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Saturday, December 17, 2016

Sing Street: A Review

Sing Street: A Review

It’s hard to resist comparisons to Once with John Carney’s new film. They’re both set in Dublin and have romance and creating music as central themes. But really that’s where the similarities stop. Once is a film with a limited focus telling a story of two people over a few days. It’s an excellent film because of this limited scope which is then aided by the low budget, home style camera work.

Sing Street is much broader in focus. The central story is pretty simple: boy creates band to impress a girl. But there’s a lot more going on in this film. Set against a backdrop of his parent’s crumbling marriage the film also touches on sibling comradery, difficulty with changing schools, the transformative power of music and the limits of possibility in a small city. The film itself is halfway between a gritty kitchen-sink drama and a fantasy story where dreams come true. It doesn’t sound like there should even be a possible middle ground between those realms that should work but it does.

The film’s major false step is when the band tries to recruit the one black student at the school. I understand the 80s were a time when racial stereotyping was more blatant and that the film is trying to make a point about comedy of idiocy. But it doesn’t really work at all and it’s a false note in the rhythm. But it’s not a major drawback.

I’d be perfectly happy for John Carney to keep making films about people making music together. It’s pretty much his niche and no one else can do films like this. They just don’t have his vision to craft this musical word combined with a romantic backdrop steeped in reality.

Romantic is probably the best adjective for the story, as much as musical is for the whole film (musical probably fits the story as well). Is there anything really more universally relatable than a high school story about young love? I’d be inclined to think there isn’t. While it isn’t that setting that drives the likeability of the film, it’s definitely a huge helper.

Soundtracks are what drive this film (as with all the films from John Carney). The music is excellent, both the original songs and the popular records of the time (the film is set in 1985). By using everything from Duran Duran to Hall and Oates, it throws the viewer straight back into the era and gives them new stuff to have stuck in their heads afterwards.

Possibly one of the best high school films of recent times. Definitely one of the best films about music of the century. Undisputedly one of the films of the year. 

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Sausage Party: A Review

Sausage Party: A Review

Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have now collaborated on Superbad, Pineapple Express and This is the End. Every single one of these films can be a strong contender for one of the best films of the year they were released in and Sausage Party keeps this tradition going (only The Interview, while still decent, doesn’t hit the high level of the other films they’ve written). At some point if this output and quality continues, critics are going to mark this duo as a new wave of comedy.

Comedy films are underrated to the point where it’s become a stereotype of awards ceremonies that the comedy role won’t win any awards. In Sausage Party (and Neighbours 2: Sorority Rising, the other film the duo wrote this year) there’s been a secondary theme of addressing more serious issues. This can have the potential to derail all the fun of the film, as in Sausage Party, the serious theme being addressed is religion but the writers never allow the film to get away from the overall feel of intense silliness.

 Extremely silly humour is central to this film which is full of food puns and stereotypes ( a character that’s a bagel has a Woody Allen accent and is constantly sparring with a lavash). It’s the ridiculousness of it all and the fact that no group gets spared that really allows all the stereotypes to be used without all feeling of meanness. It doesn’t really ever seem like the film is making fun of ethnicities more than they actors think accents are a great source of humour (which they are).

The storyline is decently thought out and at times thought provoking. Touching mainly on the existence of god but also dropping points on blind faith and senseless cultural animosity, it’s not revolutionary themes being explored. And expecting a brilliant solution to be thrown up at the end of an animated film about food would be too much. So while the best comedic orgy scene since Team America might not exactly be the best ending in carrying the storyline to an end, it’s still a great end. Because the storyline, as good as it is, is definitely playing in the background in terms of importance to the quality of the film. It’s all about the gags.

A lot of the film reminds one of teenage humour when swear words were used as punctuation and every single thing had a reference to sex or genitals. It’s probably a film that catches the vulgarity of 14 year old jokes better than any other. The thing with clever comedy films is that actual out-loud laughter is rare. Stupidly vulgar films, however, bring out all the belly laughs and I’m definitely in favour of the latter sometimes.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Jungle Book: A review

Jungle Book: A review

Many children count The Jungle Book as a childhood favourite, myself included. So my expectations for this film were perhaps unrealistically high, especially as the 1967 film was also one of my favourite films (we had the VHS copy). It’s perhaps impossible to expect any film to hold up against such idealistic standards of nostalgia and The Jungle Book indeed does not match my nostalgic aspirations. It far surpasses them. This is not a film that is grounded in the past and limited by its source material. The movie is instead revelatory in every sense.

The movie is revelatory while being faithful to both Kipling’s original and to a lesser extent, the 1967 film. There is definitely a slight feeling of classic spirit about the film which is inevitable in a story which we all know. One of the most striking themes about the film, which I never really got in the original film, was of how much Mowgli is stuck between two worlds. It’s pretty much the central theme of the book and the film stays true to the time, continually reminding us that Mowgli is in a unique place. We worry for the character and his future. That we would do so knowing the story beforehand is an achievement of storytelling.

