Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Good vs Inept

Man Utd 1-0 Arsenal, Champions League, Semi-Final, 1st Leg

pic: ©Getty Images,

Before the Champions league game at Old Trafford, Arsène Wenger talked about Arsenal adopting an "audacious" approach. Well Arsenal were anything but that. They were the same inept team that lost 1-0 away to Roma and suffered at Villarreal until Adebayor saved their blushes in Spain. As expected, Man Utd put Arsenal under pressure early on and if it weren't for the sharpness of Almunia, Arsenal might have found themselves atleast 3 goals behind by the 30 minute mark.

pic: ©Getty Images,

Arsenal were lucky to go into half-time down only a single goal. Arsenal played a bit better in the second half but they were still not good enough to find the away goal they needed. Arsenal do have a problem at times when they deploy a 4-5-1 formation but injuries have also weakened their squad. Had Van Persie been present, then surely Wenger would have started with two strikers. As it stands, the team has to improve next week in London if they hope to advance to the final in Rome. Man Utd will likely score a goal next week as this make-shift Arsenal defense can't keep a clean sheet, so that would mean that Arsenal would need 3 goals to advance. Will it happen? Time will tell.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Beauty vs Boring

Barcelona 0-0 Chelsea, Champions League, Semi-Final, 1st Leg

pic: ©Getty Images,

Watching Chelsea play is more boring than watching paint dry!
Watching Chelsea play is more boring than watching paint dry!
Watching Chelsea play is more boring than watching paint dry!
Watching Chelsea play is more boring than watching paint dry!

On the other hand, watching Barcelona play is pure joy. Even though Chelsea parked the bus in front of their goal, Barca still had chances to score a goal or two but failed to take their chances. Despite doing nothing all game, Chelsea did have a chance to steal an away goal when a defensive error by Barca allowed Drogba to race through on goal but Víctor Valdés saved Barca.

It was great when Claudio Ranieri was still at Chelsea as under him they played entertaining football. But then Jose Mourinho came along in the summer of 2004 and destroyed any hopes of decent football as he reduced Chelsea to play boring 1-0 matches. After Jose was fired, Avram Grant continued the trend of mind-numbing football and he was understandably gone at the end of last season. Big Phil was brought to Chelsea last summer so that he could make them play attractive and successful football. But none of the players understood his system as the players were probably hard wired to only defend. So out went Big Phil and in came Guus Hiddink. Chelsea have done well in the league churning out efficient wins but on Tuesday night they showed their true colours and did their best imitation of Bolton and Blackburn by defending in numbers. It is a shame really that with the players Chelsea have, their game plan was to sit back and defend. This is what happens when winning is the ultimate result.

And what was worse than watching negative tactics? Watching the drama queen that is Didier Drogba. There was a time when the Chelsea fans booed him because they were tired of his play acting. He threatened to leave England but stuck around and became a hit with the fans. But he is now back to his old tricks.

Still, with 0-0 anything can happen in the second leg. Chelsea have to score a goal to win and if Barca can get an away goal, then they could progress with a scoring draw. But if there are no goals next week in London, extra time and penalties could result. Although I don't think the second leg will end 0-0.

Meanwhile, Wednesday night's game between Man Utd and Arsenal will most certainly not be a 0-0 game as both teams like to attack and both have shown some defensive weakness recently, although it is Arsenal's defense that is the weaker of the two.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Revisiting Mumbai, RGV style

While Indian crime films has been around for a few decades, they remain relatively unknown in North America outside of the Indian community. Until the late 1980's, the crime flicks were not really considered a pure genre per say as they were mixed with other genres such as action/revenge flicks. That changed in 1989 when the genre started to take form when Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda broke new ground with its ruthless portrayal of the Mumbai underworld. The film still stands tall with its story of two brothers whose lives are under the watch of a ruthless yet emotionally fragile gangster. The memorable characters were played by Anil Kapoor, Jackie Shroff, Madhuri Dixit and ofcourse Nana Patekar whose portrayal as the gangster “Anna” stole the show. Almost a decade later in 1998, Ram Gopal Varma ushered in the next phase of gangster films, first with Satya and then followed by Company. Dozens of other Mumbai based gangster films then followed, directed either by Ram Gopal Varma’s protégés or first time directors. Yet, query an average North American film critic and he/she will not know any of these films or filmmakers. Danny Boyle probably never heard of any of these film-makers either until he started work on Slumdog Millionaire. Boyle has admitted being influenced by Ram Gopal Varma while filming Slumdog Millionaire but influenced is too light of a word because most of the slum shots in Slumdog.. are identically framed to those found either in Satya or Company. It seems that while Danny Boyle is busy getting praises for showing the "real India", the few decades of groundwork laid by talented Indian directors is being ignored. Ofcourse, there are exceptions as David Bordwell and Noel Vera noticed these similarities. Most critics in India noticed this right away and Deepa Gahlot is just one of them.

When compared to Parinda, Satya, Company and even to the marvelous Black Friday, Slumdog.. is weaker and unable to hold its own. On a positive note, Boyle's feature has a vibrant look as opposed to the darkish atmosphere of most Indian crime films, especially any RGV production. Slumdog.. can also boast to have utilized A.R Rahman’s music as most Indian gangster films don’t feature any of Rahman’s soul stirring pieces. In fact, Rahman has never composed for any of RGV’s gangster flicks.

I had wanted to take a closer at Indian crime films since last year but didn’t get around to it. So as a way of making amends, here’s a quick look at Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya and Company.

Satya -- darkness with a touch of morality

"Mumbai..." A city that never sleeps, a city that dreams while being awake...

One can lose track of how many Bollywood films start with words along those lines. Most films are compelled to explain how Mumbai is the place where newcomers come to to fulfill their dreams or how the city is like a ruthless animal that chews up people everyday. As such words are narrated on the screen, one can see images of the city.

One will see slums or poverty but the camera will not be obsessed with that aspect of the city but will instead use these settings as backgrounds for dissecting the lives of the characters.

We are normally introduced to the main character right at the start of the narration, which is what happens in this film as well. The title character of Satya is played by J.D. Chakravarthi. (note: this picture is from a later point in the film).

