Monday, April 30, 2007

French Film Festival

I finally made the trip out to the second oldest movie theatre in Alberta for the annual Cinemagine film festival. I was only able to attend one of the three days and catch only 3 of the total 8 films shown. Of the remaining 5 films that I missed, I had only seen the charming Congorama. This beautiful 1912 theatre was a perfect venue to enjoy three films on a beautiful Sunday and was worth a 3 hour drive (round trip).

Je vous trouve très beau (2005, France, Director Isabelle Mergault):

It was a good thing that I read the story beforehand because as it turned out this French film had no English subtitles even though it was advertised as having them. Apparently, there are no prints in Canada with English subtitles. Still, besides missing some of jokes, I managed to get the essence of the story. An aging farmer finds himself to be more lonely after his wife dies in a bizarre accident. In order to find a companion, Aymé tries to get help from a marriage agency. The marriage agency specializes in Romanian brides and the colorful agent drags Aymé to Romania. He manages to pick out the simple beauty Elena because of her honesty. All the other girls kept telling him that he was very beautiful and were more keen to head for the wild Parisian life (for them France was all about Paris and Moulin Rouge).

It is a cute romantic comedy about how these two different people find comfort with each other. Since I didn’t get most of the dialogues, I focused more on the actor’s expressions. Both the leads acted perfectly and their precise expressions carried the movie. Well worth watching and after a while, I forgot I could not understand the language.

Ma fille, mon ange (2007, Canada, Director Alexis Durand-Brault): Rating 9/10

A very interesting film that ended up being the best watch of the day. The film starts off in flashback from a murder scene leading up to the crime itself. We get the story from the perspective of the two people in question – the father and daughter. The father likes to visit porn sites and on a particular visit, he is shocked to see a video of his 19 year old daughter on the site. His daughter is not doing anything in the video clip but she announces that her premier action video will be shown live in a few days time. Confused and distraught, the father heads to Montreal to bring his sweet daughter home.

Now, the murder mystery is slowly unfolded and we are given enough clues as to guess what really transpired. But what makes the film so powerful is the story of the daughter landing into the porn business. The film shows how sometimes even smart girls can fall into a trap and be seduced by money and power. There are some moments of dry humour as the story also shows how the online porn business is more sophisticated than people think and in some cases, it manages to exploit legal loop holes.

Guide de la petite vengeance (2006, Canada, Director Jean-François Pouliot): Rating 8.5/10

On first glance this appeared to be another film about a disgruntled employee taking revenge on his evil boss, a la Swimming with the Sharks. But this film is an unexpected pleasure. Bernard’s life is falling apart because of his cruel manipulative boss, Mr. Vendôme. One day, he comes across Robert, an ex-employee who was driven insane by Vendôme as well. As it turns out, Bernard took over Robert’s job. Robert helps Bernard see the light and urges him to take revenge. Together, the two plot a perfect crime. But there are plenty of surprises that Bernard had not taken into account, especially Robert’s real identity.

This is a fun filled film which is a real treat to watch. The biggest surprise that this film threw is something not related to the movie itself. As the last twist in the final scene was about to be shown, the film caught fire and one could see the reel being burned on screen. I had never seen a film catch on fire in a theatre before and because I had seen the Grindhouse a few days ago, I was able to recognize the symptoms. So I have to admit that some use came out of seeing Rodriguez’s Planet Terror after all. To quote a line from that film: "At some point in your life, you find a use for every useless talent you have." Well I have to say that all those useless talents from Planet Terror certainly made me understand the events of a Québécois film in a 1912 theatre in a historic old town!

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Royale with cheese @ the Grindhouse

Planet Terror (2007, Director Robert Rodriguez): Rating 6/10

The trailers tantalize with the images of Rose McGowan and her machine gun leg. However, there is almost 80 minutes of film before the prized shot of Rose McGowan’s CGI leg acting as both a rocket-launcher and machine gun. Rodriguez has some fresh ideas here – machine gun leg, bio-chemical addicts, soldiers exposed to chemical radiations in the battle field of Afghanistan. Also, the missing reel was a funny element in the film, especially since it hid the legend of El Ray. But overall, this feature is more along the lines of disasters that Spy Kids 3-D and Once Upon a Time in Mexico were. Yawn. Was there no one else who could have been picked for this film other than Rose McGowan? She had an important role in this feature but she was the worst actor by far.

The Trailers

Almost all the trailers are funny and worth watching. All the directors seem to get the essence of the Grindhouse as trailers for their non-existent films are packed with gore and clichés.

Death Proof (2007, Director Quentin Tarantino): Rating 9/10

This is vintage Tarantino, which means plenty of clever and over-smart blah blah in the film. All the clever dialogues in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction seemed fresh. But after the extended mundane dialogue near the end of Kill Bill 2 I seemed to tire of the over-smartness. Yes, Mr. Tarantino you love movies. I get it! Yes you want to flaunt your love for old movies and get your characters to go on and on about some scenes from such films. Anyway, this feature is far more superior to the first one. The acting spotlight is stolen by kiwi stuntwoman Zoe Bell. In every scene, Zoe exudes energy and is constantly in character even when the camera is not directly on her. Tarantino also revisits a scene from the movie that made him famous -- Reservoir Dogs. The diner conversation with the 4 women and the camera angle was right out of the opening shots of that 1992 film which gave him fame.

Overall: The missing reel element in both films was a neat idea. However, the reel being on fire and faked film scratches feel like forced elements. I think if this film was to be improved then maybe Rodriguez’s effort should be reduced to a 20-25 min short film, all the fake trailers should be kept and Tarantino’s effort might need 5 minutes trimmed off it.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Brazilian Cinema

Spotlight on Brazilian Cinema, part 1

Ah Brazil. Copacabana beach, Sun, Sand, Futbol, Samba, Carnivale, Dance, Music, Sugar Loaf mountain. Just some of the exotic symbols of Brazil that come to mind.

