Friday, December 30, 2016

Best Films of 2016

At times, it was hard to think of films in 2016 given the shifting political winds around the world. Thankfully, global cinema was in step with the changes and some films predicted the anger and shift to the right. Naturally, most of these films were only found at various international film festivals, cinematheques and arthouses. Hopefully, some of these titles start getting distribution in 2017 and find a larger audience.

Note: for the sake of an even comparison, only 2016 titles are considered for this list.

Baker’s Dozen of Top 2016 films

1. Take Me Home (Iran, Abbas Kiarostami)

Cinema lost a leading voice when Abbas Kiarostami passed away in 2016. The artistic beauty with which he crafted his films can be found in Take Me Home, a lovely short  film about a soccer ball’s journey. The short is beautiful, packs warm emotions and plays with the concept of reality. A precious final gift from one of cinema’s greatest directors!

2. Aquarius (Brazil/France, Kleber Mendonça Filho)

Even though the film is localized to a Brazilian apartment building, the events echo our current world of rapid development where the past is always in danger of being demolished for a shiny new future.

3. The Student (Russia, Kirill Serebrennikov)

The Student brilliantly portrays the recent changing political sentiment in Europe and USA. The film uses the radicalization of a lonely shy white male to underline that hateful ideas that may seem harmless at first can result in grave consequences if unchecked and allowed to spread.

4. Shin Godzilla (Japan, Hideaki Anno/Shinji Higuchi)

A film of immense beauty and fierce intelligence about creation, evolution, destruction, logistics and problem solving.

5. Nocturama (France/Germany/Belgium, Bertrand Bonello)

A tense razor sharp film that is stripped of any specific ideology but is completely aware of our contemporary world.

6. Nightlife (Slovenia/Republic of Macedonia/Bosnia and Herzegovina, Damjan Kozole)

This Slovenian co-production cleverly uses a single incident to depict how private events can quickly end up becoming public scandals. The film style has shades of the Romanian New Wave.

7. Silence (USA/Mexico/Taiwan, Martin Scorsese)

At its core, this is a film about imposing one's will on others. On a macro-level, this is a clash of civilizations/religions. But this idea of imposing ideas onto another takes place on micro-levels as well, from every day beliefs about sports, politics and even the weather. On a micro-level, these ideas may seem harmless and can be ignored. But this need to impose one's way can take on serious consequences on a macro-level. Throughout history, men (always men, which is why no female leads are in the film) have tried to convert others, to conquer other's soul, minds. Men did this because they believed their way was the only way. So they went about with extreme measures and tortured, killed until the others accepted.

Silence is not an easy film to watch and needs time to digest. But it is one of most significant and relevant films of the year!

8. Neruda (Chile/Argentina/France/Spain/USA, Pablo Larraín)

Creatively uses the poetry of Neruda to create a fictional framework which questions the reality and myth surrounding Neruda’s escape. Infused with humour and a scrumptious touch of noir.

9. Yourself and Yours ( South Korea, Hong Sang-soo)

In the films of Hong Sang-soo, characters open up their feelings and transform when alcohol is present. That point is hammered home in Yourself and Yours where the main character morphs into a completely different person as soon as a fresh pint of beer is served. The end result is a dizzying delightful work!

10. The Ornithologist (Portugal/France/Brazil, João Pedro Rodrigues)

A hypnotic journey which is an innovative mix of a fable and myth that seamlessly shifts through multiple cinematic genres.

11. In the Last Days of the City (Egypt/Germany/UK/UAE, Tamer El Said)
       tied with
      Clash (Egypt/France, Mohamed Diab)

Two completely different Egyptian films set in different eras but the two films end up having a dialogue with each other.

In the Last Days of the City is a poetic love letter to a Cairo that no longer exists. The film consists entirely of footage shot in 2009-10 and there are many scenes which may have seemed harmless back in 2010 but take on a much different meaning after the 2011 Egyptian revolution. In the Last Days of the City shows a time when people could roam the streets of Cairo freely and openly discuss political ideas. The freedom of the camera’s movement in Tamer El Said’s film is in stark contrast to Clash which is set in a confined space in the back of a police van.

