The acting was exceptional. Across the board, every actor excelled. These are the roles that Meryl Streep was born to do. And Philip Seymour Hoffman – wow. He was so cleanly-creepy that I cringed every time his long nails were displayed.

And there were a few moments where I felt like I was a lucky fly on the wall, listening in on conversations, watching the drama in the Catholic school unfold. But overall, the movie fell below expectations, mostly due to decisions made by the director.

In a movie where the acting is exceptional and emotions run high, I feel it is best to let the camera be as unobtrusive as possible, but director John Patrick Shanley in his first real directorial effort, does the opposite. There are scenes where the camera suddenly drops down and frames the character from below, immediately snapping the viewers attention away from the conversation and onto where the camera is instead. Ugh. The one-on-one scenes between Meryl Streep and Amy Adams and between Hoffman and Adams are scenes where there is a lot being said between the lines and the actors carry the scenes – instead of cocooning the audience and making them feel unobtrusive, they are suddenly thrust into the conversation – breaking the spell the actors have cast. Unfortunate.

The strange and forced camera angles to emphasize mood and tone is repeated at various points in the movie – in a shot where Streep walks in out of a storm and through a corridor in the school, Shanley chooses an off kilter camera angle to emphasize the emotional state of the characters. Why, why, why?? Please don’t beat us over the head with it.

I had similar issues with the screenplay too (written by Shanley) – when there is a tense scene, the setting is a storm. High winds are constantly blowing branches to the ground. It’s all a bit much. A lighter touch would have given the solid story and intense acting the space they needed to make the movie truly top-notch.

Here’s my initial reaction to the movie on twitter:

Just saw Doubt. Great acting. Don’t love some of the directing, cinematography choices. *Movies 7.5*.

Six weeks later, the only change I would make is downgrade the 7.5 rating to a 6.5.

Film festivals and the online audience

The Tribeca Film Festival will start in three weeks in NYC and I hope to attend parts of it. However, there are wonderful festivals around the world that I would love to attend but can’t. For example, I’ve wanted, but been unable, to attend Sundance for the past couple of years.

I am sure this is true for many people. Wouldn’t it be incredible if the film festivals showed their programming online?

I know that there are lots of issues around rights for the films and filmmakers may not want to hand over the online rights to any one festival. While it would be very cool to have the films available online for weeks or months, it may not be possible. So let’s make it easier – the festivals would have the rights to show the films online only during the festival itself – they could tie up with iTunes to make the downloads accessible only for a limited time. That means while Sundance is going on in Utah, I can be sitting in NYC and watching the same films at home.

Cannibalization could be a worry, but it is solvable. Festivals could charge the same fee (ticket price) to watch online. That would solve the monetary aspect of cannibalization. They may worry about loss of audience – valid concern. However, the people who make the time attend festivals in their city or those travel to festivals want to see these movies on a large screen. They want to hear the filmmakers talk about their films. They want to meet other movie buffs. Those people would still go because you can’t get that experience online.

So why is no one doing this?

If the goal of festival programmers is to highlight little indie gems to as broad an audience as they can, making the films viewable online is the way to go. I, for one, would love to watch the programming at Berlin, Toronto, Sundance, Tribeca and a whole host of others.


NYC does a flip-flop

In late May everyone got a touch excited when the City settled its lawsuit with filmmaker Rakesh Sharma. The lawsuit occurred because Rakesh was detained after police officers saw him photographing buildings and held him for several hours.

I’ve always been a huge fan of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Film and Television for being very filmmaker friendly and the settlement news made people think that it would be easier for filmmakers on New York streets –

In a settlement released today New York City has agreed to create, for the first time, written rules governing the issuance of permits for film makers and photographers. Under the new rules, which are to be published Friday in the City Record, filmmakers and photographers using hand-held equipment no longer will be required to obtain city permits or have $1 million of insurance.

Sounded so hopeful, but… they’ve finally come out with the rules and while many of them are fine, some of the rules are totally headed in the wrong direction – primarily because the rules are arbitrary and therefore, there is going to be a lot of room for abuse and “interpretation”. How wonderful.

From the New York Times:

New rules being considered by the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting would require any group of two or more people who want to use a camera in a single public location for more than a half hour to get a city permit and insurance.

The same requirements would apply to any group of five or more people who plan to use a tripod in a public location for more than 10 minutes, including the time it takes to set up the equipment.

Julianne Cho, assistant commissioner of the film office, said the rules were not intended to apply to families on vacation or amateur filmmakers or photographers.

So… the whole handheld exemption rule is true only if I am alone. If I am with someone else, then I need a permit and $1 million in insurance.

And by leaving the language so broad, the police are the ones with the discretion. So while Ms. Cho kindly informs us that it is not “intended” to apply to families on vacation, hey, if you happen to be a brown family and the police happen to be suspicious for any reason, you just violated this rule baby!

The whole point of written guidelines should be to provide clarity and therefore reduce the chances for abuse and these guidelines do nothing in that regard.

Mr. Dunn said the proposed rules would potentially apply to tourists in places like Times Square, Rockefeller Center or ground zero, “where people routinely congregate for more than half an hour and photograph or film.”