This is a film with clear themes even if Mowgli’s place in the world being unclear is the central theme. Friendship, law of the jungle and the presence of evil are main subjects of the book and the film as well. In Shere Khan, brilliantly voiced by Idris Elba (the entire film is voiced by a superstar cast whose every performance is on target, which must surely be a first) we have one of the best villains of the year. And we also have the only character who suggests that the presence of man in the jungle is a bad thing. This is crucial to the book and makes it easier to empathize with Shere Khan, which I always think is critical in making a villain real and not a stereotype.

The characters are all very strong with Christopher Walken’s King Louie and Bill Murray’s Baloo being especially notable. King Louie sitting on his throne brings to mind classic scenes not of the 1967 film but of Brando in Apocalypse Now. No one but Walken could perform as a giant CGI ape and somehow have a performance that you’d say is keeping in character with what you’d expect from the actor. Murray’s Baloo is filled with the comedic excellence you’d expect from the actor and it serves to add further emphasis to the serious parts.

The most striking part of the film is the technical and visual aspects. Almost all of the film’s landscapes are made with CGI. It’s possibly the most comprehensive and best use of CGI since Avatar. I’m usually indifferent towards CGI and 3D, especially as it seems more common that films in 3D only are shot in this format as a gimmick to draw crowds. Jungle Book is one of those rare films that is improved by being shot in 3D, like Hugo or Gravity. The filmmakers never overpower us with the sense of creation but in the end they’ve managed to create an entire world for this movie.

This may not be particularly child-oriented in the sense that the film can be a bit scary at times (I’m pretty sure I’d have gotten nightmares if I’d seen this when I was 6). But it’s certainly innovative and enjoyable and certainly one of the best movies of the year. Despite take a hundred year old story and mixing in the elements of a beloved film almost 50 years old, something wholly unexpected was achieved. A totally unique film experience. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

Café Society: A Review

With Woody Allen films, at least in recent times, the viewer either gets a movie that’s instantly forgettable (Magic in the Moonlight, Irrational Man) or instant classics (Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine). Café Society breaks the trend by falling between these two categories by being neither a classic nor unmemorable. Drenched in nostalgia like many of Allen’s best films the movie never really seems to come off as a film instead of incredibly well-crafted idea and so at times it’s possible to lose interest.

The movie is theoretically about emotion and passionate love but surprisingly (considering the director) never really manages to find the right chord that makes it seem like this passion is felt. Jesse Eisenberg is the latest actor who seems to be playing the onscreen role of a young Woody Allen and easily nails the role. His scene with the prostitute may be the best Woody Allen scene not actually starring the man himself.

The film is separated into two main arcs -Eisenberg’s Bobby moving to Los Angeles and his attempts to make it out there while falling for his uncle’s secretary Vonnie( played by Kirsten Stewart in an excellent performance) and his return to New York to run a nightclub with his mobster brother. The first half of the film is the better with the structure of Bobby and Vonnie’s relationship and the barriers to it more believable. The second half seems somewhat rushed and while some of the vignettes are entertaining (especially those featuring his brother, Ben) they don’t seem to merge seamlessly enough to stop the story from jarring.

In terms of the technical aspects, this is Allen’s first film with acclaimed cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (The Last Emperor, Apocalypse Now) and also his first film in digital. The result is a beautifully shot film which definitely brings the viewer into the Golden Age of 1930s Hollywood. The scenes in the nightclub especially are representative of the excellent visuals of the film.

Café Society is not one of Allen’s best films but it is his best film since Blue Jasmine three years ago. In sentiment and style it is closer to 2011’s Midnight in Paris (though my bias will always lean towards a Parisian setting even on scripts of equal measure, which this script is not) but with repeated emphasis on older Allen works set in New York. The total movie feels as though Allen was happy self-referencing rather than challenging himself and while that isn’t a bad thing when the body of work that’s being referenced is of such quality, the film never really speaks to the heart. And that’s a problem when you’re watching a love story. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

Selection Day: A Review

Selection Day: A Review

Aravind Adiga has a reputation as a chronicler of the ambition of the Indian masses to bridge the gap of inequality. In this, his third novel, the scope is once again on the effort of members of the lower classes trying to make it into the exclusive world of privilege but this time the author goes about it by focusing on modern India’s great love: cricket.

 Few things are more representative of the aspirations of the Indian masses than the dream to be a cricketer. IPL success stories capture the entire nation's attention and this allows the writer to detail another familiar Indian character, the entrepreneur who sees brilliant opportunities everywhere. The cricketers are Radha and his younger brother Manju, both exceedingly talented and continuously bullied by their father, who has made a contract with God that his son’s will be the best and second best batsmen in the wold. They make a less divine contract with Anand Metha who sponsors them in return for a percentage of their future earnings.

