides the soocer angle, this is a powerful story of the recovering alcoholic Joe and his attempt to balance unemployment, love with Sarah (played by the equally impressive Louise Goodall) and trying to sort out issues with the local gangster. A wonderful film which shows how a little thing can provide hope and at the same time, one mistake can destroy everything.

The Acid House (1998, directed by Paul McGuigan)

Three short films make up this movie and all three interesting stories are written by Irvine Welsh.

1) The Granton Star Case: Boab is having a terrible day. He finds himself kicked out of his amateur soccer team and replaced by the new stud, Tambo. He returns home only to find out that his parents can’t stand him living with them anymore and kick him out of the house. He phones his girlfriend, hoping she will move in with him but she breaks up with him. And to top it off, he gets fired from his job. So what’s a lad to do? Drink down one’s worries with a pint ofcourse! While he is hating his life, he meets God in a pub. God explains that Boab has wasted his life and is nothing more than an insignificant bug. So to take revenge, God turns Boab into a bug (kafka, where are you?). The new bug goes about to satisfy himself by taking revenge on all the people who made his life miserable. At the end, he accomplishes his goal and as the camera heads towards the sky, we see Boab transformed back into a human. Will his life become better? Probably not, but I am sure he had fun in taking his revenge. Atleast, he will get his place back in the soccer team because he killed Tambo who was shagging his girlfriend.

2) The Soft Touch: This one is the most emotional of the lot and is the hardest to watch. Johnny is married to the flirtatious Catriona. Right from the outset, their marriage seems doomed. But Johnny is just too nice to notice. He takes care of their new born baby with the utmost of love while his wife could not care less. Trouble really starts when Larry moves upstairs to Johnny’s place and messes with Johnny’s life. First Larry takes Catriona away, makes love to her and makes Johnny listen downstairs. Next, Larry starts taking electricity, tv and other items from Johnny’s apartment. Johnny can’t do anything but he clings onto his baby daughter. Larry is a thug, but a soccer fan nonetheless. Watching him gives a face to those hooligans that have tarnished this game’s reputation. In a cruel scene, Larry kicks Johnny for fun, because he can. We watch helplessly as Johnny tries to live, just wishing he would do something about his situation. But what can he do? He is a soft person and that is the price he has to pay for his decency in a cruel, unforgiving society.

3) The Acid House: Coco is a soccer fan who in a bizarre drugged up night, exchanges souls with a newborn rich baby. After the switch, the new baby speaks profanities while Coco is left to act like a baby trapped in an adult body. In the final scene, the two exchange places in a pub packed with soccer fans. Just before the switch, Coco’s girlfriend tells Coco that soccer is only for people who don’t grow up and since he is an adult, he should not bother with the game. But right after the switch, Coco immediately starts jumping up and cheering with his soccer mates. An interesting way to end this short! It does play into the popular attitude that being a soccer fan is a childish activity and it is not proper behaviour for grown men to be drunk and cheer for a soccer team.

Wow. Three very different shorts which tackle themes of revenge, violence vs non-violence and pure drunken stupor! The first short is all about revenge – a devious mind can find ways to take revenge, even if the mind is trapped inside a fly’s body. The second short is the hardest to watch but it forms a perfect pairing with My Name is Joe and shows no matter what stand one takes against a thug, one might end up on the losing end. In My Name is Joe, Joe finds out that taking a forceful stand against gangsters only results in causing more damage and being trapped in more complex traps. Whereas in The Soft Touch, when Johnny takes no stand, he is pushed around and treated as non-existent. He might as well being the bug in The Granton Star Case. And the title short (The Acid House) is both funny and quirky at times (example: an adult in a baby’s body wanting to be breast fed) and overall marks a fitting end. All the main characters in the three shorts could have been following the same game (the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup) and yet each go about their life differently. Not all soccer fans are drunken hooligans or immature adults as the media shows. Some of them are, but the rest are average blokes just trying to watch a game.

And now for the finale!! Drum-roll….

Day Four: Saturday, Nov 11, 2006

Gregory's girl (1981, directed by Bill Forsyth)

Gregory is plain lazy and too laid back to care for anything. He plays as a striker for his school soccer team but has not scored a goal in over 8 games. Safe to say, his team have lost all those games. But Gregory is not concerned. He believes he is going through a slump and the goals will come. His coach is going crazy and decides to take action. He benches Gregory and goes in search for ‘new blood’ to provide spark for the team. The best candidate he gets is Dorothy, a girl. She points out that the coach never stated in his selection posters that a girl could not join the team. So the coach is forced to take Dorothy and installs Gregory as a goal-keeper. But that decision does not improve things because Gregory is a terrible goal-keeper. He can’t keep the ball out of the net and he acts even more immaturely when Dorothy scores a goal -- whenever she scores, boys from both teams try to give her a kiss. Gregory is in love with Dorothy but is too shy to do anything about it. He gets ample advice from his 10 year old sister, who acts more like a 14 year old. In the end, Gregory asks Dorothy out and she accepts. But she never shows up for their date. In fact, three of her friends show up in turns and he gets 3 separate dates out of it. Who will be Gregory’s girl? He himself does not know but by the end, he has learned a thing or two about himself as well. There is hope that he will mature and become a better adult and hopefully a better soccer player.

A perfect way to end this special festival! This light hearted coming of age movie marked a peaceful end to a festival that literally started on a fever pitch.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Devils, Candy, Unknown & Guilty Pleasures

Devils on the Doorstep (2000, directed by Jiang Wen): Rating 10/10

Vintage cinema! Pure cinematic Pleasure!! Besides the absorbing story, another amazing aspect about the film is its frantic pace. Pace and a Black & White film don’t always go together but in this case, it blends perfectly. It is true that the frantic pace in Godard’s b&w film Breathless was amazing to observe. Godard’s new film technique of jump cuts was revolutionary as it helped accelerate the movie’s action but no jump cuts are used in Jiang Wen’s film. Instead, each frame is jam-packed with so much action that at times, one is left reeling from trying to catch everything (and reading the subtitles at the same time adds another challenge). Also, it is refreshing to see an Asian director make a movie which exploits the fast pace of the Mandarin language as opposed to a recent slate of Asian art movies which skimp on dialogue and slow everything down which is contrary to the Asian pace of life.

The first 15 minutes of the movie are as follows: A villager (Dasan Ma) is passionately making love to his girlfriend when there is a knock on the door. A stranger holds a knife to Dasan’s head and forces him to keep two gunny bags until New Year’s Eve (5 days away). The stranger asks Dasan to interrogate the two hostages inside the bags – a Japanese solider and his Chinese translator. Dasan consults the village elders and friends about what to do with the two men as the fate of the village might depend on the situation.

The film is called a dark comedy and the first hour is indeed funny with some of the humour arising from mistranslation on the Chinese translator’s part to save the Japanese solider from getting killed. It is not hard to guess where this movie is heading and there could not have been any other possible ending even though one may secretly hope for a neutral/happy ending. Overall, this is a marvelous film that deserves to be seen.

Note: I will have to write a separate article praising the high quality of black and white films that I have seen this past year.

Hard Candy (directed by David Slade, written by Brian Nelson): Rating 9/10

It is best to watch this movie not knowing anything about the story, which is something that may be hard to do. Predator & Prey, but who is the prey and who really is the predator? A series of virtual internet meetings between a 14 year old girl and a 32 year old man eventually leads the two to finally hook up face-to-face. Then the fun really starts. A very good screenplay that never slackens and keeps things interesting just with the two actors and a house as a backdrop!