However, in recent years (thanks to films and documentaries) other images of Brazil have been given attention -- favelas and the poverty. There are now even organized tours which give photo happy tourists a glimpse of life on the other side of society. And in the last few years, Brazil's government & economic quirks have ensured international economists and journalists keep Brazil in mind when churning out articles. But no matter what negative image is painted on Brazil, its futbol continues to excite and thrill. As an added bonus, in recent years its cinema has also produced some vintage displays of color, energy, emotion and plenty of passion. So in order to explore some Brazilian symbols, cliches and truths, I decided to shed a spotlight on Brazilian cinema with 5 works. Here is part one:

Chronically Unfeasible (2000, Director Sergio Bianchi): Rating 7.5/10

I could not have picked a better start to examining Brazilian life than this docu-drama by Sergio Bianchi. Bianchi examines the common problems that plague Brazil, such as poverty, attitudes of the rich, immigration, class differences and crime. This is neither a documentary nor a scripted film. Instead, we get to see staged version of the truth. As Bianchi points out, if he showed us the truth, then some viewers might find the images too offensive or others might take it as fiction. So Bianchi finds a middle ground -- he shows us some footage of 'real' events in various regions of Brazil and then goes on to shoot some staged scenes which highlight everyday problems that occur in that area. The result is a humorous meditation on human behaviour.

The film starts out in a restaurant where four rich people are busy blaming the problem of the country on the poor while having their expensive wine. Subsequent scenes show the professions of these four people and their behaviour with the common folk. A few other characters are added along the way to enhance the class differences between the rich and the poor. Besides class differences, regional hatred is displayed -- the North Easterners think the Southerners are to blame, the Southerners blame the North and so on. Bianchi shows that in some parts of Brazil, people are kept poor and given just enough music to be happy. While in another region, the rich unhappily live in Suburbs built on top of land tainted with blood of the natives.

A constant debate throughout the film is also regarding the merit of working. Some believe that work is necessary for man while others claim that man is being oppressed everytime he works. In a hilarious sequence, a labour union head oppresses and enslaves his people while asking them to conduct demonstrations against the oppression these people face from their employers. Overall, a very good place to start a spotlight on Brazil. Plenty of discussion points in this film.

Black Orpheus (1959, Director Marcel Camus): Rating 8/10

The energy, rhythm and joy of the Carnivale takes center stage in this re-telling of the classic love story between Orpheus and Eurydice. Right from the opening scenes, we are thrown into a pulsating & energetic Rio. The chaos of the festival is a backdrop to the tragic love story where death is always lurking for Eurydice around the corner. This is certainly an imaginative recreation of Orpheus's love for Eurydice and is completely different from Jean Cocteau's sublime 1950 film Orphée.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Hot Spoof

Hot Fuzz (2007, Director Edgar Wright): Rating 9/10

This spoof on adrenaline movies ends up being an adrenaline rush itself. Just pure fun! Hot Fuzz wisely incorporates concepts & scenes from multiple Hollywood flicks into a humorous story about crime in a small town British village. Overall, the concept of crime & small town cops reminded me of the hilarious Swedish film Kopps but Hot Fuzz is a different film. Kopps was a comedy where small town policemen commit crime in order to save their jobs. While Hot Fuzz is a spoof and the crime committed in the film is just another borrowed element beautifully woven into the story. On one hand, one can enjoy this movie by itself. On the other hand, it is also enjoyable to watch the jabs taken at other movies. For example, camera angles and action scenes from Bad Boys and a dramatic music beat from the The Matrix. The acting is spot-on with delightful cameos by Steve Coogan, Stephen Merchant & Bill Nighy. Time well spent!!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

French vs German cinema, 2nd leg

A few weeks ago (March 25), my 1st leg of French vs German cinema featured 3 German films and 2 French ones. So it was appropriate that the return leg would have 3 French films and 2 German titles. Only one director was common over the two legs -- Werner Herzog. And like last time around, his movie was another volatile combination with Klaus Kinski.

Cobra Verde (1987, Director Werner Herzog): Rating 10/10

I knew nothing about Klaus Kinski and Herzog's collaborations until I saw the wonderful Aguirre. On the DVD commentary for that film, Herzog indicated the difficulty & challenges he had directing Kinski. The setting for that 1972 film was the Amazon and it was interesting to watch Kinski turn into a savage. So when I heard that Herzog put Kinski in the middle of Africa, well that sounded too good to pass up. And as it turns out, I got a bonus treat -- in Cobra Verde before Kinski lands up on the Western African coast, he starts out in hot and exotic Brazil.

No other person could have played the role of the bandit Cobra Verde as Kinski does. I am not sure that Kinski is playing the role -- he might be acting out his inner demons. The raw anger and emotions that he displays really make this film a riveting watch. Even though this is not a perfect film, it is a visual treat. The film starts out in Brazil when the slave trade was in full swing. Kinski plays a bandit who is feared by the locals. In fact, he may be the only white man that makes the locals stop in their tracks. Tired of his wild behaviour, the men in power hatch a plan to eliminate him -- they decide to send him to Africa to get some slaves. The rich business men have heard a rumour that no white man has survived the Benin king's wrath. So they decide to send Verde to his doom. But as expected, not only does Verde survive, he gains the king's trust and is elevated to power after the king is disposed in a bloodless coup.

