Friday, September 25, 2009

CIFF 2009: Kick-off

Day One, Friday Sept 25

There are plenty of titles that hover in the big world of film festivals. But it often seems that only a few films are ever talked about. What about the rest? Why is no one talking about them? Is anyone talking about Katalin Varga? I have not heard any noise about this film, so let me start the sound waves rolling.

Katalin Varga, the Film: Devastating cinema. Simple but extraordinary.
Katalin Varga, the Character: Hilda Péter puts in a mesmerizing and incredible performance. I could have watched her character all day long.

The film does not waste any time. Within a few minutes, Katalin’s husband kicks her out of her home along with her son. She has nowhere to go. A journey begins. But the music points to a dark past and even a darker future. Yes, there is some darkness, for this is a revenge tale. But it is unlike any other revenge movie. In fact, it carves out its own rules for vengeance. That means no dramatic dialogues but instead we are treated to beautiful images and haunting music, music which conveys the hovering tension in the air.

After such a beautiful and powerful film, something light was required. And the fun Icelandic feature White Night Wedding more than provided for that. There are plenty of laughs in White Night Wedding which feature unique and interesting characters/scenarios. The film also balances its funny side with some dramatic scenes of a strained relationship and question of death.

Overall, an excellent start for the opening day.


Katalin Varga (2009, Romania/Hungary/UK, Peter Strickland): 9/10

White Night Wedding
(2009, Iceland, Baltasar Kormákur): 7.5/10

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Parisian cinemas

This is not a dream

I booked our Parisian hotel (Hotel de France) because of its reasonable price and close proximity to the Gare de Lyon train station. The night before we left for Paris, I decided to check out the exact street view via google to know how far we had to walk from the train station. And when I saw the street side view, my jaw dropped because our hotel was right next to a cinema hall!!! What a dream!! But when I checked the schedule, all the films were either in French or dubbed in French with no subtitles. So not quite the perfect dream but close...

In the end, I didn't have any time to check out a film because our days in Paris were jam packed. But I can't still shake off the idea that our hotel was next to a cinema. You walk out of the reception and there it is...

The Cinema name points to the next location

I came across a cinema in Champs-Élysées called the Lido. And the next day, I was on the Lido island watching a film. Hmmm..

Two films to look forward to

The two most common film posters I saw in Paris were for Un prophète and L'armée du crime (The Army of Crime). Jacques Audiard's Un prophète is already on my list to see at CIFF but I am not sure when I will get a chance to see Robert Guédiguian's The Army of Crime.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Venice & the film festival experience

The 2 day stay in Venice and attending the film festival became a microcosm of life in general, a life which consists of many events working beautifully together to lead towards an end goal. Or put simply, it confirmed that everything happens for a reason. Well almost everything.

Once Upon a time in Canada...a vacation was planned

It was simply really. A family vacation in Paris and Italy. Having been to Paris and Italy previously, I figured dropping Venice out of the Italian leg of the journey was an easy decision. Pigeons, tourists and canals. That was all Venice was, right? But my father politely queried about going to Venice. I could not turn him down, so I decided ok, Venice was in. After the flights were booked, I learned that we were going to be in Venice during the film festival.

Massive screams of joy!!!!!!

After I calmed down a bit, I was still in disbelief. What was that saying about parents knowing best? :)

The next question was how many films I could squeeze in? The festival was held on the separate island of Lido, so it would not be that simple to go back and forth. I decided on the safe bet of booking tickets for one film on day one and seeing how things turned out on the second day.

Day One -- The Plan

I had a look at the schedule and figured an early evening show would be best for me. So I set my sights on the 5:15 pm show of the Brazilian film, Insolação. This is how things were supposed to turn out on Day 1:

Sunday, Sept 6, 8:20 am flight from Paris to Venice.
Arrive in Venice by 10 am.
15-30 minutes to collect luggage.
30 min to reach the island from airport by bus at terminal Piazzale Roma.
A further 30 min by vaporetto (water bus) to get to the San Toma Stop.
A 10-15 min walk to the apartment.

