Tuesday, March 31, 2009

be careful with those words..

Pontypool (2008, Canada, Bruce McDonald): 8.5/10

Words can be dangerous. And Bruce McDonald’s film Pontypool, based on Tony Burgess’s book Pontypool Changes Everything, takes that concept to a brilliant and horrific level. The story is about how people in a small Canadian town start to get infected by words and turned into zombies, even though the film does not mention the word ‘zombie’ per say. This is certainly a fascinating concept and not unbelievable. Often it takes just one word to change people’s emotions and behaviour, so what if a word crept into someone’s psyche to completely take over their brain? Ofcourse, different people's behaviour is altered by different words so appropriately the film shows how the town folk are infected by different words. And not just any words, words that may have meaning in their life.

The film’s setup is engaging thanks to the dark radio studio and the husky soothing voice provided by the radio jockey Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie). The camera never leaves the radio studio so all the information about the incident is communicated to the radio station via cell phones and radio waves. This trickle of information certainly raises the creepiness and mystery around the infection and makes the first hour of the film quite fascinating. Things dip a little after the hour mark but still there are plenty of interesting ideas that jump out of this film.

Incidentally, the infection in the film is only caused by the English language. It is a good thing that Canada is a bilingual country :)

Film Trailer

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Revisiting Syriana

Some trust fund prosecutor, got off-message at Yale thinks he's gonna run this up the flagpole? Make a name for himself? Maybe get elected some two-bit congressman from nowhere, with the result that Russia or China can suddenly start having, at our expense, all the advantages we enjoy here? No, I tell you. No, sir! Corruption charges! Corruption? Corruption is government intrusion into market efficiencies in the form of regulations. That's Milton Friedman. He got a goddamn Nobel Prize. We have laws against it precisely so we can get away with it. Corruption is our protection. Corruption keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are prancing around in here instead of fighting over scraps of meat out in the streets. Corruption is why we win.
-- Danny Dalton, Syriana

I loved Syriana when I saw it in 2005 but was also quite angry at the state of the world portrayed by the film. My anger was reflected in my blog posting about the film:

Tell me something I don’t know! Seriously tell me something I don’t know. For the record, I don’t live in a world where my news comes from only one tv channel. I am lucky enough to live in a world where there are books which are not only interesting but intelligent. I also live in a world where there exists art which is not only meant for entertainment. And speaking of entertainment, what about movies? What the hell is the point of a movie? What purpose does a movie like Syriana serve? If one likes this movie, then it does not matter. If one hates this movie, it does not matter either. It does not matter if one sees this movie or not. This movie will not change a thing in the real world. In the real world, lies are openly told. People believe it because they don’t have a choice. Governments lie, corporations lie, so what? We have been told to shut up and turn a blind eye. And then come movies like these. People will call this the truth and people will call this propaganda but in the end, it won’t change a thing. At the end of the day, the only thing the average man can do is to watch movies which affirm their beliefs about the lies that they already know. Because you see the average person needs to drive a car everyday, the average person needs a bus or an airplane or other transportation which relies on energy. Energy which is generated by OIL! Yup bloody OIL! Black oil, money oozing oil! Oil! People are killed, governments are toppled, money changes hands, a few men get together and smoke some cigars, some drink and some get fat (and the fat is not only because of money), jobs are lost, jobs are gained, ships move, cars are blown up, technology fails and movies are made. Syriana has the look and feel of Traffic because Gaghan was the screenwriter of the 2000 award winning film. Syriana is more complicated than Traffic and it does not explain everything. Is it hard to follow? Not really. The movie jumps from location to location but it has no choice because the movie tries to cover all the essential angles – covert operations, corporation take-overs, corruption, rich rulers, good noble rulers who are trying to make a difference, the unemployed worker, the corruptor, the family man, etc. Everything is presented. There is no start and no end. We get a slice of the happenings in the crazy OIL world. We also get some very realistic portrayals of life in the lower rungs of the oil crazy world. Finally a movie which accurately shows the daily life of foreign workers in the compounds!

Syriana forms an interesting trilogy of movies in 2005 with The Constant Gardener and Lord of War being the other. Put all these movies together and some very hard facts come out in the open. But like I said earlier, it won’t change a thing! One of my favourite movies of the year!!! Yet I can’t give it a perfect rating. Why? Because I wanted more angles to be covered, I wanted more lies to be shown.

