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Tag: Films

Berlin Notes II

So yesterday and today were quite hectic. Yesterday afternoon, I met an old friend for lunch. She was my senior in University and we were meeting after many years so it was good to catch up. We had some very nice Italian food and as it was a lovely and warm day went walking via the Museuminsel, an island in the Spree river that houses world famous museums like Pergamon and Bode, to Hackescher Markt and Alexanderplatz areas of Berlin which are these really nice open squares. Alexanderplatz, formerly part of East Berlin, also has the really huge fernsehturm or TV tower that is iconic for Berlin.

Bode Museum

In the evening I then went to meet my co ATSA fellow Rashmi Dhanwani, who is doing her secondment at the 11th International Literature Festival that is currently taking place in Berlin. We attended a few sessions, one on the limits of freedom of speech which had Fleming Rose, the person responsible for publication of the Danish Cartoons that created such a furore sometime back, another session on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and the best session of all, an interesting discussion with Pankaj Mishra on how Indian society is dealing with increasing modernity. Later, we went and had a couple of drinks in the writer’s tent and engaged in some nice conversation with some very interesting Indian, Bangladeshi, Hungarian and New Zealander writers and poets including Altaf Tyrewala and Peter Zilahy who were so nice to talk to! So all in all a productive day.

The famous TV Tower of Berlin

Today my secondment started. As part of the secondment, which I’m doing with Loupe, I’ll be looking in on the post production of a film they have made from tomorrow onwards. I’ll also accompany them on a film shoot if possible. And whenever I find time I’ll be doing some background research for one of their upcoming films.

Through Antonia, who started and manages Loupe, I met today Anne Schönharting, one of the photographers who is managed by a well known photo agency called Ostkreuz, which was started by a group of 7 former East German photographers. I’ll also accompany Anne on a portrait shoot one of these days.

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Conservation Through Cameras

My first short film for WWF:

This short film provides an overview on how the technique of camera trapping is used to estimate tiger numbers and how this aids in tiger conservation.

This film can also be seen on WWF-India’s YouTube channel here.

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Dev.D

Dev.D

Ever since the growth of the so called ‘multiplex cinema’ it has been fashionable among some quarters to keep stating at regular intervals that the Hindi film industry has finally come of age. In other words, the Hindi film industry has finally shed its insane plots and acquired a global persona that everyone from San Francisco to Sydney can relate to. For a long time I believed that to be mostly empty hype. Having seen Dev.D yesterday changed my opinion. If a crazy, beautiful, hilarious, sad, mad, ugly beast of a film like this could get made in the context of mainstream cinema and receive a wide release then indeed Hindi cinema has come of age like no other language cinema of India I know of has.

Anurag Kashyap always had a reputation as a talented and controversial director and through Dev.D he demonstrates why he is one of the best directors Hindi cinema is lucky to possess. Saratchandra’s Bengali novel ‘Devdas’ has been a perennial favorite among Indian film directors with as many as 9 versions already made using it as a source. Kashyap’s film is anything but faithful to the novel. Along with co-writer Vikramaditya Motwane he twists, bludgeons, and mutates the novel into a contemporary setting. He wisely avoids going the melodrama way like other directors before and instead concentrates on the core, the emotional attyachar if you will, of all the central characters and especially of Dev.

Abhay Deol is steadily building his reputation as cross over cinema favorite and with this film he demonstrates why he is so good in such ‘auteur’ films. After a stunning performance in his recent ‘Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye’ he cements his indie status with a sterling modern take on Devdas.

Newcomers Mahi Gill and Kalki Koechlin are equally stunning in their roles as Paro and Chanda aka Chandramukhi. Mahi as the headstrong Paro and Koechlin as the disarmingly seductive Chanda prop up the emotional core of the film with star making turns. The transition of Koechlin, in particular, from an unconventional school girl to a professional seductress of great charm is both stunning and shocking.

