The WInd Rises -- The Anime Master's Perfect Farewell Gift

                                        For the past three decades, Hayao Miyazaki has been viewed as the world's premiere animator. He proved to us that animation can’t be just dismissed as a genre for ‘kids.’ John Lasseter, one of the revered founders of Pixar and a film-maker, who revolutionized the animation movies, once said: “At Pixar, when we have a problem, we often take a Laserdiscs of one of Mr. Miyazaki’s films and look at a scene for a shot of inspiration. And it always works!” Later, the founders of Pixar, after taking over the Disney's animation department, cut out a deal to dub Miyazaki’s classic anime (voices were lent by established Hollywood actors) and release them in North American theaters. Miyazaki’s anime are famous for its lyrical details. He has bestowed us epic fantasies, children classics filled with warm humanity, humor and weird menageries. Miyazaki exquisitely blended Japanese mythologies with the themes like environmentalism, pacifism and feminism. His movies are both for pre-school and the mature.

                                   The artistically incontestable Miyazaki has announced his retirement after making the elegiac historical fantasy “The Wind Rises” (2013). So, if this truly his retirement, then this anime feature represents an end of an era. “The Wind Rises” definitely won't appeal to kids (like “Totoro”, Spirited Away” or “Ponyo”), since this is a languidly paced biography of an aeronautical engineer. Rather than a mythical landscape, Miyazaki has chosen the most recognizable 20th century Japan for his tale. However, there is no doubt that this is yet another astounding work, loaded with unforgettable images and hidden meanings. 

                                 The film is set from a time toward the end of World War I to the end of World War II. When we first see the bespectacled boy, Jiro, he dreams about flight. He constantly sketches planes, pores over the designs in English-language aeronautical magazines, and in the dreams, he communicates with his hero – the Italian aeronautical engineer Gianni Caproni. Jiro’s chief flying machine designs are inspired by the curve of a mackerel bone. As a cultured young man, Jiro travels to Tokyo to find employment. In the train journey, he discusses French poetry with Nahoko, a pretty train passenger. He later saves her from the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake.

                                 The subplot traces their romance as they eventually get reacquainted (and she becomes his wife). The central story concentrates on the darker time of Japanese history as Jiro and his fellow engineer Honjo travel to Germany, to see how Germans are building warplanes. Jiro eventually builds the ‘Zero Fighter Plane.’ Jiro doesn’t want to craft a weapon of destruction, but he chooses not to wrestle with his conscience, but dedicates himself to making the fastest and most advanced planes possible. He also has to deal with a personal tragedy.

                                Miyazaki has faced a lot of criticisms for his portrayal of Jiro Hirokoshi. Jiro’s lightweight fighter plane, Mitsubishi Zero enabled many victories for Japan in World War II (including the Pearl Harbor attack). The Japanese right-wingers blamed Miyazaki for portraying Horikoshi as a man plagued by doubts and grievous premonitions. Other critics accused Miyazaki of downplaying the evil. They questioned the purity of Jiro’s dreams and stated that this film tries to whitewash the Japanese atrocities. However, Miyazaki stated that he never intended to make a political movie ("I wanted to portray a devoted individual who pursed his dream head on", Miyazaki said in an interview). If you look closely, the film is not about warfare; it’s about a young man, living his dream, even though it comes at a heavy price. Miyazaki, a pacifist, has given profound statements that regret his country’s aggression during the Second World War. He has criticized the current Japanese government for the debate on increasing the militarization. So, through “The Wind Rises”, Miyazaki tries to show how a young man’s dream could be transformed by the politics and put to use for a deadly purpose.

                                  Miyazaki also ponders over the individual guilt of a scientist or an artist. In one of the dream sequences, Miyazaki’s and Jiro’s personal hero, Caproni says that airplanes are not instruments of war or ways of making money but “beautiful dreams.” However, Caproni, who also built warplanes for his fascist government – says he’d rather live in a world with pyramids (greatest wonder, but built by slaves, to honor tyrant kings). These words metaphorically state that every great human endeavor, more or less, had a bloodbath behind it. In the end, it is clear that Both – Jiro and Caproni --  were unhappy about the way their countries used their genius.    

