Saturday, August 30, 2008

CIFF 2008 Schedule

The full schedule for the 2008 Calgary Film Festival is out!. There are some excellent titles, including:

  • Three Monkeys (Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
  • Gomorrah (Director: Matteo Garrone)
  • Silent Light (Director: Carlos Reygadas)
  • In The City of Sylvia (Director: José Luis Guerín)

  • I saw José Luis Guerín's beautiful In The City of Sylvia last year at VIFF but I might try to see it a second time because I am not sure if it will make it to DVD anytime soon. Also, it is nice to see Jia Zhang-ke's Useless have a showing as well. This was another title I was fortunate to have seen at VIFF.

    Sunday, August 24, 2008

    Spotlight on Bollywood

    The democratic handshake

    The media keeps reminding us that India is the world's largest democracy but that does not mean it is a successful one. In fact, modern society does not have a single successful running democracy. Why are democracies not successful? One reason that the democratic political system fails is because of the male handshake. Two men shake hands. One is a business man, the other a politician. Here lies the problem. How can a politician do good for his people when he has a man promising him a suitcase of money?

    Sarkar Raj is the latest in a string of Bollywood films that examines how political decisions are drafted on the basis of these male handshakes. A power plant is supposed to boost Maharashtra’s energy needs but in order to build the plant, villages would have to be displaced. A common problem really -- land and people often seem to be in the way of big industry. So how should such a problem be solved? Easy, get some men to shake hands and make some promises. Oh and behind the scenes, in the shadows, hire some thugs to commit a few murders.

    Even though the story has potential to tackle some real issues and get to the core of corruption in the political system, Sarkar Raj does not dive deep into the issues and just skims the surface by dropping a few lines here and there about responsibility and power. Ram Gopal Varma has more interest in presenting hovering camera angles or having the camera pointed towards the window to let the sunlight blind the screen, keeping the actors hidden from view while listening to their so called important dialogues. The truth is that there is nothing new in this film, just some different camera angles. Sarkar Raj promises a lot but unfortunately it does not deliver, much like the fake promises made by the politicians shown in the story.

    Mall in the name of progress

    On one hand, Indian land is coveted by big industries, while on the other hand, empty land is also required by developers who are eager to construct as many big malls as possible in modern day India. And in some cases, people are being displaced from existing residential areas so that a mall can be built. So Aziz Mirza takes this relevant issue of Indian land vs mall construction and transports it to Toronto. In Kismet Konnection, a big mall will displace an existing community center rendering the residents homeless. Although he takes his story to Toronto, Mirza keeps everything else Indian, including the characters, dialogues (apparently everyone in Toronto speaks Hindi) and even the situations involving the construction company. Kismet Konnection, essentially an updated version of his 1992 film Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, features a main character Raj (Shahid Kapur) who takes on a corporation in the hopes of impressing the girl and getting his career off the ground.

    Friendship and love, leaving little time for a career

    A male college student in a Bollywood film certainly leads a stressful life. There is the pressure of hanging out with friends, then the added stress of impressing a girl, and then he has to dress the part, know how to sing songs and oh yeah, has to dance as well. How can one possibly have time to study after all this? And chances are when the boy graduates, his father or a friend’s father will have a job waiting for him because that is how life is in a Bollywood college universe.

    Two recent romantic films Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na & De Taali show that the most stressful aspect of the character’s life is deciding to fall in love with their good friend. Although in De Taali the characters are actually college graduates, they still lead life as per a Bollywood college standard of no responsibility. Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na is a decent film although it has a serious hangover from the smashing 2001 film Dil Chahta Hai. Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai was a memorable film which had some excellent acting and a very good screenplay whereas Jaane Tu... features a new cast making their debut, so one cannot expect the same acting standards, and has a screenplay that is tailored to include some needless slapstick comedic elements and even makes room for songs and an intermission.

    One of the brightest aspects about Jaane Tu is Genelia D’Souza who lights up the screen with her beautiful smile and cute expressions. She essentially plays the same bubbly character in Priyadarshan’s enjoyable comedy Mere Baap Pehle Aap and enhances the film with her presence. The only downside to Genelia’s acting is that she still has to master the Hindi language but other than that, she is a breath of fresh air in the film industry. Mere Baap Pehle Aap also turns the love story angle a bit on its head as the main character in love is a widower who gets lectured about chasing women by his twenty-something son.

    After love, the difficulties start

    So once the characters move beyond the initial love phase, then what? Then they might learn that falling in love was the easy part but finding a job or even a place to live in is far more difficult. Rajatesh Nayyar’s Sirf tackles some issues that come after most Bollywood love stories end. The film features multiple couples in different stages of their relationship who are struggling to afford a decent place to live in or even find a job. Also, a couple’s marital problems are shown as the busy work life gets in the way of their marriage.

    In Jannat, Arjun (Emraan Hashmi) thinks he has found the perfect financial solution to his life amid the high stake world of cricket betting. Arjun has a knack for correctly predicting how cricket games would end and initially uses this to make some quick cash to impress his girlfriend, whom he eventually marries. But very quickly, he is sucked into a much more complicated world of gambling. His criminal ways do not go well with his wife but Arjun finds it difficult to turn away the large piles of cash.

    The money trail leads to South Africa

    In order to escape the Indian police and still continue to run his cricket betting service, Arjun runs off to South Africa in Jannat. In South Africa, he continues to lead a luxurious lifestyle, while building up his wealth.

    In Race, two brothers (Saif Ali Khan and Akshaye Khanna) live their wealthy life in South Africa while trying to outdo each other.

    Needless to say that in both films, money blinds the main characters. In Jannat, Arjun loses the respect of his wife while in Race, the two brothers plot to kill each other.