There is a lot of sadness and muted anger simmering beneath the surface of Verde and this film. Both emotions are also evoked in the audience by the objective display of the slave trade. Only at the end of the movie do we see Verde give his opinion on human slavery. But until that point, we get to see the cruelty humans inflicted on others. Like in Aguirre, there are plenty of improvised scenes. The Benin and Ghanian locals acted out their customs and rituals while Herzog and his camera-man Viktor Ruzicka captured them. Even though the film is not strong on narrative, its real strength lies with its visual images of Brazil, Africa and Kinski. The last scene where Verde is trying with all his power to pull the boat out to sea is another one of those magical moments that Herzog seems to capture -- Verde is powerless and his inability to move the boat even one inch puts his life and situation in perspective.

I really wish that a movie could have been made which had featured Cobra Verde face to face with Brando's Kurtz!

Betty Blue (1986, Director Jean-Jacques Beineix): Rating 8.5/10

Sometimes we cross the same streets everyday and brush past the same people. Yet, we don't stop to give a second thought to some of those people. Movies can suffer the same fate sometimes. I walked by the DVD of Betty Blue on numerous occasions but never thought of picking it up. A recent recommendation made me give this film a go and I am fortunate for that. I truly relished being lost in the world of Betty and Zorg for almost 3 hours.

The film starts out with a raw sex scene but the scenes after that are very un-French -- cowboy hat, pick-up truck, beach-houses and brightly lit surroundings. In fact, the bright lighting threw me off the most. Most French films are often shot in Parisian suburbs where the bright light is often blocked. But not in this one this one. Even after the film moves to Paris (around the 40th minute mark), the couple settle in a detached house as opposed to an apartment. Another un-French like move. In fact, the film can be described as having shades of Verhoeven's Turkish Delight with an American cinematic beating heart at its core.

Betty wants to be a free soul and is frustrated with the restrictions around her. She is on the verge of giving up on Zorg when she stumbles onto his diaries. She reads through all of them and is convinced that Zorg is a great writer. She makes it her goal to get him published. But when that does not happen, she is crushed. After that, any happiness that comes Betty's way gets taken away. Or so she thinks. She is a restless person and lives on the edge of misery and ecstacy. Zorg is very patient with her and tries his best to take care of her needs. It is clear that the film is heading towards a sad ending and we are given some clues to Betty's irrational behaviour. At 3 hours, the movie is about 40 minutes too long but I still found it a rewarding watch.

My life to Live (1962, Director Jean-Luc Godard): Rating 9/10

In 12 chapters, we see Nana's life dreams slowly dissolve. She came to Paris to become an actresses but eventually finds herself earning money as a prostitute. The strongest aspect of this film is its cinematography. Godard knows exactly what he wants to show and where the camera should be. Examples:
-- When we first meet Nana in a cafe, we don't see her face. Instead, the camera shows the back of her head. Eventually, the mirror at the left hand side of the cafe shows us her face. We can see both her face and the back of her head, along with the dangling cigarette in her hand. Simple yet effective shot.
-- The scenes where Nana becomes a prostitute are shot uniquely. We don't see any sex shots but instead we see the mechanics of the business. The camera focuses on the money changing hands, a man's hand placed on Nana's bare shoulder and the cold emotionless embraces that Nana has to make.
-- The best segment in the film has to be when Nana is dancing in the pool hall. As she dances around the bar, the camera freely follows her. We see a happy side of Nana but also, we can see how she is trying to entice a man. The camera work here is pure pleasure.
Quite a film!!!

The Disenchanted (1990, Director Benoît Jacquot): Rating 7.5/10

This film makes a perfect double with the above Godard movie. Like My Life to Live, we see a female life in flux. This time however, it is a 17 year old girl, Beth. Beth wants to be free (a la Betty Blue) but she is pulled in different directions by the people in her life -- boys and men want her; Beth's mom wants her daughter to follow in her footsteps and become a prostitute. Beth's mom is ill and can't satisfy her sugar daddy. So Beth has to take her mom's place to ensure the family continues to get a pay cheque. But unlike in Betty Blue and Nana in My Life to Live, Beth does run away to freedom. At 75 minutes running time, this is a concise work.

Destiny (1921, Director Fritz Lang): Rating 7.5/10

Even though this film was shot and made in 1921, it is still an entertaining watch. We can see how experimentation with lighting and editing produce some fascinating effects such as showing ghosts, people walking through walls, a flying carpet and some other magical feats. The story features how a woman who wants to rescue her fiancee from the clutches of Death. Death is shown to be a compassionate understanding man who makes gives the woman four chances to save her love. In the first three chances, she has to save the life of one person from three different parts of the world -- Turkey, Austria and China. Each story has its pros and cons (and stereotypes, it is 1921 after all). Quite entertaining for the most part. It is amazing that moving images with some title cards can still make for absorbing cinema whereas special effects and plenty of dialogue make for annoying noise!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Volver & Catch a Fire

Volver (2006, Director Pedro Almodóvar): Rating 9/10

I have to admit that I have enjoyed all the Almodóvar films I have seen so far. That is seven movies in total -- Bad Education, Talk to Her, All About My Mother, Live Flesh, Tie me Up! Tie me Down?, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Matador. And now, I can easily add Volver to that list as well. Put simply, Volver is vintage cinema!

All Almodóvar films have interesting stories, vibrant characters and rich dialogue. The dialogues in his movies are so well tuned that you forget you are watching actors speak lines; the words spoken are natural and don't feel contrived. Ofcourse, in most of his movies, the city is also an essential ingredient -- the characters words and actions are reflective of their environment. A city's heat induces passion (Matador) and in the case of Volver, it is the town's east winds that inspire madness. The cinematography & background score are also top-notch in Volver. The camera draws our attention to only relevant details, be it a dirty sink, empty beer can or even Penélope's cleavage. Every shot has a purpose to it. The background score is a throwback to the days of Alfred Hitchcock -- the music warns us of mystery and danger. The acting is sublime; every expression is spot on. Penélope's additional weight for the role only adds to the realism of her character and she shines in every frame.