                                  Though Jiro has been the Miyazaki’s titular subject, a lot of things are completely fictionalized. The main addition to Jiro’s life is the fictional character of Nahoko. The charming romantic re-connection and the melancholy moments that follows comes from the work of Tatsuo Hori, a writer of the pre-World War II era (one of his novel is titled “The Wind Rises”). There are also certain personal connections between Hirokoshi and Miyazaki: Katsuji -- Miyazaki’s father -- managed a munitions factory that made parts for the Zero fighter planes. Miyazaki’s mother suffered from tuberculosis like the fictional character Nahoko. Both the dreamers seem to have shared this paradoxical view: fighter planes are beautiful, but war is bad.

                                  Miyazaki finely embraces the hand-drawn style, which is frowned upon by many viewers like a black-and-white movie. But, “The Wind Rises” and other Miyazaki films possess an amazing collection of details and artistry that couldn’t sometimes achieved by computer generated animation. These rich hand-drawn images never lessen our ability to relate to the characters. Miyazaki, once again, takes us through breath-taking landscapes, especially the agrarian Japan of 1920’s. The Great Kanto earthquake and the ensuing fire are conveyed through jaw-dropping visuals.

                                 Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” (126 minutes) may not get absolute affections of people like his previous fantasy classics. However, his genius and artistry haven’t diminished a bit, as he once again deals with a complicated story and idea. This conflicted moral fable is truly a great farewell gift to all the movie-lovers. 


Ida -- A Journey across a Woeful Landscape

                                  Polish-born British filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski is best known in the festival circles for his two intense contemporary pictures about English society: “The Last Resort” (2000) and “My Summer of Love” (2004) – a strange female coming-of-age film. After the mediocre thriller, “The Woman in the Fifth” (2011) he has now returned with a haunting period piece, “Ida” (2014), where the country and individuals are contending with their identities. Marvelously photographed in monochrome, the film takes us on a tragic road trip across the bleak terrain of 1960s Communist Poland. Pawlikowski’s images are in the territory of post-World war European masters Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson. The deadpan spots of the film also evoke the style of Bela Tarr and Aki Kaurismaki.

                               The film opens in a rural convent (in the early 1960’s), situated somewhere in the cold Central European landscape. Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young nun is about to take her final vows in the Polish abbey, where she was left as a baby, near the end of World War II, by persons unknown. Before taking the vows, mother superior calls Anna and asks her to visit Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) in Warsaw – Anna’s only living relative. Wanda is an alcoholic, free-loving magistrate, who was once a zealot of the communist state and an unrestrained prosecutor (nicknamed ‘Red Wanda’). The idealism of postwar Communism has worn away within Wanda and in Poland too.

                            The embittered Wanda reveals a dark family secret to her niece, Anna: She was a Jew and her real name is Ida Lebenstein. Anna’s parents have perished in the war, and the whereabouts of their burial sites are unknown. Wanda uses Anna as a pretext to discover what happened to her sister’s family during the war. They travel to the family farmhouse and encounter a man, whose family might have killed Ida’s parents. The changing dynamics of the women are observed in the erased or forgotten backdrop of holocaust.

                               It was said that the Polish Jewish population before the Nazi invasion (in 1939) was around 3.5 million. After World War, Holocaust and emigration, the Jewish population in 1960’s Poland was below 100,000. The most haunting fact about Holocaust in Poland is that the Nazis were abetted by local non-Jew civilians to kill the Jew families (although many helped hiding the Jews) and these civilians have later occupied the Jews’ houses and farms. So, the primary question the film poses is whether Anna will be able to forgive those with a national amnesia. Pawlikowski and co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz also addresses the conflicted legacy of communism in Poland. Wanda and Ida pick up a jazz saxophonist hitchhiker (Dawid Ogrodnik), who has a crush, on Ida and introduces her Western-style music and racy late night-clubs. The 1960’s was the time when communism slowly frayed in Poland, as Western pop culture crept through the youth’s minds. The scenes in the night-clubs represent new possibilities, but don’t clearly reflect whether it is positive or negative.

                               Director Pawlikowski handles the big issues of modern Polish history without ever delivering a lengthy lecture. The director has lived most of his life in Western Europe. So, making “Ida” was a return to the past for him as well. This has also helped to deliver the depressing past without any sentimentality. He makes Anna and Wanda to say or emote little that doesn’t clearly convey their feelings. The characters’ disorientated existence gradually creeps up on the viewers too, who along with the main characters must make sense of the new-found past. The crisp black-and-white cinematography is composed with exceptional artistry. The close-up shots of Trzebuchowska’s face really looks like a renaissance era painting.