So it seemed reasonable to reach the apartment by 11:30-12 atleast. Then some time for lunch & wandering around Venice with the family before taking the boat to Lido around 3:30 pm. That would have gotten me to Lido by 4 pm and allowed me to wander the festival ground for a bit before taking in the 5:15 pm show.

So how did things go?

Plan, meet window

The flight was on time. Check.
Missed the 10:20 shuttle bus. In fact, the bus was leaving as we arrived on the stop. Next bus was at 10:50.
Got to the Venice bus terminal by 11:25 am.
And then the chaos started.

I could not get a hold of the person who rented the apartment out. And this is exactly what I had feared. Something about the apartment booking had always bothered me. The Art Blue bed and breakfast was located in Campo s. Stefano but the apartment we were staying was around Scuola di San Rocco, which was on the other side of the Grand Canal. Even though we had booked for a spot at the B&B, it seemed we would be staying in an apartment away from the B&B, so was my concern was if the apartment was someone’s private residence or another B&B? We were never given a fixed address but simply asked to get off at the San Toma vaporetto stop and give the owner a phone call just before we got to the stop. Someone would meet us at the stop with the key in 10 minutes. I would have liked to use the phone number as a backup and would have preferred a fixed address. Anyway, I went along with the plan and got my cell phone changed to have roaming allowed for Europe.

Since the owner was still not picking up his phone, I decided to get boat tickets. The lineup to get tickets was atleast 30 min. Sunday = busy tourist day. Duh.

We finally reached the San Toma stop around 12:30 and the owner was still not picking up his phone. Stress. 4 adults, one infant, luggage and no where to go.

So made the quick decision to leave my parents with the luggage and the three of us (my lovely wife and clearly tired daughter) would cross the canal on foot and find the B&B reception. The heat was unbearable and we were all thirsty and getting tired now. I had only gotten 2-3 hours sleep the previous night in Paris, so my body was starting to show signs of fatigue.

After getting lost once, we were helped by 2 ladies who showed us the path to the Accademia bridge, one of 4 bridges that can be used to cross the Grand Canal, and the last major bridge in order to get to St Mark’s square. More chaos when we reached the B&B. There is an Art Blue Cafe & Restaurant at the bottom of the Art Blue Bed and Breakfast but the two are separate. This fact was made clear by an arrogant, angry restaurant owner who shouted at us for the sole reason that we inquired where the entrance to the B&B was. He told us to go around the corner and hit the buzzer for apartment #3. We did that, and the call went through to the same phone number I was trying. Once again, no answer. So we had to go back to the restaurant to ask if there was any other way to contact the B&B owner. We learned that was a reception to the B&B a block away, but not before we were dished out more shouting. Ofcourse, it appeared that the entire episode was our fault. In Canada, hotels/B&B’s have clear signs showing where the reception or entrance is. But silly us. We were ofcourse not in Canada, a fact made apparent by the shouting restaurant owner. He said he would help us but that would be all. Good, that’s all we wanted. Frustrated, tired and with a baby who was clearly getting unhappy, we were not impressed. But we listened to Mr. arrogant as he thankfully pointed us the way.

The reception was indeed a block away but still over a bridge, ofcourse. We were glad to reach the reception but the girl at the front desk surprized us by saying that the apartment was not supposed to be ready until 2 pm. What? Frustration increased. She finally managed to put us through to the owner. He explained he never got my call but assured as another person would give us the key at the San Toma stop by 2 pm.

Was it my fault that the call didn’t get through? Maybe. My cell phone was automatically supposed to switch to the Italian network but maybe for some reason the call didn’t get through. But the owner had not answered when we rang the buzzer for the apartment as well. Whatever. The long walk back again began. I met the guy at the vaporetto stop and we finally checked in just after 2 pm.

The heat had me drained. Being awake since 4 am didn’t help either. But I still decided to leave just after 3 pm for my film. All I had to do was take the vaporetto from San Toma and 25 minutes later, I would be in Lido. I left my map and cell phone as I thought my family would need that more. There was only one set of keys to the apartment so I had to leave the keys and agreed on a meeting time and point (the buzzer to the apartment was not labelled either).