    Follow the money...

    Arjun is so busy making money that he never stops to think what the millions he is earning for his bosses is being used for. As it turns out, Arjun’s bosses in Jannat use that money to support terrorism in India.

    In Raj Kumar Gupta’s worthy debut film Aamir, it is the money being sent by people from outside India that is supporting terrorism in the Indian cities. Aamir takes the story from Cavite, which was set in the Philippines, and completely adapts it to the Indian political landscape in Mumbai.


    Most Bollywood ghost stories take place either in the beautiful state of Rajasthan or in some isolated mansion in the countryside. Two recent films continue this tradition as well -- Anamika has a touch of a mysterious spirit lurking amid a beautiful Rajasthani palace while Bhoothnath has a comedic ghost who refuses to leave his ancestral mansion.

    2008 also marks the year that the ghost of Ed Wood made his presence felt in Bollywood as per the evidence of three films -- Mr. Black Mr. White, Mission Istaanbul and Singh is Kinng. Even by the normally average Bollywood film-making standards, all three of these films were very very poor. Although the films could have been salvaged had the directors not ignored the basic rules of film-making such as having a screenplay, proper editing and balanced background score. All three films featured scenes which were shot too quickly, slapped together without any thought and spliced with needless songs all arriving at the wrong moment.

    Film Ratings out of 10

    Note: All films released in 2008

  • Mere Baap Pehle Aap: 8.5

  • Aamir: 8

  • Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na: 7.5

  • Jannat : 6.5

  • Sirf: 6

  • Sarkar Raj: 5.5

  • Bhoothnath: 5

  • Anamika: 4.5

  • De Taali: 4

  • Krazzy 4: 4

  • Race: 3

  • Kismat Konnection: 2

  • Contract: 0

  • Singh is Kinng: 0

  • Mr. Black Mr. White: 0

  • Mission Istaanbul: 0
  • Friday, August 22, 2008

    Seasonal Changes

    The days are getting shorter. There is a chill in the air and Canadian film festival line-ups are being released. So that can mean only one thing -- Fall must be lurking around the corner.

    The complete Vancouver Film festival line-up is about two weeks away but yesterday's preview gives a teasing look at a few titles to grace one of the best film festivals in the World.

    Three Monkeys
    Il Divo
    A Christmas Tale

    The Dragons and Tigers category is back which means there will be some mouth watering new Asian films as Tony Rayns does an amazing job in picking out new cinematic talent.

    The Spotlight on France is also back along with a new Environmental based series called The Ark : Elements and Animals.

    Tuesday, August 19, 2008

    TIFF 2008 Lineup

    The full TIFF 2008 lineup is now out.

    As usual, plenty to see!!! On a quick scan, I picked the following titles that I would love to see, leaving out the big Hollywood films (such as Che and Burn After Reading) which I know would get released shortly after the festival.

    Return to Hansala (Chus Gutiérrez)
    Three Monkeys (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
    24 City (Jia Zhang-ke)
    Birdsong (Albert Serra)
    Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso)
    Serbis (Brillante Mendoza)
    PA-RA-DA (Marco Pontecorvo)
    Gomorra (Matteo Garrone)
    Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman)
    Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle)
    Revanche (Götz Spielmann)

    Hopefully I will be catching the films in tiny dosages over the next year or so, as the films trickle down to a wider distribution.

    Sunday, August 17, 2008

    Actor + Director = Seeking Repeat Success

    In last weekend's Globe and Mail, Rick Groen raised an interesting point about the powerful collaborations between actors and directors.

    But what of the relationship between directors and their favourite, frequently employed actors? This is pivotal, this has yielded some of the great pictures in cinema's history, but it tends to be examined only in passing, only within the separate contexts of individual careers. And that misses the obvious point. After all, if good directors are the sculptors of film, then good actors are their clay. Okay, maybe their granite (John Ford with John Wayne), or their wood (George Lucas with Harrison Ford). At any rate, the crucial raw material.

    He mentions that if the combination works quite well, then the result is two-fold: (1) a worthy film and (2) a wish to repeat the experience and be worthy again. .

    Although this collaboration does depend on how a director approaches his or her film. Rick Groen differentiates the two different styles used by Martin Scorsese & Hitchcock.

    Consider, for instance, Martin Scorsese, whose finest movies are character-driven and who, by his own admission, gets “bored” directing plot. Well, if your goal is to delve deeply into character, then a great actor, flexible and nuanced, is an essential tool. Luckily for him, and us, Robert De Niro may be the greatest of his generation. In Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, especially Raging Bull, Scorsese's camera gives the work its wings, but it's De Niro's brilliance that finds, and illuminates, the riven heart of the film. This director relies absolutely on the symbiosis with his star – one is unthinkable without the other. And when the actor, his implement, gets too old for the protagonist's job, the director is obliged to find another. Which explains why, in The Aviator and Gangs of New York and The Departed, Scorsese has a new best friend in Leonardo DiCaprio.

    By contrast, Alfred Hitchcock had scant interest in character and an abiding love for plot, along with the suspense that plot can generate. Consequently, he cultivated a reputation for regarding performers as little more than human props, set-dressing for his carefully planned story-boards – here insert Actress X in shower, there put Actor Y in cornfield. But shrewd ol' Hitch also had a keen eye for solid human props with commercial appeal, employing James Stewart in four of his classics (including Rear Window and Vertigo) and Cary Grant in another four (among them Suspicion and North by Northwest). These two stars are completely different actors, with different styles and mannerisms, and yet Hitchcock used them to equally strong effect. Still, while their performances enhance these pictures, they're not, like De Niro's, the essence of them. Hitchcock never really made actors' films.