Usually, women play a central role in Pedro's films, be it as an affectionate mother, a loyal lover, a femme fatale or an object of desire. But Volver is all about women; there are no men around. Three generations of women are shown and interestingly all their lives are linked by a cyclic chain of events. The consequences of a crime committed in the first generation leads to action & eventual resolution in the third generation. The women shown here are strong and independent to handle anything that comes their way. In the movie, both the oldest woman and youngest girl have the mental & physical strength to either take revenge or defend themselves. The men in the women's lives are un-trustful, abusive and cheating scum. As a result, the women are left to work multiple jobs and do all chores. With time, the women learned to trust each other more and do without men. Ofcourse, sometimes the women have to interact with men for day to day business needs. But they have no problems as long as they keep the men at a distance. And in this movie's case, it is a good thing that the men don't get too close to the women. Otherwise, the engaging drama that is powered by these wonderful female actors would have lost its gloss a little bit.

Catch a Fire (2006, Director Phillip Noyce): 7/10

How does a revolution start? The oppressor either humiliates the occupied or the occupiers presence is a constant insult to a nation's natives. Then a local group attacks a symbol of the occupiers. The occupiers strike back harder. And in their quest for revenge, the occupiers torture a few innocent people. Some of these innocent people can't stand the humiliation and stray over to the other side and start a revolution. Cycle of violence continues, the flames of revolution are lit! Freedom fighters or terrorists? Various films have tackled such similar revolutionary struggles -- The Wind that Shakes that Barley (Irish vs British), The Battle of Algiers (Algerian vs French), Bhagat Singh (Indian vs British), El Violin (Mexican farmers vs Army). Catch the Fire shows the true story of a South African's fight (Patrick Chamusso) in the apartheid era of the 1980's.
While the movie has a good heart, it does not catch fire like its title. Even though there are some beautiful moments (likes the scenes depicting the songs of revolution), the movie feels like a static snapshot of few critical episodes from Patrick's lives. There is no flow from scene to scene and no energy in the movie whatsoever. A worthy watch but it had the potential to be a whole lot more.

Note: It was a nice touch to show the real Patrick at the end of the film. Watching him talk of his emotions lend some perspective & realism to the film.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Stuck in the Commercial Zone

Strange week really. I have not watched any real cinema but have simply numbed the mind with a few Bollywood movies. Amazingly, I didn't dislike all the flicks as much as I had anticipated and even managed to find some positives in all the features.

Namastey London (2007, Director Vipul Amrutlal Shah): Rating 6/10

The highlight of the film has to be gorgeous cinematography of the Indian locales & the scenes involving the search for an Indian husband -- Mr. Singh (Rishi Kapoor) tries to find a suitable Indian husband for her Brit-Indian daughter, Jasmeet or Jazz (Katrina Kaif). So in that quest, they go from city to city meeting the most eccentric Indian males. But the strange character found in Delhi has to be the best -- since the boy watches Indian soap operas, he repeats everything three times just like they do in any Indian soap. Funniest moment of the film!

The movie does contain moments of true pleasure but overall the story is still recycled material of Indian vs second generation Western cultural identity issues -- the story's origin can be traced to a variety of older Bollywood films such as Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) and Pardes (1997). Frustratingly, the aspect of good Indian values is repeated over and over in Namastey London just like in other jingoistic Bollywood films of the past decade. On a positive side, Katrina is a breath of fresh air throughout the film. Also, the opening credits contain some tender shots of a London and some of its multi-cultural inhabitants.

Just Married (2007, Director Meghna Gulzar): Rating 6/10

The movie tackles the complicated issues of marriage & relationships. After their hastily arranged marriage, Abhay (Fardeen Khan) & Ritika (Esha Deol) head off to Ooty for their honeymoon. Still strangers to each other, Abhay and Ritika encounter other couples in different stages of their relationship. No matter how happy or unhappy the various couples are, they each offer a glimpse into the various relationships that exist (unmarried lovers, childhood friends, love marriage, etc). Overall, a mature handling of some issues regarding marriages, but the inclusion of too many needless songs and a contrived ending ruins the movie's flow.

Salaam-E-Ishq(2007, Director Nikhil Advani): Rating 5.5/10

Six love stories! 3 hour 26 min running time! I miss the good old days when Bollywood tackled only one love story or a love triangle. Even though Aditya Chopra released his torturous 4 love story Mohabbatein in 2000, the concept of multiple love stories didn't catch on in Bollywood. Until now that is. In the last few months, a handful of films have tackled multiple marriages or love stories. The sad truth is that Bollywood directors can't handle one love story, so 6 relationships is too much for them.

Each of the love stories in Salaam-E-Ishq have their interesting moments but the problem is that the movie is too long to be engaging. Some scenes display a mature understanding of relationships (the scene where Priyanka Chopra and Anil Kapoor's characters discuss spousal infidelity) but the rest of the movie is dripping with emotional melodrama. The music & songs are very good but most of the videos are poorly choreographed and in some cases, the wrong song is chosen for the occasion (the bachelor party at the start of the movie called for a more upbeat number rather than a cheap imitation of Kajra re). The movie borrows scenes & techniques freely from various Bollywood, Hollywood and Asian films. And in the case of Akshay Khanna, his character has shades of his Dil Chahta Hai character (especially in some of the dialogue delivery).

