Tuesday, September 25, 2012


In catch-up mode, I revisit my experience of this summer's Fantasia International Film Festival. Unfortunately belated, I'm trusting that these comments will nonetheless encourage the trajectory of several Fantasia premieres as they negotiate the festival circuit in the coming year. Fantasia first; next stop: the world!

Fantasia has 16 candles on its birthday cake; but, rather than being blown out, the candles have caught the cake on fire and everyone gets a blazing slice. Say what you will about these mewing hordes, but Montreal might possibly boast the most appreciative audiences in the world, perhaps because—as was suggested to me—the city's so uptight and Fantasia is everyone's chance to let off steam? Such a pleasure to be seated in the Théâtre Hall Concordia watching packs of buffed up fan boys, girls wearing hardly anything but hectic ink, clowns and glee maidens, nerdy geeks and hornrimmed girls who prefer their boys genre-obsessed. It's a birthday party that has seized the university district, made all the more enjoyable into the wee hours of the night and the weary hours of the morning by luxurious spring-like weather!

The ensemble cast assembled on-stage for the international premiere of Kern Saxton's Sushi Girl [official site] was a fan boy's wet dream: Tony Todd, Michael Biehn, Mark Hamill, Noah Hathaway, James Duval, Andy Mackenzie and—within the film—Sonny Chiba, Jeff Fahey and Danny Trejo. So with so much testosterone at hand, why did the film come off so flaccid? I can't fault the performances, especially Mark Hamill's fascinatingly obsequious characterization as Crow; truly a remarkable comeback for Hamill and the main reason to watch this film. In the key jewel heist scene where Fahey, Biehn and Trejo make brief appearances, their combined cult status made for a note of brilliance that should have been the tenor of this entire production throughout, particularly with a cast this strong. I'm going to have to point a blaming finger at Saxton's derivative script. At Variety, Maggie Lee explains: "Writer-helmer Kern Saxton's genre ambitions are as naked as the titular Sushi Girl, as he rolls together heist thriller, torture porn and orientalist eroticism, but the pic's resemblance to Reservoir Dogs feels more like a ripoff than canny references." Further, she adds, Sushi Girl's "predictable ending and the characters' hazy backstories aren't powerful or original enough to support such stylish treatment."

At Entertainment Maven, Matt Hodgson likewise faults the script, considering it nearly parasitic that Saxton relies on "a sure-fire way to make an uninspired movie by having one of their central characters tied to [a] chair and tortured for about 30 minutes. Maybe it worked for some earlier filmmakers, but this has to be one of the most annoying clichés to permeate horror and crime films." Hodgson reduces Sushi Girl to "not much more than a wasted opportunity, an opportunity that most filmmakers won't get in their entire careers." At Horror 101 With Dr. AC, Aaron Christensen agrees that "the ultimate equation is less than the sum of its parts" whose subsequent result "is a well-produced film with lofty ambitions, full of sound and fury ... that ultimately feels like much ado about nothing."

For its its Quebec premiere, Fantasia opted for the 4.5-hour version of Wei Te-Sheng's Taiwanese epic Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale [official site], rather than the abbreviated 2.5-hour theatrical version. I can't imagine this elegant narrative being trimmed down to half its size without losing coherence and—precisely because its full-length screening is such a rare event—I decided to catch it at Fantasia, who once again proves they know how to do everything right.

A magisterial and truly magnificent history lesson on the indigenous resistance of the Seediq people to Japanese occupation after the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki ceded Taiwan to the imperial Japanese, Warriors proved to be anthropologically thrilling for clearly discerning the shamanic substratum informing all pan-Pacific indigenous people, let alone the Seediq. The film could have as easily been redressing the plight of North American Amerindians, and quite specifically reminded me again and again of the Maya people during their own protracted Spanish occupation. The Seediq love and defense of the forest, their ancestral hunting grounds, and their ingenious use of familiar territory to pursue guerilla-type tactics (down to disturbing hornet nests to vex their Japanese opponents) reveals their brilliance as military strategists. How else could 300 tribesmen endure and ward off thousands of Japanese invaders over decades of occupation?

