Thursday, June 29, 2006

1st Movie World Cup – Quarter-Final Results!

8 more matches to go before the winner is decided! There were some very interesting match-ups in the movie world cup quarters and one match was identical to the soccer world cup quarter-final – Germany vs Argentina. Overall, only 3 teams were identical in the movie and soccer world cup quarter-finals: Germany, Argentina and Brazil.

Quarter-Final #1 – Germany vs Argentina

German movie: Werner Herzog’s Signs of Life
Argentina – Director Héctor Olivera’s A Shadow you soon will be

This match-up happened too early in both movie and soccer world cup; this would have been a fitting finale. The truth is that I really like the Argentine movie – it was the only film from the 22 entries that I loved from the first frame. But I can’t be completely subjective with a movie unless I take the contest to penalties. On the other hand, it took me a while to warm up to the German movie but there were 2 sequences which really endeared the movie to me (one was a long shot which showed Stroszek going crazy and threatening the villagers but we don’t see a close-up of him; we only see what the villagers see from a distance so we are forced to judge for ourselves what is going on with him. The second shot was the final shot when the camera is on the back of the truck and we only see the dust blown by the speeding truck as the narrator tells of what happened with Stroszek). Nothing complicated about these shots but they were examples which showed Herzog knew exactly what he wanted to achieve with each frame. Also, I kept comparing Signs of Life to Grizzly Man -- the latter was a documentary but the former was a scripted movie which felt like a documentary. Brilliant!! Now, Olivera was in command of his material as well but compared to Herzog, his movie fell just a little short. So a very tough decision, but the German movie moves on.

Final score: Germany 5 – 3 Argentina

Goal scorers, Germany: Story, Acting, Direction, Cinematography, Sound
Goal scorers, Argentina: Story, Acting, Direction

Quarter-Final #2 – Poland vs Holland

Poland: Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal
Holland - Director Paul Verhoeven’s Turkish Delight

This one was not even close. The pacy Dutch movie was all over the Polish entry and easily cruised into the semi-finals.

Final score: Poland 1 – 4 Holland

Goal scorers, Poland: Cinematography
Goal scorers, Holland: Story, Acting, Direction, Cinematography

Quarter-Final #3 – Japan vs Korea

Japan – Director Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan
South Korea - Director Chan-wook Park's Lady Vengeance

Battle Royale, indeed! The two co-hosts from the 2002 World Cup and past rivals pitted against each other. A very close encounter but Korea did enough to reach the semi’s.

Final score: Japan 4 – 5 Korea

Goal scorers, Poland: Story, Direction, Cinematography, Sound
Goal scorers, Holland: Story, Acting, Direction, Cinematography, Sound

Quarter-Final #4 – Brazil vs Spain

Brazil - Director Vicente Amorim's The Middle of the World
Spain -- Director Achero Mañas's El Bola

I have to go against the verdict of the film festival circuit and give the win to Brazil, even though the Spanish movie has won far more film festival awards -- El Bola has won 17 awards and gotten 9 nominations where the Brazilian film has only gotten 3 nominations. Yes the acting in the Spanish entry is more powerful but the story-line of In the Middle of the World was a bit more interesting.

Final score: Brazil 4 – 2 Spain

Goal scorers, Brazil: Story, Direction, Cinematography, Sound
Goal scorers, Spain: Acting, Direction

Monday, June 26, 2006

1st Movie World Cup – Second Round Results!

In keeping with the format laid out by the Soccer World Cup, 16 teams competed in a knock-out format in the second round of the Movie World Cup.

Rules for scoring in second-round and onwards until the Final:

1) Movies compete in 5 categories (Acting, Story, Direction, Cinematography and Sound) earning either 0 or 1 point for each criteria.
-- If movie A has a better story than its opponent (movie B), then movie A gets 1 point and movie B gets 0.
-- However, if both movie A and movie B have good stories, then they each get 1 point each.
-- Also, if both have terrible stories, then the two movies get 0.

This scoring enables reasonable soccer scores like 3-2, 2-0 or even 0-0 (both movies failed on all 5 criteria).

2) If the score is tied after all the 5 categories, then a penalty shoot-out will be used with a single criteria – subjectivity. That means, I can freely give preference to a movie that I like without caring for its objective values. Is that fair? Well it is more fair than penalties are in the real soccer world cup!!

Here are the match-ups and results:

1A vs 2B – Germany vs England

German movie: Werner Herzog’s Signs of Life
English movie: Director Gary Wicks Endgame

This contest was not even close. It was a bit unfair because the English movie was thrown into the fire but the odd thing is that Signs of Life was Herzog’s first movie. Herzog’s 1968 film has some similarities with his last movie Grizzly Man . Both movies are about insanity, although the two films take a different approach to reach that conclusion. Grizzly Man is a documentary where Herzog narrates the camera footage that he discovered of Timothy Treadwell. Signs of Life is a scripted movie but it is told in a documentary format where a narrator tells of the slow transformation of Stroszek, a solider who gradually goes insane after he finds himself bored on an island. The beautifully shot black and white movie is told in documentary style and could easily be something constructed by assembling found camera footage of the incidents on the Greek island. The camera angles at times also give us the idea that the audience is looking from the outside and is never let in as to what is happening, something which is common when one is watching a documentary based on archival footage. Overall, Signs of Life is visually excellent with some very poetic shots. Easily a contender for best movie!