The novel is not a straight story on the pressure of schoolboy cricket and the potential for it to change the lives of those who would be invisible. Though there’s enough in that theme for an entire novel, Adiga expands further by introducing the character of Javed, a wealthy teammate of Manju who attempts to have the younger brother to attempt to make his own path in life instead of doing what his father has prescribed.  Manju’s confusion and difficulties with his adolescent sexuality is one of the main drivers of the novel but unfortunately, it’s also one of the more thinly written parts of the novel. Perhaps it’s intentional but it seemed as though there was the potential to write deeper scenes of emotional conflict. When compared to the depth at which Metha philosophizes on the state of India and the Indian people every time he appears, it seems like a missed opportunity to not develop the poignancy of the Javed and Manju story.

A more character-focused author would have made the father of the boys, Mohan, the lead character of the novel. With his maniacal devotion to having his sons become the best, coupled with his bizarre superstitions (“No shaving before turning 21 as it releases hormones into the body”) he’s easily the most memorable character in the novel. Unfortunately his presence becomes rarer as the novel progresses and though this is necessary for the story’s progression, one does wish to see more of him.

The novel is extremely readable and the prose flows with great verve, making it possible to read the novel from start to finish without interruption. The problem with such a book is that when there’s no reason to stop and think about things the book can be a bit forgettable. The character of Metha is one of the most cliché, in the sense that he’s an entrepreneur who drinks a lot and doesn’t enjoy members of his social class and by having him spout drunken speeches regularly it becomes possible to gloss over the character, which is unfortunate because he delivers some of the best lines in the novel (He thinks cricket exists “to pacify hundreds of millions of desperately horny young Indians of the lower social classes”).

The entire novel is mostly well-written and like Adiga’s previous works serve as a broad satire on aspects on India, especially class-mobility. The scope of the novel is exceedingly ambitious and occasionally the writing doesn’t seem to convey the entirety of the ideas. But ignoring those occasional missteps, the novel remains entertaining and worth reading. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Everybody Wants Some- A Review

Richard Linklater’s films always make the viewer conscious of time, whether it’s the years represented in Boyhood or the hours that go by in Before Sunrise. Everybody Wants Some details the weekend before the start of semester for a group of college baseball players. Linklater has stated that he considers the film to be the spiritual sequel to Boyhood but in tone and style it definitely reminds one of Linklater’s 1993 comedic masterpiece Dazed and Confused.

The film is quite light on plot but overall follows freshman pitcher Jake as he interacts with his teammates and navigates his first college weekend. It’s extremely heavy on the conversation and as expected for the director (possibly the best writer of dialogue in current cinema?) the characters go over ideas of varying magnitude which seem to be relevant on a universal level. Sure, the characters aren’t discussing the biggest ideas in the world but the philosophies somehow seem to be profound.

There’s no real story arc in the film. The characters don’t come up against a huge obstacle to overcome nor do they learn deep insights along the way. While it might seem meandering if that’s done wrong, in this case it’s refreshing. The entire film seems like one fun rush of hanging out with the guys. It’s an almost wholly male dominated film but perhaps by being set in 1980 it seems to be less of an aggressive masculinity that’s channel and more of a mellow and chill type. It’s an important feature because if the characters were all entitled, misogynist stereotypes of athletes the film wouldn’t work at all. So there can’t be enough praise for writing characters that are multi-dimensional (and likeable).

Managing to fit a multitude of distinct and memorable characters can easily overwhelm a film (or worse, the characters don’t manage to be memorable) but the film finds the balance in putting the right amount of each character in. From the smooth-talking Finn, aggressively talented McReynolds to the team’s designated outcast Niles, who has a habit of going on rants and treating everything way too seriously, there isn’t a single character who doesn’t seem to fit into the film (even if several are trying to figure out how to fit into the team). In fact, the characters and their antics are so much of a draw that it’s almost the end of the film before there’s any baseball at all. And even if there hadn’t been any, it’s unlikely anyone would have really clamoured to see more baseball despite the guys talking about the sport fairly regularly.

The fact that the film is set in 1980 definitely plays a big role. It’s a decade that’s currently popular for nostalgia as Stranger Things and the Ghostbusters reboot have shown. Whether the 1980s were a more hopeful time is probably a personal opinion but it does seem written as this is so. Dale, the team’s only black player, never says a single thing about his race and neither do any of his teammates. It’s all written in the sense of acceptance. And, being the 1980s, music plays a huge role in setting the scene and the soundtrack for this film may be one of the best for the year.