In the film's context, Satya isn't a hero. In fact, there are no heroes in this film just shades of grey and dark. In Parinda most people would cite the role of the main gangster (Anna played by Nana Patekar) as the most memorable, similarly in Satya the real show stealer is Manoj Bajpai as the gangster Bhiku Mhatre. Bhiku Mhatre is the type of role that is called career defining and amazingly a decade after playing the role, Bajpai has never been able to get away from the shadow of Bhiku Mhatre.

It doesn't take Satya too long to cross paths with the underworld. His friendship with Bhiku saves him but also makes him a marked man. The following shot is another one found in most crime films as the villains (or heroes depending on your viewpoint) overlook the wonderful city and discuss their lives or talk of conquering the city.

Vidya, the girl next door played by Urmila Matondkar.

There was a time when it was impossible to think Ram Gopal Varma could ever make a film without Urmila but he has moved on. In Satya, Urmila's character is the voice of reason, the pure uncorrupted woman who falls for Satya. But once she learns of his underworld ties, she abandons him.

The rest of the gang. Saurabh Shukla also co-wrote the film and features as Kallu mama.

Alcohol is not too far from most shots in such films and neither is the police torture room. In fact, a gangster film has yet to be made without a trip to the jail cell.

Most people would not know who Makrand Deshpande is as he usually only gets a few minutes role in most Bollywood films. But he makes each second count and his presence in a movie is always a good sign for me.

Overall, Satya was an amazing collaboration where everything clicked -- the screenplay, the technical aspects, the music which was intense when it needed to be and tender on other occasions, and the acting ofcourse. Although the weakest acting was probably the title role of Satya.

The downside of Satya's success was that every gangster film tried to imitate it and even RGV tried to use a similar template in his other gangster films.

Company -- Phones and Guns

While Satya had a moral compass in the form of Urmila's character who believed that crime didn't pay, Ram Gopal Varma removed any concept of morality from Company. His film showed that a life of crime is seductive not only to women who sought out gangsters but also for the police who admired the gangsters. In the film, the honest inspector played by Mohanlal

actually admires the friendship between the main gangster Mallik (Ajay Devgan),

and his friend turned rival Chandu (Vivek Oberoi).

The film shows how cell phones allow gangsters to remotely run their business via locations such as Kenya or other parts of Asia. The main gangsters, Mallik and Chandu, leave India as they are on the run but all they have to do is make a call back to Mumbai for their hunch-men to carry out the orders. Which is why the latter half of Company features shots of someone either on the phone or someone getting shot. Even while Chandu is in prison, he is handed a cell so he can talk with Mallik. And naturally the film ends with the constant ringing of phones.

The rapid fast communication via cell phones also leads to a lot of mistaken killings as the lack of face to face meetings leads to plenty of misunderstandings.

Vivek Oberoi made an impressive acting debut in Company but his character still paled compared to Bhiku Mhatre.

The following shot from Company can be found in Slumdog... In fact, the slanted camera angles from Company are seen quite a bit in some of the slum chase scenes in Slumdog..

Overall, Company is not bad but it is a lesser film compared to Satya.

One bothersome aspect of Ram Gopal Varma's films is that he takes real life gangsters and drafts films around them, while refusing to openly admit that but still giving enough clues as to his inspirations. For example, he directed Company in 2002 and then his production company released D. in 2005. Put the two titles together and you get D Company, the real life crime gang. Fans of RGV droll over the reality that his films show but there isn't much reality but glorification of the gangster life. I wish that RGV one day makes gangster films which have nothing do with real life criminals so that way he can finally make a true gritty film without being afraid of any consequences. Ofcourse, I am assuming the reason he portrays the gangsters as cool is because he does not want to anger the real life gangsters.

A Rivalry rekindled

The wait is almost over. The intense rivalry of Arsenal vs Man Utd has graduated from the domestic game to take center stage on the European stage. For more than a decade, this match-up has captured the attention of followers of the English game for a variety of reasons -- the battles of the two managers, who are now the longest serving club managers not only in England but also in Europe, the match-ups of players involved and the intense passion of the fans. In a way, this match-up also presents a clash of two different ideologies as both teams have followed different paths over the last decade. Man Utd were debt free until they were taken over and overnight laden with debt yet they have continued splashing out money on whichever player they have wanted. On the other hand, Arsenal’s transfer spending was restricted because of the debt incurred as part of building the new stadium resulting in Wenger’s youth policy. Even though both clubs have a very rich history, both clubs are a complete contrast in their images as well -- Man Utd certainly have more hype around them not only because of past players but because of off-field promotional contracts. On the other hand, Arsenal have allowed their football to gain new supporters over the last decade as most recent fans can claim to have found love with the Gunners solely for footballing results, be it a player’s skill or the footballing style developed under Wenger.

Regardless of the paths the two clubs have undertaken over the last few years, on Wednesday night they will be standing on the same field side by side trying to achieve the same goal of making the Champions League final.

A changing of the guard that never happened

After Ferguson took almost 7 years to land his first title for Man Utd, he and Man Utd were able to enjoy an unchallenged monopoly on the Premier League title until Arsene Wenger came along. So it was not surprizing that Wenger’s immediate success with Arsenal brought on a rivalry. Plus, Wenger was the only manager to rightly question the lenient decisions that Man Utd kept getting. Unfortunately, after Arsenal’s double in 1998, they failed to narrowly win the title the following season, losing by one point over 38 games (Arsenal’s goal difference was just one behind Manchester’s) and failed to convert a last minute penalty to knock Man Utd out of the F.A Cup semi’s. Arsenal took a few steps backward the next two seasons before they finally managed to assert themselves in the 2001/02 season whey they completed an impressive double and went the entire season unbeaten away from home. The title was clinched in that memorable 1-0 away win at Old Trafford.

