‘Samsara’ is a most unusual film – one that is absent of dialogue but packed with images from sacred the places the world over. Directed by Ron Fricke, ‘Samsara’ is the sequel to ‘Baraka’ from 1992, which in Arabic translates to blessing. Samara, on the other hand, is defined as the cycle of death and rebirth to which life in the material world is bound. This picture was filmed over four years in 25 countries around the world, shot on 70mm film and output to digital format. In the words of the filmmakers, “Samsara’ explores the wonders of our world from the mundane to the miraculous, looking into the unfathomable reaches of man’s spirituality and the human experience.”

As mentioned previously, there is no dialogue here, just images and music. Spirituality, or religion, depending on how you view it, plays a huge role in ‘Samsara’ – we see shots of primitive people engaging in their tribal rights by dancing, and man’s evolution, which eventually leads to people praying in mosques, and churches, as well as an increase in the volume of human traffic on city streets through sped up images. The images in this picture are as equal parts awe-inspiring and disturbing, but all of it is handled with great care. Most films don’t require much of the viewer – we sit in a movie theatre and passively experience the events that unfold on the screen. This is an example of an experience complete onto itself – the viewer is transported from his or her theatre seat into this strange world – a world we all inhabit, but one we fail to meditatively regard the strangeness and wonder of.

I envy these filmmakers. They were able to travel the world and record such magnificent images. But at least this project was in the hands of some incredibly visionary artists. This is the sort of picture that could serve as a time capsule – should future generations ever wonder what it was like to live on this planet during this time period, ‘Samsara’ would provide the data. Of course, the derivations, hypothesis testing, and conclusions are all for the viewer to draw. There is no narrative in the traditional sense. What was Ron Fickle trying to say? Did he have an agenda? Maybe these cameras were situated in the right spots at the right times. The footage may have then been cobbled together in a random manner. If these sequences of images were rearranged in another order, would it make a difference? What is a beginning? What is an end? What is narrative? If you walk into this film midway, would this still be an experience you can sink into? I think so.

‘Samsara’ may have a standard definition, and in that sense, this is the only thing standard about it. This film means whatever you want it to mean. According to the website Rotten Tomatoes, I am with the critical majority on this picture (which is currently at 72%, which means 72 out of 100 critics are endorsing the movie). But, I have to say, I completely disagree with part of the critical consensus statement: “It’s a tad heavy-handed in its message, but Samsara’s overwhelmingly beautiful visuals more than compensate for any narrative flaws.” Bull. How can ‘Samsara’ be heavy handed if people didn’t get it? Or if it’s meaning varies from viewer to viewer. Criticism about the film’s narrative means that entertainment writers are asking for a more conventional film.

What did I get out of Samsara? I saw a visual palette consisting of people, places, structures, rituals. But, it’s the disturbing bits that stuck with me. There is a scene in which we see chickens and cows at a poultry/beef-processing plant. Operationally, this plant appears to be first-rate. Chickens aren’t smart animals, but they are aware of their fate – within a matter of seconds, they are fed into a tractor, beheaded, stripped of their feathers and skin, and sliced and diced. The cows are processed in an equally mechanical manner using an overhead conveyor, which they hang from before being sliced. The methodology used here would make Six Sigma graduates proud. Assuming that they aren’t vegetarian, of course. This scene not only demonstrates automation at work, but organizational efficiencies by being process-driven.

One of the essential joys of the movie-going experience is that occasionally, you get a film that takes you to a place you haven’t been before. Both ‘Baraka’ and ‘Samsara’ take us to dozens of exciting places the world over. Despite having seen more of the world than the average person at my age, ‘Samsara’ made me realize how little of it I actually know. Everything that was transpiring on the screen had taken place on this planet over the last few years, and yet, I felt in the grand scheme of things, my life experience has been very narrow, and I know next to nothing about my fellow man. Films like ‘Samsara’ inspire one to travel and see the world. And for those, who can’t afford to do so, seeing this documentary is one way to get there. QED.

– Jerry Nadarajah


‘Argo’ is the fact-based story one of the most improbable rescue operations in recent history. Ben Affleck directs and stars in ‘Argo’, and though he has had an inconsistent career as an actor, he has hit three home-runs with three at-bats as director (his two previous films being ‘The Town’, and ‘Gone Baby Gone’). This movie will have you in its lock from its opening scene to the post credits.

It is 1979 and the Iranian Revolution has forced the Shah of Iran to flee for safety to the United States. In response to this, Iranian students and other revolutionaries raid and take over the American Embassy in Tehran, and hold 52 Americans hostage. However, six manage to avoid capture and have taken refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Of all the bad rescue plans proposed by the CIA, the “best bad idea” is from Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck). His plan: pose as a Canadian filmmaker shooting a science fiction film in Tehran where the six escapees will pose as various members of the production crew. Tony then recruits the help of make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman), and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to help make the phoney film as their cover. It is then up to Tony to fly to Tehran, set things in motion, and hopefully fly out with the six American escapees before anyone finds out about this elaborate rescue mission.