What is even more remarkable is how strong Paro and Chanda are. They are completely unlike the simpering, crying-behind-closed-doors, always-waiting-for-the-hero ‘Bharatiya naris’ that you usually find on Indian film screens. Spurned brutally by Dev Paro soon moves on to her new life without a second thought or signs of weakness. Spurned by her parents and a hypocritical society Chanda soon makes a life for herself, and even if she has to sell her body and voice for that life, she does it on her own terms. I wonder what the regressive Indian right wing organizations will think of such strong characterizations?

The cinematography by Rajeev Ravi is another aspect of the film that hits you with a solid fist in your visual guts. While the camera starts sedately, almost conventionally it steadily deteriorates into extremely ugly close-ups, insane time lapse sequences, flashy over saturated colors and kinetic character driven movements mimicking the emotional upheaval of the film’s central characters. The frenetic, adrenalin-infused editing needs special mention even if in certain segments of the film the edits should have been much tighter.

The soundtrack by Amit Trivedi, to put it simply, is mind blowing. It is music that grabs you by your auditory balls and just does not let go. Be it the raunchy Bihari twang overloaded but hilarious ‘Emosanal Attyachar’ or the world weary beauty of ‘Saali Kushi’ the music is an aural romp through ever shifting soundscapes.

Final word-get out and immediately drive to the nearest film theater and watch this mad fuck film. It will be a blinking benchmark on your filmy radar. And if you can, watch the film after sampling a few choice shots of vodka. Taken over and ruled completely by the film for 172 minutes your roughly surprised senses will thank you for it.

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World Cinema Wonderland 3

Once Upon

Once Upon a Time In America: Forget the spaghetti westerns for which Sergio Leone is famous. This (along with his Once Upon a Time in the West – see below) is his masterpiece. A big flop when it was first released as the studio had chopped up the film into an incoherent mess the film’s reputation was restored when the original director’s cut was subsequently released. It is a slow but beautiful film underscored by the haunting score of Morricone that deals with the consequences of memory, betrayal, loyalty and loss. Finely nuanced performances by De Niro and James Woods add to the moody nostalgia of the film. The city of New York in which the film is set in is in itself a major character of the film whose growth and problems mirror those of the film’s characters. If you like Leone’s Westerns then do not miss this. Also marks the debut of the luminous Jennifer Connelly.

Once Upon a Time in the West: As mentioned above another of the masterpieces directed by Leone. An epic western starring Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson and Jason Robards it forms the beginning of a loose trilogy which ended with the above film. Featuring yet another masterful and melodic score by Morricone this film like the one above slowly grows on you with each passing minute. It examines at leisure with slow tracking shots that lack much dialog life on the edge of civilization and the choices men make in those circumstances. The painstakingly choreographed gun fights are a sight to watch even if they are over in a flash.

The Motorcycle Diaries

Diarios de Motocicleta (The Motorcycle Diaries): A moving and inspiring film about the epic journey made by Che Guevara and his friend on a motorcycle across South America and how the journey played a major role in the awakening of political consciousness in the young medical student.

The Conversation: In some ways this is the best film made by Coppola. More intimate than his Godfather and Vietnam War epics this little film about a quiet and intensely private man who spies on other people works on so many levels. Suffused with an intense sense of paranoia in keeping with the subject matter of the film and the conspiracy riddled time it was released in (just after the Watergate scandal broke) the film is still hugely relevant today with its themes of erosion of privacy with increasing technology and personal responsibility. Gene Hackman is pitch perfect as the audio surveillance expert.

One Flew Cuckoo

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest: One of my favorite films. Milos Forman stayed mostly true to Kesey’s novel and in the process crafted a fine jewel about non-conformism and its effect on rigid authority. The film works because of some excellent performances by the lead actors. Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher deserved their Oscars for the roles of McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, which they made their own so well that you cannot imagine anyone else in their roles.

La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers): A landmark film based on the Algerian War against French rule that has been highly influential. Gillo Pontecorvo’s fiercely independent film refuses to take sides and in that process exposes the cruelty that both sides resorted to in the name of freedom and colonization. The film’s semi-documentary style lends it an authenticity and rawness that very few films dealing with a historical topic manage to achieve.