I’d easily place it as an instant classic and the only reason it isn’t in the top five of Linklater’s films is that this is the same director who’s done the Before trilogy, Boyhood and Waking Life (which shares some of the philosophizing upon ideas style that this film has , especially in the bong scene). It’s still September but Everybody Wants Some has a strong case to be one of the best comedies of the year. Thoroughly enjoyable watching and fun from start to fin

Monday, September 5, 2016

Victoria: A review

With films that are shot in one take the majority of focus tends to be on this fact and the difficulty of achieving such a feat. This is understandable as the difficulty of achieving this has made the production of any one-shot film an impossibility till the fairly recent past and the development of digital movie cameras. In 2002, critically acclaimed releases such as Russian Ark and Irreversible were released and while there was sufficient regard for the technical aspect of the films being shot in one-take it was only until Birdman (edited to seem as one take, not actually one take) in 2014 that it could really be said the one-shot entered the realm of regular film criticism.

The posters and trailer for Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria regularly reference the fact that this film was shot in one take. It remains an impressive feat even if they do tell us a lot. Filmed in a couple of hours in the Kreuzberg and Mitte neighbourhoods of Berlin during the early hours of the morning, the director needed only 3 takes to complete the film. Combined with the fact that the script is a bare 12 pages and most of the dialogue is improvised, it is an impressive feat.

The film is not all about the technical effects as there’s more to a film that just quality camerawork. In fact, despite all the hype about the camerawork in the advertising the film itself does not flaunt this technical mastery, leaving lots of time to focus on the story.  Led by stellar performances from Laia Costa and Federick Lau, who progress deeper in character as the film progresses, from fun and sweet into roles with markedly darker and determined aspects.

The premise of the film seems very simple and the opening shots of Victoria dancing in a club and then chatting with a group of guys after exiting seems like we’re being set up for something along the lines of a mumblecore indie romance or a Linklater Euro talkie. It certainly seems that way from the dialogue at the piano between Costa and Lau when they leave the group and are alone at the café Victoria works at. The film does an excellent job of bringing the action to another level from the point where we think it’s done.  Only after Lau’s Sonne leaves the café and we think the film is winding down does the director immediately send us into an unexpected heist film, filled with action, drama and bad decisions.

Transitioning swiftly into a film about a bank robbery and getaway, the tension is ramped up into an intense sequence of the setup of the robbery followed by a surprisingly smooth actual stickup.  Just when it seems we’ve gotten the happy climax via a wholly crazy night out, the director again ramps up the action and we’re given another action sequence with police shootouts and chases between (and into) Berlin apartment complexes.

 It’s hard to write much more without giving away too much but the film manages to stride between the indie beginning and the criminal heist ending successfully. It is a film that could be said to successfully transition between the two genres and should appeal to fans of either. Hopefully it could even be the start of further mixes of these genres.

The film packs a lot into the two hours it runs for. By the end when we see Victoria at the climax of the film it’s as if she’s lived years in those hours. That we get this feeling is due to success of Schipper’s ability to convey a frantic and engrossing film. There may be a sense of improbability at one or two aspects of the film (would the heist really be that smooth when done by drunken criminals with no experience?) but the film more than makes up for these rare moments of disbelief. 

Monday, August 8, 2016

Suicide Squad: A review

Suicide Squad seems to be an attempt from DC to make a film that’s more subversive and nihilistic than its previous releases. It’s inevitable that comparisons with Marvel films be made and the closest comparison for Suicide Squad seems to be that it would try to capture (some of) the feeling of Marvel’s Deadpool. One of the recurring criticisms of Batman v Superman was that the tone was far too dark and depressing. DC seems to have overcorrected in this film by going too much for quirky.
In a film where the squad is meant to be anti-heroes and “the worst of the worst”, it’s telling that the only character who seems even slightly scary is Federal Agent Amanda Waller. Waller, played by Viola Davis and Jared Leto’s Joker are easily the strongest characters in the film closely followed by Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. The problem is that the film is filled with characters all competition for screen time and as most of them are badly written or just caricatures, a lot of the film feels like you’re waiting for someone worthwhile to get onto the screen. Many characters feel like they’ve been added as throwaway bits and the entire film serves as an example of the worst of superstar casting.

The pacing of the film is eclectic in a way that serves to make the already muddled plot seem even more haphazard. Flashbacks are a regular occurrence during the film and while they appear to be there with the intention of making us aware of the motivations of the main characters they don’t  add anything other than an unnecessary break taking attention away from the (already dull) main plot. Timing and pacing seem to be a problem for this director with the attempts at comedy falling flat or jarring. Harley Quinn was a rarity in this film by being a character with a bit of personality but the deployment of her comedic lines too often felt annoying more than clever.

The film’s villains also suffer from a lack of personality (they are in the main, literally faceless) and the action scenes are about as exciting as watching someone else play a side-scrolling video game. The mission and villains seem like someone grabbed them from the first available comic book. There were surely better options for this film in terms of a plot that fit.

