Monday, December 31, 2007

Hong Kong Films

Final spotlight of the year shines on Hong Kong.

Divergence (2005, Benny Chan)
Triangle (2007, Ringo Lam, Johnnie To, Hark Tsui)
Who's Next (2007, Chung Kai-Cheong)

A Cop, A killer and a Girl:

Suen (Aaron Kwok who turned in a great performance in After this our Exile) plays a cop trusted with bringing a key witness safely into custody. But along the way, a sniper kills the witness. The sniper has a chance to take out Suen but he leaves him alive (reason is revealed later). Besides this case, Suen is haunted by images of the girl that left him 10 years ago. He thinks the murder case and his girlfriend's disappearance are connected.

After a decent set-up, the film disintegrates towards the end. Still there are some neat sequences in the movie. One worthy sequence takes place when Suen is chasing the sniper through a food market.

The noise of everyday things like fishes being chopped, carts being moved, ice being crushed are all around him. But he manages to tune everything else out and his ears pick up on just one noise -- heavy panting of the sniper. The fight that follows between the two is just fascinating to watch.

Also, a small cameo for Suet Lam. I have grown to enjoy his presence in so many Johnny To films. But in this movie's case, his screen time is just limited to two scenes.

The Three masters:

The concept of three well known Hong Kong directors making a movie together was just intriguing. Of the trio of Tsui Hark, Johnny To and Ringo Lam, I am most familiar with Johnny To as I have watched atleast 7 of his movies. I have seen some old Tsui Hark movies and only saw portions of his last featureSeven Swords. Ringo Lam is the one I am least familiar with.

So with great expectations I tuned into Triangle. But as it turns out, my film version had no English subtitles. Even though I managed to get a feel for the film, I missed out on some interesting conversations and even some not so obvious sub-plots. So I will only focus my attention on the obvious overall robbery plot.

Each director worked on a 30 minute film segment and all three make up a continuous film. While the first two segments have a similar feel to them, it is easy to pick out Johnny To's final segment.

Segment One: Set-up of the treasure robbery:

Tsui Hark kicks things off with the robbery setup. Three men are given information about a hidden treasure underneath a building. The three quickly manage to get the treasure chest out and attempt to escape, despite being chased by gangsters.

Segment Two: The betrayal starts:

The first segment also shows that one of the three men's wives (the wife of Simon Yam's character) is having an affair with a corrupt cop. Sure enough, the corrupt cop wants a piece of the treasure. While the gangsters also want the treasure as one of the three men was in debt to them. So this segment develops the mind games and betrayal further.

Pace-wise, this segment is along the same speed as the first 30 minutes. Although, one scene of violence sets this segment apart. But Ringo Lam has flushed a lot of the character's personality in this segment with the aid of an extended tense torture sequence. Definitely, something I need to revisit with English subtitles again.

Segment Three: The shoot out:

Suet Lam's appearance signals the final Johnny To segment. As all the three men along with the cop and mafia head to one location, Suet Lam's character appears out of nowhere to complicate things further. And when slowly, one by one, the guns start appearing, we can anticipate a thrilling climax.

But unlike the flashy gun shoot out sequence in To's Exiled, the final gun shoot out is more subdued and along the lines of what would expect from his brilliant Election films. This segment was a treat to watch though and with minimal dialogue, it was easy to just focus on the tension hovering in the air.

Overall, it is interesting to see three different directors make one continuous flowing film.

And finally, the Triads:

Johnny To's Election and Election 2 are masterful works which probe the life of the Triads and the violent games that hover beneath the group's democratic surface. Safe to say, his works are the finest in covering the gangster's lives. But I am sure there are (and will be) plenty of imitation films that will attempt to show the lives of the Triad members. One such substandard effort is Chung Kai-Cheong's Who's Next. The film shows a battle that takes place to head a triad group when the existing leader is killed by a rival gang. And thrown in the chaotic mix is an Anti-triad group. Some laughs and plenty of over the top acting.

Ratings (out of 10):

Divergence: 7
Who's Next: 5

Taare Zameen Par

Emotional Beauty

Taare Zameen Par (2007, India, Directed by Aamir Khan): Rating 10/10

The human mind is complicated enough -- despite decades of scientific advances, we are still a long way from comprehending all the mysteries embedded in the human psyche. We have difficulty understanding adults despite the benefits of observing their body language, their expressions and even noticing adults behavior. If we can't comprehend adults, what are we to make of little children? Can we ever truly understand what goes on in a child's mind?

We live in a society where things are labeled and packaged instantly. 14 year old kids are pushed towards Olympic excellence, the weight of soccer teams is thrust on fragile 16-17 year old shoulders and 10 year olds are expected to be future geniuses. But in a fast paced world, not everyone can keep pace. Just like each soccer player and team has its own tempo, so do humans and kids in particular. Schools have multiple kids in one classroom and teachers don't have time for everyone. Exams are marked quickly because teachers have too much to do. And sometimes, parents do not have time to properly understand their children. So if a child needs help, he/she is bound to be isolated and left on his own.

Taare Zameen Par shows a 9 year old's (Ishaan) problem with dyslexia. Ishaan has trouble with words but no one notices his difficulty. He is afraid to look at words which jump out of the page and taunt him. Yet he is comfortable with images and the beauty in nature. So it is not a surprize that Ishaan finds peace and comfort just by observing the chaotic everyday images. Those same images are ignored by adults who rush about in a chaotic world, yet an innocent 9 year old can carefully extract the beauty from mundane activities such as painting of house walls, hammering of nails, a crane digging up rocks or even a vendor crushing ice. It is left to an art teacher (Aamir Khan) who once suffered from the same problem as a child to help integrate young Ishaan into the harsh world.

The film is handled with a lot of delicacy and emotional tenderness. As the movie strives to show things from the view point of Ishaan, the audience is treated to a world full of simplicity and charm in everyday mundane activities. That is a quite a feat considering that a city like Mumbai offers very little respite from constant relentless noise and competition (education, corporate or even spousal). In that regards, Taare Zameen Par is able to abstract the beauty out of a dangerous and chaotic world. Even when Ishaan wanders around the dangerous streets of Mumbai by himself, the background music and camera only focus on highlighting the joy of discovery he has in observing objects around him. Yes, the film gets a bit emotional in parts but at no point does it resort to melodrama or over the top acting. Also, credit goes to an exceptional acting performance from 10 year old Darsheel Safary. His expressions are phenomenal as he manages to convey the confusion, frustration and hidden joy that exists in 9 year old Ishaan. Easily, the best Indian film of the year.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Love and Music

Love for Sale (2006, Brazil, Director Karim Ainouz): Rating 6.5/10

The only reason I got Love for Sale (or Suely in the Sky) was because of Karim Ainouz. I had enjoyed Ainouz's previous directorial venture Madame Satã and his writing in Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures & Lower City. But I have to admit that after seeing 15 films in my Brazilian spotlight this year, Love for Sale was one movie too much. The story is reflected in other Brazilian films I saw this year, especially in Deserto Feliz.

In Deserto Feliz, a girl leaves her village for Sao Paulo. But in the big cruel city, she is forced into prostitution to make ends meet and longs for an escape from Sao Paulo. In Love for Sale Hermila returns back from Sao Paulo to Iguatu with her young baby and moves into her mother-in law's house. Gradually it is clear that Hermila's 20 year old husband has no interest in looking after her and the baby as he stays in the city and does not attempt to make contact with her. So Hermila longs for an escape far away from Iguatu. But since she has no money, she comes up with a scheme to raffle off her body.