Mohamed Diab’s powerful film depicts the division in Egyptian society that came to a boil in 2013. The confined space in Clash creates a powerful immersive experience and mirrors the state of society in 2013 in contrast to In the Last Days of the City.

13. Fences (USA, Denzel Washington)

A film that will always be timely due to the discussions about a racial past and also due to the honest practical conversations about relationships. The dialogues articulate what a relationship means and outlines the every day dollar value associated with decisions that people make. These dialogues won't apply to the 1% but for the 99%.

Honourable mentions (alphabetical order):

Elle (France/Germany/Belgium, Paul Verhoeven)
Hell or High Water (USA, David Mackenzie)
The Human Surge (Argentina/Brazil/Portugal, Eduardo Williams)
It’s Not the Time of My Life (Hungary, Szabolcs Hajdu)
Life after Life (China, Zhang Hanyi)
Mother (Estonia, Kadri Kõusaar)
Old Stone (Canada/China, Johnny Ma)

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Cinema of Lav Diaz

From What is Before (2014)
Lav Diaz’s cinema exists on the opposite end of the spectrum to the commercial cinema of rapid cuts and short takes. A one minute scene in these commercial movies consists of multiple cuts thereby eliminating the notion of real time. While these short take movies eliminate real time, they embody the sentiments of constantly scrolling social media where events take place in a blink of an eye. For some, these quick cut movies constitute exciting cinema. But it is a cinema whose purpose is to overload the senses and prevent any time for thinking or contemplation. Therefore, it is refreshing to find that a filmmaker like Lav Diaz exists whose films allow each scene to develop for as long as possible. A four hour film by Lav Diaz is considered a short film because many of his films are in the 9-10 hour range, with the longest film clocking in around 10.5 hours.

The films of Lav Diaz have been regulars at international film festivals but seeing them outside of a film festival used to be a quest in itself. For a long time, I was on this quest to see his films. Thankfully, my personal quest for seeing his films ended in 2013 when showed CENTURY OF BIRTHING. Shortly after that, NORTE got a proper DVD release. I managed to see a few more of his films once again thanks to

After those mubi screenings, a traveling retrospective of his films took place at various Cinematheques and arthouses. This led to a lot more coverage of his films and proper film criticism that examined his works beyond the headlines about long takes and running time. It appeared to a matter of time before his films would get wider circulation.

Well, that time is upon us now. is doing an entire year long retrospective of his works online, releasing one film per month. So far, Lav Diaz’s staggering EVOLUTION OF A FILIPINO FAMILY has shown and currently HEREMIAS (BOOK ONE: THE LEGEND OF THE LIZARD PRINCESS) is showing.

Here is some reading about his films to accompany the film viewing experience:

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Shin Godzilla

SHIN GODZILLA (2016, Japan, Hideaki AnnoShinji Higuchi)

SHIN GODZILLA is a film of immense beauty and fierce intelligence about creation, evolution and destruction. A film that is operatic in its movement, contemplative in its stillness/silence and meditative in its depiction of politics, economics and science.

Even though it is about Gojira, the film cleverly uses Gojira as a lens to demonstrate human logistics and problem solving. How fast can humans mobilize and come up with a solution? How fast can humans ingest data and find a pattern?

The film also shows the political side of humans when decisions are made to crush a nation only for self-preservation.

The movie is rooted in Japanese identity and the film shows how Japan has been impacted since WWII but the film is also universal in depicting how outside governments and institutions can impact a nation. In this regard, some moments in the film point towards how outside influence has drastically altered the face of the Middle East and even Latin America.

One of the best films of the year!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


Jindrich Polák’s IKARIE XB 1 (1963) is one of the most significant Science fiction films ever made yet it is also relatively unknown even though its fingerprints can be found on numerous Sci-fi works such as Gene Roddenberry’s STAR TREK series (1966), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) and even INTERSTELLAR (2014). In many ways, IKARIE XB 1 laid the template for future sci-fi works, especially regarding the interior spaceship design and multi-national crew, elements that are associated with STAR TREK. Michael Brooke has noted in his IKARIE XB 1 essay that both Gene Roddenberry and Stanley Kubrick had viewed Polák’s film while researching for their works. However, there appears to be more than simple set design that is borrowed from IKARIE XB 1. The camera movements and shots in IKARIE XB 1 around the spaceship command centre/bridge, corridors/hallways and outside the ship have been used in many other films over the decades. In addition, the depiction of crew dynamics and psychology of some crew members is another memorable aspect of IKARIE XB 1, although credit for that can be attributed in part to Stanislaw Lem. 