Lack of personality is the one thing not present in Jared Leto’s Joker. However, he’s totally wasted in the sidelines of the film. One would think that with the continual presence of Joker in all the marketing for the film he’d have a greater role but apparently someone decided one of the most popular characters in the DC universe needed less screen time than Rick Flag. On another note, Leto’s Joker is closer to Batman:Animated Series than Heath Ledger’s and possibly the right style for the rest of the characters was that of the animated series.

The film is bad in a lazy way. With a convoluted plot and poorly written characters, adding bad editing and overused racial stereotypes other further sends the film into the irredeemable failure category instead of the ambitious failure ones. A compendium of action with no point serving as punctuation for a barrage of empty scenes set to (an admittedly impressive) soundtrack of classic tunes could be the summary of this film.

Will Smith has been the most bankable actor of the last 20 years and has the ability and personality to be golden in action-comedy films but is he really first-choice to be cast as a ruthless hitman? Or did the producers just find the most bankable actor and ignore any other logic? If the action-comedy tone of the film had actually worked, I doubt that question would ever arise.

At the time of writing Suicide Squad has already made $257 million at the box office, so it’s well clear of the $175 million budget it racked up. In my opinion, Suicide Squad was guaranteed to make money and draw crowds just because of the popularity of summer superhero films, ratings and quality aside. Unfortunately the creators of the film seemed to follow exactly that same logic in creating the film and decided they didn’t need to try too hard since they’d be covered anyway.  It’s the film equivalent of a participation trophy. 

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Travel Writing – Cities- Copenhagen (I)

Copenhagen is an easy city to love. Maybe it’s the fact that I went in June when the temperature approached 27°C and the sun shone so brightly that several of my colleagues were the colour of London buses by lunchtime on the first day. But as I’ve never heard anyone who’s visited the city say they dislike it, no matter when they’ve gone, I’d be inclined to city it really is just a lovely city.
London is a hard city to love, even if you live there. In fact, it’s hard to love especially if you live there. Paris is either loved or hated by everyone that has visited it. These cities bring about strong emotions in people. But Copenhagen, when I was there, brought a general feeling of calmness and comfort.

The pace of the city was very slow which probably had a lot to do with the weather but also the lack of crowds in the city. We stayed less than 10 minutes from the central station and there was none of rushing and general busy attitude one would expect from such a central location. Even on a Friday morning when everyone would be expected to be at work.  Maybe a lot of people were on holiday. Many Scandinavian companies have summer holidays. The logic is understandable since the winters and long and people would want to make the most of it.

It is not a cheap city. Perhaps on par with London and in some cases more expensive (though an exchange rate of 9 Danish Krone to 1 GBP definitely aids in the expensive nature since the currency seems to be a bit overvalued).  But for the expense of the meals, the quality was very high. One weekend isn’t a large sample size and perhaps we were lucky in choosing our restaurants but I did not have any bad meals in Copenhagen. Every meal exceeded expectations to the point where the price seemed apt or even undervalued. 109DKK for a brunch that was almost large enough to be two meals and easily managed to be one of the best breakfasts I’ve had all year seems like a solid investment.
Cover charges are a point where the expense can be a lot (but I don’t go out to bars and clubs that much in London so maybe it’s on par) since I think 100DKK without a drink included is quite a lot for entry. Especially compared to Lisbon on last year’s trip €12 for entrance came with 4 beers. But considering we found places close to Nytorv, which seemed to be popular amongst a younger crowd, it’s not surprising the prices were hiked up. There’s no exaggeration on it being a younger crowd. Most people in bars on the first night we arrived in Copenhagen were wearing the studenterhue hat signaling graduation from high school.

On the first morning in Copenhagen we awoke to the news that the U.K. had voted to leave the European Union. This was hardly the most auspicious of beginnings and due to the divisive nature, the entire topic was agreed to not be discussed. To not discuss such an important event could seem willfully ignorant but really it was impossible to know what was going to happen (it is still impossible) and discussion would just cause arguments and disrupt the holiday. In another city it might have proven difficult to stay away from the topic. In Copenhagen, there was more than enough to keep everyone distracted.

Unexpectedly for the majority of us, Copenhagen’s waters were warm enough for swimming. Even more unexpected was the fact that Island Brygge baths, located right in the harbor, was a popular spot for swimming. Located in the narrow channel of the harbor, with a backdrop of industrial buildings as well as stylish Danish architecture, it seemed an area that would be more inclined to riverside activities but not actual water sport. Many residents could be found sunbathing on the lawns as well as barbequing and drinking beer.

Beer seems to be popular in Copenhagen. It might just be a summer thing but pubs were open as early as 9 a.m. and people were already having pints on a Friday morning.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Travel Writing- Constanta

Constanta lies around two hours east of Bucharest, on the Black Sea. With a foundation date of 800 B.C., it is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Romania. Formerly one of the largest ports in Europe, the container traffic has reduced since its heyday in the 1990s but it remains the largest port on the Black Sea.

