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10/10
Fabulous! Animation, color, music, humor, and so much more make this a timeless film for children and adults alike
1 September 2018
What's there not to love about "Yellow Submarine"? I can't remember if I ever saw the whole film before but just saw the digitally restored version outdoors on the big screen.

It's great for the whole family (though some of the animated violence might bother the very young, perhaps preschool and younger). My elementary aged daughter sang along, laughed quite a bit, and kept talking about the film on the way home.

I think it's even more exciting for adults, who will enjoy the humor more (the funniest line for me was a reference to an English teacher). Considering the historical context of the late 1960s, this was a perfect antidote to the Vietnam War and civil unrest in the U.S., painting, quite literally, a Wonderland-like answer of love ("All You Need is Love") and peace.

The animation is remarkable - and would be even if it were made today. The bright colors, shapes, playful subplots, fantastic characters, and clever social commentary all highly recommend the film.

And, of course, the obvious - what great music! Even if the movie were viewed as one extended early music video, it would be groundbreaking and delightful. If the well-known songs don't already inspire sing-along (we were outdoors but even indoors in a theater it would be difficult not to join in!), there is an explicit invitation by the Beatles themselves to sing.

I wish films that films that treated so many interesting issues without offensive language or inappropriate violence were more the norm today. We have a lot to cherish in "Yellow Submarine" but also to learn from.
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10/10
Reminder of sweetness of childhood - beautiful and well-paced story for children and lovers of Pooh of all ages
3 August 2018
My review is influenced by three very positive "Pooh" background points:

1) I grew up with Pooh and the stories remind me of my childhood;

2) I started reading Pooh to my daughter when she was a baby and we continued through at least Kindergarten - and my love for the story has grown immeasurably through this shared experience (she loves Pooh, too!);

and

3) my love for Pooh also grew when I read "The Tao of Pooh", which illuminated the "bear of very little brain" to a modest and wise philosopher.

My family saw the film on opening night tonight (Thursday August 2, 2018 - though opening is listed as August 3?) and thought it was great. It is a very sweet story told with good acting and readily accessible both to children (probably aged 6 and up as there are a few scenes that might scare even those aged 6-10 a bit) and to adults with children in their lives or a love of Pooh.

POSITIVES

* The film was, to me, rather beautifully and sweetly sentimental. I felt choked up many times in the first third or so of the film to see the charming innocence of childhood contrasted with the "reality" of an imperfect professional life. How could Christopher Robin leave behind the joy and simplicity of his childhood friends and end up in a world where human bonds are not as cherished?

* Ideals of friendship, caring, and love were portrayed to appeal both to children (maybe not to older children or teens -or adults! - with cynicism) and to adults. Children will see the contrast between happy-go-lucky play and friendship bonds vs. sometimes unfriendly and uncaring professional demands. However, I do think that children need to also get the message that hard work is important. Adults will find the message overly simplified, but especially those with children in their lives will likely find this to be a gentle reminder of priorities in life. The story at least sets the stage for considering seeking balance of child-like creative outlook while being attentive to one's responsibilities.

* I loved the pacing of the film. I admire stories like this that reveal themselves naturally and warmly, not in a rush with so much presented to the viewer so quickly that it can deaden one's appreciation. The film lingered nicely and could have even continued a bit longer to let the last bits of it savor nicely. Without spoiling things, there is even nice footage during the closing credits that is fun to watch.

* With a bit of reservation, I liked the acting and found the performances, especially of Ewan McGregor as Christopher Robin, to be memorable. His daughter Madeline, played by Bronte Carmichael, was sweet but could have been built up a bit more. I wish that Hayley Atwell, playing Christopher Robin's wife Evelyn, could have played a larger role and her talent allowed to shine more. However, I also understand that the key relationship was of Christopher Robin with Winnie the Pooh. Winnie and friends were spot on to what I might have expected!

NEGATIVES

* Given that the film will appeal to a broad range of ages, I feel that an early historical scene (I'm saying it this way to keep from its being a spoiler) could have been sanitized a bit. Many children will find this scene, albeit short, disturbing.

* As mentioned above, I wish that the message of working hard were also included in the film. It's great to honor the sweetness and playfulness of childhood, but one can and should expect some seriousness of purpose as one picks up responsibility in adult life. All it would take would be some quick dialog or use of even a minor character as an exemplar. But this is a minor point and one that caregivers can explain to younger children.

SUMMARY

I wish that more films of this kind were commonly made. It is a reminder of the sweetness of childhood and the importance of persistence of qualities of friendship, connection, and groundedness as one grows and needs to include in the balance responsibilities of adulthood. The Pooh characters were lovely and I found Ewan McGregor's role memorable, though I wish that the wife and daughter's roles were a bit more dimensional.

We loved the film! I would recommend it to children (probably six and above) and adults with any connection to Winnie the Pooh or to children.
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Social justice documentary featuring five women in developing nations who stand up for their rights
18 December 2007
"In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water. Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it." -Lao-Tzu "The Shape of Water" is an award-winning documentary by an academian cultural critic concerned with social justice, Kum-Kum Bhavnani, who felt the urgent need to share with general audiences powerful stories of women in developing nations making big differences. Narrated by Susan Sarandon, it presents five women in diverse cultures who have been involved in important change.

In Brazil's rainforest, we meet tappers of rubber, a renewable resource. Their way of life, and their life itself, is threatened by ranchers who, backed by police, cut down trees. Women organize, fight violence with patriotic songs and civil disobedience, and stand up for their livelihood and environmental sustainability.

In Israel, Jewish and non-Jewish protesters in the Women in Black movement are introduced who have worked for years holding vigils in support of Palestinian rights. Moving to Africa, there is an exploration of brave Senegalese women who use reason, compassion, hip hop music, street theatre, education, and pressure on government agencies to stop ancient traditions of female genital mutilation.

Several important stories about destruction of the environment and uprooting of people in India is presented. Featured prominently is Vandana Shiva, physicist turned ecofeminist, globalization critic, and environmental activist. She has received numerous honors on behalf of helping many marginalized people, often women, to find their voices and nonviolently express their strength in demanding justice.

Women have in many cultures been seed keepers, preserving the agricultural backbone of society. The film presents Navdanya, a farm in the Himalayan foothills where women are active seed catalogers and preservers, focused on biodiversity.

Perhaps the most interesting story for me is that of the SEWA (Self-Employed Women's Association; Hindi for "service") cooperative. A trade union established in 1972, it has become the largest organization of poor self-employed women in India, having over 700,000 members. It helps women combat illiteracy and fosters communal unity, in addition to giving women tools for business success, such as microcredit.

It was inspiring to see the Gandhian social ideals enacted by the bahen (" sisters") SEWA members, each mutually respectful to the other and all starting their workdays with prayers of different religious traditions. The film describes two women in Ahmedabad whose lives changed when their businesses were given chances to succeed through the help of SEWA; a vegetable saleswoman who faced harassment, including police violence and theft of goods, is featured, as well as a kite-maker who could ramp up quality and quantity of her wares for the annual Gujarati January kite festival.

Each of these stories reminded me of Margaret Mead's words, "A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." Rather than portray the disadvantaged as victims, Kum-Kum Bhavnani shows how they can adroitly and patiently refuse to allow unjust practices to continue, challenging tradition yet building upon it at the same time, to create social justice solutions that in a fundamental way actually reflects the cultural and historical milieu.

"The Shape of Water" was one of a select few films that has toured as part of the United Nations Film Festival and has won a number of awards, such as Best Director, Documentary at the San Francisco Women's Film Festival, and Best Documentary at the Women's International Film Festival, Miami. Kum-Kum Bhavnani is using sales of the DVD, her first film, to send over a hundred copies to grassroots organizations in developing nations.
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Vanaja (2006)
Amazing cast of non-actors; not a feel-good film, highlighting class boundaries in rural South India
22 August 2007
"Vanaja" depicts a spirited 14-year-old rural South Indian girl who possesses an uncanny common sense intelligence which she puts to use to try to improve the lot of herself and her poor fisherman father. Writer, director, and co-editor Rajnesh Domalpalli wrote the story as part of a first semester project at Columbia University and completed it as his thesis for a Master of Fine Arts in Film.