After a quick 10 minute walk from the apartment, I found the San Toma stop closed. Horror. The police man explained that there was a gondola competition and as a result, the Grand Canal was closed to all water taxis and buses. What!!!! The only alternative I could think of was catching a vaporetto from St. Mark’s square. The officer explained that might not be possible as all boats might be stopped there as well. But I had to try.

2 hour journey begins...

There are 4 bridges that go across the Grand Canal. Two of them didn’t matter to me as they led to the bus stop (Piazzale Roma) and the train station away from the island of Venice. The 3rd was the Rialto and that would be a bit further off from St. Mark’s square. So the only choice was to take the Academia bridge, the same one I had crossed a few hours earlier. I rushed off, thinking I had a chance.

But I wasn’t the only one stuck. When I was in Venice 10 years ago, I had taken a day long tour. The tours had dropped & picked us at St. Mark’s square. Now, as I was walking towards the Accademia, I noticed groups of tourists. By the thousands it seemed. They were getting on private boats just before the Accademia bridge. This fact seemed to indicate that maybe no boats were leaving St. Mark’s square, so all of them seemed to be headed away from St. Mark’s square.

So I walked faster. And then the Accademia bridge appeared. I wish I had taken a picture of the bridge but I didn’t want to waste any more time. The bridge was packed completely, with a seemingly endless chain of people getting off and on. There was no room to put my foot anywhere on the wooden steps so I did what everyone else was and pushed for a spot. Someone pushed me from behind and I in turn fell forward and pushed the person ahead. The young Italian ahead of me didn’t like getting pushed but I told him that the same had happened to me. He took off his ipod headphones and started shouting. He didn’t understand any English it seemed. Whatever. The young Italian raced ahead. After I reached the Art Blue B&B, I had to navigate blindly without a map. I did the natural thing and followed the crowd. The lanes got even narrower and the crowds appeared to increase even more. Those Venetian streets were more crowded than anything I had experienced previously and that includes the crowded streets of New Delhi or Bombay. Once again, I wish I had taken pictures but I was on a mission. Along the way, I saw tourists trying to carry their suitcases across the bridges while throngs of people pushed them aside. I felt sorry for those tourists having gone through a similar luggage dragging episode a few hours ago.

A short while later, I caught up with the young Italian guy. This time around, I moved ahead of him. But our game of running into each other continued until we finally reached St Mark’s square around 4:10 pm. The entire square is a sight to behold but having seen the place 10 years ago and being pressed for time, I could not stop. As expected, all the boat stops were closed. I crossed bridge after bridge, with the same result. No boats (public or private) were arriving or leaving St. Mark’s square. All the ticket information offices were closed as well and the earliest boat appeared to be leaving past 7 pm. But I kept walking.

The heat was getting unbearable. All around me people were cooling off with gelato or icy drinks. But I could not think of stopping. Thankfully I spotted one woman still working on shift at a ticket office. The woman informed me that the only way to get to Lido was taking the boats from St. Helena, a stop 20 minutes from our current location. So a dozen (or 100) bridges later, I was on the edge of the island, where the first sight of grass appeared.

And this is where I met Pedro....

The journey still continues...

I saw a man carrying a Venice film festival bag, so I naturally assumed he was going to Lido as well. I approached him and he confirmed my belief. A few queries back and forth and it turned out we were both going to the same movie. Pedro asked how I was interested in Brazilian film and I likewise asked the same. It turned out Pedro Freire was a Brazilian film-maker whose newest short film O Teu Sorriso was playing in competition. Pedro also had a map and he figured we were another 15 min away from St. Helena. He thought our best bet would be to catch the #20 vaporetto at 4:45 pm otherwise, we would have no hope. It was around 4:37 pm when Pedro mentioned that we were nearing St. Helena and we saw a boat appear at the stop. Was this the #20? As soon as Pedro said “I think we have to run”, he was off. I ran on the grass unlike Pedro who bravely ran on the edge of the pathway overlooking the water (no railing, one slip and a person would be in the water). But no, it was not the #20.