Solyaris

Solyaris (Solaris): Often termed as the Russian answer to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey this Tarkovsky film is a masterpiece in its own right. Based on a novella by the Czech writer Stanislaw Lem the film is an exploration of the hubris of man and his overconfident dependence on science and technology as the answer to everything even when it utterly fails when confronted with an alien intelligence. Deliberately paced and at times irritatingly slow (the car driving sequence) this is not a typical science fiction film as there are no epic space battles or spectacular spaceships to feast your eyes on. On the contrary the film is a psychologically intense examination of man and the alienating effects technology and space exploration has on him as well as the resulting loneliness. (The film was recently remade by Steven Soderbergh as Solaris with George Clooney in the lead which although better than most Hollywood science fiction and featuring an intensely moody score still falls short of Tarkovsky’s version).

Earth: The second part in Deepa Mehta’s elemental trilogy is based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel Ice Candy Man (later published as Cracking India). Set during the turbulent times of India’s partition and the subsequent Hindu-Muslim riots that engulfed many parts of India as seen through the eyes of a young Parsi girl. A fine film if a little rough around the edges. It somehow lacks the edge that Fire, the first part of the trilogy, had even though it deals with a horrific period in India’s history. The somewhat tepid nature of the film is redeemed by the intense performance of Aamir Khan.

Baise Moi

Baise Moi (Fuck Me): A highly controversial film, co-directed by a former pornographic actress and a former massage parlor employee turned writer, that was banned in many countries upon initial release. It divided Western media over whether the film was blatantly exploitative or had a genuine point to make. The film is highly graphic in its depiction of sex and violence and most of the actors come from a pornographic background. In spite of its often exploitative nature the film I felt had a point in its depiction of two women who after being exposed to the brutality of men and society embark upon a killing spree. Shot on grainy digital video using available light the film seems more like an amateurish porn video than an actual film but the look of the film somehow suits its subject matter very well. While it is debatable whether their actions are justified or not one should at least commend the directors for offering an unflinching view of the ghettoized nature of modern French society in all its stark hypocrisy. But it never comes close to the masterful restraint and finesse shown by La Haine which dealt with some of the same issues although from a more obviously masculine perspective.

The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption: Another of my favorite films, Frank Darabont’s almost perfect adaptation of Stephen King’s novella is a modern masterpiece. It is a film that revels in the simple joy of telling a good story. Criminally ignored upon its initial release this film has developed a huge fan following after its DVD release and rightly so. It even managed to creep up to the #2 position in IMDB’s list of top 250 films of all time. A simple, warm and touching story set in an American prison the film is above all about one man’s hope. A hope that he will never let die. Morgan Freeman is simply brilliant and disappears into his character with his warm voice overs (that actually started an irritating trend for using his voice for narration in many other films) and gentle smile. This is a film you will keep coming back to over and over again and in the process find something new to like every time.

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World Cinema Wonderland 2

Here is another round of word cinema goodness:

12 Monkeys

12 Monkeys: Terry Gilliam has always been very good when it comes to dealing with dystopian futures (Brazil anyone?). And this film is another prime example. A mind bending exercise in alternate pasts and grim reality. This is what happens when a present collides with a meddlesome future. Brad Pitt needs to be singled out for his delightful but edgy performance.

2001: A Space Odyssey : A stoner paradise for many but behind that spacey, chilled out vibe is the quietly effective brilliance of Kubrick. From the scientifically accurate special effects, minimalist set design and vague dialog to the brilliant marriage of music and motion Kubrick shows why he is one of the best directors of all time. This is how science fiction should be. And that sequence of docking spaceships set to Strauss’s Blue Danube? So delicate, so graceful and oh so beautiful. Go watch it please.

