Monday, December 27, 2010

Best Films of 2010

An incredible cinematic year as highlighted by the presence of 68 films from a total of 27 countries. 43 of the 68 films (63%) came courtesy of film festivals with Rotterdam & CIFF providing more than half of the 43 film tally. Only 16 titles (24%) received a theatrical release in my city and 9 were found on DVD (13%).

I have decided to break things up into three categories to reflect a subjective ordering -- Gold (Favourites), Silver (worthy viewing), Bronze (Honorable Mention).

Gold (20 titles) -- in order of preference

1) Kill the Referee (2009, Belgium, Y. Hinant/E. Cardot/L. Delphine)

Carlos and The Social Network worked hard to recreate reality whereas Kill The Referee captures real images viewed by millions of people and manages to turn them on their head. The film provides a fly on the wall perspective to referee committee meetings with UEFA officials and allows us to listen to on-field conversations between referees, linesmen and the players. The effect of this audio is as ground breaking like watching a talkie for the first time after only seeing silent films for decades.

The documentary also provides some of the best acting performances of the year. People who claim soccer players playact on the field will finally have proof with this film but the most surprising aspect is to discover that some referees are aware of cameras and can put on quite a show. Roberto Rosetti and Howard Webb are well knows refs but this film shows they would make worthy film actors as well.

This soccer documentary offers plenty to chew on for non-soccer fans and highlights how in the hands of the right directors/editors, documenting a game can provide plenty of drama, emotion and tension that scripted cinema can sometimes never capture.

2) Liverpool (2008, Argentina, Lisandro Alonso)

Lisandro Alonso’s free moving camera allows us to soak in the beautiful country side while providing a haunting tale. Messi & Argentina may not have won the World Cup this year but this Argentine film won my 2010 Movie World Cup.

3) El Pasante (Argentina, Clara Picasso)

Clara Picasso's sublime film cleverly uses a Buenos Aires hotel setting as a springboard to examine wider issues, such as male-female power games and the thin boundary that exists between private and public life. Not a single minute is wasted in the film's brisk 64 minutes.

4) The American (USA, Anton Corbijn)

5) R (Denmark, Tobias Lindholm/Michael Noer)

One of the most brutal and dark films of the year!! The tag 'dark film' is easily thrown around but in the case of R, the tag is entirely justified. Besides being completely savage, R is intelligent and that is demonstrated by a clever perspective shift two-thirds of the way into the film.

6) Manuel De Ribera (Chile, Pablo Carrera/Christopher Murray)

This visually stunning film is a fascinating mix of Lisandro Alonso and Bela Tarr yet is completely original.

7) The Robber (Austria/Germany, Benjamin Heisenberg)

A highly entertaining yet intelligent film. The two highs of running and robbing give Johann’s life meaning and as a result, the entire film is defined by fast movement, shown by Johann's marathon runs or his perfectly timed car getaways.

8) Carlos (France, Olivier Assayas)

9) Shutter Island (USA, Martin Scorsese)

A riveting throwback to the cinema of the 1950’s/60's when heightened music foreshadowed impending danger awaiting characters. Martin Scorsese has made a perfect Hitchcock tribute.

10) The Life and Death of a Porno Gang (2009, Serbia, Mladen Djordjevic)

11) Ocean of an Old Man (2008, India, Rajesh Shera)

12) Woman on Fire Looks for Water (2009, Malaysia/South Korea, Woo Ming Jin)

13) Valhalla Rising (Denmark/UK, Nicolas Winding Refn)

14) Incendies (Canada, Denis Villeneuve)

A beautifully crafted film that packs a mighty emotional punch. The film starts and ends in Canada but the rest of the film dives deep into the Middle East and is the kind of cinema that Canada needs more of, films that use second generation Canadian characters as a launching pad to explore their complex cultural background.

15) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Thailand co-production, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

Joe latest brew manages to blend dreams, spirits, reality, past and future in a single flowing work. Plus, there are some images that stay long in the memory. Red Eyes. Spirits at dinner table. And that catfish.

16) The Social Network (USA, David Fincher)

All about a girl and a drunken night of coding. Ah the endless possibilities of university life when everything is within reach. Sometimes, those possibilities work out for a select few while others sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

17) Tony Manero (2008, Chile/Brazil, Pablo Larraín)

A chilling film that shows that sanity cannot exist in a brutal dictatorship when individual survival and happiness blinds people.

18) Waste Land (Brazil/USA, Lucy Walker)

19) Scott Pilgrim vs the World (USA/UK/Canada, Edgar Wright)

A living breathing video game that humorously depicts the baggage a new relationship can sometimes bring. Ofcourse, not all relationships require killing 7 ex’s but strange things can take place in the Canadian snow.

20) Road, Movie (2009, India, Dev Benegal)

Dev Benegal’s film may feel heavily inspired by the wonderful Brazilian film Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures but Road, Movie manages to adapt perfectly to the Indian landscape. Plus, the added love for Indian cinema certainly makes this a wonderful treat.
Silver (27 titles) -- in no particular order

Avenida Brasilia Formosa (2009, Brazil, Gabriel Mascaro)

A vibrant documentary that gives an insightful look at a Recife arrival city and the subsequent relocation of its residents to a squeaky clean yet isolated apartment complex. The film shares some ground with Pedro Costa's In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth with the one difference being that Gabriel Mascaro pulls his camera back to give us overhead shots of the arrival city thereby putting the plight of the residents into perspective.

Black Swan (USA, Darren Aronoksy)

A complex physiological battle is rendered in a simple accessible visual manner where reality and nightmares occupy the same frame.

The Japanese Wife (India, Aparna Sen)

Aparna Sen’s most accomplished visual film is also a tribute to a time when hand written love letters provided people with hope and sense of purpose.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (USA/UK, Banksy)

A humorous hoax that raises some valid points about the true price of art. Interestingly, this film is also the first time where the identity of the director is a mystery. Yes, the director is Banksy but good luck at seeing his face.

Curling (Canada, Denis Côté)

Denis Côté has gone with the bold choice to give Curling a cold chilly look. As a result, it takes a while to warm up to the material but once one gets past the cold exterior, then one can admire the tale of a father's resolve to raise his daughter away from society. In a way, Curling is a cousin of the Greek film Dogtooth in showing how incorrect parental decisions can alter a child’s life.

Winter’s Bone (USA, Debra Granik)

A powerful film that shows if one’s own blood is willing to kill their kin, then one has no need for enemies.

A Useful Life (Uruguay, Federico Veiroj)

This Uruguayan feature does not feel like fiction at all but instead feels like a documentary reflecting the sad state of our times when independent/art-house theaters and cinematheques are on the verge of extinction. The beautiful ending sequence clearly evokes the French New Wave. A must see film for cinephiles.

Ishqiya (India, Abhishek Chaubey)

Wonderfully acted and has the bonus of having the single best song of any Indian film in 2010.

Certified Copy (France/Iran/Italy, Abbas Kiarostami)
Burma VJ (2009, Denmark co-production, Anders Østergaard)
Woman without a Piano (2009, Spain, Javier Rebollo)
The Secret in Their Eyes (2009, Argentina/Spain, Juan José Campanella)
Inception (USA/UK, Christopher Nolan)
The Fighter (USA, David O. Russell)
Like you know it All (2009, South Korea, Hong Sang-Soo)
Sebbe (Sweden, Babak Najafi)
Crab Trap (2009, Colombia/France, Oscar Ruiz Navia)
Band Baaja Baaraat (India, Maneesh Sharma)
Win/Win (Holland, Jaap van Heusden)
Inside Job (USA, Charles Ferguson)
Kinatay (2009, Philippines, Brillante Ma. Mendoza)
Hunting & Zn (Holland, Sander Burger)
Lucky Life (USA, Lee Isaac Chung)

Steam of Life (Finland, Joonas Berghäll/Mika Hotakainen)
The Maid (2009, Chile/Mexico, Sebastián Silva)
The Illusionist (UK/France, Sylvain Chomet)
Mesrine 2: Public Enemy #1 (2008, France/Canada, Jean-François Richet)

Bronze (21 titles) -- in no particular order

Heartbeats (Canada, Xavier Dolan)

Xavier Dolan's second feature is playful, funny and manages to neatly tuck in cute cinematic homages especially to the French New Wave.

Despicable Me (USA, Pierre Coffin/Chris Renaud)

It is difficult to raise kids but that task is made harder when one has ambitions to shrink the moon and conquer the world!