Unknown Pleasures (2002, directed by Jia ZhangKe): Rating 8/10

This is the 3rd Jia ZhangKe film that I have seen in the last month after Still Life and The World. There is no doubt about Jia’s talents as a director and his films are firmly grounded in the Chinese landscape making them a pleasure to watch. A simple story, minimal dialogue, long takes combined with silence are just some of elements which give us a chance to observe the rich characters in ZhangKe’s films. In this case, it is about everyday people going about their lives, trying to make money & find some happiness and pleasure in whatever little is available to them.

On a separate note: Jia ZhangKe’s love of films comes through in his work. In Unknown Pleasures a street thug is influenced by Tarantino’s opening sequence in Pulp Fiction and wants to rob a bank. In Still Life a young villager is influenced by Chow Yun Fat and tries to imitate Fat’s stylistic cinema actions (wearing shades, using burning money to light a cigarette).

And finally, a guilty pleasure….

Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift (directed by Justin Lin)

What is the point of rating such a movie? It is a commercial movie through and through. The first film was decent enough to watch and it had Vin Diesel’s perfect attitude. I skipped the second film and was skeptical about the third film. But I have to admit, the third film is indeed fun to watch. There is not much to expect story wise but the ‘drift’ and car sequences are extremely well done (clearly a lot of effort has gone into making the breath taking car scenes). What is the story? Car chases, a young driver with attitude, a villain driver, a girl to win over, plenty of skimpily dressed girls hanging around fast cars! But sometimes, a light hearted fluff movie is needed just to cleanse the cinematic palate.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Death of a President

Directed by Gabriel Range: Rating 7/10

Hype & controversy but in the end, a timid and dry result! Here was a golden chance to make a sharp and witty documentary which held up a mirror to today’s society and projected a darker future, in the process making Orwell look like a true prophet. But in the end, we are left with a tame murder mystery, a sort of investigation into a fictional crime. Was that the intent? I have not read any interviews with the director so I can’t guess on his real intent in making this film. I can infer he wanted people to question some of the un-democratic policies that exist in the U.S Administration and how the government has used fear to push forward its own agenda and stripped citizens of basic freedom. Yes, this aspect of abusing power comes through in the movie but in a quiet muted way, almost as an afterthought. That being said, the first hour of the movie is indeed riveting as it shows the moments leading up to the president’s assassination. But from then on, the movie goes into a man hunt to find the sniper. I had seen a gripping American documentary The Trails of Darryl Hunt which covered the same man-hunt topic – a crime is committed, an innocent man is framed and sentenced despite lack of evidence because the authorities needed to catch someone but eventually the truth is revealed and justice is served, albeit more than two decades later. If the two films were compared head to head then Death of a President falls well short of The Trails of Darryl Hunt . Hence my disappointment with the last 30 minutes of the film!

Considering how much trouble Range must have faced in getting this movie made, one wishes he had made a powerful insightful movie. There are some plus points though -- the movie correctly assesses the North Korean threat and shows how Dick Cheney attempts to link the president’s assassination to Syria despite no evidence being present. This is clearly based on a true incident as the administration tried to link Iraq after a certain horrific terrorist attack 5 years ago. So it is not a stretch to think if another attack happened in the future, the administration would attempt similar tactics and go after an innocent state. If the real intent in making this film was to show how the US administration is capable of making an isolated incident appear to be a terrorist plot, then more energy should have been spent on this aspect. Overall, I think it was worth seeing this film but it is very disappointing to see so much potential thrown away.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Pacing Asia -- Bicycles, Trains and Gangsters

Beijing Bicycle (2001 film directed by Xiaoshuai Wang): Rating 10/10

Emotional and beautiful cinema at its best! This is a movie which grabs you emotionally, forces you to root for the underdog, but then forces you to shift your viewpoint as it gives you a different perspective and then finally reaches a just rewarding end. A stubborn quiet villager comes to Beijing to earn a living. He finds his calling acting as a bicycle courier – it is a job which gives him happiness. One day, his bike is stolen. That shatters him as he had worked day and night to earn the bike and was only a day away from owning it outright (the bikes are owned by the courier company until an employee works enough hours to own the bike). The next segment introduces us to a young college kid with the same stolen bike. He is genuinely happy with this bike and it is form of his freedom. The villager finally finds his bike and takes it back. But the college kid’s friends beat the villager up and take the bike back. As it turns out, the school boy had paid for the stolen bike from the black market and feels he owns the bike. Finally after some more fighting, a compromise is reached between the two and they agree to share the bike every other day. The bike represents freedom to both males and how they go about their lives with a bike acting as a focal point is fascinating to watch.

We don’t need much dialogue in this film as the story moves along briskly. And the carefully timed expressions give us an insight into the characters motives and hence it is no surprize when the college kid’s jealousy and vengefulness ensures a final fight is in store. I was very impressed with this film and I am glad I got to watch it. No doubt the bike’s theft will point to another famous bicycle movie but this one is unique to the Chinese landscape.

The World (directed by Jia Zhang Ke): Rating 8/10

In some movies, a set can really steal the show. And that is just the case in this film as the location is just precious. The film is set in Beijing’s World Theme park where replicas of all the world’s monuments are on display – Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, Pyramids, London Bridge. One can see the entire world without ever leaving China!! And as one park worker observes, the park still has its twin towers in tact while the real ones no longer exist. That is an important element as it alludes to the film’s core – sometimes a fake replica can be more real than the real thing. The film follows some of the park workers and when the camera leaves the park, it gives us a peak into their lives. The setting leaves room for a rich story and for the first hour, it is completely engrossing. However, once the camera left the park, the film lost some its energy. I like Jia Zhang Ke’s recent Still Life a lot more but The World is still an important film. And as China’s economy continues to exert a bigger presence in the global market, this movie can be taken as a case study in how on one hand, globalization can shrink the world and on the other hand, trivialize cultures. Can one symbol really capture a nation? Not really but that how is what is used by all countries to define a nation.

I need to get more of Zhang Ke’s older films as his work gives a unique & refreshing look into China.

My Wife is a gangster (2001 film directed by Jin-gyu Cho): Rating 7.5/10

Will Hollywood finally go ahead and re-make this Korean movie? Apparently, this was supposed to be the first Korean movie to be remade by Hollywood but the project has not yet taken off. The story is easily adaptable for the commercial tastes catered to by both Hollywood and Bollywood.

The title really gives the plot away (innocent man does not know his wife is a gangster) and also points towards the film's genre -- comedy!! A tough woman gangster finally finds her long lost sister. Her sister is dying and one her final wishes is to see her tough sister married. This may be the gangster's toughest job but through a bizarre series of incidents she lands a husband. The humour in this film is run on familiar jokes such as the woman trying on heels for the first time. Despite being the run of the mill stuff, it ends up being funny. The best aspect of the story is the role reversal shown -- the gangster woman acts like a macho man, and the humble husband is left to cook, clean and cater to his wife's moods. For some reason, the side characters are given some subplots which really add nothing to the story but seem more like material to extend the film. Nonetheless, it was a fun watch. And the ending really left the door open for future sequels and sure enough, two more sequels have been made.