                             Agata Kulesza, who plays the Aunt Wanda, was a veteran TV and film actress. She is tough, funny –when repressing the smile at the mention of all-merciful god – and reflects the suffering from the past. The other Agata, who plays Anna/Ida, is a first-time actor (a student). Her beautiful face and stunning wide-eyed gaze showcases an inner conflict that can’t be explained with words. She takes in the ghosts of past through her eyes and tries to contemplate what it means. The ending felt a little overdrawn, as Wanda and Anna decide to behave in a dramatic manner.

                             The hauntingly beautiful and emotionally moving “Ida” (80 minutes) is a thoughtful cinematic experience. It revisits Europe’s dark past without ever becoming an ideological tract. 


 Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and smoking

Like Father, Like Son -- A Realistic and Moving Transformation of a Self-Absorbed Father

                                    What’s important in shaping up children’s personalities: Nature or Nurture? How do family head’s career and mentality shape the emotional strain of a household? What constitutes a family how do we describe non-monetary success? A film-maker who addresses these questions is prone to go melodramatic, running a risk of overdoing everything. Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Like Father, Like Son” (2013) not only inquires into such overly emotional themes, but even its story is something you come across in a soap-opera: babies switched at birth. However, Kore-eda’s narrative dynamics avoids all kinds of redundancy and makes the movie, one of his most genuinely heart-breaking works.    

                                   Kore-eda is one of Japan’s most respected contemporary film-makers, whose static camera compositions and familial dispositions paid great tribute to Japanese cinematic master Yasujiro Ozu. But, over the years, he has developed a style and voice of his own, surpassing most of his peers. He also has an exceptional gift for working with children. Like Ozu, he’s a sharp observer of family life, of its feelings (that are universal). His works exude gentleness and delicacy without stooping to cheap sentiments. He transforms a trite premise into a moving poetry.

                                   The unassuming family drama opens with a mischievous interview scene, where the adorable six year old Keita (Keita Ninomiya) sits between his parents, Ryota and Midori Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama and Machicko Ono), and playfully answers the questions to join in a posh private school. Keita’s father Ryota is a workaholic architect and a very rigid father. He imposes certain rules in the household and asks Keita to daily practice Piano, just because he likes to play. Ryota thinks his son is ‘quitter’ and doesn’t worry about losing. Midori is a very kindly mother, who treasures her son, since she cannot have any more children. When Midori says that she got a phone call from the hospital where Keita was born, Ryota says, “I hope it’s nothing messy.” Alas, his hope fails.

                                   The hospital management states that the boy they have been raising is not their biological son. The babies have been swapped (the reason only stated later in a painful courtroom scene). Keita’s biological father Yudai Saiki (Riri Furanki) is a slacker, who runs a scruffy appliance store. His wife Yukari Saiki (Yoko Maki) shares her husband’s relaxed attitudes and caringly raises her three children, one of whom is Ryusei (Shogun Hwang) – the Ryota and Midori’s biological son. It is clear that the Saiki’s are several rungs below Ryota’s in social ladder. The families meet each other and neither set of parents want to rush, although the hospital management insists that children are in the right age to make the switch.

                                Ryota, the perfectionist, obsessively thinks how this mistake could have been made. He meets an upper crust lawyer and asks if there is any chance to raise both Keita and Ryusei. Yukai, the other family-head, focuses on the potential settlement money from the hospital management. The couples, at first begin a trial run, switching the children on weekends. This only leads to further complications and Ryota feels that his unshakable assurance is threatened on number of fronts. It all leads to a question: what’s best for the children, most importantly for the parents.  Thankfully, there are no villains in this movie, since every character is nuanced and realistic.

                                 I wasn’t very much impressed, when I watched the movie for the first time. May be I expected something more dramatic or maybe I thought that the focus will be more on the children. But, Kore-eda, unlike his previous movies “Nobody Knows”, “I Wish”, has chosen to focus on the adult male of a patriarchal society. After a couple of repeated viewings, I could now understand that Kore-eda wanted to make a statement/criticism on the traditional role of the man in Japanese society. Although baby swapping is the crux of story, the film is fully about Ryota and his views on parenthood. Many intellectuals often repeat that identity has nothing to do with one’s class. However, that’s not the reality. Kore-eda subtly handles this politics of class, enunciating that class differences do matter, because that’s what inflames the emotions of our everyday life.  Kore-eda must have deliberately chosen two families that are polar opposites in terms of class.