21 Grams: Stark, hard hitting and sad. Inarritu’s use of non linear narrative continues with this film from where he left off in Amores Perros. Naomi Watts is the pick of a talented ensemble cast.

Almost Famous

Almost Famous: An ode to all that was good about rock music before it got lost in self-indulgence and soulless stadium rock. This film is about the fallibility of rock musicians seen through the eyes of a wide eyed rock fan. Based on Crowe’s own experiences as a writer for Rolling Stone and touring with rock bands. Essential viewing for anyone with a passing interest in rock music.

American Psycho: Less disturbing than the book but still quite effective as a window into the vacuous greed of the yuppie culture in the late 80s and early 90s. Christian Bale gets into the skin of the character and behind his glassy persona you glimpse the other side of the American dream and it is scary for the depth of its emptiness.

Battle Royale

Battle Royale: Fukasaku offers this inventive but violent vision of the future. What if troublesome and rebellious school kids were packed off to an island and given lethal weapons with license to kill? Would that solve society’s problems and the travails of parents? See the film to know the answer.

Battleship Potemkin: A masterpiece in every sense of the word. I’d see this film again and again just for that famous Odessa steps sequence. Makes it hard to believe that the film was made way back in 1925.

Zodiac

Zodiac: Fincher’s return to form. A dark and edgy thriller dealing with a true story about a serial killer who was never caught. Fincher’s films always have this distinctive look and this is no different. The muted, slightly desaturated cinematography is highly effective in creating a confined world where danger seems to lurk around the corner. Jake Gyllenhaal is surprisingly effective as the reporter who is not willing to give up.

Training Day: Mainly known as the film that finally netted Denzel Washington his best actor Oscar. But beyond that the film is a disturbing exploration of the corruption that power unleashes. Apart from Washington’s bravura (but slightly over the top) performance watch out for Ethan Hawke’s sensitive portrayal of a rookie cop.

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World Cinema Wonderland

To paraphrase a soft drink ad from the past, I eat, drink and sleep world cinema. It is one of the few things that keeps me from going mad from the endless tedium of research. I usually have my favorite films running in the background even if I’m doing something else. And come weekends I love to curl up on my couch and lose myself in film after film from around the world. So as you can imagine I’ve seen a LOT of films, especially in the past four years. And every time I see a film I think about posting a detailed review here but as usual my laziness trips my good intentions. So instead I’ve decided to come up with short blurbs for some of the remarkable films I’ve seen, enjoyed, loved and even disliked. So without further ado here is the first part in what will hopefully be a regular series:

1. Apocalypse Now Redux: A difficult film both in terms of production as well as viewing but it is worth all the trouble. One of Coppola’s best with Brando’s brooding presence adding to the other worldly atmosphere of the second half. War is indeed the preserve of psychotics. And seminal use of music, be it 60s rock and roll or Wagner. Look for the Redux version.

Full Metal Jacket

2. Full Metal Jacket: Another Vietnam War film but with the distinctive touch of Kubrick. The boot camp sequence is still one of the most intense cinematic moments I’ve seen on film. Kubrick extracts superlative performances from lesser known faces and captures the pointlessness and dark comedy of the Vietnam War perfectly.

3. Amadeus: F. Murray Abraham. Watch it for him. And the music. And the period detail. Enough said.

Frida

4. Frida: Hayek excels but the film suffers. All biographies are not equal.

5. Lost Highway: The twisted universe of Lynch. Anything and everything is possible. From surveillance video tapes to meetings with weird people in the desert. Will you be able to unravel the madness?

Mulholland Drive

6. Mulholland Drive: Another Lynch masterpiece. And the hottest woman-woman love scene I’ve ever seen on film. That scene alone is worth the price of rental but the rest of the film is a tour de force of deception, betrayal and the cut throat hunger for fame.

7. Three Days of the Condor: Pollack at his finest. 70s paranoia translated brilliantly onto the screen. The enigmatic but very sexy Dunaway and quietly dashing Redford perform well.