Conversations with locals have confirmed the suspicion that the population of the city varies greatly with the season. In the spring and summer the population of Constanta swells significantly, especially on the weekends, by people flocking to the beaches and boardwalks.

When I visited in March, the presence of tourists was not immediately obvious. The rail station lies about 2 km from the waterfront (about 7 lei by taxi) and has the feel of a building that has seen no changes at all for several years. This is a building which doesn’t feel neglected or unkempt in any way but one that’s static.

The largest building on the boardwalk of Constanta is the casino. The most noticeable thing about this building is not that it’s impressive size but how much more impressive it must have been when it was in its prime. Now, the building seems more like a ruin from ancient times than anything as modern as a casino.

The entire city seems to exist in a state of decay. Not ruins but the sense that the best days had gone and were never coming back. Almost as if the city had stopped caring enough to update itself after it realized things were no longer going well. I might be reading far too much into a quiet spring day in the city and it’s possible coming in summer would mean visiting a vibrant waterfront. But even if so, it just means the decay of the city is just stasis. That it only comes alive in summer.

At the end of the boardwalk are a multitude of restaurants built near the docks which specialize in fish and seafood dishes. These are one of the only places in Constanta that I’d found to be new and updated. With menus in English as well as Romanian, I imagine that they also cater to tourists. All the restaurants were housed in tiny shacks that reminded me of Scheveningen in The Hague.

One of the most noticeable buildings in Constanta is the Grand Mosque. With its tall minaret and distinct Byzantine architecture, it certainly seems like a relic from the past eras of Ottoman rule. Hence I was very surprised to learn that the mosque was only built in 1911.
Romania does not have a large proportion of Muslims. Despite more than 700 years of Ottoman rule in the region around Constanta, there are very few symbols of the Islamic influence.  The inscription on the plaque at the Grand Mosque state that the building was built as a gift for the Muslim workers in the region. However, there is also the Hunchiar mosque in the city, which is also regularly used by the Turkish minority there.

The communist era in Romania prioritized secularism and atheist beliefs, leading to decline in the religious heritage of Romania. Despite this, in Constanta as in Bucharest, several striking religious monuments remain. The St. Paul and Peter Orthodox Church stands near to the boardwalk and is distinctive with its pressed brick walls and metallic domes.

Ovid Square is the main square of Constanta and is flanked by the Archeology museum and several other impressive buildings. Matching its name, the archeology museum seems to be approaching a state of ruin with several signs around stating to beware of falling debris. Despite this neglect it remains an impressive sight.

Off of Ovid square are many smaller streets which are packed with bars and pubs which seem to cater more to tourists.Even the everpresent Irish pub can be found. 

Continuing in this direction brings one again to the Black Sea albeit on a sandier and wider expanse than on the side of the port. Also overlooking the black sea is a Greek church, which is worth viewing despite its small size. 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

1000 Words on 500 Days of Summer

It’s been almost seven years since 500 Days of Summer was released. Every year since that release date I’ve watched the movie at least once. I’m still convinced that the film is one of the masterpieces of the millennium and manages to be overcome of the most difficult challenges of any film (or artwork). Namely, the film is both popular and appealing to a wide audience without seeming formless or pandering. Too often films that are made for everyone end up being films for no one. This isn’t the case in 500 Days of Summer.

Only in hindsight have I realized it’s a film for everyone. When I’d first watched it, it seemed quite straightforward. Tom was good and hopeful and Summer was evil. This is the kind of analysis I was able to do at 20. And of course, completely lacking the grounding to realize there’s another perspective to the film, I was convinced the narrative I’d seen was right. Much like in Love in the Time of Cholera (another favourite of my teenage self) I’d missed entire worlds of layers under the obvious story.

But Love in the Time of Cholera is still a literary masterpiece and 500 Days of Summer is still an amazing film, despite the changes in my perspective. I’d even say because of the changes in my perspective.

There are only two reasons to watch a film multiple times. The first is because the film is predictable and the familiarity of knowing what to expect never becomes dated or dull. No matter how many times I watch The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, I never tire of the Mexican standoff scene even though the initial tension of wondering who will shoot first is long gone.
The second reason is because every time a film is watched there is something new that’s noticed. Maybe not in the film itself but just the act of watching the film brings to mind history and nostalgia which one compares the future against. Perhaps the dialogue of the film speaks philosophically enough to bring up both familiarity with the character’s ideas and self-reflection (in this sense Before Sunset is the most Proustian of films).

500 Days of Summer obviously lies in the second category. As I’ve said before, I identified heavily with Tom when I first saw the film. Tom was the man that many thought they were and went through an experience that many have thought to be the defining moment of their mental development.