Final score: Germany 5 – 0 England
Goal scorers, Germany: Story, Acting, Direction, Cinematography, Sound
The German movie was strong in every department and ran the English movie off the pitch!

1B vs 2A – Sweden vs Poland

Swedish movie: Ingmar Bergman’s Persona
Poland: Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal

This was a really close contest. Persona is a critically loved movie and I can see why. But then again, I don’t think it is as good as it made out to be. Kanal on the other hand has a very dull start but once the story movies to the underground labyrinth of tunnels, the movie really kicks into gear. My biggest problem with Persona was that I believe all the clever abstract elements were wasted on a dull story; the movie ensures that the viewer knows at all times that they are watching a film -- the start gives the viewer a glimpse of the evolution of cinema, the middle has the screen split in half as if the projector chewed up the film, and near the end, the camera shifts back to the camera crew showing the movie being shot. Now, these are great elements but the story of the two women trying to outwit each other just didn’t appeal to me.

Final Score: Sweden 2 – 3 Poland
Goals, Sweden: Acting, Direction
Goals, Poland: Cinematography, Story, Sound

1C vs 2D – Argentina vs Portugal

Argentina – Director Héctor Olivera’s A Shadow you soon will be
Portugal - Director Manoel de Oliveira's I'm Going Home

This was a very close contest but in the end, ‘subjectivity’ penalty kicks had to decide the contest. Personally, I loved the Argentine movie. I felt this was a poor man’s version of the sentiments that the 2005 Brazilian movie Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures echoed. Both the Argentine and Brazilian movies had similar ideas of men setting out into the unknown, escaping and seeking. In the Argentine movie, the main character returns home only to find himself thrust into a chaotic circus surrounded by colorful eccentric characters who are seeking to live their life to the fullest, even if that means living in the past, dreaming about the future or merely driving away the present. The Portuguese movie, I’m Going Home is in French and is a technically polished movie with high caliber acting. However, I didn’t agree with the director’s vision of packing the movie with plenty of staged dramatic scenes to convey the main character’s love of theatre over other aspects of his life.

Final Score: Argentina 3 – 3 Portugal, Argentina win on Penalties
Goals, Argentina: Story, Direction, Sound. Penalty: Subjectivity
Goals, Portugal: Direction, Acting, Cinematography

1D vs 2C – Iran vs Holland

Iran – Director Abbas Kiarostami’s And Life Goes On
Holland - Director Paul Verhoeven’s Turkish Delight

Two completely different movies, two completely different styles! The Iranian style was slow but the Dutch were pacy and only slowed down near the end when they knew the victory was in the bag. And Life Goes On turned out to be appropriate pick because it does talk about the Soccer World Cup – the films showed that despite having an earthquake level out cities, some people still wanted to watch the soccer World Cup because it came only every 4 years. However, as the movie’s actor told one person, an earthquake was more critical because it could only occur once every 40 years!

Final Score: Iran 4 – 5 Holland
Goals, Iran: Story, Acting, Direction, Cinematography
Goals, Holland: Story, Acting, Direction, Cinematography, Sound,

1E vs 2F – USA vs Japan

USA - Director David Dobkin's Wedding Crashers
Japan – Director Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan

Wedding Crashers were able to power their way out of their group in the first round but they stood no chance against the award-winning stylish Japanese movie.

Final Score: USA 1 – 4 Japan
Goals, USA: Acting
Goals, Japan: Story, Direction, Cinematography, Sound

1F vs 2E – Brazil vs Italy

Brazil - Director Vicente Amorim's The Middle of the World
Italy - Director Roberto Benigni's The Tiger and the Snow

What a colourful contest! The Italian movie, unlike the Italian soccer team, showed plenty of energy. However all of Benigni’s energy was not enough to channel enough goals to overcome the technically polished Brazilian movie. It felt as though Benigni was trying to carve out another feel good movie along the lines of Life is Beautiful but this time the hollow story didn’t stand strong.

Final Score: Brazil 5 – 2 Italy
Goals, Brazil: Acting, Story, Direction, Cinematography, Sound
Goals, Italy: Acting, Sound

1G vs 2H – Korea vs Tunisia

South Korea - Director Chan-wook Park's Lady Vengeance
Tunisia -- Director Raja Amari's Satin Rouge

Both movies were very good and quite different from each other. In the end, tt was a very close contest and the final decision was a tough one.