The film's intermission arrived on the heels of the infamous Wushe incident of 1930 when the Seediq—conceding that they have lost their hunting grounds—opt to defend the ancestral hunting grounds of their own souls through blood sacrifice in battle in hopes of achieving passage on the rainbow bridge of victorious manhood. Perhaps nothing new by way of an occupation and resistance narrative, Warriors nonetheless succeeds in surpassing audience expectation with lavish vistas, elegantly choreographed battle sequences that convert brutality into breathless beauty, and solid performances by an ensemble of Taiwan's best actors guided by Wei Te-Sheng, achieving one of the most cinematic events this reviewer has seen all year.

A perfect mix of high production values and heartfelt narrative, Warriors is a must for any moviegoer and is—trust me—amazingly effortless. Five hours sped by in spectatorial rapture. I'm so glad to have watched this one with colleague Kurt Halfyard, who shared my sentiments wholly. Warriors does have its faults, namely the heavy-handed use of rainbows as metaphors throughout the film; but, this is a minor complaint by contrast to the film's epic pleasures.

One of my favorite aspects of attending a festival like Fantasia—made conducive by the close proximity of its venues—is the chance choice triggered by a conversational recommendation. My thanks to Adam Lopez for introducing me to producer Brendan Hunter who charmed me with his synopsis of Lloyd the Conqueror [official site], thereby convincing me to turn right around from exiting Warriors of the Rainbow to enter the mythic and quite fun realm of the LARPer—the live action role player. Lloyd would not normally be my type of movie but—in talking with Brendan—I truly respected his insistence on making a film that was fun and audience-oriented rather than another narcissistic navel-gazer, which he complained dominates Canadian filmmaking.

I'm so glad I was part of the film's enthused audience who appreciated its sweet geeky ensemble: Evan Williams, as the conquering Lloyd, is a doll; Teagan Moss's Cassandra kicks ass; Mike Smith is the dastardly villain; and a hoary host of supporting turns makes Lloyd the Conqueror ridiculously entertaining. Rendered visually beautiful with its golden autumnal setting, Lloyd allowed a glimpse into a playfully competitive world I never knew existed. The battle between the forces of light and darkness has rarely been so enjoyable. Attended by a few LARPers in full regalia, I was advised that more had not attended because a weekend battle was raging in the hills outside Montreal!

I attended the midnight event The Devil's Carnival [official site], which started out with carny acts: Satanic invocations, clown juggling, and snake wrangling by a voluptuous nearly-nude woman. These were followed by an advance peek at the first chapter of the film: a colorful, grand guignol dance of darkness, both discordant and beautiful. Particularly enjoyed the story of the scorpion and the frog.

Against a backdrop of grieving mourners, the McManus Brothers (Kevin and Matthew) launch their randy irreverent humor in Funeral Kings [official site], which saw its International Premiere at Fantasia. These foul-mouthed teens, thinly guised as altar boys, pilfer the communion wine, smoke cigarettes, and hunger to get to first base with girls way more mature than themselves. Funeral Kings' "wonderful vulgarity" (Scott Weinberg) shifts into poignance when the boys experience the grief of becoming young men sooner than they intend. Funeral Kings is a top-notch coming-of-age film with recognizable scenes of initiation for young men, reminiscent of Stand By Me. At Twitch, Kurt Halfyard posts both a review and his interview with the McManus Brothers.

I've come to expect all sorts of genres at Fantasia—scifi, horror, thrillers, westerns, police procedurals, comedies of all stripes—but, really must praise the Fantasia programming team for including one of the most socially conscious and politically cogent documentaries I've seen in some time: the Quebec premiere of Brian Knappenberger's exemplary We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists [official site]. I want this on Blu-Ray to watch again and again to remind myself of the Anonymous Movement and its impact on global philosophy and ethics, as well as to remind myself that our opinions as internet denizens and everyday citizens truly matter. At turns hilarious and inspiring, Knappenberger lays out the evolution of these now-legendary "hacktivists".

I was an easy convert to Pen-Ek Ratanaruang after 6ixtynin9 and Last Life in the Universe splashed on American shores as part of the new wave of Thai cinema; but, after Invisible Waves and Ploy, I decided soporific wasn't so terrific and gave up on the Thai auteur. Advance praise for Headshot, however, warmed me up to take one more look and I'm glad I did. An instant case of elevated genre if ever I've seen one, Ratanaruang retains his glacial rhythms and visually striking compositions but melds them with generic gangster tropes to create—not so much an action thriller, no, not at all—but, instead, an atmospheric nod to Thai neo-noir with a Buddhist riff about reincarnated identities within one lifetime. His audience is still arthouse but the touch of genre is refreshing and is keeping his fans awake.

