Sunday, September 28, 2008

Final Day of CIFF!!

Tired and jaded. I managed to take in 3 films on the closing day but I really should have only watched 1. The last two really tested any endurance I had whatsoever.

Day 10, Sept 28

Corridor #8 (2008, Bulgaria, Boris Despodov): 8/10
Jar City (2006, Iceland, Baltasar Kormákur): 6/10
The Pope's Toilet (2007, Uruguay, César Charlone/Enrique Fernández): 8/10

If there is a new wave in Romanian cinema, then Bulgaria may be becoming a hotspot for interesting documentaries. Last year I enjoyed the Bulgarian doc Mosquito Problem and Other Stories and this year Corridor #8 does not disappoint. With a short running time of 75 min, Corridor #8 is an interesting look at life between Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania using trade, a proposed highway and cultural perception as a focal lens.

Jar City was a disappointing film even though it does feature some very stunning overhead visuals of the Icelandic landscape. It is a genre murder mystery with some slight variations to the conventional murder puzzle solving plots. The background score which attempts to evoke a spiritual essence around the film does not blend with the story and ends up being needlessly overpowering.

I was looking forward to seeing The Pope's Toilet but watching it at 9:45 pm on the final day of the festival was a bit too much to bear. On any other day, possibly an afternoon show, I might have enjoyed this film a bit more. Despite its charm, it felt too lightweight to sustain my tired eyes. Still I managed to stay awake despite the 90 minute running time taking forever to cycle through. How I wish this film had played at an earlier time in the festival!

That's a wrap..

Once I have caught up on my sleep, I will attempt to do a recap of some sort.

CIFF Notes -- Days 8 & 9

Day 8, Sept 26

Time to Die (2007, Poland, Dorota Kedzierzawska): 7/10
One Week (2008, Canada, Michael McGowan): 8.5/10

The Polish film Time to Die is mostly a soliloquy, beautifully shot in black and white. Credit goes to an excellent performance from Danuta Szaflarska for playing such a vibrant character. While the film is technically sound, like most recent Polish films, it took me a while to warm up to this story. Even though I was not bowled over this film, I did find a certain charm to it, not only from Danuta’s performance but the dog in the film whose actions and expressions were appropriate.

All it took for me to go see One Week was reading that Joshua Jackson plays a character who goes on a motorcycle journey from Toronto to Tofino. I love journey films and one set in Canada was definitely worth checking out. Thankfully, the film does not disappoint. In a way, the film is a postcard for Canada, showcasing the beauty of this country, along with snapshots of those small towns whose fame depends on that one big icon (largest mosaic, etc). Joshua Jackson plays Ben, a character whose life is turned upside down when he learns he has cancer. Unsure about what to do, he heads for a quiet moment with his newly acquired motorcycle and a cup of coffee. The sold out theater erupted with laughter when they recognized what coffee Ben was drinking. And the laughter increased when Ben ‘rolled up the rim’ to see what prize he won. He didn’t win anything but the message in the rim proclaimed ‘Go West Young Man’. And so it was. The Tim Horton's cup sealed Ben’s destiny and he undertakes a beautiful journey that ends at the beaches of Tofino.

Day 8, Sept 27

The Grocer's Son (2007, France, Eric Guirado): 8.5/10
Driving to Zigzigland (2007, Zigzigland, Nicole Ballivian)
REC (2007, Spain, Jaume Balagueró/Paco Plaza): 8/10

The Grocer's Son is a charming film set in a beautiful small French town. While the story deals with the title character and his life, we get a glimpse into the farmers and town folk he interacts with on his daily grocery deliveries via his father’s truck. There is a tiny reference to some of the farmers being in debt even though that is discussed in passing. The film would form a perfect companion piece to the excellent French documentary Modern Life, which is about the decline of farming in France and played in Cannes this year.

Sometimes the best way to deal with tragedy is via comedy. And in the international political world the issue of Palestine and the occupied territories is no laughing matter. So credit goes to the film-makers of Driving to Zigzigland that they manage to portray the issue of occupation, homeland security and racial profiling in a humorous manner. The film is about a theater actor (Bashar) from Palestine who dreams of working in Hollywood. He leaves his home and daily problems of checkpoints behind to make his living in the promised land where he ends up driving a cab in order to pay his bills while constantly auditioning for small acting parts. In conversations with his passengers, whenever he mentioned his homeland as Palestine, the discussions often ended up in an argument. So he decided to name his country as Zigzigland, a trick that works surprisingly well.

It has been almost 9 years since The Blair Witch Project was released, yet its legacy lives on. Blair Witch.. came up with a very smart formula for a horror film by using a handheld camera to shoot their film in darkness. The absence of light does evoke fear in some people and the film-makers cashed in on that idea and proved that if one had a good myth, there was no need of nasty creatures or even gory blood because the darkness would cause the audience some jitters. Cloverfield tried this idea but one reason I didn’t think it worked was because the film was not confined to closed quarters. And the reason the Spanish horror film REC works is because it takes the Blair Witch concept into a confined space of an apartment building. There is plenty of opportunity for the spooks and screams while the camera moves around in darkness.