                             ‘Whom do you think will have a better life: Keita or Ryusei?’ If this is the question the film-maker asks us then the movie would for sure resemble a schmaltzy drama. But, Kore-eda’s innate empathetic nature explores the character of Ryota -- the perfect guy we would love to hate. Ryota forces Keita to practice piano daily without giving a thought that whether Keita likes to play Piano. “I’d like to get custody of both kids”, he says to his lawyer. He never pays attention to other’s emotions. In a typical Hollywood or Bollywood movie, the suited, rich Ryota would be the villain and the poor, slothful Yukai would be the hero. For the initial 30 0r 40 minutes, Ryota is just a stereotypical character, but gradually Kore-eda steers our attention fully on Ryota by providing nuanced details.

                               As it turns out, Ryota has had a problematic relationship with his overbearing father. His father asks him to make the swap and believes that “as with racehorses, it's all about bloodlines" (which is also the belief of the son). Ryota has ignored his stepmother, refuses to call her ‘mom’, even though she was very kind to him (kinder than his biological mother, who abandoned him).  By watching his father, we could clearly guess that his roots of remoteness are transmitted to him, like some genetic disease. So, Kore-eda challenges Ryota’s aristocratic view of bloodlines through scenarios that shakes him up the way he didn’t anticipate.

                                 He is made to think about his past and he gradually acquires empathy. In the courtroom scene, the nurse who attended Midori (Ryota’s wife) recalls her crime. She says that she deliberately switched the babies to wreak havoc upon their upper class lives. The nurse, who has now become a caring mother (step-mother), regrets for her crime. The nurse, later, gives some money to Ryota through his lawyer, which forces Ryota to make a trip to her house. At first, this scene might seem unnecessary because we might think that he is just going to confront her with angry words. But, that exactly doesn’t happen. As the nurse opens her door, he returns the money with a furious look. Suddenly, the nurse’s son comes out of the house and stares at Ryota. He says, “It has nothing to do with you.” The boy replies, “It has. She’s my mother.” Ryota expressions change, as he pats the boy and walks away without saying a word. In the next scene, Ryota sits inside his car and calls his step-mother, asking her forgiveness, for not supporting her. This scene plus the next one in the forest were all concocted to show Ryota’s changing nature (not to forget the scene where Ryota checks his DSLR). Although these sequences serve a singular purpose, they are unique in the way Kore-eda handles the character’s emotions.

                             The director is very careful not to portray Yudai Saiki (the head of other family) as an ideal father. Yudai has his own set of flaws: he is repeatedly looking for ways to siphon as much cash out of the apologetic hospital as possible. He might be an easy going dad and say things like, "being a father is the most important job in the world", but Kore-eda incites us with the knowledge of his imperfections, which are subtle enough to view it from an non-judgmental point of view.

                               In the film, no one asks the children, ‘how they feel?’ Some might think that it is a flaw, but in such real situation no one would try to understand the wishes of a six year old wouldn't be taken into account. Even though, the children are the ones who have to bear more pain – they aren't even allowed to speak with the man and women they previously called "Dad" and "Mom" --   the adults will try to rationalize the situation only from their view. Kore-eda offers a glimmer of hope in the end for the families without any over-dramatic schemes. Masaharu Fukuyama plays the titular father character -- one of Japan's leading singer and actor. The sense of turmoil he shows in his face is brilliant. Ono as the mother, Midori, is the movie’s quiet soul. In one of her beautiful scene, on a train, she wistfully asks Keita, “Shall the two of us run away together? Somewhere nobody knows?” All the four kids are unbearably cute, especially Keita makes our heart-ache.

Director Kore-eda with Shogun Hwang and Keita

                              “Like Father, Like Son” exudes universal emotions that are relatable to potentially broad audience, whatever their marital or generational status. Kore-eda’s final and most important message is clearly intended for Japanese archetype male. The message was not just portrayed through Ryota’s change for the better, but also through the words of Ryota’s boss. "You've always kept your foot on the gas pedal, right? It's about time for you to brake," the old boss tells him. Ryota in a confused mind-set asks him, "But you got this far because you kept going." To which, the boss replies, “That, was another time.” Kore-eda says to a workaholic family man, especially the post-war, hardworking Japanese male to balance his life with leisure and love.

                               It really is a privilege to watch a movie like “Like Father, Like Son” (121 minutes), where humanity shines through every frame. Hirokazu Kore-eda surely has extracted the maximum from one of the modest cinematic plot. Watch it with patience and without expecting calculated answers.   


