Thursday, May 24, 2007

Pyaar Ke Side Effects (India, 2006)

Director: Saket Chaudhari
Duration: 127 minutes
Year: 2006

For those who nearly gag at the thought of watching a Bollywood film, this may be one that could keep that reflex in check. It is a very sweet romantic comedy that feels more New York than Mumbai as it marries Bollywood to what they call the parallel film industry in India (i.e. non-musicals). It has a few short casual musical interludes, but its running time of slightly over two hours is primarily dedicated to a subtle sly comedy tracking the relationship of a couple from their first meeting through courtship, engagement, meet the parents, breakup and reconciliation. The script is constantly amusing in a very un-Bollywood manner – no silly pratfalls or goofy faces – just well written dialogue and sympathetic characters.

The two leads also come from the two distinct film industries. The male lead is played by Rahul Bose, a simply terrific actor who has staked a claim as the premier new name in the parallel cinema with works such as Mr. and Mrs Iyer, Jhankaar Beats and Chameli (another Indian hybrid with Kareena Kapoor). On the other side of the equation is the astonishingly sexy Mallika Sherawat who hit the Bollywood screens with a big voluptuous bang in 2003 in Khwahish (Desire) and Murder in 2004. She quickly gained a reputation for flaunting her sexuality both on the screen and off where her revealing outfits managed to stay on by near magic and thought control. A rumor of a home sex video of her on the internet a few years back caused a near crash of the Indian communications sector with millions of men watching it in any way they could. It turned out to be a look alike. Some of you may recognize Mallika for her small but memorable role as the Indian princess in Jackie Chan’s The Myth in 2005. Bringing these two actors together may make little sense on paper, but it works surprisingly well as their two very contrasting personalities and styles of acting make for a very cute but always at odds couple!

The story is seen through the perspective of Sid (Rahul Bose) as he brings the audience along on his relationship journey and often addresses his thoughts directly to the camera. He tries to convince us that he is something of a philosopher on love and relationships and explains the side effects of various actions – i.e. becoming engaged – but in truth as the film progresses we begin to realize that like most of us men he is totally clueless and in the dark about these things. He is also no match for the bewitching Trisha (Mallika) in the game of love and manipulation.

Sid (short for Siddhartha) is a professional DJ and he first sees Trisha at her wedding in New Delhi – just as she is getting the jitters and making an escape. A few months later he crosses her path once again in Mumbai where she has moved to and where he lives. They go out for drinks in which they tease one another about his lack of height and her being a New Delhi girl among other things and both make clear that they have no interest in dating the other. Many drinks later they are back in her apartment in a frenzied kiss. Three years on they are still together and she proposes – he panics – and so begins a series of what you might term relationship adjustments or break ups and make ups. During one of their break ups, he begins to date the sexy Sophie Chaudhary (a DJ and pop singer in real life) who is every man’s fantasy after being in the video Baby Girl Vol. 3, but he discovers that he can’t have her “coffee”. There is only one girl’s coffee for him.

Much of the material here is certainly very familiar – fear of commitment – meeting the dreaded parents – the ex-boyfriend – the silly friends who offer advice – riffs on marriage/dating (i.e. why are super heroes never married) and so on, but that doesn’t really lessen the enjoyment of the film. It is a tried and true formula that works yet one more time due primarily to a wonderfully charming performance from Rahul who takes us into his confidence and allows us to see all of his flaws. Mallika is fine as well in a smaller narrower role but an endearing one. By the end you realize how much they need to be together and yet you know it will always be a constant series of small wars and many kisses.

My rating for this film: 7.5

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Dhoom 2 (India)

Director: Sanjay Gadhui
Music: Pritam; Lyrics: Sameer
Running Time: 147 minutes
Year: 2006

Bollywood can now stake a claim to the big brainless action blockbuster that Hollywood could once call its very own. Perhaps this really is the Indian century! Dhoom 2 is all flash and flesh containing extravagant musical numbers with enough back up dancers to fill Yankee Stadium, absurd action sequences that defy gravity and common sense and enough scantily clad eye candy to fill your jelly bean bowl for months. This film may have the intelligence of road kill, but it is divertingly entertaining and pure fun popcorn nonsense. This is the sequel to Dhoom and brings back Jai and Ali who are this time after a master thief and man of many faces instead of a motorcycle gang. At times one might wonder if they are instead in the middle of a very long aerobics info commercial rather than a crime caper as the camera slavishly and lovingly follows every well toned revealing curve of the actors.