The names of Pavel Jurácek, Jindrich Polák are listed in the screenplay credits of IKARIE XB 1 but the movie is based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem as noted by Allan Fish in his memorable 2015 essay. Lem’s novel ‘Solaris’ is his more famous film adaptation but ‘The Magellan Nebula’ adapted into IKARIE XB 1 deserves worthy praise for exploring the dynamics of a multi-racial/multi-national crew consisting of both sexes and different age groups. Stanislaw Lem is known for his Science fiction writing but he also wrote non-fiction which brimmed with ideas about technology, artificial intelligence (although Lem called it “Intellectronics”), virtual reality (Lem called it “Phantomology”) and man’s place in the universe. Therefore, it is not a surprise that his work helped lay the groundwork for future Sci-fi films which showed machines/computers taking control and humans ultimately losing their mind on board a spaceship. The latter is something shown in IKARIE XB-1, although it takes place long after the music and dancing has stopped, long after all communication has ceased.

IKARIE XB 1 takes place in 2163, two centuries after the film was released in 1963. A multi-national crew is en route to find life in the Alpha Centauri solar system. We meet a captain whose thoughts and concerns are conveyed to us via a voice-over narration (if you listen carefully, you can see the birth of a future Captain Kirk here). The camera moves around the command centre depicting each crew member on their panel, a shot repeated many times in STAR TREK. Initially, we see the crew enjoying themselves, working out in a large gym with enough space for the members to practise gymnastics and even shower together (shown without the nudity of STARSHIP TROOPERS). One character (MacDonald, played by Radovan Lukavský) is shown talking with his wife back home on earth via a giant screen about what it will be like to be reunited with her and their unborn daughter who will be 15 years old when the ship returns to Earth (the father-daughter age gap dynamic is explored further in INTERSTELLAR).

The celebration and crew discussions are suddenly halted when a deserted alien ship is discovered, a story arc explored by numerous films over the years. Although, in the case of IKARIE XB 1, the alien ship turns out to be an old human exploration vessel from 1987. All the crew of the 1987 ship are found dead but their bodies are frozen in the last action they were doing before they met their end. The discovery of the old crew ship sets in motion events which cause confusion and some anxiety in the lives of the Ikarie crew members. In addition, radiation from a nearby dark star threatens their lives leading to one crew member, Michal (Otto Lackovic), losing his wits and demanding to go back to earth. The mental breakdown of a character is now a common element found in many Sci-fi films, an element that leads to either horror or plenty of blood. But in the case of IKARIE XB 1, there isn’t any horror or gory finale related to Michal’s breakdown. Instead, the film ends on a hugely positive note and indicates a new dawn lies in store for the crew.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that a Czech film like IKARIE XB 1 laid the foundations for many Sci-fi films set in outer space. After all, it was Karel Čapek’s 1920 Czech play that coined the word ‘robot’, a term that is now forever part and parcel of the Sci-fi genre and even our real world. In a similar manner, Jindrich Polák’s IKARIE XB 1 is a film that is a huge part of the existing Sci-fi genre and contains elements that have been used in many variations in a huge number of memorable Sci-fi films.

Note: cross-published on Wonders in the Dark as part of the Sci-fi countdown.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Calgary International Film Festival 2016

The Calgary International Film Festival’s World Cinema Series provides a snapshot of some of the best contemporary international directors working today in a diverse range of genres. The 26 films in this series cover an entire spectrum of genres – action, adventure, comedy, coming-of-age, crime, drama, fantasy, historical fiction, horror, magic realism, mystery, neo-noir, political, romance, road journey, thriller and science fiction.  There is no Western genre but one of the films pays a delicious tribute to it with a soulful finale (sorry, no spoilers). This series covers six continents, leaving only Antarctica out in the cold, and offers a unique chance to travel the world without leaving the comfort of Calgary! 