Elephant

8. Elephant: Gus Van Sant’s sensitive exploration of the Columbine massacre. A chilling tale set in the world of seemingly normal school kids but madness is waiting to be unleashed.

9. Paris, Texas: Wim Wenders sometimes takes too long to get to the point but even then a brilliant film about love and loss set in Paris. No, not that one. The other Paris.

10. Miller’s Crossing: The Coen brothers are in fine form here. A brilliant film noir with really nice cinematography and strong story telling. The cast also shines.

11. Picnic at Hanging Rock: A breakthrough film for Australian cinema as a whole. Weir’s film is enigmatic, surreal and intensely moody. Leaves a lasting impression.

Silkwood

12. Silkwood: Based on a true story. Streep deserved an Oscar for her superb portrayal of a nuclear industry whistle blower.

13. The Hours: Superb screenplay and brilliant acting by three very talented women at the peak of their powers.

The Color Purple

14. The Color Purple: Whoopi and Oprah excel in this film based on Walker’s celebrated novel. One of Spielberg’s more serious films.

15. A Fish Called Wanda: British humor at its best. More accessible than the Python films featuring many of the Python regulars. If you like black comedies then do not miss this.

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The Corporation

The Corporation

This is the age of mega-corporations. Corporations richer than some countries, wielding enormous influence over our world. With their power they can and do shape policies that affect our environment and in the end the way our societies function. How did these corporations become so powerful? Why are so many people protesting their rising clout if, as many often claim, they create jobs, increase transparency, efficiency and generate more wealth for a region? Why are corporations caught in the middle of so many scandals, especially in recent years?

These are some of the questions the documentary, ‘The Corporation’ directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, seeks to look at and answer. It is a huge task to subject as amorphous an entity as a corporation to such close scrutiny and succeed. They do it with style and depth but without sacrificing entertainment values. One innovative tool they use is to treat the corporation as a living entity/person and subject it to basic psychological testing. They look at the myriad ways corporations have tried to take over our environment without giving a damn for the consequences. They look at the lack of ethical values at the core of corporate functioning. They look at the way a corporation is only bothered with the bottom line and not how its actions affect the world around it. And they come to a not so surprising conclusion in hindsight. That the corporation exhibits almost all the classic symptoms of a psychopath.

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The Great Appeasement

Reading a recent news report about the governments of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu ordering officials to stop the screening of ‘The Da Vinci Code’ in theaters makes me wonder if religious appeasement is not scaling new heights in India. Apparently, some Christian and other minority group’s religious sentiments are hurt by the film. This is strange considering that predominantly Catholic countries such as Italy, Brazil etc. have not banned the film. And even the Vatican did not call for a ban but has only asked Catholics to avoid the film. So I wonder if Christians in India have stronger feelings or do not agree with the Vatican over this issue? Or is it a perfect excuse to gain some political mileage by both the Catholic organizations and political parties rushing to please the former’s demands. After all, the book has been in print, has sold like hot cakes, and has been discussed to death for more than a year now. Why didn’t these people protest so strongly then?

I think these government orders set a dangerous precedent. Now the door is open for any group to demand a ban on anything based on the highly ambiguous argument that it hurts/offends their sentiments.

This also raises the issue of free expression. If we stifle dissenting views then how can new ideas arise? Whatever happened to freedom of speech enshrined in our constitution?

As I write this there have been fresh protests in Hyderabad by a Christian organization outside a movie theater, which was showing the film after a High Court judge quashed the government order banning the film, terming the order “as extravagant, arbitrary and wholly irrational.” Need I say more?

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Capote

Where does compassion for a subject in one’s novel begin and desire to finish the story end? Is it right to use actual people to write something and hope that they will die soon so that you can finish writing? Do we as a society have the moral right to take the life of another human being even if that person has killed someone? Are we capable of realizing how momentous and irreversible death is?