Like most recent Brazilian films, the production values of Love for Saleare top-notch. I am a big fan of Walter Carvalho and as usual his cinematography perfectly captures the visuals of a hot Brazilian landscape. There are some neat camera techniques here but overall, the story had the air of inevitability that I had found in a handful of other recent Brazilian films dealing with such a topic.

Music as escape from Poverty & Misery:

Once (2006, Ireland, Director John Carney): Rating 7.5/10

This charming Irish films shows two characters who live on the fringes of modern society's economic charts but can easily be found in any European city's core. The guy plays his guitar on street sides hoping to earn some money for his talent while the girl is an immigrant from the Czech Republic who roams the Dublin city core selling red roses.

The smart usage of hand-held cameras give the movie an earthy feel and allows to us to experience these character's bitter sweet life. When things get tough, both the guy and girl find solace in music. The girl provides the inspiration for the guy to finally follow his dream of getting his music recorded.

La Vie en Rose (2007, French co-production, Director Olivier Dahan): Rating 7.5/10

In Once the guy sang on street corners while playing his guitar. In La Vie en Rose, Edith Pilaf (Marion Cotillard in a riveting performance) also stood on street corners to sing but she only relied on her soulful voice -- her powerful voice could stop traffic and lighten any wary heart. The film shows her rise to fame from a background of poverty to her performance at music halls in Paris and New York. The best parts of the film are where we get to listen to her booming voice.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Movie round-up continues...

Euro 2008 Film Festival -- first 5 films:

Even though the Euro 2008 soccer tournament does not start until June 7, I wanted to start watching my film festival screenings this year. In my past soccer film festivals (World Cup 2006, Copa America 2007), I was often watching the films while the soccer tournament was going on. This created a hectic schedule as I was often scrambling to give my attention to both the films and soccer games. Now, I plan to watch all my films before the soccer tournament so that I can enjoy the footie games peacefully.

I will do detailed write-ups of the movies and my selection criteria in upcoming months. Unlike the previous two soccer film festivals, this time I actually have a plan for choosing the movies.

Films in order of viewing:

  • Daywatch (Russia, 2006, Director Timur Bekmambetov)

  • Edi (Poland, 2002, Director Piotr Trzaskalski)

  • Goodbye Lenin (Germany, 2003, Director Wolfgang Becker)

  • Sorry for Kung Fu (Croatia, 2004, Director Ognjen Svilicic)

  • Zelary (Czech Republic, 2003, Director Ondrej Trojan)

  • Indian stop-over: Independent Cinema vs Bollywood

    Parzania (2005, Director Rahul Dholakia): Rating 7.5/10

    Gujarat experienced its days of hell in early 2002. It all started with a burning of a train in Godhra. What followed was nothing short of a genocide like extermination but was labeled by the media as riots or Hindu-Muslim clashes. Then further revenge killings took place to counter the initial violent acts. But what was the truth? Who lit the train on fire? I didn't gather much from the news as the investigation was very biased and muddy. Then I luckily came across Rakesh Sharma's eye-opening 4 hour documentary Final Solution in 2004. I had to watch the film in 3 sittings as the documentary was not an easy watch -- the film slowly peeled off the layers of hate to reveal the pure evil that lurked inside the hearts of weak and corrupt men. Yes it is only men who could have thought of such disgusting acts of violence.

    Parzania revisits those dark days in Gujarat's and India's history. Just like Deepa Mehta's film Earth, Parzania uses a Parsi family to document the hateful acts (in Earth the 1947 Partition violence was shown through the eyes of a young Parsi girl). In a way using a Parsi family gives a neutral ground to observe the events as Parsi's are neither Hindu or Muslim, so they should remain unharmed. But there are no neutrals during the blind rage that exists and as Parzania shows, even the so called neutrals are caught in the cross-fire. Parzania also throws in another neutral observer in Allan, an American who comes to Gujarat to complete his thesis on Mahatma Gandhi. He brings some objective perspective to the madness and questions how the birth place of Mahatma Gandhi can be filled with so much seething violence. It was in fact such hateful ideas that led to Mahatma's assassination in the first place, so it shouldn't be a surprize that these poisonous ideas would start to hover over the streets of Gujarat.

    Kairee (2000, Director Amol Palekar): Rating 6/10

    Throughout the 1970's and 80's, Amol Palekar was a darling of both India's art house & commercial cinema and gave some memorable performances in such films as Chhoti Si Baat, Safed Jhoot, Gol Maal and Khamosh. I had no idea that he had turned to direction in the early 1980's itself as I never got to see his early efforts. I knew that he made some waves with his 1995 directed film Daayraa. But the movie only made the trips on the film festival circuit and did not make it out to my part of the world. The first Amol Palekar directorial effort I saw was his 2005 Bollywood film Paheli. Thanks to Palekar, Paheli was a wonderful movie directed with such care and tenderness, much better than the regular Bollywood studio fare.

    When I came across Kairee I grabbed it and was eager to see Palekar's effort. But this film was a huge disappointment. The story is told from the view point of a 10 year old girl who is sent to live with her aunt after her mother passes away and her uncle does not want to take care of her. As the innocent girl starts to discover the complicated world around her, she starts to mature and grow up a little. There are some tender moments in the movie, especially with the girl and her teacher (played by Atul Kulkarni) where the teacher encourages the girl to write and adapt with the tough world.

    Jab We Met (2007, Director Imtiaz Ali): Rating 8/10

    I love it when word of mouth sometimes propels a movie well beyond its expectations. Such is the case with Jab We Met. No one had any hopes from this Shahid Kapoor and Kareena Kapoor film. Even though I had loved Imtiaz Ali's first film Socha Na Tha (I watched that movie three times), I decided to stay away from his second effort as the movie looked like a typical love story (Ofcourse, I should have known better as I said that about this first film before I fell in love with it).

    But then I only heard good things about this Jab We Met. Friends and family raved about it. Well I decided to listen to them all and in the end, I am glad I did. The story is nothing new -- essentially something along the lines of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge plus elements from other love triangles. But the strength of the film is the fresh screenplay and an amazing performance from Kareena Kapoor. Though I am not a fan of her acting, this was a role perfect for her talents. She acts with so much gusto and as the camera is focused on her face most of the time, she is completely at ease in delivering some fascinating dialogues.

    Also, some nice little touches by Imtiaz Ali. The film starts out with the lead character Aditya (Shahid Kapoor) not speaking a single line of dialogue for the first 8 minutes or so. Just by observing him, we can understand his gradual meltdown and suicidal urge. But despite his need to kill himself by jumping off a moving train, we can anticipate that he will eventually shout something because sitting across from him is Geet (Kareena Kapoor), a woman that never shuts up and keeps talking and talking, even in her sleep. Sure enough, once Aditya shouts back, the film moves into high gear of witty dialogues and energetic fun.

    Ofcourse, there are plenty of weak points in the movie. Besides the lead pair, the acting of others is average at best. The triangle love interest in the movie Anshuman (Tarun Arora) displays virtually no emotion while delivering his lines. Some of the production is quite sloppy as one can easily make out the fake trains and cars (seriously, is it that hard to get a decent crane shot of a moving car?).

    With both Socha Na Tha and Jab We Met, Imtiaz Ali has proved that there is so much scope that can still be explored in a framework of an Indian love/marriage story. Ofourse, it takes a talented writer and director to produce works which can be both fun and thought provoking.

    She's back!!!!!!

    "Madhuri Dixit is back". Only in Bollywood can 4 such words be used to promote a movie. But then again, Madhuri Dixit is no ordinary actress. No other woman has ever held such charm over modern Bollywood as Madhuri has. And in her 5 year absence, no new actress has been able to capture the energy of Madhuri. So she was sorely missed.

