Archive for February, 2012

Better Things: 2012 San Francisco Independent Film Festival

Pissed off, Gandhu, 2012

The San Francisco Independent Film Festival opens tonight at the Roxie Theater and as usual it’s a great chance to see movies that might never again get local theatrical screenings. The festival has gotten more global since its modest inception back in 1998, and this year’s lineup includes three Asian-themed features that demonstrate the SFIFF’s wide range of programming.

From India, director Q’s Gandhu (which roughly translates as “asshole,” “loser,” or “idiot’) is a punk rock, black-and-white opus that follows the daily misadventures of the title character. Gandhu wanders the mean streets of Kolkata with a perpetual scowl, existing in a nihilistic limbo as he fails to connect with most of humanity. Interspersed throughout the movie are short musical rants where Gandhu rails against the injustices in his life and generally blows off steam. Billed as “anti-Bollywood,” the movie is a fun, scruffy alternative to the glitzy, monolithic Hindi-language film industry.

Cake frosting or psychosis? Monsters Club, 2011

Monsters Club deals with a crazed Japanese Unabomber who sees dead people. Bad boy filmmaker Toyoda Toshiaki became interested in Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto and out of that interest grew this dark meditation on life, death, suicide, technology, society and the state. Main character Ryuichi lives in an isolated, snow-covered mountain cabin where he bathes in an icy outdoor shower, cooks spartan meals of cabbage and brown rice, and builds deadly bombs in cigar boxes that he mails to entertainment and journalism CEOs. Yet despite its focus on a mad bomber the film isn’t action-packed—rather, it’s more like a voayge inside the head of the disturbed protagonist. After a visit from his younger sister Ryoichi begins to have visions of his dead brothers, one of whom committed suicide and the other who died in a motorcycle accident. The film’s stark white snowy landscape reflects the vastness of Ryoichi’s psychic anomie as he tries to come to grips with his own violent reaction to what he perceives as the corruption of modern society.

Girljock, No Look Pass, 2011

No Look Pass (dir. Melissa Johnson) follows Emily Tay, Burmese American basketball star for the Harvard women’s team, as she deals with pressures both on and off the court. Included in these are living up to the expectations of her immigrant Burmese parents, who hope she’ll marry rich and settle down after college. Emily’s got other plans, however, including romances with a cheerleader and a female soldier she meets in Germany while playing in the European leagues after graduation. The movie starts strong as Emily deals with the various challenges of her last year in college, but loses steam once she graduates and the narrative moves to Europe. The film also gives short shrift to the Asian American aspects of Emily’s story–at one point she states, “If it were up to me I’d rather be white,” but this startling statement isn’t really followed up. The film also discusses her Burmese parents’ flight from their homeland but doesn’t do much significant investigation into how their refugee experience might impact their aspirations for their children. Instead we see them as stereotypically demanding Asian parents, with (tiger) mom always scowling disapproval despite her daughter’s amazing accomplishments. There are, however, some excellent behind-the-scenes sports moments as we get to witness Emily’s Harvard coach and her coach in Germany both screaming profanities at their respective teams, a tactic that they apparently use to motivate their players.

The San Francisco Independent Film Festival

Feb. 9-23, 2012

Roxie Theater

3117 16th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-3327

(415) 863-1087 ‎

February 10, 2012 at 1:04 am Leave a comment

Windows of the World: Once Upon A Time In Anatolia and A Separation film reviews

Big country, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, 2011

Although I love the overwrought histrionics of commercial cinema (see Agneepath), that’s certainly not the only way to make a movie. Two films that have been on a lot of last year’s top ten lists have recently made their way to San Francisco cinemas. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time In Anatolia and Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation are both riveting pieces of work that deal with the ambiguity and shades of gray found in complex moral situations

Despite a title that harkens back to Sergio Leone’s expressionistic spaghetti Westerns, Ceylan’s Anatolia is an understated, masterfully told story that sidesteps the conventions of most genre films. The film follows a group of local police through a long night on the Anatolian steppes as they search for the grave of a murdered man. The cops are reluctantly assisted by two perps whose memory of the crime wavers in and out of focus throughout the night.

Moral complexity, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, 2011

As they drive around western Turkey’s vast landscape the police amiably debate the benefits of sheep versus buffalo yogurt, meticulously tot up mileage for reimbursement, and gossip about who among them might have prostate issues, among other mundanities. The narrative unfolds naturalistically, without a soundtrack, with some of the dialogue seemingly improvised or loosely scripted. Themes and plot points emerge slowly and sometimes indirectly—a character’s offhanded comment in one scene takes on great relevance later in the film. Such restraint and respect for the audience’s intelligence is a welcome change from the hamhandedness of most films, where exposition is a blunt instrument used to club the viewer into submission.