    The article is centered around Hollywood combinations with a line dropped in for Ingmar Bergman. So I decided to come up with a separate list of non-Hollywood films where an actor worked with the same director on multiple occasions.

    Lee Kang-sheng & Tsai Ming-liang

    Lee Kang-sheng has acted in all of Tsai Ming-liang's feature films, playing the same character in all the films, except in Goodbye, Dragon Inn where Lee Kang-sheng had a minor role. The two first worked together in Tsai Ming-liang's 1991 short film Youngsters after which they both ventured into their first feature in 1992's Rebels of the Neon God. Tsai Ming-liang's films contain a loose framework where the real beauty and charm lies in observing the character of Lee Kang-sheng growing up from a teenager to a young man, drifting from job to job and even indulging in few affairs. So naturally it makes sense for Tsai Ming-liang to continue to use Lee Kang-sheng repeatedly as he can count on his favourite actor to ease into any situation or location the screenplay requires. And the result is evident as their films have a consistent feel and have created their own universe set in Taiwan where all the films were shot except 2006's I Don't Want to Sleep Alone which was set in Kuala Lumpur.

    In fact, I cannot imagine how the two will ever work without each other. Last year Tsai Ming-liang produced Lee Kang-sheng's directorial effort Help me Eros. The film was supposed to be a standalone effort, separate from the Tsai Ming-Liang films, yet Lee Kang-sheng plays a slight variation of the same character he normally plays in Tsai Ming-liang's films. And since Lee Kang-sheng has worked so closely with one director, it is not a surprize to see that his own directorial effort contains shades of Tsai Ming-liang.

    Films and Shorts worked together:
    I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (2006)
    The Wayward Cloud (2005)
    Good Bye, Dragon Inn (2003)
    The Skywalk Is Gone (short film, 2002)
    What Time Is It Over There? (2001)
    The Hole (1998)
    The River (1997)
    Vive L'Amour (1994)
    Rebels of the Neon God (1992)

    Note: Of all the films, only Good Bye, Dragon Inn did not have Lee Kang-sheng in a starring role.

    Jean-Pierre Léaud & François Truffaut

    François Truffaut announced his arrival in an outstanding manner with 400 Blows, his directorial feature film debut in which a young 14 year old Jean-Pierre Léaud stole the show with his raw portrayal of Antoine Doinel. And almost a decade after the two first worked together, Truffaut revived the character of Antoine Doinel by using Jean-Pierre Léaud in Stolen Kisses, followed by two more films. It was a fascinating cinematic series where one could see the continuing adventures of a single character through his teenage years to adulthood.

    Films worked together:
    Love on the Run (1979)
    Bed and Board (1970)
    Stolen Kisses (1968)
    The 400 Blows (1959)

    The practice of using the same character in multiple films inspired Tsai Ming-liang who gives a hint of this in What Time Is It There? when Lee Kang-sheng's character is shown watching The 400 Blows. Also, near the end of What Time Is It There?, Jean-Pierre Léaud makes an appearance, tying a gigantic cinematic loop between France and Taiwan.

    Interestingly, Tsai Ming-liang's next feature Visages stars both Lee Kang-sheng & Jean-Pierre Léaud.

    Amitabh Bachchan with multiple directors

    From the mid 1970's to late 1980's Amitabh Bachchan was the undisputed leading Indian actor who could easily mould himself to any director's need. He could play the street smart Jai for Ramesh Sippy's legendary Sholay, be the icy cold fearless coal miner for Yash Chopra's Kaala Patthar or shift gears and portray sensitive characters such as in Yash Chopra's Silsila or act in hilarious slapstick comedic roles such as in Prakash Mehra's Namak Halaal. There were multiple directors with whom Amitabh regularly worked and there were roles specifically written for Amitabh, especially to harness his portrayal of the "angry man". One director who forged a real partnership with Amitabh was Manmohan Desai. After working with Amitabh for Parvarish in 1977, Desai always found a place for his leading man in all his films until his last directorial feature Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswathi in 1988.

    Just some of the major collaborations between Amitabh and his directors from the 1970's-80's.

    with Manmohan Desai:
    Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswathi (1988)
    Mard (1985)
    Coolie (1983)
    Desh Premee (1982)
    Naseeb (1981)
    Suhaag (1979)
    Amar Akbar Anthony (1977)
    Parvarish (1977)

    with Yash Chopra:
    Silsila (1981)
    Kaala Patthar (1979)
    Trishul (1978)
    Kabhi Kabhie (1976)
    Deewaar (1975)

    with Prakash Mehra:
    Jaadugar (1989)
    Sharaabi (1984)
    Namak Halaal (1982)
    Laawaris (1981)
    Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978)

    Klaus Kinski with Werner Herzog

    Even though I have only seen two of the five features that Kinski worked with Herzog on, both these features left such an impression that I cannot imagine that any other director would have allowed Kinski to freedom to act out his demons so brilliantly like in Aguirre, the Wrath of God & Cobra Verde. There is a priceless scene near the end of Aguirre where Kinski is left on a raft with a few hundred monkeys; Kinski grabs a monkey in his hand, examines it and then throws away the animal in disgust. A simple scene but very effective. Herzog revealed that he did not instruct Kinski to toss the money away but was simply present on the raft with his cinematographer filming Kinski silently. So whatever unfolded on the raft was Kinski's improvisation. In a way, Herzog provided the intelligent spells of silence where Kinski would dive deep into his character and unleash raw emotions.