I thoroughly enjoy when colleagues collectively recommend a film, I follow their lead, watch the film, and like it. Case in point would be Fantasia's one-off Quebec premiere of Braden Croft's Hemorrhage, described in the Fantasia notes as "a serial killer thriller fusing a twisty road movie structure to an unsettling descent—or rather freefall—into the troubled mind of a murderer." Alex D. Mackie's lead turn is sympathetic and disturbing, sure, but the real star in this indie film is the original music by Steve Hughes combined with the sound work of Graham Smith and Jay Wiltzen. Suspenseful, tense, and alluring, it's been a while since I've heard a score be such an important presence—almost a character—in a film.

On the hunt for monsters among the fare offered at Fantasia, I treated myself to my first horror cocktail—a ghost with a twist—in Nicholas McCarthy's The Pact. I jumped once or twice during this more-than-adequate thriller that features Casper Van Dien in one of two appearances at the festival (the other in his capacity as producer for Starship Troopers: Invasion).

I didn't find Resolution nearly as horrifying as Mitch Davis promised it would be; but, I certainly found it entertaining for its natural dialogue and irreal alterities. Directors Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorhead are clearly having fun making up their careers (and movies) as they go along, which affords for some intriguing experimentation and a no-need-to-explain sensibility that's admittedly refreshing. I laughed more than I screamed; but, for all concerned, that was probably for the best. The "monster" is, perhaps, the context of the film itself, accounting for the directors admitting in their Q&A that part of the intended horror was for the audience to become aware by film's end that they have been sitting in the lap of the monster the entire film.

Monday, September 24, 2012


My festival coverage has been necessarily hobbled this summer due to family medical emergencies, and unfortunately has resulted in my not being able to write up the sweet 16th edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival in as thorough and timely a manner as I had originally intended; but—in tribute to the crossover spirit of the festival circuit—what follows are responses to films I caught at Fantasia, which are now screening at the 2012 edition of Austin's Fantastic Fest, currently in progress.

Charles de Lauzirika's Crave [Fantasia / Fantastic Fest] was, hands-down, my favorite film at Fantasia, as noted in my earlier Q&A transcript and interview with associate producer and digital effects supervisor Raleigh Stewart. My enthusiasm was confirmed by Crave winning Fantasia's New Flesh Award for Best First Feature Film. Crave's final Fantastic Fest screening on Wednesday, September 26, 2:15PM, is already sold-out, further underscoring my prediction that Crave is destined to be one of this year's most popular genre fantasies.

I will state the obvious (soon to become cliché, if not already so): Quentin Dupieux's Wrong [Fantasia / Fantastic Fest] does everything right and, thereby, elevates this absurdist narrative to the heights of a comic masterpiece. From the moment Dolph (Jack Plotnick) wakes up to an alarm clock that clicks from 7:59 to 7:60, you know you are in a universe where everything's off and ... well ... wrong. That his dog Paul is missing sets events further askew. Add quirky supporting turns from Alexis Dziena as Emma, the libidinous pizza delivery dispatcher, gardener Victor (Éric Judor) who ends up being planted in the earth himself, Master Chang (William Fichtner) who's an unnerving blend of Asian wisdom and Scandanavian weirdness, and Detective Ronnie (Steve Little) hired to find Paul but more the agent that propels Wrong's denouement into effect, Wrong provides so many unexpected laughs that its Canadian premiere surfaced as one of Fantasia's most delightful films, if not one of the year's best and certainly one to draw crowds at Fantastic Fest. Wrong has one more Fantastic Fest screening on Thursday, September 27, 2:30PM.