    Aaja Nachle (2007, Director Anil Mehta): Rating 8/10

    "Form is temporary, Class is permanent" (Unknown source, cricket quote?)

    Yes Madhuri is all class. Without her Aaja Nachle would fall apart completely despite having a strong cast of Konkana Sen Sharma, Vinay Pathak, Ranvir Shorey, Irfan Khan, Kunal Kapoor and Akhshaye Khanna.

    The story is written by Aditya Chopra so that means we get a village that can only exist in Bollywood -- despite all the complications, a little song and dance is enough to solve all problems. An ordinary stage is supposed to represent the highest form of art against the big bad soul-less mall that is going to take its place. But I didn't go to see this movie because of its story. I went because of Madhuri. And good to know that despite her age, she can still light up the screen with one smile. There is truly no one like her.

    So just like the movie story, is her return temporary? Who knows but maybe someone can write a story to place her opposite Amitabh Bachchan, a pairing that has still not happened.

    Monday, December 24, 2007

    Recent movie round-up

    Springfield standing in for America:

    The Simpsons Movie (2007, Director David Silverman): Rating 7.5/10

    I am not sure what my expectations from The Simpsons Movie was. After more than 17 years of tv episodes, what really was there to cover in a full length feature? Maybe that is the reason I stayed away from the theater for this one. But I was still curious to see if maybe, just maybe, the movie attempted to take some risks. And as it turns out, there are absolutely no risks in the movie -- having Bart skate nude does not translate into risky material! The overall experience feels just like watching a regular tv episode stretched over 80 minutes. Yes the movie contains some hilarious moments and is enjoyable in parts. But the story is not a stretch from the tv show and even contains a theme covered in one episode -- the pollution of Lake Springfield. There are other familiar elements from the tv show such as the town begging Mr. Burns for turning on the power and spoofs of big Hollywood films.

    The movie feels too squeaky clean, as if the film-makers kept in mind that the movie would be shown globally so there shouldn't be any content to offend anyone. The only character who comes under fire in the movie is Homer himself, which is the easy choice. Overall, good for some laughs but a disappointing effort.

    Grimsby standing in for England:

    This is England (2006, Director Shane Meadows): Rating 8/10

    Adolescence is a difficult enough experience for a teenager with hormonal changes, peer pressures and general angst. So any further complicated issues such as the loss of a father to war, having no friends and not fitting in just makes things worse. Such is the case of 12 year old Shaun who gets bullied at school and has no friends to look out after him. His life takes a turn for the better when he befriends some skinheads and the head of the group (Woody) takes Shaun under his wing. Things seem fine until the group's original leader, Combo, returns from jail. Combo and Woody are complete opposites -- Woody is a bit moderate and although he may indulge in vandalism, he won't engage in racist or neo-fascist violence; Combo on the other hand proudly believes in a 'pure England' and his years in jail have turned him into a hate mongering skin-head. So as these two opposing views clash, Shaun finds himself switching loyalties from Woody to Combo until a horrific incident makes him realize the poison that lies buried within Combo.

    The film is set in 1983 yet plenty of elements are true even today. There was a period in the mid 80's when the skinheads dangerous ideas propagated throughout England and even found their way into the soccer terraces around the U.K. However, the mid to late 90's saw a decline in such ideas in England. But in recent years, these hateful ideas are once again finding support not only in England but also in Germany, France and even Italy.

    India via several cities:

    Bheja Fry (2007, Director Sagar Ballary): Rating 7.5/10

    An interesting Indian adaptation of the hilarious French film The Dinner Game. The story is similar to the French version where a bunch of rich men have a weekly party and bring an 'idiot' as a guest. While they all laugh at the idiots, they also have a contest to see which person brought in the biggest idiot. In Bheja Fry, the idiot is Bharat Bhushan (Vinay Pathak), an honest government employee who has a passion for singing. This movie belongs to Vinay Pathak who is fantastic in every scene. Unfortunately, the remaining cast is not on par with Pathak's excellent performance.

    Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2003, Director Sudhir Mishra): Rating 9/10

    Sudhir Mishra has crafted an intelligent movie that looks at the youth rebellion that existed in India during the period of Emergency (prior to and after that period in the 70's). We see three youths with different takes on what is required to take the country forward -- communism, capitalism or democracy. A smart movie that deserves a longer write-up in a future post.

    Dil Dosti, etc (2007, Director Manish Tiwary): Rating 7/10

    Just like Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, this film focuses on college youth but the movie is not really interested in politics. The film is more interested in examining the confused ideas that can effect college youth. While Sanjay (Shreyas Talpade) wants to run for college presidency, Apurv is not interested in politics or a career. He is not even interested in love but finds more pleasure in attempting to bed as many women as he can. While reading Sartre, Apurv freely quotes some random philosophy as he drifts through life immorally. Acting wise, Shreyas Talpade is the only one who has put in good performance. That is understandable as the rest of the cast consists of newcomers making their acting debut. Still, this had potential to be a much better movie than it turned out to be.

    Dhokha (2007, Director Pooja Bhatt): Rating 5.5/10

    The story of Dhokha is interesting enough but the execution could have been better. A police officer (Zaid played by Muzammil Ibrahim) goes to investigate a bomb explosion at a night club caused by a suicide bomber. The tables are turned on Zaid when he is shocked to find that he is the prime suspect in the investigation as the detective claims that it was Zaid's wife who was the suicide bomber. He fights the false charges but despite his best efforts, he is labeled a traitor and eventually suspended from his job. Eventually, he slowly starts learning the truth and it is indeed eye opening for him. The film shows some elements from other Indian films such as Mission Kashmir in how the abuse of power by police towards the Kashmiri Muslims only fuels the anger of the locals and turns them over to the fundamentalists. After Zaid starts finding the truth, the film turns into a predictable mess as other Bollywood movies and heads towards an unrealistic happy ending.

    Welcome (2007, Director Anees Bazmee): Rating 5/10

    It is always a bad sign when actors and filmmakers promote their movie by saying that the "audience should leave their brain at the door" while watching their film. This is a lazy way of saying that the movie was made without any thought or a screenplay. And when the film director is Anees Bazmee whose previous effort was the awful comedy No Entry, I had very low expectations from Welcome. Still the presence of Akshay Kumar, Paresh Rawal, Nana Patekar and Anil Kapoor offered some hope. As expected, all four have put in a decent effort with Nana Patekar shining in every scene. But the silly screenplay and poor direction make this a painful experience. If the movie had ended after 90 minutes, it wouldn't have been that bad. Even at 2 hours, the film might have been passable. But a running time of 2 hour 40 minutes is pure torture. It was indeed a welcome relief when this mess of a film eventually ended.

    Friday, December 21, 2007

    A double bill of kidnapings and abduction

    Take One: 4 year old girl goes missing

    Gone Baby Gone (2007, Director Ben Affleck): Rating 8.5/10

    Some movies are best seen without knowing the story. The only thing I knew about Gone Baby Gone was that the movie was about a missing 4 year old girl. As it turns out, that is enough information to know because over the course of the film's 115 minutes or so, we learn everything else in small doses.