This not only goes for the two female leads – Aishwarya Rai and Bipasha Basu - but even more so for Hrithik Roshan who has buffed up enormously over the past couple of years and is now in competition with Salman Khan for the prestigious Filmfare award of “Most Scenes Going Shirtless”. Only poor Abhishek Bachchan is forced to cover up in the film – whether due to his hirsute body or his lack of gym regimen is impossible to say – but this is no doubt the reason why he looks so grumpy throughout. Even his sidekick gets to take off his shirt. Most radically attempting to change her image is the ice queen Aishwarya Rai, who has always opted for high style over low sex, but is found here provocatively sashaying her bottom in hotpants and leather like a ten dollar street hooker. She quite honestly never looks quite at ease in her character and the film's hip hop dance style is a shamefully big waste of her amazing dancing skills. For Bipasha it’s more of the same – thrusting bosom and bare midriff and that is just fine by me.

Within all of this sweaty narcissism is a story of sorts with a few enjoyable action scenes from Alan Amin who shows some definite imagination in staging them. The film begins with the theft of Her Majesty’s Royal Crown from a moving train across the Namibia desert by a global master criminal who always leaves the letter “A” behind him. In a scene that would be right at home in a James Bond opening, “A” (Hrithik) parachutes from a helicopter on to the moving train, disguises himself as the Queen to remove the crown and then escapes by snow boarding across the sand – after of course knocking the prerequisite number of guards off the top of the train. These sorts of scenes still lack the technical sophistication and realism that other film industries can bring to them – i.e. Hong Kong, the United States – but it is a big welcome leap from where they were only a few years ago.

In Mumbai Jai (Abhishek) is assigned the case and in a nanosecond realizes that there is a definite pattern in the series of thefts that “A” (for Aryan) has committed around the world -smart guy this – and that Mumbai will be next on his list. Even with this knowledge though Jai and his two partners – Ali (Uday Chopra) and Shonali (Bipasha) - are unable to stop Aryan’s next daring theft – leading to a great chase across Mumbai. But the clever Jai has another card up his sleeve – the beautiful Sunehri (Aish). He has a hold on this petty criminal and forces her to work her way into Aryan’s confidence and his heart! How could he resist a woman who greets him with “I’m so hot”, has a good jumper in basketball, eats burgers and talks about herself in third person as in “Sunehri always gets what she wants”. Next destination Rio – and they all end up in Copacabana in a game of cat and mouse with Jai and Aryan always trying to stay one step ahead of the other.

Bollywood is always a competition and as soon as the film hit the screens everyone was speculating on which of the two big male stars did better with nearly everyone siding with Hrithik. I suppose that is true in that he certainly had the more interesting role – poor Jai has a pregnant wife at home and never even gets to woo the girl – and Hrithik’s torso and dancing are certainly impressive – but to call what he does acting is rather a misnomer – it is closer to preening I suspect and he honestly doesn’t have a true emotional moment in the film. But that could be said of the entire film - it is emotionally completely hollow. But that’s not really what this film is about – it’s about spectacle and it gives us plenty of that. This formula certainly worked for producers Yash Raj as this was an enormous hit both at home and abroad and there is no doubt that more films like this will be headed our ways.

My rating for this film: 7.5

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Gangster (India, 2006)

These days in Bollywood a new “It” girl seems to come on the scene every few months like clockwork. She has a film launched to big fanfare, catches on with the male going public, does a multitude of sexy photo shoots and then grudgingly makes way for the newest flavor. The latest hottie Bollywood drumstick is Kangna Ranaut, who came to Mumbai with stars in her eyes and was apparently discovered drinking coffee in a café by director Anurag Basu who was looking for a lead in his new film Gangster. Being part cynic, I always find these “discovery” stories a bit hard to swallow – but that’s what they are sticking with and it became even more of a fairy tale when Gangster was released to generally good reviews and Kangna became the toast, butter and marmalade of the town. Since Gangster, she has gone on to star in Woh Lamhe, have an affair with a married man and give interviews in which she says things like “I can’t entertain people and stupidities. I mean, come on yaar, I’m here because of me”. Welcome to Bollywood.

She is actually surprisingly fine in the film – in particular in her emotional scenes where she lets herself go. The film itself though is a hodgepodge of clichés (though not necessarily Bollywood ones) that only picks up some steam toward the end of its thankfully short (for Bollywood) running time of 115 minutes. Perhaps most intriguing is the location of the film with most of it taking place in Seoul, Korea. That seems to have likely eaten up most of the budget because the film has a very modest look to it with no money seemingly spent on lavish dance numbers or ambitious sets.