REC has a short running time of just under 80 minutes and gives enough screen time to develop the characters before turning into a screaming pitch dark film. The story is about a television crew (the lovely reporter Angela and Pablo, her cameraman) who follow two firemen into an apartment building after the fire-station received a call that an old lady was trapped in her apartment. Early on, it is clear something strange is going. A bite and some blood later, the film pauses to catch up with the other residents in the apartment. And then the jerky camera goes into over-drive as the actors engage in a screaming match. What strange force is at work in the apartment building? Thankfully, the film does give a glimpse into the mystery near the end, with a taped recording voice that reminded me of the radio messages in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. Plenty of nods to Blair Witch and it seems that Hollywood has already noticed as their remake Quarantine will hit theaters in a few weeks. It is certainly fun to watch such a movie in a packed cinema hall because the nervousness and anxiety of the audience raises the decibels of the on-screen screams. And the directors do give the audience plenty of time to prepare for the oncoming danger. There are plenty of moments when the camera moves around a darkened space and one knows that something will appear in front of the camera and when it does, there will certainly be a few screams among the audience.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

CIFF Notes -- Days 5-7

Day 5, Sept 23

Paraiso Travel (2007, Colombia/USA, Simon Brand)
Gomorra (2008, Italy, Matteo Garrone): 10/10

Border hopping

The Colombian co-production Paraiso Travel depicts the journey and struggles of a love struck couple (Marlon & Reina) who illegally cross the border into the USA. The film is divided into two portions starting off with the couple already in the USA and interleaved with their journey in flashbacks. Their journey takes them from Medellin to Panama to Guatemala via air followed by a river crossing and bus into Mexico. From Mexico, the duo make their way into Texas trapped in hollowed out tree logs along with a group of other Colombians. Once they get to New York, their troubles truly begin. After the duo get separated, Marlon is left to fend for himself on the streets of NY. The film has a good heart and tries to sprinkle hope, humour and even love into a story that could easily have headed towards complete darkness.

The wait is finally over!!!

Back in May after I finished Roberto Saviano’s well researched and written book Gomorrah, I found out that the book was going to be made into a movie by Matteo Garrone. I had no idea when the movie was going to be completed so I was completely shocked when I found out 3 days later that the movie was playing in competition at Cannes. Since then, I had looked forward to the movie. I figured even if the film tackled less than half of the book’s contents, then it would be a gripping and stellar flick.

Very rarely do sky high expectations translate into a satisfying film experience. But Gomorra did just that for me. The film dives straight into the world of mafia killings in Naples and continues to explore other areas touched by the Gomorra such as drug trade, fashion and even waste disposal. Reading the book is not essential for watching the film but the one benefit of reading the book is that it puts the different scenes and characters in context even before the film describes the situation. For example, in the film when you see two men scoping out a quarry, one can immediately decipher that the two men are looking for empty land for waste disposal as the final chapter in the book describes the operation in great detail. Also, one can pick out the subtle differences in between the book and film. Saviano talks about the incident where a dress that Angelina Jolie wore for the Academy Awards was stitched by a tailor with ties to the fashion underground. In the film, Scarlett Johansson is the one who wears such a dress.

The one aspect that stands out from the film is the use of guns to control power and commit crime. Two teenagers running up a sand-dune with guns in their hands while struggling to pull their jeans up. Two older fat men, wearing shorts and flip-fops, with guns in hand. It is hard to imagine the mafia operation existing without the hand-gun because any kid can be recruited off the street, given a gun to carry out a ‘job’ and initiated into ‘manhood’.

Day 6, Sept 24

Sleep. Zzzzzz. Skipped watching any films.

Day 7, Sept 25

Alice’s House (2007, Brazil, Chico Teixeira)

It came down to a choice between Brazil and Argentina. On one side was Alice’s House from Brazil and on the other XXY from Argentina. Normally, in terms of soccer and film, I prefer Brazil slightly over Argentina even though there are many excellent soccer players and films from Argentina. So continuing that trend, I once again opted for the Brazilian film, but I believe this time, I got it wrong. Even though I am not sure how XXY compares but I didn’t enjoy Alice’s House as the film is essentially a soap opera (affairs, romance, domestic issues) with some hair salon gossip and sexual urges thrown in the mix.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

CIFF Notes -- Day 4

Sometimes our reactions to movies are similar to how we behave when we meet people. There are some people we take an instant liking to -- within a few minutes of meeting the person, we could be chatting like we were old friends. And then there is the flip-side to that behavior. There are some people we not warm up to and no matter what the other person does, we may never see eye to eye. One could say that at times our preconceived notions and prejudices come in the way, but no matter how much we try, we just cannot mesh with some people.

I had such reactions to the two films I saw yesterday – one that left me cold, while the other charmed me easily.

Day 4, Sept 22

Two films seen:
I am from Titov Veles (2007, Macedonia co-production, Teona Strugar Mitevska)
Wonderful Town (2007, Thailand, Aditya Assarat): 10/10

I am from Titov Veles didn't work for me. Even though the production values were top-notch and the cinematography was very good, I just couldn't get over how the film was purposely trying to include a few elements to appeal to the audience – the few nude scenes of the lead actresses (and who plays the narrator), the sexual sequences, the dreamy shots with a vague biblical reference or the lovely overhead shots of everyday objects.

On the other hand, I was completely as ease just a few minutes into the Thai film Wonderful Town. The movie, set in the southern Thai town of Pakua Pak which was hit hard by the Tsunami in 2004, is a tender love story between a Bangkok architect (Ton), who comes to the town to work on a new beach resort, and Na, the owner of the hotel that Ton stays in. The film has a steady rhythm that is maintained no matter what happens. The scene could be a kiss or even a deadly crime, but everything takes place in the established dreamy and peaceful framework. Everything in the film exists in harmony, be it the haunted house, the construction of the new resort, the empty hotel, the isolated beach or even a road-side garage. The town is empty, almost a ghost town, where everyone knows each other. Yet this loneliness never feels oppressive but just a natural cycle of life.