You Are All captains (Spain, Oliver Laxe)
Between Two Worlds (2009, Sri Lanka, Vimukthi Jayasundara)
Mundane History (2009, Thailand, Anocha Suwichakornpong)
Monogamy (USA, Dana Adam Shapiro)
Pelada (USA co-production, L. Boughen/R. Fergusson/G. Oxenham/R. White)
Taylor’s Way (2009, Canada, Rene Barr)
Oki’s Movie ( South Korea, Hong Sang-soo)
Harishchandrachi Factory (2009, India, Paresh Mokashi)
Love, Sex Aur Dhoka (India, Dibakar Banerjee)
Scheherazade Tell Me a Story (2009, Egypt, Yousry Nasrallah)
The Light Thief (Kyrgyzstan co-production, Aktan Abdykalykov)
Nora's Will (2008, Mexico, Mariana Chenillo)
Lola (2009, Philippines, Brillante Ma. Mendoza)
The Tiger Factory (Malaysia/Japan, Woo Ming Jin)
Bioscope (2008, India, K.M. Madhusudhanan)
Striker (India, Chandan Arora)
Guest (Spain, José Luis Guerín)
Peepli Live (India, Anusha Rizvi)
The Ghost Writer (France/Germany/UK,Roman Polanski)

If I were to remove film festival & foreign DVD titles from the equation and only depended on local theaters to see movies, then I would be left with only a handful of worthy titles every year. So viva film festivals!

Note: I am including 9 DVD titles, most of them being 2008/09, because these films never received a theatrical release in my city.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Nicolas Winding Refn Films

Spotlight on Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn

The motivation for the final spotlight of the year came after I was riveted by the raw and bloody Valhalla Rising a few months ago. The only previous Nicolas Winding Refn film I had seen was the first Pusher movie about a decade ago, which left me with mixed views. So I decided to pay another visit to Pusher and in turn complete the Pusher trilogy.

Pusher (1996)
With Blood on My Hands: Pusher II (2004)
I’m the Angel of Death: Pusher III (2005)
Valhalla Rising (2009)

Pushing on the streets of Copenhagen

Each film of the Pusher trilogy gives a look at different rungs on the drug trade ladder. Pusher follows a week in the life of Frank (Kim Bodnia), a drug dealer, and highlights his methods, routines and dealings with his supplier Milo (Zlatko Buric).

Frank is accompanied by Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) who is the focal point of Pusher II.

In the second film, a different side to Copenhagen’s gangster side is shown when Tonny tries to partake in his father’s car stealing business. Tonny is also friends with another pusher (Kurt) and has to bear witness to the dangers of drug addiction. The third film deals with Milo, the drug supplier to both Frank and Kurt, and shows that even a major supplier like Milo is answerable to another layer of suppliers.
The three films also provide relevant financial examples as to why a drug trader will most likely be always stuck in his endless cycle of addiction and debt. In Pusher, Frank owes Milo 50,000 kroners. So when a Swede comes to Frank to buy coke, Frank sees it as a chance to make some money and pay off his debt. Milo sells the drugs to Frank at 600 kroners per gram so Frank buys a 200 gram packet for 120,000 and is on the hook for a total of 170,000 Kroners. He decides to sell his dope to the Swede for 900 kroners per gram for a total of 180,000 in an attempt to clear his debt in one go. Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned and the police interrupt the transaction. Franks bails and dumps the drugs in a lake before getting arrested. He is released a day later but has no money or drugs to give Milo. Milo does not believe Frank’s story and instead increases Frank’s debt to 230,000. Naturally, Frank has to scramble to pay off his debt in order to avoid getting his legs broken by Milo’s henchman Radovan (Slavko Labovic).

In Pusher II, Kurt pays Milo 15,000 for drugs. But Milo delivers inferior material than what Kurt paid for. Kurt is upset and goes into the bathroom to inspect the package. When there is a knock on the apartment door, Kurt panics and flushes the package thinking the cops are outside. However, the knocker ends up being Milo’s buddy with some food. Kurt is now out of both money and drugs and as expected Milo is not willing to return Kurt’s money. It turns out that Kurt had borrowed the 15,000 from another group and is now on the hook. Milo falls into this debt trap in Pusher III after he agrees to move Luna’s 10,000 pills of ecstasy. However, when the pills turn out to be fake, Milo is responsible for coming up with money to cover the losses.

The first two films provide strong examples of why most drug pushers will never be able to escape their debt trap as they are always in debt and the only way they can return the debt in a quick time is to take on a bigger drug job. The margin of error is razor thin and when things eventually go wrong, they fall into a bigger hole. So after they fall into a bigger hole, Frank and Kurt’s options involve either running away, robbing a bank or killing someone. Neither of these options provide an easy clean resolution. In Pusher III even an established drug supplier like Milo finds himself facing the same predicament as Frank and Kurt. However, Milo’s contacts allow him to bribe a police officer and eventually bring in his old friend Radovan (featured in Pusher) to help cleanup the mess.

Pusher circle

The problems in the Pusher trilogy get remarkably complex with each film. In the first film, Frank is a single guy with no emotional ties to any family, so it is easy for him to consider leaving Copenhagen. In Pusher II, Tonny is shown to be single until Charlotte (Anne Sørensen) tells him he is her child’s father. That added responsibility allows Tonny to take a step back from both the drug trade and his father’s car stealing business to properly assess his situation. He is determined to take the child away from the endless cycle of crime and drug addiction that Charlotte and Kurt are stuck in. In the third film, Milo has a 25 year old daughter Milena (Marinela Dekic) who is going to marry another dealer, thereby adding to Milo’s concerns. Plus, Milo has to cook for 50 people for Milena’s birthday and manage the ecstasy deal while trying to stay drug free. To make matters worse, his two trusty henchmen get food poisoning from his cooking, so he is left to deal with his debt problems on his own.

Similar characters make an appearance in his each film and in most cases, they are carrying about their business as depicted in previous films. The only exception to this is Radovan, who is able to fulfill his dream from the first film and actually change. In Pusher, Radovan tells Frank that he would like to open a kebab place. So when we next meet Radovan in the third film, he is indeed running a restaurant and has turned his back on his drug payment collector/enforcer role. Kurt makes a tiny appearance in the third film but it is hard to determine if he has gone clean. Muhammed (Ilyas Agac) is briefly shown in the second film when he sells Tonny a gun in exchange for Kurt’s gold chain. In Pusher III, Muhammed gives the same gold chain to Milo and agrees to sell Milo’s ecstasy pills. Mike (Levino Jensen) is planning on marrying Milo’s daughter in the third film but he first made a brief appearance in the first film. Tonny’s father wants him to kill a prostitute ring leader Jeanette (Linse Christiansen) in Pusher II but Tonny can’t go through with it. And in the third film, when an Albanian and Pole want to sell a girl into prostitution, they naturally call on Jeanette.

Each film works on its own but put together the films offer a brilliant case study of the perils of drug trade and addiction. Also, the recurring appearance of similar characters also helps etch out the drug hierarchy that exists.

Pusher II starts off in prison but otherwise the films stay away from prison. Yet, similar characters that are shown in the Pusher films exist in Tobias Lindholm & Michael Noer’s brilliant Danish film R which is one of the best films of 2010. R gives a look at the cut-throat hierarchy that exists inside a Danish prison and perfectly compliments the Pusher trilogy.


Valhalla Rising is far more savage than any of the Pusher films. The third Pusher film ends with a brutal cleanup job but the slicing takes place on a dead body. But in Valhalla Rising all the blood is extracted from living beings. Raw, face to face fights till only one man is left standing. Mads Mikkelsen plays the mute slave One Eye, feared for his ability to kill men. One Eye survives his battles and leads a crew to the promised New World. Once they arrive in the new land, they are greeted with poisonous arrows. The arrows mark the next phase in human warfare when hand to hand combat is no longer necessary and weapons allow men to kill remotely without getting their hands dirty with blood.

Common thread

The three Pusher films and Valhalla Rising are about slaves working for a higher authority. The slaves have to find ways to survive on their own but at the end of the day, they have to answer to a leader. Milo is the leader in the first two Pusher films but even he has to answer to another authority in the third film. One Eye’s master is fierce and proud but when the crew enter a new land, the master ends up kneeling down and praying for help to battle against new masters.

Overall, a fierce and intense spotlight that provides a different flavour from the year’s other directorial spotlights.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Films of Pedro Costa

Spotlight on Pedro Costa

I have previously mentioned my more than 3.5 year quest to track down the films of Pedro Costa. The need to discover his films only increased after reading a lot of written material about his filming methods both on the internet and in film magazines. Ofcourse, a lot of the material was generated after a retrospective of his work was shown in a few select North American cities from 2007-2008. The retrospective never made it out to my city so I had to play a waiting game before seeing something, anything, by him. Thankfully, the surfacing of a few Pedro films prevented a complete drought. In the fall of 2008 it was Casa da Lava and in 2009 it was Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? and O Sangue that wet my appetite. Now this year with the DVD release of the Fontainhas Trilogy, I can officially end the quest.