Final Score: Korea 5 – 4 Tunisia
Goals, Korea: Acting, Story, Direction, Cinematography, Sound
Goals, Tunisia: Acting, Story, Direction, Sound

1H vs 2G – Spain vs France

Spain -- Director Achero Mañas's El Bola
France – Director Pierre Jolive’s In all Innocence

This is the only tie that is similar in both movie and Soccer World Cup. The soccer game will be a tight encounter but the movie contest was not as close.

Final Score: Spain 5 – 2 France
Goals, Spain: Acting, Story, Direction, Cinematography, Sound
Goals, France: Acting, Cinematography

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

1st Movie World Cup – First Round Results!

The first round of both the FIFA World Cup and Movie World Cup have been completed. Here are the final results and comparisons of both (Note: the top two teams advance from the 8 Groups, A - H):

FIFA World Cup First Round Results:

Teams advancing -- Germany (1st in Group A), Ecuador (2nd in Group A), England (1B), Sweden (2B), Argentina (1C), Holland (2C), Portugal (1D), Mexico (2D), Italy (1E), Ghana (2E), Brazil (1F), Australia (2F), Switzerland (1G), France (2G), Spain (1H), Ukraine (2H)

Movie World Cup First Round Results (Note: There were a total of 22 movies from the 32 countries involved):

Movies advancing: Germany (1A), Poland (2A), Sweden (1B), England (2B), Argentina (1C), Holland (2C), Iran (1D), Portugal (2D), USA (1E), Italy (2E), Brazil (1F), Japan (2F), Korea (1G), France (2G), Spain (1H), Tunisia (2H)

Comparison: 10 Countries overlap in both Soccer and Movie World Cup. Out of those, Germany, Argentina, Brazil and Spain have first place in both cases and Holland and France take second place in both. Only One of the second round matches is the exact same in both the movie and soccer world cup -- Spain vs France.

Group A – Germany, Costa Rica, Poland, Ecuador

Final Standings (Country, Movie, Total Points)
Germany, Signs of Life, 3
Poland, Kanal, 1
Costa Rica, 0
Ecuador, 0

Germany advance in First place with 3 points. Poland take Second Place with 1 point.

Group B – England, Paraguay, Trinidad & Tobago, Sweden

Final Standings (Country, Movie, Total Points)
Sweden, Persona, 3
England, Endgame, 1
Paraguay, 0
Trinidad & Tobago, 0

Group C – Argentina, Ivory Coast, Holland, Serbia& Montenegro

Final Standings (Country, Movie, Total Points)
Argentina, A Shadow you soon will be, 3
Holland, Turkish Delight, 3
Serbia, The Wounds, 1
Ivory Coast, 0

A tough group but Argentina take first place over Holland on goal difference.

Group D – Mexico, Iran, Portugal, Angola

Final Standings (Country, Movie, Total Points)
Iran, And Life Goes On, 3
Portugal, I'm Going Home, 3
Mexico, In the Middle of Nowhere, 1
Angola, 0

Group E – US, Czech Republic, Italy, Ghana

The tightest group in the World Cup ends up being a dud when it comes to the movie world cup. The most commerical choice in this group ended up crashing the party and advances as top of the group into the next round -- Wedding Crashers was the most unlikely choice but it worked in what it tried to achieve, which was not much to begin with but it delievered a few laughs. The biggest disappointment for me was Roberto Benigni's The Tiger and the Snow. No one can dispute the amazing energy Benigni brings to his work but this movie just didn't click. In a soccer game, you can have players with tons of pace but if they can't direct the ball into the net, then all their running amounts to nothing. Which is the same thing I felt about Benigni's work -- too much energy but no end product. Every now and then, you saw glimpses of brilliance and even at the end, I expected things to turn out completely but that was not the option taken. The story was not a fable no matter how much I interpret it to be and as a result, I felt it was a let down. The Czech movie had plenty of promise but I felt the joke was really on the audience. I have Milan Kudera's book by the same name and I am sure the book is great but the movie was bland. In the World Cup as well, the Czech team had so much promise but their efforts fizzled out after the second game. So here are the final standings:

USA, Wedding Crashers, 3
Italy, The Tiger and the Snow, 1
Czech Republic, The Joke, 1
Ghana, 0

Group F – Australia, Japan, Brazil, Croatia

Final Standings (Country, Movie, Total Points)
Brazil , The Middle of the World, 3
Japan, Kwaidan, 3
Australia, He died with a Felafel in his hand, 1
Croatia, Witnesses, 1

Brazil take first place on goal difference.

