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Trailer: Kung-Fu Yoga photo
Trailer: Kung-Fu Yoga

Trailer: Kung-Fu Yoga has Jackie Chan and a CG lion named Little Jackie

This is like silly 80s HK schlock
Jan 06
// Hubert Vigilla
I don't think I've legitimately liked a Jackie Chan movie since 2004's New Police Story. There were good scenes and flashes of brilliance in Rob-B-Hood, The Forbidden Kingdom, and Chinese Zodiac, but they never really hung to...

Review: Junun

Oct 09 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219966:42655:0[/embed] JununDirector: Paul Thomas AndersonRating: NRRelease Date: October 9, 2015 (MUBI) Junun is all about the music being made, so much so that the filmmaking seems a secondary concern. While multiple angles are covered during the recording sessions, we still see cameras suddenly picked up and repositioned, and get views of the ornately designed ceilings of the fort in the process. It sets the viewer down among the musicians as they perform or just outside the room looking in. There are a few humorous moments, like when a pesky pigeon winds up in the room, and there are moments of downtime when the musicians wait for rolling blackouts to pass. Occasionally Anderson offers a sublime cinematic flourish, like a drone shot of dozens of falcons swirling around the top of the fort as a man tosses them bits of meat. In the sunset and sunrise, Rajasthan looks gorgeous--gold skies, and many of the buildings an inviting blue--and a few times in Junun there are excursions into the bustle of the city itself. Anderson returns continually to the music--and more so the members of the Rajasthan Express and Tzur than Greenwood--blanketing the film in the songs from end to end. The collaborative compositions are mesmerizing, structured on galloping percussion, repetition and variation, and virtuosic touches. It might be a testament to the music that it elevates many of the images that would seem otherwise too much like home movie fare. The falcon shot might be the best marriage of sound and vision, though the music also invigorates plain moments walking the streets or shooting the people of Rajasthan from a tuk-tuk. I caught Junun in the Walter Reade Theater. The music resounded through the space and the seats. It made me wonder how different my experience would have been if I watched it via the VOD service MUBI. Something visceral might be lost from the big screen to the laptop, and unless you've got a really good sound system, it might fail to have the same impact. But Junun is worth a watch, or even just worth a listen, and not because it's a new Paul Thomas Anderson movie. It's more like a Paul Thomas Anderson music recommendation--check these guys out. It might be the first of his movies you can just play in the background.
Review: Junun photo
It's about the music (film is secondary)
How do you review a home movie with a great soundtrack? In a lot of ways that's precisely what Paul Thomas Anderson's Junun is. Anderson shot the footage earlier this year, chronicling a month-long recording session between R...

SAIFF Review: Killa (The Fort)