In the simple version, Tom thinks he’s a good guy and believes that by virtue of being a good guy things should go in his favour. He’s almost wholly ignorant of what Summer says she wants because they don’t match up with his ideas of a relationship and his ideas of a relationship are obviously what everyone should want. By not appreciating Tom, Summer represents evil and (almost) breaks his hope in romance leaving him bitter.

In this reading of the film, Tom is always right and Summer is always wrong. I didn’t realize Tom might have not been 100% right on everything until about 2012.

The reality is (unless I watch this again in 2022 and decide again) is that Tom makes errors because he doesn’t live in reality. Summer is a real person but Tom’s Summer exists in his head. In the entire film, it’s Tom’s early-teenage sister who is the most logical. The entire film is drenched in quality quotes but one that really sticks is “Just because she likes the same bizzaro crap you do doesn't mean she's your soul mate.

There are other things that make the film amazing other than the script and storyline. The soundtrack definitely plays a huge part and the non-linear storyline definitely is critical to the success of the script. The acting is, of course, of the highest quality and I think quite a lot of people would love more collaborations between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zoeey Deschanel. There's gorgeous set pieces such as the musical scene and especially the "Reality and Expectations" scene. But I’m sticking to the storyline for why this film is underrated.

One of the reasons this film can be for everyone is that we’ve all been there. Maybe I didn’t understand the errors Tom was making but I’d been Tom. Almost everyone has been Tom at some point and most people have played the Summer role. Because many relationships fail due to the balancing act of one person wanting more than the other is willing to give, pretty much everyone can relate to Tom wanting a “real” relationship and equally relate to Summer not wanting to be too serious.

I think at some point everyone would quote Summer in “I, like being on my own. I think relationships are messy and people’s feelings get hurt. Who needs it? We’re young, we live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world; might as well have fun while we can and, save the serious stuff for later. But also at different times it’s equally likely “I love how she makes me feel, like anything's possible, or like life is worth it.” As said by Tom is more accurate to describe life.

And that’s what the movie does perfectly. It achieves balance. It tells the story of the relationship from start to end, with flashbacks giving perspectives. It doesn’t force a romantic story onto the viewer but neither does it drown the film in depression and easy clichés. The abandonment of clichés is difficult to find in romance films. Almost impossible, really. Most people love romance films for familiarity but the breath of fresh air from something really different can sometimes be far more memorable than the familiar.

In closing, my favourite quote from the film is:

“Isn't that sweet? Ain't love grand? This is exactly what I'm talking about. What does that even mean, love? Do you know? Do you? Anybody? If somebody gave me this card Mr. Vance, I'd eat it. It's these cards, and the movies and the pop songs, they're to blame for all the lies and the heartache, everything. We're responsible. I'M responsible. I think we do a bad thing here. People should be able to say how they feel, how they really feel, not ya know, some words that some stranger put in their mouth. Words like love, that don't mean anything. Sorry, I'm sorry, I um, I quit. There's enough bullshit in the world without my help.

Final point- I hate the final scene with Autumn because it makes it seem like Tom's learnt nothing. Ideally he'd have realized by the end that no other person can give your life meaning.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Football- 2006 World Cup – Trinidad

Football- 2006 World Cup – Trinidad

On November 16th 2005, Trinidad and Tobago created history by becoming the smallest country to ever qualify for the World Cup. By beating Bahrain (who would have been the smallest country had they qualified with a similar population of 1.2 million) 1-0 at the Bahrain national stadium, they provided Trinbagonian  fans with a once in a lifetime moment for many.

Supporters were understandably circumspect about the possibility of qualification. In 1989, needing just a draw to qualify for Italia ’90, the national team, dubbed the “Strike Squad’ had been paraded across the entire country as heroes. The team bus to the national stadium for this final, all-important match was at the back of a slow moving motorcade to allow the fans to see their “World Cup heroes”. They lost 1-0 to the USA, who qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 50 years. They have been to every World Cup since then and 1989 is generally considered the turning point of American soccer, with their reappearance to the World Cup coinciding with being named hosts for the 1994 World Cup.

Hopes were higher in 2005 even with the lingering memory of that 1989 defeat. The squad that qualified for World Cup 2006 was not a young one. Captain Dwight Yorke and playmaker Russell Latapy were members of the 1989 Strike Squad. They may not have thought their chance to go to the World Cup would ever arise again and they were not going to be complacent. Furthermore, Bahrain was not a football power. Few Trinidadians could name a single player from their team. To have the playoff game against the AFC playoff winner was considered to be an easier route than to play the representatives of the Oceanic Federation (where at the time Australia were still members and perennial champions) or a South American team.