Group G – South Korea, Togo, France, Switzerland

France finally got their act together in the World Cup and it was because the coach finally made the right selections. As far as the movie cup goes, both France and Korea had strong showings. The Swiss doc was disappointing even though it was a very good effort. It came down to my lack of interest in the topic about the Tibetan Saltmen and since I had seen similar documentaries in the last few years about that part of the world, it didn't seem anything new. In the end, the Korean movie edged out the French movie on goal difference. I never finished watching Lady Vengeance the first time around so I decided to give it a second chance. I am glad I did because it is a very good movie. It is slow at times but manages to show flashes of brilliance throughtout to stay the course. The French movie has good pace (not as good as Thierry Henry's) and is technicall good but the predictable story line loses the fizzle near the end.

Final Standings (Country, Movie, Total Points)
Korea , Lady Vengeance, 3
France, In all Innocence, 3
Switzerland, The Saltmen of Tibet, 1
Togo, 0

Group H – Spain, Ukraine, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia

Final Standings (Country, Movie, Total Points)
Spain , El Bola, 3
Tunisia, Satin Rouge, 3
Ukraine, 0
Saudi Arabia, 0

A very tight duel between Spain and Tunisia but Spain narrowly take first place with the slightest goal difference.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

1st Movie World Cup!!!

Ah the craziness starts again! That insane game of futbol is here again to dominate a month in the lives of calcio fans everywhere. But honestly, this is the first time since 1990 that I am not that excited. A huge reason for my lack of enthusiasm is the dull rigged 2002 World Cup. Back then, most of the top players from the European leagues were exhausted by the time the World Cup started. After all, they only had 2 weeks break between the end of their hectic European season and the start of the tournament. As a result, the big teams went out early and other matches were tainted by inept refereeing. So I am a bit cautious about this year’s tournament which starts on Friday, June 9. In order to enhance my football watching experience, I decided to have my own Movie World Cup as the tournament goes on. The rules are simple:

1) Pick a movie from each of the 32 countries playing in the tournament. The first choice is to pick a feature length film. But if no feature can be found, then a documentary from the country will suffice as well.

2) The movies will be put into groups as per the tournament itself. In the World Cup, 32 teams are divided into 8 groups of 4 teams each. The top 2 teams from each group advance to the round of 16, from where the tournament switches to a knock-out format. Meaning, there will be 8 matches in the round of 16, 8 teams would advance to the quarter-finals, 4 to the semi’s and 2 to the final!

3) Once the top 2 movies advance from each group, the movies will compete in the same format as the world cup knockout stage. For example, the movie from top of Group A will play the 2nd place movie in Group B.

4) In the World Cup, each team plays 3 games in the group stage. However, only one movie will be used for the duration of the tournament.

5) Using the pointing system from the World Cup, each movie can get either 3 points (for a good movie), 1 point (average movie) or 0 points (bad film) for their entry.

6) In cases, where a country has no movie entry, it will be defaulted to 0 points.

7) Since the group stage concludes by June 23, all candidate movies should be viewed by June 24!

Sounds easier than it really is. Out of the 32 countries, it will be hard to track down entries for atleast 11 participants. Nations such as Costa Rica, Ecuador, Paraguay and Saudi Arabia aren’t exactly thriving movie industries. In fact, as per, Saudi Arabia only made its first length feature this year (on top of that, since the movie was shot in Dubai, it was only recently released in the U.A.E. Chances are that movie has no English subtitles and won’t make it to North America). But the key thing is to find atleast movies for 2 of the countries in each of the 8 groups. That way, there is a chance to go ahead with 16 movies in the next round. And even if a group only has 2 movies, it is still important to rate the movies because if a good movies finishes 2nd in its group, it could get knocked out if it meets a stronger movie in the next round. For example, the 2nd place team from Group E meets the Winner of Group F. Group E consists of Italy, Czech Republic, Ghana, USA; Group F has Brazil, Croatia, Japan, Australia. So potentially you could have a second round where an Italian movie takes on a Brazilian movie or a Brazilian movie goes against the US entry.

I still have not selected all the movies, but I will list the groups (as per the World Cup) and some of the movies I have picked so far. Regarding the selections, I didn’t use a pattern to pick films from each country. Meaning I didn’t try to go for big name directors, award winners or any specific genre. I picked the first movie I could find from each country. Ok I admit, in some cases, it was not the first movie. But I only wanted to pick movies I had never seen or in most cases never heard of. Just like there are surprize results in every World Cup, I too wanted to be shocked by some of my picks.

Note: I will also be comparing how my movie world cup results compare to the actual football games results.

Group A – Germany, Costa Rica, Poland, Ecuador

Germany – Director Werner Herzog's Signs of Life . I had to find another movie because my original picked German language movie, Michael Haneke's Funny Games , turned out to be an Austrian movie.

Poland - Director Andrzej Wajda's Kanal

Group B – England, Paraguay, Trinidad & Tobago, Sweden

England -- Director Gary Wicks's Endgame
Sweden -- Director Ingmar Bergman's Persona

Group C – Argentina, Ivory Coast, Holland, Serbia& Montenegro

Argentina – Director Héctor Olivera’s A Shadow you soon will be
Holland – Director Paul Verhoeven’s Turkish Delight
Serbia – Director Srdjan Dragojevic's The Wounds .