In addition to the Fontainhas films, I rewatched O Sangue to form a spotlight:

O Sangue (1989)
Ossos (1997)
In Vanda’s Room (2001)
Colossal Youth (2006)
Tarrafal (2007, Short film)
Rabbit Hunters (2007, Short film)

The beginning

It is hard to believe that O Sangue marked Costa's directorial debut. The film looks and feels like a work of an established master with every frame a work of art. The visuals of O Sangue are beautiful and the sound is hypnotic and dreamy. The opening moments take place in darkness and the sounds of a car stopping, a door slamming and footsteps usher the film to life. It is remarkable to see a first time director take such a bold approach to open his film. But that is Costa in a nutshell -- bold and willing to take risks.

Adrian Martin's essay included in the Second Run DVD of O Sangue is one of the best pieces of film criticism that I have ever read. Unfortunately, the full essay is not online but the following excerpt is a tasty introduction:

From the very first moments of his first feature Blood (O Sangue, 1989), Pedro Costa forces us to see something new and singular in cinema, rather than something generic and familiar. The black-and-white cinematography (by Wenders compatriot Martin Schâfer) in Blood pushes far beyond a fashionable effect of high contrast, and into something visionary: whites that burn, blacks that devour. Immediately, faces are disfigured, bodies deformed by this richly oneiric work on light, darkness, shadow and staging.

Carl Dreyer in Gertrud gave cinema something that Jacques Rivette (among others) celebrated: bodies that ‘disappear in the splice’, that live and die from shot to shot, thus pursuing a strange half-life in the interstices between reels, scenes, shots, even frames. Costa takes this poetic of light and shade, of appearance and disappearance – the poetic of Dreyer, Murnau, Tourneur – and radicalises it still further.

In Blood, there is a constant, trembling tension: when a scene ends, when a door closes, when a back is turned to camera, will the character we are looking at ever return? People disappear in the splices, a sickly father dies between scenes, transforming in an instant from speaking and (barely) breathing body to heavy corpse.

Blood is a special first feature – the first features of not-yet auteurs themselves forming a particular cinematic genre, especially in retrospect. Perhaps it was from Huillet and Straub’s Class Relations that Costa learnt the priceless lesson of screen fiction, worthy of Sam Fuller: start the piece instantly, with a gaze, a gesture, a movement, some displacement of air and energy, something dropped like a heavy stone to shatter the calm of pre-fiction equilibrium. To set the motor of the intrigue going – even if that intrigue will be so shadowy, so shrouded in questions that go to the very heart of its status as a depiction of the real. So Blood begins sharply, after the sound (under the black screen) of a car stopping, a door slamming, footsteps: a young man has his face slapped. Cut (in a stark reverse-field, down an endless road in the wilderness) to an older man, the father. Then back to the young man: “Do what you want with me.” The father picks up his suitcase (insert shot) and begins to walk off … The beginning of Colossal Youth also announces, in just this way, its immortal story: bags thrown out a window, a perfect image (reminiscent, on a Surrealist plane, of the suitcases thrown into rooms through absent windows, the sign of a ceaseless moving on and moving in, in Ruiz’s City of Pirates) of dispossession, of beings restlessly on the move from the moment they begin to exist in the image.

Michael Guillen's website is once again an essential stop about the film.

Away to Fontainhas

The origin of the Fontainhas trilogy can be traced back to Costa's filming of Casa de Lava in Cape Verde when he was asked by the locals to take their letters to relatives living in Fontainhas, on the outskirts of Lisbon. Costa took those letters to Fontainhas and the rest is cinematic history.

Ossos is the only out and out fictional Fontainhas film with In Vanda's Room and Colossal Youth blurring the line between documentary and fiction. Ossos has a beautiful rhythm to it and forms a perfect cinematic example of an arrival city. Fontainhas forms an entry point for migrants arriving from Cape Verde or other parts of Portugal. The film shows residents leaving for jobs to Lisbon early in the day and returning in the evening. Not all the residents of Fontainhas might have wanted to move to the city but by the end of In Vanda's Room all the residents are forced to relocate due to the destruction of Fontainhas.

The cinematic jump from Ossos to In Vanda's Room is beautifully explained by Cyril Neyrat:

His work’s second primal scene has taken on the luster of legend, though it is undoubtedly true and absolutely practical. In 1997, Pedro Costa made Ossos in Fontainhas. This was a traditional production, shot in 35 mm, with tracks, floodlights, and assistants. Costa was a professional, a part of the Portuguese film industry. The shoot proceeded with everyone doing his job, following the routine of European art film. And the uneasiness grew, the feeling that a lie was being told, that an imbalance both moral and totally concrete was taking root on both sides of the camera. Costa later said: “The trucks weren’t getting through—the neighborhood refused this kind of cinema, it didn’t want it.” Too much squalor and despair in front of the camera, too much money, equipment, and wasted energy behind it. And too much light shining in the night of a neighborhood of manual laborers and cleaning women who got up at 5:00 a.m. So one night, Costa decided to turn off the lights and pack up the extra equipment, in an attempt to diminish the shameful sense of invasion and indecency. His action was doubly groundbreaking because in what he did, Costa found his own light, that quality of darkness and nuance he would constantly hone from that night on, and because he understood that the cinema of tracking shots, assistants, producers, and lights was not his. He didn’t want it. What he wanted was to be alone in this neighborhood with these people he loved. To take his time, to find a rhythm and working method attuned to their space and their existence. To start with a clean slate, from scratch. To reinvent his art. Three years after this leap into the void, In Vanda’s Room became the result of this departure—in Costa’s work but also in the history of the cinema.

Colossal Youth

Notes on the third film of the trilogy are reprinted as is from my 2010 Movie World Cup, Group G notes.

Colossal Youth is a living breathing painting that lets us observe its beauty and allows us to listen in to the sounds flowing within the canvas.

The mesmerizing opening shot is an indication of the beauty that lies ahead.
The film completes the Fontainhas trilogy and picks up after most of the residents from In Vanda's Room have been relocated to pristine lifeless clean apartment complexes.

Vanda is back as well, along with her cough, but this time around it is Ventura who is the camera's main focal point. Here he goes looking for Vanda.
Ventura has to select his apartment but he is taking his time and is in no hurry. The clean walls of the apartment hold no joy for Ventura as his heart is torn in between Fontainhas and his dream Lava House in Cape Verde.
Fontainhas provides Ventura an opportunity to do most of his thinking from his red throne where he can view the disappearing neighbourhood.
And there is just one scene where Costa's camera gives a glimpse of life that exists beyond the two worlds of Fontainhas and the apartment complex. This scene shows lights glittering in the distance and is the first indication of a city's existence in both Colossal Youth and In Vanda's Room.
Otherwise, Costa's camera is only focused on the relevant details, be it alleys, walls or faces.

And finally, the music and words of the infectious liberation song that Ventura plays on the record player stay long in the mind even after all the credits have taken leave.


The two short films Tarrafal and Rabbit Hunters continue the adventures of Ventura and provide a glimpse of life after Fontainhas.

A quote from Tarrafal:

I want to go back to Cape Verde and rest these bones.

Maybe one day Costa’s camera will return to Cape Verde and complete the cinematic circle he started with Casa de Lava.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Early Hitchcock

This spotlight was more than 1.5 years in the making. The initial idea for the spotlight was made back in April 2009 when I came across a boxed set of Hitchcock's films from 1920-1940. However, I deviated from watching the early films and instead tracked down some post 1940 Hitchcock films reviewed by André Bazin in Cinema of Cruelty. The idea was to dive into the earlier works once I finished some of the 1940's films but I ran out of time in 2009 and only managed to see these 5 films:

Foreign Correspondent (1940)
Saboteur (1942)
Lifeboat (1944)
Rope (1948)
Strangers on a Train (1951)

So the following are some earlier works to wrap up this spotlight.

Champagne (1928)
Blackmail (1929)
The Manxman (1929)
Juno and the Paycock (1930)
The Skin Game (1931)

Watching the early films of Alfred Hitchcock requires a complete reorientation to the director's body of work. Hitchcock directed more than 65 features and had the unique chance to work in three very different film eras -- black and white silent, black and white talkies and color films. Yet, he is known for films from the final phase of his career. When people talk about Hitchcock, they are mostly talking about films he directed in America post 1950 even though he was directing films in the UK as early as 1925.

Most of the early pre 1930 Hitchcock films have nothing do with the mystery and suspense tales that the director is identified with. Instead, Hitchcock was able to properly develop his craft by working in different film styles over a course of a few decades. There aren’t many modern directors who can claim to spend a few decades making a variety of films before finding a unique voice. It seems current directors are expected to announce themselves in just 1-2 films after which their auteur style is endlessly debated in magazines and the internet. Ofcourse, modern directors have the luxury to study the works of directors across various nations and decades, have access to more films and books about film directors than ever before. Back in the old silent film days, Hitchcock only had a few auteurs to learn from and probably experimented a lot on his own before working on a film. Or he learned on the job like many directors did until the 1950's.