Nov 23 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
Killa (The Fort) Director: Avinash ArunRating: NRCountry: India Chinmay is a seventh grader who has recently left the big city of Pune and headed into a new rural-ish area with his mother. It's a culture shock, to be sure, but clearly this has happened before and will happen again. Moving is just part of their life, even though it's hard on them both. But it's particularly difficult on a growing kid, who has to leave all of his friends behind and start anew in seventh grade. And though I don't know if middle school children in India are as needlessly cruel as they are in the US (the constant attempts to put a gasoline-soaked rag into a dog's butt would suggest they are), being the outcast is never fun. And when the teacher introduces him as an intellectual prodigy, it just further makes him stand out. But despite that, he finds friendship (of sorts) in some troublemaker types who are more interested in picking up crabs and having bike races than studying. It's worth noting that the conflict here does not come from Chinmay's decision to forgo his studies, and whether he's hanging out with them or not he seems to be equally competent in the classroom. Instead, it's a conflict about the friends themselves as well as Chinmay's relationship to his mother. But Killa's fundamental problem is that Chinmay is not a likeable protagonist. He spends most of the film's 110 minute runtime looking slightly forlorn. Sometimes he's happy, other times he's just straight up emotionless, but usually it's just almost-melancholy as he goes through his life being a bland human being. The world around him is so full of intrigue and color and life and he's just got none of it. And considering he's supposed to have an emotional arc (I hate it here! to I hate it less! to I hate it again! etc.), it causes some serious disconnect. I never once cared about Chinmay. Literally never. And while Chinmay the character takes the blame for a lot of that, it's the performance that really kills it. I don't usually like harping on poor child performances, but the film hinges on his ability to emote, and he can't hold up his end of the bargain. That half-pout isn't sympathetic; it's just pathetic. On the other hand, I did care about his mother, which actually made me care about Chinmay even less. His mother, who is constantly shuttled from place to place for work, lost her husband (his father) a year ago. It's something that gets mentioned every so often, but it's not really a cloud hanging over the narrative. It's just a fact. But now Chinmay's mother has to deal with him and her job, and her new job in their new town runs by some different rules, and those rules get her into trouble. That made me sad, because this is a woman who is trying to do what's right but also gets screwed over by the system at large. And once she's done dealing with that, she has to go home and pay attention to her manner-less son? Not cool. Not cool at all. He makes her life harder and doesn't really offer much in return, other than lip. But even when Chinmay was being pouty and annoying, I couldn't deny just how beautiful his surroundings were. I'm convinced that the purpose of the narrative was less to tell a story than to show off scenery. I can't say I really understood the layout of the town, so it may have been that things that seemed very far away were right there, but it did seem like he would travel long distances not because he needed to but because it would result in a gorgeous shot. And to be honest, I'm okay with that. If it was all in service of the shot, I would've rather the film dispensed with some of the less interesting moments (particularly in the school) and been a bit shorter, but I can't deny that it was exciting to see each new location. I would love to go and visit those places. So despite my dislike of Chinmay and my disinterest in everything about him, I still enjoyed Killa on the whole. The other characters were interesting, and even if I wasn't a fan of most of the children, at least they were all different and brought unique perspectives to any given situation. Combined with the amazing backdrops, it makes for a film that by all appearances should really be much better than it is. It's unfortunate, then, that the protagonist is such dead weight.
Killa Review photo
Beautiful but bland
I never moved when I was growing up. I knew people who moved once or twice, and then I knew others in military families and the like who would come and go almost annually. In a small town with a small school, that made a diff...