Café Lumiere (2003 film directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien): Rating 6/10

What is this movie? Is this what we are left to call art? The movie is HHH’s tribute to Ozu’s Tokyo. I am sure it is in some ways but since I am not too familiar with all of Ozu’s techniques, I wasn’t too thrilled. A café, a young girl and a man obsessed with recording sounds of Tokyo’s unconnected train stations! That is about it. Yes at times, the long takes are beautiful but not much happens. Maybe not much is supposed to happen but I rather go sit at a café or a train station on my own time!

Kilimanjaro (2000 film directed by Seung-ook Oh): Rating 4.5/10

Run of the mill film. Two twin brothers, one a cop, the other a gangster. The gangster dies and the cop goes to his brother’s hometown to find things out. He is mistaken for his twin brother and mayhem results. Fight. Blood. Guns. Yawn…

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Dictators, Cruel Parents, French girls, Bourgeoisie games & Half Nelson

A blistering mad dash through a diverse assortment of films within a week proved that despite the festival season being over, I still can’t get the festival out of me yet! Here’s a quick blurb of the various movies I managed to see:

Molokh (1999 film directed by Aleksandr Sokurov): Rating 7.5/10

Russian director, Sokurov’s first installment in his planned trilogy of movies about three leaders is an interesting effort. If I had seen this a few years ago, I might have appreciated it more. But after having seen the recent Downfall and 2002’s Max (to a lesser extent), I got my fill of watching Hitler portrayed as an average human. So I found nothing new in Molokh although Sokurov does a good job of focusing on Hitler’s moments with Eva Braun. And Sokurov goes further in showing Hitler’s mental deterioration in his final days. Overall, this is a poetic film but I could not stop comparing it to Downfall which was far more engaging.

À nos amours (1983 film directed by Maurice Pialat): Rating 8.5/10

The DVD of this film featured an interview with Catherine Breillat and I can see why. Breillat’s 2001 Fat Girl has shades Pialat’s 1983 film. In fact, the 15 year old main character in A nos amours might have had a lot of advice (about boys and sex) to give to Breillat’s 15 year old character, Elena, in Fat Girl. The difference is that in Pialat’s feature, Suzanne is busy exploring her sexuality by having many boy friends (much to her father’s dismay). Whereas in Fat Girl, Elena starts out with her first lover in the film. Given time, I am sure she would develop into Suzanne. So both films compliment each other. However, Pialat’s movie shows the turbulent relationship between Suzanne and her family (especially her brother who makes himself the head of the family after the father leaves) whereas Fat Girl focuses more on the relationship between two siblings who are opposites and compete with each other.

Tanguy (2001 film directed by Étienne Chatiliez): Rating 8.5/10

A very funny French film about a 28 year old man who won’t move out of parent’s home! In fact, Tanguy keeps finding excuses to extend his stay longer. Eventually, both parents are driven crazy and hatch plans to force him to move out. Temporarily they succeed but with horrific consequences as it turns out that Tanguy gets a panic attack when he moves out. The parents are forced to take him back, but Tanguy quickly gets on their nerves again. In the end, Tanguy finally finds his perfect family and not surprisingly it is in a culture where joint families are a norm. In that regard, the movie is a perfect portrayal of the differences between Eastern and Western parenting techniques -- while the West focuses more on kids moving out as soon as they go to college, in the East joint families is a normal concept. Ofcourse, joint families are disappearing in the East as more and more Western ideas are thrust onto people there. In the meantime, this movie serves as a reminder about certain cultural attitudes that exist.

The Rules of the Game (1939 film directed by Jean Renoir film): Rating 8/10

This film was lost to the world until it was restored in 1959. However, that restoration was longer than the original 1939 version. So in reality, we may never see the original theatrical cut of this movie which was loathed by French public when it was first released. As to why this film was deemed ‘controversial’, Renior answers that on the DVD interview -- apparently at the original screening, an audience member tried to light his newspaper on film with the intent of burning the theatre down. That act gave the general public the impression that this was a terrible film which must be avoided. And the ‘controversial’ tag stuck to the film from there on-in. Watching it today, nothing seems nasty in the movie. A bunch of spoiled greedy self-indulgent rich people go about their lives with plenty of drinking, partying, hunting and gossiping while the servants are left to pick up the pieces. Normal stuff really. But such a film back in 1939 would indeed have upset some people as it must be those rich people who watched such movies in the theatre back then. And one can clearly see the seeds of Gosford Park in Renoir’s film. There is a murder committed in The Rules… but it marks the ending of the film. Whereas in Gosford Park the murder serves as the launching pad for the rest of the story! Overall, The Rules of the Game is an interesting film about class differences, love, friendship and relationships with some wicked camera techniques surely ahead of its time back in the late 30’s.

Half Nelson (Directed by Ryan Fleck): Rating 7.5/10
This is a subjective rating for this movie. I am sure if I was completely objective, I might have rated this film higher. But how can I be objective towards such a clichéd concept? white male teacher is disillusioned with life; needs drugs to get him through the day; believes as a teacher he must make a difference and takes it upon himself to save his young black female student (Shareeka Epps putting in a perfect performance as 13 year old Drey) from the bad influences around her. Drey finds her teacher Dan (played superbly by Ryan Gosling) stoned in the female locker room and helps him to his feet. Dan’s guilt kicks in and he feels he needs to make a difference, he has to; he believes that is expected of him as a teacher. But he stumbles again. The ending does give us hope that Dan might have succeeded. The digital camera provides the perfect grainy look for this movie as it gives the story a realistic tone. But this topic has been shown so many times that I frankly am tired of seeing this. Why on earth do some young American filmmakers focus on only drug addicts or quirky characters as a means to portray their story? Is that the story they really want to tell or is this their ticket to fame as such movies do well at film festivals? Now, I must admit there is a fresh and interesting aspect to this film as well. Dan is not afraid of forcing the kids to think on their own; he teaches them topics outside the school books and wants them to question the nonsense that they are fed via the media and people around them. And Dan’s take on his country’s politics is smoothly integrated into the story as well. The scenes where Dan goes off on a tangent about life and ‘opposing forces’ while his students are either confused or bored are just precious but the other run of the mill stuff turned me off.

Fear and Death in Eastern Europe

The Fifth Horseman is Fear: (1964 film directed by Zbynek Brynych)

A different side of the Jewish persecution in Eastern Europe is shown here. There have been many movies made about the killings but this shows the mental humiliation induced by fear. A Jewish doctor in Prague can no longer practice his profession. But one day, he is asked to get morphine to save someone’s life. He tries his best to procure the medicine albeit living with the fear of what will happen when his identity is discovered. The film’s opening and closing shots are done quite well – they show a city living under watch. A street looks deserted but if you look closely, someone is keeping watch. No one can escape persecution and the only way to gain one’s dignity back might be in death….which leads us to the next film.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Directed by Cristi Puiu): Rating 10/10

This is vintage cinema! Filmmaking of the highest order. The best compliment a movie can get is that it does not feel like a film at all. Which is the case here. The thoughtful cinematography gives us a ring side to the events that unfold. We are in the room with Dante when he is having his headaches and pains. We see him throw up blood. We observe his neighbours only thinking selfishly about themselves. The nurse finally arrives and takes Dante away. But the drama does not end there. In fact, it is only starting. We observe the chaos and endless cycle of stupidity and inefficiency that exists in hospitals, continuously over-worked and under staffed. We truly believe that there is no hope for Dante. All the people around him keep telling him that. The film’s title is a reminder that Dante Lazarescu will die. But the truth is he died a long time ago. Dante himself stopped caring for his health and in return, society left him out in the cold. In reality, he is merely going through the motions of a formal medical death.