Of the 5 earlier films, only Blackmail contains some elements that can be identified as post 1950 Hitchcock. The chase sequence at the end of Blackmail shares some common ground with the famous Mt. Rushmore sequence at the end of North by Northwest. Blackmail is also considered Hitchcock's first talkie even though it was originally a silent film and the dialogues were added only in post production. This is something that can be assessed from the opening 10 minutes when the film is silent until shockingly, some of the character's conversations fill the screen.

These five films still identify a director in command of the camera's placement and able to properly use music to heighten emotions. Ofcourse, music is another element that jumps out when talking about Hitchcock’s mystery films, so it is interesting to note even in the silent films, the music was smartly used. Three of the films, The Skin Game, The Manxman and Champagne, are rooted in pre WW-II British society where there was a clear divide between the rich and poor. In both The Manxman and Champagne this class structure forms a barrier in the way of two lovers. Yet, in both films there is a wealthy man around who can woo the woman away instead. So a love triangle is formed. Interestingly, the love triangle was also a trademark of many Bollywood films from the mid 1980's until about 2000 or so.

Juno and the Paycock is adapted from an Irish play and is set against the background of the Irish civil war. The film is confined mostly to a single room with off screen gunfire giving an indication of the wider struggle underway. The film shows Hitchcock's ability to smartly vary the camera angles thereby adding a richer dimension to the characters’ troubles.

Overall, this spotlight was a tad disappointing. The patchy DVD transfer is partly to be blamed even though messages at the start of all films warned about the difficulties in the DVD transfer so the substandard picture and audio quality is not entirely a surprize. Still, the films serve as an example that there is more to Hitchcock than meets the eye.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Japanese cinema spotlight

Overdue comments on a Japanese cinema spotlight that kicked off back in the summer and contained 9 features and one short:

The Only Son (1936, Yasujirô Ozu)
There was a Father (1942, Yasujirô Ozu)
Tales of Ugetsu (1953, Kenji Mizoguchi)
Bakumatsu Taiyoden (1957, Yuzo Kawashima)
Good Morning (1959, Yasujirô Ozu)
Tokyo Olympiad (1965, Kon Ichikawa)
Patriotism (1966, Yukio Mishima)
Samurai Rebellion (1967, Masaki Kobayashi)
Cure (1997, Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Fish Story (2009, Yoshihiro Nakamura)

Ozu x 3: Emotions & Limited Communication

Ozu's The Only Son and There was a Father may be rooted in Japanese culture but the sentiments depicted in both films are equally Indian. Every Indian child learns very early on about Karma and the importance of doing one's work and not worrying about the end result. Such work often involves sacrifices but the sacrifices are meant to be minor bumps in the overall scheme. Sometimes the biggest challenge in performing the work is attempting to subdue one's emotional attachments. Both The Only Son and There was a Father show that the parent and son are trying their best to get through life by working diligently yet hiding their true feelings. It is clear in There was a Father that both the father and son want to live together in the same city but the father continues to bury his true emotions and asks his son to continue working hard. In The Only Son, it is the mother who breaks her back working in a factory so as to provide a better future for her son. The son then lives his life apart from the mother and does not even inform her of his marriage and child because he does not want his mother to feel her sacrifice was wasted. The son feels he did not achieve what his mother wanted him to so he feels better not to invite her to see him.

Parent-Children relationships should not be complicated but they become so over time. Job, work, careers muddle the waters but at the end of the day a simple honest conversations should clear any doubts. Yet, adults hold back honest communication with each other either because of fear or duty. If improper communication is not healthy, then no communication is worse. Good Morning takes a humorous approach to show that if children do not talk at all with their parents, then confusion and misunderstandings can lead to more damage. In the film, the two young boys go on a silent strike in order to protest their father's refusal to buy a tv. Yet, the silence amusingly unearths some insecurities in the neighbours, leading to awkward admissions and confessions.

A different kind of duty

Masaki Kobayashi's complex and powerful Samurai Rebellion carefully chooses its moments of wisdom, political games and sword fights. A samurai is told early on in the film to keep his emotions in check lest they get the better of him. He is reminded of the difficulty in getting along with his superiors and fellow vassals so if the samurai gets angry every time, then he won't last. That patience is especially required of a samurai in moments of peace when there is no enemy to fight. So a samurai is reduced to testing his sword on straw dummies. Slashing straw men is frustrating and humiliating but that is nothing compared to an arranged marriage proposal which tests the principles and honor of a samurai family, leading to the film's main conflict points.

A Serial infection

Multiple gruesome murders are committed in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure but it is not a single killer that performs the acts. Instead, loved ones or people close to the victims do the killing. Yet, the killers are not aware of their crimes as they are remotely driven by an unknown man.

The topography of Cure feels like that of a serial killer investigation film cut from the same cloth of Memories of Murder (Joon-ho Bong) and Zodiac (David Fincher) yet Kurosawa's film immediately stands apart because of the hands off approach of the instigator who never really gets his own hands bloody. Yet, if one could open his brain, then one would see the images of blood that are being projected onto innocent would be killers. Also, the other interesting layer added to the film is the weakening health of the lead police officer's wife, resulting in the killer exploiting the officer's mental state. Reality is toyed with especially in a case when the killer never has to kill a victim himself.

A truly remarkably film which creates a dark unsettling atmosphere.

An event from a few hundred camera angles

It is remarkable to think that Kon Ichikawa's Tokyo Olympiad was shot back in 1964, at a time when camera equipment was expensive. Yet, Kon Ichikawa had about 150 cameras at his disposal to record the historic Tokyo Olympics. But Kon Ichikawa does not make a conventional news footage documentary which shows all the winners of the main events. Instead, his almost three hour documentary is a work of art that displays the human element of the sporting event. We get to see both the triumphs and low points, winners and losers, and the camera lovingly holds onto certain poetic moments for a few extra minutes. The end result is mesmerizing and presents a radically different perspective of the Olympics.

The following words by George Plimpton perfectly describe the effect of the film:

I remember Ernest Hemingway telling me once that the unnoticed things in the hands of a good writer had an effect, and a powerful one, of making readers conscious of what they had been aware of only subconsciously. A parallel adage suggests that a great photographer can take a picture of a familiar street and tell you something about it you never knew before. After watching the 1964 Tokyo Olympiad, one can surely say that Ichikawa is of that tradition.

The Power of 5: a very fishy story

2012: A comet is on course to destroy earth. Who or what can save the world?

A Punk song, ofcourse!

Fish Story is a mind spinning tale about an unlikely superhero and an even more unlikely heroic song with the following lyrics:

The story of my solitude
If my solitude were a fish
It’d be so enormous, so militant
A whale would get out of there
The story of my failure
If my failure were a fish
It’d be so tragically comic I’d have no place in the sea to be
Don’t you know you’re a liar! Don’t you know you’re a deceiver!
Music stacked up like wooden blocks Is the champion of justice!
If my justice really were a fish It’d be so greedy and arrogant

The film jumps across three decades with the only connecting element being the punk song. But thankfully by the end of an entertaining film, all the elements come together.

and the others...

Kenji Mizoguchi's haunting Ugetsu is a tale of how two men's selfish journey brings suffering to both men & their families. When the two men finally wake up from their self imposed trance, they find their life in ruins. Phillip Lapote's essay unravels the film's beauty:

One might say that Mizoguchi’s detached, accepting eye also resembles that of a ghost, looking down on mortal confusions, ambitions, vanities, and regrets. While all appearances are transitory and unstable in his world, there is also a powerfully anchoring stillness at its core, a spiritual strength no less than a virtuoso artistic focus. The periodic chants of the monks, the droning and the bells, the Buddhist sutras on Genjuro’s back, the landscapes surrounding human need, allude to this unchanging reality side by side with, or underneath, the restlessly mutable. Rooted in historical particulars, Ugetsu is a timeless masterpiece.

Yukio Mishima's Patriotism (Yûkoku, 1966) shockingly foreshadows the author's own suicide in 1970. Tony Rayns Criterion essay is essential reading about the film.

I was quite excited to see Bakumatsu Taiyoden, a title helmed by a director I had never heard. However, the discovery turned out to be anticlimatic as my DVD had no English subtitles thereby forcing me to follow the Japanese film without any assistance. All I could enjoy were some moments of humor injected in a samurai tale but the visual language was not enough to make a worthy impression.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Jean-Pierre Melville Spotlight

Jean-Pierre Melville films
The 6 films part of the spotlight on Jean-Pierre Melville:

Bob The Gambler (1956)
Léon Morin, prêtre (1961)
Le doulos (1962)
Le deuxième souffle (1966)
Le samouraï (1967)
Un Flic (1972)

In Melville’s films, like in mine, characters are caught between good and evil; and sometimes, even the worst gangsters can behave in the noblest fashion...

Melville is God to me

-- John Woo, The Melville Style, Cahiers du Cinema, Nov 2006

Jean-Pierre Melville is famous for his gangster films which have plenty of admirers, including John Woo and Quentin Tarantino. However, Melville ventured off in other directions as well, most notably World War II French resistance (Army of Shadows), religious debate (Léon Morin, prêtre) and an incestuous relationship tale sprinkled with a dreamy Cocteau Orphée narrative style (Les enfants terribles).