It seemed Arsenal were on the verge of dethroning Man Utd’s reign but they surrendered the title the following season to Man Utd by giving up some late goals to drop valuable points. Also that season, Rooney (already a Man Utd player in the making) ended Arsenal’s long unbeaten streak and Man Utd stopped Arsenal’s 55 goal scoring streak with a 2-0 win at Old Trafford. Arsenal managed to get a tiny revenge by winning 2-0 away to Manchester in the F.A Cup, a defeat that caused that mystery shoe to be kicked about in the Manchester dressing room, paving the path for their celebrity star to exit for Madrid.

Even though Arsenal had a historic season in 2003/04 going unbeaten in the league and fulfilling Wenger’s beliefs and comments from the 2003 season, they still could not bury Man Utd. Henry’s bullet of a shot gave Arsenal a lead in the league match-up but Arsenal failed to hold on and allowed Man Utd to leave with a 1-1 tie. A week later, Man Utd knocked Arsenal out of the F.A Cup and their players celebrated as if they had won the cup.

The following season, while Chelsea’s emergence was knocking Man Utd to third spot in the league, Ferguson’s men still provided a major hindrance to Arsenal by halting Arsenal’s unbeaten streak to 49. That defeat essentially derailed Arsenal’s title bid. Arsenal once again got a mini revenge by winning the F.A Cup that season on penalties over Man Utd.

Man Utd managed to rise up again and wrestled the title away from Chelsea while Arsenal once again took a few steps backwards. Still, Arsenal did their part to ensure Man Utd won’t have their way by doing the double over Man Utd in the 2006/07 season. But once again, Man Utd managed to come back the following season and easily knocked Arsenal out of the F.A Cup and defeated them in the league to finally halt Arsenal’s league ambitions. Still, with all their problems this season, Arsenal managed to inflict a defeat on Man Utd 2-1 and remarkably held on despite Man Utd’s 6 gifted minuted of injury time.

A goal or two would be just fine

In the 15 trips Arsenal have made to Old Trafford under Wenger, the record is:
Man Utd with 6 wins (outscoring Arsenal 20-2),
Arsenal with 4 wins, shutting out Man Utd by a 5-0 score,
and three draws.

In these games, Arsenal have scored more than one goal at Old Trafford on only one occasion, in that 2-0 F.A Cup win. Whereas, in the same time period Man Utd have scored two or more goals on atleast 6 occasions (Man Utd got more than 2 only one time in that 4-2 away win). Although, before Wenger came along Arsenal’s away record to Man Utd was worse as they had only won one away trip (1-0, ofcourse, in that league winning 1990/91 season) in a decade.

If one is too read something in these results, it is that when Arsenal have won at Old Trafford, they have had to keep a clean sheet. But this two legged Champions league tie presents a different context to this tussle because of the importance of away goals. In the previous league meetings with points at stake, the number of goals were not the important factor as victory by any score-line would do in landing the 3 points. Same goes for the F.A Cup tie where a win was essential to avoid a replay (note: the league Cup encounter at Old Trafford was a winner take all affair). But in the Champions league, the winner will ultimately be decided after 180 minutes (or more as needed, not including courtesy added ref time). Although, given the number of injuries that Arsenal have had, defending is not going to be their forte (not something that has been in recent years anyway) and they would have to attack while still managing to contain Man Utd. And moreover, as Villa and a certain North London team have shown recently, taking a lead at Old Trafford is much easier than trying to hold onto it.

In recent years Man Utd have tried to play an open style against Arsenal. Maybe it has something to do with Man Utd wanting to beat Arsenal by playing better football as even though Man Utd have all those trophies, some in the media still credit Arsenal as having beautiful football, although that tag has come under scrutiny over the last few seasons.

In the past, Arsenal have failed to get past their other two main domestic rivals in the Champions league as their encounters against Chelsea and Liverpool both came at the Quarter-final stage. But if Arsenal have to finally end their long elusive wait for the trophy, then what better way than to get past their biggest domestic rivals and the current holders en route to the final. And as Old Trafford has been a bother to past Arsenal teams, it is probably much better for Arsenal to get the away trip out of the way first.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Ghost who Walks...

Even though The Phantom comic strip was created in USA, it is much better known in India, Australia and some parts of Europe. Name this comic book character in the US or Canada and you will get blank stares. For me, The Phantom forms such an integral part of my childhood. Comics were my first love, long before I discovered films, soccer, literature and women (in that order). And the Indian publisher Indrajal comics provided me with the rich universe of The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician and even Aditya the monk. In fact, this blog was originally signed under the name Aditya, as inspired by that comic book character. As as child, I had almost all of The Phantom comic books but it is still a mystery in my family as to where they disappeared. Maybe they were somehow lost in a house move. My uncle believes that maybe my grandfather might have accidentally disposed of them but it is remarkable that not a single issue survived.

I forgot about the comics as I grew up and since one could not find any Indrajal comics in India or any Phantom issues in Canada, I moved on. Until 1996 that is. That is when The Phantom film made its way into theaters. Needless to say, the film didn’t do well as most people didn’t pay any attention. On the other hand, I managed to convince a few friends to rush to the cinema to see it. While we enjoyed parts of the movie, the best aspect of the film was a certain villainous female character. All of us stayed behind to look her name up in the closing credits and we uttered her name in unison -- Catherine Zeta-Jones. We were all sure that was not the last we had seen of this actresses and in a way we were proved right. But after the film, I went back to real life so to speak and once again, The Phantom fizzled away.

And then finally The Phantom turned from an abstract memory into something more substantial when I happened to be visiting Victoria, B.C in the fall of 2007. I chanced upon a comic book expo there and discovered some old issues of The Phantom. I managed to get names of some publishers who were reprinting new issues and told myself that I would finally look them up. I didn’t have to wait too long as later that day, I walked into a downtown Victoria comic book store and found an entire section dedicated to the Phantom. In a way it was not surprizing to see so many Phantom comics in Victoria as that city still has a huge British influence and maybe it was because of the British influence that countries such as India and Australia latched onto The Phantom. Nonetheless, I managed to get quite a few issues and was glad to discover that Moonstone publishing was reprinting The Phantom. I also discovered a few blogs that have tried to keep The Phantom alive by scanning old Indrajal comics on the web.

And finally, this past weekend another chapter in my assembling of The Phantom took place. At the Calgary comic expo, I came across Ruben Procopio’s booth.