4:45 pm. Still no sign of the #20. Just then, a ship cruiser tried to dock at the stop. But the captain could not align the boat with the landing and quite a few tourists waited to board their cruise vessel. By now, we could see the #20 waiting but it could not arrive until this cruise boat had left. 5 painfully long minutes went by before the cruise boat gave up and headed off allowing the #20 to dock. Joy, joy. Only 4 of us got on the boat with the rest waiting for their cruise boat. The #20 driver said we would be Lido in 10 minutes.

Venezia Film Festival, I am here

The driver’s 10 minutes were in fact 16-17 minutes but we made it to the movie village around 5:10 pm. Once again, I kept the camera in the bag. A quick dash from the boat stop as Pedro guided me to Sala Darsena via 2-3 checkpoints of well suited (ofcourse) Italian festival staff. All around, people had their film festival passes around their necks but my electronic ticket was enough.

5:13 pm. Pedro pointed out that the directors of Insolação were getting their pictures taken on the red carpet, so we had just made it. As soon as we entered the cinema hall, the directors/producers and cast of the film entered. Everyone stood up and applauded as the light shone brightly on the film personnel. As the film personnel sat down right in the middle of the theater, a voice introduced each person (actors, producers and directors in the end), applause followed. And then, lights out.

This is not that Brazilian film

Running into Pedro was the perfect tonic for my tired mind. It was fun chatting about Brazilian cinema with someone who was aware of all the titles I had seen. And when Pedro mentioned about Marcelo Gomes and Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures, I almost gasped in delight as that was one of my favorite films of 2005. I had finally found someone who had seen this movie. It turned out that Marcelo Gomes’s newest film (which he co-directed with Karim Ainouz) was playing at Venice this year. During our talk, I mentioned to Pedro that I had never seen a bad Brazilian film or any film that didn’t have merit. Maybe that was because I had only seen Brazilian films sent to film festivals? Just before our boat arrived at Lido, Pedro warned me not to have high expectations from Insolação, especially if this would be the only film I saw at Venice. I told him not to worry.


All good things must come to an end. And so it was with my run of seeing only quality Brazilian films. The first few minutes of Insolação seemed promising. A ground work was laid out and I expected the canvas to split open and the film to take on wings. The first walkout came around the 10 minute mark. I dismissed that as a bathroom break because I had never seen a walkout that early on in a film. A few minutes later, another walkout. Then a steady stream. Seats around me emptied out, giving me some extra leg room. I stretched out and began my battle to stay awake. For me, my extra long day was finally catching up. Little sleep, long walks in the hot sun, hunger and thirst. I didn’t have enough time to get some water before the film started and now that was looking like a bad idea.

The most walkouts took place around the 45 minute mark. Two people made sure they walked out right in front of the directors and film crew. My head started to drop and I found myself in a semi-dazed state. I opened my eyes hoping to find something different yet nothing had changed. The film appeared to be stuck in an endless cycle, something that was apparent early on in the film. Coming of age, love, loss. More loss. The narrator sheds tears, looks at the audiences and naturally it rains on him. No one left the movie after the hour mark. The entire experience still felt like a dream when the film ended. Applause greeted the work and the directors looked pleased, as they were smiling. For me, the film was painful viewing and I am certain my long day had nothing to do with it. Insolação didn't look and feel like any Brazilian film that I had seen before. The film's music and tone made it feel more like an American indie but the film appeared to be aware of itself at every point. Every scene appeared to be forced and had enough dramatic pause that appeared to be screaming "look at me, for I am high art". But once the layers were peeled away, there was nothing.

I briefly caught up with Pedro before I rushed out. It was close to 7 pm and I had to meet my family by 8 pm. I had time to grab a bottle of water just as a vaporetto pulled up. It was an express vaporetto which would go close to St. Mark’s square, so I got on. I would have loved to wander around the movie village and I really wanted to buy a program guide but I didn’t want to be late as I didn’t have keys to the apartment and had no phone either.