Nishabd (2007, Director Ram Gopal Varma): Rating 7/10

Vijay (Amitabh) is a 60 year old man who falls for his daughter's 18 year friend, Jiah (Jiah Khan). The aspect of an older man falling for a young girl brings Lolita to mind but the film has nothing to do with that. The acting is good and the visuals are well framed and beautifully shot. The background score is perfectly tuned to capture all the tense emotions that are taking place. But the film still feels like a compromise. Vijay is shown totally intoxicated with Jiah and is clearly under her spell. Yet, at different points, he offers explanations for his feelings, as if to justify himself to the audience. But when it comes to gangster films, Ram Gopal Varma does not ever water down his characters or show any remorse. Still not as bad as I had expected but not as bold as some people are calling the film.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Stock Market and the Bedroom

Of the two viewings this week, the indie Indian film was certainly a refreshing experience whereas watching the Bollywood movie was painful.

Gafla (2006, Director Sameer Hanchate): Rating a very subjective 8/10

An unheard of film yet just pleasing to watch. Even though this movie about the stock markets lacks the intensity of Wall Street or Boiler Room, it is a worthy watch. The story is tailored around the real life of Harshad Mehta, an ordinary man who rose from poverty to become a driving power behind the Indian stock market. Yet, his decline was as swift as his rise and he was jailed in a large financial scam and eventually died in jail. Circumstances surrounding his imprisonment and even his death were sketchy and seemed straight out of a Ram Gopal Varma film.

In the film, Subodh Mehta (Vinod Sharawat) plays an everyday man is willing to do anything to become rich; he does not want to take baby steps to achieve success but instead dreams of jumping past everyone to the top. Subodh is given a crash course on the workings of the stock market by Hari (Brijendra Kala in a delightful role) and quickly learns the ropes. He is willing to take risks and plans on some clever strategies to reap profits. His new ways draw plenty of fans but even create a few enemies. In the final scenes of his decline, he echoes the same sentiments shown in the recent Mani Ratnam film, Guru, where the main character also complained about the system trying to hold people back. Both Guru and Gafla try to show that sometimes outdated rules have to be broken for individuals and nations to progress. Ethically, these ideas may seem murky but they do contain some truth in that financial models have to be re-evaluated as international economies grow.

Despite the low budget (example: the stock market floor clearly looks like a set), the visuals are sharp and well shot. The opening scenes of Mumbai are breath-taking and some of the best ever shown in recent Indian films. Acting wise, the best performance is by Vikram Gokhale who plays a seasoned stock market pro with enough experience to know when to switch sides. The characters of Subodh, his love interest Vidya (played by Shruti Ulfat) and Hari play their parts well. There are some subtle references in the films that I didn't catch at first. Subodh's love interest is called Vidya which means knowledge. The other woman who enters his life is called Maya (Illusion). The names clearly indicate the two separate paths before him and even foreshadow Subodh's fate. Just like Black Friday, I enjoyed this Independent Indian effort and I am glad that it was made. Even though the movie is not perfect, it is still better cinema than some of the mindless commercial movies that are made.

Red: The Dark Side (2007, Director Vikram Bhatt): 5.5/10

Neel (Aaftab Shivdasani) has a hole in his heart and is facing death. Luckily, his life is saved after the hospital finds a heart donor. Despite all the hospital disclosure rules, Neel is keen to learn about the man whose heart saved his life and seeks out the donor's wife. Safe to say, Neel falls for the widow and is happy to jump into bed with her. After that point, a murder conspiracy mystery is crafted yet right from the outset, it is obvious what is happening.

Some of the night scenes are shot well using only street light. But a few good visuals can't salvage this mess of a film. Yet another disaster from Vikram Bhatt. Celina Jaitley still can't act and the rest of the cast are mere props. Yawn.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

A glimpse into Iranian Cinema

There was a very interesting article by Doug Saunders in the weekend edition of The Globe and Mail about censorship and Iranian cinema. It seems the censors have been increasing in what can be eliminated from the movies. In the past I have read about Iranian movies being banned and even certain scenes being left on the editing floor, but in the article Doug Saunders outlines the procedures to get films made in Iran --

Step One: The government must first approve the script.
Step Two: The government then provides shooting approvals, lighting and equipment.
Step Three: After the film has been made, "the government can edit, alter or ban the film, and controls the time and quantity of its exhibition."

Doug interviews three film-makers and their different approaches to handling the censors.

1) Bahman Ghobadi -- The award-winning director of the wonderful Turtles Can Fly and A Time for Drunken Horses is debating leaving Iran for good because of the censors. Ghobadi's new film, Half Moon, is about female musicians but he had to "remove every scene of women making music, or even appearing in the same room room as any music". Despite all the concessions he made, the government informed him that his movie would never be shown because they felt "that it contained messages of Kurdish independence." Going by his previous films, that accusation seems highly unlikely. But what might be possible is that the movie contains Kurdish characters just like in his previous films and ofcourse, the fact that Ghobadi is a Kurd himself might have sealed this decision.

In the end, the censors were preventing him to work freely. Also, the fear of the ministry was causing Ghobadi to censor his work in advance while writing and editing his films. Currently, Ghobadi has decided that he can't work in such an environment and will finally leave Iran for Toronto.

2) Rakshan Bani-Etemad -- Rakshan's example is extraordinary. She has been able to make films on controversial topics such as Iranian bureaucracy (Off Limits), the wasteful nature of the Iraq-Iran war (Gilaneh), a passionate love triangle (Nargess) and heroin addiction in Iranian society (Khoon Bazi). But all her films have been distributed and shown in Iran. Rakshan approach is that she works with the censors and "willingly gives up scenes of images, or even sometimes entire film ideas, in order to get the important things across". She does admit that she is not happy with the system but for her, it is very "important that Iranians see her movies that she is willing to sacrifice almost anything within them". Rakshan does feel that is she being "pushed to her limit" regarding what she can or can't say, but for now, she is staying put.