    The missing girl story ends after 30 minutes or so. After that, a second story starts up but even that ends after another 30 minutes. Then a third act appears to start, a segment which on first glance appears to be an examination of the events from the first hour. But there is a tiny hint that there aren't three segments in this movie but one story, told in pieces. The reason the story is told in such a piecemeal manner is because the main character only learns the whole plot one step at a time. And so do we. There is one shot just after the hour mark which indicates something more sinister lies underneath the layer of evil. The camera focuses on a character in such a way that it triggered me to look at the character in a different light. We can't see the character's eyes because he is wearing shades. But the way his face is hanging coupled with the background music reminded me of a role this character played in a 2005 film. I made a mental note of this shot and wanted to see if in the end, this was how things turned out. Sure enough, this shot had a purpose. Not only did it reveal something sinister, it showed how the main character of Patrick (Casey Affleck) observes this other shady character.

    Sometimes good hides behind an evil mask. And in the end, this is one of the key themes raised by this movie. If someone's intention are good, then if that person uses bad means to achieve a good result, then is it really a sin? The topic of good vs evil is brought up in a subtle manner throughout the film. But each person perceives good in a different manner. And hence the conflict between the 'good' characters.

    The film starts off with Patrick's voice over narration describing the importance of a city in people's lives. But this movie is not about a city's influence on people, it is instead about people's mistakes and personality. Some people never change no matter how much responsibility is thrust upon on them. They will continue to make the same mistakes over and over. Such people exist in every city and not just in Boston, where the film is shot.

    Gone Baby Gone is based on Dennis Lehane's novel. Lehane also wrote the emotionally powerful novel Mystic River, which was also filmed in Boston and nearby areas just like Gone Baby Gone. I haven't read either book but can only assess both stories via the movies. Mystic River primarily focuses on three men's lives. Via flashbacks, we learn that these three men's lives were forever altered during an kidnaping incident in their childhood. One of the three friends was kidnaped and abused, while the other two were lucky to have escaped. The moral consequences of that incident effected all three friends and set them on a miserable and tragic path. Gone Baby Gone stays in the present moment of the little girl's kidnaping and shows how the other adult characters react. Still, this story appears to take place on an opposite street from Mystic River. Both films highlight a present (Gone Baby Gone) and future view (Mystic River) of the emotional damage that can result from such a kidnaping. Mystic River was dark and unrelenting -- there was no hope but plain despair right through the end. Whereas Gone Baby Gone shows a glimmer of light, a tiny hope that despite all the evil and wrong doings, maybe things will turn out ok.

    Note: To Ben Affleck's credit, he does include a shot which carries Gone Baby Gone away from the present and shows what the missing girl's future might be if she grew up in her neighbourhood. Near the film's start and end, he lets the camera linger on a teenager who is living in the same neighbourhood as the missing girl. One can imagine if the missing girl grew up in such a neighbourhood, she would look like this teenager.

    Take Two: Family man goes missing

    Rendition (2007, Director Gavin Hood): Rating 10/10

    Egyptian man living in America. Suspicious. Perceived threat. Must protect the nation. Dubious 'intelligence'. So the only safe option for a nation's safety is to kidnap the man. No need to inform the family.

    At the film's start, we see the wife (Isabella played by Reese Witherspoon) and her 6 year old son in Chicago. After a quick shot of the husband (Anwar played by Omar Metwally) in Cape town, the film moves to to North Africa (Morocco) where majority of the story takes place. Washington is shown on certain occasions because that is where the orders for the kidnaping and torture come from. Two stories are shown -- one of the husband's kidnaping/torture and the other being a love story. Both stories are connected and it is credit to the film-makers that the two stories are spliced equally together -- this narrative style balances the weight of the stories, mixing the innocent young characters with the evil men that are just doing their job.

    This is easily one of the best movies of the year but why on earth did it disappear without any attention? Can such a story take place? One only has to look at Maher Arar's story and everything shown in Rendition seems life like. But what about the Moroccan love story? Is there is a need for that? Yes. The film tries to show two sides of the equation -- the enemy and the good guys. The film does not attempt to take sides but just shows how in the quest for good, characters will act the way they do. One side's good is perceived as evil by the other side. But it is important to understand the motives of the other side. One has to get to the roots of evil, otherwise there will be no solution. Force leads to counter-force, which leads to more force, which leads to even a bigger counter-action. Loop forever.

    Note: I am not sure why Rendition only used the generic term North Africa to describe Morocco. One first glance, I thought the Moroccan city was Rabat. Then the second shot appeared to be Fez but by the third glimpse of the city with the market square and reddish house walls, there was no doubt that it was Marrakesh. And just to emphasize the point, the famous Djemaa el-Fna market square is shown on two occasions.

    Abuse of Power:

    "With great power, comes great responsibility." Spider-Man.

    That quote from Spider-Man applies to both the above movies. In both films, certain characters want to do good but in doing do, they throw out reason and common sense. As a result, their blind actions lead to painful consequences. Blindly attempting to do good can turn into an evil act because such blind actions have no foundation in reason and logic. And when the actions of the law turn out to harm the innocent, well the job of the evil men just becomes easier. The evil men can use photos of the tortured innocent as evidence that all law is wrong and simply abuses power. So the young and feeble minds are lured as bait to commit evil acts in the name of a greater good.

    Political Disappearances:

    The kidnapping in Rendition is along the same lines of those committed by dictatorship regimes in Argentina, Brazil, Burma, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Cambodia and several other nations. The Indian film-maker Gulzar explored such topics about abuse of power by police back in 1996's Maachis (Matchstick). Maachis was a phenomenal movie which showed how police brutality fed the flames of terrorism. Even though Maachis was set in Punjab, one can imagine similar situations leading to uprisings in Kashmir, Assam and other parts of the world.

    Soccer, to lighten the mood:

    Once again soccer provides the answer! The clue to the husband's innocence in Rendition lies in soccer. What? I am not making this up! I do remember watching the 1990 Soccer World Cup and the soccer team in question. When some of the names of those players were shown on the screen, I didn't think too much of it until Jake Gyllenhaal's characters stumbles across the answer in the movie.

    Sunday, December 16, 2007

    A Fixer, Gangster and Survivor

    Michael Clayton (2007, Director Tony Gilroy): Rating 8/10

    Crisp white envelops filled with money -- a reward for a job well done. Even though Michael Clayton (George Clooney) only gives such an envelope once in the movie, one can expect him to have distributed many such gifts in the past. Unofficially, he is the law firm's fixer -- he patches things up or does whatever is required for the good of the firm. He works off the radar and on the company record books, his job is insignificant. Only the firm's senior partners recognize his value and in case the senior partners disappeared one day, Clayton would be the first to be fired.

    At the core, the story is about a whistle blower, in the mould of Michael Mann's The Insider. The evil company in this case is U North, a company that appears to follow in the foot steps of Monsanto and other biotech agricultural companies shown in documentaries such as The Corporation, The Fight for True Farming and The Future of Food. The film is polished and features smart witty dialogues that one expects from Hollywood films where the lead actor appears slick and well dressed in all scenes, no matter what the situation. But to Gilroy's credit, he does add some hesitation to Tilda Swinton's character. Tilda plays Karen Crowder who works for U North and her character's actions are true to what is portrayed at the film's start -- she is nervous, insecure and tries too hard to impress. So it is easy to believe that she is capable of making the mistakes that are shown as the movie progresses.

    There are two interesting sequences in the movie. One is the scene with the horses. It is early in the morning and Clayton is returning irritated from a 'fixer' meeting. The sun has not risen yet when he sees three horses. He gets off from his car and is reaching out to the horses, almost helplessly. That scene is the only one where you can detect weakness in his character -- he is struggling and wants help himself. In all the other scenes, he is confident and is the person that others come to for help. The other interesting sequence is the final shot in the cab. The camera stays focused on Clooney's face as the closing credits roll. Just a nice sequence at odds with other Hollywood movies which feature too many quick cuts.