This movie has been called a dark comedy but I never looked at it that way. Yes, some of the things we observe in this movie are so absurd that you can’t shake your head in disbelief. But the truth is, these things are not isolated to Romania only. Such hospitals exist in all countries around the world, including Canada and North America. Yes even in Canada, people are left to rot in the emergency ward for hours. Public health care system, after all. We live in a world where spending billions in weapons is standard practice but spending money on health care is not important enough. We live in a world where the drug companies keep reaping profits at the expense of others. If someone has a pain, they are injected with drugs. The pain will eventually go away, but the body starts to rot, slowly, one organ at a time. This is Dante’s hell, his inferno. And we are there to watch. Should we call this movie a comedy or a tragedy? In the West, we can call this tragedy a comedy because maybe some critics feel that since we are isolated from the events on the celluloid that we can freely enjoy the hell ride. Heck, even I am rating this movie. But I don’t feel right in calling this even a dark comedy and I certainly don’t feel the trailers used in North America give a correct portrayal of the movie. Ofcourse, how else can this movie be marketed?
The truth is that every minute of this slow movie is absorbing and engaging because it drips with realism. We can understand the people around Dante, we see their selfishness. The argument I often hear in defense about Doctors indifferent behavior is that doctors often have to be cold, otherwise they won’t be able to do their jobs; if the doctors get emotionally attached to a patient, they might not be able to operate on the person. That is a valid point. A human body is just a lump of tissue. One smelly body is just like another. No emotion, no compassion. But then are the physical dead being operated on by the emotionally dead? Yes, in a cruel twisted logic. Hospitals are a messy place. Why? Our society has let them become so.

In the final scene, Dante finally finds peace. He is lying waiting for his operation. It is all silent around him as he lays on the cold table, in his hospital clothes. Will he survive? Or is he nodding off to his death? It does not matter. We have seen enough at this point. Fade to Black.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Art and Analyze

What is art for one is junk for another and what is junk for one is sublime art for another! Movies keep affirming the fact that there are indeed cultural differences in this world and that different cultures will always intrepret movies in their own way. Take for example, the recent piece done on Ram Gopal Varma in Film Comment . Now, in recent months, American critics have been paying attention to Ram Gopal Varma and swallowing his movies up as an art form. There was a time (it seems ages ago) that I paid attention to Bollywood via a North American angle. I managed to get some articles published as well, but eventually I tired of it. No matter what spin one put on it, at the end of the day Bollywood is still an industry. It won't ever change. It can't because where there is money and profit involved, there will always be the invisible hand of the producer involved. No Bollywood movie is (and will be for that matter) free from outside forces and completely a director/writer's vision!

While Ram Gopal Varma seriously strives to make different movies, at the end of the day, his movies are mere factory productions. His gang movies are not original. In fact, he has taken real life gangsters in Mumbai and morphed their story as a Bollywood film. But you won't find him admiting that, even though it is common knowledge who his movies are based on. Why this double edged secrecy? On one end, he makes sure the movie does not poke fun of the real characters lest the gangsters get upset. It appears that he pays homage to the gangsters and gets their approval. And on the other hand, his movies get praise for being original & gritty. The end result is that he manages to appease everyone, especially a growing legion of fans outside of India. Playing all sides? All about perception!

Getting back to that Film Comment article. This one line bothered me:
"And his musical version of Ayn Rand’s The FountainheadI[sic], Naach (04), with dance standing in for architecture, is all snarling attitude and empty platitudes." I admired Naach to some extent and it does feature some wicked performances. Yes it was refreshing to see a director make a movie that he knows will not be a commerical hit. But it disturbs me that such a work can be compared to The Fountain head . If that is the case, then every single Indian parent depicted in Bollywood movies can be compared to Howard Roark. I know I am getting carried away. The rest of the article does indeed contain some correct comparisons and shows understanding of other RGV movies. This is why movie reviews can't ever be objective, there will always be subjective elements that will creep in. I have been guilty of this in the past as well.

I have been told I am biased when it comes to Bollywood. I don't believe biased is the word. I have gone through all the stages when it comes to Bollywood films:
Stage One: I grew up in admiration of the industry.
Stage Two: I feel in love with the stars and was star-struck in my teens.
Stage Three: I eventually grew up and discovered real cinema outside of the narrow confines of Bollywood.
Stage Four: I managed to find my way back to true Indian cinema that lay in the four corners of the country and was in some cases found buried deep within the ashes of Bollywood (Guru Dutt, what a genius!).
Stage Five: And at the end of it, I believe I can balance my love of Indian movies, be it Bollywood or a Bengali movie, along with my love for International cinema.
But I can't be expected to go ga-ga over anything Bollywood. Sometimes, I can be tempted by it. I admit it. But given a choice between an independent Indian movie and a big factory production, I will first give the independent Indian movie a look. Because if the independent movie does become a hit, then it will be inevitable that director will ever make a good movie again. He will be easily seduced by the lure of the flashy industry. Cue dance. Kareena impersonating Helen, standing in the doorway. The newly acclaimed director walks toward her and closes the door. Fade to Black.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

VIFF Update

Attending VIFF even for 3 days was a great treat! I have to honestly admit that VIFF is the best film festival in Canada! Period!! No questions asked. Now I admit I have never been to TIFF or Montreal’s Fantasia and that I have loyally worked for CIFF for the past 3 years, but VIFF beats them all hands down. The simple reason is that VIFF is a festival for film-lovers. Toronto is more of a distribution market which is giving too much coverage to Hollywood and distributors lurking to pick up movie deals. For example, this year only 7 out of the 357 films at TIFF were Hollywood films. But guess which 7 movies grabbed all the headlines? On top of that TIFF charges way too much for each screening -- a single movie, no matter what time of the day it is shown at, can cost upwards of $20 Canadian dollars. Whereas VIFF charges $7.50 for shows before 6 pm and only $9.50 for night shows. On top of that, VIFF does not make it hard for the average fan to buy tickets or get into movies. Even though I had a full media guest pass, never did I feel that I was taking away the place of a regular ticket buying person. Whereas in TIFF, certain film critics and distributors feel it is their right to get in screenings more so than the paying public. On top of that if a screening was sold out, VIFF made sure an extra screening was booked for audiences. For example, all 3 shows of the German film, The Lives of Others was sold out, so the festival added another screening. And when four screenings of the doc, Colour Me Kubrick were sold out, the festival added a fifth screening! There were multiple screenings of almost all the big movies and the repeat screenings were split between matinee and evening shows such that a person had better chance to see the movie and pay a cheaper rate for the film.

Also, VIFF had an excellent selection of East Asian movies, better than TIFF. But when it came to Indian movies, then the best selection this year had to be that of CIFF :) Ofcourse, I take credit for CIFF’s excellent Indian film lineup. TIFF sold out to Bollywood with its Indian line-up and VIFF only had two Indian movies, one of them being a one year old Bollywood film (Paheli).