It turns out Ruben has been sketching The Phantom for a while and I picked up The Phantom Chronicles, a collection of short stories with sketches of the "ghost who walks" done by Ruben.

It has been a real treat in re-discovering The Phantom over the last 2 years, not only from a childhood point of view but also from a story perspective. One real advantage this character has over other super-heroes is that The Phantom logically lends itself to exist forever because as per the story when one Phantom dies, his son inherits the costume and continues the fight. In fact, as per the story quite a few generations of The Phantom have existed. This secret that The Phantom is a mortal human is only known to a few people while enemies and common folk believe in the legend of The Phantom as "the ghost who walks". On the other hand, there is only one Spider-Man or one Batman and the same character never ages for decades on end.

Comics or graphic novels don’t get as much credit as they do. But they were indeed a main form of imagination or entertainment before films became mainstream. And even now, films are diving into graphic novels for inspiration. Italo Calvino once talked about the importance of comics and said that one day if civilization was destroyed, maybe future generations could piece together the history of the world via comics. At times one may have to work hard to discover relevance to reality in comics but quite a few comic books contain political elements or aspects of modern society.

This weekend’s comic expo was great in that it rekindled my love of comics and I was glad to have discovered some new works. I will have more to talk about some of these newly discovered titles in upcoming weeks....

The lost art of editing

At the core of Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown lies a simple story of love and revenge. 4 characters -- a husband, a wife, a lover and a child. India, America. Kashmir and California. Pachigam, Los Angeles. Side trips in France, England, Philippines, North Africa and indirect involvements of Pakistan and Afghanistan. A story leads into another story into another. As one yarn starts to unspool, it reveals a bigger yarn hidden away. Pop cultural references, film talk, politics, hindi and kashimiri words freely mingling with the English language, all the sort of stuff one would expect from a Rushdie novel really. Science, religion, history, myth, fiction and reality, all out in the open. The pain of love, the cycle of fate, the anguish of rituals and even a documented manual about how terrorism takes root. Each page is infused with description of global places and habits, be it Indian or Eastern European. The world is a mirror and the mirror converges into this tale.

Overall, I do think that Shalimar the Clown is an extraordinary book but does it really have to be 649 pages long? Do we really need to know everything about the characters? Where does editing come into play? If each film director had their way, I am sure some would opt to have their films 3-4 hours long as they would love each minute of what they captured on film. But surely they have to make the tough decision to leave some footage on the cutting table. Same with writers. They have to make choices. But does a writer’s reputation mean he or she can get away whatever they want to write? In a review of Umberto Eco’s Foucault's Pendulum, Rushdie had the following to say:

“The plot of Foucault's Pendulum (which begins on page 367 page of this 629 page book) is surprizingly uncomplicated.” (from Imaginary Homelands)

It does seem that Rushdie takes a dig at Eco by specifying when he thinks the plot truly begins. In a way, he is right as the first few hundred pages of Foucault's Pendulum which describe the history of the Templars really add nothing to the story and could have been cut. But Rushdie is guilty of padding the pages like Eco did. The big difference is that Eco padded his book at the start while Rushdie lays the plot out quickly to begin with and after getting our attention drifts into back-stories. Not that the drifting isn’t interesting, but it wasn’t really needed. Atleast in my opinion. Ofcourse, there are plenty of writers out there who write longer books than Rushdie does as they go about capturing every detail about their character’s lives, clothing and other preferences that add nothing to the story. Yet, those author’s fan base would not complain as every word is probably cherished.

So does the same apply for film? Are there people who would prefer to see a 4+ hour film by their favourite film director because each minute is a work of art? I once got a lot of flak for daring to suggest that Tarantino should have edited Kill Bill 2 as some fans of his work were offended by the thought that I dared question the "master" himself. In fact, I am sure these fans would have loved every minute of Death Proof even though it contains dialogues which add nothing but merely pass the time until the inevitable car crashes take place.

Is editing only reserved for new writers and directors then? Do acclaimed writers and film directors have full right to do as they please? This might be a topic that would divide critics and fans. Or it might just be a personal preference.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Cannes 2009 line-up, still in awe...

I am still awe-struck by the complete line-up. Plus, I had not even looked at the Un Certain Regard category which has new films by Bong Joon Ho, Heitor Dhalia, Bahman Ghobadi, Corneliu Porumboiu and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang.

Heitor Dhalia's wicked dark comedy Drained was one of my fav. films of 2007 and Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest won my Euro 2008 film festival. Plus any film by Bong Joon Ho and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang is more than welcome. Bahman Ghobadi's Turtles Can Fly was impressive so looking forward to his new work. Then there is Tales from The Golden Age, a collection which features a contribution from Cristian Mungiu. Denis Dercourt whose The Page Turner was impressive is also back.

And in the competition line-up there is Ken Loach's new film Looking for Eric which features Eric Cantona, that genius footballer who was the catalyst in helping Man Utd win their first premiership title and ushered in a new wave of attacking football seen in England.

Overall, the line-up is a fascinating blend of art and mainstream, action & horror, drama and some touch of light humour as well. The range of film-makers, styles, genres on display is very very impressive.

Cannes 2009: Dancing in the snow


Breathe in, breathe out. Pause. Excitement building. No..must breathe again.

Who am I kidding....


The Cannes 2009 line-up is announced and that means, once again, the film festival year has officially kicked off!!!!!

Joy. Joy.

And the line-up is absolutely mouth-watering. Of course it is, it always is. And I am willing to bet all the critics lucky enough to see these films will once again complain about how substandard Cannes is this year, about how Cannes used to be better decades ago. Blah. Don't care. The point is these are the movies I rather see any day given the pathetic choices hogging multiplexes across my snowy city -- yes that is not a typo, there is snow on the ground despite it being end of April.