The film begins with Simran (Kangna) knocking on someone’s door and then shooting an unseen man a few times in the body and getting shot herself as she tries to escape. Clearly a flashback is coming, but who would expect it on the operating table as Simran stays wide awake while being gassed and worked on. Remind me not to have my next surgery in India. I really prefer being unconscious when I am cut open. In the very lengthy flashback she is living in Seoul and getting sloshed on a frequent basis. One night she walks into a nightclub and proceeds to down shots of whiskey like salted peanuts and this endears her to Akash (Emraan Hashmi), who sings there. When she falls down drunk outside he picks her up and takes her home and begins to spend time with his Indian Sassy Girl who clearly has some disturbing secret that is making her so unhappy.

One drunken night she locks herself out of her apartment and staggers barefoot across much of the city to Akash’s apartment. This being Seoul no one pays much attention to a woman stumbling down the street in her bare feet. Akash takes her up to his high rise rooftop with no safeguards or railings – always a smart place to take an inebriated person to sleep it off – and she lets out her past. She is the girlfriend of a wanted gangster named Daya (Shiney Ahuja) who has the habit of assassinating people to a musical beat very similar to the one Leon Lai uses in Fallen Angels. She met him five years ago when he barged into her apartment to escape from the police while she was in the middle of a wet sari scene – it was love at first soggy look. She was working in one of those hootchie-kootchie dance bars and has been with him ever since. But she is of course still a virgin since Daya respects her so much. Five years of living together. That's a lot of respect and even more cold showers. So Akash mentally adds this up - girlfriend of killer, ex-bar girl, alcoholic and suicidal - but since she is still a virgin, Akash loves her all the more though he admits they may have to tidy up her background a bit since his parents “have never even sworn in their lives”. Perhaps a bit I guess. And just as it looks like Simran will find love and a family, guess who comes back to town. With much of the Indian police force after him. A few more twists lay waiting for our heroine until she finally finds herself knocking on that door back in Mumbai.

Though there is really no dance choreography to speak of in the film, there are a few very nice songs from Pritam/Sayeed Quadri that either play over montages or the narrative of the film. The main reason to watch this though is the curly haired Kangna who may quickly disappear in the morass of Bollywood but at least for now is “the next big thing”.

My rating for this film: 6.0

Friday, May 18, 2007

New York Asian Film Festival Line-up

Or at least most of it. There are still another 2-3 films we hope to squeeze in by sucking in our stomachs and really pushing hard. All the distributors are in Cannes now though and so we won't get confirmation on those for a week or so. So this is what we have so far with tiny descriptions from Grady. Longer ones are on the way. The schedule is still not quite ready. Like I wrote the other day - it's not a festival for MENSA candidates but it should be a lot of fun.

AACHI & SSIPAK (Korea, 2006) - 8 years in the making, this sci fi animatedaction extravaganza about a totalitarian future where the government controls its citizens' bowel movements is refreshingly obscene and totally offensive.

AFTER THIS OUR EXILE (Hong Kong, 2006) ­ Wong Kar-wai's mentor, Patrick Tam, returns to directing after 17 years and delivers an astounding, award-winning, father and son film that's a popcorn muncher for those who love to watch other peoples' families fall apart. We will be showing the long version - 160 minutes!

THE BANQUET (China, 2006) ­ starring Zhang Ziyi and with the team that made Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon behind the camera (Tan Dun on music, YuenWo-ping on action, Tim Yip on design) this Chinese adaptation of Hamlet is highbrow brain candy.

BIG BANG LOVE, JUVENILE A (Japan, 2006) ­ Takeshi Miike's aggressivelyexperimental tale of two convicts falling in love is as beautiful as Jean Genet and as bloody as you'd expect from Miike. Oh, and theres a rocketship and an Aztec pyramid, too.
(Co-presented with JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film)

CITY OF VIOLENCE (Korean, 2006) ­ festival fave, Ryu Seung-Wan (Arahan, Cityof Violence), directed and co-stars in this pulpy, two-fisted noir flick with Korea's greatest stuntman and action choreographer, Jeong Du-Hong. It's a shout-out to Hong Kong action cinema of the 80's and features death by breakdancer.

CRUEL WINTER BLUES (Korean, 2006) ­ a rabid gangster heads to a small town to wait for the man who killed his best friend to show up so he can stab him to death. A three-way acting showcase that is exhilarating in its emotional intensity.

DASEPO NAUGHTY GIRLS (Korea, 2006) ­ E. J-Yong's musical about a high school full of perverted students is a cleansing blast of surreal smut that mixes Bollywood musical conventions with, well, porn.