Watching Syriana again almost 3.5 years again is a sobering experience. In 2005 I only picked up on the oil policies and the spy games shown in the film. But the following quote can indeed point to other areas of the market where things went wrong:

Corruption is government intrusion into market efficiencies in the form of regulations. That's Milton Friedman. He got a goddamn Nobel Prize. We have laws against it precisely so we can get away with it. Corruption is our protection.

Now the entire world knows which people got away with what over the last few years. And this time, it wasn't only the oil men. It was other wall street corporations, men in suits, who got rich when no one was looking.

Syriana was certainly relevant back in 2005 and amazingly the film is even more relevant now because the film brilliantly shows how financial manipulation was/is tied with covert operations and regime changes. We truly do live in a world that gets worse every day because of past actions and manipulations yet we only judge the villains based on their present reactions.

Syriana does make a worthy double bill with Body of Lies. In fact, Body of Lies does borrow some scenes (the target strike) from Syriana. At the end of the day, movies like Syriana offer people a chance to look at the ugly world that exists and in that sense, the film does not offer any form of escapism like most commercial movies.

Plenty of useful quotes from the film:

When a country has five percent of the world's population but spends fifty percent of the world's military spending, that country's persuasive power is in decline. -- Prince Nasir Al-Subaai

Bob Barnes: Intelligence work isn't training seminars and gold stars for attendance.
Fred Franks: What do you think intelligence work is Bob?
Bob Barnes: I think it's two people in a room and one of them's asking a favor that is a capital crime in every country on earth, a hanging crime.
Fred Franks: No Bob, it's assessing the information gathered from that favor and then balancing it against all the other information gathered from all the other favors. the open and even in the dark..

In a way there should be no surprize in reading this:

The American International Group, which has received more than $170 billion in taxpayer bailout money from the Treasury and Federal Reserve, plans to pay about $165 million in bonuses by Sunday to executives in the same business unit that brought the company to the brink of collapse last year.

The average person on the street knows all about the greed that exists. Just because a company gets the government's (meaning the taxpayer's) money, does it mean that their greed will stop? Ofcourse not. Who looks like the fool here? Only the government which tries to help out the companies and the overall economy by giving out billions and billions.

These companies fooled the government with phrases such as their "companies were too big to fail". Ha. It is the ego's of the executives that was too big too fail. The average hard working person gets laid off at the drop of a hat but the executives keep getting fatter with all the money. It is true that not all employees will get an equal amount of money.

The bonus plan covers 400 employees, and the bonuses range from as little as $1,000 to as much as $6.5 million. Seven executives at the financial products unit were entitled to receive more than $3 million in bonuses.

Even if some employees get only $1000, the combined total makes things outrageous. But this is not the only company doing this. Plenty more. But what will all these executives who get million dollar bonuses do with the money? Buy bigger houses, bigger gas guzzling cars?

Greed fuels greed. And the average person can't do anything about it. Ofcourse, if one combines the above story with this Globe and Mail story about the shrinking number of newspapers in North America, then that means fewer papers will be covering such news resulting in fewer people following the story.

"It means that more things will happen in the dark," said Paul Starr, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University. "Certainly the Web made certain things more available than they have ever been before, at a lower cost. But availability is not the same as exposure. I don't think there's enough of a protection of democratic accountability."

So if an openly published heading about the bonuses getting paid to the executives will not result in any action, then imagine how much more money will disappear into their pockets if no one covers the story?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

roll the dice...europe...

pic: Getty Images,

It wasn't pretty but the young Arsenal team held their nerve to advance to the Quarter-Finals of the Champions League.

Arsenal put in an awful 90 minutes in Rome and looked to be on the verge of elimination after poor defending allowed the defender Juan to give Roma an early lead. But a glaring miss from ex-gunner Julio Baptista let Arsenal off the hook. In the penalty shoot-out, after Arsenal's calm and composed Eduardo missed the first spot kick, things didn't look that bright. But amazingly the rest of the squad held their nerve to convert their kicks, including the young players such as Walcott (20 years) & Denilson (21).

pic: Getty Images,

Viva Thierry Henry. Two quick goals in the first half took the wind out of Lyon as Barcelona raced to a 5-2 win over the French champions. Henry had also gotten that all important away goal in France tying the first leg 1-1.

Quarter - Finals

Once again like last season, 4 English teams are in the quarters as Arsenal, Chelsea, and Man Utd managed to eliminate the three Italian teams in Roma, Juventus and Inter Milan, while Liverpool easily handled Real Madrid.