    Note: A minor point about one sequence which appears to be weak. Clayton sees Arthur (Tom Wilkinson) in the alley-way and pulls the car over. He leaves his son in the car and asks him to lock the doors. Clayton approaches Arthur. When Arthur is talking, the camera only focuses on him and his bag of dozen (or more) baguettes But when the camera shows Clayton, you can see his car in the background. My initial thought was that Gilroy wanted us to see the car because there could be something regarding his son. After gradual cuts, the camera narrows the focus in Clayton's background but we can still his car and even taxi cabs going by. Eventually, the camera does only focuses on Clayton. I am still not sure if there was a purpose to keep the car in the background and let it be a distraction or if that was a lazy sequence where the camera was not directed to only show the relevant characters.

    American Gangster (2007, Director Ridley Scott): Rating 8/10

    "If we stop bringing drugs into the country, then we will put 100,000 people out of a job."

    That is probably one of the most accurate lines about the police's battle with drug trafficking. Ofcourse, it is not surprizing to hear such a line from a detective like Ritchie Roberts (Russell Crowe) because Ritchie is shown to be one of the few honest cops in the film. In a way, Ritchie's comment makes sense as countless officers are hired to keep arresting drug pushers and top mobs. However, there is no attempt to eliminate the problem at roots. So the end result is an endless cycle of the same mistakes.

    "This is my home. My country. Frank Lucas don't run from nobody. This is America."

    In the end, that is the problem with all top gangsters. They will never run away but stay around until they get taken down. As a result, all such gangster movies follow the same pattern -- small gangster rises to become top boss, police get on his trail and eventually he is either jailed or killed.

    One interesting aspect shown in the movie is how Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) strove to keep a low profile. But a few signs of flashy money initiated by his fiancee and brothers lead to him appearing on the police's radar.

    "My man." "The Po-lice".

    That is Denzel delivering dialogues like he did in Training Day. "The Po-lice".

    Overall, American Gangster is a good film but like Michael Clayton, it still feels like a typical studio movie. After countless mob movies, there is not much more that can be explored in a gangster story.

    Rescue Dawn (2006, Director Werner Herzog) Rating 8.5/10

    Herzog has directed an absorbing film about Dieter Dengler's (played by Christian Bale) escape from a prison camp in Laos/North Vietnam after his American fighter plane was shot down. Herzog has paid careful attention to little details regarding how Dengler escaped the camp and survived in the dense jungles. There is one scene which reminded me of Herzog's 1972 feature Aguirre, Wrath of God. After Dieter and Duane (Steve Zahn) escape the camp, they float down the river on a raft. Even though the raft scene in Rescue Dawn is shot differently from the final raft scene in Aguirre, both scenes contained the same tension that an enemy could attack from any point in the forests.

    I have not seen Herzog's documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly which accounts the same story. In interviews, Herzog mentioned that Dieter's story was so extraordinary that it had to be made into a film. But due to lack of finances he made the documentary first.

    The endless labyrinth of conspiracies and lies

    I knew of the book long before my eyes saw it. I knew of the author and the book's subject as well. In fact, I could have gotten the book long before that day in Dec 2006 but for whatever reason, I decided not to pursue it earlier. But last year, something compelled me to get the book. It had nothing to do with the book's cover which was plain black and only contained the author's name and the title (in caps):

    Bernard-Henry Lévy
    Who Killed Daniel Pearl?

    There is nothing to incite a person to buy the book. Sure there are were promotion quotes by the Wall Street Journal and New York Times Book Review on the cover. But I never go by these blurbs or quotes when buying a book. In the end, I bought the book. Maybe it was the vacation in New Delhi? I don't know. The book was tucked away trapped within other countless books on a bookshelf. Nothing about the book screamed to be picked up. But I saw Lévy's name on the cover. Maybe that was it. Whatever the reason, looking back now, the choice of finding the book in a bookstore in New Delhi was appropriate. Because in the complex labyrinth of the story behind Daniel Pearl's murder, there is an investigative link that leads Lévy to New Delhi as well. But it is only a tiny part of a giant complex puzzle that Lévy attempts to solve. Maybe he has come the closest. Or maybe he is further from the truth? No one will ever know. But one thing is clear -- this is one of the best and most challenging books I have read in a while.

    Part of the challenge is how Lévy skillfully manages to combine his thoughts, feelings, abstract words and actual facts in one flowing paragraph after another. This is how he writes normally and this is why I enjoy his words. In this book, that style allows the reader to observe things from Lévy's perspective. And this becomes challenging because Lévy is visiting the darkest places in a complex web -- what he sees is not pleasing, what he learns is troubling. And his style allows the reader to get a front seat to all the events. At times, reading the book became too much for me. I simply could not carry on. But then I returned back, and every time I read the book, I didn't want to put it down. But I had leave it because I was getting sucked into a world I didn't want to get into.

    Lévy is searching for the truth about Pearl's murder. In order to get to the truth, he first places himself in Pearl's mind and visits the same places that Daniel did. Then Lévy places himself in the mind of the killer. He studies both people's lives and tries to piece together what led to such a horrific incident. Then Lévy visits terrorist recruiting locations, interviews plenty of important people and gets lost in the names and facts. He follows a trail and writes pages about it, only to realize later that was wrong. He does not hide the failed attempts from the readers. Every now and again Lévy emerges with a new idea and decides to pursue it. In the end, despite all the wrong turns and misinformation, he puts together a reasonable hypothesis. It may be the truth or it maybe another trap door leading to more lies.

    The movie:

    I didn't want to see Michael Winterbottom's movie A Mighty Heart until I had finished reading Lévy's book. But the movie and book are completely separate. Although, there are some overlapping similarities (hotel names, characters), both are structured differently. Who Killed Daniel Pearl? pieces together events which happened in the past and picks up the trail after all the incidents took place. Whereas A Mighty Heart, which is based on Mariane Pearl's book, shows events in the days of Danny's kidnaping leading up to his killing.

    In the movie, the complexity of the kidnaping is shown by a white-board chart that Asra (Archie Panjabi), the journalist whose house the Pearl's stayed in, maintains to track all the characters. Even though the white-board shows how the web of conspirators grows into a messy spiral, the film maintains a linearity that allows the tension and helplessness of the incident to sink in. There are some amazing moments when Winterbottom reverts to using Digital cameras to show the scenes when the police go through a maze of apartments and narrow alley-ways in order to arrest some of the suspects. In those moments, the film appears to be a documentary and not a scripted effort.

    Acting wise, both Angelina Jolie and Irfan Khan have done a great job of portraying the complex emotions that is required of their characters. Irfan Khan brings the calm measured performance required of his 'Captain' character, a person that Mariane trusted from day one. Overall, for me Lévy's book & Winterbottom's film compliment each other in helping to give a better picture as to what happened. Still, the final truth does seem elusive. What is apparent is that there exists a lawless section in the world, a complex web where no government can reach. This is where evil and conspiracies are allowed to fester. Hate is manufactured here. Links to recent events can be traced to this part of the world. This is what Daniel Pearl was after and maybe he had found an answer. Or maybe he was asking the questions that he was not supposed to be asking?

    The past gives an answer, but often the world ignores it. When an Air India flight was hijacked on the eve of the year 2000, the World saw the event, reported it, but did nothing. India was in a real bind. The hijackers wanted 4 imprisoned terrorists released and in the end, the Indian government had no choice but to give into those wishes. America and the West ignored that incident. And one of the 4 terrorists released that day went onto kill Daniel Pearl and even mastermind the collapse of those two towers. Maybe.

    Friday, December 14, 2007

    When Sunday Comes...........