Initially, I had come across the Serbian co-production Somebody’s Else America but I never finished watching it, so it would have been unfair to use that. Even though The Wounds is a German movie, it is a Serbian language movie.

Group D – Mexico, Iran, Portugal, Angola

Iran – Director Abbas Kiarostami’s And Life Goes On
Mexico – Director Hugo Rodríguez’s In the Middle of Nowhere
Portugal - Director Manoel de Oliveira's I'm Going Home

Group E – US, Czech Republic, Italy, Ghana

Italy - Director Roberto Benigni's The Tiger and the Snow .
Of all the choices from Italy, this was an unexpected pick. I was debating between Fellini or Antonioni when I came upon this movie and since I had wanted to see this one, chose this instead.

Czech – Director Jaromil Jires’s The Joke
USA - Director David Dobkin's Wedding Crashers.

The most unlikely choice from the total 32 countries but I needed a light hearted brain dead movie to watch in the middle of all the intense soccer games and foreign movies. That being said, it is unfortunate I chose a commerical film from the country with the largest selection of movies around. But even though this selection will limit the USA's progession in the movie world cup, it is a decent selection. The rest depends on the other movies in this group.

Group F – Australia, Japan, Brazil, Croatia

Brazil - Director Vicente Amorim's In the Middle of the World
Japan – Director Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan
Croatia - Director Vinko Bresan's Witnesses .

I am breaking my rule here in that I am dragging a movie which I had seen previously. But this seemed easier than finding another movie from Croatia.

Australia - Director Richard Lowenstein's He died with a Felafel in his hand.

Once again, I am dragging a previously viewed movie into the running.

Group G – South Korea, Togo, France, Switzerland

France – Director Pierre Jolive’s In all Innocence
South Korea - Director Chan-wook Park's Lady Vengeance .

I wanted to go back and finish watching this movie properly and here's my chance.

Switzerland - Director Ulrike Koch's The Saltmen of Tibet .

This documentary is probably the most unlike choice for a Swiss movie but given that I was having a hard time finding Swiss movies, this German/Swiss co-production had to do.

Group H – Spain, Ukraine, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia

Spain -- Director Achero Mañas's El Bola
Tunisia -- Director Raja Amari's Satin Rouge

Monday, June 05, 2006

Paradise, Hell -- both sides of the same coin!!

Paradise Now (directed by Hany Abu-Assad)

‘The people of one country gave the people of another country the land of the people of the third country’. This is what I remember from my junior high school history class about the definition of appeasement regarding the creation of Israel. Since then, I have understood a lot more about International political games but those words stuck in my mind. Ofcourse, the mentioned definition is outdated now; you won’t find any media outlet using those words. Nope, the world is much more clear cut now – there are good guys and then bad guys. Everything either belongs to the good guys or to the bad guys, and most likely whatever belongs to the bad guys ‘should’ belong to the good guys! Or so we are told. So how does one define the Palestinian situation? Using Newton’s 3rd Law ofcourse -- ‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction’. Now the problems arise when we try to define the ‘action’ and the ‘reaction’. Because the western media has one definition of ‘action’ (naming Palestinian acts) but the Arab world sees only one aggressor – Israel. If one were to condense all the violence and political nonsense back to 1948, we have a solid answer -- the creation of Israel was the big-bang event which upset, shook and shaped events in the Middle East! That event led to a stern ‘reaction’ but Israel countered with such strong ‘action’ that the situation only got worse. And each day only adds to the mess.

Documentaries have been brave enough to expose this situation but when it comes to movies, very few have dared to touch this topic. That was until last year. Two movies, Munich and Paradise Now , covered two very different sides of this good-evil issue. Munich presented one side of the ‘Action’ and Paradise Now presented the response. But these definitions are not that clear cut. The incidents in Munich start out with Israel having to respond to the violent actions triggered by Palestinian terrorists. So in one aspect the movie covers both sides of the coin, but from then on, the movie focusses only on a course of 'action'; violence must be fought with violence! But as the film progresses, Eric Bana's character questions his endless killing and it becomes clear to him that violence is not the answer. But that is something other people don't want to hear and in the end, his character finds himself as a hunted target, treated along the same lines as the people he was killing.