3) Jafar Panahi -- Jafar's films are a treat but they also get the full brunt of the censors. He refuses to submit to the censors and a result, gets his movies banned. But film festival, critics and cine fans around the world have bestowed awards and praise on his sublime features -- The Circle, Crimson Gold and Offside. For him the challenge is to stay in Iran and continue to make films without giving up even a scene. In 2003, he was arrested by the Information ministry and interrogated for four hours. He was asked why he doesn't leave Iran since most of his audience lies outside the country? But that would be playing into the government's hands as per Panahi: "The government is encouraging people in all kinds of cultural and political activities to move outside of Iran. I can't let them win this way."

So for now, Panahi faces a tough and lonely battle. What hurts him the most is that people in Iran can't see his movies and as it stands, he is left "without an audience in his own language".

Despite all these restrictions, I have always found watching Iranian films a rewarding experience. All their films are alive and vibrant -- they have something to say and are not pointless entertainment. The characters are so real that any of them could easily step out of the silver screen and assume an honest living in Tehran or other Iranian cities. Inspired partly by the article, I decided to find some Iranian films to watch. In the end, the three random picks ended up being a great choice, especially the Panahi & Abbas Kiarostami film.

Crimson Gold (2003, Director Jafar Panahi, Writer Abbas Kiarostami): Rating 10/10

Vintage cinema! Film-making of the highest order. A simple story yet so beautifully done; it also manages to convey messages of certain universal society class differences.

There was a scene in the film Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin (1996, India, Director Sudhir Mishra) that has stayed with me for over a decade. A couple of street gangsters break into a middle class apartment during a party and hold the people hostage. While they are killing time, one of the men waves his gun around and tells his accomplices that no matter how much power they get or how much money they make, they won't ever get respect like the people in the apartment. Those words are quite true and an unfortunate reality about societies all around the world, even North America -- people are quickly judged by their profession or their clothes. And even if certain people try dress the part, they won't ever get the respect they deserve because of preconceived notions. And this feeling of class difference is at the heart of Crimson Gold.

Ali and Hussein are average men who go about making an honest living by working as pizza delivery men. When Ali finds an expensive purse, he comes across a receipt for an Italian necklace which cost 75 million Tomans. The two are shocked that someone could spend so much on a necklace. So they decide to visit the jewelery store and look at what such an expensive necklace looks like. But the jeweler refuses to let the two in because of how they are dressed. So a few days later, Hussein dresses smartly and returns to the store with his fiancee and Ali. But even then, the same jeweler manages to find a way to get the message across that this store is not for people like them. This insult eats at Hussein and results in him going over the edge.

Besides this class difference, other interesting aspects of Iranian society are shown:

-- the police are keen to arrest young people coming from a party where the men and women have been drinking. Such parties are deemed illegal.
-- there are some references to a time when women didn't have to cover up in Iran.
-- attitude difference of Iranians who live abroad and return to Iran are shown.
-- the poverty and rich life is shown.

Unlike the characters in Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin , Hussein gets to taste the rich life for one amazing night.

Under the Moonlight (2001, Director Seyyed Reza Mir-Karimi): Rating 7.5/10

This is a touching film that looks at people living on the fringes of society -- unemployed people who are forced to live under bridges or seek shelter by the roadside. Sayyed is studying to become a cleric. Yet he is only doing this to please his parents wishes. He does not exhibit the behaviour of a devout religious person. For example:

1) he continues to read sport magazines even though such an act is frowned up by the elder clerics.
2) Sayyed is not comfortable with the idea of wearing a turban which is a requirement.

But he continues to quietly go through the motions. For the final part of his graduation, he needs to go buy the proper attire. He makes a trip to the city center to buy his robe, shoes & other materials required to perform the final rites as a cleric. On the train ride back, a young boy steals the bag containing these items. Sayyed sees this as a sign from God that maybe he was not meant to be a cleric. He is curious to find the boy and learn to see what caused the boy to commit the theft.

From there on, Sayyed becomes a spectator himself and watches the harsh life of a few street people who society has forgotten. He brings food for these people and even spends a night under the bridge with them. He is clearly effected by these people's plight and his confusion between the need to pursue religion vs serving these people only increases. In the end, another sign helps him make the right decision.

Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine (2000, Director Bahman Farmanara): Rating 8/10

Death in all forms hangs over every frame in this film. This means physical death, mental death, and even perceived death that comes when society makes living so hard for its citizens that they are like the living dead. Bahman is shown to be a film-maker who has not made a film for over two decades since he was banned by the Iranian government. For Bahman it is essential to not live a futile life and making films is a big part to ensure that does not happen. In that regard, he is happy to make a comeback with a documentary about funeral rites in Iran. In following Bahman,Smell of Camphor... is broken up into 3 acts --

Act One: "Bad Day" -- His son's phone call in the morning is the best thing to happen to Bahman all day long. After he leaves the house, death follows him around everywhere -- he sees his dead wife, he gives a ride to a woman whose one day baby was born dead, and the thought of his dead friends stays with him. When he goes to visit his wife's grave, he finds that someone else has been buried in the plot next to her grave -- he had reserved the plot next to his wife for himself.

Act Two: "Funeral Arrangements" -- This is where Bahman tries to get props and hire his friends to play actors. Scenes of typical funeral rituals are shown. Also, Bahman visits his mother who suffers from Alzhemier's and can't recognize him. Bahman considers his mother's equivalent to death itself.

Act Three: "Throw a stone in the water" -- This is where Bahman confronts his fears of death. The death circus that surrounds him & his confusion regarding whether to make the movie or not, has shades of a Fellini film.