    Arsenal vs Chelsea; Liverpool vs Manchester United

    The sun isn't shining as brightly as it was a few weeks ago. There are some hints of a few dark clouds hovering on the horizon. Although the clouds are not causing complete darkness, they are blocking the sun rays. So the easiest way to bring the sunshine back is to dispense one cloud at a time. Sunday's game against Chelsea offers a chance towards restoring a sunny weather outlook.

    Age does weaken one's memory. But I do recall that more than three years ago, 5 dropped points in the first half of the season was not much cause for alarm. Ofcourse, the nature of the league has changed in the last three seasons. Wenger's previous analysis of 75 points being good enough to win the league is no longer true. In fact, the bar has been pushed much higher and it started with Arsenal's unbeaten league season in 2004.


    The points of the top two teams and their cumulative points total over the last few seasons:
  • 1999/00: Man Utd (91), Arsenal (73), Total: 164

  • 2000/01: Man Utd (80), Arsenal (70), Total: 150

  • 2001/02: Arsenal (87), Liverpool (80) Total: 167

  • 2002/03: Man Utd (83), Arsenal (78), Total: 161

  • 2003/04: Arsenal (90), Chelsea (79) Total: 169

  • 2004/05: Chelsea (95), Arsenal (83), Total: 178

  • 2005/06: Chelsea (91), Man Utd (83), Total: 174

  • 2006/07: Man Utd (89), Chelsea (83), Total: 172

  • The 2004/05 season stands out not only for Chelsea's point total of 95 but the high number of points the second placed team, Arsenal, grabbed. Since that season, the second placed team has earned 83 points, a total which would have been good enough to win the league in two of Man Utd's triumphs in 2001 & 2003. So if 90 points are the new approximate standard to guarantee finishing the season on top, that leaves an error margin of 24 points (out of the possible 114 points available from 38 games). Dropping 24 points over 38 games does not leave too much room for error. But these point totals only show a narrow view at the top. An accurate picture has to take into account point totals of all the league teams. Last year, the third & fourth place teams (Liverpool and Arsenal) only got 68 points each, much lower than the points earned by previous years third place teams (75 in 2003/04, 77 in 04/05, 82 in 05/06). And also at the bottom end, there have been a few teams that have performed worse than previously. The lowest dip at the bottom was in the 2005/06 season when the bottom two earned only 45 points (compared to the range of 58 - 66 over the last few years) with Sunderland only getting 15 points (West Brom got 30).

    But the statistics can only give a picture of the past. If in a particular season, there are 2-3 strong teams setting a blistering pace, then the final tally of points required to win a title will be dictated by how many points the chasing teams earn. For example, the huge number of dropped points by the chasing pack account for the low total of 80 points needed to win the 2000/01 season. So far this season after 16 games only three points separate the top three.

    Law of Averages:

    Arsenal have not beaten Chelsea in the last 6 league games. In order to look at Arsenal's current poor results against Chelsea, one has to look back at that record breaking unbeaten season. In 2003/04, Arsenal met Chelsea 5 times – two league, one F.A Cup and two Champions League games. Arsenal beat Chelsea three times by a 2-1 margin (including a memorable F.A Cup win with two superb Reyes goals) before the Champions league tie. The first leg at Highbury ended 1-1 and the second leg was tied 1-1 with 4 minutes to go. Then the law of averages turned on its head and Arsenal lost 2-1. It seems that Arsenal had used up their quota of wins against Chelsea because since that season Arsenal have not beaten Chelsea in any competition.
    Had Arsenal gotten past Chelsea in that Champions League tie, they had a great chance to advance to the final, where they would have met Porto, managed by a certain Jose. But Arsenal didn't have to wait long to clash with the un-shaven one.

    The painful years with Jose Mourinho:

    Jose arrived at Highbury for the first time on Dec 10, 2004 with his Chelsea team. I can't forget this game because it also marked my first visit to Highbury. But since I could not get a ticket, I had to make do with seeing Highbury from the outside (although a year later I found out from Rick B. that he had a ticket for me). So I soaked in as much pre-game atmosphere as I could. When the Chelsea bus arrived first, I expected a chorus of boos to ring out. But there was almost complete silence. Not one fan around me shouted anything. It was so quiet that I could even hear the hoofs of the police horses marching around. The silence prompted a solitary Chelsea fan to shout out something along the lines of how nervous everyone was. And still no one said anything. All the Chelsea players got off from the bus and headed up the stairs. Then Jose stepped out and finally a chorus of boos rang out. But Jose simply looked towards the fans, smiled and waved. That only increased the jeering but he appeared to be relishing the hatred.

    The arrival of the Arsenal bus was greeted by loud cheers and every player was duly greeted. Henry got of the bus and quickly jogged up the stairs without even looking sideways. He had his headphones on and appeared focused (his quick goal did indeed prove he was in game mode). Only two Arsenal players looked towards the crowd, one of them being Reyes. But Reyes's smile and wave to the crowd appeared more accidental than anything -- his bag was a bit too big for him and he almost stumbled as he got off the bus. So that led to some fans cheering him and he smiled back. Ofcourse, the loudest cheers were reserved for Arsene Wenger who stopped at the top of the steps and waved towards the fans in all directions.
    Arsenal should have won that game by a 3-2 or 4-2 margin. But at that final while of a pulsating 2-2 draw, I never imaged that this would have been Arsenal's best chance of beating a Jose lead Chelsea team. The return fixture ended 0-0 and subsequent league games with the Blues ended 0-1, 0-2, 1-1, 1-1 along with 2-1 defeats in the Carling Cup final and Charity Shield.

    But Jose is no longer there. So…

    When Sunday comes

    Will the normal balance of the universe be restored and Arsenal return to winning ways against Chelsea? Ofcourse, sunday is also a big day for that other important clash between Liverpool and Manchester. Rafa Benitez & Liverpool also have a need to restore their own universal order over Man Utd. Rafa may have outsmarted Jose on a few occasions (one league & F.A Cup plus two Champions League wins) but he has yet to lead his Liverpool team to a victory over Man Utd in the league; Liverpool's 1-0 win over Man Utd in a 2005/06 F.A Cup tie is the only time Rafa got the upper head on Ferguson.

    Ofcourse, an Arsenal win coupled with a Liverpool victory would help ease the pain of last weekend when both teams suffered their first league defeats. But it won't be easy. Sunday will be full of nerves and tense battles. The only thing I am willing to say with certainty is that Senderos will have a peaceful sleep on Sat night as Drogba is not playing. But Senderos was never going to be in the starting line-up anyhow. Now, that is a soothing thought given his recent form or lack of it.

    Ah, when sunday comes, sleep will not matter! A 6:30 am (mountain time) kick-off for the Liverpool-ManU game followed by the 9 am Arsenal vs Chelsea game.

    Wednesday, December 12, 2007

    Spotlight on Africa

    Back in February, inspired by an article in Sight and Sound, I sought out films from Africa. But the search proved challenging as most of the films mentioned in that article were elusive. In the end, of the four titles I got, only Touki Bouki (1973, Senegal) was highlighted in the article. My other three picks were random, basically whatever I could find. Out of the three, only When the Stars meet the Sea, a mythical fable from Madagascar was a personal favourite; Quartier Mozart (1992, Cameroon) & La Vie Est Belle (1987, Zaire) were decent enough as they provided some interesting moments of humour centered about themes of witchcraft & love. But these four were not enough for a decent spotlight, so I always wanted to find more titles from Africa.

    About 10 months on, the search still proved difficult but I managed to track down a few more titles from that Sight and Sound article, plus I got enough different films to atleast have a decent overview. The films also neatly fall into two distinct regional areas -- West Africa & North Africa.