Criminal vs Cops, chess matches

Rain coats. Hats. Criminals. Cops. Heists. Robbery. Gambling. Loyalty. Jazz.

A lot of the same elements appear in various Melville gangster films but each film still has a distinct character because of the effort spent in crafting unique criminals and cops whose behaviors and actions linger long in the memory after the final credits. Bob (Roger Duchesne, Bob the Gambler) is an experienced calculative criminal who is completely different from the rash impulsive Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani, Le doulos) or the heist mastermind Simon (Richard Crenna, Un Flic) or the principled yet emotional Gu (Lino Ventura, Le deuxième souffle). Then there is the much younger hitman Jef Costello (Alain Delon, Le samouraï) whose cold style is rivaled only by the police informer Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo, Le Doulos). Each criminal character adds a completely different flavour to each film and their interaction with the cops makes for an intriguing intellectual battle.
The only criminal who appears to be untroubled by law is Bob because his extensive network of contacts allows him to be in the know and have a few cops in his back pocket. For example, only Bob can have such a conversation after getting arrested:

Cop 1: Criminal intent will get you five years but with a good lawyer, you could get it down three years.

Cop 2: With a better one, no criminal intent! You could be acquitted.

Bob: With a really top lawyer, I could sue for damages.

While criminal characters take center stage in Melville's films, police characters also get worthy camera time. The films present hurdles police face in order to solve cases and portray cops as intelligent and honest men, who are aware of the limitations of their jobs. In both Le deuxième souffle and Un Flic the cops talk about requiring some luck or clue to proceed forward in their investigations. In Un Flic, the importance of public help is emphasized in order to crack a case and fight off the public's ridicule of police.

In Le deuxième souffle, Commissaire Blot (played by Paul Meurisse) utters truth rarely seen in crime films:

We’re policemen, not magicians.
If some little thing doesn’t come along to help us, Gu will escape. End of story.
That leaves just luck..or chance. Call it whatever you like. We just need one tiny lead and we’ll work it to the very end.

The job of police officers is always tougher than criminals as cops have to work within a constrained law & ethical framework in order to solve their cases. Whereas, by definition criminals are those who break the law, so they are free to use whatever means possible to achieve their goals. But both Le deuxième souffle and Un Flic show that police have to push the boundaries of that framework as much as possible, even carve a few holes, to get a step closer to the criminals. For example, in Le deuxième souffle Blot uses a small time crook to trick Gu into spilling the beans and then records Gu’s confession, a tactic that enrages Gu as being unethical and a betrayal of the old times when cops and gangsters never mingled with each other.

Despite their tactics, both opposing sides of cops and gangsters understand each other and this understanding allows each to guess the other’s moves and not waste time. At the start of Le deuxième souffle, after Blot arrives at a crime scene in a restaurant, he knows there is no point in getting a confession from anyone at the restaurant because no one will provide any information. So Blot goes about narrating everyone’s alibi/confession and naturally he is proven right. No one indeed saw or heard a thing, even though gunshots were fired in plain view of everyone.

The films also manage to provide valuable screen presence for fringe characters hovering around the criminals and cops thereby painting a more complete picture of the criminal universe. However, some of the most delicious scenes in these films, especially in Un Flic and Le deuxième souffle, involve face to face encounters between the criminals and cops. These encounters allow the two opponents to assess each other and detect any sign of weakness which can be exploited later on.

The hierarchy

In Un Flic, three different roles of a heist are defined:

The holy trinity: the criminal, thief and the runner

The criminal occupies the top spot in the heist hierarchy and is the mastermind behind the plan. A thief is a rung lower than the criminal so naturally the police are more interested in catching the criminal than a petty thief. The runner/driver/look-out occupies the lowest rung and his capture is next to meaningless as most often he is not aware of the heist details.

However, a heist needs money. A fact illustrated in Bob the Gambler when Bob identifies the need for a financier willing to put up a money for their heist plan. A financial backer could potentially share the top hierarchy with a criminal, depending on the relationship and history between the two.

If a criminal cannot make do without a money man, then the police cannot do without an informer required to keep tabs on the criminals. Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo, Le Doulos) plays such a useful informer and in Un Flic, it is due to an informer that Commissaire Edouard Coleman (Alain Delon) is able to come close to nabbing Simon.

Planning, Execution & Analysis

The five gangster films are meticulous in either the planning of the heist (Bob the Gambler) or in execution of the crime (a magnificent 20 minute dialogue free helicopter/train robbery in Un Flic and a house robbery in Le doulos).

When it comes to analyzing the crimes, the police are shown to be equally competent in determining how the crime was committed (Un Flic, Le Doulos and Le deuxième souffle). Such attention to detail enriches all the films and ensures no plot holes will tarnish the films.

Out of the 6, I had seen Le samouraï previously, a film that I admire a lot. Overall, all the films are highly engrossing and a pleasure to watch.  However, I was absolutely amazed by Le deuxième souffle which is going to rank as my #2 Melville film behind Army of Shadows. Le deuxième souffle is a perfect depiction of the cop vs criminal mind games and also shows the value of loyalty in the criminal world. It also appears to be an underrated film that needs to be seen more and talked about in the same spirit as Army of Shadows & Le samouraï.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Carlos -- conversations, cigarettes and women

London, Paris, Beirut and back to Paris again. All in the opening 10 minutes. In the next 20 minutes, Hague, Yemen and Vienna are added to the travel itinerary. Welcome to the world of Carlos. A world defined by the constant lighting up of cigarettes, intense conversations about revolution, kidnappings and assassinations, and steamy sessions of sexual intercourse. Olivier Assayas' remarkable film is not a history lesson but instead picks certain key moments from Carlos’ life and weaves them into a coherent work that allows the audience to get a sense of Carlos’ ideas, his lovers and his shifting views. The three part film depicts Carlos’ transformation from a revolutionary with ideas to topple the system into a mercenary, a gun for hire. By the conclusion of the film, Carlos is a washed up terrorist who poses no real terror threat to anyone. So it is not surprizing to discover that he is captured at this stage, when he is fat, has no money or friends. Assayas is also interested in using the film as a lens to depict the complex international political games where rival enemy nations become friends the next day and vice versa.

Money, Passport & Diplomatic immunity

Any large scale terrorist operation requires money, lots of it. Surprizingly money is relatively easy to obtain for terrorists as almost all governments seem to have some set aside for destructive purposes. The rich nations spend oodles of money not only on their armies and weapons and but also on supporting rival nation’s groups, while less fortunate nations also allocate money for individual groups/mercenaries to carry out their terror plots. With money being no issue, it is a bigger challenge to obtain diplomatic immunity as only few nations can offer that security to hide terrorists.

Assayas’ film illustrates that no large scale terrorist operation can take place without a government’s knowledge. That government could be a domestic one or it could be a rival nation but some level of government has to be involved for a terrorist to slip through international borders undetected. For example, in the film it is the Syrian government that gives Carlos a diplomatic passport with a fake identity enabling him to easily fly across various countries and receive weapons in diplomatic packages. In Eastern Europe, Carlos plays the Soviet Union comrade card and gets full cooperation from East Berlin all the way through to the Kremlin because he proclaims to be fighting for communist ideals, while managing to fight for Palestinian freedom & Arab values at the same time. His words allow him to setup base in Hungary in full view of the Hungarian police who are powerless to stop him initially but only ask Carlos to leave after international pressures force the Hungarian government to distance themselves from him.

All the intelligence and spy missions won’t come close to arresting a major terrorist as long as he is protected by a diplomatic umbrella. Once that umbrella is removed, then rival spy services can move in and claim their prize. The French, aided by American intelligence, capture Carlos in Sudan but that was made possible because Carlos had outlived his usefulness and the Syrians gave him up.

Mirror Mirror

On one hand, one can understand Carlos’ political agenda by observing his interactions with governments/diplomats. On the other hand, Carlos’ relationship with the various women offer an insight into his insecurities and emotions. If the casting of Édgar Ramírez is perfect for Carlos, then the various women roles are perfectly cast as well as they form a valuable aspect for deciphering Carlos.

At the start of the film, Carlos is shown to be sophisticated, charming and brimming with revolutionary ideas. It is not surprizing to find him associate with an equally charming revolutionary over fine dining. At this stage, Carlos is mostly about ideas with very little action under his belt.

Once Carlos achieves success with his actions, his growing fame allows him to attract starry eyed admirers, whom he naturally educates about revolution. It is clear that Carlos will not associate with any woman who has a differing opinion to his and as a result he opts for a young woman willing to worship his every move.

The young girl is mesmerized by Carlos and his weapons. Carlos can merely utter words such as Weapons are an extension of my body and the girl is willing to have a foreplay session with a grenade.