SAIFF Review: Monsoon Shootout

Dec 03 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]216933:40971:0[/embed] Monsoon ShootoutDirector: Amit KumarRating: NRCountry: India  Adi (Vijay Varma) is a recruit new to a corrupt police department. Unlike his superior, Khan (Neeraj Kabi), he wants to follow due process and the rule of law. After a stakeout gone wrong during a rainstorm, he and Khan find themselves in a shootout. But the person who they believe to be their target, an axe murderer named Shiva, runs and Adi gives chase. At a dead end, the man (who is, in fact, the killer) apparently unarmed man who may or may not be a violent murderer. He calls out, the man turns, and then Adi has a choice to make: should he shoot? There are three paths: right, wrong, and middle, none of which will be perfect but some of which will be better than others.  After an assault on him and a friend, it returns to the storm and Adi once again has to make the choice. It’s like an Indian Run Lola Run, but a lot less crazy. While it’s a somewhat silly conceit, it’s not played for laughs. There’s nothing funny about Monsoon Shootout, so if you’re expecting some kind of crazy guns-blazing action film, you’ll be disappointed. (I know I was.) To its credit, the film is not called Monsoon Shootouts, so maybe that’s on me, but there are only a couple of shootouts in the film, and they are all short and relatively lackluster. In what I can only assume is a failure of editing, muzzle flashes don’t appear to come from the guns, rather beginning slightly above them. And sometimes shots are fired with no muzzle flashes at all, which makes it seem like the film was rushed. But the sound of the gunfire is the most off-putting part. Shots are quiet. In the midst of a rainstorm, it would make sense that the sound of the guns is muffled, but that doesn’t apply to the almost-identical sounds during calmer weather. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. I had a similar issue with the quiet violence in Rough Cut, and I attributed that in part to being accustomed to the ridiculously loud gunshots and foley work found in American films. Perhaps that’s true here as well, but when the gunshot that defines everything that comes next sounds more like a firecracker than a handgun, it sours the moment just a bit. But the narrative built up around the lackluster gunplay is interesting. Each version of the story brings out something new in both the characters and the story. I liked Adi’s development for the most part, although his transformation in the third version comes a bit too quickly, and the rest of the characters made for a pleasantly varied ensemble: there’s the drug lord, the prostitute, the corrupt politician, the college friend who came back to India for unknown reasons, and several others besides. Yes, most of them fall on the seedy side of humanity, but that’s where the story takes place, so it’s hard to fault that decision. Monsoon Shootout’s biggest failure is its decision to focus on one choice when it could have focused on so many. I don’t actually want to see a 5-hour cut that delves into the consequences of each and every decision he could have made, but some of the choices were every bit as significant as “Should he shoot?” For them to only play out one way when he definitely could have done differently—better—is frustrating. In the second timeline, there is a moment where Adi makes the wrong decision, neglecting to keep looking for something that he found in the first timeline, and the ignorance radically shifts his view of the shooting. Had he not given up, the second timeline would undoubtedly have been the “right” one (and I would argue that it still is). There, it wasn’t the choice to shoot that defined the outcome, it was a failure during his follow-up. Bloodshed was minimized, even if it was unfortunate, and the main problem is Adi’s emotions, which don’t really factor into any of the other timelines. And not all of the important plot points are wrapped up in any given timeline, most notably his relationship with the aforementioned friend. While the first and third stories explain what happens to them, the second drops it without conclusion. All of them could have been extended in bits and pieces without making the film drag too much, but that omission seemed particularly notable. Unfortunately, the ending threatens to unravel the whole thing, damning the very idea of choice. It creates a canon for a narrative that shouldn’t have one. For the majority of the Monsoon Shootout, it seems like