The crowds were still there as the sun set across the Venetian lagoon and a majority of them were in awe of a huge cruise liner just leaving Venice.

I reached the meeting point at 8:03 pm, almost on time. The rest of the night was lovely as we went back to St. Mark’s square for an amazing dinner and....some delicious gelato, finally.

Day 2 -- another film, but a surprize

I really wanted to watch 1-2 movies on Monday, especially the 5 pm shorts selection which featured Edmund Yeo’s newest film. Then there was a Peruvian film at 7:30 pm that I was interested in. But I decided to put family first. The plan was to visit the nearby islands of Murano and Burano and go from there.

I had been to Burano 10 years ago and it was interesting to head back and see how some things were still the same and how there were some changes.

We spent almost the entire day at both islands and it was just after 7 pm when we reached back to Venice. Our original idea was to get off at the San Toma stop but my mother wanted to stop at the Rialto bridge for a wander, so we got off there.

We had a map but I decided to head back without looking at the map as I didn’t expect us to take too long to reach the apartment. Alleys led into other alleys. I followed a simple rule. Whenever faced with two paths, I took the one which was lit more. And sometimes, I took the path where more voices or footsteps could be heard. After crossing a few bridges, we reached an open square.

There was a tower on one end and across from it, there appeared to be a large screen. Now, all those signs of "public screenings" for the Venice film festival made sense. And once we went around the corner, sure enough, there was indeed a large screen slated to show Claire Denis’ White Material at 9 pm. The French film only had Italian subtitles but the experience seemed tempting. Since we were hungry and I didn’t want to leave my family stranded, I decided against seeing the movie. But my better half insisted that I had to see the film as the experience would be worth it. I confessed that this was a movie I had wanted to see anyhow. So it was settled -- I bought the ticket and decided to rush back and leave everyone at the apartment and then find my way back.

It was 8:25 pm and it turned out that the apartment was only 15 minutes away. I had enough time to grab a calzone and coffee slush drink before I reached the square around 8:50 pm. The screen had a beautiful feel to it. Houses on all sides, a tower behind the screen and a restaurant on the other end. The square was lively and the restaurant was packed. A few kids were playing with a whistle and I expected some mischief from them during the movie.

The audience was mostly Italian with some festival pass carrying people. Copies of Variety and other film magazines were visible. I decided to take the last row, near the centre. There were just other two men in the last row, both a few chairs down on either end, one of them had a dog on his lap. Once the film started, the dog was awake and busy watching the movie. I could hear the noise of forks and plates from the restaurant behind me and halfway through the movie, when a lady opened the window of her house, the creaking noise made quite a few people look in her direction. She quickly closed the window. 30 minutes into the movie, those kids with the whistle made their presence heard. They ran to 2-3 different spots outside the curtains, blew their whistle, laughed and ran off. After an hour, when two dogs started fighting outside, the man to my right tried to ensure his dog was calm. I could hear his dog starting to breathe heavily but the man made sure his dog would not bark as he calmly petted him. But the dog did bark, about 15 minutes from the film’s end, probably out of fatigue as he (or she) wanted to go home.

Even though the film had no english subtitles, White Material was a good choice because the camera’s language was beautiful, easy to follow and allowed one to soak in the African surroundings. Plus, the open air theater made the whole experience more alive and breathable than watching something in a closed setting. The cool air and starry sky made it the best cinematic experience I have ever had. In fact, the experience was more memorable than the film itself. White Material was not bad, but given the cinematic images that have been portrayed about Africa, I didn’t find anything ground breaking about the work. A different pace and some beautiful moments were what I liked best.

And in closing...

The experiences of reaching and viewing at both venues were more memorable than the actual films itself. As I have mentioned the San Polo open air cinema experience to friends, they have mentioned Cinema Paradiso. I had not thought of that and in a way, it was like that. Quite simply beautiful.