Next year, I plan to take a longer trip and spend an entire week in Vancouver. But for now, here are the 8 films that I got to sample. Because I was representing the Pan-Asian festival, four movies I saw were East Asian films. The rest were Italian, German, a US-UK-French animated film and a French-Belgian co-production. So overall, a good balance!

Friday, Oct 6: 3 films with the German flick the pick of the lot.

The Wedding Planner (Directed by Marco Bellocchio): Rating 7.5/10

I had such high expectations for this Italian flick. Needless to say it was a huge letdown. The film starts out very interestingly as a famous director (Sergio Castellitto as Franco Elica) is shooting a segment of his daughter’s wedding. Franco is held in such high regard that his every move is copied by other photographers and wedding cameramen. After the ordeal of his daughter’s marriage, Franco’s next hurdle is to tackle yet another remake of the classic Italian work The Betrothed . With such a burden on his shoulders, it is no surprise that he enjoys his freedom in Sicily after the train he was traveling in breaks down. There he seems to stumble onto an interesting subplot involving a prince, a soon-to-be princess, an amateur wedding camera man and other colorful characters. But is all this just a coincidence? Giving us shades of a film within a film, The Wedding Director asks the audience to try to understand the film’s motif. Is it really an open-ended work? Or is it a carefully crafted film? This is a technically well shot film but I really felt it went off the rails half-way through. I do believe an open-ended work still has to have some framework and this one really seemed to indicate that Bellocchio himself lost interest in this movie near the end. So why should we care?

The Lives of Others (Directed by Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck):
Rating 9.5/10

This was never on my list of movies to watch but in the end, I decided to see this hit German film for the simple reason that Werner Herzog thought “it was the best German film he has seen in ages”. I was not the only one to go see the movie for this reason. As it turns out the girl standing in front of me also came to the movie for that very reason. But what a good reason it turned out to be. This is indeed a wonderfully crafted film. The film is set in 1984 in East Berlin (yes, Orwell would have approved) where the Stasi still intrude into people’s lives. A dedicated Stasi officer is assigned to spy into a famous writer’s apartment to find proof of moral corruption. But as it turns out, the officer begins to change and starts to question his own values. A piece of music is all it took! Yes the ending might be a bit too emotional but you know what, I fell for it. I was almost in tears in that final scene which proved that sometimes in life, all it takes is one gesture to uplift us from our mere mundane existence!

Congorama (Directed by Philippe Falardeau): Rating 8.5/10

Yes this is a Canadian film! I have to repeat it again, this is a Canadian film. Why? Because it certainly does not feel like it! Yes certain people in Quebec might not want to be considered Canadian but I consider them to be an integral part of this country’s struggling cinematic output. And this film seriously feels very un-Canadian in all senses yet deep down, it has certain elements which one can only owe to that wicked humour that comes out from that province. A story of two men separated by an ocean yet linked together by a well kept secret! What connects Congo, Belgium, Quebec, Hybrid Cars, Diamonds and an Ostrich? Why, this movie ofcourse! The movie does feel a bit long at 106 minutes but when it all ends, you can understand why the director wanted to have all those extra scenes.

Saturday, Oct 7: 4 films with the East Asian movies winning out

Still Life (Directed by Jia Zhangke): Rating 8.5/10

Much has been written about this award winning film fresh off the Venice film festival. Now, this is a film that will only find audiences at film festivals and won’t really get a theatrical screening outside of the major cities (New York, London). Why? There is not much of plot as the movie focuses on the lives of two people who go to a small Chinese village in the hopes of finding their spouses. The village is about to be fully flooded by the Three Gorges dam and is in a state of transition from alive to being dead. The stillness of the movie is not even altered by two CGI additions, one involving a UFO spaceship. And the film is shot with a digital camera which gives this a documentary feel and adds to the realism.

Betelnet (Directed by Heng Yang): Rating 4.5/10

The write-up in the program schedule warned us that there is no plot in this film and not much happens either. Yup, that was a perfect assessment, so I can’t say I was not warned. But I don’t consider it art when a new director places a camera on the side and watches things unfold at snail’s pace. No, there is no talent in having long takes of nothingness while the camera is left on the tripod. Watching two teenagers being bored out of their mind is not exciting at all!

The King and the Clown (Directed by Lee Jun-Ik): Rating 9.0/10

Yet another surprise! This movie was the biggest box office movie in Korean history earlier this year until The Host came along. And one can see why it took everyone by surprise. A simple story with no big budget based on a stage play beat out all the big named commercial films! The story is set in 16th Century Korea where two street performers undertake a risky game to make some money. They decide to lampoon the king and his mistress. Such a thing was never done before but it pays off, initially atleast among the common folk. But the king is not amused and wants to punish the street troupe. The lead person asks for one chance – if the king laughs, the troupe be spared. Well the king does laugh, a little at first and a lot over time as he makes the troupe perform only privately for the royalty. Such a thing does not go down well with the ministers but the king does not care as he seems to be pre-occupied with a crush on one of the performers. The performers are all excellent with the drama interesting to watch!

Renaissance (Directed by Christian Volckman): Rating 7.5/10

This French-British-Luxembourg animation film gets full marks on the wicked graphic novel type black and white animation. It also gets full mark on the noir structure and depiction of future Parisian streets in 2054. But where it fails is the story. The futuristic story of gene manipulation is not new, quite linear and predictably worn out. No matter how classy and sexy the animation looks, a good story is still needed. This is where Sin City succeeded -- it had a complex story portrayed via the black and white animation style.

Renaissance contains voice-overs from a lot of big names (including the lead voiced by Daniel Craig) but it gets tiring after the first hour. Still it was worth attending this sold out show. And the touch of calling the futuristic Parisian city, Avalon, was brilliant! As it turns out, in Avalon people don’t have to worry about looking old and can live young forever. And if you break Avalon down, you get Avon and Revlon, two cosmetic giants. Hmm….

Sunday, Oct 8: A gem

Film rating: 10/10

I took the day to enjoy Vancouver and visit some friends, so I was only left to see one movie, but what a movie that was. The movie was not planned to be shown on Sunday night but an extra screening was added. Jeffrey Jeturian’s The Bet Collector was the real find of this festival for me!! This Philippine film has won the FIPRESCI Jury award at both the Delhi and Moscow festival this year and contains an amazing performance from veteran actress Gina Pareno. The film contains a simple yet beautiful story which follows Gina’s character as she goes across town trying to collect bets for jeuteng, a popular but illegal numbers game. This film once again highlights the power of digital camera as a medium for new filmmakers armed with a good story.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Festival notes: A tale of two Black and White Masterpieces

10 days of CIFF have just wrapped up. An exhausting 10 days where I managed to squeeze in 22 movies! Now I have a few days to rest before I head off for an exciting weekend at VIFF to watch some more enticing titles. There were some interesting flicks at CIFF that deserve longer write-ups. But in the meantime, here’s a quick summary of the titles: (*** donates my fav's)

Day One: Friday, Sept 22

Posdata (North American premier, Director Rafael Escola): Rating 6.5/10

A train breaks down and the strangers within the compartment are made to confront their fears/desires as they pass away the time. However, there is a passenger on the train who seems to know more than he should about the others. Clues are given as to this person’s identity and after a while, it is obvious who this person really is. This would have been better as a short film and feels labored at 94 minutes.