Metro Manila -- A Compassionate Crime-Laced Drama

                                     Forty four year old British director Sean Ellis got his international recognition with his 2004 Oscar nominated short film, “The Cashback” He made his short film into a full-length feature and followed it by a tale of doppelgangers , “The Broken”, starring ‘Game of Thrones’ fame Lena Headey. On his holiday trip in Philippines, he is said to have observed a conflict between two armored truck personnel. Then, he immediately concocted a script and went out to shoot “Metro Manila” (2013), completely in the Tagalog language. “Metro Manila” is a crime/drama that has both the genre elements and naturalism. It provides wonderful twists as well as takes a fly-on-the-wall view of Manila’s desperate underside.

                                   The movie begins in the Northern Philippine mountain provinces, where the rice farmer Oscar Ramirez (Jake Macapagal) is forced to look for a job, since the price of rice has dropped to an all-time low. He shifts from the village, taking along his wife Mai (Althea Vega) and two daughters, to the city of 12 million souls – Manila. The innocuous Oscar becomes an easy prey to scammers. He loses all his savings to a crook. He and his family eventually wind up in a filthy shack in a slum district. Mai finds works in a hostess bar, leaving her children to the care of the bar’s old crone.

                                  Soon, a glimmer of hope hovers above the family, as Oscar attends an interview for an armored truck company. Senior worker Ong (John Arcilla) recommends Oscar for the job, even though he hasn’t got the right qualities for this kind of job. “This is the Wild West!” proclaims a genial Ong stating the low life expectancy of Manila’s armored truck driver. Ong takes Oscar under his wing and showers him with a lot of generosity and also tests him with little transgressions. Eventually, it becomes clear that sinister plans are lying behind Ong’s benevolent nature.

                                  The first hour of the movie resembles the structure of an immigrant drama, where the protagonist is lured to a modernized city, buying into its illusions of economic self-improvement. Then, gradually through brutal circumstances the characters understands that the economic improvement is not for their class of people (Gregory Nava’s superior “El Norte” (1983) had such a storyline, but it was told with more subtlety). If not for a brutal shooting in the pre-credits sequence, viewers might have really believed that it is a migrant drama, from the point of view of an outsider. But, as Oscar settles into a fine job, Ellis slowly introduces the elements of a crime thriller. The crime elements pose the usual moral dilemma for our protagonist: to choose between the moral high ground or do the requested bad action for a man who has been so good to him. However, Oscar’s circumnavigation of this dilemma is what makes the compassionate ending completely unexpected and spellbinding.   

                              The most striking aspect of the movie is Macapagal’s incredible performance. He is utterly convincing as the movie’s moral anchor and he never fails to portray a wide range of emotions with a unique flair and subtlety. With “Metro Manila”, Ellis shows great talent for using cinema's visual and aural possibilities. He also builds genuine emotional weight, while contemplating thorny moral issues. The looming neon signs, the endless corruption and the ironical signs like “In God We Trust” are all the elements that makes the movie universal, since all the impoverished people in any city has to face a similar to conflict to retain their honor. However, the same universal element bars us from understanding the traits of Filipino society.

Director Sean Ellis

                           “Metro Manila” (115 minutes) is a neatly scripted morality tale that avoids most of the formulaic elements of crime drama. It must be watched for director Sean Ellis, who seems to think that there is no ‘comfort zone’ when making a film.  


Songs from the Second Floor -- An Absurdist Examination of Modern Urban Society

                                     Swedish film-maker Roy Andersson was an internationally renowned cult figure, best known for his handful of short films and innovative television commercials -- even described by Ingmar Bergman as the best in the world. After a 25 year gap (made “Gilliap” in 1975), he returned with a surrealistic black comedy, “Songs from the Second Floor” (2000), which revolved around the upcoming millennium.  Partially self-financed, the film was in production for four years and the end product resembles a Kubrickian, evident especially in Andersson’s overweening perfection. Every shot in the film indicates control and precision. Despite the precise look and original vision, the film has no script or story to speak of.

                                "Beloved be the ones who sit down,” reads a text at the very beginning of the film.  The text belongs to avant-garde Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo (1892-1938). The same line is repeated in the film many times and one of the interpretations of that poetic line is that it is addressed, with sarcasm, to the patient movie-lovers. Andersson is said to have first come across the Peruvian poet in 1965. In the 1980’s he tried to make a documentary based around Valejo’s poem, but deferred the idea, thinking that the poem would be better served by the medium of fiction. But, only in 1996, after Andersson honed a supreme aesthetic style, the film’s production began. The results indicate that it was worth the wait for both Andersson and cinephiles.   