The rule could also apply to people waiting in line to enter the Empire State Building or other tourist attractions.

The rules define a “single site” as any area within 100 feet of where filming begins. Under the rules, the two or more people would not actually have to be filming, but could simply be holding an ordinary camera and talking to each other.

The issue is that most people would not even be aware of these rules and would be in violation. That’s really sad. I understand their desire to get professional filmmakers to get permits and get the required insurance – especially because getting the permits is relatively easy (if you have the insurance in place) and the insurance is important since NYC is a busy city and accidents can happen on film sets. But leaving the net so broad so that amateur filmmakers and anyone deemed suspicious by the police can be trapped is not cool at all.

It could severely hamper amateur, guerrilla filmmakers who definitely won’t be able to qualify for the insurance. I remember when some friends and I would quickly sketch out a story, and take a handheld onto the street, shoot something and edit it later in the day. It was a blast and it kept us working and learning. And now, I could be detained for that. If I trust Ms. Cho, I shouldn’t be, but the guidelines do not provide the clarity for me to be sure.

If you want to voice your opinion and tell the Mayor’s office to change this rule and clarify the language, please do so here.


Blueberry Nights

I am a huge Wong Kar Wai fan. I love his style. I love his patience with the shot. He holds it for way longer than most would have the courage to and that is what makes it visually compelling.

So I was disappointed to hear that Blueberry Nights, his latest and greatest is not so great after all. I will still watch it – especially for the quivering kiss.

Looking back at “My Blueberry Nights” with some remove, though, the film doesn’t seem such a crushing disappointment as much as just Wong Kar Wai on an off day. He was certainly due. The run of “Happy Together,” “In the Mood for Love,” “2046” and his “Eros” segment “The Hand” makes it easy to forget that there have been other times his signature fixations, his heady visual style and his narrative aimlessness haven’t congealed into a great film. That it should happen with his highest profile film to date is a shame, but “My Blueberry Nights” isn’t a complete write-off — it’s just not, with the exception of one silent, quivery kiss, shot through with that particular cinematic felicity that suffuses his successes.

Understanding why a master messes up can be as important as understanding why they succeed (not that I profess to understand either at this point).


Loins Of Punjab Presents

Manish Acharya’s Loins of Punjab Presents is freaking hilarious! After I missed the first screening at NYU’s First Run Film Festival (where the film won the award for Best Feature), I hounded Manish to show me his film. It just so happened that NYU held a marketplace for their graduating students. And that is where, at 2pm in the afternoon on a weekday, I finally watched this film, in a screening room of the basement of Tisch.

Loins of Punjab Presents (let’s just call it Loins for fun) is about a bunch of random characters who are thrown together over a weekend in New Jersey as they compete for the title of Desi Idol.

Who are these people? Well, there is the rich-bitch socialite, Mrs. Rrita Kapoor (Shabana Azmi) who is desperate to win, but even more desperate to show up her socialite competitor, Bubbles Sabharwal.

Ajay Naidu is Turbanotorious BDG, a quintessential angry young man who also happens to be a gay bhangra rapper. Oh and his partner in his act is also his life partner – an African-American-bhangra-rapping sidekick.

Josh Cohen (Michael Raimondi) is the token white guy in the competition (hey, Hollywood has token black guys and token international guys! We have truly arrived when Indian films have token white guys 😉 ) who loves all things Indian, including his girlfriend Opama Menon (Ayesha Dharker), who loves the fact that he loves all things Indian.

There’s sugary-sweet Preeti Patel (Ishitta Sharma), who’s been ruled by her parents her whole life. The poor kid is surrounded not just by the overly controlling parents, but the entire clan of Patels, at least one of whom is constantly attached to Preeti. The true talent of the competition, she seems fated to win.

Sania Rahman (Seema Rahmani) is the good-looking ABCD wannabe-Bollywood-actress who can’t speak a word of Hindi. Ah well, she’s convinced she can just fake it.

And finally, the director takes on the role of Vikram Tejwani, the stats-addicted geek who’s job has been outsourced. The competition is his last chance to make enough money to give him some financial freedom.

Confused? Not at all. Manish manages to introduce the audience to a whole host of characters very effectively, each in his or her own element. For example, Turbanotorious BDG is introduced in a club as he does his own version of gansta rap as his family looks on, aghast at the cursing. Mrs. Rrita Kapoor is learning music from her guruji when she receives a call about how her rival Bubbles is one-upping her. Reaction? A severely-arched eyebrow and a furiously-churning brain. Preeti Patel and her parents are introduced in her counselor’s office as her parents plot her life for her. Despite the plethora of characters, I never really had to struggle to remember them since each one was introduced in a way that imprinted their key attributes in my mind. ((Apparently this film may be used to teach NYU grad students about how best to introduce multiple characters to the audience.))
bokadeTake these characters, a slew of others including judges and random family members, put them in a confined space two days, shake vigorously and you get a cocktail of humor that is Loins. Oh wait! I forgot to mention one of the funniest characters, the event manager for the competition, the I’m-laughing-at-you-not-with-you Bokade (Jameel Khan). I mean look at him – an over-the-top choice that is perfect for the character who will have you rolling on the floor laughing!