The film highlights the plight of the working poor, an unfortunately universally understood situation of hard work concomitant with escalating debt and a systematic lack of control over many aspects of one's life. Filmed in Andhra Pradesh, lead Vanaja (Mamatha Bhukya) and other villagers are vassals of landlady Rama Devi (Urmila Dammannagari). Her natural self-confidence boosted by a prophecy that she will be an accomplished dancer, Vanaja secures household employment with Rama Devi to help pay the father's debts, as well as to see if she can manage to get some dance lessons.

Things seem to be going well when the landlady's son, Shekhar (Karan Singh) returns from the United States, groomed to run for local politics. His unhealthy attraction to Vanaja proves an overpowering match for her innocent strength. The outrageously common mentality of blame and shame foisted on a victimized woman is somewhat mitigated when the landlady comes to understand the resulting situation and confronts Shekhar. There is an uneasy truce after the baby is born with Vanaja sometimes returning for work. In interests of quelling political innuendo, Vanaja's father is paid a hefty bribe and the baby is to be brought up in the comfort of Rama Devi's home.

The remaining narrative, though somewhat predictable, is interesting and driven by the lead character's strong willpower. One leaves the film feeling muted sadness, desiring that opportunity and social mobility can quickly permeate and make the study of caste purely a historical one.

My own appreciation of the film was greatly enhanced by having access to a press kit, including a beautifully presented booklet about the film. For example, I learned that one of the many challenges in making the film was finding talent among common people; placing ads just wouldn't work as the crew were already being rumored to be after stealing organs and body parts. So they placed ads for household help, such as "female, aged 35 to 50, needed to care for elderly parents" and gauged potential among respondents. Urmila Dammannagari, for example, married at age 9 and a widow with four children, was working as a bottle sealer for a while but unemployed when she saw the ad; "shocked and completely taken aback when she found out the real motive of the ad, she nevertheless took on the role" of the landlady "and the 25km commute, quickly becoming not just an assured actor, but a mother-hen to a brood of young actors in training".

The film owes a lot to the excellent and very natural acting of the lead, Mamatha Bhukya. Just as Ms. Dammannagari came into her aristocratic role so surprisingly smoothly, so did Ms. Bhukya, who had no dance or acting background. In fact, the film changed her ambition from that of being a doctor to pursuing acting and Kuchipudi dance.

I found all but one of the actors to be quite convincing, and am awed knowing of their very simple backgrounds. Karan Singh, however, a Wesley College-educated model, delivered a disappointing performance. His sneering, detached aloofness was not realistic, and his entire character as heir apparent seemed totally unfounded by any political ability. I also found the editing at times to be somewhat abrupt; continuity would have been enhanced with the use of recurring motifs or more of a soundtrack.

Vanaja is not a feel-good film and is not suited for children or perhaps teenagers. While it has its flaws, it is a remarkable film in the context of the local "actors" used and their magnificent performances, as well as considering that this is a thesis. I look forward to seeing future films that Rajnesh Domalpalli, IIT-Mumbai computer engineer turned artist who divides his time between New York and his hometown of Hyderabad, may create.

Vanaja's U.S. premiere is August 31 in New York. A DVD as well as musical soundtrack are expected to be released in 2008.
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6/10
Playfully energetic montage of films remarkably conceived and well executed, revealing love in its many guises in the City of Light and Love
21 June 2007
Much art, literature, and indeed film has been created to try to capture some sense of the joi d'vivre of Paris. In fact, the very genesis of cinematography included the late nineteenth century inventions of the French Lumière brothers' 1895 cinematographe portable projector and motion picture camera, and Georges Méliès pioneering special effects.

"Paris, je t'aime" sheds new focus on the City of Lights and Love. The concept - 20 arrondissements, 20 directors, 18 (it was originally 20)stories, 127 minutes. Each story is to begin with the closing shot of the previous one.

A breathtaking team of directorial and acting talent, such as Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham), Natalie Portman (Star Wars episodes I, II, and III, Garden State), Juliette Binoche (Chocolat, The English Patient), Nick Nolte (Hotel Rwanda), Joel and Ethan Coen (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona), Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run), and Elijah Wood (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Everything is Illuminated), were assembled. The directors were to each create an approximately five-minute film relating a romantic Parisian encounter, and to do this with a 2-3 day shooting schedule.

The result is playfully energetic and generally fun vignettes of local color that help characterize the city's diversity. It all, somehow, hangs together, even though the individual stories are very different – just as two Parisians or city districts.

My favorite was Tour Eiffel (directed by the French Sylvain Chomet), about two mimes who magically turn any frowns in their lives into smiles. Their delight at meeting each other is obvious in the exuberance of their "riding" mime vehicles which appear to zip them to cafés and romantic walks along the Seine, and is humorously contrasted to the askance looks of others. The female mime, played by Yolande Moreau, incidentally, has a film credit in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 2001 film "Amélie".

Gurinder Chadha's Quais de Seine reveals the promise of cross-cultural love for a beautiful Muslim girl rushing off to prayers. Brazilian directors Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas present a touching tale of a young immigrant mother who must wake up very early and drop her still sleeping baby off at a nursery in the dark, then rush through a long journey into the city's 16th arrondissement to care for another baby, that of a wealthy family's.

Many of the films have an element of the surreal and fanciful that, to me, was a little reminiscent of the quirkiness of Amelie, though less subtle. In Porte de Choisy, Christopher Doyle depicts a salesman who arrives at a Chinese hair salon to present a new product line. He is inexplicably greeted at the door by a woman who punches through the glass door and pulls him in; he is quickly dismissed. The film ends up, after a short scene in a Buddhist temple complete with a bowling alley, almost in an MTV-like dance sequence of the beautiful salon owner, with an obvious change of heart, in a flowing black dress, her co-workers in fatigues, and the salesman.

There are many stories, each of which is bound, even in a few minutes' duration, to surprise. There's the story of the husband waiting to meet his wife to announce his intent to divorce her; fellow diners become a Greek chorus to respond to her unexpected life-changing news that she first presents, and which in turn causes his own life to radically alter. Traumatized by the death of her young son, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) is lured from her sleep to a fantasy get-together with him. An elderly man, played by Nick Nolte, rushes to meet a young woman who is nervous about how the new male in her life will react – but the story turns out to be anything but cliché.

One story is about an aid worker treating a stabbed immigrant from Lagos awash with mellifluous song. In a Gothic tale, Elijah Wood plays the role of a tourist out late at night who stumbles upon a temptress vampire. In Tom Tykwer's Faubourg Saint-Denis, Natalie Portman plays an American who comes to Paris to act; the film begins with her apparent breakup call, poetically expressed, to her blind boyfriend, but the flashback to their spring, summer, and fall of their relationship and a final flash forward reveals the true sense of their seasons together.

"Paris, je t'aime", I am finding, is the kind of film (films?!) that grows on you. As I reflect on it, I feel the desire to experience it all again, and suspect that I would enjoy it even more. While there were a few segments that I didn't care for, many of the stories had subtleties and inherent references that could easily be missed. For those segments that just don't capture a viewer's interest, one can look forward to a new story just minutes later.

The concept itself is a clever one, though it could have been, and thankfully wasn't, unremarkably executed if it had mediocre talent. I think that I missed some transition motifs, but in general the films flowed well together, even with seemingly very different stories juxtaposed one after the other. There was effort to weave the episodes together through the transitions and at the end; I would have enjoyed this to have been a bit more developed.

There are a few perhaps difficult to experience language episodes and mature situations, though not particularly many. In any case I don't think that most teens or children would relate well to some of the stories. I do recommend "Paris, je t'aime" to most discerning adults who would appreciate nuanced and clever plots, often with charming and understated humor. Lovers of Paris, of course, must see this montage of films. Like a tempting candy sampler with bonbons wrapped this way and that, "Paris, je t'aime" offers much to delight.

6 ½ stars out of 10 (This is a version of a review that I sent for publication in a regional magazine on June 20, 2007)
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Nömadak Tx (2006)
8/10
Unique, dramatic road movie documentary, a meandering tale of commonality and peace
4 June 2007
I sat down to see Nömadak Tx on DVD with little expectation, only knowing that it was a film about traveling percussionists. It is a road movie documentary of Igor Otxoa and Harkaitz Mtnez. de San Vicente of the Basque Country of northeastern Spain who take their ancient txalaparta percussion instrument to India, the Arctic Circle, Mongolia, Algeria, and the Saharan Desert, looking for native peoples in remote areas with whom they could build relationships while integrating their talents through music.