So...the line-up:

Opening film: Up (Pete Docter and Bob Peterson)
Closing film: Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (Jan Kounen)

In competition:

Bright Star (Jane Campion)

Spring Fever (Lou Ye)

Antichrist (Lars von Trier)

Enter the Void (Gaspar Noé)

Face (Tsai Ming-liang)

Les Herbes folles (Alain Resnais)

In the Beginning (Xavier Giannoli)

A Prophet (Jacques Audiard)

The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)

Vengeance (Johnnie To)

The Time That Remains (Elia Suleiman)

Vincere (Marco Bellocchio)

Kinatay (Brillante Mendoza)

Thirst (Park Chan-wook)

Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodóvar)

Map of the Sounds of Tokyo (Isabel Coixet)

Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold)

Looking for Eric (Ken Loach)

Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)

Taking Woodstock (Ang Lee)

Out of competition

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Terry Gilliam)

The Army of Crime (Robert Guédiguian)

Agora (Alejandro Amenábar)


Absolutely delighted to see that Mendoza has gotten his film into this year's competition as well, following last year’s Serbis. He remains the only director I have chatted with from the above list. Ok, it was not really chatting but me mostly gushing over how great his films Slingshot and Foster Child were :)

Even more thrilled to see that Alejandro Amenábar has a new film out. I am a big fan of his work and have seen all his previous 4 features -- his Open Your Eyes is a personal favourite (remade into Vanilla Sky) plus admired his first feature Thesis.

I will have more to say in upcoming days. But for now, just delighted :)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


One film -- three short stories, three directors.

Segment 1: Interior Design directed by Michel Gondry

Gondry’s film starts off simple enough but ends with an intriguing transformation.

A young couple, Akira and Hiroko, head to Tokyo to make a new life for themselves.

Akira is an aspiring film-maker looking to wow people with his gimmicky feature. While the couple search for a place of their own, they temporarily live at their friend's apartment. But things don't go per plan as Tokyo is too expensive for the couple. As Akira gains some success with his eccentric feature, Hiroko feels isolated. And a snide comment from her friend makes Hiroko feel worse and pushes her towards a metamorphosis, kafka style. The point of the metamorphosis? To emphasize the sentiment that some Japanese women feel in society.

Segment 2: Merde by Leos Carax

Merde is clearly the least subtle of the three shorts and the most political film. At first, the film feels like humour but it quickly turns into horror and then shifts into a parody of sorts.

A mysterious character emerges from the sewers and rushes to bother ordinary citizens.

His behaviour seems like a prank to begin with but quickly turns sinister. On his next visit from the sewers, the character becomes a terrorist killing people at random. After the mystery man is arrested, it is learned that he speaks an unknown language. A French lawyer, who ends up being only one of three people in the world who speaks the same language as this character, agrees to represent him in the court trail. The mysterious character is named Merde and his court trail raises some very angry reactions. The film represents how past Japanese crimes in Nanking come to bear fruit in the present and touches upon the distrust that certain Japanese have of foreigners and how some Japanese don’t like to recall their past. Leos Carax certainly goes over the top and his film is the only one of the three that can easily divide people -- some might dislike it while others might love it.

Segment 3: Shaking Tokyo by Bong Joon-ho

The shortest film of the trio ends up being a nice pleasant love story. Bong Joon-ho crafts a sweet boy meets girl tale with his own tailored twist.

The main character is a self proclaimed hikikomori who has not stepped outside his house in 10 years and not made eye contact with another human for 11 years. That changes when he makes eye contact with a pizza delivery girl. The hikikomori is finally forced to leave his home to find the girl and learns that he isn’t the only one who stayed locked up in his home. Bong Joon-ho gives a vision of a futuristic Tokyo where humans stay indoors and do not make contact with other humans. The hikikomori learns that good things happen when one leaves their surroundings and interacts with others. Love literary shakes Tokyo up!


Tokyo! contains three diverse films which primarily address the following aspects of Japanese society -- the perception of women, the distrust of foreigners, the denial of the past and the tendency towards isolation. I found all the films enjoyable yet I can’t call any of the films perfect. Bong Joon-ho’s film is the safest of the three and does not take any risks and even though Michel Gondry’s film is mostly clean-cut, it ends with a wicked metamorphosis. Leos Carax is the only one who attempts to push people’s buttons with his over the top yet smart film.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

When the dust has settled...

For the third straight year, there will be three English teams in the Champions League semi-finals. And for the 2nd straight year, Barcelona will be flying the flag for the rest of Europe against the English teams.

Man Utd vs Arsenal

The ultimate rivalry will be rekindled on the European stage. Can't wait!!!

Chelsea vs Barcelona

After a brief gap, these two get to tango with each other in Europe again. There was a time when Jose’s Chelsea were involved in some nasty tussles with Barca, especially given Jose’s false accusations regarding Swedish referee Anders Frisk. But Jose is no longer there and neither is Rijkaard.

In the UEFA Cup -- two local affairs in the semi’s.

The first semi-final will see Dynamo Kiev take on FC Shakhtar Donetsk while Hamburg will take on Werder Bremen in the other semi. So the UEFA Cup final held in Istanbul will be between a German team and Ukrainian team.

Arsenal certainly have the most intense 5-6 weeks in football ahead.

18 Sat The FA Cup Chelsea
21 Tue Barclays Premier League A Liverpool
26 Sun Barclays Premier League H Middlesbrough
29 Wed UEFA Champions League A Manchester United
02 Sat Barclays Premier League A Portsmouth
05 Tue UEFA Champions League H Manchester United
10 Sun Barclays Premier League H Chelsea
16 Sat Barclays Premier League A Manchester United
24 Sun Barclays Premier League H Stoke City
27 Wed UEFA Champions League Final
30 Sat The FA Cup

Like last year, Arsenal get to face an English team in the Champions League along with a corresponding league fixture close by, although thankfully not back to back but having Chelsea sandwiched in between two games against Man Utd isn’t easy either. In a way, Arsenal could play Man Utd 4 times in just over a month and Chelsea 3 times. Overall, Arsenal have atleast 6 games against their 3 main league rivals in the next month. And then there could be atleast two more games if Arsenal make the finals and either Man Utd and Chelsea make the F.A Cup and CL final respectively. Incredible!!