    Films worked together:
    Cobra Verde (1987)
    Fitzcarraldo (1982)
    Woyzeck (1979)
    Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
    Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

    Shah Rukh Khan with Aziz Mirza, Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar

    Long before he became the famous international superstar that he is today, Shah Rukh Khan started his career by working in tv serials such as Circus and Fauji. One of the directors of Circus was Aziz Mirza. When Mirza decided to direct his first feature film (Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman), he naturally turned to Shah Rukh, one of the tv serial's impressive actors. Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman was a sweet charming film about an everyday working class hero and did well enough to allow both actor and director to get a foothold in the industry. Shah Rukh Khan moved onto a variety of projects both from small budget works such as Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa and Maya (Ketan Mehta's loose adaptation of Madame Bovary) to big budget films such as Subhash Ghai's Trimurti. Shah Rukh also played an assorted set of characters from an action hero to even negative roles such as in Daar (an Indian version of Cape Fear) & Anjaam. However, all that changed when Shah Rukh Khan starred in Aditya Chopra's debut film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge released in 1995.

    Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge marked the arrival of Yash Chopra's son, Aditya, and its immense box office success established Shah Rukh Khan as a bankable leading man. But the most important consequence of that film's success was that Shah Rukh Khan would become the poster boy for romantic roles in Yash Raj films (production company of Yash and Aditya Chopra), starring in endless love stories and love triangles. Since 1995 Shah Rukh has hardly ventured into any serious acting roles. Even in a historic period film such as Asoka, Shah Rukh Khan's character is busy chasing a girl around trees and waterfalls. Shah Rukh has starred not only in Aditya's films such as the mammoth Mohabbatein, a 4 hour long sugary film which featured 4 love stories, but also played the romantic lead in films which Aditya penned for his father Yash to direct (Dil To Pagal Hai and Veer-Zaara ). On top of that, Shah Rukh Khan has become a critical component of Karan Johar's love sagas, featuring in all of Karan's movies. It is not a surprize to learn that Shah Rukh Khan will star in both Karan and Aditya's next ventures.

    Aziz Mirza only used Shah Rukh Khan as his leading man for his first four features. This year's Kismat Konnection was supposed to be the first time that Aziz took on a new leading man in Shahid Kapoor. However, the presence of Shah Rukh is evident as he is the film's narrator and Shahid's character is just an extension of the role that Shah Rukh played in Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman. On top of that Shahid copies Shah Rukh's antics in quite a few scenes. So even though Aziz has not taken Shah Rukh in his new movie, he cannot help break free his association with his main leading man.

    Films with Aziz Mirza:
    Chalte Chalte (2003)
    Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (2000)
    Yes Boss (1997)
    Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman (1992)

    with Aditya Chopra:
    Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008), to be released later this year
    Mohabbatein (2000)
    Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)

    with Karan Johar:
    Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006)
    Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001)
    Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998)

    Govinda with David Dhawan

    David Dhawan is known in Bollywood for his crude and vulgar comedies filled with double meaning dialogues laced with sexual innuendo and raunchy songs. Ofcourse, the success of David Dhawan would not have been possible without Govinda's presence. Govinda was the only actor who could have effortlessly carried out the rapid fire dialogues required by Dhawan and could wear the most bizarre wardrobe (including brightly coloured tight t-shirts despite Govinda having a round figure) while dancing some of the silliest moves to ever grace the Bollywood screen.

    It was Aankhen in 1993 that set both Govinda & David Dhawan on the crude comedy path and it also marked the first time Dhawan's movie would feature two leading men chasing two women. This pattern was repeated by Dhawan in other Govinda films such as Partner, Jodi No.1, Ek Aur Ek Gyarah and Haseena Maan Jaayegi. A slight variation of this theme was where Dhawan's films (both with Govinda and without him) would have two men chasing one woman (Deewana Mastana, Mujse Shaadi Karogi) or would have one man courting two women (Saajan Chale Sasural, Gharwali Baharwali).

    Govinda's films with Dhawan:
    Partner (2007)
    Ek Aur Ek Gyarah (2003)
    Kyo Kii... Main Jhuth Nahin Bolta (2001)
    Jodi No.1 (2001)
    Kunwara (2000)
    Haseena Maan Jaayegi (1999)
    Bade Miyan Chote Miyan (1998)
    Deewana Mastana (1997)
    Hero No. 1 (1997)
    Banarasi Babu (1997)
    Saajan Chale Sasural (1996)
    Coolie No. 1 (1995)
    Raja Babu (1994)
    Aankhen (1993)
    Shola Aur Shabnam (1992)
    Swarg (1990)

    Not leading men but still vital collaborations

  • Paresh Rawal with Priyadarshan

  • Priyadarshan's Hera Pheri showed that it is possible to make an entertaining commercial Bollywood film with an intelligent script. In a way, Hera Pheri marked a distinct change in Priyadarshan's commercial film direction. After the success of that comedy, he favoured making light hearted entertaining films, unlike some of his earlier serious efforts such as the brilliant Virasat. Hera Pheri also shone the light brightly on Paresh Rawal, who stole the film with his excellent comedic timing. Rawal was at his best in Hera Pheri and since then Priyadarshan has ensured he gets Paresh involved in all his comedic ventures, albeit in small roles. And in virtually all their joined efforts, Paresh has lit up the screen with his unique comedic take.

    Rawal's efforts with Priyadarshan:
    Mere Baap Pehle Aap (2008)
    Bhool Bhulaiyaa (2007)
    Bhagam Bhag (2006)
    Malamaal Weekly (2006)
    Garam Masala (2005)
    Hulchul (2004)
    Hungama (2003)
    Yeh Teraa Ghar Yeh Meraa Ghar (2001)
    Hera Pheri (2000)

  • Suet Lam with Johnny To

  • Johnny To has used quite a few familiar faces in his films (such as Simon Yam) but Suet Lam occupies a special place in Johnny To's trademark gangster films. Sometimes Suet Lam has a key role, such as in P.T.U where his character's misplaced gun kick-starts an entire night of events in the film, while in other films he provides a short cameo. In 2007's Triangle, three directors directed a single film with no clear marking where one director's work ends. However, one can identify when Johnny To's portion started as soon as Suet Lam's character arrived on the screen. Indeed shortly after the arrival of Suet Lam, Triangle moves into a climatic gun shoot sequence, which is beautifully filmed Johnny To style.