Porto, Villarreal, Bayern Munich and Barcelona round up the final eight. On paper, Porto and Villarreal are probably the weakest of the bunch while Barcelona look the most dangerous. Although, I am sure no team would want Bayern Munich after they destroyed Sporting Lisbon 12-1 on aggregate. After a jaw-dropping 5-0 away win in Lisbon, Bayern showed no sympathy in the second leg and easily won their fixture 7-1.

The other Europe

The round of 16 games for the UEFA Cup kick off on Thursday, March 12 with the return legs to be played next week. The 8 games feature teams from France (St-Etienne, Marseille, PSG), Ukraine (Dynamo, Shakhtar, Metalist), Germany (Bremen, Hamburg), Russia (CSKA, Zenit), Holland (Ajax), Turkey (Galatasaray), Portugal (Braga), Italy (Udinese), England (Man City) & Denmark (AaB).

Bremen vs St-Etienne
Marseille vs Ajax
Dynamo Kyiv vs Metalist
CSKA Moskva vs Shakhtar
Hamburg vs Galatasaray
PSG vs Braga
Udinese vs Zenit
Man. City vs AaB

While the UEFA Cup does not get even half the attention of the Champions league there are some interesting match-ups. The match up between CSKA Moscow and Shakhtar should be an interesting rivalry, while the Marseille vs Ajax match up brings together two former European Cup winners from the 1990's. In terms of financially un-even matchups, look no further than Man City vs Aab. Man City have all the money in the world while AaB from Denmark are a small club. But as they showed in the Champions league, AaB do possess the ability to spring a few surprizes and City could have a rude surprize if they are not careful.

Monday, March 09, 2009

A thing of beauty...

Best goal of the season has to belong to Eduardo, who scored Arsenal's second goal. And if Eduardo's goal was a beauty, then Vela's finish was quite pretty too..

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The wait is over.....

Che, Part One (Director Steven Soderbergh): 8/10

Almost a year after the film made its premier at Cannes 2008, Che is finally released in my city. Part One made its debut this week while Part Two will be released March 13 onwards. I first heard about the movie when The Motorcycle Diaries was doing the rounds in the film festival circuit back in 2004. Part One of Soderbergh's film picks up Che's journey after his motorcycle tour of South America had first opened his eyes to the idea of seeing a unified Latin America. At the start of Soderbergh's film, Che is shown in Mexico City (1955) for his first meeting with Fidel. Both men exchanged their ideas regarding a proposed Cuban revolution. The plans arising from that meeting led to Fidel, Che and 80 other armed men taking off on a boat towards Cuba. A guerilla warfare resulted in the beautiful island of Cuba before the revolutionaries took control of the island and overthrew the US backed dictatorship. After Cuba was liberated, a soldier asks Che if he could go home because the revolution was over. To which Che replies that only the war over but the revolution was going to begin. In a way, from 1959 onwards not only did the revolution begin but so did the isolation of Cuba from the rest of the world.

Part One shows the early years of Che and how his ideas made him a symbol for global revolutions. The film alternates between the interview and U.N speech that Che gave in USA (1964) while depicting the guerilla warfare tactics that form the basis of most revolutions around the world . Overall, there are plenty of interesting moments in the movie but there is nothing ground breaking about the work. Although I will wait until seeing the second part to form an overall judgement of the work.

Some debating points that arise from the film are obviously regarding the US policy towards Cuba and one can extrapolate these to those of other nations that seek strategies to either isolate or befriend selected nations. Prior to 1945, one knew who the villains were and who the good nations were. But after WWII, things got less clear as the propaganda and spy games increased. As a result, the world became a place where nations despised their neighbors and befriended nations across the world. And if a nation had a leader that was not friendly to a foreign power, then the complicated series of coups and hate campaigns started. And the awful political mess that exists today in the world could directly be attributed to the years from 1950 until the 1970’s when so the all knowing “intelligent” men ran amok and thought they were helping to create a better world. Ha.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Spy games

What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They're not! They're just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?
-- Alec Leamas, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

The description of a spy above is in complete contrast to the one created by Ian Fleming and the subsequent James Bond films. Even though Martin Ritt’s adaptation of John le Carré’s novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold came out in 1965, we still have not had a cinematic spy like Alec Leamas (Richard Burton). Leamas plays a lonely miserable spy struggling for money, who gets drunk frequently, and is not afraid to throw a punch or two. Credit for such a character has to go to John le Carré who was still a “spook” himself when the movie came out and one can see the brutal honesty involved in how the spy game is truly played. But then again, the British know a thing or two about spying since they spent centuries perfecting the art. The following dialogues spoken by Leamas’ boss Control (Cyril Cusack) show the false morality involved in the spying game and the mess such self-righteousness causes:

Our work, as I understand it.. is based on a single assumption that the West is never going to be the aggressor. Thus..we do disagreeable things..but we’re defensive. Our policies are peaceful..but our methods can’t afford to be less ruthless than those of the opposition.