That story took place in the 1970's but things are no better now. The suicide bombing techniques from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have filtered to other countries and as a result, the world is no longer a safe place (was it ever to begin with?). And the volatile global situation make Paradise Now a relevant movie. The story is clear cut – two youngsters (Said, Khaled) hope to help the revolution and earn a trip to Paradise by sacrificing their bodies via a very explosive method. The film shows glimpses of their life and the final moments before the two head out to complete their mission. But things go wrong and Said gets a change of heart. Khaled was confident before but Said’s hesitation and logic rubs off on him. Said on the other hand thinks things clearly and emerges with a strong will, ready to carry out his plan. The final scene focuses on his stern eyes and then the camera fades to white. Equally important to both men’s decision is the wonderful Suha (played by the charming Lubna Azabal who starred in Exils and Viva Laldjérie ) who gives both men valuable advice because she saw her father die for the cause and believes suicide is not the answer. One of the most surprizing things about this movie is its humour. The humour is around the absurdity of the missions being carried out and even the methods used. The people sacrificing themselves are forced to read a script and act out their final message, which will be video-taped and sold to people at special rates in video shops. The camera equipment being used is not high-tech so Khaled is asked to repeat his message again, and again until he gets it right. He is given advice by the people running the mission. In fact, the entire mission comes complete with director, producer, script-writer, camera man and even a driver.

Paradise Now is not a movie with heroes nor is it about villains. It is delicately and cleanly shot and is about people who are forced to believe they have no other choice but the option in front of them – human sacrifice. These people have no airplanes to fight back with so they have to use themselves as a weapon. This is not a new argument though. The Battle of Algiers showed the same reason for the use of suicide missions to fight back. That movie, set back in the 50’s when the Algerians took on the French, is much more relevant today than ever. In fact, both Munich and Paradise Now combined together still can’t achieve the brilliance of The Battle of Algiers . If I had to pair a 4th movie with these three titles, it would be the brilliant documentary Checkpoint . The drama shown in that doc is not scripted and that is what makes the events shown even more horrific! The camera is plunked on the side and the daily humiliation and abuse that Palestinians suffer as they attempt to cross one town to another via the countless checkpoints is captured. Of course, the Israeli soldiers are also pawns in the bizarre political game being played as they are merely told to follow nonsensical orders for perpetually changing checkpoints (Kafka would have been proud). Checkpoint is not about ‘action’ or ‘reaction’ but about the causes which will eventually lead to a ‘reactive’ event! These 4 movies may compliment each other but at the end of the day, will anything change? For the sake of humanity, one hopes so! Until then, we can atleast hope that cinema does not resort to lies and deceptions but is brave enough to take complex and touchy issues head-on.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Love, Isabella, Regrets, Thanks, Bettie and Sweet Cyrus

Falling… Love (directed by Ming-Tai Wang): Rating 6.5/10

Directly imported from Taiwan, this movie is so new that it has only debuted at one International film festival in 2006. The movie’s summary in a nutshell -- Love hurts, Love causes pain, Love demands sacrifice, Love is based on choices, Love requires patience and Love Kills!!! Alan (Cheng-Lung Lan) is heart-broken after he gets dumped; he falls for another woman, but is un-decided about her. So he drifts into another woman’s lap; his drifting causes his girlfriend heart-aches. Another love story is spliced with the movie and is related to Alan’s tale but the link is not revealed until later on but it is not too hard to guess. The truth is that the movie is nothing special. Wai-kar Wong and Hsiao-hsien Hou have explored such themes enough times already. Sure the movie is technically good but currently most Asian movies look like a work of art anyhow. But if the movie’s story is boring, then there is no point in looking at a dressed up sulking heart-ache!

Isabella (directed by Ho-Cheung Pang): Rating 7/10

Winner of Best Music at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, this is another example of a hyped movie with no story. Once again like Falling…in Love this movie looks good visually but there is nothing to be told. A womanizing police-officer Shing meets his match when he encounters a young beautiful Yan (real-life named actress Isabella Leung). After Shing sleeps with her, Yan claims to be his daughter. Shing can’t figure out if she is lying or not? Either way, he develops a special relationship with Yan. The story is set in 1999 before Macau’s official hand-over from Portugal to China and a wafer-thin plot revolves around this political situation. The hand-over plot is a forced inclusion while Shing drifts around the city with Yan. Sure the beautiful locales of Macau enhance the story’s peaceful mood but it makes no difference as the movie moves too slowly while nothing happens. I am tired of film-makers who think showing a man shaving is art. No there is nothing insightful there but nowadays in films it is fashionable once again to show trivial everyday things and pass them off as art!

Everlasting Regret (directed by Stanley Kwan)

‘When your city is no longer your city, history can turn the right man into the wrong choice’. A movie which starts out with a line like that promises to be interesting, right? The ending line is interesting as well (can’t remember that one right now) but I lost interest in everything shown in the middle. Once again, the movie is competent visually and the story is not that bad but I could not care long enough to continue watching.