Lots of amazing things came together for me to reach my film screening on time. If we didn’t have to cross the Accademia bridge to go to the B&B, then I might not have been so confident in leaving without a map and trying to take that route later on in the day. And then that long walk to St. Helena and running into Pedro. Ofcourse, I had to talk to Pedro first. There were two stops at St. Helena so if it were not for Pedro, I might have stood at the second stop and missed the boat altogether. The only thing that I can’t find a place for is being shouted at by the Art Blue Cafe & Restaurant owner (or manager, whatever he was). Was there a lesson to be learned there? I am sure there is although I don’t want to spend another minute trying to think about it. Out damn shouting image of arrogant owner, I erase thee.

Ciao Venice.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A decade long path from Dark City

Knowing (2009, USA/UK, Alex Proyas)

Note: Spoiler Alert -- key details about Dark City and Knowing are mentioned.

More than a decade ago, the brilliant Dark City showed a world where humans were the guinea pigs of an alien experiment. The film was smart and offered plenty of intriguing ideas about memories and human psychology.

11 years later, Alex Proyas returns with an end of the world sci-fi film with a key alien presence. As per the film, it is aliens who shepherd humans through the cycle of destruction and recreation. The aliens serve as angels in charge of ensuring that the cycle of life continues as per the Bible. While the film only focuses on one young Adam-Eve couple in charge of starting the birth of the planet from scratch, it also indicates that multiple couples might share the burden. Earth's destruction is quite beautifully done and "the end" does not feel like a finale. Instead, it appears as the board has been cleared completely so that a future recreation can take place.

I was pleasantly surprized by Knowing. I had mistakenly believed the film would be another run of the mill destruction film but it is much better than Hollywood's regular nonsense. Knowing is a decent watch even though it is not nowhere as good as Dark City. Interestingly both films form a bond due to the alien presence. In Dark City, the humans are not shown to be taken by the aliens, whereas in Knowing the transport of the humans is depicted. The aliens in Dark City use their minds as weapons but it is the mouth that serves as the weapon in Knowing (whispers and also for blinding light). Both sets of aliens from the two films wear trench coats but in Knowing, the aliens don't need a hat as they have a full set of hair. So clearly the aliens in both films are from different planets :) Maybe, another decade later Alex Proyas will present a third installment of an alien film. So let this blog entry serve as a time capsule in that regard.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

CIFF 2009 preview, part IV

Mary and Max (2009, Australia, Adam Elliot)

It is easy to see why this wonderful claymation film opened the Sundance film festival. The film shows plenty of maturity and effortlessly pieces together moments of beauty, humour and darkness. The story is also a refreshing throw back to the old days of snail mail which allowed pen pals to exchange their ideas across the planet while they patiently waited by the mailbox to get the next letter. The voices of the two main characters are also cast perfectly -- the bubbly young Australian girl gets her vocals courtesy of Toni Collette while the depressive middle aged man is voiced by Phillip Seymour Hoffman (who else?).

Correction Update: Toni Collette voices the adult Mary not the young one.

Amreeka (2009, USA/Canada, Cherien Dabis)

The opening 15 min of Amreeka are poetic and feature some soul stirring music, especially in the scene featured in the photo where Fadi is stopped at a checkpoint. This critical scene convinces Muna that she should move to the US to seek a better life for her son. When the film shifts to the US after that, the story contains some elements which overlap with many recent films examining the immigrant difficulties in adapting to life in the US, be it from a Latino or Indian immigrant perspective. But Amreeka's strength is that it maintains a pleasant light hearted tone despite the bleakness of the situation thereby giving the film depth while also having a feel good factor. The film features strong acting, sharp visuals and poses plenty of thoughtful questions about racism and political bias in the media.

White on Rice (2009, USA, Dave Boyle)

An impressive light hearted indie film that contains some of the funniest scenes to feature in an American film this year. For example, the opening scene of a Japanese samurai film dubbed in English with an American texan accent is downright hilarious. And the presence of some quirky characters ensures that the film never gets dull.