Wrong had its world premiere at Sundance 2012 where Director of Programming Trevor Groth noted: "Quentin Dupieux created a stir at the 2010 Cannes International Film Festival with Rubber, a film about a killer tire. He has crafted a follow-up that is equally bizarre, yet entrancing. Wrong overturns cinematic conventions and the universe within the film. Preconceived notions about life and storytelling are altered to a humorous, disorienting, yet ultimately illuminating effect. In doing so, Wrong makes us question those we blindly trust. With a hand in nearly every facet of filmmaking, Dupieux proves himself a mad, colossally talented visionary who delightfully refuses to play by the rules."

Anticipating Wrong at Sundance (where the film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize), Eric Kohn noted at indieWire: "French director Quentin Dupieux—also known as the DJ artist Mr. Oizo—last caught the attention of the film world with the highest high concept to hit theaters last year with the outrageously meta 'killer tire movie' known as Rubber. Love it or hate it, Rubber was an utterly unique exploration of cinematic narrative, a riotous takedown of Hollywood formula and unapologetically amused with itself from start to finish. Now Dupieux has made a movie seemingly eager to state its edginess in title alone: Wrong ... apparently involves one man's quixotic journey to find his missing dog. Early buzz suggests that Dupieux really brought the crazy this time out, and the official synopsis makes it sound that the story really tracks the dissolution of its protagonist's sanity." Kohn then followed suit with his review. indieWire coverage.

"From the start," Dennis Harvey writes at Variety, "Dupieux seems more delighted with the pic's forced quirkiness than most audiences will be." At The Hollywood Reporter, John Defore notes that lead actor Jack Plotnick's "unkempt persistence" and "a wry score by Tahiti Boy and Mr. Oizo (Oizo being the nom de musique of Dupieux himself) give the film just enough narrative momentum to carry it through short stretches in which cryptic plotlessness threatens to sink it."

Wrong's press kit (PDF) offers insightful interviews with both Director Quentin Dupieux and Producer Gregory Bernard. Further interviews with Dupieux are available at The Hollywood Reporter (which also offers a sneak peek of the film), Anthem, and The Film Stage. An alternate interview with Bernard is available at Screen International. Notable reviews from Fantasia include Jay Seaver at eFilmCritic who pegs Wrong as a "pure joyous oddity" and Kurt Halfyard at Twitch who claims Wrong "is likely as close as we will ever get to stand-up comedy in cinematic language."

It seems appropriate that Kurt Halfyard and his wife LJ introduced me to a sushi bar caddy corner across the street from Montreal's Théâtre Hall Concordia before I submitted myself to the insane yet infectious vision of Noboru Iguchi. I might not have wanted same afterwards. The world premiere of Dead Sushi [Fantasia / Fantastic Fest] had its audiences shouting out "Danger!" each time a piece of sashimi shivered on the plate. Over-the-top isn't sufficient to describe this wacked-out feast of sight gags and absurd (and intentionally unbelievable) situations. Iguchi, introducing the film, was worth the price of admission. He seemed like an anime figure invited on-stage, waving like a schoolchild headed to camp. His lead actress Rina Tikeda got the Fantasia audience in the mood by high-kicking plastic bottles out of the hands of volunteers. Dead Sushi is a silly, silly film beloved by Iguchi's fanbase and—as noted by Jay Seaver at eFilmCritic—"caters to j-pop enthusiasts by delivering them exactly the sort of Japan they fetishize, only amplified. As Dead Sushi demonstrates, it doesn't always make for great movies, but it seldom results in boring ones." Dead Sushi has one more Fantastic Fest screening on Tuesday, September 25, 11:30PM.

Eric Walter's documentary My Amityville Horror [Fantasia / Fantastic Fest] is thoroughly arresting and thought-provoking. As a craftsman, Walter's editorial wizardry is evident in how he has braided a handful of interviews with subject Daniel Lutz and his "agnostic" approach to events at the Amityville Horror House—rendered infamous by Jay Anson's book and its filmic adaptations—manages to shed light on the mystique of the Lutz family's experience of the house as well as creating new doubts to be debated throughout the next decade. That's investigative documentary filmmaking, folks! The Fantasia Q&A moderated by Tony Timpone was particularly rich and well-handled, enough to motivate me to introduce myself to Fangoria's former editor.