The film presents realistic, complex characters, with killers that weep remorsefully, cops that show compassion for criminals, and men who are overawed by the beauty of a young woman simply serving tea by candlelight. Ceylan’s direction brings a deft and subtle touch to the film—the movie concludes with a matter-of-fact autopsy with the unsettling sounds of the procedure, including cracking breastbones and dripping fluids, emphasizing the operation’s dehumanizing effect. Overall Ceylan’s direction is a lovely thing to behold, as he uses the policemen’s wanderings through the Anatolian countryside as a metaphor for the imprecision and ambiguity of humanity’s moral landscape.

While it also looks at the unclarity of human morality, A Separation’s briskly paced and intense storyline takes a different tack than Anatolia’s slower, more naturalistic tale. Farhadi’s political allegory/family drama starts in medias res, with a middle-class Iranian couple arguing their case directly to the camera (standing in for the off-screen judge). Simin, the wife wants a divorce in order to move to the United States against the wishes of Nader, her husband, who feels a duty and an obligation to remain in Iran to care for his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father. Simin pleads the urgency of going abroad in order to improve the life of their adolescent daughter Termeh, although the details of this necessity are not made clear. The judge dismisses her suit, and Simin decides to move to her mother’s house rather than stay with her husband. The film follows the aftermath of her decision, with this seemingly small action leading to unexpected, ever-broadening repercussions.

The film features an outstanding ensemble cast including Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi, who won Best Actress and Actor awards at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival for their portrayals of the conflicted couple. However the rest of the performances are also excellent, including Sareh Bayat as the devout woman that Nader hires to care for his father, and Shahab Hosseini as her hotheaded husband.

Divided, A Separation, 2011

Director Farhadi makes great use of his locations’ architecture, confining his characters in small, enclosed spaces that stifle communication and hinder movement. He also effectively utilizes windows and doors, often framing the actors separated or trapped behind panes of glass. Several times his characters slam or pound on a rattling, fragile stained-glass door, yet it resolutely resists shattering. The door thus becomes a symbol for the delicate yet impenetrable separations of class, religion, and gender that divide Iranian society.

Farhadi also successfully conveys the illogic of government bureaucracy in a chaotic trial that takes place in a cramped, crowded judge’s chambers. Witnesses shout at each other without hesitation, various people come and go, and criminal charges quickly escalate from theft to battery to murder based on hearsay, conjecture, and unproven accusations.

The film ultimately hinges on 11-year-old Termeh’s choice—which parent will she stay with? Her indecision becomes the crux of the film, symbolizing the impossibility of neatly resolving most human conflicts.

Like Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, A Separation eschews a Hollywood ending—loose ends dangle, storylines are unresolved, and characters remain in limbo. As in real life, clear and easy resolutions aren’t a part of the picture.

UPDATE: As expected, A Separation won for Best Foreign-language Picture at this year’s Oscars, following a similar award at the Golden Globes and, as expected, with Israel on the verge of bombing its irascible neighbor, (with the tacit approval of the U.S. government), the film’s increased profile is being spun by all sides. Although director Farhadi used his Oscar acceptance speech to make a plea for tolerance and understanding, the Iranian government claimed the award was a blow against “the Zionist lobby,” while Iranian hard-liner Masoud Ferasati called the film “the dirty picture (of Iran that) westerners are wishing for.” No doubt more mud will be slung on both sides of the propaganda war.

February 7, 2012 at 6:12 pm 1 comment

Slippin’ Into Darkness: Agneepath and The Viral Factor film reviews

Hrithik Roshan, tattered, Agneepath, 2012

A funny thing happened on the way to the multiplex last week—both of the number one movies in China and in India were playing simultaneously at Bay Area theaters. The Viral Factor, director Dante Lam’s latest actioner, and Agneepath, a remake of a classic 1990s Bollywood revenge drama, both made their way to the U.S. with day-and-date releases in the U.S. and their respective countries of origin.

Agneepath, starring the remarkably hot and handsome Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan, set a record for highest opening day grosses in India and is on its was to joining the 100 crores club, along with blockbusters like Aamir Khan’s Three Idiots and Ghajini, Shahrukh Khan’s Ra.One and Don 2, and Salman Khan’s Bodyguard and Dabangg.

The flick is an old-school vengeance story with new-school stars, including the aforementioned Hrithik, pouty-lipped former Miss World Priyanka Chopra, and hulking villain Sanjay Dutt. It also features an item number with another rising star, Katrina Kaif, who shows off her amazing articulated torso in a fast-paced dance sequence.

The original Agneepath is a cult classic in India and stars OG bad boy Amitabh Bachchan. Both the original and the remake take their title from a well-known poem written by Bachchan’s father, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, and it’s featured prominently in both films. Agneepath roughly translates as “the path of fire,” referring to persevering in the face of great struggle.

