Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Global Cinematic Duels, Part I

I am tired of people saying that there are no good movies being made currently and that the best cinema was back in the 50’s & 60’s. Ok, back in the 50’s and 60’s, International cinema was something all right. Besides the great directors plying their trade in a number of countries, there were some vintage movies. For example, I don’t think there can be a finer movie than 1966’s Battle of Algiers made today which captures the essence of a society so well. But the same thing can be said of literature as well. The literature of the past meant something but today it is mostly nonsense best sellers. That being said, there are some very good collection of non-fiction work out there nowadays, more so than previously. In the end, it is all subjective really. We all connect with an artistic work at some subjective level, no matter how much we objectively try to judge it. And when it comes to movies or books, sometimes the true merit of a work can’t be assessed until the future. Four decades ago, Philip K. Dick, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell wrote about a dark future where individual freedoms didn’t exist. And yet, in the modern year of 2006 we are living some sort of future that those writers imagined. Life has imitated art or maybe Life has taken its inspiration from art? I will never forget the section from Arthur Clarke’s 2001 where he mentions a future where man can read any newspaper from the world on a small computer like device, which is achieved in the present by reading papers via the internet on a laptop. While some works can mimic or predict the future, others end up remaining timeless because of their inherent humanistic meanings, like Shakespeare. Shakespeare will never go out of fashion and will be forever interpretated and continue to add meaning. And two such interpretations were made in Bollywood recently. One wonders why it took so long? Love, treachery, jealousy and murder are all trademarks of the usual melodramas but this time, those stories are told via the lens of the talented bard's works.

If one is tired of seeing nonsense in the theatres, there are always foreign movies one can rent. If that is not possible, then surely, one can rent the old cinematic gems just to tune out the noise of the big budget crap. I decided to conduct an experiement – over the course of 2 months, I would try to balance my viewings with new released big budget movies mixed with foreign movie rentals from past and present. Then I would set up a competition with the movies divided into different cinematic regions and at the end, just see which country or continent came out on top. The only restriction I put on myself was that the movies would be all that played either in the local theatres or were available at one of the video stores -- no internet renting (something I have been lucky to avoid so far). The end winner really surprised me and provided me with a cliched lesson – quality always wins over quantity, no matter which country the movie is from and regarless of the film's budget!!

Countries/Continents and Film Selections:

USA: Pirates 2, A Scanner Darkly, The Devil Wears Prada, Serenity, FlightPlan

The first movie of this competition was a movie that I relunctanly watched its opening day – Pirates 2. I loved the first movie but I didn’t expect much from the second one. Yet I found myself in the theatre on opening day at the 4:20 pm show. And I was really surprised – the movie was much much WORSE that I could have imagined! In fact, it was the worst movie I have seen this year. It is solely responsible for sinking the overall rating of the USA category. Is it fair to let a commercial crap sink other worthwhile movies? Yes!! If junk is made from one country, then it deserves to shame all other movies from that region. For the record, here are the other ratings:

Pirates 2: Rating 5/10
A Scanner Darkly: Rating 9.5/10
The Devil Wears Prada: Rating 8/10
Serenity: Rating 8.5/10
FlightPlan: Rating 6.5/10

Overall rating: 37.5/5 = 7.5

The only true brilliant movie in this list is A Scanner Darkly with Serenity getting a good nod. Linklater has taken a typical Philip K. Dick story and added the classy animation technique used to success in Waking Life and produced a wonderous paranoid big brother drug induced nightmarish reality. Serenity does proud to the much put down sci-fi genre and brings a fresh far away universe to cinema, and along the way, proves that film (and even tv) fans know more than studio executives, who never wanted the original tv series or movie to exist in the first place. The Devil Wears Prada is sheer fun. Nothing extraordinary here, but plain fun. The first few minutes are one of the best sequences in the movie, which show different women getting dressed. Just by their clothes, we can tell a lot about the different women and that scene captures the classiness of the film, which really is thin on substance but has plenty of style. The less said of Flightplan the better. In fact, I don’t think I can better review this film than Pacze has on his blog – his review is just wicked and completely spot-on.