The txalaparta is a traditional wooden or stone percussive instrument said to be up to six thousand years old. Deeply resonant, it was used millenia ago as a means for villagers to communicate. Long boards are beat using sticks (makilak) by two performers (txalapartaris), one of whom maintains a fixed binary rhythm representing balance, while the other tries to break that balance with zero, one, or two beats in between. Reminiscent to me of the classical Indian sawal-jawab question-answer dialogue between tabla players, there is often some friendly competition with increasingly fast rhythms in an improvised musical encounter. Txalapartaris were becoming increasingly rare before a resurgence of interest by folklorists in the 1960s. Contemporary musicians such as Otxoa and de San Vicente started experimenting with materials besides wood and stone, such as metal or even blocks of ice.

The film's title, I learned from correspondence with one of the musicians, is simply a combination of the word meaning "nomadic" or "nomads" in the Basque language, along with the first two letters in the name of the instrument. And so we have a journey of this fascinating instrument, or at least its concept for it to be constructed anew on-site. During the opening credits, an interesting quote is presented that playing this instrument "and travelling are very similar. You do not know what will happen in either case."

The film moves quickly and keeps your attention right from the opening credits with dramatic photography. Interspersed with the credits we see the musicians creating a txalaparta, with closeups of saws cutting, sawdust flying. Throughout the film we hear txalaparta sounds. As soon as the credits end, the film abruptly switches to Mumbai, the first stop on the road trip. As in each stop, we experience visuals and sounds of the local scene.

That the instrument is played by two is not incidental – it is an inherent part of the sense of "encounter" in the project that the film is part of, that of traveling as nomads with their traditional instrument in order to share, build bridges spanning communities, and form a meaningful cultural exchange, as well as experiment with new materials for the instrument. The whole is greater than the parts and, it is posited, one plus one ends up being greater than two, but the actual value cannot be predetermined. Adding to that mixture, the intent was to collaborate with traditional local artists, learning from each other in the genesis of compositions.

After working with Mumbai musicians and giving a concert, off the musicians go to the tribal lands of the Adivasis. The film lingers briefly when it needs to, but keeps on its nomadic quest. The editing reflects this combination of positive restlessness and purposeful striving – from a scene of traditional Adivasi music accompanied by singing of their cosmological ideas, we cut right to the nighttime catching of a train and then immediately to the bright daytime snowscape of the musicians on skis, creating music out of ice and performing for the Sámi (Laplander) people of northern Scandinavia. If nothing else, the film is an exciting travelogue accompanied by the unique rhythms of the txalaparta. It's "cool" to see them clowning around in the Arctic and jumping into near freezing water after partaking of a sauna, as well as to watch them cutting ice blocks and shaving them just so in order to tune them. In the Sahara, it's amazing to see them make their music out of desert stone.

Whether on the Mongol steppe, driving through Algeria, in the Arctic, or in urban or tribal India, seeing the musicians engineer versions of their instrument out of local natural materials and hearing the magnificently resonant sounds from it all is a feast of the senses. The musicians have a lot of fun on their travel and bring smiles to their co-opted performers, their audiences, themselves, and, no doubt, their film viewers.

But the film is more than a travel film. We hear notes that strike both our ears and our hearts – there is an ancient wisdom that is being transmitted. One could argue that it is a gently meandering film of peace, an exercise reminding us that we have so much in common and yet so much to learn from each other.

The sharp editing cuts; mixture of human activity with that which is in nature; everyday sounds as well as those, sometimes haunting and primordial, that we hear from the txalaparta; and subtlety through which the film gently presents itself, all effectively further the goals of the work. In less talented hands, such artistry can actually backfire and result in a trivialized production with techniques being exposed for the sake of themselves and not to further a story or feeling, but it works superbly here.

I fully enjoyed this unique documentary film and am delighted that I had the opportunity to see it. Nömadak Tx is a joyful ride showing how music is universal and brings happiness and shared understanding. As enchanting as it was to see, I was delighted to have the opportunity to experiencing it on the large screen when it was shown at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival locally in mid-April 2007.

8 stars out of 10

--Dilip Barman, March 21, 2007 (version of a review I published)
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Shame (II) (2006)
7/10
Important civil rights case, beautifully portrayed
19 April 2007
"Shame" is about Mukhtaran Mai and her shocking story that ends with much promise. In 2002, the 30-year-old woman from Meerwala, a remote Pakistani village, was sentenced by the tribal council to be raped by a group of men in retaliation for an alleged crime that her brother had committed. With no police presence in the village and with the feudal precedent of self-victimization or suicide, she musters the courage to travel to town to file a police case, in spite of death threats.

Her case attracts governmental and then international press and human rights attention, and results in her being praised with awards for bravery and travel abroad to speak, as well as being given a handsome amount of money with which she builds the village's first school. I recommend this film not just for its sensitive treatment of the matter and the inspiring story of Mukhtaran Mai, but also because of the beautiful cinematography that paints, at times, a welcome and almost surrealistically dreamy veneer on a chilling episode.
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8/10
Zany and heartfelt documentary about two Danish pilots who fly to Afghanistan against all odds to help empower a young Afghan girl
15 March 2007
At the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in April 2006, one of my favorite films was "Smiling in a War Zone". As luck would have it, this and another of my favorites, "I for India", both won awards at the Festival; Smiling in a War Zone was selected to receive $5000 as the film that "best portrays women in leadership".

In 2002, Danish filmmakers, Simone Aaberg Kærn and partner Magnus Bejmar (both of whom I met at the Festival, along with their energetic infant), are inspired by reading a story in the Danish press about a 16-year-old Afghan girl named Farial who dreams of being a fighter pilot. Performance artist Simone had flight training under her belt and convinces her (slightly) more practical partner to do what they can to try to meet Farial and take her for a flight.

The grounding of planes right after September 11th hits Simone as a perhaps necessary but sad strike against freedom. What better way, they feel, to free the skies than by flying to share their freedom with a teenager in a country recovering from years of terrible injustice.

In this documentary that they made of their efforts, the couple pulls together enough money to purchase a small "Donald Duck" Piper Colt airplane from 1961 made out of canvas. They plan to fly it 6000km (more than 3700 miles) from Copenhagen to Kabul. The technical issues of flying the plane such a distance and over mountains taller than the plane is meant to fly at, as well as the inevitable repairs, prove, surprisingly, to be relatively easy to address compared to the bureaucratic hoops that they find that they have to try to jump through in order to make this humanitarian mission happen. Intent on the urgency of flying into a war zone to bring their unsolicited act of kindness, they scramble to get visas to hop through countries en route to Afghanistan.

Their biggest challenge becomes the overwhelming amount of red tape that they find with getting permission from the Americans to enter Afghan air space. They end up overstaying their 7-day Iranian visit and don't know what to do - they can't stay and don't have visas for neighboring countries. The Afghans welcome them and readily have given permission to visit any domestic airport once they enter the country, but first Magnus and Simone must negotiate the seeming hopeless situation of getting American permission to just enter the airspace. How they boldly do that, as well as their mechanical and cultural experiences en route, makes for a fascinating story.

After fifty hours in the air and thirty-three landings, they do (illegally) make it to Afghanistan, and are warmly received by Farial and her family. Simone takes Farial on her first flight, giving the teenager controls for some time. The Afghan air force has a vanishingly small number of women pilots, and Simone even arranges for Farial to go up in the air again, this time with two of these fighter pilots.

But there are some twists in the story. Farial's traditional uncle feels that a female should not be pursuing such extraordinary pursuits. Can Simone and Magnus provide a realistic goal to the Afghan teen? Is their gift of value and their efforts well spent? The film is full of the infectious, zany early Beatles-esquire energetic charm of Simone. She is headstrong and quick thinking enough to not let get in her way any obstacle, be it a military restriction or having to carry black market gas from downtown streets to her plane.