Sanjay Dutt, evil, Agneepath, 2012

In the new Agneepath the intensity is turned to up eleven for the duration as first-time director Karan Malhotra brings the high melodrama on a grand scale, including child slavery, beatings and hangings, tattooed villains both bald and hairy, machete-wielding transvestites, and a bride who gets gunned down on her wedding day. Not to mention Hrithik Roshan’s smoldering green eyes simmering with rage throughout the movie. At the plex where I watched the show with a mixed crowd of both desi and non-desi audience members, the stoned teenager in the projection booth had jacked up the theater’s volume to “deafening,” but this only suited the movie’s thundering score and accentuated the general more-ness of the storyline.

In contrast to the theatrics of the plot, Hrithik turns in a subtle, intense performance as the tortured hero bent on avenging his father’s wrongful death. Despite being astoundingly hot, as always Hrithik’s on-screen persona is fairly low-key, downplaying his tousled hair and perfect profile. He’s the dreamboat with a heart of gold who is incredibly handsome, cut and toned, yet remarkably unassuming. At the show I attended, Roshan’s first appearance thirty minutes into the movie was greeted by an elated fan calling out, “I love you, baby!” Her sentiment was quickly echoed by a happy murmur from most of the female viewers in the audience.

Producer Karan Johar’s Sirkian aesthetic is all over this one, thought it’s nominally directed by Karan Malhotra. The film’s emotional palette is completely saturated, with every scene staged for maximum dramatic effect. Yet despite the overall fever pitch, some sequences manage to stand out, including a harrowing lynching that sets the dark and violent tone of the film, and a gorgeous orange-toned set piece that takes place during the Ganesh Chaturthi festival. Malhotra makes excellent use of the festival’s spectacle, skillfully intercutting the riotously colorful celebration with a cat-and-mouse assassination attempt. The film’s sleek production values, its gorgeous and charismatic leading man, and its bloody tale of violent retribution make it a good candidate for crossover success in the U.S. and worldwide.

Nic Tse, misunderstood, The Viral Factor, 2012

The Viral Factor, China’s number one movie last week, is a horse of a slightly different color. Part intense and violent actioner, part family melodrama, and part reunification allegory, the film boasts an amazing amount of property and vehicle destruction, and copious quantities of flying bullets, sheared-off limbs, and characters leaping from high ledges. In other words, it’s a typical Dante Lam movie.

The story concerns a pair of estranged brothers, one raised in Hong Kong by his father, and one raised in China by his mother, who of course end up on opposite sides of the law. Fai, the cop, stiffly played by Taiwanese pop superstar Jay Chou, and Yeung, the thief, more energetically rendered by Hong Kong pop superstar Nicholas Tse, meet cute after Yeung busts out of police custody in Malaysia. Intertwined with their nascent reunion is a plot involving a mutant smallpox virus, corrupt cops, and a sleek English-speaking gangster clumsily played by Andy On (here billed as Andy Tien).

Jay Chou, cornered, The Viral Factor, 2012

Director Lam keeps the pace cracking throughout, starting with a blistering car chase and shootout in the streets of Jordan—clearly someone’s been watching The Hurt Locker. Yet in true Hong Kong style the action sequences, smartly choreographed by Chin Kar-lok, are interspersed with a melodramatic family subplot. The hoary cop-criminal brothers theme has a long and venerable history in Hong Kong action movies, perhaps most notably essayed by Chow Yun-Fat and Leslie Cheung in A Better Tomorrow. Here the conflict is much less dramatically rendered, in part because neither Jay Chou nor Nic Tse possess the passion, chops, or sheer charisma of either Chow or Cheung, and as such the brotherly relationship is more friendly than fraught. Tse manages to be convincing as the hotheaded criminal, despite his slight and wiry stature, but Chou doesn’t bring a lot to his role as the cop. Without much fraternal tension the familial dynamics don’t possess a huge amount of urgency, so the storyline’s resolution ultimately lacks impact.

But the action sequences more than make up for this dramatic slackness, and veteran director Lam makes excellent use of enclosed spaces full of whizzing bullets, hand grenades, and sharp objects. As with his two previous films, The Beast Stalker and The Stool Pigeon (both of which also star Nic Tse), all of the lead characters suffer grievous bodily harm from car wrecks, gunfire, blunt force, and other physical trauma, with each eventually sporting the facial scars that have lately become Lam’s signature. Although he handles the fancier set pieces effectively, including a helicopter chase that weaves through a dense jungle of skyscrapers, Lam seems most at home down in the mean streets of Kuala Lumpur. It’s there that the film really gains some traction, with corrupt cops and scraggly gangsters populating neon-lit outdoor food stalls not unlike those found in Lam’s native Hong Kong. Along with Herman Yau, Lam is one of the few directors in the former Crown Colony still making streetwise commercial cinema, and the success of The Viral Factor both at home and abroad will hopefully enable him to find future financing for his gritty, kinetic Hong Kong-style movies.

Bonus beats: Here’s a clip of Chikni Chameli from Agneepath with Katrina Kaif and her amazingly flexible abs. Props for lighting a match on her forearm. Also includes nice cutaways of Hrithik brooding prettily and Sanjay Dutt getting his mean on.

February 3, 2012 at 8:39 am 4 comments


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