Notes: As it turns out, Ton is the only one staying at the hotel as it is off season for tourists and most of the visitors stay in the expensive hotels near the beach. The isolated hotel setting reminded me of another Thai film, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Invisible Waves, which was set in Phuket. Even the film’s leisurely mood and dreamy feel made me think of Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s work. The resort construction is almost an inverse of Jia Zhangke's Still Life. In Still Life, we see buildings taken apart while in Wonderful Town, we see a resort being constructed from ground up. Just something haunting about seeing a building’s skeleton. In Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, we also see an under construction building but I never equated that building with the one from Wonderful Town. Maybe because in Wonderful Town we see sideways view of the empty resort while in I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, we see the empty building from within, either from a higher floor looking downwards or from the ground floor looking up. And finally, the scene where Ton and Na enjoy a quiet moment in the lush green field made me think of the peaceful picnic that the characters in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Blissfully Yours take.

Opposite feelings

I saw both movies with two cinephile friends and it was interesting to note their reactions to the two films. They both didn't mind the first one and one of them liked it more than the second one. But for whatever reason, I can’t bring myself to feel the same about I Am From Titov Veles. I find it interesting that my least favourite film of the festival so far and the one I liked the most were separated by a 30 minute interval.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Keeping it simple, Hank Moody style

The only reason I wanted to see Californication was because of David Duchovny. Even though I had not read anything about the episodes, I had no hesitation in renting the first season DVD, although I only got Disc 1 which contained 6 episodes. I figured if the show was good, I would get the second disc which had the remaining 6 episodes.

With each episode lasting 30 minutes or so, the first DVD was 3 hours in length. I had only planned to watch one episode at a time, but after I put in the disc, I only stopped after the 3 hours was up. In fact, I hardly noticed the time fly by. I found Californation to be such a fun show, very well written and cast. The on screen relationship between Duchovny & Natascha McElhone's characters is just refreshing.

Duchovny plays Hank Moody, a writer struggling to get his new novel out. He still lives off the fame (and money) from his previous book and never gets tired of the drink or the women. He is also in the process of separation from Karen (Natascha McElhone) but the two keep in touch, partly because of their 12 year old daughter Becca (Madeleine Martin). And then there is Charlie (hilariously played by Evan Handler), Hank's agent who grills him every now and then about his proposed new novel. Hank and Charlie are good friends who often share tales of their women adventures, and even offer advice to one another. Charlie also has an interesting relationship with his wife and secretary. Okay, interesting is an understatement! I cannot forget Karen's current boyfriend, Bill, and Bill's 16 year old daughter Mia who had a fling with Hank. To Hank's defense, he was not aware that Mia was Bill's daughter or that she was 16 when he slept with her.

Despite all the emotional pulls and tugs between the characters, the show is amazingly balanced -- mature yet playful, humorous but still keeping things in perspective. In a way, Hank shares some similarities with Nick Hornby's characters from Fever Pitch & High Fidelity but the presence of a daughter also gives Hank a level head.

And for the record, I finished off disc 2 also in 3 straight hours. Season 2 starts on Sunday, Sept 28. I can't wait to see more of Mr. Moody and Karen.

Average rating of all 12 episodes: 9/10

CIFF notes -- Day 3

Day 3, Sept 21

Two films seen:

Used Parts
(2007, Mexico, Aarón Fernández): 9/10
Let the Right One in (2008, Sweden, Tomas Alfredson): 8.5/10

The Slovenian film Spare Parts was about illegal border crossing and focused mainly on the drivers who transported the people seeking a better life. The theme of border crossing also exists in the Mexican film Used Parts but the film instead focuses on the people who want to cross the border. The majority of the film looks at the lives of two teenagers (Ivan & Efraín) who work at odd jobs in order to make ends meet. Working with his uncle, Ivan eventually resorts to stealing car parts (hub caps, mirrors, etc) to make some fast cash to pay for their border crossing payments. The early part of the film spends time laying out all the characters and situations properly, so when things do go wrong, we know exactly the different paths that the characters would end up taking. In fact, one can say the ending could be seen coming for a long while, but still when it does arrive, it does not feel manipulated. If the options in front of people are limited, then there are only a few paths they can take.

The Swedish film Let the Right One In could be described as a coming of age tale spliced with a vampire story. But that generalization does not do justice to the fact that the film beautifully takes components from each genre and seamlessly integrates them into an original story. 12 year Oskar meets 12 year old Eli. But as Eli mentions, she is "more or less" 12. In fact, her real age is unknown as a vampire is trapped within 12 year old Eli's body. And the vampire may not even be female. The film highlights their innocent friendship, while depicting the blood lust that gargles within Eli's body. The thirst drives her to kill. Initially, an accomplice helps fetch human blood for Eli in a method akin to animal slaughter -- slitting of the throat and letting the blood drip out. But when the frailty of the accomplice takes him out of the equation, Eli is left all alone. Which is where her friendship with Oskar takes on more meaning -- two lonely people in a cold, snowy landscape.