Lunacy (Director Jan Svankmajer): Rating 8/10

The midnight showing of this Czech movie was an interesting event! We were warned before hand that there was plenty of “animated meat” in the movie, and sure enough, there really was. The idea of using meat pieces to symbolize the humans trapped in the madness of this world was a great idea but it does get tiring after a while. Nonetheless, this crazy movie is a weird watch but in the end, it makes sense, despite the constant lunacy. Beneath all the layers of sex, religion, meat, the story is a simple experiment in what is the best method to run a mental asylum – whether the patients should be left free or they should be tortured and controlled?

Day Two: Saturday, Sept 23

Mo & Me (Director Roger Mills): Rating 10/10 ***

Salim Amin has made this wonderful touching documentary about his father Mohamed Amin’s interesting life! The movie is perfectly balanced with Salim’s personal family story along with Mo’s struggle to bring the true pictures of Africa to the world. Salim was in attendance
and I ended up having an interesting chat with him about soccer (as it happens we support opposing teams :), middle east and politics.

Blessed with Fire (Iluminados por el fuego, Director Tristán Bauer): Rating 6/10

An Argentine movie about the horrors that the Falklands War left on certain soldiers. The film covers  familiar ground although to its credit, it does deal with the impacts of post-war trauma on people. Unfortunately, the movie never goes deeper than the surface.

Requiem (German film, Director Hans-Christian Schmid): Rating 9/10 ***

Requiem is an amazing movie which served as the original basis for the ..Emily Rose film. What makes this movie worth watching is that the audience is left to figure out for themselves whether the main character is possessed by the devil or not. The tight cinematography enables the audience to be up close with the characters while trying to decipher the situation for themselves.

Day Three: Sunday, Sept 24

The Fight for True Farming (Pas De Pays Sans Paysans, Director Eve Lamont): Rating 8/10

Following the footsteps of last year’s amazing doc The Future of Food comes this interesting film about how our food sources are being corrupted by globalization and corporations. And this is the 3rd documentary in the last 3 years which once again lists the same corporation (Monsato) as the bad guy. Will the corporations win out in the end and force us to eat junk all the time? Or will we be able to return to the pure agricultural ways that ancestors used to before the chemical companies started taking over?

Citizen Duane (Director Michael Mabbott): Rating 7.5/10

A light hearted Canadian high school film about one student’s quest to become town mayor! This was a refreshing movie in the middle of a film festival and will surely get commercial release in Canadian theatres.

Day Four: Monday, Sept 25

Khosla Ka Ghosla (Director Dibakar Banerjee): Rating 10/10 ***

A wonderful Indian comedy about land disputes which anyone living in India can relate to. Anupam Kher, Boman Irani and Ranvir Shorey are just amazing.

The Guatemalan Handshake (Director Todd Rohal)

Right after a wonderful comedy like Khosla.. I had to sit through this offbeat American indie comedy. More people attended this film than Khosla.. and the audience was divided on the final verdict – some liked the originality and others were not too fond of it. The movie had some original scenarios and characters but the quirky characters and non-linear narratives feel forced and don't mesh completely within the film's well shot framework.

Day Five: Tuesday, Sept 26

Monkey Warfare (Director Reginald Harkema): Rating 9/10 ***

A delightful Canadian film about two ex-revolutionaries! Any movie with Don McKellar is an interesting flick and this one is no exception. McKellar is perfect in this movie. A simple story which manages to combine the past exploits of 60’s and 70’s revolutionaries with modern day youth looking to start Fight Club like movements.

La Moustache (Director Emmanuel Carrère): Rating 9.5/10 ***

A man shaves off his moustache but his wife, friends and co-workers don’t even notice the change. In fact, they believe that he never had a moustache in the first place! That sets him off on a journey where he starts unraveling his life and finds some interesting revelations. I loved this movie. It demands a longer write-up on my part which I will do once I am done all the festival screenings.

Day Six: Wednesday, Sept 27

Dosar (Directed by Rituparno Ghosh): Rating 10/10 ***

Konkana Sen Sharma put in another stellar performance and gave Penélope Cruz (Volver) a fine run for one of the best female acted roles from this year's festival selections. On top of that, Konkana's face was the object of the camera's affection unlike in Penélope's case where the camera gazed elsewhere at times.

Day Seven: Thursday, Sept 28

Radiant City (Directors Jim Brown, Gary Burns)

Nicely covers one of the hottest topics in North America: suburban sprawl. There is a fascinating twist in this film which blurs the line between reality and fiction. In the Q&A after the film, both directors mentioned that this film should get people talking, which hopefully happens. Cinematographer Patrick McLaughlin has done an excellent job in making Calgary look so good on screen.

El Violín (Director Francisco Vargas Quevedo): Rating 10/10 ***

Pure beauty! Just like Dosar, this was another example of vintage black and white cinema. This movie also deserves a longer write-up which I will do so in the upcoming weeks.

Day Eight: Friday, Sept 29

A jam-packed day where I attended 4 screenings – two docs and 2 American Indies!

Conquistadors of Cuba (Director Arto Halonen): Rating 7.5/10

An interesting movie about cars and revolution! Back in the 60’s, big American cars were the rage in Cuba. Everyone either owned one or dreamed of owning one. Now in the present time, these big American cars are even more valuable -- the cars are collectibles because of the original owners, be it a dictator (Batista) or a revolutionary (Che). And because of the embargo with America, it is impossible to maintain this cars as the parts are not available. Maximiliano is the only person in Cuba who can fix Che’s car. The fact that he is going blind does not stop him for attempting to preserve a piece of Cuban history as he attempts to restore Che’s car. In between clips of Maximiliano’s life are gorgeous shots of Cuba, archived newsclips and excerpts from an automobile tv show which helps trace all the owners of these collectible cars.

The journey of Vaan Nguyen (Director Duki Dror): Rating 8/10

Here’s a story you don’t hear often – second generation Vietnamese people growing up in Israel! As it turns out, an influx of Vietnamese left their war torn country in the 70’s to take life up in Israel (a war free country, of course). Some continued to live in Israel but others opted to return back. But what about the newborn Vietnamese kids who grew up in Israel? Are they considered Israeli or Vietnamese? These kids face the same problems as other second generation non-white kids growing up in ‘white’ western countries. In the case of this doc, Vaan is the Israeli born girl in question. She speaks Hebrew and has no connection with Vietnam. But she has to examine her identity as her parents attempt to return back home. Ofcourse, the land her parents left behind has being taken over by others and as a result, her parents have no real roots left in their homeland. This is an interesting doc which takes up the common question of identity that ‘white’ western nations seem to force on other non-white immigrants who migrate to lands once not owned by so ‘white’ people.

Mojave Phone Booth (Director John Putch): Rating 7/10

4 short stories intertwined around the real life case of a phone booth in the middle of the Mojave desert. Three of the stories were interesting but the fourth one was dull yet it was required to tie everything else together.

Mutual Appreciation (Director Andrew Bujalski): Rating 8/10

One of those purely independent movies which are either loved by people or simply loathed. I saw plenty of walk-outs during this film which was a shame. You just have to be in the right mood to watch three twenty something friends discuss their lives, career and their desires. Oh this indie is shot in black and white as well.