Works from many nations are returning to CIFF with two nations making their CIFF debut. MOTHER (Estonia) and BARAKAH MEETS BARAKAH (Saudi Arabia) are the first films from their respective nations to ever feature at CIFF. In addition, IN THE LAST DAYS OF THE CITY marks a welcome return for Egypt as it has been more than a decade since an Egyptian film played at CIFF. In addition, there are special returns for two directors, Maren Ade and Park Chan-wook. Maren Ade came to Calgary back in 2009 when her powerful film EVERYONE ELSE competed in the Mavericks category. Now, CIFF is proud to feature her film TONI ERDMANN, which was a critical favourite at Cannes this year, and a front-runner for the Palme D’Or. Park Chan-wook’s SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE showed at the Globe during a midnight slot as part of CIFF 2003. That year, the Korean New Wave of Cinema was just about to take off and Park Chan-wook’s SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE and subsequent feature OLDBOY played an integral part in helping put Korean cinema back on the international map in the coming decade. This year, he returns with THE HANDMAIDEN, a film that shows him at the top of his directorial powers. Each film in the World Cinema Series stands on its own in offering a different perspective of cinematic techniques and styles but there are some common elements which bind the works within each region.

Latin American Cinema is lovingly covered by five films at CIFF 2016: BLEAK STREET (Mexico), KILL ME PLEASE (Brazil/Argentina), NERUDA (Chile), ROAD TO LA PAZ (Argentina) and ROSA CHUMBE (Peru). With the exception of NERUDA, the remaining four films give the viewer a multi-layered perspective of contemporary Latin American life and range from a realistic view of street life to middle-class households and a peek at residents living in high-rises. BLEAK STREET is based on a true story, and allows the viewer to see a gritty side of Mexico by depicting events through the intersection of two mini-luchadores and two prostitutes. KILL ME PLEASE is a fascinating mesh of coming-of-age and horror but is also a smart commentary on the new spaces being developed in Brazil. The entire film is set in Barra da Tijuca, a neighbourhood in the West zone of Rio de Janeiro, where new developments were completed in time for the Rio Olympics. Even though the film is set in Rio, there isn’t a beach in sight as the film explores how the new spaces impact the younger generation whose lives are shaped more online. ROAD TO LA PAZ  and ROSA CHUMBE are two completely different films, but are linked together by the soulful journey their main characters undergo. Finally, NERUDA takes us back to the late 1940’s when Pablo Neruda had to leave Chile due to his political affiliations. The film is a blend of fiction and history but it also illustrates the role politics has played in shaping Latin America.

European Cinema is comprehensively covered with a dozen films representing directors hailing from the northern, eastern, western and southern parts of Europe: ADULT LIFE SKILLS (UK), ALOYS (Switzerland/France), AMERICAN HONEY (UK/USA), ETERNAL SUMMER (Sweden), THE MIRACLE OF TEKIR (Romania/Switzerland), MOTHER (Estonia), THE OPEN (France/Belgium/UK), PERSONAL SHOPPER (France), THE STUDENT (Russia), SUNTAN (Greece), TONI ERDMANN (Germany/Austria) and TRESPASS AGAINST US (UK). All of these films are fully developed character-driven stories that are richly shaped by their surroundings. The films may be rooted in a specific country or a location but their messages are universal. This is illustrated perfectly by THE STUDENT (pictured above), a film which shows how differing ideologies can shatter an established system. The film is set in Russia but the messages in the film perfectly explain the current divisive political sentiments in Europe, USA and the rest of the world. AMERICAN HONEY is set in USA but directed by award-winning British filmmaker Andrea Arnold and exhibits how a European cinematic sensibility can be transported to another continent altogether.