The first leg of the playoff was held on November 12th, 2005 at the Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port-of-Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago. Trinidad and Tobago is comprised of two islands and populated by members of various ethnic groups brought to the island by the British during the period when the island was a colony. It is a young country, having gained independence in 1962 and the status of republic in 1974. Overt sporting patriotism is rare due to the fact that the country is rarely a front-runner at world events. At the time, the main claims for fame for Trinidad and Tobago were the 1974 Olympic Gold in the 100m sprint by Hasely Crawford (whose name was borne by the stadium the playoff would be held at) and the silver and bronze medal performances by Ato Boldon (who would direct and produce a documentary about his travels to Bahrain for the second leg of the playoff) at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics.  

In the lead-up to the match, the national colours of red, white and black could be seen everywhere. Vendors were doing quite well on the sale of miniature flags and bandannas and even the replica shirt of the national team was enjoying high sales (despite usually being derided as overpriced). Scalpers, dreaming of immense markups, tried in vain to obtain tickets for the match to no avail. No one would sell their ticket.

With the home support behind them, Trinidad attacked regularly and most of the game was played in the Bahrain half. However the Bahrain team was well disciplined and had clearly come into the game expecting to have to defend. Their resolute defending coupled with inspired goalkeeping from Hussein Ali Hasan eliminated Trinidadian chances one after another. The Bahrainis, likely inspired by their excellent defensive display, gained the lead against the run of play. Salman Isa took advantage of a largely untested Trinidadian defense’s lapse and headed in from the edge of the six yard box after a short corner. Chris Birchall would equalize less than three minutes later with a ferocious shot into the top left corner but Bahrain would hold the advantage of an away goal going into the second leg.

The return leg was played on Wednesday 16th November 2005 at 8 p.m. Bahrain time. It was 1 p.m. in Trinidad and the entire country had come to a standstill. Even people who had never watched a minute of football in their life could not fail to be carried away by the historic moment that was underway.  Most workplaces gave their employees half-day and schools, who could not just send students home, allowed pupils into the staff rooms and audio-visual rooms so they could follow the action. Those unfortunate enough not to have access to a television surrounded radios where the match was being broadcast on several stations.  

Not many Trinidadians had gone to the away match. All the supporters were able to fit on a single chartered plane and numbered less than 300. Yet prior to kickoff it was still possible to hear the sounds of the Trinidadian supporters playing musical instruments (known as the “rhythm section”) amongst the noise of the Bahraini supporters.

Due to the importance of the occasion, the first half was tense and largely devoid of any action. Bahrain knew that a draw would be enough and once again set up to defend while Trinidad continuously attempted to find the goal that would give them qualification. The ball was regularly stuck in the midfield and the play itself was scrappy with misplaced passes and mistimed tackles the regular feature. Bahrain had a chance at the end of the first half when Trinidadian goalkeeper Kelvin Jack missed an attempt to clear but the Trinidadian defence cleared before Jack’s error could be punished. The teams went in at the break with Trinidad having played more attacking football but were lacking the ability to break down the strong defence, while Bahrain seemed more nervous playing in front of huge home support but still managed to put a resolute display.

The beginning of the second half suggested it would again be a case of Trinidadian attacks and Bahraini defence for the next 45 minutes. Four minutes into the second half, another thwarted Trinidadian attack resulted in a corner.  Perhaps it was under instruction from the coach at half-time or perhaps just the sense that time was running out, but both Trinidadian centre-backs came forward for the corner. Dennis Lawrence, the tallest player on the pitch at 6’ 6”, rose highest to head in  Dwight Yorke’s corner into the bottom right corner. It was described by the television commentator as “most important goal ever for Trinidad” and it was no exaggeration.

Jubilant scenes of celebration occurred on the pitch as well as all over Trinidad. Those who were able to hear a television would have been able to hear the few Trinidadian supporters over the silent and stunned Bahraini crowd.

Most of the second half still had to be played and Bahrain attempted to change their tactics to chase the goal they needed to have any chance of going to Germany. Trinidad, however, continued to attack and Ali Hasan in the Bahraini goal was called on several times to keep his team in the game. Tensions ran high and there were a few moments of confrontation amongst players as the half progressed.  Kelvin Jack was again involved in a bizarre moment of goalkeeping when his was dispossessed while attempting a clearance. Ahmed Hasan put the ball in the back of the net but the whistle had already been blown by referee Oscar Ruiz. The Bahrainis protested the decision and the game degenerated into furious scenes of dissent culminating in defender Ali Baba being sent off for pushing the referee.

There was still time for Russell Latapy to hit the bar and for Kelvin Jack to atone for his earlier eccentricities by making an exceptional save in the dying moments of the game. After the whistle the Bahraini players again surrounded the referee but the Trinidadians took no part in the fracas. Like the rest of the country, they were too busy celebrating becoming the smallest nation to qualify for the World Cup.

The next day was declared a public holiday and the team was paraded across the country, just as in 1989, for the fans to see their footballing heroes. Unlike in 1989, there would be no disappointment. The potential opponents or probable results in Germany were largely ignored. It was enough for every Trinidadian fan to be able to say they saw Trinidad play at a World Cup.