Asia: Omkara, Mixed Doubles, Good Men, Good Women (Hsiao-hsien Hou), Ab Tak Chaphhan, Maqbool, Election 2

Gangster central really. 3 out and out gangster movies, with 2 of them of them being Shakespearean adaptations and the third being a Godfather mould. A 4th movie is gang related but shown from the side of cops, often left out in gang movies. The remaining 2 movies may be out of place but they capture a time and place of Asia that is worth showing, one modern (Mumbai in Mixed Doubles) and the past (Taiwan in Good Men, Good Women). The biggest disappointment for me was Hou Hsian-Hein’s feature which really was the weakest showing in this category. Having loved his other movies, maybe I had set the bar too high and was not engaged with a story whose fragments can be found in his other movies.

When it comes to the gangster movies, it seems a common theme was present – power won by unfair means will never result in peace and will always end in destruction. Typical story of Godfather like mafia movies that cine flicks around the world have emitted previously, but this time Vishal Bhardwaj has taken that story and wrapped it around the core of Shakespearean plays. Maqbool was a remake of Macbeth and got plenty of praise when it was released. It is a very good movie with excellent acting from all but one main character – Lady Macbeth’s character. Of all the actresses that Bhardwaj could have taken, why did he have to take Tabu? Tabu is over-rated and has been useless in the last few films that she has been in. She was the dull muse that could not inspire anyone and sank M.F Husain’s Meenaxi and has since been playing the stupid innocent_woman_ role for a few years now. In Maqbool she was dull, uninspiring and certainly not as manipulative as she should have been. That is why I had to take my points off my rating for this movie. Omkara on the other hand was far more superior in the acting category as the vibrant Konkana Sen Sharma lit up the screen with every word and Saif Ali Khan and Ajay Devgan played their roles perfectly while enacting Othello in a rural Uttar Pradesh setting. The only negative was the unnecessary songs which hampered the otherwise cool flow.

The first Election movie was perfect as it added a layer of democracy to the gang genre. The second one picks up where the first one left off and has a wicked ending which promises more feature sequels with far more destruction in store; the cycle will be complete surely in future such sequels. At the end of the first movie, Lok is democratically elected to rule all the triads and it seems that peace will reign. The second movie picks up 2 years after the first when another election is coming up. Lok can’t think of giving up his position and his greed makes him far more ruthless (Shakespeare would have understood Lok’s situation). Jimmy on the other hand just wants to be a "businessman". But he finds that he can’t go clean until he becomes the chairman of the Triads himself. So starts a ruthless battle between Jimmy and Lok which ends only when Jimmy hacks (literally) his way to the top. But a tasty twist leaves Jimmy in a precarious position where he might never be just a "businessman".

Ab Tak Chaphhan is a Ram Gopal factory production which is quite good much to my disbelief as I had previously rejected this movie on a quick viewing a year ago. The story is about cops who have to break the law themselves in order to keep the balance with Nana Patekar giving a riveting performance. Mixed Doubles is an decent comedy about a young couple living in Mumbai who are duly going through the stages of their marriage until the husband gets obsessed with the idea of ‘swinging’ to spice their married life up. The one bright spot in the movie -- Konkana Sen Sharma!