    Films worked together:
    Cultured Bird (2008)
    Flying Butterfly (2008)
    Mad Detective (2007)
    Triangle (2007)
    Exiled (2006)
    Election 2 (2006)
    Election (2005)
    Breaking News (2004)
    Turn Left, Turn Right (2003)
    PTU (2003)
    Love for All Seasons (2003)

    Friday, August 08, 2008

    A matter of taste

    Every summer it seems that North American film critics have to respond to why they did not like a certain Hollywood blockbuster film. Two years ago, A.O Scott tackled this issue when discussing the newest Pirates sequel:

    But the discrepancy between what critics think and how the public behaves is of perennial interest because it throws into relief some basic questions about taste, economics and the nature of popular entertainment, as well as the more vexing issue of what, exactly, critics are for.

    Are we out of touch with the audience? Why do we go sniffing after art where everyone else is looking for fun, and spoiling everybody's fun when it doesn't live up to our notion or art?

    I have often read comments along the lines of why some critics cannot "lighten-up" or "loosen up" when it comes to reviewing certain commercial titles. But why is it assumed that a commercial film should be liked by everyone? And that too, why must all critics conform? For example, this summer The Dark Knight is already considered to be "the greatest film ever made" and any critic who dared to think otherwise was abused (ranging from mild words about their small brain to "you are a #$#%#$"). I often find it amusing that some people can get quite abusive when others offer a differing view on a film. Seriously, how can everyone like the same movie? For the most part, films are always perceived with a subjective lens, no matter how much a person tries to approach it in objective terms. Ofcourse that does not stop some people from trying to stamp an objective verdict on a film by calling it "the greatest film ever made" or "best film of the century", etc. If all the film going public around the world were to vote on the best film ever made, you will never get one unanimous answer. Yes, there are numerous annual "best of.. lists" and each get votes from film critics, industry personnel or film buffs. Sometimes the same titles pop up in these lists but I find it more useful to read why certain people chose a particular film – there is a possibility that they saw noticed a quality in a film where others had failed to.

    Over time, if people continue to read a certain critic’s reviews, they can develop a sense of the films a reviewer likes or not. And even if someone normally agrees with a critic’s views, there will always be cases when a difference will arise. The difference should be an opportunity to exchange viewpoints and not merely a chance to slam the door with words like "if you don’t like the movie, you are an idiot".

    Differing treatment of film critics in Hollywood vs Bollywood

    Hollywood still has a need for movie critics even if quite a few of them are losing their jobs. Evidence can be found in how the industry still continues to hold advance press screenings of their movies. And if a critic likes a movie, then their blurbs are plastered all over the movie poster. When a film does not have an advance screening, it is immediately assumed that the movie is awful and the producers/distributors are hoping to recoup as much weekend box office money before the negative reviews hit the headlines. Now admittedly, quite a few reviews do not go into in-depth critical analysis of a film but merely present the synopsis with a movie rating. That raises another contentious topic of how many people actually read a movie review and what are they looking to get out of it. Do most people just care for a number rating? Or are they just interested in going to see a film just because of the actors or genre? The answers to these questions circles back to the start of A.O Scott's article regarding the need for a critic and of people's tastes.

    On the other hand, Bollywood as an industry does not respect a film critic and as a rule ignore their verdict. There are hardly any advance film screenings and even before a movie is released, the film producers/directors/actors go out of their way to ensure their movie is critic proof. Most interviews with the film-makers involve the following chosen words about their newest Bollywood movie:

  • It is a juicy "masala" movie

  • Meaning: A typical Bollywood film with action, songs, dance, romance, emotion, etc.

  • "Entertaining movie", fun for the whole family

  • Meaning: comedy movie with good songs

  • "Fresh love story"

  • Meaning: The movie is unlike the countless other stale love stories that get released every year. Also, means a film with new actors.

  • People should go enjoy the movie and "leave their brain at the door"

  • Meaning: The film has no plot, so one should not question anything. Just laugh.

    When a Bollywood film does well at the box office but gets negative reviews, the film-makers say the movie is "for the masses". When a film does poorly at the box office, then the film-makers say the movie is "for the classes", referring to the middle class and elite sections of Indian society who can apparently appreciate the mature themes shown. And when both the classes and masses reject a movie, then the film-makers say that the movie is too sophisticated for the Indian audiences and is made for the foreign crowd (Indian diaspora, film festivals, etc). When everyone rejects their movie, then the film-makers say that the world is not ready to understand their unique genius. Honestly, how can a critic be ever expected to fight against Bollywood's built in critic-proof ego?

    Note: India has to be the only country in the world where people line up in millions to see a movie which they know nothing about. This is because the trailers are only clips of the film songs, sometimes spliced with few movie scenes. In most cases, even the story is never really revealed in advance. Critics only get to see a movie on the Friday afternoon opening shows along with the rest of the audience and their reviews are not available until later on Friday evening and in the weekend publications.

    I left my brain at the door. So should you.

    Only in India could such a film review get published. In reviewing the newest Bollywood film Singh Is Kinng Taran Adarsh begins his review thus:

    Just a word of caution before you watch this film: Singh Is Kinng is not for the intellectuals or those pretending to be one. It's not for the hard-nosed critics either.

    He even explains what is wrong with the audience if they do not enjoy this movie.