Asia is covered from the Middle East to Japan with seven exciting features: BARAKAH MEETS BARAKAH (Saudi Arabia), THE HANDMAIDEN (South Korea), HARMONIUM (Japan), ISLAND CITY (India), OLD STONE (Canada/China), ONE WEEK AND A DAY (Israel), and A VERY ORDINARY CITIZEN (Iran). Six of these Asian films are rooted in contemporary times while Park Chan-wook’s stylish thriller THE HANDMAIDEN (pictured above) is set in the 1930s. Park Chan-wook has gone on an opposite path to Andrea Arnold. With AMERICAN HONEY, Arnold transported her British style to America. On the other hand, Park Chan-wook has adopted a Welsh novel (Sarah Walter’s Fingersmith) to 1930s Korea. The remaining six Asian films explore the rules, codes, rituals and family life dynamics found in many Asian countries with treatments ranging from humour to jaw-dropping and nail-biting scenarios. In A VERY ORDINARY CITIZEN, director Majid Barzegar and co-writer Jafar Panahi have creatively shown how romance causes an 80-year-old man’s routine to be altered. Romance also leads to the breaking of protocol in BARAKAH MEETS BARAKAH and ISLAND CITY but these films use humour to show their characters journey. The Canadian/Chinese co-production OLD STONE uses a potent mix of neo-noir and cinéma vérité to show how one character’s disobeying bureaucratic rules throws his life into chaos and alienates him from his family. This concept of alienation in a family is also brilliantly covered by ISLAND CITY, ONE WEEK AND A DAY and HARMONIUM; these films show that underneath the surface, a family consists of individuals who lead lives unknown to the other members.

Finally, the multi-award-winning films GIRL ASLEEP (Australia) and IN THE LAST DAYS OF THE CITY (Egypt) powerfully stand-in for their respective continents. The diverse style of films in CIFF’s World Cinema Series has something for everyone, including multiple tantalizing itineraries for a cinematic journey around the world. One proposed itinerary could allow one to start off the morning with freshly baked Sangak/bread in Tehran (A VERY ORDINARY CITIZEN), then join a religious procession in Lima (ROSA CHUMBE), go investigating in the Swiss countryside (ALOYS), head out on a road trip (AMERICAN HONEY, ETERNAL SUMMER, ROAD TO LA PAZ), stop for some shopping in Mumbai (ISLAND CITY), relax on a Greek beach (SUNTAN), rejuvenate with some sacred mud from the Danube (THE MIRACLE OF TEKIR), enjoy a nice Japanese family dinner (HARMONIUM) and stay out all night with close friends watching the sun come up in Cairo (IN THE LAST DAYS OF THE CITY). 

In modern times, technology may have brought the world closer, but understanding the world and other cultures is still an elusive concept. This is where International Cinema plays a crucial role as it gives a peek into other cultures and ways of life. In this regard, Calgary International Film Festival’s World Cinema Series allows the audience to explore the world without having to buy an expensive plane ticket.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Best Films of 2015

Ten months into 2015, I was able to have a better handle on the best films of 2014. Similarly, almost 8 months into 2016, I have a better picture of the best films of 2015. Therefore, another correction is due.

A new updated Best of 2015 list would look like this:

1. The Treasure (Romania/France, Corneliu Porumboiu)
2. The Pearl Button (Chile/France/Spain/Switzerland, Patricio Guzmán)
3. Kaili Blues (China, Gan Bi)
4. Aligarh (India, Hansal Mehta)
5. Embrace of the Serpent (Colombia co-production, Ciro Guerra)
6. El Movimiento (Argentina/South Korea, Benjamín Naishtat)
7. Blood of my Blood (Italy/France/Switzerland, Marco Bellocchio)
8. Right Now, Wrong Then (South Korea, Hong Sang-soo)
9. 45 Years (UK, Andrew Haigh)
10. Masaan (India/France, Neeraj Ghaywan)

I do expect some further changes in the next few months as I still have to catch up with some 2015 titles. However, it is clear that 2015 was a far stronger and richer year in film that I had originally thought.

