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Surface Film (2009)
Life on the Street
As I write, Surface Film is available to view on both IMDb and YouTube. Three minutes of street life as viewed from below an opaque ground-level surface, it begins with various items being dropped and splatting on this surface, followed by domestic scenes, before proceeding to the streets where people walk, play, fight, and vehicles drive, in sync with rhythmic, percussive, Tap Dogs-like music. This choreography, along with the crisp, bright graphic design, are the film's strongest suites. The overall product could easily be a commercial for an IT company or similar, and as a calling card it's a striking, memorable piece of work. As art, on the other hand, I don't find much that resonates, the obligatory meaningful 'shock' ending adds little. Surface Film, then, is an apt title for this cute but superficial commercial.
A shallow and one-dimensional ordeal
Grotesque is a film about a man who kidnaps and tortures a fledgling romantic couple; that's about the sum of it. I chose to watch Grotesque unaware of its notoriety, but because I'd recently seen another of Koji Shiraishi's films, the excellent Noroi, and it happened to be available. It proved hugely disappointing, in fact it's hard to believe that the two works could have been directed by the same person. There are films that disgust a viewer, such as Irreversible and Martyrs, and yet are supported by intriguing philosophical issues (or at least a convincing pretence at them), not to mention artistic and aesthetic accomplishment. Grotesque, in contrast, seems but a prurient exercise in lowest common denominator shocks; a lazy, cynical grasp for notoriety.
My rating of 2, as opposed to 1, reflects the film's overall technical proficiency considering the evidently minimal resources at hand (the sound effects accompanying the torture are effectively nauseating, for instance), and because the penultimate scene is slightly witty and offers some levity to end the film on.
Black Ice (1994)
Through stained glass
I don't know how the effect was achieved, but this is how I imagine a strobed tomographic trip through stained glass would appear. Iridescent colours, mostly blues, fragmented by black, emerge and appear to slowly approach the viewer before fading out to form new patterns. The effect is like an animated Jackson Pollock painting, but more soothing than the analogy might suggest due to the fairly slow progression 'through' whatever is being photographed, and the fact the blocks of light remain on screen for varying lengths of time, meaning that the longer lasting ones serve to anchor the viewer as the others change. Add to this a narrative rhythm that structures the film and there's a strong impression of a story waiting to be read in the phantasmagoria. A dense and dazzling few minutes.
Au bord du lac (1994)
A fleetingly interesting experiment
This short film captures people at leisure in a park; rowing, riding horses playing ball games. All of these scenes are captured through distorted lenses (presumably), dappled in various ways, causing shapes and colours to distort, appearing to shrink and grow as the figures move. The effect is somewhat akin to Umberto Boccioni and Antoni Gaudi's artwork, but rather one dimensional as the figures don't transform in any particularly interesting ways and one can clearly make out the reality of the action behind the gimmick, so the effect soon becomes predictable, a facile experiment rather than anything of lasting interest. The accompanying music of plucked strings throbbing sounds compliments the action well, but I don't believe there's anything noteworthy to commend the film.
Essential Killing (2010)
A breath of fresh, cold air
Essential Killing begins in a desert gorge in Afghanistan, with three off duty American soldiers on a dubious, unspecified outing, possibly in search of stashed loot. Also in the gorge is an Afghan man, listed in the credits as Mohammed (an initially unrecognisable Vincent Gallo). He spies the Americans and flees to a crevice concealing a dead Afghan holding a bazooka. Who killed this man is unclear. As the Americans approach and their suspicions are aroused, Muhammad fires the weapon and obliterates them, alerting an accompanying American chopper which swoops in and quickly apprehends him.
It's best to go into the film without knowing too many details beforehand, suffice it to say that a shell-shocked Mohammed is taken for interrogation before being transferred out of Afghanistan and managing, in a scenario that will be familiar to fans of a certain film about a fugitive, to escape and flee. While this might sound, and indeed does initially appear like standard action film fodder, what distinguishes Essential Killing is the boldness of the manner in which Mohammed's subsequent experience is conveyed. The audience is slyly forced to share in his disorientation at being jolted out of his homeland. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that an individual's perception of where they are or where the path lies can change quickly.
Questions of lazy or fanciful plot contrivances, such as why a crash scene is abandoned with a prisoner still missing, or why a domesticated Border Collie opportunely appears in the middle of nowhere, are subsumed by the increasingly evident hallucinatory nature of Mohammed's journey. These hallucinations are most effective when their verisimility is left open, occasionally though they err towards overstatement. What emerges is like a fusion of The Fugitive's pulsating action with the aesthetic sensibilities of Dog Star Man and Far North. The finished article is reminiscent of the impressionistic WW2 escape film Diamonds of the Night.
While it would be impossible to consider Mohammed an innocent victim of circumstance, his brutal actions are clearly motivated by fumbling, disoriented desperation rather than malice, his violence is that of a frightened animal lashing out and grabbing what it needs to survive. Likewise, the treatment of the interrogations is admirably matter of fact. There's no hint of the sensationalism displayed in films such as Rendition and Body of Lies. Neither Mohammed nor the soldiers are allowed to descend into caricature; instead their depiction is refreshingly economical.