                                 “Songs from the Second Floor” shuns the conventional narrative form and unfolds in distinct episodes, each one examining the absurdity of human existence and the perils of modern life. The episodes are set in a chaotic, millennium-fearing city, where eight-hour traffic jams occur. All the random anecdotes take place within a static frame, eschewing close-ups. The unmoving, (only once in the entire movie Andersson move his camera) distant camera transforms all the forms of on-screen human tragedy into a unique brand of black comedy. In the opening scene, CEO Lennart (Bengt CW Carlsson) says, "This is a new day and age– you have to realize that" to Pelle (Fahlstrom), a submissive chief executive. The CEO stays hidden beneath a tanning machine (only his feet could be seen) and orders Pelle to downsize.

                                 The old, worn-out Lasse (Sten Anderson) brushes off his wife’s request to stay home and goes to work only to find out that he's been fired. Lasse, who has worked there for thirty years -- without taking vacations – couldn’t believe this gross injustice. He grabs Pelle’s leg as he is dragged down the hall. Pelle contemplates a better life and so seeks to escape from the mass unemployment and from the city’s misery. He and his lover, Robert pack all of their belongings, including the golf sticks. In the next vignette, we see a magician making a mistake as he cut into the stomach of the volunteer, while doing the traditional ‘sawing-a-man-in-half trick.’ The central vignette of the film features fat, middle-aged Kalle (Lars Nordh), who travels in the subway with his face covered in ash. Kalle have torched his own furniture store for the insurance money.

                                 Kalle could sense a sense of guilt creeping on him. His eldest son, Thomas is in a lunatic asylum. Thomas stays in silence and Kalle comments that:  "He wrote poetry until he went nuts." Kalle’s other son Stefan drives the cab his brother has left for him. Stefan is depressed by the confessions of his passengers. In the film’s most surrealistic episode, we watch Kalle getting visited by the ghost of a man who loaned him some money before committing suicide. The fellow haunts him and has also brought with him a boy, who was hanged by Germans in World War II. Kalle also gets in business with a hard-nosed entrepreneur, who believes that there will be surging interest in crucifixes, since millennium or end of world is just around the corner. 

                                  Trying to write down all the vignettes as it is somewhat absurd, since the absurdly comic tone could only be savored by experiencing the film. The deadpan nature of characters resembles Jacques Tati’s movies. The characters are more absurd than funny. All of them live inside some kind of bubble, unable to communicate. Director Andersson relates the painful human existence to the numbing effect of capitalist systems. Through the image of Lasse, clutching the ankle of his golf-playing boss, Andersson shows that how men have become emotionless engines, unbothered by their inherent cruelty. He shows various vistas of societal breakdown (a lot of them surrealistic) in the film: racial violence goes unchecked; suited protestors flagellate themselves in the streets; dead walk among the living; corporate bigwigs inside a multi-storey building perceives that the buildings are moving; A impassive crowd of religious men, financiers and dignitaries sacrifice a child in a last effort to fend off the economic ruin and apocalypse. All these scenes don’t provide any standard revelations of meaning, but resonates with us in a pure visceral way.

                                 Andersson exhibits human frailty in the sequences involving the toothless, 100 year old army general, who is confined into a hospital crib. The old timer has a bedpan under him as the uniformed soldiers arrive to celebrate his 100th birthday. The enormously wealthy, senile general offers a Nazi salute and asks to convey his best wishes to ‘Herman Goring.’ Andersson religious paraphernalia are intriguing to a point. Through one of Thomas’s fellow mental patients, Andersson says, “Jesus was not the Son of God; he was only a man who preached kindness.” By this statement, he raises the question: why would humans torture and crucify a man who only preached madness? Once again the unrelentingly pessimistic answer is that men are innately incapable of kindness. The final ten minute single take -- where ghosts of past come back to human beings -- depicts a deep allegorical meaning.