DEATH NOTE & DEATH NOTE: THE LAST NAME (Japan, 2006) ­ Japan's box office one-two punch of 2006, these goth dramas are twisty cat n'mouse thrillers that feel like a net-savvy teenager has taken an Agatha Christie novel and forcibly cross-bred it with an Edgar Allan Poe short story.
(Co-presented with JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film)

DOG BITE DOG (Hong Kong, 2006) ­ Soi Cheang's insanely intense hitman flick is caked with grime and unfolds over the course of one bloody day and night.Welcome to the action movie as nature documentary.

DYNAMITE WARRIOR (Thailand, 2006) ­ the craziest martial arts flick you'll ever see, this unhinged movie stars Tony Jaa's teacher, Panna Rittikrai, as a scabby wizard and Dan Chupong from Born to Fight as a rocket-riding, 19th Century Thai bandit in a film that's one long, exhilarating action scene.

EXILED (Hong Kong, 2006) ­ Johnnie To's latest movie is a magnificent spaghetti western with a cast of Hong Kong's best character actors filling the island of Macau with enough hot lead to sink it beneath the waves.

FREESIA: BULLETS OVER TEARS (Japan, 2007) ­ another festival fave returns! Director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri (Antenna) turns in the ice-cold story of a near future Japan where revenge has become a licensed business, with professional hitmen committing murders that come with forms to fill out in triplicate. Chilling.
(Co-presented with JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film)

GAMERA THE BRAVE (Japan, 2006) ­ this kaiju for kids movie stars the Rocky Balboa of the giant monster world, Gamera, trampling major cities in his battle with an evil dino-lizard.
(Co-presented with JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film)

GETTING HOME (China, 2007) ­ the latest movie from Zhang Yang (Shower,Quitting) is a black comedy about a broke construction worker trying to take the corpse of his friend thousands of miles home so it can be properly buried. His method of transportation? Public bus.

HARD BOILED (Hong Kong, 1992) ­ a 15th Anniversary screening of John Woo's action classic celebrates the release of Midway's "John Woo PresentsStranglehold" the sequel to the movie in video game form. Travel back in time 15 years to an era when no one shook the camera around, Chow Yun-fat was a god, Tony Leung was a young punk and John Woo was the most amazing action director the world had ever seen.

HELL'S GROUND (Pakistan, 2006) ­ Pakistan's first gore movie is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre meets the Taliban, featuring a mace-swinging killer.

HULA GIRLS (Japan, 2006) ­ a laser-guided crowd-pleaser that rocked the Japanese box office and swept the Japanese Academy Awards. 1965. Huladancing. A gang of losers overcoming incredible odds. You know you want to see it.

I'M A CYBORG, BUT THAT'S OK (Korea, 2006) ­ the latest from Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy, JSA) is a fairy tale love story between a kleptomaniac and a girl who thinks she's a cyborg, set in a mental institution.

MEMORIES OF MATSUKO (Japan, 2006) ­ Moulin Rouge meets Citizen Kane in the latest movie from the director of Kamikaze Girls. Check your cynicism at the door and prepare to have your heart jump started.
(Co-presented with JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film)

NEVER BELONGS TO ME (Korea, 2006) ­ from the director of Teenage Hooker Becomes Killing Machine in Daehakroh this advanced art object is inscrutable, bizarre and head-scratchingly hilarious. Featuring a mutant offspring of a union between lady and tiger, a penis machine gun, ballet dancer fetishism and a robo-hooker built by Dr. Hell.

RETRIBUTION (Japan, 2006) ­ a downbeat horror film that reunites director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure, Pulse, Doppelganger) and his favorite leading man, Koji Yakusho (Cure, Shall We Dance).

THE SHOW MUST GO ON (Korea, 2007) ­ fresh outta Cannes comes this Korean hit that stars Song Kang-Ho (The Host) in a bravura performance as a low level gangster trying to manage his family and his failing criminal career.

TRACES OF LOVE (Korea, 2006) ­ the opening film from 2006's Pusan Film Festival is a beautiful, wrenching melodrama about a man longing for his lover who died in the real-life Sampoong collapse in 1995.

There is also three programs of short Korean films - but not your typical boring ass short films that most festivals show. The NYAFF has partnered with Korea's Mise-en-scene's Genres Film Festival (MGFF) to bring over their award-winning horror, comedy, melodrama, sci-fi and action short films

Also a few directors are expected to make their way over for the fest:

Director E. J-Yong of DASEPO NAUGHTY GIRLS will be attending

Director Shusuke Kaneko of DEATH NOTE and DEATH NOTE: THE LAST NAME will be attending

Director Han Jae-Rim of THE SHOW MUST GO ON will be attending

Don't miss "From Lahore With Gore" a one-night-only Pakistani exploitation extravaganza on July 3rd! Featuring a screening of Pakistan's first splatter film, HELL'S GROUND, with the producer and director in attendance and a magical mystery tour of Pakistani exploitation cinema featuring highlights from some of its most infamous films.