    The West – Soccer & Films:

    Pic from: My Travel Guide

    Western Africa has provided a rich dose of films and soccer players over the last few decades. In fact, some of my favourite African soccer players have hailed from West Africa. Players such as Kolo Toure (Ivory Coast), Abedi Pele (Ghana), Emmanuel Adebayor (Togo), George Weah (Liberia), Kanu & Jay Jay Okacha (both from Nigeria) have fascinated me over the last 15 years or so. But these are just a handful of players from an impressive selection. Ofcourse, it is a bit easy to know about West Africa's pool of players because a huge number of them ply their trade in top European teams.

    There is also a rich selection of directors and films that have graced the international scene from the complex diversity of 16 countries that constitute West Africa. The films range from artistic & poetic tales to crude commercial works that cater to local cinematic palates. Stories that feature both harsh reality and magical myths are shown in equal measures, sometimes in the same film.

    Exile and the return: Sissako & Mambéty

    Professional African soccer players may be the highest paid people of the group that leave Africa for European employment. But plenty of other people who leave the continent struggle to earn an income in Europe. Some of them manage to do fine but find themselves longing for life back home. Such is the case of the main character Dramane in Abderrahmane Sissako's Life on Earth. Dramane (played by Sissako himself) decides that he wants to usher in the new century (2000) in his native Mali.

    At the film's start, we find Dramane wandering through a grocery story packed with numerous varieties of cheeses and other food items.

    He returns home to a village where the craziness of Year 2000 couldn't be further. It is a peaceful place where one would be thankful for finding even one brand of cheese.

    The relaxing life allows Dramane to ponder his life and even the fate of Africans on a global scale.

    I first saw Sissako's Waiting for Happiness (2002) and was impressed. That film was about a young man waiting to head to Europe for a better life (as the title indicates). So his days are spending waiting while watching people go by. Well Life on Earth is about a character's return back to Africa from Europe to find happiness. But this movie was made first, so it forms an interesting circle with his later work. And, there are some characters in the film who simply sit around and watch the world go by, much like in Waiting for Happiness.

    Exile is also a central idea in Djibril Diop Mambéty's 1992 film Hyenas. This time however, it is a woman who returns back to her village to seek revenge not peace. When she was a young girl, she was forced into prostitution by a man and had to leave the village in shame. After she has earned riches abroad, she returns to set things right. Besides the revenge aspect, the film is an interesting look at greed and how money can shift politics in one easy go. One absurd segment in the movie revolves around a trial which is rendered useless when the returned woman offers to buy the judge. While all the political games are going on, the hyenas (literally) are simply laughing on the sides. I saw Mambéty's Touki Bouki (1973) back in February. The title of that surreal road movie translated into ‘Journey of the Hyena’. Well, almost two decades later, Mambéty truly exposes the hyenas disguised as men.

    An element of exile is also tackled in Moolaade. A rich village elder's son is back from France to marry a local woman. The son is prized because of his French education and he returns with modern ideas which are at odds with those of his father. For example, the son supports equal rights for women as opposed to his father who wants the women to be oppressed like the old days. Interestingly enough, both the son in Moolaade and Dramane in Life on Earth find inspiration in the words of French poet Aimé Césaire, a person who fought for the rights of French colonies in Africa and the Caribbean.

    Old tradition and values vs winds of change:

    Certain traditions such as the importance of family are best kept and nurtured. But old traditions such as the oppression of women are best buried and forgotten. Ousmane Sembene's brilliant film Moolaade looks at a village’s old practice of female circumcision. Problems arise when a local woman supports the decision of a handful of girls to avoid the ritual. Her defiance leads to a mini revolution which shakes the old male dominated rule.

    In order to oppress the village people, the elders decide that radios should be banned because they are influencing the minds of the people and exposing the villagers to dangerous foreign ideas. So an order is issued to collect all the village radios and burn them. This scene echoes the burning of books depicted in Fahrenheit 411.

    The clash of traditional vs modern values is also depicted in Haramuya, a film set in the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougo. The film also shows the economic difficulties that exist in the city where some people struggle to earn an income and have to resort to petty theft to make ends meet.

    Gaston Kaboré's Wend Kuuni is mostly the story of an orphaned ‘mute’ child and the family that takes him in. But around the boy, we can see old practices and beliefs dominating the people. Through a flashback, we learn about the traumatic event that caused the boy to lose his voice -- his mother had been accused of being a witch and killed. While the film shows that sometimes old beliefs can cause harm, the movie also highlights how traditional values can benefit as the boy in Wend Kuuni is lovingly raised by his new adopted family.

    Myth and witchcraft:

    My first introduction to the witchcraft that existed in Africa was through soccer. June 8, 1990. Argentina, the defending World Cup Champions, stumbled to an unbelievable defeat against Cameroon. No one could have predicated Cameroon's 1-0 win. I still remember that day and the reaction of shock that surrounded that win. Very soon afterwards, almost all neutrals were cheering for Cameroon and its 38 year old star Roger Milla. Most soccer players stop playing soccer in their early 30's, so it was extraordinary to see Milla playing at the top level at 38 (even more remarkably, Milla played in the 1994 World Cup and currently holds the record for the oldest player to have scored goal at the age of 42!). Milla was not supposed to have been in the team for the World Cup because he had retired from the game prior to 1990 but he was asked to play thanks to Cameroon's president. And what a great decision it was as Milla scored crucial goals to lead Cameroon into the quarter-finals. In fact, Cameroon were 7 minutes away from the World Cup semi-finals before England knocked them out. But despite the heroic on-field efforts by Cameroon, talk of witchcraft hovered around the team. It was rumoured that a witch doctor was brought in to bless the team. Was this blessing merely a stunt or an actual belief? Whatever the case maybe, with each subsequent World Cup, the talk of witchcraft does return whenever Cameroon or even Nigeria play. Witch doctors do make headlines predicting World Cup winners and even game scores! Such talks of witchcraft are not limited to Western Africa only but also find roots in almost all parts of Africa with maybe the exception being North Africa.

    When did the first mention of witchcraft originate? Probably with some of the oldest myths that can be found in a country’s history. Souleymane Cissé's film Yeelen beautifully films an ancient Mali myth about a battle between father and son (Nianankoro). Set in the 13th century Mali Empire, Nianankoro must tackle an entire cult group along with his wizard father while trying to restore his family name. The folk story is peppered with elements of magic and witchcraft in depicting the family battle. Because Nianankoro holds the power of magic, he is equally feared and respected.

    Kenyan author Ngugi Wa'Thiong'O's book Wizard of the Crow also features witchcraft in the story about a corrupt African ruler set in a fictional African country. In fact, the book's title comes from a magical curse that a character (a beggar) invokes in order to ward off the policemen chasing him. The beggar is amused to find that a simple hand written sign threatening a curse could have such a powerful effect on the adults and scare them into submission. Such is the power of magic on the minds of the people. I am still in the middle of reading the book so I am not sure if in the end reality will win over black magic.

    The Third Wood: witchcraft, love and family

    What is the third biggest film industry in the world? This Guardian article first drew my attention to the answer which stumped me -- Nollywood. The entirely video film industry in Nigeria churns out movies at a rapid rate behind the studios of Hollywood and Bollywood. Since none of the movies are shot on film or shown in a theater, producers and film-makers can quickly shoot and produce movies on video. The films are often distributed and sold at road-side stalls for an eager audience.