                                  All of the non-professional actors have lumpy bodies, dressed in ill-fitting clothes with a ghastly pale make-up, expressing a weary despair. The character are mostly chosen for their physical structure rather than acting skills. Each and every shot of Andersson has the precise compositional balance of a photo-realistic painting. A subtle blue and green color is used to strengthen the film's bleak emotional landscape and pale characters. There are some down sides to this unrelenting tone. After a first-hour, the continual practice of this consistent technique may cause some fatigue. It gives a feeling of getting trapped inside a never-ending dream. There are also many Y2K references, which make the doomsday hype irrelevant and dated. Despite these flaws, there is no doubt that this movie is an unsung masterpiece from a genuine artist (Andersson’s follow-up “You, the Living” (2007) is equally astonishing).

                                 “Songs from the Second Floor” (95 minutes) is a strangely amusing allegorical drama that points out the absurdities of human behavior. Its dystopian vision asserts that misery, despair and guilt are the inescapable, universal human condition.


The Cave of the Yellow Dog -- Celebrates an Endangered Way of Life

                                    Ethnographic cinema offers an eloquent portrait about a way of life. Sometimes, we see people living in a city that is far away from ours, but facing the same problems of modern ideals. We see the same suited ant armies, yearning to climb over in the ladders of urban life. At other times, we witness an ancient way of life, followed in these modern times, which has an exotic charm to it. We are overwhelmed with emotions in seeing people, who embrace nature and time-honored rituals. The grassland nomads of Mongolia pursue such a centuries-old way of life.  Their nature-friendly life is often loaded onto wooden-wheeled carts. Mongolian filmmaker Byambasuren Davaa’s “The Cave of the Yellow Dog” (2005) depicts the cultural predicament and everyday life of a nomadic Mongolian Sheep-herding family.

                                  In 2003, director Davaa co-directed a beautifully fabricated ethnographic documentary “The Story of the Weeping Camel,” which was based around a Mongolian nomadic family’s newest Camel colt. “The Yellow Dog” follows a different Mongolian family in a different area (grasslands). Like her previous film, Davaa once again portrays the emotional blend of human and animal interdependence. Davaa follows the real, Batchuluuns family and adds lightly dramatized scenes that are gentle and charming. The Batchuluuns live in their yurts and have adopted life that is an exercise in self-sufficiency. The father Urjindorj, in his traditional garb, rides a motorcycle to the nearby town for selling sheep skins and to get the 21st century necessities. The mother Buyandulam is engaged in household chores, makes goat cheese, and looks after her three children.

                                  The 7-9 year old Nansal Batchuluun is the eldest child, returns to her rural home from school in the city. Nansal’s younger siblings are the jubilant Nansalmaa and Batbayar. While collecting dung, Nansal finds a black-and-white spotted stray dog near the pasture where her family grazes its sheep. She names him ‘Zochor’ and takes him to her home. But, her father asks her get rid of it, fearing that it is feral dog, which might attract wolves for attacking the sheep herd. Anyone who has seen a ‘girl-and-dog’ story might know the ending, but the way it unfolds towards the finale is absolutely fascinating.  

                                “The Cave of the Yellow Dog” is deliberately slow, making us to mull over the family’s serene life. So, the impatient viewers may find it hard to sit through long, uncluttered takes that esteems the tranquil grassland life. However, a contemplative and compassionate movie-lover may find the same serene rhythm, simply seductive. Director Davaa keeps the domestic routines of the family in the forefront, but at the same time, she also reflects on the Tibetan Buddhist beliefs of reincarnation. The recurring images of a spinning windmill seems to state the theme of reincarnation. At one point, Nansal, while tending her herd gets stuck in the rain and takes shelter in an elderly woman’s yurt. The old woman tells Nansal , a fable about a yellow dog and insists on the importance of human life. It’s a highly resonant emotional sequence.

                                The film ends with a climax that disrupts the air of unaffected naturalism, but for the most part it valiantly depicts the archaic, quasi-mystical Mongolian culture. In her interview, Davaa states that, she wanted to put this way of life on film, because it is about to disappear. As we see the final vision of the nomads' caravan, we couldn’t stop thinking about the devouring modernity that might kill away this atmosphere friendly culture. The father, in one of the scene, talks about taking a job in a department store in the town, mainly to stay close with his children. So, may be in a decade or two, this exalting nomadic life might totally get integrated into the ‘status and money’ pursuing modern life. The ‘Yurt’ plays an important role in the film. Yurt is a portable, circular domed dwelling that was used from ancient times by nomadic Mongols and Turks of Central Asia. The silent dismantling of the Yurt, towards the end, makes us think about our obsession in buying up properties.