Omkara: 9/10
Mixed Doubles: Rating 7.5/10
Good Men, Good Women: Rating 5.5/10
Ab Tak Chaphhan: Rating 9.5/10
Maqbool: Rating 8.5/10
Election 2: 9

Overall rating: 49 = 8.17

Europe: Man Bites Dog (Rémy Belvaux, Belgium), Pusher (Nicolas Winding Refn, Denmark, 1996), Buffet Froid (Bertrand Blier, France, 1979), I, Soliti Ignoti(Big deal on Madonna Street, Mario Monicelli, Italy, 1958), Element of Crime (Germany), Descent (Neil Marshall, UK)

A completely mixed bag of European flicks with my favourite being the Brit thriller The Descent. The story is simple but very well done – 6 women go cave exploring until they find something sinister hidden beneath the earth. Blood and darkness are the main elements in a gripping edge of the seat thriller that is truly worth watching in a dark theatre. The only negative has to be the chopped up ending for the American version which tries to give a glimmer of hope but I rather would have preferred the Brit version which really ends in darkness. Man Bites Dog is an interesting experiment – a film crew follows a killer who randomly picks his victims and executes them in unique ways. Shot in black & white, it is not a tasteful watch but was made long before the crazy of American reality tv shows started to dominate popular watching so, in a way this movie was a landmark in how cinema is observed. With TIFF 2006 showing two movies where the audience simply observes two characters, one a soccer player going about his job of entertainment, and another where a woman is going about her deadly task of killing, Man Bites Dog fits in with that category of observing different people try to make sense of their lives.

Pusher has a lot of hype around it and that is all it is, just hype. It is nothing great! In fact, I wish the movie was in reverse like Gaspar Noé's Irréversible as that really would have made this watchable because the best parts of the movie are near the end. The movie chronicles a week in the life of a drug pusher. At the start of the week, things are looking good for him as he is collecting his payments and is happy (these are the boring parts of the movie which one has to painfully endure). But a few bad situations leave him in debt and as the week goes on, he sinks further and further. This is probably the most interesting segment in the movie as we desperately see him trying to stay afloat. And in the end, just when things might finally turn around for him, all his hopes are snatched away in an instant. Two more sequels have been made for this Danish indie but I think I will pass on those ventures.

Element of Crime was one of Lars Von Trier’s earlier movies and it is a seductive crime thriller viewed through a cool yellow lens. Everything appears yellow in the film and this filtered lens heightens the mood of the film and punches certain features up a bit more, for example, a pool of blood stands out more in the background. A detective is on the trail of a killer but in order to catch him, he tries to mimic the killer’s ways until, he steps too far and starts acting like a killer himself. Not a perfect movie but a great start from a director much known to controversy nowadays.

The mad caper comedy Big Deal on Madonna Street starts out really well but ends up dragging itself to nowhere. Bordering more on slapstick comedy, it has a nice role by Marcello Mastroianni but overall the film feels dull. Dull is the farthest thing from the Gérard Depardieu starrer Buffet Froid which requires perfect attention to detail as a dream like situations led to the killer becoming the victim, enemies becoming friends and buildings swapping forests (shades of Surrealism & Luis Buñuel's works).

Man Bites Dog: Rating 9/10
Pusher: Rating 6/10
Big deal on Madonna Street: Rating 6.5/10
The Descent: Rating 9.5/10
Element of Crime: Rating 8/10
Buffet Froid: 8.5/10

Overall rating: 47.5 = 7.92

South Africa: Tsotsi, Son of Man

These were 2 late movies that were added to my viewing and honestly, South Africa was not a country that I had planned to cover this time around, but I got lucky here. I had missed seeing Tsotsi on a few occasions so it was only fair that I finally saw it. And Son of Man had a special festival screening in our city and I have to say, I was very impressed. Son of Man is a modern interpretation of Jesus live in the slums and streets of Africa – a time where gangs, religion, politics and corruption reign. It really seems that nothing has changed in the last few thousand years, really? :) Just that we have tv and radio which can transmit news of miracles and tragedies faster than ever before! And guns are readily available to those who need to kill people easily. A very commendable film, not perfect but worth seeing!

Amazingly, the two South African movies stood narrowly beat out the 3 other regions and won this contest. A real surprise indeed for a country whose movies were the last ones to make the cut!

Tsotsi: Rating 8.5/10
Son of Man: Rating 8/10

Overall rating: 8.25