Essential Killing is likely to receive criticism at several levels. It forgoes any excursions into glib didacticism while telling a story from the point of view of an Afghan prisoner of war, but it also binds this protagonist with the unfamiliar companions of chase thriller tropes and art house digressions. Similar treatment in recent films such as Vinyan and Antichrist has tended to divide viewers quite sharply. Essential Killing is arguably a more measured work, although still a bold and original one. Anyone willing to take it on its own terms may find an extremely absorbing film.
Little Terrorist (2004)
A sweet and tender tale
I write this review only to counteract the unjustly poorly-rated featured review from sherlock-14.
This short film deals with a Pakistani Muslim boy who, while playing cricket in his home village, goes to collect a stray ball on the Indian side. He's spotted by Indian soldiers who wrongly identify him as a terrorist and take chase, forcing him to seek refuge with a Hindu family on the Indian side. The family, with some reservations, shelter the boy.
A tender and understated film. The location photography intimately and believably depicts the flimsy boundary between what is, in effect, one community. The boy, despite speaking the same language as his neighbours, cannot speak freely amongst them, and the surrogate family struggle to him accept him when authority dictates otherwise.
An atmospheric and intriguing short film
I'll reiterate the other reviews in saying that I find this a confident and well produced film in all respects. The editing is sharp and synchronises well with the dialogue free soundtrack to create a sense of unease and underlying anxiety.
The film centres on a young man alone in a sparsely furnished apartment. He sits down and plays a Dictaphone, which seems to trigger memories of intimacy with a girlfriend, then cut to him driving a car while a fat, bald man scoffs on something bloody in the back seat. The protagonist enters a luxurious restaurant peopled by several figures, among them some alluring women, a priest and the fat man, now with hair and a beard. Menus are offered around (to the viewer as well?), and actions taken. Next, in a field by a stream, the young man and his girlfriend lay on their backs, the fat man a few metres away. The film ends with the man back in his apartment, his girlfriend in the background, and the sound of a blank cassette playing on the Dictaphone.
The film's title, 'Dym', translates as 'smoke', and images of smoke are one of the film's recurring images. My interpretation is of a relationship 'up in smoke' and the underlying associated causes or feelings. The main virtue here, as I see it, is the skill with which the film is assembled. Somewhat aesthetically indebted to Kubrick's 'Eyes Wide Shut' and the films of David Lynch, no doubt, but compelling in its own way too.
Our Lady of the Sphere (1972)
Meh. What was it about?
I found this a mildly intriguing, frustrating film. The 'plot' is as described in the synopsis, with engraved olde-style (presumably Victorian) cut-out characters such as astronauts-cum-deep-sea-divers and people with spheres for heads superimposed on engraved olde-style backgrounds coloured with black and alternating single other colours. Music and sound effects accompany the images, and there's a repeating 'buzzer' sound that interrupts, apparently at random and sometimes to comical effect, throughout.
The most impressive part was probably near the end when the camera zooms through a series of scenes. Ultimately though, I could hardly make any sense of it.
Mahatma and the Mad Boy (1974)
A day in the life of a Mumbai street kid
I just thought I'd comment on this seeing as no one else has. I came across it unwittingly after noticing it among the extra features on the 'In Custody' DVD. It's a short film about an unnamed outcaste boy who lives on Mumbai's Juhu beach and spends his days scavenging for food for himself and his pet monkey, relating his experiences to the beach's resident Gandhi statue. He observes Mumbai's middle-class citizens as they play sports, sunbathe and hold community gatherings at the Gandhi statue. There's some wry and tender humour, such as when the boy gets his monkey to steal a sunbathing woman's sunscreen and applies it to the monkey in the hope that it will make it as attractive as the well-fed woman. Then there are shots of the Gandhi statue, which seems to convey different impressions depending on the circumstances under which it is viewed. One time it might be expressing bewilderment at the worshipping crowds; another time it might be avuncular compassion towards the boy.
All in all it's a minor film, not exactly worth seeking out for the casual viewer, but pleasant enough to watch if you happen to come across it.
Hyderabad Blues 2 (2004)
A change from the usual Indian stuff
Just caught this movie on TV late last night. Despite not having seen the first Hyderabad Blues, I have to say that the film gave me a new vision of the social lives of contemporary middle-class Indians. The plot was quite tedious - focusing on one guy's indiscretions with a work colleague and his fiancée's subsequent soul searching over whether to take him back - and the characters were mostly a bunch of macho, unsympathetic yuppies, but the acting was on the whole quite natural, and the film didn't glamourise the petty events of these people's lives. It surprised me to see an Indian movie, made for Indian audiences, presented in a realistic way. Maybe this isn't such an odd thing for an Indian viewer, but for someone whose main exposure has been to subtitled Bollywood musicals or sanitised Westernised productions (think 'Monsoon Wedding'), it was quite novel to hear such casual swearing and vulgar talk from both men and women.