You know, I’d say, uh..since the war, our methods - our techniques, that is - and those of the Communists, have become very much the same. Yes. I mean, occasionally...we have to do wicked things. Very wicked things indeed. But, uh, you can’t be less wicked..than your enemies simply because your government’s policy is benevolent.

Shockingly the above words could easily apply today as they did four decades ago.

Technology as a spy tool...or not

Martin Ritt’s film shows how local personnel are critical to the gathering of information and form the most important currency to assist spies. But in the last few decades, technology has given the ability to listen in on others conversations and follow someone’s movements. And this technology gives the false ability that one can understand the enemy. Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies shows that spy technology is useless when the enemy chooses to live off the grid and does not exchange messages via cell phones or the internet but rather meets face to face to discuss plans. In a way both The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Body of Lies show that if one needs to get information from others, then they need to gain their trust. Body of Lies contrasts this style of trust by showing how Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) opts to foster a healthy relationship by trusting the local people while his boss Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) prefers to push people aside whenever he feels like it and is constantly looking to use people.

Another common element in both films is how the bank is used by both Leamas and Ferris to lead the enemy to suspect one of their own -- in The Spy Who Came from in the Cold a letter to the bank causes the damage while in Body of Lies it is an email that causes an innocent person to be blamed.

The Spy Who Came from in the Cold is a brilliant film that focuses more on the interaction with the characters while Body of Lies is a fascinating travelogue through the middle east depicting the complexity of the problems that lie there. As much as I enjoyed watching it, Body of Lies feels like a missed opportunity and could have been much better had it employed the framework of Syriana and Traffic. The explosions and Hollywood machismo does get in the way but thankfully Leonardo DiCaprio shines in a role akin to the brilliance he brought to Blood Diamond.

Smile..for that camera

London probably has the most CCTV cameras than any other city in the world and it is hard to escape the watchful eye of the cameras. The British TV series MI-5 shows some of the people that do their spying remotely while gathering feeds from these cameras. While the show is currently in the 7th season, I caught up with Season One which consists of 6 one hour episodes. The first episode is the weakest as it features a topic of pro-life activists. But thankfully the show started to take more risks as Season One progressed and the 6th episode depicts the complicated decisions involved in balancing the threat from two different enemies (Islamists and the IRA).

Ratings out of 10

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965, UK, Martin Ritt): 10
Body of Lies (2008, USA, Ridley Scott): 8.5
MI-5, Season One (2002, UK, various): 7.5

Darkness....and then some light...

Tauba tera jalwa, tauba tera pyar
Tera Emotional Atyachar

-- Dev D

Darkness is found aplenty in Anurag Kashyup’s films both in terms of the lighting and the story itself. Kashyap’s initial foray into Bollywood was as a writer for Ram Gopal Varma’s gritty gangster flick, Satya, a film which ushered in a new age of dark crime films in Bollywood. When Kashyup turned to direction his films got even darker -- Black Friday started off with the horror of the 1993 Mumbai blasts and ended by showing the levels of hatred that could cause men to plot against their own city and country; No Smoking was about a character’s descent into hell caused by his addiction to smoking and ends with the character’s soul literally burning up in flames.

And now his latest film Dev D shows the weakness in a man’s personality that can cause him to plunge towards a path of self-destruction.

The film is a modern interpretation of Devdas , a story about a man ruining his life because he couldn’t get the woman he loved. Even though I have never read the original Bengali novel nor seen any of the previous cinematic adaptations, I am pretty certain that Dev D out does all of them in terms of the harsh reality and ugliness of the character portrayed. The original story and previous film versions had Devdas drinking himself crazy but Kashyup adds drugs to the mix and truly corrupts the character. The film boils down to a rich young man, Dev, having reckless sex, drinking himself silly, hating himself and wasting his life. And there is a bit thrown in about the consequences of drunk driving. Dev hates himself because he pushed his childhood sweetheart, Paro, away and caused her to marry someone else. While on a mission to destroy himself Dev meets the young prostitute (or “sex-worker”) Chanda, who has gone through her own version of hell. In the previous films, there was no hope for such a weak wretched Devdas character even though he finds another woman willing to love him. But Kashyup manages to show a tiny glimmer of light in the film and ends on a happy note.