    Recently Film Int studied Nollywood in great detail. The essays ranged from history of the film industry to the themes covered and the social & political impacts of these movies. Unfortunately, none of those in-depth essays are available online but here a few quotes:

    "The first Nigerians to shoot feature fictional films on video were artists from the Yoruba travelling theatre tradition, who turned to video when making films on celluloid became prohibitively expensive as the result of Nigeria's catastrophic structural adjustment programme". Jonathan Haynes, Nnebue: the anatomy of power.

    "The Video film is arguably the most popular mode of cultural expression in Nigeria, produced at a rate which arguably makes Nigeria the hothouse of the genre in the world". Chukwuma Okoye, Looking at Ourselves in our Mirror.

    On Nollywood's essential themes: "the corruption, moral turbulence and pervasive anxiety of the post-oil-boom era; the garish glamour of Lagos; titillating and dangerous sexuality; melodramatic domestic conflicts; and immanent supernatural forces including both dark cultic practices and Pentecostal Christianity." Jonathan Haynes, Nnebue: the anatomy of power.

    "From its very beginnings in the 1990s the 'home video' industry in Nigeria has churned out movies that were constructed around a mode of narrative that seeks to naturalize the supernatural by dwelling on stories or plots that blend reality with fantasy. These movies have seized the imagination of audiences in Nigeria, across Africa and the African diaspora. It would seem that Nollywood movies have the strong capacity to appeal to deep currents in the psyche of its captive audiences, particularly its African audiences. The interplay between the magical and the real is part of the African consciousness and is part of the popular culture of postcolonial Africa." Hope Eghagha, Magical realism and the 'power' of Nollywood home video films.

    Even though Nollywood started out in Nigeria, a few articles show how the industry and its practices cover neighbouring Ghana and Ivory Coast as well. One of the most surprizing things I discovered was how a certain number of Nollywood films were inspired by Bollywood films. In fact, some Nollywood films entirely lifted the stories or even dance steps from Bollywood films such as Taal, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Maine Pyaar Kiya. In a way, it should not be a surprize that Bollywood's appeal reaches to the Nigerian audiences as the tales of domestic problems and love stories should have no problems finding homes in countries with a strong focus on family life.

    Images of a region:

    German filmmaker Ralf Schmerberg's 45 minute black and white documentary Hommage à noir manages to capture both the African village and city life in a series of gorgeous black and white visuals accompanied with resonating music. His camera captures tribal practices, leisurely soaks in all the sights and sounds of a local market and even records a local soccer game. Filmed mostly in Cameroon, the abstract images could be used to apply to certain Eastern, Central and Southern parts of the continent as well.

    Moving on to the North...

    The North – Football & Cinema:

    Pic from: My Travel Guide
    North Africa also has an amazing selection of top class soccer players but only a few of them leave for Europe. The Egyptian soccer league is the most established of the North African countries with the Moroccan league providing some worthy teams as well. One of my favourite North African players is Mustapha Hadji (Morocco) who was named African Footballer of the year in 1998. He had limited success in the English league but scored some amazing goals for Morocco.

    But sometimes football can indeed tale the state of a country or even a region. Professional Egyptian soccer is certainly better known than its other Arab North African counterparts, much like how Egyptian cinema and literature dominates its Northern African neighbours. In fact, for the longest time it was Egyptian film that dominated the entire Arab world. But in recent years, other nations such as Tunisia and even a few of the Middle Eastern countries have started making in-roads towards establishing a unique cinematic identity of their own. Tunisian film-maker Férid Boughedir’s insightful documentary Caméra arabe (1987) looks at the development of Arab cinema and its rise against a background of turbulent political pressures. It was interesting to watch Boughedir’s documentary but unfortunately, I was only familiar with one director in that 60 minute film -- Youssef Chahine.

    Coming of age via the lens of Férid Boughedir:

    I first came across Boughedir thanks to his 1996 film A Summer in La Goulette. Sometimes a movie impacts a person tremendously. In that regards, ..La Goulette was one of the first few foreign films to overwhelm me and leave me breathless. I was seduced by the film and its three female characters, one Christian, one Arab and one Jew. I too wanted to travel to the beaches of La Goulette to bask in the white walled town where the three girls wandered, leaving men speechless in their wake. It was a tremendously enjoyable film and showed that no matter what religion the girls followed, their fathers were equally stressed and worried about their daughters; the fathers wanted to protect their daughters from the eyes of the local boys at all costs but they didn’t realize that it was their daughters who were the ones eyeing boys with equal passion and lust in the first place.

    But before Boughedir showed the coming of age of teenage girls, he beautifully portrayed the maturing of a young boy Halfaouine: Child of the Terraces (1990). The film starts with the following images of the boy.

    What are the interesting images that are holding the boy’s attention? Well his mother has been talking him to the local Hamam since he was a little boy but she has not realized her boy is growing up fast and developing an interest in girls and women. His eyes are wide open because he is staring at the naked girls and women around him.

    The film is shown from the point of view of the little boy. We see what he sees and at times, we are given a few glimpses into the political revolution that is taking place around him. Not too much time is spent detailing the political struggles against a dictatorship regime because the boy does not understand what is going on. He has no idea why some people get arrested, why some disappear or how writing some harmless slogans on the wall could get someone in trouble. His goal in life is to understand the female species and to that end, he does accomplish his goal.

    The purpose of a film and struggles along the way:

    The last viewed film turned out to be an appropriate choice to close out the African spotlight. Youssef Chahine’s Alexandria Again and Forever details a film director’s struggle to get a movie made, the struggles he has with himself and his lead actor, the pressure of his producer, the overwhelming expectations of film festivals and the challenges posed by a writer’s strike. Chahine plays the main role in a film that can be described as his 8 ½.

    The issues described in the film could possibly plague every film-maker as they could find themselves questioning the relevance of each scene and even the impact that their work would have. And surely there are plenty of directors out there who have one eye on the film festival circuit during their film’s post-production. Indeed, some directors attempt to get their movies completed in time for that prestigious film festival screening. So when a director is working with an end goal already in mind, it is not far fetched to believe that the pressure of expectations could creep up into some of their decision making during the filming.

    Final notes:

    Africa will once again take centre stage for me at the start of 2008 thanks to the African Cup of Nations soccer tournament held in Ghana from Jan 20 – Feb 10. 16 nations from all corners of Africa would complete in this usually entertaining competition.

    Group A: Ghana, Namibia, Guinea, Morocco
    Group B: Nigeria, Benin, Mali, Ivory Coast
    Group C: Egypt, Sudan, Zambia, Cameroon
    Group D: Tunisia, Angola, South Africa, Senegal

    Ideally I would have liked to have a film festival to coincide with the soccer games but unfortunately, I would struggle to find films from all nations. As it stands, I have atleast seen films from 8 of the 16 countries. This spotlight was definitely an improvement in terms of getting films from African. But there are plenty of classics out there which are either lost or not distributed in North America. Slowly, but surely, maybe some of these works will start finding their way across the ocean.

    Film (Year, Director): Ratings out of 10
  • Life on Earth (1998, Abderrahmane Sissako): 9
  • Hyenas (1992, Djibril Diop Mambéty): 8
  • Moolaade (2004, Ousmane Sembene): 9.5
  • Haramuya (1995, Drissa Toure): 6.5
  • Wend Kuuni (1982, Gaston Kaboré): 6
  • Yeelen (1987, Souleymane Cissé): 8.5
  • Hommage à noir (1996, Ralf Schmerberg): 8
  • Caméra arabe (1987, Férid Boughedir): 7
  • Halfaouine: Child of the Terraces (1990, Férid Boughedir): 8
  • Alexandria Again and Forever (1990, Youssef Chahine): 7.5