"Smiling in a War Zone" was one of the few films that I saw at the Festival this year that garnered a standing ovation, probably both for the film itself and for the couple's giving nature. The freedom that flying represents to the couple is something that they so desperately want to share; in spite of some disappointment, clearly their almost unbelievable perseverance made a difference. We need more people like Magnus and Simone in this world! 8 ½ stars out of 10 (this is a version of a review that I published in the June, 2006 issue of "Saathee" Magazine)
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The Namesake (2006)
7/10
A story of the power of a name and of family; the immigrant experience; the search for love, context, and identity
22 February 2007
In 2003 days after its publication, I could hardly put down Pulitzer-winning Jhumpa Lahiri's novel "The Namesake". Lahiri was born in London to Bengali immigrants, raised in Rhode Island, and now lives in Brooklyn.

I was therefore excited when I heard that Mira Nair would be directing a film based on the novel. Readers may be familiar with Nair's films, including "Monsoon Wedding" (2001), "Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love" (1996), "Mississippi Masala" (1991), and Oscar-nominated "Salaam Bombay!" (1988); she is also in pre-production on a crime drama, "Shantaram", due in 2008.

Mumbai-based graduate of Harvard (where she met Nair) Sooni Taraporevala wrote the screenplay, as she also did on "Mississippi Masala" and "Salaam Bombay!" (incidentally, she is apparently directing her first film, based on her own screenplay, due to be released this spring). I don't know why, but the setting of the film version of the story is changed from Boston to New York and moved about a decade forward.

The story is that of the Gangulis - Ashoke (Irfan Khan) and wife Ashima (Tabu), Kolkata (Calcutta) immigrants to the U.S. in the early 1960s (1970s in the film), their son Gogol (Kal Penn), and his younger sister Sonali/Sonia (Sahira Nair). As a bachelor in India, Ashoke suffers in a train wreck, but his life is saved because, instead of sleeping on the nighttime journey, he had been reading "The Overcoat" by Russian writer Nikolai Gogol.

When Ashoke and Ashima's first child is born, they are surprised that they cannot leave the hospital without naming him; they prefer to wait for the great-grandmother's suggestion. The name of the Russian writer occurs to Ashoke, and he assigns "pet name" Gogol. The "good name" that the great-grandmother mailed never arrives, so the name Gogol sticks. As the boy grows, his name bothers him; it is neither Indian nor American, nor even a first name. He legally changes his name at college to "Nikhil".

The story follows Gogol/Nikhil as he goes to Yale University, is inspired to be an architect on a family trip to India when they visit the Taj Mahal, goes to graduate school and on to a job in New York City, and experiences several relationships. Wittingly or not, he follows the advice to "play the field" but to reserve marriage for a woman of Bengali origin.

How do the US-born children relate to India? Where is home for the parents and how do they stay in touch and perform their duties while geographically separated from their extended family? "The Namesake" is a story of the power of a name and of family; the immigrant experience; the search for love, context, and identity.

I enjoyed the film but, as often is the case, I found it to fall short of the book, whose power made me an instant fan of Lahiri's (watch for a cameo appearance by her in the film as Aunt Jhumpa). Armchair criticism is easy, and perhaps more meaningful insight is gained by asking if the medium is effectively used to convey the story's ethos.

The answer is a gentle "yes". One of Lahiri's strengths is attention to detail revealed in a matter-of-fact style that doesn't belabor the obvious. But of course the film cannot fairly be expected to reveal all of the original's subplots, such as Gogol's first relationship with his college sweetheart Ruth, or the myriad details beautifully presented in the book surrounding multicultural birthday celebrations, for example.

The film effectively contrasts the chaotic vibrancy of Kolkata with the much more restrained, anonymous big city life of the States through foundational scenes of bridges – the Howrah Bridge over the Hooghly River and Manhattan's 59th Street Bridge. In New York, we can see the business of modern city life rendered mute through a small apartment's glass windows; in India, no such respite from daily life is readily found. Another effective motif is the recurrence of the "Travelogues" exhibit at JFK Airport, reminding us through changing holographic images about the transition in space and culture that the Gangulis experience traveling between America and India.

There are some particularly well composed, emotive scenes, such as the timidly uncertain wave goodbye of Ashima to Ashoke on their first morning in the New World when he leaves on dismal snowy streets for work. I wouldn't, however, characterize the film as a whole as having consistently memorable cinematography, though it is rather effectively subtly understated and helps the story's progress.

The soundtrack could have been more appealing. Perhaps I was too focused on fidelity to the book which of course can simply be an irrelevant distraction, but I didn't relate to the music of high school student Gogol as characteristic of either the late 1970s or 1980s. Strictly speaking, the JFK exhibit was installed in 2000, which is inconsistent in fact and technology with most of the trips that the Ganguli family makes through the airport starting in the 1970s.

All that said, Mira Nair has made a sensitive, touching, and interesting film that triggers an authentic collection of emotions from joy to despair, with dashes of convincingly real everyday humor and chance. I was happy to see in the closing credits two of the three best known Bengali filmmakers mentioned, "For RITWIK GHATAK and SATYAJIT RAY, gurus of cinema with love and salaams"; only Mrinal Sen is missing.

I recommend both the film (expected to be released on March 9) and, especially, the book for immigrants and their friends, as well as to anybody who has felt significant loss, detachment, or uncertain change in their life. It is a story that is remarkable in its subtle depiction of the flip sides of the coin of history and promise.

(I saw the film at a pre-release screening on February 16, 2007 in Cary, NC USA. My review is a version of one that I am publishing in the forthcoming March issue of "Saathee Magazine".)
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Unforgettable story of dedication and use of any means necessary to fight occupation
26 January 2007
Though Jean-Pierre Melville's "L' Armée des ombres" is a film from 1969, apparently it was released in the States as "Army of Shadows" recently in 2006. It is a difficult film to see about the French Resistance to Nazi occupation in WWII. It moves quietly and quickly through intrigue and, for me, difficult to see violence, imprisonments, subterfuge, patience, and assassinations for the larger cause. A well made film of subtle strength, it takes some strength to get through, especially for sensitive viewers, but is an unforgettable story of the dedication of an underground resistance and its will to use any means necessary to achieve its goals.
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Solaris (1972)
Hauntingly beautiful and complex science fiction story, a unique masterpiece
26 January 2007
Wow, what an experience my wife and I had tonight seeing "Solaris", based on a novel by one of my favorite science fiction writers, Stanislaw Lem. As we knew from reviews we had seen, it is a very long film at 165 minutes with many drawn-out but compelling scenes. Though it's a classic and has much to recommend it highly, I must admit that the first half I found a bit difficult to sit through - having just had a nice pasta dinner and some chocolate didn't help :-). It is such a complex film that it probably takes at least two or three viewings to feel that one has understood much of it.

The basic story is that a Russian spaceship in orbit around a planet has been sending back confusing status, and Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is sent to investigate. He finds out that the crew has been experimenting with sending pulses of radiation into the planet's vast ocean and are in turn manipulated by some sort of innate intelligence on the planet. "Guests" materialize on the ship, crafted from mental elements of the crews' minds.

The first night there, Kris himself wakes up to find his long-dead love Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) by his side. The other two crew mates, scientists Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) and Dr. Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn) puncture any misconceptions that Kris may have by clarifying that "she" is not real, and invite Kris to try looking at a blood sample, which clearly is not human ("she" does "bleed" when hurt, but the "blood" can be easily wiped away). The scientists in fact want to experiment on sending an annihilation sacrificial pulse of radiation to the ocean below, and imply, it seems, an interest in using Hari for that purpose.

The film is unlike anything that I have seen before, and begs many philosophic questions about the nature of reality and existence, the meaning of love, time and timelessness, and much more. The sterile and very unnatural milieu of the spaceship, as well as the melancholic and minimalistic music and sound effects, make one despair for being in nature, and reflect on the early lakeside scenes. The ending (no spoilers here!) leaves room for interpretation and even understanding of just what happened. Hauntingly amazing.
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6/10
Ponderous and predictable, gloomy "romance" with lush scenery and some strong performances
19 January 2007
"The Painted Veil" is a film based on W. Somerset Maugham's 1925 novel of the same name. The story is of an upper class, independent-minded woman, Kitty (Naomi Watts), in mid-1920s England. Her family is anxious to marry her off, and she quickly finds herself as the wife of infectious disease researcher Dr. Walter Fane (Edward Norton). He takes her to his work in Shanghai and then to the remote village Mei-tan-fu in the Southern Chinese province of Guangxi, where he has volunteered to help to combat a deadly cholera epidemic.