The cinematography is very good and the best part of the film is that it does not descend into any end of the world scenarios but simply focuses on the solitary vampire's friendship with a human. Also, the film does a good job of making full usage of the screen. For example, in a scene where Oskar is being submerged into a swimming pool by a bully, the camera stays on Oskar's face but in the far end of the screen, we can see that help is on the way.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

CIFF notes -- Day 1 & 2

While the opening CIFF gala was on Thursday night with Blindness, the festival proper kicked off on Friday, Sept 19. In the past few years, it is usually around the middle of the 10 day festival that I finally start getting a bit tired after juggling a day job along with the evening weekday screenings. A few years ago, I even had to take a day off right in the middle of the festival (Wed) to rest up for the final few days. But this time around, I was exhausted even before the festival truly started.

Day 1: Friday, Sept 19

5 am. I woke up awfully early so I could put in a full day’s work before resting up for two possible screenings in the evening. But despite two coffees, I was already tired by mid-afternoon. Still I made it out to the festival expecting my first choice to wake me up. If the film did just that, then I would have classified it a success, otherwise it wouldn’t have been not worth it. And Aleksandr Sokurov’s Alexandra proved to be a perfect cinematic tonic for my tired self.

The film follows a grandmother (who plays the title character of Alexandra) who goes to visit her grandson in a Russian military base in Chechnya. She hasn’t seen him in seven years but goes to visit him because she is lonely. For the first hour, we only see her on the base, wandering around and interacting with the soldiers, most of whom are not happy at being stationed there. The film truly comes to life when Alexandra leaves the base and wanders the local market. There she meets a local Chechnyan woman, Malika, who befriends her. As the two walk back to Malika’s place, a few shots of the neighbouring buildings tell us all we need to know about the region -- some buildings are marked by bullet holes while others are heavily bombed. Malika lives in a building on the verge of collapse and her causal remark to Alexandra that there are always men aimlessly hanging outside the building points to the state of unemployment in the region.

There is a shared bond of suffering and understanding that comes across when Alexandra and Malika talk. But when a local Chechnyan boy takes Alexandra back to the base, we get a glimpse that Alexandra is not very understanding after all. When the boy asks her why can’t the Russians just give the Chechnyans freedom, Alexandra remarks that weapons won’t accomplish anything but intelligence is required. Later during the night when she is talking with her grandson, her real views come into focus. She accuses the genes of the Chechnyans for the acts they commit regarding kidnapping and torture.

Sokurov has managed to tenderly weave political sentiments into the film without any melodrama or bloodshed. And the camera stays on each character’s face for the just right time for us to gauge their true feelings, be it insecurities or anger, without having them utter needless dialogue. A wonderful film.

Alexandra (2007, Russia/France, Aleksandr Sokurov): 9/10

I decided to skip watching a second film later in the night.

Day 2: Saturday, Sept 20

An Icelandic double

It was a real treat to watch Ragnar Bragason’s double features
Children & Parents. I had never heard of either film or even the film-maker previously but I had a good feeling about both movies and I was lucky to have been proved right. The two films are part of CIFF’s Iceland Series this year.

Ragnar was present at both screenings and I was able to ask him a few questions in between the movies and he answered further audience questions at the end of Parents. Both films are shot in black and white and as per Ragnar the reasons for B&W and his filming style were the following:
  • Ragnar was inspired by the early films & style of John Cassavetes. Like Cassavetes, Ragnar got together with a group of actors and flushed out their characters over a period of 6 months. The actors were given a rough skeleton of the film, with just some situations, but were required to improvise their own dialogues.

  • The lack of budget was a big reason for Ragnar’s choice of B&W. Since he didn’t have money for art design, make-up, etc, Ragnar decided to shoot the films in B&W to give them a consistent look.

  • One cannot tell that the films are improvised. Such is the strength of the acting and the characters portrayed. The two films stand separately on their own, with some characters making a brief appearance in the other film. Both films are a gritty look at the chaotic lives of humans, with the parents trying to juggle their jobs & family while the children face enough pressures of their own to keep sanity.

    I will say a bit more about the films in a future post, after the festival is over. But both films were a real find and such gems truly make attending a film festival a real joy.

    Children (2006, Iceland, Ragnar Bragason): 10/10
    Parents (2007, Iceland, Ragnar Bragason): 10/10

    Friday, September 19, 2008

    Scotty, beam me the new Cannes title!

    A few years ago, Canadian multiplexes started showing operas beamed live from the Met. I have no idea what the attendance figures are like for these opera screenings but I have seen people easily plunk down more than $40 for two tickets. I have often thought if they can do this for opera, then why not for film festival flicks? Why can't we have the Cannes Film festival beam its screenings to movie theaters around the world allowing thousands of film fans to enjoy the feature film screenings?

    Beaming films -- Technical aspect

    I remember seeing an article last year about Hollywood wanting to beam films to cinemas directly. I can't remember the exact article I read, but I found this one. Also, I heard the same noise in Bollywood as well about beaming films to theaters around India.

    When I first heard that, I thought that would be great. But then could this idea not be taken one step further and people could actually watch beamed movies directly at home, sort of like the satellite model? It seems that even this idea exists.

    While both the above methods would improve the delivery methods of movies, I still think the content of the films shown would still be a problem because these methods would still be geared towards Hollywood films. I think back to May 2007 as an issue. Most multiplexes across Canada were only showing three films -- Spider Man 3, Pirates 3 & Shrek 3. I am pretty sure almost all the shows were sold out. Such a beamed delivery method might ensure that more screenings of Spider Man 3 could be booked as opposed to Pirates.. because there might be more demand of good old Spidey in a certain location. But what about those Cannes titles that demand to be seen? Would they get beamed up? Probably not.