But Carlos draws too much attention to himself and has to leave the country. Ofcourse, it does not matter where Carlos ends up because he can bed any woman. A fling on the beach with an unnamed woman follows.

Throughout his life, Carlos continued to utter his allegiance for the Palestinian cause even when he completely drifted away from any Palestinian issue. As Carlos’ revolutionary ideas are moulded into cold blooded killings, he meets his match in Magdalena Kopp in a Baghdad hotel. Magdalena is the only woman Carlos encounters who carries a gun and the two hit if off. Her icy behaviour mirrors the cold war nations they find themselves in and the Eastern Europe phase in Carlos’ life.

Carlos is shown to get easily bored, so it is not surprizing to see him get tired of Magdalena, especially after she has their child, thereby reducing her sexual appeal. By this stage in his life, Carlos is fat and not the thin suave man he once was. So predictably Carlos yearns for a youthful lover and he finds a perfect match in an innocent college student, who is willing to quietly stand by her man, through his worsening health.

The film shows that women were Carlos’ weakness. Even if he had a girlfriend or a wife, he still sought out sexual pleasure via prostitutes. On two occasions, Carlos’ interactions with prostitutes allow police/government to get information about him. In Sudan, Carlos lived under a false identity but he was discovered after a prostitute encounter reveals his lie. The discovery starts a chain of events which leads to his capture.

only 5.5 hours?

At first, the film’s total running time seems daunting. However, Carlos moves at such a brisk pace that the length is never felt. The film quickly weaves through the globe in Part I, focuses mainly on the botched hijacking in Part II and finally slows down to catch its breath midway through the third part but by then one wants to hold onto each passing minute tightly before the film’s inevitable conclusion.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Band Baaja Baaraat -- Dilli Delights

Band Baaja Baaraat (2010, India, Maneesh Sharma)

Maneesh Sharma makes an impressive debut with Band Baaja Baaraat, a film that does the tough job of beautifully portraying Delhi's charm while also juggling an engaging relationship tale. Now, showcasing Delhi's charm is not an easy task to pull off and traditionally the city has been underrepresented in Indian cinema. Mumbai is the home of Bollywood and amply depicted by both Indian and foreign directors, while Kolkata forms the hub of Bengali directors and often seems to catch the eye of other Indian filmmakers seeking to add a historic charm to their stories. The exotic beauty of Goa and Jaipur is also nicely captured by Indian directors while for the most part Delhi’s cinematic presence is restricted to a few token shots of India Gate, Qutab Minar, Rashtrapati Bhavan and Chandni Chowk. Of course, Delhi’s cinematic shyness can be understood to some extent as it is not a city that openly seduces any visitor on a first glance. In fact, the almost always grayish city appears to be designed to push away a first time visitor as it does not possess the vibrancy of Mumbai, the beaches of Goa or the opulent palaces of Jaipur nor does it boast a central core where the best of the city is on display. The circular Connaught Place may be a busy visiting center but it does not possess an immediate wow factor. On the other hand, the charm of Connaught Place is discovered by spending time, walking from block to block, and unearthing some precious treasure tucked away in a corner. That patient examination is required for the rest of the city as well. The true charms of Delhi are locked away in individual urban areas/colonies located hours apart and discovering the true beauty of the city requires time and energy that most visitors may not be able to afford. When one reaches a colony then one has to take time to discover a magnificent bookstore, a marvelous dhaba or a charming restaurant. On top of that, Delhi is a city that is haunted by history at almost every corner. Like Rome, Delhi’s past in the form of ruins oversee the millions traveling across the city every day. Such history is easily overlooked when one is crawling through the city’s numerous traffic packed lanes.

Thankfully over the last decade, Delhi has gotten a closer cinematic look. Mira Nair portrays a bit of the city’s beauty in Monsoon Wedding, Dibakar Banerjee’s trio of films, Khosla Ka Ghosla, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye and Love, Sex aur Dhokha are wholly rooted in Delhi’s essence, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti captures some of the city’s youthful attitude and energy, Siddharth Anand Kumar & Ankur Tewari’s Let’s Enjoy perfectly depicts the farmhouse party scene in Delhi and Anand Kumar’s Jugaad puts a humorous spin on the real issue of sealing commercial shops in Delhi and accurately shows how things can still get done despite obstructions. Ofcourse, not all Delhi based films have worked out too well. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Delhi 6 did not have the authentic feel like Rang De Basanti did while Anand Kumar’s Delhii Heights could not move beyond weakly etched characters living in apartment complexes of Gurgaon. If a filmmaker has to make a good film about Delhi, then they must be willing to embrace the city's beauty and ugliness while accurately portraying characters raised in the city’s essence.

Maneesh Sharma has done his homework and as a result his Band Baaja Baaraat can now add its name to films that do Delhi justice and in a sense his film contains a tiny spirit of the above films. BBB combines the energy of Rang De Basanti, the wedding element of Monsoon Wedding, true Dilli dialogue/characters of Dibakar Banerjee’s films, the farmhouses of Let’s Enjoy and the improvisational aspect of Jugaad.

The tagline of Band Baaja Baaraat is “Shadi aapki, tension hamaari” (your wedding, our tension). Now all weddings are a tense affair but a wedding in Delhi brings an extra set of challenges. Delhi's wedding season is just a few months long and based on the auspicious dates given by a priest, only a handful of dates get the biggest number of weddings per year. For example, back on Dec 13 2006, 30,000 weddings were held in a single day and in 2010, the added lure of Valentine’s day & an auspicious date meant that 16,000 weddings were held on Feb 14 alone. Such high numbers stand out but in reality, it is quite common to find thousands of weddings taking place on a single day each wedding season. In a city of more than 13 million people, this huge number of weddings on a single day creates an extra burden on the road systems especially since the shortage of wedding venues requires people to travel from one end of the city to another, not to mention the multiple baaraats and bands also attempting to make their way across the city. On top of that, a lot of the priests and wedding bands are double or triple booked for the same time slot. It is not uncommon to find priests rushing from one wedding to another and band’s arriving late to a wedding because of their other commitments. In such scenarios, holding a wedding in Delhi is a massive challenging affair. So the story of wedding planners set in Delhi makes complete sense.

Band Baaja Baaraat highlights some of the challenges of holding shaadis in either tight alleys of Delhi or in large lavish Sainik farmhouses. With all the challenges, the only way a wedding can be successful is with a degree of improvisation and this is accurately shown in Sharma’s film. One example illustrated is when the wedding planners hit a hurdle in trying to find a caterer within a budget, they get a valid tip from Maqsood (Neeraj Sood) the flowerist. Such tips are common in Delhi where it seems a marriage cannot take place without depending on a contact’s contact. The wedding details are shown in a humorous yet accurate manner but the film really shines in its depiction of the relationship between the two lead characters of Shruti and Bittoo (played brilliantly by Anushka Sharma and Ranveer Singh respectively). There was a time in the late 1970’s and 1980’s when Yash Chopra’s films went beneath the surface to get at the core of a relationship but ever since his son Aditya Chopra entered the frame in the mid 1990’s, relationships shown in Yash Raj films are all superficial and restricted to cute infatuations. However, the ugly nasty side of relationships is remarkably shown in BBB. After Shruti & Bittoo end up sleeping together, their relationship gets naturally complicated. A difference in expectation leads to a conflict where the two end up becoming bitter enemies and end up at each other’s throats like a married couple. Yet, even in their moments of hatred, the two are able to work side by side with each other because of their strong friendship. A good friendship is essential to any successful relationship and in this regard, Shruti and Bittoo’s interactions make sense. The two are able to work so well because they are aware of each other's likes and dislikes. Throughout the film, the two characters behave according to their personalities and as a result, everything that occurs in the film is entirely believable and does not require a leap of faith.

BBB also shines on the musical front. With the exception of the Dum Dum Song, all the other musical numbers have a place in the film. The opening credit song perfectly lays the framework for the two character’s history and gives us an idea about their personalities. Most Bollywood films spend three hours covering the same ground the opening credit sequence does in a matter of minutes. The title song is perfectly used to increase the tempo of the film and Ainvayi Ainvayi is an infectious dance number.

However, Dum Dum is out of place although it is a lavish over the top number found in a Karan Johar or Aditya Chopra film. If the price of making a fine film like BBB means having a throw away song, then it is a small price to pay.

It is indeed a pleasant surprize to find a wonderful film can still be made from a first time director embedded in the current Bollywood studio model but interestingly, Yash Raj Films have previously given another new director a chance to shine. In Chak De India, partly shot in Delhi, Shimit Amin was allowed to freely move his camera around the newcomer actresses and was not required to ensure the camera stayed focused only on Shah Rukh Khan. BBB remarkably does away with any big stars, with Anushka Sharma the only recognizable face and this is only her third film, after she made her debut opposite SRK in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. Lastly, Band Baaja Baaraat also shows that it is entirely possible to make an entertaining film without requiring the audience to “leave their brains at the door.”