What this means is that Arsenal, Man Utd and Chelsea could stand in the way of each other for two trophies. And then Arsenal still have a huge part to play in the destiny of the English title as they travel to Anfield next week and have a league fixture at Old Trafford. Despite all the misery this season, the Arsenal vs Man Utd rivalry would take center stage again, just like those good old days. But Arsenal have to dispatch of Chelsea first this Saturday.

Bring on the good football.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Coming up: Alfred Hitchcock spotlight

Alfred Hitchcock directed about 56 features plus quite a few tv serials and shorts, with about half of the tally directed in the UK and the other half in the USA -- 1939’s Jamaica Inn was Hitchcock’s last film in the UK and 1940’s Rebecca was his first film in the US. Hitchcock’s first feature was directed in 1925 with his last one coming 51 years later in 1976. In that staggering timeline, Hitchcock directed silent, sound, b&w and colour films. But when it comes to critical acclaim, Hitchcock’s most cited films are near the end of his career in the late 50’s such as Vertigo, Rear Window, North by Northwest and Psycho. It turns out that I had only seen one of Hitchcock’s UK film, the brilliant The 39 Steps directed in 1935. But I was inspired to hunt down Hithchcock’s older films while reading André Bazin's Cinema of Cruelty. On my first try, I came across a few of Hitchcock's older American films:

  • Rope
  • Foreign Correspondent
  • Saboteur
  • Strangers on a Train

  • While all the four films were entertaining, it was also educational to observe the framework of Hitchcock's future films buried in these older works. Saboteur and Foreign Correspondent contain elements which pop up in North by Northwest while Strangers on a Train predicts Dial M for Murder. Also, The 39 Steps lays the tracks for Saboteur. Intrigued by what I had seen, I planned to view more films and started to draft a list of works to chase. And then as fate would ordain, I came across a box set of 20 Hitchcock films from the 1920’s until the 1940’s. So I will be spending the next few weeks doing a truly comprehensive spotlight on any film director I have ever done. Previously in 2007, I had watched every single David Lynch film but Lynch’s output is much much less than Hitchcock’s so it was easy to do a full spotlight on David Lynch. But as far as Hitchcock goes, it will be interesting to see how far I make my way down his list of films:

    Family Plot (1976)
    Frenzy (1972)
    Topaz (1969)
    Torn Curtain (1966)
    Marnie (1964)
    The Birds (1963)
    Psycho (1960)
    North by Northwest (1959)
    Vertigo (1958)
    The Wrong Man (1956)
    The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
    The Trouble with Harry (1955)
    To Catch a Thief (1955)
    Rear Window (1954)
    Dial M for Murder (1954)
    I Confess (1953)
    Strangers on a Train (1951)
    Stage Fright (1950)
    Under Capricorn (1949)
    Rope (1948)
    The Paradine Case (1947)
    Notorious (1946)
    Spellbound (1945)
    Lifeboat (1944)
    Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
    Saboteur (1942)
    Suspicion (1941)
    Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)
    Foreign Correspondent (1940)
    Rebecca (1940)
    Jamaica Inn (1939)
    The Lady Vanishes (1938)
    Young and Innocent (1937)
    Sabotage (1936)
    Secret Agent (1936)
    The 39 Steps (1935)
    The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
    Waltzes from Vienna (1934)
    Number Seventeen (1932)
    Rich and Strange (1931)
    Mary (1931)
    The Skin Game (1931)
    Murder! (1930)
    Juno and the Paycock (1930)
    An Elastic Affair (1930)
    Blackmail (1929)
    The Manxman (1929)
    Sound Test for Blackmail (1929)
    Champagne (1928)
    Easy Virtue (1928)
    The Farmer's Wife (1928)
    Downhill (1927)
    The Ring (1927/I)
    The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)
    The Mountain Eagle (1926)
    The Pleasure Garden (1925)

    Friday, April 10, 2009

    fade to white...and then pitch dark....

    It was almost ten years ago that I first heard about Jose Saramago’s book Blindness. By then, I had read his The History of the Siege of Lisbon. Even though the core concept of ..Siege of Lisbon was interesting (how adding a single word in a novel could alter the historic meaning), I was baffled by Saramago’s writing style which consisted of sentences spanning multiple pages and not separated by any periods. Plus there were no quotes for a conversation between characters as their words were separated by commas. This meant that I could not stop at just any place in the middle of my reading and had to continue on for another 50 pages or so before a natural stoppage appeared. In a way, this style is good because it ensures that the reader is fully engaged and forced to read each word slowly lest they lose track of things. But on the other hand, this style does make for an exhausting read. Shortly after I finished reading the book, Saramago won the Nobel Prize in Literature and his other books gained popularity. And Blindness was a title that popped up quite a bit in conversations with friends. It turned out that the book’s popularity spread in an infectious manner, just like the blindness disease in the book, and most people around me swore of the book’s greatness and urged me to read it. Unfortunately, since I was exhausted after reading The History of the Siege of Lisbon I was not in any mood to tackle another book written with endless sentences.

    And that was that. Then three years earlier, I found Blindness in a book sale and decided to finally buy it. Unfortunately after repeated tries, I couldn’t make it past page 150. I had hoped to finish the book before Fernando Meirelles’ film version was released but I gave up and decided to watch the film instead. Oddly, the first 30 minutes of the film were quite painful to view as having known the story, there was no mystery and everything appeared quite superficial and poorly done. The film did eventually become interesting when the dark savage human nature was exposed. Still, I was left with mixed feelings regarding the film. Reading the book, one can conjure up their own visual path while objectively following the character's plight. But the problem with the film adaptation is Fernando Meirelles’ attempts to impose a visual style (example: having multiple shots of the blurred white vision the characters have) thereby wanting the audiences to experience the characters disorientation. As a result, the film is caught between a visual style which does not integrate well with the depiction of the characters. I felt the strongest aspect of the film is near the end when the visual style is temporarily suspended and we observe the savage humans at work. We observe how morality can be easily dropped within a mob when individuals either find comfort & a safe haven in their group or get a fake sense of power when encouraged by a thug. In a way, the latter part of the film makes for a character study to observe humans at their worst akin to Philip George Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment documented in his book The Lucifer Effect. But even if the visual style of Blindness was dropped in the editing room and the film became a pure character study, it would still pale in comparison to the intense German film The Experiment. While The Experiment is based on Mario Giordano’s book, it is loosely inspired by the Stanford prison experiment and shows how humans either conform or rebel against roles they are thrown in.