The story is one of marriage to a man so focused on his work that he only speaks when something needs to be said, a passionless relationship that formulaically leads to extra-marital passion. Almost as penance, Walter announces that they are going to a place that Kitty feels no (English) woman belongs, without consulting Kitty and with no regard to her interests or well-being. The stark choice for her is to face shameful divorce or join in; when Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber) all too predictably declines to leave his wife and marry his love, Kitty, there seems to be no choice at all.

Despite some strong performances, particularly by Naomi Watts, Dame Diana Rigg in the film as the vivacious Mother Superior in charge of an orphanage, gorgeous scenery, and expectations to enjoy what I thought would be a romantic period film like many others that I have relished (such as Merchant Ivory Productions' 1992 "Howards End" or 1985 "A Room with a View"), I had serious reservations about "The Painted Veil". I thought that the story was rather ponderous and predictable with flawed character development.

I found unrealistic Walter's cold detachment and irresponsibility to not even inoculate his wife. Much as Kitty's character is developed reasonably well, she bears the cross of her predicament in a manner that doesn't seem consistent with her pre-marital characterization. Her somehow uncrushed spirit and the scenes in the orphanage provided much needed respite from the stern, closed Walter.

The couple's relationship, initially of course a societally imposed one, grew into one that never made sense to me. Walter's almost total self-absorption and lack of sensitivity (such as initially banning all of the villager's sources of water without considering how they would drink - not much of a boon to the community or a cogent public health approach) further hardened and distanced his characterization. In fact, with few exceptions (such as eccentric neighbor Waddington played by Toby Jones), many of the other characters were, to me, relatively flat.

Clearly on the personal level there was Walter's patronizing and very unfriendly demeanor, but there was otherwise little plot development about anti-colonialistic resentment of the Chinese toward the English. The more pernicious colonial impact the British had on India seems to be much better known than the Opium Wars and colonial influence in China in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the film could have encouraged a little curiosity by revealing a bit more historical fiction rather than relying on some unspecified fears. Ann Hu's 2000 film "Shadow Magic" is but one example that I am reminded of that weaves a much richer background tapestry.

On the other hand, the scenery was magnificently shot in soft, lush scenes that provided an interesting contrast to the harsh story. Waddington and Mother Superior offer clever dialogue; it was charming, for example, to hear the nun reflect, "I fell in love when I was seventeen {pause} with God. A foolish girl with romantic notions …. But my love was passionate. Over the years, my feelings have changed. He's disappointed me, ignored me. We've settled into a relationship of peaceful indifference. The old husband and wife who sit side by side on the sofa but rarely speak. He knows I will never leave him, this is my duty. But when love and duty are one, then grace is within you."

I liked the costumes, music, and flow of the film, with powerful nonlinearities reinforcing Kitty's entrapment. Walter's eventual understanding that aiding others suggests not a condescending but a compassionate sense of working together, may offer a gentle reminder of some relevance in contemporary society, whether in regard to diplomacy, warfare, or dealing with still current issues of poverty and disease. In a very real sense, the film itself offers promise as, I believe, the first film co-produced between the Chinese government and a Western studio.

I often enjoy romantic historical fiction and, based on other reviews that I have seen (and some awards, such as a Golden Globe for Best Original Score), expect some other enthusiasts of the genre (if indeed this film can be called "romantic") to find more merit in "The Painted Veil" than I did. I do recommend for those that those who want to see it to experience it while it is on the big screen; the impact of the mountains, rice fields, water, and crowds need to be appreciated in the large.

6 stars out of 10
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8/10
A well-made and paced documentary about John Lennon and his free speech victory - important story told with Lennon's brilliant music
19 November 2006
"Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can. No need for greed or hunger. A brotherhood of man. Imagine all the people, Sharing all the world. You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one. I hope someday you'll join us. And the world will live as one." – John Lennon, "Imagine" "All we are saying, Is give peace a chance." –John Lennon, Give Peace a Chance I can't help hearing the song "Imagine" and feeling a little teary-eyed. I still remember being part of the worldwide vigil after John Lennon's murder and hearing the idealistic song, depicting a vision at that time suddenly sounding cruelly out-of-reach. The Beatles is one of those very few groups that seems to enjoy near-universal appreciation, from folks in their teens through those in retirement, including classical music aficionados as well as heavy metal enthusiasts. The songwriting power behind the group was primarily the genius of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, both of whom continued on to successful, creative solo careers.

With that background, how could I not jump at the opportunity to see a film about John Lennon? "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" is a documentary about the life of Lennon, specifically focusing on his peace activism during the Vietnam War era. I was certainly aware of his political engagement and songs such as "Give Peace a Chance", "Power to the People", and "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)". And I vaguely recall that there were some immigration issues that this English man faced in America. But I was not fully aware of, or perhaps forgot, how strongly the Nixon administration sought to deport John Lennon simply based on his views and activism.

The film moved at a very appropriate pace, introducing enough biography to help better understand the germane issues, quickly going through John's childhood, involvement with the Beatles, and marriage to his wife Yoko Ono. Consummate musician, John is quoted as saying that all that he really wanted to do was to make music. But the escalating violence in Vietnam made him an outspoken critic of the war. A master of publicity, he even turned what he knew would be dogged press during his honeymoon to his advantage by staging a well covered love-in for peace – urging love and not war.

Richard Nixon held the office of President of the United States from 1969-1974 and is the only President to have resigned, facing impeachment for the "Watergate" scandal and clear abuse of power. In spite of election promises, Nixon plunged the country into deeper war with Vietnam amidst growing public outcry.

With the help of the heavy-handed J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for almost fifty years (from 1924 until his death in 1972), the Nixon administration sought to silence some in the anti-war movement. It tried to deport John Lennon and, finding that he had a small charge of marijuana possession filed back in England earlier, used that as a pretext to demand his departure.

Eventually, Lennon's lawyer countersued and proved that the Nixon administration has conspired against him, with people from the very top of the government involved. Lennon won and was granted permanent immigration status to allow him to stay in New York, the city he loved. Unfortunately, in 1980, John Lennon was gunned down outside of his New York apartment by a deluded fan.

"The U.S. vs. John Lennon" is a moving film about a person larger than reality – as if being a prolific and well-recognized songwriter weren't enough, he was a singer, guitarist, author, and political leader who embodied nonviolence and peace, influenced by Gandhi – and he was very influential in each of these areas. Many would say that Lennon was one of the key spokespersons of the generation that came of age in the 1960s, and offered a vision of a world united by zest for living together and not divided by petty differences. It is also a film about how unchecked power can try to wield unfair influence in attacking its perceived enemies.

A vivid history lesson accompanied by many brilliant songs of John Lennon's, I highly recommend "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" to all (note that it is rated PG-13 for some "strong language, violent images and drug references" but I wonder if that is a little overstated). Viewers will (re)learn important biographical and historical aspects of the man and times, and, more importantly, see John Lennon's message for its universality and timelessness. The music alone will likely rekindle or begin new memories, and the documentary is a fascinating review of an important era in recent history.

8 stars out of 10

--Dilip Barman, Durham, NC
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7/10
Documentary about public policy that caused the demise of the electric car; well done though bit repetitive
20 September 2006
In millions of barrels per day, total U.S. oil imports (crude and refined) in 1977: 8.8. In 2005: 13.5 . Maximum federal tax credit for electric vehicle (2002): $4000. For vehicles weighing 6000 pounds and greater (2003): $100,000.

I remember living through the oil crisis in the 1970s and having lines for rationed gas. President Carter in 1979 put measures in place to gradually improve fuel efficiency of vehicles, vowing to set the country on a course to reduce oil imports. Unfortunately, some later politicians seemed to forget that crisis and nullified many of the conservation measures, even removing solar panels that had been installed on the White House.

Jumping forward to 1990, California adopted a Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate, requiring auto makers to sell 10% of its cars having no emissions from fueling or operation. Cars could be recharged at home or at public recharging stations. In 1996, the mandate was made more flexible in the face of auto industry pressure and in 2003 California further weakened it, no longer requiring car manufacturers to produce any ZEVs.