Overall, despite the depressing topic, elements of dark humour, surreal dreams and self-mockery made this a refreshing viewing.

Update, Oct 2011:

All the quotes are taken from the March 31, 2007 article which is now available online via Doug Saunders' website. Also, given the recent injustice against Panahi, Saunders' interview is even more relevant.

Also, the following line that I typed back in 2007 is now sadly even more true.

So for now, Panahi faces a tough and lonely battle.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Director profile continued: David Lynch

Two weeks ago, I saw 3 David Lynch features over 2 nights. This time, I doubled that tally -- 6 features & short collections over 2 days. Since I saw Dune and Mulholland Dr. previously, I am done going through all the works of Lynch that I wanted to view. Now, I am throughly ready for Inland Empire.

So here are the films in order of viewing:

The Straight Story (1999): Rating 9/10

This has to be the most straight-forward (no pun intended) David Lynch film out there. In fact, if one didn't look at the credits, then one would never know that David Lynch was behind this work. Atleast Elephant Man included a few dream sequences which hinted at the director's familiar arsenal but The Straight Story is a clean and emotional journey. It was also the last work of Richard Farnsworth and this is clearly his movie from the first frame. Farnsworth plays Alvin Straight, a man who undertakes a 300+ mile journey on a lawn-mower to see his brother, Lyle. Alvin has not talked to Lyle in almost a decade after a falling out, but after Lyle has a stroke, Alvin decides he needs to make this journey on his own terms to set things right.

We get to see the wide open road, beautiful fields & shining stars as Alvin makes his brave journey. Along the way, he encounters an interesting collection of people (a runaway teenager, competition cyclists, a deer-loving woman who is agonized by deers hitting her car on a weekly basis) and wins everyone over (except the deer loving woman who is in too much grief) with his straight forward no-nonsense approach to life. Personally, I am a sucker for journey films and this story is as improbable as any journey film out there -- it is based on a true story but even if it was not, that would not have lessened this film's sincerity. The Straight Story is well acted and leisurely paced so that we can soak up every minute of clean country air.

The Short Films of David Lynch (2002)

This diverse collection goes through Lynch's first animation feature, his first short and even has clips of a mini-tv show episode he did. Lynch gives us the background story before the start of each short and that is useful in giving a road map of his work. We can see how his first animation allowed him to get money to buy his own camera with which he was able to make future works, which led to him getting a grant and eventually headed towards his first feature. Also, along the way, we get to see elements which would feature in his latter films like Eraserhead, Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr..

Six Men Getting Sick -- This 1966 quick-draw animation started it all for Lynch. Although the title tells all there is to know about the animation, Lynch's purpose with this effort was to experiment with moving pictures. The animation is basically a one minute segment repeated 4 times -- 6 men get their stomaches upset and throw up. The repeating annoying siren sound is highly distracting and combined with the images, achieves the intended purpose of causing distress and frustration in the audience. By today's standards there is nothing remarkable about the animation itself but this was his experimental effort back in 1966. It cost Lynch $200 to make this animation.

The Alphabet (1968, 4 min) This combination of animation and film gives the first glimpse of Lynch's recurring dream motif used in many of his works. The idea for this came to David when he heard of his wife's niece having a recurring nightmare where she repeatedly uttered the alphabets. So Lynch uses that to craft a semi-horror effort about a girl's constant torment with her nightmares. A significant technical leap forward from his first effort.

The Grandmother (1970, 34 min) This work was made with the help of a grant and marks Lynch's first feature short. A boy is abused and tortured by his parents. One day, he finds a bag of seeds in an unused bedroom in the house and plants the seeds on the bed -- the seeds grow into a weird plant which gives birth to a caring and compassionate grandmother. Is the grandmother real or a figment of the boy's imagination? Did the boy craft this scenario to escape his tortured life? One can see the seeds of Eraserhead in this short and even imagine that the boy would grow up into the lead character in that film. Also, the birth of the grandmother is accompanied by the plant oozing mud, similar to the blood and other liquids which gush out of the chicken and the baby in Eraserhead.

The Amputee (1974, 4 min) Nothing grand about this but just an interesting experiment. A woman is busy writing a letter and caught up in her emotions while a nurse is removing the bandages on her amputated leg. Suddenly blood starts gushing out from her wounds and even the nurse is at a loss to stop the flow. But the woman is so busy in her thoughts of jealousy and muted anger that she hardly notices anything. We are trying to listen to the woman's voice-over narration while trying to keep focus on the action happening in front of us. Eventually, the actions over the blood loss on her amputated leg takes precedence and we don't care about her letter or voice anymore.

The Cowboy and the Frenchman (1988, 25 min) David Lynch did this mini-series after Blue Velvet and as part of a TV series called "The French as seen by..". Different directors were asked to interpret the French in their own way and Lynch managed to combine "two cliches" in one film (as per the producer's words). Harry Dean Stanton plays Slim, a stone deaf cowboy who notices a strange manly creature heading towards his farm. His two assistants capture the creature and they all try to determine what this person is. When they open this man's bag, they find items such as bottles of wine, baguettes, snails and some cheese. Still they are clueless to his identity. But when they pull out a plate of french fries, they finally figure out that their strange capture is a Frenchman. This short packs typical cliches and is amusing for the first 10 min or so but after that ends up being dry & dull.

Lumière and Company (1995, 52 seconds) In order to celebrate the 100th year anniversary of the original camera used by the Lumière brothers, various film directors were asked to submit a film shot in the same manner as it would have been made in 1895. That meant using the original camera, restricted to a length of 52 seconds and using only synch sound and original light. Needless to say, Lynch packs a lot in his 52 seconds -- a noir style mystery & a strange lab with a naked woman in a cylinder. Unfortunately, I was unable to give this a second viewing but Lynch seemed to have used up his precious few seconds quite well.