    Saramago does not explain the blindness disease in the book because he is more interested in studying the human condition. In that regard the blindness is a hook to get people isolated together so that Saramago can conduct his Stanford prison like experiment. Although, Saramago’s experiment is not a study of pure blindness as the characters contain a woman who can see and a man who was born blind thereby making him more aware of situations around him. Not having finished the book, I can’t comment on how rich his story is but besides the visual style, there is nothing original in the film – the characters act as one would expect them to given the situations. There are some who take a power role and demand things from others while some easily become the victims. Then there are the rebels who want to fight. Sure one can say aspects of the story hold up a mirror to our society when some rules are taken away. But these aspects could be studied in other ways and not by infecting characters with a mysterious blindness.

    It was by pure coincidence that after I finished watching Blindness I saw Errol Morris’ documentary Standard Operating Procedure. Morris’ film looks at the incidents of abuse that took place at Abu Ghraib and is a real life horrific case study in the manner of the Stanford prison experiment. In fact, Philip George Zimbardo talks about Abu Ghraib in his book The Lucifer Effect because he was asked to testify in the courts regarding one of the soldiers involved in those sick acts.

    Standard Operating Procedure is a visually sharp film that allows the audience to make up their own minds regarding the incidents. Morris ensures his camera lingers on the soldier’s faces a bit longer than usual and lets them naturally open up. There are plenty of instances where Morris shifts his camera’s position (either to the left or right) as the soldiers talk thereby ensuring we take the soldiers words with a grain of salt – did the soldiers act on their own? Or were they just following orders?

    The outcry from the prison pictures ensured that the soldiers who were seen doing things in the pictures were the only ones accused. But Morris shows that there were other personnel standing outside the frame who were also guilty but were spared. And no one seems to be talking about the setup of the prison and the interrogation procedures as they contributed to the abuse. This is where Philip George Zimbardo's work is important as he talks about the environmental conditions that play a factor in tranforming people from good to evil behaviour. But people don't want to listen to that either. They just want to get rid of the "bad apples" so that they can get on with their happy lives. Blindness & The Lucifer Effect do show how most people can become those "bad apples" given the circumstances but our current society is more interested in blaming individuals rather than studying the overall situations that cause individuals to act in certain ways.

    Blindness and Standard Operating Procedure do make a dark double bill of sorts – they depict humanity at its worst and the combined crimes from both films range from rape, sexual abuse to murder. In Blindness everyday people mutate into villains while in Standard Operating Procedure it is the military that resorts to evil.

    Ratings out of 10
  • Blindness: 6.5

  • Standard Operating Procedure: 9

  • On another note: the events in Abu Ghraib are predicted in Jon Ronson’s hilarious yet dark book Men who Stare at Goats, a soon to be made film. In Men who Stare at Goats we learn about some of the techniques used to disorient Iraqi prisoners so that they would talk. In one case, the prisoners were trapped in dark shipping containers with strobe lights keeping them awake along with loud blaring music of the Barney song (yes the purple dinosaur) repeatedly played. What kind of demented torture technique is this? But this is just a minor torture technique as opposed to the other truly sick ones that have been going on for decades yet the public is blissfully unaware. So when the Abu Ghraib pictures came out, people just wanted closure by punishing those in the pictures as opposed to questioning the entire setup that has encouraged such acts for decades.

    Sunday, April 05, 2009


    Hiroshi Shimizu's 1933 film Japanese Girls at the Harbor

    It is remarkable that one can spot out gangsters even in a 1933 silent film. And quite a few Japanese gangster films in the last two decades (even in Takashi Miike's films) have used similar reproductions of this shot where three well dressed men are spaced apart.

    Spinning an affair -- a simple yarn used to good effect.

    In the first instance, the yarn gets tied up as Sunako (Michiko Oikawa) dances with her ex-childhood love Henry (Ureo Egawa) who is now married to Sunako's good childhood friend Dora (Yukiko Inoue). The threads tangling around their feet indicate that their love for each other is rekindling.

    Sunako (on the left) is having second thoughts about her feelings for Henry. She does not want to stand in the way of Dora's marriage with Henry and decides to untangle herself from both of them.

    Sunako hands over the yarn to Henry and indicates that his place is next to Dora.

    The camera angle and Henry's expressions indicate that he feels trapped in his marriage. The threads form a pair of handcuffs.

    Overall, Japanese Girls at the Harbor contains many wonderful shots and moments. Which makes it all the more remarkable that I had not heard of Shimizu until a few weeks ago when some of his films were re-released. So I plan to view more of his films in the upcoming weeks to see whether his name should be added next to Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi's when discussing vintage Japanese cinema.

    Thursday, April 02, 2009

    Beauty in simplicity

    Wendy and Lucy (2008, USA, Kelly Reichardt): 10/10

    Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy has certainly gotten a lot of critical acclaim since last year, including being named as the top film of 2008 in Film Comment's end of the year list. But despite all the attention, it wasn't until this past weekend that the film finally opened in my neck of the woods. And I am glad to have seen it finally. Wendy and Lucy is certainly a beautiful film, a film that contains much depth hiding behind the simple appearance.

    The film only has a running time of 80 minutes but there isn't a single wasted minute. It is a perfectly crafted film. A rare thing in fact. The film follows the journey of Wendy (Michelle Williams) and her dog Lucy as they travel across the US to make their way up to Alaska. Gradually in the film we learn that the purpose of Wendy's journey in her beat up car is to look for work in Alaska, a place that is willing to hire people without an address or even a phone. This matter of fact revelation does tell quite a bit about the state of the American economy and how things have become. There are plenty of towns that are wasting away and while Reichardt beautifully keeps the focus only on Wendy, one can sense the collapse lurking around the corner.