General Motors (GM), which had developed the EV1 electric car for lease but not sale, almost immediately discontinued and recalled the leased vehicles. Contrary to company claims of recycling the car parts, GM was found trucking the clean functioning cars to Arizona and crushing them. Owners who have loved the experience and low cost of driving their cars protested and even Gandhian non-violent vigils and actions, as well as offers to buy the cars, are unable to stop the destruction.

Why such a history especially with rising gas prices and the backdrop of conflicts at least partially over access to oil? The documentary film "Who Killed the Electric Car?" attempts to give insight.

A variety of "suspects" are examined. Are car companies guilty? The filmmakers think so and imply that they only half-heartedly worked to develop and market the cars. The EV1 had no internal combustion engine, oil, filters, or spark plugs, and a brake system requiring minimal repair. That was good news for the people fortunate enough to have been able to lease the cars, but provided very little after-market profit. How about oil companies? Their lobbies strongly opposed the adoption of electric cars which, after all, would reduce their sales. Batteries? Surprisingly not guilty; GM purchased a majority interest in nickel-metal hydride battery technology but chose to deliver an under-performing product that provided half the driving range.

How about the U.S. government? Guilty as well, according to the film. Not only were earlier conservation measures stripped of their power, but in 2002 the current administration joined automakers and car dealers in a lawsuit against California's ZEV mandate. Instead of encouraging a proved and existing technology, it helped sign its death certificate and instead is gambling on hydrogen fuel cell technology. The film includes an interview with Joseph J. Romm, author of The Hype about Hydrogen, to make the point that hydrogen may be a long-term solution, but many impediments, including price (a vehicle currently costs $1 million and the fuel is very expensive and from non-renewable sources), creation of fueling infrastructure, and range (normal sized cars currently can't carry enough hydrogen to provide sufficient range) make it unlikely to be a solution for decades to come.

The Clinton administration as well did little to increase corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards If anything, the filmmakers imply, government has stifled cleaner electric technology; there were more electric cars on the road 100 years ago than gas cars.

The film features interviews with people such as Chelsea Sexton, who was an EV1 sales specialist married to an EV1 technician; consumer advocate Ralph Nader; S. David Freeman, former energy adviser to President Carter; R. James Woolsey, ex-CIA director; Phyllis Diller, a comedian who remembers early electric cars before 1920; and Iris and Stanford Ovshinsky, whose battery technology powered the EV1 and is used in many current hybrid vehicles. I found that the human interest was a welcome respite to a film that at times was too focused on pressing its case against the demise of the electric car.

Anybody interested in efficient and renewable energy, as well as public policy, should see this film. "Who Killed the Electric Car?" informs well, though I wish it presented a little more history of the electric car. Documentaries can and should be interesting and not just educational; by and large this is, though at times it is a little repetitive. That said, overall the film is thought-provoking, and the frustrating story of the electric car's demise ends with some optimism for the future.

--Dilip Barman, Durham, NC (seen in August 2006)
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Accessible documentary (and hopefully spark for social change) about modern-day tradition of child prostitution to support village families
6 September 2006
Tonight I saw the documentary film Highway Courtesans on DVD. It is about the Bachara tribe in the western part of Madhya Pradesh in central India. This tribe is known for the tradition of child prostitution, with families making their first daughters, as children, into prostitutes to support the family. The tradition is centuries old and is still practiced today.

The film follows six years in the life of Bacharan Guddi Chauhan from age 16 to 23. She has been a prostitute serving passing-by truckers and others I believe since age 11 or 12, but clearly is uneasy about this forced occupation. Along the way, she has garnered a boyfriend, Sagar, out of her clientèle. Sagar surprisingly seems not to mind her profession.

Guddi's misgivings lead her, against her family's wishes, to leave prostitution and learn enough to become a teacher in a village. How do her drunken do-nothing brother and tradition-bound father react to her independent streak? How does Guddi, as well as some of her peers in the community, Shana and Sungita, feel about the tradition and the role thrust upon them? Change is often a two-edged sword, and would fighting this tradition benefit these young ladies and girls? What other opportunities exist, where do they exist, and do ex-Bacharan prostitutes have hopes of marriage? Can they fulfill their desires to support their families? Why is Sagar vague about his plans to marry Guddi? We see Guddi's father sending her by bus to a larger town to get a proper education; will he support her and let her study? This 71-minute film that took approximately ten years to produce gives insight into these questions. It is difficult to come to terms with forced child prostitution, especially in modern times, and a documentary on this topic could leave one numb. Instead, the film is crafted in an accessible and warm manner. The prostitutes are victims, but somehow Guddi, Shana, and Sungita, are surprisingly strong and confident.

I am impressed with the access that the filmmakers were able to get to the people in the Bacharan village, and to the villagers' willingness to frankly discuss matters. By clearly documenting this story, the producers have used film to possibly make a big difference in the lives of these highway courtesans. But will this age-old tradition become a thing of the past? And if it does, will reasonable opportunities for villagers be available? We can only hope.

--Dilip Barman, Durham, NC (USA), August 17, 2006
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Three Times (2005)
6/10
Surprisingly unremarkable slow love story trilogy of two characters set in three different eras (1966, 1911, and 2005) of Taiwan
5 August 2006
Tonight, a friend and I saw the critically acclaimed "Three Times" at a local theatre. The description that the theatre's site had posted is:

'The film features three different stories of love and memory through three time periods, 1966, 1911 and 2005. The first, "A Time for Love," hinges on the meeting of soldier boy Chen with pool hall hostess May and his subsequent search for her. The second episode, "A Time for Freedom," deals with a courtesan tending to a Mr. Chang during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan. And the third episode, "A Time for Youth," centers on epileptic singer Jing who casually takes up with photographer Zhen while increasingly ignoring her female lover.'

Neither of us left the film understanding what the commotion could have been about. We both reasonably enjoyed the episode taking place in 1966 - it is sweet and innocent, and all the characters seemed happy. In the 1911 episode, the characters were all imprisoned by duty-bound roles, and happiness was not readily apparent. In the gritty modern 2005 final episode, all trace of innocence and happiness seemed to be whisked away in the detritus of the modern anonymous city.

The best scene for me was in the first part; in the sweet romance blooming between our two protagonists, Chen (played by Chen Chang) reaches his hand down slowly to clasp the hand of May (Qi Shu). But rather than enjoy many such touching scenes, I was left a bit puzzled by the dearth of interest, to me, in the rest of the film.

I had expected that Hsia-hsien Hou, cited as filming subtle scenes of beauty, would have cleverly used the three parallel histories, perhaps weaving them and interchanging them nonlinearly, or somehow relating them. All I saw was the coincidental use of two characters in love stories of three different eras. The film was slow; if it were entirely to have taken place in the 1960s, I could have described "slow" with more positive phrases, such as, perhaps, "subtly engaging" or "innocently unwinding" or maybe even "softly touching". I would give the film 5 1/2 or 6 stars out of 10.

--Dilip Barman, Durham, NC, Friday, August 4, 2006 (quote from Carolina Theatre, Durham NC website)
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Water (I) (2005)
9/10
A stunning film that is beautifully made with gorgeous compositions, convincing acting, and emotionally strong - heartbreakingly based on historically true practices
21 May 2006
I saw Deepa Mehta's long awaited conclusion to her elements trilogy on local opening night, May 19, 2006. This historical fiction is set in 1938 colonial India in ancient Benares, the world's oldest continually inhabited city. Child marriage was common and often young women or even girls were widowed. Social mores forbade remarriage and family economic circumstances often exiled the widows with money trumping love, respect, or duty.

The film opens with Chuyia (played by an actor credited as Sarala), an 8-year-old child bride, being told that her adult husband has died. She barely remembers the wedding but is taken to the funeral pyre and her hair is shorn. She is soon abandoned in a widow's ashram to live out her life dressed in white and shunned by society, as if she had done something wrong.