Monday, August 01, 2016

The Truman Show

Many ideas in Science fiction films may appear far fetched when the film is first released yet over time, some of those ideas end up becoming far more believable due to technological advances or changes in our society. For example, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY depicted computer devices which allowed one to read information from around the world, including newspaper articles. Such a device may have seemed unbelievable back in 1968 when the film was released but now laptops and the internet are commonplace. Similarly, the immense popularity of a reality tv show as presented in THE TRUMAN SHOW didn’t seem that plausible back in 1998 even though there were a few examples of such shows that already existed when the film was released such as MTV’s THE REAL WORLD. However, THE TRUMAN SHOW appeared to take the idea of a reality show too far. The film depicted a young baby born and raised entirely in front of the world via a 24 hour non-stop television show created by Christof (Ed Harris). 1.7 million people witnessed the birth of Truman Burbank and the audience kept climbing as Truman grew up into an adult (Jim Carrey). Truman lives and works entirely in the world’s largest constructed TV set, a fictional town called Seahaven, where all the other inhabitants are actors and extras employed with the sole purpose of assisting Truman as he goes about his ‘real’ life. When the film first came out, it appeared unrealistic that people would devote hundreds of hours watching Truman do mundane everyday tasks. But now in 2016, THE TRUMAN SHOW appears to have foreseen our current television landscape which is populated by hundreds of reality tv shows which depict ordinary people going about their daily activities or in some cases, taking part in a contest on a constructed set. On top of that, the rise of social media and smartphones has allowed far more reality to be presented non-stop either as entertainment or a form of news. Today, reality is always available, in one shape or form.

THE TRUMAN SHOW is directed by Peter Weir but the story is written by Andrew Niccol who is no stranger to Science fiction. Andrew Niccol wrote and directed GATTACA (1997), one of the best Sci-fi films ever made. Yet, both films could not be more different. On the surface, GATTACA is easily identifiable as a Sci-fi film due to its futuristic tone, visuals and story. While, THE TRUMAN SHOW appears to be a variation on conventional scripted television shows as there are no commercial breaks and the main star is not an actor. However, scratching beneath the surface shows that THE TRUMAN SHOW shares ideas with another Sci-fi film about reality vs illusion.

“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill -- the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill -- you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

The above words spoken by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) in THE MATRIX are the direct opposite of the choice that Christof (Ed Harris) gives Truman Burbank in THE TRUMAN SHOW.

In THE MATRIX, Morpheus wanted to open Neo’s (Keanu Reeves) eyes to the reality, he wanted Neo to see the bits and bytes for what they really were. Morpheus didn’t want Neo to stay asleep. On the other hand, Christof doesn’t want Truman to wake up from his slumber. He doesn’t want Truman to even reach towards the red pill. When Truman is finally on the verge of truly waking up, Christof tells Truman: “There’s no more truth out there than there is in the world I created for you.”

These words clearly highlight the difference between Morpheus and Christof. Morpheus never proclaimed to be a God, nor did he envision himself as a creator of a world. Whereas, Christof always envisioned himself as the creator of Truman’s world. Christof oversaw every aspect of Truman’s life, right from his selection for the game show as a baby. He witnessed Truman’s first steps, first day of school and when Truman lost his first tooth. Christof controlled all aspects of Truman’s life, such as deciding where Truman went. For example, when Truman had ideas about leaving Seahaven, Christof placed obstacles in his path like a barking dog on the pier or a teacher squashing Truman’s hopes of sailing around the world to discover new places. Christof even decided when to get rid of Truman’s father on the TV show. And after a 22 year absence, he orchestrated the reunion of Truman with his father, complete with musical cues to heighten the emotional moment for a television audience.

Christof created Truman’s world and it was entirely to his advantage to ensure that Truman continued to believe in the illusion of the fake world of Seahaven. The manufactured Seahaven was Christof’s reality as well and he wanted to exist in it as long as possible. Early on in the film, Meryl Burbank (Laura Linney) who plays Truman’s wife says that there is no difference between her private and public life and that the TV show is her life. In that regard, she along with Christof continue to take the blue pill everyday. The film shows a few characters who tried to tear the fabric of the TV show but were taken away. Natascha McElhone’s character of Sylvia tried to tell Truman about the red pill but she was removed from the TV show. Instead, she is forced to continue her struggle to free Truman in the real world which lies outside of Christof’s closed off world. Christof is convinced that Truman will never wake up and mentions that “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.” These words have a resonance with the concept of reality that Morpheus talks about in THE MATRIX and have roots in Buddhism, where people accept the illusionary nature of the world before them. However, Truman does wake up. And when he is about to enter the real world, his signs off with his trademark TV show words: “In case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening and good night.” With those words, Truman finally unplugs himself from Christof’s Matrix.

Monday, July 18, 2016

District 9

"To everyone’s surprise, the ship didn’t come to a stop…over Manhattan or Washington or Chicago..but instead coasted to a halt directly over the city of Johannesburg.”