things will be left up to the viewer, letting them internally debating which timeline was right, which was wrong, and which was middle, but instead the conclusion completely throws it away. It’s a surprising ending for sure, especially since it doesn’t seem to fit with the events that led up to it, but then again, what came before really doesn’t matter. It seems like a cop-out, a way to wrap things up without having to finish any given story. But the reality is that none of the stories needed to be finished. A cut to black, excising the final scene entirely, would have allowed for an ending that was in line with those from the first two stories. But the more I think about the final scene, the less it makes sense and the less significant it makes everything that came before. Which is too bad, because for the most part I liked what Monsoon Shootout was doing. Choice is a fascinating subject matter, and this is a unique way to really dig into the impact it can have on a situation. Adi’s decision has a ripple effect that, no matter what he chooses, ends in multiple deaths, and not necessarily of the man he’s pointing the gun at. He’s under a lot of pressure, and that initial hesitation to shoot is understandable. But he shouldn’t have called out and hesitated. He should have acted. That hesitation, that moment of thought, is his ultimate downfall. The ultimate lesson of Monsoon Shootout: shoot first, ask questions later.
Monsoon Shootout Review photo
Three paths, some more interesting than the others
Sometimes a movie in an established genre takes an idea from another genre and implements it, completely subverting any expectations. It's not that the genre changes, necessarily, so much as the context. A story that initiall...

Tribeca Capsule Review: Powerless

May 04 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]215547:40048:0[/embed] Powerless (Katiyabaaz)Directors: Fahad Mustafa and Deepti KakkarRating: TBDCountry: IndiaRelease Date: TBD Electricity is essential for any developing country, especially one with a fair amount of industry. Such is the case with Kanpur. Rolling blackouts are a reality, and some of these are long-term, lasting half the day or longer. The only way that business owners can keep small textile factories and tanneries going is to use gas-powered generators, or they can get one of the electricity thieves to help them. The one thief that directors Fahad Mustafa and Deepti Kakkar center on is named Loha Singh. With great daring, he climbs poles and rigs wires into the dangerous cat's cradle around him. It's this risk that pays Loha's bills and gives households enough energy to keep a light on at night. And yet while people like Loha are developing-world Robin Hoods, they're also part of the problem. Stolen power places extreme burden on the grid leading to blackouts. And since none of this stolen power is paid for, it's difficult to get the necessary revenue to make improvements that would reduce blackouts in the future. It's also dangerous, not just for Loha -- who shares stories of electrocution -- but for the citizens; several generator explosions and fires are caught on camera, and I couldn't help but wince as someone tried to put out an electrical fire with a bucket of water. Powerless shifts focus back and forth from the struggles of the people to the difficulties of higher-ups, like Ritu Maheshwari, one of the heads of Kesco, Kanpur's power company. She's sincere in trying to help, it seems, but she's caught in the unfortunate trap of being viewed as an enemy simply because of her position; the thief gets to be the romantic hero, the person in any perceived seat of power is the villain despite good intentions. The issues of Powerless are complex and go unanswered, which is probably because there are no easy fixes given the scale of the problem. There are such impassioned interests involved on the various sides of the issue, and none are willing to budge too much. Amid this complicated power struggle, Mustafa and Kakkar inject a few visually interesting segments that play out as if they're from a narrative film rather than a documentary. There's a panorama of struggle here that's fascinating to watch even if it's troubling at the end.
Powerless Capsule Review photo
The struggle for electricity in Kanpur, India viewed from different angles
At the beginning of the documentary Powerless, we're told that 1.5 billion people in the world live without electricity, and that 400 million of those people live in India. The numbers are pretty staggering, especially w...