Abhay Deol once again puts in a wicked performance and he continues his trend of picking smart roles in Indian films after Socha Na Tha, Ek Chalis Ki Last Local , Honeymoon Travels, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye and Manorama Six Feet Under. The film has a great look and feel to it and benefits from having two debuts -- Mahie Gill looks refreshing as Paro, while Kalki Koechlin has that innocent look that her young character requires. The music is good, even though there are a tad too many songs. However, the song Emotional Atyachar got me seriously hooked:

Rating: 8.5/10

Even though I liked the film it was not on the same level as Black Friday and No Smoking, two films that I absolutely loved. I am hoping Kashyup’s upcoming Gulaal is stellar. The trailer looks promising though.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009


17 cameras fixed on Zidane for the entire 90 minutes capturing his every movement. When I first heard about the idea for Douglas Gordon & Philippe Parreno’s film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait I was thrilled because it offered me a chance to witness something that I have longed for -- to observe what a soccer player, a great one at that, does for an entire 90 minutes. My interest was driven mostly because it is extremely hard to observe a player’s off the ball movement during a televised soccer game. In a regular 90 minute game the ball stays in play for an average of 60 minutes with the rest of time wasted on fouls and stoppages. I have seen games where the ball was in play for atleast 66 minutes and I have also seen some games where the ball was only in action for 43 minutes (an Italian Serie A game from a few years ago with plenty of kicking and no flow). So that gives each player an average of 3 minutes on the ball, provided all the players touch the ball equally (60 min / 20 outfield players or 66 min / 22 players). That is a remarkable number and means a soccer player would have to spend 87 minutes in off the ball movement. And this is where the most intelligent players thrive, positioning themselves perfectly so that when they receive the ball they make each touch count. Ofcourse, the best players also get to spend a lot more time on the ball than their team-mates.

Over the last few decades there have been few players as intelligent and remarkable as Zinedine Zidane. Which is what makes the film such a treat to watch. The game in the film is the April 2005 La Liga fixture between Madrid and Villarreal, almost a year before the World Cup final. We get to witness the calculative Zizou, the constantly thinking man looking for that great pass, and also the extremely focussed man who is able to blur out the noise of the restless crowd in the Santiago Bernabeau. We get to see his amazing control of the ball as he points to where he wants the ball and perfectly controls it with a single touch even if that touch is a backheel. And early in the second half, we see Zidane getting isolated from the game and drifting into his own world. But we then witness him regrouping and thankfully we get to see his genius as he dribbles past players and perfectly crosses the ball leading to a Madrid goal. And as the game progresses, we see Zidane get agitated until he lashes out resulting in a red card. Zizou only got a handful of red cards in his playing career, and two of them were in the World Cup, the first in the 1998 World Cup after he needlessly stomped on a player from Saudi Arabia and the second being that now infamous one in the 2006 World Cup final. The interesting aspect is that the film was released in May 2006 at the Cannes film festival and was just a month before the World Cup started and two months before that World Cup Final. So it gave a few months notice about Zidane’s red card incident. But then again, his reputation for carrying an angry side was already established when he played in Italy with Juventus. Ofcourse, his genius was far superior to those red cards.

The film shows the best and worst of Zidane and in that respect is a perfect testament to one of the greatest players to have ever played the game. Besides Zidane, we get to see plenty of other big name stars. The most prominent one is Roberto Carlos who manages to get Zidane to smile near the game’s end, the only time Zidane was able to relax. The camera also shows us Madrid’s golden boy Raul, along with Beckham and Ronaldo and if one blinks, they could miss Figo. On the Villarreal side, we get to see Marco Senna, Spain’s maestro at Euro 2008, Diego Forlan and the silky Juan Roman Riquelme.

It was a real pleasure to watch the film although there were moments where the directors decisions regarding the shot selection leads to some missed opportunities and needless blurred shots. A huge positive is the soundtrack by Mogwai which perfectly blends in with the action. At selected moments the soundtrack is turned off and we get to hear the crowd, either silent, talking or getting angry. Those moments of listening to the crowd and the long shots of Zidane, standing isolated like a lone warrior, are perfect.

Rating: 9/10