    You know the rules when you watch a hardcore entertainer: Just don't look for logic. If you do, too bad for you, for you would never enjoy a film of this genre and more specifically, Singh Is Kinng.

    And Taran goes onto praise the limited talents of the film-maker.

    Anees Bazmee's films are very high on entertainment. The plotline may be paper-thin, perhaps ludicrous and farcical, but when did Bazmee ever promise a SCHINDLER'S LIST [sic] or a SAVING PRIVATE RYAN? [sic] Singh Is Kinng works because it delivers what it promises: Full on entertainment!

    Hilarious. Here is a critic actually admitting a film-maker’s flaws but yet endorsing the movie because it is “Full on entertainment”. That’s right. None of this half-on or quarter-on, it FULL ON baby. He might have added India’s favourite words right now "Mind blowing".

    Oh but to give credit to Taran, he does say that the film is not perfect.

    But, wait, Singh Is Kinng isn't a foolproof product. It has its share of flaws, the turn of events aren't captivating at times, but Singh Is Kinng moves so fast and packs in so much, there's no time to think or analyze.

    You mean the movie is “shock and awe”? Genius!

    And here’s the final verdict:

    The final word? Singh Is Kinng is a delicious and scrumptious pav-bhaji served in the finest cutlery. Your taste buds are sure to relish it... and ask for more!
    On the whole, Singh Is Kinng lives up to the hype and hoopla. Want a joyride without taxing your brains? Board the Singh Is Kinng wagon. At the box-office, the film will fetch a hurricane-like start. The paid previews, the opening weekend, the first week business, everything will be record-shattering. Notwithstanding the new oppositions in the weeks to come, Singh Is Kinng will rule the hearts of the aam junta [whose verdict matters the most] as also the box-office, proving a record holder in the final tally. Blockbuster Hit!

    Come on, who does not like pav-bhaji? Actually, since I had pav-bhaji 2 nights ago, I think I might hold off getting me some cinematic version of this Mumbai dish.

    But Taran is not all fun and games. He does get serious sometimes. For example, he was troubled by last year’s No Smoking

    After having watched NO SMOKING, the first thing you want to do is ask Anurag Kashyap, the director of this misadventure: Now what was that? Cinema is all about three Es -- enlighten, educate and entertain. But NO SMOKING neither educates, nor enlightens. As for entertainment, forget it!

    You try so hard to understand what NO SMOKING tries to say, but the film is like one big puzzle that refuses to get solved.

    What ails NO SMOKING, did you ask. Simple, it’s the most complicated cinematic experience of 2007.

    Errr. It was not that complicated really. Heck, I loved it. But Taran does not share my views:

    NO SMOKING leaves you exasperated and disgusted. Exasperated, because till the end credits roll, you just don’t know what happened in those 2 hours.

    Were we watching the same movie? I was not disgusted but rather left with a giddy sense of excitement because watching No Smoking reminded me of films like David Fincher’s The Game & Fight Club, Alejandro Amenábar's Open Your Eyes (remade as Vanilla Sky), The Devil's Advocate and one scene even reminded of David Lynch's Inland Empire.

    Although I see the real source of Taran’s disappointment: There’re hardly any songs in the narrative but the one filmed on Jesse Randhawa [‘Jab Bhi Cigarette Peeta Hoon’] is imaginatively filmed. Surprisingly, the popular Bipasha Basu track, which has also been publicized extensively, is placed after the end titles.

    A Bollywood movie has to have atleast 6 songs. Come on. That is the golden rule.

    Taran wants people to take an Anees Bazmee film on face value and not question anything but then shouldn’t one take Anurag's film in the same manner? If an absurd film like Bazmee’s No Entry has no logic and people are asked to ignore its shortcomings, then why is there the need to understand No Smoking? Ah. But as per Taran, No Smoking does not entertain. I do not share his opinion regarding No Smoking which I thought was an extremely intelligent film packed with plenty of ideas. But thankfully I do not read Taran’s film reviews but I am sure there are plenty out there who read and listen (via his tv show) to what he has to say (scary thought that).

    A matter of taste

    Film fan #1: I only like comedies and stay away from action flicks.
    Film fan #2: I only like action movies and cannot stand chick-flicks.
    Film fan #3: Sci-fi does it for me.
    Film fan #4: I only like foreign films.
    Film fan #5: I like everything but foreign films.
    Film fan #6: I like all kinds of movie.
    Film fan #7: I like all kinds of movie, provided they are made well.

    Restaurant patron #1: I only like steak.
    Restaurant patron #2: I am vegetarian, which eliminates 90% of the menu items for me.
    Restaurant patron #3: I only like sushi.
    Restaurant patron #4: I only like spicy food.
    Restaurant patron #5: French food is the best cuisine. Everything else is substandard.
    Restaurant patron #6: I like all kinds of food, provided it is presented well.
    Restaurant patron #7: I like all kinds of food, provided it is cooked well.
    Restaurant patron #8: I like all kinds of food, provided it tastes good.
    Restaurant patron #9: I like all kinds of food, provided it is presented nicely and cooked well.
    Restaurant patron #10: I like all kinds of food, provided it is presented nicely, cooked well and the tastes are nice.

    Patron #X shares his dining experience from the Sing-Song Multiplex Restaurant.

    The entire dish was so beautifully presented that I was beside myself. I have to say, the meal was “FULL ON” value for my money because a beautiful waitress brought it to me in the most gorgeous plate I have ever seen, with the finest cutlery. I cannot criticize the meal because everything was so beautiful that I quickly swallowed the meal without having time to chew or think about the tastes. The restaurant delivered solid entertainment. What a gorgeous waitress. I would gladly eat any dish that she serves.