Trailer: Commando - A One Man Army

Jan 25
// Hubert Vigilla
I've mentioned before that one of the big holes in my film knowledge is movies from India. Apart from a few Satyajit Ray movies and the work I caught at the South Asian International Film Festival, I'm mostly ignorant about ...

Flix for Short: Chennai to Pondicherry

A Motocycle Tour of Southern India
Jan 23
// Liz Rugg
Chennai to Pondicherry: A Motorcycle Tour of Southern India is a short film produced by the Royal Enfield Cycle company of India presumably hoping to inspire both cycling enthusiasts and regular people to be open to the virt...

SAIFF Review: The Great Indian Marriage Bazaar

Oct 26 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]213144:39024[/embed] The Great Indian Marriage BazaarDirectors: Ruchika Muchhala and Faiza Ahmad KhanRating: NRCountry: India There's an odd tension that underlies The Great Indian Marriage Bazaar, and I think it's bound up in a poster of Rosie the Riveter on the wall. Rosie -- with that defiant and determined look, the sleeve rolled through a bicep curl, the fist held tight -- is one of those enduring images of female empowerment and self-realization. "We can do it," she says emphatically. Before that "we can do it" is an implicit "If men can do it, then..."; after the "we can do it," there's an implicit "...and do it just as good" or "...and always could." Meanwhile, in the documentary, marriage seems to be the only route toward a woman's self-actualization. A steady career, financial independence, it's nothing without a man. In one wedding ceremony, the bride doesn't just take the groom's last name but also changes her own first name. Her whole identity is symbolically changed in order to assert male dominance over her. There's also an odd generational tension within families, and a larger social tension given the multiple Western influences in a globalized world. There's, for one, a sort of Indian eHarmony, and there's also a discussion of desirability gauged through the values of Bollywood. Co-director Ruchika Muchhala was educated at the University of Michigan and while in India she's under pressure from her parents to get married. They want her wed and with children by age 30. It's so tense a subject that at one point her mother gets extremely upset. She seethes and says that she can't rest easy until her daughter finally ties the knot. She glares into the camera with Ruchika just behind it and then wonders aloud where she went wrong as a mother. The Great Indian Marriage Bazaar takes a personal approach to this hubbub over weddings. It's a bit like a memoir -- My Year of Trying to Get Married to Appease My Parents. We do get a look at the broader wedding culture of Indian through other women in the film. There's a remarkable statistic toward the beginning of the movie: 40% of the world's marriages are performed in India, and of those marriages, 90% of them are arranged marriages. We learn about a few arranged marriages, and how the practice has changed over the years. Ruchika's own parents had an arranged marriage, so there's some expectation of her daughter possibly doing it the same way. On that note, there seems to be a tension of classification when it comes to marriage in the film. It goes along with the other tensions mentioned above. A distinction is made between arranged marriage and "love marriage," which to my obviously biased Western sensibilities fills my head with a lot of interesting ideas about the difference between various kinds of unions between people. One of my best friend's parents had an arranged marriage, and they made it work. There's a genuine affection they share, though they haven't placed the same pressure on their children to get married that way. Arranged marriages have adapted to the 21st century, and we get to see Ruchika go to a matrimonial event. It's a mix of speed dating and mass casting call. Men and women make their introductions and then chat each other up afterwards. Their parents are present with them, there's lots of talk about seeing each other's biodata. This sort of thing isn't really peculiar, though it's odd to hear one interview subject say she's been to a few other matrimonial events without luck. Another woman discusses the slim pickings when it comes to quality men in the country and how most of the available women are too good for them -- they're better educated, more independent, more self-reliant. As The Great Indian Marriage Bazaar was winding down, I couldn't help but feel a little underwhelmed. There's mention of a skin cream in India whose whole ad campaign is built around making women look fairer skinned. This makes them more likely to receive a wedding proposal. That's where mention of Bollywood comes in, but I also wondered more about the culture of beauty in India. How much have these notions changed over time, and is the West responsible for some changes? Is there a culture of male beauty as well -- metrosexualism, male grooming products, etc. -- or is that pressure never felt by men given the country's gender roles and gender expectations? After we're given the statistic about the percentage of marriages in India, we also hear a report about traffic being backed up because there are 50,000 weddings being performed in the city that day. Was it facetious, was it real? And I'm curious about the average number per day now and if there's a similarly ridiculous wedding industry in India that overcharges people on one of the happiest days of their lives. There's also an issue with a lack of polish in the documentary. A lot of it plays as a home movie almost, and while that's not necessarily a bad thing, I've been rethinking the look of documentaries and the sort of veneer I prefer in the docs I usually like. This mix of run time and look made me a bit lukewarm on the film as a whole even though I think those various tensions mentioned above are ripe with ideas. If Ruchika and her co-director Faiza Ahmad Khan revisit the subject of marriage in India, they've got a solid foundation here to build on. They can explore those personal, sociological, economic, and even geopolitical facets of marriage with greater depth. There's a passing reference to religious preferences with spouses which I'm interested in hearing, and I'd also be interested to hear if there are any views of same-sex couples and marriage in India. (The fact I wonder this reveals my absolute ignorance of sexual politics in the non-western world.) If anything, the film has made me wonder what Rosie the Riveter would look like with henna on her fist. I wonder about her biodata. [The Great Indian Marriage Bazaar will screen at Chelsea Clearview Cinemas on Sunday, October 28th.]
The matrimonial tension of Rosie the Riveter
[For the next week and half, we will be covering the 2012 South Asian International Film Festival, the biggest film premiere destination for South Asian and Indian films in the United States. Check back with Flixist for revie...