Day Nine: Friday, Sept 30

Iraq in Fragments (Director James Longley): Rating 9/10 ***

Iraq really is in fragments. It always was. But don’t tell that to the invading occupying forces. They won’t listen, they won’t stand for it. They like to believe they made things better. What I personally feared three years ago is becoming very true now as the Sunni’s and Shia’s exert their own voices. And what about the Kurds? This beautifully shot doc has three parts – the first is a street life story about a Sunni kid, the second is set in Sadr city and the third is a peaceful journey in the northern Kurdish region. The middle section is the most interesting and also the fastest in terms of pace. In fact, the beautiful footage from the Sadr city segment could be easily slotted into a Ram Gopal Verma film or other mafia gangster flicks. Expertly edited and superbly shot (albeit using filtered lens), this was one of the better docs I have on Iraq (or anywhere for that matter).

Mystic Ball (Director Greg Hamilton): Rating 10/10 ***

From one great doc to another! Mystic Ball is a must see simple film about Greg Hamilton’s love of chinlone, the national sport of Myanmar (Burma). Mr. Greg (as he is called in the movie) finds peace and happiness in this simple sport, which unlike other sports is not competitive. This is just a wonderful film that has to be seen by everyone, especially soccer players like Ronaldinho and Henry, who have performed similar skills shown in the movie on a lesser scale. The cinematography is just amazing as the camera footage of the chinlone tournaments is captured superbly.

The Elementary Particles (Director Oskar Roehler): Rating 7.5/10

Two Half-brothers who are completely different go their own voyage of self-discovery! Technically, there is nothing wrong with the movie. But there is nothing that great shown in the movie.

Day Ten: Sunday, Oct 1

The 4th Dimension (Directors Tom Mattera, Dave Mazzoni)

Despite the slick Black and White shots, the film ends up being disappointing. Especially since many aspects appear to be borrowed from Pi, such as the quick cut repeated scenes which show the main character washing his hands a few times. In Pi the quick cut repeated scenes had the main character opening a cupboard, taking his pills, etc.


Overall there were some very interesting movies that were shown in this year's festival. And for the first time, I crossed over 20 movies watched over the 10 day festival. The two masterpieces in the title refer to two black and white movies, Dosar from India and El Violín from Mexico. Vintage Cinema really!!!

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Global Cinematic Duels, Part II

The idea of pitting different movies from a country/region against each other was quite enjoyable so here’s a second and final installment for this year atleast. If a country had 2 or more movies, then I decided the country could compete separately. If a country only had one movie, then I paired that country with the nearest region, with the pairing based more on culturally and cinematic grouping as opposed to geographically. For example, I combined the sole Mexican film in the list with South America under a ‘Latin America’ category as opposed to having the Mexican movie under North America.

China + Hong Kong: Butterfly (Yan Yan Mak, 2004), Blind Shaft (Yang Li, 2003, also co-production with China and Germany), Fear of Intimacy (Hong Kong, Vincent Chui, 2004)

Butterfly is a refreshing love story, although not a conventional one. A young girl develops a crush on her teacher. Even though the teacher is a married woman with a child, she reflects on her youth when she had a fling with another girl. That relationship ended unhappily and her repressed feelings from that fling finds another outlet via the present situation with the young student. The movie is shot partly in Macao and just like a lot of movies shot in that exotic Island, Butterfly contains some sensual elements which just enhance this film. Well worth the watch! Rating 8.5/10

Blind Shaft came out of nowhere and blind-sided me. I had never heard of this movie when I discovered this tucked away in the video store. But oh what a movie! The opening shot shows men working in a darkened coal-mine. While three men take a break, they pass the time with meaningless conversations. And without any warning, one of the men is killed by the other two. As it turns out, the purpose of the killing was money. The two men go around scamming mine owners by pretending that one of their relatives or brother is killed in the mine and as result, the mine owner is forced to pay some money to keep them quiet, lest they make it public. When the two men find another prey, this time a young16 year old kid, one of the men starts having second thoughts (ethics and morality). How the movie ends is a surprise but not totally unexpected. This is a very watchable movie that is well paced and takes time to lay the characters out. Rating 9.5/10

Fear of Intimacy starts off interestingly but then gradually loses steam. A busy photographer does not have time for his girlfriend and is constantly leaving her. One day, when he rushes for an assignment, she leaves him for good. The story then picks up 5 years later when the photographer now works as paparazzi stalking and taking pictures of celebrities and rich people. A young woman becomes his partner and a quiet relationship begins to take shape. Things take a twist when he discovers his girlfriend from 5 years ago, but she seems to be involved with a shady character who might be involvement in a rich woman’s murder. Nothing great, but not a bad film either!
Rating 6.5/10

Overall Rating: 24.5/30 = 8.17

France: Sex is Comedy (Catherine Breillat, 2002), Unleashed (aka Danny the Day, co-production with UK and USA, Directed by Louis Leterrier)

The two movies can be summarized as Sex and Violence! Sex is Comedy is unlike Catherine Breillat’s other shocking sex filled films but the idea behind this movie came from her film Fat Girl . She uses the same young actress from that movie and tries to show how much works goes in filming sex scenes for a movie. While the final product might seem passionate and erotic, in reality the scenes could not be more boring and dull to shoot. A light hearted movie that does get dull very soon because after the first 30 minutes the viewer gets the point that the complains/fuss of actors can be a real hindrance to the final product. Rating 7.5/10

Luc Besson has really developed his own system of action thrillers which form a middle road in between the big budget Hollywood productions and the lavish Asian martial films. Most of Besson’s films atleast have a well defined story which revolves around a plot of revenge and clear cut good/bad guys. Every now and then, Besson scripts unique scenes to spice up the tried out action/thriller genre. This time around, the main character, Danny (Jet Li) is a trained fighter who is merely a slave to his master (Bob Hoskins). When his master removes Danny’s collar, he is ready to kill at will. But one day, Danny finds reprieve in the form of music via a blind piano tuner (Morgan Freeman). The soothing music triggers long buried memories in Danny which lead him on a different path. The story of revenge from this point on feels like earlier Besson films but it is not that bad, although it feels dull in parts.
Rating 6.5/10

Overall Rating: 14/20 = 7.0

India: Lage Raho Munna Bhai (sweetly directed by Rajkumar Hirani), Fanaa (mis-directed by Kunal Kohli)

Two hyped up Bollywood movies but two completely different outcomes!

Lage Raho Munna Bhai is refreshing flick that is very rare in commercial cinema while Fanaa is just another run of the mill patriotic trash that has plagued Bollywood for more than a decade or so. Fanaa may be technically good (with some stunning Kashmiri visuals) and even has some touching performances from Kajol and Rishi Kapoor but overall, it has too many loop holes and an awful miscast role for Tabu (why on earth do directors/producers keep picking her even though it is obvious she can not deliver dialogues?). Lage Raho… is not a sequel to the original Munna Bhai film but simply a different story with the same loving lead characters. I have to say that the character of Circuit (played amazingly well by Arshad Warsi) is one of the best characters to ever grace the Indian celluloid screen – the loyal street savvy tapori has been played countless times over the decades but never this well and this good!