I set out to forget Valentín Javier Diment's La Memoria del Muerto [Fantasia / Fantastic Fest] as soon as possible, which wasn't too hard. By his own admission, Diment stole from Dario Argento's giallo excesses, but without the operatic coherence of Argento's work. With considerable more pretension, he claims to have stolen from Luis Buñuel's Exterminating Angel and Viridiana; but, all I witnessed was much shrieking and shouting. The kills were lurid, yes, but the blood unconvincing. In other words: being overwrought does not a good stylist make. I have to admit I did kind of like the menacing maniacal medicine cabinet.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

3RD I 2012—Frako Loden Previews the Lineup

It's still summer but 3rd i, or the San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival, has leapt ahead this year of the usual autumn film festivals. In its move from November to September, it now screens during the Indian summer of the Bay Area. I think that's the better season for it, when you can still appreciate the sweltering heat of most of the films on its roster, coming from countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Maldives and South Africa.

This year 3rd i screens Wednesday, September 19, through Friday the 21st at the Roxie Theater. It moves to the Castro Theatre for all day and evening Saturday the 22nd, and returns to the Roxie and Little Roxie for Sunday the 23rd. On the following weekend, Sunday the 30th, two final films will screen at Camera 12 in San Jose.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of third i. I want to commend Anuj Vaidya and Ivan Jaigirdar for putting together a jewel of a film festival for every year of the past decade. In a season crowded with other good choices, this film festival stands out for its breadth, quality, musicality and sense of humor. Screening the offerings ahead of time is always a pure pleasure, and I thank the organizers for being so generous with me. What follows are my impressions of 16 of the films.

After a week of watching these films on DVD, my most vivid memories of them involve water: drought and flood, and what humans do to exchange one for the other. Two in the very strong program of international short films are different fictional takes on folk beliefs about women and drought. In Shilpa Munikempanna's Kaveri (2011), an older sister, a swimming champion on the brink of womanhood, ponders a folk tale about a young woman's sacrifice for her village. Abhishek Pathak's Boond (A Drop, 2009) is a dystopian revenge fable set in a parched landscape, about a woman's struggle to defend the only remaining well from the gangsters who killed her husband.

The opening night film addresses the exact opposite of drought: too much water. I saw The Island President (2011) [official site] last year at Telluride, where it was a sensation. From director Jon Shenk (Lost Boys of Sudan, 2003), this documentary profiles Mohamed Nasheed, young former activist-turned-president of the nation of Maldives, a chain of 2,000 tiny islands in the Indian Ocean. Climate change is inundating these flat islands at a rate only somewhat slower than the 2004 tsunami, which reduced the nation's Gross Domestic Product by half. Faced with the outright loss of his country's resources and land area, the candid and creative Nasheed is compelled to make his case for a carbon-neutral future at climate talks in Copenhagen and urges alpha countries like China, Great Britain and the United States to follow his example. The most recent chapter in the tumultuous life of Nasheed, who before he became president had been imprisoned repeatedly by the previous leader, was his claimed resignation at gunpoint in early 2012. But in this film he's still fighting on the global stage against the disappearance of his remote and tiny nation.

There is wall-to-wall fighting in Nirpal Bhogal's London-set revenge thriller Sket (2011) [official site]. Apparently the title is a shortened form of Caribbean slang for "superho," which girls who band together get called simply for physically defending themselves. The pedestrian plot involves an angry young newcomer who must convince a hard-hearted female gang leader to join forces in avenging the death of the protagonist's sister. Reviews for this film, mainly by male reviewers, are aghast at the female violence in it. I liked it for its energetic hiphop / electronica soundtrack and grim atmosphere, in which the East London housing estate resembles nothing so much as the exposed, claustrophobic gladiator slave cells of Rome's Colosseum.

I would recommend Saturday at the Castro for the strongest roster if you don't mind making a full day and night of it. It mingles three disparate styles of fiction and perhaps the strongest and weakest examples of documentary on offer.

Gurvinder Singh's Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan (Alms For a Blind Horse, 2011) [Wikipedia] screened in competition recently at the Venice Film Festival and won a New Horizons special jury award at Abu Dhabi last year. Dustin Chang of Twitch says it is the first Punjabi feature to be shown in an international film festival. The ghost of Mani Kaul's experimental docudramas haunts this production—the slow-prowling camera, location shooting, sensuous reveries, disembodied voices—techniques found in the defiantly noncommercial works of the filmmaker, who was credited as creative producer of this film before he passed away in July 2011. Punjabi villagers of the Dalit caste react passively to the bulldozing of their homes by the new owners of a factory, while one son of the village stays away, recovering from a head injury while lying around and drinking with his fellow rickshaw drivers during a city strike. It is definitely the slowest-moving of this year's films, and I was occasionally left in the dark (literally) as to what was going on.