    Beam me something I want

    A lot of has been debated in print over the last year about the relevance of film critics. But for me, the question of film distribution is far more important -- how can we distribute better film content to markets around the world in a faster manner? As it stands, after films premier at Cannes, a select number end up making the rounds around film festivals for more than a year. And maybe after 15 months or so, an even smaller selection of titles open in North America, with a DVD release taking anywhere from 18 - 24 months. This filtering process does not ensure that every single Cannes Competition title would ever get distribution.

    Who do I trust more? A Cannes film programmer or a North American distributor?

    Easy answer. The Cannes Film Programmer. Now that does not mean that I agree with every single selection choice that the Cannes film programmers make. But in a way, I am glad that they have worked hard to select a few titles to showcase. Still I rather see all the Cannes competition films and be able to judge their merit for myself.

    And I do believe that if more international films are easily available around North America, the value of critics would go up. Critics would not have to waste time debating why people must not go see the new popcorn flick and could spend more time talking about that relevant title from [insert country of choice] that is also playing at the local multiplex.

    Open the taps, please!!

    As much as I want Cannes film titles to be beamed up, I don't think the film industry would ever allow it. Too much has been invested in the current distribution model, a model which I don't think works as well as it should. Sure, more and more foreign films are washing up on the shores of North America but they are still going through a small filter. But why we can't we fully open the taps and allow North American markets to be flooded freely with international films?

    But will it make money?

    I can already see the first argument against opening up the cinematic taps. Since film production and distribution is a serious business, driven by profit margins, will those beamed up Cannes title make money? I do not know. But are there more people willing to spend $20 to watch an opera in a theater than wanting to spend $10 on an international film? Once again, I don't have numbers to prove any one side but I like to think that international films would hold their own.

    Thursday, September 18, 2008

    Foreign film candidates

    Oct 1 is the deadline for all the 96 countries to submit their entry for the foreign film category for next year's Academy Awards.

    Here are the confirmed entries so far:

    Canada: Benoît Pilon's The Necessities of Life
    Germany: Uli Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex
    Sweden: Jan Troell’s Everlasting Moments
    Belgium: Bouli Lanners’s Eldorado
    Finland: Dome Karukoski’s The Home of Dark Butterflies
    Hungary: Csaba Bollók’s Iska’s Journey
    Austria: Gotz Spielmann's Revanche
    Japan: Yojiro Takita's Departures
    Korea: Kim Tae-gyun's Crossing
    Philippines: Dante Nico Garcia's Ploning
    Taiwan: Wei Te-sheng's Cape No. 7
    Brazil: Bruno Barreto's Last Stop 174

    Sources: Globe and Mail, Reuters and Cine Europa

    Of the above, I have only see the Hungarian entry, Iska’s Journey. So far, I have not heard anything about the Indian entry but I think Aamir Khan's Taare Zameen Par would be a good choice. But then again with the Indian entries, films are not always chosen on merit.

    Tuesday, September 16, 2008

    Imaginative Beauty

    Long before cinema and literature existed, folk stories and myths were the common form of entertainment. Such stories involved the story teller holding the audience’s attention by mysterious tales of adventure, romance and even battle of good vs evil. The story teller would describe the events in good detail but once his/her words were uttered, the audience would use their imagination to turn the words into images and store them in their mind. From that point on, they would replay the images in their head and as a result, their thoughts would expand. They would question things around them and even long for some travel to far away lands.

    Tarsem’s beautiful second feature, The Fall, taps into this age old charm of story telling and crafts a mesmerizing world of adventure. Tarsem’s first feature, The Cell, featured some stunning visuals but unfortunately, the story was a bit of a let-down. This time around, he has found a framework which perfectly accommodates the beautiful visuals.

    Shot around the world over multiple years, the film is a story within a story. The outer layer involves a hospital patient narrating a myth to a young girl and the images we see are through the eyes of the young girl. The first hour has a playful tone but in the last 40 minutes, the story takes a dark turn. This is because the narrator is contemplating suicide and prefers to spin nothing but negativity. But since the young girl wants a happy ending, the narrator finds himself struggling to keep his demons in check.

    In a way, stories (both novel and cinematic ones) take the personality of its creator. If a creator is in a certain frame of mind, those thoughts and feelings make their way into their work. The Fall shows how the narrator’s story is altered by events around him. Audiences also judge a work through a subjective lens via their conscious and subconscious ideas. And in the film, the young girl also perceives the story through her experiences.

    The film is produced by Tarsem and it is easy to see why he funded it himself. No Hollywood studio would ever permit such a film to be made and allow a director to have such free reign over the material. In a way, I am glad that he produced the film himself because The Fall is easily one of the most beautiful films to be made in the last few years. In many cases, a single frame of the movie contains more beauty and imagination than entire Hollywood studio films. It is unfortunate that this film was not released widely in theatres as it deserves to be seen on the big screen.

    Rating: 10/10

    Childhood Memories

    I grew up watching and loving the Speed Racer cartoons. Every week, I used to eagerly await the show and enjoyed the adventures of Speed and the mysterious Racer X.

    But when I saw the cartoons on tv a few years ago, I was amazed at how bad they were – all the shows had the same old story of car crashes and needless slapstick humour. However, I still cherished my pleasant memories of the cartoon.