Chuyia of course wants to return home but eventually settles in to the ashram, developing friendships with the other women there, such as 80-year-old Patiraji (Vidula Javalgekar) who still fantasizes about the wedding sweets that she enjoyed as a child before her husband passed away, devout cook Shakuntala (Seema Biswas, who played the title role in the 1994 film Bandit Queen), and especially the beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray). Madhumati (Manorama) is the stern matron of the house, giving the "ashram" a Dickensian feel. In fact, it's not much of an ashram that she runs, but an institution that keeps her plump by assigning some of the others to demeaning "relationships" to bring money in.

However, times were changing, and Gandhi's non-violent resistance to British rule was only part of his efforts to help all of India's people and fight repressive social customs like treatment of widows. Raja Ram Mohun Roy had already in the nineteenth century founded the Brahmo Samaj reform movement, helping in theory to allow remarriage of widows and ban sati, the ghastly self-immolation of a widow on her husband's funeral pyre.

Into the story comes the idealistic Gandhian student , Narayana (John Abraham). After a chance encounter with Chuyia and Kalyani, Narayana maintains contact with Kalyani. She is charmed by him and he helps validate her feelings of self-worth and question a system that so punishes her and other widows. To Madhumati's disgust, Kalyani does the unthinkable and considers remarrying as Narayana courts her.

The film goes on to dramatize the trajectories of these characters. What kind of life will Chuyia have when her natural inquisitiveness and vibrancy clash with the imposed guilt and segregation she faces from the culture and in the ashram? Where will the taboo love of Kalyani and Narayana go in a society which forbids even touching the shadow of a widow? Will there be an answer to Chuyia's question about where equivalent homes exist for men who have lost their wives? Will Shakuntala be able to resolve her piety and religious studies with the expectations that society places on her? And how does a short stop of the Mahatma in town and his ongoing social reform efforts affect the status of widows such as Kalyani, Chuyia, Shakuntala, and the others? Water plays a role throughout the film. Water absolves sins and purifies the dirty. It can flow dynamically and joyously, giving continuity over time and space, or it can stagnate and decay, not flowing with the times.We see the Mother Ganges River escorting away widows who have died, finally after their austere penance hopefully en route to a promised rewarding afterlife.

Film notes, echoed by a cursory review on the web, indicate that India today has about thirty-three million widows, the highest of any country. Though sati has long been outlawed, many widows, especially in rural areas, "still find themselves ritually humiliated, ostracized by their families and leading lives of intense poverty on the outskirts of society, often as beggars or prostitutes", according to the film's production notes.

All that said, I wish that Deepa Mehta had given some context to her film. I'm afraid that those not familiar with Hindu culture may see the film and dismiss the entire philosophical tradition as blindingly misogynistic. Clearly there are very significant issues, but there is also arguably a case to be made for ancient India as perhaps the fountainhead for egalitarian feminist thought and action. Ancient Hindu thought extolling the strength, wisdom, and respect due women (in fact, all creatures in the ahimsa religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism) is reflected in many aspects, including the notion of Bhudevi as Mother Earth and the Vedic notion of feminine Shakti, coming from the Sanskrit "shak", meaning "to act" or "to be able", which empowers women as the holders of power.

I have enjoyed all of the films in Deepa Mehta's trilogy. I hold at the pinnacle of the three Earth, portraying the unusual perspective of Parsis caught in the uproar of the 1947 Partition, and find Water a close second. I also enjoyed Fire, which I feel was misinterpreted as another "taboo" exposition, rather than being seen as stinging social commentary against patriarchy.

I highly recommend Water. The story is (unfortunately) heartbreakingly based on historically true practices that, to some extent, continue, and the film and the issues it raises deserve wide exposure and discussion. It is moving, emotionally strong and thought provoking, and ultimately hopeful. As a photographer, I marveled throughout the film at the powerful visual compositions, stunning lighting, and sheer beauty of Water. The acting is convincing and quite strong, though Lisa Ray's portrayal of the illiterate Kalyani was perhaps a bit too refined for what might be expected. The traditional classical and semi-classical musical compositions with A.R. Rahman's touch formed a soothing accompaniment.

(This is an excerpt from my published review in the June 2006 issue of "Saathee" Magazine)
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I for India (2005)
8/10
Bittersweet immigrant documentary based on 40 years of journal film and audio footage, beautifully produced
27 March 2006
I am involved with outreach for the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, and tonight had the fortune of privately previewing Sandhya Suri's "I for India" documentary on DVD, which will be shown here at the Festival in a few weeks. I thoroughly enjoyed her film, a story of her parents' leaving their home in India in 1965. Her father, Yash Pal Suri, had finished medical school and, part of India's "brain drain", he leaves for England with his wife Sheel and (I believe) daughter Neeraj to practice medicine in the town of Darlington.

One of the first things that Yash does to stay in touch with his family back in Meerut India is to purchase two Super 8 film cameras, two projectors, and two tape recorders. One set he sends to India and the other he uses to document their life in England; each side periodically mails their multimedia journal to the other as an extended postcard/letter.

This film presents a poignant and beautifully made film by his mid-1970s (and youngest?) born daughter, Sandhya. In it, she edits down to 70 minutes her father's 40 years of film and audio journals that chronicle the birth of two more children including Sandhya and Vanita, the pain of the separation from extended family back home, and of the immigrant experience, including excerpts from English news programs about the onslaught of "colored" immigrants.

The film had special significance to me, as my parents also immigrated from India. That said, I think that this film would appeal to anybody interested in bittersweet consequences of families moving ahead due to circumstance while being forced to leave behind some family and tradition.

The story itself is captivating, all the more so since it is made from actual historical footage. Where is home? How should the Suri family respond to urgent appeals to reunify and return to India? Is there opportunity for Yash back in India after some years of building a strong reputation for himself in England? Would the girls prefer to grow up surrounded by people who might look more like them? Does the independence and relative loneliness of English life suit Sheel better than the vibrant chaos of extended family life in India? How does Vanita's interest in settling in Australia impact the already once painfully transplanted family? Voice-over, sounds of old film and tape mechanisms running, and cuts between England and India journals all contribute to the narration. The pathos of the family's being aware of the aging of their parents and other relatives back home but their inability to be there to comfort and assist them is heartfelt in the journal archives. Perhaps the most emotive element is Sandhya's use of contemporary voice-over near the end with film footage from the family's original departure from India being shown.

Coming from a Mathematics and German background (uncannily, just as I have), Sandhya built on a shorter family documentary, "Safar", to create this film, her first feature-length one. "I for India" has already won her a number of awards. It is well worth seeing, beautifully made and sentimental but not at all maudlin, a documentary by nature realistically, but also poetically, presented. It's difficult to believe that this is a first feature-length effort; I anxiously await the unfolding of Sandhya Suri's hopefully long film career.

--Dilip Barman, Durham, NC

March 27, 2006

8 1/2 stars out of 10
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Film based on "The Emperor's New Clothes"; I must have missed key elements that prevented me from appreciating this film
23 March 2006
Tonight Congolese filmmaker Mweze Ngangura presented at Duke University his 2004 film, "The Governor's New Clothes" ("Les Habits Neufs du Gouverneur"). His film spoofs the corruption of petty dictators and is based on Hans Christian Andersen's famous 1835 story "The Emperor's New Clothes" about a king who thinks he is wearing a glorious outfit, while it is only an imaginary one; do any of his subjects dare reveal the truth of his lack of clothes?

The director chose a musical style, which, in the discussion, he revealed was from the influence of Indian "Bollywood" films. A man is chosen by chance to be the new leader of his African country, causing him embarrassment because he is married to a woman and has a son with her - but they are of rival ethnic background. How does he reconcile his thirst for power with his duty to his family?

I didn't appreciate the film as much as I had expected, and found the music repetitive, simplistic, and even contrived and corny, featuring an ancestor who appears time-to-time singing from within a moon. The story was relatively predictable and didn't keep my interest. But I wouldn't discourage others from seeing it; I may have had cultural blinders on that kept me from seeing more merit in the film.
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3/10
Disappointing adventure film with unconvincing acting
6 March 2006
Three young college women, Simona (Iva Krajnc), Alja (Tanja Potocnik), and Zana (Pia Zemljic), go on an adventure canoing down the River Kolpa, dividing their Slovenia from neighboring Croatia, in this 2002 Slovenian film by Maya Weiss. What could have been an Eastern European version of the well-known and exciting 1972 "Deliverance" turned out, for me, to be utterly uninspiring with flat character portrayals that denied sympathetic identification with the characters.