No blind horse actually appears to enjoy the alms in this film, but Susindran's rural musical comedy Azhagar Samiyin Kuthirai (Azhagarsamy's Horse, 2011) [IMDb] features two. Villagers in Tamil Nadu worship a white wooden horse in the hopes that it will break a three-year drought. When the statue disappears one night, none of the usual squabbling suspects will come forth, and neither of the greedy soothsayers has a solution. One day the appearance of an actual white horse seems to trigger a series of miracles, if not rain. Despite a Herrmannesque soundtrack that sounds like it blundered in from some other movie, this is a broadly funny and entertaining satire of village life with an endearing hero and his beloved horse. It's suitable for children who aren't disturbed by one violent brawl after another, in which Appu the horse sometimes takes part.

I was distracted by the other horse movie—back to Saturday at the Castro. Nisha Pahuja's The World Before Her (2012) [IMDb] is an award-winning documentary that introduces us to two extreme worlds for Indian women: 30 days of preparation for contestants of the Miss India pageant, and a Hindu nationalist camp for girls. Both are grueling, but honestly the Hindu camp seems healthier: the girls learn martial arts and self-defense and don't have their chins Botoxed or feet forced into high-heeled catwalking. Of course, since this is evidently the public's first glimpse of such a camp, perhaps we're not shown physical abuse. At any rate, the irony quickly becomes obvious that both these training regimens, whose participants despise the other for their ideology, are equally oppressive in the way they limit women's opportunities and expectations for a happy life while using them to represent a female ideal.

A more personal exposé is underway in Decoding Deepak (2012) [IMDb], made by best-selling self-help guru Deepak Chopra's son Gotham. As part of their year-long journey together, Gotham visits Deepak as the elder is ordained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand. In this and other travels together, we see an arrogant, self-centered Deepak addicted to his Twitter followers, obsessed with shopping and the New York Times bestseller list, unable to detach himself from a Nightline confrontation with a critic. Gotham frets over his inability to reconcile what the adoring world sees in his father and what he sees as his son. People with strong opinions either way about Deepak will find supporting evidence here, which predictably culminates in a visit back to India and a revelation about the meaning of being the son of such a revered and contradictory figure.

Between the two documentaries is Lucky (2011) [official site], Avie Luthra's feature-length expansion of his acclaimed 2005 short film of the same title. I was not a fan of his 2009 Mad Sad & Bad, so I was pleasantly surprised and quickly engrossed in Luthra's story of a little black South African boy whose mother dies of AIDS. (I don't recall any explicit reference to HIV, but clearly the boy is an outcast in his Zululand community. I understand that the practice of a dying mother leaving a cassette tape or memory box for her child is a custom where the incidence of AIDS is as high as 40%.) Sent to Durban to live with his uncle, who won't let him attend school, Lucky searches for his father and develops an implausible relationship with a racist old Indian woman. It sounds like a nauseatingly heartwarming pair-up, but it's as eloquent in what it doesn't say as what it does. It's the most moving fiction film in the festival.

Another unlikely bond is the subject of Angad Bhalla's Herman's House (2012) [official site], a documentary about the relationship between Herman Wallace, in solitary confinement at Angola Prison for nearly 40 years, and Jackie Sumell, a New York artist. Intrigued by his situation, Jackie sent him a letter asking, "What kind of house does a man who has lived in a 6-foot-by-9-foot cell for over 30 years dream of?" Herman's fertile imagination and Jackie's determination to build to his specifications, as well as both of their considerable personal demons, make for a fascinating exploration of our relationships with our surroundings, each other and history.

The Bollywood film that ends Saturday at the Castro is Homi Adajania's summer hit Cocktail (2012) [Wikipedia], with Deepika Padukone, Saif Ali Khan and Diana Penty and set in London and Cape Town. As usual, I wasn't able to preview it.