    When I first learned that the Wachowski brothers were going to make a Speed Racer movie, I was not too keen on the idea. And the trailers just confirmed my idea that the movie might be a mess. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover today that the movie is not as bad as I had expected. In fact, I enjoyed watching it. Essentially, the movie is an updated version of the cartoon, complete with car chases, explosions and similar characters. The one interesting aspect in the movie is how the story of a lone speed racer against the big evil corporation can be likened to a battle between independent films & big Hollywood studios. In the movie, talented drivers who are not allowed in the Grand Prix are left to risk their lives in an underground race circuit. But the big corporations still keep an eye on the underground tracks in the hopes of finding a talented driver. This is similar to the situation where indie films are left to play at underground film festivals and if a movie is a hit, then the big studio distributors swoop in like vultures to release the movie to multiplexes.

    Rating: 7.5/10

    Wednesday, September 10, 2008

    The Amazing London Film Festival, 2008 edition

    The London Film Festival will always have a special place in my heart. My only visit to it back in 2005 was part of an amazing 5 day trip to London. The trip was about seeing two Arsenal games in the final year of their historic 93 year old stadium Highbury. After seeing Arsenal's win in the Champions League game on Wed night, the next day I found myself with the chance to catch films on the final day of the London film Festival. I saw three very interesting films in Factotum, Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures and Sangre. I could have seen a fourth film, Citizen Dog, but instead opted for a relaxing night of shopping (London has some of the best bookstores). Personally, Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures was not only the best of the three but easily my favourite film of 2005.

    So every year, when the line-up for the London film festival is announced, I can't help but look at the new titles and think back to that magical rainy day in Thursday when I scrambled in between the venues taking the tube, having a coffee or two and observing the well heeled stylish women. Heck, even if the women were not in heels, they were still stylish.

    This year, there are plenty of intriguing and mouth-watering titles in the different categories. However, it is in the World Cinema category that I came across the following names. I had not heard of any of these films previously but I am now more than willing to view them, if given the chance.

  • Welcome to Sajjanpur: The new film from Shyam Benegal.

  • Teza: Having never seen a film from Ethiopia, this would get my vote.

  • The Sky, the Earth and the Rain

  • The Secret: I enjoyed portions of Joko Anwar's previous film (Joni's Promise) so I am curious about his new film and Tony Rayns' comments add to my interest:
    Second-time director Anwar (his debut was a hit rom-com) traverses genres as confidently and unpredictably as Hong Kong movies once did, here evoking Costa-Gavras, there evoking Highlander. Recklessly entertaining, superbly cast and underpinned by a combative anger.
    Praise indeed!

  • Salt of this sea: One of the two films from Palestine in this category. This one re-visits events of 1948, that crucial year when "the people of one country gave the people of another country the land of the people of a third country".

  • Ramchand Pakistani

  • Quick Gun Murugan: This one sounds like an over the top Rajnikant Tamil film packed with CGI effects. But could be worth a few laughs.

  • Last Thakur: A Western themed film from Bangladesh.

  • Jay

  • Beirut Open City

  • Colours of Passion: I admit that the only thing that attracts me about Ketan Mehta's latest film is the presence of Nandana Sen!!! But Mehta does make interesting films, with 2005's Mangal Pandey being an exception (not interesting, just bad). Maya Memsaab was his seductive Indian take on Madame Bovary and even a thriller like Aar Ya Paar had some edge to it. Although I have yet to see Mehta's 1995 film Oh Darling Yeh Hai India, a film that my local video store owner refused to rent out to me. He said the film was terrible but I had loved the music and was curious about seeing it. Almost a few months went by and he still kept refusing. In the end, I forgot about the film.

  • Plus plenty of other titles.....

    Sunday, September 07, 2008

    Spotlight on South America

    Machuca: Chile, 1973

    Early on in the film, two friends, one rich (Gonzalo) and the other poor (Pedro Machuca), cross a soccer field packed with local kids playing the beautiful game.

    Near the film's end, Gonzalo is seen cycling through the same soccer field but it is empty. We know from the political events outlined earlier in the film that there is a reason there are no kids playing in the field.

    In the scene immediately after Gonzalo hurriedly cycles past the empty soccer field, we see poor people rounded up at gunpoint and taken away. A solider mistakenly tries to take away Gonzalo but he shouts that he is not one of ‘them’ and points towards his imported German sneakers. The solider looks at Gonzalo’s white shoes and backs off. Meanwhile, the two friends eyes meet. Machuca knows the fate that awaits him and so does Gonzalo.

    Final Scene: Gonzalo is standing in front of an empty soccer field, looking at the sun setting over the mountains in the background. We know that this soccer field will never have kids or even adults play on it. Not for a while at least.

    In a way the four scenes highlight how people disappeared in Chile. Did the rest of the world know? Even if they did, would they have cared?

    1973. A dictator comes into power. Who helped him? Look closely. You will see men lurking in the shadows. And among these men are some economists who offered advice in 'helping' the Chilean economy.

    The Year My Parents Went on Vacation: Brazil, 1970

    A boy standing with a soccer ball in his hands. The image is taken from the backseat of a car driving away. The car contains his parents who are apparently going on "vacation". But his parents are not going on "vacation". Unfortunately, 1970’s in South America saw a different form of vacation. People normally plan their vacations, inform their loved ones where they are going and when they will come back. But in 1970's South America, certain people believed that they were privileged enough to offer free vacations to their nation’s citizens. The citizens went on vacation, never to return back.