These opening words quickly establish that District 9 is going to be a much different film than other Science fiction alien movies that appear at the multiplex where the spaceship only stops over an American city. The shift to South Africa lays the groundwork for a film that explores complex issues related to politics, racism and is not content with being just another Sci-fi movie that is a battle between aliens and humans.

District 9 opens in a mockumentary fashion and interviews a few people who outline the early days of the alien arrival. The spaceship arrived back in 1982 and halted over Johannesburg. We learn that for 3 months the spaceship didn’t do anything, just remained suspended over the city. There was no first contact, no bright lights or any other events depicted in other Sci-fi films. It was humans who had to fly up to the spaceship and force entry. Once inside the spaceship, humans found malnourished aliens, creatures that were lean and starving. The appearance of the aliens as physically weak in District 9 is a deviation from conventional films. In other Sci-fi films and TV Shows, aliens are always shown to be strong and in some cases beautiful even if the aliens are arriving from a planet with no resources (food/water).

In District 9, once the aliens were extracted from the ship, they were placed in a camp named after the film’s title. The film them jumps to 2010, 28 years later, when it is decided that the aliens have to be relocated far away from the city centre. The contract for the alien relocation is given to Multi-National United (MNU) and Wikus (Sharlto Copley) goes along with a camera crew and the rest of the MNU team for a grand eviction event. Things don’t go as expected and Wikus becomes infected with alien fluid. This results in an alien mutation in him, a common theme in the Sci-fi genre, but with a twist. It turns out that the alien weapons can only be fired by the aliens because it requires their DNA. When Wikus gets infected, he can start firing the alien weapons that MNU had been unable to do for a long time. Naturally, he becomes a valuable commodity to MNU who want to conduct experiments on him. Wikus escapes but is a marked person and in the ultimate irony, he can only find a safe spot in District 9, the same slum-like camp where he was involved with the eviction of the aliens.

There are some action sequences in the film but the violence and action is nicely integrated in the story and the film doesn’t halt the overall narrative arc for a grand alien battle. The finale action scene takes place in the same slums that the rest of the film is shot in thereby making the action scenes an inevitable consequence of the hostility and tension brewing in the camp.

District 9 ensures that at each step, events are portrayed which reference other Science fiction films or tackle political and social problems. This is apparent in the opening 15 minutes of the film when a person being interviewed speaks the following words regarding the District 9 aliens or ‘prawns’ as they are called:

“They’re spending so much money to keep them here..when they could be spending it on other things. But at least—at least they’re keeping them separate from us.”

Such words have been spoken many times over the last 2 years, across Europe and North America. Politicians have used these words to further their campaign or garner support for their agenda. These words have referenced the refugees arriving in Europe and North America with the inference that the money spent on refugees could be spent on other things. Even though District 9 was released in 2009, these words make the film relevant to 2016.

“at least they’re keeping them separate from us.”

Segregation. This segregation is further emphasized by the signs that are visible in the film which indicate zones that are alien-free or locations where only humans are allowed. The setting of District 9 in South Africa and the film’s title makes this a direct reference to apartheid. In reality, there used to be a District six in Cape Town, where all the residents were forcibly removed during the apartheid era in the 1970s. Even though the film is directly rooted in South African history, the topic of segregation applies to many other societies from colonial times to present times. In modern society, there are battles, both in the real and virtual world, fought over the flood of refugees, immigrants and illegal aliens who cross the border without proper papers. Distrust of the foreigner is not a new concept and one that has existed for centuries. When the frustration with foreigners reaches a boiling point, riots, fights and wars take place. Similar events are shown in District 9 where daily riots, protests and fights between humans and aliens start taking place. This is what contributes to the decision resulting in the relocation of the aliens away from District 9. 

Along with the depiction of segregation, the film’s setting of the slums makes the content universal and applicable to other nations around the world. When refugees cross a border, they are placed in temporary camps, which is exactly what District 9 was meant to be. District 9 was a supposed to be a temporary holding place but just like in real life, the temporary camp ends up becoming a decades long stay. The problems that refugees face in camps around Asia and Africa, regarding social hierarchy and troubles with the locals, is exactly what District 9 covers in its representation of the everyday transactions that take place within the camp.