    Owner of the Sing-Song Multiplex Restaurant:

    We found out that most people coming to our establishment do not care for the food. So in order to save costs, we serve stale meat, our sauces are either too salty or too spicy depending on which ingredients are still left, and most often our vegetables are rotten. For desserts, the cherries we place on top of the cakes are always moldy. For the most part, no one complains. They keep coming back because we have the most beautiful women working in the place and we have a very vibrant atmosphere. Occasionally, a snobby food critic comes to our place and demands healthy & tasty food. But no one really cares to what he/she has to say. We keep making money. That is all that matters.

    Wednesday, August 06, 2008

    Carlos Reygadas Films

    Snapshots of Three Films by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas


    "Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

    Japón follows the main character’s quest to end his life. A painter heads to the Mexican landscape to put an end to his suffering. But along the way, he finds meaning to his life. Simple things can change a person’s view of the world and sometimes the boundless beauty of nature can go a long way towards curing a tormented soul. Unfortunately, the ironic nature of life does surface in the film. When the painter has no reason to live, he cannot kill himself. But when he finally finds hope and reason in life, that reason is taken away in a swift instance. Although after making such a long journey, we can be sure that he will continue to live after the film ends because he has found an inner desire to continue, an inner desire not motivated by external triggers.

    Battle in Heaven

    Marcos leads a simple life filled with routines. Some of these routines revolve around him and his wife selling clocks and some food by an underground walkway. Tick tock. But in order to improve their daily lives, the two of them kidnap a child for ransom. However, something goes wrong and the child dies. Tick tock.

    Marcos’s second job is as a driver and he is assigned to drive around a general’s young daughter Ana. Despite being rich, Ana derives pleasure by working in an upscale brothel. She sends one of her colleagues to service Marcos. But Marcos only wants Ana and fantasizes about her. Ana makes it clear that she wants nothing to do with Marcos sexually.

    Tick tock. Confession. Sin. Repentance. Inner Struggle.

    Silent Light

    A quiet German Mennonite community in Mexico. A perfect family. Well, almost perfect. Johan, the father and husband, is having an affair with Marianne that is tearing him apart. Everyone knows about it. Even the mechanic to whom Johan takes his car cautions him about Marianne. Johan tried to leave Marianne but cannot help going back. Johan even goes to his father for advice. Johan’s wife Esther believed that Johan had finally left Marianne but when she learns that he has started visiting Marianne again, she cannot take it anymore.

    Johan has to make a decision but then nature helps him out.

    Lasting Images:

    The lasting images from Japón revolve around the 360 degree camera sequence at the film’s end. The camera freely spins around the surroundings allowing only a tiny fraction of the events to come into view before finally focusing on the tragedy in front of us. Even if the film ends in tragedy, it arrives at that fateful realization by following a beautiful path that evaporates any meaning of loss.

    There is also a 360 degree camera sequence in Battle in Heaven as well but it does not have the poetic or emotional impact as the one from Japón. However, one memorable take arrives immediately following the 360 degree camera sequence in Reygadas’s second feature. Prior to the sequence, Ana is on top of Marcos, thrusting back and forth. The camera starts off in Ana’s dreadlocked hair but gradually moves sideways, looking at the sexual act from outside the window. Just before the camera starts moving to the left, Ana looks towards the camera (note: I am not sure if that is a mistake or an intended gesture on Reygadas’s behalf? Ana face the audience!). The camera then leaves the room and slowly moves around the neighbouring buildings before returning back to the room where Ana has finished her bouncy gyrations. As the camera moves towards them, it looks at the naked bodies of Marcos and Ana first from above, then from the floor showing their feet before slowly moving upwards towards the ceiling. There is something picturesque about this long take, watching the big round body of Marcos lying next to tiny Ana. Marcos is taking up most of the bed space and holding hands tenderly with Ana. The background music starts just as the camera makes its movement towards the ceiling and the music has echoes of a triumphant victory, a final salute of sorts. Has Marcos achieved greatness by sleeping with the beautiful Ana? Is the sequence real or another of Marcos’ fantasies? The 360 degree camera spin makes me think that this sexual act is real. And that image of Marcos looking at the ceiling with Ana sprawled on the bed besides him with closed eyes is just vintage stuff.

    The best cinematic sequences in Silent Light open and close the film. The film starts off in darkness, looking at the boundless starry night sky. Slowly, night gives way to dawn and the sun rays paint the Mexican landscape with a radiant beauty. The film ends with this sequence in reverse, where the sun sets to usher in darkness.

    Awkward but real:

    Both Japón & Battle of Heaven contain sex scenes which will not feature in any American or European film because of the physical attributes of the mating couple. In Japón, the painter engages in sex with a much older woman. He proposes his intentions to her and then what follows is quite a realistic and a very un-sexual sexual scene – there is no enticement but a mechanical nature to the whole act.

    The realistic sex scene in Battle of Heaven features Marcos thrusting his wife from behind. Now, both Marcos and his wife are big people and one never sees a sexual act between large people on cinema.

    However, we are not shown any nudity during the sex scene between Johan and Marianne in Silent Light. Since the couple constitutes the normal cinematic portrayal of sexual acts, Reygadas is not interested in showing their naked flesh. Although the sex scene between Ana and Marcos in Battle in Heaven is shown in stark detail as well, a bit too much detail. But then again, the fornication between the two does not constitute a cinematic norm either.


    Even though Battle in Heaven starts and ends with a similar sequence of Ana giving oral pleasure to Marcos, there is a subtle difference in between the opening and closing sequences. Marcos is not wearing his glasses in the final sequence which hints that the sequence is not taking place within the realms of the film’s realistic boundaries and might actually be happening in heaven. Maybe there is peace in heaven after all for Marcos!