Blue Velvet (1986): Rating 9/10

I finally managed to watch this sublime effort in its entirety. Almost 10 years ago, I saw bits and portions of it. Back then I had caught some of the critical scenes in the first hour -- the severed ear in the field, Frank Booth's (Dennis Hopper) bizarre entrance to Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) apartment. But now, all the pieces were tied up. The movie starts and ends up in a happy white picket fenced town. But between those scenes, we are introduced to a "strange world" where evil people lurk in the night-time. The film is really about the loss of innocence. Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is an innocent young man who finds a severed ear in the field one day. He dutifully heads down to the police station and gives it a detective (detective Williams). But he is curious to know who the ear belongs to. Detective Williams tells him that he can't give answers as it is too early in the investigation. But the detective's sweet and innocent daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern) gives a few clues to Jeffrey. From then on, Jeffrey's curiosity gets the better of him and leads him down a dangerous collision with Frank and the town's evil underbelly. Jeffrey & Sandy's innocent view of the world is changed forever and they are forced to grow up. Even in the end, when the nightmare is apparently over, Jeffrey may never be the same again. The dreamy music in the ending has shades of the music used in Naomi Watts dream episodes in Mulholland Dr. but in this case, Blue Velvet ends on a happy note and does not give any clues to any lurking evil.

Superb and brave performances all around with Rossellini convincing as the abused jazz singer, Hopper playing the perfect madman (a role he seems to cherish) and MacLachlan & Dern going through the range of emotions as they gradually lose their innocence. And the haunting title song is enchanting and inviting.

I really should have stopped my screenings here because it went downhill from here on....

Twin Peaks:Fire Walk with me (1992): Rating 5/10

The first sign of trouble appeared in the opening minutes -- David Lynch appeared playing a semi-deaf cop. He can't really act and his poor acting raised fears about the film's possible averageness. But that minor worry was temporarily put to rest as Kiefer Sutherland and Chris Isaak looked convincing playing two detective investigating a murder in Twin Peaks. However, all hopes of the movie making a full recovery vanished when Chris Isaak's character vanishes after he finds a green ring during his investigation. We next encounter Kyle MacLachlan as a detective who can enter a dream realm world and use that ability to solve his cases and predict future crimes. But after David Bowie makes a quick meaningless entrance, the movie really starts to sink. We are then returned to Twin Peaks a year into the future when another woman (Laura Palmer) will be murdered.

The second part of the film centers on Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). The green ring makes its appearance in her story as well, as do some strange dreams. In a way, the green ring and the dreams have the same mystery appeal as the blue box in Mulholland Dr. but the problem here is that we solve the mystery too soon. Very early on, it is clear who the murderer is and what is going on. Yet, the movie continues to add subplots while slowing down to include needless scenes of nudity, drugs, alcohol and sex along the way. At a running time of 2 hours, 14 minutes, this movie was sheer torture to watch. The only positive is that mistakes in this feature and Lost Highway eventually led to a polished effort such as Mulholland Dr.

Wild at Heart (1990): Rating 4/10

It was a huge mistake to watch this film after Twin Peaks. I still can't believe this horrible mess won the main prize as Cannes. Sure, there are some worthy acting performances but the story is cliched. Or maybe it seems so in the year 2007. Right off the bat, the film's title rings true. A few minutes into the movie, Sailor (Nicolas Cage) kills a man because he threatened Sailor. Sailor is madly in love with Lula (Laura Dern) but Lula's mother does not approve. After serving his time in jail, Sailor and Lula escape on a cross country road trip. They pass their time having wild sex, talking and drinking. But Lula's mom wants Sailor dead and sends contract killers after them. And sure enough, there are some strange characters thrown in for fun, along with semi-nude women added as decoration. Yawn. Sorry, seen that.

Hotel Room (1993)

A 3 episode tv series with Lynch directing two efforts. All 3 episodes are set in the same New York city hotel room, #603, in different time periods. And in all 3 episodes, the same bellboy and hotel maid are used.

Tricks: Rating 8/10 -- This is the best of the 3 episodes. It takes place in 1969. Moe (Harry Dean Stanton) brings a prostitute (Darlene, played by Glenne Headly) to room 603. Just as Darlene is about to get undressed, there is a knock on the door. The unwanted visited is none other Moe's bothersome nemesis/friend, Lou. It seems no matter Moe says, Lou ignores him. And Lou is more confident and suave with Darlene than Moe. But things are not as what they seem and we are given some clues at the start to help us untangle the mess. The segment keeps our attention throughout and is well acted by Stanton.

Getting Rid of Robby (Director James Signorelli): Rating 6/10 -- Set in 1992, this one is at odds from the other two Lynch episodes. Sasha (Deborah Unger) and her two girlfriends gossip about men and relationships while Sasha waits to dump her boyfriend, Robert. But it turns out that one of her friends had a fling with Robert a long time. That leads to some arguments and a predictable climax when Robert arrives. Of all the three shorts, this one is brightly lit and much more playful in tone than the other two. Near the end, it attempts a darkish end but even that feels like more like a comic effort.

Blackout: Rating 7/10 -- Set in 1936, this one relies on an intense conversation between Danny (Crispin Glover) and Diane (Alicia Witt), a young couple who have come to New York because of Diane's medical problems. Danny is 22 and Diane is 20 and they two have been in love for 17 years. As they two talk in darkness because of a city wide blackout, slowly we are given clues as to the exact nature of Diane's medical problems. Not as impressive as the first episode.