But, who the heck would believe that a cheesy science fiction picture is being filmed in Iran during the hostage situation?

The cast is uniformly excellent. As an actor, Ben Affleck hasn’t been better. There is enough of a back-story present to understand where his character comes from and what his motivations are. On a side note, I think he rocks a pretty good Dave Grohl look here. John Goodman and Alan Arkin’s characters provide the film’s moments of comic relief – both are very reliable performers. The supporting cast consists mostly of lesser known actors (regular moviegoers will recognise some of these cast members from other pictures).

‘Argo’ works as both a white knuckle thriller and as a ‘Wag The Dog’-esque satire, and the balance between these two very different elements is perfect. This is a complicated film in this sense – combining elements that may seem tough to blend together. It’s an international drama, and a thrilling action picture, but also a very funny Hollywood comedy. Think about this for a second – this film is about the Iranian hostage situation, but it’s funny! In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, ‘Argo’ would suffer from multi-personality disorder; but, Affleck moves fluidly between these storylines, making transitions that would seem tough on paper appear seamless.

More about the technique: The film opens with the reappearance of the old red and white Warner Brothers Studio logo (from the 1970s & 1980s). The opening scene plays out like a documentary about the 1970s Iranian Revolution. The grainy photography allows the stock footage to blend effortlessly with the actual film. Even the montage during the end credits (which I won’t give away) is a testament to the amount of research dedicated to this project. The attention to detail in this picture is truly remarkable.

Though steeped in the filmmaking style and trends of the 1970s, ‘Argo’ is also a reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. This picture premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival – the same week Canada severed its diplomatic ties with Iran, citing safety concerns and maintaining their long-standing view that Iran is a threat to global peace.

Affleck, as director, has found his calling. Each film has him increasing in scope, and ‘Argo’ is his most accomplished work by far. Like Clint Eastwood before him, Affleck will become at least as well known and respected for what he does behind the camera as anything he does on screen. ‘Argo’ is a film of exceptional craft – assembling a thriller that relies on precision and timing rather than shootouts and explosions. Though it is a little early to tell, my guess is that this picture will be a serious contender come Oscar season. My personal favorite of the year so far, ‘Argo’ is a reminder that sometimes Hollywood can make ‘em like they used to! Oh, and Canadians are the most awesome people ever!

– Jerry Nadarajah


So, what exactly is ‘Looper’ about? Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an assassin known as a looper who works for the mob in the year 2074 – a time where a certain portion of the population is gifted with telekinetic abilities. He waits in prearranged spot which resembles an open field. Here, he shoots bound and gagged victims who arrive through time travel thirty years into the future – a time where it is more difficult to dispose of murdered bodies. Here’s the problem – his target is now himself (Bruce Willis plays Old Joe). To avoid getting into spoilers, I’ll end my plot description here.

When it was announced that ‘Looper’ would be the opener for the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, I sort of rolled my eyes. “Looper?! That’s not a TIFF film!” Now that I’ve seen it, I can say that ‘Looper’ is very much is a TIFF film. On the surface, it appears to be a two hour chase flick with a time travel conceit. But, that isn’t what this movie about is about. The mechanics of the time travel concept is introduced early on, and then pushed into the background in favor of sinking into this milieu encompassed by characters that face some very difficult questions. Director Rian Johnson’s primary focus is on the narrative. The action set pieces and special effects are simply window dressing. ‘Looper’ is an ambitious picture, successfully combining elements involving dystopian futuristic sci-fi, western shootouts, and even children with serious anger management and parental issues. Think of it as a strange (but effective) hybrid of  ‘The Terminator’, ‘Blade Runner’, ‘The Shining’, and ‘Serenity’ (yes, by definition “hybrid” is a mix of two things, but if a movie like ‘Looper’ can make up its own rules, so can I).

‘Looper’ is a violent film to be sure, and goes in directions you would not expect. This is true in particular for some of the decisions made by the Bruce Willis character which will straight up shock and upset many of you. Yes, Joseph Gordon Levitt and Bruce Willis are playing the same characters – but the life experience contained within this thirty year gap has placed them at cross-purposes. My favorite scene in ‘Looper’ involves these two actors sitting across from each other in a diner, spelling out their intentions over a plate of steak and eggs. There is some dark comedy in this tension-filled scene that reminded me of the coffee scene between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Michael Mann’s ‘Heat’. Joseph Gordon Levitt is one of the better actors working today and he proves his versatility by choosing to play this character – it’s the most “flawed” a character he has ever played, but there is some humanity to this Young Joe. And there’s a vulnerability to Old Joe that allows Bruce Willis to showcase his acting abilities and remind us that he isn’t just an action star. Once the Emily Blunt character is introduced, the film slows down, and that’s just fine because we really get to know these characters and care about the critical decisions they have to make.    