Writers, I think, are highly selfish people. They live for their craft and characters and usually interact with society insomuch as it often gives them ideas for new stories. To them nothing matters more than getting a story down on paper and most importantly finishing it. They have to maintain a unique relationship with their characters. They have to be honest and caring but detached enough to not get personal and impose their own view on the people in their books. It is this conflict that Capote struggles with as he writes ‘In Cold Blood’, arguably his most famous work.

On one hand he is a narcissistic man in love with himself and on the other hand he has a compassionate heart. He is unable to detach himself from the people who form characters in his book. He wants to finish the book but for that to happen the protagonists have to die. So he vacillates between not helping them find a lawyer so that their appeal against the death sentence cannot go forward and hating himself for being so self-absorbed.

He cannot help himself from developing an affectionate bond with a person who has murdered a family in cold blood. He begins to care for him. He wants to help him delay the inevitable. But deep within all this affection is his selfish desire to be done with the book, a book which he has proclaimed, even before he has written a word of it, as his best. So he struggles to find a moral center, a justification for what he is doing, and he fails.

Philip Seymour Hoffman justly deserves all the praise he has been getting. His is a sublime performance and is one of the best I’ve seen in recent times. He achieves the rare distinction of slipping so much into the character’s skin that you no longer see the actor; you only see the character he portrays. He carries the film solely on his shoulders and never falters. The moment near the end of the film when he truly realizes what is about to happen, the way Hoffman breaks down made my eyes water with genuine empathy for what the man was feeling. It was a supreme achievement. Praise should go to the director Bennett Miller as well. It is hard to believe that this is his first feature film. To show the internal conflict Truman Capote underwent when writing one of the most important book’s of the 60s in such a brilliant manner; Miller can be proud of the perfect jewel he has crafted.

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Full Metal Jacket

If you thought you had seen the definitive Vietnam War movie without seeing Full Metal Jacket, then think again. Stanley Kubrick’s narrative about a bunch of American marines who make the transition from boot camp to battlefield is as compelling as it is unforgiving. The transition is an allegory for a transformation of soldiers from raw youth to hardened, dehumanized killing machines.

The movie is an exploration of a contradiction: How do you reconcile the urge to recognize the enemy as a human being with the necessity of treating a human being as an enemy? After all, American soldiers were in Vietnam, or so they were told, to help the ‘gooks’ to help themselves. Or in the words of private Eightball, “I don’t understand them (he means the Vietnamese). I mean…we are here to help them out and they don’t even seem to appreciate the fact?”

Boot camp is a particularly grueling place pit bulled by a hard task master of a sergeant. He says that he “does not discriminate between niggers, punks, kikes and other forms of low life. They are all equally worthless?” He gives his ‘ladies’ hell everyday, and some fail to make the cut. In one memorable scene early on, he lines up the marines and gives them names: Joker, Gomer, Eightball, Animal Mother. Henceforth they are to call each other by their boot camp nick-names, the first step in erasing their humanity and becoming programmable zombies.

The contradiction plays itself out through the agency of private joker. In Vietnam he wears a peace button and a helmet that says, ‘born to kill.’ Does he love his country? Yes, he does, or at least that’s what he tells his superior officer. He is the leader of his group in boot camp and wants to help out private Pyle, a slow learner, but also dislikes him because he is getting the group in trouble with his moronic ways. There are hints about his ambivalent feelings towards the enemy. But he has to suppress them to preserve his own sanity. The contradiction explodes spectacularly in the climax, where joker has to make a choice. The choice he makes does not resolve the contradiction, but puts him in an easy frame of mind.

The film has all the traditional Kubrickesque elements: scenes that close with dramatic endings, slow dissolves that linger in the mind long after, music that is alternatively haunting and cheerful, brilliant frame compositions and a surreal feel. The combination of dialogue, music and visuals packs a taut left hook. Watching the film I couldn’t but help thinking about contemporary events in the Middle East. A case of history repeating itself? Just replace ‘gooks’ with ‘sand niggers’ and ‘North Vietnamese Army’ with ‘Al-Qaida’ and this could be a movie about the Iraq misadventure.

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