    Silent Light opens with a transition from night to day, and ends in reverse order, light to dark. Fade to Black indeed.

    Fascinating titles:

    Why should a Mexican film shot entirely in the Mexican countryside be called Japón? A clue is provided halfway through the film when the painter shows his collection of paintings to the older woman. Also, his need to commit suicide might be a nod towards the ritualistic Japanese suicide hara-kiri.

    Battle in Heaven: Don’t most cultures mention that there will be peace in heaven? Hmm. Apparently, they have not met Marcos.

    Silent Light: At the quantum level, a light particle is anything but silent. But we do not analyze elementary particles consciously everytime we admire beauty. And the film shows the beauty of light, which can quietly envelop a surrounding or quietly remove the ability to see things. Let there be light! Let there be darkness!

    Mexico standing in for the world:

    All three Carlos Reygadas films are firmly rooted in Mexico as they feature characters who live and breathe within Mexico. Yet, the character’s suffering is universal.

    Japón -- the painter is tired of the chaotic city life and seeks peace.
    Battle in Heaven -- Marcos is torn by guilt and lust.
    Silent Light -- Johan longs for another woman and realizes that he has never truly loved his wife. But he has to suffer because he cannot just pick up and leave.

    Universal themes distilled via Mexican landscapes.

    I certainly cannot wait to see what else Reygadas serves up in the future.
    Ratings out of 10:
  • Silent Light: 10

  • Battle in Heaven: 8.5

  • Japón: 8
  • Tuesday, August 05, 2008

    2008 Venice Film Festival Line-up

    The Competition line-up includes new works from Darren Aronofsky, Guillermo Arriaga, Jonathan Demme, Takeshi Kitano, Hayao Miyazaki & Barbet Schroeder to name a few.

    Playing out of Competition are new films from The Coen Brothers, Claire Denis, Jia Zhangke (short film), Abbas Kiarostami, Manoel de Oliveira, Agnés Varda and a previously unreleased version of Pier Paolo Pasolini's La rabbia.

    Friday, August 01, 2008

    Bouncing in between two spotlights

    Mid Year-Bollywood Spotlight

    It has become an annual ritual of sorts that I spend a good two months every summer catching up on the previous 6 months of Bollywood releases. I am currently in the middle of such a run but so far it appears to be a dismal year, even by Bollywood's already average quality standards. The best Bollywood film (even Indian) this year appears to be Mithya, loosely inspired by Kurosawa's Kagemusha but uniquely Indian with a pinch of underworld and a whole dosage of dark roasted goodness.

    The ratings (out of 10) so far with the unrated films in line for viewing in upcoming days:

  • Bhootnath (2008, India, Vivek Sharma): 5

  • Krazzy 4 (2008, India, Jaideep Sen): 4

  • Mr. Black Mr. White (2008, India, Deepak S. Shivdasani): 0

  • Anamika (2008, India, Anant Mahadevan): 4.5

  • Sirf (2008, India, Rajatesh Nayyar): 6

  • Race (2008, India, Abbas-Mastan): 3

  • Jannat (2008, India, Kunal Deshmukh): 6.5

  • Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na (2008, India, Abbas Tyrewala): 7.5

  • Aamir (2008, India, Raj Kumar Gupta):

  • Kismat Konnection (2008, India, Aziz Mirza):

  • De Taali (2008, India, E.Nivas):

  • Jodhaa Akbar (2008, India, Ashutosh Gowariker):

  • Contract (2008, India, Ram Gopal Varma):

  • Sarkar Raj (2008, India, Ram Gopal Varma):

  • Mission Istaanbul (2008, India, Apoorva Lakhia):

  • Mere Baap Pehle Aap (2008, India, Priyadarshan):

  • South American Spotlight

    Last year, I enjoyed my look at South American cinema via the Copa America film festival and Spotlight on Brazil. As part of the Copa America film fest, I only picked one film from each South American country and the Brazilian spotlight netted 15 titles from the land of Pele, Garrincha, Vava, Socrates, Zico & Ronaldinho. This time I decided to throw the net out a bit wider in the hopes of getting more films from South America as a whole, not trying to go by country alone. No preplanned themes so I am hoping some interesting threads pop up through a diverse range of films.

    Unfortunately, I never got a title from Paraguay last year, something that I have not managed to rectify this year either. Still, I hope that Paraguayan Hammock will be released soon on DVD.

    The ratings so far and other films to be viewed in upcoming days/weeks:

  • The Method (2005, Argentina co-production, Marcelo Piñeyro): 8.5

  • Bolivia (2001, Argentina, Adrián Caetano):

  • Los Muertos (2004, Argentina, Lisandro Alonso):

  • Pizza, birra, faso (1998, Argentina, Adrián Caetano/Bruno Stagnaro):

  • City of Men (2007, Brazil, Paulo Morelli):

  • The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (2006, Brazil, Cao Hamburger):

  • Machuca (2004, Chile, Andrés Wood): 9

  • Oedipus Mayor (1996, Colombia, Jorge Alí Triana):

  • Un titán en el rincón (2002, Ecuador, Viviana Cordero):

  • El destino no tiene favoritos (2003, Peru, Alvaro Velarde):

  • Don't Tell Anyone (1998, Peru, Francisco J. Lombardi): 7

  • El Nominado (2003, Peru, Nacho Argiro/Gabriel Lopez):

  • 25 Watts (2001, Uruguay, Juan Pablo Rebella/Pablo Stoll):

  • Adios Momo (2006, Uruguay, Leonardo Ricagni):

  • La Espera (2002, Uruguay, Aldo Garay):

  • 1888 el extraordinario viaje de Jules Verne (2005, Venezuela, Alfredo Anzola):