    The world did not know of this vacation policy until much later. In the meantime, Brazil danced to the 1970 World Cup victory in some style, playing possibly the best football the world has seen. In 1978, Argentina won their first ever World Cup title, although the rumours about their 6-0 victory over Peru will never go away. Were the Peruvians bribed? Or did the Peruvian players have one look at the government in charge of Argentina and decide that losing 6-0 was better than getting a free unlimited vacation?

    Men sitting in offices. Talking with dictators, discussing economic reforms. Privatize everything, open the country up. All will be well. Oh and while you are at it, hand out some free vacations. Things will eventually work out.

    Have things worked out yet? The playgrounds are not empty anymore. But if one stands on those grounds, one can hear voices in the distance. Voices that cry out, wanting the world to listen. But the world cannot listen. It has moved on. Yet those voices continue to haunt soccer fields, not only across South America, but Asia and Africa as well.

    Bolivia: Argentina, present day

    At the start of the film Bolivia, we see a televised match between Argentina and Bolivia. After Argentina jump to an early lead, the Argentinean commentator remarks that Argentina were more alert. After the third goal goes in, he mentions that the Bolivian defense is terrible, just terrible. A few harmless words mask the hidden superiority of Argentine football.

    If one had any doubts to the intention of those words, then the rest of the film just confirms the idea of a supposed superior Argentinean identity, an identity that exists even when the soccer game is over. An illegal Bolivian works in a local cafe/pub. Some of the local patrons include taxi drivers, including one who dislikes the Bolivian. Everything the Bolivian does is wrong. For example, when he brings a bottle of beer from the freezer, he is scolded for not bringing a cold bottle, even though he returns and brings a second bottle from the exact same freezer. When someone dislikes another person, no matter what the other person does is wrong. Simple fact of life. It is equally true in any part of the world.

    It appears to be only a matter of time when emotions will boil over and they eventually do. Beautifully shot in black and white, Bolivia gives a glimpse of the frictions that exist in daily life. While the Clashes are started by government decisions regarding employment and immigration, the prices are always paid by ordinary citizens. If a poor nation shares a border with a richer nation, then illegal border crossing will occur. But if the apparently rich nation does not have enough jobs for its own citizens, then anger is directed at the newly arrived persons. The newcomer is always blamed for the misfortunes of a nation. Amazingly, one can walk the streets of Canada or USA and hear similar sentiments.

    Bolivia is shot in Argentina but it may take place in any part of the world.

    Adios Momo: Uruguay, 40 day Carnival

    Obdulio just wants to play soccer but he does not have time as he has a daytime job delivering papers. One night he encounters a man who promises to educate him. Inspired by the man’s writing, Obdulio spends his nights witnessing the magic of a carnival where artists entertain the audience. As a result, he is often tired in his daytime job.

    The charm of the carnival is flushed out in detail but the story also maintains a dream like nature of the events shown. And near the film’s end, clues are provided which indicate that the carnival is a happier mask over the sinister events of disappearance of children from the city, a la Pied Piper.

    A Titan in the Ring: Ecuador, 2001

    The film takes place in a small town where religion and wrestling are the equal source of people's interests. Both events are not compatible and some locals are caught between both. A local priest comes up with an interesting solution in the hopes of reaching out to the people. But his choice is at odds with what he preaches.

    A man quietly sits listening to his radio on a bench while around him the complicated lives of the characters revolves. As it turns out, the man is mostly listening to soccer games. And just before the screen fades to black, the radio commentator is busy celebrating Ecuador’s first ever qualification to the Soccer World Cup (2002). The joyous message is meant to soothe over the not so happy events that the town has had to face depicted in the film.

    Making ends meet

    In A Titan in the Ring, we are given a glimpse into how unemployment can lead to certain youth heading down the criminal path.

    In Pizza, Beer and Smokes, a few young kids go from one criminal activity to another just to gather some cash. The problem with such activities is that a person can be roped into believing that all they need is just one big job to ensure financial freedom. After that one big job, people believe they can easily walk away from crime. But as one knows, it is never that easy. So the tragedy that eventually takes place in Pizza, Beer and Smokes can be seen from the first few frames.

    A few friends enjoy hanging out and pulling off pranks on their neighbours in Montevideo in 25 Watts. Shot in Black and white, the film evokes shades of Clerks in certain segments but unfortunately lacks the energy that made Clerks such a joy to watch.

    The favelas of Rio once again form the background in the well shot City of Men which explores the tale of two friends who dodge bullets as the gang turf war wages on around them. Juggling between their jobs and women, the two find their friendships stretched as they unravel past events which pits them on opposite sides of the warring gangs.

    Sao Paulo is the venue for the Brazilian pic Antonia which features four women hoping to make it big with their hip-hop routines in order to etch out a better life.

    A job interview

    Even when one has a job, the need arises to find a better job. But switching jobs is not often an easy task. An interview is a key part of the job hunting process and sometimes when people spend a long time working in one company, they may be out of touch with the challenges required out in the industry.

    The Method shows a cut-throat interview process designed to weed out any unwanted candidates. After a series of 2-3 interviews, the short listed candidates are all put together in one room. They are all surprized to learn that their final interview will require them to face off against each other in the board-room while the hiring manager is hidden among one of the candidates. Each person has to guess who the hiring manager is and one by one, a candidate will be eliminated based on a series of ethical and technical exercises. As the interview progresses, the real personality traits of the candidates are exposed. Based on a play, the film is a fascinating watch.