SAIFF Review: Paanch Adhyay (Afterglow)

Oct 25 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]213142:39023[/embed] Paanch Adhyay (Afterglow)Director: Pratim D. GuptaRating: NRCountry: India Paanch Adhyay opens with a lines from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It's an exchange between Joel and Clementine about their relationship. Even though the source isn't identified, it works in the way epigraphs should work -- it doesn't matter if you know the reference because the lines have meaning independent of the original context. The lines also work on different levels in the context of this film. There's some connective tissue between the both movies that has to do with time, relationships, and romance. It's one sort of subtle wink. (If I had to compare the two movies, Eternal Sunshine is far superior, but that's not really fair since it's one of the best movies of the 2000s. The two films, while thematically similar, are nothing alike in terms of plot and content.) We open with a chance meeting and a seduction that's suave yet a little clumsy. Two strangers at a party: Arindam (Priyanshu Chatterjee) who modifies his drink order once he notices Ishita (Diya Mirza). There are little references to James Bond and reincarnation, but Arindam is pulled away just when he's getting somewhere. Ishita keeps popping up in his life, and he follows her as if in some trance. Arindam is a director and knows how to mold situations and people to his will, and Ishita is a teacher who seems lonelier than she ought to be. Their story unfolds with a few songs, playing out like a charming, lushly saturated romantic comedy. The two seem destined to be together, and there's a genuine sense of attraction every time Ishita and Arindam are together. I probably would have been content had the movie remained a story about these two would-be lovers and their Begali fairy tale. But Paanch Adhyay twists the narrative in an interesting way without tearing the melodramatic membrane. A new chapter of the story begins, and we don't know quite where we are in the story. There's Arindam again, clean shaven this time. He's working on a feature film rather than a commercial. He looks lonely and there's no sign of Ishita in his life. It's hard to tell if it's the past or the present or the future, but the charm of the film is still there. Arindam casts Ranjabati (Sampurna Lahiri) as the lead in his latest film. She's an undiscovered ingenue who doesn't have any life experience or acting experience. It's a perfect chance at love for an older man, though it sounds callow and a bit creepy -- predatory, wolfish. He's a director, though, and he gets what he wants. One of Arindam's assistants says they're trying to cast their own black swan for the role, which explains the Natalie Portman eye make-up. The movie they're making is more like a low-rent Twilight riff, and their immortal vampire is sort of an anti-Pattinson in a funny way. There are other little movies references that creep in, like a V for Vendetta print in Arindam's home, ditto a print for In the Mood for Love. Bela Tarr gets name checked, and there's a reference to other Indian films of the past. I wish I knew more about Indian films because there's a wonderful recreation of and immersion in some older Indian movie. It's romantic and heartbreaking. The remainder of Paanch Adhyay is about whatever happened to Arindam and Ishita and what that means when Arindam has to deal with his feelings for Ranjabati. It becomes less of a rom-com at this point and more a relationship drama mostly from Arindam's point of view. People fall in and out of love for their own complicated or selfish reasons, and we watch them try to rationalize it. There are moments of observation in the film about the nature of relationships. One character asks if relationships can age, isn't it possible for emotions to age as well? And so we get to see what time can do to emotions. There's also a little advice about love in the film which starts poetic but then becomes a limerick thanks to the last line. There are some very broad gestures and plot shifts in Paanch Adhyay which though contrived didn't undermine the film for me. I was probably won over with its winks, and also by the fact that some characters are downright awful and unapologetically so. If love turns us into fools, falling out of love or being involved in difficult loves turns us into wretched jerks. It's only human, really. But even those big, super-melodramatic reveals are bolstered by subtler moments, like how a song playing in a scene can change the meaning of a digital picture frame in the background. The slideshow may be in focus or out of focus, but the tone gives insight into the internal life of the character. There's a Gustav Klimt painting hanging on the wall of Arindam's apartment. I've always found a lot of Klimt's paintings melodramatic, but I sort of like them. Those little shining sections, the geometric color, the impossible curve and arc of the bodies. These are people reshaped by the trappings of melodrama in order to express that dazzling beauty, sensuality, and romance of a given moment. It's these sorts of gestures in Paanch Adhyay that make potential schmaltz seems earnest. There -- whether it's floating lights or a bridge or a picture frame -- is where the essential light shows through. It's stretchy rather than sappy; that's when moments are illuminated and magnified. [Paanch Adhyay (Afterglow) will screen at Chelsea Clearview Cinemas on Saturday, October 27th.]
Love's great, at least until it isn't anymore
[For the next week and half, we will be covering the 2012 South Asian International Film Festival, the biggest film premiere destination for South Asian and Indian films in the United States. Check back with Flixist for revie...

SAIFF Review: Akam (Palas in Bloom)