Those expecting wall-to-wall noise (a huge fault of the theatrical trailer) may be disappointed with what ‘Looper’ has to offer. As with every time travel film in existence, it may not stand up to the scrutiny of hindsight. But, with a great premise, sharply drawn characters, first-rate performance, and an intelligent script that meanders in the best possible way, ‘Looper’ is a gentle reminder that Hollywood isn’t completely devoid of original filmmaking.

– Jerry Nadarajah

Resident Evil: Retribution

Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, ‘Resident Evil: Retribution’ is the fifth film in the zombie/ video-game franchise, but feels fresh enough to stand as its own entity. Now, Paul W.S. Anderson shouldn’t be confused with Paul Anderson – the director of such great films as ‘There Will Be Blood’, ‘Magnolia’, and ‘Boogie Nights’. No, Paul W.S. Anderson is the guy who brought us such cinematic abominations such as ‘Mortal Kombat’, ‘Soldier’, and ‘Death Race’. He did direct one good film back in 1997 called ‘Event Horizon’ – I personally liked it, though admittedly, it was dismissed by many critics during its time. ‘Resident Evil: Retribution’ is Anderson’s first decent picture in fifteen years.

The opening sequence featuring airships equipped with lots of firepower is played backwards in slow motion before fast forwarding to normal speed. Andreson’s wife, Milla Jovovich, then summarizes the events of the previous four films in this film’s prologue which failed to bring clarity to confusion. If anything, the over-explaining made me more confused. In the next twenty  minutes or so, Anderson is just toying with the audience – Michelle Rodriguez is two characters, Milla Jovovich is a married suburbanite getting her daughter ready for her first day of school, characters are interchanged, and even dead characters from the previous films reappear. Huh?  The best explanation I can give is as follows: Alice (Milla Jovovich) is the last hope for a world overrun by zombies – but, she needs to break free from a top-secret complex where the virus was developed and unleashed.

Anderson isn’t a narrative filmmaker – the plot barely made any sense to me but his visual sensibility is strong enough to compensate for this imbalance. Form is substituted for theme and that’s okay. A film such as this is about image-making. And the images are quite striking – strong, independent women dishing out carnage; somersaults through the air; small bodies drifting into vast spaces. In fact, spaces, or enclosure rather, seems to be part of Anderson’s shtick. Proof of this is demonstrated in his previous works – Event Horizon, which is set entirely on a spacecraft; Alien Vs. Predator, whereby the film takes place in a pyramid buried 2,000 feet underground; the first Resident Evil picture was mostly restricted to its Umbrella Corporation setting. ‘Resident Evil: Retribution’ is structurally set up as spaces-within-spaces to the nth degree.  It all seems to be part of a testing facility, and the design is similar to that of a conventional game – there are stock characters and scenarios. However, this isn’t a game that is meant to be interactive with its audience. As an audience, we don’t want to interact with the movie; we want the movie to act on us so the fun on the part of the viewer is watching Milla Jovovich try to beat the game.

In this regard, ‘Resident Evil: Retribution’ shares something in common with the much more ambitious ‘Cabin In The Woods’ from earlier this year. Both films place familiar characters in familiar situations in an attempt to fully reveal their cliché-ridden genres. ‘Cabin’ was very well received by the critical community, but I gave it a negative review. My issue with that picture was that it deconstructs the genre by pinpointing a formula, which is then applied onto itself, and as a result, doesn’t distinguish itself from the rest of the pack. Anderson’s picture, admittedly, isn’t nearly as ambitious, but he accomplishes what he sets out to achieve – crafting a film that rewards the viewer who is aware of the visual aesthetics on display over the intellectual who tries to mentally piece together the jumbled narrative.

Now, I tend to take an unfavorable approach towards 3-D for reasons I’ve mentioned countless times in previous reviews. According to close moviegoing friends of mine, “Well, that didn’t need to be in 3-D” has become something of a common phrase of mine for such pictures. I can think of four filmmakers who use this recently popularized medium well: Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Michael Bay, and Paul W.S. Anderson. Anderson manages to successfully avoid the weak areas of 3-D: dimly lit settings, shallow focus, shaky cam. Instead, he focuses on the strengths of the medium: visual depth, wide shots, and slow motion – the latter of which luxuriates in each and every mechanical step of choreographed movement.

God help me for this but I’m giving ‘Resident Evil: Retribution’ a recommendation! This is entirely a technical achievement – I can’t defend it on any other basis. Was it lowered expectations? Or a decidedly good mood for this jaded moviegoer? Or the fact that Anderson finally delivered a decent action vehicle after a decade and a half of torturous projects? I’m going with the latter. ‘Resident Evil: Retribution’ is big, loud, idiotic, and disrespectful of Newton’s Laws of Motion. It also happens to be pretty fun. QED. 

– Jerry Nadarajah