District 9 also highlights a relevant point regarding the impact on new generations raised in a temporary camp. In the film, an alien child is born and raised in the camp. The alien child asks his father what their planet is like and wants to go home even though he has never seen his home planet. This scene and the alien child’s questions are rooted in reality. Hundreds of children are born in refugee camps far away from their home nation and never get a chance to return to their homeland. As a result, an entire generation (or two) of people have no concept of understanding their roots and have to depend on stories or the rare picture of their homeland. In District 9, a hologram stands in for a photo of the planet the aliens left behind.

District 9 also tackles the concept of genocide. One key element that leads to genocide is when one group of people dehumanizes another group and considers the other group unworthy of living. In District 9, that concept is shown at face value as the tall, skinny and underfed aliens are the object of hatred of their neighbours. The sentiments of the people who live around District 9 indicates that if the South African government does not act to move the aliens, then something far more dangerous would likely take place. This act of potential violence against the aliens is also a twist on the regular Hollywood alien film template. In Hollywood films, aliens are portrayed as evil and go about wanting to exterminate humans on a large scale. District 9 shows that if aliens did land on earth, then it would be humans who would do more harm to the aliens than the other way around. Given the carnage humans have inflicted on each other over the last few decades, it is entirely believable that humans would be far more evil when dealing with aliens.

No alien film would be complete without a reference to Area 51 and District 9 manages to provide a smart variation on that element. The basis of many past sci-fi movies was that aliens were kept in Area 51 and government/military personnel used alien technology to develop weapons. District 9 picks up on this idea and expands it to illustrate private military contractors (MNU) wanting to harness the power of advanced alien weapons. Given the rise of private military contractors around the world, the film is properly updated.

Over the last few decades, Sci-fi movies have been reduced to spaceships, aliens, and lots of combats and explosions. However, the Sci-fi genre has always been richer than that. It is a genre that is alive with imagination, bursts with intelligent ideas and highlights the limitless possibilities that the human mind could tap into. Unlike other genres, Sci-fi films are never shy to stitch social issues, politics and human nature, in their framework. Even when Sci-fi films are set in an alternate universe or a far-away future, the stories are a reflection of either present society or the past. Sci-fi films hold a mirror up to our contemporary society and show us how humans treat each other, or mistreat as the case may be. In some cases, Sci-fi films extrapolate the future based on humanity’s current path.

District 9 embodies all of the above elements. The film shows an alternate future yet what it depicts is a reflection of our contemporary society and even our past. It is bold enough to incorporate topics of racism, segregation, genocide, poverty, refugees and border crossing. District 9 is a rare thing; it is an intelligent Science fiction alien film with plenty of political and social observations packaged under the guise of a summer multiplex film.

Note: this is cross-published on Wonders in the Dark website as part of their Top 100 Sci-fi films countdown.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Nicolas Winding Refn

Release Versions of Nicolas Winding Refn's films

NWR 1.5: brutal, violent on a much larger scale. VALHALLA RISING was the only film released as part of this upgrade.

NWR 2.0: DRIVE ushered in a new stylish wave for NWR, one that built on the violent, dark tones of his past films. 

This brings us to THE NEON DEMON. Still, too early to tell if this is NWR 2.5 or a brand new 3.0. THE NEON DEMON contains the stylistic flourishes of NWR 2.0 but the whole work is packed with Lynchian references. In fact, on one level, THE NEON DEMON is a reworking of MULHOLLAND DR. with the movie industry from David Lynch’s film replaced with the cannibalistic fashion world in NWR’s film. On another level, THE NEON DEMON is a continuation of MULHOLLAND DR. because of Jena Malone’s casting as Ruby. The character of Ruby bears a resemblance to Naomi Watts’ Betty from MULHOLLAND DR. but is not a starry eyed prey like Betty at the start of Lynch’s film. Instead,  the fashion world has transformed Ruby into a predator. One can imagine a similar fate could have taken place with Betty if events had proceeded in a linear manner.

THE NEON DEMON is a modern day grim fairytale about a girl making her way through a dangerous neon and concrete jungle. The girl encounters many predators, both male and female, who want to consume as much beauty as they can by whatever means, even if it means rape. But this fairytale isn't restricted just to the predators on screen but instead points to the predators that exist in contemporary society who lust after beauty.