Oct 23 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]213141:39021[/embed] Akam (Palas in Bloom)Director: Shalini Usha NairRating: NRCountry: India Akam is based on the novel Yakshi by Malayattoor Ramakrishnan. After the opening shot and a flash of the title, we see that Srinivas is horribly disfigured along half of his face. Picture a mix of mulberry birthmark, keloid scars, and grape bubblegum. He limps on the same side of his ruined face. The film flashes back from the beach and shows the car accident that left Srinivas deformed. At the time, he was dating a co-worker named Tara who was in the car during the accident. When we hop out of this flashback and return to the beach, director Shalini Usha Nair introduces a moment of vertigo in the form of a spiraling stairwell and an ascent to the top of a lighthouse. Waiting at the top is a woman in black. The imagery is the stuff of dreams (or at least the film equivalent of dreams). When the narrative reorients itself, Srinivas is in bed with his new wife, Ragini (Anumol K). She loves him despite his disfigurement. It looks like real love and real acceptance after enduring such hardship. The marriage and the identity of this woman wasn't immediately apparent to me, though. Time hops around at the beginning, so we see some of Ragini's courtship with Srinivas, or at least I think that's the case. We also don't really find out what happened to Tara for a good portion of the film, so there's this odd sense of being unanchored from the plot. I drifted along with the film until I finally found some solid ground, but it took some time. I'm not sure if this was intentional or not, but I felt so thrown, which made the eventual certainties in the film seem welcome. There's one thing that Srinivas feels absolutely sure about: his wife Ragini is really a demon known as a yakshi, a kind of vampire who appears in the form of a voluptuous temptress. He's also sure that she wants him dead. The only way to kill a yakshi, we're told, is to drive a nail through her head. Akam sort of explores the roots of this psychosis, or it might be the roots of this supernatural threat. One of Srinivas's co-workers suggests his paranoia might be the result of PTSD after the accident. PTSD would also explain the odd chronological lapses in the film. Srinivas doesn't seem to register how much time has passed, and the audience similarly remains unmoored. The co-worker also suggests that sexual frustration may be the cause of these psychotic episodes. It's a strange observation but also telling. Ragini loves Srinivas and thinks he's handsome despite his facial scars, and yet it seems like they've never consummated their marriage. Much later in the film, when Srinivas is overcome by a major bout of depression, he tries to relieve some of that sexual tension in an unsavory way. There's a lot of suspicion about Ragini, as if she has no past or any kind of history as a reference point for her identity. For some reason, Srinivas knows very little about her. It made me wonder why it never came up while they were dating. Since so much of the film is filtered through Srinivas's POV, some of this information could be intentionally concealed, like a kind of forgetting. We're not quite sure if these are just delusions or if there's any truth to them. Those images of spiral stairwells appear on the walls in Srinivas's house as decoration, and one of his dreams winds up having repercussions in the real world. Coincidence or craziness, they guy's just hedging his bets. Yet even though so much of Akam is built on the way suspicion and paranoia are based in ambiguities, the approach left me at a distance. The point of view isn't like an unreliable narrator (someone consciously misleading the reader or consciously withholding information) but more of an uncertain narrative mind. Information is being received, but I never sensed Srinivas's thought process. That distinction might be a little vague, but I think it's an important one. Maybe that's where a little extra nudging in a direction is necessary for me to feel close to a story. For instance, if the film steered in the direction of a PTSD character study, it might have the depth of feeling or unique human observation to move me at the gut level. Or if this veered toward a character study of schizophrenia, it's emotional stakes and personal stakes might have engaged me like, say, Take Shelter even though I couldn't fully latch into that movie. Thinking of Take Shelter, we always get a sense of the potential danger Michael Shannon's character feels from his apocalyptic visions. The Jessica Chastain character feels an equal but opposite sense of danger about these visions as a response. With Akam, there's Srinivas's suspicion, but never a visceral moment that communicates Srinivas being in peril. He buys a hammer and nails, but that's it. His visions are cryptic rather than ominous with one exception, and none of them involve him in any direct kind of way. The again, maybe the fact that he reads personal/mortal significance into those visions shows just how wrecked his mind really is. (Or is it?) I think it's admirable for Nair to tackle this kind of story in this warped and untethered perspective, and I wonder if Ramakrishnan's novel approached the story in the same way. I can tell that there's something on the shore worth investigating. In fact, I can still follow the little depressions in the sand. The problem with the ambiguities, though: it feels like the tide got there before I did. [Akam (Palas in Bloom) will screen at the SVA Theater on Friday, October 26th.]
She loves me, but I think she might be a monster -- I could be wrong
[For the next week and half, we will be covering the 2012 South Asian International Film Festival, the biggest film premiere destination for South Asian and Indian films in the United States. Check back with Flixist for revie...