Thank You for Smoking (directed by Jason Reitman): Rating 7/10

I had such high expectations from this movie, but in the end it failed to maximize its potential. Given Aaron Eckhart’s sly smooth talking manipulative roles in Neil LaBute’s features ( Your Friends & Neighbours , In the Company of Men ), this movie seemed tailor suited for him -- if Eckhart’s character was going to defend the evil companies, then he had to be quick on his feet and ready to chew up anyone who tried to get in his way while making it look all so innocent and harmless. Unfortunately, his edge is toned down in Thank You.. because the story forces his character to show some compassion and act like a responsible father despite working for the ‘bad’ guys. In this day and age enough books, movies and documentaries have been made about the evil corporations and their methods to spin stories for their own good. So if a satire on this topic has to work, then it has to show intelligence and give new insightful material. Maybe I have the wrong impression about this movie. Maybe this film was only meant to be a character study of a particular lobbyist and nothing else. If that was the case, then why go to all the effort to have the story set in big tobacco? (having not read the novel, I can’t accurately comment on the book to film translation). Whatever the motives in making this movie, I didn’t enjoy it as much. All the best scenes were shown repeatedly in the trailers and the movie didn’t really have anything new to say.

The Notorious Bettie Page (directed by Mary Harron): Rating 8/10

I will get the obvious out of the way – Gretchen Mol is indeed radiant and terrific as Bettie Page and Director Mary Harron has done a really good job of showing Bettie’s innocence as she evolved from a poster pin-up to an actor in S&M/porn movies. Sure it is believable that Bettie was that innocent because she lived in a time when playboy had not yet made its mark and kinky magazines were hidden behind the counters. An example of her innocence -- when the photographer asks Bettie to remove her bikini top, she readily agrees saying that she no see the harm in that. Nor does she see anything wrong in being dressed up in leather, given a riding crop and asked to whip another naked woman. She really was treating her career as just that, while having some fun on the side. This was also a time when the media was not saturated with sexual innuendos and buzzing with the sex lives of film-stars. Bettie led a lonely life and reconciled her career with her religion and love of God. We are given snippets of her life, right from childhood through her college years and how she landed up doing what she did and how she got out of it. There are some good performances in this movie with Lili Taylor once again standing out. I thought Taylor was fantastic in Bent Hamer’s Factotum and once again, she delivers her lines with ease.

Home Sweet Home (directed by Pou-Soi Cheang): Rating 6/10

The Ring showed the terror that lies inside apartments – a tv set and a phone can be pretty menacing; Dark Water showed the dangers lurking in the hallways of mid-size apartment complexes; Ju-on focused on the evil inside houses and elevators. So it was about time that a movie went beyond the walls and illuminated the perils that lay inside the elevator shafts and air ducts of high-rise buildings! Unfortunately, Home Sweet Home fails to do that. The good thing is the movie wastes no time in plunging into action. It takes only 8 minutes for the threat to be exposed – an evil woman, who lives in the depths of the building, kidnaps a young couple’s son. She climbs walls in the elevator shafts and crawls inside the air ducts, but she is not an evil demon – she is a mere mortal with a tragic story. She too was once a mother and the film story eventually becomes a tangle between two mothers (the young boy’s mother is played by Shu Qi). The emotionally sad horror movie is dragged out and a fitting ending restores order in the high-rise complex. But for how long?

Being Cyrus (directed by Homi Adajania): Rating a solid 9/10

A big name cast graces Home Adajania’s debut film. Naseeruddin Shah, Dimple Kapadia, Boman Irani and Saif Ali Khan put in good performances in this polished dark comedy about the crazy Sethna family. Cyrus (Saif Ali) is a self-proclaimed drifter who wants to recount his story about his encounters with the Sethna family. But from the first shot, we are given a clue that things don’t seem as we are being told. If Cyrus claims to be a drifter, then why is a tiny pile of money sitting next to him? One normally does not associate wads of money with a drifter? From then on, we are lead into the world of the Sethna family who Cyrus befriends and becomes a part of. But what Cyrus tells the audience does not seem to go along with what he does. For example, Cyrus claims to be a fan of pottery and is eager to apprentice under Dinshaw Sethna (Shah). But at no point, does Cyrus show an interest in pottery! Nonetheless, I was willing to go on with his story. Until, a dream sequence really sheds light on exactly what the movie might be about. A harmless incident from his childhood is shown but that really indicated where this movie might be going or what exactly was going on. In the end, this is a well made movie. Sometimes, it feels too right as all the shots have been carefully constructed to flush out a story with all the loose ends tied up. Acting wise, Boman Irani once again proves he is good no matter what role is given. Dimple Kapadia still has her charm and Naseeruddin Shah plays his role delightfully (although at times his English dialogues seem forced). Saif Ali Khan finally gets a role away from all the Dil Chahta Hai cookie cutter roles that he is forced to do in Bollywood; in the past, he has proved that he is capable of playing a shady character but this time around, he is a given a role with a real bite. Overall, this was clearly a refreshing change from the usual nonsense that comes out of Bollywood!

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Heroes and Thugs

X-Men 3 – The Last Stand? Maybe!