I simply can't recommend watching any film in the Little Roxie, which has a wall adjoining a bar and the attendant noise issues. Unfortunately this year's classic film, Jagte Raho (Stay Awake, 1956) [Wikipedia] starring Raj Kapoor and directed by Amit Maitra and Sombhu Mitra, will be screening in this venue. Maybe at its 12:15 start time there won't be barroom brawling, but I would hate for the next film, Nishtha Jain's beautiful and contemplative documentary Family Album (2011), to be drowned out by afternoon drinkers. Jain's film, which moves us from the Kolkata photo studios of her 2005 City of Photos into the mansions of some of the city's oldest families, this time examines family photographs and the fading memories of those who could interpret them for younger generations. Reminiscences of the photos' back stories summon tales of child brides, imprisoned wives, and the costume parties in which caste and gender cross-dressing were privately documented. One deeply intimate marriage photo, which terrified the children so that they would rush past it without seeing it, haunts me whenever I think of this film.

If Family Album is a paean to Kolkata in photos, then Surjo Deb's Adda: Calcutta, Kolkata (2011) [IMDb] is its city symphony in conversation. But in sad contrast to the former's exquisite and mysterious photos, the dialogue in this film is not scintillating or funny enough, and I sense a lack of confidence in the filmmaker since we never stay with one exchange long enough for personalities or relationships to develop. The chapter headings are too numerous and distracting as well. The sole exception to this criticism is Chapter 12, "Pap Smear," in which a woman graphically and humorously tells two incredulous men about her mammogram and pap smear, only to be interrupted by someone reciting from the Mahabharata.

I was able to sample one of the short films in the Sikh I Am: Voices on Identity program at the Little Roxie. Harjant Gill's Roots of Love (2011) is a sober documentary about attitudes toward the male Sikh custom of not cutting one's hair and of wearing a turban. One young man defies his devout, disapproving family by cutting his hair but defers to their wishes by still wearing a turban. He lives with a double identity: On Facebook he is a sardar, or Sikh adherent; but on Orkut he is a shorn Sikh. In one of several awkward moments in the film, his mother declares hair-cutting akin to murder. There's the Turban Pride movement, which explored why young men were abandoning the turban (distracted parents, movie-hero idolatry) and encouraged them to retain it by teaching them how to wind it properly. I wish the film had given some examples of the comic roles, never serious, that Sikhs are reduced to in films. Maybe the other two films do.

My festival favorite was Okul Nodi (Endless River, 2012), a stunningly beautiful, reverie-inducing meditation on the bhatiyali, or boatmen's songs of the low-lying riverine lands of Bangladesh, co-directed by Tuni Chatterji and Clay Dean. Several passages had me in tears. From the opening scenes, listening to a melancholy, anxious song while watching a black screen, I was sent floating through this enchanting documentary full of magnificent singing performances, explained by folklorists and performers. The film has its share of quirks, like the unnecessary black screen, no sound during one sequence, and occasional glimpses of tape leader in an otherwise lovely production.

Another ravishingly beautiful film about a boatman and water issues, this time in Kashmir, is Musa Syeed's Valley of Saints (2012) [Wikipedia]. I saw this narrative feature at the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival. Two young men living by Lake Dal vow to abandon their region's dying tourist trade and go see the world, but their plans are forestalled by a nearby political crisis as well as the arrival of a young woman scientist measuring the lake's pollution. This debut film contains moments of scenic beauty in the gliding boat and subtle glances exchanged by the parties before they're urged to take action.

If Bill Bowles and Kenny Meehan's Big in Bollywood (2011) [IMDb] were billed as a mockumentary, I would have readily taken it as pure fiction. But it's not—it's all true. Indian-American acting hopeful Omi Vaidya (Arrested Development, The Office) lands a part in the Bollywood comedy 3 Idiots (2009) starring Aamir Khan and becomes an Indian superstar overnight. His film crew of American friends, doubling as a megastar's entourage, captures the jaw-dropping film-crazy world of Mumbai guest appearances and awards shows. At every stop Omi struggles, but then complies, with the demand that he stay in character, delivering a speech in (evidently) hilariously bad Hindi praising a rapist. This crowd pleaser is returning from last year to celebrate third i' s 10th anniversary and first screenings in San Jose.