There was so much to like about the film, but before I make this a dedicated rah-rah review, let me quickly hit a couple of things that I didn’t love. Sometimes it felt like there were snippets that were thrown in there just because – Preeti’s overweight, porn-watching kid-brother was “eh, whatever”, almost a been there done that, “haven’t we seen that character before?” moment. And some of the Idol contestants were a touch over the top and not that believable. However, these and a few other small cinematic things are minor quibbles in an otherwise really enjoyable film.

One of the things I loved about the movie was the instant association. You feel you know some of these people. You start laughing from minute one because you know what they are going to say and it is just the perfect thing for them to say! Part of feeling you know some of these people is the casting – it was close to ideal. And the acting was excellent – Shabana shines with her nuanced gestures, Ayesha Dharker nails her role as the tougher half of the in-love and idealistic couple, Seema Rahmani is sexy and touchingly sweet when she needs to be and Jameel Khan is… brilliant!

The first part of the film introduces you to all the characters and gets them into the hotel for the competition. The second half of the film is where things come together really nicely as the true characters are revealed. In the intro, Manish sets up each character in the way in which he wants you to see them. But is that who the person really is? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. The “Ahh, ice runs through her veins!” realization makes the characters much fuller, much more real.

This is a film that has stayed with me since I’ve seen it. Yes, there are some underlying messages of what it means to belong, but that’s not why it stayed with me. It stayed with me because the characters were so funny, so real and so endearing (slimy Bokade is now a favorite!) that any time I think of the movie, I smile.

Want more Loins lovin’? Watch the teaser!


My interview on Eteraz, link on Sepia Mutiny

Ali, the blogger behind Eteraz, pinged me with a few questions about my new direction in life. The interview is up on his site. Here one snapshot…

AE: Your website name is a Sanskrit word/idea. Care to explain that?

SM: I was looking for a name for my website that really meant something to me. My Grandmother (a Sanskrit scholar) came up with Tatvam and I instantly fell in love with it. Tatvam means the truth, the inner meaning, or ‘that which is’–obviously at a fundamental level the subject of most serious films. I guess I chose that name because I want to make that kind of movie. Maybe this will come back to bite me if what I do looks more like Dude Where’s My Car than Trois Couleur, but it’s sort of a declaration of intent. Also, of course, it’s Sanskrit, which I guess means that something about my projects will be rooted in India and Indian culture, even though I hope to avoid the narrow limitations that can create.

Sepia Mutiny then covered SAIFF and linked to Ali’s interview.

UNTITLED premieres at SAIFF

SAIFF 2006The South Asian International Film Festival (SAIFF) is one of two South Asian film festivals in New York. They pride themselves on focusing on emerging directors who are not yet famous.

I certainly fall squarely into that demographic. I’d like to think I am “emerging” and I am definitely “not yet famous”. And so, it was with excitement that I learned a few weeks ago that my film got into SAIFF 2006.

UNTITLED was made as my final project of the 12-week Intensive Filmmaking program at NYU. It was shot in 3 days, with a crew of just 4, on 16mm film. It was a complete blast. My experience with the course and that film is what got me to quit my day job and to do this full time (my experience with the course is fodder for another post).

But I digress. When I finished the film, I put it away thinking that I’d got what I wanted from it — the learning of how to write, direct, produce and edit a film under severe constraints. [Well, that is not quite true, I did submit it to Ms Films in North Carolina where it got accepted and one other festival where it got dinged, but I did not spray it around to every festival in sight]. But when one of my cast sent me the SAIFF request for submissions, I tossed it in the mail on a lark.

Lo and behold, it got selected! This will be the first time I see my work in a real theater. That is exciting and scary all at the same time. Exciting because this is what filmmakers live for – to see their film released (or screened). And I am nervous as all heck because it was a class project – an experiment, a learning exercise, an amazing experience. And now it will be shown to friends and strangers. I feel the desperate need to yell out — “Don’t expect it to be amazing, it is just my first little short”. But I am doing my best not to. I want it to be judged. That’s the only way I’ll get better.

So, here we go!

SAIFF got underway today for filmmakers with the press conference. The key feature-length films were highlighted and it was fun to mingle and meet other aspiring filmmakers. It is great to see the energy and passion for film in the South Asian community.

Since I am now self-employed (ahem, no, no, not unemployed!), I am looking forward to seeing as many of the films as possible, starting with tomorrow’s opening night premiere.

— To see UNTITLED on the SAIFF site, click here and scroll towards the end of the page.

— Synopsis: Sanjay and his wife lead a cookie cutter existence in Manhattan. One day, as he returns home, he is handed a flyer to a gallery opening and on a whim, decides to attend. Siddharth, the gallery owner, educates Sanjay on art and introduces him to a captivating painting. With Siddharth, as his bodhisattva, leading the way, Sanjay is more ensnared with each successive visit. Has Sanjay found what he has always been looking for?

— Note: UNTITLED will be uploaded to this site shortly