What is the point of reviewing such a movie? Even if the critics trash it (which they did), people will still go in record numbers to see the film (and they did just). In a particular theatre (city X), all the opening day evening screenings were sold out and so the theatre (in its infinite greed) decided to have a special show at midnight just to accommodate all the numbers. Now, considering this multiplex was running shows every 30 minutes (more or less) starting from 11:40 am Friday morning, you would have thought that the line-ups would not have been that bad. But all those timings catered to a variety of crowds and ensured all age groups would be present to see the movie -- the die-hard fan probably could not sleep the night before so he/she might have seen the special Thu Midnight screenings; remaining dedicated fans would have taken Friday afternoon off from work to see the movie; Friday evening was reserved for the Teeny boppers who treated this as a date night flick and the weekend afternoon shows brought in kids between the ages of 8-13. Yes a truly great movie for every age group! So if that is the case, then who the hell cares if this movie is any good or not? Heck, a monkey could have directed this movie. Because the truth is all the hard work in order to build this franchise was done in the first two movies. Bryan Singer, who didn’t return to direct this 3rd installment, build such a good reputation with the first two films, that this movie would have made money no matter what. For example, here are some of the things done right with the first two parts:

1) Casting – It was a brilliant idea to cast the two powerful Brits, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as the battling foes. There is nothing better on screen than to see two intelligent good friends turn their wits against each other, all the while respecting each other. Then there was the discovery of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine (in fact, his character has grown so much throughout the series that he will have his own spin-off movie); Famke Janssen's presence added to the film’s glamour and beauty and Halle Berry's inclusion ensured crowds (even though she is the least favourite character of mine in the movie).

2) X-Men 101 – The first movie was so basic that anyone could have understood it. That opened the door for people not familiar with the comic book or the cartoon series. The second movie was much better and only added to the interest.

3) Special Effects – Ice, Fire, Storms, Claws, Lasers, Mind waves and other cool super powers ensured that the audiences were treated to amazing special effects in each movie.

So what is X-Men 3 about? And what could this movie possibly offer?

Well it is hard to constantly find plots for humans and mutants to keep fighting each other so the only possible angle left was the anti-mutant gene factor -- for every proton, there is an electron. So for every x-gene mutant, there has to be a gene which can take away (or negate) the x-gene! Sure enough, the humans find the anti-mutant gene and try to ‘cure’ the mutants. Oh-oh. Bad idea!! That leads to yet another political debate about acceptance and tolerance (‘God loves you the way you are’). Ofcourse, all this ties in very well with the spirit of X-Men (the original story was developed with an eye on civil rights) and the story incorporates modern day issues of equality and societal integration of ‘different’ people. New characters with even more cool powers are added, some are killed off and the stage is set for ending it all. But ofcourse, it is difficult to finish this money making series that easily. The teaser clip at the end of the credits gives a taste of possible future movies. But the fact is, if this had to be final movie, it should have had more punch to it. The movie is too tame and even the effects are pointless. The biggest special effect in the movie is when Magneto uses his powers to dislodge the Golden Gate bridge and re-locates it to form a connection to the island prison of Alcatraz so that his army of mutants can get to the prison. Seriously, why this much effort? Would it be un-cool for the mutants to go on speed-boats to the island prison? Could Magneto not have acquired a classy stealth fighter for his gang? Atleast in most other movies, there is a reason for having special effects. In this case, it was absolutely pointless. But what difference does that make? People came to watch the movie and it made tons of money. That is all Hollywood cares for!

Rating -- 6/10

Election – Voting for Thugs!

The Godfather introduced the cool gangster to the silver-screen. From then on, countless copies were made. Eventually, the winds blew the genre far East where film studios in Japan, Hong Kong and India polished and build on the ideas and crafted their own masterpieces. In recent years, Hong Kong and Japan's quality of this genre has been so high that Hollywood and Bollywood have started making their own copies of these Eastern gangster talkies. Johnny To’s Election is just another addition to this firmly established cool gangster genre. This time around, we are introduced to the inner workings of a triad’s leadership selection process. This particular triad elects its chairman through a democratic process as opposed to having the leader inherit his position through familial ties (like a rival group’s mentioned in the movie). But in reality, democracy is only good on paper. Sooner or later, someone will find ways to manipulate the process and buy the votes. And this is exactly what Big D does in the film. But the elders find out and vote for Lok instead, much to Big D’s dismay. But Lok can’t officially be the chairman until he gets the sacred baton, which has been in the gang for centuries. The movie then moves into a search and hunt film to retrieve the baton (feels very similar to To’s 2003 movie P.T.U which was about a search for a missing gun and had a lot of the same actors as Election ). Back-room dealing ensures that the Baton is properly handed over to Lok. Even that does not ensure forever peace. The movie ends with a feeling of more to come and sure enough, Election 2 premiered this year and even played at Cannes last month. Overall, I really liked this movie even though it has nothing new to offer; the story takes the corrupt model of democracy, mixes it with the Godfather theme and adds a few sprinklings of P.T.U . The final product is an interesting movie, which will surely be copied by Hollywood and Bollywood in the near future.

Rating: 9/10