SAIFF Review: Blood Relative

Oct 23 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]213140:39020[/embed] Blood RelativeDirector: Nimisha MukerjiRating: NRCountry: Canada/India Vinay is the vice president of the Think Foundation, a charity that assists those who have thalassemia. The group is small, and it doesn't even have a president. Why Vinay doesn't just assume the role of president is never answered, but it's just one of the many odd details in the film that couldn't possibly be made up. Vinay's a workaholic wholly given to the cause. He spends most of his time visiting patients at hospitals and their homes to make sure they're getting their medication and other medical treatments. There's a sense that as long as Vinay's capable, the Think Foundation will survive, but it will always be a struggle. While Divya and Imran must deal with the disease, Vinay has to deal with limited funding. His main goal is to convince the Indian government to provide iron chelation drugs at no cost. The government is predictably slow to respond and the process is arduous. The head of the ministry of health seems like a character pulled straight out of a satire. He's aloof bordering on oblivious, and he has different political ambitions than addressing health care needs. It's remarkable that that the health minister is so blissfully unaware of the camera to act like an unqualified, shameless politico, but it's more remarkable that this sort of (inadvertent?) candor could be captured on film. Meanwhile, families in India, particularly those below the poverty line, can barely afford the transfusions. For them, iron chelation is completely out of the question. An issue-driven doc like Blood Relative works best if it can successfully merge art, information, and advocacy. It's a unique space. Think of a blend of documentary filmmaking and documentary journalism; an in-depth magazine feature with the flair of good creative non-fiction. Since the focus is on just three people, we're able to extrapolate each of their experiences and consider the larger scope of the thalassemia problem. What Vinay's going through is part of what Divya and Imran are going through. There's no division between between the political and personal. If all politics is local, it's also the case that each of these personal struggles is universal. One of the shared problems between Divya and Imran is how to pay for medical treatment. Divya is still in school, but her parents are considering pulling her out of classes. By doing this, Divya would be able to clean up around the house while her mother can get a day job. Divya's mother has hit a point of both resignation and superstition. She's vowed never to wear sandals until her daughter is cured, and has also gone to a spiritual medium in hopes of divine intervention. It would be easy to scoff if the desperation wasn't so heartbreaking, so instead all I could do was sympathize and wonder what, if I were raising a child in similar circumstances, I would do. Also heartbreaking is Divya's social circle. Since she looks half her age, her peers at school make fun of her. She's technically a teen, but her only friends are much younger. Imran's situation is may be more difficult. His father left the family years ago because of Imran's thalassemia. With his mother's flagging health and his sister's own needs, Imran's been forced into being the family's sole breadwinner, paying for rent and utilities as well as his own medical treatment. He still aspires to meet Eminem and learn how to flow like he does, but that's not in the cards; he still wants to date and get married, but his condition makes it beyond difficult to meet anyone his age. We see him hanging out with a friend who's a year younger and at least a foot taller. We see the bruising on his stomach from his regular injections. It's painful to think about people who are teenagers in children's bodies or adults in adolescent bodies. The talk about marriage and dating seems especially painful given how short their lives might be and the complications associated with treatment. It's not just a matter of paying for the iron chelations and transfusions, but dealing with the repercussions of lifelong injections and the potential complications associated with treatment. Life gets more difficult the older you get, but for Divya and Imran it's more so. They know it, but they carry on. Even when Divya's mother discusses the possibility of her daughter dying, Divya laughs and smiles because she has no choice but to live despite it all. That might be why Vinay persists. He's given his life to prolong the lives of others, even if it's just for a few more precious years. As the situation for the Think Foundation becomes more difficult, he keeps trying to make things work. He keeps visiting thalassemia wards, and also meets with Divya and Imran when he can. Seeing him and Imran together, even when it's brief, is especially affecting. There's a kinship there that's so genuine, a humanity that cannot be denied. These lives are all inspirational in their own ways -- they make us fortunate to be alive (which sounds selfish, I know) and fortunate that people like them are alive. Blood Relative is a brisk 72 minutes, and yet every minute counts. The film has found its shape comfortably, needing no more and no less to explore the different facets of the issue. More importantly, Blood Relative never tries to force its emotions because everything is laid so bare. None of the subjects are guarded. Whether we're following Vinay or Divya or Imran, we get a good sense of their inner turmoil but also their aspirations. They still dream, and that's just as important as being alive. There is hope for some sort of future. There's a palpable urgency in Mukerji's direction, another essential component of good art as advocacy, and it comes through in the film's final appeal -- to learn more more about the condition, to help somehow. Blood Relative is lean, but it lingers long after. It's hard to ignore the film's call to action because it'll be hard to forget these people. [Blood Relative will screen at the SVA Theater on Thursday, October 25th. To learn more about thalassemia and what you can do, visit and]
A moving documentary on how thalassemia affects lives in Mumbai
[For the next week and half, we will be covering the 2012 South Asian International Film Festival, the biggest film premiere destination for South Asian and Indian films in the United States. Check back with Flixist for revie...


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