    Wendy and Lucy is another example of a film that shows how a skillful film-maker can create a beautiful work without diluting the screen with needless words. Much of commercial cinema in America is packed with over-smart non-stop dialogues which go on and on, but in reality do nothing to add to the story -- they are just meaningless words polluting the screen. So compared to that Wendy and Lucy is a breath of fresh air, something to be cherished.

    A few weeks ago, A.O. Scott had a very interesting article about the state of the new American cinema. These are some of his comments regarding Wendy and Lucy:

    There was some talk of an Oscar nomination for Williams, who was so believably ordinary in her look and so rigorously un-actressy in her manner that you could easily forget her celebrity. But “Wendy and Lucy,” released by Oscilloscope Laboratories, a small and ambitious new distributor started by Adam Yauch, a member of the Beastie Boys, would have looked a little awkward alongside the other Academy Award nominees. It’s true that the big winner, “Slumdog Millionaire,” concerns itself with poverty and disenfranchisement, but it also celebrates, both in its story and in its exuberant, sentimental spirit, the magical power of popular culture to conquer misery, to make dreams come true. And the major function of Oscar night is to affirm that gauzy, enchanting notion.

    The world of “Wendy and Lucy” offers little in the way of enchantment but rather a different, more austere kind of beauty..........

    I can't imagine that a film like Wendy and Lucy would ever win an Oscar for best film of the year, even though it is by far the best American film made in 2008. This does highlight that the award shows are nothing but attention hogging spots for the big studios and their executive’s egos. Sure every now and then, some independent film is allowed in but for the most part, it is an exclusive party for the studio films. And then there is the pattern that after an independent film maker gets a break, he/she is invited to be part of the studio machinery. Steven Soderbergh is such an example. He got his break when Sex, Lies and Videotapes made it big. But shortly after, he was sucked into the studio machinery. Thankfully he is still making good movies and Che (especially part two) is certainly a vintage film but he is far away from those initial independent days.

    note: I thought of Sex, Lies and Videotapes while watching Wendy and Lucy as the leads in both films live in their cars and have no fixed address -- a free independent spirit.

    There are too many tags around films – studio-backed, independent, foreign, avant-garde, etc. And somehow these tags alienate and differentiate films. Good cinema should be celebrated, regardless of how much money it cost to make or where it came from or its style. But I am drifting into a much longer rant about the messed up nature of film distribution. I will end however with some more relevant words from A.O Scott's article:
    WHAT KIND OF MOVIES do we need now? It’s a question that seems to arise almost automatically in times of crisis...In recession, as in war — and also, conveniently, in times of peace or prosperity — the movies we evidently need are the ones that offer us the possibility, however fanciful or temporary, of escape.

    Maybe so. But what if, at least some of the time, we feel an urge to escape from escapism?

    It seems that escapism cinema will never go out of fashion. Both Hollywood and Bollywood have done such a wonderful job in dumbing down the expectations of audiences for decades that it doesn't matter what the current economic situation is, escapist films will always be in demand. Recently, box office numbers are up for Hollywood flicks and studios are putting that down to more people heading to cinemas as they can't afford to go on vacations or go to concerts. So that might mean more excuses to produce brain dead films while continuing to shut out quality works.

    Wednesday, April 01, 2009

    More blues for French football

    Thank God I am not French because otherwise I might have to spend every day cursing Raymond Domenech for ruining French football. I also would have had to save some unsavory words for the French federation for allowing Mr. Domenech to remain in his job when clearly the results have been against him. Take today’s French game against Lithuania as an example. Last time I checked Lithuania were not a major power in international power. But that didn’t stop Mr. Domenech from deploying 4 defenders, two holding midfields and only a single forward in Thierry Henry. Seeing that line-up it was not a surprize that France scraped a 1-0 home win, the same score that France recorded a few days earlier in their away win to Lithuania. But then again with Domenech’s team 1-0 or 0-0 is always to be expected.

    It is true that the French team started in free fall 2 years before Domenech's time when a tired performance in the 2002 World Cup was followed by a boring and ineffective performance in the 2004 European Championship but Domenech has continued to lower the bar since he was hired in 2004. After the disaster of the 2002 & 2004 tournaments, the French federation needed someone who could harness the young talent that existed in French football and combine that with the experienced squad members to create a balanced team. But Domenech kept recalling the older members and benched the younger squad members. As a result, France produced dull and inspiring performances in the 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign and only narrowly qualified. These poor results should have been enough to remove Domenech but he was kept:

    France 0 – 0 Israel
    Faroe Islands 0 – 2 France
    France 0 – 0 Republic of Ireland
    Cyprus 0 – 2 France
    France 0 – 0 Switzerland
    Israel 1 – 1 France
    France 3 – 0 Faroe Islands
    Republic of Ireland 0 – 1 France
    Switzerland 1 – 1 France
    France 4 – 0 Cyprus

    At the 2006 World Cup, France were awful in the group stages drawing 0-0 with Switzerland and 1-1 with South Korea before a 2-0 win over Togo allowed them to reach the last 16. Thanks to senior players like Zidane and Henry France managed to put together a 3-1 win over Spain and followed that with 1-0 wins over Brazil and Portugal to reach the final where they lost out on penalties. The only reason that France reached the final was because the players managed to put together a decent performance and not because of any tactical innovation by Domenech.

    Still, he was left in his job and the French poor performances continued through the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign. And at Euro 2008, France were by far the worst team and produced three dull games:

    France 0 - 2 Italy
    Netherlands 4 - 1 France
    Romania 0 - 0 France

    Despite a string of failures, the French federation incredibly felt that Domenech was the man for the job. So it was no surprize that France started the 2010 World Cup qualifying by losing 3-1 away to Austria. Yes Austria. A 2-1 home win over Serbia and a 2-2 away tie to Romania managed to keep France in the hunt. Even though two 1-0 wins over Lithuania have moved France to second place, these results can't disguise the fact that the team are in trouble.

    Maybe the French federation don’t want to win anything or have their national team play beautiful football. Maybe they want to have a soccer team that produces average performances. If that is their goal, then they have the perfect manager in Domenech.

    So thank God I am not French because I can safely ignore the average performance of the French team after I am done complaining in my blog... :)