                              Davaa’s unobtrusive camera not only captures the exotic Mongolian landscapes, but also exhibits a strong chemistry with the family, especially in the way she captures the little actions of children. Davaa completely immerses us into the children’s mind set and makes us see the world through their eyes. In one of the unscripted scene, the toddler Batbayar plays with a Buddha statue. His little sister, Nansalmaa comes in and says in an admonishing manner: “You’re not supposed to play with God.” It was such an extraordinary statement by a little kid that was passed on to her by the mother. Such un-staged sequences are what make it a spectacular cinematic trip.

                           “The Cave of the Yellow Dog” (90 minutes) transcends the documentary genre, imparting us with soulful messages. It offers essential human truths that are timeless. 


How to Train Your Dragon 2 -- Exuberant as the Original

                               It’s always nice to watch a ‘boy-and-his-dog tale.’ It is exciting to observe the symbiotic relationship between humankind and animals. Based on a not-so-popular children series, DreamWorks Studio’s “How to Train Your Dragon” (2010) basically transformed the ‘boy-dog’ storyline into a gleeful, endearingly animated tale about a Viking Chieftain’s son Hiccup and his pet dragon, Toothless. Vibrant narrative, funny characters and a vivid 3-D technology made the film to earn close to half a billion dollars. Now its sequel “How to Train Your Dragon 2” does what most of the sequel best does: takes its protagonist to new, interesting adventures and charts his continued growth.

                              DreamWorks Animation Studio’s movies always lacked some brilliance or vitality, unlike the Pixar Studio’s. “Shrek”, “Antz”, “Bee Movie”, “The Croods” may have earned kid audiences and few laurels, but didn’t have visual splendor or storyline to fill adult viewers with anticipation. “How to Train Your Dragon” movies have now broken those lackluster formula for ‘DreamWorks’ and have had the franchise flying with fan expectations. For kids, the ‘dragon’ movies say the usual ‘be yourself’ message, but unlike the other animation movies, it conveys it through the characters rather than shoving it on their faces.   

                             The story beings five years later and our Viking hero Hiccup (voiced with fondness by Jay Baruchel) has changed all in his small village of Berk. The dragons are now part of the locals’ way of life and the people have also become wiser and adventurous. Hiccup’s girl friend Astrid and other friends belonging to Berk Dragon Training Academy enjoy playing a new dragon-racing game (similar to Quidditch game from ‘Harry Potter’), which sets up for an amusing opening sequence. However, Hiccup and his trusted dragon Toothless are off to discover new lands. In one such exploring trip, the duo comes across an exiled tribe member/mercenary, Eret and his gang of roughnecks, who traps stray dragons to give it to the shadowy boss Drago Bludvist.  

                             After escaping from Eret’s gang and after warning his father Stoick about the impending doom, Hiccup comes across masked dragon rider, Valka. She is a kindred spirit and a vigilante dragon lady, who has rescued several dragons and lives in secret ice-bound nest, which is controlled by an Alpha dragon nicknamed, ‘Bewilder Beast.’ Valka’s mysterious past and Drago’s thwarting, violent plans eventually changes Hiccup’s life forever.

                          Animation films mostly keep away from increasing the age of its central characters. But, writer/director Dean DeBlois’ decision has circumvented this usual rule (by placing Hiccup in his early 20’s) and has opened up new narrative possibilities. Like “Toy Story”, it’s a smart, artistic decision to allow the loyal viewers to grow alongside the film. At times, we could feel that the director has jettisoned the original's targeted kids viewers and retooled this for a teenage audience (consider the painful lesson in the end the quadrangle love involving Ruffnut). DeBlois isn’t also too conservative in making this sequel. In most other franchises, it becomes hard to distinguish sequel from original. “How to Train Your Dragon 2” follows some of the same template used in original, but also expands its universe – both geographically and logically. The film’s technical achievements are clearly indisputable.

                         The great strength of the original was the way it infused the dragons with unique personality (which could be related to most of the household animals). The sequel wonderfully expands this repertoire, especially in the scenes when Toothless frolics in the background, with a playfulness of a cat and the loyalty of a dog. The sequel does suffer from some cliched moments, but the lyrical flying sequences and adorable character designs makes out spirit soar.

                         “How to Train Your Dragon 2” (100 minutes) is an utterly satisfying entertainment for family audiences. It’s slightly matured themes and less preachment makes us anticipate for the 2016 ‘dragon’ movie.