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Dec --> Jan films

The final few weeks of December are always a busy time for Hollywood film releases but in the past, I have had to wait until mid-January to catch some of the big buzz films such as The Wrestler, Gran Torino, There Will be Blood and Children of Men because of delayed release cycles across Canada. This year, it seems it will be the turn of Black Swan to get a January release. Currently, only three Canadian cities are playing Black Swan, with Toronto showing the film in 5 theaters, Vancouver in 2 and Montreal in a single cinema. In fact, the AMC Dundas in downtown Toronto has a staggering 16 shows of Black Swan on both Saturday and Sunday. However, the rest of the country will most likely have to wait until the first 2 weeks of January to see what the noise is all about.

While Black Swan still has no local release date, some interesting Indian films have confirmed dates for a Calgary release.

1) Dhobi Ghat -- I missed seeing Kiran Rao's debut film at TIFF so I am glad to know it is releasing on January 21.

2) No One Killed Jessica -- Raj Kumar Gupta's debut film Aamir was impressive so curious to see how his second feature turns out. Ofcourse, the headlines will be stolen by the pairing of Rani Mukherjee & Vidya Balan. Jan 7 release.

3) Utt Pataang -- Srikanth.V Velagaleti makes his directorial debut with this Vinay Pathak - Saurabh Shukla comedy out on Jan 21. Any Vinay Pathak film is an event to look forward to and this one has the bonus of being written by Saurabh Shakula. Interestingly, Rajat Kapoor & Ranvir Shorey are not involved with the film so Pathak and Shukla will have to carry the film on their own.

4) Dil Toh Baccha Hai Ji -- Madhur Bhandarkar's new feature is out on Jan 28 and it is surprizing to see Bhandarkar try his hand at comedy as he is known for more hard hitting films such as Satta, Fashion, Traffic Signal, and Chandni Bar. The comedic style appears to be taking a page out of 3 Idiots book but the film title is clearly taken from the soul stirring track from Ishqiya.

Ofcourse, Sundance kicks off on January 20th and Rotterdam starts on Jan 26. For me, Rotterdam officially kicks off a new film festival year but it seems strange to be talking about 2011 films when I am still waiting to see many 2010 films such as Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void.
[Update Dec 15, 2010]

Black Swan will open on Friday, Dec 17 so I will not have to wait until 2011 to see it.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Around the world in 24 films

Just a brief mention of some worthy newer films from around the world. Some of these films will surely end up in my year end best list.

Note: films arranged as per country.

El Camino du punto (2010, Argentina, Sebastián Díaz Morales)

The title's translation, The Way Between Two Points, perfectly sums the film which is about a character's journey from point A to point B. There are only a few minutes of dialog at the start and these dialogues are the weakest aspect of the film as the words needlessly try to give the story a higher worldly purpose. After the words are delivered, the film settles into a beautiful journey where we get both an overhead shot of the landscape that is to be covered and the ground level footage of the journey. The singular focus of the journey at all costs reminds a bit about The Limits of Control and Birdsong but El Camino du punto is free from any dramatic or religious baggage of those two other films.

Kill the Referee (2009, Belgium, Y.Hinant/E.Cardot/L.Delphine)

This Belgium soccer documentary does not have any narration or title cards to guide the audience but instead dives right into the action. Like the Zidane film, this documentary gives a completely different perspective to what one experiences when watching a soccer game. One gets to see the game from an on-field angle, but instead of a player's point of view, we see the game from a referee's angle.

This film is essential viewing for anyone who has ever seen a soccer game. And since the film is artistically shot and edited, it offers non-soccer fans plenty to chew on as well. The games shown in the film are from Euro 2008 and if a person is familiar with some of the players, then that enhances the experience. This film does an excellent job in showing us the human side of the refs and also some of the egos that operate in the game.

A Simple Rhythm (2010, Canada, Tess Girard)

A poetic and mesmerizing look at simple day to day rhythms that shape our lives. The film artfully layers images with sounds to create a calming and fascinating experiencing. In between the images are thoughtful interviews on a variety of subjects, ranging from music to mathematics.

Viva Riva! (2010, Congo co-production, Djo Munga)

In the TIFF write-up, Cameron Bailey noted:

Finally! An African feature film that merges the pleasures of Nollywood with sleek camerawork, satisfying genre thrills and a rare look inside the very heart of the continent. Viva Riva! is unprecedented: a story set in contemporary Democratic Republic of the Congo full of intrigue, music and a surprisingly frank approach to sex.

That is a perfect description as Viva Riva! molds elements of oil trafficking, corruption, violence and sex into an enjoyable film. In the fashion of Nollywood films, the villain is sinister and over the top while the hero, Riva, is a charming intelligent man who can have any woman he wants. Ofcourse, Riva falls for the one woman who will lead him into trouble but Nora is too seductive to resist. The camera ensures that Nora's beauty and Kinshasa's buzzing street life are captured nicely.

Valhalla Rising (2010, Denmark/UK, Nicolas Winding Refn)

The film starts off in an ancient time when men settled their disputes face to face in a bloody hand to hand combat. However, as the warrior crew enters a new land, the change in warfare tactics ensures that man will have to learn to adapt in order to survive. In the new land, arrows fired from unseen enemies lead to death meaning one could die at the hands of someone they do not even see.

A savage bloody film that is also one of the year's best.

Scheherazade Tell me a Story (2009, Egypt, Yousry Nasrallah)

The film uses a soap opera/talk show format to probe at deeper issues not only within Egyptian society but the rest of the Middle East especially regarding the treatment of women in households and at workplaces. It helps that the film is well acted and packed with more gorgeous women than one would find even in a Pedro Almodovar movie. Overall, a pleasurable film.

Steam of Life (2010, Finland, Joonas Berghäll/Mika Hotakainen)

A beautifully shot contemplative film that places the viewer in an awkward
position of a voyeur observing Finnish men pour their heart out while sitting in a variety of saunas. The film remarkably shows that any enclosed space can be transformed into a sauna, even a phone booth, and the calming effect of the steam is essential to allow men to tackle life's daily burdens.

Win/Win (2010, Holland, Jaap van Heusden)

This Dutch film about a stock exchange manages to find a calm balanced middle ground in between Ben Younger's Boiler Room and Aronofsky's Pi. In fact, the main character in Win/Win Ivan looks like a more laid back version of Max from Pi. Win/Win artfully shows that it is possible to find zen like moments even in a high octane stock market setting.

Gallants (2009, Hong Kong, Clement Sze-Kit Cheng/Chi-kin Kwok)

A homage to the 1970’s Shaw Brothers films, complete with amazing fight sequences, memorable characters and over the top hilarious situations. Even if one is not familiar with older kung-fu movies, this film stands on its own. Knowing about the Shaw Brothers films will just enhance the experience. There are some moments when the action stalls but the film has many high energy moments. The homage would have been perfect if the film title was something which captured the story’s spirit such as “Gates of Law” or if the title used a variation of the words “Dragon”, “Tiger” or “kick”.

Ocean of an Old Man (2008, India, Rajesh Shera)

Simple. Beautiful. Meditative. Haunting. Tragic.

The old man in the title is played by Tom Alter, easily recognizable to Bollywood fans because he always played an evil villain in Indian films, and was almost always an evil British general in period films. In Rajesh Shera's film, Alter's character plays a school teacher who is devastated by the loss of his wife and daughter in 2004's tsunami. Unfortunately, he can never forget his loss as he has to cross the same ocean everyday to teach his students. To make matters worse, he has to listen to the ocean waves crashing onto the shore and rocks every night while in the day, his students paintings and stories revolve only around the ocean.

There isn’t much dialogue in the film but that does not matter because the beautiful images and fascinating sounds convey the tragedy and gravity of the situation. Also, the sound track is smartly turned off when the sounds of the ocean fill the screen. The minimalist style might frustrate some viewers but patient viewers will be rewarded with an absolute gem of a film.

Peepli Live (2010, India, Anusha Rizvi)

A smart satire that uses the real life story about farmer suicides to poke fun at the mercenary Indian satellite tv channels preoccupied with ratings. However, Peepli Live does feel like two films in one. The film starts off in the village but then lets the media circus take things over. At times, the two stories (farmer suicide, tv ratings circus) compete with each other and eventually the farmer story is brushed aside. Also, there are some moments where the film un-necessarily goes over the top (such as the mention of Saif Ali Khan's grade 8 kiss) when a more subtle approach would have sufficed.

Overall, it does feel like a lost opportunity to make a truly great film. That being said, the ending is perfect when the camera shows us images without any words.

