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April 27, 2005

Three Extremes: Some More Thoughts

Upon further reflection, I realized that a big subtext of Three Extremes, whether directly implied or otherwise, involved the inequalities between the sexes that still exist.

SPOILERS follow:

In Dumpling, we see the ex soap opera actress going to extreme lengths to preserve her looks. Her reasoning is simple. She wants to hold on to her husband, a wealthy man who a) is older than her and b) already has a mistress. Thus she has no qualms about downing the dumplings with their very dubious content. The most desirable secret ingredient is actually one of the bitter ironies of this short and is what makes it so effective. In Cut, the madman who holds the horror movie director and his wife hostage is finally dispatched by the wife. But, in a stunning reversal, the director is so shamed at having being humiliated in front of his wife, he strangles her. And finally, in Box, two young girls compete, perhaps fatally, for the attentions of an older man.

Inasmuch as films are windows into different worlds, these shorts raise disturbing questions about the societies they portray and the roles of women therein.

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- April 27, 2005 12:10 AM // Film

April 24, 2005

SFIFF 2005: Three Extremes

three_extremes.jpgThree Extremes, playing at the 2005 San Francisco International Film Festival, offers a smorgasbord of three horror shorts from some of East Asia's best known directors:

Dumplings (dir Fruit Chan, Hong Kong 2004): An ex Hong Kong soap star comes across a purveyor of dumplings that promise youthful rejuvenation. But can she stomach the secret ingredient?

Cut (dir Park Chan-Wook, Korea 2004): A horror movie director comes home one night to find an unexpected visitor who proceeds to stage his own night of terror featuring the director and his wife.

Box (dir Takashi Miike, Japan 2004): An author dreams of being buried alive in a box while she suffocates inside covered in a plastic sheet. Her dream is rooted in her childhood as a contortionist when she competed with her sister for the attentions of a magician.

Of the three shorts, we liked Dumplings best. There were times we saw the women in the audience gasp, so nasty were the horrors implied. There was a lot of blood, particularly later on, but the real effectiveness of this piece lay in the sound design and Christopher Doyle's exemplary cinematography. Otherworldy machinery squeaked menacingly in the background while we heard every crunchy bite taken of the dumplings up close and personal. Similarly, the images on the screen packed a mean punch: an extreme close up of a cleaver knife chopping something unidentifiable but grisly; a woman's neck; clouds of blood swirling in water.

The main value of Cut, the second entry, lies in the game the director, Park Chan-Wook, plays with the audience - will he dare do it or won't he? In the process, Park shows he takes no prisoners - gouts of blood are shed, digits cleaved, a young kid is nearly strangled (unthinkable in Hollywood) and our jaw drops further and further until the last, horrific, denouement. Will the lead character, the horror movie director, or his wife escape alive? We're just not sure and we remain riveted to the screen. As in Old Boy, revenge is on the menu and a bit of consideration shows up many plot holes in both. But the film developed many other themes that allowed it to leap over any logical flaws. In a more limited time, Park doesn't have that same space.

Box is the most restrained of the trio - it didn't have the same sledgehammer effect of the other two. While it played effectively with the line separating dreams and reality, the payoff wasn't as satisfying as the other two. But only by comparison!

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- April 24, 2005 11:50 PM // Film , Review

April 13, 2005

The Bad and The Beautiful

What a hidden gem! Long before we had The Player and The Big Picture (not to mention Bollywood's severe fascination with navel gazing) there was The Bad and The Beautiful (1952), a film that unflinchingly showed the inner workings of Hollywood. I expected to see loads of expedient affairs, backstabbings, arguments and on-set fights and they're all here, courtesy of a crackerjack script by Charles Schnee working off a short story by George Bradshaw. What I didn't expect was the film's original approach. Instead of taking the viewpoint of genius producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas), the film elects to tell his tale through three of his former associates (Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon, Dick Powell). Jonathan's successive betrayal of each of them only adds further layers of complexity to the portrait of a man who just lives for film, so much so he cannot face anything else after a production has wrapped. As an aspiring actress grappling with the shadow cast by her illustrious father, Lana Turner is mesmerizing but Kirk Douglas still manages to steal every scene with her by sheer force of his personality. The film won several Academy Awards, the most deserving of which was for the screenplay and the most inexplicable for supporting actress (Gloria Grahame playing a southern belle, perhaps benefiting from the holdover effect of Vivien Leigh's performance in A Streetcar Named Desire two years earlier).

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- April 13, 2005 9:31 PM // Film , Review

April 12, 2005

Page 3

page3.jpg Many Bollywood flims suffer from what I call the "second half" syndrome. The first half of the film actually works. Post intermission, however, it's a different story - literally. Usually ultra crappy. It's like the filmmakers had a contractual stipulation to deliver a three hour magnum opus but used up all their good ideas (and budget) in the first half. I could go on and on about this but for the time being, I'll just name two films, both made by talented directors, that fell prey to this: Abhay (directed by Kamal Hasan) and Jungle (Ram Gopal Verma).