Lago Raho…Rating 9/10; Fanaa….Rating 5.5/10

Overall Rating: 14.5/20 = 7.25

Japan: The Great Yokai War (Takashi Miike), All about Lily Chou-Chou (Shunji Iwai)

There was a time that I tried to watch every new Takashi Miike movie. But I quickly found out that was a difficult and frustrating task -- difficult because Miike directed and acted in several films each year; frustrating because his films are very inconsistent, with a brilliant film followed by a complete dud. Needless to say, I was still looking forward to The Great Yokai War which was hyped up quite a bit. It is not disappointing but it is nothing great either. It mixes fantasy, myth, sci-fi and action elements with robots, gremlins, humans, furry creatures, power sword wielding characters occupying equal screen time. A little boy uncovers a magical world where the battle of good vs evil is taking place and finds himself center stage in the fight for the planet’s fate.
Rating 6.5/10

All about Lily Chou-Chou has an interesting story but nothing not seen before – alienated youth finds solace in a fan chat room about the popular pop singer Chou-Chou. However, a series of incidents lead to a fan getting killed and the alienated youth finds himself lonely and more confused about what to do. After a while, the online web poetry gets tedious and the movie drags on longer than it should. Rating 6.5/10

Overall Rating: 13/20 = 6.50

Latin America: Caballos salvajes (1995, directed by Marcelo Piñeyro, Argentina), Ciudad de M (2000, Directed by Felipe Degregori, Peru), Sin destino (2002, Leopoldo Laborde, Mexico)

Caballos salvajes is a charming bank heist/outlaw/road trip movie. And like most Argentine movies, it has its own peaceful rhythm. Rating 9/10

City of M is a well crafted low budget with shades of Waiting of Godot . M can’t find a job but then again, he has no college education. Desperate to get work, M and his friends hatch plots to become rich fast. Eventually, three of them agree to smuggle drugs to America. All they have to do is wait for the ‘Bolivian’ who will give them the goods and help their dreams come true. The waiting part feels like the Godot play and at this point, I felt the movie might end. But the ‘Bolivian’ does show up and even though we don’t see his face, he gives them the goods. Since it is a low budget movie, I never expected the three to leave Peru so the events that follow after the three get the goods are not unexpected. Rating 8/10

Shot mostly in stark black and white, Sin destino is a film about street life. Fran is a 15 year-old boy who gets by prostituting himself for money. Via flashbacks, we are shows how a 9 year old Fran was introduced into this life by an elder man, Sebastian. Just when Fran is finally starting to fall for women, Sebastian enters his life again. Conflicted between his real desires and need for money, Fran ends up on a destructive path which leads him to destroy everything in sight. And when he is done, Fran reverts back to being a child again, attempting to regain the innocence that was taken away from him. The movie is influenced by Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados and even has a common thread via the role of Sebastian, who acted in Buñuel's 1950 film. Interestingly, the only time there is color in the movie is when Fran’s fantasies & nightmares are shown which indicate the hellish state of Fran’s fragile mind (no matter how pleasant the start of the fantasy is, it eventually turns ugly). Rating 7.5/10

Overall Rating: 24.5/30 = 8.17

Russia & former Soviet-republics: I am Cuba (1964, Mikheil Kalatozishvili, Former soviet-Union/Cuba co-production), Night Watch (2004, Timur Bekmambetov)

I am Cuba is vintage cinema and ranks alongside Battle of Algiers and Z as one of the best examples of great cinema that once existed! The film gives us a ring-side seat to a changing Cuban landscape and shows different stories about the rich, the poor and the revolutionaries. We see how the rich dance their life away in a haze of music and alcohol, how the poor farmers have to struggle at every step, how a revolution starts, how a revolution can be crushed and the creation of a legend! Amazing stuff. Rating 9.5/10

Night Watch is a completely unique and original film but does contain traces of Blade , Matrix, Ghostbusters and other sci-fi/fantasy adventure films. As per the well crafted story, there has been an endless battle between good and evil but so far the balance has been maintained. However, the ‘one’ will come one day and the balance will never be the same. The manner in how the story unfolds is very interesting (curses, spells, vampires + flashy special effects). The film is a slap-in the face for all the North American distributors who complain that foreign cinema is not entertaining enough! The second movie in this trilogy was released in Russia this year, with the third film will be out next year but will be in English. Rating 9/10

Overall Rating: 18.5/20 = 9.25

Thailand: Ong-bak (Prachya Pinkaew, 2003), 69 (Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 1999)

I finally got around to seeing Ong-bak and it is nothing special, although the fights are amazing. Safe to say the story is paper-thin and the film is a mere excuse to see Tony Jaa in action with his Muay Thai moves. Rating 6.5/10

69 is a well crafted dark comedy/thriller. A boss can’t decide which of his employees to lay off, so he makes the women pick numbers. One of the three laid off employees has the number 9. As it turns out, she lives in apartment 6, but the number 6 is not properly attached to her door and constantly swings around to become a 9. One day, she hears three knocks on her door and when she goes out in the hallway, she finds a box. Upon opening the box, she finds bundles of money notes. What to do? She decides to keep the money. And when the gangsters come to get their box, a struggle ensues and she manages to kill both the men. From then on, no matter what she does, the body count just seems to keep increasing. Dark yet tinged with some unexpected humour throughout!
Rating 9/10

Overall Rating: 15.5/20 = 7.75

USA: Walk the Line (James Mangold, 2005), Fun with Dick and Jane (Dean Parisot, 2005), The Squid and the Whale(Noah Baumbach, 2005), Miami Vice (Michael Mann), The Illusionist (Neil Burger)

Yes the performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon are very good in Walk the Line but so what? The movie story is something rehashed in Hollywood countless times – a nobody becomes famous, struggles with fame and dives into drug/alcohol, messes his life until he gets a second chance to turn it around. Yawn! And if the main character is based on a real-life character, well then you have an award winning movie! Rating 7.5/10

Fun with Dick and Jane is a comic look at present day corporate fraud, although the movie is set decades before Enron and the other greedy companies were caught red-handed. Jim Carrey is good in a role that requires him to go from slapstick to the dead-pan Truman character. Alec Baldwin is the usual cool & sly person who cheats others and gets away with it (almost...). In a funny tribute, the end credits give thanks to all the corporations caught in money-fraud schemes. Rating 6.5/10

I can finally see what the hype around The Squid and the Whale is about. It is indeed a very good movie and well worth all the praise it has received. A fighting writer couple’s marriage is shown and how it affects their two sons with each son siding with one parent. Amazing performances all around especially the two kids. Also, an interesting case-study on how easily kids can be influenced especially by parents they worship. Rating 9.5/10

Miami Vice was an unexpected surprise for two reasons – one it is actually a good movie and second (more importantly) is the seductive role of Gong Li. I had no idea she was in this movie and in the end if it were not for character’s affair with Sonny (Colin Farrell), this movie would not have been this good. There is no real story per se, (two undercover cops have to bust a drug ring) and most of the dialogues make no sense or are kept to single sentences. So it is up to the visuals to set the mood and with most Michael Mann films, the atmosphere gives a sense of cool with blue being the prominent colour in the background. In the end, the movie is about the characters and their lives. The fact that they happen to be undercover cops is just a technicality. Overall, the movie feels like a sibling of Mann’s Heat. Rating 8.5/10

Magic or simply an Illusion? A mere trick of the hands or genuine dark powers? The Illusionist is an intriguing thriller which has an innocent love story as its focal point. The production visuals are very good with Paul Giamatti stealing the show with an amazing and precise performance. Rating 9/10

Overall Rating: 41/50 = 8.20

Yet another surprise winner: A film from the former Soviet Union + a modern Russian flick take top prize with 2 solid entries!!!!!