Gorbaciòf (2010, Italy, Stefano Incerti)

The sound of Gorbaciòf's proud walk on the streets and the sound of money stay long in the memory after the film ends. Many films show bundles of money but not many films actually let the sound of crisp notes being counted filter through to the audience. Gorbaciòf counts money everyday both in his day job and at night with his bribe money. The dangerous combination of taking bribes and gambling is never a safe bet for a trouble free life but Gorbaciòf's problems multiply when he falls for a Chinese woman who does not speak any Italian. Gorbaciòf wants to be the woman's knight in shining armour and in order to ensure a better life for her, he needs more money. That need leads him down a slippery yet predictable slope. The love angle is the film's weakest aspect and if it were not for the love story, Incerti's film would be one of the year's best films.

On another note: the male leads in The American, Gorbaciòf and The Robber are all related with their dangerous ways of life. It is not surprizing that the ending of all three films finds these three very different men (an American, Austrian and an Italian) in the exact same situation looking through the glass towards a better future.

The Tiger Factory (2010, Malaysia/Japan, Woo Ming Jin)

The film follows a young girl, Ping, in her attempt to gather money to illegally leave Malaysia for Japan. Ping's life is controlled by her aunt who witholds her passport and pays for men to get Ping pregnant so that the aunt can sell the baby. The story sounds bleak but thanks to the cinematography and lighting, the film does not feel gloomy and instead makes for a fascinating viewing. The style evokes the Dardennes, albeit with a bit of lightness.

Woman on Fire Looks for Water (2009, Malaysia/South Korea, Woo Ming Jin)

This is one of the most visually beautiful films of the year!! The film is about two love tales on opposite ends of the age spectrum. One story shows how a young boy is forced to take his family's fortune into account before deciding upon marriage while the other story shows if love is not truly acknowledged, then even at old age, it continues to torment and bite. In between these two stories, there are many remakarable shots which show the fishing business and every day life, plus there is plenty of humor shown in a subtle manner.

Kinatay (2009, Philippines, Brillante Mendoza)

The first 20-30 min of Kinatay perfectly capture the sights and sounds of the street life. After that, the camera moves inside a van and this is where the negative publicity regarding the film starts. Although it is hard to understand what all the fuss is about because there is nothing graphic or gory that is shown but instead we mostly listen to sounds of the horrible butchering and only see a tiny glimpse of the murder weapon. The briefly lit scenes allows viewers to fill in the horror themselves using the audio cues. Maybe in a theater, these audio cues are magnified thereby causing a claustorphobic effect.

Still, the film is powerful in how it goes about showing what it does and it is hard to be not shook up by the ending. I can see why Mendoza was awarded the best director for this film in Cannes 2009.

Lola (2009, Philippines, Brillante Mendoza)

Lola is a touching film regarding two grandmothers and how they go about dealing with their lives while finding themselves as opponents in a criminal case. One woman is seeking justice for her grandson’s murder, while the other is trying to save her grandson from going to jail for murdering the other woman’s grandson. The film switches perspective from one grandmother to the other and this method highlights many relevant points such as the true price of justice for people who are trying to make ends meet.

Manilla Skies (2009, Philippines/USA, Raymond Red)

The start gives a false impression of being another film depicting the frustration of being jobless in a major Asian city but the story then takes a dramatic turn towards a heist and an even more unexpected turn towards a plane hijacking. The cyclic nature of the ending, when one of the final scenes is neatly tied with the opening shot, depicts a beautiful pattern to the story. The lead performance is amazing and the film grows in strength as it moves along. Also, the dark/grayish visuals perfectly echo the gloomy mood of the character's situation. Amazingly, the film is inspired by a true story.

Essential Killing (2010, Poland co-production, Jerzy Skolimowski)

Like in Valhalla Rising, the male lead in Essential Killing never speaks a single word. Yet, Vincent Gallo's character does not need to talk as his expressions of pain and anguish perfectly convey his inner feelings. Gallo plays a taliban fighter who is captured in Afghanistan but finds himself on the run in a frozen European country side after a series of events lead to his escape. From then on, the film alternates between chase scenarios as the dogs/soldiers close down on Gallo's character and survival scenes where his character does anything just to survive in the brutal cold. It is understandable to see why Gallo won best actor in Venice for this film as his raw performance shows how much can be conveyed without needless dramatic dialogues.

Between Two Worlds (2009, Sri Lanka, Vimukthi Jayasundara)

This Sri Lankan film is a good example of what Bresson mentioned in his book, Notes on the Cinematographer, in the Sight and Hearing section:

”What is for the eye must not duplicate what is for the ear."

”If the eye is entirely won, give nothing or almost nothing to the ear. (And vice versa, if the ear is entirely won, give nothing to the eye.) One cannot be at the same time all eye and all ear.

”If a sound is the obligatory complement of an image, give preponderance either to the sound, or to the image. If equal, they damage or kill each other, as we say of colours.

Between Two Worlds has a beautiful visual and aural language while the story has a nice fable and mythical element to it. There are some scenes which fluidly mesh the imagined and real with a smooth easy manner. The only minor complaint is that some scenes appear staged, drawing attention to themselves and thereby weakening the dramatic effect of the situation. Two such examples are the youthful mob at the film's start and the dance by the river near the end.

Guest (2010, Spain, José Luis Guerín)

Guest is José Luis Guerín's travelogue of his year long film festival circuit tour from September 2007 till September 2008 with his film In the City of Sylvia. Even though Guest starts and ends at the Venice Film Festival, Guest is not a documentary about film festivals. Instead, it is a truly global film that gives a glimpse into everyday life in open public squares in various places such as Bolivia, Columbia, Peru, Brazil, Mexico, Cuba and Hong Kong. Places that do not have open squares are not covered by his film which naturally means that Canada and the US are not shown on the screen. For example, Guerín was in Vancouver in 2007 to premier In the City of Sylvia but Vancouver does not get a single shot in the film. Basically, any place that did not have adequate public space would not have allowed Guerín to interact with the locals and get their views. Guerín freely filmed everything around him and was not shy to keep his camera rolling. As a result, we get to witness some fascinating parallels regarding religion in diverse places such as Brazil and Hong Kong. Guest takes about 20 minutes to spring to life but once it awakens, it has plenty of interesting stories to share.

Woman without a Piano (2009, Spain, Javier Rebollo)

A sublime film that uses a low key treatment in depicting a single night's events. The camera quietly follows Carmen around and the events that unfold around her are hilarious and sad at the same time. The film is set in Madrid and in some alleys we see situations which Pedro Almovodar uses in his films but Woman without a Piano is an art film through and through, with a pinch of comedy.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010, Thailand co-production, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

Joe's film is a visual treat like his previous works but instead of the two part structure found in Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, Uncle Boonmee is a single flowing work that manages to blend the two worlds of humans and spirits. This is his most accessible work and also his most openly political. In Blissfully Yours one could faintly hear the tank fire going on in the distance but the soldiers were not shown. However, in Uncle Boonmee we get to see futuristic pictures (really the present) of army actions. As enchanting as the film is, it pales slightly to the hypnotic beauty of Tropical Malady and Syndromes... Still even a Joe lite work is better than most current world cinema.

Four Lions (2010, UK, Christopher Morris)

A well made and acted film from the two writers of the witty In the Loop. Four Lions tries to use the same humour style of In the Loop with mixed results. The humour style of In the Loop made sense because it dealt with the circus like world of politics where a single sentence can be endlessly interpreted and rehashed. However, that style is more difficult to pull off with a topic of terrorism and suicide bombers. In that regard, one can watch Four Lions in a state of shocked horror and find it entirely offensive. The film is also brave in its treatment of the subject, especially since neither of the writers or director is Muslim.

Spoiler note:*****

Credit must go to the film-makers for remarkably maintaining the same consistent tone throughout even after the characters start dying whereas it would have been easier for the film to have taken on a more serious tone after the first accidental death.

Monogamy (2010, USA, Dana Adam Shapiro)

A fascinating modern day treatment of Antonioni’s Blow Up. Blow Up was made during the free love decade where the main character had no problem getting any woman he wanted so solving the murder mystery became a more important challenge for him. But in modern times, free love isn’t that readily available. And the presence of email and text messaging has changed the nature of relationships by limiting face to face hook ups. As a result, Theo’s (Chris Messina) “free love” is reduced to a voyeuristic kick. Things are complicated by the fact that Theo is on the verge of getting married and already he feels the walls closing in on him.

The acting is stellar, especially in the scene where Theo’s fiancée catches him looking at pics of another girl. The ending is not as dramatic as we are led to believe. The true identity of Theo's subject is quite clear but maybe the ending was supposed to emphasize that Theo was so blinded by the little details in the photos he took that he missed the obvious bigger picture.

Top 5 in order of preference:

1) Kill the Referee
2) Ocean of an Old Man
3) Woman on Fire Looks for Water
4) Valhalla Rising
5) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

I cannot praise Kill the Referee enough. The fact that the film is about soccer is also its biggest handicap because that would mean limited release and certainly no press coverage in North America. I have read rumours that UEFA might have had the final say on what could make the final cut but regardless of the truth, what is presented on screen is fascinating enough. The footage allows the audience to identify some of the egos, heroes and villains that operate in the game.