Alja and Zana are not convincing as students at all, though Alja expresses a desire to be a writer, and both use what seemed to me to be excessive bad language. Alja is bored with her boyfriend and seems to just be drifting along in life. Zana, even less scholarly, is a self-absorbed adventure seeker with an attraction to other women. I had some sympathy with relatively innocent Simona, conservative and starry eyed. The very idea of these three traveling together just doesn't work for me. The disdain that Zana and Alja show toward Simona makes no sense - why would they choose her as a travel companion to start with as surely they must know her demeanor and attitudes?

The three begin a carefree journey down the river on two canoes, undeterred by a news story of a woman's disappearance along the river. Things become more somber with the mysterious appearance, sometimes real and sometimes possibly hallucinatory, of a rabidly conservative fisherman politician (Jonas Znidarsic).

I did enjoy the scenes along the river and of small villages the trio visit. It may be because of a lack of cultural understanding, but the film didn't move me otherwise. I was surprised to see that the film has won some awards.
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Edgy, zany film with some fun moments but, at least to this viewer, not so memorable
1 March 2006
I saw "27 Missing Kisses" tonight on a campus theatre. The main character, Sibylla played by Nutsa Kukhianidze, is a free-spirited tomboy who enlivens a small town where she is visiting her aunt. I found the film to be edgy, zany with nonsequiturs, and interesting though perhaps self-referentially absorbed. It was reasonably believable and interesting, and some of it was quite funny, but I didn't find it to be particularly memorable. I probably missed key cultural context, though the film's narrative style did remind me a bit of Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. The setting and photography were quite appealing.
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Center Stage (1991)
7/10
Period piece of 1930s Shanghai depicting the life of famous silent actor Ruan Ling-yu and her untimely end; slow beginning but worth seeing and relishing
27 February 2006
I saw Stanley Kwan's "Centre Stage" ("Yuen Ling-yuk") at a university series "New East Asian Cinema" on February 27, 2006. The film is a biography of Ruan Ling-yu (1910-1935), a silent film star of Chinese silent films.

The film describes the life and meteoric rise to fame of young Shanghai actor Ruan Ling-yu (played well by Maggie Cheung), who from the age of 16 till her death at age 24, was featured, often in a lead role, in over a dozen films. She was involved in extramarital affairs with two men and eventually the double standards that women suffer by catch up with her (but not with the married suitors), and dogged media slander her reputation. With her honor at stake, she sees no recourse but to commit suicide, and does so with an overdose of barbiturates. According to the wikipedia entry about her (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruan_Ling_Yu), "her funeral procession was reportedly three miles long, with three women committing suicide during it."

The film cleverly goes back and forth in time, and includes excellent interludes from some of Ruan Ling-yu's films. These snippets, as well as the local color we see in 1930s Shanghai, reveal a vivacious setting in Chinese history that I would enjoy learning more about, including seeing some of the period cinema.

Not previously knowing anything about Ruan Ling-yu, I of course cannot vouch for the realism of the portrayal, but the acting of Maggie Cheung revealed a strong, magnetic, kind, talented, determined, and yet slightly aloof woman who enjoys many admirers. The other characters were not nearly as well developed, but that is understandable with the focus being on Ruan Ling-yu.

I wonder if Kwan could have set the stage, so to speak, a bit more economically, and found the first half to two thirds rather slow. But, without giving anything away, the ending (of course we know that suicide is the true history) is calmly dramatic and captivating. The manner in which Cheung shows the actor saying goodbye to her close friends, who don't know that this is in fact her farewell, is touching - I wonder if this is how it happened. A film worth watching and which I would like to see again - 7.5 stars out of 10.

--Dilip Feb. 27, 2006
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Classic Hollywood era; a unique combination of comedy and satirical social realism of the Great Depression
19 June 2004
Preston Sturges (1898-1959) wrote over 40 film screenplays spanning the years 1930-1958 and directed over a dozen films 1940-1955. His first attempt at directing was a success with a string of two popularly and critically acclaimed films in each of the years 1940 and 1941, "The Great McGinty", "Christmas in July"; "The Lady Eve" (starring Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck), and this film, "Sullivan's Travels".

The beauty of "Sullivan's Travels" is the combination in genre of comedy as well as social satire and realism of the tough times of the Great Depression that the country had just weathered for a decade. Throw a romance in to the mix and a level of redirection of a "film on film" to make this an interesting film.

John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a famous director who is at odds with his production company. They want him to direct a comic film, while he wants to apply his talent to creating an analytic looking glass onto the sobering times called, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?". Wealthy and successful, he is mocked for not at all knowing misfortune - how would he make such a film? John takes this as a challenge, dresses as a hobo, and leaves the studio with a dime in his pocket to explore what life is like for the down and out.

However he tries to flee, he ends up getting somehow quickly being returned to Hollywood. Early on, he meets "the girl" (Veronica Lake; I don't recall her ever being given a name in the film) who sees that he is too innocent to survive on his own, and insists on bringing her broader knowledge of society to the journey and joining him to get him through this learning adventure.

The first part of the film is comic, but just as it seems to be coming to an unfulfilled ending, something unexpected happens. This event alters the course of everything and exposes John to some of the true injustices of the time - and shows him (and poignantly reminded me) that comedy is particularly important when some people have nothing else to cheer them up.

This is a film of classic Hollywood vintage, with good, snappy performances by both of the lead actors. The romance isn't at all developed but just seems to happen in a matter-of-fact way (perhaps we can take it on faith that there is instant chemistry), but what is lacking in psychology of the relationship is made up for in the chilling glimpse we get of the psyche of the underdog in Depression America.

--Dilip Barman June 19, 2004
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9/10
Don't miss this gem of a film - aesthetically and spiritually compelling
16 June 2004
I saw "Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom" ("Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring") May 30th in a local theater. This Korean film (with subtitles but little dialogue) is a must-see. The suffering of life is told through the wisdom of a Buddhist monk and his young student living in a small hut on an island barely big enough for that hut in a gorgeous, isolated sylvan valley. Aesthetics ... action and reaction ... dharma and karma ... life and death ... humility and pride ... spring, summer, fall, winter, and again spring. Don't miss this gem of a film.

9.5 stars out of 10

--Dilip Barman June 15, 2004
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2/10
Dull, uninspiring, slow film I found hard to watch or believe
15 June 2004
Tonight I watched "A Slipping-Down Life", Toni Kalem's film based on Anne Tyler's 1970 novel by the same name. It was originally released at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, but just released commercially in May 2004. I saw this with a friend on the spur of the moment, not knowing anything about it, when the film we went to see was sold out.

The film takes place in a sleepy small town in North Carolina around 1962 or 1963 (based on the music we hear on the radio). Naive Evie (Lili Taylor), who lost her mother at childbirth, lives with her father (Tom Bower). She hears musician Drumstring "Drum" Casey (Guy Pearce) on the radio, is drawn to his ego and voice, and seeks him out at his performances. Other women flirt with Drum, but shy Evie can only take a quick photograph of him and then in a strange (and, I found, hard to believe) act, carve his last name on her forehead with broken glass. The story is of their relationship to each other and to life in their small town, where they fear nothing changes and their existence or non-existence is hardly noticed.

I didn't enjoy the film. I couldn't understand where it was going, and found the utter simplicity of Evie unrealistic. I found Drum to be rather wooden and two-dimensional as in fact I found many of the characters. The only characters commanding any admiration were the gentle father who seemed to indulge Evie, their gutsy housekeeper, Clotelia (Irma P. Hall), who told it like it was (reminding me just a bit of Dilsey in William Faulker's novel, "The Sound and the Fury"), and Evie's loyal friend, hairdresser Violet (Sara Rue).

I wondered about the raucous music of Drum's band, which seemed to me at least a 15-year anachronism in the early 1960s. I didn't find the editing to make a dull, uninspiring, and "so what" story anything but even more dull. Of course, my comments could be attributed to my unfamiliarity with Anne Tyler's novels or lack of attention to slow, sleepy, small-town southern culture (though I enjoyed the 1989 film, "Steel Magnolias").

--Dilip June 15, 2004
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