Page 3 has the opposite problem. For the first sixty percent of the movie, I was wondering what precisely was the plot or the point as we meandered from one fashion show to another. Everybody onscreen seemed to be having a lot of fun. We, alas, weren't. Then an explosion occurred and the film tightened up considerably and actually seemed to head into interesting territory before ending a little abruptly. Page 3 intends to be an expose of the Mumbai glitterati - the folks who attend the glamour parties and of the journalists that cover said happenings for page three of the English newspapers. Konkona Sensharma plays a naive journalist that gets sucked by the hoi-polloi into their world before discovering, poor lamb, that they are not very nice people after all. Atul Kulkarni plays a reporter assigned to the crime beat of the same newspaper and is thus, naturally, a man of substance that can serve as a conscience to Ms. Sensharma (and often does). Before the blast occurred, I was thinking this film could effectively be summarized by the tagline "five parties, a funeral and a whole lotta moralizing", as it seemed too preachy yet exploitative, a classic case of trying to have your chaat and eat it too. Anyway, the post explosion events went a long way towards redeeming the film, but wasn't quite enough to rescue it completely. See Satta by the same director for a much more effective piece of filmmaking.

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- April 12, 2005 12:02 AM // Bollywood , Review

April 9, 2005

Down and Dirty Pictures

Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures, subtitled Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, is a five hundred page takedown of the Weinstein brothers, Harvey and Bob, the founders of uber indie distributors Miramax (currently peddling Bride and Prejudice in the US), and of the Robert Redford Sundance empire. It gleefully dishes out enough dirt to make you feel like you need to be scrubbed with pumice, thrice over, when you're done with the book. Required reading for any wannabe film producers and directors, this tome tells you how cutthroat the business really is in the USA (as if you didn't know already!). After you've scrimped and cajoled your film into existence, hurdled the festival circle, the final and toughest obstacle is that of getting your film picked up for distribution. And that's where the sharks come in. Imagine - you've eaten, breathed, slept this film for the past three, four years of your life. You've made it past the festival circuit and your film has actually managed to get some attention away from the hot shot debut du jour. What wouldn't you do to ensure it plays at a real theater, with real patrons, munching mostly real popcorn? Would you give away your first born in exchange for a bit of marketing push? Yep, you would. And that's where they get you. The book is full of anecdotes whereby desperate filmmakers were sweet-talked by Miramax into selling their films for nothing. Of course, once they sign on the dotted line, the real fun starts. Re-cutting, re-negotiations, threats to shelf the film indefinitely and a host of other indignities follow until you are left, literally, in tears. God help you if they are both producing and distributing. An astonishing example comes in the case of M. Night Shyamalan and Wide Awake. Peter Biskind writes:

Even then, without a hit, Shyamalan was arrogant and stubborn. To them, his attitude was, "I'm Steven Spielberg, and this is a pit stop and I'm going to blow past you guys. I'm writing a movie right now called The Sixth Sense, which is going to be a $100 million dollar film, and that's the business I'm interested in." The Weinsteins returned the favor. "They treated Shyamalan like shit," says a source. When Harvey and Bob first saw Wide Awake at a Tribeca screening room, Bob, according to former production head Paul Webster, told the young director, "I don't think this movie can be saved," while Harvey "made Night cry. Destroyed him, in front of everybody."

Yikes!

As was their custom, the Weinsteins slashed the budget way beyond a point that was reasonable, tormented Shyamalan for exceeding it, and then when their self fulfilling prophecy was fulfilled, threw money at postproduction, allowing Harvey to flex his producing muscles. Adds Lechner, "There was cut after cut, reshoots, rescoring, revoicing, but it was fucked from Day 1. It wasn't a good script, it wasn't a good movie, and you could have worked on it for another ten years and you wouldn't have made it into a good movie." Says Joe Roth, "Harvey was recutting it behind him. Shymalan had a terrible time."

I have no idea whether any of the incidents mentioned in the book are true or not but it caused some consternation when it came out. According to a Salon article

When this year's Sundance festival opened two weekends ago, Biskind's book cast a terrible pall over the opening proceedings. Weinstein, some said, blubbered around contrite like some Ralph Kramden at Alice's funeral, while Redford just lay low, like an aging ski bum minus Viagra. The days of quitting your day job at Blockbuster and maxing out your Visa card to produce a Sundance-worthy masterpiece of American cinema seemed dead and buried.

Of course, the festival recovered soon thereafter but, like I mentioned before, the book is a sobering reminder of the perils of independent filmmaking.

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- April 9, 2005 10:16 AM // Books

April 6, 2005

Muhurat

This is the inaugural post on this weblog. In true Indian film tradition, such an occasion calls for an opening party, (or muhurat) type celebration. So, crack open a coconut, sit back and enjoy a stream of consciousness guff courtesy yours truly!

Why am I starting this weblog? Isn't the world already full of enough of them as it is? Well, perhaps there's room enough there yet. Millions of books are published every year - but that doesn' stop the laptop equipped latte chugging hordes in Starbucks and Baristas everywhere churning out stuff does it? You, my dear reader, get to decide what's worthwhile and what isn't.

As mentioned elsewhere on this site, we are multimedia producers, probably not as good as we'd like to be, but hopefully getting there. Anyway, by virtue of this goal, we consume a fair number of films, music, theater, and other forms of media. Living in the lovely Bay Afrea helps :-) In hopes of bettering ourselves, we like to analyze these works - find linkages, figure out why a particular film worked and so on. Our creative output focuses on the South Asian diaspora but grist for our input can be, should be, as varied as possible. This could be Bollywood, Japanese anime, Korean horror, UK Asian Underground music - the more the merrier. And this blog is where we record our impressions.

Of course, this is the main thrust of this weblog. But in true Bengali adda style, anything goes though I will try to keep the politics down to a minimum. 'nuff said. Enjoy!

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- April 6, 2005 11:28 PM // DishumDishum