Saturday, May 12, 2007


Updates on this blog have been as slow lately as my feet on a tennis court and will likely stay that way until I catch my Asian film watching breath in a week or two. For the past two months I have been psychotically charging through Asian films to help program the New York Asian Film Festival and watched somewhere in the vicinity of 125 films that were in contention. My brain feels like it has been lobotomized. But the other day I saw the last four films that we were considering and am now a free man for a while! The program is almost complete with spots left for only about four more films and we are basically waiting for confirmations from a few companies to be ready to go. Over these months, I have written short reviews on a bunch of these that I saw - mainly ones that I enjoyed to some degree - and have politely refrained from bashing the many bad films I have had to sort through with my finger itching to hit the fast forward button. Now I just want to watch old American films for a while - the 60's spy retrospective at Film Forum and the Lee Marvin retro at Lincoln Center as well as get through my box sets of the Mr. Moto and the Michael Shane, Private Detective series of films from the 1930's and 40's.

It looks like the festival will have about 25 films from us but it then magically segues into the Japan Society's First Cut fest that will add another group of Japanese films - so in total it will be three weeks of non-stop orgasmic Asian films. Hopefully, everyone can find something they like. I actually like some of them myself! The festival admittedly does strike me as a bit too lopsided towards action, horror, violence and just weird films, but there really weren't that many great dramas or comedies that came out this past year and in many cases the ones that were we could not get or had already played here. So basically we went fan boy crazy and are offering a buffet of high voltage chaos, freaky stuff and some really silly films. It won't be brain surgery but it should be fun! The line-up and descriptions will be ready to go in a week or two and I will post it here. Grady's descriptions often are more entertaining than actually watching the film!

I did want to mention one of these last screeners I saw as it was one of my favorites of all these films that I waded through. It is called GETTING HOME from director Zhang Yang (Spicy Love Soup, Shower, Sunflower) - a Chinese film that manages to be highly entertaining while still having something serious to say about the human spirit. A friend saw it in Hong Kong a while back and e-mailed that we had to consider it and the screener finally arrived last week. On first reading, the plot may unfortunately remind people of an older American comedy called Weekend at Bernie's, but trust me this is nothing like that. It is comical, stirring, heroic, tender and poignant - a road film that traverses the immense empty spaces of China and meets up with a variety of people and situations that adds up to a total much bigger than its parts.

Zhao had promised his friend that if ever he died he will get him home where he can be buried in his own land so that he won't become a wandering ghost. When in fact this happens during a drinking bout, Zhao is determined to keep his pledge. Far from the typical cinematic male protagonist, he is a middle aged construction worker with no future and not much of a past - just a guy trying to get by in China's new free market economy. But beneath his placid uneducated working man exterior lies the heart of a lion - an enormous perseverance - fueled simply by his word to a dead friend. So he dresses up his friend in sunglasses and a hat and begins the long journey across much of China to the Three Gorges - sometimes trying to pass off his friend as drunk or a vegetable - other times he just carries him on his back for miles - or puts him in a giant truck wheel and rolls him. However he can.
In the background constantly is the striking beauty of the Chinese landscapes - miles and miles of it - and the enormous change that it is now going through. Among the people he meets are a heartbroken truck driver, a "dead man" (the legendary Wu Ma) who hires people for his funeral, bee keepers who want to live away from society, bus robbers who believe in loyalty to a friend, a cyclist going to Tibet and a woman that gives him hope again. Some of the people he meets are indifferent to his plight - or want to take advantage of it - but he also meets with many small kindnesses in the most unexpected places at the most opportune times. By the end of his journey - it is in its small way like that of Ulysses going home - and in its small way equally heroic. Though much of the first two thirds is comical and whimsical, it enters a different stage towards the end that becomes surprisingly moving, powerful and humanistic. One near final scene of him carrying his friend on his back past a long line of vehicles brought to a halt by an avalanche of rocks is a stunning image of resiliency and friendship.

My rating for this film: 8.0
Getting Home won the Audience Award at Barcelona and Thessalonika and played Berlin where it won the top prize in the Panorama section.
Publicity Sheet

And here are a few pictures of some of the nominees at the Hong Kong Film Awards - portraits taken for the occasion in a book I got. If I have incorrectly identified the three female New Performers, please let me know - they look so different then they did in their films that I wasn't really sure!