    Colombia -- A myth retold in a modern setting

    Oedipus Mayor cleverly resets the ancient Greek tale of Oedipus Rex into a modern day Colombian town setting. Not having read the short story (by Gabriel Garcia Marquez) that the film is adapted from, I cannot comment on how faithful the adaptation is but overall the film does a very good job at unfolding the mythical tale of murder and incest one layer at a time.

    Passing the time away by watching tv or just staring at the clock

    The hilarious Peruvian film El destino no tiene favoritos shows the obsession that day time tv commands while poking fun at the cliched story-lines of most soaps.

    El Nomindo takes the concept of reality tv shows such as Survivor and Big Brother to extremes. Contests are locked up in a bunker underneath the snow-capped Andes mountains, completely cut-off from civilization. Cameras record all their movements with the contestants voted out by viewers. But things go horribly wrong when a contestant is murdered. Instead of stopping the show, the cameras continues rolling as the game is tailored to guess who will be killed next. A decent idea is wasted as the film ends up being yet another slasher film.

    In La Espera, Sonja looks after her elder bed-ridden mother. But she is frustrated by her mother’s constants demands which eliminates any chance of a social life that Sonja may have. So all she can do is wait, patiently wait for her mother to pass away.

    The River as a means to escape and explore

    Los Muertos

    Forests, empty landscape, rivers. Observing nature up close, far from the chaotic Buenos Aries city life. This is not the Argentina often seen in films.

    I thought about Carlos Reygadas while watching Lisandro Alonso’s Los Muertos. A beautiful film which features haunting shots of the surroundings. A man on a boat, drifting effortlessly through the backwaters. The man has just been released from prison after serving his murder conviction. He heads to the river to track his past and even to escape.

    1888 el extraordinario viaje de Jules Verne

    A journey to track down a hidden treasure with a fictional Jules Verne. Along the way, a love triangle is explored while an adventure unfolds by the banks of the Amazon.

    Ratings out of 10

  • Bolivia (2001, Argentina, Adrián Caetano): 9

  • The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (2006, Brazil, Cao Hamburger): 9

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

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

  • Los Muertos (2004, Argentina, Lisandro Alonso): 8.5

  • City of Men (2007, Brazil, Paulo Morelli): 8

  • Oedipus Mayor (1996, Colombia, Jorge Alí Triana): 8

  • El destino no tiene favoritos (2003, Peru, Alvaro Velarde): 8

  • Antonia (2006, Brazil, Tata Amaral): 7

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

  • La Espera (2002, Uruguay, Aldo Garay): 7

  • Pizza, birra, faso (1998, Argentina, Adrián Caetano/Bruno Stagnaro): 6.5

  • Adios Momo (2006, Uruguay, Leonardo Ricagni): 6

  • Un titán en el rincón (2002, Ecuador, Viviana Cordero): 5

  • 25 Watts (2001, Uruguay, Juan Pablo Rebella/Pablo Stoll): 5

  • 1888 el extraordinario viaje de Jules Verne (2005, Venezuela, Alfredo Anzola): 3

  • El Nominado (2003, Peru, Nacho Argiro/Gabriel Lopez): 3
  • Tuesday, September 02, 2008

    VIFF 2008: more titles come out of the shadows

    The full list of VIFF titles is still yet to be released. But even if the festival went ahead with just the sneak preview titles, then that would still be enough for it to maintain its status as probably the best film festival in the world just for film fans. Cannes has to be the best overall film festival but unfortunately that is not open for ordinary film fans.

    In addition to the popular Cannes titles showing at VIFF, here are some others which catch the eye:
  • Night and Day -- For some reason Hong Sang-soo's latest film is not playing at TIFF but thankfully VIFF is showing it. The danger is that if Hong Sang-soo's films do not show in a major film festival, then it is hard to expect his films to make it to DVD anytime soon.

  • Revue -- Last year, I came across Sergei Loznitsa's Blockade which was an absorbing edited account of archived newsreel footage showing the siege of Leningrad during WWII. It was amazing to see how so much old news footage outlining the damage caused by war existed and it was even more remarkable that Loznitsa skilfully put it together. In Revue, he once again revisits archived newsreel material to document some of the Cold War situations in the Soviet Union. This should be worth the watch.

  • War, Love, God and Madness -- Mohamed Al Daradji documents the danger he and his crew faced while filming Ahlaam, the Iraqi feature he made after the 2003 invasion. I had seen Ahlaam two years ago and it was a bit shocking to see such a bleak atmosphere portrayed. But given how things in Iraq have unfolded since the film was shot in 2004, the events in Ahlaam pale in comparison to the chaos that has taken place since then. Still, I am curious to hear how Al Daradji actually managed to film a feature given the constant danger that lurked around every street corner.

  • Years When I was a Child Outside -- The new feature from John Torres. I was present in the theatre when Torres was awarded the 2006 Dragons & Tigers Award for his impressive debut feature Todo Todo Teros which skilfully moulds personal video footage along with scripted film. I was eager for his new feature and as expected VIFF is showing it.

  • If the stars line up properly, then maybe I might be able to visit VIFF again. But as it stands, I am left to drool remotely...argh...have to be careful not to let the saliva fall onto the keyboard.